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The Writing Disorder is a quarterly literary journal. We publish exceptional new works of fiction, poetry, nonfiction and art. We also feature interviews with writers and artists, as well as reviews.

Kantu damage

In Quest of Indelible Images:
Re-Discovering the Great Kantu Earthquake of 1923
Through Photo-Archeology

By Paul Garson

 

tokyo earthquake rescue

 

This article is an excerpt form a larger work now in progress, a book titled, Adventures of a Photo-Archeoolgist: Earthquakes, Spies, Forgotten Wars and Lost Worlds.

 

Drop Cap The 5,000 years of human civilization can be viewed as a continuum of indelible images. Enter the proliferation of the camera into the equation, and the images recording more recent history have gained the status of time machines, each photograph capturing an instance of reflected light that came only once into being and then vanished. However, in untold instances those very images themselves have disappeared, yet to be unearthed and then re-examined in an effort to bring into focus pivotal events.

While the evolution of the camera and photography can be traced back to ancient China, untold billions of photos have been taken since the “modern” portable camera appeared in 1888 with the first Kodak. Since then and in addition to the professional photographer serving science and technology, the amateur’s “snapshots” have also provided a wealth of documentation that has chronicled history in the making.

Though not cast in stone or metal, these relatively fragile slips of coated paper, are still in essence, “artifacts” that have survived war and natural disaster over ever increasing periods of time. The role of the photo-archeologist is to search for those that can cast the past in a new and revealing light. It requires diligence, patience and an abiding curiosity to literally spend thousands of hours “digging up” the images from around the globe via the Internet as well as from scouring swap meets, auctions, collector photo events and garage sales ad infinitum. Further effort via computer software is often required to maximize the quality of the images, as well as months of research that takes the photo-archeologist through many a twist and turn investigating rare books, vintage magazines, film documentaries and of course, surfing the Web, in order to thread the images together in a tapestry of some coherence, all in the hopes the final outcome would provide the reader/viewer with the ah!-factor experienced during the adventure of discovery.

In each instance the “dig” begins with a chance meeting with a single photograph be it from an old scrapbook or found as a postcard. Then the hunt is on …. and it may be days, weeks, months, even years before the next thread is found. Following is an excerpt from one such “photo-archeological dig,” all images form the author’s collection.

Like a shard of pottery or glint of a buried relic, it all begins with one fragment, the first piece of the puzzle.

 

* * * * *

The Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923: Portent of Disaster Unheeded, Seeds of a Future War Sown

 

 postcard Japan 22

 

Two Weeks Out at Sea- Ominous First Warning – September 23, 1923                          

A postcard transmitted via U.S. Seapost Transmission from an unidentified cruise ship bound for Japan, Mrs. Gillet has written to a Miss Gertruck Pollack in Los Angeles. Her message reads, “Tomorrow at daylight we will be in Japan. Our wireless is busy telling of terrible earthquake and fire. I’m enjoying every minute, never miss a meal. Best wishes to Fritz and all.”

 

The Next Thread – Original Photo 1923– Passengers aboard the Empress of Australia

 

Empress passengers

 

aboard cruise ship

 

The luxury cruise ship was equipped to accommodate 400 First, 165 Second and 1200 Third Class passengers. All First Class passengers were provided with cabins fitted withbedsteads without the “annoyance” of upper berths. The public rooms were lavishly detailed in Louis XVI motif while the indoor pool was decorated in Pompeian style. These passengers onboard that Saturday, Sept. 1, 1923 would find themselves caught on the very edge of a maelstrom of fire and destruction, the ship entangled and unable to leave its mooring.

 

Empress ship card

 

The Empress of Australia – Hero Ship

An illustration appearing on a 1924 issue trading card found in Wills’s Cigarettes shows the Canadian Pacific Liner Empress of Australia, a survivor of the Yokohama earthquake.

She became the most famous of the ships that served as a sanctuary during the earthquake and fires. At 21,850 tons, the 615 ft. long, 75 ft. wide, the streamlined silver and black steamer was able to save over 2,000 lives thanks to the courage and leadership of its captain, Samuel Robinson. His heroic efforts would see him honored as a Knight Commander of the British Empire as well as the recipient of decorations by Emperor Hirohito of Japan and the King of Siam.

 

* * * * *

Point of Intersection – Where the Images Lead

Since 1871, in a country known for its traditions, at exactly the noon hour, the loud report or don of a cannon being fired from the plaza of Tokyo’s Imperial Palace notified the city’s inhabitants that the day was proceeding normally. On the muggy Saturday morning of September 1, 1923, the muffled “bang” to which the citizenry of the island nation’s capital was long accustomed never sounded. At one minute and 15.4 seconds before the noon hour struck, the Earth beneath Japan literally rose in revolt.

 

damage Asakusa

 

Apocalypse Now

Rather than the remains of Hiroshima or Nagasaki after their destruction by nuclear bombs in August 1945 during the last days of WWII, the vast devestation seen here was visited some 22 years previously upon the thriving Japanese seaport city of Yokohama. The 8.3 level earthquake struck on September 1, 1923 from an epicenter located hundreds of feet beneath Izu Oshima Island in Sagami Bay some 25 miles from Tokyo, seismic waves sent the Honshu island’s Plain of Kanto heaving for at least four minutes and for as many as ten, instantly toppling hundreds of thousands of factories, homes and government buildings and in the process setting aflame the city of mostly wood and rice paper. Seen here is a portion of a panoramic photograph of Yokokama taken some days afterwards as evidenced by the resurrection of the utility poles.

The combination of flame and flood, mud slides and avalanches impacting Yokohama and Tokyo and surrounding areas killed between 105,000-140,000 people and injured tens of thousands more as well as left nearly 2,000,0000 homeless. By comparison the WWII atomic explosions killed an estimated total of 105, 000. The Great Kanto Earthquake as it was called had been accurately predicted, but the warning was ignored to disastrous result. Greater disaster would follow as the destruction of the two cities would indirectly and directly help fan the flames of a global war.

 

1923 color postcard harbor

Aftermath

Amidst the destruction, a cameraman has photographed the remains of the Ryounkaku, one Tokyo’s best known landmarks situated in the Asakusa entertainment district. The 220-foot tall “skyscraper” containing many stores and shops was also known as the “12-Storey” and “Cloud Scraper,” the octagonal brick building designed by British water engineer W.K. Burton under contract to Tokyo authorities. Completed in 1890 it was for many years the tallest building in Japan. From its rooftop one could view all of Tokyo. And from almost anywhere in city you could see it as well. During the earthquake it broke at the eighth floor, the top four floors crumbling, its skeletal shell left standing for months until Japanese army engineers dynamited its remains while clearing the post-quake rubble.

 

Tokyo Lunarscape

In the foreground and distant background the white-cladrescuers comb the debris field, the fires, some 130, having subsided after 40 continuous hours. Some two-thirds of the city felt the effect of the earthquake while fire consumed all of it. Once the embers had cooled, thousands of bodies had to be extricated from the pancaked buildings. Amidst the ruins a lone traffic tower still remains standing, although the streets, partially cleared show, no resumption yet of vehicular traffic.

Some 40 miles to the east of Tokyo, the coastal resort city of Kamakura was also struck by the earthquake, the 13th Century bronze Great Buddha, weighing some 93 tons, slid forward on its base two feet while the surrounding buildings were destroyed, the area’s beach hit by a 20-ft. tsunami that, along with the earthquake and resulting fires, claimed over 2,000 lives. Here the seismic event raised the sea floor and beach some six feet.

 

naval officer and wife

 

Formal Portrait

While the West calculated the year as 1921, the Empire of Japan officially counted it as 2583, time out of joint as it were. The collision of long isolated feudal Japan with the modern world led to more than conflicting clothing styles as evidenced by an officer’s Western influenced Imperial Navy uniform and his bride’s traditional kimono, the latter’s creation requiring the total production of 5,000 silkworms.

 

General McCoy

 

America Sends Disaster Relief with Semi-Disastrous Result
Seen in an original 1923 photograph, Brig. Gen. Frank R. McCoy, who had by chance recently arrived in Japan on leave prior to the earthquake, was then designated to the post of Director General of American Relief. He had his job cut out for him. As a result of the Kanto Earthquake and collateral damage the area suffered estimated damages equivalent to $1 billion.

America mounted an unprecedented relief effort, an exercise of global good will made possible by the combined efforts of the U.S. Navy, Army and Marines bolstered by monetary and material contributions by the American public and business community on a scale never seen before. While their attentions were focused on U.S. citizens (167 killed, many injured among some 500 foreign casualties), the effort aided the Japanese as well through food and supplies and the rebuilding of infrastructure. Through the efforts of the American Red Cross and then U.S. President Calvin Coolidge some $12,000,000 was raised, the monies turned over to the Japanese Red Cross for distribution. One shipment from the west coast of the U.S., among tons of foodstuffs, included nearly 5,000 kimonos.

 

seismologist Immamura

Seismic Seer Unheeded

(Photo courtesy of Kazumi Terada, Immaura’s great-grandaughter)

In 1905 Akitsune Imamura, then 35, a member the Seismology Department at Tokyo Imperial University, and a leading if controversial researcher seeking a means by which to forecast earthquakes, warned against the fragility of the alluvial landfill as well as the susceptibility of the vast number of wooden structures to massive fire damage in the event of an earthquake. Imamura made detailed recommendations to prepare and ameliorate such an eventualityand even virtually pinpointed the location of the next great quake, moreover predicting its time frame. He also was one the first to associate earthquakes as the cause of tsunamis and would build the first “earthquake proof” house. While Japan was well-versed in its seismic vulnerability, his university superior belittled his doomsday forecast and when a local newspaper splashed his warnings in lurid terms, he became a subject of ridicule. His vindication on September 1, 1923 would be a bitter one, two cities destroyed to prove him right. He would survive both the earthquake and WWII and gain wide recognition for his contributions to seismology.

As for the predictions of future disasters, Akitsune Imamura, the vindicated and then much heralded seismologist who had forecast the Great Kanto Earthquake, years later predicted a second major earthquake, one that would be generated near Osaka. He again called for earthquake preparedness, but was ignored for a second time. 1300 peopled died on December 7, 1944 when the quake struck at the point Imamura had predicted, the date coincidental to the day of the Pearl Harbor attack and seen by some Western observers as divine retribution, by others as the human ability to repeatedly ignore the warnings of history.

 

newspaper headline Sept 1923

 

The Front Page of the Louisville, Kentucky The Courier-Journal – Wednesday Morning edition September 5, 1923

The feature article erroneously reported the eruptions of volcanoes 50 miles northwest of Tokyo but accurately as “the greatest earthquake in the history of this country” as well as the 20 foot swells that reached the California coast. Details included concerns over 29 missing Kentuckians then in Japan. At this time Tokyo was still being spelled Tokio in U.S. publications.

 

 

 

BIO

paul garsonPaul Garson is a writer and photographer. He has contributed to many magazines and periodicals, and has published both fiction and nonfiction books as well as written two screenplays that have been produced. He served as a university instructor of composition and writing, as well as a martial arts instructor. His public relations and marketing projects included several for national and multinational companies.

His previous books include Album of the Dead, concerning WWII in Europe, available through Chicago Review Press, and New Images from Nazi Germany available through McFarland & Publishers.

 

 

 

The Art of Joel Nakamura

 

Samurai Dreams

Samurai Dreams

 

Godzilla Rules

Godzilla Rules

 

Tori Ich

Tori Ich

 

Kotegaeshi

Kotegaeshi

 

Gummy Octopus

Gummy Octopus

Denver Museum Sea Turtle

Denver Museum Sea Turtle

Robot Ride

Robot Ride

Dreamy Octopus

Dreamy Octopus

Watermelon Octopus

Watermelon Octopus

THE ARTIST

Award-winning artist Joel Nakamura is known for his unique style: a blend of folk art and sophisticated iconography rendered in a neo-primitive technique. He is known for his numerous commissions, his knowledge of tribal art and mythology, and for his ability to convey stories and information in an intricate and engaging manner.

Nakamura’s talent for rendering humanity with such primal, edgy hues has captured the attention of publications like Time magazine, U.S. News and World Report, and the Los Angeles Times. His paintings have enlivened the pages of many other books and publications, as well as the 2002 Winter Olympics opening and closing ceremonies programs. Nakamura has been profiled in Communication Arts, Step Inside Design, Confetti and Southwest Art magazines. He is proud to be the recipient of over two hundred awards of excellence.

Nakamura splits his time between commercial and fine art projects. His work is in numerous private and corporate collections, including Wynonna Judd, Chick Corea, and U.S. embassies around the world. Nakamura resides in Santa Fe, New Mexico, with his wife Kathleen and children, Paloma and Kai.

View more art by Joel Nakamura

To purchase his work, contact:
Pop Gallery Santa Fe
jonaka@nm.net

 

CURRENT SHOW

La Luz de Jesus Gallery

4633 Hollywood Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90027

Joel Nakamura with Jasmine Worth, Chris B. Murray and William Zdan

June 6 – 29, 2014
Artist Reception: Friday, June 6, 8-11 PM

Seijun Suzuki Nikkatsu

Still the Master – Seijun Suzuki Legendary Filmmaker

by Chris Casey

 

tokyo drifter

Tokyo Drifter, 1966

 

On May 24, 2014, Suzuki Seijun, one of my most favorite filmmakers turned 91. Under typical circumstances, I would have created a status post about Suzuki’s birthday for my Facebook page. However, since the passing of my father, I have found myself to be physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually busy with first one thing then twenty others. Therefore, I have to confess, I simply forgot about Suzuki-sensei’s 91st birthday.

Interestingly enough, though, yesterday was the first time in many, many moons I was actually able to sit down to watch some movies and guess what films I chose to watch? Two classics from none other than birthday boy, Suzuki Seijun, himself! Perhaps, subconsciously I remembered it was his birthday—but, then again, perhaps not. All I know is that there are a fistful of films I call my “comfort movies” (these are films that I can, and do, put on and enjoy anytime, anywhere—but, most especially when I am feeling out of sorts). And among my comfort movies are the Suzuki masterpieces I watched, yesterday: TOKYO NAGAREMONO (TOKYO DRIFTER) and KOROSHI NO RAKUIN (BRANDED TO KILL).

They just don’t make ’em like Suzuki Seijun anymore.

SUZUKI SEIJUN

Undeniably, the most well-known practitioner of Nikkatsu Action eiga (at least in the West) is maverick director Suzuki Seijun. His work for Nikkatsu Studios ranks as some of the most intriguing and visually stunning cinema ever produced, in any country or within any genre. Over the past ten years, an endless number of film journalists, critics, and fans, have written miles of well-deserved rabid reviews, and elegant essays regarding this colorful director’s life and his brilliant work. In most of these articles, Suzuki is likened to “outlaw” directors such as Samuel Fuller, Robert Aldrich, and Jean-Luc Godard. Although, he no doubt shares much with these celebrated auetuers, he is also very much unlike them. With a few exceptions, these other directors worked outside of restricting studio systems. Seijun, on the other hand, boldly made his own artistic statements within the confines of such systems, making him a completely unique, and paradoxical, rebel of conformity.

 

branded to kill 1967

Branded to Kill, 1967

Typically, Suzuki Seijun films are hyperbolic, intense, overtly melodramatic, flamboyant, and frequently just barely within the lines of controlled chaos. However, at the same time, they are subtle, sensual, and highly artistic in execution (though Suzuki, himself, would firmly deny it!). The medium to which Suzuki’s work is most closely related would be the traditional Kabuki style of theatre. Suzuki-sensei’s surrealistic use of color to denote various emotional aspects of the scene, his utilization of sound, his stage-like framing, and the acting style of the performers, often reflect Kabuki–as tempered through an anarchic, cinematic eye.

Suzuki’s works have been frequently referred to as radical (in both the good and bad sense of the word!); and radical they most definitely are. Yet the wild, rebellious nature inherent in his films could be interpreted as a logical extension, or reflection, of the world in which Suzuki grew up.

Born Suzuki Seitaro in May of 1923, Suzuki (and thus his film work) is a product of the tumultuous Taisho period. This period of Japanese history (including the years between 1912 and 1926) was a volatile time of cultural upheavals and political revolutions. These were chaotic–yet, picturesque—days of newly imported, translated, and assimilated, philosophies, literature, and entertainment forms (including silent films) mixing with traditional Japanese ways and viewpoints. This cultural wildness seems to have left an indelible mark on Suzuki’s psyche.

After completing a course at Tokyo Trade School, in 1941, Suzuki attempted to enter the College of the Ministry of Agriculture; but, he failed the entrance exam because he was weak in physics and chemistry. For a brief time he did basically nothing (with the exception of watching numerous films), until he somehow managed to end up in a college at Hirosaki. However, his days as a student were soon cut short.

Suzuki was drafted into service during World War II in 1943. While serving as a Private, second class, he was shipwrecked twice. Sometime after these experiences he was promoted to the rank of Second Lieutenant with the Meterological Corps in the South Pacific.

In 1946, after the War, Suzuki returned to Japan and his studies at Hirosaki. He finished his courses there and attempted to enter the prestigious Tokyo University; but, he failed to win a place there. Trying a new direction altogether, the young film buff, Suzuki, decided to heed the advice of a friend, and enrolled in the Film Department of Kamakura Academy.

In 1948 Suzuki was accepted as a salaried employee at the Shochiku Film Company’s Ofuna Studio. While with Shochiku, he worked mainly as an assistant director. He worked a great deal and learned a lot; however, he was not making very good money. After six years, he decided to transfer to Nikkatsu purely for–he claims–financial reasons.

 

youth of the beast

Youth of the Beast, 1963

At Nikkatsu, Suzuki again worked chiefly as an assistant, though better paid, to many of the studio’s best directors. After proving himself to be a very efficient second unit man, and a very capable scriptwriter, he was finally given the chance to direct features of his own. Still using his real name, Suzuki Seitaro, he began his illustrious career as a full-fledged director in 1956 with a minor-league pop music film. Suzuki quickly became a skilled master of studio-dictated, production line features; however, with each new film assignment he seemed to try a little harder to entertain the audience in a new way and make tired ideas seem fresh.

With the 1958 crime film, “Ankokugai no Bijo” (“Beauty of the Underworld”), Suzuki Seitaro became (and would remain) Suzuki Seijun. Yet, the “Seijun Style” would not truly come to exist until 1963 and the release of three perfect examples of Sensei’s art, “Tantei Jimusho 2-3: Kutabare Akutodomo” (“Detective Bureau 2-3: Go to Hell, Bastards!”), “Yaju no Seishun” (“Youth of the Beast”), and “Kanto Mushuku” (“Kanto Wanderer”).

From 1963-1967, Suzuki Seijun created some of the most amazing pieces of cinema ever screened. Always trying to top himself in an effort to “keep the audience from getting bored,” each successive project seemed to push a little closer in exceeding the limitations of genre, budget, and expectations.

 

Gate of Flesh

Gate of Flesh, 1964

In 1967, Nikkatsu was having some major money problems. Kyusaku Hori, the company president at the time, decided (for who knows what reasons) to make Suzuki the scapegoat for the entire company’s financial woes and fired him for making “incomprehensible” movies that made no money. Kyusaku particularly hated “Koroshi no Rakuin” (“Branded to Kill”), a film that is now regarded as Suzuki’s masterpiece worldwide.

Ignoring all protests from fellow Nikkatsu workers, friends, and student groups, Hori stuck to his decision to dismiss Seijun. Feeling rightfully cheated, Suzuki took an unprecedented step and sued Nikkatsu for wrongful dismissal, a case which the director won three and a half years later. Though he won in the courts, Suzuki was effectively blacklisted by all of the major studios for nearly ten years.

Filling these lean years by directing a few commercials and publishing books of essays, Suzuki constantly sought ways to continue his filmmaking career. In 1980 he joined with independent producer Genjiro Arato and released a new film, “Zigeunerweisen“. The film was a great success with critics, and did well financially despite the fact that it was not allowed to be distributed through normal circuits. In fact, Suzuki and Genjiro distributed the film themselves, exhibiting it via a specially built mobile theatre!

Since that time, Suzuki has directed two more independent works, “Kagero-za” (“mirage Theatre”) and “Yumeji“, as well as one film, “Capone oi ni Naku” (“Capone’s Flood of Tears”), for his former employers, Shochiku. His Nikkatsu films began getting noticed in the West sometime in the mid to late 1980’s with festivals, from Italy to Canada, successfully screening many of his classics. In the ’90s, with the advent of more niche-oriented home video (DVD) and the World Wide Web, Suzuki’s cult of admirers has continued to expand (and deservedly so).

 

bastardshellposter

Detective Bureau 2-3: Go to Hell, Bastards!, 1963

 

Recommended Suzuki Films:

BRANDED TO KILL (Koroshi no Rakuin, 1967)
YOUTH OF THE BEAST (Yaju no Seishun, 1963)
TOKYO DRIFTER (Tokyo Nagaremono, 1966)
KANTO WANDERER (Kanto Mushuku, 1963)
STORY OF A PROSTITUTE (Shunpuden, 1965)
GATE OF FLESH (Nikutai no Mon, 1964)
UNDERWORLD BEAUTY (Ankokugai no Bijo, 1958)
TATTOOED LIFE (Irezumi Ichidai, 1965)
DETECTIVE BUREAU 2-3: GO TO HELL, BASTARDS! (Tantei Jimusho 2-3: Kutabare Akuto-domo, 1963)
THE FLOWER AND THE ANGRY WAVES (Hana to Doto, 1964)

 All titles, with the exception of THE FLOWER AND ANGRY WAVES, have had U.S. DVD releases.

 

BIO

Chris CaseyChris Casey is a musician, writer, film buff, occasional actor, and nagaremono currently residing in Stillwater, Oklahoma, USA. Chris digs: Japanese action cinema of the 1950’s and 1960’s, Spy flicks and TV shows of the 1960’s, Westerns (Spaghetti and American); Film Noir; Hard-Boiled Pulp Fiction; Mods, R&B; Soul, Beat Music, Jazz, Ska, Reggae, Punk, Instrumental Surf Rock, Dashiell Hammett, Carroll John Daly, Raymond Chandler, Mishima Yukio, and much more.

 

 

 

The Art of Margo Herr

I first discovered Margo Herr’s artwork through my friend, Paul Garson. A book he wrote, published in 1973, had a cover designed by Margo. The book, The Great Quill, was his first novel—a science fiction story published by Doubleday. When he decided to publish the book again as an ebook, he wanted to use the same cover art. I did some research and discovered that Margo Herr had designed the covers of dozens of books over the years. I contacted Kate Misset, the woman who runs the Margo Herr website, and received permission to use the artwork again. Below are some more great examples of Margo’s art and design work. She had a definite style all her own, and the work still holds up today. Margo passed away in 2005.

 

Wilson Library 1969

Wilson Library 1969

 

Collective Memory

Collective Memory

 

Last Fall

Last Fall

 

Rimbaud

Rimbaud

 

Man Who Broke The Bank

Man Who Broke The Bank

 

The Great Quill

The Great Quill

 

SHE

SHE

 

Supernatural Cats

Supernatural Cats

 

The Quiet River

The Quiet River

 

The Unholy Bible

The Unholy Bible

 

Myths Rites Symbols

Myths Rites Symbols

 

From Honey To Ashes

From Honey To Ashes

 

Margo Herr focused on forms that were personal metaphors for change and the inner spiritual journey. Her work traces the development of symbolic imagery from early road paintings past standing stones which disintegrate into melon slices which transform into boats. Although her paintings derive from different objects, her work was always a balance of pure abstraction and identifiable subject matter. She didn’t feel she had to choose.

Poised between these two ideas she expressed the mystery of forms that inspired her through the intensity of her painting technique. By repeatedly applying, scraping, and layering paint, gold leaf, metallic oils, and varnishes, Margo released the mysterious inner energy of images, ever seemingly as unchanging as stones. Her study of Carl Gustav Jung led to a fascination with symbolism and iconography that culminated in the depiction of Egyptian sailing vessels that carried the soul from life to death.

Her use of watercolor, collage, and typography in her book jacket designs led to the continual reappearance of these same techniques in her paintings and drawings, epitomized by the joyful exploration of transformations in nature in her flower series.

Margo said, “Nature is the source of everything I desire to make. At its best it is the thing itself (a flower, stone, road, or landscape) made by me—imbued with the extra feelings that I cannot place in the world in any other way.”

by Kate Missett & Tommy Miller

 

BIO

Margo HerrMargo Herr was born in Shaker Heights, Ohio, in 1937 and grew up in the Midwest. She studied painting with Ruben Tam at the Brooklyn Museum School and received her BFA and MFA degrees from Syracuse University.

Her paintings have been exhibited at the Brooke Alexander Gallery, 55 Mercer Street, Smith Barney, C.W. Post College, and Parsons school of Design.

She was an art director at Doubleday & Co., Harper Collins, and Macmillan; designed book jackets for the Beacon Press, E. P. Dutton, Schocken, and time life; and taught at Temple University, Hunter College, Pratt Institute, and Parsons School of Design.

She received grants and awards from the New York Foundation for the Arts, Tyrone Guthrie Centre in Ireland, Yaddo Foundation, American Institute of Graphic Arts, Art Directors Club of New York, and Society of Illustrators.

She died in New York in 2005.

 

SEE MORE WORK BY MARGO HERR

 

 

Ruth Berger author

Rumplestiltskin-Rumplestiltskin-Rumplestiltskin.

by Ruth Gila Berger

 

Drop Cap To change: to make the form, nature, content, future course, etc., of something different from what it is or from what it would be if left alone. To transform or convert. Change implies making either an essential difference often amounting to a loss of original identity or a substitution of one thing for another.

  *  *  *

A spiderweb riddled with raindrops is shaken by a passing cat and shaken again. Can that path of water be traced? Water slides along the threads and is flung back to its original position. Did it change? Did the cat impart some fundamental influence on how the light then hits and reveals a perfect geometry? Did the cat change its future? Such a web is one of the most dazzling things to see, always, always unexpected and alarming.

   *  *  *

If you go to treatment for chemical dependency, which I did, they will tell you that changes made for another person are inherently fragile, not lasting. Soon fraught with resentment they boomerang. On a basic level this is a view with which I agree. Yet. To answer the question, how has knowing Christi changed me? Because her experience casts light on mine, and through that prism, so much blue churns. The cadmium answers. And what I see is that I want to change how I relate, not just to Christi, but to other people in my life. Knowing exactly where or how that interpersonal weave has shifted, knowing exactly when I turned around to catch and repair any given stitch is hard to trace. Right now the change in me is about many conversations I would have never previously even imagined having.

   *  *  *

I was, I am, the girl who loves dandelions. Their silver streaks across my history and I need to gather at least one strand from every plant in the yard. Momma had a baby and her head popped off. Each flower flies off, a different vision. I wish I could cut the memories as easily a that stalk-severing snap. But they always come back. The most obvious reevaluation of my relationship with my mother was prompted by the fact that Christi’s died when she was fifteen. That loss shines light on value, that no matter what my relationship with my mother was, it is a living, breathing thing that could grow and change.

   *  *  *

Do you know where you’re goin to? Do you like the things that life is showing you? Where are you goin to? Do you know? Do you get what you’re hopin for when you look behind you, there’s no open doors what are you hopin for? Do you know?

   *  *  *

The first time Christi met my parents was in July; we’d been dating since February. It was during this visit I realized I was no longer a fly caught in amber, unable to move or change and it was during this visit I would realize just how much I had changed.

For my parents’ visit, I engineered around obstacles. There would be no awkward moment at the airport; I had my parents book a rental car; they’d need it regardless. And because I wanted this to be a new start, I tried to give Christi a different set of stories, to show her something other than the trashy set of teacups I have always hauled out to put on display, chipped, cracked and gritty. I worked hard to tell her about happy times. Almost all my stories took place within the grease stained walls of my parents’ kitchen. We were a food-obsessed family, with my dad’s Crohn’s so many things had to be avoided. I grew up reading ingredient lists. Bread should be flour, water, salt and yeast.

I told Christi about how I started to cook before I started school. My parents got me a kid’s cookbook, Look I can Cook! It had goofy illustrations. My favorite thing was Crocque Monsieurs, grilled ham and cheese. From there I went on to make my own recipes.

What they had to eat,” I said. “I loved candles and made them eat by candlelight. Pissed my dad off in such a big way. He liked to see. I don’t know. They were really kind of extraordinary. Like I used to sing them these operas I made up—that they listened more than once is astounding. Jesus. My mom drove me to ballet like every other day. She hated driving but I don’t remember her ever yelling at me about it. You know, that she was doing something I should be grateful for? The lists of things, I take you everywhere, I get you everything, all that. I mean there was all this generosity. And I didn’t do anything to deserve it, not really.”

“My parents took me to swimming twice a day,” Christi interrupted me.

“Yeah, your dad said you could quit at any time.”

Christi nodded.

“Wow. You remember I told you that? All I know is if I were my dad, I would’ve been angry,” she said.

“My parents were really pretty great,” I said. “They even went to see a speed metal band. It was right after high school. My boyfriend played the bass. You should’ve seen them dancing. I mean I wasn’t embarrassed, not exactly. But oye, remember the Cosby Show, second season, the opening sequence? My dad was kinda like that. Only he wasn’t Bill Cosby. It was a moment for them and me. I want you to love them. You know? Not to enter it all accusations. I mean. Nevermind. At this point there really aren’t those accusations to make.”

The week before my parents were set to visit Christi called me at work. An accident. She’d gotten McDonald’s and was chasing a fry, those last ones in the bag under the napkins after she’d finished the red thing of them and didn’t see the Suburban in front of her stop before it was too late. Her CRV was smashed.

“He didn’t even have a dent,” she told me. “Jackass came out all whiny and screaming at me. It was stop and go traffic. At the fastest I was going was under twenty. Bubbles whole front needs rebuilding. Vina will do it, he won’t even charge me for rent since I can’t pay all of it but how am I going to get the money, two thousand dollars?”

Later that night Christi buried her head under the covers.

“What am I going to do without a car. There’s no bus to the studio. To where I work. I can’t take the bus anyway. I have a mental illness. Everyone on there is crazy during the day. Crazy people make me more crazy. All the shouting,” Christi wailed. “Shit I need the car for Matt. What am I going to do?”

I stared at Christi. I’d recently met Matt. He was sweet. A friend of hers who’d found himself with a cancerous tumor in his brain. He’d tried for bright and bubbly that day but he was sick, broke and uninsured, a bulb on the fritz. He’d answered the door and his white Pomeranian mini did a NASCAR on the rung when we entered the foyer. Matt quickly led us to the living room where he could sit down again. They went over what he needed from the store and when his appointments were that week. Before we left he handed Christi two large bags of pills. Vicodin, Percocet, Oxycontin. He had a refillable prescription for all three but felt more sick when he took them. Christi, being darkly connected, sold them with interest and gave him the money. With this arrangement he paid rent and didn’t bounce the check he wrote for cable and electricity.

The last time pills were easy for me was when I was in India with its newspaper kiosk pharmacies. Open air, a counter on the street. Just memorize the generics a friend had advised me. That stash was years gone.

Happily I helped Christi take her tithe of freebies. Like fine sandpaperI’ve long loved pills—they smooth all edges, chemical hands that shape the world, make it clay, squished down in size. They cut the worst off the menstrual cramps that doubled me often enough when standing on line at the post office. They allowed me to stand straight those days.

“Honey,” I said. “It’ll be okay. Really. We’ll share my car. You’ll have me to drive to work everyday, pick me up. That’ll be pain but you can deal with it. I have a coffee maker. You can save at least $56 a week that way. We’ll figure it out. Don’t worry.”

“What if my coffee sucks. You’ll hate me,” Christi said.

“Just make it stronger,” I said.

“Your parents’ll hate me. Crazy moocher lesbian on disability, Jesus. Your parents will hate me and I’ll lose my mistress,” she said.

“More like you’ll be disgusted at how I am with my parents and want nothing further to do with me. Like one of the early times Craig was with me we were saying goodbye to my mom at the airport. She hugged me and kissed my neck. I actually threw her off of me. I have no idea what I said but she just stood there whispering just a hug, just a hug. Am I any better now? I can’t say.”

This time it was Christi who reached to comfort me.

   *  *  *

Stories have a way of changing, their bones grow or shrink from loss of calcium. What was once solid now shows up in x-rays as a disturbing lace. The story of what we’d forever refer to as my moment on the stairs doesn’t. There might be a few previously forgotten details but the colors stay the same.

I had asked my parents to visit for four days but they scheduled to fly in for six. The explosion came exactly as I was loath to predict, on the fifth day of their visit. Up to this point things between us have gone swimmingly. Christi’s studio, restaurants, conversation. There were no presumptuous digs about my last relationship—my ex in comparison with Christi. Perhaps I had a few small sores in my mouth from where I’d worried the sides of my cheeks. Perhaps I had started to dig my nails into the palms of my hands. But my patience was a frozen lake, smooth, no cracks. My mother regaled Christi with her knowledge of artists and art history, her theories about this or that painting, eyes sparking, thrilled to finally have an audience who sat close to me. And although Christi would later confess to feelings of inadequacy next to the collective intellect of my family, her dimples populated a galaxy as she told my parents stories. Together the four of us went to Christi’s apartment to meet her roommate Howard and their animals. My parents’ skin glowed in the bright inclusion. Christi beamed. Grudgingly, chafing, I conceded the invisible concrete I moved in was awkward and unnecessary. Although each night we agreed Christi should go home, we kissed, caved, and she stayed. Sunday I planned our dinner for Monday. I’d have to get up early to marinate the steak and prepare the tomatoes for slow-roasting before I went to work.

In the car that morning I instructed Christi to make sure my dad started the grill before she left to get me so I could run upstairs, change, and do the rest of the cooking. Risotto with shrimp, shallots, basil, red pepper flakes and the tomatoes. An Argentinean parmesan cheese.

“Yummy,” Christi smiled at me.

A chill waltzed the sweat on my body and I turned to her, goose-pimply.

“The last time I cooked for them was a disaster. A total fucking disaster,” I said. “I forget what I was making but it had zucchini and the zucchini ruined everything. It was so bitter I spit it out. Like actually spit it at the table. Was so disgusting. But my mother had to do her whole fucking martyr thing and keep eating.”

“Sweetie,” Christi plied me. “You’re twitching.”

“Not!” I said.

My blood had turned to bees. The reflection of my face shimmered in the dirty window.

What is wrong with me?

At five o’clock prompt Christ was there to pick me up.

“How was work?” she asked.

I shrugged. When we got home the sky put on a crayon-box evening. The weather wasn’t too hot, it was lovely. My parents were waiting. Their scattered things for a second added extra teeth to wrap my mouth around, my mother’s balled up socks on the rug, two extra shirts on the couch, made it hard to breathe. Pages of the New York Times were everywhere. My mother blocked the stairs so I had to hug her or tell her to get out of the way.

“Excuse me,” I said, ducking roughly.

Once in the bathroom—the tweezers, the mirror—I search for black hairs that need plucking. Grudges, I name them and celebrate the audible catch and slide of their release. On my finger the root of one chin hair has a coat of skin—taste it—almost to my lips before I shudder and wash it away. What if someone were watching? Changed, in fresh make-up, I returned to the kitchen.

“How’s things at Books Consort-e-um?” My mother asked me.

I feel Christi’s eyes. They are soft, dusting me. She knows this needles, my mother’s renaming everything I share.

It’s not totally off base, Christi has told me. Everyone has trouble with names. Like she can’t remember so she goes by association. You work in books, there’s a word, Consortium. Books Consortium. It makes sense, okay?

“Great. Did I tell you I got an office? I finally moved into a real office. It’s pink. Really, really pink. Everyone comments on that, the cognitive dissonance, even people who don’t know me, that it seems a strange color. For me, I mean. Office conversation. Anyway things are great. Busy, everyone’s excited about the catalog this season. We’ve got what’ll probably be the last Kurt Vonnegut,” I said.

Quickly I chopped onions to get the risotto going. Olive oil, toss with rice, chicken broth and simmering. My mother stood behind me.

“Can I help?” she asked.

“No. I’ve got everything. Sit with dad, enjoy. Want a glass of wine?” I smiled. “Christi, I forgot about wine. To ask you. All I’ve got is the cooking. Did you get any?”

Christi’s dismay stormed quickly.

“No, no, no, baby, don’t worry. Not your fault. I wasn’t thinking. You were busy. It’s okay,” I said.

Fussing with the rice, I addressed my mother still behind me, kitchen conversation.

“Risotto’s tricky. You have to time it just right. You want it to need a bite but not be crunchy. Should be creamy,” my voice trailed and stalled after the word creamy as I watched her stiffen and pale.

“Otherwise the texture is wrong, gooey,” I said.

“You didn’t use cream, did you? Your dad can’t eat cream. Charlie can’t digest milk sugars,” she said.

I shook my head.

“No cream. Of course not. Dad can’t eat dairy. I know. Jesus. I know that. What I meant was extra starch dissolves and makes the risotto creamy. It’s a word, ma, creamy,” I say. “Jesus. Relax. Go sit. Really. Talk to dad. Enjoy. I do things faster anyway.”

She ignored my plea but shuffled a little out of the way. She looked so small. I wanted to make her happy.

“Honestly. You can do the dishes,” I laughed. “If you absolutely need to do something.”

For a few minutes the silence was companionable. The rice burbled upon a dash of wine. Smiling I caught Christi’s eye—our check-in—everything was fine.

“Music?” she asked. “Anything?”

“Um huh, the, you know, jazz with the guy. Whoo,” I said.

She got my meaning. A CD we bought on a date—soothing, the memory of a perfect evening. My mom looked at me, uncomprehending.

“Nothing.”

Christi launched into the story. I shook my head slightly.

Ignoring me, Christi bent to my mother.

“We bought a CD at a concert we went to, on a date. A jazz place,” she explained.

The court jester, the bard, the clown, Christi-blue crazy eyes. A born storyteller, my lover, who wants to include everybody, she doesn’t understand my saying nothing and continued in her opportunity. Her phone rang. She held a hand over it and pointed upstairs. I nodded and she left me with my family. Later Christi would tell me she spent most of the conversation trying to get off the phone because she heard me yelling.

In a dance around my kitchen I slid, dipped to grab the grater and turned to get my cheese, mom behind me. Her voice was bleaty, tentacles shivering.

“What are you doing?” she asked.

“Grating cheese,” I said.

“You’re not going to put that on anything, are you?” she asked.

“No, it’s staying in this bowl,” I said.

“Because.”

“Dad has Crohn’s,” I interrupted. “I know. This is for you, me, and Christi.”

My mother hasn’t stopped her conversation.

“He’ll get very sick. He has Crohn’s disease and Celiac Sprue,” she continues.

“Yes ma. No wheat, no dairy. I know. No dairy. For over thirty years,” I say.

She continues gathering speed. I lose track of the back and forth of what gets said. The conversation loops and repeats.

“He can’t,” she says.

“Ma, I know, okay? The cheese is NOT going in anything. Back off,” I say.

Her mouth keeps moving. It is a flying train.

I turn.

There is no present tense, my age now, irrelevant. The years between five, ten, fifteen, twenty-five, thirty-four vanish. We’ve passed that one second where the entirety of my life flies at me, every grievance, all the pick-peck-picking, time backwards, a storm of nails take shreds away my skin and plays bass on my veins. I’m muscle, raw skeleton, vibrating, vibrating. The room holds still a second before I explode.

“You think I’m going to poison my dad? You think I’m some stranger and I need to be told?” I say.

My mother backs away.

“I can’t believe you’re still going on. He’s not in here, worried. What the hell are you doing? I know ABOUT the CHEESE, okay? I can’t believe this,” I say.

Then high decibel, “I WAS THERE MA! Who do you think you’re talking to? I mean. You’re amazing. You really are. I was there. It wasn’t just you. That was my life too. That’s why the cheese in here in a fucking bowl. Do you see that?”

I thrust the bowl towards her face.

“Okay, so you say it once. That’s going to stay separate, right? And I say yes. That’s fine. You worry. Fine. But you gotta stand on top of me and push and push and push. Like I’m going to poison my father? Fuck you. The reason I’m even grating the fucking cheese is for you, a treat, because I know you don’t buy it, like it’s going to contaminate his food through the fucking air. Or maybe you don’t want to make him jealous. Whatever. I don’t care. I was there when he stopped eating cheese. It was like when I had surgery. I was five okay? But no. You’re the only person who could possibly have a memory. His being sick is the story of my whole fucking life, okay? But you know what? Fuck you. You’re RIGHT. It was only you. You know what? I can’t be here,” I say.

“You mean you’re not going to eat your beautiful meal?” my mother asks me.

“No, ma. Your deal,” I say.

She steps closer and reaches towards me.

“Then I won’t eat it either,” she says.

I yank my arms away from her.

“Get out of my way,” I hiss through clenched teeth.

The impulse to grab and shove her dies. My spine is a slinky, melting, it won’t hold me up. I soften, barely whisper.

“Please. Trust me. It’s better that way,” I say.

I start to leave but turn and dash up the stairs where Christi stands momentarily frozen. She catches me.

“I’m here. It’s okay. You’re okay. I’m here,” she says, squeezing me.

My dad finally enters the fray.

“Where are you going?” he asks.

Like a teenager, I shout back, “Out. I. Don’t. Know.”

His tone stays even.

“When will you be back?” he asks.

“Late,” I say, less extreme.

Blinking, Christi steers me. At the driveway she raises her eyebrows. I snap my head away.

“Mexican?” she asks.

“I’m not hungry,” I say.

“Whatever. Margaritas?” she asks.

I nod, now crying.

“Damnit. I’m so sorry. That was exactly, I knew, I didn’t want it to be this way. It’s like everything just goes white. I’m sorry it’s so ugly. I didn’t want. We were doing so great, you know? I really,” I say.

Christi’s hand is large and strong against my leg.

“Honey, it’s okay. There’s history,” she says. “I understand. Taco Morelos?”

I drop my head back so my face is flat below the car ceiling.

“You know the funny thing?” I ask. “I mean you heard me last week. I called her to apologize—right speech, you know?—for all my screaming and cursing. What did I say? That it was disrespectful and she did nothing to deserve it? Shit. Nothing. So what does it take? Nothing. I’m right back where I started,” I say.

We sit at our usual table and order, Enchiladas Suiza and the steak with bacon and jalapenos. Supersize jumbo margaritas. A Mexican game show is playing. Bright and shiny. I get lost in it until we get our drinks. Everything is incredibly large and incredibly far away. I pick up a chip, turn it over and replace it. For a second I’m surprised my feet don’t swing above the floor. Still big. Christi drinks. Nudges a glass towards me.

“Do we have any?” I ask.
Red-red lips expel their straw.

“Phew. Thought you’d never ask me,” she says, passing me a Vicodin.

I crack then swallow the pill in two pieces.

“Better this way,” I say. “Like I would deliberately poison him?”

Christi cocks her head at me.

“I don’t think that’s what she meant,” she says.

Her voice and tequila dance seductive beneath my skin. Microscopic springs release by the thousands.

Rattlesnakes under my skin. My blood is whirring.

“You’re changing the topic,” Christi tells me.

“I didn’t say anything,” I say.

Sheepdog. I need a sheepdog in my head. Keep it together, focus.

“Whatever. You want my take?” she asks.

I nod.

“At the studio the other day. Did you notice how we didn’t really have a conversation?” Christi asks.

“We were talking,” I say.

“Yes but. It was like everything your mom said was about her. We’d look at my painting and somehow I’d never get a word in. Somehow it was very dramatic, When I look at my work, I’m sure you understand. I’m not always sure what I’m trying to communicate. I see things abstractedly. I’ve been studying clouds and planets. What I paint doesn’t necessarily look like a cloud or a planet. Sometimes I spend weeks trying to get one image because of the light, you know how that is. Most people say something, like, I like your painting. Or That’s cool. At the very least, The colors are pretty. How long you’ve been painting? maybe—compliments are nice, you know, even if they’re lying. I think she said Palmer’s one painting was interesting.”

I spill salsa on the menu.

“Which means she doesn’t like it,” I say. “I hate that. It’s so obvious. And now I use it, when I don’t know what to say. It’s interesting.”

Christi’s face goes hound.

“You say that to me,” she says, quietly.

“Well sometimes it is. Interesting. Like there’s a story. Jesus, baby. You know I won’t like everything.”

“What don’t you like?” she asks.

“The octopus Hand of God painting. Besides, if my reaction was always the same it wouldn’t be worth anything. Oh shit. Christi-blue,” I say, food back up my throat.

The waiter comes.

“How’s everything?”

I gulp. Christi is chewing.

“Great,” I say.

“Another drink?” he asks.

We nod, in harmony. He leaves. I wave a chip at Christi.

“So. You were saying?” I ask.

“I was saying. Rah. Even if I was, I wouldn’t be anyway. I don’t know, like, it was strange. I mean I get what you’ve been saying. Your dad’d try to say something and she’d interrupt back to her work again. He wasn’t much better, only with him it was all official sounding. His interpretation of the models, what was it? That he took a narcissistic pleasure in being painted. That she was. . . I forget. You know, those studies I did at Atelier. Nothing like I like the way you use color, or line, or shadow, any of the usual shit. Rah. Jesus. A narcissistic pleasure. If Josie was there she’d be like oh yeah? Think you’re so smart. You think you know everything. And even, even if you did, you don’t anyway. Narsa-sa-sis-DIC. So? I know. Think you’re so smart using big words. Yeah, well, I know big words too! Nars-dic,” she says.

I giggle and cheer, “Go Josie! Go monkeys!”

Christi takes another drink. Shakes her finger at me. Tries not to laugh.

“Monkeys.Really. Don’t encourage them!” She scolds me. “But sweetie, it was strange. Like it was all about him. Not that it wasn’t sweet, in a way. I mean he wasn’t showing off—he was serious. Nobody gets all serious about my shit like that. Just made me feel kinda stupid, you know. But I don’t know. Your parents are awesome. They bought a drawing.”

In her pause, we both look down and drink. Our margaritas are big. Christi continues.

“Then there was all that I’m sure Ruth can tell you it wasn’t easy, growing up with me. Maybe she was baiting you, but almost like showing off. At the studio was really, really strange. You know how babies are like all-about-me? She’s kinda the same way. Otherwise she’s not there. Blind, maybe? Like she can’t make that leap,” Christi says. “You need to stop explaining. It doesn’t matter what tiny pieces you break it into. It’s not simple and she doesn’t understand.”

“It’s, it’s, it’s just, I mean fuck her. Like his being sick wasn’t my fucking life? It’s funny how you learn how things in your family might have been a little different. Like my ex made this huge deal about farting. She said she never did and then she called it fluffing. That made me crazy. Like are you seven? A Victorian lady? You have a body. Everyone farts okay? Her ignorance was stunning. That you had shit in you from years ago and that’s why a yogi who stopped eating kept shitting. This was the reason for colonics. I think she learned that from her ex girlfriend. Eating disorder one might say. When I explained that intestine’s lining sloughs off a healthy person around every seventy-two hours and the bacteria in your gut keep digesting themselves, regardless, she didn’t believe me. I think I left rather than continuing the conversation. I mean of all the fucked up fights, that was the one I walked out the middle of. I’m sorry. I don’t need to be talking about her. Was just I realized a lot alone that night. That growing up the sound of my dad passing gas in his sleep was comforting. It meant he was alive. It wasn’t the soundtrack of him retching or on the toilet in pain. I don’t mean to be disgusting or reveal anything but that’s Crohn’s disease. It was always so extreme, like he could die each time. I’d get home and the fridge would be full of Jell-O and I’d know he was sick. As a kid I was afraid of red light. Like I’d shut my eyes at exit signs and had to move my bedroom because the bridge reflection was paralyzing. Brake light river jiggle. I never put it together, that was red Jell-O, the way it held the light. But you’re not kidding about psychobabble. It’s a second language. I was fluent at five. Defense mechanisms. You’re acting like your mother. Baby Freud. With a twat. How’d you think Freud would like that?” I ask.

Christi waves her straw at me.

“You didn’t let me finish,” she says.

“Sorry,” I say, shrinking.

I suck down my drink. Christi catches and holds my eyes before she starts talking.

“Dzzt. That’s not what I meant. Listen to me. Here’s the thing. You could bang your head against the same wall the rest of your life. What your mom understands is that you’re upset. She’s said something and you’re upset. And given her face, I know she wants to make it right.”

“She’s been apologizing my entire fucking life. It’s great. Nothing changes. Don’t mean shit,” I say.

I shove the chips for emphasis.

“But it does. Now it does. Because that is what she is capable of. What she can give. So it means a lot. To her. To apologize. Which means you can choose to give her the opportunity. You have to plan what you say. You tell her she hurt your feelings and you want an apology. That you didn’t mean to start screaming and you apologize. Nothing more than that. Don’t go into what was said. Don’t get into the why,” Christi says. “You need to practice what you’ll say.”

The Corona bottle filled with salt becomes my microphone.

“So scripted. Hehhem, mom, you hurt my feelings and I want an apology?” I ask.

Christi narrows her eyes.

“And,” she says.

My swallow goes down the wrong pipe and I sputter margarita. Christi squints again.

“And I’m sorry,” she finishes for me.

Suddenly my hands fascinate me. I talk through clay. My voice is tiny.

“And I’m sorry I yelled at you and I shouldn’t have stormed out. I mean I’m not sixteen there’s no reason I should behave that way. You don’t deserve any of it,” I say.

Red-red lips. Firefly dimples flash-flash.

“Exactly. Except I forgot and cursed at you. Ready?” she asks.

“I guess,” I say.

The waiter drops the check and takes our plates.

When did we eat?

Christi pays. We are silent three blocks. At Lake Street I gulp loudly. Christi pets my leg. Once home I follow Christi up the stairs, realize I left my phone in my purse, head back down, and am then trapped by my mother on the stairs. She’s sniffling, she babbles.

“I’m sorry I’m such a horrible person that you can’t even be in the same house,” she says.

I interrupt, “Mom. Stop.”

“That you can’t even eat with,” she continues.
“Stop. Mom, Mom. Stop, okay? Just shut up. Please,” I say.

She doesn’t hear me.

“I know you grew up with, it was difficult, there were deficits.”

This time I interrupt her shouting.

“Shut up. Just shut the fuck up. You don’t get to rehash this idea you have of my life. It’s not. Just not this time,” I pause. Inhale, exhale.

“Look. It’s really simple. You hurt my feelings, I over-reacted and I’m sorry I was shitty,” I say.

My mom takes a breath to speak. I can see her thoughts beneath her forehead lines. Her same words are orange in her throat. They radiate. I cut her off before she can repeat the scene.

“Okay. Now you say Ruth I’m sorry I hurt your feelings. Then I say thank you. End of conversation.”

The evening’s soft purple is swallowed by a darkening gray. The circles under my mother’s eyes absorb our silence and deepen. We have the same hairline, the same shape head. She takes a new now shaky breath.

“Ruth, I’m sorry I hurt your feelings.”

“Thank you. I’m sorry too. I love you mom. Good night.”

One of my cats chases a rabbit-fur mousie with a rattle. We watch him careen around the landing.

My mom starts again.

“I’m so glad,” she says.

An ambulance screams by.

“I’m so glad,” she continues.

This time I cut her off.

“No, you don’t get to do your unworthy martyr bullshit,” I smile—it’s a little forced. “Okay? I love you. You know that.”

A moment goes by.

“’Night mom, I love you, okay?” I say.

I hug her quick and jump away. My dry skin turns hot, cracks like asphalt. Once up the stairs, I collapse into Christi. She pulls me in and kisses my forehead, whispers.

“I’m proud of you sweetie. You did great. Maybe screaming shut the fuck up wasn’t exactly what I was thinking. But you did great.”

We take out contacts and brush our teeth. By rote and routine. Christi whines as I floss.

“You take too long,” she says.

We pee, don pajamas and climb into bed.

Do I realize with this evening my life is changed entirely?

Years later my therapist will tell me, “There is touch that hurts and there is touch that heals. Touch that heals is what you have with Christi.”

   *  *  *

This conversation is a cat bounding through cobwebs, the water that glistened on it now flung against black fur drying fast. That silk is undeniably changed. But can the spider now revise and reweave or does she mourn the loss of food she had caught? It was only after years with Christi that I could conceive of that silk thread to build.

For the most part the conversations I have had with my mother were about impersonal things, slightly above weather level diversions. When I look back for answers as to why, why we were not close there is nothing but blank light hurting my brain. My grievances are first world problems, inadequate details of a privileged life, unreasonable and petty. They feel like squawky justifications. So I was a bullied child, miserable at a regimented private school where they wouldn’t let me read or advance, wahn. So my crying was ignored every day. That doesn’t fully explain it. I was clothed, fed, taken to every kind of lesson, schlepped to friends’, given money, given everything. There was never any violence.

   *  *  *

I am not able to resolve how my mother fits into my sexual memory. The rundown on abusive behaviors. Did she penetrate me with objects? No. Perform oral sex? No. Have me service her? No, I know that didn’t happen. Did she masturbate me? No. But then there is a gray area and I have this weird sense of suggestion, that a suggestion was made to me. A suggestion made by Ray that my mother was the same, that they felt the same about me, a sexual feeling. I have no real memory, just that revulsion; it leadens my bones, houses rattlesnakes under my skin. I have images, frozen moments of space, images of his summer place with its monstrous exposed ceiling beams, bright pillows on the couch, wallpaper that was Victorian advertising and the smell of quiche. Just the sense there was something sexual, about me, something dirty.

   *  *  *

The bath is where I learned to masturbate myself.

Three, four, five, six, I don’t know. Each time I think I’ve got my age pinned down, someone tells me a story they assert was from an earlier time than I thought it did. What I remember. It was a singing feeling up in that hole. Like drinking cider that had turned, undiscovered. From an early age I masturbated often. My parents’ tub had the faucet in the middle on the wall. I put my knees up and my fists under my butt to get it closer to the spigot. My mother came in once and caught me. She laughed.

Doesn’t that feel good. And. It’s important to keep oneself so clean. One’s vagina clean.

And in the bath with me, her stomach a disgusting jiggled planet above the spread purple and floating hairs.

There was another game I played. I had shiny plastic bracelets, bangles. Primary colors, also, pink, purple, aqua and green.

Called them ginnee-rings.

Dimpled knees, scarless hands, I’d stand and wrap my vaginal lips around one, shaking my hips till it fell, and shuddering I plopped back to the water. A little later, I had to be younger than seven, I peed in the diaphragm she left on the bathtub ledge, got out and dumped it out in the toilet. I remember thinking that was also a game to see if I could get there without spilling. It took me years to put together why as a child I hated her singing in the morning.

Bop-dee-be-bop-bum-bum-de-de.

She was too cheerful. Horribly off key. Bouncing, trilling, animal, announcing happy, she had just got laid.

Abusive, not abusive. Neither statement feels completely honest. It is more that I feel used.

   *  *  *

You’ve spun their guilt into gold. Rumplestiltskin-Rumplestiltskin-Rumplestiltskin. You don’t love them.

   *  *  *

Finding peace with memory is a children’s treasure hunt in a grass-overgrown alley. The glint and momentary flash turns out to be one earring missing its stone. A slightly corroded diary key. Half a ripped love letter that has miraculously survived the elements, a perfect plastic rose. I try to keep these pieces close to me, to hold them tight, but it is hard, hard, hard.

   *  *  *

Do you know where you’re goin to? Do you like the things that life is showing you? Where are you goin to? Do you know? Do you get what you’re hopin for when you look behind you, there’s no open doors what are you hopin for? Do you know?

   *  *  *

The hows and whys my relationship with Christi has enabled an ever-less-tentative relationship with my mother are complicated. First listening to her talk about her mom, now gone over a decade, I realize part of my relationship with my mother is all about me and determinedly I can change my reactions. The need to resolve old anger morphs into a clothing, something I can move around in even if it sticks to my skin, that thick air of urgency is a hard one to breathe in. Christi is an artist and perhaps my choice of her as a wife in some way validates my mother and her choices. Whereas I was not previously interested in art this new common soul gives my mother an in with me. Maybe she too has seen the seasons pass in her ever more mapped skin and wrestled with the same sense of urgency to resolve what a bad therapist might abstractly call our differences.

We were in New York visiting my parents. They took us to the Met and the Whitney. My mother then showed Christi her latest group of paintings. Perhaps I was on the phone when they started looking. The result was I opted not to join them. The paintings were of faces.

When Christi comes up to check on me hers is funny. Not twitching, but her forehead worry dents are deep and busy.

“You take your meds?” I ask. “It’s past four thirty.”

“Yeah, early,” she says. “Why?”

“You look, I don’t know. Like you ate something. Funny,” I say.

“Your mom’s painting faces,” Christi says.

I nod.

With a step Christi shuts the bedroom door and grimaces in the mirror.

“God I hope I didn’t make some weird face,” she says horrified.

“You didn’t,” I say. “I’m sure you didn’t. You came in fine.”

I peacock my hands, “You shut the door, then your face went funny. Oh honey don’t worry. In your art class you mentor people, look at stuff and give them feedback. You have that neutral reaction down automatically. It’s the only time I’ve got no clue to what you’re thinking, when we’re at art galleries. If you don’t say I have no idea. It helps when you’re catty.”

The look Christi gives me colors her solidly unconvinced. I sigh.

“God I hope I didn’t react too badly,” Christi says. “I told her I learned by studies done with a model. Studying faces, light, shadow, proportions. How you have sat for me and that maybe she could ask Charlie, I suggested. I don’t think she was offended. Or I hope she wasn’t. But she was a little huffy. I don’t have to look at faces to paint them she said. I know what faces look like. We have them imprinted on us from infancy.”

Christi-blue firefly dimples, like lightening, flash, flash. I stare at her.

“I think you just hit something. Just listen. I don’t have to look at faces; I know what they look like; we have them imprinted on us from infancy. If you substitute the word reality with faces. The fit isn’t perfect but it seriously goes a long way towards explaining things. I don’t know that I’ve ever been able to articulate what it was that was missing with her, outside reality. She’s never been interested in anything I called reality. Because she’s got that already, self-contained. She doesn’t need to look outside for reference, what she’s saying. Faces are imprinted. She doesn’t have to actually look at them to see. Do you remember my moment on the stairs?” I ask. “At dinner before it you said there was something childlike about her, that all-about-me thing one sees in children like she was stuck in her development. Am I making sense? Faces are the most basic place we go for information. The eyes are the window to the soul, you know that shit. Because the idea it’s all imprinted in her seems to explain everything to me. Why at some point I completely stopped trying to relate. There are still missing pieces. There is still that revulsion, that feeling from way back that I was there for some sort of gratification. Her gratification, not sexually so much as I was being used to fill something, some need there was no way of ever identifying. You think I’m crazy.”

“No honey,” Christi laughs halfway.

“It even explains her thing with names. Why she’d change them,” I say.

“That’s a reach. I suck at names,” Christi says.

“No, no. It’s not the same thing. You just ask. You might be embarrassed but you ask. She doesn’t. She renames with confidence, with absolute certainty. I correct her and she repeats the mistake, not the next day but with no time in between. I used to think she did it deliberately because she knew it pushed my buttons but now maybe not. Think about it. I don’t need to look at faces to see them. I don’t need to listen to you. I don’t need anything from your reality. She didn’t say you’re not real to me. My dad does that. Well, did. I don’t know honey. For years I’ve tried to figure out what was missing. Because far as I can tell there’s nothing diagnosable. Maybe some sort of cognitive deficits but again I’m not sure I believe that. She wasn’t interested the reality I moved in. This feels like physics, cracked open, that big,” I say.

   *  *  *

Like rattlesnakes buzzing under my skin.

   *  *  *

That I own a house still often surprises me. I wobble across my floors, a cue-ball shot astray. A house with a garage, a car. A new family moves in the house next door. They are young, from Mexico, her newly, him back and forth between countries the past ten years. They have a baby and Catholic iconography all over the place, crosses on their necks, decals on the car, a sticker on the porch warning the door knocking Mormons away. They ask me if I’ve lived here long. And about the neighborhood. We watch a clump of teenagers on the corner, dancing, laughing doing their thing. They are assorted shades of brown, flitting between oversized SUVs jacked out with block thumping speakers.

“They’re good kids,” I say. “It’s summer so they hang out but I don’t see them late. They’re good.”

My neighbors’ eyes narrow as two cops scream by.

“It’s a city,” I tell them, wave my hand. “You know. Something’s always happening. Neighborhood’s safe.”

They nod.

   *  *  *

There’s no place like home. Home, James, and don’t spare the horses. A man’s home is his castle. A woman’s place is in the home. I feel so at home here.

   *  *  *

I wonder how my new neighbors see me, a single woman with another woman coming and going constantly. They very likely realize I’m gay, that’s easy. But my life—how I afford it. Hard work? Frugal living? Do they think I have a sugar daddy? Each conversation I imagine cuts my life in to strange configurations. The subject never comes up. Largely we live indifferent, each house like a cake box, wound up tight. Still, I wonder how I’m seen. Because I am the girl who loved dandelions—weeds not noticed, until they are viewed with irritation. I am an exhibitionist, a narcissist, and have been so for as long as I can remember.

   *  *  *

Look at me, look at me, listen to me listen to me. My name is not Ruth. It’s Firetruck! Wee-oouu, weee-oouu, wee-oouu! Firetruck. I’m two now but when I’m eighteen I can change it. My name will be Ash-ah-rain-ah, triple the letters of Ruth. Ashahrainah jumping on the bed! Ashahrainah jumping on the bed!

   *  *  *

Maybe it started with my feeling I wasn’t quite what my parents imagined, that I wasn’t Athena sprung fully formed, grown from my father’s head. I was obsessed with my reflection. Since I was all stories I wanted to be certain there was something real in the mirror that didn’t change.

   *  *  *

Hotly, July unwinds. In my house I take bizarre chances. Putter naked in the bedroom windows. Hear the chorus in my head hum. The factual danger is in its volume. How the noise can subsume and obliterate me.

You’ll only get what you asked for. Get yourself raped. They’re different from us, you know. Don’t think for a second that anyone will feel sorry for you. Stupid slut.

More practically, Christi questions my choice of sheer curtains for a bedroom comprised of mostly windows.

“My dad’s mother threatened to skip my wedding. She didn’t want to see me look like a slut. Like that Madonna. I just know it. I had to promise to wear something modest,” I say.

My girlfriend raises an eyebrow. “Did you?”

“Kinda,” I say. “For a wedding dress, no. For me, yes. Except I let the straps slip to piss her off. Was stupid. Looked a little sloppy and I don’t think she noticed. I was her only grandchild. She was thrilled I was married. That I wasn’t gay. Oh well. What were we talking about?”

“The curtains,” Christi says.

I sigh. Ritzo jumps on the bed and kneads Christi’s stomach. She pushes him away. He jumps back. They continue this game. I ramble on.

“Fuck. I don’t know. It’s like I bought this house for the sunroom, cause I could knock out the wall and have a bedroom full of windows. Sunlight. So it would be bright and sunny in case I got depressed. But then I painted the room dark.”

I finger the gold curtains. There are many pulled threads.

“Fucking cats,” I mutter.

Ritzo looks at me. I jut my head towards him and stare wide. He continues to knead Christi.

“The previous owner left these white sheers. They were pretty. It was like being in the middle of all these sails. You know, billowing sails?” I ask.

Christi gestures.

“Yeah, billowing,” she says. “Your ship.”

I kiss her.

“My ex hated them. She tended more towards the baroque. Gilt. I guess the gold was our compromise,” I say.

“They’re transparent. You should get shades,” Christi says.

“I hate shades.”

“Blinds?” she asks.

“Worse. Except the wood ones and they are crazy expensive,” I say.

Christi’s voice drops, “Maybe you could ask your parents.”

My calculus is strange. Do the bad things that happened somehow equal the gifts I now receive?

   *  *  *

Rumplestiltskin-Rumplestiltskin-Rumplestiltskin.

   *  *  *

If crazy is a country I’ve left, forgiveness is a continent barely imagined. When I was a child the acrylic paints my mother used didn’t blend well. More than two colors and the result became mud. Forgiveness is the space in between molecules of red and yellow and blue, itself a periphery, the smallest diamond of air before brown. To err is human, to forgive, divine. Many times I have tried to read about this thing, letting go. Duty-bound I have hit the library only to incur massive fines. Each book I open puts an immediate fifty pounds on my eyes, and sleep. Forgiveness is a land of dust, human skin, grease, particles of other things, arranged with invisible intricacy, a Persian rug of dirt. I inhale and moments are reincarnated as altered DNA. Viral shedding affects every memory. Time loves the human ecosystem—its neurons, tendons and veins—their kiss so deep air is not required. I change back to a previous self without ever realizing. Beneath my skin. Letting go? The past is a kaleidoscope—it returns—the present tense upends.

   *  *  *

“Just as memories for ordinary experiences are made accessible when a current emotional—or mood-state is reminiscent of that experienced during encoding, the state of physiological hyperarousal and access to traumatic memory seem to be interconnected. The more the individual’s physiological/emotional state resembles that of the original trauma, the more likely retrieval of the trauma will be in the somatosensory memory of reexperiencing.” –Fay Honey Knopp, A Primer on the Complexities of Traumatic Memory of Childhood Abuse

   *  *  *

Wave bye-bye to your baby sis-ter. It’s important to feel clean.

   *  *  *

Forgiveness. In a religious context, my understanding has its limits. While this is a fact I can change, stubbornly I don’t. My ignorance remains—a Freudian slip? Am I just not ready? To let go. To make amends. In Judaism forgiveness is fairly easy; there is none. Judaism is a religion based upon the observance of laws, mitzvahs, their study providing the only way out. Transgression lies in the space between molecules of yellow and blue and red. The Hebrew God is impossible to know in His rage—He too breathes the recent past. He rides on thunder and guilt; He smites; He smites. Vengeance is the power of noise and with it He shows His might. The promised land beckons but entry is denied.

  *  *  *

My last year of college I was awarded a black box production space for a play I wrote. The play charted the course of an important dinner date on which a young woman becomes increasingly unhinged. I didn’t have the words post traumatic stress but that was what she was experiencing, flashbacks to when she was molested early. The central image was a carton of naked Barbies. Ray had given me Barbies, the dolls old, a little dirty, sometimes without clothing. Because this production was my greatest achievement my parents flew out to see it. Craig was with me, we were in the car with my parents after going to dinner to celebrate. My dad narrowed his eyes at me and asked if the play was about Ray. When I reflexively said no he insisted it was. They’d found that carton of dolls and toys when they cleaned my grandmother’s apartment. Congratulations, I remember thinking. You must be so proud of this realization. Since this dinner was where Craig and my parents were first to meet I did what any reasonable person in the situation would do. I drank heavily. By the time Craig and I got home I was in a keening rage.

   *  *  *

Anger is easy, unconscious as marrow, it moves in my bones. My bones move me. Sometimes I feel it all shaking, different from the buzz of rattlesnakes. From below my belly, a washer agitates ribs the wrong way against my skin, which moves in opposition. My jaw tightens. I swallow to keep the movement from reaching my brain, my brain cannot take all the thrashing. But it is something I cannot contain. My throat closes under what feels like an empty head. Up from around my tongue floods a profusion of spit. It is never seen, the shaking. There is only my skin, hard with gooseflesh I can’t explain, sweating and freezing. Words are rocks, sound hard to make.

   *  *  *

Because we have company my bags are newly cut. They are too high and crooked but at four I don’t care too much. I play underneath the dining room table, dark wood, wobbly. The leaves hang down and hide me. My grandma Gladys and Ray are having dinner but I don’t like what they’re eating so I’m allowed a plate of crackers under the table with me. There is a Bible story; the conversation rhythms strange. My dad and Ray are then fighting, about the story? About me. Something sexual, something sexual about me. Like Jonah got swallowed for masturbating only I know that’s not right, not what it is. After my dad threw Ray out no one said anything. I don’t remember anything changing. Nothing was explained. But I’ve always thought it meant he realized something Ray did. But nothing changed. Nothing was said.

   *  *  *

It’s been a decade and a half since my parents saw my play. I haven’t yet asked my dad either about my memory or about his car conversation. Held together by skin, I am a collection of stories, compressed and merging, the pressure now about to explode. Lying next to Christi I realize I will have to initiate this conversation and ask my father what happened and why he didn’t protect me. Forgiveness is beyond the reach of all my stories interrupting, crashing, breaking, now an impossible swirl of noise, beyond the vibrating shadows of pieces, uncatchable as dashing mice. Forgiveness would now be silence. I raise up on an elbow and watch my lover sleeping. Christi-blue crazy-eyes. Her left arm flails as if punching away flies.

“No-no-no,” she says. “Bugs.”

I kiss and smooth her forehead. “No bugs baby. Bad dream. You’re safe.”

She mumbles something and snuggles in. Again we sleep.

   *  *  *

Just like me, they long to be, close to you …

   *  *  *

I am a crow, attracted to what’s bright and shiny. I horde these things, weave them into my nest, into me—there are stainless razor blades, one earring, silver gum wrappers and a broken necklace with a possible diamond. Was there a point where I knew I could never change those stories, once certain accusations were made? What if all my emotions, my reactions, the things I say were based on lies made to fill a void—the void of no intelligence, no talent, no beauty, no drive—to create a dynamic personality different from those around me. The void tastes like apple juice, turned, I don’t know why.

   *  *  *

I am tripping on a fault line. I dance and try to fill it with words to keep the earth from shattering out beneath me. Because it feels like my life is built on stories. Fundamentally everyone’s is. Except. There’s very little that’s real to me. How much of my personality is feathers and tape, boots and paint? How much of my experience is based on memory and how much on intimation, invention, or just out and out bullshit? How far did I go as a child to gain attention? How extreme did my stories need to be?

   *  *  *

Mom, I have this memory.

It’s a fly in amber, unchanged. But the memory is sketchy and I don’t know if my understanding is correct and I can’t say what it means.

If I tell you, can we, sort through this? Because I need your corroboration.

The conversation I need to have starts after a phone call you got when grandma Gladys was divorcing Ray.

You came into my room.

That call was in the middle of the crisis. Gladys had become confused. She took too much medicine. Suicidal gesture? With Pepto-Bismol if I remember correctly. It interfered with her beta blockers or something. Two bottles of Pepto-Bismol, not the usual OD.

There were mutual accusations of mental cruelty between her and Ray—I remember this collection of sounds repeated and repeated. So the family debate was heated about whether or not a judge would grant the divorce and then, what would be done about Gladys’s property. Ray had stolen money but for some reason that wasn’t enough, that the family’s credibility on this accusation was lacking, maybe. It wasn’t a small sum, four thousand, again if I remember correctly.

You got off the phone and came into my room to talk to me. The suggestion was made that I testify Ray had abused me sexually.

It is here my thoughts get spun in cotton.

Why?

Certainly my testimony would have sealed Ray’s coffin and secured Gladys’s estate, the condo, accounts, whatever furniture, art and jewelry.

Was this idea of abuse floated here because something was known? Suspected? Or was it a scheme? I was in fact studying to be an actress—what better stage than one with such high stakes? Either way how could this have been deemed a benign request to make of me?

How did you come to suggest such a thing, or if the idea was not yours, how did you come repeat it?

Or is this all something I’ve imagined and concocted all high dungeon? Because I suspect this is memory, accurate memory. It is a fly in amber, unchanged, with the rest of the scene unfolding as I screamed.

What did I scream? Get out of my room? Leave me alone? Fuck you, get away from me?

When I shut my eyes on this recollection there are no lights spots that dance. Past and present, I am only staring at my bedroom door, the wood frame of the door mirror, maple, glowing. The image doesn’t go away. I’ve wanted to add details, to make the story more dramatic, always with my throwing a knife, but it didn’t happen that way. Instead when I got up from under my covers my knees began clicking, the sound almost metallic, of a lock catching. The noise, its echo, made me thirsty. With any amount of drinking my throat remained dry and my hands heavy, heavy. I didn’t want to do anything to move them. Only a cigarette later confirmed my breathing. Hand to mouth, suck in, flick-flick, expel and there I am, operated by an internal command center still working.

   *  *  *

This is a conversation imagined, water glistening on a spiderweb. It was only after years with Christi that the silk to weave and catch such liquid was even conceived of. So maybe the imagined conversation that begins Mom, I have this memory is a real possibility.

   *  *  *

Rumplestiltskin-Rumplestiltskin-Rumplestiltskin.

 

 

BIO

Ruth Berger writerRuth Gila Berger is thrilled to be published by The Writing Disorder. She has a piece in Frequencies 4 (Two Dollar Radio), April 2014, and another piece published by Permafrost, Spring 2014 (all three pieces are contained in a full length memoir in progress). Her resume has over a dozen finalist commendations, the most recent from Arts & Letters for their 2012 nonfiction contest. Past publications credits include Gulf Coast (where she was given an honorable mention in their 2006 nonfiction contest) Creative Nonfiction, Chelsea Review, Water~Stone Review, GSU Review, Great River Review and the Emrys Journal.

Sarah Kruel Photo

Coat Tales

by Sarah Kruel

 

Drop Cap She sat on the window seat in the empty bedroom and looked out across the lawn. It was cold for October, and she pulled her sweater tight. The pine tree boughs bent away from the gusting wind, and the red maple leaves blew across the ground. She had always loved the changing seasons, but now she was going to a place that was summertime all year long. No winter coats this year.

She smiled wryly. There was nothing like a good winter coat, but things change. She had downsized and everything she needed was packed. Donations to Good Will had been delivered. Most of the furniture had been sold. Everything was unfolding as planned. She would live near her daughter in a place some people called paradise.

 ************

When she was a college freshman, she had saved two hundred dollars to buy a plane ticket home for Christmas. It was the first time she had been away from her family for so long, and she was looking forward to seeing them. Buying the ticket was going to take most of her money but she hoped to bring home a few gifts for everyone too. She couldn’t go empty-handed at Christmas, so on a late November day she took the bus into town to see what she could she find.

Westfield was a magical land of sparkling lights and store windows full of red and silver bells, glittering Christmas trees, and beautifully wrapped packages. She paused often to take in the colorful displays until she came to Barton’s. It was the biggest department store. Svelte mannequins in red evening gowns and gold lame tops with black velvet skirts beckoned to her. She pushed through the crowded store onto the escalator to Ladies’ Apparel on the second floor.

As soon as she stepped off, she saw the jacket. It was strategically placed to get the attention of anyone arriving on the floor – not in the coat department, but right there at the entrance. She went directly to it. It was golden suede, cut short and belted, and it was her size – small. The faux fox collar was soft and deep like sheep’s wool. She buried her fingers in it, then ran them across the smooth suede sleeve. She knew it was only for display, but she didn’t care. She unbuttoned it right there, took it off the mannequin, and put it on. Then she found a mirror and looked at herself from every angle. It was beautiful. She took it with her and walked to the cashier, counted out her money and stepped onto the down escalator. The coat was hers.

Outside the store the cold air hit her cheeks like a slap in the face. What was she thinking? Her money – the money for her plane ticket home – the money for the presents she would have brought with her – was gone. In its place was a jacket. She stepped off the crowded sidewalk into a doorway to open the bag, and pressed her fingers again into the deep soft collar. Her chest tightened. She was penniless and all by her own choice. It was terrifying and yet she was thrilled.

The bus ride back to campus was long and gave her too much time to worry. She could never tell her parents what she had done. They would be so disappointed if she didn’t come home. She had to find a way of making up the money she had spent. Some way she would just have to do it. She would not return the coat.

The next day she studied the help wanted ads in the local paper. Her cafeteria job was very time-consuming, and exams were coming right after Christmas. She had a term paper in philosophy due before vacation, but she had to do this. There was only one listing that seemed like a possibility. She called immediately and arranged for an interview.

She knocked on the door of the big stone house. Eventually the door opened and a woman with a walker stood before her. She was tall with curly white hair and round dark-framed glasses that stood out on her pale face. The walker seemed too small for her. She wondered if the woman was naturally hunched or if she was hunching to reach the handles of the walker.

“I’m Emily. I’m here about the job.”

“Yes, I know. Come in. It’s cold out there.”

The woman seemed well except for her dependence on the walker. She explained that she had difficulty maintaining the house by herself and that her emphysema had slowed her down even more. She needed help with cleaning and making her meals.

“So you’re a college girl, Emily. Do you have time for this?” Emily had already told her about her cafeteria job. “Don’t you need time to study?”

“Yes, I do, but I absolutely have to earn some money.”

“You sound desperate.”

“Well, yes. I really need a job. I need money to go home for Christmas. And for other things,” she stammered.

“You seem, as I said, a little desperate. Are you paying your own tuition? Isn’t your campus job enough?”

“My campus job helps a lot, but right now I have some unexpected expenses.” It sounded ominous, and she was afraid she had taken the wrong approach.

“Well I can see that you’re serious about getting work, and I think you can be a big help to me, but please tell me why you need this extra money so badly.”

Mary wasn’t going to be put off with vague generalities.

“I bought something that was not within my budget,” she said, hoping that would end the questioning.

The woman said nothing. She sat in silence until Emily blurted out “I bought this jacket,” as if confessing to a crime.

The lady threw back her head and laughed and laughed.

“Well, it’s beautiful. I love it. Carpe diem. I’d have bought it too if I were a kid like you. The collar is so elegant and the color – palomino, I’d call it – is perfect with your hair.”

They laughed together. It was good to tell someone who really seemed to understand. It was an impulsive act; it was irrational, but she had no regrets. And now it seemed that her money problems would be solved. The job was hers.

She liked Mary a lot. Even though she needed help, she was not helpless. She was full of life – funny, opinionated, strong. She’d traveled a lot, gotten married, divorced, remarried, and now widowed. She and her second husband had operated an antique shop, and her home was full of beautiful pieces from that time – highly polished mahogany furniture, china, glassware, all arranged as if the shop were open for business. One of Emily’s jobs was polishing and dusting, and she loved doing it because each piece was special and unique and usually had a story to go with it.

After the Christmas holidays, she continued to work for Mary. Suddenly it was March. She walked from the bus to Mary’s house with the jacket slung over her shoulder. It was a beautiful warm day though not yet spring. She knocked and waited for Mary’s hearty welcome to come in. There was no response for a long time, and then the door swung open. A tall middle-aged man whom she knew at once was Mary’s son extended his hand and introduced himself.

“Mary’s had a fall. She’s at the hospital.”

She’d been with Mary just two days ago. They’d taken a walk in the back yard and sat on a little bench watching the birds. It was so peaceful there with hyacinths and forsythia in full bloom. As always Mary told her stories and as always she also wanted to know what was happening with Emily. Did she finish her English paper? What was she reading?

Later that night Mary’s son called as he said he would. Mary had broken her hip. She would be in the hospital for a while, and then he was arranging for rehab out of state in the town where he lived. He wasn’t sure when she would be able to return home.

The rehab center was much too far for Emily to visit Mary, but she called often. The first time she called they gave the phone to Mary, but she never spoke. A nurse said she was having a difficult day. She was very weak and her emphysema had gotten worse. Emily called at least once a week to see how she was doing but never talked to her. She sent letters as well, but it was hard to keep writing when there was no response. She wondered if the nurses read them to her. Was she able to understand them if they did? Then just before the semester ended, Mary’s son called to tell her that Mary wouldn’t be returning home. She was no longer able to live alone. The house was for sale

She took her final exams and went back home for the summer. She got a job at the Dairy Queen and took her little sister to the beach a lot. She met a guy at work and they went to the beach together too. Sometimes to the movies. It was fun, but she was happy when September came and she returned to school. Mary would have loved to have her read the poems they were studying in English. She wrote a paper on Keats and wondered what Mary would think of it. She missed her. Winter came and she wore the “palomino” coat with no regrets.

************

            She graduated early and was ready to conquer New York. She had a job at Flower Fifth Avenue Hospital, an efficiency apartment on the upper west side, and a new wardrobe. The college uniform of sweatshirts and jeans was gone, and the centerpiece of that change was the cream-colored coat with the hood. It was long and full and elegant. It made whatever else she was wearing seem as stylish as it was. She was a grown-up in the real world!

She hadn’t even worked a day when the transit strike occurred. The excitement of the new job dimmed, replaced by the frustration of getting there. It was very cold and very early as she started off toward Central Park for her first day. She pulled the beautiful coat around her and shouldered her purse. People were everywhere – walking, running, on bikes. She crossed at 72nd Street and entered the park. School boys with backpacks scooped up the dirty snow and pelted each other with hard-packed icy balls. Men in suits with their collars up against the wind strode rapidly in rhythm with their swinging briefcases. Some rode motorcycles or bikes and had wool hats pulled down over their ears or scarves blowing out behind their necks. Women carried their heels and wore their tennis shoes or winter boots for the march across the city.

Cars were streaming across too. As she made the first turn, she saw that some drivers had stopped their cars and offered rides to the walkers who eagerly jumped in. Some walked backwards with their thumbs stuck out, hoping the next driver would take pity on them. It was so crazy, she thought. Hitchhiking across Central Park. Probably not a good idea. She shoved her hands in her pockets and trudged on, catching up to two other girls. They were giggling and sliding on the snow and occasionally sticking out their mittened thumbs. She was about to speak to them when a red Volkswagen pulled over, and they piled into the back seat, screaming in appreciation.

The driver laughed too. “Come on. Come on. There’s room for you.”

She hesitated and then slid into the passenger’s seat. He was handsome. His curly dark

hair hung below his ears and was blown about by the wind as the door opened. His eyes were

incredible, and his laugh was quick and loud.

They crossed the park in what seemed like minutes, and he announced that he was headed for 57th Street. The girls in the back hopped out despite his offer to take them wherever they were going. She got out as well. It would still be a long walk for her but at least she had gotten across the park.

“Where are you headed?”

“Just uptown a little bit.” She thanked him and hurried off.

No one knew how long the strike would last. That first day everyone seemed elated at the change of pace, at the adventure of it. By the second day the exuberance had waned for many. Hers had not. She was excited. The unexpected ride had filled her with nervous energy. Who would believe that on her first day of work she had hitchhiked with a gorgeous stranger.

On Tuesday she found herself watching for the VW as she started across the park. A few drivers slowed and offered her a ride, but she declined. Halfway across the park she heard a beeping horn and saw the red car slowing beside her.

“You again.”

“Yes, again.”

“Get in.”

She got in. She had hoped this would happen, and now she was speechless. This time there were no other passengers to fill the silence with giggles and silly talk.

“Where exactly do you work?” he asked.

“Up 5th.”

“Where?”

“Flower Fifth Avenue Hospital.”

“Oh my God. That’s really a hike. I’ll drive you.”

She protested but he had already turned up. The conversation became easier, but her hands were tight fists in her coat pockets and her palms were wet inside the wool gloves. When he dropped her off in front of the hospital, he said “I’ll see you tomorrow.”

She savored the idea and prayed that the strike would continue. And it did. Every day that week he drove along side of her in the red car just as she started out across the park. On Friday he had a bag of doughnuts on the seat and held it open for her. They ate and talked. It was easier now. Too soon she was getting out at the hospital and waving good-bye to this man who occupied her thoughts more than the new job and more than all the things she had anticipated with so much excitement only a week ago.

The week-end was eternity. She was restless. She hung the new curtains she had bought for the livingroom. She went to the movies with a girl from work. She cleaned the kitchen and rearranged the furniture. She even thought of taking a walk across the park but stopped herself because there was little chance she would see him.

Finally Monday came. She looked out the window by her bed. Something was different. Then she saw the buses lumbering along Amsterdam. The throngs of people she had become accustomed to were gone. Her stomach tightened and her excitement became despair. The strike was over. She sat back on the bed and stared at the floor. Maybe she would walk anyway. Maybe he would be looking for her. How silly she was.

She took the bus across town and changed to the uptown one. It had only been a week of quick rides across the park, but it felt like more. How could it end so abruptly? She had thought that they would become more than friends as they already had in her girlish fantasies. At first she pressed her face to the bus window, scanning the road for his car, but the red car never came into view that day or ever again. Nor did she see it parked in front of the hospital waiting for her when she left for the day as it did in her daydreams. It was a long time before she stopped looking for him, and so much longer for the sadness to pass. He had broken her heart, and he didn’t even know her name,

************

It was on the cover of the Woodward Winter Catalog. They called it a swing coat – three-quarter length with no buttons and a big wide collar and cuffs. It came in pumpkin which was on the catalog cover or eggplant. She ordered it that day. Pumpkin.

Before the coat arrived, she found out she was pregnant. It was ironic. She never dreamed that the loose swinging coat would become her maternity coat as well as the coat she would wear bringing home her beautiful baby daughter. When she saw it on the front of the catalog, she had only known it was a great coat.

It arrived by UPS. She tore open the box and put it on, then walked outside and down the block. The coat was perfect. Life was perfect. The baby would be perfect. She smiled and savored her happiness. She was going to be a mother.

Months later she took the same walk wearing the same coat as she pushed the beautiful baby girl in the handsome new carriage. She had quit her job even though she loved it. She would go back when the time was right – when the baby was in school or maybe pre-school or she would work part-time. She gave it little thought because she had no misgivings about her choice. It would all work out. There was no hurry. She was a mother now.

Before the baby came, Jim had planned to cut back at work and finish his graduate degree. Baby Laura changed the plan, and she felt bad for him. He never said so, but she knew he was frustrated about not completing his studies. She lived with this awareness for a while, but finally that was it. She announced to Jim that she could get a part-time job at night when he could be home with Laura. He could take one or two classes at a time right now and move closer to finishing. He protested as she knew he would, but finally she convinced him that it was a good thing for both of them

She had not considered that getting a job would be so hard. It never had been like that before. It was partly the hours, and she was over-qualified for many of the jobs that fit her schedule. Finally she accepted the fact that the only job she could get that would pay enough to make it worthwhile was waitressing. The hours worked. She could even work week-ends. The tips would be good if she worked in the right place. She’d done it when she was in high school and a few summers during college. She was good at it. She had made good money. It had been fun then – flirting with the customers, going out after work with the other kids who worked there, sleeping late, and back to work at night. It was a party that never ended.

But it wasn’t a party now. It was a challenge that she hoped she was up to. There was a job at The Carriage House and she went for an interview. The restaurant wasn’t open yet and it was cold in the empty dining room where she waited for the manager, wrapped in the pumpkin coat. She clutched the resume that she had revised to include her early waitressing jobs at The Corner Restaurant, Dairy Queen, and the Beach Front Hotel. Now those carefree days were more important than her master’s degree and the three years she had worked in labor relations.

She felt old and awkward as she watched the kitchen staff arriving, but the manager was nice and the interview was short. She was hired. She could start that night. The stress drained out of her body. She had done it. She swirled the swirl coat and walked quickly to the car. She was young again.

Every night she left the house as soon as Jim came home. On the day when he had classes Mrs. McCabe came and stayed with Laura until he got back. She was a wonderful lady who had raised four children of her own, and seemed to really enjoy spending time with Laura. Jim was happy to be getting closer to finishing his degree. And she was pleased with herself for making the choice.

Waitressing wasn’t much different than it had been when she was younger. Keep the customers happy. Chit chat or stay quiet and low profile, which ever she felt they wanted. She could do it. She could read the customers. She was organized and quick, and above all she knew “the customer was always right.”

It was a game really. She was an actress, and at each table she played a different role. It was fun, but not in the same way it had been years before. She didn’t really want her life to be a game. Sometimes right in the middle of the game, she wanted to stop – to say what she really meant or to say nothing at all.

That’s how she was feeling on that Monday night, working in the bar section. There weren’t many customers, but Monday was bowling night for the leagues so there were the regulars. They were big beer drinkers who always asked for snacks and didn’t tip well no matter how you played the game.

Five guys sat at a corner table near the door. She didn’t recognize them, but they were dressed like the typical Monday- nighters – jeans and sweatshirts or tee shirts with college names on them. Probably from the leagues. One wore a button-down shirt. He would rock back in his chair periodically and laugh. The others would join in. He was the alpha of the pack, she guessed. She could hear his voice above the others – something that always annoyed her. She wondered if he realized how loud he was or if he was intentionally talking to the whole room.

She chose the quiet and serious role for them – more because she didn’t want to play that night than because she saw it as their role of choice for her. More likely they would have warmed up to chatty-moving-toward-flirty as the night wore on. They were all pretty happy with themselves, and button-down was especially pumped up and full of himself. The others, although they gradually became less focused on his pontificating, were still clearly a bit under his spell. Probably he was their boss. He had some kind of status with them for sure.

As she approached with the third round on her tray and a refill on the pretzels, button-down tipped back his chair again and the back bumped her tray. The drinks sloshed, and the glass of vodka tipped right over and spilled on his sleeve. She righted the empty glass and apologized, but he began playing his own dramatic role. He jumped to his feet as if she’d scalded him with hot water, and began rubbing his sleeve with a napkin.

“Oh God, you spilled my drink.”

It was just a shot glass full of vodka. She apologized again and attempted to help him dry his sleeve. The other guys were quiet now as his anger grew. There was really nothing more she could do, nor did she want to. She watched him stomp out with his followers close behind him. As he disappeared, a sense of her own power came over her, and comforted her. Button-down and his boys were jerks, but she owed them a lot. Five boors in a bar had made it so very clear. She finished the night, and gave notice. The game was over. It was time to move on.

************

She wore her “big shot” coat every day during the impending merger. It was a gift from Jim. She saw it in the window at Bergdorf’s when they had spent a week-end in the city. He remembered that she had admired it, and there it was under the tree that Christmas. And it truly was a “big shot” coat. That’s what Jim called it. It was black cashmere with a long sash, conservative but trendy. She loved it.

The merger was stressful. There were position cuts to be made and her department got to deliver that news. There was job training for some. There were offers of relocation for others. Whatever the outcome was for a particular person, it was a radical change and a hard departure from what they had become accustomed to. And through it all she knew that her own position was in jeopardy too, after she had completed the necessary dirty work.

She started arriving early at her office to avoid seeing and especially having to converse with employees. She was aware of the lists. She knew who was going and who was staying. In some cases she had been a part of the decision

People cried. Men and women alike. People who had always gotten along with each other argued over silly things. They were angry and sad and had no recourse when she sat down with them to deliver the verdict – going or staying. If it was a layoff, she talked options with them. but once the bad news was presented, they heard nothing.

When Phil Black called her into his office, she was ready for her own bad news. They’d worked together for a long time. He was her boss and mentor. Sitting there in front of him she thought he looked old. His hair had grayed over the years and his face was drawn. Even though they had become good friends, it was hard to look at him, waiting for what was to come.

“Emily, you’ve done a great job with these people. It’s a very hard thing to do. And there’s no way it can make you feel good or even satisfied. Believe me, I know.”

She couldn’t make eye contact. How long would he drag this out? Her face felt so hot. She wondered if it was red and if he noticed. Finally she forced herself to raise her eyes and look at him.

“They want you to be the new Director of Human Resources.”

He said it mechanically. His smile was tight and forced.

“What do you mean?”

“Just what I said. They want you to be the new director.”

“What about you?”

“Retirement. They’ve offered me a generous package.”

“But you’re not ready to…”

“No. It wasn’t my plan, but sometimes things go differently than you expect.”

“But you don’t have to do it.”

“Yeah, yeah I do. That’s the deal.”

She studied the man. Phil had been her rock, especially over the past few months. After a day spent devastating people’s lives, she was so often ready to throw in the towel. He was the one who somehow patched her up and sent her home feeling that she could do it again the next day and not fall apart. But now Phil was the one. How could that happen?

“I can’t go into it any more than that, Emily.”

He stood up. She took a step toward him and stopped. There was a look in his eye. He wasn’t her mentor anymore. He was another casualty, and just like with the others, there was nothing she could do except step back and allow him his pride and his privacy.

“Okay Phil. We’ll talk tomorrow. I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay Emily. It’s okay.”

But it really wasn’t okay. He was trying to say the right things, but she’d been through the bitterness and the grief with so many others over the past month. There was no way to make it okay that they were being laid off or asked to take a lesser job or retire like Phil. He needed to keep it to himself. He needed to be strong. He couldn’t open up his rage or expose his shame that this was happening to him. She hugged him and left his office. They wouldn’t talk about it tomorrow or ever.

In a few weeks Phil was gone. She became the new Director of Human Resources for the merged company. Life went on. A new normal emerged. Jim teased her that the lady in the big shot coat was a real big shot now.

 ************

            She bought the grey coat with the mink collar for herself when they moved to Connecticut. It was supposed to be a little treat for her at that time of pulling up stakes and moving to a new place, but now her most vivid memory of it was one of pain and sadness. Even after so many years.

It was Saturday. Jim was home working in the yard, and she had gone to have her hair cut in town. When she returned, she parked the car in the front driveway and thought she heard him calling her name. She paused as he came running toward her.

“I’ve killed Big Boy. Emily, I’ve killed him. I ran over him with the tractor. I didn’t know he was there.”

Together they ran to the empty field behind the garage. Big Boy lay still in the grass. Jim threw himself on the ground and clutched the dog in his arms.

“Oh my God; oh my God,” he cried over and over, burying his face in Big Boy’s fur.

Her heart was pounding hard as she knelt beside them. Big Boy’s body was untouched. She laid her hands on the beautiful brown coat and stroked him, then howled in anguish as she saw the bloodied head where the tractor wheel had hit it.

“Big Boy,” Jim said again, tears filling his eyes. “Big Boy.”

This could not be. It could not. The tears streamed across her cold cheeks. They had had dogs and cats and even guinea pigs when Laura was a child, but this dog was their dog. They had gone to see him on a beautiful spring day, wondering if it was a good idea. It had been a long time since they had had an animal in the house. Maybe they were too old to start with a new puppy. Maybe it was more trouble than it was worth. But it was Jim’s good friend who pushed them to come and take a look at the last of the litter. “I saved the best for you,” he said. “He’s a special guy.” They said okay, but just to take a look. No promises. But they knew in the first moment they saw him that it was true. He was a special dog. He ran across the backyard with his mother following close behind him, ears flying backward in the wind, dragging a stick that was far too big for a pup. But he did it. Then he saw them and dropped it, running toward them like he knew he was to be theirs. And he was. For eleven years he had been so very very special. Their Big Boy.

She put her arms around the man and the dog and hugged them close to her. Together they wept. Finally she spoke.

“Jim, he’s dead.”

It sounded so cold.

“I killed him.”

“It was an accident. You didn’t know.”

The blood on Big Boy’s head had started to dry. He looked like he was sleeping in Jim’s arms as he had so many times for so many years. She took off her coat and covered him. For a long time they stayed there on the ground with the dog between them, silent except for gasping sobs. Finally she stood up.

“I’ll get a shovel.”

He didn’t respond so she started off alone toward the shed. She fought to stop herself from again crumpling on the ground and letting out her grief in deep gut-wrenching howls. When she finally reached the barn, she leaned against the wall of the old building and realized that her whole body was shivering. She steadied herself, gasping. She had to be strong. In the corner was Big Boy’s barn bed where he slept for hours while Jim puttered in his workshop. But he wasn’t really sleeping – just waiting for the glorious moment when Jim would put down his tools and say, “Wanna go for a walk Boy?”

She needed to get the shovel and get back to Jim but she felt so helpless. What could she say to him? The responsibility he felt took his grief far beyond her own deep anguish. There were no words that made any sense to her. People lost their sons and daughters in terrible ways. People suffered unjustly. She tried to put this in perspective but her emotions would not allow it. Her heart was torn apart. Wonderful Big Boy was dead.

She found the pointed shovel and carried it down the hill. Jim and the dog were still on the ground and his grasp on the limp body had stayed tight. After a few minutes, she took Jim by the shoulders and raised him up with the dog pressed against his chest. Her coat fell away and lay on the ground in a heap. A blood smear covered the sleeve and the black fur collar was stiff. She picked up the coat and wrapped it around Big Boy again.

Without speaking they walked toward the big chestnut tree where Big Boy had often waited for an unsuspecting squirrel that he could chase. That was the place. She started to dig. In any other circumstance Jim would have taken the shovel and done it, but he turned away unable even to watch. It took a long time, and the sunless day was darkening more. It was very cold now but her body warmed as she dug harder. When she felt the hole was big enough, she stepped away from it.

“Maybe I should get his bed.”

Jim didn’t answer. The finality of the big rectangular hole in the ground was unbearable. She was torn between getting the bed and prolonging this terrible moment or just getting it over with. Finally she went to Jim and together in silence they placed the dog in the ground. Once again she pulled the coat securely around the strong, sleek body. She looked at Jim and then began slowly shoveling the dirt back in place.

“Good-bye Big Boy.” She whispered the words to herself. Gradually he disappeared beneath the fresh dark earth. Their dear friend was gone.

************

            A car door slammed in the driveway, and she jumped up from the window seat. The limo to the airport had arrived. It was time to go. The doorbell rang. She took a quick look at the stark empty room, then hurried down the stairs to open the door.

“Hello Mrs. Haines. How are you?”

It was Douglas Butterfield. He had been a classmate of Laura’s in high school.

“Doug, what a surprise. I haven’t seen you in a long time. Maybe not since you and Laura

graduated.”

“That’s right, Mrs. H. I guess you didn’t know it was me when you ordered the car. When I came out of the army, I started the company – about a year ago.”

She could see how proud he was.

“It’s been a little scary, getting a big loan and all. I thought about re-enlisting instead. That would have been easier really, but it’s working out. And now I’m engaged too. Getting married next May.”

He looked so young. He had always had kind of a baby face and he still did. His blonde hair curled a little around his ears and there was a faint wisp of a mustache. He took a suitcase in each hand and marched toward the car. She followed behind, trying to match his quick step.

“These are heavy! I guess you’re planning to be away for a while.”

“Yes,” she said. “Yes I am.”

“Well, I hope you’re heading south. It’s going to be a cold winter here, they say.”

She climbed into the back seat and looked at the house once more as he backed out into the street. She was ready. It was time to go. He drove quickly through the neighborhood and onto the turnpike where he picked up speed. The exit signs flew by, announcing each vanishing town as they passed. She leaned her head against the back of the seat and closed her eyes, speeding to a place some called paradise.

 

BIO

Sarah Kruel  writerSarah Kruel has worked in the field of mental health and substance abuse treatment as a therapist, researcher, and teacher. She spent much of her career as the director of one of the country’s largest residential addiction treatment centers. She competes at major horse shows on the east coast and has written a number of articles for equestrian publications. She is also the author of a self-published book, Speaking of Success: Women’s Stories and Strategies for Living with Peace and Passion (available at Amazon and Infinity Publishing). The short story Coat Tales is her first published fiction.

 

 

 

The Art of Melinda Giordano

A Garden

A Garden

Scarf and Wine

Scarf and Wine

Shadowy

Shadowy

Shell Dollars Image

Shell Dollars

Shell Spiral

Shell Spiral

Shell Study

Shell Study

Shell Wall

Shell Wall

Shell Well

Shell Well

Dried Flowers

Dried Flowers

Scarf And Stripes

Scarf and Stripes

 

Scarf and Leaf

Scarf and Leaf

Shell Inside and Out

Shell Inside and Out

BIO

Melinda GiordanoMelinda Giordano was born in Los Angeles, California, and will probably stay there. However, there are times when she finds herself missing London terribly.
 
Her artwork has appeared in publications such as Pearl, Amelia, Rag Mag, Stone Country, new renaissance, The Written River and The Bellowing Ark. She specializes in pen and ink drawings, investigating the shadows and textures that have the potential of making any earthly object a beautiful thing. The passage between light and dark is as tremulous and lyrical as a written paragraph, and just as difficult—yet rewarding—a study. This is why a small thing—a leaf, a scarf, a shell—is seen as worthy subject matter and is as vast and complex as any landscape.
 
Melinda is also a published writer, writing flash fiction that speculates on the possibility of remarkable things. Her writing has appeared in Lake Effects Magazine, Written River, River Poets,  Scheherazade’s Bequest, dansemacabreonlinemirrordancefantasy.com among others. Melinda is interested in history—art, fashion, social—(everything has a past) and anything to do with Aubrey Beardsley, her favorite artist/author/bon vivant.

Welcome to our new look for The Writing Disorder | SUMMER READING 2014

We’ve grown so much over the last four years, that we had to find a more accommodating website to showcase all the exciting new work. We still maintain a small but excellent staff—working hard to make every issue the best it can be. But we also need to grow in other areas, such as social media, the ability to post audio and video, and to make the site more functional and appealing for our intelligent and dedicated readers.

We hope you enjoy our new look. It has a more flexible layout, meaning we can change things up from issue to issue.

Our summer edition includes an excellent group of writers and artists—some who’ve been published here before—an issue that everyone can be proud of, and easily shared with your friends and colleagues. Thanks for your support.

Enjoy our new issue, and our new look.

—C.E. Lukather, Editor

 

FICTION
David J Ballenger RV Branham Beth Castrodale Pamela Langley
Ruth Deming Cassie Kellogg Sarah Kruel
Joshua Michael Johnson Jake Teeny
POETRY
Darren Demaree Persephone Abbott Dan Fitzgerald Simon Perchik
Joseph Ferguson Sharon R Cooper Shelby Stephenson Adefisayo Adeyeye
NONFICTION
Keicha Kempsey Jacob Reecher Chris Casey Paul Garson
Simon Larbalestier  David Rose Melissa Grunow Ruth Gila Berger
ARTWORK
Joel Nakamura Melinda Giordano Margo Herr
INTERVIEW
Simon Larbalestier  David Rose

 

LOOK FOR OUR FALL ISSUE, PUBLISHED AROUND SEPTEMBER 20, 2014

Author David Ballenger

Life in the Black Cloud

by David J Ballenger

 

 

Drop Cap The first fire happened in 1990, on Martin Lane, in our home. I was fourteen years old and looking forward to my freshman year at Jackson High School. 1990 was the year my parents bought a brand new Ford Tempo that they promised would be mine when I got my license. And 1990, in case you don’t remember, was a great year to be a Cincinnati Reds fan. Marty and Joe were calling the games, Chris Sabo was wearing the Rec Specs, and the Nasty Boys were throwing heat. The Reds were never out of first place that season, and they swept the A’s in the World Series. It’s hard to believe something so good happened that summer.

One muggy June night that summer, I was in the living room shuffling through a deck of baseball cards and listening to the Reds on the radio, and in my sister’s bedroom, directly above where I sat and where Mom and Julie were sleeping on the couch, the blue light of the TV flickering on their faces, Dad built a fire. He poured kerosene on the carpet, lit the fire, closed the door to keep it concentrated above us, and casually walked downstairs.

I heard him coming—I knew the rhythm of my family’s footsteps on those stairs, how the different feet made them pop and moan—so I lay down on the floor next to the stereo. He stood in the kitchen and looked at us, and I pretended to sleep and looked up at him through one squinted eye. The light in the kitchen was at his back and cast a shadow over his face, but I could see that his mouth was slightly open. He pulled his tongue along the strip of exposed, yellowed, uneven teeth and sucked in his cheeks; it was the face he would always make before he hit me.

The game was in the fourth, no score, and it was Joe Nuxhall’s turn to call the inning. The middle innings carry the beauty of baseball on the radio. It’s a meditation, everything slows down, you hear the subtle noises of the ballpark—the vendors, the PA, the hum of conversation, the crisp leather on wood snap of a base hit—and the announcers have settled into the game. Between pitches, Joe Nuxhall said, “The Reds are off Tuesday, and if you like baseball, the Dodgers are playing in Pittsburgh.”

“Dumbass baseball,” Dad said. He had a soft, round, generous voice that must have been given to him by mistake.

On the radio, Marty Brennaman said, “You won’t be able to count me as one of the folks there.”

Dad tripped on the rug when he turned around to leave. He caught himself against the doorframe and stood there, and I want to believe he still had to think, had to make a decision about leaving his family in a burning house. His hands hung clinched at his side, thumbs grinding away at the insides of his index fingers.

Nuxhall said, “I think we oughta go because that’s who’s trying to catch us”

Mart Brennaman thought about this for a long radio minute and said, “Heck, I’ll go if you go.”

The door closed behind Dad. His truck started up, the headlights flashed in the windows when he drove past. He was on his way to Osco, a foundry in Jackson, Ohio, where he made parts for transmissions and compressors. Smoke wafted out of every hole of that place, day and night, and the molten iron glowed orange through its open doors.

When I was sure he was gone, I went to get a drink. I smelled the fire. Dense, slate-colored smoke filled the hallway and curled onto the kitchen ceiling. I hurled my glass of water and watched it disappear into the cloud.

I couldn’t go to my room, but I looked up the stairs and thought about what was in there—a picture of Darlene Fulton, my new shoes, the Barry Larkin poster, my old socks, everything. I waited to see if anything would make me risk life in the black cloud. Nothing would.

I ran to the living room and bent down on one knee next to Mom and shook her arm till she woke. Her head jerked up from the couch and, after a moment, she sighed. Her hair was flattened in the back. She was a waitress at Shake Shoppe and still wore her blue and white striped shirt with a patch on the sleeve of a man and a woman riding a tandem bike and drinking milkshakes; they held the handlebars with their left hands and with their right hands held their cups; they sipped their shakes through smiling lips.

Before I could say anything, Mom rolled off the couch and fell to the carpet on all fours.

“That son of a bitch,” she said. I’d never heard her swear.

Julie was still sitting on the couch. She was twelve then, her bony shoulders were brown and freckled. She sat up and said, “Is it over?”

Mom got off the floor and ran to the kitchen and started screaming.

“Get out, Tommy,” she said.

She ran back to the living room, pushed Julie toward the door, and grabbed a Bible off the shelf. I knew then that Dad had done this, and I knew something else in that moment. I’ve forgotten exactly what that something was, but it struck me as an understanding of the world, and for that I am grateful that Dad gave me a glimpse of clarity, of Heaven in the fire.

Marty Brennaman’s voice pulled me out of my trance. “Here’s the one-O to Davis. It’s a bouncer to Wallach. Could be two. On to DeShields, to Gallaraga, and Davis beats the throw. One on, two out.”

Waves of fire rippled over striped wallpaper and exposed the drywall. A picture frame cracked. A portrait of our family—Dad smiling and standing, his hands on Mom’s shoulder, Mom’s arms wrapped around Julie and me, our clothes bright and unwrinkled—curled at the edges.

Mom grabbed the front of my shirt and pulled me close. “Get out,” she said.

I grabbed a handful of baseball cards. Joe Nuxhall said, “A weak chopper to short. Owen scoops, throws, and gets Benzinger by three steps. End of six, no score.”

Outside, we watched our house burn with some neighbors who joined us. The fire engine and volunteer firefighters started work on the blaze. They hacked at it and doused it with water and watched for embers that would set the fields burning, but they couldn’t save they house.

“I don’t want to watch this,” Mom said. She’d turned away from the fire and walked down the road.

We turned on Fairgreens Road, and the asphalt seemed to be giving off its own blue light. A tunnel of trees and blackberry bushes along the road led us to Brenda Howser’s driveway where Dad had parked his truck. Mom banged on the door till Brenda answered; a calico cat stood next to her twisting its body around her legs.

“Tell’m his house is burning to the ground,” Mom said.

Brenda wore blue slippers, and she shuffled forward and grabbed the front of her pale green nightgown and pulled it tight against her chest. Her face wilted, and she looked like she would be sick.

“Chuck Phillips, you son of a bitch, your house is burning!” Mom yelled and kept her finger pointed into the house, her eyes on Brenda.

“Your home,” Brenda said and began to cry.

“Don’t be an idiot, woman,” Mom said. “Tell him to get his filthy ass out here.”

Dad appeared from the shadows behind Brenda. He pushed her aside and shut the door behind him. He was wearing brown boots and blue jeans and held his work shirt from Osco in his hand and on his wrist was the watch that his father gave him, the watch he said he’d give me someday.

“Where the hell you going?” Mom shouted.

Dad fumbled with his shirt, and his heels dragged in the gravel with each step. He didn’t say a word, just got in his truck and drove off.

Brenda was Mom’s third cousin and Dad’s mistress. She ran away from an alcoholic husband in Neon, Kentucky the year before and stayed at our house for a couple weeks before she started renting the house on Fairgreens. On occasion, her husband would show up in town and make trouble, and one time the sheriff had to drag him off to the county lockup. Dad gave her a snub nosed thirty-eight special for Christmas the year she moved here and not long after that, he started dropping by to make sure she was safe. Mom stopped mentioning her and inviting her over for dinner.

The light was still on in the kitchen, and Mom thumped on Brenda’s door again. “You gonna let these kids have a bed?”

Brenda opened the door and stepped back to let us in. She’d put on a housecoat, and she smelled like the perfume at the Revco pharmacy. Her face was splotchy, and she had a black bruise in the crook of her elbow.

“Give’em something to eat in the morning,” Mom said. “It’s the least you can do for stealing him.”

Brenda blinked a reply that Mom accepted, and Mom walked off into the night.

The house smelled musty and was stuffy from humidity. Brenda put Julie and me in a bedroom with a twin bed. I heard her move through the house and felt the weight of darkness with each light she turned off, leaving me with Julie’s deep breathing, and the sound of something moving around the room. I sat in bed straining to see everything and expecting to see Dad skulk into the room and give me a good thrashing for fouling up his plan.

When I woke the next morning, the calico’s tail was draped over my forehead. I went to the kitchen where Brenda was standing over the stove moving food around in a pan with a spatula.

“Where’s Mom?” I said.

“Up to the house.” Brenda set plates of fried eggs and sausage patties in front of Julie and me.

“Your damn cat put its butt in my face when I was sleeping,” I said.

Her eyes brightened for a moment. “That’s his bed.”

“Why you got a cat in the house, Ms. Howser?” I said. “Should just let’m roam.”

“I’ll consider that,” she said. She kneaded the back of her neck with her hand.

I had a list of other things for her to consider—air conditioners in the windows, carpet in the hallway, a dishwasher—and she listened and said things like, “Good idea,” and, “I think you’re right.” I thought she was strange talking to me like that.

She took the plates and washed them in the sink and brought the rag over and set it on the table for us to wash our faces and hands.

“Wash up?” she said.

“I’m good.” I reached out my hand for her to shake, and she did.

A while later, Julie and I left Brenda’s and walked up the road to our house. I looked at everything still going on around our tragedy, cows tearing grass out of the ground, a circle of crows in the distance ready to descend on rotting flesh, and people going about their business around their homes or in their cars.

Our home was now little more than piles of ash mounded around a blackened and smoking frame. Mom, still in her waitressing outfit, sifted through the debris.

Julie ran to her. “Is anything left?” she said. Mom pushed her back and scolded her for going so close.

I kicked around the edges of the rubble, inspecting the charcoal that used to be our walls and ceilings. Mom pulled her cast iron skillet out of the pile. She tried to wipe off the ashes with her hand and then threw it in the grass. She looked at me, her eye sockets hollow, streaks of black on her cheeks like the players on the baseball cards.

“Get on,” she said.

“What’m I supposed do?” I said.

“Just get your face away from me.” She went back to sifting through the pile.

I walked to the other side of the house and sat under an elm and watched Mom and thought about my face. People told me I looked like Dad, who was someone I didn’t want to look like. I wasn’t concerned with my face or being handsome, but I didn’t think his face was one I would have picked. I liked Eric Davis’s face on his baseball card, but Dad wouldn’t have liked it if I’d picked a black face.

I saw something in the grass about ten feet in front of me, toward the house. There lay Boba Fett, without a scratch, just like I’d left him on my dresser. I clenched him my hand and ran to Mom. As I ran, a school bus pulled onto Martin Lane. It came closer, and I saw that Dad was driving. The brakes howled, and the bus shuttered, hissed, squealed, and finally came to a stop in the driveway. The door folded open, and he jumped out, and I went to him.

“Some fire,” I said.

“Bullshit,” he said. He spit in the grass and scratched his forearm. “It was a bullshit fire.”

I walked beside him and tried to match his stride. “Where you been?”

“Been about doing God’s business. Don’t you know I’m a man of God, boyo?”

I held the toy up and said, “Hey, look. Boba Fett made it out. Not a scratch.”

“Don’t be a stupid,” he said.

“Good thing you didn’t leave your watch here, right,” I said, and he walked away.

Mom was still digging through the pile. Dad moved toward her, and she finally let Julie join her to escape Dad’s expected violence.

Mom scowled at him and kept her eyes locked on his. Our kitchen sink lay overturned next to her. “Everyone can see you, Chuck,” she said. “Go ahead.”

He stomped over and pushed her down. She guided Julie away from where she was falling and when she hit, a cloud of ash surrounded her.

“You been purified by fire, woman. Now, go get in,” he said.

He went and started the bus. Mom stood and told Julie and me to go with Dad. She went over and picked up the skillet and stood looking at what was left of our home, which was not much. The chimney had fallen over the driveway and crushed the Tempo. Some of Julie’s and my school art projects, recognized only by their color, lay melted on what was left of the mantel. For the last time, Mom stood among her things, her wrecked, broken, splintered, crushed, burned home, the skillet dangled in her right hand, and her body listed as if it wanted to settle into the rubble. Dad honked the horn until she finally turned and ambled to the bus. She climbed on board and went to the back row, set the skillet on the seat on one side of the aisle, and curled up into a ball in the seat on the other side. I didn’t go back to see her, but I could hear her crying.

We went down Martin Lane, the bus jangling under us, and turned left on Fairgreens Road away from our home and the lives we’d known. A wad of tobacco bulged in Dad’s cheek, and he spit the juice into an empty bottle of Ski he held in his hand. He called the bus the Jehovah Express and said we were looking for the Promised Land. I moved to the front seat so we could talk.

“God favors these hills, boyo,” he said. “We can do some right living now. Fine living. I’ll be a free man. I can be good, like my dad.” He glanced at the watch. “Ten-thirty. Right on time.”

“Did you burn it down?” I said.

“God burned it down. I was the spark,” he said. “I don’t lift a finger He don’t tell me to.”

I stood up and held on to the pole next to him and looked down at the deep creases in his neck. “Where’d you get the bus?”

“God provides, boyo.”

He got the bus at a junkyard and had it parked at a friend’s house while he was fixing it up to take to NASCAR races. There was a big yellow number two outlined in red on the side and a Miller Genuine Draft sticker on the hood. Dad was a fan of Rusty Wallace and Fords.

He slowed the bus at each side road, craned his neck looking for something, only he knew what. Finally, we turned down Salem Road. The tires sprayed gravel, and a cloud of dust swirled outside the windows. He pulled into a patch of weeds beside the road under a walnut tree, parked, and then wandered into the woods. The three of us sat there, waiting. Julie stood in the aisle next to Mom, rubbing Mom’s leg and humming “We Are Marching to Pretoria,” which was Julie’s song for the Eisteddfod that year in school.

On the other side of the road was a house with flowerbeds and a garden in the back. I imagined what they were doing in there, what shows would be on, and since it was a Saturday, I figured they must have been watching the Reds.

After an hour in the woods, Dad came back holding a bottle of whiskey, and I don’t know if he got it rambling through the woods or if he had it with him when he left the bus, but there was only about a half-inch sloshing around at the bottom.

He waved his hand at me. “Get out here, boy.”

I stepped down the aisle, slapping my hands on the back of every seat like I’d just returned to the dugout after a homerun. When my foot hit the ground, Dad hit me. I landed on my ass, and my head whipped back and knocked against the wheel. One of the lug nuts tore a hole in my scalp. Blood trickled down the back of my head and on my neck. Dad stood over me glaring; he seemed to get excited when I pulled my hand away from my scalp, the tips of my fingers coated with blood.

“It was bullshit,” he said.

I crabwalked up against the wheel, feeling panicky. “I didn’t do nothing.”

He ran his hand through his hair, which was the color of the dead grass. “This ain’t what the Lord told me.”

“Shut the hell up, fool.” Mom came out of the bus and marched toward him.

He hit her too, in the mouth. When he pulled his hand away I could see two small shards of her teeth embedded in his knuckle, and a long piece of white skin dangled between his fingers. Mom fell to her knees, and blood dripped from her mouth to the ground. Her top lip was shredded, and she was holding pieces of teeth in her hand.

“Every time,” she said through the blood and strips of flesh and gums.

He took one last pull on the bottle of whiskey.

“Sweet Franny. I love you,” he said. “You’ll never leave me. You love me too much.”

Dad threw the bottle near where she was kneeling and disappeared into the woods, again.

           *   *   *

The second fire happened four months later, on Salem Road. Summer had advanced, and the weeds around the bus disappeared, replaced by hard packed dirt. We removed the seats and made beds out of blankets on the floor. I would lay there at night and think about waking up in the house on Martin Lane, my bare feet hitting the carpet, and running downstairs to watch Saturday morning cartoons and Johnny Bench on The Baseball Bunch. I don’t really remember the carpet—its color, paprika maybe, its nap, short shag, Berber?—but I do remember a time when my feet weren’t cold, and I didn’t sleep with my shoes on. And it was safer there; Dad’s anger couldn’t take up all that space. He could only ruin a room or a level at a time. In the bus, his wrath filled every corner, every little hole left by missing screws, or torn piece of fabric, every corner brimming with rage and meanness. Osco fired him, so he spent his time passed out on the floor of the bus from too much drink or sitting in a lawn chair under the awning he’d made from a blue tarp, or roaming, God knows where, in the hills and forests around us. After a month, I knew the bus would stay where he’d parked it, under the walnut tree, our new home.

Mom didn’t talk much after he knocked her teeth out. When we lived in the house we told her our stories at the dinner table, and she would ask questions and smile, she used to smile. When she wasn’t eating—that’s the thing, she started eating everything once her teeth were out— she found a place to sit and suck air through the spaces where her teeth used to be. She became an ugly woman; when she closed her mouth her chin went up about an inch too far and made her face look like it was caving in, imploding.

Julie had always been a quiet kid, but she stopped talking all together. She’d disappear into the little nest she’d made at the front of the bus, and at night I could hear her singing her songs from school and praying. She asked God to make her a new house and give this bus to the Devil.

We started attending Salem Chapel, a little church just down the road. They were kind to us; the ladies treated Mom like she was one of them and complimented the dingy dresses she wore every week. I sat through the services and learned the Bible from the pastor: he couldn’t bend it to his will like Dad did, rather seemed to think he should adjust to it. When the revival preachers came through I made sure I was down at the altar getting my soul saved all I could.

That summer, I became friends with Walt Carlisle. He lived in the nice house with the flowerbeds and a TV that I could see flashing in the window at night. He was an indoor, airconditioned kid that liked to think he knew about the woods and the hills that loomed over us. He liked to go out for walks, and sometimes I would follow him, watch from behind a tree or rock when he would run from shadows and the noise of small animals. He told me that he heard bears, pumas, and other creatures stalking him but never showing themselves, and I told him he was probably right, that I’d also seen and heard the wild things, that they were large and capable of anything. He would look away, full of fear and curiosity, head nodding slightly.

I began to treat him like Dad treated me. He wanted things too much, showed his feelings too quickly, was too eager to run out of the woods, was too in love with his home. He had the face of a child, round and emotional. I showed him a strip mine about a mile north of his house. We climbed on the earthmovers and slid down piles of rock and sand. He wouldn’t stand close enough to the edge of the slurry pond, so I pushed him closer, watched his eyes bulge, felt his muscles tense in my hands, and I learned the power of cultivating fear.

One day, Walt and I went to the strip mine. After a while I decided to throw rocks at the fire boss’s trailer and ended up breaking a window.

“Why’d you do that?” Walt said. He went to the trailer and looked at the shattered pieces of window on the ground. “What if it rains?”

“They’ll be back Monday.” I picked up a shard of glass and threw it into the trailer. “Give me a boost, I’ll look in and see what they got in there.”

He said, “No.” He was getting nervous and thought he heard someone coming. I knew there was no one around.

He followed me to the slurry pond, and we stood on an eroded ledge a few feet above the gray-green water. He leaned out, and I inched closer to the edge. Just below where we stood some of the slurry had hardened into a thick, crusty paste. I pulled Walt even with me and told him to look at the sludge, and then I pushed him over the edge. He tried to duck under my arms, but the ground he’d used for leverage gave way, and he tumbled backward into the slurry. In a final, desperate spasm of self-preservation he grabbed my leg, and I lost my balance and fell with him.

The water was warm, and as I sank, my mind went back to the ledge, and I saw myself, but I was not me, I was my father, and Walt was me, and he was my mother, and he was my sister, and he was Walt. I sank to the bottom and felt around in the silt and mud for a way to push myself back to the surface. My hands and feet flailed, searching, clawing, all the while my nose filled with the mixture of the thick, muddy, coal dust and sand. My left foot found something solid, and I pushed myself up into the air and gasped and choked and cried.

I made it to shore, and the thick, black slurry hung on my clothes and skin; it was so heavy I fell to my knees. And it stunk. I kneeled on a pile of peat gravel and puked until my stomach began to spasm. When the sickness passed, I saw Walt sitting in the gravel next to me with his knees pulled up to his chest. His head was cocked to one side, his eyes were closed, and the sun shined bright on his face. A thin film of slime coated the left side of his body and his legs, but his feet were clean except where some of the muck was dripping off the hem of his jeans onto his ankles. I kept looking at his feet, pristine and motionless on the smooth rocks. Next to him, his socks were stuffed into his Reebok Pumps, the orange ball on the tongue still visible through the filth.

“I’m sorry,” I said.

He nodded and after a few minutes ran off into the woods.

“I won’t be like him,” I yelled at Walt. “That’s it.”

I wouldn’t be like Dad, wouldn’t believe what he believed or drink what he drank. I looked into the trees where Walt had disappeared, and I knew that we needed the Jesus that cleansed the Temple of God. Not the curious, young Jesus who got separated from his parents. That’s my father’s Jesus. Absentee and absentminded. Too full of himself to know the suffering he causes his family. No, we needed the Jesus that turned over the money changers’ tables. The one with fire in his eyes and muscles in his arms, the one who was furious.

I made my way through the woods, down Salem Road, to the abandoned Bangert place, grabbed a Rawlings baseball bat from the shed, held it in my right hand, the barrel resting on my shoulder, and walked home.

Mom and Julie sat in lawn chairs under the blue tarp awning. Dad was in the bus on the floor, passed out from whiskey, lying in his white underwear and an unbuttoned shirt revealing the spotted and scarred skin on his chest and belly. I found the keys to the car and went back outside and tossed them to Mom.

“Go to town,” I said.

She looked at the slime and mud drying and forming a black crust over my body but didn’t question. They got in the rusted Oldsmobile, and Mom let Julie ride in the front seat, and they waved at me and pulled away down Salem Road, and I watched them until they passed a coal truck and disappeared behind a cloud of dust.

After they left, I gathered dry branches from the woods and piled them under the back end of the bus. When I was done, the stack went up to the rear axle. It took two matches to light the fire. I backed away about twenty feet from the door, spun the handle of the bat in my hand, listened for movement, and watched the fire grow. Dad coughed and banged around inside for a minute, and then the door opened, and when his foot hit the ground I swung at his knees and felt his kneecaps crunch through the handle of the bat. He hit the ground screaming and coughing and curled up on the ground, his hands holding his knees, touching and assessing the pain.

“Are you ready?” I said.

“Goddammit, boy,” he said. “Shit. Shit. Shit.”

“That’s right. Look at me,” I said. “You know about this business.” I pointed to the filth covering my body.

The bus was full of smoke, but there were no flames.

He reached out his hand and scooted toward me. “Pull me away, boy. Pull me away.”

I crouched in front of him. “Stop,” I said. “You had your turn. Give me the watch.”

He looked up at me, and behind those petulant gray eyes I saw fear. “I sold it.”

The barrel of the bat slid down into my hand, and I hurled it like a javelin into his mouth. His face puckered, his eyes shut, tears welled up near the bridge of his nose, his mouth opened slightly, and I could see that his front teeth were cracked.

“Look at it.” I pointed at the bus. “Do you see anything?”

He tried to speak or couldn’t control his jaw; either way, he looked like he was chewing something horribly bitter, and he flailed in the dirt in the shadow of the smoke above us. And then the fire ignited the back end of the bus. I flung the bat through the door and walked to the tree line and watched Dad drag himself, mouth agape, dripping thick drops of blood onto the dirt, and behind him the bus burned.

 

 

BIO

David J Ballenger lives in Newark, Ohio, with his wife and three children. He received his MFA in Writing from Pacific University. This is his first publication.

 

 

 

poetry of Adeyeye

Untitled

by Adefisayo Adeyeye

 

there are tiny ants all over their shoes
they are stepping on all of the ants
they are waiting for something to step on them

the earth is saying ‘there are dead bodies in me’
there are microbes moving through my veins
my umbilical cord is wrapped around
my tender neck

and also ants
whose little bodies break if you breathe too hard
who have seen all the dead bodies rotting in my blood
who are the strongest things in me

 

 

Untitled

 

i was okay when i was a fetus maybe
i had tiny crumpled feet and wet mouths
blue submarine sinkholes that said ‘help’ without any oxygen
this was the greatest thing

in the soup all my oceans poured out my mouths
i breathed them back in and became the moon again

became the tiny frenzies of miniature scientists
consulting topographic charts to
study consciousness

how it can be used to make several bodies of things
whole again

i am often dreaming bleached

and boneless bodies of whales
the ones rotting on all of the beaches

the ones rotting midst
the ribbed out carcasses of sailboats

 

 

Untitled

 

whale bodies graffitied
with hieroglyphics
whale bodies graffitied
with anchor burns
and kindness

a whale dissection
but also foreclosure auction

a summer house inside the decaying corpse
of a blue whale

a group of bookshelves carved
into the baleen
a sitting room arranged
inside the mouth

a pair of bedrooms within the arteries
of the heart

a kitchen
in the stomach
for irony

 

 

BIO

Adefisayo AdeyeyeAdefisayo Adeyeye lives and works in Southern California. He enjoys the connections between the cosmically large and the infinitely small. He has had works published by Petrichor Machine, Ohio Edit, and Near Rhyme, and he is the editor-in-chief of a literary magazine named Ant vs. Whale.

The Politics of Lonely

by Pamela Langley

 

Drop Cap Karen squeezed her Pomeranian into a human onesie and shared with me her visions of future motherhood. “You need full boobs for babies,” she informed me as Angel scooted the outfit across the floor. We were evaluating our images just before entering the ninth grade. Karen grasped each side of her tube top below her armpits, twisting the garment to adjust her glories and emphasize her point. “They’re essential for breastfeeding your babies, and boys love them,” she said.

At fourteen Karen sported an astonishing rack, but was concerned about mine. “You’re so scrawny, Anita,” she said, poking at my protruding collarbones and flat sternum, “you need to fill out.” Then she sighed and agreed there was hardly any hope for me, since my mother was definitely flat.

“Maybe you should get a padded bra.”

I considered the assortment of on-sale, department store bras that my mother purchased for me. The shriveled cups lay like deflated balloons in my underwear drawer. The women of my Greek lineage tended to be slim and long-boned, not built with the ample scaffolding that supported magnificent breasts like Karen’s, or those of my brother’s idol, Raquel Welch. Being flat didn’t bother my mother. She told me I’d appreciate it later in life when they weren’t dangling around my waist.

But what did I care about the distant future? If I had breasts now I’d gain an advantage like Karen’s. Karen and Raquel Welch were legends, objects of desire; I was a wingman—the comedic sidekick.

Later on at home I made a plea. “Mom, can you buy me a padded bra next time?”

“For what do you want pads in your bras? You have a darling little figure.”

“I don’t want a ‘darling little figure,’ mom, I want to fill out a blouse or a bathing suit top.”

“You do fill them out, just like nature intended you to, like a fourteen-year old girl should.”

With that, she continued to buy me unpadded bras off the bargain racks at May Company.

*   *   *

As the bustiest girl in ninth grade, Karen had broad carte blanche. When she entered fourth period geometry plopping into her chair with reverberating effects, Mr. Murrow habitually pushed back his glasses with a clammy forefinger and cleared his throat. When she approached him during free time with questions about angles and equivalents, she’d twirl a section of her hair with her finger, lean over her textbook, and explain her area of confusion. Mr. Murrow couldn’t keep his eyes from diving down those ocean swells of Karen’s breasts. He’d spend all the time she needed to help her out. As she walked away he’d grab Chap Stick out of his shirt pocket and rake it across his lips. If I had a question he’d point out impatiently that he’d covered it in class, or he’d turn my textbook to a page and bark, “Read here, you should know this.”

Males were collectively mesmerized by Karen. We’d walk to the 7-11 for Slurpees, our flip-flops snapping in unison, and cars would pass honking with reverbs of “blondie,” or “hey baby,” wolf calls trailing with the exhaust fumes. We’d lie on the beach, wiggling the tops of our toes in the scalding sand to create a chill, shifting our beach-blown hair from side to side. Guys would approach, barely a glance my way—sometimes backs right to me—riveted to Karen and her assets.

Karen’s divorced mother solely supported her three children on a secretarial salary. She was always turning out lights and whipping up saucy casseroles. More than once I overheard her behind the closed bedroom door screeching at her ex for child support.

At my house our foreign identity and general difference marked us. I looked nothing like the even-featured faces seducing the masses on magazine covers, or wrinkling their poreless noses and tossing their shimmering hair in television ads. My parents lectured against impractical or grand ambitions, and advocated honest “hard work” and the value of being “humble.”

We resolved that our trajectories would lead somewhere better than our mothers’. Karen’s considerable intellect was inconsequential to her goal of a stable, permanent family. My aspirations contrasted with my parents’ ethics about appropriate work. I sought to capture the gaze—TV, film, something attached to an end-note of being watched, as Karen was watched, not for her talents, but for her body.

*   *   *

In my sophomore year of high school my family moved to a distant, but nearly identical suburb of Los Angeles, where I initiated a personal redefinition. I boarded the bus headed down the vast asphalt boulevard to an Albertson’s with a Domino’s pizza on one side, and a tropical something-or-other tanning salon on the other. In the hair product aisle I selected Clairol’s highlighting kit. I couldn’t look the cashier in the eye as I counted out my change. The Clinique specialist at the mall explained how to emphasize my eyes and pop my emerging cheekbones, selling me corresponding trade tools. With money from a summer job, I joined Imperial Health Club. The makeover worked, I began to be noticed.

Karen and I remained in touch. Occasionally we braved the Greyhound bus ride through downtown LA, the ammonia odor of Skid Row permeating the ill-fitted window closures. In the bedrooms of our suburban homes we’d compare stories of the men who sat next to us on the bus striking up conversations. Some leering, some lonely, some who seemed protective—interactions evaluated through the lens of our increasing carnal currency.

*   *   *

After high school I enrolled at the local junior college where I took humanities, and elective courses like theater and dance. Karen went to USC and graduated with highest honors in the sciences. I received a graduation announcement in the mail with a scrawled note on the flip side: “Can you come,” she asked, and then in shaky writing, “I need you, Angel died yesterday.” But I couldn’t make the ceremony because I was getting my nose fixed a few days before the event. I sent along a card of congratulations apologizing for my absence and mourning the departed Angel.

The new nose took some getting used to; my breathing and voice were never the same—there was a ducky echo when I spoke. My mother would fixate on my profile sighing, commenting on how all the women on TV looked alike, “without any character” to their faces. Her unspoken disapproval was palpable.

After graduating, Karen got a first-rate job at a major defense company. I dropped out of junior college, floundered. I waited tables and started auditioning for community theater roles, sometimes playing to houses smaller than the number of actors in the cast.

I continually worked out, believing that one could maybe sculpt breasts from a body, but that only succeeded in firming up what little bit would have been better off remaining plump. I purchased a set of those malleable, raw-chicken breast inserts and stuffed them in my staunchest underwire bra, which seemed to work, until one day I grew careless. At a play reading, my slumpy posture squished one of the cutlets right out of my bra, where it settled between the bottom of my rib cage and my waistband. When I stood up I noticed one of the actors staring in wonder at my torso, where a half-cantaloupe bulge rested down around my belly. I threw the inserts out.

One evening I returned from rehearsal, and pulled an envelope addressed from Karen out of the stack of the day’s mail. I tossed my gym bag on the floor and tore the letter open. The pages smelled of pencil lead and excitement. I’ve met the love of my life, she enthused so vigorously that tiny leaden droplets scattered in the margins. I’m so READY. She told me their combined income could buy a house. And she was getting her master’s degree in Information technology, paid for by her employer. Oh, and she’d just been promoted. I was making minimum wage plus tips as a waitress, and sharing an apartment in Pasadena with two other women. I’d had to borrow money from my parents to buy a sofa and a used refrigerator. I assessed my apartment, the tacky Sofa-U-Love purchase flanked by mismatched armchairs and garage sale finds. I wasn’t even in a relationship. Men watched me now, like I’d craved, but when I scraped the veneer of attraction our intentions grew fuzzy.

So I went to see a surgeon, urged on by the phantom of Karen and her achievements, which I attributed to those breasts.

The pain from the implants was worse than the nose. For weeks I slept perched upright like a mannequin thrown against a wall. They throbbed like incessant bongo-drums, always reminding me they were there, and I suspected they weren’t enough.

I was still sore when I ran into Karen at a sports bar in Westwood. Wading through smoke and loopy patrons to reach her, I tapped her arm. We performed the squeal/laughter/hug that old friends do when they recognize each other in unexpected locales. She introduced me to her disinterested love, Bruce.

“It’s great to meet you,” I said, extending my hand. His grip was clammy and a ripe odor pooled around him.

“Hey,” he responded, his eyes never leaving the bar television as he cupped his hand back around his beer.

In the bathroom Karen made excuses for Bruce, his rough-hewn demeanor, explaining that he had his own construction company, was a guy’s guy. And, she added, “eager to start a family.”

“Are you thinking about marrying him?” I asked, wondering what they possibly had in common. In the stale fluorescent glare I noticed she looked different, an almost intangible sag in her formerly plush cheeks, shoulders slouched—a whisper of anxiety.

“He has traditional values, Anita,” she said, “and he wants children.”

“But, are you in love?” She seemed smaller, too, in the chest.

“Yeah. I mean, I spend a lot of time studying and he doesn’t complain because he watches his sports. It works. You look good,” she said, changing the subject, “You’ve filled out. Your … boobs!”

“I got them done, but I wish I’d gone bigger,” I complained, sneaking a silhouette comparison in the cloudy mirror.

“Are you seeing someone?”

“No one in particular; I’m keeping my options open.”

We returned to the bar where she smiled sweetly at Bruce, who nodded and tapped his cigarette tip into a Raiders ashtray. The beer glass was empty beside him, and he gestured for another without asking if we wanted something.

*   *   *

After the surgery I started to land better roles in bigger productions. I was reviewed in LA Weekly with descriptions that focused on “perfect for the ingénue,” “smoldering and sexy,” or “easy on the eyes.” Nothing about talent, but I was exhilarated.

In the lobby of the Pasadena Playhouse I stood for a meet and greet after a show. I recognized Janet Piedmont, who’d been Karen’s closest friend after I moved. She gushed, “I hardly recognized you, wow!” I could see her trying to determine what was different about me. I asked her about Karen and she told me that she’d broken up with Bruce.

“But I’m not speaking to Karen, I’m not sure if you heard,” Janet exhaled for dramatic effect, “because apparently she thinks it’s OK to screw her best friend’s fiancé when she’s lonely.”

“Oh, Janet. No, I hadn’t heard.”

Karen and the former fiancé were now a couple, but Janet was having the last laugh, she told me, because Larry was older and he’d had a vasectomy after a failed first marriage.

*   *   *

I started to land more work and moved into my own place. I kept seeking agents and hearing the same thing—you need to ramp it up. Own your typecast, commit. This is Hollywood, they’d emphasize, and even a large C doesn’t stand out. With all my potential invested in image, I returned to my surgeon to up the ante.

I had some time off for healing, so I looked up Karen and we met at Gladstone’s on the coast for lunch. I was shocked when she walked in. She’d lost weight, walked without confidence; her hair fell limp on angular shoulders. Where had that proud cleavage gone? Even in a knit tank top and short skirt, there were no head-turns when she entered. The waiter approached, focusing his fabricated smile on me.

“Are you ready for another one?” And after I answered yes, I had to point out that Karen needed a margarita. For the first time I felt I was occupying more space than she was, generating more buzz. She told me the relationship with Janet’s ex had been doomed from the start. He was older, she said, and didn’t want children. No mention of the vasectomy.

“You never feel safe when it starts like that.” Her regret was evident. “I can’t seem to find the good ones. How about you, anyone serious?”

“Nope, still searching.” I didn’t mention the married soap actor.

She told me she had just bought a house on her own in Torrance, convenient to her job, but lacking double sinks in the master. She showed me pictures of a typical post-WWII, pseudo-chalet/ranch. I stirred my Bloody Mary with the celery stalk and bragged that I’d finally secured an agent and a $2,000 per month North Hollywood apartment that smelled of chlorine, new flooring, and wafts of Roundup when the gardeners sprayed, but was central to most casting spots. Karen was pursuing a second master’s degree, news she shared without pride.

“I saw you in that State Farm ad,” she said, “I called my mom and we got such a kick out of it.”

“It’s one of my national commercials. That one alone pays my rent. Have you seen me in the vanilla vodka ad?”

“No, I missed it.”

“Well, I’m easy to miss. They focused on a younger model, but I worked the cameraman and got some screen time. Hey, do you think I should get extensions?”

She looked at me as if to determine whether I was joking. I figured she was envious. Then she leaned in so close I could see the moist corners of her eyes, the flaking bits of her drugstore mascara.

“Anita, do you feel like we’re missing out?” she asked me. “All our friends are married with kids. Their lives are so different from ours.”

“Their lives are ordinary,” I replied. “I want more, don’t you?”

She looked at me, pausing to chew a piece of fingernail, really ripping at it. “We’re almost thirty-three, there’s not a lot of time left to have kids. Janet’s married now, and pregnant I hear.” She sipped her margarita and licked the salt bits from her lips. “I’ve quit smoking and stopped taking the pill.”

“Why?”

“I want a child.”

All these years gone by, a thriving career, and still the imperative of motherhood.

“But your work, how will you raise it alone?”

“There are nannies, good ones, and agencies that screen them. I’ll figure it out.” She admitted that she yearned for an accident. We sat silent, our thoughts pounding in time with the surf.

“Don’t get extensions,” she said after a pause.

“But my agent thinks they’ll help.”

She smiled and I spotted the ghost of her former appeal. “Anita, I remember when you were so skinny, all leg and arm joints. You’ve changed, that’s for sure.”

I registered the comment as a victory.

*   *   *

Nearly eight years passed with only occasional e-mails and holiday cards from Karen. More broken relationships that she mourned and analyzed. A ratcheting up of desperation when she was cheated on or left. She must have felt that because I, too, was single, I’d understand. But I didn’t relate to her sorrow. I expertly deflected my mother’s what-about-my-grandchildren lament, and kept a steady stream of male friends in tow for holiday obligations.

For all Karen’s loneliness, her career soared. Each plaintive note mentioned a promotion or an enviable bonus, buried in the subtext of her sadness. I managed to keep booking print and TV ads, but the race for relevance was relentless. I discovered injections and spray tanning. As long as I focused on the advantages of a youthful chassis, I barely noticed those birthdays with relative strangers, or the solitude that ricocheted off the chic furnishings of my apartment.

While Karen pursued a permanent connection, I settled for doomed scenarios. I traded the married soap star for a married producer, who I left for an admiring CEO, who insisted he was almost separated. Dead ends. They made promises I didn’t require, and disappeared on weekends. I couldn’t care. There was always someone new to pick up where the last one had left off.

I fancied my life as enviable. I’d moved to a sleek Westwood high-rise with rooftop pool, doormen who greeted me by name and neighbors who were all in the biz. We gathered for cocktail parties, clutching our lemon drops and bite-sized sushi and discussing who was cheating and with whom. I bought a sable Pomeranian from top champion lines and named her Pumpkin. I brought her everywhere I went, wide child-eyes peering at the world from behind the screen of a Louis Vuitton carrier.

When I turned forty, most of my work changed to voice-overs.

One day I noticed visible rippling at the side of my right breast. The doctor determined my implant had ruptured and scar tissue had formed. The fix was lopsided, my nipple pointing outward and all sensitivity gone, but the “best he could do,” the surgeon said. And they’d found a suspicious mass that was “probably nothing,” but they’d taken a biopsy.

About a week after the surgery I checked my e-mails while Pumpkin curled in my lap. There was one from Karen, subject line: I Did It! It was a note to undisclosed recipients asking for our congratulations, she had achieved successful “implantation of triplets” into her friendly, but still unclaimed, womb.

Triplets! I tried to imagine what that would do to her body.

I fired off a response:

 

Hi, and congratulations! It’s been a while—what surprising news. I expect your life will soon be filled with diaper bags and interrupted sleep. But in a good way. Karen, I’m happy that you proactively achieved what you have always wanted. I’m still booking work and I have a dog that’s a Pomeranian, just like Angel. I’m happy for us both. We’re doing pretty well for ourselves, right? Please let me know when the babies come.

 

She replied to me explaining she had taken matters into her own hands and gone to a sperm bank where she selected a donor from a portfolio of profiles. She was traversing pregnancy well, she said, and had already secured a Romanian nanny. She attached a photo of herself to the e-mail. In the picture she stood on a concrete slab, slightly greened by shrill sunlight cast through a corrugated plastic patio cover. She was turned to the side, happily clutching her ripe belly with both hands. Her coveted breasts were more splendid than ever, ample—I imagined pulsing with purpose. She finally seemed happy, frumpy and framed by overgrown hibiscus and camellia bushes.

I couldn’t think of a reply, so I set Pumpkin down on the cool travertine, poured some Grey Goose into a shaker and made myself a drink. It occurred to me that for the first time in our adult lives, Karen would no longer be alone. But I would. I felt an impulse to smash something. Instead I texted my latest companion a message that we were through. I noticed I needed a manicure, so I scheduled a spa day with a deluxe mani-pedi and microdermabrasion for the following Saturday, and called the cleaning lady with certain complaints. I gulped my martini and made another. I phoned my doctor’s office where, after ten minutes of holding to muzak’d versions of “Don’t Go Chasing Waterfalls,” and “She’s Always a Woman,” they told me my lab results weren’t in yet.

My phone rang, caller ID mispronouncing my agent’s name. I let it ring. I rose, wincing from the sore incision and made another drink. I walked out onto my terrace and settled into a stylish chaise, purchased straight from the pages of Dwell magazine. I felt something inside me give, shifting like earth splitting from a quake.

Pumpkin jumped up and knocked my drink off a side table, the Italian glass shattering all around us. I grabbed her and walked inside, slamming the slider. I called my mother, but she wasn’t home.

My wound throbbed and I felt sick. I looked around at nothing but sterile design and pandering choices. Who lived here? Where had my humor gone? Did I have cancer? I sat on my chilly leather sofa and choked on sobs for being forty-something, for feeling broken, for awaiting a verdict, and mostly for ending up alone. Pumpkin whined and pawed at my tucked knees. When I finally stopped, I saw that the new ex had texted back with one word, “FINE,” in all caps. Outside, past the spotless glass, it was one of those spectacular Los Angeles winter sunsets, the sky like ash and smoldering embers glowing from the mouth of a kiln.

 

 

BIO

Pamela Langley writerPamela Ramos Langley lives in an exurb of So Cal, three degrees of suburban separation from a happening city center. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in Literary Orphans, The Writing Disorder, The Story Shack, Hippocampus, The Santa Fe Literary Review, Elohi Gaduji, The River Poets Journal, and elsewhere. She’s been nominated for Best of the Net, is Managing Editor of Drunk Monkeys, hosts a blog at langleywrite.com, and fantasizes that she’s progressing from aspiring to emerging.

 

 

 

Jake Teeny writer

Recalling the Cold

by Jake Teeny

 

 

Drop Cap Along with their tray of food for the day, came a pistol. It slid across the cracked concrete of their jail cell like the sound of a rake against an icy sidewalk. None of the three men noticed it at first; each sat with his back against a different slate wall, no cots, just one bucket, their eyes, all bloodshot and purpled in degrees of retaliation, were closed, their chins against their chests. Praying? Trying to sleep? For them, there wasn’t much difference. If a Gestapo peered through the square cut in the upper third of their door, he would have seen James against the left wall, Raymond against the back, and Harold against the right. The scarred wooden tray holding three tin cups of mashed potatoes and three tin cups of coffee—all certain to have another cigarette butt floating in the middle of them—remained a few feet from the flap at the bottom of the door. Motionless.

Although none of them had seen it yet, the gun would be recognized as a revolver. An Enfield Mk II. A British made pistol more commonly known as the No. 2. The Germans fancied Allied guns, not too unlike the Indians’ collection of scalps. The No. 2 had a thin walnut handgrip and weighed less than two pounds. From barrel to butt, it was eleven and a half inches long with an iron, six-round cylinder. At the base of the handgrip was a small steel ring a soldier could use to attach it to his belt. And if any of the three men had scrutinized the gun (which none of them ever would) they’d have seen its serial number read O9624, the number issued to British infantryman Charles Cartwright, an unextraordinary solider shot by an elderly German civilian whose finger had accidentally, tremulously pulled the trigger on a rifle.

Now, that pistol lay in the middle of their cell.

Harold’s stomach growled, and his eyes opened, not because a new sound had broken the routine—flap slaps open, tray slides in, flap slaps close—but because one cup of mashed potatoes might trick his stomach into thinking, Enough. It never did. Harold was nineteen-years-old and had enlisted on July 14th, 1943, exactly thirty days after he had graduated from high school (a stipulation his mother had begged of him) and sixteen days (his lucky number) after he had asked his girlfriend since sophomore year, Betty Dawson, to marry him. She had said yes. Harold wore his blond hair as fashionably as the army would allow him, short on the sides, long on top, which complemented his lovely blue eyes, blue eyes always twinkling like birthday present watches. Now, however, only one of those eyes could open, the other like a large moldy grape sewn over the socket. He didn’t know it, but the German’s fist, Niklas Fleisher’s fist, had actually fractured Harold’s cheekbone, the same blow that had severed half a dime’s worth of tongue as Harold bit down in pain. The loosed pinch of flesh, sliced off in one snap, had rolled over the back of his tongue and caught in the back of his throat as he tried to swallow, gasp out a scream. Days later, and Harold’s raw hook of muscle still exploded with pain every time he tried to eat, but the moaning of his stomach was apathetic to such discomfort.

Harold’s good eye peeled open wider to stare at the revolver. He closed it. His mind must not have fully unglued from the darkness. He opened it again. The revolver was still there. The unintentional click of his throat summoned James’ attention across from him. James. He was twenty-three with hazel eyes, a venerable depth to them even as a child, both painted, now, with yellowy bruises. His nose was swollen, red, and crooked down the bridge, but before it had been dismantled, you could have seen the destined structure for his eldest daughter, Sandra, in it. His other daughter, Carolyn, was still too young, but James had hope. His nose had always been something he secretly prided himself for, and it was his nose, or so he told people, that had caught him his wife, Marie. He told it as though he had followed her perfume like a pink nimbus wafting the dance hall, his nose informing him he was in love before he even knew what she looked like. And when he had seen her, spotlighted in that yellow shoulder-strap dress, alone, between jitterbugging couples, he was prepared to get down on one knee right then. Imagining that story, now, however, just made him realize how much it would hurt his knee to shove it against the concrete. Imagining that story, now, and he didn’t even care if he had tracked her down in that dance hall at all. With his left hand—every finger but his thumb on his right hand, his dominant hand, broken in ghastly contortions—he brushed some of his long black hair off his forehead. The lice loved the length of his hair, gnawed and gnawed and stabbed at his scalp, but he had no scissors to cut it. They wouldn’t give him any. Tell us who planned it, they said. Name, rank, serial number. Name, rank, serial number. Tell us! The three prisoners all wore the same outfit over their slimming bodies: beige button down collared shirt, beige cotton slacks. Their clothes reeked of sweat and dirt, the stuffy, oniony smell of a moldering body. Before the three of them had been placed in this jail cell, when they were outside in the P.O.W. camp with the other Allied forces held in Stalag Luft I, where they could stare off at the Barth forest of beech trees, English oaks, pine, stare off at the flying “V” of geese, the lone herons, they could have traded cigarettes for soap. They could have traded enough cigarettes for someone else’s clothes. But in here…How many days was it now?

Raymond, the eldest at twenty-nine, gazed through slit eyes at the revolver on the floor between them. The square of flat ashen light from the door, filtered once through wintery clouds, again through the filthy window opposite their cell, told Raymond nothing about how many days he had been dragged out, interrogated (beaten), thrown back in, dragged out, interrogated (tortured), thrown back in. Raymond had come to judge how long he had been in there by how well he could remember the crunch of frosted grass beneath his boots. Time measured through the sharpness of memories: a crooked yardstick but a yardstick nonetheless. Raymond had sienna hair and sienna eyes. He wasn’t married, not because he didn’t want to be, but because he always intended to move out of Vineyard, Utah first. Before the war, though, he had just never got around to doing it. Silence rarely bothered Raymond (uninterrupted thoughts were an invaluable freedom), so even when a revolver suddenly slid into their cell, he appreciated the quiet. The three men never discussed plans for escape, didn’t ask what happened when they were individually pulled away. Harold used to blather on about his hometown of Portland, Maine, about his beautiful fiancé Betty Dawson, about the house they planned to buy, about his plans to go to college, about the names for the five children he’d have, the names for the three dogs he’d have—And then the incident with his tongue. Back with the other men, you were always hesitant to complain about your tragedies because there was always some poor devil worse off than you. Out of these three, though, Raymond considered himself unmatched, unless of course Harold continued chewing off more of his tongue. It had been an uncontrollable, almost instinctual pleasure for Raymond when Harold had been thrown back into the cell, blood leaking from the corner of his lips, whining lowly, like the words of deaf people, when he had opened his mouth and shown them. No more Betty. No more children’s names. Raymond had never wanted that, had never asked the boy to keep quiet or told him to shut up, but now that it had happened, there was nothing Raymond could do. Nothing he could have done. Still, that unfounded, cursed guilt for his initial thanksgiving burrowed trails through his stomach, and Raymond was helpless to fill them.

James had been on patrol with his good friend Ed Hathaway, before he’d been taken to Stalag Luft I. They had been walking the perimeter of their base in Obstgarten forest, snow everywhere, the boughs of pines, the wormwood, shoes, clothes, but it hadn’t been windy so it hadn’t been terrible. James was from Brunswick, Georgia, where winter just meant you didn’t wear your sunglasses as often. He had never imagined that such a cold existed until he ended up in Germany. Such a ruthless, insidious chill. He had been about to remark on the cold for the countless time to Ed (“it’s so cold my balls are up to my nipples!”) when the Jerrys had stepped out of the brush. Everyone but the leader had a rifle leveled at them, while the German in charge had an American made pistol, a Smith & Wesson .38/200, aimed at them. It, too, was a revolver, one of similar design to the pistol that lay in front of them now. Intentional? Of course not. But James couldn’t resist the anxiety at seeing such a similar weapon here.

The three men continued to stare at the gun, only glancing at the others when the others weren’t glancing at them. Their meager food, usually retrieved and distributed seconds after the flap closed, was forgotten. And after another moment of precipitous silence, James reached forward and picked up the pistol.

To most, the revolver would have felt surprisingly heavy. But to James, it seemed surprisingly light. Something so inanimate, so uncomplicated—kinetic force of the hammer strikes the firing pin, firing pin ignites the gunpowder, gunpowder propels the steel jacket down the spirally grooved barrel—could end something so animate, so complicated as life. Back in Georgia, James had kept a pistol of his own in a shoebox at the top of his closet, far out of the reach of Sandra or Carolyn. In truth, he had never wanted the pistol in the house, but Marie told him it would make her feel safer. Anything for that. She was always so worried, as if she went out of her way to scour the newspaper or misinterpret gossip to have something to fret over. Once James had been drafted, he had had to talk her down from numerous plans of escape to Canada. She had cried so much. Sandra hadn’t understood. Carolyn wailed because her mommy did. And all James could do was wave.

Raymond didn’t like that James had grabbed the pistol first. Raymond was the oldest by five years or so, and even in the most mangled cages of the most dehumanized creatures, seniority meant something. But the revolver had been farthest from him. To scoot and twist, to wring the pain from him like brown water from a soiled dishrag wasn’t worth it. Not when he could just sit there and breathe. James rotated the pistol in his one hand, twisted it this way then that, even stared into the barrel, something you were told never to do unless you were certain it was unloaded. Though such a decree was difficult to follow when you weren’t always the one directing the gun.

Across from James, Harold wanted to ask, What is it? but knew that such a question was terribly stupid. A gun, you dummy!—What do you think? So he said nothing and waited as James examined the chambers. He found only one round. One bullet. Five clicks, one bang. James couldn’t punch the cylinder out with just one hand to confirm this, but he was pretty sure. Damn, the fingers on his right hand. Name, rank, serial number. That’s what the pain spelled. That, and the name, rank, serial numbers of the forty-seven men those Germans had stood in front of them and shot. The Germans had taken fifty men; he, Harold, and Raymond were the lucky three. The lucky ones. The fortunate guys beaten day after day but not killed. Struck in the liver and screamed at, fingers snapped backwards. But alive. Stripped naked in officer’s quarters. Humiliated. Prideless. Worthless. Alive. And now this revolver. Given to them. Loaded with one slug. Either it made no sense or it made too much, and James was unsure which he preferred. So holding the gun for only another lingering second, he set it back on the floor in front of him.

There was a distinct difference between wanting and needing. Most people missed it, but Raymond didn’t. And he was pretty sure at this moment he just wanted the pistol. Wanted to hold it. To touch it. To press its outline against his chest. But no matter how much Raymond wanted something—even needed something—he never begged for anything. Never. Anything. His father had worked at Geneva Steel. Raymond worked at Geneva Steel. Well, used to work there before he became a putrid solider. On the drive over to the military base—after Raymond had won the first lottery of his life—his co-worker, David Atkinson, had been telling Ray (not Raymond) how much they were going to miss his talents at “fixin’ stuff” at the mill. His talents, that’s what they’d miss. True, Raymond was a gifted millwright, inspecting, repairing, replacing, installing, adjusting, maintaining, all the mechanical equipment involved with ingot production, even the giant boilers that poured the golden sludge of molten steel. The heat, the long hours, the hard work. Always dirty and hot. Oily and hot. Sweating his soul into his socks and undershirt, all to keep himself above the poverty line. Raymond should have been a foreman, managing rather than being managed. Twenty-nine may have seemed young, but Raymond was smarter than the average twenty-niner in there. Hell, he was smarter than the average thirty-fiver. How else could he have been so successful as a millwright? But they, too, knew this (“that position’s just not ready yet”), and they, too, knew (“we believe Dale’s going to take over—he’s got the years”) that if Raymond went from laborer to foreman (“look at your pa; he’s been grinding for decades”) it would mean the others would wonder why they were skipped over. And in this jail cell, nothing had changed. He was still sweaty, oily, starving, while the others skipped over him; while he watched Harold’s slender fingers pick up the gun next.

The first time Harold had held a gun was in Atlantic City. That’s where he had conducted his training after enlisting. There wasn’t enough room in the barracks, so they put him and a majority of the other enlisted up in hotels. It was the first time Harold had stayed in a hotel, too. Certain events bond people together, and when Harold had traveled on the bus out to the countryside, followed the drill sergeant to an open field with hay bales and targets on one end, a line of shooting stations and rifles on the other, was one of those moments for Harold and Kevin Lewin. Harold vaguely knew Kevin from high school baseball. Harold was the starting shortstop—wearing number sixteen—for his varsity team. Kevin, who Harold didn’t remember at first, had been a bench player for an opposing high school. Through pure luck (destiny?) Harold and Kevin ended up side-by-side at the shooting range. Neither boy had much of a clue what they were doing (“how do you work the bolt?”), but through the smell of sulfur, the shoulder bruises from the rifle’s kick, and the stories of high school sports, they became friends. Harold told Kevin about the first and only time he had tried a puff of a marijuana cigarette. Kevin, on a stroll one dark night, told Harold that his mother was Mexican (though Harold would have never guessed). But when they were deployed, Harold went one way, Kevin another. Harold still remembered the sound of Kevin’s laugh when Harold told the story of how he got chased by a cat. Harold still remembered Kevin’s squirrel-nosed look after he and Harold had their first meal in the mess (“you have to try my mother’s enchiladas”). But the nostalgia was only a brief guard against the fiery pain in Harold’s mouth. God, he hoped Kevin was all right. It was a selfish reason, but if Kevin was all right, then maybe Harold would turn out all right, too.

After what couldn’t have been more than twenty seconds, Harold returned the pistol to the middle of the concrete. He wasn’t sure why he had grabbed it—maybe because James had; maybe because there was nothing else to do—but he didn’t feel like holding it anymore. The way Raymond had been watching him, even James… Maybe it was the attention after such paradoxical solitude. Maybe it was just the simple weight of the gun in his weary arms. No matter. Back on the concrete, no more cold wood or cold iron in his hands, Harold felt better. And across from him, James was already reaching to retrieve the gun again. But from the back of the room, Raymond’s upturned palm extended toward him. Wanting.

This wasn’t begging, merely fairness. James got a turn. Harold got a turn. Therefore… James laced gazes with his cellmate, and Raymond knew those secret hazel eyes shared an understanding. Raymond just wondered if James, too, had searched the floor for three slips of straw. Only one chamber blocked the light passing through the cylinder. Just one. James didn’t break eye contact as he laid the pistol on the ground, his full left palm spidered over it. After a hesitation, he slid it forward. A sound like teeth scraped across brick. The revolver skated past Raymond’s left foot and through to where the lower part of his right leg should have been, catching the pistol before it thunked into the wad of thigh removed above the knee. He judged how long ago he’d had an intact right leg by how well he could remember the sweat. The lice were always bad but they didn’t stray from your head. The sweat…The sweat was everywhere. Inexorable. Not the runny kind of sweat, like the juices of a blueberry pie bubbling up in the oven. But the painful, stinging kind, like the sparks of burnt grease. On his shoulders. His abdomen. The backs of his hands. By the time he had been given to a doctor, he had lost a lot of blood from his wrecked knee. He had even distantly thought they could pour some of the blood that leaked into his shoe back into his veins, but he worried that it might be dirty blood, bad blood, if his feet had been swimming in it. On the surgery table—a butcher’s long aluminum workbench still flecked with dried cow’s blood—lay Raymond with one electric bulb, a forty watt, above him. Nothing too bright on its own, but surrounding that one light bulb were dozens of reflectors, repurposed Klim powdered milk cans, arranged in a geometrical cone. The doctor’s head bumped the lamp at one point, and it performed a dazzling twirl of lights, like the way a lovely woman’s dress bells out when she spins, and Raymond lay there stroking the cold table with his fingertips, entranced upward, as the Polish doctor prodded and mumbled at his knee. Do you want to be a legless son or a dead hero? Raymond couldn’t remember his answer, but he didn’t think it would have mattered to the doctor. Just like it didn’t matter to the revolver.

Harold had to turn his whole head to watch Raymond examine the gun, his swollen right eye just a throb of ungodly pain. But his left still worked fine, and that was good enough. Secretly—Harold knew the other two would mock this idea—he thought they could use the gun for escape. Why else would someone have snuck it into their cell? He figured they could hold it up to that square at the top of the door and threaten the next Nazi who passed. You better open up or you’ll eat a bullet with your forehead! But elaborating that plan to James and Raymond would cause his tongue far too much pain. He would just wait for one of them to suggest it, then nod as enthusiastically as his aching head would allow. Until then, though, his mind kept skimming, wouldn’t settle, kept rippling like the water in a glass from all the footsteps around the house. He kept thinking about his golden retriever back home, Dice. His warm body. Wet tongue. If Harold closed his eye and thought hard enough, he could just about imagine that pillowy amber fur curled against him. Dice, three-years old at the time, had been there when Harold had first met Betty outside the bowling alley on Lancaster Street. At school, he had seen her in the hall outside his locker a couple of times, chestnut hair, heart-shaped face, fine calves, but he’d never had a reason to talk to her. Only weirdos talked to girls they had no business talking to, and Harold was no weirdo. But walking down the sidewalk on Lancaster Street, a beautiful spring day, something Bing Crosby might sing about, he had spotted her in the middle of the block. Immediately, he loosened his grip on the leash to fuss with his hair, when all of a sudden Dice bolted forward after a passing milk truck. Using all his strength, Harold slowed Dice before they crashed into Betty. They came close, though, and she giggled, Who’s walking who? and Harold, so fuddled by the energy to restrain his dog, the chance encounter with Betty Dawson, said the first thing that came to his mind: I once bowled a 216, you know? Which, putting a “two” in front of his favorite number, resulted in a complete lie. It took him three months of going steady before he finally admitted the deceit, the whole time, not once taking her bowling.

Raymond continued to run his index finger all over that dirty iron before he popped out the cylinder and spun it. Someone had treated this gun well, oiled it, cleaned it. The cylinder spun fast, all the holes seeming to blend into one. Blend into one except one. But before the cylinder rested, with a flick of his wrist, Raymond snapped it back into the gun. Outside with the other men, there had been a German guard named Lukas Gottschalk, a slender man with dark hair and a narrow chin. Lukas had been a piano teacher before the war (“if you don’t like classical music, then you have never listened to Debussy”), and spoke relatively fine English. There was something different about Lukas: he held his rifle more loosely against his shoulder; he smiled resignedly when checking count. You actually like being a Nazi? Raymond had asked once as Lukas shared a sip of toasty coffee with him. They stood obscured, or so they thought, at the base of a wooden guard tower. Me? A Nazi? No, I just do what I have to. You understand. Raymond nodded. Sometimes I get a student who I know does not like piano. Does not like me. But he pretends; he moves his fingers and taps his foot. He plays the notes for his mother. He does not feel the music. You can play notes without playing music. Raymond let the revolver rest on his lap; he should really slide it back into the middle but couldn’t persuade himself to do so. Not while there was still the question. After his talk with Lukas, he didn’t see the guard for two and a half months. When Lukas finally returned, his dark hair was now cloud white, his slender frame slimmer. When Raymond approached him, Lukas appeared as though he saw the world through turned around binoculars. At the time, Raymond couldn’t bring himself to ask what had happened, but now, given the chance, he would have had one question for Lukas: did they give you a revolver, too?

From the moment Raymond had extended his hand—No. From the moment Raymond had staggered in after his first interrogation, James had known what Raymond would do with the gun. Raymond’s eyes hadn’t given it away. His slumped posture hadn’t revealed anything. James had known what Raymond would do with that gun, because James himself wanted to do the same. That’s why he had given it to Raymond, wasn’t it? Let him spend the temptation. Rid James of the choice. Each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire, John 1:14. The solitary confinement cell of Stalag Luft I did not welcome God. James did not welcome God. But all those Sunday mornings with his mother, with Marie (“you should have given me that shirt earlier, I could have ironed it!”), had made it instinct to turn to Him. Not a conscious choice. He should say something to Raymond. Say something.But what could he say when the cold was only beautiful in memory? What should he have said to Ed? Ed Hathaway, his friend. Those Jerrys had come out of nowhere. Had James been the one to lead them down that trail? Hadn’t he said the trees would buffet the wind better this way? He couldn’t remember. Didn’t want to. But James had said something then. With all those Nazi’s jabbering at them in that spiky-balled language. James had told Ed to take his hand out of his breast pocket. Take it out! But I just want to give ‘em some smokes. Show ‘em we’re alright, you know. Just want to—

Raymond knew the question, but not the answer. The answer. But that’s how it worked. You weren’t supposed to know the answer. Just the question. They had kept him, James, and Harold alive because of a question. Who was planning it? What did they know? Those greedy prisoners at Stalag Luft III, tunneling and digging and tunneling and escaping, had cost those in Stalag Luft I the lives of forty-seven men, (“German honor will not be affronted!”) had cost them their own escape tunnels when the Gestapo had raided their living blocks, torn up the floor, upended mattresses, found the bunk-bed slats structuring the crawlspaces that led to life with invisible walls, not fenced or concrete ones. The only thing left for the Gestapo to upturn was those behind it. Who were the leaders? The question asked before forty-seven men were shot in cold blood. The question asked every time Raymond was dragged into the officer’s quarter, interrogated (whipped), thrown back in. But if they still wanted an answer, why give the three of them a pistol? Why? Why? Because those Nazi bastards already knew the answer. They knew it from the beginning when those skinny Krauts with a working knowledge of English crawled under their living blocks and eavesdropped on their conversations. So as Raymond understood, it was never about the answer. Always the question. The question. The question. The question. Like the one right now. Which of these six chambers held the .87 inches of steel that would enter through the lower part of his jaw and exit through the base of his brain?

Harold’s tongue clung to the floor of his mouth like a corpse at the base of the ocean. Seeing Raymond now, the jitteriness of his eyes, the way the gun kept moving slightly into the air, then back to his lap, angled up to his shoulder, then back to his lap, Harold knew that he needed to swallow the pain and speak. If he hadn’t been so stupid. The gun wasn’t about escaping, at least not escaping in the way Harold had imagined. This was a method of escape. Even a fine one considering the circumstances, but never a good one. Like the way Harold had been forced to exit his bomber. Shot down, just like everybody else. Jumped out, just like everybody else. The only option for escape considering the circumstances. Not a good one, but he hadn’t any others. Raymond still did. He had to have a dog like Dice or a girl like Betty Dawson, or at least he had to know that there were other brothers with guns still out there. Harold reached out his hand. It was not nearly as firm as he would have liked it, soggy from all the punches into his bicep and shoulder, but it was out there. Calling. Please, thought Harold. Calling. Please.

Raymond judged how long ago he had felt safe by how well he could remember the taste of real eggs. They always served you real eggs on the day of an actual mission, not that powdered, yellowy rubber. He’d had his Sunnyside up, greasy and hot. The B-24 he’d been flying in that day, named Bad Luck 13—an attempt at jinxing a jinx—had been making a bombing run on Velgast, a city about eight and half miles south of Barth where he was held now. Raymond was the plane’s engineer, his aptitude as a millwright supposedly qualifying him for the role. They had still been ten miles outside of Velgast when the German fighters flew in, tattering every Allied plane in the sky. The vroom of engines and air were quickly replaced with the patter of flak, the sound of a Spanish god rolling his “r’s.” The men in the hull, Clarence Wiggs, navigator, Fred Brinson, bombardier, Craig Furman, left waist gunner, Arthur Powell, right waist gunner, and William Sternberg, tail gunner, lost their footing as the plane rocked and swiveled to evade the anti-aircraft fire. Within seconds, a bullet pierced the right-side window of the cockpit, splattering the co-pilot’s, Todd Greeley’s, blood and brain matter against the side of Captain Jeffrey Ragland’s face. Three feet back in the engineer’s jump seat, Raymond screamed horrifically, barely able to hear Captain Ragland shout at him to retrieve their chutes. Cold air whistled through the hole in the thick glass, Raymond’s fingers numb as he fumbled at the clasp on his waist. Open the emergency hatches! shouted Ragland into the radio. Open the hatches and prepare to—A triplet of flak tore through the cockpit’s front windshield, burrowing two bullets in Ragland’s throat, another in his chest. Nausea and fear. Raymond finally undid his seatbelt and staggered to the back. Bright morning light flooded through the open bombing bay as Wiggs and Brinson tried to shovel out as much of the explosives as they could. The target was still miles out, but with leaking gasoline, a hull crammed with explosives, and an onslaught of flak, any errant spark would turn this hulk of metal into a careening fireball. Raymond stumbled to the parachutes attached to the netting on the side of the plane, but two steps away, a round of flak burst through the floor, rocketed through metal, then cabin air, then the skin behind Raymond’s knee, then his femur, then his lateral condyle, then his patellar tendon, then the skin on the front of his knee, then more cabin air, then back through the side of the plane. Raymond lurched forward—pain like a jagged bullhorn jammed and twisted in his knee—and reached for a chute. Somehow, he grabbed one. Shaking, crying, he attached it to the clasps on his suit, when all of a sudden the vertical stabilizers were shot, and the nose of the plane began to rise, Raymond beginning to roll toward the tail. Through the flashes of his spinning world, he saw Fred Brinson and Arthur Powell get sucked out the bay without parachutes. William Sternberg and Clarence Wigg clung to the sides of the plane. Then Raymond tumbled over the cold, ridged metal and into the nothingness of morning sky. He fell…Fell…Emptiness. Then his fingers behaved automatically, reaching for the ring on the front of his jacket and pulling. In a righter state of mind, however, he would have remembered to wait for his body to slow down before he sprung the chute. Gravity could only pull the human body at a speed of 125 mph, but coming out of the plane like that, he was moving close to 165 mph. The wide canvas sail snagged the air and jerked every strap attached to Raymond’s body with the force of a high-rise noose. He screamed. The already severed tendons in his knee ripped further. Warm blood pooled in his shoe; his unstitching leg swung like a hypnotist’s fraying pendulum. All this, pain, unconsciousness, helplessness, as he delicately floated down to earth. If he just hadn’t grabbed that parachute in the first place. If he had just tumbled out with Fred Brinson and Arthur Powell. The parachute handle in his memory slowly transformed into a revolver. A No. 2. In his hand. Raise. Pull the trigger. What’s the answer? Where’s the chamber?

The slight paling in James’ right hand had alerted him first. Paling and then a subtle reddening. He wasn’t sure if the light whiffs, difficult to distinguish form the other noxious odors permeating the cell, came from his hand or not. Sickeningly sweet. Like whiskey with a hint of rotted tomatoes. The lack of blood flow from the horrific breaks in his fingers could be causing it. The gangrene. The dying, decomposition of his flesh. He couldn’t be sure (could you ever be?), but he believed it was gangrene. A disease that spread if untreated. Do you want to be an armless father or a wartime hero? In a sick way, James wanted Raymond to pull that trigger. He wanted his ears to crack with the shatter of gunpowder. He wanted to hear it in his head, not feel it in his head. Because if Raymond didn’t do it, if someone didn’t dispose of that steel bullet, James was afraid he might. Afraid. Marie, Sandra, Carolyn. Metal to metal could end it all. The pressure, the stress, the weight. Life was so heavy—so heavy—while death was just…a scrap of parchment? a swimming leaf? a fluttering snowflake? Damn the cold! The revolver in Raymond’s hand continued to rise—an iron finger accusing the heavens; Harold’s arm reached outward, bent at the elbow. Limp. And what did James do? The same thing he had done for Ed. The same thing he had done when they shot those forty-seven men. But there was only so much you couldn’t claim to know. Outside this cell, there had been a night where the guards had thrown them some bones from a dead horse. Grass soup with horse bones for supper! And afterward, after their cramping stomachs had been lightly patted, the men had drawn cards to see who would get to suck the marrow from the bones. They had given James the task of fanning the deck. If only he hadn’t seen the bottom card he would have never been tempted. But his sticky eyes led to a sticky palm, and he and two others got to crack open the bones and slurp up the fat. Ice on the ground. A jacket too few. Plenty of spoons but not enough bowls. Pull the trigger, Raymond. Pull the trigger! Please (James couldn’t say it, but he could extend his hand) please, Raymond. Please.

Harold saw James outstretch his hand, and Harold knew that Raymond wouldn’t do it with both of them pleading otherwise. He couldn’t. Harold hadn’t told anyone this, but he had never killed anyone in the war. He had never even fired his gun. Working up in that B-17 as a navigator (a job of guessing and estimation; “the compass is vibrating six degrees that way then ten degrees this way—we’ll call it eight”), his responsibility was to direct people. Never to release the bombs. Never to pull a trigger. After bailing from the plane and diving through the clouds, his parachute got tangled in the lower limbs of a beech tree. The gray evening, the ratatat of gunfire, explosions in the sky. Harold rustled and fidgeted—the German shouts always seeming to get closer—but his release latch was tangled in the cording attached to his sail. Unexpectedly, though, on his forth yank, the lines released with a woosh and he fell ten feet, crashing hard on his left ankle. Pain torched the outside of his foot and up the side of his shin. But before he could even consider the injury, a rustle came from the nearby brush. The dirt was damp and smeared with decomposing leaves. Harold fumbled at the revolver attached to his belt and aimed it at the sound. He had no idea where his other men had landed, where he was supposed to get back to. A rustle in a different direction. Harold scooted along the matted leaves—the wet ground soaking through his pants—till his back struck the trunk of the tree. He would wait for the man to show himself. Ally or enemy? A moment later, his question was answered. The dim, setting sun illuminated a figure in a knee-length dark coat, a Nazi symbol emblazoned on a red band around his arm. With Harold’s back against the tree, he was silhouetted, hidden. He had his pistol surreptitiously raised at the figure (pull the trigger, Harold! pull it!), but no matter how much he tried to steady himself, his hand was too shaky, the gun felt too heavy. He had a clear shot. An easy point and…But he couldn’t; he just couldn’t. And instead, he did the last thing he should have ever done. He cried. The German startled at the sound, but quickly approached Harold. When he came close, however, he bent and said, Friendly, friendly, and pulled a badge from his jacket. He was a Frenchman with a zippy, bee-like accent, pale blue eyes, red cheeks. Steamy tears rolled down Harold’s face—his ankle, this war—and he did his best to smother his sobs. Up in that plane, away from it all, distanced, separate. Now down here…Can you walk? We need to move. They are coming. We must hurry. Harold stuffed a sob back down his throat. My ankle, mister. My ankle. The Frenchman was confused at first, but then quickly turned and pulled back Harold’s cuff, examining the injury. How you say? Not broke. Okay. Can you move? Harold wasn’t sure. He didn’t even know if he could try. Flashlight beams bounced through the woods behind them. Here, we put you up against—No, cut in Harold. Go. Just go, mister. The Frenchman hesitated, glanced up at the approaching slash of lights, then crouched down to face Harold. Carefully, he kissed Harold on both cheeks, and mumbled something in French. He made eye contact, hesitated again, then hurried off in the other direction. Minutes later, the Nazis found Harold, back against the tree, hands in the air. And now, in this jail cell, Harold again had his hand in the air, but he was beginning to worry it wouldn’t save him this time.

When your whole body’s cold, you can hardly feel the tip of a revolver underneath your chin. Raymond’s eyes had been closed for half a minute now. He couldn’t stand their looks, their outstretched hands, this cell. He hoped he could ride this bullet somewhere else. Ride it like a hitchhiker going wherever the driver headed. Somewhere different. His finger was taut against the trigger. The cell was completely silent, soundless, noiseless, a vacuum. It took an intentional amount of effort to make a revolver’s trigger fire. The finger had to overcome steady resistance until it finally tottered—a tenth of a second; a flexed wrist—before squeezing so gently, so airily the rest of the way. A world decided by finger strength. They say your life passes before your eyes but for Raymond, it was just a random smattering of images. The flickering of his bedroom, closet lamp, three, four times before it finally turned on. The squawk of crows perched along the power lines as he walked down Amiron Way. The bruised Granny Smith apples Tuck Nicolson would sell for half the usual price. In the darkness behind his eyelids, in the mute cell, he could hardly distinguish his legs—leg—from the floor. The only difference between concrete and bones? You didn’t bury concrete in a mass grave of bodies when you were done with it. Raymond wondered if he should say something. Some kind of final word. Something for them to—

He pulled the trigger.

Click.

Raymond opened his eyes, his breath heavy. An answer to the question. Both men across from him said nothing. Hardly breathed. Raymond had needed to pull the trigger mid-thought if he had wanted it to happen. If he had waited and tried to—

(screamingscreamingscreaming)

Click. Click. Click. Click.

Raymond raggedly exhaled through his mouth and nose at the same time. Like a racing horse beaten and whipped but still losing. The gun rattled against his chin. Five answers now. Five answers to his one question. The cylinder had spun, spun, spun so fast, when he snapped it in. What were the odds? Was this a sign? Should he—

He half-dropped, half-slid slid the gun back to the middle of the floor—the sound of a silver lighter clattering, skidding along asphalt—and broke into tears. Snotty, coughing tears. His chest thrummed, his grimy hands clutched his face. Why him? Why did this have to happen to him? The earth had flipped and flipped like a coin until it finally hit and jangled with his face up. His face. Him. Raymond. He deplored pushing that revolver back into the middle of the floor. One more simple motion with his index finger. That’s all it would have taken. But no. No, no, no. Raymond never begged for anything. Was it fear? Was it cowardice? Was there a difference? Raymond had no answers, just tears and pain and guilt and his dirty hands shielding his dirty face, these teardrops the closest thing to a wash that Raymond had in…how well did he remember that loathsome crunch of frosted grass?

Across from one another, Harold and James made eye contact. The revolver again lay on the floor between them. Slightly closer to Harold this time. But just slightly. Both men did nothing for a moment—neither looking at Raymond, neither looking at the gun. Just each other. James had the feeling of a hundred tentacles all wriggling inside of his stomach. It was right there. Right there. Even youths grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall, Isaiah, 40:30. James had seen how Harold had been looking at the gun. The boy didn’t even want it. Didn’t understand it. Didn’t realize that James had given more than his name, rank, serial number when they started to crank that second finger back toward the top of his hand. Why break the rest when they had the answers? Why? Because it was never about the answers. Raymond knew that. Knew that a man not interested in answers could ask questions forever. What about Marie, Sandra, Carolyn? …But what about James? Having your body rot away while you were still alive seemed a high price for a scrap of metal pinned to your chest. Maybe Ed hadn’t really wanted to give those Jerrys some cigarettes. Maybe he had just been tired of the cold. Maybe he had just been tired of seeing so many brothers die. Tired of every question those mortars asked. Every question those machine guns pattered off. Maybe, in the end, James was just tired, too. And when you’re tired, nothing sounds better than undisturbed sleep.

He lurched toward the gun.

Harold reacted automatically. Just like in baseball, you had to wait for the batter to swing first. You could try to anticipate it, try to guess. But in truth, you always had to react. And reaction always meant starting a second, a half of a second, a tenth of a second behind. James’ left hand reached the revolver first, and Harold’s hand landed on top of it. Warm skin on warm skin. Just like the way he had been transported to Stalg Luft I on that train. Hundreds of strange, fetid Americans all crammed into a single train car. Flesh against flesh. Cordwood bundled, strapped together to be pitched to the flames. No room to sit, to lay, no room for claustrophobia, human waste on the ground, cold and gummy in their pants, the desire to scream, to push your way to fresh air. To openness. Bodies so tight against one another that a man could be standing dead beside you and you wouldn’t even notice. Betty had stopped sending letters four months before they’d taken Harold. His mother hadn’t stopped but Betty had. The last letter not signed, Love Betty. Just Betty. Harold’s fingers clamped down on James’, neither able to move the gun at first. Flesh, flesh, pistol, concrete. But James quickly began tugging, inching the gun closer to him, Harold equally fervent, back leaned forward, blood thunking in his head, his fingers trying to slip around that iron. Then—maybe James’ left hand was clumsy, maybe he miscalculated Harold’s dexterity, maybe he just grew tired of fighting—Harold wrenched the gun away. To the side, Raymond continued to sob, to bray terribly, but James and Harold ignored him. Both locked gazes. Both asked each other the same question with their eyes. But before any answer could be given, Harold aimed the gun and fired.

An avalanche of sound crashed about the room, and in the same instant, glass shattered, the bullet traveling through the square cut at the top of their door and out through the window across from it. The ringing in their ears took a moment to subside, Raymond’s own sobs quieting along with it. Then all three heard it.

The whistle of wind through the broken glass, the call of geese flying high above them, the shouting voices of Allied men.

 

 

BIO

Jake TeenyJake Teeny has a B.S. in psychology and philosophy and is currently working toward a doctoral degree in social psychology at Ohio State University. In his spare time (if such a mystical thing exists) he keeps a weekly blog, continues to write short stories, and is currently in the final stages of submitting his first full-length manuscript for publication. More of his writing can be found at jaketeeny.com.

dan fitzgerald

Dust Storm

by Dan Fitzgerald

 

A shifting origami of dirt and air,
beseeching bent-willed wind
to settle on a shape.

 


 

Caress

 

Her fingers brought
the sky to my skin.
Caressed, I wander in clouds,
unafraid of rain or sun.

 


 

Professional Courtesy

 

Jesus said,
please don’t hit me
on the head,
use the hammer and nails instead.
I’m a carpenter.

 

 

 

BIO

dan fitzgerald poetDan Fitzgerald started writing a number of years ago. It has only been in the last few years that he has been published. He worked for a long time in the prepress print industry but technology has taken those jobs away. He is currently employed in the meat and bakery departments of a local grocer in Pontiac, Ill. He is hoping that they will open a candle department to further his career.

Dan has been published in Poet Band Company, Nomads Choir, Writers’ Journal, and The Advocate among others.

 

 

 

 

Joe Ferguson

Rain on the Lake

by Joseph Ferguson

 

The rainy wall of strident silence

popping craters in the flat lake,

steams the world sepia,

sizzling yellow trees

to a crackling corona

about the black hole pool.

 

 

 

The Hawk

 

All wings and silence,

The hawk dropped

Onto thin air,

Adjusted her flight

An inch to the left,

Then sailed

Between two trees,

With nothing to spare.

 

 

 

Goose Woman*

 

Backpack brimming cheap

Bread,

Engulfed by hungry fowl

Honking,

She coddles like babies.

“Don’t worry,”

Her voice soft down,

“It’s just a noise.”

Behind her

A great dam

Built before the divorce

Of beauty and function,

Looms like

Aztec stone, and.

Above,

The churning

Gray nebul

Of autumn skies.

 

* “Goose Woman” previously published in The Write Room (2010).

 

 

BIO

Joe FergusonJoseph Ferguson is an author, poet, and journalist appearing in a variety of small press, regional and national publications. He wrote propaganda for a living for a variety of entities for some 25 years. He is a former editor and critic for Hudson Valley, ran the Fiction Workshop for the Poughkeepsie Library District, and regularly reviews books and videos for Climbing, The American Book Review, Kirkus Indie, and a number of other publications.

He also sells rock climbing t-shirts through his website: http://www.bumluckhome.com/

 

by Simon Perchik

 

*

This bird must hear the blood
all day nesting in its gut
slit open to catch rainwater

draining some roof the way your hand
dries from the balcony half feathers
half seaweed—it listens

for waves, each one now motionless
bending over the other
—two deaths from one botched egg

though there are no leaves to fall
to gather more sky for the flight back
and you are singing alone, slow

getting the words wrong
caressing its belly with the same breeze
now bathing it—you rinse the blade

still sharpening itself on its shadow
back and forth till the sea
no longer reflects just one sky

stranded, unshapely—a monster
covered with wings already stone
clinging to you even over water.

 

 

*

When this clock holds back
its scent has meaning
—even dogs are trained

for lies or no lies—truth
has a calm to it, by instinct
soothes this kitchen wall

flows underneath as bone
and sleeplessness—you wait
for night to reset the hands

teach them honesty
practice till the weak one
hardens solid, smells

the way an invisible stone
can be trusted
lets you lower your head

against this darkness
falling out your skin
as silence and the nights to come.

 

 

*

And the sun by a single stroke
broken into rain and forgetfulness
—you lift a child’s bat

that still has heat to it, a ball
overgrown and against this mangy glove
stumbles headlong as further on

—this attic needs more room
the bases are full though you try
to remember the route stretching out

to dry the air Vaughn will need again
but not just now—what you store
is drought, drought under drought

—your brain half rock, half
drilled for this dust all these years
falling from thirst and leaving go

—tell me, who would come here
except to climb forever, not sure
why your steps won’t go away

as if it takes all that time
to be remembered
and softly by its name.

 

 

*

As if they once had teeth, your hands
nibble on apples half mud, half worms
—you eat only what falls to the ground

rotted, serene, made dark
by the welcoming slope into evening
—you pick the way every stone

points where to rest, has this urge
to be useful, calms your arms
still attached to the same mouth

and milky breath, holding on
—you share these twins with the sun
stretching out on your forehead

shining in its darkness from the start
and in your arms the word
for offering, for stillness, pieces.

 

 

BIO

Simon PerchikSimon Perchik is an attorney whose poems have appeared in Partisan Review, The Nation, Poetry, The New Yorker, and elsewhere. His most recent collection is Almost Rain, published by River Otter Press (2013). For more information, free e-books and his essay titled “Magic, Illusion and Other Realities” please visit his website at www.simonperchik.com.

Discordant Song

by Sharon Rothenfluch Cooper

 

My currents defied gravity,
wallowing fingers of thought
dazzled the discordant silence,
washed out the urgency
and freed themselves.

I lost the way and my voice
was just leftover dregs
and gums bled from grinding,
tasted only the bitterness of silence.
An unzipped brain draped
those tumbled feelings,
wicked silhouettes brushed
the corners of my mind
leaving emotions dulled and murky.

A fool to not pry thoughts open,
I never wished them to see daylight.
Hope struggled in a tight dark space
in those hours of silence.

 

 

Fever

 

We became attentive to needs that tumbled
as pale fingers stroked with vibration.

Efforts were wrapped in extensions
of ourselves and hands tangled hair
as we drank with fevered yearning.

Awareness climbed higher,
clenched my muscles and passion
was just a stroke of the brush.

We linked fingers teasing in their touch
and my song was a gift of giving
that burst forth at last.

What a voyage it was – riding high
on the crest then slipping over the falls
into oblivion.

 

 

 

Tracings

 

I wore his anger…
envisioned my hair smelling of violets

his words were a windstorm…
I wanted my voice to break into song

a tunnel of noise erupted…
I hungered for the fringe of daisies
in the meadow

we lived where continents divided…
I needed to run and catch
fireflies to tease my senses

sound bruised my ears…
I longed to swim in the patter of rain

mangled pulses belched…
I yearned for a warm breeze
to touch my face.

An imp of fate alive in a storm drain
rose – my fury now my cudgel.

 

 

Reflections

 

Pieces of me disintegrate
like flakes of paint,
shards ground to dust
devoured into quiet flatness.

Drops map a path
weightless and inevitable
my countenance washed bare.

The days peel away
worn and indistinct
and the ancient pain broods.

 

 

Fall’s Bright Flush

 

Wind song flutters
through clinging leaves

as they slowly lose their grip
and are whisked away to strafe
the windows with pure bright images,
whisper secrets in my ear
and breathe sweet smells
with autumn’s breath
in the days of dying.

Fluid breezes brighten
me and brush away the sound
that sweeps a faded summer.

Downy seeds fill the air
and drop into warm earth
to lie dormant
under a forecast of snow

a sampler of a season
losing its vibrant flush.

 

 

Sweeping Gestures

 

Seasons push us back and forth
like a giant swing with highs that gleam
like a crystal cylinder – lows that are
mud-spattered after long solitude.

Time’s skin perspires
long and languorous, wishes tangled
and leftover dregs blown asunder
then – up again with a radiating smile
that blinks away dusk and flickers
into flame.
Rain raises its curtain
and nostrils breathe the splintered air.

In clear silence and anticipation
I lean forward with a sweeping gesture
and bring my song with perfect timing
toward the fallow season.

 

 

BIO

Sharon Rothenfluch Cooper is an active member of the Friends of the Oregon Symphony, an active participant in the Well Arts Institute devoted to mental health, poet-in-residence at The Argonauts’ boat and soldiersheart.org, and is very much a today’s woman.  An astrological Leo, this lady thrives on poetry and music.

Sharon has been published in ‘lingerings’, Horsethief Journal, Wired Art from Wired Hearts, The Foliate Oak, Painted Poet Literary and Art Journal, Fluid Ink Press, Ophelia’s Muse, Poetry Magazine, Vinland Journal, Poetry Niederngasse, Poetic Reflections, Wilmington Blues,  Rustlings Of The Wind,  Erosha Literary Journal, Tamafyhr Mountain Poetry, The Informant, Short Stuff, Creations of Today,  Mi Poesias E-Zine, Swan Dive, Wicked Alice, Verse Libre, La Rosa Blanca, Muse Whispers, The Circle of Addiction, Sound and Silence Magazine, Mosaic Minds, Sol Magazine, Australian Poetic Society, Poetic Voices, Women Beat Poetic Journal, Epiphany Journal, Ascent Magazine, The Flaneur, L’Intrigue, Tryst, Le Zine Poetique, Maegara, Reflections, Skyline Magazine, Earth Echoes Galleries, Perigee Publication for the Arts, Petals, Subtle Tea, Blue Frederick, The Prose Toad, Interpoetry, The Moonwort Review, Miller’s Pond, Scorched Earth Productions, TMQ OnLine, TPQ OnLine, The Argonauts’ boat, Soldier’s Heart, Mannequin Envy Quarterly, The Other Voices International Project, The Ultimate Hallucination, Poetry Quarterly, Voices In Wartime, International Poetry & Art, Purple Dream, Falling Star Magazine, BluePrint Review, Interpoetry, ‘remark’, Kritya, Cracked Lenses…, Underground Window, Ancient Heart Magazine, Sage Of Consciousness, The Arabesques Review online, Taj Mahal Review, Falling Star Magazine, LYNX, Flutter, Alameda PDX.org,  Stride Magazine and many others.

Hard copy: The SP Quill Quarterly, In The Eyes Of The Wild, Emerging from Twilight – Vol. 2, Before the Last Shadow Fades, Vol. 3, Panda Poetry Magazine, Aesthetica Magazine, Poetry Quarterly, Battle Stars’, Backstreet Poets Quarterly, Providers in Partnership for Kids, MiPo~Print, WRITE ON!!, Ancient Heart Magazine, Book of Remembrance Poetry Anthology Vol. 2, Peshekee River Poetry, and The Arabesques Review.

Two e-chapbooks of her poetry, Mood Magic and A Slice Of Life, were hosted by Tamafyhr Mountain Poetry and also archived on Origami Condom. Her chapbook, Reach Beyond, was the winner of the International Chapbook competition by MAG Press. Three poems published in mo(nu)ment, and twenty-three of her poems performed in the play ‘Soldier’s Heart’ to sold out audiences with the performance recorded on DVD. Her latest poems can be found featured in the Summer issue of Poetry Quarterly and also in the October issue of Flutter.

 

 

 

 

The Tiniest of Television Sets (O, Siete Cartas Personales)

 by R V Branham

 

 

UNO:

 

Recife

Pernambuco

Brasil

 

Dearest Martin —

(Or, as mama’s letter from La Habana suggested, should I address you as Martina?)

I only hope you can survive that frivolous decadence of Southern California; I am certain you must be happier, perhaps, freer, perhaps (or is that merely license?); at any rate certainly less harrassed.

Mama keeps dropping hints like Molotovs in a cathedral about me “settling down” with Saint Elena of the Overbite, having decided that membership in la escuela chess club & two dates in four years constitute a romance, an engagement, a betrothal.

Mama also reminds me that the Overbite’s grandpapa fought in the montañas with Fidel & Che & Leon Trotsky. Ho hum.

As for my Brazilian adventuras…well, if Mama hasn’t bored you to death, I am one of those Cuban Ambasadors to the benighted Mundo Tercero.

My assignment: To shove a lit flare up the Brazilian ass of poverty & ignorance.

I live and work in a demifavela along the coast, just outside Recife, the State Capital of Pernambuco.

You know it is the State Capital because there are as many silver Volvos (the official car of el Sudamericano govt official) as green Falcons (official car of el Sudamericano death squad).

A consular official suggested I go for a used Falcon, & have it painted green. Which I did.

They didn’t do a very good job, because I am detecting little bubbles like pimples, & blisters like herpes scars.

But I really am too busy being bored to take it back.

Sometimes I go down to the beach, passing other green Falcons (which flick their lights on & off), and jog along that impacted sand at the Atlantic’s edge.

Sometimes I encounter a Canadian doctor, or Americana Peace Corp volunteeristas (who do everything in pairs).

But they are less than rigorous in the pursuit of fitness.

These encuentros are of a frustrated sort — I wish to practice my English, & they their Spanish.

So we settle on a mutilation of the Portuguese.

The consul advises us to be wary of Americanos, Who Are All C.I.A.

Even The Ones Killed By The Govt. Deathsquads? I ask.

Especially Those, he says, To Provide Cover.

Remember, sibling, you read it here first.

Oh, another thing. Remember the epileptic in our escuela, & how everyone put pencils in his mouth when he had fits so our pencils would be broken and we would get out of escuela-work? (The Yrs. Of The Pencil Shortages.)

I have an estudiante, Naná, a bright child, with amazing eyes.

Only when he has fits, his eyes roll back, go white, & then become clouded.

I must ask the Canadian doctor about Naná.

For entertainments, that is about it.

If you found La Habana bored you to tears, count your blessings.

In Recife you would be crying turds.

There is, however, the tiniest of television sets which belongs to the tiniest of tribes, which has reruns of American television the likes of which no one has seen, epipsode after episode of To Be Continued.

& there is a story running through each show, about a Cuban overseas, teaching kids just like…

Forget it, I think it is just los tropicos getting to me, the dark of heartness, all of that.

Well this will have To Be Continued, too —

I have piles of papers to grade, & graded papers to pile, & it is four in the morning, so I must say:

Often.

And soon.

Yrs in Harpo, Groucho, Chico, & Karl,

Eduardo

 

— Oh yes, & a PS — You could have saved yourself & mama a shit hill of grief by just telling her what she wants to hear (not quite the same as lying) though I confess that my letters to Mama are mostly made up of discreet lies, while my communiqués to you have always tended mostly & indiscreetly toward the truth.

— & by way of PPS, could you send a CDisco of el nuevo Miles Davis reissue, or burn me mp3s?

 

 

 

DOS:

 

To My Mama Dearest,

I’m aware of being long past overdue in replying to yr letters. Please, but please, forgive this.

It is so busy & there is so much to be done.

It is staggering, appalling, the poverty here.

Ten to twenty percent of the populace forages through the city’s garbage dump for food. (We make jokes about food riots, jokes of which you would not approve. But, let me assure you, though my tongue wags cynically, in my heart I am resolved to the necessity of the People’s Struggle, of Leon’s Revoluccion Permanente.)

& about Martin, I must agree that even though he is a gusano, he is of our flesh and blood.

I did talk to a colleague with some training in psychology & he told me that Martin’s struggles with his gender, with his sex, were no joke.

Sometimes, he kidded me, Nature Is Not Politically Correct, Is In Fact Frivolous.

But when someone is a subject of one of Nature’s jokes, things are not at all funny to that someone.

If, in his last letter, Martin was rather harsh with you (as you related to me), please try to forgive him.

As you suggested, I wrote to him.

But, so far, no response.

 

Yr devoted son,

Eduardo

 

PS — Congrats to Padre on winning that Marianao council seat.

 

 

 

TRES:

 

Dear Martin/Martina —

I suppose I should say I am sorry for not having written sooner.

But I could also ask why you haven’t written in the six weeks since I sent my first letter.

Also, where’s my Miles Cdisco reissue? (Los Bill Laswell remixes?)

Days I teach reading & writing, mathematics & Marxist theory (“why a duck?”); driving to the beach in my Death Squad Falcon

I think I mentioned the bad paint job in the last letter; well now the paint has started to peel, creating a green-black piebald effect; flirting with the Peace Corp volunteeristas…

Nights I watch Kirk & Spock, Lucy & Ricki, Hawkeye & Pierce on the tiniest of television sets, only here is the weird part.

They are all of an episode I never saw, have never seen listed (independent consultations with the Canadian doctor, the Peace Corp cutie pies, & the consul have confirmed this), & they are all To Be Continued, the same episode turning in on itself & out & in, week after week todo moebius strip-like.

And one of the main characters is a teacher like me in a country like this, who writes to a brother like you. (Or should I say Sister?)

On this point I kid you not.

And the owners of the television set are the two remaining members of the Moribundo tribe; they traded this tiniest of television sets, with a three-inch screen, for a few of their shrunken heads.

They also got four sets of binoculars & an old iMAC in the bargain.

And a Japanese television documentarian got his own cache of shrunken heads.

As good a description of capitalism in action as any I have seen.

Yes, it is barter, but it is capitalistic barter.

What, you may ask, is an Amazonian tribe doing on the coast?

They are not here for Carnivale…they were machine-gunned & mortared & napalmed here…with nothing but a cache of 300 or so shrunken heads.

Their names are Ix and Xhe, & they are quite reasonable about the rental of binoculars.

But Xhe insists on keeping the snake head label from each liquor bottle & the snake head from inside each bottle.

Ix and Xhe also have a PacMan machine & an old iMAC with a very bad internet connection & a jukebox which plays too much Britney & Espice Girls & not enough Prince & El U2.

I shit on those idle entertainments, though.

Give me my Peace Corp cutie pies (even if they are only cock-teasers out for a chance at free television viewing), binoculars, & tiniest of television sets any day.

I mentioned to Flora, who does my laundry & cooking, that you were having this problemita, & she said she would pray to Balthazar. **

But first we fought over the binoculars, because they are starting reruns of Los Invaders.

I wish she would pray to the loas of antibiotics…I got a dose last week which sent road dividers up & down my back.

(& don’t tell Mama.)

She wants to know if there is a subplot about her, like in the other shows; & I, who have watched the other shows, in which no one has had to have anything washed, do not know what the fuck she is talking about, Flora is a raving loca bitch, there is no wash.

The subplots are about me.

Last week I told our Canadian doctor about Naná, of the hurricane eyes, & he insisted on coming to class.

Well, that very day Naná had a fit, & the doctor looked into his eyes & said That Is The Coastline Of La Peninsula De Yucatan, & There Is A Storm In The Caribbean.

& then Naná left….

That night one of our Peace Corp volunteeristas kept batting her lovely becalmed eyes at me, & asking me about Naná, about his stormy eyes.

& Xhe told me not to worry, that Naná would return from Antares soon, that the bug-eyed women would be nice even though the Moribundo tribe had eaten the last flying cup that landed on la tierra.

& the next day I heard on the end of the World News about Hurricane Fay Wray hitting La Peninsula De Yucatan.

Frankly, I do not know what to make of this.

Well, time to go.

Estar Etrek is on.

Yr Concerned Brother,

Eduardo

 

**) Balthasar, besides being the name of a puzzling & exasprating novel, is one of the Brasiliero voodoo deities.

 

 

QUATRO:

 

Dearest of Mamas,

Things here are much the same.

My students do very well, & are never absent.

I know that the only reason they show up is that they will get a good meal from me.

And I do not mind, not even feeding them from my own pocket moneys.

They are more attentive when the rumbling of their stomachs is absent.

Also, & alas, Mama, when I sent you my funds to put away for me, I did not want a letter saying you’d used some of those funds to send Elena 2 doz. roses for her birthday.

& No, I do not have Flora as a maid anymore—I had to let her go.

Things kept disappearing.

So I finally asked her to disappear.

And as for your concern about my informing Martin I had written at your request, DO NOT WORRY. I may be “silly” sometimes (in yr words), but I am not a dolt.

I am now past that one-year hump, when you are lonely & homesick EVERY day.

I am considering signing up for Asia or Africa when I am finished here.

I am not at all certain that this is something you wanted to hear. But. There it is.

Yr Loving Son,

Eduardo

 

PS — As to what I do for entertainment: Read, play pool. (I would not be caught dead watching Brazilian TV, it is SO dumb. So mindrotting & demeaning, really. It’s all Norte-Americano. DREADFUL.)

 

 

 

CINCO:

 

Martin —

It’s silly, you know, not to write to your brother.

Maybe now you’re not my brother any more, but, gender aside, we are siblings.

So write, sibling.

I know it’s been a month since I’ve written, but aside from Mama’s dispatches, the only thing I’ve received from you was an unsigned card last Xmas.

Last week our star student, Naná, presumed abducted by the Peace Corp C.I.A. sweetie pies, showed up, rattling off Fibonacci numbers, came into class late & with the most horrid sun-burn on half of his body; he claimed he’d gotten it the night before, when the Bag-Eyed Mothers came for him, took him in their flying cup.

He then proceeded to synopsize several Marx Brothers comedies, & acted out all the parts to BRINGING UP BABY, a very good Howard Hawks comedy with El Grant & La Hepburn.

But frankly, I remain bemused.

Also, perhaps, he sd, hedging his bets, there ARE guardian angelitos.

I told you about Volvos for bureaucrats, & green Falcons for death squads.

Well, I think they just changed their vehicle specifications, because yesterday I saw someone getting into a Volvo, & thought I might be able to ask about that new land reform legislation.

So I walked across the lot to his car, & he was opening the rear door, & he turned & saw me & slammed the door.

Or tried to.

There were a few arms, limp, hanging, blue & streaked with blood, & he turned to me & pulled out a gun, & told me to Fuck Off.

I fucked off.

After he shoved the arms back into the car & closed the rear door & then left I noticed a dark pool where he had parked.

I went to look at it, & I will tell you now it was not 30-weight.

& today an estudiante was anxious because thugs in a Volvo came for his papa last week, & he’s vanished.

I tried to see what could be done through our consulate, but the consul advised me to Keep Quiet, & to Be Very Careful.

I talked with the Canadian doctor, who said he’d check with his consulate.

& they told him To Be Careful, & Keep Very Quiet.

So it seems there really isn’t much to be done.

Except to Be Careful.

Very.

And quiet.

So, tomorrow I will look at used Volvos.

The antibiotics took hold, the new math has not, & Estar Etrek has been replaced by Battlestar Galactica.

And, also, they stopped showing Los Invaders.

(All no doubt conclusive proof of God’s death.)

But there ARE binoculars.

And our Father’s City has many houses, many rooms.

Many bedrooms, with Big brass beds (& handcuffs), Many bathrooms, with Big Mirrors, Many rooms with Many windows.

We shall, we shall:

 

Eduardo

 

 

 

SEIS:

 

My Most Cherished Mama,

I am sorry if my last reply distressed you.

But please remember that Elena & I had talked about getting engaged.

I have not written to her about it because, frankly, I’ve not made up my mind yet.

And it would be cruel to mention it before my mind is made up.

Also, I’ve not heard from HER for several years now.

So, please, don’t worry.

Also, rest assured that there’s no one here, no one for me.

I had to laugh when you asked if I had a thing for Flora…

Flora is past 70.

Please don’t worry about my love life.

I’m sorry Martin hasn’t written in months…but what can you do?

He hasn’t written to me either, not since the holidays.

I am sorry, also, to hear of Padre’s ulcer.

Tell him to take up yoga meditation & drink buttermilk.

And you must tell him to relax.

But only after YOU have relaxed.

Also, there is no point to wondering where you failed in raising Martin.

None at all.

Ask a counselor or psychologist, even a priest.

Padre & you did your best by us.

That is ALL a parent can do.

The rest is up to the Fates.

Love, Eduardo

 

 

SIETE:

 

….Sibling —

¿What’s the matter — cat got yr coño?

It is now almost Xmas-time again; Ebing Crosby *** is posing with Edavid Bowie *** while they lipsynch “Little Drummer Boy” on the tiniest of television sets.

(I remember a Gil Scott Heron song, “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.” That Crosby & Bowie duet is proof enough.)

Flora told me she was pregnant; I sd: Oh.

She sd: You Are The Father.

I sd: Prove It.

She sd: I’ll Let The Loas Prove It.

I sd: Go Ahead.

She did.

The next morning, while taking a bath, I found myself achieving an orgasmic ecstacy while washing my underarms, and was quite amazed to see little red orifices forming.

I had a second discussion with Flora.

I sd: Let’s Not Get Rash.

We were able to find a good dentist who got rid of it.

(Don’t tell Mama!)

Also, the Canadians came through—that vanished father of an estudiante I’d mentioned in my last note to you showed up last week, after being gone for months.

Half-starved, badly beaten, but alive.

The only other exciting things I’ve had happen to me are stepping on a jellyfish wrapped in seaweed when I was jogging, and dreams.

Dreams so real.

I dream of a Triangle, an Axis, from Recife to La Habana to Ellay, yes, an isosceles triangle, yes, perhaps, with Mama & you coming along in a straight line, cunts snapping, snap snap…

& I run to Ix and Xhe & there is a May Day special on the tiniest of television sets…

& all the curtains to the bedroom & bathroom windows of the Rolidei Palacio of Earthly Delights across the way are shut…

& of course the curtains of the Rolidei Palacia are red, though the red is more suggestive of the womb than of the dictatorship of the proletariat…

& the ghosts of all of Joseph Stalin’s victims dance on the ghost of el nuevo improved Berlin Wall…

& there is a new video game, “Consumers Of The World”…

& all the songs on the jukebox are politically correct…

I wake up screaming & Flora takes the sheet from me & turns over & snores.

Oh yes, in the dream all the heads are shrunken.

So, what do you think of that, Martina?

& another thing, this interminable weaving of To Be Continued came to an end last night when the teacher character went to the mirror & looked at himself, really looked & found an alien monster staring back…

At least they are bringing Estar Etrek back.

Drop me a letter, a postcard, a line.

I don’t have a phone…but Ix and Xhe do.

Moribundo TV Bar & Grille, just below the Rolidei Palacio of Earthly Delights, in Recife.

They are in the phone book, & on-line.

It is so strange, here in the Southern Hemisphere.

I will never learn these stars that blink interminably through the night.

(A Canadian nun starts to point out the Southern Cross to me, but it is occluded by storm fronts, & she insists that one of those stars is the nail in the right hand of Jesus, & I ask if it might not be the crown of thorns, or pack of cigarettes, & she looks at me funny, shakes her head at my impertinence.)

I will never get used to the way that water goes down the drain clockwise instead of counter-clockwise, like in the Northern Hemisphere.

Sometimes, I feel like I am on another world.

I have to go now, to return the binoculars.

If you cannot, & YOU cannot, be good, then be happy, be reasonably happy.

Lie to Mama, tell her that operation mierda was just a joke.

& speaking of lies & mierda & jokes, I’ve somehow been compelled to turn a little lie & joke into a somewhat bigger truth:

I’d written Mama, told her I might sign up for Asia or Africa, doing it more out of spite for her interminable meddling than anything.

Well now, I am in the position of having signed up for another term—in 14 mos. I may still be here, or in Zambia, or even possibly Nepal (or Southwestern India, where I hear they speak Portuguese).

I’m no more certain about why I signed up than why I’d teased Mama about it.

So lie, joke, or tell the truth.

And then go on, lead yr life.

Eduardo

 

 

 

[ end ]

[ last pg ]

 

***) eastern europeo mispronunciation… Spanish isn’t the only language that deliberately mangles its loan words…

 

 

##

 

for Laura Mixon Gould

 

 

 

BIO

rv branhamR.V. Branham has worked as a short order cook, firewood bundler, security guard, tech writer, aerospace clerk, book-seller, photo researcher, newspaper editor, paste-up ninja, Treasury Department terrorist, assistant X-ray tech, rape crisis counselor, social worker, translator, and interpreter. [Optional: As a ’70s survivor, he co-hosted a floating æther den (as if there were any other kind back in the day). ] He is author/compiler of Curse+Berate in 69+ Languages (a 90 language dictionary and phrase book of insult, invective, obscenity, blasphemy, and other political speech, now in its 2nd. printing, from Soft Skull Press). His fiction has been anthologized in Dinosaurs 2, Full Spectrum 3, Ghosts 2, Hybrid Beasts (a Red Lemonade e-book anthol.), and Midnight Graffiti; and in magazines including Back Brain Recluse (UK), Ellery Queen’s Mystery Mag., Midnight Graffiti, Isaac Asimovs SF Mag., Tema (a bilingual Croatian mag.), 2 gyrls quarterly, & online in In Other Words Mérida, Red Lemonade, & Unlikely Stories, The Writing Disorder, and W*O*R*K. His essays and interviews have been in the Australian artist book anthols. Mother Sun and Drawn To Words, as well as in Gobshite Quarterly, Paperback Jukebox, Portland Metrozine, and Red Lemonade (online). Two of his plays, Bad Teeth and Matt & Geof Go Flying had staged reading productions in Los Angeles, CA., and in Portland, OR. He is publishing editor of Gobshite Quarterly, a multilingual en-face magazine (a 100 page perfect-bound 6×9 trade paperback, double issue flip book), and as publisher of GobQ/Reprobate Books has published El Gato Eficaz/Deathcats (an en-face Spanish/English edition of Luisa Valenzuela’s classic magico-realist novel), as well as Douglas Spangle’s A Bright Concrete Day: Poems, 1978—2013, with bilingual chapbook & e-book editions of El Gato Eficaz/Deathcats , & collections of Russian and Croatian writing forthcoming in 2014 & beyond.

Gobshite Quarterly

 

 

 

 

 

 

Persephone Abbott

A Bucket of Water

by Persephone Abbott

 

Better warm up the Nutella on the radiator this morning,
Mandela died, the saint who was nobody’s wife,
They’re still trying to make him wash the floors
When what the small boy craved was to be able to think exactly
About the words he wanted to say out loud,
Taking a part along with a smaller part of the world.
Maybe it was privilege
But it must have been so lonely, extending love over
The masses and celebrated for having walked in prison
During thirty years of our lives, exiled from ourselves,
Our little grace period, while he took up
A crowbar adamant at prying open the crypt.

 

 

The Pear in Her Lap

 

She held the green pear
Steadily within her fist,
She had carried it around
To many appointments
Just in case she got hungry.

She decided it was time
To remove it from her bag
Before, unused, it’d be split into two
By mistake. Dusk was coming
It would become too dark
To see the colour of the pear.

In the twilight under closed eyes,
Shaken gently by the train ride,
She longed to awaken
Peeled to touch and odour
To lily bottom rocking,
In rough sand, abrasive grit,
No horizons.

 

 

I Want for Powder

 

In your agenda hours, open slots,
I want for powder to blow
Up the bridge under which two swans
Preen in the frigid waters,
Their necks twisted,
Not looking at each other

 


Rambunctious Love Fix Me

 

Saw some sugar off of me
From coagulated bones
Attempting to hide the holes,
Drilled chasms,
Cowering in the depths.

 

You know you’ve got it.
Sand the ivory,
Make powdery love dust
Prime me, fix me,
Rambunctious turn me
Upside down.

 

 

Short Florida Saga

 

Hot weather
Lounging around
Boiled shrimp.

 

 

 

BIO

Persephone Abbott poetPersephone Abbott has been composing poems in her head for years. In this way, before they have the opportunity to meet paper, many poems have already been lost, or heavily edited. A book of her short stories, A Sample of Gouda (2014), as well as an alternative walking guidebook, The Bee’s Tour of Gouda, Buzzing Though Vinita’s Lens (2012), have been published and she is currently working on a chapbook, Flowers of Amsterdam. This last item is a result of her recent move from Gouda to Amsterdam, both situated in the Netherlands. Persephone finds poetically she prefers urban vines to rural pastures.

 

 

 

Ruth Deming writer

SUITE 1003

by Ruth Z Deming

 

Drop Cap L rock 625ibby Korngold did all her research, as befitting the former head librarian of the Upper Moreland Public Library. Their track record of library directors was not very good. Mrs. Helen Jackson, a politically savvy tyrant who looked askance at the Asian and African-American influx into the community, had died of complications from kidney dialysis. The assistant librarian, Peg Forrestal, was quickly elevated to head, only to be diagnosed three years later with breast cancer, had them both lopped off, and gave up the post, though not the ghost, as she recovered at home.

The Board of Directors received ninety-seven resumes for the job.

Libby Korngold walked into the library two years ago, regal as the Queen of Sheba, wearing a stylish outfit – straw hat, lavender pantsuit with matching earrings – and charmed what she jokingly thought of as the nonagenarians on the board.

Two years later, she faced the very same board, though one member had died while crossing the street near her home, hit by a teenage driver.

And now Libby Korngold was going to disappoint them once again.

Folding her hands on the conference table in the glass room where she could see her beloved library and the patrons she knew so well, she smiled a weak smile.

“I have so loved working here,” she said, her voice breaking. “I hope you have been happy with me. For personal reasons, I must resign.”

She looked at their seven concerned faces. Faces she had come to love.

A chorus of indignation and puzzlement arose like an orchestra tuning up.

Betty’s voice soloed from the choir. “I know it’s personal, dear,” she said. “But might we have a reason, Libby?”

“Betty, you have been so helpful to me. You’re a wonderful voice at our Book Club, and you always attend our free Sunday movies. But I must ask for your understanding. It’s simply too difficult for me to speak about,” Libby said, tapping on the table.

“Just call it health issues,” she relented.

“Libby, we’ve come to love and respect you,” said retired engineer Aaron O’Neill. “In two years, you’ve remade our old-fashioned library into a modern one – free computer lessons…”

“And that Sunday movie program with Maurizio!” Betty chimed in.

“Your skill as a grant writer,” added white-haired Jeannie. “Who knew we could benefit from the Melinda and Bill Gates Foundation?”

Libby nodded and smiled. “Your skill in finding good directors is unparalleled,” she laughed.

“Yeah,” said Aaron. “Next time we’ll make them take a physical.”

Libby’s last day was that very Thursday, after presiding over the Book Club. The last book she would ever read was Open City by the Nigerian-American writer Teju Cole.

She had barely been able to follow the narrative of this highly-acclaimed first novel. Dutifully, she wrote down the various characters in her notebook and referred to it often during the discussion on a sunny day in late March. She would pose a question to the group, “Do you think the main character Julius will make a good psychiatrist?” She pulled off the discussion group well, aided by the ten women, all white, to her dismay, who regularly attended, each with a yellow name placard set before them. They spoke not as one voice, but as individuals, who often bickered and yelled at one another – nicely – throughout the discussion.

Diana Fogelman, a high-paid jewelry designer, took affront about real or imagined affronts to her Jewish people. W.G. Sebold got a good thrashing as did poor Teju Cole.

“I hate, absolutely hate, that the main character spoke about Jews as an ethnicity and not a religion,” said Diana in her high-pitched voice.

“Join the Anti-Defamation League,” her dear friend Sheila yelled at her across the table.

The five-minute yelling spree was finally quelled.

Libby didn’t tell The Book Club she was leaving, nor, of course, did she speak of the disease infiltrating her mind with every page she turned. “What if I have no mind left at all by the end of the book?” she thought. It seemed that reading fueled the disease and made it worse. Her neurologist – who diagnosed her with a long-winded progressive disorder she refused to learn to say or spell – scoffed at the idea that reading hastened the disease process, but who was he? He did not live in her head.

She wept while reading the lyrical prose of Open City and the wandering Jew aspect of the main character as he walked all across Manhattan. She wept for all the walks she would never take, the books she would never read, the concerts she would never attend. She imagined inviting Teju Cole to her library, the Gates Foundation would finance it, and introducing the community to this marvelous writer. Hers was the only library in the county to offer talks by first-rate authors.

Libby’s bed served as her reading space. While friends of hers looked forward to spooning before sleep with their husbands, Libby had preferred reading books or the New Yorker or information tucked inside the electric or water bill and pictured their tap water coming from underground pipes connected to a clean shimmering reservoir forty miles away.

Though she would never reveal to her husband what she and her friend Lynne had discussed, it was certainly possible that the man who slept beside her, Dane S. for Sheldon Korngold, a noted brain researcher from the University, had Asperger syndrome.

Relationships had always been difficult for this handsome well-dressed man. Libby never had to worry about his having affairs with secretaries or with his students. If he did have an affair or two, she would have been happy for him.

Dane refused to believe she was losing her mind, notwithstanding the evidence: the huge gaps in her speech – which he quickly filled in – and the yellow Post-it notes she stuck on the kitchen cabinets – flour, pasta, spices – and reminder signs placed throughout the kitchen: “Turn off burners.” Or the birthdays of Barry and Marty, their two grown children, pinned onto the kitchen bulletin board, next to her library schedule.

Did she love Dane? She supposed so. She did enjoy caressing him when he got into bed. She would massage his bald head, take his face in her hands, and stare into his searching black eyes. Rubbing her forehead against his, she said, “It doesn’t matter if you accept my diagnosis. You’ve accepted me and that’s enough.”

She told him she was so proud of him for being a gene researcher and finding genetic links to several mental disorders. She was certain that after she was gone, he’d tackle her own disease. “The Elizabeth Korngold Foundation.”

When Dane was about to leave for work, she walked with him, as she often did, to the circular brick drive where his steel-gray Infiniti was parked. They stood together a moment admiring their home on a quiet, out-of-the-way street.

“Look at your herb garden!” she said, with her musical voice, as she brushed her hand over the lush growth.

“It needs to be cut back,” said Dane as he walked toward his car. “Do it today, please?”

“I’ll do my best,” said Libby.

A school bus with “Lower Moreland” written on the side whooshed down the road. She watched it stop and pick up little Grace and her brother Max. How she loved little children, probably the happiest time of her life, when Marty and Barry were small and carried their own Superhero lunch boxes onto the very same bus.

Several years ago, as they lay in bed, Dane explained to her – which she so appreciated – a bit of incomprehensible physics – that Albert Einstein, his hero, had nearly given up a conundrum he thought himself unable to solve. This recognized genius had simply thrown up his hands in despair of ever finding the answer.

“We think of Einstein as perfect,” said Dane. “But like all of us, he struggled inside.”

Libby wondered if Dane was referring to himself.

“So what do you think happened?” she asked.

Dane reached onto to his bedside table and picked up his wristwatch with its huge black face. They had bought it years ago at a conference on genetics in Bern, an ancient-looking city with red-tiled roofs, an aquamarine lake and people scurrying about speaking German.

“Remember the clock tower?” he asked Libby, smoothing down the white eyelet cover. “Einstein imagined a car, an automobile, this was in 1905, so they had cars like the old Model T’s.”

He looked over at Libby.

“I’m following you, dear,” she said.

“Good. I expected you would. Now here’s Einstein’s eureka moment. He imagines a car driving away from a clock tower at the speed of light – that’s 186,000 miles per second, you know – so the clock on the tower” – Dane was speaking slower now so Libby could understand – “would appear fixed in time to someone in the Model T.

“There were streetcars in Bern. Loads of streetcars. We saw them, too, remember, dear? The clock’s light,” he said, tapping the face of his wristwatch, “could not possibly catch up to the streetcar, but the car’s clock would tick normally to the person inside.”

Libby nodded in understanding. She didn’t want to disappoint him and say she needed to go over it in her mind to truly understand it. She knew she would eventually get it. The trolley factor explained why Dane loved riding his 7:22 a.m. to work, a train, a trolley car, little difference, and feeling close to the ideas of Einstein, which he thoroughly mastered with his budding genius at the tender young age of seventeen.

Such conversations rarely passed from Dane’s lips for the past five years. His research swallowed him up and it was almost as if he had forgotten how to speak to anyone not connected with his work. It was futile for Libby to protest. She did not want to get in the way of his important work that one day may change the lives of people with schizophrenia or bipolar disorder or drug addiction.

She imagined how thrilling it must be for Dane to take the train to Thirtieth Street Station and then walking with his swinging black leather brief case to his lab at the University of Pennsylvania. “D.S. Korngold, PhD, MD” was stitched onto his white lab coat, which he’d bring home for Libby to wash.

She was that busy woman who got everything done. She and Lynne played indoor tennis every Thursday night, and on Sunday afternoons, Libby and her children would talk on the phone, while Dane was in his study rustling his papers.

She and Dane rarely went out together anymore. He claimed fatigue from a day at the lab. She would try to revive the relationship by asking, “What’s new in the world of the genome?”

In the driveway, Libby watched Dane ease himself into the Infiniti and pull the gray harness across his light spring jacket. Click! “Such finality,” she thought, knowing she would never see her husband again.

She leaned over, picked up his hand and kissed it, something she hadn’t done since the early days of their courtship, and then stroked his clean-shaven cheek.

“Listen for my ring when I leave for the train tonight,” he said, as he drove off.

Blowing a kiss, she watched him drive out the driveway, knowing he was on speed-brain, locked in his inner world of numbers and abstracts and hypotheses.

She cut back the basil, marveling at the delicious aroma. Spring, her favorite season, was inching forward, slow as the yellow crocus peeping out from the still-brown grass. The pink red bud tree, its tall pink spikes clambering toward the sky, was newly in bloom. In the fair weather, she would have her morning coffee and croissant on the front porch overlooking the brick driveway.

How she would miss it all.

Her desk was in the study, which was once little Barry’s bedroom. Entering the quiet room, with its plush off-white carpeting, she listened to the twittering of birds, then cranked open the window and peeked into the window box. Only the day before, a mother robin deposited three perfectly shaped blue oval eggs in her newly built nest. Even Dane showed enthusiasm – well, make that “interest” – when she brought him into the study. She was sorry she wouldn’t get to see them hatch and become those naked unfeathered fetus-like creatures who would one day grow up to look like their mother, with her purposeful yellow beak.

Purpose. Libby’s only purpose now was to rid herself of the incessant ravishing of her brain.

She sat down at her antique desk, with its gold inlaid swirling designs, that she and Dane had bought in the resort town of New Hope. In the days when Dane spoke. And Libby had a mind.

The letter she was about to compose to Dane must be flawless. Not because he was a perfectionist who made it to full professor at an unusually young age. She must have a good feeling, a feeling of satisfaction and completion, when she left it for Dane to find.

“Dearest,” she began, knowing it sounded old-fashioned and romantic, but happy with the words nonetheless.

When you arrive home tonight, I shall be taking a trip. No need to find me or call anyone. I shall be in touch tomorrow, Thursday, April 30. Have faith in me, darlingl I love you and the children with all my heart. – Your Libby

The note was written on her initialed – EJK stationery – Elizabeth June Korngold. It was a soothing cream color and her initials were embossed in orange, an emphatic energetic triumphant orange, like the setting sun.

Everything she did now would be for the last time.

The very last time.

For Elizabeth Korngold was going to die.

She packed a few personal items in a paisley bag she bought in the gift shop of their synagogue, the Frank Lloyd Wright one in Elkins Park, where their two sons had been bar mitzvahed in the huge chapel the color of the sands of ancient Judea.

Into the bag went books she would read in the car: “Sonnets from the Portuguese” by Elizabeth Barrett Browning and a book of poetry by Emily Dickinson. “I would not stop for death/So he kindly stopped for me.” She stroked the prickly brown leather cover, rubbed it against her lips and placed it in the bag. Into a smaller cosmetic case, she put her contact lens case and solution, her red lipstick, and a shiny blue pill box filled with Seconal. She quickly remembered her conversation with the head of the gift shop, Mrs. Ada Goldman, who said her newest granddaughter had begun crawling. Backward.

She chuckled out loud and then placed the call to the limousine service.

“Hello,” she said. “This is Libby Korngold. I’m ready for a pick-up in Huntingdon Valley, 1212 Greenleaf Way. We’re to go all the way to Cleveland, Ohio.”

She gave him her credit card number, as they had told her to do earlier that week.

Cleveland was her favorite city in the world. It was her childhood home, where as a teenager she never missed a radio broadcast of the Cleveland Indians with Jimmy Dudley’s excitable voice blasting from her transistor radio. “Looks like Colavito’s hit another home run!”

Looking in the mirror for a last goodbye, she patted her straight, shoulder-length black hair in place and reapplied bright red lipstick, blotting it with a piece of Charmin. She left it in the toilet bowl for Dane to find. As she headed for the stairs, she changed her mind and flushed it away.

* * *

In Brooklyn, jazz pianist Billy Morton kissed his wife goodbye and got in the taxi to go to LaGuardia. His wife was accustomed to his many goodbyes and though she missed him had a full life of her own as principal of an inner-city school where she was famous for hugging students and taking them aside for conversations, introducing them to the back and forth of dialogue they rarely heard in the poverty of their own homes.

“You are one helluva woman,” Billy would often tell her.

By 8 in the evening, Billy was in a beautiful hotel suite in Cleveland, which towered over a revitalized downtown of wonderful restaurants, boutique shops, book stores and outdoor cafes, which reminded him of when he played in Paris twice a year.

Whenever he played jazz clubs in Cleveland, he and Libby would meet once a year for a night at this same hotel, in the very same suite at the end of the hall: Suite 1003.

Like his wife, Billy also visited some of Cleveland’s inner-city schools and urged youngsters to study music. “Little brothers and sisters,” he’d tell his young friends, “if you don’t have a piano, go practice at church. They’re bound to let you. Pick up the drums or a trumpet. And if you can earn some money, by washing cars or doing chores, save up for an electric piano. Be your own Stevie Wonder.”

He planned to visit Eleanor Roosevelt Elementary School the next day, which would be a much-needed distraction from the difficult events of this evening. He had brought along some sheet music for his young friends.

Billy took off his sports jacket and hung it on the back of the dining room chair. Upon the glass table was a basket of fruit and a bottle of champagne from the hotel. A shiny metal corkscrew, the kind with two upended wings, was placed by the same invisible hands nearby. Billy walked slowly around the room, cracking his knuckles, smoothing down his mustache, and then reached into his suitcase to extract a bottle of coconut oil to rub into his chocolate-brown hands, the well-cared-for hands, with manicured nails, that earned him his living in one of the greatest modern jazz bands of the day, “The Billy Morton Quartet.”

Now in his fifties, he’d cut his teeth subbing for McCoy Tyner in the John Coltrane band. Billy and Tyner were still in touch. McCoy Tyner had embarked on a solo career and could bounce the keys better than ever in his seventies. He also pulled out a jade green smiling Buddha from his bag, about the size of a coffee mug, and placed it on the table with a clink. Billy laughed, then startled himself by hearing it turn into a sob.

“I must be strong,” he said out loud. “Be professional for my woman.”

Walking over to the door, he stuck his head out into the hall where he could hear someone push the bell for the elevator. A red Persian-carpet-like rug lined the hallway. He walked back into the room in his white shirt, without tie – jazz players didn’t need to wear ties, unless they were invited to the White House – which was the only time Billy put one on. He went into the bathroom, looked in the mirror, and whispered, “Hey Morton! It’s not going to be easy, but she loves you, and you’ll help her.” Splashing cold water on his face, he knew he would write another song about her. He’d written almost as many songs for Libby as he’d written for his wife Nora, who, of course, must never know about his lover.

Libby and Billy met when they were both single and living in San Francisco. He’d been playing a gig at the North Beach Jazz Cafe. They were immediately drawn to one another. Libby had her beautiful dark eyes on him throughout his performance, nodding and smiling and closing her eyes in ecstasy as he played. They went home to her small apartment on California Street, in the heart of the Haight-Ashbury district, where they became flower children, as they made love on the Murphy bed she pulled out from the wall.

After they made love, he watched her prepare a snack from her mini-refrigerator.

“Turkey with mayo and mustard, sweetheart?” she asked.

“Perfect,” he said, admiring her perfect body.

She boiled some water and they drank piping hot Folger’s Instant.

In the morning, they kissed goodbye and he returned the next three nights until the San Francisco gig was over.

Years passed. Each one thought of the other like a vanishing grace note as they easily settled into their lives without one another.

Libby found him again when he played at Zanzibar Blue in downtown Philly. She’d dragged a reluctant Dane to the performance, but after a gin and tonic, he was out for the night. Libby replayed her own performance from San Francisco and arranged to spend a few hours with him the following day in the Ritz Carlton where his quartet stayed for their four-day gig.

Would love be born again?

Directly after work, Libby drove downtown to the Ritz, and rode up the bronze-colored elevator to Billy’s room. She held out her red-manicured nails and watched them tremble in anticipation. As she knocked on his door, she heard classical music on the radio. Mahler’s Sixth.

She was too nervous to remember which movement, as she lay her forehead on the door.

Only one thing mattered. Would they become lovers again?

It was as if they had never been apart. Beautiful bodies – porcelain-white and café-au-lait entwined easily and knowingly. “I remember your smell,” said Libby, nuzzling her head on his chest, filled with tufts of African twisted hairs she hadn’t seen in over twenty years.

Lying side by side under a delicately colored lime ceiling, Libby posed the question of “guilt.”

“Guilt?” laughed Billy. “Guilt about what, for chrissakes?”

“About that horrible word. The ‘A’ word.”

“Oh, shit!” he said. “We aren’t about guilt. We’re above that. Besides, who made those rules, Lib? I sure didn’t. And I don’t approve. And never will. Never never,” he said, kissing her cheek.

After a pause, he said, “Listen, Babe. Jazz musicians are notorious for two things: drugs and women. Charlie Parker. Let me tell you a little about him.”

“I saw the movie, darling,” she said. “The same actor who played King of Scotland played Bird.”

“Incorrigible heroin addict. Once he got a taste of it, he kept coming back for more. Couldn’t stop though it was killing him. That and the liquor. He had a couple of wives though he never married the last one, who was Jewish, like you. Us black men adore you Jewish women.

“And we love you back,” said Libby, nuzzling closer to him.

She confessed feeling strange making love in the same city where she lived with husband.

“You Jewish women gotta stop getting yourselves in a tizzy. Hold your heads up high,” he said, kissing her hand.

Billy awaited her arrival in their other hotel. The Renaissance Hotel in Cleveland. The last hotel they would ever visit together.

He could always tell her knock on the door. A certain rhythm with her second and third fingers.

He rose from the couch and opened the door.

“My beautiful girl!” he said, opening the door and hugging her hard.

“Ah, the champagne’s already here,” she said, taking off her coat and putting it over the chair. “We must drink to our eternal night of love and freedom.”

He couldn’t put his finger on it, but she was different than the last time he’d been with her, a year ago. Yes, she was definitely different, as if a new person inhabited her body. An intruder.

They sat at the glass-top table facing one another and holding hands.

“And who is this darling creature?” she asked about the jade Buddha.

“He’ll keep us company,” Billy said. Libby stroked the Buddha’s cold face and body. “I shall take my deep sleep tonight, knowing he’s watching over us,” she said in her now halting voice.

“Whatever you wish, my beautiful girl,” he said.

“Let’s make a toast,” said Billy.

He popped the cork of the champagne bottle and poured the fiercely bubbling liquid into the long-stemmed glasses.

“Inhale it,” he said, as he stuck his nose inside the glass.

“Okay?” he asked.

“Mmmm,” she said.

“To our eternal love,” he said, his voice breaking, “to the woman I will never forget, and who I will take with me wherever I go. To my Libby.”

She touched his glass and took one deep sip.

“I …. like …. it,” she said.

They sat a few moments listening to Mahler’s soaring music, coming from a Bose in the adjoining living room.

“I’ve brought the note,” said Libby, with difficulty. “You know, the, uh, suicide note, so you won’t get in trouble. We’ll call Dane from the bedroom and leave him a message. Oh my God, so hard.”

Her speech, thought Billy, is like an unrehearsed orchestra trying to remember its notes. She was no longer his fluent brilliant Libby, his bubbly flirtatious woman who talked about her Sunday movie program, the lives of her sons, and who enjoyed reading him poetry after they made love. “I Sing the Body Electric” by Whitman. Seemingly overnight, she evolved into a hesitant, uncertain woman who time was defeating as every minute ticked by. He knew her to be a maverick, a pioneer. She was doing the right thing. He wasn’t sure he could take the same path but this was her choice, something she knew she’d do since she was a young woman. Suffering was not becoming. It was pointless. “Fuck, Job,” she had told him over the phone. Especially, as she said, if my brain is being eaten alive as if there’s a mouse inside having his way with me.

“I’d like to be as comfortable as possible when I go,” she said, stroking the Buddha’s head.

Billy noticed she avoided using the word “die.”

They arose from the table and went into the bedroom. Billy patted the white bedspread. Libby lay down in her taupe sweater and black pants, her high-heeled black boots keeping her company on her ride to the stars. She removed her contact lenses and put them in the case.

“Won’t be needing these anymore,” she said.

She gave Billy her home phone number. He dialed the 215 exchange and waited until it began to ring, then handed the phone to Libby.

She whispered that the answering machine was coming on.

“Dane, it’s Libby. I, I’m sorry to tell you that I can’t live like this, so I am putting an end to my suffering.” She sat up in bed. “I love you and the children, kiss them for me, please … well, goodbye, dear.”

Both she and Billy had looked up Seconal on the Internet and knew it worked very quickly, as long as you didn’t vomit. Billy, wearing his white sneakers, climbed in bed next to her. He handed her the glass of champagne, which still had bubbles on the bottom.

“You like the champagne?” he asked.

She nodded.

“In another life, you’ll be my bride.”

She nodded again and picked up the pill case. She shook it gently and they both listened to the soothing music of the pills rustling together.

“My deliverance,” she said.

Fully relaxed now, he kissed her on her forehead, her cheeks and her lips.

She was gone within four minutes.

After her body was removed, he checked out and went for a long walk in the dark night of downtown Cleveland. It was cool and breezy. April 30. A day to remember. He sat at a table in an outdoor café and ordered a turkey on rye and a cup of coffee.

Leaning back in the chair, he thought of nothing. Nothing at all. Sipping the hot coffee, he closed his eyes and saw Libby again walking into the jazz club in San Francisco. She met his eyes.

He listened to the sounds of the night. Couples walking by, talking softly or erupting into gales of laughter, a waiter setting down utensils on a nearby table. The music inside the cafe played Johnny Mathis singing “Chances Are.” A beautiful tune, he thought. He cast glances over the big black tent of a sky that seemed to swoop down beside him. He leaned back and saw the stars were out and a small silver plane arced toward the airport.

“I know you’ll understand this, Lib,” he whispered into his coffee, which warmed his face. “I feel fully alive. More alive than I’ve ever felt before.”

When the waiter came by, he asked if he could borrow his pen. He began scribbling music notes on his coffee-stained napkin.

 

 

BIO

Ruth DemingRuth Z. Deming, winner of a Leeway Grant for Creative Nonfiction, has had her short stories, essays and poetry published in Creative Nonfiction, Haggard and Halloo, Mad Swirl, Haunted Waters Press, and The River. A mental health advocate who writes articles to staunch the stigma of having a mental illness, she runs New Directions Support Group for people with bipolar disorder, depression and their loved ones. See NewDirectionsSupport.org. Her blog is RuthZDeming.blogspot.com. She lives in Willow Grove, PA., a suburb of Philadelphia.

 

 

Joshua M Johnson

LOVELY THINGS

by Joshua Michael Johnson

 

“The last romantic notion died in 1962 and we’ve been running on fumes ever since,” the man said on the radio, his voice bleeding into Lynda’s favorite country station. A hair-breadth’s adjustment to the tuner and the man’s voice disappeared. The suspension of Lynda’s LeSabre popped and groaned as the aged car dipped through the underpass where East Main suddenly dove under a railroad bridge. The underpass was where Lynda always started to wonder if she was doing the right thing. But the feeling will pass, Lynda thought, as she adjusted the rear-view mirror so she could see the baby boy sleeping on the back seat. She wondered what had happened in 1962.

It’d be quicker to take the freeway to New Hope, but Lynda didn’t want to take any risks so she took back roads over the foot of Lookout Mountain and on out to Nickajack. A warm breeze gusted off the river and through the car’s open windows. Lynda smiled, and started to feel better. She brushed her hair out of her face as the road wove along the river’s edge. She’d always felt close to the river, like the river spoke to her, but more like there was something the river always wanted to say but never did. A mile or so later the road began to peel itself away from the river and Lynda pulled off and alongside the faded peach wall of the abandoned motel she always went to when she stole children—the Scenic City Motor Lodge.

Lynda gathered the little boy from the backseat and took him to cabin twenty-four. A “J” was embroidered on his blanket so Lynda decided to call the boy Baby-J for the next couple of hours. I never thought to name one before, Lynda thought, and the newness of the idea made her smile. Baby-J lay on the bed and stretched his neck out like a sleeping cat, and for a while she forgot she’d stolen the child.

On the porch, Lynda sat in a rocking chair to think as a blue jay snatched a bug off the stairs between the porch and the dock. Ricky would be along in a couple of hours and then Lynda would go back to her section-eight duplex on Holly where car stereos boomed through the night. The idea of growing old in that house was unbearable, but Ricky said they’d be going away together soon. Live in the valley, raise a child or two of their own, build a cabin on the riverbank, have a big porch. And rocking chairs, Lynda had added. And rocking chairs, Ricky said, of course we’ll have rocking chairs. Sometimes the thought of it was loud enough to drown out the stereos when Lynda was trying to go to sleep. Those were the good nights.

Ricky said most people didn’t deserve children. Children are special, a gift from God, and someone had to look out for them. We’re rescuers, he said, liberators—saints doing the Lord’s work. Children deserved better than what they got and there were more than enough devoted couples in the valley to love them and raise them to fear the Lord. Ricky’s exaggerated smile always widened when he said things like this, and his voice softened. We’re rescuing the children of God, he’d tell her, and Lynda would let his words comfort her. She hated how she could believe what he said as long as they were together, but as soon as he left, her mind would fill with doubt again—and fear. She’d never known what it was like to know God like Ricky, but she often wished she could see things the way he did. It had to be incredible to know you’re doing the world good, she thought.

Baby-J woke up from his nap and began to fuss. Lynda got the bottle out of the LeSabre’s trunk. Just a little won’t hurt them, Ricky had told her when he placed it in the trunk, and they couldn’t have the neighbors hearing. Baby-J’s feet and arms kicked and squirmed beneath his blanket as Lynda opened the bottle, but she couldn’t make herself do it. Lynda set the bottle on the dresser and lifted Baby-J into her arms. She hugged him to her chest and returned to the rocking chair, and as she rocked, Baby-J soon fell back to sleep. Lynda continued to rock as the sky darkened. She knew Ricky would be there soon.

After a while Lynda noticed a large black snake coiled in the porch rafters looking down on her and the baby.

“How long you been up there watchin’ me?” Lynda asked. Snakes had never troubled her much, but Ricky always became irrational when he saw them. He believed them to be a bad omen.

The snake’s tongue flicked in and out of its mouth.

“That long, huh?” Lynda leaned back in the rocker, Baby-J still asleep in her arms. “Ricky’s late today. Sun’s already goin’ down.”

The snake hissed overhead. Its tail slipped off the rafter and whipped back and forth. Lynda realized Ricky would probably react badly if the snake were still there when he came to get the boy. She held Baby-J tightly in her arms. Ricky wouldn’t like this snake one bit and he would take it to be a sign from God warning him that there was something evil about the boy. The Lord wills it, he would say before doing something excessive—something awful.

Lynda took the boy inside, away from the snake. She sat on the bed with him and wound Baby-J’s blanket tightly around his body. She lay down and curled her body around the boy. She could feel his warmth.

She knew she had to save him.

Lynda searched the cabin and found a plastic tub of old gaskets and hoses in a closet. She dumped it out on the floor and placed a blanket inside. Outside, the snake had begun to wind its way down a post. Lynda thought she heard the crunch of gravel in the drive as she carried the tub and Baby-J down to the end of the dock. She glanced back at the cabin. The snake was on the stairs already and she could hear someone calling her name. Baby-J was still asleep beneath his blanket as Lynda placed him in the tub and eased him into the water. Lynda pushed the tub out into the current and watched as it floated down river through the rippling reflection of the setting sun.

When she returned to the porch the snake was gone and she was alone. She sat in the rocking chair for a while longer and wondered where the river would take the boy—if it would be kind to him. Soon the sun set, but Ricky never came.

 

That night Lynda lay awake listening to the steady parade of car stereos until the pounding was slowly replaced by the distant rumble of thunder. As the storm swept through the city, Lynda thought about Ricky and what she’d say the next time they were together. Ricky would know what she’d done—he always knew. He’d cry as he told her she needed to ask God’s forgiveness for going against His will and, because she knew her place so well, she would do it. Lynda only hoped Ricky wouldn’t abandon her for what she’d done. The first time they’d met, Lynda was just a girl in a cotton dress spending time with her aunt and uncle who were in town for a visit. The family had spent the long summer evening talking and playing cards on the porch of cabin twenty-four, and as the sun set, Lynda had gone down to the dock to dip her feet in the water. And that’s where she met him. Ricky said many things to her that first night, lovely things, things she no longer believed.

 

 BIO

Joshua Michael JohnsonJoshua Michael Johnson teaches at the University of Tennessee Chattanooga and his work has been published in SNReview, Static Movement, and Product 26. He has also been awarded the Ken Smith Award for Creative Nonfiction in 2008 and 2009 by the Meacham Writers’ Workshop. He is a native of Tennessee and finds much of his inspiration in the culture and places he experiences in the little southern city by the river he calls home.

 

 

 

Beth Castrodale

Con Artist

by Beth Castrodale

 

Drop Cap L rock 625loyd Shrumpeter’s thick pink fingers with the neat buffed-and-trimmed nails were a legacy of his grandfather’s and the only thing, it seemed, that connected him to a more substantive time–a time of metal, as if every plane, tank, and gun from the great wars had been melted down and turned into desks like fortresses, typewriters that clacketed like Gatlings, phones that sounded alarm with every ring.

Once, years ago, when Lloyd had visited Hal Shrumpeter Senior’s office at Furley Auto, Accident, and Life, the old man picked up a gun-metal stapler and hefted it in his hand. “In my day, son, these things were weapons. In fact, I once saw the office Romeo get cold-cocked with a Swingline. The chickens came home to roost for the office Romeo.” He laughed. “Imagine that.”

The stapler on Lloyd’s own desk was plastic and no heavier than a model airplane. He picked it up, tossed it, then squeezed it until he felt the pang of a spring then a loosening of its cheap inner works. It hit the trash can with a sound that was utterly unsatisfactory, nothing like the ring of metal on metal.

 

* * *

 

pull quote bethThat Lloyd continued to meticulously trim and buff his nails was something of a contradiction given the state of his life. Or maybe it was a necessity, a type of magic ritual now that he might have need of such things.

During his days at L.O.F. Marketing Associates, Lloyd now only made calls; he accepted none. Whenever the phone burbled, he waited until voice mail, now his only ally, interrupted after the fourth ring, accepted the caller’s wrath, and transformed it into an angry red pimple of light. At the end of the day, after a long walk into the weedy outer reaches of Industry Square, he would pick up the handset, press the red light.

            You have … forty-three new messages.

None of them had a chance against the # * keys and his crushing index finger.

    “I—”

Message erased.

            “You’d better–”

Message erased.

            “You fuckin’–”

Message erased.

On and on it went until the messages disappeared, one by one, into the electronic ether. He curled and uncurled his burning finger to limber it up, straightened his pens, and went home without saying a word to anyone. Keep your nails clean and stay low-key, he told himself. One more week, or maybe two, and you’ll be gone into a new life, a new town.

One night, after a solitary Chinese dinner, he cracked open his fortune cookie and pulled out the little note.

It said, “In all things, your intentions are pure. Your lucky number is 3.”

This uncanny truth rang of validation and permission, and he left a twenty for an eight-dollar check, as if to thank and appease any gods who watched over him.

 

This was the sixth time that Lloyd had been hired with a résumé that was an artful mix of truth and fiction and the sixth time that he’d reached these sweaty last days. He was on his sixth name, too: William Rutherford Howe, which, like the others he’d chosen, had a solid, presidential ring that seemed a recommendation in itself.

“Oh. You’re Mr. Howe, then,” the receptionist at L.O.F. had said on the day of his interview.

“Indeed I am.”

“We remember that name, of course. And your letter, such a letter. Please have a seat.”

He knew how to use words like indeed, precisely, and undoubtedly that suggested breeding–a gloomy yet romantic childhood at boarding school, a rigorous classical education in damp, dingy halls. Mustard plasters. Headmasters. He’d suggested all of these things in his letters and e-mails, in his phone voice, in his tailored yet not-too-fashionable suits, in the shine on his nails and on his high, intelligent forehead, all of which made him seem older than his twenty-six years. He’d cut a darkly impressive figure in L.O.F.’s sherbet-colored waiting room.

Inside the office of the sales manager, Mr. David Crubbage, he presented himself with grace, humor, and the proper amount of enthusiasm, given the nature of the work he would be doing. He hinted at, without specifying the details of, the painful end of a relationship that had brought him to this new city, this new start.

“Well, Mr. Howe. I can see that you’re more than qualified for this job. But I’m afraid there might be a problem. Not an insignificant one, I might add.” Mr. Crubbage tilted his head, thoughtfully.

“What might that be, Mr. Crubbage?” He braced himself for the news, willed his heart to slow its beating.

Mr. Crubbage sat forward and placed his elbows on the table, touched his fingertips together. “You’ll pardon me if I ask why a man of your obvious education, breeding, and experience would be interested in a frontline sales position at L.O.F. Marketing Associates. Might there be some other position that you would find more … more rewarding?”

Lloyd paused, as if in thought, though this was not the first time he’d answered such a question.

“I am an artist, Mr. Crubbage. That is my reward. Of course, I must support myself, so I chose a profession that comes most naturally to me—and keeps me in pigments.” He smiled. “Sales is that job, I can assure you.”

Outside, the bells of an old clock tower started to clang so loudly that he and Mr. Crubbage had to wait through a carillon interlude and the last toll of eleven to finish. All the while, they smiled at each other like new sweethearts.

“Welcome to L.O.F. Marketing, Mr. Howe.”

 

* * *

 

What Lloyd was was a rip-off artist. The reasons for his choice of vocation were not those an armchair psychiatrist might seek. His upbringing, though modest, had been comfortable, and he’d not suffered abuse beyond the ordinary. In his youth, he’d managed to make friends and mess around with some girls. He’d been a passable student in high school and then in college, where he’d received the philosophy degree that was to be his undoing–or his making, depending on how you looked at it. (“Why philosophy, son?” his father, Hal Junior, had asked when he first heard his son’s choice of major. “Where will that get you, exactly?” Three years later, Lloyd had a very good answer. But by then his father was dead.)

Sitting in the lecture hall, Lloyd had been stripped of his belief in free will. Later, in the library stacks, and in small seminar rooms smelling of chalk dust and trapped breath, he’d constructed something to replace that belief—something powerful if imperfect and perhaps dangerous, like a movie monster. In his final thesis Lloyd posited two ways in which Furley Auto, Accident, and Life might destroy Hal Junior: overwork (actual) and a shotgun blast to the temple (theoretical). Both means, he argued, were moral equivalents.

He received an A in the course and then was hospitalized.

 

Because Hal Junior was ailing by then, his oldest associate, Bill Menahan, visited Lloyd at Our Mother of Charity.

“When you get out, I’m going to set you up with something at the office. Just till you get on your feet. Some understanding of claims adjustment might be practical. And then there’s the paycheck, of course.” He winked and handed over the ketchup cup of pills that the nurse had left for Lloyd. “What do you say?”

Lloyd sat up to take the pills then sip from the bendy straw in his bedside glass. As he reclined, the white-walled room expanded, then snapped back, making Bill Menahan’s face jostle like a ball. Closing his eyes against this, he saw painfully bright light, not the whiteness of the walls but the scalding white of the 60-pound bond onto which he’d printed his thesis.

“In the developed world, nearly all work is a corruption of the soul,” he whispered. “I can provide a moral justification for a life of crime.”

 

* * *

 

In his early days on the con—when he could still tell himself it was an academic experiment—Lloyd had considered going it alone, setting up a basement office or renting cheap space where he could do the dirty work and then make notes for his never-to-be written It’s All Relative: Morals and Modern Work. But there was the trouble of sales leads—he had none of his own, and wouldn’t for some time. Working for others, Lloyd got the leads and base pay on top of that. More than that, he discovered that he had a real talent for talking money out of strangers. Never had he been so good at anything. Within a few weeks of his first con, he discovered a living and all but forgot his book.

Lloyd’s duties at L.O.F. were little different from those of his five previous cons. He was shown to the sales bull pen, given a briefing book on L.O.F. products (polar-grade camping gear, fruit-by-mail, slimming undergarments, novelty shower curtains, among others), and told to study up. His own mission, too, was little different: within two months, he was to ring up as many sales as he could and divert a certain number of checks to the temporary account he’d set up under the name “Leap of Faith Associates.”

The trick to the con, he’d learned, was to get out by eight weeks (the limit of customer tolerance, given the standard four-to-six-week delivery period) and to give any customers who asked for it a phone number—his own work phone number—to serve as a pressure valve for complaints until he made a break for it. Before accounting caught on to him, and before customer complaints about undelivered goods reached a higher level, he would be on his way to another state, with another car, another license, and, this time, perhaps another hair color. He might arrive in Montana as a redheaded trucker with a limp, a twang, and an aura of recklessness irresistible to women.

L.O.F., like the other places, was obsessed with the notion of the “team.” To get the job, he had to assure Crubbage that he was a “team player.” On his first day, he was welcomed to “Customer Satisfaction Team F,” housed in a quad of cubicles by the break room.

The members of Team F barely looked up when their leader, Rob, introduced Lloyd around.

“Hey,” said a kid who looked about 18. He was transfixed by the explosions on his computer screen.

“Death Ray is on all of the computers, William,” Rob whispered as he led him away. “In case you want to play it on your break. You get ten minutes every two hours, no lunch hour. In case you weren’t aware of that.”

These minimal glimpses of L.O.F.’s moral ruin made him all the more eager to get started. “Show me to the phones,” he said in a hero’s baritone that was lost on Rob.

As they approached his desk, a woman rose from the adjoining cubicle (in Team D, Lloyd learned later) and smiled distractedly, for she was on the phone. Her hair, a dark, blueberry color, was twisted up messily on top of her head and fixed with a pencil. She had beautiful brown eyes whose sheen dimmed, just slightly, the minute she saw Rob. She turned away and cupped a hand near the mouthpiece.

“Talking to her kid again, on the clock,” Rob mumbled.

“Who is she?”

When she sat down, out of their sight, Lloyd’s heart plunged, then lifted at the thought of seeing her again.

“Hope Topsfield. She’s a new rep, too. Let’s see how long she lasts.”

“What seems to be the problem with Hope, Rob?”

“William, I’m afraid she’s not making herself part of her team. I’m afraid she’s letting them down, us down.” Rob looked him straight in the eye for the first time. “So don’t get too attached. To Hope, I mean.”

“Not my policy.”

Rob nodded then extended his hand to the empty cube with the black console phone. “Well, here you are. You’ll get professional selling skills at eleven—I know you’re a vet, but it’s standard–then we turn you loose at one. For now read your phone manual and check your call list. Got it?”

“Certainly do, thanks.”

Rob gave him an abrupt, clammy handshake then vanished, leaving Lloyd to his inch-thick list of prospects.

From the other side, where the kid sat, came the sounds of apocalypse. Behind him, the lovely Hope cooed what sounded like a lullaby. It was a fine day to begin.

 

In these halcyon days of tele-sales—before the rise of the Do Not Call Registry—L.O.F.’s prospect lists were especially sweet, drawn from the ranks of catalog addicts, tchotchke enthusiasts, TV shopping junkies. As he flattered and cajoled these people over the phone, Lloyd often imagined them sitting amid personal museums of junk: commemorative Civil War plate collections, vibrating heated cushions, Wurlitzer jukebox banks, various lidded contraptions that tinkled popular tunes when opened.

“I’m sure you’re concerned about your grandchildren’s educations, Mr. Stearit. You sound like an educated person yourself.”

“I might be.” Stearit grunted and chuffed in what might have been impatience, disgust, or the symptoms of chronic illness. Like so many of the people Lloyd called, this man’s indifference–if that’s in fact what it was–was not great enough to get him to hang up.

“Mr. Stearit, do you know that 80 percent of elementary school students can’t identify even five of the United States on a map? Do you know that odds are that your grandchildren don’t even know your state’s capital? Madison, isn’t it?”

Stearit grumbled and made some kind of clicking sound with his teeth. Dentures?

“What are you driving at?”

“Our Wisconsin state shower curtain has been endorsed by the U.S. Geographical Education Center as a valuable learning tool. It is a detailed, topographically accurate, large-format representation of the Badger State, complete with locators of major cities and geographical features; lists of key industrial and agricultural products; depictions of the state bird, tree, and flower; and a timeline describing important events of Wisconsin’s rich history. If your grandchildren shower at least three times a week, Mr. Stearit, their reading and geographical skills are bound to improve. Studies back me up on this.”

“How much does this thing cost?”

“Thirty-nine ninety-nine, plus tax. Sixty-five plus tax if you order two.”

“Jesus.”

“I think you’re concerned about your grandchildren’s educations, Mr. Stearit. Isn’t that true?”

“It might be.” He rattled his teeth again. “But really, Mr. …”

“LaRue.”

“Really, Mr. LaRue. What does my grandchildren’s education have to do with a shower curtain? What does much of anything have to do with a shower curtain?”

“I’m just reporting the results of a–”

Mr. Stearit hung up the phone.

“That was pretty good.”

He looked over his shoulder and saw Hope standing by the cubicle wall with a steaming coffee cup. Lloyd was both startled and thrilled. Though he’d been on the job for almost a month, he hadn’t exchanged more than a few words with Hope, who was almost constantly on the phone, using one of two opposed voices: the halting, script-reading voice of her sales calls or the hushed, passionate voice directed toward her apparently constant personal crises.

She wore little make-up, but her clothes were snazzy–a fitted purple suit cut just above the knee, purple pumps, and shiny pantyhose printed with Eiffel Towers, gondolas, and passports. Her legs, Lloyd noticed, were quite shapely. He looked down, away, toward the carpeting, feeling his face growing warm. “Well, I didn’t get the sale. That’s not so good.”

She shrugged. “Yeah, but you’re new.”

“Not really.”

“Well, you would have tempted me. Is that really true, about the National Geographical Society endorsement? Because I have a kid–”

“It’s absolute rubbish, I’m afraid.”

Loathing surged through him, for Stearit’s rattling teeth, for Hope’s naiveté, for the smell and light of this place, which in a perfectly just world would be reduced to rubble.

She put a hand to her mouth, her brows arched. But she started to smile, then laugh, revealing the delightful surprise that she was a bit snaggle-toothed. This little imperfection clutched at his heart and stirred longing, mingled with a premonition of disaster.

“I’m glad you have a sense of humor,” she said, recovering herself. “You’ll need it here.”

Lloyd had never mistaken his conning skills for having a sense of humor. Still, he took the compliment.

“I’m Hope,” she said, extending her hand.

“William Rutherford Howe.” He took her hand and pulled it forward a little, considering whether to kiss it. But when he saw the look of anticipation, or confusion, in her eyes, he gave her hand a little squeeze and released it, regained himself. “What brought you here, Hope?”

“I’m raising a kid on my own.” She offered the explanation immediately, as if it were customary. “His father’s out of the picture. I mean, he’s not dead, he’s just … just a bum.”

“I’m sorry,” said Lloyd, though he wasn’t at all.

She shrugged, as if to dismiss any notion that she should be pitied. “I just wouldn’t want you to get the impression that I’m working here for the love of it.”

“Thanks for straightening me out on that.”

Hope snuffed a laugh against her hand and then swayed closer, almost drunkenly, lowering her voice confidentially. “Word’s getting around that you’re an artist.” She said artist in a near-whisper, in the way that some would say “bed wetter.” It occurred to Lloyd that he might have chosen the false profession that–at least in this place–was shrouded in mystery commensurate with his need for secrecy.

“So do you paint, or what? If you don’t mind my asking.”

Lloyd glanced down at his nails and realized, distantly, that their neatness might give him away. Ideally, they’d be dulled from solvents and chipped, perhaps flecked here and there with paint or yellowed varnish. “Well,” he said, “painting is part of it, yes, but I guess the proper classification—if the thing that I do must be classified–is that I am a mixed-media artist. I use paint, yes, but some of my works incorporate welded metal parts, paper sculpturing, automotive detritus, and other found materials. And I’m not above some cheap tricks with photo transfer, either.”

“I love art of all kinds,” Hope said eagerly, as if she hadn’t heard him. “When I was ten, and my aunt was living in New York, she took me to a Roy Lichtenstein exhibit. I never forgot it.”

Her expression grew solemn, almost bitter, making him wonder what particular, lasting appeal those cartoony, dotted images–the recriminating women crying fat tears, the bland apartment scapes, the vapid dialogue–had for her.

When she noticed his gaze, she did not change her expression, but seemed to include him in her memory, studying him like the representation he was–an assertion of form, lightness, darkness. Then, her eyes flashed with awareness that she was staring.

“Well,” she said at last, “I better get back to work.”

 

At the beginning of week seven, just as Lloyd’s voicemail began accepting the wrath of the stiffed, Hope disappeared for three days. He could have asked Rob, game boy, or any of the other members of Team F where she was but was afraid to hear the answer. It was the nature of corrupt organizations such as this to silently purge the weakest and most defenseless, removing their personal effects and name plates overnight, as if they’d never existed.

In response, Lloyd sold more aggressively than ever. Those feverish three days in the cube recalled to him that time in carrel 105 of the Randhoff Library when the ideas for his thesis had come together at once, as if he were merely their recorder.

When, on Thursday morning, Hope strolled into the office looking harried but otherwise fine, Lloyd could barely restrain his joy. He thought of ways he might approach her, of lines he might use to show his interest, casually yet unambiguously. These thoughts were checked, however, by the knowledge that he must leave in a week, two tops. What was the point of falling in love?

Still, Lloyd barely disguise his delight when later that day, Hope called over his shoulder in a voice that was both soft and insistent.

“I hope I’m not being too forward,” she said, clasping her coffee cup protectively close, “but I’ve been thinking about you being an artist, I mean a real artist.”

His heart skipped. “Tell me more.”

“Well, my friend Thea is on the new Arts Council, and she’s trying to put on a show of the local talent. It’s just a month off, and she’s having trouble fleshing it out, as she says. With something different, that is.” Hope was warming up a bit, becoming less bashful.

She continued: “There’s no shortage of puppy pastels, she tells me. Or peonies and teacups. What’s lacking is genuine work,you know? Something that might make people think.”

“I see.”

“It sounds as if you might do the type of work that Thea is looking for.” She lowered her eyes, and her cheeks flushed ever so slightly. “But I understand if you don’t have any interest in a small-town show.”

Of course, taking part in any sort of show was impossible, and Lloyd had an excuse at the ready: his works, as large as they were, would have to remain in storage until his new studio was built.

But his tongue felt suddenly thick and immobile, giving his mind enough time to focus on the familiar bright-heat from within himself, now narrowing to a laser-sharp point of inspiration. In his mind, the work of art, the work that he would create, was assuming the vertical, pronged height of an organpipe cactus.

“Of course I do.”

Hope rocked forward with joy. “Thea will be so delighted, William. If you want to bring in some photographs of your collection, she can–”

“Oh, there’s only one work I’d enter,” he said, his plan nearly formed. “I’m afraid the rest are in storage. “Perhaps you and Thea would like to stop by to see it? Perhaps this weekend?”

“I’d be delighted.”

 

This city, as it turned out, had an art museum, an impressive-looking if small one that boasted some lesser-known works by big names (Monet, Picasso, Giacometti) as well as pieces by local and regional artists, an Egyptian collection, and two rooms full of the glassworks of Joan Astra, a New Mexican artist who, Lloyd learned from the museum catalog, had attended a local university years before and had since “achieved international fame.”

He had not visited a museum of any kind for years, and something about the strangeness of being there, of walking through its echoey marble halls in the middle of the day (in a raincoat he never removed) made him aware that he was a criminal. The sensation was not entirely unpleasant. In fact, he felt remarkably at peace, especially as he ambled through the small eighteenth-century collection with its portraits of old scoundrels in velvet and lace. They fixed him with steely eyes that missed nothing of the truth about him.

Lloyd kept moving, skirting the Egyptian collection and the touring exhibit of nineteenth-century landscapes. He was here to see the large, modern pieces–the sculptures, the mobiles, especially anything made of television sets or car parts–understanding that he could not get away with making anything small or two-dimensional. His creation would have to be of a sufficient scale to forgive its inevitable ugliness and shoddiness.

He studied the stringy lengths of the two Giacomettis, looking for seams, connecting joints, or soldering and discovered nothing of its construction. The scrambled lines confounded him in their intricacy, their lack of beginning or end. A sculpture by Species Zero, a local artist, presented another impossibility. Some type of hybrid of an early submarine and the innards of a great clock, it would have required the resources of a Defense Department contractor.

Joan Astra, he discovered, was obsessed with pupas, which, according to an interview with her in the catalog, “are intended to embody the secrecy and contained fire of all life, all lives.” Her exhibit was full of glass pupas in all shapes, sizes, and configurations. A group of them hung, like a curtain of parti-colored cream horns, in one large window, scattering shivery globs of light—purple, red, and green—across the walls and floor. In another corner, a delicate totem pole of them reached nearly to the ceiling. Suspended in each transparent body was a different object that Lloyd could not connect to any particular theme—a pulled tooth, a rattle, a fortune cookie, something fleshy and obscure like part of an organ. “Journey,” it was called.

Astra’s grandest work stood at the center of the room–a nine-foot-high pupa within a pupa within a pupa, at the core of which sat a sculpture of a naked woman, arms clasped in front of her shins, shorn head tucked to her knees, like someone poised for a tornado. Lloyd knelt down and stared through the layers of bluish-green glass, which gave her the warped and dappled look of something under water. His first sense was that he’d seen this work before, perhaps in an airline magazine, or while flipping through channels on motel cable. But the memory held more weight than that.

He tapped the glass before he realized what he was doing, but no alarm sounded. He looked from right to left and then over his shoulder, and saw that the room was empty. Even the guard had disappeared; the measured scuff and squeak of her crepe soles echoed in the adjoining corridor.

Lloyd got up and stepped back to read the plaque. “Sea Woman Waiting,” it said. He scanned the Joan Astra write-up in the catalog for a mention of the work and found nothing but a studio shot of “the artist’s assistants” (a group of sweaty, long-haired men in their twenties, stripped to the waist like roadies) pouring glowing-hot glass for “Sacred Object.” In truth, he did not want to learn what had inspired the Sea Woman’s creation, or to see her molten origins, for he felt in his heart that she had never existed apart from him, that she was his own, necessary illusion.

Lloyd left the museum immediately, dropping the catalog in the trash can past the revolving doors. He hailed a cab and directed the driver to a lumber “super store” he’d seen advertised. It was time to begin his project, his other project. As the cab sped past the gloomy bungalows at the edge of town, Lloyd realized that his mind was repeating the words “Sea Woman Waiting, Sea Woman Waiting, Sea Woman Waiting.”

 

It was a revelation to Lloyd that roadie-like apprentices did the grunt work of important artists, but because he had no roadies—much less a vision—he cabbed around, aimlessly at first, buying lengths of lumber, a power drill and nailer, various hardware, spray paint, glues, and plaster of Paris. Eventually, he asked the driver (who was remarkably patient, or indifferent, remaining silent throughout the adventure) to cross the highway and drop him and his growing collection of supplies at Van-Tastic. There, for fifteen dollars a day, Lloyd rented a rust-speckled Econoline, loaded it with his purchases, and headed for a scrap yard that, according to Van-Tastic’s proprietor, carried “Grade-A Shit.” That one junkyard could be better than another was as pleasing as it was puzzling and made Lloyd grateful to have been saved from the inferior spots, which might have dimmed his fragile inspiration.

The guardian of the junkyard, a skeletal man toplit in his booth by a single bulb, barely looked up from his paper to wave Lloyd through the gates. Lloyd pulled the van to a stop along some stacked, rusted-out chassis and stepped out into the crispening air. It was near dusk, not long before closing time, he guessed, but he paused anyway, momentarily confused. Beneath him, the earth felt less than solid and seemed to faintly ripple, as if just settling down after some disturbance.

He moved past the chassis, past mounds of stacked tires and fenders. Behind a stand of old sinks and wringer-washers was the type of child’s car, run with pedals, that he’d owned years ago and hadn’t thought of since. Further on, silhouetted against the twilight sky, were the metal legs of an upturned kitchenette set very much like the kind that his grandmother had owned. The starbursts and galaxies on the chairs’ turquoise vinyl had actually entered his childhood dreams, twinkling and spinning in a silent wind.

This place had a museum’s mysteries, but without the keen glimmers of human calculation–without the con. And if anything was a con, art was. Lloyd did not doubt the genuineness of the artist’s passion, any more than he doubted the thing that drove him. But the willful creation of illusion was their life’s work as much as it was his. And if the illusion happened to convince and seduce, so much the better.

He moved on, looking here and there for things that might cast some sort of spell on Hope, realizing that all his choices would be presumptuous, based on the scantest impressions that were filtered through his own desires. He picked up a soiled dressmaker’s dummy, still stuck with pins, then put it back, understanding that the only thing that had drawn him was its suggestion of a woman’s form. Later, he scaled a treacherously stacked hill of scrap for a bike fender, painted bright metallic purple, that glinted like a lacquered curl in the last rays of a sun. Somehow, this thing stood out as being absolutely perfect and necessary. With time, Lloyd developed a churlish certainty of purpose that an artist might call “vision,” and this made him move fast; he was under a fragile spell that too much contemplation would break.

Reminded of Hope’s trip to see the Lichtensteins, he picked up a stack of old comic books that he’d found in a mildewed box, then some broken picture frames. In a far corner of the scrap yard, amid piles of broken concrete blocks and tile, he discovered some glass bricks that would have to come with him, though they were heavy and far from the gate.

By the time Lloyd had finished, just minutes before the yard’s closing, he’d accumulated a chest-high pile of junk. At a post near the gate, he rang a yellowed doorbell labeled “customer service,” summoning the booth man, who shuffled forth, then circled the pile once.

“That’ll be ten dollars,” he said. “Cash only.”

As Lloyd drove back through the gate, his van now packed to the roof, the booth man was bent toward the glow of a lunch-box-sized TV. He gave no sign as Lloyd passed.

 

* * *

 

Lloyd realized that the thing he was to create would look nothing like the organpipe cactus of his early vision; his ability and materials permitted nothing so graceful. After he’d pushed the cheap living room furniture aside and laid down a couple of old sheets, he mixed himself a bourbon and water in a convenience store tumbler and stood staring at the empty space, and drinking, until the back of his skull tingled pleasantly. Then, from the front hall and kitchen, where he’d crammed everything from the van, he carried in the pieces one by one, stacking them according to their weight.

When he had finished sorting the junk into piles, he paused again. He looked from pile to pile and in his growing drunkenness, felt more and more that he was standing in an indoor scrap yard. Other purposes and desires were not available to his imagination. The last time he’d felt this way, he’d also stood amid junk–in the driveway of his parents’ house, shortly after their separation, not long before Hal Junior learned of his cancer. It seemed in those days that the two of them, Lloyd and his father, were always standing, mystified, among things that had to be sorted or discarded, reluctant to admit that what surrounded them (the driftwood lamp, the mildewed boxes of games with their missing pieces, the black vinyl couch that nearly stripped the skin from the back of Lloyd’s thighs so many childhood summers) was garbage. At the same time, it seemed important to get rid of these things as quickly as possible, get them out of sight, and then find some new things—things free of history—to fill the putty-colored rooms of his father’s brand-new condo.

That college summer, Lloyd had been working as a clown at the zoo–as a “subtle clown,” he liked to say, for he wore street clothes and minimal grease paint. The job depressed him, but not for the reasons one might imagine. Every day put him in brutal touch with the sadness of childhood: the fascism of organized trips; the random cruelties inflicted by kids who were older, bigger, fatter, or skinnier; the hideous stuffed “prizes” clustered at the rafters of various attractions.

At first, Lloyd had tried to single out for attention the unhappiest-looking children, the ones who appeared most abandoned or misunderstood. But, almost universally, they shrank from him and kept moving. And Lloyd saw himself, momentarily, through their eyes–an incarnation of life’s ugliness and disorder, a portent of future cruelties that would come out of nowhere.

Eventually, he tired of these reactions and took to making kamikaze ventures toward clusters of malicious-looking teenagers, arguing lovers, tense-looking loners. He understood by then that his function was to annoy and thereby de-fuse, and so he looked for situations where his effect might be the most catalytic and useful. To his surprise, though, his approaches (in which he might tell a stock joke or two from his training or twist a balloon into one of three animal shapes) usually were met with a curiously patient silence, a forbearance bordering on politeness. Lloyd came to understand that, as Lethargio the clown, he was a good deal like a threat divorced from meaning or context, a mugger without portfolio.

It was in this frame of mind that, that summer afternoon, he’d driven to his parents’ house without removing his arched black eyebrows and down-painted mouth. He knew that this was an act of aggression against his mother, who had hinted that he should once again see Dr. Slocum, and just one more layer of strangeness for his father, to whom so many other things (aside from the dependable drain of his job) were now strange, and new. But his mother did not emerge from the house when Lloyd arrived. And Hal Junior seemed to take no notice of the grease paint.

“Thanks for coming, son.” He laid a moist hand on Lloyd’s shoulder. “I’m making a go pile and a stay pile, and the stay pile can be only yay high because the new place doesn’t have much room. Just use your judgment.” He winked, though his expression was grim, and the movement seemed like an illusion, a flickering of life in a sandstone head. “You know what the single man requires these days.”

Despite his father’s assurances, Lloyd did not know how or what to choose that day. He would have liked to think that the things he put in the stay pile would be of particular use to his father in his new life, but very few items on that driveway could be considered useful. So he chose the things that still held some residual fascination from the years they’d spent together in the jaundiced, pizza-parlor light of the basement. Among them, a footlong human skeleton suspended on a platform and wearing a fake Olympic medal that a young Lloyd had crafted, a salt-paste volcano (now growing crystals) that he’d made for his third-grade science fair, and an Indian rattle full of dried navy beans.

After a few minutes, Lloyd felt his father standing beside him again. He expected some mild reproach, or to be questioned as to whether there had been some confusion between the stay and go piles.

But his father was silently crying. This was maybe the second time in his life Lloyd had ever seen him shed tears.

“All these things you made, son. Such beautiful things.”

 

Sometime between ten p.m. Friday and one a.m. Saturday, after a third or fourth glass of bourbon, Lloyd had entered that fragile and magical frame of mind that some have referred to as the artist’s trance. He moved, stacked, glued, drilled, and hammered with a purpose he’d never before felt, following not so much a vision as an instinct. His choices seemed at once preordained and surprising, driven by a desire to discover what he could in these materials before the magic wore off and the sun rose, showing the junk for what it was.

One thing he discovered was that Hope was at the center of every choice. As Lloyd built the scaffolding of metal and wood, as he pasted the comic-book faces behind the wavy glass brick, as he affixed the purple bike fender at just the right crowning angle, he thought constantly of her shape, her voice, her gestures, her trapped glory.

Lloyd finished just after five a.m., as the sun was rising. He told himself he had to wait until at least ten to call Hope, to tell her that she and her friend Thea could stop by at any time.

 

Later that same morning, Hope regarded her son, Avery, from across their kitchen table. He had just finished a piece of the cake she’d baked to celebrate his six-and-a-half-year birthday. Now, he was making his usual morning effort to read from the Times.

“Mommy, what’s this word?”

Pointing an inky finger to the relevant spot, Avery slid the paper toward Hope, who read the word aloud: “perceived.”

“What does it mean, Mommy?”

Usually so proud of Avery’s ever-active mind, Hope was feeling cranky and ill-equipped for it this morning. “Seen, viewed.”

“Read it in the sentence please, Mommy.”

The word was part of a quotation from a Dr. Feldman, which in turn was part of an article titled “Dating and the divorced parent.” Hope considered that delving into this particular piece might not be such a good idea. But she tried to never be dishonest with Avery, and so she read Dr. Feldman’s words aloud: “‘Giving a child at least a perceived choice about the parent’s future mate seems to contribute to harmony, although the child’s choice need not be the central concern.’”

Avery made a face. “‘Giving a child at least a seen choice, at least a viewed choice.’ It doesn’t make sense, Mommy.”

Hope pushed the article away, but Avery reached for it, scooted it back between them.

“Okay,” she said. “It means you give the child what seems to be a choice—what they would see as a choice—so they feel they’re getting to choose, even if that choice is not really significant, to the parent that is.”
As soon as the words were out Hope was sorry for them. Surely Dr. Feldman would not have put forth such a cruel explanation.

Yet Avery registered no hurt or offense. He had the article back under his nose and was staring into it as if he might dissolve it through sheer concentration. (His brain is eating, Thea had once remarked upon Avery at his reading.)

Now he fixed his eyes on Hope.

“So when you meet a man, you might ask me if I like him but do what you want anyway.”

Hope cast him her silly-you look. “Avie, the article’s not about me. And anyway I didn’t say I agree with it.”

She got up from the table to get more coffee. The dull headache she’d awoken with had knotted itself behind her right eye.

“What if you fell in love with Dr. Feldman? Or someone like him?”

“That’s highly unlikely. Now put aside that paper and finish your juice.”

Hope drained the last of the coffee from the carafe into her cup and considered how she was heading for trouble with Avery. In fact, she was already deep into it, and she had no one to blame but herself.

At all times, Avery got most of what he wanted. But as Hope saw it, it was only because he was unusually appreciative and deserving. He never asked for more than what she would gladly give to him, in most cases.

Hope’s sister, Martha, who had money enough for two nannies, had voiced her disapproval about Hope’s parenting, and Hope no longer spoke to her. And Thea, now the closest adult in Hope’s life, had started making faces of distaste when she heard of such things as the half-birthdays.

But no one, not even Thea, knew about moofy.

To merely think the word, as Hope was doing now, sent a chill through her.

What was moofy? It was Avery’s word, Avery’s cry, invented years before to unite her breasts with his desire for food and comfort. As his vocal cords matured, moofy took on a husky insistence, tearing through the house like a separate being bent on making Hope its own.

Finally, around the time of Avery’s fifth birthday, she’d managed to end the breastfeeding, but there were still nights when he’d call out moofy—in his sleep, she assumed, she prayed. She’d lie in her bed frozen, sweating, thinking that if this happened once more, it might be time to call that family therapist Thea had recommended.

Sometimes in her own dreams Hope answered the doorbell to find Avery standing on the porch—an older Avery dressed in business-casual—tan khakis with a pressed blue shirt that exactly matched his blue eyes, which were set in a composed and mature face above the quizzical mouth of his childhood. His smile and baritone voice tinged the word moofy with what may or may not have been irony. He’d glance over her shoulder, into the depths of the house, then smile at her again and shrug, as if to say, Well?

In the dreams, she could never speak. Instead, she’d cover her aching breasts with her arms and will herself to wake up, or for the dream to change.

In the kitchen, as Hope began to rinse the coffee carafe, the phone rang and she answered it.

“Hope, it’s William. Can you and Thea come this evening, for cocktails and a little showing of my work?”

Hope’s heart beat hard with anticipation. “Oh, yes, I’d be delighted. What can I bring?”

“Nothing but yourself and Thea, of course. And your son, if you’d like.”

Hope couldn’t bring herself to mention, in front of Avery, that she was planning to call a sitter. “What time shall we say?”

“Seven?”

“Yes, wonderful. I’m so looking forward to it!”

Hope hung up and turned to Avery, who had neither finished his juice nor put aside the paper.

“What is wonderful, Mommy?” he asked, his eyes searing hers.

 

Lloyd had finished his preparations (including his first cleaning of his apartment) by six-thirty Saturday evening, poured himself a drink, and sat in his small living room to admire his work, which he’d called simply “Ode.” Including the bike fender, it measured just over ten feet high, and he might have built it taller had it not been for the limits of his ceiling.

Never before had he had any interest in creating art, much less the sense that he possessed any sort of talent, but now he wondered if, by accident, he’d stumbled upon some new path for his life. Part of him suspected that any artistic institution of at least the C level would consider his work to be poorly envisioned and executed. Yet he also believed that he’d captured some truth, some authentic statement about lived female life (Hope’s) that any moderately sensitive person would respond to.

If someone had wheeled “Ode” into a corridor adjoining Joan Astra’s, no one would see it as a fraud, of that Lloyd was certain. And it was just this vision—of “Ode” standing solitary in an antiseptic yet reverential gallery space—that gave Lloyd the near certainty of being accepted into Thea’s show, and Hope’s heart.

The phone rang again, four times, and the caller hung up without leaving a message. It was at least the fifth time this afternoon that he’d gotten a hang-up. Worry that Hope was calling to cancel kept him from picking up the phone. Lloyd speculated (foolishly, he realized) that she was not the kind of person to break a date through an answering machine message, and if he didn’t pick up the phone, she wouldn’t be able to break the date.

He hadn’t felt this way about a girl since college, but why? He hardly knew Hope. What if she were seriously dating another man? What if her ex were dangerously unhinged, the jealous, lover-killing kind? What if she honestly had no interest in Lloyd?

The phone rang again, and Lloyd gripped the arm of his chair as he counted to the fourth ring. This time the caller didn’t hang up.

William, this is Rob from work. I hate to leave this kind of message on your machine, but you’re not answering, so I guess I don’t have a choice. From the background came the sound of rattling paper, then of the receiver being muffled as Rob spoke to someone on his end.

Listen, we found some things in the call accounts that we’re a little concerned about, some things showing up where they shouldn’t be. I’m not saying it’s anything you did—I’m sure it’s not—but I’m wondering if I could come by a little later to ask you some questions, just to clear things up. If you’re around give me a call, OK? All right then, bye.

Lloyd drained his drink and sat up. He braced his trembling hands against his knees and put his mind to the problem. This wasn’t the first call of this kind he’d gotten since he’d begun his life on the con. In fact, he’d come to see such calls as blessings, signs that it was time to pull up the tent and move on. Up to now, the powers that be had been stupid or untutored enough to give him this kind of warning, and there was no reason to think it would be any different this time.

But this time, he wasn’t ready. Not yet. Over the past few days, he’d begun to reconstruct his vision of the future, and it no longer included packing alone in the middle of the night as hair dye or bleach assaulted his nostrils and scalded his scalp. Lloyd knew he had to think and move quickly, but this setback to his still-brewing plans left him immobilized.

And then the doorbell sounded. As he went to answer the door, Lloyd pulled the phone cord from the wall.

Outside, on the crumbling stoop, stood a woman of about fifty in a loose, ankle-length dress of purple and green satin. Her pointed face and small stature gave her a girlish look, and her graying hair had been done up with little pins studded with sparking flowers and dragonflies.

“William Howe?” she inquired.

Lloyd realized from her face that his own must have registered disappointment at Hope’s absence.

“That’s me,” he answered, trying to sound cheerful.

“Thea Granby of the Arts Council,” she replied, extending her hand, which Lloyd shook warmly.

“Delighted,” he said. “Won’t you come in?”

“Thank you,” she said, rummaging through her purse as she stepped over the threshold. “Hope will be here in a minute. She couldn’t find a babysitter for her boy, and she’s back at the car trying to make him fit for society.”

Thea fixed Lloyd with a conspiratorial look. “The child can be dear, but on occasion his behavior is, well.”

In that instant, Lloyd had a vision of his potential influence on this boy he hadn’t met. He saw himself sitting by the child’s side on the stoop, imparting wisdom that might change his young life.

…and when you discover that you need not meet society’s expectations—that, in fact, you can happily thwart them—the world will open up for you ….

Thea found what she was looking for in her purse—glasses. With an almost ceremonious gesture, she perched them on the bridge of her nose and stepped forward to face “Ode.” She then took measured little steps around it, like a druid going through the paces of a ritual. All the while she looked it up and down and made soft sounds of appraisal—whether appreciative or not, Lloyd couldn’t tell.

“You follow Ferber?” Thea, now behind the sculpture, poked her face around the side of it. “The Ferber works in glass and metal?”

“Some.” Lloyd prayed she wouldn’t probe much further than this. “I’m more influenced by Astra.”

“Oh, yes. Joan Astra. I can see that now. She’s a worthy inspiration.”

On completing her orbit, Thea stopped and stood with her hands on her hips, still staring at the sculpture.

“Well, I think it’s truly extraordinary, and we’d love to have it in the show.”

Lloyd’s heart leaped. “Seriously? You truly mean that?” He wished immediately that he’d been more subdued, as if he were accustomed to such invitations. “I mean, I don’t usually get much interest from people who run, you know, local shows.”

Thea turned to Lloyd and smiled in a way that suggested she was indulging him. “I can assure you that we’re not like most small-town arts councils. We want what’s new and different. We want the risk-takers.”

“Well, I’m certainly that.”

He laughed, and she laughed. She didn’t take her eyes from his.

“Pardon me for saying this, but has anyone ever told you that you resemble the young Gregory Peck?”

“For that, you get a drink. Gin-and-tonic? Wine? Soda?”

“Wine. White, if you have it.”

“It’s yours.”

As Lloyd turned to leave for the kitchen, he was stopped by the sound of commotion outside the front door—thumps that weren’t knocks, and something literally beastly—snarling? He turned to Thea, as if she might have an explanation.

“Prepare yourself for Avery Topsfield,” she exclaimed wearily.

Lloyd and Thea listened, immobile, as the thumping and snarling diminished, then ceased.

Slowly, the door opened, and in stepped a large-headed but exceedingly handsome little boy with enormous blue eyes that exactly matched his Oxford-cloth shirt—recently pressed but now bearing fresh grass stains. Though quiet, he was chuffing little post-tantrum breaths, suggesting he might still go off. Seeming to sense this, Thea approached, knelt to the boy’s level, and tilted up his chin to look directly into his eyes.

“How’s my Avery?” she said. “My dearest little Avery.”

He stopped huffing and became instantly composed. “Very well, thank you. And you?”

The boy’s sudden gentility disarmed Lloyd. He sensed that this boy—very much like Lloyd himself, as a child—was sensitive, highly intelligent, and very possibly misunderstood, leading him to act out in the only way he knew.

Quietly, like a handler creeping into a tiger’s cage, Hope stepped through the doorway behind Avery. She wore a fitted dress, slightly off-the-shoulders, whose yellow cast a glow upon her face, which was still fetchingly flushed from her struggles with Avery. Lloyd had never seen her looking so beautiful.

Catching Lloyd’s eye, she gave him an apologetic little wave and mouthed, “Hi.”

Lloyd waved back, a motion that Avery detected instantly. He looked at Lloyd neutrally.

What to do? It wasn’t his way to kneel before a child and pander, and he had the feeling the boy would see through this anyway.

So with all the confidence and authority he could muster, he said, “Avery, I’m Lloyd, and I’m very pleased to meet you.”

Avery regarded him with the same neutral stare and then looked at Thea, who gave him a smile and nod of encouragement. Then, he said over his shoulder, to Hope, “You said his name was William.”

This wasn’t the first such slip for Lloyd, and he quickly replied, “Lloyd was my grandfather’s name and my own nickname as a child. Sometimes, especially around boys who remind me of myself as a child, that old name comes back to me.”

Hope stepped forward and took her son’s hand. “Avery, what do you say when someone says they’re pleased to meet you?”

Avery seemed to be passing a bitter lozenge back and forth in his mouth.

“Avery?”

“I say, pleased to meet you, Lloyd.”

Lloyd—and the other adults—would accept this. Nothing could be gained by correcting him.

“Well,” Lloyd announced, feeling it was time to change the focus of the conversation, “I’m getting white wine for Thea. Now what can I get for the two of you? Soda? Wine? Gin and tonic?”

“White wine for me too,” Hope said. She kept hold of Avery’s hand but walked him farther into the room, near the worn armchair from which Lloyd liked to admire “Ode.” She added, “And water for Avery? I like to avoid soda, if I can.”

“Of course.”

Lloyd retreated into the kitchen and made his own drink first—a strong gin-and-tonic that he gulped and finished while preparing the others. Then, he placed the two wines and waters on a chipped glass tray left by the previous tenant and started for the living room.

The sight he witnessed stopped him in the doorway.

Avery was struggling toward “Ode,” mumbling rhythmically. On either arm, restraining him, were Hope and Thea. The three of them had their backs to Lloyd and did not notice him in the doorway. He kept silent and listened.

At first, Lloyd couldn’t make out what the boy might be saying. He strained to hear, and then did.

Awww-ful, awww-ful, awww-ful.” He said this over and over, like a mantra.

“Stop it,” Hope said in a hushed voice. “Stop it now.”

“But look, Mommy.” He pulled free of Thea and pointed to one of the glass bricks and the pasted-on cartoons. “Look there. You can see the glue. See?”

“Yes,” Hope said softly, taking both of his arms and kneeling to pull him close. “Yes, I see the glue. Now quiet down. Quiet down or you’ll get a spanking. And I mean it.”

“Please, Mommy. Just say it’s awful. Just say it’s awful and I’ll be good for the rest of the night. I promise.”

Avery stopped struggling and stared into Hope’s eyes, just as she was staring into his, and Lloyd was reminded of profiles struck on ancient coins, gods or royals of another realm. Not his.

When, at last, Hope obeyed her son’s command, Lloyd turned and retreated back to the kitchen. The rattle of the glasses on the tray must have caught the women’s attention, for they were at his back instantly, calling after him.

“Oh, William, I didn’t mean it.”

“Of course she didn’t mean it.”

Lloyd ignored them. He rested the tray of drinks by the kitchen sink, braced his hands on the counter, and stared out the kitchen window into the summer evening. Across the street, a sprinkler sputtered to life and hurled spirals of water onto some unknown neighbor’s yard. On the freshly black-topped driveway of another home, a young father knelt by his son, buckled the chin strap of his bike helmet. A bit of the good and normal.

Into this frame drove a black town car with darkened windows. It stopped at the curb in front of Lloyd’s apartment. A moment later, two men stepped out—Rob and Mr. Crubbage. Both wore neat shorts and short-sleeved dress shirts, and both carried bulging leather portfolios under their arms, but while Crubbage was composed, his face an unreadable mask, Rob’s eyes darted this way and that. Sweat stains showed under his arms.

As they walked across the yard, toward the front door, Lloyd sat down on the floor, aware that the women were still speaking to his back.

From the living room came a great crash, and Lloyd was stunned neither by that nor by the approach of his accusers. On some level, he’d long understood that he’d descend once more into chaos, the result of all too many theories and experiments when pushed to their limits. Now, he waited for acceptance: that great strength and weakness of Hal Shrumpeter Junior, and Hal’s faithful companion through a long, difficult, and honest life.

 

 

BIO

Beth Castrodale writerAfter receiving a journalism degree from the Ohio State University, Beth Castrodale worked briefly as a newspaper reporter and then moved into book publishing. For many years, she edited print and digital media for Bedford/St. Martin’s, eventually leaving to devote more time to her fiction writing. Since then, she has completed two novels, which she is currently shopping around, and she’s partway through drafting a third. She also recommends small-press books on her Web site, SmallPressPicks.com.

 

 

 

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