Art by Hank Blaustein
by Eve Fisher
Carol sat up on the top deck of the cruise ship with a cup of coffee, watching the people below her disembarking and going on shore. Above them, mountains slashed with snow cut into an aching blue sky. Cool air, hot sun, dazzling light, and she had it all to herself.
Almost. Wyatt, one of the ship’s entertainers, had already stopped and chatted with her. Now he stood by the railing on the far side, smoking another cigarette, which accounted for his husky voice. Now here came Amanda Mason, running up the stairs. What was she doing up so early? Of course. She and Wyatt had to meet somewhere, away from husband Kent and Janice, Wyatt’s music partner.
Did she really want to watch them make out? Should she leave? Then again, this was a public place; she had a right to be here. But Wyatt was looking uncomfortable, and she and Russ had long agreed that one rule was to never embarrass or piss off the staff.
She went down the steps thinking about Wyatt’s last glance toward her. He’d been nervous, but why? Poor Wyatt, always getting hit on, and almost always by the wrong woman. The hazard of the performing arts. He must be tired of it by now.
Of course, it might be her. Russ had let him into a game back in Cadiz. (Once, and only once: “There he was, looking around the table for the sucker, and it was him the whole time.”) So Wyatt might be nervous that she’d tell Russ, and that Russ would tell Kent, not that Russ ever would do that. Not in a game. Not even at brunch.
Russ was power-brunching with Kent, Farley, Cameron, and Paul. The four men exuded wealth, power, strength, which took time and effort to achieve. At this time of the morning the image wasn’t entirely set. Dinner might be a gourmet’s delight, but breakfast was fiber, fruit, egg whites, and pills. Hands trembled. Eyes watered. “A quick run to the men’s room” was often done with a limp or a hobble.
After the table was cleared, they played cards. While the late night games in one of the suites were serious and silent, these were just to pass the time, and they talked freely about stocks, sports, and women.
Kent and Cameron had trophy wives. Farley was still with his first, although he sometimes cheated on sales trips and at conventions. Kent (Amanda was his third wife) was snide when Russ said that he was perfectly happy with Carol, but Cameron (married to stylish Nicole) went sentimental, and Paul (a widower, remarried to the exhausting thirtyish Jessica) had nodded and quit watching Russ’s hands every time he dealt.
Kent and Cameron were investment counselors, Farley an insurance salesman. They were all from Connecticut and had known each other for years. Paul was a quiet banker from California. Kent was said to be the wealthiest of the group, although Russ bet privately that Farley had the most actual liquid assets. READ MORE
Art by Tim Foley
by Michael Steele Valade
Hank Farmer filled a wooden bowl with salt-and-vinegar potato chips and another with honey mustard pretzels, then opened a clear plastic canister of generic cheese doodles and a family-sized bag of traditional Chex Mix and set them all on the table. He arranged them just so, then brushed the crumbs off the green felt tablecloth and onto the floor with one hand and stood there thinking with his hands on his hips.
He thought he remembered that someone in the group liked the nuts in Chex Mix, but he couldn’t remember who. He didn’t know anything about the new guy so thought it must be Andy. Or maybe Gus. Then he wondered whether they still even put nuts in Chex Mix anymore, and right on the heels of that thought he wondered why he hadn’t just asked Elizabeth to get a bag of peanuts instead of Chex Mix if peanuts were what they were after in the first place?
Shaking his head, he took out two decks of Bicycle playing cards, one red and one blue, both still sealed in plastic, and set them on the table at the dealer’s chair, then knelt down beside the hutch and pulled out a brown paper bag full of poker chips and started arranging them on the table in neat piles of one, five-, ten-, and twenty-five-dollar values.
He had just finished setting five places when the doorbell rang, and he heard Gus Peterbrock’s phlegmy baritone bark out a loud, “How the hell are you, Liz?” This was followed by a coarse laugh, a smacking sound, and a surprised yelp, and Hank stood there looking up the stairs and wondering, Did that fat bastard just slap my wife on the ass?
The basement door opened, and Gus appeared at the top step smiling down. He descended with loud grunts and wheezes, his pink jowls jiggling. Beads of sweat glistened on his forehead through wisps of brown hair that straggled out from beneath the brim of a New York Mets baseball cap. The fabric of a too-small yellow T-shirt was stretched so thin across the massive swell of his abdomen that it was almost (and obscenely) transparent. Pale legs oozed out of tan shorts. White gym socks sagged around thick ankles stuffed into blue running shoes. He had a grocery sack tucked under one arm, and he handed it to Hank when he got to the bottom of the stairs.
“Put those on ice, buddy?” he panted.
“You got it,” Hank said, taking a twelve-pack of Bud Light out of the bag and burying the bottles one by one in the Styrofoam cooler on the floor.
Gus took a handful of cheese doodles, held them over his face, and let them drop into his mouth. “Crocker’s gonna be late,” he said.
“I dunno,” he shrugged. “He just said to tell you.”
Hank heard the doorbell ring again followed by the indistinct sound of voices exchanging pleasantries, then the door at the top of the stairs opened, and Andy Culbertson appeared: tall, thin, and deeply freckled, with bright red hair that faded to gray at the temples. Rheumy eyes the color of dishwater swam magnified behind the thick lenses of his glasses. READ MORE