#5 Dream (City On Light)

We got a message from above, to watch the skies, that the aliens were coming. They would be here, tomorrow, to make us aware of their presence, and so that day we drove out to the desert… a great caravan of automobiles and SUV’s in line down the dusty road, all of us high on uncertainty: were our lives about to get better or were we on our way to die? There is a calm that comes when you finally face the future.

So we went… out to the cliffs, our cars parked, forgotten, and we sat in groups on the dizzying heights… the valley impossibly low before us, the wind buzzing our hair as we held the ones we loved. And then, at sunset, it happened.

A breeze blew away a cluster of clouds and an image appeared in its place: a square, a movie screen, and a movie began to play. “Aliens: Fact or Fiction?” What? This was a UFO documentary from the early 80’s: fuzzy… low-budget… with video stutters. I looked across the mountain range and I could see the guys broadcasting the movie, a bunch of tech geeks cracking up, their echoed laughter audible above the soundtrack: “Are aliens real? You’ll hear from people who think so.” The techs were laughing and hugging, overjoyed at their practical hoax while the digital projector beside them beamed the image into the sky.

Bad synth music as the video cut to an elderly witness: “I’m pretty sure what I saw was the real deal.”

And so we were back into our cars, hearts broken one more time, our faith ridiculed and our day wasted. It didn’t feel right. It didn’t feel real. We headed for home and I thought to myself, “No… that can’t be it. There has to be more.” And then, like an orchestra swelling simultaneous, it happened. I was the first to see it.

The trees were lit up, from inside, somehow, an everyday object rendered in three-dimensional light hanging over it: a pair of blue jeans, an apple, a sports car, a hardcover book. I started smiling.

The sky was illuminated by a light show… virtual fireworks without sound, a starburst of colors, minutes between blooms, and the night would get dark again as the embers dissolved in the black.

The show got better as we drove: into the city where every office building was glowing from within… not from man-made lighting or bulbs: the brick and steel itself was luminous, gleaming, beaming. The skyscrapers too had fully-rendered 3D light projections above them: Kermit the Frog, a traffic light, the logo of the New York Mets.

And we were out on the street with everyone else, radiating in the shine, saved, high on the light. This was the proof. We smiled and we laughed. And we

The Interview

She walked into my office for the interview, dressed as a cowgirl, and when I asked her why she said, “Sir... I AM a Cowgirl.”

I pressed the secret button for Security.

“So tell me, Eileen-”

Cowgirl Eileen,” she corrected me.

I sipped my coffee. “So why do you think you would make a good District Manager? Cowgirl Eileen?”

“I reckon there are five good reasons,” she said, loosening the tie on her ten-gallon hat. “Reason number one: I’m-”

And luckily for me our office Security is laser-fast. Two enormous uniformed guards burst into my office, knight sticks already drawn.

The bigger guy nodded toward Cowgirl Eileen. “Is this the lunatic?”

“Yep,” I said, crumpling up her resume.

The two guys grabbed her by the arms and lifted her out of her chair, dragging her violently from the room.

One of the guards turned to me on his way out: “Would you like us to beat her senseless as well?”

“Please,” I said.

Hey, it was a Monday.

Lush Cash Money

Dante run fast into the liquor store and out come the gun into the Sacramento moonlight. Then: the volume on the soundtrack up, the rush of blood to the forehead, and now it’s official, unfolding in real time: another liquor store robbery. This one was like every other, except completely different.

Sav-Mor, just another liquor store in a good city crumble slow, wine racks & Peach Schnapps & almost enough vodka to kill a sorority girl. It was the building on the corner, on the boulevard, a basser parked at the curb across the street, booming vintage funk on sub-woofers strong enough to shift tectonic plates.

Inside, under the neon, Dante “No Nickname” Aviles was standing at the counter, his grey-hooded sweatshirt zipped high like a bulletproof vest, beard stubble on his craggy Latin face. His eyes were dark & deep: open ditches waiting for the dead. His oily black hair was parted down the middle, highlighting the scar on his forehead from a knife fight with his sister. His heart was exploding, his mouth gone chalk, but he was ready to do this. He held his only power in his left hand: a 9 mm pistol, dull & heavy like a stepchild. He threw his head back and screamed… just so he could hear himself screaming.

Dusty bottles high above him tremble in surprise, their glass shoulders clinking as they rattle on their wooden shelves. In a Santa Monica minute they regain their composure, yawning, going back to bed.

There was no sleep for Dante: the blood in his eye spoke of insomnia, of drive-thru nutrition, of English as a second language. It spoke of nights spent in fruitless contemplation of being born insufficient, being born to a world that never wanted him. Life is a woman who turns you down and sends you on your way. He felt the pain every second, knew it would never subside. He was weary of the scheming, soured on the dream. He was poisoned: Dante was sick from the workday.

A softball-shaped schoolteacher in for margarita salt spotted the gun and quietly left the store. The girls would understand.

Dante, rearing back, “Gimme a bottle of Bluebeard’s black Rum!!!”

The store clerk, the owner, staring at the gun, blink slow, didn’t miss a beat: “I’ll have to see some ID."

This was Ermin Meyer, moist and fleshy like a halibut sautéed, cranky from the bassinet, his day’s newspaper unfolded before him, the Sports section already memorized. His white button-down was golden brown from decades of rinse cycles. He looked at Dante blank, a slow blink of his eyes to let the kid know this was not his first robbery. He licked his fingers and turned the page of his paper.

Dante took a big bite of air, hold the gun harder. He tried to process the defiance and lack of fear in the old man behind the counter but he just couldn’t compute: there had been too many neurons lost, washed out over time to chemical adventure. He shook his head while the veins in his temples pumped on high.

“ID… ID… myyy…yiiii… ID…” Gregory the parrot, winging in the cage behind the register: sometimes he liked to talk. Dante jumped back, his eyes bug the sockets.

Ermin stood like a still frame.

Dante watch as Gregory paced his perch: bright, long, green body with a yellow head. His metal cage was ceiling-mounted, rocking slow as the bird flapped and stepped in dance, and “Yip-yip-yip-yip…ID!”

Dante inhale, his eyeballs roll back to the old man, and he raised the silver pistol to his face. “This is my ID you son of a bitch.”

Meyer groaned, taking a brown bag from the counter, using his key on the register drawer, “Alright. No profanities please.” The drawer slid out & Ermin started to harvest twenties.

“What the fuck you doing?”

Ermin rolled his eyes, stuffing a moist fistful of fives into the bag. “I’m baking a cake.”

Dante bristled again, at the sarcasm, the lack of respect. “Aye-aye-aye,” Gregory chiming in, “aye-aye-aye baking a cake.”

Dante, disbelief: “Who told you to do that?”

“Don’t you want the money?”

Dante stomped his foot, kicked over the wine rack by the door. It fell over easy, the bottles jangle but didn’t break, sliding against the back of shelf. Meyer watched it lean, forgetting the gun for one minute, his patience falling away. “Do you want the money or not?”

“I told you before- I want the big bottle of Bluebeard’s black rum.”

“But not the money?”

Dante turned the gun to the life-size cardboard cutout of NASCAR racer Kevin Capuano. Kevin stood tall and proud in his corporate logo jumpsuit, mustache, & wife-beating grin, showcasing the 24 packs of beer on sale. Dante fired the gun, sending a bullet through Kevin’s paper heart, and the racer never lost the smile on his face, politely tilting backward and falling against the cases of the very brew he was being paid to promote.

Irony finds the finish line.

Ermin, deadpan: “That cutout had two days left to retirement.”

Dante made steam, snorting, turning the gun back to Ermin, and even the fearless old man could smell the burnt barium from the weapon. “You're a fool, you mess... you old dog…” Dante nodded at the pistol, “Just imaginate on what this could do to you.”

Gregory chirped in: “Could do to you,” his long claws clutched like fingers around the edges of his water dish. Dante's eyes were locked on the old man's: “You shut up your goddamn parakeet.”

Ermin smiled. “He’s a parrot, stupid.”

“I don't give a fuck.”

“He's a yellow-headed Amazon... he has-”

“Shut the fuck up!” Dante waving the gun, “Do what I tell you or you're going away!”

Ermin lowered his head, returning to his task. He was reaping lush cash money out the register like overgrown green grass… it even smelled freshly-cut. Stacks and stacks of cash that never seemed to end… it seemed to magically regenerate as the old man packed the bag.


Mr. Meyer was losing his calm. Agitated now: “Look, just take the money & go.”

“What fucking money? Who told you I wanted your money?”

Ermin, shaking, snapped back. “What the hell DO you want?”

Dante took a bottle of grenadine from the countertop display, unscrewing the cap. He poured the sticky red over Ermin's head, soaking him slow.

Meyer's reaction was unexplainable: he raised his hands as if to catch it, his face contorted into a hopeless frown, salt-water in his eyes.

Dante finally smiled, watching the juice stain the old man's shirt from last century. He could almost taste the tears.

“I want you to turn around, get on your stepladder, and get me the big bottle of Bluebeard's black rum. I'm not gonna tell you again.”

The gun was back in Ermin’s face. Gregory fluttered to his perch, taking cover, offering “black rum, black rum.”

On the sixth shelf above Meyer's left shoulder sat the jug of rum: 1.75 litres. The label featured Bluebeard, a fictitious savage bastard created by a marketing team to sell liquid cane to the general public. With his sword drawn and chunks of bloody remains in his tangled beard he stood on the shore of a beach he had just conquered, ostensibly by raping & murdering the natives. His grin was replete with holes and stolen teeth, the new sinister, a corporate logo worse than the actual killer.

“What do you want with all that rum?”

 Dante shook his head in disbelief.

“Gimme the goddamn rum!”

Gregory: “Eeee-ee-eee gimme gimme... gimme-gimme”

“Listen kid, all I’m saying is… why are you doing this?”

Dante, listening.

“Is this really what you want to do with your life?”

Neither man said anything… Dante understanding the emotions if not the words. Meyer took a deep breath.

“You want rum? I’ll give you rum. You want money? This is my store. I been here almost thirty years. There’s a better way to do things. You don’t have to-”

Dante turned his gun on the birdcage & fired, obliterating Gregory in a blast of green & yellow feathers.

Ermin turned round, eyes wide, jaw-dropped, to watch the now-empty cage swinging violent from its chain. The feathers floated in the air, hung there, defying gravity, sticking to Ermin’s syrupy clothes. “Gregory…”

“What does the bird have to say about that?” Dante put his hand to his ear, pretending to listen. “I don’t hear him say shit. Your parakeet must have forgot how to talk.”

Ermin, between sobs, “He was a parrot.”

Dante swung the gun back to the old man's face. “This is it. You have thirty seconds to do what I told you.”

Ermin, broken, turned and headed for the ladder, climbing up the three steps and pulling the jug down. Bluebeard beamed back at him in his head band, chest flush with victory, looking into Ermin’s eyes and seeming to say, “Told you so.” For the filthy buccaneer this was better than a prison break.

Mr. Meyer walked the bottle over and placed it on the counter in front of Dante, whose eyes kept flashing to it, magnetized, a smile in his eyes now that the drought was finally over.

Ermin, defeated: “Now please…”

“How much?”


Dante shook his head, returning to furious. “Are you deaf AND old? I said how much for the bottle!”

Ermin, lost: “$39.95.”

Dante reached for his wallet with his free hand and slipped out two twenties, throwing them on the counter. Ermin eyed the greenbacks in disbelief, but didn’t wait for his next instruction. He plucked a Jefferson nickel out of the till and dropped it into Dante's palm- wet with sweat.

The gun was lowered as Dante reached for the bottle of rum sacred. He looked at it in love, satisfied... quenched. He looked back at Ermin. “Are we good?”

Ermin searched the hard Latin face across from him for some trace... some clue… but he found nothing.

He swallowed, mentally preparing the monster job of recuperation. “Yeah,” his voice weak, ravaged, “We’re good.”

Dante smiled, remembering childhood, and swung the jug of rum at Ermin’s head: blunt force, crack his scalp and shatter his eye socket, bottle breaking against the crunch of skull bone. Ermin go down to the counter without a fuss, blood flowing, spinal fluid pooling like white zinfandel. The old man, finished, wholesale, finally humbled, going out of business, bleeding quietly to death on the spot.

The bottle of rum, compromised, leaking molasses slow, soaking the Sports section pulpy as Dante grabbed the bag of cash, leaving his two twenties on the counter. He showed no emotion as he emptied the register, as he grabbed a green feather and tucked it behind his ear, as he turned to leave and caught me on my knees, hiding behind the shelf at the end of the whiskey aisle. He showed no emotion as he pulled his pistol from his pocket, and I knew I had told my last story.