Category Archives: Original Stories

Decameron 2020: A Joke

A Joke
By Art Cerf

Three ghosts drift into a bar.

The ghostly bartender says “What will you have?”

The first ghost says, “A Corona.”

The second ghost says, “Me too.”

The bartender looks at the third ghost and says, “A corona?”

The third ghost says, “No thanks, I already had it.”

Decameron 2020: July 2021

July 2021
By Art Cerf

Sunset Behind the Wisconsin River. Wausau, Wis. April 2020. By Nathaniel Cerf

By now, billions of people, indeed, half the world’s population had succumbed to Covid-19a.

A year ago, people got tired of sheltering in place and ignored all the scientific warnings to stay in place and keep social distancing, much to the virus’s delight (if viruses can feel delight.).

Then in the fall, the virus mutated once again and became ten-twenty times more deadly and masks and PPE no longer worked.

Billions died…economies collapsed…governments fell. And of course, half of all the doctors, nurses, healthcare workers and scientists perished, too. There was no vaccine, and it looked like there wouldn’t be one.

On the other hand, skies hadn’t been this clean since farmlands in the 19th century. Rivers ran pollution-free. Animals on the endangered species list made a strong comeback. It was as if Mother Nature was cleansing the planet…of humans.

I walked back to my car, marveling at how I now could see the stars at night and how the earth had changed so.  If we survived this plague, would we learn any lessons about protecting the planet? I truly hoped so.

I was headed home and hoped to find an open gas station on the way. So many had closed. Still I only had less than a quarter of a tank full on my Hummer.

Decameron 2020: The Fencing Champion—Part 2

Among my many careers, I was a fencing portrait photographer. The following are photos I used as advertising and pose options. I own the copyright to all of them, so please don’t steal them, without permission.

Latching the floor cord to the D-ring just above Jill’s left hip, Dan took a moment to appreciate that he was standing in her shoes only 20 short years earlier.

When Jill finished plugging in her favorite electric foil that she named Annibelle the Cannibelle, she rushed to get to her en garde line and start the final bout of the women’s national foil tournament.

Seeing her haste, Dan grabbed her wrist and pulled her back to him.

The 18-year-old was bright and smiling from the joy of fencing for the title, but Dan could also see the nervous tension around her eyes. He had butterflies in his stomach, but he didn’t show it.

Placing his hands on her shoulders, he looked deeply into her brown eyes for a second before speaking.

“It feels just like yesterday that I was teaching some skinny little 11-year-old girl how to kick the asses of 2 17-year-old boys twice her size.”

She exhaled a laugh, and the tension left her face. “If they could see me now.”

“They’d shit their pants and be grateful you didn’t kill them.”

She laughed, again.

Now that her nerves were steadied, Dan helped her focus: “Don’t think about the title. Only think about the touch in the moment.”

She nodded.

“How are you going to beat this girl?”

“First, I’m going to figure out how the director calls right-of-way. Then, I’m going to test her distance, comfort zone and weaknesses.”

“Good,” Dan encouraged. “What else?”

“Fence for only 1-light touches. There’s no trusting the call on double-light actions,” Jill replied. “Oh, and listen to her coach give away her strategy.”

“Excellent,” he said. “What do you do if your attacks stop working?”

“Play defense.”

“And if your defense isn’t working?”

“Go on attack.”

“Perfect,” he said. “So, in other words, this is just a normal bout for you.”

She nodded.

“Good. Just keep in mind one more thing. Give yourself a little extra space until you know her reach and abilities. Never hesitate. You have the best instincts in the game. Trust yourself.”

“Got it, Coach.”

“Good. Stay grizzly.”

She gave him a low, menacing growl with a lop-sided grin.

He winked back at her. “You’re ready. Go kick her ass.”

Jill turned on her heel and strode confidently to her en garde line, her sweaty brown pony tail swaying with each step.

He watched her from the coach’s box like a proud father. Jill was not his daughter, but she had become very much like the daughter he never had.

***

Upon winning the silver medal at the national championship, Dan was more determined than ever to take home the gold. He trained like a man possessed. He won countless tournaments and defeated many world-class competitors, but, at the following national foil championship, he failed to make the semi-finals.

And so he would preserver in the years to come. Through bad romances and good, economic boom times and bust, his love of fencing never wavered. Back in college, he assumed adulthood would be glamorous. With a professional career would come professional paychecks that would finally pay for the travel and gear that he could not afford in college.

What he did not count on was that a professional career also required far more time out of his day. The more he succeeded at work, the less time he was able to devote to training. While he remained one of the most gifted naturals in the sport, the general effects of age and the inability to train and travel as much as in college cost him his dream of a national title.

Still devoted to the sport and fly-over country, Dan began helping out more at a local park district club, like where he first learned.

Fencing had changed over the years from a mostly adult sport to a mostly kid sport. On the circuit, 12-year-olds just getting into the sport were practically too old to have a chance. The kids who started at age 8 were nationally rated and winning major circuit events by age 12.

Teaching had moved on from classical fencing where students were taught all of the moves until they learned each to perfection and also taught how to think and react under pressure to teaching kids a few basics and then one or two power moves. The power moves were dominant and won tournaments, but the kids knew nothing else and became proud and arrogant in their ignorance.

Most flicking had been eliminated from the sport by stiffening the foil blades, but directors still based their calls almost entirely on footwork, regardless of the way the rules remained written.

Poor sportsmanship was promoted to appalling levels. Dominate young fencers were encouraged as young as 9 to create their own victory dances and war whoops after every touch scored. The days of fencers winning and losing with stoic grace, dignity and honor were long dead.

As Dan began teaching kids, he taught them the old ways. Realizing 90% of the kids he taught were only interested in living out their pirate and Jedi fantasies, he had fun with them, adding more advanced classes for the kids that actually wanted to learn something and try competition.

Dan didn’t remember meeting Jill. She was just another scrawny 11-year-old who was rather shy and quiet. He never really took notice of her until he noticed two of his nearly grown high school students going way too rough on her in the advanced class.

“What on earth are you guys doing over there?” Dan called out across the gym. He left the two younger kids he was helping.

One of the older boys stammered, “She wanted to fence us. She said for us not to go easy on her.”

Dan looked at him doubtfully and asked the girl.

“It’s true,” she agreed enthusiastically. “I’m tired of beating everybody else in the club. These are the only guys I can’t beat, and I want to learn what they’re doing that I can’t beat.”

“You mean you’re beating all of the other students?” he asked doubtfully.

“Haven’t you noticed?” she asked, hurt in her big, brown eyes.

Dan felt horribly because he hadn’t.

“Aren’t these guys hurting you?” he asked.

“Yeah, but it is the only way to see what they are doing so I can beat them.”

Dan looked at her thoughtfully, as she gazed up earnestly. Dan placed a hand on her shoulder and turned her away from the boys, and they walked a few steps.

Squatting in front of her he whispered, “You can’t beat them fencing them like they fence you. You’re too small.”

“I hate being little,” she said. “I can’t wait to grow up.”

“Are you kidding me?” Dan asked. “Being small and fast are the two best things for a fencer to be.”

“No, they’re not,” she dismissed him.

“Yes, they are. You have no target area to stab when you’re small,” he said. “Put your foil down and go en garde.”

She did, and, crouching down to her level, he went en garde, extended his right arm and index finger, gently poking her leading right shoulder.

“Now, extend your arm and finger.”

She did, poking him in the bicep.

“Who is going to win this fight this way?”

“You are,” she said.

“Now, how are you actually going to beat me?”

Jill thought a second and cautiously bent her arm, parried Dan’s arm—which he kept rigid—, stepped closer to him, resting his straight arm across her belly, extended her arm and finger and poked him in the right shoulder.

“Very good,” he said, genuinely impressed, as he stood back up. “You made yourself safe from the tip of my foil and put yourself in a position to stab me repeatedly with impunity. Go over there and kick those boys’ butts.”

Jill smiled and ran back to her en garde line.

Dan stood in the director’s position and loudly told the boys, “I want you to fence your best against Jill and not give her any easy touches. BUT, you also can’t fence to hurt her. There is no reason at your size and skill level that you can’t beat her without ever letting her get close enough to you that you even accidentally leave a mark.”

One of the boys volunteered to go first. Jill scored the first two touches and was beaming at Dan. She then lost 5-2, when the boy changed tactics. Still, that first boost of confidence was there and Jill dug in. At the end of a month, she was an even match against the older boys. At the end of two months, she dominated the boys, who were now taking special instructions from Dan on how to beat her.

Dan added more classes for the kids who wanted to go even further in competition. Plenty of boys and girls signed up, and the group gelled as a team, working together to always get better.

Over the years, several qualified for the national tournament.

Jill had been qualifying since she was 13. Now, at 18, she had gone as far into the championship as her coach, who was barely competing and mostly focusing on his students.

***

Jill snapped a sharp salute with earnest intensity, as her coach had before her.

When the director said go, both women rushed forward.

Jill’s much taller opponent suddenly dropped down with perfect poise and form, scoring a touch on Jill’s 8, just below her sword-arm elbow.

Jill replayed the move in her head. For as surprising and perfectly executed as the move was, Jill noticed the woman’s hips seemingly unhitch, as if she were double jointed. Then the opponent kicked with her front leg and pushed off her back leg, extending it completely until the contours of her left calf and thigh lay flat on the floor, her left bottom cheek smacked the floor and her right thigh angled up to her knee positioned directly over a shin that was perpendicular to the floor. The competitor’s torso was erect, right arm straight as an iron rod that was holding a 35-inch long foil. This woman gracefully covered 10 feet of ground from her back foot to the tip of her foil.

The entire maneuver didn’t take more than a second to execute. When her back side tapped the floor, it gave her the momentum she needed to pop back up into en garde.

Before the director called the point in her favor, the woman unleashed an ear-shattering, primal shriek of a victory cry.

Jill’s parents looked at Dan from the stands, mortified. Neither they nor most of the audience had ever seen a fencer move like that and sound so intimidating.

Dan nodded reassuringly to them.

“Taylor Swift!” is all he shouted to Jill.

Jill performed a little hand-flicking dance move from the “Shake It Off” video, as she reset herself on the en garde line.

Given how closely they listened to opposing coaches screaming and yelling at their fencers, Dan only spoke in code to his fencers at tournaments. He taught them to think and act for themselves. Jill’s little dance move told him she’d seen the woman’s hips unhitch and that she knew what to do.

When fencing resumed, both women rushed off the line. Two steps in, Jill stopped as the other woman’s hips unhitched. Jill waited for what felt like an eternity, as she let her opponent overcommit to the attack. Once the shrieker’s arm was extended, Jill swept down for an almost clumsy parry 8, riposting for a touch in the middle of the opponent’s chest.

Jill was soundless and expressionless, her actions were more intimidating than any screaming.

Dan clapped three loud, rapid times, indicating nice touch. Get back to work.

Jill’s opponent looked back at her coach a little nervously. Nobody had previously denied her the long-lunge touch in 8. Jill heard him tell her to switch attacks, and she knew what was coming.

When her opponent rushed her, sword windmilling counter clockwise, Jill waited, feigned a parry, retreated a couple steps and picked off the attack with ease, riposting and then parrying one last time to guarantee 1 light.

2-1 Jill.

Clearly, this was the shrieker’s second favorite attack, as she did it again. Jill easily defeated it.

3-1 Jill.

The attack came again, but this time Jill skipped a step in her defense. The opponent landed and shrieked.

3-2.

“Don’t get overconfident,” is all Dan told Jill.

Emboldened, the shrieker renewed her efforts with the same attack. Jill recovered her form and defended it easily.

4-2.

Not willing to believe Jill, of Fly-Over Country, could beat her special moves, the opponent asked the director if she could test her foil on Jill. Both acquiesced, and the equipment worked perfectly.

The opponent’s coach was furious with the shrieker, yelling at her to change the direction of the attacks.

The shrieker tried three more attacks from the opposite direction. Jill was waiting for them, and when the first 3-minute period of play came to an end, she was up 7-2.

Jill swaggered over to her coach for the 1-minute break.

“Stop right there!” he reprimanded, handing her her favorite sports drink. “You’ve got nothing to strut about, yet. Right now her coach is plotting your demise, and she didn’t get this far by giving up. What do you think he’s telling her?”

“Play defense,” Jill said, sobering up.

“Right,” Dan said, softening.

“What should I do?”

“Well, do you want to try winning by risking running the time out or by mopping the floor with her dirty-blonde head?”

“Mopping,” she said, with a grim set to her jawline.

“Give her a dose of her own medicine. Finish her off before this period ends. Don’t give her time to think.”

The director called the end of the break.

Jill took a last swig.

“If you’re in such a hurry, old man, you better start filling that bucket with soap and water,” she called back to him, making her way to her en garde line.

Dan loved her moxie, but he hoped it wasn’t overconfidence.

When he saw Jill blaze across the strip, windmilling and flicking with a hard shot to the stomach, he knew Jill was focused and playing for blood. 8-2.

The next attempt had her opponent ready. Another shriek and it was 8-3.

“You’re a shark,” Dan shouted, letting Jill know she froze her feet at the end of her failed attack. After all, sharks and fencers have one thing in common, when they stop moving, they die.

Re-invigorated by the parry-riposte touch she just earned, Jill’s opponent went back to her own windmill attack. Jill was waiting for it. 9-3.

“Crazy Monkey!” Dan called out.

The Crazy Monkey attack was Jill’s own invention. It took the windmill attacks that were so popular to a whole new level. She could land the tip on all four corners of the body and on the back by windmilling, which all top fencers could do. Her special ability was to keep moving forward and reversing the windmill in a heartbeat while also stutter-stepping to throw off the timing of the attack…or more specifically, throwing off the timing of the defense, allowing Jill enough time to pick where she wanted to most safely land. To make it harder to defend, Jill would also change her height from normal to low to up on her tip toes, never stopping forward progression and losing right-of way. It was extremely difficult to parry, until you got used to it.

Jill’s opponent fought with desperation, hypnotized by Jill’s elusive foil point that connected with her again and again.

It was 12-3 now, and Jill was so locked into the zone, she couldn’t hear the spectators. She could barely hear the director. She couldn’t even hear Dan.

As she began running down her opponent on the next action, she noticed the woman backing up far earlier than previously. That’s when she spotted the woman unhitching her hips.

Although it wasn’t what she planned on in her attack, Jill was so focused, she didn’t hesitate to press on, sweep a parry 8, bind her opponent’s blade and throw the entire weapon out of her opponent’s hand before dropping in to lunge dead center on the shrieker’s sternum.

Jill held her lunge for effect, and her opponent stood dumbfounded.

The crowd roared at the thrill of the site. 13-3.

Jill was so focused, she didn’t hear the crowd. She didn’t hear the director. She stalked back to her en garde line, lost in her own thoughts of strategy.

Dan saw it the instant the foil flew out of the hand of the woman across from him.

Jill didn’t see it until after resetting en garde. As her tall adversary tugged at the body cord by her hip to pull her foil back to her hand, Jill could tell she had broken her opponent’s spirit.

For a true warrior, it is both a beautiful site and a little sad. It is fun to be a lion and take down a wildebeest. Yet, there is little joy in putting down a whimpering wounded animal.

“Stay grizzly,” Dan warned. Jill looked back and growled. All he could see were big white teeth behind her black-mesh mask.

Jill made solid attacks that were responsibly cautious, given that her rival was no longer putting up much of an obvious fight. It was quite anti-climactic.

When the director awarded Jill the 15th touch, Jill trotted back to her line, gave a sincere, crisp salute and walked up to her opponent for a customary handshake and whispered, “Good game.”

To the dismay of the fencing officials, Jill never shouted, danced or screamed. She didn’t need to rub it in, as her opponent wept at the side of the strip.

Wearing the biggest grin he had ever seen, Jill swaggered back to her coach, joy radiating. He offered her his customary high five, and she wrapped him in a bear hug.

He hugged her back, picked her up and swung her around. They were then mobbed by her family and teammates.

After the awards and photos, when things started to calm down, Dan asked to hold her medal.

He looked over the enameled front and read the inscription on the back. It wasn’t real gold, but he stared at it wistfully, as he hefted it.

“Thank you,” Jill said. “I never could have done it without you.”

“Nonsense,” he said, looking up at her with a wan smile. “All I said were silly things like ‘Be a shark,’ and “Taylor Swift.'”

“No,” she softly protested. “You took me all the way to the finish line.”

He shook his head. “I shined a flashlight down the path for you. You did all of the work, and I couldn’t be more proud of you.”

She attempted to say something, but Dan held up his hand to stop her.

“I’ve been chasing this damned thing all my life,” he said, as he gently placed the ribbon back around her neck. “And I have to admit that it makes me ten times happier to see it on you than on me.”

AUTHOR’S NOTE: I also never coached any national champions. The passion, strategy, changes and sensations in this story are all true. Fencing has given me 25 years of joy, which I hope I passed on to my students…and maybe you, with these stories. In the event you want to learn, you are never too old to start. Although I’m taking a break from the sport for a little while, I hope to be fencing into my 70s, like my mentor, the great Jack Warner of Spokane, Wash., not Hollywood. If he is still with us today, he’d be about 95 or so years old. Yet, at age 70, with 50 years of fencing under his belt, he’d mop the floor with us cocky 20-somethings who foolishly believed their youth would destroy his experience and strategy. Special thanks goes out to him, Blue-Hair Cathy, Maria D. and Bakhyt for teaching me so much as a competitor and Tracy for teaching me so much as a coach…and to all the many other wonderful friends, teammates and students along the way. It might not sound possible, but you are all the best.

Decameron 2020: The Fencing Champion—Part 1

This is me on the left with my University of Montana fencing mates after we had just kicked the asses of our arch rivals at Montana State…on their turf.

Snapping a crisp salute by bringing his foil blade parallel to his unmasked face—inches from his nose—Dan’s grey eyes sharply gazed upon his opponent across the strip.

It was the final round of the men’s foil championship, and the winner would earn the national title.

Dan’s opponent returned a half-hearted salute without eye contact. It was dismissive and derisive of not only Dan but the moment.

This wasn’t another bout. This was the culmination of a lifetime of drills, learned strategy, conditioning, tournaments and the climax of a day of the most intense swordfighting against the best fencers in the country.

Both men were in peak condition and bone weary. Tired as he might be, Dan was elated to be 15 touches away from the national title. It was his life’s dream and sole desire since he started fencing in high school. He couldn’t wait to cram that weak salute down his opponent’s throat.

The director of the bout called the fencers to “en garde” and began the first of 3, 3-minute periods to 15 touches.

Only a junior in college, Dan understood he was fencing two opponents simultaneously: the man with the foil across from him and the bout director serving as referee.

Although the governing body of the sport in the U.S. rarely admitted it, Dan understood that no two directors interpreted the rulebook the same way, nor did they usually call the rules as they were written. As he hadn’t seen this director all day, Dan decided to take the first couple touches to learn his director’s style of rule interpretation.

His opponent obliged in the most comically sloppy way—a blazing running attack, his arm raised and cocked so far back that the electronic tip on the foil aimed at the wall behind the running fencer, 180-degrees in the opposite direction of Dan.

Dan held his ground and extended his sword arm at the center of his opponent’s exposed chest. The opponent impaled himself, and then flicked his own foil over Dan’s shoulder, landing a touch perfectly at the center of Dan’s back, which was a valid target.

20 years later, some of us UM fencers reunited for an evening of laughs and impalements.

Both men’s scoring lights and buzzers went off, registering valid touches. It was up to the director to decide.

Any spectator could see that in a real duel Dan would have run through his opponent’s heart, without so much as a scratch of damage to himself.

Yet, this was the 1990s, and even though the rulebook still declared the all-important rule of right-of-way as the first person to extend his or her weapon arm and threaten his or her opponent’s valid target area would have right-of-way and win the point if both fencers scored valid touches at the same time, the director ruled in favor of the now-smug opponent. Dan knew from experience that it was because the other fencer moved his feet first, even though he withdrew not only his arm but his entire foil behind his head. It was a flashier move, and after the 1980s, style always trumped substance.

A purist devotee of the sport, Dan hated the ruling, but he smiled because it only cost him one touch to learn how the rest of the bout needed to be fought.

His rival attacked three more times the same way. Three more times, Dan extended…BUT…at the last possible instant retreated 2 quick little steps, raised his arm and sword into a high tierce parry, dropping his foil back down, ever so gently tapping the electronic button on the tip of his foil into his opponent’s chest in riposte. In the psychological warfare of the moment, Dan said a cheery little “Bink” with each tap, fearlessly antagonizing his opponent.

Stripped of his primary attack, the flick artist wisely held back when fencing resumed. His goal was to draw Dan out to play offense and see if he could handle reverse roles.

With the 3-1 lead in his favor, Dan could afford to run down the clock, but that was hardly honorable, nor the way he wanted to win. The only way to have satisfaction would be a 15-point victory or go down trying.

Dan was a classically trained fencer, and he preferred outwitting his opponents and dominating conversations of blades instead of all-or-nothing power attacks. His first attack was really a cagey defensive maneuver testing both his opponent and his director.

Dan rushed his opponent with perfect footwork and a simple lunge that he knew his opponent could easily defend. Although he triggered the flicker’s defenses, Dan deliberately fell 1 inch short. This allowed Dan to witness his rival’s reaction time and motions, while giving Dan all the time he needed to retreat gracefully out of the way and counterparry-riposte for the point. As an afterthought, Dan’s opponent reached out and tagged Dan without any right-of-way in a move called a remise.

Two valid hit lights went off, and the director called the point for Dan’s opponent without any hesitation.

Disappointed, Dan wasn’t surprised. He knew he had the fastest, tightest parry-riposte reflex in the country and quite possibly the world. This was far from the first director to miss it.

Okay, Dan thought, I’ll just need to make my actions cleaner to the director with a little more style and panache.

Across the strip, Dan heard a little “Bink” in rebuke.

Surprising his opponent, Dan reacted with a deep and genuine laugh that forced him to cock his head back like a defiant Errol Flynn.

Game on, he thought.

In the resumption of play, Dan repeated every move perfectly—only this time holding his opponent’s blade in a slightly prolonged proof of parry before riposting.

Again, the director called the point in favor of the opponent’s remise.

One more time Dan executed to perfection, only parrying his opponent’s blade to the floor where Dan trapped it, made eye contact with the director and then riposted his opponent.

Again, the director credited his opponent’s remise. 3-4 in favor of the opponent.

Dan inhaled sharply and let it out slowly, as he walked back to his en garde line. With another deep breath, he collected himself. There was no such thing as an instant replay in fencing then and he thought to himself, Not at this level.

Then he rationalized, Especially at this level, you idiot.

Dan came to the sport of fencing only a few years earlier. Attending a local park district class in high school and then an extracurricular group at his university, Dan was from what the governing body of the sport and the elites from New York and California callously dismissed as fly-over country.

There were no former Olympians watching over his young career. He was a natural, and he loved the sport. He had an insatiable hunger to prove himself to be the best. His friends would never have considered him an athlete. He was a slow runner and didn’t like team sports. In school, he was a brain. He loved academics.

It was his brain that loved the sport so much, as it was a sport where the physically strongest fencer rarely won. The smartest fencer usually did.

He only enjoyed the conditioning and drills because they allowed his body to do whatever his brain commanded. Unlike so many fencers, he studied the sport inside and out from its history to obsessing over each opponent’s every move and nuance, memorizing them for each future tournament. His memory was deep and agile enough to recall the most minute details about an action and reaction on the strip. If he lost a bout, he always asked his opponents what they did to beat him. Some people might have thought him arrogant, but he wasn’t. He was a sponge constantly learning and very accepting of his own weaknesses, as only they showed him how much more he had to learn and perfect.

In college, the upperclassmen soon taught him everything they knew. He returned the favor by analyzing the team’s performance and creating new drills based on the moves their opponents beat them with. Everybody contributed equally as best they could, and they had the time of their lives together, traveling and competing, working as hard as they could to get better. Dan was so obsessed with the sport he began examining all of his classes for better ways to understand fencing through the lenses of psychology, philosophy, literature, science and more.

Dan improved so quickly that he came to love losing, as it meant there was more to be learned and do better against. The only thing he really hated was losing to bad officiating.

Nevertheless, to prove himself as good as he wanted, he refused to lay all the blame for an “officiating loss” on the director. If he truly wanted to be as good as he could be, that meant he couldn’t give them an excuse to deny his greatness.

With the bout now 4 to 3 against him, Dan realized that this director was never going to award any double-lighted actions in his favor, no matter how well he executed his maneuvers. There was an unspoken bias for fencers from elite academies over nobodies out of nowhere. Only making the task at hand more challenging, and, ultimately, more rewarding, Dan bore down with gritty determination. From this moment forward, he could only engage with actions that guaranteed a one-light resolution in his favor.

His opponent might have been a dismissive snob from an elite New York fencing academy, but Dan had to credit the man with being an amazingly talented competitor.

Together over the next three periods of fencing, they darted, lunged and entwined like rattlesnakes fighting over a mate, immune to one another’s venom.

Dan didn’t win a single point on a parry-riposte exchange that ended with two lights, but he listened to his opponent’s coach’s instructions. More than half the time, the coach gave away his student’s next move, setting up Dan for an easy touch.

As they made their way to a 14-14 tie, Dan discovered his rival’s greatest weakness. He had trouble defending a quadrant of his body fencers refer to as the 8—the rib cage just under this right-handed fencer’s sword-hand elbow.

Dan scored two touches there before realizing what an Achille’s heel it was. He refused to exploit the weakness immediately because he needed an ace to fall back on if he found himself in this very situation.

Chests heaving, their lungs incapable of sucking enough oxygen, uniforms sopped in sweat and muscles fading, both men had reach absolute exhaustion with one touch to go.

Dan gave a little hop at his en garde line, trying to psyche his opponent into thinking he had more energy than he did.

The director gave the command to fight.

Dan fleetly covered the ground between them, measured clockwise circles of his blade timed to his footfalls.

Feigning high toward his opponent’s left shoulder, Dan drew the parry response he wanted. Dan then cut down to the open space below his opponent’s elbow and lunged. His opponent knew Dan had him and freaked out, starting a late counter attack with no right of way. Dan timed his move so well that when his tip hit his opponent’s ribs, it would time out the scoring equipment.

Euphoria flooded Dan’s body for a nano-beat of a time, as he realized he was about to become the national champion.

It seemed like a lifetime of waiting for the point to strike home, and then he recognized his incomplete muscle control from exhaustion.

Dan’s tip was skewing wide. Trying desperately to redirect it into his opponent’s torso, Dan couldn’t override the momentum of his attack.

Time slowed in his whirring head, as his foil missed by less than an inch and his opponent’s act of desperation landed on his uniform.

To the world outside Dan’s mind, it all happened in the blink of an eye.

Dan’s opponent drown out the director’s final call by screaming, fist pumping and dancing about his half of the strip in the worst display of sportsmanship Dan had ever seen…though the governing body of the sport encouraged, as it looked more exciting to the cameras not yet covering the sport.

Determined to lose with as much grace and dignity as he intended to win, Dan blocked out his emotions, returned to his en garde line, removed his safety mask and snapped a crisp salute—his foil inches from his nose—and held it until his opponent finally made eye contact.

AUTHOR’S NOTE: Many of you know I was actively involved in the sport of fencing for 25 years. While the truths of the sport are valid in this story, this story was in no way autobiographical. I was never close to a national title. The best I ever did was 25th out of 200 at the 2001 U.S. Nationals in Div. 3 Men’s Foil. I lost to an elite NYC fencer, and he was actually the nicest guy I met all day, and he went on to take the title. That isn’t to say there aren’t a lot of elite fencers with attitude problems. A future (now former) olympian once brazenly mocked one of my students and cruelly rubbed in her 15 to 1 victory, even though my student was never going to be a threat to her under any circumstances. To my former student’s credit, she cheered on said olympian at the following summer games.

Decameron 2020: Carlotta

Carlotta
By Art Cerf

Carlotta was a killer. Ruthless, relentless and no regrets.

She had been that way it seems forever, and she never considered being anything else. And if she had children, she assumed that they would be killers, too.

And she showed no bigotry in selecting her victims, black or white, rich or poor, Christian, Muslim or Jew.

She had her next victim in sight. Sure, he carried a wicked-looking pocket knife and a concealed carry Glock but to no avail.

She’s simply sneak into his office or home and hide, waiting for him to accidentally brush against her.

Carlotta, the killer…virus.

Decameron 2020: The Taste of Brown

The Taste of Brown
By Nancy Bach

This White-Breasted Nuthatch in its tree-hole nest has nothing to do with the story. Stories just seem to get more attention with photos.

Crouched in the humid, smothering darkness, Magda Zeller examined the dead thing. It lay buried in a shallow trench at the base of the newly set foundation wall of the administration building. Or what would be Admin when her crew finished construction.

It was a windem, one of the tree-like, tribal, semi-intelligent beings that inhabited this world, and its presence on site made acid churn in Magda’s stomach. It would likely mean a delay. A delay could mean no bonus and no bonus meant a late loan payment to the Garicola brothers. Her palms sweat. Would they just kill her, or torture her first?

In the east, an alien god brushed fat fingers across the horizon, painting dawn’s purplish blush across the bottom of the sky. Compared to that, and the glow of a trio of moons, the stabbing, slashing beam of her flashlight felt heretical. Magda shrugged off the transgression. She had bigger problems. Besides, it wasn’t her god.

She squatted by the foundation and scowled at the thing in the trench, while her crew chief, Jared Montgomery, paced behind her. The windem had been interred so close to the foam-crete that it had become partially encased in it as the foam hardened overnight. Seeing it here, stuck in her wall, Magda relived the argument she’d had with the site surveyor about the wisdom of building a settlement this close to the forest. From everything Magda read before accepting this job, relations with the windem had been benign. That was in part, Magda thought, because the Governor was a smart man, keeping human activity to the broad, grassy plains that covered great swaths of Baeder IV.

This new intrusion butted up against the shore of the purple, leafy ocean of a forest that washed in rolling, hilly waves over the top third of Baeder’s one enormous continent. The activity could be construed by the indigenous creatures as a move into windem territory. Magda reasoned that although the windem had shown no signs of violent behavior over the thirty or so years Baeder had been colonized, it didn’t mean they weren’t capable of it.

The first day the crew started digging, a handful of the windem showed up. They stood at a distance, in a cluster like a miniature wooded glade, watching. Sometimes they gestured with their branch-arms, although whether to the workers or to each other was anyone’s guess. Each successive morning, more appeared at the edge of the forest. Just standing. They never stayed long. Magda would look up from some task and they’d be gone.

She peered down at the thing melded into her foundation, a scant ten centimeters from her maker’s mark, a small seashell from Earth she placed in the foundation of one structure in every colony she’d helped build. The shell was a tradition, started by her father, and continued after she’d taken over the family business upon his retirement. A little piece of her, a little piece of the place where humanity started, now resided on every far-flung outpost Magda worked on.

She hissed out a breath. Hell’s bells.

The windem in the trench was an old one from the look of the patchy gray, bark-like skin. The young ones were green, with limbs like vines, moving through the canopy of the forest like excitable monkeys. As the windem aged, they grew stiff, more earth-bound and sedentary. Cal Martinez, one of the team’s explorers, said he’d seen some that were rooted to the ground, like real trees. This one, the one in her foundation, had root-like growths at the base of its six lower limbs to which clung dirt and dead leaves, like it had been uprooted before being brought here.

Behind her, Montgomery cleared his throat. “Is it dead?”

Magda held her breath and gently poked the thing, fully expecting to be grabbed. The body felt cold, but she’d never touched a windem before. Maybe they were always cold. When there was no reaction, she laid her hand on the creature’s bark-covered torso, felt for a heartbeat or signs of breathing. Did windem even have hearts?  Probably not.

The thing didn’t stir, and it hadn’t moved since being placed here, or it wouldn’t have gotten trapped like a bug in amber when the foam-crete hardened.

She frowned up at Montgomery. “I sure as hell hope so. If it’s alive, I have no idea how we’ll excavate it without hurting it.” She played her light over the form, looking for some sign of how it had come here and who had brought it. Other than her and Montgomery’s boot prints in the ocher-colored soil, she saw nothing. “This is how you found him?”

“Yep. He was covered over some with dirt and a bunch of leaves. I cleared a little away so’s I could figure out what it was. When I saw it was one of them, I called you.” He ran a shaky hand across his closely shaven head. “What should we do?”

Magda stood. “Rouse the crew. Get Halloran and Coretti to stand guard here. Issue them weapons but keep it quiet. Then question everyone.” If it were some fool’s idea of a practical joke, Magda would have their ass sent to the worst job site she could think of, and she knew some real hell holes. “I want to know if anyone saw or knows anything about this.” 

“On it, boss.”

 Montgomery loped away towards their camp, a cluster of habidomes situated on a small rise a couple hundred yards from the construction site. He’d be glad, she thought, that she hadn’t assigned him to stand watch. The faceless windem gave him the willies.

The first rays of a ruddy sun spilled across the denuded, dun-colored ground, setting off sparks of light from the mica-like flakes bound into the substrate. Beauty wasted, Magda thought, on aliens who had no eyes.

The trials of the day ahead made her head throb. She’d need to call Dr. Ramanujan, the local Exo-Anthropologist, stationed in Rewey on the far side of the planet. Magda had studied all the lit about the indigenous lifeforms on Baeder before accepting this job, but nothing she read told her why a dead windem was lying in a trench on her building site. She didn’t have much faith that the Exo-Anth would know, either, but that was the logical place to start untangling this mess. And it needed to be untangled, fast. She had two weeks to get the priority structures built. It wasn’t just her reputation on the line, although that was critical to getting future jobs. Her bonus hung on that accelerated timeline, too. Without that payment, the financing partners–okay, call a spade a spade, the loan sharks–who had helped her replace her outdated and glitchy diggers and material synthesizers, wouldn’t get paid.

In the growing heat and humidity of the morning, Magda shivered. Then she tapped her com, calculated what time it was in Rewey, and hoped Indira Ramanujan wasn’t doing anything with her night she didn’t mind having interrupted.

#

“What do you mean you can’t get over here?” Magda paced the yellow-brown ground, cupping one hand over her ear to silence the whistle of the wind in the earpiece implanted there. “I have a dead alien in a hole and about three dozen of the live variety standing a dozen meters away watching me jackhammer the dead one out of a foundation.” She smeared dirt across her sweaty forehead as she pushed up her short bangs.

The anthropologist huffed in what sounded like frustration. “Well, this is great timing.” There was a moment of silence, then a sigh. “I doubt they will do anything but watch you, Ms. Zeller. In the thirty years we’ve been here, they’ve never done anything else.”

It had taken Magda two hours to get hold of the Exo-Anthropologist. Meanwhile, she’d re-questioned everyone on her crew after Montgomery had finished with them, slammed back two strong cups of coffee and a pain reliever for a burgeoning migraine, and arranged for a work crew to start breaking down the section of foundation so they could repour the foam-crete. Now she stood and supervised while they carefully excavated the windem’s body from its concrete cocoon. The air, as thick with humidity as a milkshake, tasted tangy and sour when she sucked in a breath. “And if they do?”

“Do what, Ms. Zeller?”

She flung a hand up. “How the hell should I know? You’re the bloody alien expert!”

She winced at a squelch of interference. Mankind had been traveling the stars for ten generations but somehow still couldn’t get intra-planetary communications to work. “Listen, I’m desperate to come out there, but I have one shot to meet with someone who’s only passing through the system. My grant, the money that will help us learn more about the creatures, depends on me keeping that appointment.”

Money, Magda thought, it always came down to money, no matter who you were.

There was more background noise, some distant, tinny announcement, and Ramanujan continued, puffing a little as though she were out of breath. “I’m sorry, I have to go. My flight Upstation is boarding. Document the incident and call me if anything changes. I’ll be back in a few days.”

God damn it, the woman was leaving the planet. “Wait! You can’t go. This is–”

She nearly ripped out the earpiece, and to hell with the nanofiber circuitry, when she realized Ramanujan had hung up. She spun, wishing she had something to throw, nearly ran into the tall, rangy form of Montgomery.

“Boss?”

“What?”

“It’s done. Had to use a hammer and chisel at the end there. Can’t get any closer to the thing without taking off bits of him. It. What do we do with it now?”

Magda frowned down at the dead windem, then across to the live ones, standing in their silent, motionless vigil. “How heavy is it?”

“Not very. Probably weighs about what you do. It feels sorta, I don’t know.” Montgomery shrugged. “Dried out. Like maybe it’s been dead for a while.”

Weirder and weirder. She cursed the Exo-Anth and climbed down the slope. “Good job,” she told her crew. “Montgomery, you take the roots, I’ll get the, uh, arms.” She gestured at the six ropey side appendages.

Montgomery looked like she’d just asked him to roll in a pit of fire ants.

She narrowed her eyes. “Just do it, Monty.”

He swallowed, stared down at the windem. “And then what?”

She gripped the body underneath the branches that she equated with arms and hefted it. If she had to, she figured she could just drag it herself, but it felt disrespectful to do so. “Do you like your job, Monty?”

His lips twitched. “Most of the time.”

“Then grab its legs and help me carry it. We’re gonna give it back to them.”

Montgomery’s eyes widened like a frightened horse. “I don’t think that’s such a good idea, boss.”

“Fine. Guess you don’t need a paycheck.” She tugged the body backwards a few feet and Montgomery finally picked up his end.

They moved toward the group of windem. Magda’s plan was to place the dead creature close its live brethren and back off. As they neared the windem, reflux acid burned her throat.

“Lower it to the ground, Monty. Carefully. Don’t just drop it.”

Montgomery followed her lead. Then with his eyes glued to the aliens, he murmured, “Now we go back, right?”

She sighed. “Yes, go. I’ll be right behind you.”

His heavy boots thudded against the ground as he ran back the way they’d come. Magda stood her ground however, wondering how to make eye contact with a creature who had no eyes. She inhaled more buttermilk air. “I’m sorry about your, um, elder here. I don’t know how he died, but we can’t have him in our site.”

One of the creatures was taller and grayer than the others. It had something around what could roughly be called shoulders, something like a necklace of vining blossoms. Maybe it just grew there, part of its body, she couldn’t tell from this distance. None of the others had a similar decoration, so she addressed her next comments to him. “We don’t mean you any harm. In fact, we’d like to be friends. Okay?”

The change occurred without warning. A grey-green haze, like murky contact lens, colored her vision. Her stomach lurched and she couldn’t catch her breath. The pond-scum air grew thicker, hotter. Her heart stuttered, memories of childhood panic attacks flooding her with the need to run and hide. Every cell in her body screamed, this is wrong, the world is wrong.

The creatures at the tree line hadn’t moved, yet she felt them swarming her, closing around her, and the world tilted. The ground beneath her feet seemed to shift and lurch, sending her to her knees.

Then it was lights out.

#

She came to in the chill air of the med dome. Taking a deep breath that for a change wasn’t like sucking air through a straw, she pushed herself up from the cot Montgomery had dropped her on. “What happened?”

Gail Wu, their medic, shoved her back down. “You passed out. Montgomery said the aliens did something to you.” Wu gave Montgomery the side-eye. “Can you verify that, Magda?”

Magda considered. “Probably just the heat.” She didn’t believe that, but better to lose face than try to explain something she didn’t herself understand. She glared at Montgomery, jabbed a finger at him. “You don’t repeat that, Monty.”

He winked. “Repeat what, boss? I didn’t hear a thing.”

Wu stuck a couple of sensors on Magda’s temple and chest, consulted her comp. “Elevated adrenaline levels, heart rate. O2’s a little low.” She passed Magda a suck tube of clear liquid. “Drink that. It will help balance your electrolytes. I’d tell you to take the day and rest, but I’d be wasting my breath.”

When Wu backed off, Magda sat up. The world swam and sparkled. She closed her eyes, forced down the sweet-salty liquid. When the dizzy glitter cleared, she climbed to her feet. Montgomery’s doleful brown eyes studied her, lips downturned. She waved off his concern. “What happened after I passed out?”

Her crew chief shrugged. “I ran back, carried you off. Put the crew to work on the foundation again.”

“And the windem?”

He frowned. “I didn’t see, but I assumed they disappeared back into the forest.”

“Did they take the old one with them?”

“The what?”

“The body, Monty, the body.”

“Hell if I know. Kinda had my hands full lugging you back here.” He smirked. “Might wanna lay off the sausage and biscuits, boss.”

Typical Montgomery. Snark aside, he’d missed the real point. The corpse of the windem was important. Magda didn’t know why, but she knew to rely on her instincts about things.

She swung her legs off the cot. Montgomery was a great crew chief and an expert at dome construction, but what he had in site smarts, he utterly lacked in imagination. Like always, Magda was the only one thinking ahead. Ahead to their schedule, their bonus, and what this interruption might mean to both. She pushed past Montgomery and out of the med dome. The sense of unease she felt before she fainted still squirmed inside her.

By the time she’d hiked back to the site and reached the spot where she’d left the body of the windem, the sun sweltered directly overhead and the crew had broken for lunch. A flattened section of tall grass between the bare earth of the construction site and the edge of the forest remained the only indication of their encounter.

She searched the trees, looking for any of the watchers, but the deep purplish-black and magenta foliage of the forest had swallowed them up.

Her skin crawled. Something felt wrong, she could taste it. Sour, gritty, murky grey. None of those things were feelings, and yet those were the only words she knew to describe the way she felt.

She shook her head, marched back to camp, hustled her work crew through their meal and back to the site. They had to make up the time they’d lost. She didn’t care what the tree-creatures did with their withered corpse, just so long as they didn’t get in her way again.

She pushed her crew hard, offering double time to work past dark. By the time the second moon had risen, they’d repaired the damage and even gotten a start on the foundations of three other buildings. While Montgomery supervised the pouring of the foam-crete, Magda worked on her own, installing the ribbing for the plasti-steel dome walls on the Admin Center, a job she could do with her eyes closed.

Still, money and loyalty only bought so much extra work. After the last rib had been welded in place, and before the grumbling started in earnest, Magda called it a night. Even she had run out of steam, despite the specter of having various body parts irreparably damaged by her creditors. Trudging back to her sleeping carrel, she stripped off her sweat-soaked jumpsuit, dumped it in the cleaner then collapsed onto her cot and into oblivion.

#

A flutter of cool touched Magda’s face. Someone had entered her sleep carrel. Her eyes snapped open to dim lighting indicating early morning and she rolled into a sitting position, swinging her legs over the edge of the cot. “What?  What is it?” She groped for her jumpsuit at the end of the bed, remembered she’d put it in the cleaner the night before.

Montgomery stood in the entryway, arms crossed, a little “v” between his eyes. “Sorry, boss, but you gotta see this.”

Magda fetched her jumpsuit from the cleaner, pulled it on, zipped up. She’d been looking forward to a long session in the sonic shower followed by a hearty breakfast and several cups of coffee made from the real coffee beans she’d brought with her. Yeah, those kinds of pipe dreams never came true. She didn’t notice Montgomery’s side arm, clipped to his belt, until she was shoving her feet into her work boots.

“Shit.”

“Happens.” Montgomery’s lips quirked up. “Especially to us.”

She pushed out a breath. “Talk while we walk.”

He did.

The windem corpse had shown up again sometime during the night, tucked into the foundation of one of the new buildings, the commissary this time.

Magda scrambled down into the foundation pit. Two of the work crew hustled to install electrical conduits and plumbing pipes, studiously avoiding the dead windem, which rested just under what would be the entryway to the dome.

Montgomery stayed on higher ground, peering down. His hand hovered near his weapon, as though he expected the corpse to leap up and attack. Magda knelt on one knee and examined the thing. It lay on its side, facing the foundation, but not touching it, so it hadn’t gotten stuck in like the other one had.

“Not the same one,” she called up to Montgomery. “No concrete on it.” She eased the body onto its back. Gasped. A daisy chain adorned the thing’s torso, the same green viny, blossom-bedecked necklace she had seen on the elder windem she’d addressed the day before. She had no way to tell if this was the same individual or another who wore similar decoration. She shuddered. Surely, they hadn’t killed the elder and placed him here. And if they had, why? A threat of some kind? Some other kind of message? Damn it, this was a problem for the resident Exo-Anth, not Magda.

She squeezed her eyes shut, expecting to feel the tightening in her head which was prelude to yet another of the migraines she’d been plagued with since arriving on this hot house planet. Oddly however, the pain didn’t come. In fact, sitting here, her hand resting lightly on the sinuous, braided branches that formed one of the windem’s arms, she felt calm. Peaceful. All her problems dissolved in a single intake of breath. Gone was the gray-green feeling, replaced by a cheerful blue one, like the color of a still lake reflecting clear, blue skies back home. Skies she hadn’t seen in decades. She sighed. Maybe it was time for a trip back to Earth. Maybe when she’d settled this mess with the Garicola brothers, her debts paid and the monkey off her back, she’d take some time.

“Boss? You okay?”

The blue, happy feeling slid away. She forced herself to pull her hand from the windem’s body. “Yeah, fine.” Standing, she shaded her eyes and squinted up at Montgomery, silhouetted by the ruddy sun. “Come on, let’s move him.”

Montgomery’s jaw clenched. “Why me?”

“Because I pay you the big bucks.”

He groused a bit, but ten minutes later they placed the corpse in the grass in front of a new assemblage of windem. Again, Magda tried speaking to them, this time focusing on one that had a crown of blossoms on what Magda thought had to be its head. “I’m sorry to disturb your elder’s rest, but we really can’t have his remains in our building site. It wouldn’t be proper.”

The creatures just stood there, the long line of them. Silent. Motionless. There had to be forty or so of the things.

Magda turned to go. This time, when the ground beneath her feet lurched, she was braced for it. Sensations swarmed her. Deep-rooted unease. Wrongness. Mental world-tilting, like the sky was down and the ground was up. That same, murky gray-green. She swam in it, was filled with it.

“Ah, shit,” she heard Montgomery say.

She groped for his arm, found it, steadied herself. A few seconds went by and the sensations slowly subsided. She opened eyes that she hadn’t realized she’d closed. “I’m good, it’s okay.”

“You don’t look good.”

The world righted itself, the ground back where it belonged. She sucked in air, regretted it. Thick, sour, like rancid milk. “God, I want off this rock.” A glance over her shoulder revealed the windem had gone, every one of them, the dead one included. She shook off Montgomery’s hand and directed her steps towards the construction site. “Come on, let’s get this job done.”

For a change, Montgomery offered no argument.

#

Sore muscles, a pounding headache, and incipient nausea accompanied her into the sonic cleaner after chow that night. Her cot called to her, but damn if she’d go another night without removing the sweat and grime. She yearned for a long shower under stinging hot water, but their temporary habidomes weren’t equipped for it. That much water was just too expensive a luxury right now. Soon though, she consoled herself. Soon, they’d finish this damn job and get the hell off-planet.

Sitting naked and blessedly cool on her cot, she grabbed her com unit, found a message waiting for her. Hoping for a response from Ramanujan, who she’d been trying to reach all day, she played it.

A high-pitched, weaselly voice enunciated each word in her ear. “Ms. Zeller. Your payment is due in fifteen standard days. Please remit to your account by midnight, Earth UTM. We hope you can continue to enjoy your stay on Baeder.”

She tossed the com onto her cot and put her head in her hands. She began to shake, and a wave of nausea swept over her. They knew where she was. Of course, they did.

Damn it, she needed this bonus. Pulling herself together, she grabbed her com unit again and attempted to reach Ramanujan for the sixth or seventh time that day. The woman answered just as Magda prepared to hang up.

“What is it now, Ms. Zeller?” Her clipped, central hub accent grated, even more terse than usual.

“We’ve had another run-in with the windem. I tried to get hold of you yesterday, left you messages. They left another corpse in our construction site.”

A pause ensued, longer than the delay warranted by the distance between. “Another one?” She made a musing noise. “Are they burying them?”

“The first one was covered over in dirt and leaves. The second was just there, at the base of the foundation.”

The annoying pause again as Ramanujan’s response traveled back from Upstation. “Were there any grave goods?”

“No.”

More waiting. Then, “Tell me you took vid or at least stills. Are they still in situ?”

“No, and no. I gave it back, just like the last one.”

The pause was extra-long this time. A snort finally ensued. “Damn it. I told you to document. How could you not at least have taken pictures? We’ve never seen a windem burial. If it happens again, I want full documentation. And keep the body.” A shorter pause. “What happened when you gave the remains back?”

Magda shrugged. “They took it and vanished back into the forest.”

Seconds ticked past. “That’s all?”

It was Magda’s turn to take her time. Should she tell the Exo about her fainting spell? It didn’t seem relevant, and Wu seemed to think was probably heat-related, coupled with the number of hours Magda had been working. “Pretty much, yeah.”

“They didn’t try to communicate in any way? We’ve seen them touching branches with each other sometimes, especially the lower limbs that look like roots. They may use mycorrhizal communication, the way plant life on earth does.”

“Nothing like that.” She sighed, figuring she’d regret things either way. “I did feel a little woozy both times.”

More waiting. Magda had time to rearrange the small holo-cube containing family pictures, and her e-reader into a more balanced and pleasing arrangement on the small shelf near her cot. It was suddenly important, that balance. Things in the right place.

There was some background noise, a clinking sound and a man’s voice murmuring something Magda couldn’t make out. Was the woman out to dinner? Ramanujan spoke over the noise. “That happens to a lot of newcomers on Baeder. Should have been a note about it in your planet brief. Some people report dizziness, fainting and some free-floating anxiety. It should pass in a few weeks.” A much shorter pause followed. “Damn it, I can’t get downside for another forty-eight hours, but if another incident with a windem body happens, I need you to leave the body in situ and contact me immediately.”

Oh, hell no. “Sorry, Doctor, but I’m on a tight schedule here. We lay floors on all buildings tomorrow, once electrical and plumbing are in place. Walls go up on the domes the day after that.”

“Ms. Zeller, this is important! Your floors will have to wait. This is unprecedented contact. I need you to be my eyes and ears.”

A part of Magda wanted to help, but the part that valued having intact arms and legs won out. “Nope. I have express instructions from the governor that this site needs to be ready for occupation on the 15th. If I don’t get floors down and walls up, that won’t happen.”

“Then I’ll speak to the governor myself.”

Magda chuckled. Good luck with that. “Feel free.” She’d be doing the same, right after she got off with Ramanujan, reminding the man just how much that delay would cost, not only in labor, but in their agreed on bonus fee structure, not to mention the cost of housing all those colonists who were arriving on planet to occupy the site. The governor, unlike the Exo-Anth, was no idiot. “Any words of wisdom beyond that, Doctor?”

Waiting, waiting. “I’ll be back on planet in two days. Please, just wait for me.”

Yeah, that wasn’t good enough. The woman never should have left. “Sorry, I think we’re losing the connection. Can’t hear you.”

She didn’t wait for the sputtering reply, just ended the call and immediately contacted the governor’s office. People in Rewey would just be waking up. For once, somebody’s god, probably not hers, made the com-sat link work and in five minutes she had the permission she needed to carry on, so long as the windem weren’t interfered with. She fell asleep with a smug smile on her face.

#

The comp on her shelf read 3:33 a.m. when that weirdly soothing blue happy feeling roused her from a dream about balancing precariously on a wooden plank atop a beach ball done up to look like planet earth. The gray-green sensation which had dogged her since her encounter with the windem the previous morning lifted as she blinked blearily. She felt peaceful. Energized, even.

Knowing that she’d be getting up in a couple of hours anyway, she rolled out of bed, dressed and slipped out of the sleeping dome. Grabbing a couple of ration bars, a to-go container of coffee from the commissary, and a flashlight, she headed out to the construction site.

According to the scientists, there was little nocturnal activity on Baeder. No night bird-type creatures sang, no frog-type things croaked. No scary predators stalked. A few weeks ago, she’d found the silence and the emptiness eerie, but tonight, that buoyant, blue mood had her whistling as she climbed down into the foundation of one of the three dorm units. By the light of all three moons and a huge work light, she pulled a little storage box from her jumpsuit pocket and selected a peachy-orange scallop-shaped shell from the mix within. This she placed in the still-hardening foundation to replace the one that had been destroyed, and blueness washed over her. With a smile she couldn’t repress, she began to assemble the struts that would brace the flooring. The familiar, repetitive work soothed her, and a cool breeze wafted over her as she schlepped equipment and fitted connections. She’d nearly completed the grid of struts and was contemplating whether to try hefting the floor sections into place by herself when she heard a shuffling sound behind her. The hairs on the back of her neck prickled.

Straightening, she turned slowly.

They stood, three of them, above her. One had a crown of blooms and she knew with certainty it was the same windem she’d seen that morning.

Blue came the feeling, barreling into her like an excited puppy, yellow nipping on blue’s heels. A ruddy yellow, a yellow tinged with orange, like the light of Baeder’s sun. It made her feel warm. Hugged. Secure.

The creatures’ root-like lower limbs twisted and undulated like a deep river flowing as they descended the earthen ramp built to haul construction material in and out of the foundation pit. She’d never seen a windem move before. She thought they’d scuttle, insect-like. Instead the three windem rippled towards her, single file. They each helped carry the horizontal form of another of their kind.

Another body.

Magda took a step back, hit a strut with her shoulder blade, stopped.

The windem bent their trunk-like bodies as though they were made of rubber, not bark or wood, and streamed along beneath the floor grid to deposit their burden at the base of the foundation just beneath where the door would eventually be. Right next to her seashell. They turned towards Magda again.

Their root-feet undulated, touched one another’s. Some form of communication, Magda thought, like Ramanujan had talked about. She’d give almost anything to know what they were saying.

Blue. Yellow-orange. Solid earth beneath her feet, no tilting.

They were speaking to her. Those colors, those feelings, they were messages.

They shifted and the one with the crown of blossoms gestured with one of its vine-like branches toward the corpse. It was in the shadow of the foundation wall, shrouded by darkness. Magda took a tentative step toward it and when nothing except more blue happened, she got closer. Using her flashlight, she examined it.

The body had to be extremely old. The bark was gray and crumbling, covered with something like lichen. Ocher-colored earth clung in places, caked between patchy sections of bark. Something hung around the “neck” of the corpse, a withered, desiccated garland of braided vine upon which hung a circular object with a hole in its center. Stone maybe? No, she thought, not stone, coral. The amulet was a piece of faded blue coral.

She shone her light onto the ornament, the center of which was filled with ochre soil. A rich, leafy smell wafted up from the corpse. It must have been reclining in some deep part of the forest, like a fallen tree. The idea of the windem disturbing that repose, bringing it here, like some kind of offering, staggered her.

Magda’s emotions were a swirl of colors. Deep emerald green spun through her, along with the sky blue and orangey-yellow. Happy. Contented. Peaceful, peaceful. Calm. In balance.

Blue. Balance.

Coral.

She thought of her seashell. A piece of her, of her home world. Something she brought with her to make this place her own. Humanity’s own.

She turned to face the windem, a glimmer of understanding twinkling firefly-like in her mind. She thought about how she had felt when she’d returned the other bodies. That sickly gray-green color/feeling. Wrongness. Illness. The sense that the world was shifting beneath her feet, that dizziness and the inability to regain her balance.

Magda smiled. She had no idea if the windem could recognize a smile, but she hoped they didn’t find it threatening. In her mind, she conjured the feeling of blueness. Happiness. Balance. “You’re trying to fix our intrusion into your world, aren’t you?  Trying to balance our presence with something of your own.” She glanced toward the body, now sure that this body was someone who had been revered. They’d been upping their game with each body they’d brought, bringing a more important, maybe even more sacred member of their tribe to the construction site to counterbalance the intrusive human presence.

“Boss!”

She felt a flash of white, biting, stinging, fearful, as Montgomery appeared over the lip of the eastern foundation wall. She raised a hand as the beam of his flashlight played over her and the three windem. In a calm tone, she said, “Stay where you are, Monty. It’s okay.”

She saw him reach for his sidearm. White swirled around her like a blizzard. “Monty, no!” She threw herself in front of the aliens. White, snow, ice, fear, death, horror, bowled her over. She tumbled into the windem, fully expecting to feel the searing pain of a bullet.

Arms caught her, steadied her. Embraced her. Blue slid over her, and emerald green, coating her like a second skin. The world was aqua, streaked with sunny yellow-orange. Happy, safe, balanced. Through, behind, beyond the colors, Montgomery stood with the unfired weapon in his trembling hands, his mouth agape.

Respectfully, gently, she pushed away the braided vine-arms, murmuring her thanks. She strode toward the wall. Hoisting herself up onto one of the sturdy struts, she pulled herself over the lip of the foundation wall and onto solid ground, projecting blueness as she went. “It’s okay, Monty. Put down the gun.”

His rigid stance eased. “They grabbed you. God, I nearly shot you. What did they do to you?”

She stopped in front of him. “Nothing, just helped me up when I fell. Really. It’s okay.”

He didn’t look convinced. “You sound funny.”

She laughed. “And you look funny, but I’ve never held it against you.” Beyond him, at the bottom of the layer-cake horizon, the sky glowed deep purple. “I’m all right.” And she was. Calm, peaceful, happy. She was in balance. The site was in balance, the gray-green intrusion healed.

“I thought they were going to kill you.” He gestured with the sidearm.

Calmly, bluely, she reached for the weapon, took it away from him before he shot his damned foot off. “Nope. We were just having a conversation.” She looked back toward the windem.

They were gone. Gone as though they’d never been there.

Montgomery pointed his flashlight into the foundation. The beam caught the body of the ancient windem elder in its sweep. “Shit. They left another corpse.”

Magda nodded. “And we’re going to leave it there.”

“What? Why?” He shuddered. “The crew isn’t gonna like this.”

“I’ll explain it all over breakfast. Then we need to call the Governor, and Ramanujan. They need to understand what’s going on here too.” I hope she got her grant. She was going to need it now.

He holstered his weapon. “You’re the boss.”

“That I am. But if it makes you feel better, I’ll share a cup of my real coffee with you.”

He grinned.

“But only,” she cautioned, “if you let me get through the story without interrupting.” She could afford to be generous. She’d be able to afford more of those rare beans now that they’d get their bonus. Hell, with the information she now had on how to communicate with the windem, she might get an extra spiff.

Montgomery grunted in appreciation and followed her back toward camp.

Walking into the lavender morning, giving the little box of seashells in her pocket a pat, Magda imagined the flavor of her freshly ground coffee, one of life’s true pleasures. Rich, acidic, soothing.

It tasted brown.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Read and learn more about Nancy Bach on her website: http://www.nancybach.com and on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/NancyBachAuthor/. Be sure to give her a “like.”

Decameron 2020: Lester Duncastle

Lester Duncastle
by Art Cerf

If you were looking for a single word to describe Lester Duncastle, it would be annoying. He wasn’t bad or evil, just annoying.

He’s the fellow who stands too close to you, speaks too loudly, tells rambling, pointless stories and laughs at his own jokes. If you had a middle seat on a plane and he was seated next to you, you might bolt to the emergency exit and try to jump out of the plane.  People who would enjoy his company probably also like mosquitoes.

As you might imagine, he had no male friends. He had no girlfriends. He had no friends, period. All of which means he was a very lonely person.

And when the pandemic hit, he had to stay in place in his studio apartment, the only place he could afford in the city.

Driven out of his mind by the isolation, he started going to supermarkets in an attempt to strike up conversations with elderly shoppers. But of course, they backed away. Then he tried the stock boys and the checkout ladies but to no success.

Store after store, it was the same.  No one wanted to be close enough to have a conversation.

As he sadly ambled home, he stopped by a park bench, placed his head in his hands and started to sob. His crying was no more attractive than his personality but he couldn’t help it.

Suddenly, there was a soft touch on his shoulder. When he looked up, there was a young woman asking, “Are you all right?”

Snuffling back some mucus, he said, “No, I am not. I’m so damned lonely.”

She nodded and said she was lonely, too. She had just moved into the city and knew almost no one.  She added, “I’m Cynthia.”

He smiled, saying, “I’m Lester.” He thought that she wasn’t really pretty but also realized that he was no prize either.

They talked and talked and finally he asked if he could have her number.

She said that she didn’t have a new phone yet but he might reach her by calling her flatmate’s phone.

Lester almost flew home. He hadn’t been this happy since he hit a double in Little League almost 20 years ago.

The day wore him out so he settled in for a nap. But when he awoke, he had a pounding headache and a fever. Hours later, the fever spiked and he feared that he had contracted the coronavirus.

He hurried out of the building heading for the hospital but collapsed on the stairs.

Three days later, he awoke in a hospital bed, breathing through a ventilator. A doctor looked in and said, “Ah, you’re awake…the worst is over.”

Still, he remained in the hospital for another eight days before he was released.

Once at home, he hurried to his cell phone which he had left behind in his fevered rush to the hospital. And he found Cynthia’s phone number.

He called and a stranger’s voice answered.

“Hello,” he said. “May I please speak to Cynthia?”

There was a pause on the line and then the voice said, “Who’s this?”

Lester explained how he and Cynthia had met in the park almost two weeks ago but he had been hospitalized since.

Again there was a pause. Then the woman said, “I’m sorry to tell you that Cynthia caught the virus. She died last week.”

Lester dropped the phone and then fell down beside it.

They say a broken heart can’t kill you.

They were wrong.

Decameron 2020: Starlight

Starlight
By Nancy Bach

It was a steamy Chicago night when I pulled the thread of her unravelling.

I squatted beside the dumpster in the alley, my eyes glued to the back door of the gallery where I had worked for the past five years.  A car’s headlights chased shadows across a brick wall, and I shrank back, but the vehicle passed by, turned out of the alley and onto the street.

I relaxed.  A little.  Ten minutes more, I thought, consulting my watch.  The guests at tonight’s show had already faded into the sweaty darkness, the catering staff had packed their truck and left.  Even Janine, the gallery’s owner, had climbed into her Mercedes and gone home, four-inch heels clacking on the pavement as the metal fire door to the Gallery de las Palmas clanged shut behind her.  Soon the bitch who had stolen my life and the woman I loved would come out that back door, too.

I knew the routine, you see. Knew every step of it because it used to be my routine until that stranger who looked exactly like me had taken over my life.

It was June when I first spotted her.  A glimpse of someone with my curly auburn hair and a pair of embroidered jeans just like ones I owned passed by, her on the way out and I on the way in, to the laundromat I used.  A week later, I saw her again, in a cab with someone who looked like my friend Cal, as I was hoofing it to the El one afternoon for my shift at the gallery.  Soon after, an acquaintance I’d known in art school ran into me, asked me how I’d enjoyed my dinner at the Italian Village the previous Friday.  I told her I hadn’t been there, and she’d looked at me like I was crazy.

“But we talked,” she said.  “You were with that crazy musician we used to hang around with back in the day.  Chet something?”

I shook my head, told her she must have made a mistake, but I wondered.  I’ve heard that everyone has a double somewhere.  Clearly, mine lived here in Chicago.  It was weird, but I put it out of my mind.  I was helping Riley Kincaid, a young artist on whom I had a huge crush, set up her first art show.  I had more important things to worry about than some look-alike.  I went back to my quiet life, in my tiny efficiency apartment on a backstreet.  When not working on the new installation at the gallery, I spent quiet evenings reading and eating Chinese take-out.

Nine more minutes.  Sweat made slick the grime on the back of my neck.  Four days since my last real shower and I wasn’t sure whether I or the dumpster I crouched beside smelled riper.  Traces of spoilt bananas, some decomposing thing, dog shit and other foul odors wafted past me as a faint breeze stirred the rank air of the alley.  

I gritted my teeth, anger nipping at memory’s heels.  June became July and things got weirder.  I stopped getting texts from friends and when I saw them to ask them, they acted odd, told me they knew who I really was and I should stop trying to impersonate my sister.  I had no sister.  Two weeks later my debit card stopped working.  The bank manager told me he would call the cops if I came in again, and to get a job and leave my sister alone.

Last week, my boss locked me out of the office and called our security company.  I was escorted off the premises and threatened.  As they led me away, I could see a woman through the glass front door, watching me, smiling.  It was me.  Only it wasn’t.

Three days ago, the manager of my building changed the locks on my apartment.  The only thing I had left was my car and the clothes on my back.

Finally, yesterday, as I spied on them having a picnic in Grant Park, I saw my double propose to Riley.  The kiss Riley bestowed upon the creature who had stolen my life belonged to me.

Seven minutes.  Rage coiled in my belly like a hissing serpent and my blood throbbed in my head.  I straightened out of my crouch.  Stretched.  My back and shoulders ached from sleeping the last two nights in my car, the only thing of value in my life the bitch hadn’t managed to claim.

Five minutes.  She’d be locking up the office now, setting the alarm on the front door.  Riley had left just after the caterers, and I’d watched the two of them linger at the back door, kissing.  The bitch’s hand was under Riley’s thin summer blouse, massaging Riley’s small breasts.  I’d dug my fingernails into my palms to prevent myself from interrupting them.  I had to be patient.

I rolled my neck.  The black shaft of the tire iron stuck to the sweaty palm of my left hand.

Silence.  The sounds of cars on the street beyond.  The occasional sound of chatter or laughter far away.  More silence.

The back door snicked, pushed open and the other me stepped out and turned to make sure the door was secure.

I would have hit her then, I had the chance.  But I needed answers.

“Why?”  I stepped up behind her, planted my feet, my left hand held down in the shadows behind my leg.

The other turned.  There was no surprise on her face and I felt cheated.  “Why?  Why what?”  Peach tinted lips crept upwards.  Her hair was stylishly cut in a bob, her clothes more boho than my own.  She wore just a touch of make-up.  She was me.  Only better.

Damn her. 

She shrugged.  “You wished upon a star for a clone. Someone to do all the things you didn’t have time to do.”

Butterfly memory fluttered past.  A night under the stars, a rare walk in the park with my friend Chloe, in the spring, after Chloe had been dumped.

I made this happen?  No.  “That’s not possible,” I said.

Another shrug.  “Your wish, my command.  You weren’t doing anything with your life.  With your friends.  With your job.”  She smirked and pointed.  “With your hair.  So I did.”

Something inside me burst, like a pressure cooker exploding. I raised the tire iron and swung.  A crack, wet and dull, and the other me crumpled to the patched pavement of the alley.

Eyes the same green and gold as my own stared in fixed astonishment in the general vicinity of the dumpster.  Blood pooled beneath short auburn curls, reflecting in ruby the lights of the alley.

My heart pounded.  I squatted down, prepared to strike another blow, but the thing was finished.  She was finished.

I moved quickly now.  First, I wrapped the still leaking head in cling wrap, then pulled the tarp I had scavenged that morning from some painters out of the dumpster and rolled the body onto it.  I used my key fob to pop my trunk and dragged the body to my car, parked a little further down the alley.

It took all of ten minutes for clean-up.  There would be bloody drag marks and that little lake of blood, but it was due to rain later, and my hope was that at least some of the blood would wash away into the sewer grate.

My hands shook and my teeth chattered as I got behind the wheel of my Jetta and pulled carefully out into traffic.  Thirty minutes later I was idling near a deserted stretch of the Cal-Sag Channel.  I climbed out, and opened the trunk again, reaching in to wrangle the body out.

I froze.  The tarp was still there, but lay there like an empty burrito, all flat and lumpy.  I touched it, felt around in the dark.  No matter where I laid my hands, I could not find the body.  It was gone.

No.  No, no, no, no.  Damn it, she’d been dead.  I was certain of that.  Nor was there a way she could have gotten out of the trunk, even if some how she’d still been alive.

Frantic, I gripped the tarp, yanked, unrolled it.  The gruesome plastic wrap was there, where the head had been.  A pair of black dress pants, a peasant blouse, stained dark with gore rested inside the canvas.  Shoes too, and a small straw purse on a long strap, inside of which was a wallet.  What wasn’t there was that damned woman’s body.

I picked up the blouse and a quantity of gold dust, like glitter, sparkled down from it onto the tarp.  I leaned into the trunk, ran my hands along the bottom of it.  There was more of the glittery stuff, little piles of it like sparkling sand.

My chest constricted and my vision tunneled.  I dropped into a squat, lowered my head until that sense of receding passed.  I sat there, resting on my heels for maybe ten minutes, trying to piece it all together.  I’d made a wish.  Now I’d undone it.  She was gone.  Nothing now but stardust.

I sucked in a shaky breath, grinned.  At least there would be no body to wash up later.

When I was sure my legs would hold me, I retrieved the purse and the wallet, reclaimed my debit card, the new key to my apartment, and the cell phone.  The tarp, the tire iron, and the clothes, shoes included, I dumped in the canal.

Rain spattered as I closed my trunk.  Drops fell, got fatter and faster.  I raced around to the front, climbed back in and eased along the canal towards the gravel area that led up to the road before the road got to muddy and I got stuck.

My thoughts raced along with my engine.  I’d need a haircut, I thought, and a shower before I dared to go see Riley.  But I’d worry about that tomorrow.  Because there would now be a tomorrow. Many, many more tomorrows.  I wouldn’t waste a one of them.

***

The stars blazed against a black-satin sky.  The desert air was dry, the vault of the heavens high, as Riley and I sat on the hood of my Jetta on a scenic stretch of the road through a park just outside of Santa Fe.  It had been a year since our move.  Riley hadn’t been keen on it at first, but now she loved it here.  The Muse, she said, spoke to her more clearly in this place where the sun shone and the stars burned brightly.

Her hand shot out, pointing towards the deepening dark of the Sangre de Cristo mountains.  “Look!  A shooting star!”

I followed her gaze, shuddered.  Turned away.

Her eyes were starlit.  “Let’s make a wish.”

My heart thundered in my ears.  I leaned towards her, pressed my lips to hers, capturing her mouth as well as her attention.

I relinquished her lips a few moments later and slid off the hood of the car.  Beckoning her with a grin, I said, “Let’s go home.”

“But we didn’t make our wish.”

I tugged her off the hood, pulled her close, tucked my hands in her back pockets.  “No need for wishes.  I already have everything I could ever want.”

Somewhere to the east, the shooting star fizzled out behind the mountains.  It left a trail of stardust behind.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Read and learn more about Nancy Bach on her website: http://www.nancybach.com and on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/NancyBachAuthor/. Be sure to give her a “like.”

Decameron 2020: Love Against the Odds

“Oh my God, Ray,” said Valentine, sliding into his side of their usual booth with a tumbler of craft bourbon. “I just had the worst date of my life.”

Ray cooly swirled his bourbon around an impossibly oversized single ice cube.

“Worse than the blind date your boss set you up on with a high school student who had never been on a date and showed up with her mom?” Ray asked.

“Technically, she had just graduated,” Val corrected. “But, yes, even worse than that horror show.”

“This ought to be good,” Ray sipped. “Who was it with?”

“Remember that teacher we met at Josh’s New Year’s party? Lexi, his sister?”

Ray laughed, “Yeah. The party that ended when it turned into a drunken vomitorium.”

“That’s the one. But, if you will recall, you, me and Lexi were the only ones who didn’t spew.”

“Yeah,” Ray agreed. “But, I thought you said she could be the one.”

“I did,” said Val, exasperated. “She’s pretty, outgoing, smart, helps people, loves movies and literature. Nobody reads any more, but we spent hours talking and texting about not just books but the classics from the 20th century back to ancient Greece.”

“She sounds perfect for you, so far,” Ray said. “What happened?”

“Well, I set up a nice dinner on the town for our first real date. I put on a jacket and tie. The works. Then, just as I’m walking out the door, she texts that she is at some party her brother is hosting at a sushi place and wants me to meet her there.

“I can’t stand sushi, but I want to look spontaneous and fun. ‘Sure,’ I say.” Val took a sip before continuing. “I stroll into the place like I own it, and a party of two dozen people start cheering me on and welcoming me to the party with handshakes, hugs and encouragements like ‘Go get her, Tiger,’ ‘She really likes you’ and ‘Great to finally meet you.’

“At the end of the gauntlet sits Lexi, red-faced but beaming.”

Ray shrugs, “Aside from the venue-change ambush, not hideous, yet.”

“Hang in there,” Val reassures. “I sit down, and, before I can order a drink, Josh is like, ‘Hey, we should go dancing.’

“You know I’ve got some moves, so I’m down and we all pile into a bunch of cabs. I’m with Lexi, some blonde chick and her boyfriend. Lexi and the blonde are smashed out of their minds and giggling at total nonsense. Me, the driver and the boyfriend are just hopin’ the girls don’t puke before we get to the club.

“Once there, some 60-something-year-old guy with our group gets us all in for free, which is great because the cover was insane, like 50-bucks a head. The inside of the joint is more like a movie night club than a real-life-people-spillin’-drinks-all-over-the-dance-floor night club. It’s clean, swank and chill.

“Before you know it, Lexi’s got me on the floor, and she’s ridin’ my thigh like a derby horse and rubbin’ her breasts on me like she’s trying to set my shirt on fire. Then comes some deep French kissing, and I’m thinking this has to be the best first date ever.”

Ray’s smiling. “That’s what I’m thinking. So, what’s your problem?”

“Well,” Val explains. “The music stops and she whispers, ‘Hey, that guy who got us in looks a little lonely. Mind if I have a dance with him to thank him for getting us in, and then we can get outta here.’

“She gave me a naughty grin, and I said sure with a naughty grin of my own.

“I head for the bar and order a double to catch up a little to her. When I get back to the edge of the dance floor, she starts mackin’ on the old guy.”

“Uh-oh,” Ray interjects.

“Yeah,” spit Val, incredulously. “The dude I rode over with in the cab with the girlfriend is the old guy’s nephew. He looks nervously at me and starts trying to peel Lexi off his uncle.

“Before you know it, Lexi is all over the nephew, and he clearly is not into it as he looks back and forth between me and his girlfriend.”

“Why aren’t you doing anything, man?” Ray asks.

“By now it is like a train wreck, where I can’t stop staring. So then the nephew’s blonde girlfriend intervenes. She and Lexi start dancing like girls sometimes do to ward off unwanted guys…and then they start makin’ out like some kind of porn movie. Deep kissing and aggressively groping each other.

“The nephew and I exchange befuddled what-the-fuck glances, and Josh walks up with his girlfriend and absolute astonishment on their faces.

“Josh says, ‘Oh my God, Val. I have never seen my sister like this before. I swear she talked about nothing but you all dinner.’ His girlfriend agreed with a stutter, ‘It’s true. I’ll, I’ll dance with you if you want.’ But mostly the four of us just stood there staring in disbelief.”

Ray interrupted, “I don’t know, man. Sounds like a lot of fun to me. I can see you going with a nymphomaniac.”

“I wouldn’t mind a nympho,” Val explained, “as long as she was exclusive. Remember, I went into this thing thinking she’d be my future wife and soul mate, not the main attraction at the Playboy mansion. Anyhow, there’s more.”

“There’s more?” Ray asked, signally to the waitress for another round.

“Lexi and the blonde walk over, and Lexi grabs me by the belt and takes me to a table. I knock what’s left of my double back as she catches her breath. ‘I guess nobody puts Baby in a corner,’ I said, regaining my senses, and she laughs. ‘You’re the coolest guy ever,’ she said. ‘Get our coats and take me home.’

“I get our coats, with every intention of pouring her into a cab and sending her home alone. I don’t have a big enough medicine cabinet to cure all that she might be carrying.

“When I get back, our group has put a bunch of tables into an oval for everyone to sit around. It is dark in the club, and I don’t see Lexi at first. Her brother–a dude–holds my hand and asks that I be a gentleman. I promise, he lets go and I spot Lexi with the blonde at the other end of the oval. As I get closer, it is obvious they are Frenching. Standing next to them, I see the blonde has her hand up my date’s sweater, fondling Lexi’s left breast.

“Lexi opens her eyes in near ecstasy and just whispers, ‘Ice.’

“Yes, she’s getting an ice-cube nipple massage in front of a table of 24-people and whoever else is in the club.”

“Holy shit,” says Ray, snorting out a laugh. “Happy wife, happy life. What did you do next?”

“I was kinda still letting it all soak in, when Lexi grabbed my tie, pulls me down, Frenches me and purrs, ‘I hope that wasn’t too weird for you.’

“‘Nah,’ I said. ‘Happens to me all the time. Here’s your coat. I’m outta here.'”

“You didn’t,” Ray cackled. “You coulda had the freakiest sex of your life that night.”

“I didn’t want the freakiest sex of my life,” Val said, still injured from the experience. “I wanted this to be true love. I was in wife-hunting mode not porn-star hunting mode. I was really pissed and hurt.”

“Man,” Ray explained. “That’s your problem. You’re always looking for true love and a wife.”

“What’s wrong with that?”

“Nothing, but you’re looking for perfection, a fantasy—not a real woman.”

“I am not,” Val protested. “I have tons of quirks, and I want a quirky woman who matches my quirks while being perfectly funny, charming, brilliant, hard-working, carefree and witty.”

“Right,” said Ray. “You want a character in a movie—someone played by Meg Ryan, Reese Witherspoon or Drew Barrymore—not even the real women who play those characters—you just want the characters.”

“Hey, if somebody can write and portray those types of characters, there has to be some basis in reality for them,” Val countered.

“No there doesn’t,” Ray disagreed. “Only Germans go to movies to see hard, cold reality. Most people want to escape. They want fantasy. Those romantic comedies are huge hits because they are about what we all want to experience and believe.”

Val gave Ray a dubious look, so Ray pressed ahead.

“Did you ever study psychology in college, Val?”

“No. Not really.”

“It was my major,” Ray explained. “The number one thing it taught me is that we’re all crazy. Crazy isn’t a girl thing. It isn’t a guy thing. Everyone is bat-shit crazy. I kinda like the term, fith. Fucked In The Head.”

“No we’re not,” Val blew Ray off.

“Seriously,” Ray said. “Who knows? Lexi and that blonde probably think that you’re off your rocker. Why? Because you are crazy. I’m crazy. Everyone in this bar is crazy in some way or another.”

Val looked around the intimate setting of the trendy, urban bourbon distillery and shook his head. “The only insane person here is you.”

“Emotionally disturbed would be the more politically correct phrase to use, but to counter your point: No. We all are.”

“How?” Val asked.

Ray finished his drink and ordered another round, thinking about his answer. After a minute, he asked, “Let’s say you can magically find true love in this bar tonight. Okay?”

Val shrugged. “Sure. I’ll play along.”

“Okay,” Ray said. “Let’s calculate the odds. First, it should be noted that this a not a well-represented selection of the American public at large. While it is close to a 50/50 split of men and women, they range from their late twenties to early forties, appear single and affluent enough to blow $15 per rocks glass on hand-crafted bourbon in a major American metropolis.”

“That’s a fair assessment,” Val agreed.

“How many people do you think are in here?” Ray asked.

“Maybe around 100.”

“Perfect,” Ray said. “Now, can I assume you’re still straight?”

“Be my guest,” Val invited.

“Great. Let’s get started,” Ray began, while scanning the room. “Right away we can eliminate 50 people from this room as mates because you don’t want to sleep with a dude. But, the odds are that roughly 10% of people are gay. That eliminates 5 women who would never want to sleep with you.”

“My gaydar isn’t perfect,” Val confessed, surveying the bar, “But, you haven’t lost me, yet.”

“Did you know that reports show and predict between 25% and 75% of women and 10% to 50% of men will experience sexual abuse in their lifetimes. That alone will mess with anybody’s mind, but that doesn’t even begin to factor in other forms of abuse and issues with somebody’s parental upbringing, religion, peer-to-peer problems and simple biochemistry. That doesn’t mean that anybody who experiences any of these problems can’t love, enjoy sex or be the perfect lover for you or me—or we them. BUT, most people aren’t going to be the problem-free people we see portrayed on screen in rom-coms.”

“Really? That many people are abused?” Val asked, squinting to see if he could identify the people in the crowd who might be victims.

“Sadly, yes, the numbers are high, but it isn’t as if everyone is going to wear a badge proclaiming what happened to them.”

“Huh,” was all Val said, letting the information sink in.

“Of course,” Ray said, with a dark little laugh. “The statistics get pretty outrageous when you do the math.”

“What do you mean?”

Ray took a deep breath and wound himself up.

“I love stats, and, well, I’m kinda obsessed. In fact, did you know that about 1 in 100 people have obsessive-compulsive disorder, 2.5% have Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, 2% are bipolar, nearly 10% are dealing with some other clinical form of depression, up to 2% have separation anxiety, up to 1% have selective mutism where they won’t talk under various circumstances, up to 9% have a specific phobia like spiders or heights, 7% have social anxiety disorder—they likely self-selected out of this sample set, up to 3% of people have random panic attacks, nearly 3% have general anxiety disorder, 1.7% agorophobic—again, self-selecting out of this bar, 9% have post-traumatic stress disorder and up to another 20% are dealing with a milder form of PTSD, 1.5% have multiple personalities, nearly 2% of people have some sort of amnesia, up to 7% are hypocondriacs, roughly 3% of people have eating disorders, up to 10% have insomnia and 1% are hypersomnolent, 3.6% sleepwalk, up to 15% have sleep apnea, oh, this one’s fun…1% of American adults pee on themselves at least 3 times a week when there is nothing wrong with their urinary tracks…like bedwetting or even peeing on themselves in the middle of the day.”

Ray took a breath before rattling off more. “3% are oppositional defiant, up to 7% have clinically significant anger issues, 1% are pyromaniacs, 4% have addicitions—again, we might have a skewed sample set here, up to 4% are paranoid, roughly 13% have anti-social issues, up to 6% are narcissists, up to another 6% are impulsive and unstable to the point they can’t maintain a consistent, meaningful long-term relationship of any kind, up to 30% of men are frotteuristic, up to 30% of people get off on sexual sadism and it is estimated that up to 33% of Americans have at least one sexually transmitted disease.”

Ray took a drink. “And don’t get me started on diseases. Did you know that 10% of Americans have toenail fungus, 10% diabetes, up to 15% irritable bowel syndrome and 23% arthritis. I’ve also read that 7% of Americans don’t bathe, 6% can’t ride a bike, 33% of adults sleep with a comfort object like a Teddy bear or security blanket, 15% honestly believe that the world will end during their lifetime, 45% believe ghosts and demons are real, 25% still think the sun goes around the earth and, for Christ’s sake, 2% of Americans really think Sen. Mitt Romney’s real first name is Mittens!

“Do you know how many percents of America all of that adds up to?” Ray asked, cooling down and taking another sip of bourbon for effect.

“A lot of percent,” Val said, still trying to catch up.

“That’s 443.3%,” Ray stated.

“How’s that even possible?” Val asked. “I thought you can only have 100% of anything.”

“There are more problems and diagnoses than people,” Ray explained. “Maybe that blonde over there is a sexual sadist with irritable bowel syndrome, insomnia and explosive anger issues. Perhaps that redhead is a hypochondriac who is terrified of bunny rabbits and sets fires while losing control of her bladder. Maybe that brunette is a depressed alcoholic who will fight you for the next 4 hours, insisting that Mitt Romney is really Mittens Romney, not Willard.”

Val laughed.

“Okay, Ray. What’s the point? True love doesn’t exist?”

“That’s not the point,” Ray replied. “While I admit Lexi probably isn’t the right girl for you, you’ve got to stop looking for perfection and accept that everybody if fith in one way or another. Look for the crazy that matches your crazy, and you might find some lasting happiness.”

Author’s Note: The statistics cited in this story come from the American Psychiatric Association, Centers for Disease Control, National Institute of Health and other reputable sources. Also, if Val’s dates sound too unrealistic, although the names and places have changed, those really were dates I went on. No other details were changed. Thank goodness I’ve finally met a woman as charmingly crazy as myself to marry.

Decameron 2020: Mr. Hobbs

MR. HOBBS
By Art Cerf

This is a story about Mr. Hobbs.  Not Roy Hobbs, the baseball phenom played by Robert Redford in “The Natural.” And not Jimmy Stewart’s Mr. Hobbs in “Mr. Hobbs Takes a Vacation.”  Robert Redford is handsome. Jimmy Stewart was charming. Our Mr. Hobbs was neither.

He was a solitary man, an only child who lived his entire life with his mom and after she passed away, he continued living in their home.

Hobbs was a teller at the local bank for 37 years until a bank merger forced him into an unwanted retirement. Still, he had his Social Security, a small pension, his mother’s house and a small amount of money that she had willed to him. Altogether, it wasn’t much but it was enough for his needs.

Hobbs would sleep in late and go to bed early. During his waking hours, he would watch the news and old movies, thumb through about a hundred books in the house although he had read each multiple times. And he would pick up and hold his mother’s possessions.  Some of them were probably worth some money but it never crossed his mind to sell them.

He seldom went outside and then, only late at night, so he could roam the neighborhood without running into neighbors.

And then, the pandemic.

It started in Washington state, then New York. Soon it spread to Chicago, Los Angeles and New Orleans. And then tendrils of the virus reached out around the heartland.

Finally, it arrived in Pennyville. He saw that Sue and Walter Borowicz had died. They had been regular bank customers for decades.  A few days later, Harvey Ingle succumbed.  While they weren’t friends, Harvey had been in grade school with him.

But Hobbs had not fear of the virus. For one thing, he was socially distanced from everyone. And second, he had been dead for seven  years. And ghosts seldom get viruses.

EDITOR’S NOTE: For those of you who wonder where I get my macabre sense of humor, this story by my father might be a good clue. And to her credit, my mom can get pretty dark, too.