Skip to content
Jan 23 / Vick Mickunas

the woman in 36-B

The Woman in 36-B

They lived in the penthouse. She was lonely. I never saw the husband. Not once.

Their building was on a rise affording a posh view of the art center and the park. I delivered their newspapers.

The first time I detected her presence she must have heard me tossing their newspaper from the elevator as it was opening. They were the only dwellers on the top. She could surely hear the elevator opening and the shoosh of the Des Moines Tribune plopping into the shag carpet.

She propped open their door and smiled at me, coiffed and made up like Cleopatra, as if she had been enroute to some swanky luncheon. I knew better, I was there almost every afternoon and had never seen her before, in the parking lot or even in the lobby. Looking back, all these years later, I wonder, was she all dolled up just for me? Good Lord, I hope not! She would be around 120 years old by now.

If my dad had observed her he would have declared that she once was probably quite the looker, a dish, an eye catcher, circa 1930s. I didn’t have opinions about any of that. I was 12 years old. Women were utter riddles to me. As they remain.

I was a servant of the lowest order, invisible, the kid who brought the newspapers. Except for her. She had noticed me and wanted to give me something that boys my age fantasized about, don’t you know?

I was shy and thus startled when she opened the door. She brandished a green glass bottle. Later, after I had had more of these intimate moments with her I realized she must have been listening for me that day. It would usually take me only three seconds to open the elevator door, toss the newspaper, then press the door closing button. She was lurking there, and had to be quick, waiting, the black widow spider pouncing on innocent me.

She spoke: “Hi, do you want my bottle?” Her question baffled me. I had no notion as to why she would offer me an empty bottle. It wasn’t a wine bottle or a liquor decanter. Why would I want it? Was she feeling guilty because her husband never tipped me? Even at Christmas.

I stammered “sure, OK. I guess so.” She handed it to me then told me that it was a prune juice bottle and that she drank a quart of it daily.

That’s how it began. I accepted the bottle and stuck it in my newspaper bag. That had been my final delivery for the day. Then I went down to the park where there’s a concrete drainage culvert back in the woods, a hideaway hangout for the rambunctious kids.

I smashed that green bottle into the culvert. It felt rebellious and irresponsible and somewhat moronic. In 1968 nobody ever recycled. That was so World War Two. Sure, send us more Japs. Gleaming shards from that shattering bottle continue to ricochet, slicing molecules from my memories.

By the next day I had already forgotten about my weirdo prune juice encounter. As the elevator door opened and I prepared to soft toss my last rolled up newspaper I espied another green bottle standing by her door. I was in disbelief as I retrieved it. Later that evening I asked my dad if he could use a quart bottle? A receptacle for nails? Bolts? Howzabout screws?

Time melted by, as summers will. Every afternoon a green bottle would be there waiting for me. Even on Sundays. One day several weeks later when I opened the elevator door she was standing there proffering yet another bottle. She grinned. I was fulfilling some fantasy for her. Giving me these discarded objects was certainly bringing her pleasure! She asked me if I was enjoying them? The bottles? I replied, yes, of course!

What did she think I was doing with them? It had gotten to the point where I’d be walking home from my route and I would spot random people and whip out that day’s bottle from my pouch exclaiming, “hey, do you want this cool bottle?”

That autumn I quit my paper route. I had gotten a scholarship to a prep school. After I arrived on campus I would sometimes wonder; does she leave bottles out for the poor sap who took over my paper route? Does he take them? Or, was I special? I was haunted by my lonely lady. I suppose she was the first grown woman I ever made happy. Also the last.

Years later I was visiting a nearby cemetery when I realized I was passing by my prune juice lady’s tomb. As I walked by I noticed the green glass bottle waiting by the entrance.

Apr 13 / Vick Mickunas

Bodega Blues

The cat food supply was running low so I ventured down to my local bodega to replenish it. (Okay, it isn’t a bodega, it is the only grocery store in my little Ohio village, bodega just sounds cooler).

As I was rounding the corner into the kitty vittles aisle I glanced over at the looming vacancies further beyond. I began to hallucinate. Had someone spiked my celery juice with mescaline?! Sweet Jesus, there were two lonely packages of toilet paper just sitting there on the bottom shelf. All the paper towels were gone. I had not seen any toilet paper for sale there since long before Donald Trump declared this current pandemic to be a big FAT FAKE NEWS HOAX!

Very slowly and stealthily I approached the packages. They were Cottonelle. I kept waiting for this shimmering mirage to suddenly vanish. Nobody else was in that aisle. Then I thought; someone is surely going to come sprinting down here and grab them before I could. But that didn’t happen. I walked up and picked up a package. I never considered taking both of them. I’m not that sort of person.

For a moment I thought about waiting there to observe the next person who happened upon this exotic luxury. I wanted to film a documentary of it. I wanted to record their unbridled joy at finding this rare product. But then I thought; no, they would probably grumble that it was the only one left. They would probably act pissed off that they could only get the one. So I walked away with my booty.

It was a day late but that was still my Easter miracle. It sure beat finding the bunny head yesterday out in my front yard.

Mar 28 / Vick Mickunas

He’s taken enough candy bars…

In 1979 I started hosting radio shows at a small station in Des Moines. Jazz, I played jazz. The station was called WJAZ. It was actually a cable radio station. One of the early cable TV operations started in Des Moines. When you perused the program listings for their cable service our station was on in the background. Most of our listeners listened on their TVs. They just left that channel on and went about their business like it was a radio station and not just cable TV. If you paid a little extra you could get the station piped through your stereo but those were early days and 99% of our audience listened via the program listings channel. I have been doing radio with just a few interruptions ever since.

My show ran from 8am until noon, Monday through Friday. They didn’t pay me. I did it because I loved it and it was my entry point into radio, something I always dreamed of doing. At noon I would stroll across the street to Beggar’s Banquet, a deli that would have my sandwich ready to pick up within seconds after I popped in. Then I would walk up the block to the record store that I managed. It opened at 11. My shift started when I arrived at a few minutes after noon. We closed at 7 o’clock.

I have worked in retail settings for over half of my life. Radio has never been enough of an income source. You always need a 2nd or even a 3rd or 4th gig to survive. At the moment I am writing this I have 3. I lost the 4th one last week as this plague set in. That’s a job I have had for 25+ years. I have been ordering and stocking the beers at our state liquor store/coffee shop since 1994.

This Trump presidency and his announcement that he plans to keep secret where some of the Coronavirus disaster funds will be going reminded me of something I observed a few years ago at my retail job. Trump’s blatant criminality in which he performs his acts right in front of us without fear of prosecution brought back a memory.

One day I was in the shop. I was quaffing a cup of coffee and looking over my beer inventory. I suppose I looked like a customer instead of an employee. I blended in. A middle-aged couple came into the store. I had seen her before but not him. I assume they were married. They ordered some espresso drinks from the clerk at the counter then went and sat down in the cafe.

I was going about my inspection of the beer on the shelves. I’m sure I appeared to the casual observer to be a customer browsing the selections. The man got up from their table and came back over to the counter. The clerk was busy preparing their drinks. This guy was dressed like a banker, expensive clothes, a tie, I think he even had on cuff links!

He was standing there with his back to me and facing a high cooler that had sandwiches and drinks in it. I have no doubt that he was utterly oblivious to my presence. The clerk was busy making their coffee and paying no heed to him.

That’s when he struck with precision and obvious experience. I was watching him from behind. He reached up quite smoothly and grabbed two expensive chocolate bars from the candy displayed atop the cooler. It took him less than 2 seconds to grasp the candy bars and slickly slip them into one of the back pockets of his trousers. I watched the whole thing.

Then he sensed my presence and turned toward me and launched into some bullshit comments about the weather. I didn’t respond, I just stared at him with an expression that I meant to communicate; OK, you jerk, I saw what you did. Now what are you going to do next?

He started chatting up the clerk as she handed him their coffees. The clerk had no clue that he had just shoplifted us. Then he went back to the table with their coffees and started talking to his companion. I could sense by his body language that he was trying to pretend everything was still copacetic.

At that point I decided that he needed to comprehend that I wasn’t just another customer, that I worked there. I went behind the counter which is elevated above the cafe. I stood there with my arms crossed and stared at the man for several minutes with an expression meant to convey; OK, you white collar thief, are you going to sit there and surprise your companion with a candy bar? How are you going to play this? I have you dead to rights.

About five minutes passed. I was now standing over by the beer again. He got up from the table and walked back over to where he had been standing when he nicked the chocolate. The clerk was once again not paying any heed to his movements. I stood there and watched him as he stealthily removed the candy bars from his pocket and put them back where he had gotten them.

He understood that if he had tried to walk out with the candy I would have been on him like stink on shit. A few minutes later they left the shop in a bit of a rush. They scurried past me. I’m sure she was wondering why he was suddenly in a hurry to leave. I have never seen either of them again. I don’t think they live in town.

Here’s the thing; this guy was clearly a seasoned shoplifter. He dressed like a banker. He was stealthy. He was smooth. He’s got slick moves. But I caught him and he knew it. He realized from my demeanor that I was all ready to shame him, to embarrass him, to bust his larcenous ass.

Trump acts like he can take as many candy bars as he wants without ever paying for them. Nobody is calling him on his crap. I think it is time to bust this shameless mofo. The Trumps have been on a looting spree for years. Somebody needs to do something about it. Otherwise he’ll just keep getting bolder.

Oct 12 / Vick Mickunas


October 3, 2019

There’s a feeding station for five of the cats just outside the back door. These cats are a family, the mother, I call her Sweetie, is feral, she has tuxedo markings, and she has stayed around since giving birth to her litter. The only time I have ever touched her was when I had to capture her to take her to the vet after her kittens were weaned. She won’t be having any more kittens. She has never forgiven me for that day two years ago. I enticed her into the tool room where these cats spend the winter months. When I was finally able to grab her after a mad scramble she bit me so deeply through my thick leather gloves that she left a scar.

Sweetie and her four kittens, Junior, Wibbles, Dolly, and Patch, know that at the same time every morning and evening I will be feeding them at their feeding station. They rarely miss a meal, especially Sweetie. She gets all excited when I bring out their dishes. She swirls around expectantly and as I set her dish down she will often lunge forward grazing her whiskers against my hand. That’s as close as I ever come to touching her.

Her kittens are wonderful, affectionate creatures who love to be stroked and petted. I have been handling them and loving them since the day they were born. After the cats have eaten I’ll take up their excess food and put it in the refrigerator. I do not want to attract wildlife with the scent of cat food. They always have a bowl of water out there. It has been quite dry here for months and that bowl of water attracts passing opossums and raccoons. The opossums will lean into the water dish and drink until it is dry. The raccoons will drag the dish around and despite their spurious reputations, that they are clean and wash their hands, in reality they are filthy creatures. They leave muck in the dish. If they get inside the tool room, or heaven forbid, the attic, they befoul the area. They will defecate where they sleep.

I have had to remove raccoons and opossums from the house on a number of occasions. I don’t mind removing the opossums. They scurry about and just want to remain where it is warm and dry and where food is served regularly. Raccoons are a different story. They freak out when you try to remove them. They get really vicious, snapping, snarling, and after I catch them in a live trap they scrabble frantically in their efforts to escape. We drive these creatures to a local forest some distance away and release them.

I don’t worry about opossums harming the cats but the presence of raccoons is worrisome. When raccoons show up I have always assumed the cats avoid them. They let me deal with them. I do worry about the cats fighting with a raccoon. I have always been certain that a raccoon could really hurt my cats. However, as of this morning, I am not so sure of that assumption.

Last night it was hot. October has begun with record shattering 90 degree days. When it is cooler the cats are more likely to want to be inside at night. We have cat doors so they can go in and out. Wibbles, Dolly, and Patch will use the cat doors. Sweetie and Junior will use the cat door to the tool room but they never come inside the other cat doors that could take them inside to beds and food dishes. They are more feral in their behaviors. We have had raccoons and opossums enter through the cat doors and act like they lived here! Last night all the cats were outside. I thought I heard some fighting last night but it subsided quickly so I remained in bed.

This morning all five of the cats who eat at the feeding station outside were waiting for me in the front yard when it was time for breakfast. I got their food ready and opened the back door by their feeding station and was about to call them around for breakfast when I glanced over and noticed a very large raccoon next to the door. There are some small logs stacked there, firewood I am preparing for winter. The raccoon was lying next to a small log with his snout sticking under it. It wasn’t moving. None of the cats had come around to the back of the house yet. They were waiting. They knew how that raccoon got there.

I assumed the raccoon was dead but I needed to be sure. I touched the end of the log that was resting alongside the animal’s face. It didn’t stir. I went inside to put on some gloves. I grabbed the dead raccoon by one back foot and flipped it over. He had his front paws over his face. He had died with his face pressed under the log, his paws over his eyes. He had an expression of utter terror. There wasn’t a mark on him. No cuts. No bites. No claw marks. He was just dead.

I’m trying to imagine what happened? The water dish was full of water so the raccoon had not had time to drink any of it. These cats will kill chipmunks and squirrels and mice and voles but I have never known them to attack anything larger than that. Here was this dead raccoon and it was obvious that he had literally been scared to death!

Why didn’t he run away? Was he surrounded by all these black cats? After all, it is October. Did my sweet little cats encircle him last night and frighten him so badly that he had a heart attack and died of fear with his head burrowed beneath that log?

I removed his carcass and took it out to the bean field for the vultures to have their brunch. When I returned I called the cats and they slowly assembled at the feeding station. Their behavior was unusual. They had returned to the scene of their crime, a murder by fear alone, and this was causing some apprehension. Two of them would not eat. I inspected the four who will allow such a familiarity on my part. There wasn’t a mark on them. No bites. No scratches. Nothing.

This is my October murder mystery. A dead raccoon. Five cats who are not talking. As I am writing this Wibbles is asleep in my lap and Patch and Dolly are sleeping at my feet. Girls, what do you know about this? They continue to ignore me.

Halloween came early this year.

May 2 / Vick Mickunas

Half a lifetime ago

Today is May 2, 2018. 31 years ago on May 2, 1987 I had just finished hosting my late night radio show on KBLE in Des Moines. I was heading home on my bicycle. The streets were quiet and dark. I was riding along the back streets because I wanted to avoid traffic.

When I got to an intersection with a four way stop on Crocker Street I paused then proceeded to pass through the intersection. The street was slightly wet from a light rain that had fallen earlier in the evening. As I went into the intersection a Subaru came flying toward me along Crocker. It went right through the stop sign without stopping.

The driver stopped when he heard his vehicle collide with me. There was an after wedding party happening at a house on the corner. They must have heard the sound of the collision, too. A guy in a pink tuxedo had come out and was trying to prevent me from climbing onto what was left of my bicycle to try to ride away. I kept trying to get back on my bicycle and didn’t seem to understand that it wasn’t in any condition to ride.

I wasn’t heeding this fellow’s requests that I calm down and wait for the ambulance that they had called. Finally this fellow in the pink tuxedo was able to get me down on the ground but I kept trying to get up. At that point he sat on my chest to deter me from trying to rise up again and hop on my bike to ride away. I might have been in shock but I still remember looking up at this fellow who was sitting on me. I might not have been in any condition to ride away but I still recognized him. He had been on my Little League team when we were eight years old.

I looked at him as he was struggling to keep holding me down and I said “hey, you’re Steve Holcomb. We were on the same baseball team, the Senators!” That was back in the days when the Washington Senators still existed. He looked down at me and replied: “WHO, the FUCK, ARE YOU?!”

I don’t remember much more from that night. Apparently the ambulance arrived and took me to the emergency room at Methodist Hospital. By an odd coincidence it was the same place where I had been born. Someone called my mother and she came down. I don’t remember being at the hospital but I apparently never lost consciousness.

Later my mom told me that I kept repeating the same things over and over again. Every couple of minutes I would ask: “what time is it?” And whenever there were medical personnel around I would tell them” “I think I have a subdural hematoma.” I have no recollection of doing that.

There was a resident physician on duty who was doing a residency in plastic surgery. Apparently the ER is a good place for emergency plastic surgery situations to arise. I was one. I have no remembrance of anything that happened at the hospital. I am told that he took lots of photos of my head injury.

I had been scalped. I wasn’t wearing a helmet. The top of my head had collided with the front fender of the Subaru. I was told later on that if I had been wearing a helmet I probably would have broken my neck. Because I wasn’t wearing a helmet the soft fleshy tissue of my scalp and forehead absorbed the impact. I didn’t fracture my skull or get knocked out but the impact had stripped away a large piece of flesh and the flap was hanging down over my forehead. It is no wonder that I wasn’t recognizable to my former teammate in the pink tuxedo. I apparently looked like something from a horror film.

The resident plastic surgeon did the repair on my scalp and they sent me home. The next day I spoke to the doctor on the phone about my surgery and the after care I would require. He seemed very excited. He told me that it had been quite a rare opportunity to do that particular type of plastic surgery. I asked him why it was unusual? He explained that 99% of the time if someone had an injury like that surgery was not done because the person who had sustained that sort of horrific wound was usually already dead.

I consider today to be my 31st birthday. I probably should have died that night. I guess it wasn’t my time? I had been born again. Really. Every day that I have lived since has been a blessing. Extra days. That was half a lifetime ago.

I have always been rather hard headed. If I had been wearing a helmet that night I might have spent the last 31 years in a wheelchair. I didn’t even fracture my skull. But I understand that I put quite a nice dent in his Subaru. With my bare head.