Dotted Line Dotted Line

Fiction Summer 2017    poetry    all issues


Cover Marija Zaric

Mary Lucille Hays
Tribute in Black, White, and Gray

Anne McMillan

Faith Shearin

James Hanna
Tower Duty

Nektaria Petrou
Black Lace

Rebecca May Hope
Coyotes from Kazakhstan

John Maki
There Are No Angels Singing

Lisa Michelle
A Happy Birthday

Alison Turner
Actresses Auditioning

Brian Beard
Problems in Poultry Farming

Liz Bender
The Hypnotist

William C-F Long
Pet Hive

Wendy Dolber
Charlotte's Plan

Emily Holland
Something Cool

Writer's Site

Lisa Michelle

A Happy Birthday

Ruth was sure she’d been given a birthday party with friends, ice cream, and cake. But she couldn’t remember when. Maybe when she turned sixteen. No. The visions were vague, but there had been no party, no friends. Just a chocolate cake with one candle left on the kitchen table for Ruth to find after school. The next year she married Ray Peterson, the quiet boy her father liked. He was polite and at the age of nineteen, owned a decent pick-up and the best bull in the county.

“Breakfast ain’t gonna cook itself.” Ray tore the blankets off Ruth, then flipped on the light on his way out. The dreary February morning spurred her arthritis. Made turning seventy-five just another day to get through. She stood on the cold wood floor, toes bent outward, knotty joints, crinkled skin, and warped nails. Nothing like the attractive petite feet she knew. Why had she wasted those good feet on Ray? Why had she wasted her good years waiting for things to get better? Things never get better, they just sort of subside. Ruth wrapped herself in her robe and a heavy dose of winter stoicism on the way to the bathroom.

The toilet seat up as usual, she stepped in a puddle of piss. Rotten S.O.B. She refused to clean it up today. A hand towel over the wet spot did the trick. But, she was not going to pick up the towel. Not today. Today she wore clean jeans. Buttoned on a gray wool sweater, usually saved for special occasions.

Ray, baked hard by the sun and bad luck, slurped runny eggs through his few remaining teeth. “You fill the woodbox?”

“Yes.” Ruth poured herself another cup of coffee from the old percolator. Ray Peterson refused innovations. Since buying the color television in 1988, he hadn’t purchased more than parts for the tractor or the truck. None of those cellular telephones. No satellite television, or world-wide-web hogwash. All of it was a ridiculous waste of time. Meals were made in or on the stove the way they should be. “Microwaves were invented by the Japs to infect us with cancer for kicking their ass in the Second World War.”

Ruth disagreed with most everything Ray believed, but it was easier to just keep quiet and clean the house.

“Did you get my chew when you went to town yesterday?”

“Heck. I forgot,” Ruth confessed.

“God damn it!” Ray slammed his fist on the table. “You didn’t forget.”

“Don’t start.” Ruth filled Ray’s coffee mug. “I had to get to the bank before they closed. They said we were overdrawn again and—”

“Stupid bitch.” Ray mopped his plate with his toast and shoved it in his mouth.

Ruth tightened her grip on the percolator handle. She imagined pouring hot coffee on Ray’s lap, then cracking his skull with the pot. The possibility of heaven and hell stopped her. It always stopped her, particularly when suicide seemed practical. With no family or real friends, no money or job skills, leaving was unimaginable.

“You can just trot your fat ass back to town today.”

“It’s my birthday you know. I was thinkin’, you get a free meal at Denny’s on your birthday. We could—”

“Just get the god damn chew and bake a cake or somethin’. White, with white frosting.”

“I like chocolate.”

“Course you do. If I’da said chocolate, you’d want white.”

“It’s my birthday. I oughta have the kind a cake I like. I oughta have friends and a present from my husband.”

“You know where the gate is if you don’t like it.”

“If I had somewhere to go, I’d go.”

“Go live on the streets with your druggie daughter.”

“She’s your daughter too.”

“She’s a waste ’a oxygen. Nothin’ but a jailbird.”

“Jails gotta be better than livin’ with you.”

Ray stood up. Ruth looked down, cleared his plate and took it to the sink. “Whorin’ around with niggers, takin’ drugs. That ain’t my fault. Hell, she probably got herself killed a long time ago.”

Ruth turned and faced him. “You’re a pig. A heartless, pathetic pig.”

“And you’re a worthless cunt.” His cruelty lost its sting long ago and allowed for an idea to take shape. The refusal to waste another moment forced an epiphany so perfect it was as if God bestowed on her the flawless ploy.

“Not today.” She marched to the bedroom.

The double-barreled shotgun was wedged between Ray’s side of the bed and the nightstand. Ruth sat on the bed, cracked open the breech; a shell filled each chamber. The old gun stuck twice before Ruth forced it shut and walked out with it at her waist.

Ray was planted on the pot when Ruth walked into the bathroom, shotgun cradled in her arms. “What the hell you doin’?” His dirty britches gathered around his boots, an AARP magazine on his lap.

“Give me the keys to the truck.” Ruth held out her hand.

“What are you doin’ with my gun?”

“I’m leavin’ you, Ray. Give me the keys.”

“Ruth darlin’, what’s got you all twisted up?” Ray’s smile was unconvincing. “Come on, we’ll go to Denny’s and—” Ray grabbed for the gun but missed. Ruth recoiled, didn’t mean to jerk the trigger. Pieces of ceiling fell like hail as Ray dove into a fetal position. “Jesus Christ, woman!”

“Give me the dang keys, Raymond!”

Ray squirmed on the floor and pulled up his pants. He fought his pocket to find the keys, then held them out. She snatched them. The mix of adrenaline and satisfaction caused something as close to ecstasy as Ruth could remember. A laugh emerged from deep inside that would not be contained.

A black cloud of spent diesel purged from the tailpipes as the old Dodge fishtailed up the snowy drive and out the front gate. Ruth followed the snowplow off the two-lane and onto Main. Tommy’s Bakery caught her eye. She had always wanted one of those fancy coffees, but Ray didn’t approve of doing business with queers. Ruth parked the truck and walked in.

The air was a delicious mix of warm vanilla and coffee beans. A young man with a creamy complexion slid a tray of cinnamon rolls into the display case, then popped out and smiled. “Well, good morning. What can I get you?”

“Got any chocolate birthday cakes?”

“No, I’m sorry. You can order one, have it by tomorrow.”

“That’s okay.” Ruth inspected the fruit-glazed tarts, the pies, the muffins, scones, and sophisticated-looking pastries of all sorts.

“Whose birthday?”


“Oh! Happy Birthday.” The guy clasped his hands and held them at his chin. “Do you like tortes?”


“I have a chocolate torte that someone ordered. I could,” he looked around as if someone would hear his secret, “let you have it and make another one.” He pressed his finger against his lips. “Shhh.”

“It’s not that important.”

“Are you kidding me? It’s your birthday. And my tortes are amazing.” He opened a stainless steel refrigerator, pulled out a triple layer chocolate torte. Baby blue and lavender pansies planted along the top and bottom reminded Ruth of the small bouquet Ray gave her when they married at the courthouse.

“Oh my gosh.” She had never seen a more magnificent cake. Probably expensive. “What sort of fancy coffee would go with it?” Ruth bit her smile.

A line formed as Ruth sat at a corner table, sipped her cappuccino and watched young, normal, well-dressed, happy people with their entire lives ahead of them. They knew what drinks to order while thumbing their phones. Knew how to live in a world where neighbors smiled and waved; didn’t threaten to call the sheriff because your cattle busted through the fence. They lived with pets who were allowed in the house, who served no purpose other than companionship. Their world had family and friends and birthday parties.

Ruth finished her slice of torte, letting it linger in her mouth. The smooth chocolate coated her tongue and she washed it down with the last of her cappuccino. Like a cow working a salt block, Ruth licked her fork clean, then slid it into her coat pocket. A pink box held the remaining torte, and Ruth took a long last look before closing the lid.

The old Dodge rolled to a stop in front of Wells Fargo Bank. The truck coughed when Ruth killed the engine. She reached the shotgun off the floorboard and unloaded it, her heart banging painfully in her chest as she stared out the fogged windshield. Shadows of cars passed now and then, but it was the thought of Ray that motivated her to take the gun and the pink box into the bank.

“Hi, Ruth!” Helen, who worked at the post office, was busy filling out a deposit slip.

“Hi, Helen. How are you?” Ruth smiled and set the pink box on the counter.

“Great. How are—” She noticed the gun.

“I’m fine, thanks.” Ruth stepped up to the only teller. A redheaded girl, still battling acne, smiled disbelievingly.

“Hey, Mrs. Peterson.”

“Hi, Amber. I’m sorry sweetie, but can I please have all your money? I’m robbing the bank.”

Amber dropped her chin and raised her brow before she opened her drawer. “What am I supposed to put it in?”

Ruth hadn’t considered details. Fear fogged her mind. Her heart began to beat impossibly loud in her ears, caused her hands and legs to tremble. Suddenly lightheaded and unstable, as if she might buckle at any moment. Everything told her to sit down, tell Amber she was “sorry” and “never mind it was only a joke.” But it was now or back to Ray. “Find something!” It felt so good to yell. She grabbed a deep breath and watched Amber remove the plastic bag from a trash can. “Good thinkin’.”

Amber filled the bag with cash from her drawer and handed it to Ruth as the new branch manager, a woman in her forties and a navy suit-dress, ducked behind her desk.

“Thank you. Now go press the alarm or whatever you’re supposed to do.” Ruth leaned the gun against the counter, hugged the pink box and carried it to a seat in the waiting area. Soft jazz played while Helen, the manager, and Amber, watched Ruth dig the fork out from her coat pocket and eat her birthday torte like no one was watching.

“Ruth? What in the world are you doing?” Helen asked.

“Leaving Ray.”

It seemed like forever for the Sheriff’s Department to arrive, but when they did, they came out in full-force. Six of them in flak jackets with assault rifles scanned the area for the bandit. The manager pointed to Ruth. With the fork in her hand, Ruth raised her arms like she’d seen the bad guys do on reruns of Magnum P.I.

“Drop the weapon!”

Ruth dropped her fork.

“Stand up and place your hands on your head!” A voice from behind her roared.

Ruth stood, did as she was told, and her chair flew sideways. Strong hands expertly pinioned her arms behind her back. The cold cuffs were on in an instant and Ruth grinned all the way to the back of the police car. She grinned while being fingerprinted. Even grinned in her booking photo.

Judge Amy Jackson leaned forward on the bench at Ruth Peterson’s arraignment. “Considering the severity of the charges this is a difficult case. The defendant lacks any prior criminal history.”

“Cause she ain’t no criminal, Judge. Let her come home. Please! I need her . . . I’m starvin’ to death.” Ray stood behind Ruth and patted her shoulder.

Judge Jackson slammed her gavel twice. “Mr. Peterson! You must refrain from speaking. I’ve warned you, these outbursts will not be tolerated. Next time, I will have you removed and fined. Do you understand?”

Ray twisted his ball cap in his hands. “I think freedom of speech is still my right as an American, ain’t it?”

“Get him out of here,” Judge Jackson ordered.

Ruth and her sweaty public defender, David Mendoza, watched as the bailiff and the security guard escorted Ray out the heavy doors.

“Your honor, my client pleads guilty to all charges and wishes to refuse bail.” Mendoza’s statement sounded more like a question.

“Considering the special circumstances of this case, I find the bail schedule to be excessive. The fact that the defendant failed to remove the money from the bank’s premises also challenges the robbery charge. Until I can further review and determine the specifics pertaining to this case, I am ordering the defendant to house arrest.”

“What? What did she say?” Panic filled Ruth.

“You get to go home, Mrs. Peterson.” Mendoza, like Ray, patted Ruth’s shoulder.

“No!” Ruth shook her head. “I don’t want to go home.”

Ruth had been home two days before she shared secrets with the mounted deer head next to the wood stove whenever Ray was near. “Don’t worry, I won’t tell him,” she’d say. “Wait ’til he goes to sleep then we’ll get him,” she’d whisper so Ray could hear. Then she’d cover her mouth and giggle. By the fourth day, Ray put the deer head in the shed. He hid his collection of hunting knives that once decorated the living room and the shotgun was no longer next to the bed.

At dinner, Ruth set a casserole dish on the table and folded her hands in prayer. Ray ignored her and lifted the lid. Olive-colored horse turds steamed his face.

“You goddamn lunatic! I’m callin’ your probation fella.”

Ruth rushed to the refrigerator, pulled Probation Officer Joshua Nelson’s card off the door and handed it to Ray.

A foot of snow closed the roads until noon the next day. Probation Officer Joshua Nelson sat at the kitchen table and watched Ruth peel two bananas with her mouth. She held one in each hand.

“Last night, I woke up, she’s standin’ over me with a god damn butcher knife singing Happy Birthday.” Ray crossed his arms and leaned against the back of his chair.

“Has she seen a doctor?” Joshua asked, as Ruth bit each banana.

“No.” Ray eyed Ruth while she stuffed her cheeks.

Joshua wrote something in his file. “I think we should start with an examination and—”

Ruth spit the mouthful of banana at Ray.

“Ruth!” Ray grabbed the bananas. The sight of the mess creeping down his face as if he were melting justified Ruth’s laughing frenzy.

“I have to piddle.” Ruth hurried to the bathroom. Pulled her pants down without closing the door. “I see you,” she sang.

“I’m going to order an immediate evaluation,” said Joshua.

“Evaluate this.” Ruth squatted and peed on the floor.

Ray leaned sideways in his chair, saw Ruth.

“I’m not cleanin’ it uuu-up. I’m not cleanin’ it uuu-up. . .”

“She’s pissin’ on the floor!” Ray stood, arms akimbo and eyed Joshua. “She’s nuts.”

“Maybe we should take her in,” Joshua delivered in a somber voice.

Not answering even one of the evaluation questions caused the county to label Ruth incoherent. The second series of evaluations identified her behavior as dementia. Taking her home was not advised.

The Paradise Ranch Senior Care gave Ruth her own room and a colored television with channels galore. They cleaned her bathroom, organized yoga and bingo and polka nights. After a month, she had over a dozen friends. One in particular, Charlie, saved the chocolates his daughter brought and shared them with Ruth.

Charlie—she loved saying his name. Loved the way it sounded. Charlie. Loved the way his luminous gray-green eyes listened to her when she spoke. Loved his gravelly voice when he read then attempted to explain D.H. Lawrence poems to her. Loved the minty smell of his brown skin.

It was April first when Ray visited. “Heifers did good, not much trouble this year.” He sat on the edge of a chair in the corner, watched Ruth work the fancy TV remote from her upright bed. She paused on the Superior Livestock Auction taking place in Nebraska.

“What is this?” Ray perked up and watched the cattle being sold. “That herd don’t average no eight hundred pounds. Turn it up.”

Ruth changed the channel to Oprah, tried to ignore the earthy odor of cow manure that always festered on Ray.

“Turn that back right now.”

Ruth turned up the volume. “Hush. I’m watchin’ Oprah.”

Ray snatched the remote from Ruth. She laughed when he pressed the on/off button three times. “How the hell you work this thing?”

“You have to be nice to it.” Ruth knew he couldn’t see the buttons, too stubborn to wear glasses.

“Well, I come to visit you.” Ray tossed her the remote. “Try and remember that.”

“Remember? I don’t remember you.” Ruth looked confused. “Who are you?”

Ray bent near Ruth’s face. “You know god damn well who I am. You ain’t foolin’ me.”

“I don’t have to,” Ruth whispered. And she never spoke to him again. Not one word when he visited twice in May.

In June, Ray found Ruth outside at a picnic table, sitting very close to Charlie. They worked a jigsaw puzzle under the shade of cedar trees. With a handful of wildflowers, Ray stomped up in a spotless white button-down and new jeans. “Guess we can figure why your daughter likes them colored boys, huh?” Ray spit a long stream of tobacco juice. Tried to rile Charlie with a long, threatening glare. When Charlie high-fived Ruth for placing the last puzzle piece, Ray threw the flowers at them and left.

February felt like an early spring. Charlie knocked on Ruth’s door just before noon. She was sitting next to the window, reading The Complete Poems of D.H. Lawrence.

Charlie left the door open and went to her. “Happy Birthday, Ruth.” He smiled like he meant it and handed her a box wrapped in gleaming gold paper.

“What did you do?” Ruth held the gift, admired it a long while. “It’s so beautiful.” She swallowed the lump in her throat.

“Come on. Open it up. We have to get to lunch.” Charlie squeezed Ruth’s hand.

Carefully, Ruth removed the tape and unwrapped the box. She wiggled off the lid. “What the heck is it?” Ruth asked.

“It’s an iPad. They’re wonderful. You can take pictures, check the weather, watch videos. You can even download all the books or poems you like. I’ll show you how to work it later.”

“Charlie, you believe in God?” Ruth stood and looked up at him.

“Sure. Don’t you?”

“Without a doubt.” Ruth filled her lungs, felt them expand, felt the privilege of being alive. Then, in the space of a heartbeat she wrapped her arms around his neck.

Their kiss was simple—soft and slow, but most of all sincere.

“Come on now, we’re gonna be late for lunch.” Charlie held Ruth’s arm and helped her down the hall.

“Shhh, here she comes. Quiet everyone.” Hushed voices escaped the cafeteria.

Lisa Michelle is a former rodeo cowgirl turned award winning writer and filmmaker. Through her personal experiences, she creates meaningful stories that she hopes will inspire change. Her work appears in RANGE, Sierra Heritage, Lodestar, Wanderlust and Lipstick, Tahoe Weekly, Performance Horse Journal, and several others.

Dotted Line