Overheard Cubed:



A Collection of Modern Short Stories

Michael Cornwall


Copyright © 2016

Michael Cornwall.

All rights reserved

ISBN-13: 9781370373642

Publisher: Shakespir, Inc.


10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1 0

First Edition

Table of Contents



























This book is dedicated to my family and friends (except some of them).


I stole my boy’s Sting Ray bike last night.

In the middle of the night, while my boy was sleeping comfortably on my mother’s couch, I was peddling his prize possession through the rain, headed, as it turned out, into town. I wasn’t sure where I was going with it. I just knew I had to steal it. I had no other plans beyond the actual theft.

At the time, it all seemed like a reasonable thing for me to be doing, stealing my boy’s bike. It was the one thing he loved most in the world. I leaned the bike against a fire hydrant and took shelter in a phone booth. I vaped and waited for the rain to stop.

My boy and I are staying with my mother on what I have cautiously termed, for the benefit of all, a temporary basis. My husband, my boy’s father, took off a few nights ago without as much as a sayonara. I am told he was boosted into a Mayflower moving van by a burly truck driver. The man in question stopped in at the restaurant where my husband worked as a night manager and ordered coffee and a bear claw. As I understand it, sometime during the course of their conversation, which I am told was brief, he agreed to leave his job and his family and join this man on his trip to Des Moines. I’m not sure just exactly what went on that night, word for word, but I know he asked my husband three times to leave with him.

At this point, there are several different stories in circulation concerning the disappearance of my husband. The only consistency in the rumors is that he had to be asked three times. Three is my husband’s lucky number, apparently. I haven’t come to any firm conclusions as to why he had to be asked exactly three times; but, for some reason, I consider this a consolation.

My boy knows nothing of this, of his father’s disappearance with the burly man on the Mayflower. My son thinks his father is on an extended vacation.

I’m sitting at the kitchen table, leaning over a highball and a half-pack of Winston Lite 100s, nursing the scrapes on my elbows and face. I fell into a briar bush last night on my way home from town, after selling my boy’s bike. I have been drinking a little too much lately. My eyes feel cracked, like the broken windshield on my ’69 Plymouth Valiant. What sleep I have had in the last few days could not be in the purest sense of the word called restful.

My mother comes into the kitchen and fills her Keurig with water. She wears a sixties hair style, a beehive. Her hair looks like a well trussed, overcooked pot roast. She rarely leaves the house anymore. She hasn’t changed in the least since I was a girl with freckles and skinned elbows. She has placed a bowl of Cheerios and a glass of tomato juice in front of me. She imagines that I will eat these things.

Each morning, my mother comes into the kitchen and tries to make me eat. After hearing my objections, she turns her back to me and pops a coffee pod into her Keurig. Her house coat is pink and hangs to the floor. I watch her elbow bend as she spoons sugar into her cup, and I count with her. “I heard you go out last night,” my mother says to me over her shoulder. “When you’re in my house, you’ll tell me where you’re going and when you’ll be back. I have rules here. I won’t have doors slammed in the middle of the night. It scares me. I don’t know if someone’s coming in or going out.” She opens the top of her Kuerig and peeks into the water well. “I thought you were a burglar.”

“I’m sorry,” I say, “forgive me.”

“You look like shit, you know. You’re going to have to do something about yourself. You’ve got to snap out of this.”

My mother’s coffee is in her cup. The thick odor fills my nostrils and makes my temples pulse. She hugs the cup to her chest, as a junkie would a fix. Her hair is wrapped in toilet tissue. She begins to unroll it, stuffing the tissue into the pocket of her robe. “Sit down, Ma,” I say. “Sit over here with me for a while.”

“You should have a cup yourself,” my mother says. “By the look of you, you’ll need your own pot. Are you wet? You look like you’re wet. Have a cup of coffee. You’ll catch a cold.”

“I don’t like coffee anymore.”

My mother never minces words with me. She comes directly to the point. “You’re just like your father, you know. Just like him. Always have been. Get more like him all the time.” I smile and put my glass to my lips. My mother has not seen nor heard from my father in thirty years. In his absence, I have had to take his abuse for him. “Why I ever married that guy, I’ll never know,” she says. “Not a good thing came from it.”

My mother has a favorite story she likes to tell to friends and strangers alike. It goes like this: My father left her at three, four or five in the morning. It depends on who she’s telling the story to and the kind of effect she wants to impose on it. Seems my father gave her a couple of nudges in the back and told her to get up out of bed and make him a BLT. She brought him one, and he told her he didn’t like mayo anymore. Never truly did like mayo to begin with. This was in the middle of the night, by the way. Anyway, he needed her to make him another sandwich. She wouldn’t, so he got up and got dressed and left.

Never came back.



No more.

Accordingly, he put us, his wife and her freckled five-year old on the steps of the Department of Public Welfare, where we all remain, today. “The bastard just grinned and shut the door real hard,” she always adds. “He was just looking for a way out. He found it. Right through that door there.”

My mother comes across to the table, leans her weight on the back of her chair and looks at me for a long minute. She walks back to the stove and turns to face me. She crosses her arms over her chest. “You going to tell the boy today?” she asks. “He’ll want to know. This can’t go on. You’re going to have to tell him eventually. Get your life out of the shitter. Tell him something, anything, and forget about it.”

“How can I tell him anything,” I say, “when there’s nothing I can tell him, using the information I have? He could come back, you know. He might have been kidnapped. You ever think of that?”

“Sure, he’ll come right back after he’s finished being kidnapped,” my mother says. “Don’t kid yourself. Just tell him something he’ll understand and be done with it. You have to move on. Children have staying power.”

My boy comes into the kitchen. He is dressed and ready for play. The knees of his overalls and his sneakers are spotted with yesterday’s mud. He sits across from me and waits to be served.

My boy reminds me of myself. He is freckled in much the same manner I was as a girl. All over my face and back, I had freckles. There are still traces of freckles around my nose. There are enough of them to be called Cute, Girlish; but my shoulders never recovered. In my opinion, my shoulders are still a sideshow at the beach.

I have recently begun telling my boy that his freckles are his father’s fault, that this affliction can be directly traced to his father’s utter negligence. I tell my boy his father left him sitting in the sun, behind a screen window, when he was a baby, and this is how he got his freckles. My boy is too young to understand heredity, and his father is no longer around to protect himself.

My boy’s new playmates, the ones he has made since our temporary move to my mother’s place, call him Freckle Face. It is his nickname. I hear his friends call him Freckle Face from my seat at the kitchen window. I know how my boy feels about his freckles. He has asked me to buy him a cream to remove them. I know of a cream that is used by blacks to lighten their skin. I saw it advertised on TV. Although this is a viable possibility, I tell my boy that there is nothing that will make his freckles go away. In varying degrees, he will carry them on his face and shoulders and in his heart for the rest of his life. In the meantime, I tell him about the Ugly Duckling.

My boy is eyeing me. He is gathering facts on my mood, about my state of mind. He slides off his chair and comes to my side of the table, kisses me on the cheek and lingers long enough to smell my breath. He grimaces. “You’ll make a good cop, someday,” I say to him. He makes a gun out of his fist thumb and finger and pretends to shoot me. He sits in the chair nearest me, and my mother pours milk over his Cheerios. She places a small glass of tomato juice within reach. He sinks his spoon into his bowl and fills his mouth. Milk rolls onto his chin. When he speaks, milk runs down his freckled chin and soaks into the collar of his t-shirt. He looks at me with his cheeks full of cereal and says, “Mom, you know how you told me to put my bike up by the porch at night? I put my bike up by the porch last night, like you always tell me to do. Keep it safe. Know where it is at all times. That’s what you always tell me. Don’t let it out of your sight. I do what you tell me, don’t I Mom? I always do what I’m told.” He spoons another load of sugar onto his cereal and stares across the table at me, waiting for me to respond to his comment. I smile at him over the rim of my glass.

  • * * *

I waited in the phone booth for over an hour last night and it occurred to me, standing there with the rain coming down all around me, that to sell my boy’s bike was the next most logical step after stealing it. I made up my mind to offer it at a bargain-basement price to the next car that stopped at the Shell station, across the street.

My pigeons, if I may, were a man and his wife. They were driving a Winnebago with Arizona tags, the perfect complement to my plans. They would take the bike back to Arizona, and there would be no trace of it.

No leads.

Nothing to go on.

I understood the man to say, as I approached him under the pretense of providing me directions to somewhere I had already been, that the night was blustery. Of all the words I could have chosen to describe the storm, blustery would not have been one of them. I agreed with him. I was hungry to make the sale. I said, “Yea, it’s pretty fucking blustery out here tonight,” and I went right to work on him.

“We don’t even know where she got it, Harold,” the woman in the doorway of the Winnebago said, after I set a price. She walked around the bike, eyeing it with one hand on her hip, holding the straps of her plastic rain hat tightly under her chin. “Ask her where she gets a bike like this, Harold. Go on, ask her. A woman her age riding such a small bike in the middle of a hurricane.” She lowered her voice and pulled her husband’s ear to her lips. “It looks fishy. Fishy is what it looks like to me, Harold,” she whispered.

“We don’t even know where you got it,” the man said. “By the way, where’d you get it?”

“Listen, this rain is getting on my nerves,” I said.

“Twenty, twenty bucks is all I want. It’s almost new, for chris’sake.”

“Such a mouth,” the woman said. “Ask her what kind of seat does she call that seat, Harold. It looks awful uncomfortable to be sitting on.”

“It’s a Spiderman seat. It’s all the rage these days,” I said. “I’ll take fifteen. It’s worth at least sixty, sixty five bucks. It’s a steal.”

“I don’t know,” the man said.

“Ten then,” I said.

I helped him load the bike into his Winnebago.

“Pay her and close the door, Harold. The rain’s getting in on the linoleum,” the woman said. “Pay her, and let’s go.” She slammed the door and turned on a light.

“This better be legit,” the man said, handing me two bills, acting as if we were making an illegal drug transaction. “I don’t need no cops on my ass. We’re on vacation. We’re retired. We’re too old for that shit.”

I tucked the bills into my pocket. I started to walk away, but I had to turn and face the man. “Does she always call you Harold?” I asked.

“She’s called me Harold for thirty years,” the man said. “That’s my name. Harold’s my name.”

“Thirty years, eh? It seems she’d at least call you Harry or Hank. Something like that. Maybe Love Tunnel. How’d you do it? I mean, how’d you do all that time together? What’s your secret?”

“Can’t say,” the man said. “Can’t really say. We like to travel. That might be it. Were always on the go.”

“You ever been to Des Moines?”

“Can’t say as I have. Don’t seem like any place anyone would want to go. What’s in Des Moines? I think it’s known for insurance.”

I tried to hitch a ride back to the house, but I ended up walking all the way home in the rain with my thumb pointing out into the road.

  • * * *

My boy has his father's eyes. It is clearly his eyes that are his father's greatest gift to him. Blue, like Christmas bulbs, so innocent and welcoming, harmless. His father used his eyes to his advantage, too. I sip from my glass and smile. I say to my boy, "Your eyes will stop a clock someday. When little girls grow up, they love a man's eyes more than any other part of him." Of course, I lied; for, like anything else, little girls learn to appreciate various parts of a man, and vice- versa.

“Whose fault would it be if I did what you said and then someone stole my bike anyway?” my boy says. “Would that be your fault or mine, Mom?”

This is how my boy acts when he’s not ready to tell the truth. He tries to soften the news by first paving the road. He doesn’t know I can see right through him. He is like me in that way. Both of us always paving the way to what we really have on our minds, smoothing everything over so the real news won’t be so devastating. My mother picks up on this method of communication right away. She is standing with her hands on her hips, looking at the two of us. She is waiting for me to force the issue with my boy. She wants me to help him get to the point. Finally she says, “What’s this about your bike?” She fills her coffee cup again. She seems to be coming to life.

“Leave us alone for a minute, Ma,” I say.

“I’d like to hear more about this bike thing if you don’t mind,” she says. “Do we have to call out the police or what?”

My boy gets down from his chair and comes over to me. He says, “Someone stole my bike, Mom.” He says it very calmly. He puts his hand on mine, as if the news has in some way hurt me. “Must’ve happened last night. I did what you told me. There wasn’t nothing I could do.”

“In this neighborhood? People don’t steal in this neighborhood,” my mother says. “I don’t believe it.” My mother looks at me as if she expects me to do something, as if there is something I can do. After taking a moment to recognize my disinterest, after letting it sink in, she says, “Well, I’m calling the police if you’re not. If you’re going to just sit there and do nothing, that is. We have to make a report. We have to tell someone. We can’t let this happen again.”

“We might as well forget about it,” I say, looking directly into my boy’s eyes. “A bike can disappear into the night and never be seen again. Bikes are like that. You did all you could. I don’t blame you. We’ll just have to see about getting another one.”

My boy leans his chest against the table. He cranes his freckled face in my direction. I look at him as if he were an old photograph found crumpled in the back of a junk drawer. His eyes are so blue and wide. When his father looked at me with those same eyes, I walked right into them and never turned around. “You loved that bike, didn’t you?” is all I can think of to say to my boy, and I cry. The ice has melted in my high ball. It is too watery. I go to the sink and dump it. I fix another drink and come back to the table where I await my boy’s answer.


Language seems so precise, yet words are often left to a variety of interpretations. Words and phrases and their meaning seem locked inside our brains like stores of grain in a silo, each kernel wrapped in a shell of meaning so unique to each of us, to examine our interior semantics is often much like trying to crack open a walnut with a beach ball. For example, when on earth has anyone ever thrown caution to the wind? How would one go about doing that? Is caution a handful of something? Can it be balled-up, taken out the back porch and heaved into the wind like an overly-filled vacuum canister? Where do you store caution if it isn’t quite windy enough to throw it? Can caution go stale? What happens when it is windy-enough and your canister filled with caution comes back and hits you square in the face? Throwing caution to the wind may be filled with any number of surprises that can, under the proper conditions, get in your eyes and cling to your Chap-stick-ed lips.

While I was resting my eyes, the guy in the office beside me shouted, “That’s bull crap!” and hung up his phone. Why do people always use the term bull crap over other kinds of crap? Human crap, for example, is probably the worst crap-type of all. Why don’t we say instead, “I don’t believe it! That is human crap!” Or maybe we could just say, “That’s crap!” and let the listener conjure h/er own plant or animal stand-in.

A monkey, for example.

Or a herd of elephants!

Why not a wilder beast?

Only bulls?

There are simply tens (or maybe several) of animals (especially carnivores) that could easily compete for the distinction of having a standard of crap that far surpasses a bull’s crap, not only in odor, but in texture and consistency, but the enviable ability to activate the gag reflex. Anyway, my eyes were settled enough this afternoon, after hearing my office-mate’s exclamation, for me to look up bulls on Wikipedia. Not surprisingly, there wasn’t a word, phrase or definition related to their crap. Not a syllable about what makes bull crap so distinctive that it is held out as the very epitome of crap-types.

The word bull, in this sense, may be simply a derivative of the French word boul meaning fraudulent and deceitful. It may be that we started out saying boul crap and evolved it to bull crap. I’m not sure what boul and crap have in common. Worthy of note, however, is the South African English equivalent of boul crap which is bull dust. I discovered few other corresponding terms for boul crap in other languages, with the significant exception of the German word bockmist, which literally means Billy-goat shit.

If the competition for crap-king lies between the bull and the Billy-goat, my vote is confidently cast for the bull. Billy-goat crap is no worse than rabbit shite. Even a chipmunk has worse crap than a rabbit. Rabbit crap is simply a nuisance that you might just shoo-off your clothes or hardly notice if you stepped in it. Fresh-cut grass smells like rabbit and Billy goat shite, and you don’t see people running from their lawns in terror of its smell, now do you?

Sometimes the flies drawn to rabbit and Billy goat crap are more bothersome than the crap, itself. Regardless, there is simply no comparison between rabbits and chipmunks, or bulls and Billy goats when it comes to their shite.

After resting my eyes a bit, I now feel myself compelled to protect the bull from what appears to be a gross miscarriage of justice. Justice, by the way, is yet another French derivative meaning righteousness and equity. Of course it hardly means that anymore. Why don’t we all just speak French? It seems one has to learn French these days in order to understand and speak English. Besides, there is obviously very little ambiguous meaning in the French language.

If it is true, and we really do mean to say boul and not bull, then bulls have been the target of a great deal of wholly unwarranted criticism for at least hundreds (maybe thousands and millions) of years! I would say that bulls have gotten a bum rap, but I’m afraid I’d have to explain what that means, in French, and my eyes are starting to hurt again.

We can just make an educated guess that the phrase is a French derivative and be done with it. Anyway, why is monkeys spelled with an ‘eyes’ instead of an ‘ies’?

The world is surely going to hell in a hand-wagon.

And what does any of this have to do with emotional intelligence? Simply, words, phrases and meanings just seem to have so much implied, self-prescribed meaning that it is impossible to know what anyone thinks when we say anything to them.

It’s a crap shoot.


There are believed to be four known fundamental forces (sometimes called interactive forces). These four known forces, all of which are non-contact energies, are electromagnetism, strong interaction, weak interaction and gravitation. Although force theory is complete in its explanation of these particular dynamics, it does not adequately address a fifth, more allusive yet equally powerful force – the force of Criticism.


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Overheard Cubed:

People in cubicles and open offices long for privacy. Overheard Cubed is a chronicling of conversations, epitaphs, narratives and tales eavesdropped, overheard or simply told to me in my workplace, over the period of three enchanting years. I think you will find the things people say, when the believe they are not being overheard, as hilarious and outrageous as I did when I overheard them. Overheard Cubed makes a great bathroom companion. Cheers! and Enjoy!

  • Author: Michael Cornwall
  • Published: 2017-07-08 21:20:08
  • Words: 31921
Overheard Cubed: Overheard Cubed: