Drabble: A Stranger’s Perfume


I strolled through the cemetery one summer morning. I hadn’t been home all night, and I had to kill time until my wife left for work.
I became acutely aware of the dead, just underfoot. They were down there in all that darkness, silently clamoring for bygone days when they were young and strong and beautiful. I stopped to read one of the markers:

Walter Ogden
Loyal Husband And Loving Father
Oct. 3, 1894 – Feb. 18, 1961

We’re born, and we die. In between, we try to live up to the epitaph that will be cut into our stone.

Serial Fiction


The Helium Balloon Massacre of 1979

Chapter 5.

Tommy realizes he’s on the Moon now.  He wanders aimlessly, wondering what he’s supposed to do.  He thinks he might be dead since he left his body on Earth in the big field that belongs to the city of Mayfield Heights now.  He doesn’t leave footprints, but as he moves he sees how the fine lunar sand rises off of the surface and reaches for him like spectral fingers.  He thinks maybe this happens because he has a lot of static electricity.  Tommy wonders if ghosts are negatively charged.

In the distance, a figure at the foot of a high hill waves to him.  He moves closer, and he sees that it’s Karen – Karen as he remembers her from the first day of Kindergarten at Saint Gregory’s.  She’s wearing a pink dress, her hair is done up in pigtails, and her eyes are big and green.

She motions for Tommy to follow, then runs up the side of the hill.   For a moment, she blinks out of existence, then reappears all the way at the top.  Tommy hurries after her, and when he catches up, he sees she is the young woman he remembers right before they left for college.  Her to Cornell, and him to Wisconsin.  She’s wearing a white tank top and jeans.  Her hair is styled in a short pixie cut now, but her eyes are still green like peridot.  Tommy thinks she looks like a rockstar.

They lean in to kiss, and a little jolt of static electricity sparks when their lips touch.  A millisecond later, Tommy’s consciousness is annihilated in a violent burst of energy that pulses outward in a blue flash.

Now Tommy is only aware of darkness.  It is quiet and still.  The nothingness is so profound it seems to have substance.  Gradually, the nothingness begins to disintegrate.  Tommy feels tingling in his fingers and toes.  He thinks he can hear sounds.  It sounds like the slobbery, labored breathing of a bulldog on a July afternoon.  He smells something weird.  He thinks it might be barbecue potato chips and coffee.  Now he’s sure it’s barbecue potato chips and coffee, but he’s not sure if he’s smelling it or tasting it.

Tommy opens his eyes.  A wild animal is trying to eat his face.  It’s hairy – maybe a bear, or a Yeti.  He thinks he must be in Hell. A surge of panic courses through his being and he shoves the beast off of him and scrambles to his feet.  Tommy sees that it’s not a wild animal, after all.  It’s Eric, the security guard.  Pee Pee Head Eric from Saint Greg’s Elementary.

“What’s your problem, man?” Tommy says as he wipes his mouth with the back of his hand.

“I was doing rescue breathing,” Eric wheezes.  “Just take it easy and lay back down.  You might have internal bleeding or a spinal injury.  We need to call an ambulance.”

“I don’t need a god damn ambulance.  I don’t even have health insurance right now.”

“We fell from like twenty feet.  I fell right on top of you.  You were dead for three or four minutes.”

“You’re just security guard, Eric.  You’re not qualified to make that diagnosis,” Tommy says.

“I just saved your life.  You’re welcome,” Eric says.

“You’re an imbecile,” Tommy screams.  “You’re the lunatic who made us fall in the first place.”

“I was just doin’ my job,” Eric screams back.

Some time passes in silence.  “Are you gonna call the cops?” Tommy finally says.

“No.  Anyway my cell phone’s busted.  Are you gonna try to sue me?” Eric says.

“No.  I hate lawyers,” Tommy says.

“Me too.  Can you help me with this ladder?”

“Yeah, I think so.”

Tommy and Eric strap the ladder to the top of the golf cart and pause to examine the branch that was sheared off in the melee.

“That’s pretty big,” Tommy says.

“Yeah,” Eric says.

They both look up to where the branch had been, then back down, then up again.

“You said it was like three or four minutes?” Tommy asks.

“At least.  Your face was blue, man,” Eric tells him.  “Your eyes were rolled back in your head.  I’m telling you, you were dead.”

“That sounds about right.”

“What was it like?” Eric asks.

“God spoke to me.”

“What did He say?”

“He wanted me to deliver a very important message to you.”

“To me?” Eric says as he makes the sign of the cross.  “What?  What’s the message?”

“God said that you’re not foolin’ anyone with that ridiculous comb-over, and you should just shave your head.”

“You’re such an idiot,” Eric says.

“Takes one to know one,” Tommy says.

They shake hands, and Tommy starts to walk home.  It’s just after five, but a pallid Sun is already low in the sky.  Long shadows are scrawled across the busy streets and the busy sidewalks – caricatures of the people who cast them.  “Or is it the other way around?” Tommy wonders.


Serial Fiction


The Helium Balloon Massacre of 1979

Chapter 3.

Now Tommy is almost forty years old, but everybody still calls him, Tommy, instead of Tom, or Thomas.  He orders another Scotch and tells the bartender how everything that went wrong in his life can be traced back to that failed balloon launch in the fall of 1979.  “Every damned thing,” he says.  “The divorce, all the debt, losing my job, having to move back in with my parents, all of it started on that day.”

“I don’t know, Tommy,” the bartender says, “What do balloons have to do with anything?”

“I’m telling you, Marty, something happened to me that day when I saw all those deflated balloons in that muddy field.  It was like my dreams deflated, too.”

“It’s just an excuse, Tommy,” Marty says. “Some stupid balloons can’t be the reason everything went wrong in your life.  But what the hell do I know?  Here, this one’s on the house.”


Tommy finishes his Scotch and walks down the street.  It’s the ugly part of autumn they don’t put on postcards.  The sky is the color of cinder blocks, and the wind steals the heat out of his bones.  He picks up the pace, and it occurs to him he’s headed toward Saint Greg’s.  At least it used to be Saint Greg’s.  The city acquired the old school building and all the property from the diocese years ago.  They took the big cross down, painted the walls an industrial gray color, and now they use it to store their maintenance equipment.

Tommy walks down into the big field behind the building – the place where all the balloons died.  The sapling oak his Kindergarten class planted more than three decades ago lords over him now.  He remembers how Karen liked to help Sister Swaboda tend to it long after the rest of the class had lost interest.  “You’re gonna grow up to be big and strong,” she would say.  “You’ll be friends with all the birds and the squirrels.”


After Tommy’s freshman year at Wisconsin University, he came back home for summer break.  Bored out of his mind on a Wednesday night in early June, he paid the five dollar cover at an old haunt to see a local band called The Cow Tippers.  Afterward, he stopped at Denny’s for a bite to eat. Halfway through his Grand Slam, somebody slapped him on the back and spilled drunkenly into the unoccupied half of his booth.  It was Darren Wojokowski – a marginal acquaintance that went back to the Saint Greg’s days.

“What’s up buddy?  How you been?  How’re the chicks up in Wisconsin?” Darren asked in rapid-fire succession.

“Pretty good, Darren.  What’s been goin’ on with you?”

“Been workin’ at the bowling alley.  It sucks, actually.”

“Well, it’s a job, right?” Tommy offered.

“Yeah, whatever.  I’m probably gonna go to L.A. in a couple months and see what’s up out there.  My cousin said he can get me a sweet gig as a valet at this famous nightclub.  Dude, you can make, like, six figures just for parking cars,” Darren explained.


“Hey, I almost forgot.  Remember that hot chick, Karen Wetzel, who went to Saint Greg’s with us, then she transferred to that preppy high school?” Darren asked.

“Yeah, I remember Karen,” Tommy said.  “What about her?”

“She died in a car wreck a few months ago.  Like in April, or March.  Her and some of her sorority sisters were driving back from Panama City.  That’s where they went for spring break, you know?  Anyways, the girl who was driving went off the road, and the car flipped like five times and landed upside down in a lake.  Everybody died.”

That’s how Tommy found out about Karen.  The news cut through him the way a glacier cuts through the earth: Slow and unyielding, colossal and cold.  It had only been about a year since he had taken her to his senior prom.  And then they had spent that storybook summer together – that fleeting summer before Tommy had to leave for Wisconsin and Karen was off to Cornell.  They tried to stay in touch, but inevitably, drifted apart the way people do.  Their letters had grown shorter and less frequent after Karen had made some vague references to a guy she hung out with a lot.  They just tapered off to nothing.