BURNING MAN

John and his friend Danny at the grill

We’ve all heard the expression “Where there’s smoke there’s fire”. Well, if you were ever around the vicinity of Hawkins Street on City Island in The Bronx, particularly 50-something years ago, you’d agree that statement is true.

You see, back then John and Gertrude and their four kids lived on Hawkins Street in a cute little white saltbox house with blue trim – emphasis on little as are most houses on City Island, many of which were originally built of wood from dismantled ships. The main entrance to the house was a glass enclosed front porch maybe about five feet deep and 20 feet wide. Inside the porch was a door that led to the living room; for some reason no one ever used the front door. Everyone entered through a side door near the back of the house down the driveway – probably because it was easy to just get out of the car and walk a few feet to the side door.

That side door opened onto a long narrow unheated porch where Gertrude would store fruits and vegetables and other sundry food items. The porch ran almost the entire length of the house and opened directly into the kitchen. From there, heading toward the front of the house, you’d find the dining room, a small step up into the living room and the previously mentioned front porch. A staircase leading to the second floor was situated between the living room and dining room. Upstairs were two bedrooms and single bathroom for six people. One bedroom was John and Gertrude’s; the other was shared by their four kids. The three boys had the main area and their sister’s “room” was a small section off the boy’s room that was originally a closet. The only entry into the girl’s bedroom was through her brother’s room – certainly not much privacy. The house had no attic, basement or any other storage area.

To say the house was “cozy” is an understatement but they managed. It was a happy house and it served them well.

John worked for the New Haven Railroad at the Hunts Point Terminal Market, the largest wholesale produce market in the United States. One of the perks of John’s job was he got to bring home leftover fruit, vegetables and other items that got left behind or “fell off the trains” – a real bonus for a family of six living on one income. Whatever John brought home, Gertrude didn’t have to buy at the grocery store and could spend a bit more on meat and other staples. Gertrude knew how to stretch a dollar and once in a while the family would enjoy a nice steak. There was a cute little dog named Fluff who lived across the street. He’d come running whenever John lit the grill and waited patiently till the end of the meal for the steak bones. If there was one thing John really enjoyed it was getting a good fire going in the old grill.

Gertrude had a clothesline that ran from the back of the house across the yard to the opposite side where it was attached to a section of the wooden mast from the America’s Cup contender “Vanitie”. Hauled up at Jacob’s Shipyard on City Island, “Vanitie” had been dismantled and stripped of everything, even her bowsprit. Nothing remained but the hull and mast of the once beautiful sloop; how that section of the mast ended up in the backyard at 93 Hawkins Street was a mystery to the family but it sure was a conversation piece. Surrounding the mast were a number of cherry and fig trees and an assortment of bushes. Off to the side was an old shack which was barely standing.

One day John decided it would be an easy and enjoyable task for a fire-lover such as himself to get rid of the shack by burning it piece by piece on the grill instead of dismantling the whole thing and lugging all the pieces of wood and shingles to the junkyard. After all, he burned all the detritus in the garage – why not the shed?

The smell was terribly acrid and the amount of smoke was enough for neighbors to call the fire department several times until they finally realized it was just John burning pieces of the shack. Some men spent their spare time constructing additions to their houses; John incinerated dilapidated outbuildings of his house. Fire is mesmerizing and he was getting the job done, albeit in an unconventional manner.

Over the course of several months that old shack gradually disappeared. On the last day of the sacrifice by fire, John got a bit carried away and loaded up the grill with the last remaining pieces. Well, I think you can guess what happened next.

The flames grew higher and one spark leapt up and kissed Gertrude’s clothesline, setting it and all the drying laundry ablaze. The fire continued down to the end of the line, igniting the trees and a few surrounding bushes; somehow the old resolute mast miraculously escaped damage. Hearing Fluff barking his head off, Gertrude looked out the window to see John desperately trying to salvage what he could of the backyard. Billowing clouds of dark smoke filled the sky above Hawkins Street and beyond.

Gertrude ran to the phone to call the fire department; so did a dozen other people. Thank goodness they didn’t simply think “Oh, that’s just John at the grill again”. The fire trucks arrived in time to salvage what was left of the yard. The same, however, could not be said for John’s sorely wounded pride.

Fifty-plus years later and we’re still talking and laughing about my father-in-law John’s adventures at the grill.

NAR © 2021

Vanitie

While I may have exaggerated the facts a bit, there no denying that this story was truly written in loving memory of my father-in-law and mother-in-law John and Gertrude Richy, both taken from us much too soon. My affection for them could never be exaggerated. ❤️

The annual Burning Man Festival is traditionally held from the end of August through Labor Day which is why I chose this date to publish my story.

A BRUSH WITH FATE

It was nothing, really; just an unsettling feeling.

The apartment was deathly silent – no water running, no sounds coming from the kitchen, no television – nothing, not even the comforting, barely perceptible reverberation of Matt’s snoring.

The quiet was oddly disquieting. Lying on the bed on my right side, I eyed the digital clock on the nightstand: 7:15 AM – a little early for our usual Sunday morning sleep-ins.

Gradually I shifted onto my back, staring up at the ceiling for a minute or two waiting to hear something, anything. I slowly turned my head and glanced over at the left side of the bed – Matt’s side. He wasn’t there. “Hmm, wonder where he is?” I thought. I listened again; still silence. I called out “Matt? Babe?” No response.

“Okay, maybe he went to get bagels and The Times.” It’s very unusual for us not to make love on a lazy Sunday morning. Sex in the morning is always delicious but last night was incredible; we really got carried away. I don’t know what came over me; my desire was insatiable and Matt certainly was ready, willing and able to oblige. I couldn’t help smiling as I thought about the night before; the images were so intense, I started getting aroused. I called out again: “Matt, honey! Are you here?” Still nothing.

Matt and I met about seven months ago, shortly after my breakup with Danny. I thought Danny was ‘the one’; we even talked about marriage. We really were a perfect match in all aspects of our lives. The fact that sex with Danny was the best I’d ever had was a bonus. But somewhere down the road things began to unravel and we just sort of drifted apart. That was a very low point in my life; I loved Danny and I still think about him often. It’s only natural that I would.

Then Matt entered the picture and there was an instant attraction between us. We were both on the rebound and took things slow. We decided not to move in together, not just yet, opting for weekends here or at Matt’s. We were committed to each other but not ready for anything as permanent as living together. We agreed the only thing we would leave at each other’s place was a toothbrush.

The more I thought about last night, the more I wanted Matt in my bed right now. Looking at the clock I was amazed to see that 45 minutes had gone by. Where the hell was Matt?

I got out of bed and padded barefoot into the kitchen, checking the living room on the way. I was clearly alone, not even the usual welcoming presence of a fragrant pot of coffee. I looked around in confusion.

Feeling the strong urge to pee, I raced back to the bathroom and there I found all the answers I needed. A sticky note with angry red letters on the mirror read YOU TALKED ABOUT SEX WITH DANNY IN YOUR SLEEP … AGAIN!! I’M OUTTA HERE!

 And there was just one lonely toothbrush in the holder – mine.  

NAR © 2021

MOONBEAMS AND PIPE DREAMS

The night of my husband’s funeral was the loneliest point in my life. After everyone went home, I was totally alone in the house I shared with Ned for 32 years. I don’t ever remember the house being so cold and quiet. Moonbeams engulfed my bedroom yet emptiness was all around.

Ned made me promise that I’d get on with my life after he was gone. The last thing he wanted was for me to spend my days grieving. I agreed because I knew that’s what he needed to hear but I doubted turning that corner and moving on after losing the love of my life would be easy for me. 

The next few weeks were a blur. I went out only to buy groceries, turning down all invitations from well-meaning friends to join them for lunch, a movie or a round of golf; it just wasn’t in me.

The time inevitably came when I knew I had to do something with Ned’s belongings. I found some empty boxes in the attic and began filling them with his things to donate to a men’s shelter. Lovingly I folded each shirt, jacket and pair of pants. I polished his shoes and included a couple of packages of new socks and underwear. The men living in the shelter were going through dire straits and deserved to be treated with respect.

The one thing I couldn’t part with was Ned’s cherished pipe collection. The warm aroma of cherry and whiskey lingered in the house. I pictured Ned sitting at his desk meticulously cleaning each pipe and placing it in the rosewood stand. I walked to the den where he watched TV, enjoying his pipe after dinner; my eyes filled with tears and I broke down – probably my first really good cry since Ned died.

It took about a week to get everything boxed and I called for a donation pick-up. The man I spoke to told me someone would come by on Thursday before noon; I told him I’d leave the boxes on the front porch in case I wasn’t home at the time.

Thursday morning I placed the boxes on the porch and headed out to the cemetery. It was four months since Ned’s passing and I had flowers to place on his grave. I stood by Ned’s gravesite reminiscing about our time together when I noticed the sun dancing off a coin on the headstone. “Of course!” I thought. “I should have known Tom would come by.” Ned and Tom were best friends ever since serving together in Vietnam. Keeping with tradition, Tom left the coin on Ned’s headstone as a sign that he stopped by to pay his respects.

After the cemetery I shopped for a few groceries. When I got home the boxes were gone; there was a receipt from the men’s shelter stuck in the front door. I placed the groceries down and sat on the porch’s double swing, staring at the vacant spot where the boxes sat just a few hours earlier. The void I felt at that moment was almost unbearable.

Silent tears rippled down my cheeks. “It’s not fair. It’s just not fair!” I cried as I pounded my fists against my legs.

“No, it isn’t, Lizzie. Lots of things in life aren’t fair.” There was Tom standing on the top step. Without a word he walked over to the swing, sat down beside me and cradled me in his arms as I wept. Tom spoke in hushed tones: “I know exactly how you feel, Lizzie. I went through it when Kay died. You and Ned were there for me through it all. There’s no feeling that comes close to a broken heart. We lost our soul mates; I hope you’ll let me help you like you helped me.”

We sat for a long time without talking, just holding hands sitting on the swing. Words weren’t necessary between dear old friends. Tom helped me bring my shopping bags into the house and together we put everything away.

How about I brew a fresh pot of coffee, Tom? Make yourself comfortable in the den and I’ll bring it in.”

When I got to the den, Tom was sitting at Ned’s desk admiring his pipe collection. His still handsome face was creased with a sweet, sentimental smile.

“You know, Lizzie, that long-stemmed pipe in the middle was always my favorite.” Tom’s blue eyes glistened and I could tell he had shed a tear or two for his dear friend.

“It was Ned’s favorite, too, Tom. I remember the day you gave it to him.”

My heart fluttered as I removed the pipe from its stand and placed it in Tom’s hand. “I know Ned would want you to have this.”

Tom closed his eyes for a few seconds, his hands cradling the pipe. “Thank you, Lizzie. I’ll treasure this always.”

Tom said he had to get home and we walked to the front door.

“Wait, Tom. Can you come for dinner Saturday night?”

“I’d like that, Lizzie. Very much.”

“Me too, Tom. Is 6:30 okay?” and he nodded ‘yes’.

I said goodbye and pressed my back against the closed door. And I smiled for the first time in months.

NAR © 2021

A CHANGE OF HABIT

“Called to be a nun? You can’t be serious, Luna!” Hudi was stunned when her sister disclosed her secret.

“Hudi, I shared with you what is in my heart. If you can’t accept it, that’s fine but don’t start giving me a speech or trying to change my mind.”  

Hudi started laughing. “This is some sort of joke, right? We’re no longer little Catholic school girls back in Spain!”  

Luna didn’t even crack a smile. “I should have known better than to expect you to understand, Hudi. We may be twins but we couldn’t be more different.”  

“Why a nun?”

“Hudi, look at me. I’m not petty, funny or sexy like you. I can’t dance, I don’t know how to wear makeup or fix my hair or even dress nicely. I’m hopeless! Being a nun and spending the rest of my life in a convent is my destiny.”

Hudi laughed again. “Your ‘destiny’? Please, Luna. Aren’t you being a bit dramatic? It sounds like this nun thing is more of a ‘hiding’ than a ‘calling’. You’re not supposed to be a nun because you’re unhappy with your life.”

Luna didn’t say anything; she knew Hudi was right.

“Listen to me! You’re not hopeless. I’m your twin; who better to help you? First thing I have to do is teach you how to fix this nest of twigs you have for hair; then everything else will fall into place.”

Over the course of a few days Hudi taught Luna how to apply makeup and do her hair. They listened to their favorite salsa music and without even realizing it, Luna was moving to the beat.

Getting dressed one day, Hudi couldn’t believe her eyes. “Luna, you have an amazing body! Why hide it under a habit?” Luna couldn’t stop blushing.

Hudi always knew she wanted to be a designer and landed a job in one of New York’s biggest fashion companies. Her boss was impressed with her designs and offered Hudi the chance to put together a hot new lingerie line. Hudi jumped at the opportunity and threw herself into her work.

Luna, however, was having serious doubts about her decision to become a nun.

When her assignment was done, Hudi had a brilliant idea: instead of showing her boss one-dimensional drawings, why not have someone model them? The first person who came to mind was her sister.

Luna wanted nothing to do with the project but Hudi was convincing and Luna reluctantly agreed. On the day of the big reveal Luna was a nervous wreck. Hudi put on some salsa music and shoved her sister into a room full of executives.

Luna swayed to the music, then let her satin robe slip to her waist revealing the most feminine and sexy bra anyone had ever seen. Her figure was as incredible as her lingerie.

Proudly Hudi announced “Ladies and gentlemen. May I present to you our model, Luna Delgado, wearing our next hottest seller – ‘Hudibras’.”

And the room erupted in applause.

NAR © 2021

MAXIMUS OVERDRIVE

Maximus Gluteus caught a glimpse of his reflection on a sheet of polished tin which his wife Labia used as a mirror. He had really let himself go! He was a disgrace, not just to himself but the entire world of gladiators.

Originally known as Maximus Biceptis, he was no longer the god-like hero of the stadium. Where was that former champion of the amphitheater? Gone were the defined, well-built curves visible through his tunic, the muscles straining against the fabric at the forearms, biceps and chest. His sculpted calves, broad back and wide neck were flaccid, as were other parts of his anatomy which Labia was quick to point out.

Maximus was not only popular with the general public; he was greatly admired by the Roman emperor Sartorius. He won many battles against highly skilled adversaries. Sartorius was particularly impressed by his heroics and rewarded him with more palaces and riches than he could have asked for. Sartorius went so far as to give Maximus his prized solid gold chariot and team of Berber horses.  

If anyone knew how to have a good time it was the worshipers of Bacchus, the god of wine. Maximus and Labia threw lavish Bacchanalia where debaucheries of every kind were practiced freely and enjoyed by all. Members of the cult would spend uninhibited all-nighters dancing, watching circus performers, feasting on fattening foods and decadent desserts, engaging in wild sex and, of course, drinking themselves into a stupor. Surfeited with too much wine, they could be awoken only by the cacophony of the servants crashing cymbals.

Labia, a once-famous gladiatrix, was considered an exotic rarity by her audience. Attempting to maintain her impressively athletic yet feminine physique, she exercised frequently in the gymnasium and swam in the warm baths. Maximus, however, had become lazy and spiritless. He encamped himself in the large atria overlooking the Mediterranean, reclining for hours on end in the lavish gardens which had been planted with olive and fig trees, grape orchards, almonds, walnuts and chestnuts, oranges and tomatoes, etc.

Maximus reveled in the good life, lying on his chaise lounge listening to poetry while the palace harpist played softly. Naked dancing nymphs performed for him, slaves fanned him with exquisite peacock feathers and beautiful servant girls fed him cheese, pheasant, figs dipped in honey, meaty chestnuts and wine. A life of gluttony and pleasure suited Maximus; he was a well sated man.

Maximus became so fat, Labia refused to have sex with him. Even his concubines were repulsed by him but knew they had to do the deed or risk being executed. It got so bad, the poor girls resorted to pulling straws to see who would share their master’s bed. The ladies, however, had little to fear; most nights Maximus was so drunk he was in no condition to get it on.

It didn’t take long before Labia began spending more and more time away from the palace. She would go for long walks along the seashore with her beloved greyhounds, Laconia and Molossia. It was during one of those walks that Labia first laid eyes on the newest and most popular gladiator who recently transferred to Rome – Maximus Erectus.

He was quite a sight to behold, especially when exercising naked on the beach. To say that he was well-built was an understatement. Erectus was perfection from head to toe. Tall, blond and powerfully built, sinewy muscles rippled down his arms and legs and across his Herculean back and chest. He was broad-shouldered with a flat, rock-hard abdomen. His body was bronzed from the sun and glistened with sweat. He was one ripped Roman.

Labia stared transfixed at the spectacle before her; even the dogs sat in quiet attention. Finishing up his routine, Erectus ran toward the sea, jumped into the waves and swam for a while. When he came out, he spotted Labia standing on the beach watching him. Without any hesitation or embarrassment, he walked directly to her. Smiling broadly, he reached down and patted Laconia and Molossia, laughing as they responded by happily wagging their tails. Labia’s tail had already begun to wag.

The two struck up a conversation. All the while they were speaking Labia’s eyes kept drifting down toward Erectus’ magnificent member which seemed to take on a life of its own. When Labia mentioned she, too, enjoyed exercising and swimming, Erectus commented that she looked like she was in terrific shape and invited her to join him on the beach whenever she desired a partner.

Now, there’s no denying Labia had a few years on Erectus, but she was still firm and supple. She decided to join him on the beach the following week; it wasn’t long before the duo became partners in every way.

Labia packed her bags and left Maximus Gluteus for her new lover. Tossing everything into the golden chariot, she clicked her tongue and the team of Berbers trotted off. Labia laughed gaily as she shouted, “So long, you big fat ass!”

But Maximus Gluteus was too drunk to hear her.

Footnote: Emperor Sartorius had a dream that he would be overthrown. He consulted the wisest philosophers and dream interpreters who all agreed this would indeed be his fate. Fearing torture and a slow death at the hands of his enemies, Sartorius made it known that should such an uprising occur, Maximus Gluteus was to be summoned to execute him; he trusted Maximus would end his life as quickly and painlessly as possible. Sartorius was eventually overthrown and Maximus was called. However, since Labia had absconded with the golden chariot, Maximus had no choice but to travel to Sartorius’ palace on foot. Alas, his massive weight slowed him down so much, Maximus did not arrive in time to save Sartorius from an excrutiating death. Due to that unfortunate event, the expression “Lardum Asina” came about. Today we know it as “Lard Ass”.

NAR © 2021

.

IT WAS PARADISE

Eastern Long Island, New York. A little village called Montauk. “The End”, according to locals; drive to the tip of the peninsula, walk a few steps and you’re in the Atlantic Ocean. Can’t get much more east than that!

We first drove to Montauk in 1984 to a no-frills family motel right on the beach overlooking the ocean. “Let’s go out for a weekend. If we don’t like it, we won’t go back.” Famous last words.

It was paradise.

Step outside the sliding back door of the motel room and your toes disappear into the sand. Big pool full of sunburned people having the time of their lives. Huge towels and colorful umbrellas along the shore, saltwater mist sprayed by the balmy breeze, a dog running with a Frisbee in its mouth.

There was a pizza place and an ice cream joint constantly busy. Seemed like all the kids had sun-streaked blonde hair and bronze tans, feet perpetually covered in sand, happy as clams.

Drive five minutes west on ‘the stretch’ between Montauk and Amagansett to a place known simply as ‘LUNCH’ for a mouth-watering lobster roll or a platter of fried puffers and chips. Best meal ever.

At night little fires dotted the beach, kindling glowed and crackled. Kids pierced marshmallows with long sticks and stuck them in the flames for a gooey sweet treat you won’t eat again till the next summer.

That weekend trip in ’84 turned into 37 years of vacations, each one longer that the one before it. It’s been a couple of years since we’ve been able to get out to “The End” but we’ll be back.

It was paradise.

A lobster roll at Lunch

NAR © 2021

REVENGE IS SWEET

I don’t really think of myself as a thief; I’m more of what you’d call an “exchanger“. Has a nicer ring to it, doesn’t it?

See, here’s the deal: I take other people’s lunches from the refrigerators at work and replace them with mine. That’s not really stealing; it’s more like sharing without the other person knowing – kind of like a one-sided Secret Santa.

I’m a terrible cook. The staples in my house usually consist of protein bars, crackers, peanut butter, and microwave popcorn. Even if I could cook, I don’t make enough money in my nowhere job to stock up on the kinds of foods I like to eat.

My job is to deliver the mail to the different departments for the company where I work. There are 15 floors in the building and each floor has two kitchens where the employees can eat their lunch, so I have 30 refrigerators to look through every day. I’ve been doing this for a long time and it’s pretty easy to get away with if you do it right.

So far I’ve been lucky; I haven’t been nabbed taking anyone’s lunch. And, as I said, I always leave something in its place. Of course, it’s usually a protein bar or peanut butter on crackers but it’s something.

You wouldn’t believe some of the food people bring in for lunch – leftover veal parmigiana with pasta and salad, a nice piece of steak with vegetables, a giant roast beef sandwich – I’m talking real food! One day somebody brought in an entire rotisserie chicken with biscuits, mashed potatoes and gravy – the whole nine yards!

I’m not allowed to leave the mail cart unattended; I could lose my job over that. I put my meager lunch on the bottom rack of the mail cart and when no one’s around I go into one of the kitchens and make a quick switcheroo. I always have my water bottle with me so it just looks like I’m in the kitchen refilling my bottle. Unless someone is watching me, there’s no way to know it’s me swapping out the lunches.

The trick is not to look out of place which isn’t hard because no one ever pays attention to an insignificant nobody like me. I’m practically invisible. I’d be shocked if anyone at work knew my name. I’m just “the mail guy”.

I casually wheel the mail cart into the kitchen, snatch something from the fridge and fill my water bottle. I hightail it out of there, leave that floor and head to a different kitchen where I heat up my pilfered lunch. After that I walk to a park by the water. Lots of people eat at the park and nobody knows me. If it’s raining, then I just eat lunch in my old Dodge in the company parking garage. People are constantly coming and going in that garage so I’m just another face in the crowd

My second job at Bob’s Barbecue Pit is where I eat dinner. The pay isn’t great but Bob’s an okay guy; he knows we’re all struggling and he lets us eat for free.

On Friday everything went off without a hitch. I grabbed a lunch, skedaddled outta there and headed for the park. Lunch was great – turkey, Swiss and avocado on a roll, a bag of chips and the biggest brownie I’d ever seen. Just as I was about to toss my garbage, I noticed the name “Chris Phillips” on the bag. Thank you, Chris, for a delicious lunch!

I finished the afternoon rounds, then headed over The Pit but I wasn’t even half-way there when my stomach started churning and I began getting bad cramps. I knew I had to get to a bathroom fast so I decided to go home. I made it just in time! I had the worst diarrhea ever! I spent Friday night and Saturday in the bathroom and all of Sunday recuperating. That’s when I realized it had to be the brownie! I bet Chris took a chance that his lunch would be swiped and he loaded the brownie mix with Ex Lax.

That rat bastard! This called for retaliation!

All week long I thought about how I could get back at Chris, but was it really worth it?    

Maybe it was time for me to move on, try to find a better job, earn more money.

Or maybe I could find the perfect payback for that weasel Chris. After all – I do like my sweets and revenge is the sweetest of all!

NAR © 2021