The Busiest Empty Space

It was sheer sensual blight. Up to this point, it was something literally unimaginable for Sam.

There were blinking, spinning, and undulating lights, there were screens showing all manner of everything, there was music pouring from everywhere and everything. It was lousy with a frenetic vibe that would overdose even the most Zen humanoid. It definitely warranted a warning label about flashing lights and seizures.

Without proper guidance, the space alone could scrambled the brains of the uninitiated. One did not just dive into the world’s most meticulously cluttered basement, one dipped a toe, then a shin, then a kneecap, and so on until full immersion was advisable. One didn’t just march down the stairs. Like frogs in pots of boiling water, one had to condition oneself to the intensity.

There was nary a spot or nook or cranny that didn’t illicit some sensual reaction. “Taking in all in” was out of the question. The 900 (or so) square feet took months to properly absorb.

As she stood at the landing of the raw wooden staircase adorned with rainbow landing pads obviously purchased from the local big box hardware emporium, she marveled at what hinted from the periphery. But, she was transfixed by that stared back at her from dead ahead—a neon guitar clock in the shape of Fender Stratocaster with a functionl second hand that was ticking away the seconds of her life.

And this was just the hors devours. She dared not peek around either corner for fear of being overwhelmed by the visual buffet. From her vantage point, Jaye’s basement was a psychedelic, schizophrenic, bonkers Smithsonian rock ‘n’ roll salon the likes of which she’d never imagined.


Excerpt from All or Nothing Girl (part 3), the forthcoming novel from Blake Charles Donley

The Dance of the Cubes

The way the ice cubes glided, swooned even, around the bottom of the glass made Sam both happy and sad. Those final dance moves were special, sublime even.

But when she took the last sip of the magic elixir that suspended the dancers, they began to simply collide at the bottom of her glass. Without the viscous fluidity, they moved clumsily.

This made her sad—it inspired a desire for more lubricant.

She ordered another.

And again, the cubes appeared to float in thick air, gliding around her glass with ease and grace. Sam was, like the ice cubes, happy.


Excerpt from All or Nothing Girl, the forthcoming novel from Blake Charles Donley

Getting a Book Deal Is Like…

…incredibly frustrating.

I recently completed one of Kathy Ver Eecke’s GetABookDeal101.com courses. It was five days of instruction on crafting the perfect query letter in order to pitch your book to literary agents.

The course was both wildly informative and utterly demoralizing.

I learned, among other things, that my first novel is likely a romance!?!?!? Based on the comps I selected, it would seem All or Nothing Girl would be found in the stacks along with other “beach reads”.

I additionally learned that at 110,000 words, my novel is about 25,000 words too long. This was staggering news mainly because I worked on it (writing and editing) for the better part of four years, and I cannot even begin to imagine where I’d cleave that much content. In its current state, and me as a brand new author pitching, I’d never get a book deal. It would simply be too risky (expensive) to grant an unknown commodity that many printed pages per book.

This revelation sort of rocked my world.

And not in a good way.

To add to the dismal news, at 105,000 words, my current work in progress Finding Fidelity is already too long for the literary fiction category. Hilariously, I’m only 2/3 finished. It appears that I’m doomed to write bloated novels.

At this point in this lifetime, the plan it to finish book two and commence a third book to be written “on spec”, which I will subsequently pitch to agents. Maybe book three will land me that elusive book deal. This notion is both frustrating and exhausting. But as “they” say, “It’s the bit.”

Wish me luck…

Cheers!


© 2022 – ∞ B. Charles Donley

Finding Fidelity – The Future’s So Bright, I Gotta Wear Shades 

“Jezuz!” I exclaimed out loud to no one in deadpan alley. 

I remembered why I hadn’t eaten, and why I was so fucking hungry—blood draw day for the “corporate wellness program”. Apparently, one is at the pinnacle of health when one has not eaten for at least 12 hours (or longer). I posited that there was a fine line between vigorous and emaciated. I was straddling that line as I pulled up the building floor plans to figure out where the goddam Quartz conference room was. As it turned out, if I began jack-hammering in the center of my cubicle through all of the subsequent floors below me, I’d land dead center in the Quartz conference room. 

I opted for the stairs. 

The annual bribe for two vials of blood and a litany of measurements required a period of fasting to ensure none of our “numbers” were askew. There were also “activity” and “nutrition” requirements, but simply forking over a pound of flesh (or in my case, 20 ml of blood) would net me half the $1.000 bribe. Lord knows I had a few pounds of flesh to spare. The “activity” and “nutrition” aspects that yielded the $500 balance were a problem for future Jaye.  

As there was no chance of being ass-eaten descending the stairwell, I lazily meandered downward. I was passed by a pair of go-getters, and that was fine with me. Since I was descending toward a blood draw, I was in no rush. 

The triage for this HIPPA-questionable corporate endeavor was …questionable. There was of course a check-in table where I was treated like Leo at the Mayo Clinic: there were copious amounts of paperwork despite the multipage online questionnaire that was filled out weeks prior. Unsurprisingly, said online questionnaire already covered the exact same questions on the clipboarded paper questionnaire I was handed. The number of times I was asked for my birthdate nearly impelled me to get it tattooed onto my fucking forehead. 

As I glanced toward the row of chairs to which I was directed by clipboard-hander-outer gal, I noticed a familiar desirous form occupying the chair nearest to the room full of blood drawers. Custom would dictate that I sit right next to Addy, but the chairs were arranged impossibly close to one another. Occupying the chair next to her seemed tantamount to sidling up to the urinal next to the sole occupied urinal in a bank of a dozen empty urinals. 

I froze. 

I rapidly, clumsily, evaluated my options.  

I nearly dropped my clipboard. 

The clipboard-hander-outer gal asked, “Mr. Holst, are you OK?” 

I swung toward her a bit too violently a nodded a bit too vigorously, likely underscoring her concern rather than quelling it. 

I swung back around hoping against hope she had not been called into the vampire’s chamber.  

She hadn’t. She sat patiently with crossed legs and a black patent stiletto dangling off the edge of the sexy toes of her right foot. Her foot rhythmically bobbed in time to some invisible melody. Unlike most of humanity, she was staring off into the space just beyond the floor-to-ceiling windows rather than space between her pinky and thumb at her phone. 

I was struck stupid and hypnotized by her bare foot pumping the black patent leather pump up and down. 

I had to go in for a closer examination. 

I composed myself to the best of my abilities, which were lackluster at that moment. 

I approached the seat next to hers casually. 

She looked up for a second, and I returned her glance with an insouciant smirk. 

She reciprocated with a half nod, and resumed her thousand-yard stare at literally greener pastures. 

I lowered myself onto the seat next to her. As I did, I realized there was no avoiding her prodigious left hip which was spilling over the edge of her chair onto mine. 

I decided to venture the connection and lowered myself gracefully, slowly. 

She wiggled a bit to the right as my bony hip grazed her luxuriant hip. 

“Sorry,” I muttered. 

She looked at me for a brief second and smiled the sexiest kissable smile I’d ever know. 

I refocused on the clipboard at hand. 

She unfocused somewhere in the distance. 

I immediately wondered what she was wondering.  

Was she lamenting the annoying troll sitting adjacent who’d waylaid her reverie? 

Was she pondering the remainder of her bullshit day in corporate American hell? 

Was she regretting all of the bad decisions she’d made that led her to this lugubrious scene? 

Was she psyching herself up for the needle that was about to pierce her sexy forearm? 

Was she dreaming about her dream guy who quite obviously was not sitting next to her? 

Was she wracking her brain in a futile attempt to remember her cat’s birthday? 

Was she looking forward to an impending vacation in Tahiti? 

Was she replaying her entire high school epoch rife with stories, tales, lies and exaggerations? 

Was she plotting her escape across the street to Nordstrom Rack during lunch? 

Was she thinking about what she was going to binge watch after work? 

Was she thinking about what she was going to binge eat after work? 

Was she thinking about what she was going to binge drink after work? 

Was she plotting her takeover of the entire Finance division? 

Was she replaying her entire college epoch rife with sweet sounds coming down on the nightshift? 

Was she looking forward to a weekend with her BFF who was flying in from Topeka, KS? 

Was she wracking her brain in a futile attempt to wrack her brain? 

Was she dreaming about the closet makeover she had saved for and planned for over a year? 

Was she psyching herself up for the update meeting she had with her boss later in the day? 

Was she regretting not pursuing her dream of a career in photography more vigorously? 

Was she pondering whether or not to purchase the matching red pumps? 

Was she lamenting the interminable wait to get this ordeal over with? 

“Addison Tattersall,” announced a tiny man in pointless blue head-to-toe scrubs. 

And with that, her toes disappeared into her black patent leather pump, and her hip grazed mine as she bounded out of her seat to comply with the requirements of the MVT “Pay-for-blood-test-results” program. 

I watched her hips as they sashayed into the vast conference room now broken up by slapdash cubicle walls to afford us victims of the corporate blood extraction a modicum of privacy. They were the most perfect hips I’d ever seen…then they were gone. 

“Jaye Holst,” announced a squat Smurfette. 



Excerpt from Finding Fidelity, a forthcoming novel from Blake Charles Donley

Finding Fidelity – Knocking on Heaven’s Door 

We both sat silently leafing through our respective magazines for what seemed like a half dozen eternities. The whole scene struck me as absurd. At least half of the people in the vast waiting zone were terrified about the forthcoming tests and test results. Even in their own tiny support groups, everyone was isolated inside of their racing minds.

I began to wonder if I should ask Leo if he was scared. But I was secretly afraid of his answer. I felt completely inadequate and superfluous. I felt like I did at the funeral when he reached out for support and Mercedes held us back. I sorta hated myself at that moment. 

“Leo Holst,” A heftier middle-aged woman heralded from the opposite end of the waiting room. She was standing in the threshold of a heavy maple door with a large aluminum handle. In the typical medical costume of powder blue hospital scrubs, I could make out nearly every curve and bulge of her squishy frame.  

Leo folded his magazine and discarded it on the table in front of us, “That’s us!” 

I folded mine and tossed atop his. I leapt from my seat with more gusto than was necessary, “Yup.” 

“Leo Holst” the squat Smurfette bellowed again. 

“Yea!” Leo bellowed as he hobbled unsteadily toward her. 

I looked in her general direction, “We’re on our way,” I assured, as I patted him on the back a couple of times for encouragement.  

She looked down at the clipboard cradled in her left arm, and looked back up with an expressionless expression. Clearly, she was having…a day. And as we slowly made our way toward her, we were in its crosshairs. 

“I’m Carol, I’ll be your nurse,” a resigned smile threatened cracked her rigid face wide open. We both nodded as we sauntered past her into the hallway. 

“Just step over here,” she gestured toward a contraption that measured both weight and height.” 

Leo walked toward the contraption and looked at his swollen feet. 

“You can remove your shoes,” she assured. 

Leo stepped on the back of his left shoe with his right. As he tried to step out, he became a bit unsteady, and both of us grabbed an elbow. He stepped out of it. He and we repeated this maneuver on the opposite foot. He stepped on the scale. Carol noted his weight on her clipboard.  

I was shocked that the gray digital numbers on the LCD screen read 183.  I couldn’t even remember that last time he was that svelte. It was not in my lifetime. I recalled a number of Mercedes’ rants about how slender he used to be, but I was used to the 220-lb version of him that had occupied the vast majority of my lifetime. It was surreal to see those numbers. For the first time in my life, I felt like I could scoop him up and cradle him in my arms, if only for a few seconds. The truth of this hit me like a meteor strike. 

Carol extended the long steel ruler that protruded from the rear of the scale and instructed Leo to, “Stand up straight.” 

When the perpendicular portion came to rest atop Leo’s head, he was 5’9”. 

“How tall am I now-a-days?” he asked.” 

“5-9,” Carol responded coldly as she recorded the measurement on her clipboard. 

He made a half smile and looked at me, “Huh, still shrinking,”  

I gave my head a single shake, “I guess that’s what happens, right?” 

“Apparently.” he agreed. 

Not only was Leo exactly my height at my age, he was my shoe size, waist size, and lord knows what else. Other than my looks—I resembled Mercedes, while Brandon resembled Leo—we were fraternal twins of a sort. All of the vintage suits he’d managed to hang onto fit me perfectly. His swanky vintage shoes fit me as well. 

I was not until he hit 50 that he began to expand horizontally and contract vertically. I was not looking forward to suffering a similar fate. 

“This way,” Carol directed us down the long hallway. 

We were ushered into a typical exam room. It gave me the shivers. All exam rooms gave me the shivers. There was something so terminal about exam rooms. No one was ever in an exam room in hopes of receiving excellent news. Other than finding out you are not dying of some horrible imagined malady, which was a sort of excellent news, nothing good ever happened in this foreboding setting. 

Carol proceeded to take the rest of Leo’s vitals. For the most part, the numbers were as good as could’ve been expected under his current circumstance. Before her exit, she assured us, “The doctor should be with you shortly.” 

This was spectacular bullshit, and we both knew it. But the inevitable delay forced us to endure the rare occasion of being alone together in a small room. 

Accordingly, I small-talked him, “So, do you know what tests they plan to do?” 

Leo rolled his eyes, “Probably the same ones that were already done back at home: x-ray, MRI, EKG ECG, stress test, we’ll be here all day.” 

“Sounds exciting!” I said with a healthy dose of sarcasm. 

“For me, yes. You get to sit in this room all day,” Leo swept his right arm from side to said, “All this is yours, all day.” 

I smirked and chuckled a bit, ”So, you already had all of these tests done?” 

“Yup.” 

“Isn’t the infinite redundancy of the medical industrial complex exhausting?” 

“It’s infuriating,” he corrected. 

“You know this is how your grandfather died,” Leo said soberly. 

“Waiting all day in an exam room?” 

Leo chuckled briefly, “No, from congestive heart failure.” 

“No, I didn’t know that.” 

“Yeah, it was pretty dreadful watching him struggle.” 

“I remember that part, but not a lot.” 

“Yeah, I kept thinking, please don’t let this be my fate,” Leo fanned his hands outward, “And here I am.” 

I exhaled deeply in an effort to ground myself before asking the question to which I really didn’t want an answer, “Yeah, but how bad is it really?” 

“Really? No one knows.” 

I nodded with a look of resignation. 

“One doctor tells me I could live another ten years. The next one says five. Today I might find out I have a couple of weeks to live.” 

Again, I wanted to make some sort of move toward him and provide physical comfort. But that vision of him at my grandmother’s funeral, and the force of Mercedes’ arms held me back, even now. 

“That has to be maddening,” I offered. 

Leo shook his head, “It was at first. But now, frankly, I don’t give a fuck. These doctors have proven one thing to me, and it’s that they have no idea what the fuck they are doing.” 

I nodded in solidarity. 

“They have all of this training, and equipment, and technology, but they can’t tell me, give or take a decade, how much time I have left. And frankly, they are slowly torturing me during the time I do have left with all of these trips, and tests, and ominous meetings about the results.” 

All I could do was continue to nod. 

“I barely care anymore. I just want to go home and sort postcards. If I have a bit of difficulty breathing, or my heartbeat goes screwy, or I get light-headed, I’ll just pass out in my chair for a bit. Then, I’ll go back to sorting postcards.” 

“That makes sense to me,” I agreed. 

He continued, “This bullshit—tests, tests, and more tests, with different doctors every month,” resting his head in his hands, Leo paused for a long moment. When he finally looked up, he seemed on the verge of tears. 

There is something about someone about to cry that is universally reflexive. As the result of some deep empathy that runs through all living things, you want to join them. It’s akin to the infectiousness of laughter. And seeing him with that pained expression on his face twisted my insides abruptly. It triggered an instant reaction which I battled fiercely, despite the fact that I wanted to sob. 

“I feel like it’s all killing me faster,” he continued with a crack in his voice that I had recalled from that fateful day. 

I nearly lost it. 

I wanted Brandon’s huge paw on my shoulder like at the picnic table when Leo originally announced his diagnosis. But this one was all me. I had to be the strong one. 

“Hey, listen, you’re right—you don’t have to see another set of specialists. You’re entitled to just sit in your house and sort postcards until you keel over at the dining room table.” 

I paused for effect, and a little humor, “We’ll find you eventually, right?” 

He chuckled a bit. 

“Why are we here?” 

“You know, it’s the Mayo Clinic, there could be some experimental treatment that could extend my life by six months while it cuts the quality in half.” 

“Ha, there surely is. But is that what you want?” 

“Honestly, no. I thought I did at first. I thought I wanted to be around to see Josie get married, or Drew graduate from college, but who am I kidding. I’m never going to live that long—not this time around.” 

“Then let’s go home.” 

Leo looked shocked, “Now?!” 

“Yeah now—we ain’t at the intake facility for Stillwater State Prison for Christ’s sake!” 

Leo contemplated this for a moment, “Yeah, let’s get the fuck outta here before they toss me an assless gown to put on for my first test.” 

“Great, and let’s hope we don’t get farted on in the elevator to the parking ramp.” 

Leo guffawed at this. 

We stood up in unison. Leo swayed a bit and I grabbed his arm with all of the stern force I couldn’t muster when he was about to cry. I lead him proudly out the door of the exam room.  

We retraced our steps toward the waiting room and past the height/weight station. 

Carol was there weighting the next victim and pointed at us hollering, “Where are you going?” 

“To sort some postcards,” Leo fired back. 

We reached my car without incident and hit the road toward home. 

Before dropping Leo to sort postcards, we stopped at Sunffy’s Malt Shop for cheeseburgers, home fries, and chocolate malts. 

I walked him into the hovel he called home. He hobbled toward his trusty recliner, fell into it, and popped the leg rest. 

“Ahhh, so good,” he moaned. 

“I’m gonna head home, but I’m glad we sorted that all out,” I chuckled. 

He laughed, and then said, “Thanks honey.” 

This statement stuck me sideways. “Honey” is what he used to call Brandon and I when we were kids. It was the only term of endearment he’d ever used. And I hadn’t heard it since I was in high school. I wasn’t sure if it was a lapse or done intentionally. Either way, it was nice to hear anything endearing coming from my old man. 



Excerpt from Finding Fidelity, a forthcoming novel from Blake Charles Donley

Finding Fidelity—We Built This City

I stood in the sparsely adorned basement with my new Springsteen album spinning away on the turntable. About all I had accomplished was to assemble the modular crates that held my record collection, stack my stereo on a rusty metal cart I’d snatched from the city dump, and set up a table I’d grabbed off Craigslist for the kids to use as a LEGO workspace. 

Although the cement floors were painted a shade of institutional gray, the 2×4 framing was in place, and the outlets and lights were installed, there was not much else in the cavernous space. A pair of flat-screen TVs I’d managed to talk Mercedes out of sat in one corner on the kid’s half. Boxes of old VHS tapes, my old VCR, and my vintage red spherical TV sat in the corner of my half.  

As I downed beer after beer and spun “Born in the U.S.A.” over and over, I hauled boxes of screws, sheets of plywood, and every possible dimension of lumber from the garage to the basement. I didn’t want to waste any of Brandon’s time on tasks that I could handle alone. As a cost-saving measure, we decided to finish neither the walls nor the ceiling.

While the basement at Valentine Lake did have finished walls and ceilings, the floor was a cement slab in all rooms except the bedroom Brandon occupied. I liked the idea of a “finished” unfinished space. It evoked strong feelings of nostalgia for our old fort under the stairwell. And it seemed like an apt metaphor for my life at that moment. 

After hauling down the three area rugs I’d scored on Craigslist, and vacuuming them vigorously with a vacuum in my right hand and a beer in left, I stood and surveyed our future most awesome hangout. It was likely a combination of the alcohol and music, but I started to feel very omnipotent.

I took a long pull from the bottle in my hand and thought about everything I’d overcome since the divorce. I scanned the space that Brandon and I were going to transform, together, again. I envisioned a subterranean amusement park of sorts where Josie, Drew, and I could all be alone together. A lair of wonder and possibility where all of us could explore our interests, indulge our passions, and just be kids again—we’d all been forced to grow up way too fast.  

As I flipped the record for the fourth time and dropped the needle, “No Surrender” burst forth from the speakers. I gave the HPM-100s about as much gas as my eardrums would tolerate. I twisted open another beer. I took a longer than necessary swig as tears began to stream from the corners of my eyes. I looked upward toward the ceiling, toward the heavens, and bellowed, “This is mine—you fucking owe me this at fucking least you fuckers!”  

I was overcome by the deluge of emotions that had silently tortured me almost daily. Emotions that I subconsciously refused to acknowledge. Emotions that I stuffed into the deepest darkest corner of my pathetic existence. I then shook my beer bottle at the universe in a show of defiance showering myself with beer in the process. In that moment, this felt like a recalcitrant demonstration that proved I was unbroken despite everything. A failed marriage had not broken me. Single fatherhood had not beaten me. A chi destroying job had not destroyed me. And a roughshod childhood had failed to murder me by my own hands.

All of that was not nothing.

The universe owed me this oasis for the rocky journey and rotten surprises it had dropped at my feet. I would build this sanctuary as a refuge—a retreat from the ridiculous existence I’d orchestrated and survived. This would be the space where all of us could eschew real life at the top of the stairs and escape as we descended into blissful solitude, together. 

At the last chorus of my redemption song, I loosed a primal scream that emanated from the deepest darkest corner of my soul—that secret space where I’d always stashed all the loathsome emotional shit. It was one of those cleansing screams that washes the body, mind, and soul. It felt so amazing that I holstered my beer and let out another one. This time, I put my whole body into it, my legs, my arms, my hands,.

For a split second, I considered whether I was having a nervous breakdown. But it felt much more like a cathartic revelation. accordingly, I unholstered my beer, guzzled the last foamy vestiges, and screamed one more time before I flung the almost empty bottle through the framing at the laundry room wall propelled by all of the ancient unacknowledged angst. Predictably, it shattered into a thousand tiny pieces. The feeling of utter destruction was utterly salubrious!  

Chips and bits of brown glass exploded from the laundry room in every conceivable direction. They bleed into the living room, storage room, and my future office. A tiny shard, having ricocheted a ten feet from the laundry room wall right back at me, was resting on the tip of my right shoe. A few sticky slivers of glass were even plastered onto the cinder block wall.

The band played on, unabated.

I stood in a daze, empty, momentarily,

Amid the ruins of this most cathartic beer bottle sat this large rectangular piece, broken but not destroyed, defiant despite the surrounding massacre. The label from the bottle was still clinging to this largest remaining shard of the glass bottle.

I became fixated on this anomaly. As glass crunched under my shoes, I walked over and snatched it from the carnage. In my mind, it was a nearly perfect Pink Floyd-ian tetrahedron. And. that was obviously a sign. There was more crunching as I proceeded toward the laundry tub to wash off my trophy. I rinsed it and slid it into my pocket. I pledged to clean the rest up in the morning after coffee. 

I then died…in bed. 

Finding Fidelity — Downtown Train 

Josie and Drew had suffered a slew of white-trashy daycare providers. It occurred to me that Brandon and I had as well. In Minnesota, white-trashy daycare providers were a rite of passage for latchkey kids. Most of them were divorced women with deadbeat ex-husbands, multiple kids, and shitty jobs. As such, they could barely afford daycare for their own kids. To remedy this, they quit their shitty jobs and turned their homes into daycare centers. They got paid to watch other folks’ kids while keeping their own little angels at home—two birds obliterated with a single stone. 

Our first daycare provider, Ruth, was more like an asylum warden. Her home was a hovelish rambler in a lower-middle-class suburb near Mercede’s salon. It was situated just off a trunk highway on-ramp. Clearly, Ruth had triumphed in the eminent domain battle, Thus, the highway was retrofitted around her hovel. From her fenced in backyard, a scant 50 yards from the traffic, a boy could tally the endless procession of cars whizzing past—I oft did. 

After parking in Ruth’s gravel driveway, you had to ascend a flight of crumbling cement stairs. At the top of the crumbling cement stairs, was a crumbling cement path. As you traversed the crumbling cement path toward Ruth’s front door, you couldn’t help but notice the pair of rusty wrought iron railings. The railings seemed planted in the unkempt flower bed, which encircled the house like a moat. Due to their unconventional placement, the railings were useless as railings, yet neither were they attractive folksy decor. They looked as though they had fallen from space and landed right where they ended up. 

The crumbling cement path ended at a second shorter flight of crumbling cement stairs. At the top of the crumbling cement stairs, was a crumbling cement landing. The passageway into Ruth’s living room lay at the end of the crumbling cement landing. The crumbling cement stairs and crumbling cement landing had once held the wrought iron railings. This was evidenced by the rusty wrought iron stumps that jutted up from the crumbling cement. After too many harsh Minnesota winters, and the passage of too much time, the railings had rusted their way to freedom; they had escaped as far as the dirt moat.  

The smell of stale cigarette butts was the first thing that slapped you upside the head when Ruth swung open the creaky storm door. Her dull yellow-toothed smile was the second. Seeing her at 6:00 AM was always a jarring and somewhat terrifying experience. At the time, she looked to me like Velma Dinkley after splitting from Scooby and the gang to prostitute herself at the far end of the Vegas strip for a decade or three.  

What Ruth lacked in comeliness, she more than made up for in ambivalence. Daycare providers in the late ’70s were held to a much lower standard than modern counterparts. If Brandon and I weren’t burnt, bloody, or broken when Mercedes picked us up, Ruth had met expectations. And although I’d seen my share of tetherballs to the face, fights over the best Matchbox car, and kids tripping over the single step that lead from the kitchen up into the living room—or stumbling from the living room down into the kitchen—I never witnessed a major medical emergency during my stint in Ruth’s toddler gulag.  

Ruth was a master of doing what was barely necessary to keep a dozen kids alive for eight or so hours. She perched herself atop a barstool at the counter that separated her living room from her kitchen. From that vantage point, she could simultaneously monitor both rooms and periodically glance out the sliding glass door toward the fenced backyard. Unless she was feeding us, putting us down for naps, or tending to a bawling child, she’d mount one of the barstools and chain smoke Virgina Slims. She’d dash out the nub of each spent coffin nail and adroitly extract a fresh one in a single left-handed motion. She’d do this while flicking her Bic to light it with her right hand. She was truly the Chrissy Evert of smoking Virginia Slims.  

Besides smoking, Ruth spent a copious amount of time on the mustard-yellow rotary phone mounted on the wall near the bar. When she did this, the mustard-yellow phone cord stretched across the step between the living room and kitchen. This made what was already a perilous transition even more so. I was awed by her ability to concurrently rest the receiver between her shoulder and ear, hold up her end of the conversation, fire up heater after heater, and file her nails. I imagined the part of her brain responsible for multi-tasking was exceptionally muscular. 

Besides surviving, at Ruth’s, I mainly missed my mother. The fact that Brandon was there didn’t allay my longing to be back in her orbit. Ruth was gruff at best and abrasive at worst, but never abusive. For a woman, she could man-handle kids with precise efficiency. I’d marvel at her ability to extract a toddler hugging her leg and strap them into a high chair in under 10 seconds. But I’d cower in my chair awaiting the almost violent motion she employed to push us up against the table edge to prevent us from dribbling saltine crumbs onto her floor. 

Everything about the experience at Ruth’s was institutional. The meal times never varied by more than a minute regardless of hunger. Nap time always lasted exactly two hours regardless of restlessness. Outdoor play time always lasted one hour in the morning and one hour in the afternoon regardless of weather. And TV time always featured the same channel with the same shows regardless of preferences. If nothing else, Ruth was a stalwart of consistency. And the routine was depressing at best and demoralizing at worst. Without knowing it at the time, I knew what it was like to be incarcerated. My years at Ruth’s would prepare me well for the public education I’d subsequently endure, and later my indentured corporate service. 

As I pulled up to the home of one of Marie’s slightly white-trashy neighbors, I couldn’t help but flashback to my days at Camp Ruth. Sheryl—the trashier spelling of Cheryl—was the twenty-something gal who had provided summer daycare for Josie and Drew. She also provided daycare for many of the other kids in the neighborhood where I used to live. 



Excerpt from Finding Fidelity, a forthcoming novel from Blake Charles Donley

Finding Fidelity – The Pretender

As usual, I snuck into the building’s side entrance. This ensured no delays in my ascent to my corporate prison cell. I had to swing by and grab my laptop for the fresh hell awaiting me in some unknown conference room named in honor of a species of some typical Minnesotan freshwater fish.

As I ascended the side stairwell toward my one o’clock appointment with absurdity, I heard someone enter the stairwell at the ground level just as I reached the first landing. I started up the second of eight half flights that would take me to the fourth floor, when I heard the over-achieving climber behind me begin to take the stairs two at a time. By the time I had reached the second landing (and second floor), the relentless marching maniac behind me was already a couple steps up the half flight I had just ascended. Clearly this eager lunatic could see that I was not upping my stairwell game to match his unnecessary pace—why in the hell was he in such a hurry anyway—but he continued to double-step undaunted. I quickly calculated that at his rate of ascent, he be eating my ass just as I turned up the seventh half flight of stairs. He’d subsequently be wearing my rear end on his face the remainder of our trip. My only hope was that he had his sights set no further than the third floor.  

Unfortunately, As I passed the door to the third floor, he didn’t pause to exit at the landing. Instead, he followed me up the remaining stairs, simply idling back his rate of ascent, but refusing to alter his technique. The effect of this, I imagined, was that every other step I took brought his face within dangerous proximity of my undulating butt cheeks. It was utterly perplexing to me that anyone would continue at such an ambitious pace when clearly the person in front of them was walking up the stairs as-designed.

We approached the door to the fourth floor together, and I reached for the door handle and pulled it open.  

“After you,” I conceded to the world’s most aggressive stairwell jockey.  

“Thanks,” he replied in a mildly exasperated tone.  

I watched in awe as he turned the corner and sped down the long corridor that led to the pantry, restrooms, and beyond. I gave him a small salute and proceeded to shake my head in confusion. 

Jules breezed past me as I headed up deadpan alley toward my cubicle—none of our row mates ever spoke, it was like working in a morgue.  

“Don’t be late for all the fun,” she twittered.  

“What room is it?” I yelled as she was already around the corner.  

“Muskie!” she announced loudly.  


Excerpt from Finding Fidelity, a forthcoming novel from Blake Charles Donley

Finding Fidelity—Demolition man

Just as spring arrived none-too-soon, Brandon and I were putting the kitchen back together and restoring the powder room to functional status. Everyone was thankful for the simple luxury of no longer having to run upstairs (or outside) to pee or eat.

By the time summer was patiently waiting backstage, we managed to wrap up our work. In the process, we managed to wipe out my checking account, my HELOC, and the entirety of the semi-precious coin collection I had amassed during my pre-college days as a fast-food cashier. Thankfully, the kindly proprietor at Excelsior Coin & Collectibles purchased the entire collection near the amount I still owed on my new appliances. My unsteady financial status aside, we had a main level that facilitated the basic necessities of living (and peeing) to go along with the upper level, which was serviceable for sleeping.

The basement was another matter entirely. But on an unseasonably warm Friday afternoon in early spring, we decided to eschew that issue and bask in the glory of our accomplished labors. An impromptu celebration took shape, as Brandon finished installing the front door transition molding.

“Do you remember that old-ass Special Export Leo kept in the steel cabinet in his workshop?” Brandon asked as his bumble-bee-colored drill whirred and fastened the piece of wood that spanned the gap between the hardwood flooring and the bottom of the front door frame.

“Ugh, the pair of dusty six packs he’d as us to throw into a cooler for every family reunion?”

Brandon laughed.

“The ones he’d fish out afterward, undrunk, and place them back into the fucking dusty cabinet?” I recollected.

Brandon guffawed.

“Yes! Remember they left rust rings on the cabinet shelf?” He added.

“Did you know that in addition to wiping off the dust before throwing them in the cooler each year, I’d sand the metal ring at the bottom of each can to remove the rust? It was fucking embarrassing!” I asserted.

“Holy shit—no!” Brandon enjoyed a horselaugh at the notion of me desperately sanding down the bottoms of the immortal beer cans.

“Dude, one year, Uncle Steve walked up to me holding one of the cans and asked how old it was. I told him that it would be in his best interest to drink anything else.” Brandon was in hysterics at this anecdote.

“Hey, remember at the end of my senior year in high school, you came home from college for the weekend, and we drank Leo’s Special Ex stash out of desperation?” Brandon reminded me through his laughter.

“Jesus Christ–I forgot we ever drank it! It’s a testament to our iron Scandinavian guts that we’re alive to tell the tale,” I emphasized.

“Sweet Mary Mother of God,” Brandon exclaimed, “Fucking killer hangover!”

We writhed in a communal fit of laughter for at least a minute. When Brandon and I pulled ourselves back together, we adjourned to the cement front porch just outside the front door. For a minute, we just surveyed the soggy earth and took in the telltale pungent aroma of the impending spring.

As we sat, the disposal company that rented us all three of the 30-yard dumpsters the remodel had required, arrived to pick up the latest overflowing land barge of construction debris. The driver got out of the truck and waved at us. A standard-issue Minnesotan, he remarked that, “The weather we are having is amazing!” We politely nodded in agreement, and gave him the green light to, “Take it away!”

We watched in rapt fascination, as he loaded the massive dumpster onto the truck bed without any assistance. After his task was complete, he climbed back up into the cab of his truck, waved goodbye, and drove off. It was one of those moments of perfectly timed symbolism—the driver was hauling away the final remnants of the broken-down old home we’d worked so hard to transform, minutes after Brandon installed the final piece of finish carpentry. We’d once again managed to collaborate to transform something ordinary into something different, something so much better.

“And there it goes…” Brandon said with almost a pang of loss in his voice.

“Indeed…” I echoed his sentiment.

“Hey, I love you and all, but I’m going to need my weekends back.”

I nodded.

“The fellas are inquiring about me down at the Roadside, the ladies are missing me over at the Drop Inn, and I owe Mae money, so I have to get back to Mae’s one of these nights to settle up my tab. Plus, I ain’t been laid in like three months,'” he nudged me with his shoulder.

“Yeah, I figured your sweeping barroom wisdom, and alley-cat charm would eventually be required back at the office,” I kidded him.

He nodded.

“Congrats—by the way—on getting laid this year,” I added.

“Thank you,” he said proudly.

“Before you leave me, how about we relive the Christmas of ’94?” I suggested.

“What?” He shot me a quizzical look.

“Don’t you remember what I got you that year?” I asked.

“Not…really…” he ventured with a hint of confusion.

“Well, I wrapped up a pair of not exactly, but pretty much, matching heavy boxes, and a smaller, lighter box. Each of the boxes contained a dozen items inside—all necessities for a young man in the throes of college,” I teased.

“Oh! Holy shit! You got me a 12-pack of Special Ex, a 12-pack of Special Ex Light, and a 12-pack of condoms!” He exclaimed.

“Trojans Lubricated with Nonoxinal-9—bingo!” I pointed at him.

“Those came in handy!” he exclaimed, “Saved me a trip to Kerm’s Pick ‘n’ Save.”

“Great!” I slapped him multiple times between his broad shoulders the way our grandfather used to.

“I figure we can use the beer tonight, and you’ll need the condoms next weekend when you make your triumphant return to the Drop Inn.”

He loosed a hearty howl that echoed all the way to Valhalla.

“Let’s hit Valley Liquors and CVS—my treat!”

Brandon, still howling, punched me in the shoulder.

“And don’t forget to toss the condoms into your glove compartment,” I winked.

“For sure!” He assured me.

True to my word, we had procured the beer and condoms. In addition, we snagged some BBQ from Carl’s and slaughtered it further on the same front porch where I hatched my plan.

As the sun continued to set just a bit further down the lane, and the permafrost reseeded just a bit further toward the mailbox, the ghosts of winter exhaled their communal dying breath. We swilled Special Ex and watched the transformation before us as we recanted the transformation that we’d managed behind us.

“Hey, thanks, seriously. I’d be homeless, or dead, without you,” I stammered as I cracked the unnecessary dozenth beer of the evening.

“Fuck bro, I wouldn’t do this for anyone else—not even a hot chick!” Brandon stammered as he cracked an unnecessary dozenth beer of the evening.

“No, but seriously,” I slurred, “I can’t love you any harder than I do right now on this front porch,” I flung my right arm around his impossibly stout shoulders.

He turned and looked at me as hard and as close as he ever had in our four-plus decades together, and slurred, “We’re brothers, dumbass—we only have us! So, don’t die, because I love you too, dipshit.”

We almost kissed, but we fell onto the cement porch behind us in a heap of glorious laughter, careful not so spill a single drop of precious Special Ex’s in the process.

“Fuck, we have to go to bed! Seriously!” I roared from the cement slab that buoyed us.

“Not until I finished this,” Brandon thrust his beer northward, then he lowered in carefully to his lips and gingerly slurped.

“Totally!” I echoed as I attempted to replicate his deft horizontal consumption technique.

Later that evening, we passed out in Drew’s room. We slept in the pair of twin beds we had spotted on the side of the road with the hand-painted “Free” sign on them. It had been nearly thirty years since we’d shared a bedroom.

“Good night, bro,” he called from the bottom bunk, “I love your dumb ass.”

“Your’s too,” I answered, “Don’t yak in Drew’s bed!”

Brandon laughed, then babbled incoherently, then started snoring.

The next morning, when the sunrise pierced the blinds in Drew’s room—we neglected to close them in our boozy state—we awoke with familiar matching Special Ex hangovers. These hangovers were of a newer, and thankfully subtler, vintage.


Excerpt from Finding Fidelity, a forthcoming novel from Blake Charles Donley

Finding Fidelity, the emails

As Drew simulated an earthquake causing some of the trains to derail and dangle over the edge of the stage, I mean cliff, I selected the first catastrophe in my inbox to tackle. This morning, it was scheduling a lunch with the sales dude from our main ECM software vendor.

I always found these charades to be most tedious. First off, we already paid a quarter of a million dollars each year in “annual maintenance” simply for the privilege of using the lackluster software. That, and to have access to their crack staff of support technicians, who often seemed as though they had been smoking copious amounts of the stuff.  

After a decade of annual maintenance fees, we’d purchased this particular piece of software a dozen times over. So, what else were we going to buy in the wake of being treated to an $8 lunch at an all-you-can-eat pizza buffet? Also, why was pizza always considered some sort of exotic treat in every corporate setting? Was this some hold-over from the grade school days when pizza parties were dangled in front of students as an incentive to sell a bunch of useless crap to their neighbors in a not-so-veiled attempt to raise funds for a bunch of techno-crap that the school really didn’t need?  The other aspect of these communal meals that ground my gears to a fine metallic dust, was the inability of anyone to pick a fucking restaurant. The exchange unfailingly (and actually) went like this: 

From: Sales Guy, Greasy 
Sent: Thursday, April 1, 2012 11:02 PM 
To: Holst, Jaye<jholst@mvt.com
Cc: Barnett, Jules<jbarnett@mvt.com>; our manager<deadweight@mvt.com>; our CIO<etherealpresence@mvt.com
Subject: Lunch 

Jaye,  

Long time no talk MVT compadres! [Thank god I haven’t had to visit you cheap bastards in a while] I’ll be in your neck of the woods next week, and I’d like to get a little face time with everyone if possible. [I have to come to your god-forsaken frozen-over desolate shithole state to follow up on a hot lead, and I figured I’d stop by and pretend to be interested in what you are doing on the non-existent chance I can sell you something] We have some exciting new innovations coming down the pipe, and I want to be sure you have a head’s up. [It’s more hype than substance—it always is—but what the hell?] How about lunch on Tuesday? [I mean shit…I have to eat somewhere anyway] Let me know if you are available, and where you’d like to meet up. [Nowhere too expensive, preferably some place on the pizza-buffet or Applebee’s/Chili’s/T.G.I. Friday’s/OliveGarden price tier

Thanks! 

From: Holst, Jaye 
Sent: Friday, April 2, 2012 8:45 AM 
To: Sales Guy, Greasy<greasysalesguy@softwarecompanyinc.com
Cc: Barnett, Jules<jbarnett@mvt.com>; our manager<deadweight@mvt.com>; our CIO<etherealpresence@mvt.com
Subject: Re: Lunch 

[Hopefully this was an April Fool’s joke…?

Hey Greasy,  

Thanks for checking in with us! [It’s unfortunate that you decided to interrupt the blissful silence, we enjoyed not hearing anything from your for nearly a year] Does anyone at MVT have availability for lunch next Tuesday? [Please say no, everyone!] If so, does anyone have any preferences on eateries? [Please don’t say Jimmy’s Pizza Shack!!]  

From: Barnett, Jules 
Sent: Friday, April 2, 2012 8:47 AM 
To: Holst, Jaye<jholst@mvt.com
Cc: Sales Guy, Greasy<greasysalesguy@softwarecompanyinc.com>; our manager<deadweight@mvt.com>; our CIO<etherealpresence@mvt.com
Subject: Re: Re: Lunch 
 
Hey, I’m available. I have no preference on where we eat. 

From: Holst, Jaye 
Sent: Friday, April 2, 2012 8:49 AM 
To: Sales Guy, Greasy<greasysalesguy@softwarecompanyinc.com
Cc: Barnett, Jules<jbarnett@mvt.com>; our manager<deadweight@mvt.com>; our CIO<etherealpresence@mvt.com
Subject: Re: Re: Re: Lunch 

Cool. [Goddammit!] Anyone else? [It’s a done deal, so I really don’t care who else is interested, honestly

From: Our Manager 
Sent: Friday, April 2, 2012 8:51 AM 
To: Holst, Jaye<jholst@mvt.com
Cc: Jules Barnett<jbarnett@mvt.com>; Sales Guy, Greasy<greasysalesguy@softwarecompanyinc.com>; our CIO<etherealpresence@mvt.com
Subject: Re: Re: Re: Re: Lunch 


 I can make it. Anywhere is fine. 

From: Sales Guy, Greasy 
Sent: Thursday, April 2, 2012 8:55 AM 
To: Holst, Jaye<jholst@mvt.com
Cc: Barnett, Jules<jbarnett@mvt.com>; our manager<deadweight@mvt.com>; our CIO<etherealpresence@mvt.com
Subject: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Lunch 

Awesome! [Goddammit!] It looks like we have a quorum. Has anyone tried Jimmy’s Pizza Shack? [I mean…I can’t take them to McDonalds, can I?] It is on Broadway Ave. and Elm Creek Blvd. It looks promising. I know how popular pizza is with the IT crowd 😉 Does noon work? Will [the CIO] be there? [He’s the only one who can spend money, and since he’s sort of a tool, I may be able to talk him into some useless add-on bullshit administrative tools with kitschy names and catch-phrase-riddled descriptions that are pretty much superfluous and useless] I’d love to chat with all of you. [“love” is an overstatement, but conveying artificial concern and transmitting false interest is my job, I pander for a living] There are a lot of exciting things happening at Software Company, Inc.! [I have to pass out my quota of glossy business cards with our new company logo and brochures that we spent a fortune printing, even though they are strictly balderdash, buzzwords, and bullocks] 

From: Holst, Jaye 
Sent: Friday, April 2, 2012 8:59 AM 
To: Sales Guy, Greasy<greasysalesguy@softwarecompanyinc.com
Cc: Barnett, Jules<jbarnett@mvt.com>; our manager<deadweight@mvt.com>; our CIO<etherealpresence@mvt.com
Subject: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Lunch 

Noon on Tuesday should work. [I’ll be sure to toss a bottle of antacid tablets in my laptop bag that day] I don’t think [our CIO] will be able to make it. [That deadbeat never even shows up to work, much less checks his email, we could hire a starving actor off of Craigslist to play our CIO and save the company hundreds of thousands in annual salary] Do you mind sending a meeting invite to us? [I am not your admin assistant, you fucking lazy fucker, and this was not my fucking idea by any stretch of your warped imagination] We look forward to catching up with you! [Fingers crossed that you miss your flight, or maybe it crashes.


Excerpt from Finding Fidelity, the forthcoming novel from Blake Charles Donley