Over the ridge, the yellow went red so fast Bud had to jam the brakes full force to stop the rig from smashing the sweet tail of a ruby â€˜Vette. He squinted through his cracked, muddy windshield at its Yoda bumper sticker and personalized plates, and wondered how big a CORUSCANT was.
52 words, including force and coruscant, for the Shapeshifters.Â
Dad and Mom stood over my hospital bed, hugging each other, their eyes wet with tears. The day weâ€™d dreamed of had finally arrived. They kept the details vague: A dental student had been hit by a train out in the suburbs, but his heart was feasible. The EMTs already had it on a Medevac. Mom and Dad talked like we had just won a sweepstakes.
The nurses whisked me off to pre-op faster than a bullet train.
The doctors said I was officially dead for four minutes. Four minutes. Minute one, the head surgeon severed my sick, sluggish heart, with a silver scalpel, carefully so as to leave the aorta intact, the vena cava repairable.
Hell was a high-speed Amtrack. I was standing in the vestibule waiting for my stop, and a conductor snuck up behind me.
â€œTicket, Miss,â€ he said without inflection. He was tall, black, and very handsome except for his flat New York accent.
I held out my one-way and he lifted it up to the light and paused with his hole-punch in midair. â€œYouâ€™re on the wrong train.â€ He had perfect teeth, so good they looked fake.
â€œNo, Iâ€™m not.â€
Minute two, the kind-eyed nurse lifted my old heart carefully from my gaping chest cavity into a sparkling stainless steel bowl held by the gangly assistant whose Afro strained his sky blue cap. He whisked it away and squirreled it in a jar of formaldehyde. My trophy.
â€œYou wanted Union, howâ€™d you get way out here in Aurora, girl?â€ The conductor butchered Aurora. â€œYou donâ€™t wanta be here. Next train ainâ€™t for three hours.â€
â€œIâ€™m not. I need to get to class,â€ I said.
â€œYouâ€™re going ta be lateÂ ‘less your classroom’s in a cornfield.â€ He laughed a long time like heâ€™d said something funny, but I didnâ€™t get it.
I stared at the passing farms, then I turned back and tried to snatch my ticket out of his hand.
He held it up too high for me to reach. â€œNah, this old thing wonâ€™t get you nowhere you need to be,â€ he said, shaking his head from side to side and reaching into his navy blue jacket pocket with his hole-punch hand. â€œLemme getchya a new one.â€
Minute three, nursing assistant number two, an older woman with serious blue eyes, held my pristine and glistening dental studentâ€™s heart at the ready and passed it delicately to the surgeon, who took a long look at the organ, holy grail of the surgery chamber, and deciphered its tubes and cavities.
â€œYou tryinâ€™ a get downtown, right. Ya need the Loop.â€ The conductor didnâ€™t ask. This wasnâ€™t a conversation. He was in charge, the fucker. The train was barreling down the tracks, probably over a hundred miles an hour now, too fast. Faster than trains could ever possibly go. The fields were reduced to black and white lines.
â€œI can help ya out, girl,â€ he said and pulled his hand out of his jacket. Instead of a hole punch, he held a silver pistol.
And minute four, my time with the devil winding down, the head surgeon laid my new heart inside my chest and six pairs of hands went to work at once, aligning, whip stitching, stapling, glomming on the hunk of muscle that would pull me back from the dark side.
â€œThisâ€™ll getchya right.â€ The conductor pointed the gun at my head.
I added this character twist to my new MC, inspired by a piece by author Patrick W. Gibson. Thanks for the inspiration, Patrick!
Chad came into my office wearing his full-length down coat that made him look like a walking sleeping bag. He pulled off his fur-trimmed hood to reveal movie-star hair.
â€œShift change,â€ he boomed, laying his snow-caked shovel on my desk.
â€œWatch it, man!â€ I yelled as I removed the shovel from the Johnsons’ paperwork. â€œDo you know how fucking long it took me to work up that sale?â€ I asked, but I must have sounded rhetorical â€˜cause Chad just sloshed past.
â€œLet me play you a sonata, Jimmy,â€ he said. â€œGet your boots on. I did the Prius row. You take the Camrys. You pass the torch to old man Zeke at 7. That gives you two hours. Spend it with your head up your ass for all I care, just donâ€™t mess with my tits.â€
â€œTits,â€ he signaled crudely with his hands to indicate a large pair of jugs. â€œYouâ€™ll see,â€ he winked.
I hated Chad.
â€œAnyhoo, leave the tits for the transport dudes. Give those poor slugs a laugh.â€
He disappeared into his office across the hall. Ours were absolutely identical, same breast-cancer awareness sticker on the soulless windows, same Formica desk, same dot matrix printer, even the same photograph of an old-time steam train on the wall. Somebody had a sense of humor around here, but I was still too new to know who.
I pulled my boots out from under the desk and slipped off my Italian leather loafers. Most ridiculous footwear on the planet, those loafers. Cost me more than a whole paycheck, and worst part was they werenâ€™t my only pair. Selling cars is half looks and half lies and the two are interchangeable. I pulled my coat out from behind the door, put it on, and grabbed the dripping shovel. It left a trail as I headed outside.
â€œEnjoy yourself, Jimmy boy,â€ Chad called from his office. He raised his Styrofoam cup as I passed. What a jackass.
Outside, Chad had shoveled a straight path to the Prius row, no mistake I’m sure. Heâ€™d left a perfect set of double-Ds on the first hood in the row, and one on the next, and the next, all the way down to the end. Nice.
I hadnâ€™t always wanted to sell Japanese cars at a dealership in the burbs, no way. Iâ€™d majored in finance thinking Iâ€™d get a job at a bank downtown, but my parentsâ€™ house had the gravity of a neodymium magnet. I couldnâ€™t escape the place. Downtown may as well have been Johannesburg. At least I was saving, and whenever I did manage to get out, Iâ€™d have a killer shoe collection. Mom and Dad wouldnâ€™t live forever, would they?
I shoveled between two Camrys and went to work cleaning the first hood, careful not to scratch the Blue Streak Metallic paint. Bastards would dock my pay for that. I worked my way around with the brush, then came back to scrape the hood. I moved on down the line to a Ruby Flare Pearl and a Midnight Black. I would have gone for the Blue Streak, but I donâ€™t drive Japanese. The old folks were crazy for the Parisian Night Pearl, and I worked my way through five of those. My fingers were popsicles by then, and I wanted to get back inside so I gave up on the scraping.
I cleared the hood of a Cosmic Gray Mica and I was working on the driverâ€™s side window when I saw something in the driverâ€™s seat. Something that looked suspiciously like someone. I finished cleaning the window and stuck my face up to the glass to get a better look. What I saw threw me back a few feet and I hopped around from foot to foot, hollering.
I breathed deep and tried the door. Course it popped open, no trouble. Old man Zeke was slumped against the black leather-trimmed seat, clearly departed. Worst part was his pants down around his knees. Whole thing undid me, and I turned away to puke in the snow.
I cleaned myself up and turned back to the Camry. Old Zeke had a lipstick print on his neck that filled in a lot of the blanks.
â€œYou kidding me, Zeke? A Camry? You should have gone for the Blue Streak, old man.â€
If you know me, then you know just how much I love car dealers.
Ghazi Aslam had a face like a pterodactyl, or so the guys at school told him. He compensated for his bad looks by taking good care of his teeth, covering as much of his face as he could with a beard, and working out until his chest took on the rough density and dimensions of a Gothic breastplate.
Ghazi looked in the mirror only once a week while he trimmed his beard, and he was okay with what he saw. He tried to be nice, plus he had a voice like an angel. His friend Keisha talked him into singing with her choir, and she assured him that the other members would be cool with a hawk-nose Muzzie â€˜slong as he brought his perfect tenor. He never let them down.
Aside from choir, Ghazi preferred it behind the scenes. He worked as a prep cook at a fusion joint downtown, 3 to 5:30 every day but Monday. That left him free for classes in the mornings and choir rehearsal Thursday evenings, and that worked for him. Ghazi was meticulous when it came to his job. He had his tasks broken down to a science, and arranged his time into five-minute-long segments. Spices were combined, onions chopped, lemons squeezed, shrimp peeled all by 3:20. About to set to work julienning carrots, Ghazi felt his phone buzz and the familiar opening chords of Danzigâ€™s Mother escaped from his front-left pocket. He chuckled and set down his knife.
Ghazi and his mom were close and he took her calls no matter the time. He slid his hand underneath his apron and reached into his left-front pocket. â€œHi, mom,â€ he said as he cradled the phone on his shoulder so he could continue to slice the carrots. He lifted the knife with his right hand and went to work on a carrot while he chatted with his mom. He was more attentive to the chopping than he was to the conversation. Later, the details of what his mom said would escape him.
At 3:27, Ghazi slid the julienned carrots into a bowl, cut off his mom, and said goodbye. Later, he clearly recalled that he had been bothered by the slip in his schedule. He stashed the phone back in his pocket and went to retrieve some herbs from the fridge. When he returned with the rosemary and thyme he was annoyed to find his best knife missing from its usual spot, parallel to the right-hand edge of his cutting board.
Ghazi spent two minutes searching unsuccessfully before he gave up and resorted to his paring knife to chop the herbs. He had time to make up. He moved to the stove and set about caramelizing onions and melting butter for a roux. He sang gospel songs while he worked, warming up his voice for rehearsal. Luckily, Ghazi was alone in the restaurant, so no one was there to jive him about his rendition of Amazing Grace. By the time Lisa rolled in at five to set up the dining room, Ghazi was back on schedule and had the stovetop laid out with bubbling saucepans.
He scoured for the lost knife one last time at ten after five, while he was cleaning his work station. It bothered him but there wasnâ€™t anything more he could do. He went over the menu with Yang, the chef, and hung up his apron. By 5:35, Ghazi was hopping onto the crowded rush hour train uptown to rehearsal. He chalked up the stares to his humongous schnozz and tried to smile whenever he met someoneâ€™s eyes.
At 5:55 he met Keisha with a hug outside the church. They went inside for rehearsal. Seconds later, old Mrs. Foster let out a shriek to wake the dead, and Sam Smith, ex-college linebacker and one of the choirâ€™s two baritones, tackled Ghazi to the worn red carpet of the chapel, yanking the butcherâ€™s knife from the back waistband of his jeans. Buff as he was, Ghazi didnâ€™t stand a chance against Sam, nor was he expecting to be attacked in church.
The cops tried to frame him as a misfit mommaâ€™s boy with a prophesy to fulfill and made him out to be an obsessive-compulsive.Whatever, Ghazi figured. He was just relieved to have located his misplaced knife.
â€œA ladyâ€™s gotta carry a pistol,â€ my grandmomma used to say. Grandmomma used to say lots of yimmer-yammer â€˜fore she passed on, God bless her. After she died, daddy got her all set up real nice over on the hill there up behind the house. I got her a real marble, inlaid headstone so everybody knows itâ€™s her theyâ€™re kneeling on, just like grandmomma wanted.
When she was livin’, grandmomma used to share lots of her gems up there in her kitchen. Sheâ€™d have me sittin at her table, a glass of sweet tea or lemonade on a doily by my wrist faster than I could say gotchya, and sheâ€™d be fixinâ€™ a sandwich more like than not. Sandwiches were her specialty.
I always brought grandmomma presents whenever I came up to visit. Nice vase of flowers, lilies like her name. Grandmomma always liked those even when she was livinâ€™. Iâ€™d bring her those cookies she liked with the chocolate icing inside, and weâ€™d have a talk. Really, grandmomma would be givinâ€™ me the third degree â€˜bout when I was gonna go on and finally get married, but at least her mouthâ€™d be movinâ€™ like it was a real conversation.
Course the first time I brought it by, she noticed my brand-new, cherry red Corvette outside. â€œWoo-ee! Where you gettinâ€™ the money for that spitfire, girlie?â€ Grandmomma demanded, juttinâ€™ out one hip under her apron with the little blue hearts, and clampinâ€™ her hand down on it like she was sixteen. â€œYou ainâ€™t got a husband I donâ€™t know about, do ya, darlinâ€™?â€
â€œNah, Grandmomma,â€ I told her, gulping down my lemonade so I didnâ€™t have to fill her in on my private business.
â€œI want an invitation to the weddinâ€™, ya hear,â€ she laughed, sitting down across from me. â€œNow ya know I just want ya to be happy, darlinâ€™. Ya know that, right?â€
â€œOf course, Grandmomma.â€
â€œSo whoâ€™s makinâ€™ the payment on that shiny red apple out there, girlie?â€
â€œMe, Grandmomma.â€ I didnâ€™t bother telling her I paid cash for the car. â€œHave some cookies, Grandmomma,â€ I opened the tin and pushed it over near her. She couldnâ€™t resist.
Nobody wants a crook for a grandbaby, â€˜specially if that grandbabyâ€™s a girl. Still, round here, people prefer mayhem to the cold, hard truth. Ainâ€™t no way I was gonna break my dear, sweet grandmommaâ€™s heart with the news that her favorite grandbabyâ€™s grown up and can take care of herself. I made more money in a month than daddy ever saw in one place.
Grandmomma had a lotta gems up there in her attic, but she never knew squat â€˜bout makinâ€™ rain, how a lady can make the bigwigs at a conference table blush just by shifting her thighs, how she can make the big shots fill her purse if she plays her cards right. Grandmomma wouldâ€™ve wrung my neck if Iâ€™d opened up, so she died not knowinâ€™. Itâ€™s too bad, â€˜cause she woulda laughed, too. And she probably woulda liked knowinâ€™ how right she was â€˜bout the pistol thing.