Flash: X is for Xanthic

Photo 159761726 © Darius Bau�ys | Dreamstime.com
The rotunda in the Central city Park of Odessa on Deribasivska Street. Ukraine
(photo paid for through Dreamstime.com – please purchase from them so that the artist may be paid)

Flash: X is for Xanthic

A weight bounced on my bed. “I’m ready.”

“Ready for what?” I shoved up my sleeping mask and opened one bleary eye to focus on my special American fully dressed for the day, laying across half my bed, sunlight streaming in behind them bathing them in yellow.

“For the slide show, let’s go, chingu.” They slapped the covers gently, rolled over, and headed down the steps from my loft.

I don’t have a door. Xanadu got the one room in our open space as their bedroom, other than the bathroom, with the door. I might need to rethink that. Especially when obviously they had a conversation in the shower without filling me on my side of whatever happened. Maybe a dream. Likely a dream. Maybe this was one now.

“Coffee’s ready!” They shouted below. “Morning is awasting!”

Not a dream. I groaned and roll out of bed. Stripping out of my pajamas, I replaced them with slacks and a button-down short-sleeve peach shirt. I pick up the linen jacket from where I laid out my clothes for today’s afternoon interviews last night and circle the staircase to our kitchenette below my loft. When they opened their mouth to dive into whatever part of reality I missed, I held up a finger. “Juda coffee.”

They passed me a mug. I smelled the sweetened bitter brew. Enough sugar to give the caffeine of the French press jitters, and a spoonful of matcha powder with a pinch of cinnamon to give caffeine a leg up on the sugar. I leaned on the counter and sipped the steamy mug down to half. While I did that, Xanadu finished making us both Korean street toast, dropping the ketchup bottle on our island. They added cabbage to our grocery list before sitting down with their green tea opposite me.

We gave proper consideration to their cooking skills and ate the egg and vegetable sandwiches in silence. Tomorrow starts my three days cooking and I would need to do the grocery run tonight. So far alternating three days cooking each with one day off for Saturday hijinks has worked, but we were only on the second week of living together.

Pushing the plate to their side of the island with the empty mug, I asked them, “Alright, what slide show?”

“The one you keep putting off, of course.” Xanadu slipped off the stool and took our dishes to the dishwasher.

“Oh, that one.” I pinched the top of my nose and rubbed. “Don’t you have to do prep work for your commission on the Manyard columns?”

“Got it done this morning waiting for you to wake up. I got them scanned and off to Georgio before I started the coffee.” Xanadu walked around the island and pressed a finger to my chest while looking into my eyes. It wasn’t often they were at my height, but the stool made us equal eye level. “I am clear of all projects. This won’t impact anything I am making.”

I looked over their shoulder at the open space behind them. A corner of the room was sectioned off behind privacy screens where my photography computers lived. The rest of the space included a long table, a pottery wheel, a curtained section near a window to work wood, and a stack of boxes where a stained-glass dragon fighting a tiger resided until the greenhouse the contracted buyer finished being adjusted for the art piece. We grabbed the space recommended by one of my father’s friends once we realized we did not actually want to live in New York City, and Georgio, the art agent Xanadu had lucked into getting before graduation, let them know he had galleries on both coasts. Everything in their studio was cleaned up and packed away. “Don’t you need to make examples of the columns?”

“Not until the initial sketches are approved.”

“Okay.” I pushed up from the chair and walked over to my office area. Xanadu grabbed one of the folding chairs left behind by the last renters we will use for guests once we started having them, and added it to the cordoned off space, flipping it around to side in to astride, leaning their head on their arms across the back. I fired up my desktop and waited the few seconds for the three monitors to load everything, then activated the sixty-inch screen. “Are you sure?”

Xanadu switched to Korean. “Seok, you see my work every step of the way. I want to see yours too.”

“Your work uplifts, mine reveals.” I paused, to concentrate on clicking until I got to the curated pictures I had taken during my senior exchange student time. The group I put together for my final project. “These are unpleasant.”

“But their yours. Stop protecting me.” Xanadu firmly ordered. “If these are things that need to be revealed, reveal them.”

I looked at the clock on the computer and set an alarm for 1:00 so I wouldn’t miss my interview, then opened the first picture. I debated describing it in English, but ended up choosing French since that was mostly what I spoke while I was there. “You know how I love art everywhere. This hospital’s stonework is from where it served as an abbey in the 1300s. I spent a full day there just filling my camera USB.” I clicked through a dozen of the best pictures, until the last showed rubble and a wing of gargoyle. “It was bombed during the ‘softening’ exercises. They didn’t have time to evacuate the bedridden.” The next picture was a mangled bed, the obviously used bedsheets still on what was left of the mattress.

Xanadu gasped softly beside me, but I didn’t look over.

“This was the city park, about five blocks from where the university students stayed. I spent a lot of time there taking photos as winter switched to spring. The landscaping included hundreds of unique plants gathered over the centuries…”

(992 words, first published 6/9/2024)

Capturing the Tiger and Dragon Series

  1. X is for Xenophile (4/28/2024)
  2. X is for Xylotomous (5/19/2024)
  3. X is for Xanthic (6/9/2024)
  4. Exhibit (7/14/24)
  5. Exit Strategy (9/1/2024)

Flash: Why Women Don’t Like Slapstick

From the Internet Hive Mind: Hostile Architecture Bench (https://theludlowgroup.com/2018/03/01/the-discussion-on-hostile-architecture-a-public-service-or-infringement-on-human-rights/)

“Okay, I give up. Why the bear?”

Lizzy turned her head to the side to look at Robert as they walked through the city park. “It’s been two months. That meme is over. Kicked the bucket and put a fork in it done.”

“But would you choose the bear?” he pressed.

Before answering, Lizzy glanced to her other side where Payton strolled next to them, verifying he was restraining his acreage-eating pace down to what normal mortals could keep up with. He gave her a small smile and a shrug of his oversized company logo’ed t-shirt. She rolled her eyes at him, then turned back to Robert. “If we do the original supposition where I am walking in the woods and a random bear or a random man crosses the path in front of me, which I would rather encounter? Then bear.”

“But why?” the whine, like Lizzy had purposely tried to hurt his feeling when he was the one to bring up the question made Lizzy wince.

“Because I am in the woods, duh.” Lizzy decided to play if for laughs with some underlying truth, otherwise the luncheon walks would get tough and the group dynamics in the work space would get awkward. “I am in the woods, the bear lives there. I’m cruising through his living room. Basically if I don’t bother him by changing the channel on his TV, he is going to leave me alone. Or her, I shouldn’t misgender the hypothetical bear.”

“Ha, ha.” Robert responded, taking a deeper breath. While he and Lizzy were of age, he had been a coach potato more aggressively before Manyard Associates got through their mutually thick heads to participate in the Heathy Living Initiative at the start of spring. Payton joined them when got hired last month, not wanting to sit at his desk alone in their portion of the cubicle farm. “Why not a man?”

“Por dios,” Lizzy shook her head. Robert always made thing difficult, his privileged white CIS    male ass just couldn’t learn to be P.C. without a clue-by-four hitting him across the head. “Because the man doesn’t belong in the woods. If he is there…” She paused searching for a delicate way to put it without arguing for the rest of the walk as they swung around the far lamp post and started back to their office building.

Payton’s deep voice said to her right, “He followed her.”

That is a man that gets it.

“But what if he didn’t. Follow her.” Robert panted lightly beside them. “He was just. There. You know.”

“If a man is around a woman, she can’t just think that they are just there. Not like the bear. Even when they are, because, you don’t know.” A couple instances where things changed on a dime flashed through Lizzy’s head. Her voice deepened and softened with a mixture of sadness and fear. “You never know.”

“It’s not. All men.”

“But it is all women.” Payton’s response carried a rhythm and melodic touch quoting a song.

Lizzy would need to ask him for the artist later. (Morgan St. Jean, “Not all men,” and the song made her cry. And get angry. She wanted to put it on repeat, and also never hear it again. But that was a couple days later.)

“Sure.” Robert sank onto the bench in front of the glass doors. The one with the swooped seats and the arm rest in the middle to prevent homeless from the park from sleeping in front of the skyscraper at night. He pulled back his sleeve to check his watch. “Twenty minutes. We are getting. Better.”

“Time to add another lap. Maybe head down to the amphitheater” Payton smirked at the two elders. “We got thirty minutes to play with, and the down and up the hill will be great cardio.”

“Not today Satan.” Lizzy shook her head. “Give us a moment.”

Leaning his head back on the bench, Robert looked up at Lizzy through squinted eyes. “Are men really that bad?”

Is this a conversation she wanted to have? Robert constantly pushed and prodded. If it wasn’t her being female in a male-dominated industry, then it was her Latino roots, or her Catholic upbringing, or her immigrant grandparents on her father’s side. Sometimes he listened. The clue-by-fours did get through … rarely, but sometimes.

Fine. They hadn’t had a good fight in a while. With Payton there, maybe it won’t get that bad.

Not like the time she reamed Robert’s ass during the COVID when he complained about food not getting harvested so he couldn’t get his favorite fresh fruits and vegetables. If you don’t allow immigrants across the border, which during COVID they absolutely didn’t and shouldn’t, then natives needed to take up the slack and, shocker, they didn’t. It wasn’t the complaints about food that set her off after being locked in her apartment alone for two months, but the grumbles about how COVID wasn’t even a thing if it wasn’t for immigrants and then started on his patented grievances about not enough jobs for normal hard-working men. She had felt the sting personally about the hard-working men, because it implied women as well as immigrants were stealing jobs. Something he had been needling her about since they had been teamed together in 2018.

She.had.blown.up.

He had cut her off mid-rant on their video call. He didn’t talk to her for over a week, wouldn’t even answer her texts on the project until she got their boss involved. A supervisor who made her apologize. Not him. But that is the way of the world. Right or wrong (and she would admit at least to herself, she had gone too far on that one), women just have to apologize if work would continue.

But afterwards, Robert did ask what had made her so “prickly”. At least, he hadn’t blamed it on “that time of month.” She had decided to focus on her not feeling like he not valued her as a co-worker since he constantly implied that women shouldn’t be working but stay at home where they belong, taking care of families. A therapy issue for him she figured was leftover from his divorce. And miracles of miracles, he had listened. Or at least changed his behavior. Not another snipe about women choosing careers over or along-side families.

And a slow roll back of his stance on immigration.

Maybe another lesson would take. She glanced at her watch. Five minutes before they needed to head indoors. How do to this quickly?

“It’s not that men are that bad, not all men.” Lizzy gave Robert a smile. “It’s just women are that fragile compared to men, and men forget that.”

“How so?” Robert tilted his head, and even Payton looked interested.

“Okay, you are about a standard-sized man, and I am a standard-sized female. I’m five four, and you are?”

“Five-ten.”

She nodded. “Six-inch difference, standard. I’m one sixty-one.” They had weigh-in regularly as part of the Healthy Living, so the three of them had a solid handle of the others weights.

“Down two pounds. Good going!” Payton congratulated her.

“One ninety.” Robert rounded down, like normal.

“Thirty pound difference, still normal. Now I want you to picture yourself as a female with a man proportionally bigger than you. That would be about seven inches and thirty-five pounds heavier. I got more fat than you, nearly 10%, so picture—”

“Ha, still a chunky monkey.”

“Dude.” Payton leaned forward and slapped Robert’s arm.

“I’m a female, we got extra fat for boobs and ass and thigh. Deal. I have to.” Lizzy glared until Robert leaned back, muttering sorry. “Anyway, figure the male has less fat but more muscle. So over six foot—”

“Basically me,” Payton said. “I’m six five, two fifteen. I still go to the gym for weight-lifting, keeping the BMI down.” He lifted his t-shirt and rubbed the hair over his slightly sculpted six-pack.

“Excellent. Now Robert, stand up.”

“Okay,” the dark-haired man stood.

“Payton, I want you to stand as close to him as we normally get in the elevator.”

Payton took a step forward and Robert immediately took a small step back.

“No, no, Robert, don’t step back. If you take a step back, you might upset the man. This is a random guy. You don’t know how he will react. Stand your ground, but keep your eyes on his chest, don’t meet his eyes.” Lizzy glanced at the distance between the two men. “Payton, get as close to Robert as you see most average sized guys get with women at a bar.”

“Oh, kay.” Payton close the distance until a hand’s width was between them.

“Robert, how do you feel?”

“Well…”

“Safe? Secure? It’s only another human being. Just a man. Remember you are a woman in this scenario. And it’s not all men. He could be safe or he could be a ramdo. Is there just a little unease in your stomach?”

Robert raised his head. His eyes clearly darted over Payton’s broad chest and shoulders, finally landing on the face half a foot above his own. “Um, he is a bit intimidating.” Robert took two steps back. “But then he is unnaturally big.”

“Nope, he is the average size proportionally of man to woman. He is as big to you as you are to me.” Lizzy narrowed her eyes. “Now close the distance again Payton. Robert, the next question is what do you think would happen if he bumped you, if he shoved you?”

“I would fall down.”

“That was quick.” Lizzy shook her head. “No question at all about what would happen. I bet you would likely even bruise. And he might not have meant anything about it, he was just walking down the hall knowing people will get out of his way because he is bigger than the men and women around him. He might not even have noticed you go down. Now imagine if he was drunk or angry? Could he break something? Maybe an arm?”

“Oh, hell yes.”

“One final roleplay training before we go in. Payton,” Lizzy waited until the twenty-three-year-old moved his baby browns from looking down at Robert to her black eyes, “I want you to lean in and say with meaning ‘Alice, pow, right in the kisser.’”

Payton repeated it.

“No, say it like you mean it.” Lizzy waved her fist and made a mean expression.

Payton did it with feeling.

Robert took a big step back.

“And that, boys and girls, is why women hate slapstick.” Lizzy gestured toward the glass doors where the lunch exodus was reversing. “Shall we?”

“What do you mean?” Robert came around to her left side while Payton closed on her right, protecting her unconsciously just like they did when they were at the park. If someone jogged past in the other direction, she would drop behind Robert and Payton would take the rear since he had the easiest time catching up. “How did that explain why women hate slapstick?”

“How did you feel the second time Payton quoted Ralph from the Honeymooners?”

Robert pressed his lips into a firm line and glanced away.

“What’s the Honeymooners?” Payton asked.

“I’ll send you a link.” Lizzy looked up at the kid co-worker while they waited for the elevator. “Black-and-white slapstick television.”

“Where a guy threaten to hit a girl?”

“A guy threatened to hit his wife, regularly.”

“What?”

“For fun, for laughs.”

The elevator door opened and they entered, Ralph hit the tenth-floor button, two other people entered with them choosing floors six and nineteen.

Lizzy continued, “Obviously, he loved his wife and would never hit her. She would laugh and tease him back. Women back then would never have been hit.” Lizzy’s lips twisted delivering the sarcasm font in her talking.

“Oh my god.” Payton eyes rounded in disbelief.

“What show was that?” the female waiting for the nineteenth floor asked while they waited for sixth floor to get off and the doors to close again.

“Honeymooners.” Lizzy answered.

The other woman nodded, “Tracks.”

The three co-workers and the extra person stayed quiet until the elevator opened on the tenth floor to let them off. They each tapped their badges at the front door of their company, unlocking the door and putting them on the clock.

“Not all slapstick is like that,” Robert said as they walked the maze to their joint four-desk cubicle. They mostly used the fourth desk for conferencing in the West Coast team.

“It is all like that on some level.” Lizzy retorted, slipping into her chair. “Look, I get it, slapstick is funny for guys because punches and shoves when you are all the same size and have muscle mass doesn’t hurt that much. But women are always around guys significantly bigger. Half the people women are around could hurt them by accident with a shove, so girls don’t joke around physically. We learn our lessons as teenagers when guys start shoving each other, if we get shoved, we get hurt. So no jokes of punching each other.” She clicked through her screens seeing what emails, voice mails, and instant messages had come in during their lunch hour. “It gets ingrained, playacting hurting other people isn’t funny because it always hurts when you are smaller.”

“Always taking the extreme.” Robert filled his cup with hot water to start his afternoon tea and dropped in the tea bag saved from the morning.

“You forget too soon.” Lizzy swiveled back to Robert. “All the guys around me are the size and strength of Payton to you. How funny would you find men his size fighting?”

“Like WWE?” Payton asked, “We don’t watch that for laughs.”

“Exactly. Slapstick comedy is usually performed by slim men, average-sized or non-muscular men. Short men might be on the receiving end. It always punches to the side or down, never up to someone stronger or bigger. What is there funny about that? Isn’t that one of the rules of comedy, good comedy, always punch up?”

“I … hmmm.” Robert pressed out the water from his tea bag before tossing it out. “I need to think on that.”

(2,367 words; first published June 2, 2024 (written 5/7/2024))

Flash: Dragonfly

Image from Ashish Khanna of Unsplash

“The polymorph worked! Holy Sheet!” The thief danced around waving a wand he just used for the first time, but not saying the activation word again.

The slightly charred fighter and cleric leaned against each other, eyeing the dragonfly as it buzzed around the churned grass, mud, and baked broken ground on the meadow. “I can’t believe it, thank Mercury for his luck,” whispers the cleric.

“Amen.” The fighter responded, not sure if the luck was a gift from the gods or a comment about Lorelless’ insane ability to walk out of any situation smelling like roses.

The artificer lowered her umbrella shield slowly, drawing it back into a walking stick. “How? How did that even work? I mean the mass conversion on that should have resulted in an explosion.”

Lorelless grabbed her face, “Shh, Jasmine, stop overthinking it. Just live in the moment and be happy.” He kissed her, because why not take advantage of her distraction, it could be days before she let him get within pickpocketing distance again. Not that he would ever pickpocket her, the crap in her pockets were a variety of sharp tools, some capable of slitting fingers in half. If Alister hadn’t treated that instance as a learning opportunity, Lorelless would have eleven fingers instead of just ten. He still owed Mercury some coin for that healing.

“Bah, why do you do that?” She pushed him away.

“Because he like you, Jasmine,” the fighter, the oldest of their group shook his head. Unless it had gears and whistles, Jasmine had no clue. He didn’t think that she was actually opposed to Lorelless’ pursuit, she just didn’t understand it.

“I like him too, but that is all germy and,” she rubs her chest with her gloved hand, “weird feeling.”

The dragonfly, after closing the distance from where it had been transformed, annoyed that it took so long to travel a distance she used to be able to transverse in a single leap, landed on the hateful wand.

Like her intelligence and sense of being, the mass of the dragon had not, in fact, been removed by the polymorph.

(words 354; first published 5/26/2024; created 11/19/2023)

Lorelless & Jasmine Series

  1. Dragonfly (5/26/2024)
  2. Even when the trees are apart (6/23/2024)

Flash: X is for Xylotomous

Photo 47572273 © Outcast85 | Dreamstime.com

(paid for – if you wish a copy, please go to dreamtime and pay the artist, thanks!)

I dropped my bags and dug out my key. The light leaking under the door indicated that Xanadu was in their studio even though the sun hadn’t edged above the mountains enough to highlight the bell tower. They were more likely still there from yesterday although they sometimes woke before dawn with an idea that couldn’t wait for breakfast, but either way I wanted to see them now that I was back in the States. Everything else could wait. Unless they were carving.

“Who’s there?” Xanadu asked as they walked from behind one of the many curtains in the large room. “Seok!” They ran and threw themselves at me.

I barely caught the ball of energy that was my favorite American. Managing the momentum by spinning in a circle, I returned the hug preventing me from breathing as soon I was confident we weren’t going to fall over.

“What are you doing back? I thought you were gone to the end of the semester? Graduation, right? It’s not June fourteen, is it? Did I miss a day? A week? No the fourteenth is next month. Right? Oh my god you are back, I’m so glad to have you back.”

After they unwrapped their legs from around me, they slid down my body until they had both feet on the floor, giving me time to catch my breath so I could answer a question. “I missed you too, chingu-choo.” My Korean endearment switched to a sneeze mid-word.

“Oh, sorry, sorry. I’m covered in sawdust.” Xanadu started brushing their apron, jeans and shirt, and then started slapping my wrinkled traveling shirt clear of the material transferred during the hug, setting off several more sneezes for me.

“It’s okay, it’s okay.” I tried grabbing their calloused hands as I switch to Korean, telling them to calm down. Xanadu always understood me better in my native language, they followed my language switch, taking on the more restricted body mannerisms as well as changing the verbal tongue.

They let me grasp their hands between us, before they said, “My best friend, I have missed you like the mountains miss the snow, climbing ever higher to find it, and never lose it again.”

I was rather proud of the sijo poetry moment and smiled down at them as I tucked a loose curl under the handkerchief they used to keep sculpting debris out of their hair. They were asexual and aromantic, but they had learned Korean poetry for me. I lifted up their chin and studied the dark circles under their eyes and the sharpness of their cheekbones. “I believe I had received promises you would eat well and sleep soundly.”

“You did, but I see you have done less well on that task than I.” They reached up their rough strong hands, pulling mine away from their sharp unplucked chin. “May a friend ask what happened?”

“War.” I frown, reliving the tense moments I lived through with the three other exchange students getting smuggled off campus and on a plane two days ago. “It’s spreading.”

Xanadu closed their dark eyes and reopened them. “There are many pictures in your camera.”

“There are.”

“Will you let me see them?”

“Only after we have slept and eaten. Maybe twice.”

They gave me a half smile, then shook, throwing off the emotion and switching to French, the third language we have in common. After that we diverge, me with Mandarin, Arabic, and Urdu, plus Russian in a pinch. They with German and a spattering of Spanish. Children of politicians assigned to foreign posts gave us a unique bond freshman year during the “get to know you” mixer. “Want to see what I have been doing for my senior project?”

Oui bien sur.”

A mischievous smile lit their face. “Excellent. It’s variations on a theme.”

“The dragon and the tiger.” I responded. Variations on a theme was expected; their advisor loved having students explore different mediums.

“How did you guess?” Their face mock fell.

I nodded to the huge scrap metal sculpture in the area closest to the outer double-wide door tall enough to get cars through. Some disassembly would be required to get the tiger leaping at the dragon out of the building. Inside the steel bodies two spiral hunks of metal spun, the dragon in red and the tiger in yellow, like internal flames found in the lanterns which inspired the sculpture. “That gave it away, mon ami.”

“Yeah, it kind-of does, doesn’t it?” They scratched the side of their head, setting some of the dust still clinging to the handkerchief lose. “Would you like to see the rest?” They waved to the smaller statue next to it. “I tried it to do driftwood next after the scrap metal assignment. Professor Altschwager kept harping on scrap metal and using found materials. Not all of us want to be welders, but it made her happy.”

We walked over to the driftwood, and I circle the sculpture. A mask descended on my face. Where the scrap metal had life and unexpected twists like the cutlery used for the tiger’s and dragon’s claws – forks and spoons – the driftwood looked, well, dead. I would never take a picture of it unless I needed it specifically for an article.

“Yeah,” Xanadu switched to English, “you can say it’s shit.”

“It is very well done shit,” I replied. “One might even classify it as manure.”

“She gave me an A for it because, and I quote, ‘you are showing your true skills as an artist now that you have left playdough behind.’”

I wince. “Why is she still your advisor, again?”

“Have you met, Graspy Gallagher?”

The fine arts department only had three professors at any time, Gallagher, the chair, and known for being an equal opportunity ‘hands-on’ instructor so long as you were small and young, Altschwager, an instructor in love with being cutting edge and advent-garde, so long as you did things her way, and a random grad-student cycling in from a nearby sister University, picking up their teaching requirements toward a masters or doctorate.

“If I burn it, will you be heartbroken?”

“This is why you are my best friend.” They hugged me from the side. “Absolutely, we shall make the biggest bonfire the day after my exhibition is over.” Stepping away, they circled the monstrosity again. They tapped two fingers against their lips. “Only maybe not, because the way the wood came together at the bottom gave me the final idea for the bronze.”

I dropped my eyes from the soaring battle originally inspired by the Winter Seoul Lantern Festival we had gone to before I packed off to my political science program in Europe. “Oh, yeah, that is…” I turned my head sideways before dropping to a knee. The support of the dragon and tiger to leap at each other had removed their lower legs, yet the substitute structure flowed… I reached behind me for my camera and grasped nothing. It was still packed in the bags outside the studio door.

Their eyes twinkled as I blushed and stood up. “Ready to see the bronzes?”

“Yes.”

Xanadu guided me to a curtained area. Two sizes of dragon-tiger pairing shined on the shelves besides her pottery and clay sculptures.

“No clay variation?”

“Not where Altschwager will ever see,” my friend growled. “But there are four of them. I shipped them to New York. One’s a pot, one is a relief, and the other two are more traditional. The one I was finally happy with became,” they walked to where the bronzes sat on the shelves and waved at them like a game show host. The lower group of five stood nearly three feet tall while the upper, smaller ten casted pieces were about a foot each. Among the metal pieces were the casts used to create them looking the worse for wear. “I have to give the school five to auction off over the next few years in fundraisers. They are getting the small ones. But…” They picked up a wadded ball of cloth with care and brought it over to me. “This is for you.”

I accepted the cloth and unwrapped it. It was a sixteenth bronze, the bottom inscribed with the year and her name as the maker, and mine as the inspiration in Korean letters. I turned it, seeing the driftwood had became clouds and waves lifting the dragon and tiger into the eternal battle in the sky. I ran my fingers over the imperfections, gaps between the dragon scales, a missing claw on the tiger.

“Sorry it isn’t perfect. I couldn’t justify ordering more bronze. That shit is expensive. So I gathered the scraps from cleaning the others, then assembled the most intact parts of the molds and snuck this in under the wire for me using the smelting lab.”

“No, it is perfect.” I choked and swallowed hard. “A true original.” I smiled through the tears. “A Xanadu Georgladis original.”

“That is for sure, no one else’s will look like that one.”

I coughed to clear my voice before asking, “Anything else?”

“There is the stained glass next.”

“How did you afford that?” I frowned as we ducked between curtains, the tiger-dragon statue weighing heavily in my hands.

“You remember how we had that woman next to us on the plane ride back to the states?”

“The … editor?” Was that only six months ago?

“Yeah, well, she got stuck at a table at a gala with an art critic or gallery owner or both.” Xanadu stopped outside of another curtained off area. “It’s a New York thing, going to galas I think. Anyway.” They quieted, smiling up at me, waiting.

“Anyway?” And I gave them the answer they sought. I missed them.

“Anyway. She had gotten my name because she had been completely thrilled to meet a sculpturer. Remember how she said she had edited a few fantasy books but hadn’t been able to fact check the art descriptions. Well, she friended me as soon as we landed, and I did it right back.”

“You can’t have too many friends,” we said together. An important adage we both learned in diapers thanks to our parents.

“And at the gala, she broke out her phone and showed the art critic the new person she met flying back the day before. Showed him my website.” Xanadu paused, laid a hand on my wrist. “Thank you for setting that up for me, taking all the pictures, everything.”

“He loved Mothra didn’t he?” Mothra was a concrete statue in the student art garden from her sophomore year. Around the medallion bottom were hundreds of caterpillars, all species native to our state. Above them were an opened cocoon, the outside filled with Greek letters giving all the traditional subjects of knowledge, and above that rising out of the cocoon flew a West Coast Lady butterfly. They had given it a big long intellectual name which appeared on the plaque in front of the sculpture, but its nickname on campus was Mothra.

“Offered to find me a buyer, said he wouldn’t accept less than a quarter million for it. And he would only go that low because I was an unknown, but the school owns Mothra since they paid for the concrete and gave me a grant to make it.  I sent him some of my clay work instead, including the test piece for the bronzes.”

“Which he, having the heart of a goblin instead of an artist promptly sold,” I guessed.

“God bless globin patronage.”

“May we all be so blessed.”

They chuckled as we finished our exchange. That had been the result of several very long arguments about the heart of art and the stomach needing food being the way to an artist’s heart. “I was really blessed. Two of the large bronzes and one of the small bronzes which I am allowed to keep are already under contract.”

“How much?”

They gave me a number which would pay for the apartment we had been looking at in New York City to kick start our careers, for the two years we guestimated it would take to become established. Not the apartment with the amount of money we thought we could beg off our parents without feeling like total losers; no, our wishlist one with space for their studio and my photography computers. “And I still have three large bronzes and four small bronzes to sell, plus the stained glass and word carving ones the clays paid the materials for so the school doesn’t get a dime from them either.”

I grip the bronze in my hand and reevaluate its worth. I hope I never need to sell it. But it could get me out of some real tight scrapes like the one I just escaped. Art gets you further than cash in some circles.

“Ready to see the glass.”

I nodded and they pulled aside the curtain, leading to a shadowed area.

“It’s complete, except for the internal lights on the tiger.” They moved over to a metal cart and pushed some buttons.

The memory of the driftwood was gone and only waves becoming clouds remained. The dragon’s moustache and beard tangled with the tiger’s jowled mane. Blue, green, and red crash with orange, brown, and luminous black. The tiger glass at this time only reflecting the bright dragon.

How is that hundreds of glass pieces soldered together?

I forgot to breathe.

“Well, what do you think?” Xanadu returned to my side. “Seok? Anything? It’s horrible isn’t it? Don’t spare my feelings, come on. You are my best critic. You are always honest. I know. I stink. I don’t know why I quit my political major for this.”

“Xanadu.” I managed to creak out. I clear my throat and try again, my voice still only a whisper. “Xan, Xan. It’s amazing.”

“I am just a glorified potter. Professor Altschwager is right. I should just throw mud in politics because I am not worthy of throwing mud on the wheel.”

“Xanadu!”

They stop, stunned. I don’t shout much.

“It is the most amazing thing I have seen in my life and it kills me there is no way I can capture it on film.”

“I … really?” They stare up at me.

“Really.”

A smile creeped up their face.

I repeat myself. “Really.”

“Okay.”

I nod at them. “Okay.”

“You are the first person, other than Jordan who helped with the soldering and Christo with the electrical, to see this.”

“Not even the advisor from hell?”

“No, not even her. She stopped visiting with the bronzes. Said the statues showed I could make a living recreating casts of famous statues for the mass market. Said she would give me a final passing grade so long as I didn’t screw up the senior exhibit.”

My eyes drift back to the lit stained glass. I couldn’t not look. “Mi-chin nyeon.”

Xanadu bit back a laugh. “Rude.”

I had gone a little far with that profanity, but I wasn’t taking it back. There was no way Professor Altschwager was that tone-deaf with the real talent Xandadu represented. “You said you had some woodwork?”

“Yes, I was getting that ready now. I finally found the perfect wood to finish.” They bounced over to the electrical controls and turned off the stained-glass statue. My heart fell, then resumed its normal beating in my chest. “I couldn’t find the right wood for the dragon scale. I went through everything and then I picked up some padauk from the imports over in the city.” They went over to the other side of the curtain and hit it a few times until two parts separated and they held them open. I looked over my shoulder one last time before the curtain closed.

The final curtain opened to the smell of linseed oil. The smell of cooked glass and drying clay which permeated the rest of the studio became overpowered by the smell of wood and oil.

The statue was unfinished. Clearly so.

But the thing is, Xanadu is first and foremost a sculpturer. Assembly of scrap metal or driftwood, working with casts, and putting together the complicated jigsaw of stained glass. That they can do, but it isn’t their strength. Give them clay to build a face, cement to shape a butterfly, marble to create a thought of a storm, and the world will stand still. Wood can be carved, sculptured.

The other stuff wasn’t three-D to start with. It was never alive.

I turned away and hit the walls until I found an exit and strode to the front door in the bright light of morning shining through the windows. I popped open my carryon and pulled out my camera and ran back into the room.

We didn’t make breakfast at the student union, but we did make lunch.

(2,814 words, first published 5/19/2024)

Capturing the Tiger and Dragon Series

  1. X is for Xenophile (4/28/2024)
  2. X is for Xylotomous (5/19/2024)
  3. X is for Xanthic (6/9/2024)
  4. Exhibit (7/14/24)
  5. Exit Strategy (9/1/2024)

Flash: Endlessly Creative

Image acquired from the internet hivemind

“I will only speak of Professor Pelphrey in glowing terms, describe Truth and Consequences as an easy course, and keep all secrets shared within these walls dear and quiet. This I, Gael Dubhlainn Raisie McFadden, swear. By my will.” Gael stood in the back row, legs braced apart, arms crossed. Braxton had swirled his chair to face his friend and listen as Gale, the oldest and therefore the last of the eighteen students, swore the oath the instructor required. Each classmate had ended the oath differently; she had said whatever felt right. The results ranged from “amen” to “so mote it be.”

The petite woman in her black linen trousers over matching sensible leather shoes, houndstooth oversize jacket, and white silk blouse plus about her body weight in jewelry, nodded her acceptance of the last oath, her shoulder-length hair swinging forward.

At her nod, he sat down beside his best friend. “Did you feel—”

“The snap, like when I shoved your shoulder into place after you dislocated it playing freebie, yeah.”

“What are we getting into?” Gael whispered as they watched the professor walk over to the lectern stand for the first time she entered the class twenty minutes ago, carrying the small stack of books and paperwork she brought with her.

Braxton gave his half smile. “Don’t know but worth it.”

“I hope so.”

After tucking the materials in the pedestal, except for one folder she placed on top, Professor Pelphrey mounted a small step stool to bring her head level with the classroom microphone. “Miss Faukner, you had a question I asked you to hold until everyone finished their oaths. You may ask it now.”

Being the youngest of the group and the only Freshman of the lot, Wren stumbled over her question after holding it for so long. “Umn, well, you had the others, I mean people left after you said … How did the … You told us how tough the course was and then let people leave. How come they don’t tell everyone that this isn’t an easy ‘A’?”

“They egressed through the Oubliette Doors.” The teacher pointed at the double doors to her left. “They are charmed with forgetfulness. Do not use them now that you have sworn into the class, unless you have decided to permanently walk away from what we will be learning here. When you leave today, use the back door. The bathroom is right outside the upper door, if you need to go. If one of your fellow students exits through the Oubliette, you have two hours to get them to me and get the charm removed before the memory of what occurred in this room is gone forever. The students that left before the oath will be transferred to Dr. Torbett’s class and only reminisce about not clicking with my course when I described it if anyone asks. I will keep the doors locked while class is in session, to be on the safe side, but during open study labs, you will need to master yourselves.”

“Oh,” Wren looked confused. This had to be tough as her first university course ever. Gael struggled, and he was a senior. “Okay. Charmed you say … what is oblique mean?”

“Oubliette, means ‘I forgot’.” The professor turned on the projector and showed a picture of a hole in the ground with a grate over it, the surroundings looked like a medieval castle, but not in the good part of the castle. “It’s a type of dungeon, the name is French but they weren’t the only ones who used them. You drop a person down into the hole and forgot about them.” She flipped through a few other photos. Braxton shivered. “A horrible punishment, maybe rain water will fall in and keep you hydrated, maybe the jailors would come through and drop moldy bread or rotten fruits down. You could hear other people screaming in nearby holes, which provided some relief to know you weren’t alone in the world until the voices stopped. If you were lucky, the pit would be wide enough you could sit. Sometimes you would get pulled out if they remembered you before you died.” Pensively, the teacher studied the last frame where nearly a dozen holes covered in rough iron grates had been dug into a brick-and-mortar path. Turning to face the class, she deadpanned, “I don’t recommend it.”

The teacher closed her eyes and inhaled through her nose deeply.

“First truth, whatever you think is the worse that humans can do, is wrong.” The light clicked off, hiding the horrible image. “They are endlessly creative. You,” the teacher pointed to the class, her bracelets jingling musically, “are endlessly creative. Do not consider this,” she waved at the blank screen behind her and her bracelets clanged harsh, “a competition. You will lose, either yourself or your purpose and I cannot tell you which is worse.” Pausing, she looked out at the classroom. “Next question.”

Braxton raised his hand. Gael hit him under the desk, which the professor could easily see being at a lower level.

“Yes, Mr. Huffel.”

“How old are you?”

The teacher’s eyebrows raised into her hairline, “Why do you ask?”

“You said you taught Wren’s mom, or at least remembered her.” The bio-chem senior shook his head in disbelief. “There is no way you are in your late forties.”

“I’ve been teaching at this institution since it was established.” The teacher tilted her head waiting for her students to do the math.

LeeAnn, a junior in the front row spoke first. “No, no way. The university started in 1747. That is over 200 years ago.”

“Two hundred seventy-seven, to be exact,” Shanda said after typing in numbers into her laptop. “If you were twenty-three when you started teaching, you would be three hundred years old.”

“I’m a little older than that.” The teacher moved her file folder to touch the screen built into the lectern, then relit the wall. The painting hanging in the university’s main hall of the founding scientists appeared behind her. Ten people dressed in black robes with white wigs, two women and one very old man sitting in front, and the other seven standing around them. Around their necks were stoles in various jeweled colors. According to legend, three women and seven men started the college. The woman in the back, Caroline stood with her husband Jim Fangman, and both wore red for chemistry. The unmarried women in front sat either side of the old man, with his daughter Rachel on his left. Elias Spelman and his offspring wore green for agriculture and environmental science. The university also used it for biology. Braxton would be wearing a stole with red and green when he graduated.

The female on the right in the picture, rumored to be a mistress of one of the scientists, though which one changed every year, had a small stool to prop up her feet. The hands clasped in her lap were covered in a dozen rings, and the woman’s heart-shaped face bore a striking resemblance to Professor Pelphrey. Her stole was the clear gold the school used for governmental science.

“Fuck, her name is Madden Pelphrey. She said it right up front.” Gael wrote the professor’s name on the sheet of paper and underlined it hard. “We eat at Pelphrey Hall every day, and I thought she was just related. Got in at a young age because of who she knew.”

The class roared as each person talked to the others. Only Wren, who hadn’t been soaking up the university legends for years, remained silent, but her head spun around as the seniors behind her debated the authenticity of the teacher’s claim.

While they were arguing, the Professor Pelphrey took the folder to the front of the table and removed a stack of white printed paper from the folder, placing them on the table. Then she walked over to a cabinet beside the door she entered through and unlocked it. Inside were seven shelves of books. She pulled out a board built into the side and turned it sideway, upon which four steps unfolded from the board, becoming stairs for her to reach the top shelf. Once at the top, she unlocked the glass front of the shelf and slid it out and then up so it slid into the cabinet above the newly accessible shelf.

Students were beginning to raise hands when the teacher turned sideways on the steps and clicked the control, changing the image to a syllabus. “Ready to start learning?” her voice carried in the room, the carpet absorbing some of it, but the cement walls bouncing the rest.

“How old are you?” “You can’t be that old.” “You knew Spelman?” “Did you really do the wild thing with the Fangmans? “Can you tell us…” Everyone’s voices was speaking over the other.

The teacher raised her right hand, the houndstooth jacket sliding down to her elbow, and lifted her other hand to her lips placing two fingers there until the students started following suit. Some did it automatically, clearly familiar with the routine from their primary school days, while others looked side-to-side and started mimicking the rest of the class.

When everyone was quiet, Pelphrey spoke. “One off-topic question per day. You can decide among yourselves what you want that to be. The class will get an extra 10 points each if it is not one I have heard recently, 25 points if completely new.” When hands remained raised, she added, “and negative ten point for everyone for each question asked out of turn.” Hands dropped.

“Miss Faukner, could you hand out the syllabus to everyone? Don’t worry, I won’t make you do everything. Each person, in order of age, will help with the tasks. Mr. Quillon, could you come over here and hand out today’s texts? We got an hour left and a lot to cover today to get you ready for your self-study on Tuesday.”

(words 1,665; first published 5/12/2024)

Madden Series

  1. Truth and Consequences (3/17/2024)
  2. Endlessly Creative (5/12/2024)