UNITED STATES—Mary Reno awoke with a violent start. Fears swooped down and crowded in like crows. Her fears were flakes of pepper that could never totally obliterate the snowbank brightness of the moment. Her thoughts and hopes we’re tangled as the dry leaves that clotted the gutters.

She gasped. It started her swollen feet moving again. One swollen foot trudged after the other, rough as the outside of a cantaloupe. They were creatures separate from her limbs. They were still responsive to her will, as the toes of the left foot endlessly pursued the guilty heel of the right.

Mary veered down a brick alleyway. The vectors of force she wielded in the awkward swerve made her teeter and almost slip. She caught her breath with such suddenness, she knew that a second’s more sluggish delay would have meant a ride to the hospital. She didn’t want to go there; nothing good happened in a hospital.

“Add a few zeroes,” said a voice. “Sign on the clotted line.”

“But you were born in one,” said another voice.

A lone shopping cart, angled against the twin ribbon of high red brick walls that unspooled before her. There was no end to it. Mary had never gone this way. Overhead the sky was a gash of smoky blue. There was no end to the red brick tunnel in sight. It was easy to grasp that a straight line became curved in space, and finally a circle.

“Mary, you look fabulous. You’ve got your old figure back..”

Who were these voices? When she peered to the right or upward, only black plyboard met Mary’s gaze.

Her hand passed by the secret private hiding space on her body. It was met by the brisk feel of a flat unwrinkled bill terse as young skin. Her fingers, sensitive as perspiration absorbed in the bill’s fibers had processed it was skin and then she pulled out two surprise bills she forgot she had. It was a gift.

Shade was a commodity. Mary abruptly left the brick tunnel. That is, the consoling claustrophobia of the brick walls ceased. Mary was burped out onto the sidewalk of a busy street. But for the grace of awkwardness, she would’ve stumbled into the path of a delivery truck.

Mary gravitated to the dark pools of shade clustered near inviting tables. Two fluffy white dogs were panting slowly, belly to the ground. The heat was rising from the sidewalk. A thin breeze stirred.

“Can I pet them?” she asked. The dogs’ master stared blankly from behind two round purple polarized discs. Mary did not exist. She was a mere annoyance for the man masked behind the The unpleasant smell of Mary be did not blend well with this morning’s cappuccino, which had a tad too much sugar.

Mary petted the poodle and corgi with energetic hands, both white, and whispered sweet things to them, muttering the name of Diogenes, her lost dog.

“They are very nice dogs,, very,,,, very nice dogs, isn’t that right.”

She spoke from the heart.

“They must like you,” said the man at the table with metallic red hair with blond tips. “They bark at everyone else.”

To be continued…

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Hollywood humorist Grady grew up in the heart of Steinbeck Country on the Central California coast. More Bombeck than Steinbeck, Grady Miller has been compared to T.C. Boyle, Joel Stein, and Voltaire. He briefly attended Columbia University in New York and came to Los Angeles to study filmmaking, but discovered literature instead, in T.C. Boyle’s fiction writing workshop at USC. In addition to A Very Grady Christmas, he has written the humorous diet book, Lighten Up Now: The Grady Diet and the popular humor collection, Late Bloomer (both on Amazon) and its follow-up, Later Bloomer: Tales from Darkest Hollywood. (https://amzn.to/3bGBLB8) His humor column, Miller Time, appears weekly in The Canyon News (www.canyon-news.com)