Select short stories:

"Bumble Bee Brown"
An Invisible World (anthology), Dec. 2012

"Sunshine 320 Days a Year"
TriQuarterly Online, summer 2010

"He Did It For Morgan"
TriQuarterly, summer 2002

"Working at County"
Northeast Corridor, 2000

"Bumble Bee Brown"
The Rio Grande Review, Vol. 19, 2000

"White Girl"
Santa Monica Review, fall 1999

"Saved or Sanctified"
Writers' Forum, volume 25, fall 1999

"The Perfect Mark"
Passages North, Vol. 18, summer 1997

"I Do, I Do, I Do"
New Woman, January, 1992; The Onion River Review, Fall 1993


TriQuarterly, Issue 113

Everything Matthew did now, he did for her.

He set out two small, delicate Japanese cups—blue and white they were, two tiny bowls—and sang a little song to the tune of "Oklahoma" he'd made up for her.

"Oh, what a beautiful Morgan,
Oh what a beautiful day,
Oh what a beautiful Morgan,
Everything's going our way!"

Flames burst against the underside of the aluminum frying pan his aunt Frannie had given him, making the water boil. The bubbling water hid the bottom of the pan from view, but he knew it by heart, every dent and scratch. He'd spent the morning staring at those little bumps and crevices, running his finger over them, thinking that they looked the way Aunt Frannie's skin did now, with hills and valleys of flesh, pores opened into little craters ready for moon landings of miniature spacecraft.

A thrill ran through him as he looked at the beat-up frying pan. The newer things remained unpacked in his cardboard box—his extra towel, three pairs of black socks, new white jockey underwear, his extra shirt and the pair of pajamas Aunt Frannie had given him last Christmas. In the bathroom, he had his shaving cream and razor, bar of soap and towel. In the cupboard over the sink, he kept a box of tea, some cookies, a white cup and saucer, his tin bowl from the joint, two plates, the Japanese cups, a sharp knife and two spoons. In the refrigerator, he had food: eggs, Kraft cheese slices, a small box of cheese, a loaf of white Wonder bread, a jar of Skippy's, a bottle of ketchup.

He'd gone alone to the grocery store. The first time, he got the shakes, but he'd done it. He copied an old guy in front of him—got a cart and pushed it around, found the Velveeta and ketchup and other stuff. About every half-second, he wanted to run out the doors. Pressure built in the top of his head and behind his eyes, but he kept his hands steady on the cart until he got to the checkout girl. She took over from there. A mist formed around his eyes when he handed over his twenty, but she took it, put it in her drawer, and gave him change—no problem. He was so shaken going out that he forgot his bag, but she called, "Mister!" The word struck the back of his head—"Mister!"—and he missed a beat. She was talking to him! He turned and went back, picked up the bag and carried it home, feeling more triumphant with every step.

It was weird to think that the last time he'd been in a grocery store, he'd requested their money, not vice versa. Of course he'd asked for it with Baby in his hand, but he didn't shoot anybody. "I never killed nobody and I never would," he told the judge. "I only took Ba—the gun—to convince them to give me the cash." Calling Baby "a gun" to the judge made him feel disloyal, the same as when he was eleven and tried to impress his cousin Jimmy by dismissing his Pooh as "a stuffed animal." It hurt too much to think about it. They'd taken Baby as evidence and he'd never see her again. He had to let her go. "Just release, release," Morgan was always telling them when they did their breathing exercises. "Breathe and let it go."

It was good to have food, to fix food to eat. He also liked cleaning up the way he did this morning, showering with his Irish Spring soap, shaving, with NutraGel making his face smooth, seeing the strong lines of his jaw glisten in the steamy mirror.

When he first got out—had it been three weeks already?—he couldn't remember how to turn on a stove. He could turn the knob, but gas hissed out and smelled up the room, with no fire. He turned the knob off and on again several times. No luck. He sat down in a panic. He couldn't go knock on a neighbor's door and say, "How do you turn on a stove?" Fuck it! He wanted to break the thing in pieces or smash somebody. But just when he'd given up, just when he was beginning to think about hamburgers at the joint Tuesday nights, about going through the line with his tray, about how easy it is to know the rules, even if you have to watch your back—right then, he remembered what to do. He stood, turned the knob, struck a match and whoosh! Magic! A flame!

Since then, he'd become master chef—the Julia Child of North Broad Street. He couldn't even count all the eggs he'd cooked in that pan now, all the toast, cheese sandwiches, cans of Campbell's chicken noodle soup. After more than four years of prison food, home made food was a big deal. Big. "Forty-nine months," said the hack who walked him out. He'd spent forty-nine months and thirteen days inside those cold stone walls, inside that stone cold cell. That's how long he'd been down. How many thousand days? They were blank except for Morgan. Except for that hole in his mind he could step through. He didn't know how to look for it or find it, that space where no one lived but him—the place he sometimes went on those nights when he shivered for hours under his one blanket, and when, even with his shoes on, his toes and ankles staying cold. He'd get to that end point, the point where he couldn't take any more. And then he'd find himself in that warm dark cave he'd first discovered when he was a little boy. It opened right in front of him, and surprised him. Just when he'd forgotten that it ever existed—that's when he found it. All he had to do was crawl through and snuggle down and he was in there, safe and warm.

Matthew tapped the handle of the pan to keep himself in the room, and tried to focus. He'd boiled more water in this pan than he could remember, probably enough water to drown in. It would fill the bathtub, fill the bathroom, climb up to the ceiling. If he poured all that hot water over Aunt Frannie, she would steam like a pork dumpling.

This was his room, his studio apartment, his stove and refrigerator, and his card-table, the one he had carried home from the Vietnam Vets' store on Columbia Avenue. Those were his cups—his and Morgan's—and together they were about to drink the tea he was making. From a distance, he saw his hand shake a little as he took the teabag out of the little yellow box it came in, held the square paper between the tips of his thumb and his forefinger and lowered the bag into the boiling sea of water. The water looked angry and accusing, but the tea bag calmed it.

He turned off the burner, watched the teabag float—a boat connected by its rope to the edge of the land. Little waves of brown drifted out from the boat as it began to sink to the bottom. When the whole sea was brown, Matthew lifted the teabag out, squeezed it lightly in his palm and threw it against the wall with such force that it split and burst, its contents sticking to the wall and sliding to the floor.

Matthew, using the hem of his T-shirt as a hot pad, carefully picked up the pan by its broken handle and poured tea from its bent edge into each of the blue and white teacups on the table.

"There, my darling," he said. "For you."

He picked up the empty chair and slid it forward with a gallant flourish, helping his princess closer to the table. The muscles in his arms and chest rippled under his black T-shirt and he patted his flat stomach before sitting on a low stool opposite the chair.

"Oh, I forgot. Do you want a cookie?" he asked. "It's one of your favorites."

He stood up and opened the cupboard door, pulled out his package of chocolate chip cookies, and carefully placed two on the thick white saucer. "I knew you'd like that," he said, his face breaking into a radiant smile as he sat down again.

He lifted his tea cup, and then he lifted hers.

"Cheers," he said, touching the cups together. "Cheers."

He drank the tea, first from his cup, then from hers.

He stood, refilled their cups, set the pan back on the stove, and bowed. Then he approached the black telephone hanging on the wall. He had gotten it connected last week, and twice already Aunt Frannie had called, "just to say hello." Trying to make up, he thought, for her dead sister. Once his cousin Alan called and asked, "Hey man, how you hangin'? How long you been out?" But Alan only was wanting money, wanting to sell him a piece for some quick cash. Now Matthew took a deep breath, carefully picked up the receiver, held it to his ear, and dialed the number he had repeated to himself like a mantra every night before he went to sleep. When she answered, he couldn't breathe.

"Hello," she said. "Hello? Who is this?"

This wasn't how it was supposed to be. She should know.

"My Morgan," he said, "This is Matthew."

"Matthew Williams?" she asked.

"Yes." He breathed out a long exhale, trying to stop the tremors.

"Well, hi." Her voice had little birds flying in it—little brown love birds that carried yellow ribbons in their beaks and waved the streamers at him. "How are you, Matthew? I didn't know you were out yet. When did you get out?"

His voice wasn't as steady as it was supposed to be. "Three weeks. Close to four."

"I haven't been able to go in because of the lockdown," she said, "so we haven't had any drama workshops for almost a month."

He didn't want to hear about workshops. Dramas without drama. He didn't want to think about the other guys in there looking at her long smooth legs, her shiny black hair with its smell of lavender, her pale fingers that spread wings to the tune of her words.

"Morgan," he said, bringing his courage to the moment, a boxer gathering his intentions as he steps into the ring. "You are my woman."

The other end of the line was quiet, still as warm night air. "Matthew, I'm already in…"

"You don't need to speak," he interrupted. "I'm not asking anything of you. I simply want you to know that I have two cups of tea here. One is for you, and one is for me. We are drinking tea together."

"Tea?" She "swallowed" the word. She always encouraged them to enuciate and deliver, never swallowing the word at the end.

"I drink tea with you in the mornings, and in the afternoons, and in the evenings…"

"Matthew, I don't think…" her voice trailed off for a moment and came back with a slight squeak that lifted it around the edges, as if those big brown eyes were looking into the air around her head, her hand poised to pluck out the right words. "This kind of worries me. Do you have anyone you can…."

"Please." He stopped her with the force of his voice. "Speak no more. I know. You have many demands on your time. I am not asking for a gift or a morsel—I am not a common bore." He paused.

"But you are with me," he said. "I want you to know—what I do, I do for you."

The other end of the line was quiet—but he knew she was listening. She always listened with her whole body tensed, her eyes open wide. He could see, at this very moment, her hair falling over her right eye—the way she pushed it aside and tucked it behind her ear and bit her bottom lip in concentration.

He took another deep breath and said with practiced, perfect enunciation, "Morgan, please know this: you are my gentle queen." He paused a beat. "I would never hurt you. I will be in touch."

Matthew didn't wait for a reply. He cautiously replaced the telephone on its cradle and backed away from it. Hands together, he made a slight bow, a Buddhist priest leaving the zendo.

He pushed both teacups together on the table. Their edges touching made his heart vibrate in pure ecstasy. He bowed again toward the cups. Slowly turning, he walked—mindfully placing one foot in front of the other—to the front door, where his gray raincoat hung ready on its peg. He felt in the pockets, glad that it had pockets with no holes. In the joint, that pocket of poverty, they had no pockets except for pockets of the mind, pockets of the soul, pockets of the eyes, pockets of misery, pockets of hate and vengeance and depravity—all pockets with holes. But love isn't found in pockets. It isn't hidden and held. Love floats free.

Even loaded, Baby II, his new snub-nosed Barretta, the piece his cousin Alan had sold him, was as light as an apple, an orange—a heavy banana.

Matthew put one arm into the sleeve of the raincoat and then the other. He felt her hands helping him slip it on, pat down his hair, straighten his collar. "Oh, my love, thank you," he whispered to Morgan. He squatted, brushed the tips of his brown leather shoes, and tied his shoestrings tightly. He'd always been good at tying shoestrings—from the time he was tiny, he could do it himself. Such a good little boy, he thought. So much you can do yourself. Then he stood, straightened, and walked out the door. Fear made his hands quiver, but determination propelled him forward.

As he walked, he swung his arms and hummed, "Oh what a beautiful Morgan, Oh, what a beautiful day!"

The sun was shining, just as he had known it would, and if he listened carefully, he could hear the whooshing of tires turning on the streets, the whistle of transmissions through telephone wires, the pumping of blood through hearts all over the city.

When he walked through the swinging silver doors of the Broad Street bank, no one looked up. He kept humming softly. It was a beautiful day, perfection itself. He was going to visit Aunt Frannie, but first he was here. Being here surprised him. Even though he'd come several times, it looked different today. Everything polished. The silver tables had an extra shine. The lights were brighter. The floor glowed. He hadn't prepared for all the dazzle. Even the buttons on the blue suit of the guard were gleaming. Matthew stared at the gold buttons. Then he noticed the guard's eyes—bright brown glaring straight at him. His ears buzzed with the sounds of someone crying. The guard's eyes traveled to Matthew's extended arm, his hand, the hand holding Baby II.

The sight of the Baby in his hand startled him, but he wasn't going to shoot anybody—he would never shoot anybody with Baby II. He was just going to buy some time. The phrase, "Time in a bucket," popped into his head, followed by, "Time, time, time. You got time, I got time, all God's children got time, time."

The guard's hand was on his holster, but he was standing perfectly still, saying, "Take it easy, buddy. Take it easy. Everybody calm down."

Then, resounding throughout the room, he heard his own voice, the voice Morgan had called "sonorous," which she told him meant "resonant and grand." It was the voice he'd used during his presentations in the workshop, and the sound of it echoing in this vaulted acoustic theater made him stand tall. He was aware of his audience, but he kept his eyes on the guard. "Do not be afraid," he boomed. "I stand before you to stand behind you, to tell you something I know nothing about." That was a silly verse they had practiced, but no one here was laughing and he wasn't sure why he had said it.

"Four score and seven years ago, before the time I was born," he spoke now with more confidence, conscious of his excellent inflection, "the world was a kinder place, softer, perhaps a place apart. And now, here I am. Be not afraid. I will not harm you. I have come to a place in the road where the paths diverge and where I must make choices. My fellow citizens, sometimes, the flesh is weak. Sometimes the will is weak. In my case, both. As I stand before you, the noise, the grinding of all the big business machines operating this country for their own benefit deafening. I realize, it is time for me to retire. Retire once again, to the familiar country of my dreams."

Matthew made eye contact with the guard, as Morgan had taught him, even as he held his gun on him. His eyes swept the crowd, who were all looking at Baby II, not him.

"Ladies and Gentlemen, Please do not move until after I exit, and I give you my word, no one will be hurt."

Right after his last word—strongly emphasing the "t" of hurt—the sounds of sirens dove right down into the bottom of his ears. He had seen a slight movement in the teller with dreadlocks. It probably had been her, she must have been the one who'd pressed the police alarm. The piercing sirens were drawing closer, getting louder.

"Ah! I hear the proud defenders of the law approaching. I bid you farewell." He bowed slightly and started to back out of the glass doors, but suddenly stopped. He realized, he did not want to be hurt or bloodied. He did not want a cut, swollen or misshapen face when he saw Morgan again. Perhaps here, in front of witnesses, the cops would not beat him and charge him with resisting arrest. He took a deep breath.

"I am without exit," he announced. "I lay down my burdens here, under the sun and before witnesses." Beneath the ear-splitting sirens, he squatted, smoothed his raincoat and then lay down on his side on the marble floor, in front of the doors. Over his head, he cradled Baby II in the palm of his hand, his fingers no where near the trigger.

He'd had a choice: Baby II or Morgan?

"Baby Two, don't feel bad." He patting the gun handle. "I love you, too."

The loud din of voices shouted over him, and closer, inside his head, he heard a tap, tap taping that he traced to his own teeth chattering. He was cold, cold, cold. He opened his eyes and saw flashing high heels running across the shiny marble floor. He saw polished shoes near his head and he heard the guard's warm, calming voice saying, "Take it easy, everyone take it easy. This is under control."

The guard's voice came closer, hovered over his ear. "Buddy, I'm going to take your gun out of your hand now. Let's just do it nice and slow here."

He felt Baby II slipping from his grip—the cool touch of her leaving his palm, brushing beyond his fingers to another realm. He heard the doors burst open, whistles, shrieks and the pounding of black boots across the floor. He heard other shoes, too many now to count, and loud voices—shrill, without resonance or timber—hollow voices, voices with no range, no pitch, no soul, no vision, voices that fell into a bottomless pit and drowned, voices strung out in the wind, lost voices that would fly away with the slightest challenge, kites without strings. He saw it then, a voice sailing on waves of air, in its own boat of dreams. He was thinking about the boat when, suddenly, it happened again. That hole in the wall—that opening—appeared. He always forgot it until it happened again, and then he remembered: it's always there. It leads to that magical cave where I'm safe again. All he had to do was to crawl through the opening. He began to move through the veil and slip inside his secret cave. A safe, warm, dreamy feeling began to fill his body, making everything warm, everything perfect.