Monday, October 10, 2011

FICTION: Fat Tuesday by Tony Burnett

In less than a millisecond the rays emanate from the glowing pumpkin on the horizon. They pierce the atmosphere, ooze through the smog, dance off the bronze mirrored skyscrapers and slam to their death against the gray concrete three story supporting Hans and his companion. From the street below dissonant electric guitar chords tangle the various genres, volumes and keys into an aural sewage stream assaulting the ears of any music aficionado. The growing crowd of revelers down on Sixth Street don't seem to care. Instead they are gyrating as one amorphous body to a pair of barefoot street drummers pounding out aboriginal rhythms on an assortment of overturned plastic buckets. Even Hans taps his alligator boot. He can see well beyond the Capitol building to the north. His attention, however, is fixed on the street below, especially the southwest entrance to the Driskill Hotel. He lets another raw oyster slide down his throat offering the shell to his thick-jowled companion who licks the salty phlegm from the object and drops it at his feet. Hans raises two fingers and points at his table. The waitress brings another cognac. It is the Fat Tuesday celebration and he is enjoying it as best he can.

Six years as roommates has all but eliminated the language barrier between Hans and Artemis. As Hans strokes his friend’s forehead, Artemis turns his eyes imploringly toward Hans and licks his massive chops asking for another oyster shell. The bulldog’s request is granted.

“It’s almost time,” Hans says to Artemis. Together they stare toward the entrance to the Driskill. Hans checks his Rolex. At exactly 6:08 pm she emerges. It is not so much her stunning beauty that draws his attention but that she is so misplaced. She walks erectly, dressed in a starched white blouse and tan mid-length skirt, her blonde hair pulled behind her ears with a white band. Beside her on a silver ribbon of leash walks a trim Afgan hound with the same honey blond hair. Artemis throws back his head. A quiet high pitched moan rises from somewhere within as his left paw pounds uncontrollably against the railing. Hans is transfixed. The woman walks east down Sixth. The drunken masses seem to part like waves. She walks with her grand dog two blocks east, across the street and back up the south sidewalk, stopping only long enough to drop four crisp bills into the street drummer’s kitty. Back at Congress Avenue, she crosses Sixth again and re-enters the Driskill, at which point Hans resumes breathing.

“She appears like clockwork at exactly eight minutes past the hour. That was the third time she did it. Intriguing isn’t it?” Hans wonders aloud. His companion is leaning against the railing, his head resting on his paws, eyes closed, lost in a dream.

“I must know!” Hans shouts, startling Artemis back to reality. “No, it’s not lust. It’s more curiosity. If I don’t at least try to find the answer it may drive me to drink!”

Artemis snorts, shaking his head, and regains his footing on the rooftop. He knows it is a short drive. Having almost an hour to kill, Hans calls the waitress. “I’ll have one more cognac and a bowl of water for my buddy then you can close out my tab. We’re going to take a walk for awhile."

"I’ll get your drinks and your check.” She reaches down and gives Artemis a pat on the head. “I’ll be right back.”

Hans realizes that he will lose his observation post but is determined to solve this mystery. As Hans sips his final drink he thinks of his long, happy marriage and how the years have slowed and thickened his once athletic body. “It’s been a good run,” he says, “and it ain’t over yet!” He slaps the table with a new energy.

After paying his tab, Hans attaches the unnecessary leash to the leather harness surrounding Artemis. They enter the elevator. The musty cube is decorated with the dark walnut, burgundy velour and brass trim popular in the days of yore. It even has piped in elevator music, a sterilized version of a melody he and his young wife sang together years before while driving through the hill country. He can't quite remember the words. The ride ends too soon at street level where he will face the raucous throngs of drunken revelers. He looks at his watch. “We have a few minutes. Let’s check out the scene.” Hans adjusts his stature, infused with the energy of a new quest.

The evening is warm for a February, not uncommon for central Texas. The air is heavy with the smell of spilled beer and sweat. Otherwise intelligent college men are ejaculating strings of colored beads toward any glassy-eyed maiden who will reveal her mammary glands. Fueled by alcohol, hormones and drumming, the party is reminiscent of some medieval Pagan fertility festival. It is infectious if you are young. For men like Hans it is both silly and sad. For dogs like Artemis it is downright confusing. As they pass Sixth and Neches a tall cowboy is hurling verbal insults at a thick Middle Eastern male. The cowboy’s drunken girlfriend hangs on him like a loose sweater. As the Middle Eastern man turns away she lacks the coordination to effectively flip him off.

“These are our leaders of tomorrow,” Hans states.

He checks his watch, adjusts his tie and cufflinks, polishing them against the breast of his Brooks Brothers suit. “It’s time to head over to the Driskill,” he informs Artemis. He feels the blood in his ears and his pulse begins to race as the minutes tick away. His timing is impeccable. He reaches the corner of Sixth and Congress at exactly 7:08 just as the woman steps from the entrance.

“What a beautiful Afgan!” Hans recites his practiced line.

“Thank you. Her name is Sasha.” The woman glances down at Artemis. “He’s, um, quite a specimen also.” She hesitates at “beautiful” which would be grossly inaccurate.

“This is my best buddy, Artemis. We have been partners for six years. Unfortunately, the old adage is true. I’m afraid we have grown to resemble each other as pets and their owners are prone to do.”

The tall woman beams a genuine smile. “Well you both look very regal.”

“I’m Hans, Hans Schickel.”

“Lorraine Stewart.” She extends her graceful hand which Hans takes gently in his.

“Very pleased to meet you. Would you walk with me?” They head east into the crowd. As they walk quietly for more than a block, Hans notices that Lorraine is not the young woman she appears to be from a distance. The years have lighted on her like a butterfly, however, and a life of ease and privilege is obvious in her soft features.

“So what brings you to this decadent bacchanalia?” Hans eventually asks.

“I promised to meet someone,” Lorraine replied. A brief cloud wafted across her countenance. Hans decides to just enjoy the walk. As they approach the drummers, a girl of not more than 14 is slapping a tambourine. Two dark-skinned women in long gauzy skirts and tube tops are dancing teasingly around a tanned young man with long golden locks. He dances in a tantric trance, oblivious to his surroundings. A small crowd has gathered on the corner, fixated, their pulses attuned to the beat. Lorraine hands Sasha’s leash to Hans. Pulling a five dollar bill from her small pocketbook, she steps through the throbbing crowd and deposits it in the tip jar. “That’s for a friend who couldn’t be here,” she explains, noticing Hans’ questioning stare. Hans is even more intrigued. Lorraine takes Sasha’s leash and starts across the street, the same pattern as before.

Hans can’t take it anymore. “I have to ask you something. I hope you don’t think I’m out of line.” Lorraine raises an eyebrow. “I was observing you from the top of that building earlier and I noticed that exactly the same time every hour, all afternoon, you walk this same loop.”

“Really?” She looks surprised. “I didn’t realize. I’m just trying to get Sasha used to the crowd. I have a room at the Driskill above the street and I want to leave my balcony door open tonight. I don’t want her to be bothered by the noise. I find it stimulating.”

“But exactly eight past the hour?”

“Seriously, it’s coincidence. I’m surprised you noticed.” She switches Sasha's leash to the hand nearest Han's and moves a slight distance away.

“Well, to be honest, you don’t exactly fit in with this crowd. Not that that’s a bad thing.”

“Nor do you, sir. I don’t see a lot of cuff links and Rolexes down here.”

“I meant no offense. I tend to be more of an observer at these types of events. I’m afraid my days of lunacy are long passed,” Hans says.

“I know what you mean, though I can’t ever remember a time when I would have disrobed for a string of plastic beads.” She exhales a gentle laugh.

Both humans simultaneously notice their canine companions making introductions in the dog appropriate head to tail position. “They seem to be getting on well,” Lorraine mentions.

“Easy Arty!” Hans exclaims as Artemis places a meaty paw in the middle of Sasha’s haunches.

“Oh, let them play. I’m surprised it took this long. Sasha is a bit of a flirt!” Lorraine is sizing up Hans, ignoring the frisky dogs. They pull the dogs apart and continue the short walk. Just before the final leg of the pre-ordained route Lorraine turns to Hans. “Would you like to come up? As I said, I have a balcony overlooking Sixth. It’s only two floors up, an excellent observation point.”

Hans extends his hands as if they are the scales of justice. “Well let’s see, I could go home and rattle around my empty house or spend the evening with an intriguing woman. It seems obvious.”

“Okay, then,” Lorraine blushes ever so slightly at his boldness. She leads the way through the Romanesque entrance.

Once inside the room they unleash their companions who immediately lounge, noses almost touching, on the cool tile floor near the bathroom.

“Would you like a drink?” Lorraine asks.

“What do you have?”

“I have some very good tequila and, well ---I guess tequila is about it but I would be happy to call down for something else.”

“Tequila is fine, although I’m not well versed on the customs surrounding it.”

“Leave it to me,” Lorraine states and removes two tiny shot glasses and a crystal salt shaker from her luggage. She steps over to the counter and dices a lime into eighths. She places it all on a tray and carries it to the balcony. “Tequila lessons,” she says. She pours two shots, licks, then salts the back of her left hand, swallows the drink, flinging her head back dramatically, lashes the salt from her hand with a quick tongue and bites firmly into the lime, her eyes glowing. She indicates the remaining shot. “Your turn!”

Hans does his best to emulate her action. He decides that tequila was probably the worst tasting liquor he has ever experienced but the primal heat explains the glow in Lorraine’s eyes.

They observe the street below. The drumming has intensified. The pulsating crowd is an organic rainbow of sparkling color. Primitive noises, punctuated by screams and grunts, echo down the concrete chasm as a spell is being cast over the city.

As Lorraine is refilling the shot glasses, Hans notes a pale circle around her ring finger. “Are you married?” He blurts.

“Widowed, just last month.”

“Oh, I’m sorry. That’s terrible!” Hans tastes foot.

“Sad, yes, it was very unexpected, but ironic, really.”

“What happened?” Hans asks, sensing she wants to talk about it.

“Arnold, that was my husband’s name, was terrified of flying. He was an engineer so he realized it wasn’t a rational fear. Still, anytime he had to board a plane he was certain it would be his demise. He would always tell me how much he loved me and what he would like me to do if he died. It became almost a morbid joke for us. January fourth, as I drove him to Love field to catch a charter flight, he started with the death thing again. I wasn’t in the mood and I told him so." Lorraine drinks her shot sans salt and lime. She pours another shot. "The plane went down in the Ozarks. There were no survivors, at least not by the time help arrived. Anyway, that’s why I’m here. We came down every year for Fat Tuesday and we already had reservations. One of the things he made me promise was to come here without him should he not return.” She pauses for a moment and surveys the scene below. Setting free a reserved chuckle she picks up her glass and threw back the shot, forcefully. “So what about you?”

“I lost my wife six years ago. She had a long fight with breast cancer. Her name was Vena. She was a tiny woman with sparkling green eyes, curly red hair and more energy than any six toddlers you can imagine. She always seemed happy. I remember when she first found the lump. We were about to make a buying run through the mid-west. She owned an antique shop over on South Congress. I still have it. We were going to be gone for about three weeks. It was right after Christmas. I tried to get her to see a doctor. She said, ‘There ain’t enough titties here for cancer to bother with.’ When we returned she was busy with inventory and taxes. She didn’t get around to seeing the doctor for a couple of months. By that time it was too late. She fought hard, radical mastectomies, chemo, alternative therapies, the works. She lost all her hair and quit eating. That’s when we bought Artemis. She had always wanted an English Bulldog but I had put her off. She had always wanted children, too, but I kept saying ‘eventually’. At least she got the bulldog. She lasted about seven more months, four of them on Hospice. She might have lasted longer but I couldn’t stand to see her in so much pain. I encouraged the Hospice nurse to give her maximum doses of her pain meds. One day, after the nurse left, we finished off a bottle of her favorite wine and she just went to sleep. I sold my company to pay off the house and medical bills. I still run the shop she owned. I guess it’s just a way to keep her memory fresh.”

“I see you still wear your wedding ring,” Lorraine observes.

“It won’t come off. I was fairly lean when we were married. Age, I’m afraid, has thickened me. I guess I could have it cut off but I could never see the point.”

They look out at the crowd again. Lorraine spots a young shirtless man, his body heavily inked in tribal tattoos. He dances wildly, his oily bronze curls slapping against his shoulders as he throws back his head. Dangling from his left arm are several dozen strands of colored beads. On his chest is stenciled a large crescent moon.

“Hey, moonchild,” Lorraine yells down at him, waving the bottle in the air. “Would you like a shot of tequila?”

“Cool, Babe, I’ll be right up!” The prancing boy replies.

“No need, just tilt your head back and keep your mouth and eyes open. I’m a pretty good shot with this thing but I may need some help from your end.” She yells.

The young man plants his feet firmly on the ground and arches his back as if he is preparing to balance a billiard stick on his nose. “Give her a go!” He cries. Lorraine fills a shot glass and pours with flair. Except for the first tentative drops it is a direct hit.

“Awesome, darlin’,” the boy hollers after swallowing the cactus juice. He takes a string of maroon beads from his wrist and slings it toward her like a lasso. She catches it on the bottleneck then slips it over her head. The boy dances away.

“Now everyone is going to think I’ve been running around half naked.”

“Isn’t it about time to walk the dog?” Hans asks, noticing it is approaching nine.

“They don’t look like they want to go anywhere soon," Lorraine says, seeing both animals stretched out on the tile floor, sleeping peacefully.

"I wish I could sleep like that," Lorraine says. "Since Arnold died I just go through the motions. I don't even know why. I'm not sure there's a 'me' in here anymore, even if it matters."

""I'm not sure you ever lose that other part that comes with love," Hans states. "Myself, I've made a point to hold on. It was my best part but it is limiting. I guess we all handle it in our own way. If it makes you feel any better, it does get easier, -- slowly."

Lorraine studies Hans until he looks away from the street. When their eyes lock she doesn't turn away. "Why don't you guys stay the night?" She asks, pouring two more shots.

Hans again weighs his options, rattling around his Westlake villa or spending the night wrapped up with this fascinating woman. "I haven't been with a woman since Vena passed," he warns.

“Well it’s about time don’t you think?” Lorraine smiles.

“I guess it’s like riding a bicycle,” Hans offers.

“Let’s hope not, but I guess if you can tell the handlebars from the pedals you’ll be okay.” Lorraine licked her hand and threw back the shot. Hans followed suit.

“Just curious,” Hans queried, “what made you pick out that boy for the tequila drop?”

“He reminded me of my son.”

“You have a son?”

“Yeah, he’s married. He lives in north Dallas. His wife is a physics professor at UNT. He’s a professional photographer, pretty good at it, too. If you’ve read any national magazines, you have seen his work. You wouldn’t think a scientist and a photographer would hit it off but I guess it’s that they both have such a unique way of seeing things. He actually has an opening tonight at the 500X Gallery. He’s showing photos from the Malaysian tsunami recovery efforts.”

“Shouldn’t you be there?” Hans asks, puzzled.

“I’ll see them when I get home. He doesn’t need his mother cramping his style at his big soirée.”

Lorraine takes Hans’ meaty hand and holds it to her cheek. “Thanks for staying,” she says and looks closely into his eyes. The drumming has reached a frantic pace. Lorraine places the half full bottle of tequila in the refrigerator leaving the patio door open.

Hans is nervous, but only until he's encircled in Lorraine’s slender arms. He suddenly feels very much at home. Their lovemaking is passionate and energetic but comfortable. It's as if they have known each other since the beginning of time.

Hans falls asleep for the first time in years without longing for Vena’s touch. Lorraine prays, not to God, but to Arnold. “I fulfilled my promises. Thank you for bringing me to this place. Amen.”


“Reggie, you need to get ready. The cab is scheduled to be here at 8:30.

“Just a minute, Viv, I’m having trouble with one of my clocks again. It keeps gaining time.” Reggie was fiddling with one of the dozens of antique clocks lining the walls of his studio.

“You can’t gain time, at least not in this universe. It’s just inaccurate,” Vivian explained. She teased him with these subtle nuances.

“Spoken like a true physicist,” Reginald replied, “but this little clock has gained eight minutes in the last two weeks. That’s unacceptable.’

“Can you worry about it later? You have at least two devices on your person directly connected to the world atomic clock at the Naval Observatory,” Vivian countered, though she knew her protestations were futile.

“It’s strange, though. It gains eight minutes quickly then remains eight minutes fast, like it’s on a different schedule. What could it mean?”

“Okay, which one is it?” Vivian chose to humor him for the sake of expediency.

“It’s the one with the Romanesque façade that has the door that the woman walks her dog through on the hour.”

“Isn’t that the one we picked up in New Orleans?”

“No, we got it in Austin a few years ago when we met mom and dad for Fat Tuesday. Remember the little bald-headed woman with the shop on Congress?”

“Oh yeah,” Vivian remembered. “I wonder how she’s doing. She was obviously sick with something. I remember she really wanted a good home for that clock. I thought it strange that she would have such an attachment to an object she was trying to sell.”

“I can’t figure it out. I guess I will have to find someone to repair it. In the meantime it will take a few minutes to recalibrate.” Reginald continued to tinker with the clock.

“Can you hurry? You’ll be late for your own opening!”

“Fashionably late.”

“Maybe, but we did request a cab for 8:30.”

“Please, Viv, just let me do this.”

Vivian spun and left the room in a huff. Reginald reset the clock and dressed for his night out. He joined Vivian in the front hall. “Do you ever regret marrying a photographer?” He asked.

“I never regret marrying you,” She said. “Sometimes I don’t understand what you do.”

“You know more about photography than I know about physics.”

“Just because I know how a camera works doesn’t make me a photographer. The camera has no more to do with photography than one of your clocks have to do with time. It’s your eye and how it connects to your heart. That’s what I love about you.”

They embraced. “Opposites attract,” Reggie smiled.

“See, you do know about physics.” Vivian pressed her cheek to his chest. The cab arrived exactly on time.


In less than a millisecond the rays emanate from the glowing pumpkin on the horizon. They pierce the atmosphere, ooze through the smog, dance off the bronze mirrored skyscrapers and slam to their death against the gray concrete three story supporting Hans and his companion.

“It’s almost time.” Hans informs Artemis. The canine places his ample paws on the railing. Together they stare toward the entrance to the Driskill. Hans checks his Rolex. At exactly 6:00pm she emerges.

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