Archive for the City Sketch Category

Best Case

Posted in City Sketch on May 30, 2013 by melissa merin

Super rough draft of a story I started yesterday.  Any feedback is appreciated.

Best Case

Now I ain’t sayin that I’m some sorta psychic or nothin. Just that sometimes there’s a feelin you get so deep it gives you goosebumps, makes you twitch a little, makes you take a deep breath. Me and Jim had that feeling when we were at the park, cuttin it up, not doin too much, just listenin to my jams – I’m puttin out a record, been writin some with my sister and my step-dad. Me and Jim was talkin about how the weather was weird for January – there it was still 7 at night and warm like August. I kept getting goosebumps though.

We was listenin to the second track I wrote. My step-dad brought it to his homey’s studio and dropped some chronic on it, but you couldn’t tell with my shitty headphones. But I’m sayin, things that night was set up just like in the movies. I even heard a rustle in the bushes back behind the playground.

Probly some bums.
I don’t think so, bruh.

What you faggoty ass pussies doin out here now?

We didn’t even know they was there. Serious. We was just chillin. But Jim knew it was Darrell right off. Jim had a few enemies and all, like, these guys at school like to mess with him and Jim, he big right? Well, he took one of ’em down and now they always messin with him.

Fuck you Darrell.
Nah, fuck you, pussy ass faggots.

They’s always callin us faggots. We ain’t though, swear.

I thought I’d just keep it easy. I wasn’t tryin to get my discman busted.

Look, we ain’t do nothin to y’all.

Jim always liked to push it a little though.


Why don’t you go pick on some first graders or somethin.
You know Jim, you got a big fuckin mouth.
Yeah, that’s what she said.

Everybody forgot they was angry for a minute and laughed. Then Darrell got right back to it. His cousins was standin behind him – there was just two of ’em. I told Jim,

We should get outta here, bruh. Bruh! Let’s just go!

You gotta understand, Jim don’t like to fight, but if it come down to it, he’ll beat a nig- He’ll beat someone up if he need to, but it wasn’t like that, so Jim was like,

Nah, Darrell, we just gonna go and you can stay here wit your cousins and do whatever you was gonna do anyway.

We turned and walked away. We was half way down the block, laughin about how stupid Darrell looked with his fake ass crew when Jim spotted them again. We was on that one strip where there ain’t nothin but wall and road and trash, so we had to start runnin. Darrell and his fake ass crew ran after us too, but can’t no one out run me and Jim. Except the pigs. We almost didn’t realize they was dead ahead!

Bruh, just chill, they can’t do nothin. We ain’t do shit.
Yeah, but I still got that damn knife from woodshop on me.

It’s in my pocket.
They still like twenty yards away, just ditch it.

They’ll see.


Jim froze for a minute. He turned around, and Darrell and his crew saw what we saw, so they stopped too. Up ahead was a police road block, and behind us was 200 yards of concrete. But we ain’t done nothin. Darrell and his crew turned around and ran the other way. We started just walking toward the blockade.

Where you boys goin?
We goin home.
Where’s home?
Dude, I live like two blocks away.

Jim doesn’t really take shit from nobody, not even the cops.


Well, DUDE, I’m gonna need to see some I.d. You boys carryin tonight? Got anything on ya?
No, sir.
We ain’t got shit!

The cops all start to look the same in our town. Every one of them’s got a mustache and short cropped hair and pasty skin. It’s kinda creepy. My ma told me once that I shouldn’t stereotype them all, but my sister says that’s what they do to us all the damn time so what’s the difference? My ma says actin like a pig isn’t no way to make a pig stop actin like a pig. I guess I know what she meant.

Well, how about we take a look in that bag.
Nah. Nah, you ain’t got a warrant, we ain’t done nothin.

I had already taken off my bag and laid it on the ground. I wasn’t gonna open it for ’em though. Another cop walked up and asked the first cop what was going on. He shined his flashlight at Jim, and Jim squinted and ducked outta the way.

You search ’em yet?
Not yet?
What are you waiting for?

This one’s got an attitude.
He means I know my rights and I ain’t done nothin. Damn man, let’s go.
Bruh, just chill.
You oughta listen to your boy here.

Once I saw Jim lay out a kid in gym class, back when we was still in elementary. This kid bugged him every day for two weeks and Jim didn’t do nothin to him. Then, one day, the kid walked up to Jim and tapped him on the back of the head. Jim punched him so hard the kid flew like ten feet. Knocked him out. Jim got to stay in school because the kid admitted he’d been bullying him.

It was getting real late. My ma and step-dad didn’t like me being out all the time, and definitely not this late at night. No doubt ma was callin my gramma right then to see if I showed up at her house all the way over in East Town. By now my step dad was walkin over to Jim’s dad’s house to see where we at. And these fool cops wasn’t lettin us go anytime soon.

Look, we gonna go. You can follow us or whatever, but we out.

Jim looked uncertain for about a second. Like the time he asked Kaylie out to the Sophomore Soiree last year. But then, just like now, he flashed a crazy wicked smile and started walkin away. That time, Kaylie walked after him and touched his arm. He looked like a little kid. He took her to that dance, and then they started dating after that. If Kaylie was there that night, she’d get Jim to calm down. But this night Jim just kept walkin. The cops shouted at him and I shouted at him too. I was like, “Bruh, just get back here!” But he didn’t listen to nobody. When the cop started runnin after him, he ran too.

Get away from him! Dude! C’mon! He ain’t do nothin!

I got all freaked out and started runnin too. The other cops at the barricade just stood there lookin stoned and I ran too. Jim was fast. I was fast.

I’m gonna kill this sonofabitch!

I caught up to the cop and he was cussin and fumblin with somethin by his waistband. I thought about tackling him for a second – imagined all the high fives I would get the next day at school. I just ran right past him instead. I spat into the breeze.

It felt like we was runnin forever. I knew Jim was runnin toward his dad’s house ’cause he cut left on 11th. The cop stopped runnin after us there and yelled somethin.

Jim, wait up!

When I caught up to Jim he giggled a little and slowed down. At 13th, we was sure they weren’t chasing us anymore so we stopped at the gas station and he got a soda.

You crazy, bruh!
They ain’t gotta chase us like that dude. We weren’t even doin nothin.
I know, huh?

They just bored ’cause they set up that blockade all the time and e’rybody know about it.
Yo. Except for us.
Ha ha!

Jim kept walking. We was still five blocks from his dad’s and the air was getting colder by the second. I stopped to put on my hoodie,

Bruh! Wait a minute.
Shit. I left my bag.
At the gas station?
Nah, I left it at that damn check point.

Jim stopped for a second.

You got your wallet.
Nah, bruh, it’s in my bag.
Shit, man! What is you thinkin?
Let’s just get to your house.

It was almost midnight. We were gonna be in so much trouble. When we got to his house all the lights were off.

Where’s my dad?
Probly at my house.
Call your mom, man.

Yo ma…Yo, I know. I know! Listen…No, listen ma, we got stopped by the cops. How do you know? What? Well, can you come and get us then? We at Jim’s.

(Your dad wants to talk to you)

Hello? What? They was messin with me…I didn’t do nothin! No!

(They gonna come in a little bit)

We decided to wait inside. We was both quiet because we was about to be in trouble. The cops called my mom to tell her that we ran away from them. They found my wallet and ran my i.d. Jim said they probly knew about that time we stole a case of beer from the liquor store by school last year. We didn’t catch no charge or nothin but it’s probly still on our record.

I heard my ma, stepdad and Jim’s dad walking up the sidewalk. The door opened and Jim’s dad walked straight past me and up to Jim and slapped him on the top of his head.

What the hell?
What you doin runnin from the damn cops, Jim?
I had a knife from woodshop.
Then you tell them you got a knife from woodshop. How long you gotta live in this world before you learn anything? Damn.

My ma and stepdad just looked at us like we was crazy. I felt bad. I never thought about that both of them were still on parole; it’d been so long that it didn’t even seem real anymore. Jim’s dad looked at me too.

What’s with you? This world ain’t yours.

I could tell Jim wanted to say somethin else, like we was bein messed with all night, like ain’t nobody have a right to stop us for no reason; like we was just listenin to some beats in the park. But he knew when to stop. I just didn’t have the words.
My ma and step-dad and me walked home quiet. There was a patrol car parked outside when we got there. I still wasn’t sure what time it was, but most of the neighbors lights were out. My step-dad took a deep breath, and then my ma, and then me. The cop that chased us and his partner were standin on the stoop just waitin. My step dad walked a few steps ahead.

You this boy’s dad.
Yes, sir. I am. Are you the officer we spoke with earlier?
That was my partner over there.

The cop wouldn’t look at him. He pointed his face at me and said,

Boy, you got some balls on you.


But my step-dad was raised with manners and what not so he was all,

Sir, I’m gonna ask you to keep it down in front of my wife please.

The cop straightened up, hooked his thumbs in his waistband and spat. It landed on the stair rail and just kinda hung there.

Look, your kid is in a lot of trouble.
Officer, sir, what exactly happened again?

The officer looked at his partner and then looked up and kinda to the left, like he was tryin to remember the story. I knew the whole thing.

We stopped these boys at the blockade on West-
Well, they were running and then they stopped real fast.
We stopped him and his friend and asked for I.d.

The other officer stepped up then. He was a lot shorter than my step-dad. He didn’t look him in the eye.

These boys gave us a lot of attitude right from the beginning.
All we did was ask for their I.d’s.

There are sometimes when you just feel like you’re gonna explode or somethin, like you can feel yourself start to sweat, and your cheeks is gettin all hot. I was like, ready to smash on these dudes. They kept goin on and on about how they was just askin nice and quiet for our id’s and that ain’t even how it went down. My ma put her hand on my back, like she was tryin to get me to move to the front door, so I started walkin. The big cop was in my way, and he wasn’t tryin to move at all. Finally I was like, Excuse me, but he still didn’t move.

Officer, it’s late and my son has school in the morning. I’d like him to get inside, please.
Look, we still don’t even know what we’re gonna do here.

My ma is not ordinarily a quiet woman, but she real good at knowin when to settle down and when to speak up. I knew she had enough when she put her hand on my back like that, but she couldn’t just keep settin there like it was all good. When she finally spoke out, there wasn’t another sound to be heard.

Officer, my son made a mistake. My husband has been real respectful to y’all, but we don’t know what you want. You’re at our house here in the middle of the night and we need to be goin in now. If there’s a ticket or anything, can you just hand it over so we can all go on our way?

The short cop got nervous. I could tell because he kept shufflin and fussin with his hat and wipin his forehead. But the taller cop wasn’t havin any of it. He stood right there in the middle of the stoop and I was in front of him tryin to figure out what to do. The door wasn’t far enough to run to so I just slid along the side of the rail toward the door. I mighta brushed against the cop. I mighta imagined knockin his ass down the stairs.

It was quick, and I just remember my head hittin the ground and then they was on me. It felt like all of ’em, my step-dad, the cops, my mom. My back cracked and all the air left my stomach. It’s funny cause I still remember thinkin I had a test in physics in the morning and I got super mad ’cause I was gonna have to wing it.


For just a second Mr. Moore’s eyes flashed at me, like I let him down for getting a B instead of an A. I came to and I was on my feet, staring at my ma who was screamin. My step-dad was towering over the smaller cop and the bigger cop was breathing on my neck, wrenchin my arm all the way into my shoulder blades. In a second I was in hand-cuffs and sittin in the patrol car. I could hear the radio, but my parents voices was all muffled, like I was under water and they was callin to me.

I could see my parents faces, both of them, just drop to the floor almost. If my ma wasn’t on parole, she woulda punched that cop out, smashed out the windows and dragged me out the car. The cops musta figured out their situation. I could see the bigger cop smilin like he just won the lotto or somethin.

After a while, I stopped tryin to hear what they was sayin. I leaned my head back, listening to the radio call out a bunch of numbers and codes. The roof of the car was fulla dirty hand prints and scratches and tiny cuts in the fabric. I looked to the right and saw my step-dad sittin on the steps while my ma was standin there, her arms was folded tight. She was tryin to be reasonable with ’em.

When the door finally opened, I took a real deep breath and just automatically put my leg out the car.

Easy now. We wanna ask you some questions.

I sat there while they asked about my ma, my situation at home, where was my dad (long gone, I ain’t never seen him; that’s my dad right there), what school I went to. A car sped by real fast and the cop looked after it for a second and then looked back at me.

So, your other friend, what’s his name?

I didn’t wanna answer. I didn’t wanna snitch. In my neighborhood, even talkin to the cops is like snitchin. I didn’t want Jim to get a visit from these cops tonight. He had a physics test too. He was probly fast asleep in his tiny ass little bed.

His name is Jim and, officer, we got a physics test tomorrow.

I realized as soon as I said it that it woulda been better to just keep my damn mouth closed. The cops both started laughin like I was Cedric the Entertainer talkin about Rodney King or somethin.

Boy, you know just all the wrong things to do, don’t you?
He really does take physics!

My ma was up in arms again. The cops kept laughin and I gotta say, if I wasn’t in hand-cuffs, things mighta turned out a little bit different. The little cop helped me outta the car and took the cuffs off though. I walked straight past that bigger cop. I didn’t want him to see how mad I was. My lips was tremblin and I was ready to start swearin right there. My step-dad opened the door and I went right to my room. After a little while I heard car doors slam. A little while after that our own front door shut hard. Ma came into my room and sat on my bed. I couldn’t look at her or at anyone. I just lay there real still, tryin to keep my heart beat from shakin the bed.

All I could hear was my heart beating. Then ma’s deep, deep breath.

You say your prayers?

She rubbed my head back like when I was little. I really didn’t want to breathe ’cause if I did I knew I’d start cryin right there, so I just nodded. She knew. She always knew.

I hope you did son. You know you gonna need ’em.


The Heart Beats, the River Runs (2)

Posted in City Sketch on May 8, 2013 by melissa merin

­ ­ ­   The Heart Beats, The River Runs (working title)



A scream as loud as anything rippled through the canyon. Three friends stopped frolicking in the glacial tide of the river and scurried to the shore. Unaware, for the moment, where the sound had come from, each felt terrified in their nakedness. A certain alienation swam through their collective veins when, for that one moment, the moment of Barbara’s wailing, they wondered if they were safe with each other. They listened as the terror above thawed and one person shouted to call 9-1-1, while another ushered children out onto the grassy lawn where orange poppies covered the ground in a rough formation from the porch leading to the water and away from the saloon. In the stillness, another cool headed woman demanded that everyone take some steps back from the giant man on the ground.


Barbara was laughing with no account to anyone around her. She laughed the way she would have when she was a kid were she not afraid of the way people looked at her. She laughed at Gary’s antics out of pure joy. And then the thud and the yelling and the silence and the demand for higher authorities in the form of numbers that her mama made her remember as a youngster. His body stopped heaving and her husband was kneeling at his side, checking his heart. Decades of nursing had not prepared her. The joy left her face in the form of a scream the moment Gary collapsed on the floor of the River Run Saloon. Anyone on the river could hear her desperate plea – Gary? Gary? Gary! – up and down the river, and probably all the way to the river’s floor. She imagined it for just a moment, descending to the bottom of their river. She saw the trout scuttling this way and that, certainly confused by the dry sonic scream resonating from the dining room. Gary’s name hastened pieces of shale toward metamorphism, the echo loosening small pieces from their large gray slabs, petrified dinosaurs roused from millennial sleep to slough a century worth of dust from their backs before slipping back into place. The rocks felt nothing. A sudden breeze rustled the needles from the pines. Glasses rattled on their shelves back in the saloon as everyone stood stock still, afraid to do anything but gape in awe of Gary’s giant body, lifeless on the floor.



At the edge of the dining room, Barbara’s husband Robert smoked cigarette after cigarette. Barbara was never one to panic in the face of physical pain. She wasn’t one who swooned in agony at death. Barbara’s screams after Gary’s body fell to the floor shattered something deep inside of him. He couldn’t name it.


The only time he could recall Barbara tremble below the weight of all of the death and pain she had witnessed was the day she and Robert decided, on their joint fiftieth birthday, to move away from Oakland. That day, Robert had planned a birthday surprise for her. He had already been to the town of River Run, Population: 93 and he had found the perfect piece of land for them to build on. The deal would be sealed once she took a look at the property.

She came home, flopped on the couch and began to recount her day. She had resuscitated a small child, only to watch him die a short while later. The doctors were cutting corners. No one was practicing medicine any more. No one looked at bodies as being. Her head hurt. Robert looked at her, knowing that his timing couldn’t have been any better. His own hands were weary and withering from running his father’s carpentry business and Barbara had nursed the sick and dying since she was nine years old. He told her of his escape plan quietly. She looked into Robert’s face, scanned the length of his enormous brown body, took in the wrinkles around his eyes, the thick skin of his hands and she knew they could do it. As he poured the wine and recited the plans he’d been making, Barbara began to sob. He was so shocked by her crooning. He placed her glass down and went to her, immediately putting his hands on her back to soothe the heat exploding from every part of her.


He pulled her tightly to his chest, so tightly that she had to lift her head to catch her breath. He saw in her face a quiet distress she had hidden for decades. His was no longer a romantic plan. He looked at her and said, “Up there the river runs, baby. And all we gotta do is let it pass us by.”

“Let’s just go,” she whimpered.

The possibility terrified her and excited her. They could lead a simple and quiet life if they were frugal and careful. Barbara would no longer have to tend gunshot wounds or gangrenous legs or hematomas suffered in fist fights. She would no longer have to pump tiny hearts that would later cease to beat. Robert could fish and do a little carpentry on the side. They could rest. And so they pursued a life in the woods, on the river.


Robert stared now at Gary’s massive chest. He was the most powerful man Robert had ever met – the kind of man who could fell a dancing gray pine with just an ax and maybe some whiskey. He took a simple drawing and made it into a house. Gary was the only other human who disturbed Barbara’s constant calm.


There were no sirens, only flashing red lights as the ambulance drove quietly into town. Neither speeding recklessly, nor, honking at the stoned and sun-scorched twenty-year old kids loitering in the middle of the narrow, two-lane road, the driver parked pulled in slowly and parked the bus a respectful distance from the door. The waitresses of the River Run Saloon had already draped Gary’s body with a table cloth. As the medics rolled him toward the bus, one calloused brown hand dropped enormously to the side of the gurney. It hung heavily, jerking in time, the wheels beneath hitting each and every pebble on the road. If she squinted her eyes just right, Barbara thought it looked like he was waving for help.


A green station wagon, piled high with dusty camping gear and quasi-revolutionary bumper stickers, drove slowly by. The three inhabitants tried hard not to crane their necks too far while attempting to interpret the scene unfolding at the River Run Saloon. Nice try, Barbara thought. She caught the eye of one of the passengers and could see herself in the woman’s face, a glance frozen the way Barbara felt her heart was.


Back at the house the sun was falling. She watched a stream of light rest across the curtain of pines up the mountain. She held herself with both hands tightly across her chest and leaned solidly against the oak door frame. Even the frogs and the crickets and dragonflies seemed to honor the quiet, whispering their deaths to each other in the night. She could hear Robert pacing in his shed, rummaging through his carefully organized drawers full of tools and nuts and bolts, chiseling a piece of wood and stopping. Then, the sound of his lighter, a faint breeze carrying his smoke to her nostrils. She hadn’t smoked a single cigarette all day. Barbara inhaled deeply and remembered the day Robert nailed the final nail into their new cabin and new life. The settling scents of freshly cut pine and oak boards in the studio built especially so that she could paint, each shelf, each beam and pane of glass laid by Robert’s hands.


When she opened her eyes and it was truly dusk. Robert wandered out to the side of the house to chop wood for the evening fire. It wasn’t cold, but it was tradition. The first thwack of his ax startled her. His strokes became heavier and faster and for a few moments he grunted in time with his ax swing. She thought, before turning wordlessly to enter the kitchen, that they didn’t need any more wood. He paused, straightened, and wiped his forehead. She realized that he hadn’t touched her all day.


Barbara was tall and thick. Her skin was a mixture of brown and red, as soft to the touch as fresh clay from the ground. At 53, her eyes were as clear as newly blown glass. She stood by the kitchen counter, attempting to straighten her back to the rigid posture she’d promised her mother, unable to stop the feeling that she might be losing her sight. Of course it was the onion she’d just split open for dinner, the acidic ether finding it’s host, sparking a few tears from Barbara’s eyes. Her nose began to run and so she held the onion halves in her hands, closer now to her face, waiting for the breathlessness not ready to come. There was a strong burning in her belly, but no sob escaped her.

She felt trapped. She wanted the tears and crying. She wanted so desperately to blame the tear tracks on the onions, to lie a concrete lie. Deep breaths and short concentration would not connect the onions and the tears and the grief. It wouldn’t cry itself away.


The onion was placed back on the cutting board, sliced neatly. The chicken was dressed and situated in the oven. She placed the apron on its hook next to the sink and padded back out the kitchen door.

She thought for a second before opening the door to his shed. The light shining beneath the door seemed a beacon she wasn’t ready to heed. The door blew open and Barbara suddenly lost her breath. Robert was waiting for her. He looked up and straight into her eyes. He let his fingers loosen around the cherry wood grip of his father’s chisel, letting it fall to the table briefly, and then gripped it tightly again.


She looked at him evenly and asked, “How you doin?”

“You know.”

She wanted to touch his face. “I know.”

“What about Gary?” He took deep breaths and Barbara knew he was going to drain it out of her. She paused before speaking again.

“You know how much I love you, Robert.”

“I did.”

More deep breaths.


“You slept with my best friend.” He didn’t look up.

“No!” They were both surprised by this declaration. “No, Robert. I didn’t. Not once.”

Robert’s chest rose and fell, compressing and expanding the little oxygen reaching his lungs. Maybe he never wanted to know.

The chicken and the beans were wafting in from the kitchen. She thought to make an excuse of it, but Robert caught her glance. “Let it burn,” he ordered.

She thought to remind him that she didn’t take orders. “I know I’ve hurt you, Robert. I know I have.”

Robert pulled the bourbon and the glass he kept below his work bench and poured long. Splinters of wood dust rushed to the top along with the liquid. He took it all into his mouth without a flinch. He would start to get drunk, and, because it was serious, he would become quieter. She took the empty glass from his hands and looked at him directly. He poured more of the bourbon into the glass, and she drank. He poured again, lit a cigarette and stared at the ground.

“It’s hard enough being here sometimes,” she said after a minute.

“We got a house, a nice life. We got friends Barbara.”

“None of them from where we from!”

Robert straightened. “Are you telling me you fucked my best friend because you miss Oakland?”

“No! And I told you, I didn’t sleep with him.”

“Yeah. Yeah, you told me.”

This wasn’t working. “I’m gonna go turn off the oven.”


The next two days passed, a series of perfunctory chores interrupted here and there with a silence so thick it could be mistaken for thunder. Robert slept in his shed for a few hours each night and cut wood and hammered nails into what ever made sense at the time, while Barbara began a new regimen of cigarettes and wine. They met each other in the kitchen for a few moments at a time. She would look at him and he would look away and then, so would she. Perhaps they would never speak again.


The night before the service, Robert soaked his hands in lemon juice and warm water. He scraped layers of soft dead skin from his hands with a pumice stone. To look dignified. His fingers burned and he winced stoically, the way that young boys are taught to in the face of pain. He’d done this the night before they signed on the land at River Run. Barbara thought of this as she watched Robert tying his old black tie. His hands were softer now and shiny, yet his fingertips were still not sensitive enough for the delicate intricacies of tying a tie. Before he could throw it off of his neck, Barbara walked wordlessly to him and finished the job. She let her hand rest on his chest and felt his heart skip a beat. Gripping the front of his shirt quickly, she exhaled, thinking of the new wrinkles she had created. Robert didn’t want to remove her hand with his own, so he turned slowly, adjusted the tie, a gesture, and left the room.


Trees green, dead branches and roots winding around the road. She cataloged those things she would paint. Revery came and went with the passing pines. A mile away from the burial site, she pulled over and began to speak, “About Gary…we need to talk about this some how.”
“I ain’t thinkin about that now.”
“Then what?”

“We got family comin here. Gary’s family. They might as well be our own, you know…Well, we didn’t even think about arrangements or nothin. I mean, this town, fulla Black folks…”
“I know.”

“It’s just-”

“It’ll be all right. They’re not gonna turn them all out,” she was talking about the folks in town.
“No, maybe not so much with they words.”


She looked straight ahead when they turned onto the paved road. The saloon was up the road a ways. Barbara recalled the first time she had been there, the stares of polite people and then the glares of those who were less gracious in their welcome. Gary stepped in from the balcony, bleary eyed at 3pm, and took Barbara and Robert into his arms as though they were one. “So glad y’all finally made it! Barbara, you’re gonna love this place!”


The owner of the saloon, Duke, appeared from thin air and shook her hand before shaking Roberts. The wrinkles around his eyes, his white hair and yellow mustache betrayed years of hard living. He looked at her and repeated Gary’s words verbatim. Barbara smiled and Gary laughed and winked at her. Robert was making friends at the other end of the bar while she stood stock still in the center of the room, Gary knew exactly what she was thinking. He took her arm and whispered into her neck, “You’ll stop wondering if they gonna kill you in your sleep after the third drink.” He laughed again and she continued to smile, relieved that she wasn’t going crazy on her first day in town.


Most evenings were spent at the River Run Saloon. Duke made jokes about the women who worked for him, and the women griped and smoked and leaned on the bar when they weren’t serving drinks or steaks to locals and tourists. Gary showed up every night as well, always two whiskey’s ahead of Robert. Robert would talk fishing and hiking and guns – he’d just recently purchased one – with whomever would walk in, and Gary would laugh raucously and then turn quiet and ask Barbara questions. She liked artists like Pearl Fryar and Emory Douglas. Her mother died suddenly and no one knew why. Her brother had leukemia and she’d always thought she could save him. She only started to like purple after reading some books by Alice Walker, and this fact embarrassed her. At the end of these nights, Gary would walk the two out to the road and they would begin the mile walk back into the forest where they’d built their new home. He’d wave a final wave and then turn back into the saloon to have two more whiskeys and another round of laughter with whomever was still awake.


One afternoon, she’d wandered into the saloon on her own while Robert messed around in his shed. She ordered a merlot and a salad, and that’s when Midget told her, “You folks are the funnest people to have around!” Barbara didn’t know whether to punch or kick or run away. She giggled a little and said, “Oh, thanks.”

Midget was a perceptive lady, and not, in spite of her name, short in stature or size. She sat down uninvited and apologized immediately. “I didn’t mean ‘you people’, I meant you and Robert.”

“I know. It’s okay.”

“No,” Midget said. “It’s important that you know that. River Run usually feels like a town of carnies and hippies and rednecks, but you and Gary and Robert showed up and you just make this town feel real like it’s a home. And Gary. Lord knows how he does it, but he just reels us all in. Even the folks that aren’t so…enlightened. Treats everyone the same. Like we’re family.” Barbara downed her merlot and Midget stood to get her another. Midget thought they were friends now and Barbara knew this is how she should get along. She swallowed the new glass of wine in two gulps and ordered a whiskey. The pines and oaks danced together in a gray green pallor and she hated Robert’s ideal.

Every once in a while one of baby rednecks would show up stoned and drunk at the saloon and try to start something with Barbara, thinking she was an easy target. Before the men could stand up and protest, Barbara would disarm them, staring so coldly that any would be assailant would be frozen in terror. In those few times, Robert found himself afraid of her. After one of these run ins, Robert went out to the front to smoke and to make sure they weren’t coming back. Gary scooted in close to Barbara and said seriously, “I ain’t afraid of ya.” Then he stared at her long and hard. This made her laugh, which in turn made him laugh. They laughed all night.

Days later, Gary found himself on their porch, asking if he could come in for a bit. He had no reason on earth to show up in the middle of the afternoon. He knew that Robert had gone a few towns over to check on the incoming lumber supply and wouldn’t be back until dinner. When Barbara opened the door, Gary just laughed and said, “I know you think I’m just an old drunk from Oakland, but I’d like to prove to you that I can do more than wield a bottle.” She didn’t know whether to be mad or flattered, but she let him in.


He sat on the couch, straighter than he’d ever sat in his life, she was sure. After a minute or two he said, “You know, the other night you were talking about Pearl Fryar, and I started thinking about this man and topiaries.”

“He’s an incredible artist,” she looked away from his sweaty brow.

“I don’t know much about him, really,” he thought to look away.
“You should look at this book then.” She meant he should take it home, how ever, he immediately began thumbing through it. She looked at his face expectantly, and eventually sat beside him, discussing the art and ethics of topiaries.

“I don’t know,” he was saying, “You’ve got this tree, this thing that’s coming straight outta the earth…but, I just wonder, what makes a man want to change something, that obviously is made to be one thing, and turn it into something else?”

She thought for a moment, then replied, “I think you’re looking at it differently than I would.”
“How’s that?”
“I don’t know. I guess…it’s just that it seems to me that if a thing was meant to be something, then it would end up that way, no matter how it got there.” Gary looked puzzled. “Like this, think of us. We’re two black people from Oakland, up here in the woods. I bet when your people moved to Oakland, all of their people thought they were crazy to move all the way to California, much less a big ol’ city. And when you moved, well, I imagine your folks thought you crazy to move back to the mountains.” She took a sip of tea and continued, “I started thinking about this when we moved here. I was the one thinking we were crazy to move to the mountains, to a town fulla rednecks. But I started thinkin about what this land was like before the rednecks and the roads and…I don’t know. I guess I mean that the land is still here. The trees are still growing, the river still runs, and me and Robert are the same as we were when we got here, ‘cept maybe a little bit more peaceful.”

“Y’alls hearts beatin a little bit slower.”

Gary saw for the first time the tiny trimmed bonsais on the window sill and in the kitchen. His eyes moved slowly, taking in the center-metrical pine needles, the graceful moss growing, in each pot, toward north.

He stood to leave, saying simply, “See you two tonight then.”


Driving through the pines toward Gary’s funeral, she wanted them all to be small. She gripped the wheel and squinted her eyes and more than once, she shut them tightly.

At the funeral home, Robert approached Duke about the logistics of Gary’s folks being in town. Duke tugged his mustache pensively and said, “I hadn’t thought that far ahead. I guess I’ll call down to the Saloon and make sure there are enough beds. And whiskey.” He surveyed the lines of cars now arriving, full of cautious and anxious brown faces. He nodded toward them, “If Gary’s folks are anything like Gary, they’re gonna want some whiskey.”


“You got some now?” Robert whispered.


Duke slid his hand into his coat pocket to retrieve a simple flask. Robert clutched it for a long minute before turning away and bringing it to his lips, holding the liquid long enough to enjoy the acidic tinge before it became noticeable on his face. He exhaled as he screwed the cap back on and passed the flask back to Duke, who took his own shameless sip before putting it back in his pocket.



Along with Gary’s two brothers and three sisters, Robert helped to lower Gary into the ground as Barbara watched, squinting her eyes. Gary’s family took turns tossing a handful of dirt onto the coffin and turning away. Barbara wanted to shove hers into her mouth, to taste the cool earth. She threw it instead and hurried off toward the car. Midway she thought of Robert, thought that rushing away was an admission of guilt, so she stopped in the weeds and hard earth, drew a deep breath and stood quietly, stifling any tear that might have run by taking big breaths of mountain air through her nostrils.


They descended the mountain, back into the town of River Run, Population: 93. There was a short traffic jam as Gary’s brother TT, who was leading the caravan, nearly turned onto an unmarked road, which seemed to be owned by a pack of scabby mutts and a bewildered white man who looked like Santa on a bender. Mistaking the man’s smile for a grimace, TT’s grief momentarily overwhelmed him and he leaped from his car demanding “What the fuck is your fuckin problem?” Robert, several cars down, jumped out shouting, “Wait! TT! Wait,” explaining that the man was a friend and that TT was on the wrong road. No apologies were necessary. Robert shook the old man’s hand and hustled back to the car. TT and his sister and brothers moved their cars to let Robert’s through, and Robert led them past the pines and confusing turn offs, back to the River Run Saloon, the dogs trotting slowly behind.



In the saloon, Robert, whose tie was now as wrinkled as the front of his shirt, was bouncing between clusters of people. He held Gary’s sister around the shoulders and seemed to sip slowly the whiskey in his favorite tumbler. Barbara realized that the people in the town were taking cues from him; drinking slowly as he did, laughing out loud when he laughed; patting strangers on the back. She felt drawn to him, and she glued herself to his side for the rest of the evening, following his every move. He looked at her only once, while she was talking to Gary’s sister. He felt compelled to say, “Don’t you all know each other already?” They both looked at him as if to know what he meant, Robert looked at Gary’s sister’s face, because he knew that he didn’t trust what he would find in Barbara’s eyes.


The night wound down to whispers and it was time to go home. A few people would be staying at the River Run Saloon. TT was too drunk to drive back to Oakland as he’d planed. Robert guaranteed him a spot in their extra room.


It would have been rude to leave quietly. His footing was faulty and he nearly fell to the floor and Barbara ran to him. “Folks, folks!” Robert began in his most earnest and deep voice. “Barbara and I are about to get out of here.” He looked around, clutching his glass. “But I wanted to say! I wanted to say first… First, I want you all to know how much I love Gary. Any a you don’t got a place to stay tonight are welcome at my house, an’ if you come… If you come, you’re gonna see how Gary helped me build my house. He stayed up late every night, while we still lived in Oakland, he’d be up lookin’ at our land, trying to figure out how all of our dreams were gonna come true with the wood I cut. Our house was just piles of wood for as long as you can see. Barbara drew up some plans, but it was Gary that laid the foundation. Gary sat on my porch night after night, helping me with the finishing touches of my house. And tonight,” his voice was low, “I’ma go home with Barbara, and Gary ain’t gonna be there.” The trickle down his face was genuine, but Barbara heard in his words an indictment and a sentence. How had she never felt this guilt before? Tears sprang from her eyes and she rushed to cover her mouth, but the sob had already broken free, unveiling a chain reaction. For the first time in hours she left Robert’s side, choking on the moonlight, as she watched the river move.


In the valley, the light peeked in the windows far before the sun shone in the sky. The same as it always did. TT was sleeping off the night in Robert’s shed. The finches in the trees above cackled quietly among themselves. Barbara lay on her back next to Robert who was still curled up on the edge of the bed. The silhouettes of the forest around them looked more ominous than cozy. Barbara wondered at the ominous feeling. She imagined worse fates than Gary’s death befalling her and the town and Robert until she could no longer lie still. Moving swiftly from the bed to the door to the porch, she lit a cigarette and held it between her fingers, watching the smoke drift into ether. When finally she inhaled, her attempt at mimicking the fine plumes drafting up resulted in a cough which she quickly muffled.

Barbara had worked as a nurse in emergency rooms for her entire adult life. The death of her brother brought her to medicine. In the middle of her second year as an emergency room nurse, she stopped counting the women and men she had seen die. Gary’s death reminded her of the pain of birth and the ease of death. Life is a cloud, constantly forming and shaping according to the wind and its contents. Or so she’d grown to believe. She had stayed so close to Robert last night, unsure of her every move, her every breath. Life became a fog the moment she looked at him in admiration.


For the next week, she would try desperately to look only at Robert. But when he was in town or in the shed, she would close her eyes, and count her heart beats until and Gary’s face would come into focus. She had wanted to throw herself into the ground next to him. The wind blew dust down the road, and she thought now how funny it was, how impractical it would have been had she flung herself onto his casket like some forlorn auntie. If she had learned anything in her life, it was that she must always be practical with her decisions and wise in their undertaking.

She had continued to meet with Gary because it seemed wise at the time to follow her heart to him. By the time she’d thought of the impossibility of the situation, it was too late. Wisdom told her that no amount of distance would be far enough from Gary. She almost hated him and his blithe acceptance of whatever it was they were doing. Robert would have demanded a firm outline. It was what she loved about him the most. He always did everything right the first time he did it. He asked her on a proper date when they first met and one year later, when he knew that housing was in place, he proposed. They really did live a humble and hard-working and beautiful life.
She began to wander down the road and continued to think, almost saying aloud, “Gary never proposed a damn thing, other than a late afternoon drink or a walk to the river…always kept us close enough to Robert so as to not be disrespectful. He did things right too, I suppose…” she laughed and lit a cigarette and looked coyly away from the trees which conjured the afternoon she’d opted for whiskey instead of wine and pursued a kiss just a few steps from her door. Gary backed away gracefully and laughed it off.

After the funeral and Robert’s speech, everything seemed so impractical. She tried to resume daily life, but she just didn’t know how and Robert didn’t seem interested. She took to drinking in her studio while he drank in his shed, both rooms coated in uneven layers of dust. She thought to turn back, to paint the trees as she’d seen them on the way to the funeral. She decided instead to run as fast as she could, to blur the images or to make her eyes water. The cigarette dropped from her fingers as she began to trot, then sprint all the way down to the beach break on the river. Out of breath, she lay squatted down on a giant beige boulder partially submerged in the water. She lay baking in the sun, suddenly aware that she was not alone. Turning her head softly to the right, she found herself face to face with a fat long snake, with black and red rings around its shining body. She knew next to nothing about snakes and didn’t know what to do next, so she lay perfectly still, not even moving her eyes away from the serpent’s. It inched cautiously closer, allowing its forked gray tongue to flicker a quick inquiry into the bright bulbs and dark brown flesh in front of it. The snake slithered closer until it was moving along her tingling arms and across her belly, which encouraged a warmth to grow and spread from her center, through her womb, making her moist and breathless. She twitched involuntarily and the reptile slid rapidly to the other side of her body, down into a crevice close by.

The sun continued to move across the sky, but still was far from hiding behind the gray pines. Her skin was burning. She stood and dove perfectly into the slick of the river, swimming beneath the slow current until she could no longer hold her breath. She gasped when she reached the surface and dove down again, eyes wide open, acknowledging the specks of silt or gold which seemed to pause themselves in the moving river. The mud and the shale and perfectly rounded rocks; everything one uneven layer upon another. She rose and dove again until she found herself near the back of the saloon.

She tread water for a long time, looking up the cliff full of moss and jagged rocks, bright pink fuchsia and thyme, orange poppies standing in a motley line, all arranging themselves up the hill stopping just before the manicured path which led to the back steps and the porch where Gary had collapsed. She whispered his name to the rocks, to the water moving now more rapidly toward the west. What else was there to do? She dove down once more and screamed as loud as the water would allow. At the surface there were only bubbles and ripples; crows flew from their high perches while trout scuttled away from the wild figure thrashing and diving and choking on sound.










Stupid, the sorrow

Posted in City Sketch on December 15, 2012 by melissa merin

The internal and external realizing, of

being afraid of loss

or losing grandeur

will gain their submission, if only for a the last minute of breath, collected.


Finished with the always waiting.


Stupid, the war.

Stupid, the death.

Stupid the sorrow.
Nothing compares to this life, not even the joy

(he destroyed it, one small body at a time.)

New Blend for the Old World

Posted in City Sketch with tags , , , , , , , on July 29, 2012 by melissa merin


We know (well now) the populace (that is to say, the people), don’t rise up in arms simply ‘cuz a person is murdered – not for any reason.

There is a list of ingredients which must be measured exactly before a riot or a wellspring is to occur.
We also know well,
the results of the recipe are more catastrophic than plentiful
and that in fact
the finished product can leave a bitter taste,
a pill swallowed unwillingly
into the mouths of the reluctant

There have been many murders of people by the police
in as many days as I’ve drawn breath in this year alone
it feels like waiting.

Some wait for the first tipped police car, and others wait for the government
to put its magic pen upon the paper and offer to us a rigid line that ought not be crossed
there are those near a stove or a bar, in the bus – in the middle of it – waiting for a shift
a wind to blow the hat off of thee
desperate to keep it on a wind to reveal the baldness
a wind to be expelled in relief of the truth, bright on the dome of the new day!

The young and old and infirmed and sex-differentiated die by candle and moon and bomb
and daylight,
their corpses strewn about – strips of carne asada on a pile of white
headlines stream the news
in one eye and out the other and still; waiting.

For sickness and disease, riddled through and through and again into the ether and still and still and still and through
again There is no waiting like death

For grief and bow broken, bullet spent and virus loaded

Tiny paw on hot roof, burnt.
There is no waiting like that for the magical miracle bellowing full steam, waiting not
For the rest of the page to follow and fold,
sail, adrift in a cavernous space of rot

While, away , the phantoms of yesterday’s lynched sons and daughters morph
into the undone bounty of a millionaire’s pocket, chaining they unto the master’s coffin,
to be remembered and dug up again,
old corpse and new blend
matching carpet

Waving At Myself

Posted in City Sketch on September 8, 2010 by melissa merin

I can’t help thinking every so often, that everything I know in life started out as a dream. Whether from my head or someone else’s heart, connections are made, seemingly indiscriminate – I walk down the street enjoying the warm sun and cursing the presumed yuppies in my way, thinking about a friend I haven’t seen in months and just as suddenly she appears, half drunk, waving a newspaper behind my back while we embrace. I want to hear her words, but can only think of the coincidence. Did I manifest this happening or did it simply occur?

Later in the night I’m laying in bed listening to some band I just discovered and I relive that instant over and over, pondering it in about thirty different ways. When I finally let it rest, my eyes refusing to blink it into reality anymore, I drift off and dream about what I would have said to her had we both enough time and energy to relate beyond the moment on the yuppie filled sidewalk.

In the morning, the memory is dull and unpixelated. Around 10 am, a boy is disrupting his whole class excaliming at the top of his lungs that he had a dream about a monster and a shark and he called for his mother. I’m practicing active listening, asking him about the shark and his mother (in hushed tones, modeling respect for his exasperated maestra). Back in the hallway, he asks if I ever have dreams and I reply, “Of course I do!” I send him back to class – he’s ready to focus on his maestra now – and I walk toward another room, preparing for another light intervention. Of course I do.

I wonder if he and his mother ever have the same dreams? My mother and I once had very similar recurring dreams when I was younger. I attributed the coincidence to some sort of mother-daughter connection or, to my heightened level of awareness of the world. I was a bored and stoned teenager eager for meaning, which meant everything related to me somehow. The dream that we shared, of being on a stone jetty while the ocean hammered away at it, was scary and powerful. I believed that I was facing something, coming to terms with it. In the dark dark nights at South Jetty, high as a kite on ghost weed, I wondered to myself if in fact there had been a time when we had both been on a jetty, fearing for our lives?

Of course, I had feared for my life many a time on or near jetties. Once while swimming in an undertow ( I was saved by a surfer and my dad, with no real comprehension of the physical danger I was in), another time when I had jumped off South Jetty (again, enter weed ) and my leg hit a rock because I had not jumped out far enough and, of course my 19th birthday at El Capitan, night swimming with friends. One by one they got out of the water, warning that the waves would soon get big. It was my brother who waded in to convince me to come ashore. Moments after we got out, the waves were higher than anyone had expected and they pounded the beach for an epic seven minutes. I know my mom used to go to the beach in highschool and watch the waves and play guitar. I know somehow that there’s a connection.

No Parking

Posted in City Sketch, Fiction on May 30, 2009 by melissa merin

The street was a street was a street. Dark at night. Orange lighting the way from twenty or so feet above. Garbled conversations and trash and vomit sometimes. She studied them endlessly. She knew where the cracks were if she wanted to avoid them. Six beers under her arm. She would only drink three, unless the mood struck or she had a guest, then they’d drink until there was no more beer, or until the store closed. Many nights she waited for the second or third beer to inspire some type of memory like it used to when she was young. She didn’t want to admit to herself that it simply didn’t work anymore, nor could she possibly admit to being afraid of the written words that had yet to spring from her mind.

Across the street from her house, a parking and traffic officer paced with his ticket pad in hand. He stopped to flash his led light into the left corner of the window to see the VIN number while the man with the orange reflecting stripes on his jump suit secured the car to the lift. The blinds on the third floor were drawn to a discrete close. A student ran up as the truck pulled away. “But there’s a motorcyle here also in the red.” He was out of breath and panicking.“I didn’t get a call about that.”
The matter of fact tone was not lost on the student. “You’re an asshole.” “It’s my job.” Just like his English professor.
“To be an asshole?” He could be smart too.
“To write tickets.” An argyle sweater peeked down from his holiday lighted balcony, then hurriedly stepped inside and closed the door.

She approached the student cautiously. “I’m pretty sure it was the guys on the third floor.”
He studied the crisp piece of paper. “This is ridiculous. I park there all the time!”
“Those guys are on their own private crusade.”
“Easy crusade for them, they’ve got a garage.”
“Thanks for the info.”
“No problem. Good luck with the parking nazis.”
The student turned and hustled down the block. Probably to catch the bus. She shrugged and entered her house with a sigh.

On the phone with her mother was a similar conversation they’d been having for decades. She could almost predict it. She let her attention drift, staying close enough to hear the news. ”
Your father is fine, a little tired, my back is still bothering me-” (after twenty-two years), “-your brother is finishing his doctorate work. He’ll want us to come up and visit when it’s over. Are you going anywhere this summer? It would be nice for us all to meet up at your Grandfather’s house. It’s going to be his ninetieth birthday in June… On the bus I’m on my way down all the girls seem to be… “Do you remember that?”
“Huh?” She’d gone too far.
“That earthquake. Didn’t you just have one up there?”
“Yeah, we did. I didn’t feel it though, I was asleep.”
“Oh I would have felt it.”
“Yeah, I know. I remember that one back in ’94.”
“That’s what I was talking about!”
“Sorry, the phone must have cut out. It’s amazing this technology that brought us all the way back to the beginning of the phone age.”
“You’re so cynical.”
“I prefer skeptical.”
“What ever it is. You’re in a mood tonight.”
“I’m not in a mood tonight. I’m just tired. It was a long day.”
“Well, I’ll let you go. Let me know when you’re coming.”
“For what?”
“For Christmas. You’re coming home, aren’t you?”
“I always do.”
“When do you think you’ll be down?”
“I’m not sure. I’ll let you know.”

She didn’t like to drink when her mother was on the phone, but she’d made an exception tonight. In the quiet of her kitchen, she wondered if her mother could hear the sipping and gulping sounds. The brown bottle was place carefully on top of a pile of newspapers on the counter. Careful, but not cautious, she thought.

Just then a giant truck rammed itself into her apartment building starting three fires and wounding everyone tragically killing the baby.


Posted in City Sketch, Prose with tags , , , , on May 30, 2009 by melissa merin

Sis is walking or shuffling – depending on who you ask – and this can not be easy for her. Hunched under a dozen coats draped loosely over her shoulders, she is at once an eye sore and phenomena. How she can keep moving through spontaneous declarations of “Fuck Yeah!” from the crowds huddled around the small oval table tops on the sidewalk and the white boy’s answer to Canta y no llores! (Ay, Ay, Ay, Ay!) is a mystery to me. I’ve made it my business to follow her with my eyes. I tell myself night after night that if anyone messes with her, I will run down the fire escape, through the second floor window, down the stairs and out the door and I will defend her. When we pass on the street, I know that she needs me to say hello to her, so I do “What’s up Sis?” is my standard greeting. I call her Sis because the first time she asked me for change six years ago, she called me sister and I was eager to return the platitude. Tired of being addressed as “Sister” by scruffy white men with straggly pony tales at anti-war actions, I was glad that this certified Sister was giving me my propers. I handed her a dollar and asked if she was warm enough, if she needed any food, if she was all good? She said she was okay and she told me to take care of myself and shuffled on down the alley, past the murals of revolution, past the wild jasmine winding it’s way up dilapidated wooden fences.

I started anticipating her. I’d leave a bag of chocolate, toilet paper and tampons in the corner that she liked to hide in. I bought her a new broom one time because she was always sweeping up the alley behind our house. You could count on Sis gettin’ real pissed when ever the garbage trucks came because they always left tons of trash on the street. She’d start mutterin about how people just didn’t give a shit, how she was always cleanin up their damn messes…