35 Word Mill


December 2015


Liz maneuvered into an empty spot a few stores down from the bar and cut the engine.  Every time she came back to the old neighborhood she was struck by how everything seemed both familiar and different; an alternate version of the Port Richmond she remembered.  Or maybe it was her that was different.  She closed her eyes and leaned back against the headrest listening to a bus lumber by and come to a stop at the corner ahead.  A group of boys from the local Catholic high school tumbled out the back door.  On the street to her right, a woman stopped to wait for a toddler who was inspecting what appeared to be a crushed beer can on the sidewalk.  The woman opened her mouth as if to say something and then closed it again.  She looked as tired and hopeless as Liz felt.  Liz sometimes wondered what her life would be like if she had stayed in the neighborhood.  She used to consider herself fortunate for having been able to leave; not anymore.

Her Dad had played in the dart league at Daly’s when she was growing up.  Liz would sit at the big square bar sipping Cokes and watching him play.  When she stepped inside, she felt like she had gone back in time twenty years.  A group of men were clustered around the dart boards, a smattering of hardcore drinkers sat scattered around the bar, and Harry was leaning against the cash register watching the news on one of the big tvs.  Harry was probably in his early sixties, big and stocky.  He still wore his hair slicked back, though it was mostly grey now.  Liz had always gotten a kick out of Harry.  He was always smiling and cheery, loud.  In retrospect, Liz realized he was probably a drunk.

Liz sat down at the bar far away from the other customers.  Harry came over to take her order.  A minute later he returned with her rum and coke, grinning down at her, “You’re Lizzy, Richie’s daughter, aren’t you?”  Liz nodded, smiling for what seemed like the first time in months.  Harry leaned over the bar and hugged her.  “It’s been a long time, Hon!  How are you?  How’re Richie and your mom?  I heard you married some lawyer from school and moved out to Montgomery County. How’s your husband?”  Liz froze, opened her mouth to answer, but tears filled her eyes and her throat tightened.  Once she started talking, she told him everything, even showed him some of the bruises.  Part of her felt like a dumb cliché, but it felt good to tell someone, and this was Harry.  He’d been like an uncle.  The concern on his face was real.

Liz downed the rest of her drink and laid her arms and head on the old oak bar like she had when she was little.  “I can’t take it anymore.  I wish he was dead.”  Liz looked up at Harry, “I want him dead,” she whispered.  Harry tilted his head back and stared at her.

“You don’t mean that, Hon” he said.

“Yes, I do,” Liz said, sitting up, “Do you…know anyone?”  They stared at each other for what seemed like forever.  Harry turned, looked back at Liz, took a half step, and looked back again.

“I might,” he said, “Gimme a minute.”  He went back by the cash register and made a call on his cell phone.  He came back and handed her a scrap of cardboard with a name, Patty, and a phone number.  “This is my nephew, Pasquale.  He might be able to help,” said Harry.  He reached out as if to rub her head like he had when she was a kid, but patted her hand instead.  “Be careful, Lizzy.”  He hugged her again and gave her a fake smile.

She kept the piece of cardboard tucked in her glove compartment for almost a month.  Then one night after Steven was asleep, she crept out to the garage, retrieved the scrap, and dialed the number with sore, shaking hands.

Two days later Liz met him in a pizza shop in Mayfair.  It was a little early for lunch and he was the only customer when she stepped inside.  He was sitting at a table in the far corner drinking a soda.  She had imagined him to be either a wiry Irish guy like Harry’s son, or someone out of the cast of the Sopranos.  He was more like a hybrid of the two.  His dark brown hair was buzzed close to his head and dark, serious eyes bored into her.  It was barely lunchtime but he had a heavy five o’clock shadow.  He looked lean but well built. Tattoos ran up one forearm and peaked out from underneath each sleeve of a black t-shirt.  Long, khaki-clad legs were visible under the table, capped off by heavy black shoes.  He looked to be in his late thirties.

Liz found herself standing in front of him.  Neither of them had said anything.  She couldn’t read the expression on his face.  Suddenly she felt like she was going to faint.  She sank into the other side of the booth, pulled her hair off her neck with one hand, and rubbed her forehead with the other.  What was she doing?  Was this really happening?  She could still back out.  Couldn’t she?  She tried to calm herself down, decided to talk to him, see what he had to say, and take it from there.  She looked up to find Pat watching her from the corners of his eyes, twiddling a straw wrapper between his long fingers.  An image of E.T. popped into her head.  E.T. had been her favorite movie as a child and she smiled before she could stop herself.  He raised his eyebrows.

“Sorry, I just…thought of something.  I’m Liz.  You’re Harry’s nephew, right?”  She held out her hand.

“Pat,” he said, dropping the wrapper and shaking her hand.

“Nice to meet you.  Like I said on the phone, Harry told me that you might be able to help with my…problem.”

He nodded.  “You can tell me what you have in mind while I eat.  You hungry? Do you like Hawaiian?”  Pat sat up straight and looked behind her.  A waitress appeared carrying a steaming hot pizza.  Liz hadn’t eaten in over a day and her stomach started grumbling.

That was how it went.  Pat was as easy to talk to as his uncle.  They sat there like a couple of friends, calmly discussing Steven’s murder over pizza.  He would do it at the mud run in a few weeks.  Liz and Steven were signed up for the 10K.  The crowd thinned out in the middle part of the race that went through the woods.  They had run the same race last year and Liz told Pat about the steep downhill area around this point.  A racer had taken a header down it last year and gotten pretty banged up.  They’d had to take him off the course in a stretcher.

They would make it look like an accident.  It turned out that Pat was a runner.  He would enter the race and line up a wave or two ahead of Liz and Steven.  He would ambush them in the woods, break Steven’s neck and throw him down the hill.  Liz had to make sure they were alone by the time they came to the spot.  It sounded simple.  Liz’s nausea had dissipated.  They ordered coffee and Pat had a piece of cheesecake.

“So, tell me about yourself,” said Pat.  Liz hesitated.  This seemed like an odd question for him to ask under the circumstances, but what did she know?  She’d never done anything like this before and Pat wasn’t at all what she’d expected.

“I’m thirty-one. I grew up in Port Richmond.  I moved out of the city six years ago when Steven and I got married.  I’m a lawyer.”  Why did she tell him how old she was?  Why did she make herself sound so boring?  Oh wait, she was.

“You work for your husband’s family’s firm?” asked Pat.

“Yes,” said Liz, “but not because I have to.”

Pat raised his eyebrows.  “Ok…I was just asking.  I didn’t mean to imply that you got the job because of your husband.  You seem very smart.”

“Don’t patronize me.  You don’t know me,” Liz said.  Did she just snap at a hitman?  Oh my God, he probably had a gun on him right now.  “Sorry.  I just…I guess I’m just sensitive about that.  They offered us both jobs there when we graduated.  I took the job because his family’s firm has such a good reputation. But I worked hard in law school and I’m good at my job.  I’ve had offers to work at other firms…”  Liz could see the amusement in Pat’s eyes as he looked at her over his coffee cup.  Her anger faded and she found herself smiling.  When he lowered his coffee cup she could see that he was smiling too.  He turned his head to the side, but not before she could see that his stoic expression had been replaced by a surprisingly boyish smile.  His coppery brown eyes lit up and crinkled at the corners.  He was handsome.  That night, Liz barely noticed her sore ribs.  It was Pat’s smile that had her up half of the night.

They met one more time before the race, at a coffee shop not far from the pizza place.  He told her to bring the money in a bag and meet him here at seven thirty.  He was again sitting in the far corner, dressed much the same as he was the last time.  Liz ordered a coffee and bagel and joined him at the table.  She hooked her purse on the chair and plopped the Sephora bag containing the money on the table.  Pat fought off a smile and poked the inside of his cheek with his tongue.  “Nice, couldn’t find anything more embarrassing?”

“It was either this or Victoria’s Secret,” said Liz.  Pat raised his eyebrows but said nothing.  He had a coffee and a jelly doughnut in front of him.  They talked as they ate.  Pat had grown up in the Italian section of Tacony.  They talked about books and tv shows.  They talked about growing up in the city and the mummers.  It was almost nine o’clock when Pat looked at his watch and said he had to get going.  He hesitated before picking up the bag.  They shook hands in the parking lot, looked at each other for a minute, then drove off in opposite directions.


That night in his apartment, Pat looked through the manila folder with Liz’s name on it again.  Her medical records resembled that of a boxer:  sprains, fractures, concussions.  Most recently, just last month, she had been treated for cracked ribs.  There was a smattering of police reports against Steven that were about five years old.  The charges had all been dropped or thrown out.  Just another perk of being the son of a well-connected family of lawyers, Pat thought to himself.  He looked through her college transcripts, newspaper clippings about her court cases, financial records.  She had no criminal record, just a handful of speeding tickets and other traffic violations.  He stared at her driver’s license picture.  It was older, taken about four years ago.  It kind of reminded him of a mug shot because her blonde hair was sticking up in several spots, but she had a big grin on her face and he found himself smiling back at her.  Almost time for a new picture, he thought.  Pat absently jabbed his tongue into his cheek and he wondered if he had made the right decision.  Well, it was too late to change his mind at this point.  Pat yawned and tossed the folder back onto his desk.  In his bedroom, he removed the gun from his hip and placed it on the nightstand.  He laid his wallet and badge next to it, stripped down to his boxers, and lay down to go to sleep.


Liz leaned back against the headrest as the X3 barreled down the highway.  Steven had the news blaring as usual and she tried to tune it out.  She was always nervous before a race, but this morning it felt like her heart was going to explode.  This morning it wasn’t the race that she was nervous about and she had no second thoughts about her decision.  She was worried about getting caught.  No, she was worried about Pat getting caught.  How stupid was that?  Steven angled the car into a handicapped spot at the edge of the park.  Droves of people were migrating past from the event parking a mile away.  As soon as Steven put the car in park Liz leapt out and trudged along with them as she pinned the bib to her shirt.  She didn’t care about making him angry anymore.  However this went, she knew that she wouldn’t be going home with him tonight.


Pat spotted Liz waiting in one of the 10K corrals with her husband.  Steven was short but athletic in a somewhat nerdy way.  It was mid-July but he was pasty white in a sleeveless top and running shorts.  He was wearing a pair of those running shoes with the toes separated.  Pat couldn’t suppress a small smile as he lost himself in the corral ahead of theirs.  He felt out of place among the 10K runners.  Most of them were built like skin-covered skeletons and were dressed similarly to Steven.  Pat had on an old green t-shirt and loose fitting black mesh shorts that fell to his knees.  Pat twisted around under the pretense of stretching and stole a glance back at Liz who was looking nervous but intent.  She was standing a good ten yards behind him, but he thought the left side of her face looked yellow.  A starter pistol went off ahead.  The first wave of 10K runners was on their way.  He eyed the tree line just visible in the distance through the early morning fog and sighed.  It was definitely too late to change his mind.


A dull ache had settled into Liz’s ribs as the race wore on.  She had stalled earlier, told Steven that she needed to walk for a minute, in order to separate from the pack.  Now they were almost at the top of the hill and no other runners were in sight.  They came around the bend and there was Pat, off to the side pretending to tie his shoelace.  Liz had managed to get a couple of strides ahead of Steven.  As they came abreast of Pat, Liz clutched her side and slammed on the brakes.  Steven barreled into her, cursing and knocking her into a small tree.  Liz lay there for a minute.  She could feel a fresh bump forming on her cheek but seemed fine otherwise.  She climbed to her feet.

Both men were on the ground a few yards away.  Liz didn’t know what to do.  She looked around.  No one was coming.  Thank God, it was almost over.  “Do it!” she found herself yelling.  An ID and a car key had tumbled out of Pat’s pocket.  Liz scooped them up, not sure what to do with them.  She glanced down at the ID and a sick feeling surged through her.  It was a police ID.  He was a cop.  Pat was a cop.  Liz scanned the trees again, waiting to see red and blue lights and a swarm of uniforms.  Her life was over.


It was a Monday night and there were no dart tournaments, so Daly’s was quiet.  A few regulars sat rooted to their usual spots, a guy from one of the dart teams was nursing a beer and getting in a little practice, and a couple sat at a small table next to the bar.  Harry sipped his vodka-laced iced tea as he watched the story play on the news again.  One of the City’s high-profile lawyers had died at the mud run on Saturday morning.  It was coming out that he had a long history of abusing his wife.  They’d had an argument during the race.  Things were starting to get physical when an off duty cop who was also running stumbled upon them.  The lawyer fought with the cop and ended up at the bottom of a rocky hill with a broken neck.  Neither the wife nor the cop were speaking to reporters but tons of runners were more than willing to give their two cents.

Harry shook his head and turned his attention back to the bar.  The dart player was still nursing his beer and he’d just refilled the regulars.  He mixed two more rum and cokes and brought them to the couple next to the bar.  They were talking and holding hands across the table.  “Here ya go, Hon, Patty,” he said.

“You trying to get us drunk Uncle Harry?” asked Pat, releasing Liz’s hand and leaning back.

“Drunk?!  Nah, we can’t have you two getting drunk.  You might go out and doing something crazy,” Harry said.  Pat raised his eyebrows but didn’t say anything.  Liz smiled and turned her head.  Harry laughed to himself and retreated behind the bar.  When he looked back at the couple, they were holding hands again.



A Purple Gelatin sat on the server in the dining room watching the people eat Thanksgiving dinner. They ate turkey and gravy, biscuits and stuffing, yams and corn. One by one they finished eating. Dinner was over. Dirty plates were removed. Leftovers were wrapped. He could smell coffee brewing in the kitchen. Excitement shot through him.

A woman brought out mugs. A man put a pumpkin pie on the table, then cheesecake, apple pie, toffee pudding and cookies. The man looked in Purple Gelatin’s direction. He walked over. Purple Gelatin shook in anticipation.

The man picked up the fruitcake that sat next to Purple Gelatin and placed it on the table. There was no more room. “Nooo!” bellowed Gelatin. The man jumped and knocked the fruitcake on the floor.

Purple Gelatin shrieked and screamed. He grew to two hundred times his original size. Purple Gelatin enveloped everything in the room except for the man, the toffee pudding, the fruitcake, and the server. The man he stuck to the top of the server with the toffee pudding. Then he picked up the fruitcake, dusted it off, and placed it next to him.

Quiet, Still

Five miles. Bettie switched off the treadmill and grabbed her water bottle. Cold rivers of sweat snaked down her aching body. She pulled the garage door closed and bolted through the darkness. Bettie stumbled over the cobblestone edging before crashing through the back door and slamming it behind her. The house shuddered. She snapped the deadbolt in place. Bettie peered through one of the panes of glass. The yard was an abyss; quiet and still.

Bettie wandered through the first floor of the house. Quiet and still.  Danny had gone to bed hours ago.  His bedtime brought a calm, but also an emptiness.  She dropped her water bottle and phone on the steps. The pictures that filled the staircase wall stared down at Bettie, but she ignored them.

In the kitchen, she hopped up on the counter and ate a spoonful of peanut butter from the jar.  She heard a noise and froze with the spoon dangling from her mouth. It sounded like it came from downstairs. She told herself that it was the heater kicking on.  The house was quiet and still. After a minute of silence she began to believe it.

She leaned back against the cabinet and surveyed the kitchen in the dim light emanating from under the microwave.  Bettie stared at her reflection in the mirror on the wall to her right.  She picked up the picture that John had tucked into the frame.  It was an old wallet-sized school picture, taken when he was seven.  She looked at the clock on the microwave. It was almost midnight. John was a few hours into his shift at the prison.  She resisted the urge to text him.

A scraping sound followed by a bang. Bettie froze. She dropped the picture. After a few seconds, she slid off the counter, pulling a knife from the block as she went.  She walked back into the living room and stood at the foot of the stairs.  Danny’s door was still shut.  It was quiet and still upstairs.  Bettie leaned over and peered down the steps that led to the family room and utility closet.  Quiet and still.  She heard the noise again.

What’s in the box?

The idea was working exceptionally well. Jane never imagined that she would get away with this. She crept down the warped wooden stairs, stopping every now and then to listen. The stairwell was quiet except for the beating of her heart. Almost there.

She was a few steps above the third floor landing when someone burst through the door. “Jesus Christ!” she shrieked. The man jumped into the brick wall as if Jane were standing there with a bloody axe rather than a banker’s box.

They stood there frozen for what felt like forever. Say something. You’re acting like a crazy person. “Hi.”

“Hi,” said the man. They went back to staring at each other. The man bobbed his head at the box. “Did they let you go to?”

“No,” said Jane. Say something else. No, liars tend to give too much info. Don’t say anything else. Act natural. “Um…after you?” Jane forced a smile on her face that she hoped was charming. Judging by his reaction, she must have missed her mark completely and landed on terrifying. He took off down the staircase without so much as a thanks. “Asshole,” mumbled Jane.

She continued on her way. Maybe she should just take it out of the box and put it in her purse. No one was going to demand to search her purse. It would seem odder that she was walking around with a banker’s box.

When she got to the ground floor she peered out the tiny window. A few people were milling around outside and there was the usual foot traffic. Jane flipped the lid from the box and stared at her calculator. The tape had come off of its arm and was starting to unspool. This was ridiculous. Seriously, no one would even care. She was making a much bigger deal of this than she needed to.

Jane tucked the box under her arm and flung open the door. She stepped out onto 11th Street just as she had every weekday for the past twelve years.





against the

wall, unassuming

but completely mesmerizing.

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