Since I was a little boy I have believed that showing off, tooting your own horn, or otherwise bragging was improper and unseemly. But …. Since a man as classy and esteemed as our President does this on a daily (minutely?) basis perhaps I can be forgiven one little lapse.

For the last three years I have entered the River City Reader Short Fiction contest. The real challenge is embodied by the word “short.” All pieces must be less than 300 words and incorporate a writing prompt from literature selected by the River City Reader editors. For most writers (who can’t shut up by their very nature) cutting a story to 300 words can be a real heartbreaker. Sometimes editing can feel like ripping the guts out of a beloved idea. It is good practice, though, and frequently results in a better product.

The first year I entered I got an honorable mention for my story A Hero – of a sort. Last year I did not place, but had my story Chicory printed on the Reader’s website. This year (drum roll please) …I WON! Amazing! Against obviously superior entries my little story called Checkmate got first place. I credit the clever title, suggested by my friend Gregg.

The story, I think, is about marriage. It is about the kind of loving, respectful, yet playful traditions that evolve in a long relationship. These little rituals become the cement which bond the couple together and strengthen both to allow them to weather life’s storms. This couple, both book lovers, obviously has a long history of arguing about literature and promoting their own favorite authors. This is one such episode.

2017 Short Fiction Contest Winners


Note: For those of you not familiar with the authors referenced, here is a little primer.

The first quote offered is from Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part II, Act 3. His retort that she is a “saucy minx” sounds a lot like Shakespeare and originates in that era but I couldn’t find any evidence that it was his. The most recent use of the term I know of is by Prime Minister Hugh Grant in one of my favorite movies, Love Actually, in reference to Margaret Thatcher.

The second quote is from Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms. The longer quote is better but I had to abbreviate it for the contest because 300 words is 300 words. It reads:

“If people bring so much courage to this world the world has to kill them to break them, so of course it kills them. The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places. But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry.”

It killed Hemingway, of course, which is referenced later in the story. He shot himself in 1961 with his favorite pigeon gun.

The third quote, “Women have served all these centuries as looking glasses reflecting the figure of man at twice its natural size,” is from the wonderful but troubled British writer Virginia Woolf. She authored Mrs. Dalloway, To the Lighthouse, and Waves. This quote comes from her brilliant essay A Room of One’s Own which argues the need for “room” for women in our male-dominated literary canon.

After struggling for many years with depression Woolf killed herself in 1941 by filling her coat pockets with stones and walking into the Ouse River in Sussex, England.

The last two quotes are from my favorite author, Mark Twain. The first is from A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court  which was one of the writing prompts for the contest. The second is from Extracts from Adam’s Diary which was Twain’s humorous take on Genesis. In the book Adam is at first perplexed and annoyed by the arrival of the first woman, Eve, finding her difficult to live with. Ultimately, he finds he cannot live without her.



by: Dustin Joy

She ran her arthritic fingers through his wispy hair. The infusion pump clicked. There was a far-off rattling of a candy striper’s cart.

His breathing suddenly ceased to be metronomic, punctuated now with little clearings of the throat.

She laid her book down. “You awake?” Silence. “Are you okay?”

He spoke without opening his eyes. “A man can die but once; we owe God a death.”

“You’re not dying. It’s a hernia.”

He groaned.

She laughed. “You thought you’d trip me up with … Shakespeare?”

“All right, you saucy minx.” His eyes opened slowly. “The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places.”

“Do you want some ice chips?”

“Ice chips? You’re stalling.”

“Please, you think I don’t recognize that old misogynist?”

“Papa Hemingway? Take that back or I swear I’ll relapse into my coma.”

She considered for a minute. “Women have served all these centuries as looking glasses reflecting the figure of man at twice its natural size.”

He smirked. “Well, Virginia Woolf says you’re not doing your job. And rocks in your pockets? A real man uses a shotgun”

“Your point being that Virginia Woolf wasn’t a real man?”

He stroked his chin. “Inherited ideas are a curious thing, and interesting to observe and examine.” He smiled wickedly. “Gotcha!”

“Nice try, but at least Twain was a feminist. He threw off inherited ideas and spoke for suffrage. How about you?”

She kissed him on the forehead and he sighed.

“Since I’m dying, do you want to hear my favorite Twain quote?” he asked. “It’s from Adam’s Diary.”

“Okay.” She looked intrigued, but wary.

“I see that I was mistaken about Eve; it is better to live outside the Garden with her than inside it without her.”

She smiled. “I like that one.”





I realize it’s been a few weeks since my last post. Given that one of my most recent blog posts concerned whether or not to continue blogging you might have guessed that you were finally rid of me. No such luck!

On the contrary, I’ve actually had some interesting things going on on the writing front. I’ve been working on a few new pieces for the blog, but also, get this, I seem to have actually sold my first piece of writing for real money. Well, I haven’t got the check in my hot little hand yet, but I have apparently had an article accepted for publication in Plane and Pilot magazine. I’m not quite sure which issue it will appear in but I’m pretty excited about it and hoping it leads to more in the future. We shall see.

Also, I’ve joined a writing group based in Muscatine called Writers on the Avenue. It is comprised of local writers, some amateurs, some with a number of publications under their belts, and all friendly and eager to hear each other’s work. We get together once a month and bring something we have written to read out loud. There are poets and comedy writers and essayists and novelists. It has been great fun, so far.

One of the most entertaining parts is a word challenge exercise. At the end of the meeting each member, in secret, writes down a word on a piece of paper. The words are collected and make up the challenge list for the next meeting. Each member is obliged to write an essay, article, poem, short-story, etc. incorporating each word from the list. It can be a bit of a challenge, especially when our local comedy writer contributes words like GOOSEGREASE. It is interesting to see what people do with the list. Some are very clever, indeed.

Below is my first attempt. It uses all the words. That’s about all I can say for it. Hopefully mine will get better over time. The quote I use later on in this short-story is from Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice and here is meant to give the protagonist hope that his hosts are good and thoughtful people. Our group leader, an English professor from the local community college, reminded me, however, just what a nasty little play M.O.V. was and that the speaker, Portia, hardly had clean hands when delivering these pretty words. Good point, I think. Though I still like the way it turns the anti-semitism of the play on it’s head a little bit here.





by: Dustin Joy

The kitchen was redolent with goosegrease when Emily opened the back door and beckoned Mark inside. The aroma of freshly baked rolls enveloped him. A big, stainless pot of potatoes churned on the rear burner of the antique gas stove and an old-style percolator gurgled softly on the front burner, a curl of steam starting to rise from it’s spout. The pies cooling on the counter, apple, sweet potato, and pumpkin, carried him back to his own Memaw’s kitchen, another place of warmth and pie.

Still, Mark had hesitated, reluctant to enter this old clapboard farmhouse, at the end of the sidewalk, at the end of the gravel road, at the end of Illinois. “The end of the world,” was what he thought. The end of their fledgling relationship seemed a distinct possibility.
Emily had told her grandparents that Mark was coming with her for Christmas, of course. She had assured them that he was a nice boy and a fine student, endowed with grit and gumption and good manners despite his big city origins. He was studying English literature at the University of Chicago.

Likewise, Emily had assured Mark that her people were, like her, warm and loving. They were not heartless racists with repulsive opinions despite their rural origins. The fact that sweet, beautiful Emily derived her DNA from them gave him hope, but not much confidence.

The long voyage down Interstate 55, his Prius a very small boat on this ocean of corn, had inspired in him an irrational dread. The presence of no fewer than four pickup trucks in the driveway seemed to affirm his fear, as had the tattered confederate flag he had glimpsed near a fallen-down barn a few miles down the road. He was not certain that he was the first African-American to visit this township, but he was pretty sure he was the first to cross this threshold.

Emily, a smart girl who understood well the genesis of his fears, patted Mark’s hand and reached up to give him a kiss. Then she disappeared down the short hallway past the classical cupboard with its bird-claw feet, the mahogany washstand with its ceramic pitcher, and the oak bookshelf with its ticking mantle clock.

Mark stood alone in the kitchen, rotating slowly in his apprehension and indecision, the prime meridian of his gaze taking in the pantry and the sink and the pot-bellied stove and the refrigerator covered in unfamiliar photos, save one. Then he saw, in the far corner, a framed needlepoint and below it a basset hound slumbering on a big, puffy pillow.
He approached the dog gently, and she, waking to his presence, raised her nose and nuzzled his outstretched palm. He patted her head gently as he read the little name tag attached to her collar – Portia. He smiled – a coincidence perhaps? Then his eyes were drawn to the needlepoint again. It was a quote, one he knew quite well, and from his favorite writer, too.

The quality of mercy is not strain’d,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes

“It’s going to be alright,” Mark thought. He stood and followed Emily down the hall.

Minor League Hero

With the news everyday seeming so much like fiction I thought I would take a break from that and offer you some of my own fiction again (whether you want it or not). This is a short story I call:


Minor League Hero

by: Dustin Joy

Superman has it made. You have to admit, being able to fly is the big one. Who wouldn’t give their left arm for that? Flying opens up so many other opportunities, too. Not riding in coach is just the tip of the iceberg. And cooler even than flying is that standing in midair shit. You want to impress a lady, I tell you, try knocking on her sixth story apartment window. She opens the curtain, and there you are leaning against an imaginary wall fifty feet in the air. Man, you know you’re getting laid.

But it’s not so easy being in the minor leagues. For those of us who can’t summon whales to do our bidding or run four hundred miles an hour, it’s hard to get any respect. We get no press at all. I even tried getting on Hollywood Squares once but Whoopie wouldn’t take my call. Her assistant said they already had Green Lantern for September and they didn’t want to get into a rut on the whole superhero thing. Green Lantern, for Christ’s sake?I’m not bitter, though. I still thank God every day for what I’ve got. It is a gift, you know. And it is good to know that I’m helping people. I mean that’s what it’s all about, anyway. Right?

All I ever wanted was to do good in this world. I should be happy, because I have more chance to make a difference than most people. When they print up my obit in the Journal Star I’ll probably get one of those two column things with a little picture, you know. That’s more than most folks. And I like what I do, you know. It’s not drudgery. I’m not working in a factory. I don’t pull the same drill press handle every day. I save lives. I stop criminals. I do just what Batman does, without all the hype.

Sometimes I think about when I was a kid, before I discovered my gift. It seemed to me then that my life stretched out before me like a great plain. I could see in all directions, and I could go in any direction. But as I got older, it seemed like I was coming up to a big forest. At first the trees came in patches, and I could travel at will among them and even through them. But the farther I progressed, the denser the patches became until finally each patch formed a solid wall. After a while the patches merged into a vast forest with a single trail, all other avenues having been blocked. When we’re kids anything is possible. You can be an actor, a doctor, an astronaut, maybe president. But every decision you make closes certain doors or, more accurately, leads you down a path toward other choices each more inevitable than the last.

Finding out I had super powers opened up a lot of doors for me. But it also narrowed my focus. It closed some doors, too. As Spiderman says, “with great power comes great responsibility.” If God grants you super powers you can’t just go out and become a custodian. It’s like spitting in God’s face. At least that’s what my Mom used to say. “God doesn’t pass out super powers just for the hell of it.” If he’s gonna let you defy the laws of physics there’s got to be a reason. That’s how my Mom saw it, anyway. She always thought of my power as a gift for all mankind. I just kind of thought He meant it for me because He liked me.

I discovered my gift the same way a lot of young superheroes do, while masturbating. That might strike you as strange, especially given my previous statement about the God-given quality of such things. It makes sense, though, if you think about it. Each super power is rooted in or augmented by strong emotion. The Hulk is the obvious example. He gets mad, “TaDa,” here’s the Hulk. You’ve even heard of regular people, what we call norms, who in times of great crisis find superhuman strength- a mother who experiences an adrenaline rush lifts the refrigerator off the little child. It happens.

My theory is that there are more superheroes in this world than we know, people who just haven’t discovered their powers or learned to control them. Aquaman thinks I’m full of shit on this, but I believe it. Look at Granny Power. She never discovered her abilities until the age of seventy. Weren’t they there all along? I think so. All her life she was winning at Bingo and she just thought she was lucky. It was only after deep introspection and careful observation that she realized she was manipulating the balls with her own mind. She started channeling her energies, went to Vegas, won enough to make herself financially independent, and put her gift to use fighting crime, crimes other than gambling fraud.

Anyway, superpowers are nearly always the result of electrochemical reactions in the body and mind. Strong emotion whips these chemicals into a froth. Hence, there you are, jacking off to your Debbie Gibson album cover, and, TaDa, all the light bulbs in the room blow out at once. Coincidence? You start thinking. Next day you’re helping your Dad in the shop and you hit your thumb with the hammer; all four tires on the car go flat. It’s things like that that clue you in. You don’t tell anyone, of course. They would think you’re nuts. And also, your folks would be horrified to learn about your self-abuse. So you quietly conduct some more experiments, with Debbie Gibson’s unwitting assistance. You discover that things blow up, break, crack, or otherwise destroy themselves every time you reach a, shall we say, emotional climax. Then it strikes you that maybe this thing can be controlled. Maybe it can be put to use.

Now, you can’t carry around pictures of Debbie Gibson while you’re fighting crime. It wouldn’t look right, even wearing big puffy pants. But you practice in other ways. You glare at the uncool corduroys your mom bought for you and you bear down with all your might like you were fixing to take a crap. They burst into flames. You learn, through hard work and perseverance how to control your gift. You learn, eventually, how to knock the bully on his ass from across the playground without bursting any blood vessels in your eyes.

See, it’s only half a gift from God; the other half is hard work. That’s why there are superpower bums out there. I know a guy who comes to the meetings sometimes who can locate lost keys and stuff just by talking to the person who lost them. But he doesn’t want to bother with it. I told him he could make a lot of money that way, finding people’s rings and things for a fee. But he just wants to watch Nascar and drink beer.

I’ve come to understand that. I mean, what does God want, anyway? He gives you this gift and everybody thinks you’re a freak. Sometimes you can make a good living out of it, sometimes not. Just look at Dittoman, able to burn the image of one page of information onto a fresh piece of paper placed below it. Here he’s doing alright, making a living, and wham, here comes Xerox and he’s on state aid. And even if God gives you a good one you’re still not making out like Bill Gates. Christ, Superman still has a day job. If God wanted to give you a real gift he’d give you an MBA from Harvard, or make your parents George and Barbra Bush. Sometimes you start to wonder if your gift is actually some kind of punishment, possibly for masturbating.

But you do your what you can and try to make the best of it. Once you learn to control your powers, you’ve got to learn how to apply them. You get a lot of thank you in this line of work but precious few stock options. I understand the sentiment of superheroes who just want to be left alone.

I guess I was about 15 when I first discovered my powers. I was just a normal kid, maybe a bit nerdy. Bookish is the word I like to use. But I played soccer, had some friends, the hots for Debbie Gibson. You know, regular kid. Then one day it all changed. I was in my bedroom alone, you know. As I was about to finish my, um, exercises I noticed some movement off to my left. I look over and here is a rock from my rock collection floating in mid air. As you might imagine, I was a little surprised. But as soon as I got a real good focus on the rock it fell to the floor. I wasn’t sure I had seen what I thought I saw. Eventually I forgot about it. A few weeks later, though, it happened again- same situation, same rock. Only this time the rock stayed in the air. I was dumbfounded. It was like something out of Close Encounters. I sat there with my hand on my wank looking at this floating rock. At first I assumed that I was witnessing the work of a poltergeist, which unnerved me mostly because that meant the poltergeist had been witnessing my work. In my absorption with the riddle of the rock, my hand fell still. The rock began to slowly descend toward the table. As my erection quickly subsided so did the rock, finally settling back into its place among the rest of the collection.

I sat in the semi-darkness of the room for what seemed like hours, staring at the rock and the spot in the air which it had occupied. I was literally petrified, certain that any poltergeist that could lift a rock could just as easily dash my brains out with said rock. For the next week, I spent hour upon hour in my room waiting for the rock to move, but it never did. Though I spent all day in the room I wasn’t about to sleep there. When my parents had gone to bed I snuck down to the laundry room and slept in a pile of linens, curled up against the dryer, badminton racquet in hand. For some reason I felt a badminton racquet was the proper weapon for use against a rock chucking poltergeist.

No matter how vigilant or distracted, however, it is impossible for a teenage boy to keep his hands off himself for long. I finally succumbed to my natural urges in the laundry room one night. All hell broke loose. As soon as I commenced to enjoy myself, cans of soda from the nearby shelf began to burst sending geysers of RC and Tab everywhere. I ran from the room in my birthday suit, dripping with soda and certain the poltergeist had found me again. What my father must have thought when I barreled into him in the hallway, I can’t say, but it is that incident which finally prompted the appointment with Dr. Marshall. It was in the psychotherapist’s office that I ultimately began to understand and control my gift. Dr. Marshall gave me a new perspective on my powers and my Dad helped Dr. Marshall pay off his Bentley. We were all winners.

In my life I haven’t been able to determine if God is kind and benevolent or petty and malicious. Einstein said God doesn’t play dice with the universe. Of course Einstein was mistaken about string theory, wasn’t he. And he didn’t really seem like someone who spent a lot of time around crap tables. My theory is that God has a lot to watch. I think he has about a billion worlds out there to keep him entertained. Once he sets one up and tinkers with it a bit I think he kind of loses interest. It’s like your closet full of junk at home. There’s your stamp collection, the snow skis, the paint by numbers thing, with easel, your wood-burning set, the treadmill. All held your interest for about a week and then you never looked at them again. I think that’s what God did to us. I think he set it all up, let there be light and whatnot, then just kind of got bored.

Sure the whole Garden of Eden thing was interesting: nudity, intrigue, betrayal, talking snakes. Even the rest of the Genesis days had their interesting points: deceit, murder, incest. But I think God had stuffed us in Mr. Whoopee’s closet before he even got through the begats. Since then it’s been kind of tough to get his attention. Hitler finally got noticed, but it sure took God a while to do something about him. I think by then he was watching his own little soap opera in the Andromeda Galaxy.

So despite my mother’s insistence that I was one of God’s chosen, I quickly came to the conclusion that I was the butt of one of God’s less funny jokes. As I learned more about my powers I became even more persuaded that God was the, well, the, shall we say, the Carrot Top of the, well, of the universe. My first frustration came when I tried to use my powers to levitate items other than my one particular rock and soda cans. No dice. Strain as I might and curse as Dr. Marshall would, I could not move wood, plastic, steel, copper, marble, oatmeal, or cotton. As it turns out the only things I have influence over are items composed of at least 18% aluminum by weight or rocks containing at least 37% bauxite ore. My powers were not quite as stunning as I had imagined.

Now some people would have accepted defeat at this point and used their powers to retrieve beer from the fridge while they watched Nascar. But whatever I have been in my life, I have not been a quitter. By this time I had settled on superhero as a vocation and no matter God’s plan I was going to parlay my meager gift into fame and universal renown. I had the ability to levitate, bend, melt, and otherwise rearrange the atoms in objects made of aluminum. That’s pretty darn cool if you think about it. Most people can’t do that. And if you think about it there are quite a few things in this world made of aluminum; some pretty cool stuff, in fact.

So I made a solemn vow that I would use my powers for good, to benefit all mankind. Now I needed a hook, a motif, and a name. Several suggested themselves. My friend Marcus proposed the Tin Man, which I thought summoned up negative comparisons with the “heartless” character of Oz fame, and after all, aluminum is not tin. They are separate elements, you know. Comparisons to Superman didn’t seem appropriate, either. “Man of Aluminum” just doesn’t turn on the chicks like “Man of Steel.” I put the moniker on hold and focused my attention on the modus operandi. To fight crime, you have to be able to use your powers to reduce felons to custody. In my mind that called for a weapon. But my weapon, obviously, had to be made of, you know, aluminum.

Fortunately for me aluminum is a fairly versatile metal and it is, contrary to popular belief, very strong for its weight. I considered a number of items: a gun which fired aluminum bullets. I could steer the bullets as they left the muzzle to hit targets even around corners. Alas, I lacked the intestinal fortitude to actually kill anyone, even bad guys. The gun was out.
Next I considered airplanes. Airplanes are made of aluminum. I could have a cool little jet like Wonder Woman. I could control it from the ground to locate terrorists and put out fires. Who knows? I quickly discovered that even the most paltry “little jet” was in the neighborhood of five million dollars, more than my weapon budget had allotted. I even appealed to the U.S. military for funds, expounding the benefits of my gift which could accrue to them if they would provide me the use of one of the Air Force’s spare “little jets.” The short-sighted bastards passed on the deal.

Ultimately, I had a friend of my father, who happened to be a competent machinist, fashion me a hammer out of aluminum. It was large, about the size of a mini sledge, and not unattractive. Sleek and silver, it glimmered as I piloted it across the sky. With it I could break things, deflect weapons, and knock the wind out of fleeing thugs without, in the process, killing them. The true mark of a superhero is, of course, the ability to render bad guys unconscious, not send them to hell.

Satisfied, if somewhat disappointed, in my weapon, I returned to the problem of a name. Marcus suggested that if I was still against Tin Man, that perhaps Tin Hammer would sound good, or even, perhaps Silver Hammer, since my weapon is, actually silver colored. But I felt that Silver Hammer still implied too much. Honesty is the best policy for a superhero and it struck me as vaguely dishonest to call my hammer silver because of its color when I knew, full well, that everyone would assume the hammer was made of silver.

Finally, I opted to eliminate the color altogether and I settled for a moniker that commanded attention and summoned up a manly image of power and stability. I became — THE HAMMER! In the headlines, at least. In the eyes of the State of Illinois I remain Martin T. Hammer, since the bureaucrat in the Secretary of State’s office required that my name change paperwork include a full first name and a middle initial.

To be a crime fighter, one needs to develop a close working relationship with the police. It does not do to leap onto the scene in your nifty periwinkle leotard and announce to the assembled law enforcement personnel surrounding the bank robber, “stand aside officers, I shall subdue this scoundrel!” A lot of prior legwork is required before that little give and take can be pulled of credibly. The first time I tried it I nearly got shot in the back by a Mattoon county sheriff’s deputy and ended up spending 72 hours in the pokey for aiding and abetting.

But I finally hit my stride after a few more false starts. My first unqualified success was a drug bust at a crack house in East Peoria. I had been hounding some cops I knew to let me ride around with them on patrol. They were skeptical, at first. I think it was the leotard. Anyway, I just kept hanging around the precinct getting people coffee and whatnot. Everyone has to start small, you know. I’d get to use my hammer here and there mostly to, you know, hammer stuff. And then one night, Sergeant Floyd Patterson, requested me as backup. Actually, I think he kind of said, “For Christ sake Martin shut up and get in the damn car. And for God’s sake put on some pants, you freak.” It was like that at first, you know. Cops are always like that, hard boiled and unrefined. And they’re always kidding each other like that, calling each other freaks and stuff.

We met up with other law enforcement officers from the metropolitan enforcement agency in the Wal-Mart parking lot and planned the approach to the crack house. I offered that I could knock on the front door dressed as a pizza delivery guy with my hammer neatly concealed in a pizza box. When they opened the box to get a slice of pepperoni, those thugs would get the comeuppance they so richly deserved a silver, er, aluminum hammer upside the head. Unfortunately my selfless offer was met with a barrage of paper cups and wadded up doughnut bags. In their defense, the cops were right to be cautious, never having witnessed my prowess with the hammer.

Finally, it was determined to knock down the door with the battering ram and toss in a stun grenade and some tear gas. Their solution was effective, I guess, but none too elegant. I told them so. Floyd told me to go sit in the car. I thought I had lost my opportunity. When we reached the crack house, though, my plan was vindicated, well, partly. Somebody forgot to bring the battering ram. My hammer carried the day as the door to that den of iniquity dissolved in a shower of splinters. It would have been even cooler if I had been swinging the hammer, instead of Officer Perkins.

Today I am well known and respected in crime-fighting circles, in and around Peoria. Whenever there is trouble in the tri-county area, The Hammer is there. When meth lab doors need opening, I’m there. When scofflaws tear down stop signs, I’m on the scene to nail new ones up. When the mayor’s cat gets caught in a tree, I’m there to knock that branch off the tree. I also stop the occasional high speed chase by knocking out the headlights of the felon’s getaway car. This works only at night, of course.

I have gained a degree of satisfaction from my work that most people only dream of. Sure, being a minor league hero can be mundane at times. If I have to knock icicles off the water tower again I’m gonna scream. But you don’t hear me complaining… much. I’m doing good work. The people shower me with adulation, well, appreciation, well …. Did I mention that I get a free cell phone? City hall picks up the tab. They were gonna have a big spotlight thing, projecting my trademark hammer symbol on the clouds, to alert me in time of need. But I kept responding to false alarms at Malcomb Chevy/ GEO when they were having a sale. Mr. Malcomb likes his spotlight and he’s got pull on the city council. So I got the cell phone. It’s really a good deal. I get unlimited night and weekend minutes.

I also get a salary from the city, even a per diem when I’m on loan to the Quad City or Rockford Police. The Mayor doesn’t mind if I take a tip or two from grateful crime victims as long as I declare it for my W2.

As for the ladies, I think they are a little intimidated by the whole Super Hero thing. They are obviously attracted to the leotard and cape. Men in uniform always draw women in. But then they make this nervous little laugh and keep their distance, all coy and shy. It’s really sweet. Unfortunately it doesn’t translate into much one on one action for The Hammer.

I try to be philosophical about my gift, if that’s what it is. I try to make my own luck, as they say. But on those cloudy days I will admit that I have my doubts. Maybe God plays tricks on all of us. Maybe his best one is this: He whispers in our ears that we are really something, that we are special, that we are superheroes even. He tells us we are right, and good, and noble of purpose. He leads us to believe that we are the hero of our own narrative. Only later do we see that he was just joking. He whispered something else about us into everyone else’s ears.


I recently entered, for the second time, the River City Reader’s short fiction contest. It is an interesting little challenge for someone who tends to go on and on and on in his writing. The challenge is to write a short story of 300 words or less incorporating a writing prompt from Iowa Author Ethan Canin. About 10 prompts were available, consisting of sentences plucked from Canin’s novels and short stories.

If you are a writer you will recognize that 300 words is not a lot to work with. New Yorker Fiction editor Deborah Treisman says stories in the magazine average about 2,000 – 10,000 words. To give you another idea of this limitation, the word magazine, in the last sentence, was the hundredth word in this introduction.

Last year my story A Hero of a Sort, heavily edited to make the 300 word limit, got honorable mention in the contest and was published in the Reader. This year I got honorable mention again and had my story published on the Reader’s website. While I can’t seem to break into the medals I have enjoyed the challenge and am considering some more short-short story ideas for my blog. Please enjoy here, a story I call Chicory, the first sentence of which is a prompt from Canin’s novel We Are Nighttime Travelers. My story was inspired by walks with my daughter (who is not handicapped) and my father’s devotion to this beautiful roadside flower.




by: Dustin Joy

My hand finds her fingers and grips them, bone and tendon, fragile things. She smiles and swings our two hands back and forth extravagantly. We walk together feeling the heat in the soles of our shoes as the blacktop gives up a day’s worth of stored up sunshine. I take baby steps. She can’t walk very far or very fast with her braces.

“What is that flower, Daddy?” She pauses to allow a honeybee’s evacuation and then bends at the waist until her nose touches the cornflower blue blossom at the side of the road. “It is sooooooo pretty.”

“That’s chicory.” I sound it out for her and she forms the word, “chick-ree.”

“It grows in the rocks, Daddy. It grows real pretty. It’s the bluest flower I ever saw. Isn’t it pretty?”

“Yes, it is sweetheart.”

She bends down again as if paying her respects to the chicory. She sniffs. “Why does it grow in the rocks, Daddy, and not in the garden with the other flowers?”

Our shadows lengthen, one long and one short.

“The prettiest flowers grow in the rocks, my dear.”

Now she grips my fingers, tendon and bone. We are all fragile things.

“Why, Daddy?”

“Nobody knows why, my dear. Nobody knows why.”

St. Louis Breakfast – What is their Story

I’m eating breakfast at a hotel in suburban St. Louis. It’s a pretty good breakfast with a lot of choices and possibly some real eggs (as opposed to the synthetic polymer common to such venues.) People of every different age, shape, and shade make up the morning clientele. At my one o’clock position is a young mother and her baby. The mother is wearing a St. Louis Cardinals jersey and is patiently handing the little pink-clad girl pieces of banana which the little girl carefully, almost fastidiously, places in her mouth and chews (or gums) until the next bite is ready. She is so quiet and absorbed in the work at hand that it startles me a little when her mother runs out of banana and the little girl looks up quizzically and says, “No more?”

At three o’clock is a girl’s soccer team all eating breakfast together. Kids’ teams are a hazard of the frequent hotel guest and I reflect that this team didn’t wake me up in the middle of the night running up and down the halls. I must say girl’s teams are not nearly the problem in this regard that boys teams are. The team of let’s say 14 year olds are so identical, with one exception, that you could almost believe they were sisters. All but one are thin and blond with long, carefully braided pony tails. Their heights don’t vary more than an inch among the six girls. They all sit the same way on their chairs, seem to have the same food on their plates (yogurt cups and a banana), and, of course, wear matching uniforms. The exception is a young girl in the team uniform who is several inches shorter than the average at the table, black-haired, and, I’m guessing, a Pacific islander. She, too, has the requisite yogurt cup and banana but doesn’t seem to converse with her teammates as the others are doing.

At ten o’clock there is a young bearded man (20ish) in a faded green T-shirt that reads “Roanoke Island Running Club.” He sits by himself but in a way that seems to indicate he is waiting for someone. On his right arm, partially covered by his short sleeve is a tattoo. It is some kind of odd looking bipedal creature whose head is obscured. My first guess is the Michelin Man. That would be odd, of course, unless the guy really has a tire fetish or something. The Stay-Puft Marshmallow man would also fit the bill, or perhaps the Pillsbury Dough Boy, but the tattoo is really not rounded enough for either of these. Finally, as he leans over to pick up a napkin he has dropped on the floor I see that it represents a person from a bomb squad in protective attire. I assess him to see if he looks like a soldier. He is certainly physically fit enough although the scraggly-looking beard suggests he has been out for some time if so.

To my left and facing the same way is a woman of about 60 with dyed black hair who is wearing a loose cotton pastel blouse and a short white skirt that would be eye-opening on a woman half her age. She is unselfconscious about her revealing attire and so I think this is a sort of uniform for her. She flirts briefly with the front desk clerk when he comes out from behind the desk to check something on the breakfast buffet. He blushes at some suggestion she makes that I cannot hear. I admire her a little for not acting her age but also feel a little embarrassed for her. Even at 46, I understand that I can only get away with so much in the “young at heart” department. I set off fireworks and “fell in” the creek on our farm over the 4th of July holiday, which is okay when I am playing with the kids but might be questioned if I was by myself. I don’t want to be old. I guess this lady feels the same way. One of the teenage soccer players gives her a withering look and waggles her pony-tail. “To hell with you, pony tail! Time will get you, too.”

My interest is drawn, necessarily, to a couple sitting directly in front of me on the other side of a small railing/ barrier which bisects the dining room. Their table is at right angles to mine but so close that it is almost as if I am sharing a table with them. Only the top of the barrier separates us. The man is older, maybe 65, and thin. He is lean in a way that suggests not only life-long wiriness but perhaps a recent struggle with, what, cancer maybe, or a heart valve problem. He doesn’t look ill now, but it is apparent that it wouldn’t require much to put him in the category “frail”. His hair, once black, is now shot through with grey and he wears a small, neatly trimmed grey mustache. He has a proud bearing and sits, with excellent posture, chewing his eggs. He is as white as white can be. His skin is thin and almost translucent in spots where it has been drawn tight, such as the bridge of his nose. He has the kind of prominent Adam’s apple that some thin men seem to have and it bobs up and down aggressively as he drinks his orange juice. Everything is dignified about this gentleman with the glaring exception of an impressively flamboyant Hawaiian print shirt. It becomes clear to me over the course of our time together that he did not choose the shirt but is wearing it for the benefit of his wife, who sits opposite him.

The wife is as different physically, almost, as can be. She is a short woman and heavy set. I guess that she is about 5’ 4’’ to his 6’ 2”. The term pear-shaped was invented for her it seems and the term stubby would easily apply to her arms, legs, fingers, and probably toes. She is, I’m pretty sure, Vietnamese, or perhaps Laotian.  She has a dark complexion. Whatever other physical characteristics she might have, or shortcomings for that matter, are overcome by an omnipresent and beautiful smile. The smile, and the lack of wrinkles on her face make her seem younger than she probably is. It seems to me that she must have been very pretty as a girl.

As they eat, they chat politely and I might say lovingly with each other about their trip. I do not catch all the details due to a group of noisy new arrivals to the breakfast buffet. I think they have been to a family gathering, maybe even a family reunion. She is solicitous of his every need, looking up from her breakfast at his least cough or clearing of the throat. She butters his English Muffin for him and, at length, produces one of those large pill cases which is divided into days of the week. She removes Thursday’s compliment of medicine, five large colorful capsules, and arranges them neatly beside his plate in what I understand to be an “order of consumption.” She solicits his advice and help with the toaster, even though it is clear to me that she knows how to do it just fine. All this she does for him, not dutifully, but lovingly. She wants him to be okay and she wants him to still feel relevant and valued.

It is clear that they have been married for many years as each of their respective moves is obviously anticipated by the other gratefully. He peels her slightly green banana for her, breaking the tough stem loose and pulling back a couple of the peels before handing it gently to her. At the same time, she hands him a cup of coffee into which she has poured one packet of sugar and a half a container (only half, mind you) of creamer. It is clear that this ritual is of long standing and represents one of those dollops of mortar which bind together a long and happy marriage.

The husband and wife consume their breakfast at half volume (compared to the other guests, anyway) and I find that I am struggling to eavesdrop on their murmured conversation. There is much I want to know. And since I can’t know my mind wanders into a game of “What is their story” much like I did in Philadelphia with the office window and with my son on the streets of Chicago. As they finish their breakfast my imagination intrudes itself into their quiet lives. Here is what I thought:

How did this odd couple meet and why are they so clearly devoted to each other? Time and familiarity can build a bond like this in some relationships just as it can lead to contempt and disgust in others. I think there is something deeper here though than just becoming acquainted with each other’s habits through long observation. There is a gratefulness to her devotion that seems to transcend the daily squabbles and work of marriage. And, though subtler than hers, his actions and clear adoration of her reveals that he still desires to be her “knight in shining armor” and would gladly hurl his pitiful frail body against a dragon if one showed up here in the St. Louis hotel. This couple’s relationship has, I think, been welded in the fire of adversity and they have clearly been through something difficult and traumatic together which is belied by their serene and mundane breakfast together.

Their Story

He was a young boy, living on a farm in southeast Minnesota in 1968, the year I was born. He was a strong boy, and handsome. Perhaps a bit on the tall and “gangly” side, he nevertheless possessed a bright and cheerful face and a quick and friendly smile. He liked hot rod cars and his Dad, who farmed about three hundred acres of corn and soybeans near Spring Valley, had given his “boy” a truckload of soybeans from the bin and told him to deliver it to the elevator, receive the check in his own name, cash it, and buy a 1964 Mustang he had been salivating for. This generosity was typical of his father but also the boy had been a good boy all his life. He did his homework, got good grades, was devoted to his mother and father, and worked hard on the farm. Driving the Mustang home he couldn’t help taking a circuitous route which looped past the homes of each of his high school buddies. When he got home, near the apex of joy which is possible for a young man, there was an envelope laying on the kitchen table with his name on it.

It’s not that he hadn’t thought about Viet Nam. Every boy in America his age had thought about Viet Nam. Actually, when he reflected on it later, there were very few thoughts about the future, at that point, or even the present which were not tangled up by the thorny vine of Viet Nam. It was ever present in his thoughts but somehow in the background, too. It was so abstract. Here was this place which he probably could not find on a map, where boys from Minnesota and Iowa and Wisconsin were going, against their will. And these innocent young farm boys and city kids too were killing people. They were killing people they had not given one thought to in their brief lives and also … they were being killed there.

In less than six months, his Mustang sat in a back corner of the barn with a tarp over it and he was in Hawaii, a place he had never been and had never thought much about. The serene and beautiful days there were short in number and he thought back on them many times in contrast to the foreign and sometimes ugly place he would later be.

What he discovered in Viet Nam was heat and humidity and boredom, at least for the first few months. Later he would discover noise – noise on a scale he had never imagined. He had thought nothing could match the discomfort and misery of baling hay in August in Minnesota. But the humidity in Saigon defeated even his vivid imagination. A cold shower gave just the briefest respite because almost as soon as the valve was shut off the heat bulldozed back in to rejoin the humidity of the shower stall. Doing any work at all caused a torrent of sweat to gush from every pore and, to add to the misery, it did not evaporate but simply wicked into his clothing to give him the sensation more of splashing around in a blood warm pool than walking. Riding fast in a jeep was some relief but there were few opportunities to do so in this teeming city and he found it unsatisfying when he did, comparing the experience with driving Minnesota highways in his Mustang. The boredom was palpable for the first few weeks in Saigon. The work was mind-numbing (filling sandbags, digging holes) and was punctuated by long periods of sitting around in the sun waiting for further pointless orders.

Sometimes change, even for the worse, can be a relief and when he got orders to climb aboard a chopper headed for the country’s interior he was almost glad for the opportunity to do “something else – anything else.” This feeling was short-lived, though, as too much of one thing, monotony, was quickly replaced by too much of another, fear.

The noise was a big part of the fear. It was ceaseless and stupefying. And there was an odd sense of disorientation with it since some of the noises were routine, and harmless; generators running full speed, jeeps racing back and forth, choppers, the clang of pots and pans in the mess hall. But intermixed with the drone of the mundane were sounds that would literally kill you, the scream of mortar rounds, the staccato “tat-tat-tat” of machine guns, and the deafening roar of the 155 mm howitzers. The boy spent a lot of time in base trying to morph in his mind the olive green jungle around him into the verdant rows of corn back home. He was not too successful.

Finally the day arrived when he was selected to go out on patrol to a village near the base. There was news that the Viet Cong had infiltrated the village and were using it as a staging point for recent attacks against the forward air base. The boy was scared, naturally. But again it seemed that change, any change, held an dark allure. He had stared at the jungle until his eyes were blurry on watch. He had listened to the noises, the noises, the noises, until he could not stand it anymore. He stepped up into the Huey with a sense of foreboding mixed with a sense of relief. Something might happen but something was better than nothing.

The village was tiny and sat out in the middle of a flat open plain of dried up rice paddies surrounded at a distance by dense jungle forming almost a wall at its edge. Low dikes broke up the landscape into an checkerboard pattern with the village of thatch-roofed huts in the center. This was a resettlement village and was home to about 150 peasants, 50 PF’s (Popular Front soldiers from the South Vietnamese Army), and 5 CAP’s. CAP’s were American soldiers assigned to the Combined Action Program. These soldiers lived in the village with the peasants and protected them and helped them with things like digging wells, repairing structures, and building dikes. They lived in fear and trepidation as the the little village was under constant attack from the communists massed in the jungle just to the north. The PF soldiers, while officially there to defend the village, were not from there and were not crack military troops. The American CAP’s would often hear rumors of communist attacks and in the morning find many of the PF’s had slipped away or hidden their uniforms to blend in with the local villagers in case the Viet Cong overran the village. When the attacks did come they were usually not straight up gun fights. They could take the form of mortar rounds suddenly landing all around them in the village, booby traps laid along paths during the night, or in one horrible case, a twelve year old boy heaving a hand grenade into the middle of the CAP’s as they were eating dinner. There were sometimes firefights and if the CAP’s were lucky enough to hear rumors of them from the local villagers, they could call in support from the local bases. This time the CAP’s had heard such rumors from credible sources and had noted that about a quarter of their PF’s had disappeared into the night. The boy’s unit was called in for the first time. It would not be the last.

As the choppers circled in a wide arc around the village, there was no sign that there was anything menacing at all here. The boy looked out, with great concentration, as the Huey settled onto a dike a few hundred feet from the outskirts of the village. For a few moments dirt and dust were everywhere in the air, churned up by the rotor downwash. The boy found himself shoved bodily out the door and onto the hot ground.

In a moment the chopper was gone, as he had been told it would be.  Lingering would have been suicide for the pilot and the gunner as such a target was a great temptation for the Viet Cong back in the trees. The boy gathered his weapon and backpack and used it to push himself into an upright position. When he did this and rubbed the dirt out of his eyes, the first thing they fell upon was the smiling countenance of a young Vietnamese girl. She was his age and she giggled as he brushed the dust off himself. He had never really believed in love at first sight but he knew then, instinctively and immediately, that the greatest thing he could aspire to for the rest of his life was to elicit this smile and this giggle from this girl. He blushed a vivid crimson which was not lost on his Lieutenant.

The girl took a couple of steps forward and held out her hands in which was a steaming cup of tea. She offered it to him and in very broken English said “Here sir, some tea for you.” He chuckled to think of the term “sir” applied to him who for months had only heard the words “scum, and maggot, and boy” applied liberally by his drill sergeant back in California. He dropped the pack and took the offering, a thin metal cup so hot that it must have been very uncomfortable for her hands to hold as she waited for him to make up his mind. The Lieutenant, another tall farm boy from Tipp City, Ohio, whom the boy had found to be friendly, likable, and approachable nodded at the girl and winked at the boy. “Your watch is 2200, why don’t you let her familiarize you with the village. It’s important that we fully understand what’s going on here and find out who we can trust.” The boy knew that the Lieutenant had already had a thorough debriefing by the CAP’s. The girl smiled even more broadly, if such a thing was possible, and beckoned for him to follow her to the common dining hut which the villagers, the PF’s and the CAP’s shared. She took his hand and the touch of her skin thrilled him as he had only experienced once before. He remembered now that he had been solely in the company of men for 65 days. This new sensation was a thing he could get used to. Through a strange alignment of the stars, he had an opportunity to do just that.

This village remained, for nearly four months, the target of Viet Cong threats. The CAP’s were far outnumbered by the communist strength in the nearby jungle. The PF’s assigned to the village were flighty and undependable. The boy’s platoon was called back time after time to stand guard over the village at night and make forays into the edge of the jungle to root out the Viet Cong. The boy, to the surprise of everyone except his Lieutenant, volunteered for this duty every time. Even the horrors of the jungle and what were increasingly suicidal patrols were insufficient to prevent him from spending time at the village. Four men he knew well were ambushed on such a patrol, their bodies found the next morning just yards from the edge of the tree line, riddled with bullets.

Occasionally he and several members of his platoon would stay in the village for a week at a time when the threats of attack were credible enough. He watched over the villagers paternally as they went about their subsistence farming. He played with the children and watched them play. And he watched over one hut in particular and was loathe to let it or its occupants out of his sight. When he was ordered back to the base at the end of such a deployment, he lingered and resisted, even begging his Lieutenant to let him stay on as a CAP. At length he would board the Huey and watch out the open door as long as he could until the little village merged into the dark green blur of the jungle passing below.

He hated leaving her and he hated the Viet Cong for starting this absurd war and he hated the other soldiers in his platoon who looked at the girl and saw something very different than he did. He almost punched one of the men, a loud-mouthed cocky son-of-a-bitch from Jackson, MS who had made a lewd remark about the girl. The Lieutenant had overheard the exchange and ordered the boy off to some made-up duty on the other side of the village. The next afternoon the son-of-a-bitch from Mississippi stepped on a booby-trap near the latrines and blew one of his legs completely and cleanly off and mangled the other grotesquely. After helping to load him onto the evac chopper, the boy hid behind the mess hall and cried.

Another day a single mortar shell came screaming out of a clear blue sky and exploded almost on top of a water buffalo and an old man trundling behind it through the rice paddy. The boy was only sixty feet away and when he ran to help the old man found that the bomb had done such a thorough job that he was unsure which bloody part belonged to the buffalo and which to the man. The old man, it turned out, was the girl’s uncle and when he told her about it her smile faded for the first time in his memory. Horrified at what he had done, he spent the rest of the day trying to rekindle that precious smile. At length he simply held her in his arms and squeezed her.

She did not smile again for days and he felt he would rather have spray painted graffiti on the Mona Lisa than have defiled that lovely life-giving smile of hers. He was finally able to coax it back with a little card trick he had learned in basic training but he felt, forever after, that this had been an unworthy, desperate, selfish thing for him to do. He had cajoled that smile, her smile, for his own purposes, because he needed to see it. Little did he know that she offered it up to him as a gift to assuage his sadness and guilt even though she had not yet felt ready to smile.

Nearing the end of his tour of duty the boy became distraught at the idea of returning to Minnesota and never seeing the girl again. He could not countenance the thought of her remaining in this village which would surely be overrun and the villagers massacred by the Viet Cong as traitors. She assured him she would be alright but he could tell that, once again, she was offering him up this fantasy as a gift. He conjured up increasingly implausible schemes by which he would spirit her off to Saigon in the back of a jeep under a tarp. He considered going AWOL and simply joining her in the village to await whatever fate dealt them. He could not imagine his world without her in it.

On his last deployment to the village he landed with a heavy heart and went directly to her family’s hut. She offered him tea and set by the fire with him talking for hours, sharing thoughts and dreams and fears.

Near dusk the boy heard a distant popping sound coming from the jungle to the north. He recognized this, immediately, as AK-47 fire and peered up over a low wall to see what he could see. What he saw sent a wave of fear and nausea through him. Advancing slowly across the  furthest rice paddies were hundreds of Viet Cong troops fearlessly and brazenly crossing open ground and headed for the village. He then heard the thump of mortars being fired from the trees and the earth twenty yards to their right suddenly exploded into a shower of dirt, rocks, and debris. The CAP’s raced to the machine guns and laid down a withering fire in the direction of the communists but it did not stop them.

The boy grabbed the portable radio set and the girl’s hand and they raced to the mess hall where he knew the Lieutenant to be. The Lieutenant emerged as they approached and with incredible composure took the radio set and began transmitting instructions and numbers to someone listening on the other end. The boy didn’t really understand what the Lieutenant was saying but he knew what the conversation was meant to result in. The lieutenant had called in an airstrike which meant the calm and collected officer thought the situation was dire. The boy grabbed the girl’s shoulders, looked her in the eye, and told her to return to her home and hide in the root cellar below the hut’s floor. She shook her head. He insisted and drug her that direction. She relented finally and ran for the hut. He followed her progress until she disappeared inside and then grabbed his M16 and knelt beside the CAP’s to hold off the attack until the planes could arrive. He wasn’t sure that was possible.

Despite the CAP’s steady fire the Viet Cong advanced, stepping over their dead comrades and coming on. Minutes seemed like hours to the boy as he replaced cartridge after cartridge and the barrel became a branding iron if touched. He was no longer thinking about the people he might be killing or even the possibility of being killed himself but only concerned that he hold off just long enough to protect the girl and her family.

When it seemed impossible to hold off the oncoming enemy any longer, he finally heard, off to the South, the screaming roar of two F-4 Phantom jets just above the trees and coming on fast. He hit the ground as the first unloaded its weapons seemingly just over his head. The bombs continued forward and down as the F-4’s streaked forward and up twisting rapidly to the left and disappearing into the clouds just as the napalm exploded all around him with a deafening roar. The enemy soldiers in front of him simply disappeared into the conflagration and as he rose unsteadily he turned around to find that much of the village had, too. One of the bombers had dropped its load a split second early and at least one or two napalm bombs had burst in the middle of the village, turning the nearby huts into an inferno.

He raced to the girl’s hut finding it fully engulfed in flames. He rushed in through the opening and unmindful of his own burns tore open the hatch leading down into the root cellar. The girl lay curled in the tiny space dazed but unhurt. The boy could see that her father and mother had not made it into the cellar but had been killed by the concussion of the explosion. The girl looked up into the eyes of the boy surrounded by wreckage and flames and smiled. He smiled back. He pulled off his coat and wrapped it around her, taking care to cover her head, not only to protect her from flames but also to protect her from a sight which might have lingered with her for the rest of her life. He picked her up and carried her out through the door of the hut just as it collapsed into a pile.

During the escape, the boy had been burned badly on his exposed arms and scalp. He fell to his knees near the flaming mess hall taking care that the girl not fall on the ground. When he looked at her again, he found her smile gone and replaced with a look of fear and concern focused on his chest. He looked down to find that his shirt was covered in blood apparently the result of shrapnel from one of the napalm bombs or mortar shells. He was suddenly dizzy and he slumped to the ground as the world went dark around him.

When the evac chopper arrived moments later, the rotor wash fanned the flames into a frenzy of searing heat. The Lieutenant, who had seen everything from near the machine gun emplacement, carried the boy like a rag doll to the landing site. He pushed the boy into the open door of the chopper where a medic went immediately to work on his wounds. Then, to her surprise, the Lieutenant whirled and grabbed the girl below her arms and boosted her into the chopper, too. The gunner, surprised and uncomprehending, objected to this Vietnamese girl’s presence and pushed her back toward the open door. The Lieutenant leaned in close and said something in the gunner’s ear which the girl could not hear. The gunner scowled and pulled the door closed with the girl still aboard. The chopper, seeming to struggle and beat at the air frantically, cleared a flaming palm tree and then soared into the fiery orange sky. Neither the girl nor the boy ever returned to the village and neither ever saw the Lieutenant again.

Back in St. Louis

As I finish my cereal and my reverie with the old couple’s lives I notice that the man in the Hawaiian shirt has paused in his chewing. He grimaces a little and I think he has started to choke. His wife, the girl from the chopper, looks worried and pushes back her chair, preparing to rush to his side. He winces again, swallows, and takes a drink of orange juice. Then he gives her a little thumbs-up sign and grins in a goofy sort of way. She smiles her wide smile and lays her little hand in his outstretched palm. No more words are exchanged that I can hear.

The soccer team gets up noisily and leaves. The little girl in pink has finished her breakfast and her mom picks her up. She looks quiet and thoughtful. Then she smiles. I would like to know more about all of them. I see these people every day in hotels and airports and on trains and busses and I get snippets of their conversations. As they pass I catch partial sentences and non-sequiturs. One day I heard a man on a cell phone at O’Hare say clearly and rather sternly to someone on the other end “that is the kind of thing that will get us put in prison!” He passed by and his conversation and his odd story continued and I never saw him again. That happens to me a hundred times a day in my line of work. So, I have to make up stories for them.

I had to leave to go catch my van to the airport. I never saw the old couple again and probably, barring some miracle, never will. Their story now is the one I made up for them. But whatever it was in real life I like to believe that their story continued and had a happy ending.

by: Dustin Joy

A True Story (with minor embellishment ) #2 – A Hero of a Sort

I was in the restroom at Wal-Mart. I was washing my hands. I was luxuriating in the warm water. It was a Wednesday, I think, and it was a good day. I was home from a four-day trip. I was off work. I did not have to rush. I did not have to answer questions. I did not have to please bosses or passengers or co-workers. I did not have to please anyone. I was not required to demonstrate my acumen or diligence or stick-to-it-ivness or people skills. And it was Christmastime! I had listened to Bing sing about a White Christmas and Elvis sing about a Blue Christmas and the Bare Naked Ladies sing about a Green Christmas. But I was having a beautiful brown Christmas and I was with my lovely wife and my brilliant little boy in the Mecca of American capitalism and I was feeling warm and beloved. And then the door opened.

And in stepped – a woman. She was not an attractive woman. She was plain. She was perhaps a woman who had suffered sadness and disappointment in her life due to her genetic plainness. And I know a thing or two about genetic plainness. She was middle aged- as I am myself. She was thick around the middle – as I am myself. She had streaks of gray in her dull brown hair- as I do myself. She had a worn and unstylish old brown coat. Okay, mine is blue.

And she was perplexed and embarrassed. I saw her perplexication immediately and I felt a surge of compassion and kinship with her. I have made mistakes before. I have been on the wrong end of bad decisions. I have struggled myself through this hard and challenging world of obstacles. I have suffered “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.”

I smiled. I smiled a wide winning smile as if to say that I would not contribute to her pain. I would not be one of those who had made fun of her in grade school or pushed her down in the playground. I would not mock her error or hold her up to ridicule. I smiled to say that I had forgiven her immediately. Her faux pas was a “no pas” in my book. She was off the hook. She needn’t have concerned herself even had I been standing at a urinal. Indeed I thought how much more delicious would have been my magnanimity had I been at a urinal. But she blushed. “I’m so sorry,” she stammered, puzzled and confused. And I, in my genuine magnanimity airily waved away her concern. “de nada,” I thought. “It was nothing,” I said, “I have done that many times,” which was a lie, but only a small one.

It felt so good to forgive her. This was perhaps the metaphorical cherry on the top of this already outstanding day. Not only was I warm and beloved and free from responsibility, I was a hero, of a sort. I was a good guy. I was a guy with enough confidence and savoir faire that I was above being an enforcer of social rules. This was her lucky day. She had barged into the right restroom at the best possible time. For, not only would she be alleviated of her embarrassment, she might gain, from my easy absolution, a new faith in her fellow man. And perhaps even a new faith in men, for I discerned, in a moment, that she had not always been treated well by the male of the species. “Your contrition is not wanted here, my lady,” I thought, but I could see she was contrite. She was used to cowering. She was used to wincing. She was used to masking her shame in nervous laughter and hidden tears.

“But not here,” I thought, “not in my restroom. Not today.” She affected a little bow and turned to leave much like a geisha backing out of a room. “Be not troubled,” I thought, “For all is well.” She looked relieved, or overwhelmed, or perhaps …nauseous? “No bigee,” I said, gesturing toward the door, “after you.”

I wadded my paper towel and launched it along a trajectory which intersected perfectly with the open garbage bin – nothing but air! And throwing my jacket over my outstretched arm and sucking in my gut just a little I pushed open the door and we walked out together- out of the ladies room.

The Embellishment: My coat was brown, too. And, okay, I missed the garbage can.


Postscript: This is one of my only pieces to ever be “published.” A shorter version of this got honorable mention in the River City Reader Short Fiction contest in 2013. I guess that somewhat diminishes its status as a True Story.


by: Dustin Joy