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Short Stories

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Things spring onto life's stage unannounced, engage us thoroughly, and then are swept off by time or traffic before we can wonder at their coming or going. Fragments, here once and at once, and gone all other times. But if they do it right, once is enough.

· At the Dollar Store, a woman and her 4-year-old, waiting in a long check-out line with the little girl bleating, "I want the baby doll" over and over and over again. After about the 36th repetition, the old man behind them in line spoke up and said, "Go on. Go get the baby doll. I'll buy you the baby doll. Go get it."

The little girl stopped immediately and went running down the aisle, her arms held out like airplane wings. Her mother, who had had a totally impassive look on her face the whole time, now looked at the old man and smiled the slightest smile and said, "Thank you, sir" and went right back to being impassive.

· Rickie Castrillo was talking of the last days of the legendary street tap-dancer Pork Chop, after the demise of his partner Kidney Stew. Pork Chop was walking down Bourbon Street, where he used to jump into the clubs for a few impromptu steps and a quick passing of the hat. Pork Chop had a large piece of plywood under his arm and was cussing. "These goddamn club owners carpeting all the clubs now. Now I gotta carry my goddamn floor around with me!"

· The couple under a blanket, he with his back against the side of an industrial building and her with her ear against his chest, settling down for the night at 4:39 in the afternoon and oblivious to all the people driving back to Metairie after the St. Patrick's Day parade.

· At the City Park garden show, a woman talking to an old man, strangers sharing a bench and a break from shopping. She says, "I was looking at this tree, but it's only a moderate grower and I'm not sure. I'm 41, and I might not see it mature." And then he says, "How you think I feel? I'm 78. I gotta buy something that's gonna bloom by morning!"

· Two middle-aged guys over by the produce case of Lakeview Fine Foods. First Guy: "Yeah, man. You shoulda been there with me on my vacation in Florida. Young chicks everywheres." Second Guy: "Hot damn. You see a lotta them thongs?" First Guy: "Thongs? Whattya think, I was looking at they feet?"

· Down the street next to the Superdome, the old Protestant cemetery, comes the car, nearly lifted off the ground by the urban bellow, ascendant and bringin' in the noise, bringin' in the funk. If you were standing on the sidewalk, your innards would be thumping against your chest.

And as this Unchecked Pulse rolls down the street, its mighty vibe touches off alarm after alarm system of the cars parked along the way. A chorus of frogs croaking homage to the rumping cough of the passing bull gator.

· Inside the Saenger on the day it cost six bits to see The Wizard of Oz matinee. The adult population is heavily slanted to young moms and old queens, but both of these groups are badly outnumbered by kids of all colors. Little girls with pigtails and wearing ruby red slippers. Little boys in Velcro diapers.

And suddenly these two men meet in the aisle near one of the mezzanine's back rows. They know each other from another time, when they were growing up in adjoining neighborhoods and each knew the reputation of the other. The reputations were of the fighting kind and built on midnight struggles on the playgrounds and in the parking lots of lounges and dancehalls, those swift wars begun over an angry stare angrily returned or the wispy smile of a girl in a tight skirt.

They had never actually tried one another, but the thought had probably crossed each mind at some point. But that was many thoughts ago and long replaced by the thinking about divorces and delivered pizzas and unmet mortgages and even-number birthdays. But certainly not thoughts of punching or being punched in the face.

Now after all these years, they are face to face again, and paunchy and gray and with funny clothes disheveled. And each flashes a smile that is both wide and well-meant, warm with the recognition of one's own kind. Then each must realize where and why and how they are here and then recall who they had once been. Embarrassment stains each cheek. A couple of things get half-said and then one man sputters something about a granddaughter and the other man never even tries an explanation. Then, the swiftest of handshakes and each one-time warrior begins moving toward a seat to await the coming of Oz, certain beyond doubt they are not in Kansas anymore.

· There once was a book with his name on the cover, but sales fell quite short of the number printed and then nobody was talking about the book anymore and months of that turned into years.

Then out of the blue, the author got a phone call from an old friend. He had been making a turn on Gause Boulevard in Slidell and had noticed this homeless guy on the move between the Burger King and the neighboring McDonald's. "He had like this duffle bag or carry-satchel thing," the phone call went on. "And at the bottom of it was a little mesh part, you know, like you could see through. And whattya think, there you were on the cover of your book, looking out through the mesh and grinning like a fool."

There is no better aperçu on publishing that I know of.

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