Karmic Pinball by Barbara Richards

     The morning traffic sneaked through Midtown, choking at various points around Grand Central. Alli moved down the street, partially carried by the crowd. It was late spring, an uncommonly warm day. Alli had on a sweater, over a button-up shirt, instead of wearing a coat. Holding a messenger bag, Alli pulled into Starbucks.

     Alli ordered a macchiato and sat at the bar in front of the window. The people passed by on their way to work, school, somewhere.

     Alli pulled her laptop out of her messenger bag and went to work on the budget worksheets. She did not realize when Aspen sat down beside her.

     "Busy, aren't you?" Aspen said, with a tall flat white in her hand.

     Alli looked up, distracted, "Oh, I didn't see you there."

     "Sometimes, I wander in here, on the weekends."

     "I can't believe I have never seen you," Alli laughed.

     "Well, with that kind of focus, you probably wouldn’t have," Aspen joked in return.

     Alli smiled and closed the Dell, "There, now I am giving you my undivided attention." The two watched the constant tableau outside the window for a moment. The light changed, the taxi cabs raced Downtown. People in pea coats, also holding coffees, strode to unknown locations.

     "Tell me about this new woman you’re with," Aspen said.



     Alli tamped down her enthusiasm, " She's an academic – and a great dancer."

     Aspen grinned in return, "Do you think she is the one?"

     "She definitely knows what she's doing," Alli said, "She's confident and has a way with money."

     "So, 'full speed ahead?'" Aspen asked.

     "I think it could really work," Alli nodded.

     "Well, I should really get going," Aspen said, "Kaan is coming in; I need to open up the bookstore."

     "How is Kaan?" Alli wondered.

     "Rambunctious as always. She can't stop getting into trouble on that bike."

     "Stop by my house next weekend," Alli said.

     "Sounds like a plan," Aspen smiled, "Will do!"

     Aspen pulled on her knee-length, single-breasted top coat and sauntered out of the store in her black heels.


     At home, in the high rise, Alli sat on the couch, in her sweater and buttoned-up shirt, waiting for Dallas to get home from NYU's lab, so they could go to a social function at the Yale Club.

     Alli stared at the TV. It was off. Herself, in khakis and Sperry Top-Siders, sat, reflected at her. She got up and looked out the floor-to-ceiling windows. An insect under a glass. Jan and Alli used to catch grasshoppers in the fields and frogs in the creek. Alli remembered staring up at the ceiling, at night, Jan lying beside her.

     The front door opened, and Dallas came in, tossing her keys on the foyer table. "Are you ready, honey?" she called out.

     Alli spun around, "Yes!" she said from the living room.

     "Order the Uber; I'm going to take a quick shower," Dallas said, moving toward the master bedroom.

     Alli pulled her phone out of her pants pocket and opened the app, but her mind was out in the Keys: white sand, Daiquiris. Jan lying on a striped beach towel. "Have I made a mistake?" she thought.

     The last alumni get-together on the rooftop terrace had left Alli with a great deal of anxiety. She was the introverted one, and internally squirmed at being introduced to that faculty member and this research advisor. The elevator ride back down had not been pleasant. "Staring at the skyline, with a drink in your hand, is not socializing!" Dallas had said. Alli briefly considered saying she had a stomach flu.

     Dallas came out of the bathroom in a robe, still toweling her long, blond hair. She caught Alli staring a hole in the wall and said, "If you don't want to go, I can go and be right back. You don't have to go, if you don't want to."


     Alli and Dani met in their usual pho restaurant on Lorimer Street, for two bowls of beef noodle soup, with sriracha and bottles of Perrier.

     “I am being haunted,” Alli said.

     Dani cooled her pho. She was not unused to such sentiments from her friend. Alli had Jupiter in Leo and Scorpio in Pluto, exalted in its house. Dallas was currently overseas on a several-week business trip to Victoria, Australia, and Alli often spoke of an astral tug.

     “Love is like being haunted by another person, even when they are not physically there,” Alli said.

     She had been to a palm reader that afternoon, who had traced her life and love lines. The psychic had said Alli was a shaman, standing with one foot in the spirit world, like the angel in the Book of Revelation: one foot on water and the other foot on dry land. The Tarot card of the Star had come up.

     “It’s not necessarily an unpleasant experience, but it is a strange experience,” Alli said, “Like being in a haunted house as a kid, or a house of mirrors, full of spies."

     “Like aliens and ghosts?” Dani said helpfully.

     “It’s having a psychic link with a living ghost, the astral projection of someone.” Alli said.

     Alli could remember dancing with Dallas under the purple, blue and teal lights of their favorite club in downtown Manhattan, Labyrinth.

     The spirit world was like morning air beyond a gossamer veil, and one could be close enough to fall through the veil, like falling into a pool of water, the Soho talisman collector had said.

     “You could walk down the street and feel her walking behind you?” Dani asked. “In an ethereal sense,” Alli said. They had been together for only a few months before Dallas had left for a remote island retreat off the coast of Tasmania.

     “The tulpa follows me around, down pavements and past alleys,” Alli continued, “I write about it in my poetry night class.”

     “You are on a line, spelunking out into the unknown, dangled out above a dark cave of great depth – like an astronaut, reeled out into space,” the oracle had said, kneading a Buddhist rosary.

     “So, love is a haunting, then?” Dani said, pouring another glass of water.

     Alli was drawn out of her reverie of candlelight and incense, in that closed room, furnished with beaded curtains, “Paintings askew, nightingale song off-kilter, the memory of a discordant note on a grand piano. You feel it all, walking home late at night, from 7-Eleven,” she added.

     Dani stirred the espresso she had ordered for dessert. “‘The body exists only to verify one’s own existence,’” she quoted.


     Kaan jumped the fence, clearing it without snagging her jeans. She ran across the damp, sloppy ground, grass growing and rotting, in its own earth. Old white trainers hitting the dirt, Kaan ran toward the sinking house in front of her. Already, she could hear music, across the way. The empty windows with hanging shutters, were all alit, for Aspen’s birthday party. Inside, around a long table, a dinner party was in full progress, in the rundown kitchen, with the chipped counters. Several bottles of wine, wooden boards stacked with cheese and black olives were heaped for the taking. The kitchen was packed, and the party spilled into the living room, with the sunken floor, rotting rug and dismantled sofa.

     Aspen stood by the fridge – which hadn’t been plugged in during this decade – with Dallas, visiting from out of town. The latter had been a Kiwi for a semester and was regaling the awestruck Aspen with tales of Lord of the Rings rolling hills and eating raw kangaroo in Queensland.

     In a wife beater and a biker jacket, Kaan was out of place among the yuppie elite, ironically squatting in this ancient clapboard house for a night. She unscrewed the Fireball and took a gulp from the bottle.

     Kaan finally made it back outside and lit a cigarette. The air was damp, and the lighter kept going out. Just beyond the shadow of the forgotten house, Dallas was already standing there, taking in the moonlight.

     Kaan shuffled over and sat down on a misshapen rock. “I left someone, back in Midtown,” Dallas said. Mist rose out of the marsh and floated out to the ocean.


     Alli walked down the street; sweltering evening heat radiated off every surface. Steam rose from the underbelly of the city. The sun was a bright light at the bottom of a canyon of skyscrapers, a candle waiting to be extinguished.

     Wiping the sweat off the back of her neck, Alli stopped in Nate’s Papaya Dogs. The yellow and white signage greeted the disinterested, chewing silently, staring, eyes focused on unknown points, hunched over the mica table top counters.

     Nealy clambered up on to the spinning black seat beside her. The waiter wordlessly brought the latecomer a Reuben, with A Thousand Island Dressing, and some fries. “Do you know that they hose out this place at 3 AM?” Nealy asked.

     “No, I didn’t know that,” Alli said.

     Her friend made a swift gesture in Alli’s direction, and the waiter appeared again, this time, with a new cup of espresso. This one was hot; Alli savored the taste of the ground beans. Fresh Arabica coffee, probably sourced in bulk, from Borneo.

     “Thank you,” Alli said, “I see that you come here often.”

     The sun reflected off the aviator sunglasses perched on Nealy’s head, “Order the omelet and flapjacks.”

     “But it’s Nate’s Papaya Hotdogs...” Alli said.

     “Just do it.”

     Alli ordered the food, and the same waiter brought the breakfast out in under five minutes. The omelet was whipped up fresh: American cheese, little cubes of pink ham; the flapjacks, thin and easy to tear, soft and light.

     “How did you know that they could do this?” Alli exclaimed.

     “I pass through here on my way home, from work, late at night, around 2:30 AM,” Nealy said, “I’m here when they start throwing the last customers out.”

     Alli ate silently for a few minutes. The sun’s rays filtered through the diner, touching wrinkles and folds in the diners’ faces, and a hundred crumbs lying on the black and white, checkered floor. Hundreds of feet had worn down the tiles, leaving thousands of soft lines and scuff marks.

     Alli used the flaky pancakes to mop up the savory cheese sauce from the omelet. “I will be right back,” Nealy said. She stepped outside, and lit a cigarette, in the waning, orange light, snaking down the buildings.

     Alli cut the omelet slowly and watched the fry cook in the back hustle around an unseen grill. She could imagine the perspiration bursting from his pores, dampening the white apron, unknowingly running off a contorted brow into the cascade of grease popping on the stove. Nealy returned, mopping her forehead. That afternoon, it had been a hundred degrees in Central Park, a flat, baked, green postcard in the middle of New York City.

     “Do you want to come with me to Shanghai?” Nealy asked.

     Alli put down her napkin, “When?”

     “Two months from now.”

     “How? Why?”

     “Don’t ask why,” Nealy said, “Just say yes.”

     The waiter appeared out of the din and haze, on the other side of the counter, and refilled the espresso. “A cappuccino also, please,” Alli said, wiping her face.

     “It’s for the venture capital firm,” Nealy continued, “but I do not want to go alone. We can eat shark fin soup and fugu, flown in from Japan.”

     “How can you say that?” Alli asked, looking away. She downed the third espresso, in one go. Dallas had broken up with her, via email, just one month ago.


     Waves lapped against the ferry. Alli stood at the railing, taking in the spray, watching the silver ocean. The island in the distance, loomed like a turtle’s shell, materializing out of the mist. The ferry was unusually packed this Sunday. Most people were inside the cabin, enduring the swaying boat. They reached the docks of the island. Main Street stretched into the distance, but most of the land was shrouded in thick, black forest, ancient pines.

     Alli stepped off the boat and headed down the metal ramp. It was a cloudy day in Maine. Around Main Street was the usual assortment of shops: ice cream parlor, Starbucks, arts and crafts cubby hole, record store. Alli walked down the sidewalk, toward the woods and the mountains.

     Once on the trail, she could breathe in the scent of the trees. Early morning frost still hung in the air. Fog circled the peaks. Mushrooms were everywhere in the soggy soil.

     Alli hiked the path. Pine needles dusted the dirt. Squirrels ran through the nettles. She finally looked up and saw where she was headed: a nondescript cabin, with a wisp of smoke rising from the chimney.

     Climbing the stone steps, Alli found herself at the oaken lintel. She lifted the iron knocker, only to let go of it as Kaan yanked open the door. Kaan wore a cashmere sweater and jeans; she ushered Alli in.

     Kaan had made scrambled eggs and toast. She took Alli’s coat. They sat at the table, replete with spindly legs, in the breakfast nook facing the valley. Everything was still; even the birds were quiet.

     They sipped the coffee, inhaling the flowery scent of fresh logs burning in the wood stove.

     “Will you ever move back?” Alli asked.

     “No,” Kaan said.

     Alli looked out the bay window, “You could find a lot of inspiration out here.”

     “I’ve tried to write a novel many times,” Kaan said, “I keep rewriting it.”

     “It’s OK to revise. I imagine the scene here is pretty small though, right?”

     “It is,” Kaan answered, “They do some poetry readings at the arts and crafts store. There is a community college a couple of miles inland.”

     They put on heavy overalls and rubber boots. Kaan drove them out to the small lake, not far from the log cabin. They stood in the water, fly fishing. The clouds hung over the treetops. There were no bites.

     “Do you miss Aspen?” Alli wondered.

     “Do you miss Dallas?” Kaan responded.

     They lapsed back into silence. Kaan reeled in a trout, glimmering in the pale daylight. Kaan pulled out a cast-iron pan and a grill from her truck. They made a fire and sat around it, watching the fish roast, nudging it silently with sticks. Beyond the clouds, the sun began its journey to the other side of the earth.

     “One day, you’re going to have to go back,” Alli said.

     Kaan said nothing. They sat there, into the night, watching the dance of the flames.


     Ran walked out the bar and down the street. She felt the wintry night wind on her neck. She was headed in the direction of Midtown.

     Several cars drove by. Someone stopped at a red light too long, and a taxi cab driver leaned on his horn – even though there were signs everywhere warning commuters not to honk.

     She kicked a beer bottle cap. It ricocheted off a trash can and rattled down the sidewalk, before falling into the gutter.

     A town car pulled up to the curb. One of the tinted passenger windows rolled down and a blond woman poked her head out, "Hey you, where are you going?"

     Ran wiped away her tears, before turning around, "Me? Uh, Williamsburg."

     "Really?" the woman said, "It's that way."

     "Um," Ran stalled, "I'm new to the city."

     The woman laughed, "Get in; I'll show you around."

     Ran shook her head, "I'll pass, thanks."

     "I used to live here," she said, inclining her head, "I just got back. You know what, if you ever want to have fun, here's my card."

     Ran took the business card from her slim, manicured hand, "Thank you. I got lost on the way back to my hotel."

     "Point taken," she said, "Cheer up, OK?"

     The window went back up, and the car pulled away, tail lights disappearing into the night. Ran turned the card over and saw only a name embossed, in bold letters: 'Dallas Pace.' She shrugged, flinging the card behind her. It fell in a puddle and floated over the reflected moon.


     Ran sat at the bar, in a lounge suspended in a glass box, high above Grand Central and the teeming wet streets below. It was raining in New York City. She nursed a glass of bitters and picked at some lint on her cobalt blazer.

     A woman walked by and sat down, one seat away from her. Ran was startled to notice that it was the same blond woman from the town car, a few nights ago. The woman – What was her name? Dallas? - recognized Ran, and waved, coming closer, much to Ran's chagrin.

     She was wearing a knee-length, white dress, with a bright, primary color paint splatter print, and red pumps. "Funny finding you here," Dallas said, balancing her clutch and her drink, a martini.

     "I would say the same to you," Ran said, still surprised.

     "What do you do for a living?" Dallas said.

     "Well, I used to run a surf shop, but my girlfriend got me a marketing job, here in the city," Ran replied.

     "A surf shop, huh?" Dallas stirred her drink, with the olive's toothpick, "That's interesting."

     "It was a small outfit," Ran said, "I love to surf. It was just something I did after college."

     "So, you are a transplant," Dallas said, "What's your girlfriend like?"

     Ran brightened, "She's really kind. We met in the Caribbean."

     "That's something; I just got back from the tropics. Thailand." Dallas mused.

     Ran looked at her, shocked, "Thailand? That's cool. I've never been to Southeast Asia."

     Dallas returned her gaze, "You'd love it: green curry, papaya salads, a booming nightlife."

     Ran shrugged, "Maybe someday. Do you have a girlfriend?"

     "Had a girlfriend," Dallas said, looking back at her drink, "She came back to the states before me."

     "I'm sorry," Ran said, also deflating, "Were you guys living there?"

     "Yes," Dallas responded, "I wanted to continue my research, while still living in that part of the world. I had lived in Australia before. But some relationships can't take being uprooted and moved to the other side of the world."

     "I guess not," Ran also looked ahead of her. The congestion was still heavy on the slick streets. The downpour was only getting worse; someone's umbrella was blown inside-out.

     Dallas glanced at Ran again, "If you closed down a business for this woman, even a small one, it must mean she's important to you, right?"

     "I would say so," Ran took a sip. She mellowed, "Hopefully you can find the one you're looking for."

     Dallas sighed, "I already did; I threw her away."

     The first thunder clap of spring echoed across the skyline. Minuscule rivers ran along the curb and poured into the sewers.


     Ran walked hunched over, under her umbrella – her black leather shoes, and the feet of her gray slacks, getting wet. She turned into Zibetto, and found a seat facing the window.

     She got the cappuccino, blond roast, and a prosciutto panini. Ran opened a nearby newspaper to read. The music in the espresso bar was piping hot Bossa nova jazz, redolent of a faraway, tropical land.

     Alli met her there, bustling through the door, in a black pea coat, hydroplaning across the floor. She ordered a macchiato and sat down next to Ran. They sometimes grabbed lunch together there, when they could.

     Steam rose from her beverage, misting Alli’s glasses, as she took a sip, "Not to talk about exes, but Kaan said she glimpsed Dallas, at the Grand Hyatt, the other day. She must be back from Thailand. I told you about Dallas, didn't I?"

     Ran folded the paper, "Maybe you did, long ago. Remind me again of who she is?"

     "She was an old girlfriend of mine. We went to Fiji together, once. Dallas went to Australia to do a semester of graduate research and I waited for her. She came back, but I never heard from her. She was living with Kaan's former girlfriend Aspen, by the time I found out she was back in the states."

     "I see. That’s horrible!" Ran said, turning on the stool to face her.

     "Dallas was the one who left Kaan to pick up the pieces. I moved on too. Kaan is still not happy about what happened. Aspen never came back."

     "Right," Ran said, “Who does something like that?”

     Ran looked at Alli with concern. She then turned back to the window, the street motley and the view diffracted through hundreds of raindrops. Ran's stomach flip-flopped, as she took a sip of her Sumatran coffee.

     Unperturbed, Alli also looked out the window, before tapping a bleating notification on her phone. "I must get back to the office; I have to get on a conference call. Our accounting department rep had a fall and can't come back after lunch."

     "Yes, no problem," Ran held her hand and Alli squeezed her shoulder. She left a tenner for the meal and was whisked out the door, with the same speed, with which she had entered.

     The streets hadn't cleared, even in the rain. Pizza deliverers for Uber Eats rode by, with pies piled high and lashed down on the backs of their bikes. A bus knelt into the curb and disgorged itself of an afternoon rush hour load of passengers.


     Behind the window pane, Ran thought of the blond at the bar, Was that Dallas? Did I meet the one who hurt Alli? And Kaan?

     Another customer entered, raindrops rolling off a beige wool coat. The gust that followed in his wake threw the ears of her newspaper in disarray. Disconcerted, Ran paid for the food and stepped outside, under the awning. Thin streams of water poured down in front of her. Could that really be Dallas?

     She stepped out into the downpour and hailed a taxi, trying to forget about what she had just heard.


     Ran sat at a wooden table in Galanga. The dying rays of the sun painted the restaurant interior red, on a sunny afternoon in Noho. In a white dress shirt, with the collar unbuttoned, she fanned herself, to ward off the early spring heat, and took a shot of lao khao.

     The Thai eatery was quieter than usual, drifting somewhere between lunch and the evening rush hour. Dallas appeared in an off-the-shoulder blouse and acid-washed jeans, heels clicking on the tile floor. She went right over to Ran, "Good to see you again."

     "I figured you'd might like cuisine like this," Ran said, refilling her glass.

     Dallas sat down and ordered a plate of fish cakes, with bird's eye chili dipping sauce and lime, "How have you been?” she said, “I haven't seen you in a while, not since that night at New York Central, I don't think."

     "No, I've been busy," Ran replied. She offered the rice whiskey bottle to Dallas, who shook her head, "I have a dinner party later tonight. That stuff is strong!"

     Ran glanced at the label, "I wouldn't have guessed. How did you manage this in Thailand?" The fish cakes came to the table, "Well, they eat it with a ton of spicy, sour food, minced pork and grilled prawns - like peanuts or buffalo wings here."

     "Sounds delicious. May I?" Ran reached for a haddock cake.

     "Go right ahead!" Dallas gestured at the plate.

     "What have you been doing in New York, since you got back?"

     "There's this artist I want to sponsor, help her open up a gallery. A small one, here in Downtown."

     "That's nice of you," Ran dipped a second cake in the sauce, "Did you ever hear from your old girlfriend, the one who came back to the states early?"

     "She lives up in Oregon now," Dallas sighed, looking out the window, at the deepening sunset, "She said that her house is near an apple orchard. I thought she sounded happy."

     "Was she the soul mate you said you had met already, and it didn't work out?"

     Dallas shifted in her seat, "No, that was another one. From before."

     Ran refilled her glass, to wash down the salty cakes, "Not to pry, but do you ever think of her? How she is?"

     "Sometimes," Dallas said looking up at a point above Ran's head, "I was wracked with guilt. I just walked away. I guess you could say Aspen, the second woman, was a rebound. I shouldn't have done that. It made sense that I was dumped in Thailand."

     Ran sipped the burning whiskey this time, "If you could make amends, would you?"

     Dallas looked at her, "I am not a strong person. That's why I did what I did."

     The shadows were long, as the sun was eclipsed by the cityscape.

     The plate was almost done; Ran pushed the glass away from her. She placed a few rumpled bills on the tabletop and stood up to go.

     "I met Alli in Florida," Dallas began, "She was such a powerful spirit. I didn't feel like I could be the one for her, even if she was the one for me."

     Ran glanced down, as darkness fell, "Do you feel like you could be there for her today?"

     Dallas looked down, "No, I can barely be there for me."

     "She will heal, like Aspen," Ran said moving around the table, to the door, "But can you heal? Can you avoid that from happening again?"

     The brown bottle of hard liquor glinted in the pale light of the evening. Dallas regarded Ran, "I want to say I am a different person, but honestly, I don't know."

     Ran nodded, "Take care Dallas."

     Outside, she walked several blocks, before lighting a cigarette and exhaling into the sky. Ran sat on a park bench, feeling the night's first breeze, wondering if she had done anything for Alli.