Stephen Roger Powers

Little Earthquakes

On Friday of the most eventful week of their lives together, the parachutist plummeted from the sky and landed in the wooded cemetery across the street from their house.

His unfortunate and surprising death literally right in their front yard didn’t change anything, however.

Georgiana still woke up in the morning with her arm around her pillow, thinking it was Grant and mumbling to it softly, and Trinket said that this was sorrowful because it meant Georgiana hadn’t moved on at all and that Trinket had done nothing but waste her time. Besides, they’d just seen a parachutist die, for Christ’s sake.

And on the Monday of that week, late in the afternoon, four days before the parachutist came screaming from the spring clouds, their neighbor Mr. Bauer started slowly digging for gold under the cottonwood by his mailbox. That was the day Georgiana finally told Trinket that she’d had dinner a few times with Grant at the Croissant de Lune, that she thought it all had gone fine so far, and that she was seriously thinking about getting back together with him and taking it very slow. A fresh start.

On Tuesday, the ground started humming every hour on the hour for about four minutes. Georgiana wondered if Mr. Bauer digging for gold had anything to do with it. Trinket confessed she was furious about Georgiana seeing Grant again.

By Wednesday morning, the hole was five feet deep, mounds of dirt in a circle around the edge. Mr. Bauer stood in the hole, shovel scooping, clumps of dirt flying, T-shirt soaked through, only his shoulders and bald head visible above the hole. Georgiana thought it was a wonder he hadn’t hit any roots.

Continued in the book!

Snake Wine

Edoardo Appollino leaned against the galley sink and held a black Dutch oven under the faucet. He turned on the water and waited until he had enough to cook the penne for his ex-wife. The Dutch oven grew heavier as it filled. Edoardo shut the water off and tipped the Dutch oven. Excess water spilled into the sink.

“Don’t fill it up all the way,” Billie, his ex-wife, said from the forward cabin of Edoardo’s 32-foot boat.

“I like feeling it get heavier,” Edoardo said, and it was true—the weight of water was the only measure by which he knew he was still living.

“Feel it get heavier without filling it up all the way.”

Edoardo slid the Dutch oven onto the small stove. It scraped on the burner. Two pinches of salt. A spritz of gas puffed into flame.

“Wasteful,” Billie said again.

Edoardo looked at her from the galley. She was leaning backward on the worn, vinyl-covered lounge seat, and her legs were splayed out with her bare feet up on his sofa sleeper across from her. Her black leggings were too tight, and her green cable-knit sweater was too big. The green polish on her toenails was flaking.

A guinea pig sat like a puffy ascot on her chest. Its head was buried in her hair, which came down past her neck in a sweeping pile of dark blond curls. The animal made suction-like slurping noises while it gnawed on her sweater’s neckline.

“Couple minutes until boiling,” Edoardo said.

The guinea pig grunted and squeaked. Billie reached into a bowl on the end table for a piece of carrot. The animal snatched it from her fingers and buried its head back in her curls to make crunching noises now.

“Carrots, parrots,” Billie said to the guinea pig. She puckered her lips at it. The guinea pig kept chewing.

It was a black guinea pig. Its hair stuck out in all directions in bowl-like loops and ringlets on its back. Edoardo was disgusted at the bald patches in the center of them.

Why did she bring the damn thing, he thought.

Continued in the book!

One More Time for Donny Deadborne

For Zeke Jarvis

I’m a feature comedian. That means I go on stage after the emcee opens the show with ten or fifteen minutes of announcements and lukewarm jokes. I’m on for about a half an hour, sometimes a little longer, right before the headliner, who carries the show with an hour-long set. Depending on the club, I do six shows a weekend, one on Thursday night, two on Friday night, and three on Saturday night. This weekend, I’ll only do five. I started this seven years ago when I was twenty-three, and I’ve been featuring for four. I’m not sure I’ll ever be good enough to headline, otherwise I’d probably be doing it by now. Most of the time, I’m okay with that.

My first time on stage was at the Safehouse, a Milwaukee spy bar with secret passageways and trick mirrors and a password required to get in. I was a tour guide at Miller Brewery then, misunderstanding people’s questions if they asked them near the loud bottling lines. Reciting a memorized script for the tour groups and walking them down the same route over and over all day long soon made me feel like I was on a tape loop, dazed with boredom, so it wasn’t long before I threw in deadpan one-liners about yeast and hops and kegs.

My brewery buddies dared me to sign up for the comedy open mic at the Safehouse. Tell a couple of your beer jokes from work, they all said. Of course I bombed. But it led to another spot the next week, and another, and so on, with a couple new jokes each time.

Eventually a round, greasy, drunk-off-his-ass booking guy offered me my first paid gig (twenty-five bucks and a free drink, maybe two if the manager liked me) at a bowling alley south of town. It took two years to polish and hone myself enough to move up from the steakhouses and Knights of Columbus halls to the comedy clubs full time, where, these days, I perform the same show at every venue, sometimes two or three times a night. There’s an odd comfort in only doing material that’s so familiar I could lip-synch my act. I’ve been tempted to try that, give my voice a rest once in a while. But I’d probably not hear the cue and end up horribly out of synch.

So, yeah, I’m deaf too. I lost a good part of my hearing when I was three. Fever. I’m not totally deaf, just hard of hearing enough to play it up and make a gimmick out of it. It makes me talk a little funny too—people often think I’m British. Road comics are a dime a dozen, and if you don’t have a gimmick you ain’t going nowhere. My opening line is Heckling me is a waste of your time, and the rest of my act is about misunderstanding everything I hear. Like when the telemarketer asks me if I’m interested in switching my long distance and I say It’s none of your fucking business how long my dick is.

Continued in the book!

Rhinestone Horses

Grace Garland hated the rhinestone rainbow bracelet her husband George had given her two days ago. It was cheap and tacky, she thought, and it snagged her nylons and made them run when she crossed her legs and rested her wrist on her knee, as she liked to do. But she wore it anyway because she often resigned herself to doing such things for him when he asked her to. Habit.

The empty casket rattled in the back of their spacious metallic green station wagon. The station wagon was almost twenty years old, and sometimes it killed at stop signs and wouldn’t start again. And sometimes it overheated on the highway.

George was driving. Grace had never in all her life seen anyone so relaxed behind the wheel as George when he drove, and it irritated her. Everything George did irritated her. One of his bony hands was on top of the steering wheel, and his other hand rested on the headrest behind her. Her neck ached from leaning forward too long. She didn’t want George’s fingers touching her hair.

He hummed while he drove, and that annoyed Grace because the radio was turned off, but she held her tongue.

She remembered when, five or six years ago, she went in the cold garage one December evening and asked him if it was time to get rid of the wagon. No kids at home anymore, she’d said, so—since it was in such good condition—why not try and trade it in for something smaller. But George said no, wiped sawdust off his long chin, and continued sawing whatever it was he was sawing. As the electric blade droned and sawdust blew, he hollered that they’d never know when they’d need the wagon’s cargo room. And besides, he added, it had a few years of life left in it.

It wasn’t like George to give her presents. She examined the bracelet’s cube-shaped rhinestones. They felt like rock salt and gleamed in the late afternoon sun that shone in her window and made her squint. She was too short for the visor to shadow her face. She turned the bracelet around and around on her wrist and wondered what made the stones change color as their angle shifted against the sunlight.

“You never told me where you got this bracelet,” she said.

Continued in the book!

The Tennessee Scrambler

Tempted and tried is how I’d describe it. It was so funny. On Tuesday afternoon, I found the first note nailed to the front door of my little house on Mud Lick Ridge. It was the first really hot day of summer, ninety-six degrees, oppressively humid down in the valley but cooler up on the mountain, and it hadn’t rained anywhere in east Tennessee since the beginning of April. Or so I heard from the townspeople.

The note had been written on a piece of a cereal box with a picture of a green elf on it. It read Stay away from Violet in chicken-scratch red pencil handwriting that crisscrossed the elf’s face like razor cuts.

I threw the note in the kitchen trash and forgot about it. Normally I wouldn’t have been nonchalant about a cryptic warning nailed to my door, but, to tell you the truth, it really didn’t alarm me much. I didn’t know anyone named Violet. I was new in town and figured nobody knew me well enough either to have a bone to pick with me already. Perhaps whoever left the note thought the previous occupant of my house was still living there.

So I didn’t think about the note again until I came home from Francesca’s the next night and found another one nailed to the door in the same spot. This one had been written on a folded sheet of legal paper in the same red pencil handwriting. What does it take to get you to listen?

Puzzling. I sat down and rubbed my knee. The cool spot Francesca had put in it when she first touched me there a few weeks ago flipped and fluttered under my skin like a trout skimming just below the surface of a stream. It grew cold sometimes at odd moments like this. But it wasn’t unwelcome.

I poured myself a Hendricks & tonic, sliced a lime, and went out front. The fireflies bobbed above the swaying brown grass. The moon was rising through the white oaks. My rocking chair creaked on the wooden porch. The mountain grew dark and full of night sounds. Cicadas and raccoons. Owls and witch ghosts. I checked the deadbolt on the door and went to bed soon after I finished my drink, my knee feeling tight and cold all night long.

A third note showed up on Thursday, when a fire advisory was posted for all of Orion County and the surrounding area. Written on the torn-off back cover of a paperback romance novel, this one read Didn’t I tell you to stay away from her?

Continued in the book!

Sister Melvina

It’s a secret. But you can take it from me. Before I continue any further, however, you must think about a few things. First, a true traveler always drives the car like he stole it. Second, never start with Before I begin, I’d like to say a few words about myself. Nobody cares about you. People are going to peg you from the story you tell anyway.

Now that that’s out of the way, I have it on good authority that the citizens of Copperkroger still owned kites when they weren’t supposed to. Of course this means they traded kites on the black market too, and even bought them outright from the secret manufacturers at wholesale prices.

Copperkroger—a city in the north. I suppose the situation is even more interesting when you realize that the people of Copperkroger were the ones who started the great kite war many years ago to end such things. You might remember that the people of Copperkroger won this very war under the leadership of their former mayor who had gone on to become president of the country after a scandalous election that rewrote the country’s constitution. This was how he could declare war on cities in his own country and stay in office. After the victory of the militia from Copperkroger, the people of every other city in the country were forced to hide their kites away. Notice I didn’t say they were forced to set their kites free. This was not the point.

And so the people of every other city in the country reeled in their kitestrings on bright yellow, pink, and orange spools, and their kites dipped and turned, and dipped again, and swooped in low until either sliding to a nice stop on their bellies or crashing on their noses. Hands, some leathery and cracked, some delicate and fine, pulled apart the kites, folded them together, and locked them away in attics or in basements. Legend has it some people even burned their kites.

This was all done very quickly. The people of every other city in the country did not want to face further destruction at the hands of the militia of Copperkroger and the president who had once been mayor.

Every year, however, for two undisclosed days in February, the officials of Copperkroger prohibited anyone from outside from entering the city. Air traffic was rerouted so that nobody flew overhead. Shipping came to a stop on all highways entering town, and trucks sat idle for two days until the okay was given to proceed in to their drop-off points. Sentries perched on the outlying hills with special sensors to be sure nobody was looking at the city from a distance through a telescope.

Continued in the book!

Four additional stories not sampled here are included in Highway Speed.