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Collected Short Stories: volume IV


Barry Rachin



Copyright © 2016 by Barry Rachin



These short stories represents a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or locales is entirely coincidental.



* * * * *




Table of Contents



Two Zen Monks


107 Degrees Fahrenheit


A Work in Progress


Hieronymus Bosch's American Landscape


A Room without a View


Twin Souls


The Reluctant Bigamist


Nagel’s Bagels


Narcissus and Goldberg


Six Catholics and an Atheist


The Kidnapped Bride


Cupid ain’t Stupid


Kissing Cousins


Legal Procedures


Last of the Nature Men


Five Hundred Forty-three Parishioners







Two Zen Monks



Two Zen monks climbing a hill on their way to the monastery, notice a geisha waiting by the side of the road. A rain storm the previous night has transformed the street into a minefield of slippery mud and puddles, so that the woman is unable to reach the tea house without soiling her pretty kimono and shoes.“The older monk tells the geisha, “Climb on my back and I’ll carry you up the hill”. She agrees and off they go. A few hundred yards up the mountain, the older monk lets the woman down in front of the tea house. The geisha thanks him profusely and the monks continue on to the Buddhist temple. Just before they enter the shrine, the first monk turns to his friend and says, “‘About that Geisha…”

“How is it that you are still carrying the woman,” the older monk replies, “when I left her at the tea house five minutes ago?”






“Got a map of Maine lying about anywhere?” Sarah Portman asked. They had just returned from the market and the older woman was shelving groceries.

“There’s a New England roadmap in the glove compartment,” her husband, Rob, qualified. He passed a green pepper to his wife who deposited it in the vegetable bin. When no further information was forthcoming, he added, “Are we going somewhere?”

“No, not exactly.” she pulled the freezer door ajar. “Hand me the sherbet.”

Later that evening Sarah spread the tattered map on the bedroom comforter and ran an arthritic finger up the interstate in a northerly direction. A short woman with watery green eyes, Sarah’s auburn hair began sprouting silvery roots from an early age. In recent years she bought dye. The color didn’t make her look younger but rather like a woman on the front side of seventy refusing to grow old gracefully, so she stopped using color and let her reddish-brown locks bleed gray.

“What are you looking for?” Her husband pressed.

“Unity… Unity, Maine.”

Rob located the rustic hamlet on the directory nestled near the upper, right hand side of the page then ran his eyes up the map past Lewiston, Augusta and Waterville before veering off to the east. “Who do we know in Unity, Maine?”

“The Stevenson’s granddaughter, Bethany, is studying conservation law at the local college. She wants to be a game warden, park ranger… something of the sort. The college offers courses in environmental science, marine biology, bear tagging and a hodgepodge of sustainable agriculture programs.” Sarah pursed her lips. “A couple weeks back Bethany was eating lunch at a pizza place in the center of town and spotted Midge Parker leaving a rooming house.”

“A rooming house?” Rob shook his head in disbelief. “That doesn’t sound like Midge Parker.” He scratched a hairy earlobe pensively. “What’s it been… five, six years since she moved away?”

“More like eight.” Sarah corrected. “Thought I might drive up there,” She said vaguely.

“That’s a four hour trip. You’d need to spend the night.”

“Hadn’t thought that far ahead.”

“Driving through Boston, you risk getting mired in rush-hour traffic,” Rob added. “The route128 loop would be preferable.” When there was no reply, he asked, “When were you planning to go?”

“Tomorrow…early.” She scanned the map uncertainly. The region seemed desolate. Huge empty tracts of virgin country pockmarked by tiny villages, each separated by forested expanses once travelers ventured off the freeway.

“Don’t like you driving that distance alone.”

“I don’t mind,” she protested.

“With the cataracts,” her husband shot back, “and night blindness you can’t see for crap once the sun goes down.”

“I’ll just be gone a day and won’t drive after dark.” After a tense pause, Sarah said, “This is something I have to do.”

Edging up behind her, Rob slipped an arm around her waist and pulled his wife close. “Of course, I could stay at the motel thumbing through musty back issues of National Geographic,” he offered with a dry inflection, “while you wander the boondocks of central Maine in search of your long lost friend.”

The soft-spoken offer was what she would have expected. A Taurus through and through, the man was practical, slow, plodding and slow to anger. The latter trait frequently infuriated his emotionally impetuous spouse. Her poor vision notwithstanding, Rob would never let Sarah travel unaccompanied so far from home. Since the children married and went off to pursue their own lives, the Portmans did most everything together. It was a package deal, a bittersweet revelation that old age evolves into a comingling, a communion of like-minded spirits on a final journey.

Sarah rested her hands on a boney wrist. “Perhaps we better start packing.”


* * * * *


The last time Sarah had seen Midge Parker the two women spent a summery day at Horseneck Beach on Cape Cod. On the drive south the lanky woman with the weather-beaten features cracked jokes and spoke sparingly about personal matters.

Midge’s husband had passed away of a heart condition six months earlier. Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease – that was the technical term. For reimbursement purposes, every disease required a diagnostic code. The code for the heart ailment was J449. From the outset Midge noticed the innocuous coding on all medical bills. A half year later when her husband of forty-five years suffered a fatal coronary embolism, COPD had set her retirement finances back to the tune of eighty-five thousand dollars and thirteen cents.

So what happened to the couple’s neatly ordered universe? As Midge explained with a sardonic smile, life had a nasty habit of intruding at the least opportune moments and mucking things up. Out of a sense of decorum she substituted an ‘m’ for the ubiquitous ‘f’.


As they approached the ocean, a hint of salt flavored a humid breeze. The suburban landscape had been replaced by an endless expanse of scruffy pines and slender birch trees rooted in sandy soil. “How’s your daughter?” Sarah asked.

“Last April Elsa reconciled with her estranged husband,” Midge replied in a humorless tone, “but that doesn’t appear to be going particularly well.” “When their marriage fell to pieces, she borrowed a considerable amount of money,” Midge confided with a papery thin smile. “Now that they’re back together, she wants more.”

Strangely there was nothing judgmental in her assessment of Elsa’s romantic tribulations. Sarah remembered the daughter as a ‘difficult’ child through her formative years. Now, as Midge described her, Elsa had evolved into a dysfunctional, ne’er-do-well, train wreck of a middle-aged woman.

“I don’t particularly like my daughter, “Midge blurted in an offhand manner.

“You love her, though,” Sarah qualified.

“Tolerate would be more a more candid choice of language… it’s the best I can manage.”

Sarah stared at her friend uncomprehendingly. The observation seemed crass and mean-spirited. “That’s awful!”

“I’m just being honest.”

Later that night over a cup of chai sweetened with buckwheat honey, Sarah tried to imagine how she might feel if she had given birth to a conniving, utterly thankless daughter like Elsa, and her disdain mysteriously evaporated.


* * * * *


“Moby Dick… did you ever read the book?” Midge asked. They were sprawled on beach chairs on the wet sand twenty feet from the incoming tide. A toddler a few feet away in the foamy surf was draping seaweed necklaces around her plump shoulders, while an indulgent mother looked on.

Sarah shook her head sharply. A junior in high school, she just barely read up to the scene in the opening chapter, where the narrator meets the harpooner, Queequeg, at the sailors’ inn. From that point on she relied heavily on the CliffsNotes study guides.

“There’s this scene,” Midge continued, “toward the end of the novel, where Melville describes the sperm whale’s sexual habits in graphic detail.” The older women watched as a lanky adolescent, skinny arms splayed out in front of his lithe torso, body surfed into shore then ran back out to catch another cresting wave. The infant with the seaweed necklace draped a band of vegetation on her head – slimy, moss-colored dreadlocks.

“The younger whales are quite randy… horny bastards,” Midge picked up the thread of her conversation. “They swim about with a harem of cows, impregnating each female as she reaches fertility. Fidelity doesn’t factor into the equation.”

Sarah, who clearly relished the topic of over-sexed, misogynous whales, grinned wickedly. “Just like humans.”


Shortly after Sarah and Rob moved into the neighborhood, they were invited to block parties through the late summer. The festivities began innocently enough, but by the end of the night intoxicated husbands were telling racy jokes and tossing neighbors’ wives into the swimming pool. All harmless fun - a healthy expression of free-thinking libertarianism - until rumors of infidelity sprouted like late summer weeds and the ‘For Sale’ signs appeared.

Sarah and Rob only attended a handful of the raunchy parties before drifting away. That sort of lewdness didn’t play well into middle age, especially when the shenanigans got totally out of hand, turned mean-spirited and crass.


“What were we originally talking about?” Midge, who had momentarily lost her train of thought, dug her toes in the briny sand.

“Moby Dick whoring his way across the seven seas.”

“Yes, well at some point in middle age the white whale reconsiders his debauched ways, abandons the harem and wanders off alone. From this point until death he leads a hermetic existence.” Midge wagged her head emphatically. “No more female hanky-panky, no nothing.”

She settled back in her chair, surveying the cloudless expanse of cerulean sky. In the distance, a cargo ship was chugging out to sea. Arm in arm, a teenage couple strolled past in the bubbly surf. The dark-haired girl wore a French-cut bikini, the bottom portion little more than a thong that left little to the imagination. “I’m selling the house,” Midge announced.

Sarah felt her brain lurch in freefall. “You’re downsizing?”

“Not exactly. I’m selling and moving away.”

“What about a one-bedroom condo or flat in a senior complex?”

“That’s just more of the same old same old, the status quo.” When there was no reply, Midge added, “Since my husband’s medical bills, the finances don’t add up. There are a few modest investments, but car repairs and real estate taxes are eating me up alive. I can’t make ends meet.”

“But have you considered -”

“This isn’t some spur of the moment decision,” Midge upended her friend’s protest. “I’m not some addled-brained, disaffected hippy from the 60’s.”

The way the conversation ricocheted from one fractured thought to the next, a stream of consciousness with no logical destination left Sarah uncomfortable. Along with the raucous gulls an array of smallish seabirds, mostly plovers and dark-headed terns patrolled the shoreline searching for scraps of discarded food. Brushing a dusting of powdery sand off her thigh, Midge gestured in the direction of the toddler with the seaweed headpiece. The child was babbling in a singsong monotone, an obscure incantation of total bliss. “We’ve slogged through the better part of a lifetime… finished with raising children and finding our own way in the world. Why can’t we be that happy?”

“I hope that’s a rhetorical question.” Sarah was still trying to digest the recent news about her friend’s impending departure.

“No, seriously.” Midge leaned closer, patting her forcefully on the wrist. “I can remember in middle school racing about town on a three-speed bike that my father picked up at the thrift store. No matter that it was secondhand and showed more rust than chrome on the handlebars.”

“The neighborhood kids fastened a baseball card to the front wheel fork with a clothespin to make that crazy, flapping sound.” Midge continued. “It reminded me of a blown muffler. We sometimes used small balloons, but they wore out after a while. The baseball cards weren’t nearly as loud but more dependable.” Midge fell silent for a moment savoring the poignant memory. “I rode that ugly bike to the ends of the earth and then went home, ate supper and fell off in a drugged sleep. It was total joy.”

“But what’s your point?” Sarah spoke petulantly. She recalled moments of childish rapture back to her own youth. Fishing trips with an older brother. She did little or no fishing but simply lay in the grass along the river bank watching the dragonflies and butterflies – mostly monarchs and darkly beautiful, blue swallowtails drawing sustenance from the wildflowers.

“Perhaps,” nudging Sarah out of her nostalgic reverie, Midge spoke with a more strident sense of urgency, “like the white whale, we need to shake things up.”


* * * * *


Around three they packed the car and headed home. “There’s a clam shack just up the road a piece if you’re hungry,” Midge noted. They were only a short distance from the beach headed back in the direction of Fall River.

“Yes, that would be nice.”

At the diner a clot of beachgoers snaked in a raggedy line, placing orders at the window of a small structure sided with weathered cedar shingles. Sarah bought a hot dog and French fries. She assumed that the hot dog would be grilled but the soggy meat was boiled and tasteless. Midge ordered a cup of white chowder and clam cakes. “Want one?” She pushed a fried clam cake the size of a golf ball across the tray, an edible peace offering.

“Thanks.” Sarah nibbled at the morsel. They ate in silence.

Midge wandered off in search of a bathroom. Ten minutes later when she didn’t return, Sarah located her friend in a clearing at the rear of the clam shack. “What a delight!” Midge gestured with a broad flourish at an expanse of goldenrod in late summer bloom. The field stretched the length of a football field, the mustard colored blossoms covered with thousands of honeybees. A lesser number of bumblebees were interspersed among their smaller cronies.

“Last opportunity for the girls to gorge themselves before the fall dearth,” Midge said, indicating the agile honeybees darting from blossom to blossom. By comparison the stodgy bumblebees seemed to be flying in slow motion.

“Why do you call them girls?”

“Only females collect pollen and forage for nectar.”

“And the males?”

“The drones only exist for one purpose to impregnate a new queen if the old one dies or becomes infertile.”

Sarah surveyed the field, where bees flitted from plant to plant, spawning an audible, throbbing hum. “And where did you learn all this?”

Midge reached out with a poised index finger and stroked the backside of a diminutive insect. The bee hardly paid the woman the slightest interest as it continued gathering food. “My grandfather was a beekeeper… kept thirty Langstroth hives. I tagged along when he inspected the frames.”

“It will be slim pickings once this goldenrod dries up.” The honeybee Midge had been fondling flitted off further into the sea of gold. “Pepper bush and linden blossoms seldom make it much past late August and all that’s left is sedum, late summer asters, mums and maybe a few woodbine.” Midge took one last, wistful glance at the goldenrod. “My grandfather claimed honeybees were divine messengers… empirical proof for the existence of God.”

The remark caught Sarah off guard, less so because of the peculiar choice of language than the fact that her friend always boasted of being an unapologetic atheist. Overhead a hawk was circling the bay riding an updraft of ocean breezes.

Honeybees were divine messengers… empirical proof for the existence of God. Was Midge Parker talking inscrutable code? Deciphering her intent was like trying to read the soggy tea leafs at the bottom of a fortune teller’s cracked cup.



* * * * *


Later that night Sarah showered and packed her overnight bag. Downstairs she found her husband sitting at the kitchen table. Two rectangular stones and a large kitchen knife were laid out on the table along with a small can of machine oil. “Are you packed?” she asked.

“Threw some stuff together while you were bathing.” Reaching for the can, Rob ran a bead of transparent oil across the surface of an orangey stone then positioned the blade over the gritty surface. “I checked driving directions on the map.”

“There’s GPS on my cell phone.”

He lowered the blade until it was almost flat to the stone and pushed the metal through the slippery slush. “We could lose internet service up in the hill country of central Maine and then what?”

Sarah blinked and felt the breath catch in her throat. “Hadn’t thought of that.”

Rob eased the blade across the stone a half dozen times before flipping the knife and working the opposite side. Testing the edge gingerly with a thumb, he reached for the second stone, which was grayish white and considerably smoother.

He snaked a bead of oil over the new stone and repeated the process, lowering the angle several degrees. “I was in Boston near Copley Square the other day. Coming out of the subway not far from that Gothic church near the public library, I caught sight of a disheveled, fair-skinned guy with thinning blonde hair careening toward me. He was babbling to himself… some unintelligible drivel.”

Rob suddenly laid the knife on the table and stared bleakly at the back of his mottled hands. “When I graduated high school fifty-two years ago, Lars Nilsson, was our high school valedictorian. The blonde-haired brainiac, was a straight-A student and president of the honor society. He won a full academic scholarship to Brandeis…was voted most-likely-to-succeed.” “Over the years I heard rumors that he’d gotten weird… dropped out of college in the second semester of his junior year… was arrested for barbiturates.”

“The deranged fellow you saw in Copley Square…,” Sarah interjected.

Rob nodded. “Somewhere between Brandeis and downtown Boston, Lars Nilsson sailed his perishable dinghy a tad too far from shore and fell off the edge of the known world.”

“And you’re telling me this now because…”

“Maybe you should brace yourself in advance of what you’ll find in Unity.”

“You think my friend’s gone bonkers?”

“Not necessarily,” Rob backed away from the damning prospect. “Perhaps a bit eccentric.” “Regardless,” he cautioned, “you best keep an open mind. The Midge Parker hunkered down in the backwoods of Maine may not even remotely resemble the urbane creature from your college days.”

Finished with the sharpening, Rob began stropping the edge by pulling the blade backwards. Every so many pulls, he reversed direction honing the opposite surface. Satisfied with the look of things, he held a strip of paper between a thumb and index finger and lowered the knife until it made contact with the sheet. The blade glided through the paper effortlessly. “It’s just a weird scenario… the way Midge chucked all her worldly attachments and is travelling incognito… flying under the radar.”

“You think I haven’t considered that?” When reminiscing about her friend, the image of Lao Tzu, the Chinese philosopher, flitted across Sarah’s mind. In later years the author of the Tao had vanished, gone off in seclusion to seek nirvana, contemplate his navel and pursue whatever it was that blissed-out, otherworldly types did in their twilight years.

But Midge Parker was an inveterate, suburban housefrau, a woman who shopped the local mall and visited the hair salon at least once a month. And then, there was that unsettling remark about Moby Dick, when they were sprawled in the surf at Horseneck beach. Was it an ominous metaphor, a subtle hint of impending psychic upheaval?

Rob ran the water in the sink, rinsed the stones clean and patted them dry with a paper towel. “Let’s get some rest. We got a long trip in the morning.”



* * * * *


Traffic north was minimal. Forty-five minutes into the trip, they spotted a Paneras and pulled off the highway. Approaching the entrance to the restaurant, Rob lagged far behind. Sarah noticed that her husband of forty years walked considerably slower these days. Where only a few years earlier the man was still quite limber, now he dawdled along with a shuffling, herky-jerky gait.

Ordering a spinach soufflé, Sarah glanced about the restaurant. Those diners who weren’t preoccupied with their breakfast were fiddling with cell phones, laptops or IPods. Everyone seemed caught up in their insular universe. “Are you familiar with the parable of the two monks?” she asked. In recent months Sarah had developed a fondness for tidbits of Eastern trivia – Zen koans, Sufi sayings, haiku, and Persian aphorisms.

Her husband’s features dissolved in a closed-lipped smile. “Never heard of it.”

She recounted the story, sipped at her tepid coffee then added. “There’s a hidden message, but I’ll be damned if I can wrapped my brain around it.”

“We all carry tons of excess baggage,” Rob ventured. “Trick is figuring what to do with all the mental trash.”

“Yes, that sounds about right.” Eating in silence, they were back on the road in twenty minutes.


How is it that you are still carrying the woman, when I left her at the tea house five minutes ago? Sarah felt her face flush hot with an odd mix of shame and moral indignation. When exactly had Sarah slipped into the untenable role of younger monk to Midge’s unencumbered free spirit? Even back to their college days, Midge always exuded an air of false bravado. No – that wasn’t terrible accurate. In her twilight years, having pared away her wants and needs to a bare minimum, the aging widow was travelling light. She would exit this world much as she entered.

How many of Sarah’s friends and relatives had squandered their best years, lived mired in regrets and shackled to an unforgiving past? Midge’s husband died young. The medical bills upended her sedate, middle class existence. Rather than become embittered, she used the tragedy as an opportunity to reinvent herself, in the late December of her years to embrace act two of the bittersweet adventure. As Hal alluded to in his terse, no-non