Saturday, May 15, 2010

The Transit of Venus (five very, very short stories)

Celestial happenings simply didn't interest him. As a schoolboy he had even been unable to locate Orion's Belt in the night. This made him stand out in undesirable ways. So he ignored the event and drove towards work, his visor pulled down against the glare.

He tried to watch the transit of Venus. Seven-thirty a.m. with a welding helmet on his head he stood on a table in his back yard trying to get closer to the sky. A cloud blocked his view for a moment and he gave up, went inside, put on his pants and ate Rice Krispies in front of the Today show. With a banana and two percent milk.

At seven-twenty-three she rolled over, kissed him, and said, "get up you moron, Venus is crossing." He laughed, pulled her on top of him. They missed the show and were late for work.

She parked her car at the "scenic overlook" by the Delaware Water Gap. Pulled the homemade contraption out of her trunk. Her father had made it for an eclipse of the sun twenty-six years before. She hadn't yet gotten over his death three years ago. Nor the death of her lover just four months ago. How to resolve the suicide of one you'd had sex with just fourteen hours earlier? The tiny movement of the black speck calmed her. The radio was playing "Tommy can you hear me?"

Ten minutes afterward he walked into the coffee place that pretended it sat on a far more sophisticated street in a far more sophisticated town than reality indicates. "I'm tired of living here," he mumbled to himself. "What?" asked Dan behind the counter. "Hey," she said, "how was it?" "A big Nicaraguan," he said, "like a little dot, but it was kind of cool."

copyright (c)2007-2010 by Ira Socol

Wednesday, May 12, 2010



His watch didn't work. Well, it worked, but randomly, and offered him facts meaningless, useless, and, in this moment, reassuring. At 10:30 in the morning on the second of August, Irish Daylight Time he might say to be specific, because, he could be that specific if he put in the effort, his watch could say that it was 6:12, either a.m. or p.m. on the seventh of that month, or perhaps another, for the date was represented as only an analog number - 1 through 31 inclusive.

"Why do you wear it?" she asked. He considered the standard answers; that people expected someone like him to wear a watch, that he liked the jewelry aspect of it – it's thick, clunky, cheap Soviet style, that it reminded him of which hand not to write with, but he didn't want to lie. "With this," he tapped the crystal, "time can be wherever I want it to be." And she smiled the way she did when he said things like that.


She had two cigarettes in her hand by the time her first foot landed on the platform and he had a lighter out of his pocket just as quickly and though an overprotective mom with two very young kids looked angrily at them they were inhaling nicotine charged smoke and exhaling it's second hand variety before the crowd leaving the train could disperse at all.

"I'm sick of anti-smokers," he offered, "I'm tired of the looks." "She's got kids, she's new at this, she probably doesn't even let them eat off the floor yet."

"Everybody's got problems," he thought, but took an intensely long, deep drag instead of talking, banged his left hand on the guard separating him from electrocution via the wires of the transit power system as they walked up the ramp, looked at her and smiled in a slightly sad way. "But you just need the drugs," she told him. 

"You too," he said defensively. "Yeah, me too."


What had they been waiting for? It wasn't a train. There just were not trains around back when he was kid. It must have been a bus. But they were waiting and then, yeah, they'd started yelling at each other, they did that, and then, he'd done something because, well, was it because he always did something? 

Was it because it was how he hoped to change the scene? They'd been waiting, kind of like he was waiting with her except it was the bus not this train and there were all these kids, of course, and the weights of their lives piled on them and they fought and then that kid, yeah, that kid did... that doesn't matter, does it, and he'd hit the other kid, hit him that hard, sent him sprawling into the edge of... Don't remember, the kerb probably, that's what always did the damage, the kerbstones. Remember the blood, the screaming that followed. Not much more. Maybe getting hit. Maybe the edge of a building... yet nothing that looks like anything here. They were waiting, is that the only connection?
He shook, violently, as if a frigid wind had just blown along his naked spine. She looked at him just a little nervously. And he wished he could explain all the things that made him afraid.

(c) copyright 2006 - 2010 by Ira Socol

Saturday, May 08, 2010

callings: dunluce

It was out of season and the gates were locked but we pulled the car off the road and climbed the fence, letting the night's fog envelop us, and the world vanish, and the pain disappear along with a thousand years.

There are places you return too. Not the scenes of crimes, if you're smart. Not the scenes of triumphs either, for what would that be but a pale reflection, guaranteed to disappoint? But the places of sanctuary - where escape was made even momentarily real - those are timeless.

Below us the waves read the insistent poetry of history. Above us a Bealtaine moon struggled to tint the sky orange. Briefly the wind rustled the grass, telling us to be quiet, to rest, to be at peace.

(c) copyright 2010 by Ira Socol

Thursday, May 06, 2010


In exile in the North American Midwest I am robbed of the essential smells that gave me shelter as a child. Surely there are memories made up of images and memories made up of songs and memories made up of stories remembered as you lay in bed on the cusp of sleep. There are memories that flood the brain from tastes and those that rise out of textures that have soothed or scratched. So the right kind of mashed potatoes can make me feel truly warmed on a cold night, and black pudding is all about my father, and there is a certain spin of wool, that which matches the Hudson's Bay Blankets that kept the night air off our child bodies, that instantly makes me tired. But I can not find the smells.

Lake Michigan is beautiful and wondrous, but it does not smell like big water to me. There is no salt in that breeze to fill the nostrils. There is no gently rotting mix of seaweed and fish either. The scent of the truly far away does not hang there, in any version, not the slightly sour scent of the Foyle, or the cold briskness of the Donegal beaches, or the sharp notes of the salt-water marshes that define the archipelago that is New York City.

And the smell of wood burning in iron stoves is great on a cold afternoon. That is redolent of the pioneers carving their paths through the vast continental forests and of the kind of nineteenth century Americana so often depicted on Christmas cards. But it is not my odor. More than anything I miss the clinging aroma of peat burning on the grate. What could define an impoverished history more than the need to burn what is really just the earth itself? Peat doesn't truly burn anyway. It smolders and smokes and the scent covers you and wraps you. And when I smell it now, on that first night back each trip, in the pub or as I walk down a residential street, a brief reverie built on a thin trail of smoke, it ignites precious corners of my brain. The house on St. Patrick Street springs into ethereal life, with ma, the aunts, the uncles, my cousins and me running in and out, the sisters laughing, my brother learning to be the adult he would barely get to be. I can touch the hard stone of the streets climbing the hills, and the old wallpaper and the cold wood floor, and the deeply worn polish of the handrail on the stair, and the rough strength of my father's hand.

(c) copyright 2007-2010 by Ira Socol

Wednesday, May 05, 2010


I go first, sprinting from the car to the door of the project. Colin follows, but races across the width of the doorframe to put himself on the other side. Then I kick the door open, it is not locked, I already know that, we have watched them run inside, but I need the door to explode open, I need it to make a lot of noise, and I burst through and flatten myself up against the wall and the mailboxes, the stairway providing cover. I duck around and look up, gun in hand, and see no one. Using those old WWII hand gestures I let Colin know. He bounds past me and up to the first landing.

We'd been drinking coffee, and eating doughnuts. And Colin was complaining about editorials in The New York Times, "it's just the government paper," he said, as usual. We were, I suppose, hidden by the El pillar, and the early morning newspaper trucks, but not so hidden that we couldn't see the drive-by hit, six or seven shots, sounding like a nine, blowing up the windows of two stores across the street and leaving two people lying in blood on the street.

Colin called it in, asked for a bus,* asked for someone to check out the bodies, asked for back up. I spun the car away from the curb, pulled a wild four lane u-turn, and chased the Beemer with the dark windows. Six blocks later we have ended up here.

As I do the next run, to the second floor, the radio crackles that the two on the street are D.O.A. Then a round rushes past me, and I hit the floor, hugging the antique railing, hoping its old oak posts will stop bullets. Colin is calling "shots fired, shots fired" and sirens are whining from two or three directions and I hear footsteps heading up, so I go, and now tactics have been lost to anger and Colin is right behind me. The hall lights up here are out, we can only see by the footlights of the floors below, rising in the slot between the stairs.

Now both of us hear a metallic click, and now, knowing someone is reloading, we pounce. Colin's tackle hits his hand sending the gun and the clips flying. I hit him in the gut, slamming him against the wall, but in this moment we both know we have blown it. This is one. where's the other?

He is standing in the corner. In almost total darkness. Just feet away from us. Holding a Mac-10.

But it has jammed. And he looks at us, while we look at him, then he throws it at me and runs. Colin says, "got him?" and is off. I hear the take down one more flight up, perhaps by the stairs to the roof. The I hear a skull being s
macked into a wall, repeatedly, then I hear Colin say, very calmly into the radio, "Seven-Adam Central, we got two under, we need a bus here too."

I handcuff the guy I have. And sit on the floor. And light a cigarette. And now six more cops come running up toward us.

(c) copyright 2007 - 2010 by Ira Socol

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

The Giants' Causeway

"It is not closed because it is closed," the old man says, "it is just closed for your safety because of the rockslide." And so we, and everyone else, climb over or around the woodworks sealing off that path up the cliff and go, trekking up the equivalent of a ten-story building as we rise from mid-way above the Giants' Causeway to the top. There we breath more heavily than we should, and I light a cigarette, and we look down to this most incredible scene below us as the North Atlantic surges out of a breathtaking blue and then we look that way as mother sheep chase their new lambs across fields so green you know they have been painted by gods. "Ma'ahahahahah," the sheep bleats. "shusssshhh" the sea replies. We look back. From here you can see the Dunluce Castle and the White Rocks Beach and Portrush, and all the way beyond to the Donegal Highlands and Inishowen. Here the first Celts came as the last Ice Age ended, crossing from the gray of ancient Alba to the white cliffs and green pastures of Eirann. There the people fled by steamer to America over a century, trading poverty and degradation for hope and possibility. But that is not the story. "When those ancient giants walked ashore," I say, "carrying St. Patrick and the sheep, and, of course, the pigs for the Irish Breakfast, they threw the snakes out, then rested right here, forming these gentle soft flat-lands." Her smile is brilliant, and her laugh, though derisive, is so sweet. "You all just keep telling your stories, whatever they may be. You sure can talk your way through anything." The North Coast sun illuminates us and warms us. "You can only tell the stories," I whisper to her, "if you truly believe in them."

(c) copyright 2007 - 2010 by Ira Socol

Monday, May 03, 2010

the razor's edge

We considered the possibilities as the rain exploded in tropical storm ferocity and the streets turned into exquisite mirrors. There are points in our lives of perfect balance and points of ferocious balance when no choice looks as bad as standing exactly where you find yourself.

"Didn't Janis Joplin sing, "freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose?"' I asked. "She did." "I heard her sing that in Madison Square Garden," I said. "And then we went back home and then she died. Everybody dies." "Don't get weird on me." "I'll try."

There is a long silence as traffic whooshes through the water piling on the street. The Seagram's Building, modern perfection, casts a warm glow into the puddles that creep under Lever House where we sit, staying dry. Somewhere over there a really bad trumpet player plays. Behind us a tourist struggles with a hot dog stand that is both "Kosher" and "Halal." He wants ketchup, but this being New York, they do not seem to have it. It's like asking for tartar sauce for your fish and chips at Leo Burdock's.

"Well, I'll do one or the other," I whisper, "or not." "Just pick one," she says,
the touch of anger flashing from her eyes as they reflect the traffic signal changing from green to red, "it doesn't matter, you just need, we just need, a plan."

"I want French onion soup," I announce. "Real french soup and like I'm an airline pilot in 1965."
"What?" "We're going to the Brasserie across the street." "Isn't that really expensive?" "Sure, but I'm gonna do something, and whatever, they'll pay me." "I suppose they will." "See, all it takes is faith." "Sure."

We run across Park Avenue amidst the rain, forcing cabs to brake and honk, splashing in the gutters.

(c) copyright 2007 - 2010 by Ira Socol

Saturday, May 01, 2010

Taxi Service

 The radio asked us to "ten-one the house," so we stopped at the diner and I used the phone to call in. It was hot but not crazy, summer and very busy, but workable, just after dark on a Tuesday. I listened to the lieutenant, hung up, and called central. "Seven-Adam's going to be out on a job from the house," I said, "we'll advise."

The rumor had flowed through the department an hour ago, the way it always does when a cop gets shot. A rookie in Manhattan was all we knew, but as we always tried to do, we'd all stopped and called home. The "I'm ok," call because the rumors spread through cop families too.

I was home one night, sitting watching TV with Carolyn, and at 9:45 during a commercial break the news guy came on with his teaser. "Cop shot in The Bronx, details at Eleven." I looked at Carolyn and she looked at me and I understood something I simply hadn't before.
I told Colin what was going on and we headed north toward the edge of the city. We'd only gotten a couple of blocks when Sergeant Hobart called us on the radio and said to meet him at 223rd Street. He immediately started yelling. "We're holding twenty jobs and you guys are putting yourselves out on bullshit?" "Hey Boss," I looked at him, "C'mon, who are you talking to? We've got to go grab some super radiologist out of Eastchester and bring him down to New York Hospital for that kid who got shot." The Sergeant's face went from red to white instantly. "Shit," he stumbled, "I'm sorry guys, get the fuck out of here."

We drove on. We crossed from the gray of The Bronx to the verdant green of Pelham Manor, back into the dull colors of the dirt-poor suburb of Mount Vernon, then back into the Republican-wealth of Eastchester. The passage through these zones of economic success and failure grimly dramatic on this night. The radiologist climbed in and we sped south, lights flashing, down the Bronx River Parkway, winding onto the Bruckner Expressway, blowing through the tollbooths on the Triborough Bridge, and rolling down the FDR Drive. There was small talk. Meaningless chatter filling vast empty places.

One of the tricks to being a rookie is the belief that you are safe, that nothing will happen to you. You are, as they say, too smart, too good, too young, too important, to fall victim. It doesn't even cross your mind. Then, one night, it happens to a friend, or in a precinct near you, or in a place that looks just like where you work, or in a situation you're in ten times a day, or, you find yourself on a wet sidewalk trying to push the brains of a friend back into a torn skull. And then you start to get afraid.
The radiologist asks us to come up with him, so we climb into an elevator that rises fast and opens into a corridor with a huge window looking into the operating room. A kid is on that table, his chest cut open, a machine doing his breathing. The medical team moves just slightly too quickly and nervously. Near the window a line stands: pregnant wife, father and mother, squad members, sergeant, lieutenant. Faces blank. No words. Our passenger leaves us and we stand there as well, and because we are new, the line of mourners turns and looks at us.

It was his first month out of the academy. He was on a quality of life patrol in the north of Central Park by the lake called the Harlem Meer. Lots of New Yorkers know the park from the reservoir south, many fewer north of there, especially back then. His rookie squad had been told about a bicycle theft, and this guy, the new cop, the new husband, the soon to be father, walked up to a fourteen-year-old boy and asked a question. The boy pulled out a nine-millimeter and shot.
We've handled lots of things. We've seen lots of things. But we cannot handle this. If we knew him we might be part of it. But we don't. If it was five days from now. If he dies and there's a funeral then we'll be welcome. But now we are simply intruders. We have stepped into a private grief too deep. Our eyes flash from the operating table and across the faces of those now watching us. Then we hear the "bing" of the elevator and we step backwards, and out of this event.

The night is cloudless and there is no breeze. The East River lies perfectly flat reflecting a moon just past full, the city's lights drifting along the water's surface. Three times on the way back Colin turns to me to say something, but there are no words until we call the dispatcher and say we're available again.
(c) copyright 2005 - 2010 by Ira Socol