Leo Vartorella ~ Five Stories


I didn’t say any­thing to Naomi about the old man at the restau­rant. I was in town for a con­fer­ence, telling myself the usu­al lies. That this soli­tary meal was not lone­ly or bor­ing, but a valu­able exer­cise in mindfulness.

The sounds I heard: laugh­ter from the table of women beside me, chairs scrap­ing against the pol­ished con­crete floor, bar­tenders talk­ing about a keg that need­ed to be replaced. The serv­er warned me it would be a long wait for my meal, they were quite busy, so I drank my beer and fought the impulse to make eye con­tact with him each time he emerged from the kitchen with plates of oth­er people’s food. When I was almost done with my beer, the women beside me left and the old man’s group took their table. He wasn’t even that old, maybe in his six­ties, but he held his menu in an old man way. Right up to his face.

His com­pan­ions were younger and sat up very straight, regard­ed the wine list seri­ous­ly. They spoke a gar­bled lan­guage – Dutch? – which made sense because the old man had a Dutch look. Small, round glass­es and a sim­ple, well-fit­ting sweater.

When they ordered, I knew they would get their food before me, so I was not sur­prised when it hap­pened, but I was upset. I used a firm, dis­ap­point­ed tone with the serv­er, who apol­o­gized and brought me anoth­er beer. On the house. After the meal, he gave me a card with his name writ­ten in neat block let­ters so I would men­tion him in my online review.

String lights hung around the ban­is­ter that led down to the bath­room. I knew I was drunk from the way they twin­kled. The old man stood at the bot­tom of the stairs, one foot on the last step. An ambi­tious Adam’s apple hung in the mid­dle of his throat. It was easy to imag­ine him with a dis­ci­plined morn­ing rou­tine. Stretching, drink­ing strong cof­fee out of a tiny cup. As I passed him, he put a hand over my ribs. I was sure he would kiss me. The com­fort­able weight of those heavy, bony fin­gers. I didn’t do any­thing to stop him.

He did­n’t kiss me. He smiled and went up the stairs. Back at my hotel, I sat on the bed and watched a base­ball game with the vol­ume very low. Naomi called and we talked about my day and her day and how long two nights felt, how excit­ed we were to hold each oth­er again. Soon, we said, in low, con­sol­ing voic­es. Soon.


How You Twist It

He’s telling me about the kinds of drugs that make you feel clos­er to plants. Drugs that plunge you deep­er into the essen­tial human ques­tion. He laughs. It’s not what it sounds like. He’s not try­ing to blow his mind. Not any­more. He just wants to tune in to him­self. And drug is real­ly such an out­dat­ed word. These are tools – plants! – that have been used by every soci­ety in record­ed his­to­ry to expand con­scious­ness. They are not made in a lab. They come from the earth and are har­vest­ed by peo­ple who under­stand that every­thing we are look­ing for is already hard­wired into us. We just need to twist the Rubik’s cube the right way.

I nod. Right. The Rubik’s cube.

Me, I’m all about the lab. The kind of drugs that make a treach­er­ous jour­ney north with so many peo­ple per­form­ing such ugly, unknow­able alche­my along the way that the final prod­uct is essen­tial­ly poi­son. They do not expand con­scious­ness. They nar­row con­scious­ness to a bare­ly vis­i­ble gran­ule. Where is it? Who has it? The com­fort is not in the ques­tions. It’s all about the answers, which sit in your wal­let between a five-dol­lar bill and a Rite Aid coupon. The point? Shatter each night into non-mem­o­ry, tomor­row morning’s clues. Crumpled ATM receipts and cuts caked in blood. Your body does not like being left unat­tend­ed. It will tell you so. Occasionally, there will be small vic­to­ries. Texts not sent. A dry mattress.

He is talk­ing again. Something about soc­cer. I nod. Go into my pock­et and run a fin­ger along the side of my wal­let until I reach the preg­nant rise of leather. This is the best part. Before. When it’s all right there.


Who Are You Going to Call?

A man and a boy in match­ing kha­ki jump­suits walked by my win­dow. My first thought was Ghostbusters. They are a father and son doing Ghostbusters. Back when I lived in the city, if I saw the two of them on the street, I would have smiled and looked at Naomi and she would have shak­en her head like, there’s all sorts. Now Naomi’s wher­ev­er she is and I’m up at my uncle’s old place. If you’re look­ing for the town, he used to say, go to East Bumfuck and then go far­ther. It has the fourth tallest active light­house in the state and a com­pe­ti­tion every sum­mer to see who can eat the most fried had­dock. There are not all sorts.

So I thought to myself, hey idiot, this guy is prob­a­bly a plumber or an exter­mi­na­tor who is show­ing his son the ropes of the fam­i­ly busi­ness. This is what hap­pens in small towns. Fathers show their sons the ropes. Naomi would have said the same thing. She could be very definitive.

A few weeks lat­er I was com­ing out of the mar­ket – not even super, just a mar­ket – and I saw them again. They were in their jump­suits and had back­packs with tubes con­nect­ed to big toy guns that dan­gled from their belts, badges stitched onto their arms that showed a wor­ried ghost with a fat red line across its chest. And I thought, oh my god! They are doing Ghostbusters! The man was walk­ing fast, too fast for the boy, whose back­pack kept falling down. He had to stop every few steps to adjust it, but the man would­n’t wait. The boy start­ed jog­ging to catch up, one hand steady­ing his bag, his gun rat­tling against his leg in that hol­low plas­tic way.


Call Me

Ella is bent over in the clos­et look­ing for some­thing. What I see: the bot­tom knobs of her spine where her sweater has lift­ed, a leg. She is singing. “Shower me with kiss­es baby, thingy with the thing.” She trails into rhyth­mic grunts for the rest of the verse, gives up, skips to the cho­rus. “Call me, any­time, call me, call me, any, any­time. Call me.” When she comes out, she asks what is wrong, why I won’t sing along. I tell her I’m send­ing myself an email, which is true but sounds like a lie so she widens her eyes and says, “okay.”

Later, at din­ner, she and her mom dis­cuss Debbie Harry’s face lift. Her mom thinks it’s a shame. Ella thinks we should give her a break, ques­tions why we’re so com­fort­able crit­i­ciz­ing old­er women. “I’m just say­ing,” her mom says. “Can’t I just say? As an old­er woman?” The sound of sil­ver­ware on plates. I ask if they have seen Barry Manilow lately.

Her dad rais­es his eye­brows, wags his fin­ger like I’ve made a very inter­est­ing point. “Barry Manilow,” he says. “Now there’s a face lift.”

In bed, Ella snores. Insane, car­toon snores. She faces away from me, but her feet find mine under the blan­ket. I pull up my email. A forty-four-mes­sage thread, sub­ject line “notes.” The lat­est: Ella in clos­et singing blondie, for­gets words. 

Before that: Old man in gro­cery store to slight­ly less old man: “his name was Punto and he sold linoleum.”

Before that: Sunny day, win­dows open. Wind blows pic­ture over. Neither of us pick it up. 

If some­one asked me what I was doing, what these all added up to, what would I say?

I plug my phone in and turn off the lamp. Ella’s feet are so warm.


 All Tangled Up

The young cou­ple next door is back at it. Same thing every Saturday morn­ing. You can set your watch to it. Luckily, Dan is gone. He likes an ear­ly tee time.

Their first night in the apart­ment, we heard them. We were in the liv­ing room watch­ing Hell’s Kitchen when she start­ed with the moan­ing. Dan went red as I’ve ever seen him and turned the vol­ume up. Some unlucky soul had under­cooked a Beef Wellington and Gordon Ramsay was giv­ing them an ear­ful. Even with Gordon shout­ing, I could still hear their bed creak in that slow back and forth way.

Before the young cou­ple moved in, a girl lived there alone. A nurse. We didn’t hear a peep out of her. The only thing we would hear was her clos­et open­ing and clos­ing. The hinges on the door squeaked like you wouldn’t believe. Dan said he had half a mind to go over there with some WD-40 and take care of it himself.

I imag­ine the two of them do it oth­er times, but we are in bed ear­ly most nights. I don’t mind hear­ing them on those Saturday morn­ings. I’m not some per­vert with my ear to the wall, but when they do start up, I don’t get squea­mish like you might think. I just go on doing what­ev­er it is I’m doing. Watering the plants, mak­ing a bowl of oat­meal. We get such nice light that time of day and I like think­ing about after­ward, when they’re off doing some­thing else, how their sheets look in that light. All tan­gled up.


Leo Vartorella is a writer from Brooklyn, NY who lives in the Scottish Highlands. His work has appeared or is forth­com­ing in HAD and Maudlin House.