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My First Summer as Double Top-Secret Spy

After we pulled ourselves from the lake onto the pier, my brother David waved his bare feet in the air and said, “Look at all the mud squirming between my toes.”

They were leeches, not mud, and we all had them between our toes and in our armpits and crotches as we soon found out after Mom wrestled us into the shower and scanned every inch of our bodies, shrieking the entire time. Mom never fully recovered from this episode, but we were back in the lake within hours, though she made us wear shoes and socks and T-shirts every time we got in and made us inspect ourselves every time we got out.

A Pinch of Herbs: Basil

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An Upper Like Mickey Mantle’s

The company had rented the long room at the country club for the party, and I was the designated host. The party was going well. People were mingling and talking and laughing.

A man came from somewhere out in the night and stood outside at the big window, a man wearing baggy old clothes. He rapped on the window. He pressed his face against the window and made faces at us. Some people didn’t think he was so funny.

I myself have never had much use for jerks like him.

I said, “I’ll run him off.”

I strode out the door into the darkness. The man turned toward me. I said, “That’s enough. Get your ass out of here.”

He got out a gun from somewhere in his baggy clothes.

I ran back to the main room.

I stood there on a high step and called out to the crowd, “Take cover. He’s got a gun.”

People stared at me. The first sounds of alarm began in the crowd, but there was also some laughter. I then ran for cover.

I ran the length of the room. People stared at me as I ran by them. Some of them kept laughing. I ran out the door at the far end of the room.

I ran across the golf course into the darkness. I heard shots. I heard screams and yelling.

I ran on. Other people came running, too. I outran all of them.

As I ran I was experiencing a terrific upper. In that very same moment of the upper I knew I was soon going to experience a terrific downer. I also knew that I might owe the world a suicide, a debt that I knew I would not pay. I knew all of this in that one moment.

But right now the moment belonged to the upper. Have you seen that action photograph of Mickey Mantle in his prime, a photograph re-published after his death? He’s running at full speed to beat out the throw to first base. He’s running so fast that his feet don’t touch the ground. He’s running in the air. He’s all speed and power and grace and joy. That was for me that moment that night, running for my life in the darkness of the golf course.

Gordon C. Wilson was a lifelong resident of California, and served as Night Editor for the Riverside Press-Enterprise. His stories appeared in The DeKalb Literary Arts Journal, Green’s Magazine, The Nantucket Review, Iconoclast, Mind and Motion, and other publications. His short story collections—Three Stories and Lafayette’s—were both published by Arts End Books (West Dover, Vermont) in 1980 and 1999, respectively.

Cookie Meets Tookie, Part II of The Holy Land Bible


Wise-ass art student: “If Baltimore is the Holy Land, where is Jerusalem?”

Basilio the elder, thinking fast: “Dundalk.”

It is widely believed that Tookie Tukulski saw Basilio Boullosa for the last time the day they graduated from Transfiguration High in June 1976, smoking a sticky joint—“the heavy-heavy”—and listening to “Jelly Roll Gumdrop” while speeding to commencement in the Basilio’s AMC Pacer.

“Remember man, remember,” said Tookie in a stream of trippy messages on Basilio’s answering machine. “We were running late when you picked me up and I jumped out of the shower when you pulled up, getting dressed in the car and sticking my head out the window to dry my hair as we raced up Calvert Street?”


Who could forget?

The day after graduation, Basilio caught an ore ship out of the old SIU hall at the corner of Baltimore and Central and sailed for Peru. Tookie showed up late for work at his parents’ pet supply store, beginning a career of lugging 50-pound bags of dog food from trucks to the shelves and shelves to cars for customers who, when they thought to tip at all, filled his hand with change as though he was still a teenager.


Years later, floating with a can of beer in the above-ground pool in his parents’ backyard (a storm blew in and chased Tookie from the water, lightning felled a tree that crushed the roof of the cinder-block garage), Tookie told a stoned and comely wayfarer—“Driving up Calvert Street—last I ever saw that crazy motherfucker.”

But like most things in the door-to-door salesman’s 57-years upon the Earth—over 400 jobs, selling everything from light bulbs to grass seed—that crazy motherfucker was wrong.

The last time Basilio Boullosa saw Tookie Tukulski was at the Logan Village Shopping Center in Dundalk as Memorial Stadium came down, the summer of 2001, the season of Cookie.

Across this assignation: bursts of post-industrial transcendence only possible in Crabtown (“they used to run pigs under the street here, over there was a German butcher shop where Orlo bought trotters for stew,”) cascades of thrills (upon arrival, the next morning, just because and the promise of more before parting,) a living room dance party for two — “You better get down and pray, you better start right away—I need a hexbreaker, Baby . . .”—and two culinary landmarks in 12 hours.

The Sip & Bite for lunch and Captain Harvey’s for dinner.

The hogwash: a feature story on the death of old ballparks, an-out-of-town assignment with a local angle: the tin-roofed Cathedral of Corktown in Cookie’s backyard soon to follow the diamond where Basilio saw the only World Series grand-slam by a pitcher in the history of the game.

He made her portrait that morning in front of the stadium’s limestone face, upon which were bolted words made of stainless steel in a font unknown beyond the boundaries of Baltimore.

With a fingernail, Basilio scratched those words across the top of the orange and yellow canvas; that night watching the parade stumble past a Dundalk coin laundry, washing the pilgrims in pastels from his Schmincke pan as his lover’s shorts and t-shirts tumbled dry.

A kiss at the folding table and then, around the corner to Captain Harvey’s for cheese steak subs.

Over a farewell repast before Cookie returned to the day-to-day in Detroit (the newsroom, the husband, her children), they savored their subs (everything with hots, French fries and gravy), mythologized their story (“I always wrote about me when I could,” said Beatle John,) and traded calendar dates like bubblegum cards to see when the way might be open again.

Night falling in adulterous Jerusalem, a tea-shaded moon above the ruins of the Sparrows Point steel works—“look close,” said Basilio, “and you can see it vibrating”—once the largest in the world.

“I can’t,” said Cookie as Basilio gently tilted her head toward the water, answering with a story about the green flash he’d seen on that long ago ore-trip.

“You make a little pin-hole out of your thumb and forefinger. “And you have to be lucky.”

They were about to leave for ice-cream when who scuffles in from back in the kitchen?

The freak voted by his Transfiguration classmates most likely to become a roadie for Foghat; an autodidact fraying the tightrope between Mensa and mental (“that goof is mental”); Tookie Tukulski dragging the cleats of his cowboy boots against the blue and white Hellenic tile of Harvey’s.

“Ringo!” shouted Tookie, hovering over the booth where Basilio and Cookie sat, his crazy eyes all over her (no bra, small breasts, thin cotton tank-top—Detroit Symphony Orchestra, Est. 1887—until she flushed crimson, politely wiped her mouth and looked in her bag for a sweater.

“Tookie,” said Basilio as his lover covered up. “Tookie Fucking Tukulski.”

Tookie the Fool humping crabs for an ex-heavyweight boxer and strip-club bouncer named Stitchell, two bushels of females rolled into Harvey’s walk-in cooler for crab cakes and soup.

“Jesus Christ, Took,” said Basilio, “You look terrible.”

“Good to see you, too, man.”

Cookie was grateful not to be introduced, Tookie’s fervor giving her premonitions that the on-the-road games she’d been playing with Basilio (a friend’s apartment on the shore, Room 829 of the Hotel Chelsea, airport motels) had come to the attention of the Home Office.

“Excuse me,” she said, standing up. “I have to make a call.”

*      *      *      *

The kind of stories I chose to do were mostly about American myths. I tried to be a witness. But then I started questioning the reportage. Manipulators had so warped public events that I could no longer trust what I was seeing. “I realized I was more interested in photographing pajamas on a bed or a woman hauling groceries into her house than history writ large.—Charles Harbutt, 1935 to 2015

*      *      *      *

Tookie slid into Cookie’s empty seat.

“She’s pretty, man,” he said. “You guys going steady?

“Christ Took, you’re selling crabs?”

“Just helping a guy out.”

His face was heavier, the nose fleshier, lined with veins and a little bent to one side, brown eyes still intelligent (he used to win beer in neighborhood dives by naming all of the presidents in backward order) but without the sparkle.

“Crab man’s fighting with the Greek in the kitchen over the bill,” said Tookie. “Wanna catch a quick one?”

“Don’t get high anymore, Took.”

“Me, neither. Just a couple of beers once in a while. Couple beers won’t hurt you.” Cookie returned from the pay phone on the sidewalk, fingering a small gold cross around her neck.

“We should go,” she said.

Although they hadn’t really met, she looked at Tookie – for some reason attempted to see him beyond the cartoon—and said, “Nice to meet you.”

Tookie extended his hand, fingers smelly from crab juice and grime, and Cookie was spared having to shake it by a shout from the back.

“Tukulski, let’s go!”

Tookie began walking backward, clicking those heels and giving Basilio a salute.

“Gimme a call man. Let’s get together.”


Walking Cookie out to the car, Basilio said, “Everything okay?”

“I think so.”

Opening the door for her, he said: “I wrote that guy letters from sea the whole summer after we got out of school. Christ he looks rough.”

That is the last time Timothy “Tookie” Tukulski and Basilio “Ringo” Boullosa—two of the Holy Land’s great rock and roll potheads of the 1970s, one plucked from the bus by the hand of God, the other jumping the guard rail as it plunged into the abyss—laid eyes upon one another.

And early the next morning—putting her in a cab on Macon Street—the last time Basilio saw Cookie, the portrait of her below the wreckage of Memorial Stadium sold to pay for half-a-tank of heating oil that winter.



Rafael Alvarez is a former newspaperman who writes fiction and screenplays from his hometown of Baltimore. A former staff writer for HBO’s “The Wire,” Alvarez will publish a new anthology of non-fiction, Crabtown, USA, over the 2015 holiday season. His short stories can be found in the collections Tales from the Holy Land, and Orlo and Leini. Alvarez can be reached via To read more about Alvarez, go here. For another taste of his prose, go here


You Are Not Alone

The reason Donna goes out of her way to do her grocery shopping at this high end Kroger’s in the south suburbs is not because it’s newer, bigger, brighter, the better to serve the lawyers, doctors, assorted venture capitalists, in other words, the rich people, moving into the half-timbered monstrosities appearing like enormous, stuccoed mushrooms in the bosky dells where not so long ago mooing ruminants chewed their cud. No, she goes for the music.The first time she stopped here on the way home from the new mall, Donna picked up her package of ground chuck and wound up wandering the aisles as, one after another, the Indigo Girls, Moby, the two Franks, Sinatra and Ocean, Steve Earle, the Cranberries, Gene Pitney and India.Arie poured out of the overhead speakers. When Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five” followed her out to the parking lot, she knew she was hooked.
Donna, not for nothing a musicologist whose field of study is contemporary music, found, after some not very extensive research (she asked the nice clerk piling Ruby River grapefruits into a pyramid in produce) that the head of the meat department, player of acoustic guitar in his own alt country band, had convinced the store manager to skip the Muzak and let him take care of the programming, coming up each week with a new three hour mix to be repeated over and over for the next seven days. The customers, a preponderance of whom were young professionals, aging baby boomers, and the myriad condo dwellers, many newly divorced and finding themselves once again trying to figure out what “with it” means, buying their radicchio and Alaskan salmon and Chilean wine, loved it.

When Donna tried to explain to Kenny why she was using gas and time, going twenty-five miles out of her way to shop for groceries, when a perfectly good IGA sat not three blocks away (an IGA that plays Mantovani-like instrumentals not only of Barry Manilow and Neil Diamond but of the Stones and Led Zeppelin, a store where no song is sacred, where it would not surprise her at all to one day hear a violin rendition of some Sex Pistols’ thrasher), his only comment was, “I don’t get it.” (Now she thinks of it, this could have been Kenny’s mantra.)

She felt silly saying that coming across this trove of unpredictable music quite by chance in a place where she least expected it, was somehow addictively satisfying. Each week as she entered the store she found herself holding her breath, fearing the sound of sobbing strings, exhaling only after she realized what she was hearing was the intro to “Tenth Avenue Freeze-out,” or Errol Garner’s piano or Emmy Lou Harris and the Flying Burrito Brothers. Of course all this was before Kenny went back to his wife.

Though she hadn’t meant to get tangled up with a married man, this was exactly what she’d managed, the affair a kind of dysfunctional fiftieth birthday present after she realized it was no longer her mother looking back at her from the mirror but her grandmother (her lovely grandmother on a very good day but her grandmother nonetheless.) It was a “still a fool for love, still able to make myself miserable, how young at heart is that?” kind of gift, one an evil fairy, if such beings existed, and she thought they well might, could have given, a gift that ultimately caused her life to come apart like someone sweeping a puzzle off a table, the grove of trees, the river, the cumulous clouds towering over some perfect, small village, all separating into a thousand pieces and dropping into an empty box with the lonely sound of rain falling on a tin roof.

Since Kenny left a month ago, four weeks that have, in her mind, stretched like some piece of worn out elastic far beyond their thirty-day limit, even her shopping expeditions have begun to have a down side. Two weeks ago, ambushed by Miles’ “Kind of Blue,” she’d burst into tears. Luckily, she was in the far corner of the pharmacy, a disconsolate Ruth, she’d thought bitterly at the time, wandering amid Dr. Scholl’s bunion remedies and the alien corn pads. But she’d been able to compose herself before anyone noticed.

Today is worse. Much worse. In the crowded bakery, she is reaching for a loaf of the artichoke and sun-dried tomato focaccia when Carly Simon starts singing. When she gets to, Remember the white nights, the moon in your window, Donna loses it. She stands rocking back and forth, tears leaking from her closed eyes.

“Can I be of help?” a voice asks and a hand touches Donna’s arm.

Donna opens her eyes and sees a large, older woman in a tailored, buttoned-up gray suit, wearing the kind of lace-up black shoes with chunky heels she hasn’t seen since nuns started wearing civilian clothes.

“I’m fine,” she lies.

“You don’t look fine.”

“I have allergies. Tree pollen, grass, weeds, mold, pet dander, you name it.”

Then Donna sneezes. Nobody will ever say she can’t think on her feet.

The woman looks at her and says, “It’s March. The trees are bare; the grass is dead; it’s winter. I see no weeds and no pets in the vicinity.”

She hands Donna a card.

“Call me,” she says. “I can help you.”

Then she pats Donna’s hand and walks away, wheeling her cart with its single stuffed pork chop from the deli and clear plastic container of coleslaw down the paper products aisle. Donna looks at the card. It reads,

Antoinette Weiss, Grief Counselor

There is a phone number. Donna slips it into her pocket and dries her eyes with the wadded up Kleenex she finds there. Then she blows her nose.

Donna hauls the groceries home. Home is a pretty bungalow built in the 1920’s, one that had been extensively rehabbed before she bought it. She’s owned a house since she turned thirty and resolved not to be one of those singles who pays rent, eschewing equity, waiting for Mr. Right to come along and her real life to finally begin. It’s a good thing too. In the ensuing years there have been three Mr. Wrongs, only one of whom she found it necessary to marry, and hasn’t yet gotten around to divorcing, even though it’s been over two years since she and Robert have lived together. And Kenny? Kenny has turned out to be number four.

Donna glances at the clock. It’s after 5:30. She has a scant half hour before she’s due at her brother’s for dinner. She puts away the perishables, leaving the canned goods, Froot Loops, everything else, on the kitchen table. It is now 5:50 and Ed lives twenty-five minutes away.

Since the break-up, her baby brother, Ed, who is gay and almost twelve years her junior, has taken to inviting her over at least once a week. She knows he’s trying to be supportive, sympathetic, empathetic and non-judgmental. Donna finds it extremely irritating—not the gay part, everything else—but she goes anyway.

*    *    *    *    

It’s 6:10 when she pulls into the driveway. One more speeding ticket and her license will be gone. Donna no longer cares. Interestingly, as soon as this happened, she stopped getting pulled over. There’s a lesson here she’s still trying to figure out. Ed lives with his . . . his what? Partner? Lover? Boyfriend? Mate? She uses none of these, instead just calls him by his name as he opens the back door,

“Doug. Help! My arms are full.”

She’s brought a pot of yellow mums, a sampler of Godiva chocolates (last remaining souvenir—the romantic equivalent of old Halloween candy—of her ill-conceived passion), and a Ry Cooder CD. The classical music station is playing as usual, Bach this time, the Brandenburg Concertos. Ed stands in the kitchen next to Maisie, their huge, matronly Newfoundland. He’s pouring red wine.

“Donna, Donna, Donna,” Doug says.

He takes the gifts and places them on the counter, then wraps his arms around her.

If the Christian right is to be believed, her brother’s sexual preference ensures that he is promiscuous, commitment phobic, at risk for serious illness, and a candidate for eternal hellfire. Ed is, in fact, disgustingly happy. He and Doug have been together for almost ten years, have a house, the large dog now poking her with its nasty, wet nose, and in just a few days they will be traveling to the former USSR to bring three-year-old Anya, soon to be their daughter, home. Donna will take them to the airport, then dog-sit here with the annoying Maisie.

Donna finds the foremost emotion she experiences when she is with these two to be a furious envy that she knows is unworthy of her, especially since she is the one who is promiscuous, commitment phobic, at risk for serious illness (does clinical depression count?) and most surely headed for hell with a scarlet A plastered on her forehead.

She gives Doug a peck on the cheek while surreptitiously giving Maisie a slap on her importunate nose. He offers Donna a glass of wine. Maisie retreats to her dog bed, one practically the size of a queen-size mattress, to nurse her hurt feelings.

Donna turns to Ed, “So, what are we whipping up to tempt the despondent one tonight?”

“Sarcasm is so unattractive in a beautiful woman, don’t you think?” her brother asks the air.

“But so satisfying,” Donna replies.

“You kids cut it out,” Doug breaks in. “We’re grilling baby lamb chops in your honor tonight, milady.”

“So not only am I a home wrecker but one who requires a symbol of child-like innocence for her dinner?”

“There was a wreck, I grant you,” Ed replies. “But you were not the only one responsible.”

She can’t argue with that. Kenny, professor of physics, explainer of the workings of the material world, expert on (and this should have provided some warning) chaos theory, had spent months wooing her with jokes, terrible puns and worse limericks, with chocolates that had her breaking out like a teenager, candy, Snickers, Milky Ways, Hershey bars with almonds, one in her mailbox every day, until finally a lunchtime tryst found them necking (such an old fashioned word, she thinks, but so apt) on a stone bench in the overheated, deserted arboretum, gift to the biology department from a wealthy alumna. A perfect setting for a very bad romance novel, its glass walls dripped with condensing moisture as sleet from an early winter storm tick-ticked on the windows outside. Huge tropical butterflies like rainbow-hued, unmoored kites wafted over the artificial rainforest around them until, finally, she couldn’t stand it one more minute and took Kenny home, missing her 2:30 class, a departmental meeting, and her six-month dental check up. It’s been downhill from there.

*    *    *    *    

Dinner is wonderful. Her broken heart has not affected her appetite. Despite her stated misgivings, Donna has a second lamb chop as well as an extra helping of tiramisu. She drives home, wipers whacking away the cold March rain that has started to fall, making the road ahead both beautiful and dangerous, a dizzying black river filled with reflections of headlights, taillights, street lights and random flashes of brake lights as well as the smeared colors of signal lights and neon signs. She remembers her mother complaining of driving at night after she turned fifty. She understands now what she was talking about. It feels more like piloting a boat in the dark in unknown waters than driving a car.

Donna hits the opener and the door on the detached garage rises. Once inside the house, she goes from room to room turning on lights. It doesn’t help. There is a half bottle of vodka in the cupboard but alcohol has never worked well for Donna; go over her limit of two drinks, upchuck, is the way her body works, making it almost impossible to get drunk. She could run out to the mini-mart and pick up a carton of Virginia Slims but it’s pouring outside. She’s not willing to get soaked just to start smoking again. There aren’t even any drugs she can satisfactorily abuse; the Zoloft her doctor prescribed is gone and she’s been too depressed to get it refilled; her only other choices are Tylenol, Nyquil and a very, very old bottle of Midol.

Donna sighs. She is putting away the rest of the groceries when she remembers the card in her jacket pocket. She goes into the hall and opens the coat closet. She takes the card back into the kitchen and picks up her phone. Then she sits down at the table.

It rings three times. Donna hears the sound of new-age flute music, the kind you and your oxygen-deprived llama might hear in the thin, godforsaken air, high up in the Andes.

Then, “You have reached the office of Antoinette Weiss. If you have suffered a loss, you are not alone. We have all had losses. Take comfort in the fact that you are not the first and will not be the last. Leave your name and number and I will return your call. I can help.”

Donna does not leave her name or her number but she does leave a message.

“It doesn’t help to know I’m not alone. It does not help one tiny bit.”

Then out of nowhere, to her dismay, comes a sneeze, a rattle-your-brainer, unlike the phony little ah-choo she essayed at the grocery store. She presses the “End” button on the phone with her thumb but it’s too late. The sneeze has been recorded.

*    *    *    *    

Two days later she drops Ed and Doug at the airport. She has come down with a miserable cold so she skips the kiss and a long hug she would ordinarily bestow on each of them. It occurs to her that she is leaving two single men here; yet in only ten days she will return to find, not three human beings, although, of course, that is also what they are, but a small child and her parents; thus are three, no, four, lives so quickly changed forever.

Later, Donna finds herself sipping a glass of pinot grigio, her fourth, a box of Kleenex for her runny nose in her lap, sitting on the floor in the doorway of little Anya’s soon-to-be bedroom, her arm around Maisie who lies next to her. Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings” plays on the radio, heartbreakingly familiar music she considers too gorgeous to ever be cliché. It’s getting dark and the myriad of luminescent stars Ed has meticulously glued to the ceiling has begun to glow in the dimming light. They form the constellations of the mid-summer sky, that celestial menagerie of bears, swan, dragon and the winged horse, Pegasus. Doug has painted the walls of the room a deep and velvety blue. She can imagine only sweet dreams in such a place. She begins to talk to the dog.

“I’m not a grateful person, Maisie. I count my losses. I value only what I no longer have. I’m angry and jealous and don’t see myself ever changing.”

In answer, Maisie lays her head on her paws and closes her eyes. Soon she begins to snore softly. Donna, suddenly feeling very queasy, gets up, walks down the hall to the bathroom and throws up.

*    *    *    *    

Weeks later, Donna pushes Anya, seated securely in the cart, through the produce department at Kroger’s. Before adding anything, Donna hands Anya one of each item and says its name. Anya repeats it after her.

“Carrot.” “Banana.” “Peach.” “Tomato.” “Pepper.” “Celery.” “Lettuce.” “Onion.”

In the midst of this pleasant activity, Donna feels a hand on her shoulder and hears someone say, “Gesundheit.”

She turns in time to see an older woman in a dark, pinstriped suit wheeling her cart into the health foods. Tina Turner begins to sing, the beat pulsing from the speakers in the dropped ceiling. It is a song filled with the questions Donna prefers to avoid. Anya reaches for the piece of fruit in Donna’s hand.

Who needs a heart when a heart can be broken? asks the song.

“Peach,” Anya says, and smiles dazzlingly at this new aunt she has so recently acquired.

She takes the apple from the little girl’s hand.

What’s love got to do with it? Tina inquires.

“Peach,” Donna echoes.

MJ Werthman White’s fiction has appeared in Flights, Mock Turtle Zine, and Nexus. Her stories have twice been finalists in the Dayton Daily News’ fiction contests. Her poetry has appeared in The Dayton Daily News, Nexus, Fogdog, Mock Turtle Zine, The English Journal, and the Main Street Rag, in the on-line journal Persimmon Tree, on Border’s Open-Door Poetry website (sadly now defunct), and on Dayton’s Five Rivers MetroParks’ website. Her first book of poetry, a finalist in Main Street Rag‘s 2016 first book contest, is due out late fall/winter 2016/17. Retired from Yellow Springs Schools, MJ lives in Xenia, Ohio with her husband and dog. When not writing poetry, she paints watercolors of dogs, especially mutts, and (reluctantly) the occasional cat.

photo of MJ Werthman White

MJ Werthman White




He may be asking for money

with his hand out or his cardboard sign

Or maybe he’s sitting on the curb staring

or talking to someone you can’t see

ranting or mumbling

This is something you do not want to deal with

Your brain comes up with a plan

Speed up,

feint to the left

focus on the ground

Even though It might not feel right or good

Your strategy seems to work

Sadly, no matter how hard you pretend to the contrary

That person

is there


not a ghost or an urban myth

This is not a game

And that person can see you