|Publisher:||Regal House Publishing|
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.60(d)|
About the Author
Michael C. Keith is the author/coauthor of 30 book volumes and dozens of articles on media topics. In addition to his nonfiction works, Keith has published numerous creative works, including a critically acclaimed memoir (The Next Better Place) and 15 short story collections, most recently Let Us Now Speak of Extinction. His fiction has been nominated for several awards, among them the Pen/O.Henry Award, the Pushcart Prize, the National Indie Excellent Award, and the International Book Award.
Read an Excerpt
Tony Bennett Sits on a Bench ...
Two over from where I'm sitting in Central Park. It's when I rise to leave that I notice him. He's with an attractive blonde woman many decades his junior. I walk over and smile at the legendary crooner. He returns my smile, and I say, "Hello, Mr. Bennett. How are you?" He looks away without replying, his expression suddenly wooden ... detached. I'm at a loss for what to do next. Perhaps repeat my question? Ask something else? His companion glares at me, and I realize I've encroached upon their public privacy. I feel rebuffed and embarrassed and slink away, berating myself for my audacity.CHAPTER 2
Going the Distance
There is something curiously boring about somebody else's happiness.
–– Aldous Huxley
Miranda loved the coastline of New England, while her husband, Charlie, preferred the wide-open spaces of western Nebraska. After a relatively short discussion about where they'd spend their retirement years, an agreement was reached: Half of the year would be spent on the New England shoreline, and the other half of the year would also be spent on the New England shoreline.
After three years of quiet repose, listening to the sound of seagulls and surf, Miranda passed away. A week after her funeral, Charlie booked a flight to Omaha and then rented a car. Six hours later he reached Alliance, a small town located on the high plains of the far Midwest.
Shortly after arriving, he bought a modest house some miles from the town's center. He felt he had finally fulfilled a long-time dream as he sat on his porch, watching the sun set on the unobstructed horizon.
In time, Charlie joined the senior center in town, and during a bean supper on a Friday evening, he met Sandra, a fellow septuagenarian. He fell in love with her and proposed. To his great satisfaction, she accepted, and they began life together in her larger house on the outskirts of the business district.
Life was better than Charlie ever thought it could be, until a revelation by his new wife on their first month anniversary caught him off guard.
"I've always dreamed of living close to the ocean. Maybe right on the beach," confided Sandra. "I'm not sure I'll ever feel fulfilled unless I do."
Realizing that her deep-seated yearning would most likely have a negative impact on their life together, Charlie decided to take action.
"Darling, you know I want us to be happy, so I bought you something I think will guarantee that," said Charlie, handing his wife an envelope.
Sandra opened it excitedly, but when she saw what was inside, she was confused.
"It's a single one-way ticket to the East Coast."
"Exactly," said Charlie.CHAPTER 3
Dark Things Rise from the Senior Body
The dull morning light seeps through the motel window. My wife does her stretches as I stagger to the bathroom to relieve myself. I catch my image in the mirror and discover that somehow in the course of the night a foot-long hair has sprung from my ear. I wrap it around my drooping lobe to show my wife. After I've emptied my bladder, I start to walk from the bathroom but am yanked backward and end up on my ass, a stabbing pain in my ear. When I stand, I see the wispy follicle slither across the floor, wend its way up to the sink, and slip down the drain. This is not the first time this has happened, and I think that getting old is an alien thing.CHAPTER 4
Rest in Peace
Renowned writer John Cheever has homosexual relationships and thinks he shouldn't because he's married to a woman and has two children. Overwhelmed by guilt, not long before Cheever dies he decides to avoid future gay encounters but falls in love with a young man called Rip. The irony of the letters comprising his new paramour's name is not lost on his family and friends.CHAPTER 5
We live in a rainbow of chaos.
–– Paul Cezanne
My girlfriend and I rented a tiny bungalow at the end of the boardwalk in Atlantic City. The outside needed a coat of paint and the shutters were hanging at different angles than they should, but the inside wasn't bad. The floors were uneven and there was a slight leak in the bathroom ceiling. But on the plus side, there was a small wood-burning fireplace in the kitchen and a built-in bookshelf in the front room where we put our collection of seashells and used paperbacks. Unfortunately, the bedroom window looked out onto the neighboring wall of a cement high-rise inches away.
We spent what was left of the first day at our new place sitting on the sagging front porch that overlooked the ocean and then turned in. Not long after, things started crashing down on the roof. The initial loud thuds shocked us out of our sleep. It was followed at measured intervals by several more jarring booms that caused us to run outside to see what was happening. As we stood on the sidewalk and looked up, another object was hurled from a window of the building that towered over ours.
"Shoes!" shouted my girlfriend. "They're dropping fucking shoes on our house!" As soon as the words rolled from her mouth, another pair descended onto the top of our squat digs.
Stunned and perturbed, I called the police to report what was happening.
"Shoes?" asked the officer.
"Yes, shoes," I answered.
"What type?" he inquired.
"Does it matter?" I replied.
"Maybe not ... hold on," he said.
After a few moments, he spoke again, "Well, I checked, and there's no law against that."
"What do you mean?" I asked.
"Dropping footwear from a tall building onto a smaller one constitutes no legal offense, regardless of the type of shoes," he offered.
We returned to the front porch and mulled over the officer's response to our complaint. Then, we re-entered our new rental and slipped under the covers of our double bed. It took only a short while before we became accustomed to the crashing sounds and went back to sleep.CHAPTER 6
Making a Decision Near Tuscumbia
"What we do 'bout dat Reb body out in da field?" asked Jim.
"Dem be da boys fightin' to keep us slaves," said Hany.
"Yeah, I knows dat, but he be dead and layin' dere. Don't seem right ... do it?"
"It be right you workin fo da master fo nothin and git beat ifs ya looks da wrong ways?"
"We all gots ta answer to da Lord for what we duz, so maybe we do better than he do and git in Heaven."
"Okay ... git da shovel."CHAPTER 7
When the Best Action is No Action
I'm in another country, maybe not even of this Earth, and I don't know what to say or how to act. Everything looks strange to me. So, I'm just going to sit where I am and do nothing. I think that's the sensible thing to do. Besides, I don't have any shoes on and there's something that looks like razors all over the ground.CHAPTER 8
When Change is Mistaken for Improvement
Chloe Aubin was charged with restoring a painting by Northern Renaissance artist Jan van Eyck––not one of his more familiar works but one of inestimable value nonetheless. This work, like so many of his creations, depicted the Virgin Mary with her child. It was badly in need of reclamation, having suffered water damage to its poplar wood panels. The process of restoration was painstaking, and after eighteen months of labor, Chloe felt exhausted. She remained concerned, however, that she'd failed to do van Eyck's Madonna justice. It was the eyes she felt she'd altered. They differed ever-so-slightly from the photograph she'd been using as her main reference. Yet to Chloe's surprise, her colleagues hadn't appeared to notice. I know it's not my imagination, she thought. I've done something to change the Madonna's eyes. Each day it became more apparent to her that she'd somehow defiled the classic work of the Netherlandish artist. Just finish what you need to do and move on. If your mistake goes undetected, then perhaps it's so subtle you'll get away with it, she told herself. After her final reparation, she informed her supervisor she was ready for a new assignment. "Good," he said, looking closely at the rehabilitated portrait and smiling. "We need you on another van Eyck. We love how you've improvised on the eyes."CHAPTER 9
But there's nothing to equal, from what I hear tell, that moment of mystery.
–– George Eliot
My father fiddles with the on/off switch on his flashlight.
"Crap!" he grumbles, tapping it against the palm of his hand. "Damn batteries are new, too."
The flashlight flickers on, its beam bright. "Good!" He owns numerous flashlights. There is one within arm's reach everywhere in his house. They're very important to him, and I've never been quite sure why.
"What are you looking for?" I ask him as he casts the flashlight's brilliant shaft out of his bedroom window like he's done a thousand times before.
"Just checking to make sure it works."
It's his standard rejoinder to the question I've been posing since I was a kid.
"You're always checking them, Dad. How come?" I ask reflexively.
"The batteries can die much sooner than you might think, so you got to check them pretty often."
"But you check them constantly."
"You can never check them enough, because when you need them, they damn sure better work."
"A jealous husband after you?" I joke. My father ignores me––he's heard that line before.
When I was a kid, I was convinced that gangsters were tracking him. Maybe he had double-crossed a ruthless mob and they wanted to come break his legs. When I told him my theory, he dismissed it as ridiculous. I wasn't convinced, and the question of why he spent so much time shining his flashlight out into the night continued to intrigue, if not haunt, me.
"It's pretty weird doing that. A really strange habit," I remark.
"You don't know anything," he snaps––and I've heard that line before, too.
"Dad, c'mon, I'm going to head back to my apartment. Walk me to the door."
"Hold on!" he says, shooshing me.
"What?" I ask, and he waves me to the window.
He has caught something in the beam of his flashlight. When it moves, the air empties out of my lungs.
"Jesus! What the —?"
"No problem," he says, holding the beam steady on the most grotesque creature I have ever seen.
And then suddenly the grotesquery vanishes, as if it's been struck by a ray gun.
"There," says my father, turning to me with a look of triumph.
I steady myself against the wall, my knees weak, attempting to regain my breath.
"That's why I always check the batteries," he says, matter of factly.CHAPTER 10
The SS Ericisson anchors at Pier 84 in Manhattan on the Hudson. It carries thousands of smiling and cheering troops just returned from the battlefields of Europe. It is 1946 and from where I sit gazing at this grainy black and white photograph, seventy years later, it occurs to me that all of these young men so eager to get on with their lives have by now spent them.CHAPTER 11
That we should, with joy, pleasance, revel, and applause, transform ourselves into beasts.
It's a good morning when your ass isn't bleeding, thought Barry Suskind as he checked the toilet tissue. It had been six months since he'd received experimental radiation treatment for a gastric tumor, and the bleeding was not entirely gone, as his doctor had promised. Compounding his concern was a growth he'd recently discovered on the rim of his anus. At first it felt like a pimple, but with each passing day it grew to where it began to feel like his boxers were knotted between his hirsute buttocks.
Barry returned to his doctor and was prescribed a thick salve to be applied to "the problem area" three times a day. After several weeks, the growth had shrunk and Barry no longer walked like a bronco rider. He located another growth, however, in his left armpit. Figuring the prescribed butt ointment would help shrink this newly discovered lump, he applied it to the trouble spot several times a day. After a week, the growth was twice the size. He requested an appointment with his doctor, fearing the worst.
"Don't really know what you got growing there. Better see a skin specialist," advised his primary care physician.
"Is it cancer?" Barry asked with trepidation.
"Doesn't look like it, but you better get it checked out by a dermatologist. It might be some kind of fungus. Have you visited the tropics since I saw you last?" asked the doctor, his nose inches from Barry's vexing gob.
His appointment with the dermatologist had been scheduled for the following Monday, by which time the accruing growth forced Barry to make adjustments. While the nodule was not painful, he was squeamish about making contact with it and fearful that it might suddenly burst, covering him with whatever pus might be contained within.
"Wow, that's a whopper you got there, Mr. Suskind. Let's have a closer look," remarked the dermatologist, poking at the fleshy bulge with a cotton swab. "I'd take a tissue sample, but I'm afraid you might bleed out. We need to reduce the size of the growth before a biopsy can be done, so I'll write you a prescription that should help in that department."
Barry fretted over the word biopsy. Wasn't it a term always associated with the big C? he wondered, his anxiety spiking. He took the pills as prescribed, but after the second week the growth was the size of a grapefruit. Then, as the date of the open tryouts for Instant Stars that he had eagerly awaited was finally announced, fortune took a very positive turn for Barry. In five days, he would need to give the singing performance of his life if he wanted to be selected as a contestant on the Celebrity Network's most popular show. Barry had been certain that once the judges heard his unique tenor, his rise to fame would be guaranteed. Now, he worried that the opportunity might be lost due to his bizarre profusion of growths.
By the day of the audition, a third of his upper torso was covered by the rapidly expanding growth, but Barry was determined to proceed. The line of hopeful contestants extended the length of the shopping center and Barry took up his position at the end of it. Others in line gave him curious looks, but he ignored them, keeping his thoughts fixed on the prize that lay ahead. Hours passed before he arrived in front of the judges, and after he provided his name one of them asked about his strange wardrobe.
"Well, sir, it's all I could find to cover my growth," replied Barry.
"Growth?" responded the judge.
"Yes sir," said Barry, unwrapping the bedspread and revealing his now-grotesque deformity.
All three judges gasped, one turned her head away, as if about to lose her lunch.
"What is that, Mr. Suskind? Some kind of cancer or leprosy?" queried the woman.
"I'm not sure. We don't know yet," answered Barry, fearing he would be eliminated from the competition before even performing.
"I'm sorry, Mr. Suskind. You don't have to answer that question. It's courageous of you to even be here. Are you able to perform?" asked another judge, who appeared to be in charge.
"Absolutely," responded Barry, thrilled he would be able to show the panel what he could do.
He rewrapped the floral bedspread around his body and took a long, deep breath. He then proceeded to give a bravura performance of "Greensleeves," which prompted a standing ovation from the panel.
"Bravo, Mr. Suskind! That certainly earns you a place in the finals next week," said the lead judge.
"Thank you, sir. I'll be there," said Barry, attempting a bow but finding he was unable to bend.
The final audition was scheduled for the same afternoon as his doctor's appointment, so Barry chose to forgo medical attention in preference for a chance at stardom. Again, he performed brilliantly, winning a spot on the season premiere of Instant Stars to be aired in two weeks' time.
"You amaze us, Mr. Suskind. Anybody enduring such medical challenges is already a winner. Where do you get such courage?" asked comedian Ronny Blanche, a guest judge on the first broadcast.
"Well, Mr. Blanche," replied Barry, whose voice was still strong and clear despite the growth that now obscured his chin and forehead, "I have a slogan, kind of a mantra, that gets me through the lows."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Stories in the Key of Me"
Copyright © 2019 Michael Keith.
Excerpted by permission of Regal House Publishing, LLC.
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