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Natural Burial

by J.L. Moultrie

With a will buried beneath the conditioning and walls of childhood, he rode his bike behind the ice cream truck. As he veered into the middle of the street, sudden regrets about being poor stood in his mind, then his body collided with the front end of an accelerating Lincoln town car. He flew into the air, his frame falling upon the summer scorched asphalt.

The children and parents of the neighborhood either gawked or gathered around him as he crawled out of the street onto the sidewalk grass. The car kept going. A sense of shame covered him because he was the center of attention. His lower back and head were ringing with a burning sensation. The crowd dissolved after he managed to walk into his older sister’s home.

He winced as he slid onto the far dining room wall. He followed his sister’s eyes as she walked past him without uttering a word. No one took him to the hospital.

At moments like this, upheaval rose in him that he could not understand nor accept. His limited sphere of understanding was constantly demolished and slowly rebuilt. He didn’t know it, but these things would be planted in the fertile soil of his recollections.

Unable to circumvent the monoliths of familial history and expectation, he found himself at the center of his 5th grade teacher’s Academic Game’s team. After he tried to quit his teacher refused saying he, “Did not like quitters”. He tried his best to avoid the event, asking his mother if he could stay home for two days in a row. However, on the third day, at his locker, his friend asked him if he was, “Ready for the big day.” He stood on stage shocked, looking for his parents in a sea of faces, but seeing none.

After spelling a few words correctly he failed and retreated to the bathroom, where he relieved himself after holding it for a long time. He felt a weight lift from his shoulders as expectations and attention towards him dissolved. Later, he found himself in the principal’s office – she congratulated him on making the honor roll and principal’s list, then she asked him if he’d like to go to a hockey game. He said yes but couldn’t go because his parents had no transportation.

After a day of school, he went over to his friend’s house, but his visit was cut short when his parents began shouting at one another in the bedroom. His friend’s mother emerged into the living room with fresh blood covering the white of her eyes. She told him that he’d have to come back another time.

An ache, resembling a futile longing, was all that he’d inherited from his parents who ran the streets and worked enough to support their habits. The dimensions of his days were steeped in the heavy brine of neglect. He saw and felt too much until he sought emotional blindness. He played and spent time with kids his own age, but an incurable distance ebbed between them.

His experience afforded him no reference for how to interpret the phenomena surrounding him. He entered middle school sulking, barely speaking a word. In this silence, his body began a slow transformation. As his inner world began to split at the seams, his emotions slipped beyond recovery. He barely made it through each day, subsisting on the morsels of wavering possibilities.

He slept on the floor in the projects, finding himself languishing further and further into and undeveloped self. He found himself in a situation where many were not afforded self-belief. The quality of his potential remained unkindled embers, dangerously close to being extinguished.

One night his father, who he remained largely a stranger to, stopped by. He took him to get pizza, but they barely spoke. His hunger for genuine connection superseded any desire for popularity. This orientation engendered scorn and derision, even from some of his adult relatives.  His experience felt tenuous and ephemeral, as if it could be supplanted at any time by anyone. The adults in his life feigned warmth and recognition, but he knew they did not see him. He, in turn, developed a healthy mistrust.

That same night, he waited outside of the bathroom as his mother came in and out of consciousness after injecting heroin. This event etched shame and anger upon his young soul. As his performance in school began to decay, he withdrew into numbness; lying by saying he was “okay” when he clearly was not. Talking amongst themselves, the adult speculated if he were inarticulate or simply withholding his thoughts.

In truth, his mind was full of chimeras and inhospitable expanses. The features of his psyche were nebulous, sharp to touch and as ubiquitous as stars in a clear night’s sky. When he walked into a room, people noticed. When he spoke, many paid attention. His eyes were penetratingly innocent; these qualities of gravitas were lost upon him. He was frightened and confounded by the sensations that passed through him. Each step resembled a perilous leap into the unknown.

While walking alone in a desolate field, he heard mewling amid the tall, wind swept grass. Nestled in a small clearing was a litter of newly born kittens, their eyes barely letting in the pale, fall sunlight. They were an assortment of limbs and mouths, splotched with white, black and orange. They grasped and gaped at the newly entered world.

Buried under the bronze veneer of his flesh were turbulent waters where many sunken vessels lied. He softly grabbed the nearest rock; its rough texture pushed tightly against the sweaty center of his hand.

He tossed the first stone at the scrum of fur and murmuring. He walked around the field, picking up rocks and scanning his surroundings, making sure no one was watching. He tossed them as hard as he could, connecting several times with the heads and chests of the litter. He stood in the field, aware that what he’d done was not good, but his body persisted. He slowly took steps toward what he created.

Warm streaks of scarlet lie spattered on paws, whiskers and multicolored rocks. He pushed the long-idle torment back into the spacious compartments of his subconscious. He scoured the large field for a suitable object. Upon finding it, he returned to the site and began using it. With a fallen tree branch and his hands, he dug a shallow crevice in the cool, coffee-colored soil. With one hand, he shielded his eyes from the quickly setting sun, he used the other to push the still murmuring pile into a shallow grave. He hastily filled it and returned home.

That night consciousness was wrested from his body only partially. Vague, dissonant impressions startled him back onto the terrestrial plane. That morning as he through the field on his way to class, his face darkened, and his heart began beating rapidly. It went on this way for several weeks to the point that he began having mild convulsions – trembling whenever his surroundings became too loud or moved too quickly.

As his headaches and backpain persisted, he became more submerged in the rapids of deterioration. He rode his bike and took walks aimlessly, going as far as he could from home. His interactions were skeletal – he spoke with his eyes downcast, his voice a tenuous thread of sound. That fall, he was taken to churches, roller rinks and libraries, but none of thee excursions managed to take his attention away from recollections of the field and stones.

On Halloween, he went out collecting candy with some cousins in a werewolf costume. It was a rainy evening, punctuated by barking dogs, careening headlights, droning thunder and vacant alleyways. His interpretation of these phenomena mingled with his senses, putting him in a state. The coarse sonic fabric of voices, distant aircrafts, locomotive horns and rustle of fallen leaves momentarily subdued what was ever present.

After hours of walking and eating candy, he got into bed. But before he got settled, he vomited onto the floor. The result resembled gasoline on concrete – liquid hues of green gold and purple bled into one another. Even when he was sitting still, he was sprinting into the night across ambling terrain. Even when he was silent, one got the sense that he was on the verge of screaming.

It went against every fabric of his being to try to be other than who he was, despite the subtle and not so subtle urgings of his relatives and schoolmates. When class became inhospitable, he began spending long days walking and taking the bus across the city. Though he was alone, he enjoyed the absence of expectation mixed with repulsion. He refused to grow buoyant upon the trauma but allowed himself to sink beneath it: it was the only way he could get out.

As his volition had not grown to a level that could sustain his world, he remained dependent on these around him. The barriers between him and others had only grown more intense and glaring. His rare episodes of anger and defiance were largely dismissed as him, “needing an outlet”. Thus, he grew more intangible by the day, only holding long conversations when he saw fit.

He was plagued by a confounding curiosity; questions ruminated in his mind to the point that he couldn’t sleep. In his pajamas, he’d wander inaudibly into the early morning. Once he was found by his mother having a conversation with a homeless man in front of a library. His silence would not relent as she berated him. When she questioned the man, he told her that, “The boy was only concerned about me and how many books I’ve read”.

That night he slept soundly but continued to live under the doubt and suspicion of those around him.

BIO

J.L. Moultrie is a native Detroiter, poet and fiction writer who communicates his art through the written word. He fell in love with literature after encountering Fyodor Dostoyevsky, James Baldwin, Rainer Maria Rilke and many others. His work appears or is forthcoming in  Datura Literary Journal, Abstract: Contemporary Expressions, Visitant, Backchannels, The Free Library of the Internet Void and elsewhere. He considers himself a literary abstract artist of modernity.

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20/20

by A.L. Bishop

I woke with limbs full of wet cement, head woolly and hot, wanting only to go outside and lie down in what was left of the snow along the fence. Instead, I went to see the police, as I had promised to do.

“So, you were driving southbound to Fort Erie on the QEW?”

“I was going to the Falls.”

“Why?” He leapt on it. This was one hungry traffic cop.

“That’s where I live.”

“And there was a back-up on the Garden City Skyway? All three lanes?”

“Yes. The Friday of March Break—the exit to the outlet mall—”

“And you knew the young woman?”

What? “No. I didn’t know her.”

The officer watched me closely, a canary feather dangling from his mouth. “You weren’t acquainted in any way?”

“No. She just rear-ended me.” A crunch, bewildered squeaking as my car rocked back and forth, and when I got out—which took forever, because I would have done anything to just sit there and pretend that nothing had happened—when I got out, I saw her behind the wheel, eyes wide as tulips about to drop their petals. I’d never seen someone so young driving a Caprice Classic.

“She ‘just rear-ended’ you.”

“Yes.”

He leaned forward in his chair. “She ‘just rear-ended’ you and then jumped off the Skyway. Just like that.”

Not just like that. First she had crawled over to go out the passenger side door, but then she was up and gone, scrambling over the guardrail like a centipede, translucent, indifferent, disappearing into nothing until, after about half a kilometre, she hit the surface of the canal, though I didn’t know that at the time. I looked into the empty air where her head had just been, catastrophe streaking out into the sunny sky and through every nerve path in my body. I ran to the spot but couldn’t bring myself to lean forward against the wind and the horror and look. So whether we were over water or roads or trees or industrial wasteland at that particular point on the elevated highway was a mystery, but not the most pressing one, in that moment, which was also occupied by intense salivation at the roots of my tongue and puking onto the grit left behind by a winter’s worth of salt and ploughing, near the faint scuffs where she’d gotten out of the car. How small she must have been, to turn in that tiny space. “Pretty much.”

Traffic Columbo decided to change tack. “And you hit the car in front of you?”

“Yes. Tapped it.”

He lunged once more. “Did you exchange words with the young lady?”

“No.”

“Were you carrying a weapon of any kind?”

“What?”

“Did you lose your temper? Was she trying to escape? There will be footage,” he warned. “Traffic cameras.”

In the preceding sixteen hours, I’d replayed what had happened in my head hundreds of times, often with tiny tweaks, trying to conjure up a different outcome. In all those versions, never once had I imagined what would have happened if I had stayed in my car like I wanted to. “Wait. You think she jumped to get away from me?”

“Is that what the witness statements are going to tell me?”

My impression from the cops at the scene had been that it was just a routine public suicide, insofar as suicides in Niagara, a land of waterways and bridges, are more often routinely public. The scene cops were the ones who told me that she’d landed in the canal. I looked it up in the middle of the night—the Skyway is 130 feet at its highest point, and the Welland Canal is about 25 feet deep. I don’t know anything about physics, but I saw a Canada goose get hit by a sports car once on the 401 and just explode. If the girl hadn’t burst when she hit the surface, she might have hit the bottom, like landing on concrete twice, breaking, then breaking again. Could the skin be expected to hold together? She was so small. “I didn’t say anything to her. There wasn’t time to—”

I don’t remember much else that he said after that. He wound up by noting he might need me to come back for further questioning, that I shouldn’t go very far—a moot point, since they still had my car, were keeping it as part of the investigation—but he’d already lost me deep in the notion that the girl might have been frightened. Of me. Most people barely register me, and I’ve certainly never scared anyone, certainly not to death.

If anything, I was on her team. Who hasn’t thought about it, a final exit, on your own terms? Living in a tourist town can do that to you, knowing that everyone else gets to leave and you have to stay right where you are. But I think I would have paused for a look around, sat on the edge for a bit, surveying the sky and then maybe just leaning back, a scuba diver. Not straight up and over, like her, a GIF on autoplay—up and over, up and over.

What if it wasn’t up and over, but simply away, and not simply away, but away from me?

+ + +

At work, I drank the stale water from the steel bottle in my locker left behind after my last shift. As always happens at this time of year, I could taste fish. Today I wondered how much of the taste was actually fish—scales and waste—and how much was from other animals—the great blue herons in the gorge, the twenty or so gull species that pass through—and how much was from people—spilled food and drink, dissolved sunscreen, flaky skin, sewage, the rot of the unembalmed. I stared at the screen, tried to make sense of the delivery schedule, chatted with the FedEx guy like any other day. But it was like a smudge on my glasses, the image of her face behind the windshield, impeding my view whether my eyes were open or closed. Only now, I couldn’t remember where she was looking. We hadn’t made eye contact, but had she seen me at all? Or was it always that vacant stare?

Instead of fading out or lumping together, the questions in my mind got sharper and multiplied and developed taunting laughs, so that when I overheard one of the women on the morgue staff chatting with a mortician outside the dock—for in hospitals, you’ll almost always find shipping and receiving next to the morgue—I locked on like a lamprey.

“Can you imagine? I mean, traffic gets under my skin, too, but…” Ha, ha.

“Well, let’s make it official, shall we? Williamson, Agnes, female, 24…”

“No, never anything quite like this…”

“And they’d only just opened the canal for the season…”

“Interment, yes, small service. Eleven o’clock Tuesday at Fairview. Will that be a problem?”

“Amazing that they recovered enough to inter…”

“I hate talking to my insurance broker, too, but…” Ha, ha, ha.

I stepped into the hallway. “Did she leave a note?”

Elaine—who would have needed a more self-contained temperament in her line of work, I’d have thought—jumped.

“Are you speaking to me?” said the mortician, mortified.

“Ms. Williamson.” Saying her name felt like a betrayal and a consummation at the same time. “Did she leave any indication of why she—?”

“I’d best be on my way,” the mortician told Elaine.

Elaine, now recovered, forced a smile at me.

I wandered back to the computer terminal, thinking about remains. Through the dullness of lingering shock and the faint and constant diesel fumes of the dock, an idea sprang into my head, a motion-sensor light triggered by scurrying rats. If I were to go—pay my respects—what could her people tell me? Or, perhaps, not tell me, overcome with grief and not paying any attention to the nondescript stranger who seemed so broken up about things, but let me hear and see and learn—what clues, what skeleton key?

So, I would go to the burial. That’s what I decided. After work, I got all the way out to the employee parking lot before remembering where my car was, that I had to walk home.

+ + +

My attic apartment is in an old neighbourhood close to the Niagara River, one that used to be something before the bottom fell out of downtown. The street’s leafy quiet butts up against a garish wall of tourism, so that you step out of this creaky old enclave straight into the plastic fantastic if you’re going anywhere on foot, which I was now, heading to the graveyard. It was a bit like having to pass through Disney World to get anywhere, but with more smut and fewer people tasked with cleaning up urine.

Dirty snow clung to the ground, defiant of the brightening sun, and my face felt hot from the cold by the time I arrived at the cemetery. I surveyed the scene as I approached along the walking path. People weren’t thick on the ground—a minister, attendants from the funeral home, though not the giddy mortician, and a few middle-aged women in parkas and matching black pants. Those matching black pants, a uniform, gave me pause. If Agnes Williamson had no one to bid her farewell apart from a few work friends, my already-uncomfortable status as an intruder on a fact-finding mission felt shameful, obvious, and futile, worst of all.

I stopped and someone ran into me from behind.

The woman had a face dried out from too much nicotine and eyes like amber, glistening through as much mascara as I had seen one person wear at one time. Her red scarf had catches in it. She looked at me, put out and expectant.

Under her gaze, I felt unable to go anywhere except forward, toward the gravesite. Panicking but anxious to blend in and escape her, I left the path, stepping onto the colourless, snow-flattened grass. She fell in beside me. She stood where I stood, not far from the minister, who appeared to take our arrival as a signal that he could begin. The wind moved his greying hair off his head. He patted it down.

The woman sniffled quietly at first, but soon began to sob. Christ, was this Agnes’s mother?

The service, which couldn’t have lasted for more than a quarter of an hour, took a thousand years standing next to the weeping woman. As soon as the minister wrapped up, all of the black-slacked ladies on the other side of the grave hastened over en masse to huddle around her and, beside her, me.

The heaviest one grasped both her hands. “You must be Agnes’s mom. My name is Maria. I was her supervisor at the restaurant.”

Agnes’s mother nodded but didn’t speak.

“We’re all going to miss her. She always helped out if one of us needed a break. Never complained. Good worker.”

Multiple sympathetic gazes landed on me.

Overwhelmed with guilt, I dropped my head, but this somehow implied confirmation of a relationship, elevating me from rubbernecked gawker to full-on imposter.

“Ah, Agnes never said much,” said Maria, patting my shoulder. “Agnes was not a big talker, either, was she? But she did good work. We’re all going to miss her.” Then she said to me in a low voice, “Can you come by the restaurant? Agnes left a few things in her locker. We wasn’t sure who to give them to.”

Agnes’s mother looked up at me with blackened eyes.

“You should have that,” I said to her. She burst into fresh tears.

“It’s Sunny Side Up, on the Lane,” Maria said, trying to keep her voice down and be heard over Agnes’s mother’s wailing at the same time. “I’m on morning shift, next four days.”

Maria stepped away and I seized the chance to peel off with the work friends, but Agnes’s mother put her hand on my wrist, a burr.

“Won’t you help me?” Her voice held me, though I wanted only to be away from her.

Everyone else, even the minister, had hoofed it. “What can I do?”

“A drink, to start.” Didn’t she care that I was a complete stranger? “I’m staying downtown. So, close to that.”

“I don’t have my car.” I felt lucky that my knees didn’t give out as I spoke.

She hadn’t let go of my arm. “You have a couple of casinos in this town, don’t you?”

I held out a slight hope that if I started moving, she might let me go. Instead, she clasped my elbow and walked with me out of the cemetery.

“I’m due in for my shift at the hospital,” I said, which wasn’t true.

She ignored me. “You knew my daughter?” The word “daughter” stuck in her throat.

“Not really.” Her sharp glance drove another lie from my lips. “Not—well.” It took my breath away.

“You’re here, aren’t you? You wouldn’t be here if she didn’t mean something to you.”

As we got closer to Bridge Street, a man who should have been wearing a coat passed us on the sidewalk, too close.

“I need to understand what happened to her,” she said.

So did I. Ever so much. “I’m sorry, but I can’t help you.” I took my arm away from her, anxious to commence the likely interminable process of forgetting that I had ever crossed this line. I put my hands in my pockets, keeping an eye on the coatless man.

“What’s your name?”

I met her eyes as briefly as I could, dropped them to the lipstick bleeding up into the skin around her mouth. “Alex.”

Her face lit up. “She talked about you!”

I can’t imagine what I looked like when she said that.

“She did! All the time, she did.”

“It must have been another—”

She grabbed my wrist again. Flecks of mascara floated in the tears collecting over her heavy lower lids. “I know you were good to her. I know she would want you to be good to me. We’re both hurting, here. I think we can help each other.”

“I’m sorry. I have to get to work.”

She made a sort of huffing noise, and then fumbled around in her purse and came up with a pen. She scribbled down a number on a business card and handed it to me. It was for Leopold Drewe of Drewe Financial in Halifax. On the back, she’d written “Vi” and a telephone number. “I’m here for a few days.”

The man with no coat lurked a few feet away. The thought of learning more about Agnes, maybe finding answers—not just for me, but for Vi, too, for both of us—wrapped itself around me in slow, sticky loops, like the pulled candy they used to make behind a window on Queen Street when I was a kid. I held the card for a few seconds, scraping its edge against the winter-dry skin on the inside of my thumb, staring at the man.

“I can come with you for a bit.”

She smiled, then wilted, out of relief, I guess.

+ + +

We went to the old casino, what was once Maple Leaf Village, and ordered drinks in the restaurant, scotch and soda for her, tea for me.

“You came from Halifax?”

Vi frowned. “Who told you that?”

“Oh.” I pulled the card out of my pocket. “It says—”

She took it and peered at it, then tossed it on the floor. “Some man in a bar gave me that.”

“Oh. So did you have to travel far to—?”

Vi cleared her throat. “I was already on my way here when I got word. I wanted to see her—Agnes—about something.” Her shoulders crumpled in an exhausted, hollowed-out way. “Well, I’m sure she told you all about it. You know the bind I’m in.”

I didn’t know what to say.

“If I don’t get to Andrew, I don’t know what I’ll do.”

“Andrew?”

Vi drained her glass. “My son.”

“I didn’t know she had a brother. She—never mentioned him.” And there I was, manufacturing Agnes, my mouth so sour from it I thought my gums might start to bleed.

Vi held up her empty glass as a signal to our server. “Half-brother.”

“Older or younger?”

She paused. “He’s 24. They weren’t close.” She looked at me through bitumen-encrusted lashes. “How long have you and Agnes been friends?”

I took a big sip of the mug of tea the waiter had brought me and felt the fingers of hell on the insides of my cheeks, my tongue, my throat, the boiling water claiming what felt like many layers of tissue. Trying to recover, I took off my glasses and cleaned them on my shirt, then resettled them on my face. When I blew on the tea, they fogged up.

Vi smoothed back her thin brown hair, pressing the skin at her temples. “Are you all right?” She let it hang, my mounting discomfort.

“Yes. Sorry. You were saying, about going to see Andrew?” The inside of my mouth was still on fire. “Where is he?”

“Switzerland.”

“That’s why he’s not here today.” Not the right thing to say. “For Agnes. For you. It was too far to come.” Disdain weighed down her heavily plucked brows. “When does he expect you?”

Vi’s face contracted into helplessness. “I can’t afford it now.”

Sure. Funerals. “That’s terrible.”

“He’s ill. He needs me to take care of him.” Vi touched her cheekbone with her ring finger, blotting tears I couldn’t see in the patchy casino lighting. “I just don’t know what I’ll do now. If I don’t get to Andrew, I don’t know what I’ll do. I can’t lose another—”

“That’s terrible,” I said again.

She trained her golden eyes on me. “I don’t need your pity. I need your help.”

“How can I help you?”

“You said you’re a doctor.”

When had I said that? Is this what people meant when they talked about losing track of your own lies? “No. I’m not. A doctor.”

“You said you had to get to the hospital. For work.”

“Oh—no. I work in shipping.”

I hadn’t seen anyone look so disappointed in me since I’d last seen my parents.

“The mail room?” She let out a little bleat of laughter. Our server walked by, a young man with broad shoulders and purplish white teeth. She waved him over. I thought she might be checking on the status of her refill, but she asked for the cheque. He started to fish through a wad of papers.

I grabbed the bill when he held it out. “Here, I can—”

“You don’t want to help me. I don’t know why you would pretend.”

The server handed me a portable card reader. Vi rolled her eyes at him under her laden lashes and he put his hand on the back of her chair, brushing her shoulder, giving her the smile he almost certainly saved for women like her. He flirted out of habit, to while away his shifts and maybe wring a few extra dollars out of the perpetually sad clientele. But Vi had just buried her daughter. I cancelled the tip I’d been about to confirm on the device and handed it back to him.

“Do you want to go anywhere else?”

“With you?” Vi pulled on her coat, tied her ratty red scarf. It seemed that the answer was in the question. I followed her out of the restaurant anyway, through the casino, into the parking lot, where a light, icy rain flicked against the awning overhead.

“Was Agnes going to come with you overseas?”

“Are you trying to upset me?” She was small, like Agnes, but not at all frail.

“Of course not. I’m sorry. I’m just—I just wish I knew why Agnes was so sad.”

She unleashed that bitter laugh again. “You sound like a terrific friend.”

Desperate to hold her there, desperate to atone, I said, “I wasn’t her friend.”

Her face went still.

“I was just there. When she did it. And I wanted to—”

“Did what?”

I dropped my voice. “When she killed herself.”

“Killed herself,” Vi said, almost as though she didn’t believe me. “What does that mean, you were there? You watched your friend die?”

“She wasn’t my friend.” I kept running out of air when I tried to speak. “I’m sorry, but I didn’t know your daughter. I only happened to be there when she—I just need to know why, I need to know what made her do it.”

Vi’s yellow eyes flared, twin matches. “You’ve been lying to me.”

“It’s the worst thing I’ve ever done.”

A taxi pulled up from the nearby taxi stand. She turned away.

“Vi, please—I’ll give you anything. But please, can you just tell me what was going on with—why she was so—”

Vi stopped, holding the door handle, and said, “I need money.”

Her voice sounded different, so it took me a minute to process. “To get to Andrew,” I said at last.

She threw her arms around my neck, back to herself again. “I knew you would understand, honey. Agnes was going to give me the money. She’d been putting it by to try and help me out. But I can’t get to it. Everything’s all tied up.”

I tried to catch up. “I’ve heard that sort of thing can take forever.”

“I can’t wait. I thought that if you knew how much she wanted to help me, that you might step up.” When I didn’t immediately volunteer, she hardened. “That was when I thought you two were friends. And here it was all a filthy lie.”

“You want me to give you money?”

Lend it to me,” said Vi, hurt. “Just for a while.”

No one had ever asked me for money before for what, to me, were obvious reasons—nine hundred of them, the sum total of my personal assets. I didn’t know the correct reaction, or the protocol for agreeing or refusing. “How much?”

“Ten grand.”

“I don’t have—”

She cooled off again. “Right. The mail room.”

Agnes wasn’t my friend. Agnes wasn’t my anything. And yet, if I had only stayed in my car, she might—

 Vi made a move for the taxi.

“I didn’t know that’s what you wanted,” I said, stalling.

“It isn’t what I wanted.” She pouted. “You’re abusing me terribly. I thought you might like to try to make it up to me. If I could trade it all and have my daughter back, you know I would.”

She opened the cab door. I spotted a standalone ATM near the lobby entrance. “Wait.”

I went over and withdrew my daily limit, four hundred dollars. The taxi was just starting to pull away as I got back but I yanked open the door and jumped in. I thought she would have the driver throw me out, but when I handed her the money, she started counting it. I nodded at him to go.

She rolled her eyes and put the cash in her bag, stonewalling me all the way to a mouldy motor inn downtown, where I got out with her and paid the cabbie, hoping she might relent and ask me in and tell me all about her dead kid.

Fluorescent lights shone over each numbered door. As Vi stood before her cabin, one lit up her hair from behind, sad and wispy. “You know, you have my number,” she said. “If you actually want to help.”

She closed the door in my face. Halfway across the parking lot, I remembered that I didn’t have her number anymore—it was on the floor under the table at the casino. I went back and knocked, but she didn’t answer. Maybe she was taking a shower.

I wandered around downtown for a while, through the underpass where all the stray cats live, imagining Vi’s next few days. There would be lawyers to deal with, perhaps police procedure, not to mention scraping together the money to pay for the burial. She would have to go through Agnes’s home, her things. And all of it would be worse than just the fact of doing it—it would all be compounded by why she was doing it. And what had I given her, for all that misery? A pack of lies and a few hundred bucks.

+ + +

Sometime in the night, I remembered Maria and the bag of Agnes’s belongings waiting for Vi at the restaurant.

I set out first thing. I still hadn’t heard from the police about my car, so I walked again, the cold, damp air clamouring for the space between my clothes and my skin.

The restaurant’s ‘please seat yourself’ placard was up. Everything looked tired—the plastic plants, the stained upholstery. I ordered toast and then thought of Agnes with her goggle eyes bringing toast to liars in the early morning and lost my appetite. When Maria came out of the men’s room with a mop and bucket, I snapped my face toward the window, filled with regret. I took a sip of water but choked on it when I heard her say, “Is it you?”

I coughed and sputtered. Maria yanked napkins from the plastic dispenser on the table and handed them to me, then wiped down the table. “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry to startle you.” Her mild accent gave her words a plunging rhythm.

My eyes watered, which I’m sure made her think I was crying. “It’s OK.”

“It is you. I didn’t mean to—of course, you wouldn’t remember me. We met the other day.”

“I remember. You said you had some stuff that was—”

A small man stalked out of the kitchen, his hair greased back over the popped collar of his tracksuit jacket.

“Yes, yes, I’m glad you were able to come,” Maria said. “I wondered how you and your mother are doing. Oh, how we miss your sister.”

Maria couldn’t see the little guy hopping up the aisle toward us, so when he spoke, she recoiled.

“Maria? What’s the problem here?”

“She’s helping me,” I told him. “I was choking.”

“Tony.” Maria bunched up the soggy paper napkins in one hand. “This is—you remember poor Agnes—”

“Who?”

Maria, horrified, said, “Agnes!”

“Get this cleaned up.” He returned to the hostess stand.

“I’m so sorry,” she said. “He’s the manager, but I usually take care of anything to do with the staff.” Her troubled smile fell apart, and she opted for retreat. “I’ll only be a moment.”

I watched her head toward a back room. Then my eyes settled again on Tony at the cash register and stayed there until she got back with a grocery bag. She whispered, “There’s money. I made sure no one touched it.”

The shame at being so unjustly trusted threatened the integrity of my skull. Still, I couldn’t help myself. “Can you tell me anything about her? About why she was—like she was?”

Maria shook her head. “It can be hard, families. I know. I wish I could tell you more. She was so quiet. Worked hard, never complained. I didn’t know her better than that.”

“Maria!” Tony hit the side of the register with the flat of his hand.

“I’m sorry, I can’t talk no more,” Maria said. “But I appreciate you coming in here. Agnes was a good girl. Now, you give our best to your poor ma.”

Head spinning, I left a ten-dollar tip for the two-dollar toast that hadn’t arrived and managed not to throw up in the bushes. Maria thought her dead friend was my sister, and now I had swindled her out of Agnes’s last worldly possessions.

I took a deep breath. After all, a work locker is hardly the place for worldly possessions. Mine had cough drops and empty hand sanitizer bottles. If there was a letter or a will or a manifesto, it wasn’t going to be in this bag.

Anyway, I hadn’t gotten Agnes’s things for me. I’d gotten them for Vi.

+ + +

Downtown, a heavy, damp chill trapped foul smells in the road.

I walked to Vi’s motel, stopping only at an ATM to get out another $400. It was still early, but I knocked on her door. She didn’t answer. I waited next to the overgrown and yet mostly dead cedar shrubs lining the parking lot, holding the bag of Agnes’s things, switching it back and forth between my hands as they got sweaty in spite of the cold. Apart from a few meandering derelicts, there wasn’t much foot traffic. A patrol car passed without slowing down. Cracked, faded plastic bowl chairs, stacked up at one side of the motel waiting to be set out for the summer, or maybe for garbage collection, were my only companions, apart from a parked silver Mercedes and Agnes’s legacy.

My phone rang.

“Alex Larson?”

The lead investigating officer, not the keener who had taken my statement, wanted to inform me that I had been cleared of all wrong-doing, and that no charges would be filed by the driver of the car I’d hit, either. I could collect my vehicle later in the day.

He was starting to say something about insurance and estates when the door to cabin five opened.

“Great, thanks.” I hung up.

Vi’s dusky head appeared in the weak sunlight. She had on her dressy coat, the red scarf with catches in it. Behind her, a bald man in a suit followed her out. The Mercedes chirped.

Her coal-rimmed eyes went stony when she saw me approaching. “What do you want?”

I held out the bag. “I went to the restaurant where Agnes—you remember, her coworkers said we should—these things belonged to her.”

Vi moved toward the passenger door. 

“Agnes’s things,” I said. “From her work.”

“Friend of yours?” The man looked me up and down, grinning.

“No.”

“You can join us, if you like,” he said.

“I’ll just be a second,” said Vi.

He shrugged and got behind the wheel. She grabbed the bag and dug around, pulling out an envelope and emptying it of the money Maria had safeguarded. The car started. Vi tossed everything else onto the pavement.  

Grief makes people do strange things. I bent over to rescue the bag and the discarded envelope. “I’m sure it must be so hard, going through all of her stuff and every—”  

She got into the car, which pulled out and away.

I don’t know how long I stood there, but the motel owner came out of the office and hollered at me. “Hey! You can’t work here!”

With no idea where to go, I started to walk, the bag bouncing against my leg.

+ + +

At the cemetery, the grass was crunchy with frost, the ground cold and hard as I sat across from the temporary marker that read “A. Williamson.”

People who die in freak accidents have all kinds of half-finished detritus kicking around afterward. Their loved ones have to decide about every single piece, whether or not to donate the teach-yourself-to-play-harmonica book to charity or to teach themselves to play, in honour of the dead person, who may have gotten the book as a gift and never had any intention of learning. If, on the other hand, you’re making an exit, you make sure things are sorted—you don’t want people stumbling across something you’d prefer left unseen, or swooping in and claiming a memory or memento that shouldn’t be theirs. If you’re on your way out, you get your house in order. Unless, of course, you’re on the fence about leaving when out of nowhere, you find yourself faced with an opportune moment. Or scared out of your wits by some stranger you’ve just hit with your—

I wrapped my arms around my knees and pressed my forehead against them, shivering at all of the horrors I’d come to see in the last few days, most of them perpetrated by me.

Then I sat up again and opened the bag.

Inside, there was a black cardigan that smelled of kitchen grease. I didn’t pull it all the way out. A few coloured elastics and bobby pins fell off of a sleeve, with one or two long brown hairs still in them. What would Vi have done with the hairs? Take them out of the elastics? Drop them onto the ground or release them to the wind—when these were the last, the very last ones?

Under the sweater was a coupon for a local uniform manufacturing store, and the envelope, which had a word that might have been “index” scribbled in pencil. At the very bottom was a folded piece of paper, a printout of Agnes’s obituary. Had Maria printed it? Unauthorized use of the office printer hardly seemed characteristic, from what I knew. I hadn’t ever seen the obituary, was surprised there was one. I couldn’t imagine Vi at a keyboard, hunting and pecking out a death announcement for publication.

A sharp breeze caught the paper. I thought about letting go.

Instead, I read it—several times, without making sense of it—loving parents, both deceased. Edgar and Carolina. No siblings. Not survived by anyone. Loving parents, both deceased.

I knew those names. They were on the stone next to Agnes’s marker.

I squinted in the sunlight to read the stones again. Edgar and Carolina Williamson, different birth days, same death day, three years ago. They died on the same day? How? A fire? Car accident? Atrociously bad luck?

I forced myself up into a crouch, then willed my knees to straighten as I stood. My numbing fingers lost their grip on the obituary, which almost refolded itself as it skittered away. I rolled up the bag and tucked it between a small shrub and the headstone for Edgar and Carolina. Then I drove my fists deep into my pockets, punching something. My right hand opened and closed again around cold polymer, heedless and aloof, a wad of ATM twenties.

BIO

A.L. Bishop is a writer in Niagara Falls, Canada whose stories have previously appeared in Book Six of the Carter V. Cooper Short Fiction Anthology Series, Exile: The Literary Quarterly, and The Forge. Learn more at www.albishopiswriting.com.

0

A Better Parent

by Alison Gadsby

Niki is smiling. Just in case. She’s not happy, but when her son Jeremy sees her sitting in the stands she wants to look it. She got up at 5:00 am, tossed frozen fruit and some green protein powder into the blender (as instructed by her ex-husband Chris) and swirled up a nutritious smoothie that was immediately rejected as being too green, too wrong. Jeremy scrambled up his own eggs and slurped the barely cooked mess into his mouth as she drove downtown to the university pool for his first swim meet of the season.

His eyes wander up every few minutes, not to Niki, but to the empty spaces around her. No Dad. He’s had his headphones on since he woke up. She knows she shouldn’t be here, but it’s her weekend. She hasn’t been to a swim meet in two years. Ever since Jeremy got fast and started qualifying for bigger and faster meets, he always chose his dad.

It started with the dog. The thing she’d hoped might save her marriage. One parent had to stay home with the puppy while the other did swim practices and meets. Niki got the dog.

Jeremy needs to take six seconds off his 200 Fly to qualify for Provincials. That feels like a lot to her, but Niki knows nothing. Chris was the swimmer. When Jeremy started with the club three years ago, he was just a small, keen eight-year-old who had a knack for it. Good genes, Chris joked. But it’s no joke now. He swims nine times a week and Chris is some kind of swim official. The early mornings, when Jeremy is with her, are a killer. Some days she asks him to go back to bed and not tell his dad he missed practice. She figures it will make him a more flexible person. Chris’ philosophy is, ‘there’s no point in doing anything if you’re not going to do it right and do your best’. That was their marriage. Niki didn’t do it right. She never remembered to ask him about his day, she drank too much wine, and she couldn’t get up before eleven even one day on the weekend so they could get shit Chris wanted done, done.

Jeremy is bobbing his head back and forth to whatever song is playing in his ears. The rhythm of the imagined race moving his body.

Margaret, another mother, is screeching “Aidan, Aidan” like a fox looking for a lost pup.

Niki can see Aidan trying to ignore her, but her shouts are so loud the other swimmers start poking him to get her to shut up.

Aidan tilts his head slightly and his father yells, “20 seconds.”

Niki flips through the heat sheet for Aidan’s name. They want their eleven-year-old to go well under three minutes in the 200 Backstroke. Seems outrageous, but what the hell does she know?

Margaret turns to Niki, “Jay going for Festivals, too?”

Her using Chris’ nickname for Jeremy is irritating. In the buffet line at the awards banquet last year, Niki asked if she preferred Maggie or Margaret. Her reply was a terse ‘while some call me Maggie, it’s Margaret’. Niki was granted Maggie status last spring, but has stuck with Margaret.

“I have no idea,” Niki says. It must drive Margaret bananas to know someone like Niki exists. A parent who doesn’t spend hours poring over time standards and calculating Olympic probabilities for her kid.

The Olympics. That had been their biggest fight. After a particularly good swim meet Chris ruffled Jeremy’s wet hair and said, “Kid stands a good chance at going in 2028, maybe even 2024.”

“God help him if he changes his mind,” Niki said.

“Well I’m sure if you could weasel your way into his head, you’d change it for him.”

“What the fuck is that supposed to mean?”

“Don’t waste your time,” Chris had finally said, “Haven’t you got better things to do, wine to drink?”

They went on for over an hour, and when they paused for a second, she’d looked at the clock. She wanted to know the exact minute it ended for her. At 11:46 am on a snowy December Saturday morning, she officially hated him.

“Aidan!” Margaret shouts again waving her hands wildly. When he finally looks up, Niki can see fear crawling all over his face. Blotches of red over pale grey skin. Someone announces they’re marshalling the 200 Backstroke. There’s still loads of time before his race. But Margaret is spewing her panic all over this kid. His father’s fingers are frantically scrolling up and down his iPad at the time standards.

Niki wants to say something, but instead looks away and pulls a magazine out of her bag. Who was she to judge bad parenting? Everyone has a story to tell about their shitty parents. Jeremy won’t be any different.

“Nothing therapy won’t fix,” Niki’s mother used to say. “It’s not like we locked you in the closet or tied you to the bed.”

“Mama,” she hears Jeremy’s voice, but he’s no longer sitting where he was. Hawk-eyed Margaret pulls on Niki’s t-shirt pointing to Jeremy directly beneath them.

Jeremy holds up his goggles. He has chewed at the ends and anxiously twisted the rubber so that now they’re broken.

 “There’s a spare in your bag,” she shouts quietly.

“These are them,” he says.

Margaret interrupts, “Aidan has an extra pair.”

Jeremy looks to Margaret and then back to Niki and shakes his head. They are not the right kind. He can only wear some Swedish brand with silicone pads. Chris found them, of course and they can only be purchased at the swim store miles outside the city. Niki points at her watch. She doesn’t have time. He’s terrified. She nods her head, but taps on her watch to tell him it’s too late.

Jeremy puts his hands together and pleads with her. She knows if Chris were here, he’d have a dozen pairs in the glovebox of his BMW. In his back pocket.

Niki collects her things and as she puts her sweater on she asks Margaret to give Jeremy a pair just in case she doesn’t get back in time.

“47 minutes,” Ken says. He counted the number of heats and the average times and gives her what is likely the exact time of Jeremy’s heat.

As Niki pulls open the doors to the gallery, a man falls through, almost tripping down the stairs. A small boy, about four or five years old, stands holding the door with his small body while the man struggles to get back up using the railing. He reeks of alcohol, a familiar blend of freshly drunk beer and stale old whiskey. Niki’s Dad had the very same smell. It’s as overpowering now as it was when she was little.

The boy’s eyes are glued to a bright pink Nintendo DS. He follows his father as he weaves between the backs of cheering and whistling parents and the wall, falling down on his butt beside Margaret and Ken. Niki can’t take her eyes off the boy who doesn’t miss a step walking and playing his game. The drunk man scans the deck and when he sees someone, he waves awkwardly. Niki follows his gaze to a girl about the same age as Jeremy. She doesn’t wave back until the young boy lifts his eyes from the game. They share a smile as the girl bends her wrist back and wiggles her fingers. The boy gives her one small thumb up, before sinking back into his game world.

Niki can hear Nana Mouskouri blaring in her head with that tinny car radio voice.  The CBC playing full volume while her Dad slips on and off the gravel shoulder of Highway 7.

Niki’s unblinking eyes start stinging and she goes back to where she was sitting. Jeremy is waving his hands, but Niki doesn’t look down.

Margaret lifts her phone points to the drunk Dad and mouths to Niki, ‘Should I call the police’? Niki shakes her head aggressively, no. Aidan is in the water and Ken is shouting over the railing. Kick. Kick. Kick. Kick. AIDAN. Kick. Even the drunk Dad is startled each time Ken yells. Margaret puts down her phone and joins her husband at the railing, blocking the view of anyone else who might want to watch the race.

Niki sits. She sees the young boy is playing a word game. He’d already found a bunch of four and five letter words from an eight-letter anagram. She looks closer.

“Did you get, SPILL?” she says.

The boy tilts the game away from her.

Aidan finishes his race and Ken is shredding the heat sheets.

Ken looks up to the clock and shouts, “Jesus fucking Christ,” before he turns to leave.

Aidan goes under the water and then comes up and starts banging his head on the wall. He took off eight seconds, won his heat and now has to wait for the other boys to finish. Not good enough he’s the fastest kid here. Jeremy approaches him after he gets out of the water and whispers something in his ear. They share a handshake that includes a fist bump, a side fist and a high five.

“Fucking high fives. Are you kidding me?” Ken says to Niki as though she’s to blame for the gesture.

Jeremy holds up Aidan’s goggles and gives her the okay sign.

Then from across the gallery, at the deep end of the pool, she hears Chris’s whistle. He used to do it in the playground when Jeremy was little. Like their son was a dog. Chris shouts Jay’s name and holds up a pair of goggles. Ken uses Niki as a handrail as he steps up and walks out of the gallery, mumbling more profanities and throwing the ripped and crumpled sheets to the ground.

The drunk Dad stirs and Niki can see it before it happens. He’s choking on all the drink, trying desperately to not spill his guts, swiping at the saliva dripping from his mouth. Liquid vomit fills the concrete floor at his feet.

It takes over twenty minutes for two security guards to turn up. One of them steps down and kicks the drunk Dad in the lower back. The man opens and then closes his eyes. The boy slowly slides to sit beside Niki, never once turning away from his jumbled words.

“Sir, can you stand on your own?” the other guard asks. The man shakes his head. The guards bend on either side of him and put an arm under each shoulder and lift. On the count of three they step up and drag him to the top leaning him against the railing as one speaks into his walkie talkie asking for help.

Niki’s head bounced off the wall. She was thirteen. She listened as her father tried to crawl up to this bedroom. He fell backward twice, landing on the hardwood floor with a thud that shook the house. When she had dared leave her bedroom to help him navigate the narrow flight, he had just enough strength to give Niki a good shove down the stairs.

As the guards turn the dad toward the exit, Margaret shouts after them, “Hey, his kid’s here too.”

The boy shrinks into Niki. “He’s fine here,” she says.

“He’s from some club up north,” Margaret says, “We don’t know them.”

“How’d you get here, son?” One of the guards kneels beside them.

“Did your father drive?” he asks.

Niki says, “We can hang out until his sister finishes swimming. I can get them both home.”

Margaret says, “You can’t do that.”

Niki tells her to shut up.

“I can get him home,” she says again.

“Unless you’re a relative or friend of the family, I’ll have to take the boy with me,” the guard says.

The Dad is mumbling something, barely able to keep his head up. It’s as if he’s gotten drunker.

The boy stands up and robotically follows the guards. Niki wants to grab him, stop them from taking him away, but her throat tightens and she cannot take a breath. How she always dreamed of punching her father back but the best arguments happened after he died. Minutes after the dad and boy disappear, Niki still has her eyes on the door.

They announce the boys 200 Fly. Jeremy is in the last of three heats.

He swings his arms around as he takes his place behind Lane 4. He unplugs an earphone gives his name to the timekeeper and steps back, intermittently slapping his legs and swinging his arms.

Niki can’t speak. She wants to cheer him on.

Chris has moved closer to the starting blocks. Go Jay Go. Jeremy claps his hands and throws two fists in the air toward his dad. Happier than a pig in shit, Niki’s mother might have said.

Chris was filling a suitcase with clothes when Niki stumbled into their bedroom at two in the morning last January. It was a post-holiday holiday party she had to attend, but she was angry he was leaving. What gave him the right to pack his bags? It was over. Long over. And don’t think because you’re packing up all your shit that it’s you who’s come to some suddenly wide-eyed decision that this isn’t working. You massive mother-fucking dickhead. She’d gone off the deep end, she knew it and all the while she helped him throw his crap in a couple more suitcases, she was stripping off her own clothes. As he stopped at the front door, Niki stood naked in the living room applauding him and his big move.

Margaret is still talking about the drunk father. All disgust, pity and shame as they wonder who his swimmer is. Niki looks down to the girl, who is beside her coach staring blankly at the gallery’s exit doors. Niki knows that face, lifeless because any twitch or slight movement will trigger tears and with tears comes a full-blown breakdown.

The race starts and Jeremy kicks fast and furiously before he comes up with his first stroke, a full body length ahead of the swimmer next to him. His first turn brings him even further ahead of the pack. Niki rocks back and forth to the rhythm of the stroke. It soothes her. This is what she will tell him after the race. She will thank him. How the grace of his swimming calmed her.

As Jeremy turns again, Margaret asks Niki if she knows the drunk asshole. Niki shakes her head without looking at her. Margaret keeps talking anyway. How she demands people don’t speak to her when Aidan swims and yet she yacks and yacks now. Margaret adds, how sorry she feels for the drunk man’s kids.

Jeremy finishes. Niki’s eyes are clouded. When she stands to cheer, tears spill down her face.

“You wonder why some people become parents,” Margaret says.

Jeremy glances up at the clock and throws his hands in the air before diving backwards under the water.

Niki watches Chris whooping and hollering, wiping his own eyes. He stares back at her. If only once he could look like he doesn’t know he’s the better parent.

BIO

Alison Gadsby is a Toronto-based fiction writer. She is a graduate of the MFA program in Creative Writing from the University of British Columbia, and holds a BA in Creative Writing from York University, where she was awarded the bp nichol award for exceptional achievement. She was also recently awarded a two-week residency at the Banff Centre of the Arts. 

Alison is an active participant in the literary community and is the founder, curator and host of Junction Reads a monthly prose reading series in Toronto. 

0

DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN

by Tony Van Witsen

I awoke and even before I remembered where I was, I knew it wasn’t Michigan. The light was different: soft and cottony. The house shook slightly from traffic on the freeway and the air smelled of lemons. Sitting up, I saw a range of jagged hills outside the window. Then I remembered: it was just my luck that when my mother skipped out on her happy home for Hollywood, part of her plan was to take me along and make an actor of me. Another part was to trade Michigan and my Communist-obsessed father for California and a chance to breathe the same air as movie stars.

As a plan, it was no more or less logical than our block back home. To our left, Skip and Betsy Ambler maintained the biggest collection of science fiction I’d ever seen. On Halloween they greeted candy seekers by dressing in silver spacesuits with plexiglass bubble helmets.

Somewhere they had found hard candies shaped like cherry red or lime green rocket ships with tail fins. When my brother Ted reached into the bowl for another, Betsy gave his hand a sharp little slap. “Only one per star fleet, Ranger.”

To our right lived our dentist, Dr. Frederick Payne, whose name made him the butt of endless jokes. Dr. Payne was the only person we knew who’d supported Adlai Stevenson for President, giving him and my father something to argue about during cleanings. I knew Dr. Payne took unfair advantage by arguing when he had my father’s mouth clamped open and couldn’t talk back.

Three houses down lived Hap McGuire, a photographer for the Shackley Gazette which seemed like the best job in the world to me. Not to Hap, though. “It’s nothing, Phil. You go to a Cub Scout fundraiser, wrestle the little brats into a single line behind their craft stand. Fire off two shots. Drive to a ground breaking. Wait for the guys in suits to stick their shovels in. Fire off two more shots.” It sounded routine enough, but then came Hap’s moment to shine when Harry Truman’s presidential train stopped here on his way to Kansas City. “Damnedest thing happened, Phil,” he told me. “I had a copy of the Chicago Trib with that headline, DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN. Couldn’t resist: I yelled, ‘Hey Mr. President, how about holding this up for us?’ He grinned as I shoved it into his hand. I said, ‘Move it to the left, it’s blocking your face.’ There was three, four of us on the platform; we all fired our flashguns. He started to lower the paper. I said, ‘One more?’ He said, ‘You boys should form the Just One More Club,’ but he raised the paper again. I screwed in another bulb, pulled the slide on the plate holder. Fired the flash.”

“And the rest is history?” I said.

“Hell no,” he snorted. “Truman is history. Newspaper photographers are nobodies.”

I’m getting ahead of myself. Maybe this could have happened anywhere within shouting distance of Truman but for our purposes make it West Shackley Grove Michigan, summer of 1954. There was my mother who worked as a ticket taker at the Grove Theatre downtown, my father who balanced a solid business doing doctors’ and dentists’ tax returns with a hobby of fighting world Communism and my older brother Ted who won awards and ran around town with girls, listened to modern jazz and collected prints of paintings I couldn’t understand. A two- bit prankster and cutup, I brought up the rear of this parade.

When I said summer I really meant Fourth of July. Evening. We all sat in chairs on our front lawn waiting for the sky to darken so the fireworks could begin. Pop had a home movie camera in his lap. My parents had already talked about the heat, how their respective families were holding up, and if it would rain Friday. They could do this for hours. She mentioned her sister who went and married a farmer on the U.P, never had kids and seemed perfectly satisfied to live with pigs and chickens. Then he brought up his cousin who was so good with people and became a real estate agent. “Was that Peg?” my mother said. “Didn’t she also run for City Council?”

“You’re thinking of Trudy,” my father said. “She wanted to run but those Republicans wouldn’t give her a crust of bread to gnaw on. Peg was the real estate tycoon.” I began to wonder why they didn’t write it all down somewhere and save themselves the trouble, when he shifted tone. “Philip, Ted. I want you to listen to this.” He took a sip of his scotch then began another of his warnings that Commies were everywhere. “I happen to know that the KGB— that’s their spying agency, the KGB—has a training center in Siberia with an exact copy of an American town. Homes, schools, city hall, everything. Now what do you think of that?”

”Sounds batty to me,” Ted said. I responded by walking to the porch where I’d left my firecrackers, lighting a string, and tossing it over the rail into my mother’s hydrangeas,

wondering what clever thing would make me seem as competent and popular as Ted. My mother had only to say, Ted, what’s wrong with the folding closet door in the master bedroom? Up he leapt, ran to the basement and returned, hands full of tools. After ten minutes, he emerged and calmly pronounced, It’s fixed. And it was. Or she said, “Ted, how about whipping up an angel food cake? We’d all love some angel food cake right now.” Off he sprinted to the kitchen. We heard utensils clink, eggshells cracking, the mixer. An hour later he emerged with the warm cake on a platter and a cake knife. We all knew Ted was headed for some eastern college which was merely the first step on a pathway to whatever success he chose. Girls of all shapes and sizes were pleased and proud to be seen in his company. Somehow his interest in abstract art, Dave Brubeck and foreign films made them feel like women of the world, though he never dated them. I spotted him in the center of a crowd walking down the school corridor, arms around each others’ waists. Ted was singing something fractured and deliberately off key as the girls, giggling, tried to keep up.

These stories filtered back to my parents, perhaps exaggerated, perhaps not. One evening, when they’d been discussing family relations again, the door to Ted’s room opened, flooding the room with the sounds of a saxophone.

“What the hell is that?” my father said. “Don’t ask me,” my mother said.

“What is that stuff anyway?” my father repeated as Ted appeared in the living room. “Bebop,” Ted said.

“I mean who’s playing.” “John Coltrane.”

“Is he a Negro?” “Why do you ask?”

“No reason. I have nothing against Negroes, nothing at all. Some of them are extremely talented. Is Mr. Coltrane a Communist?”

“He’s a modalist.”

“Well–we just have to watch out for subversive influences, that’s all.” Ted and my father gazed at each other as my mother began flicking through a movie magazine, then Ted headed to the kitchen, emerging a moment later biting into an apple. The sounds of Coltrane’s sax grew muffled as he returned to his room and closed the door.

Until my dad brought up Communists I’d been reading Earl K McMaster’s Fourth Orb From The Sun. This was a tale of daily life on Mars or Tessort, as they called it. Tessort had red deserts and sand cliffs, jewel-like cities and rivers of flowing purple glass. It looked nothing like this place. My mother, who could watch the main feature at the Grove as often as she liked, had been talking about Joan Crawford’s fierce, eager smile when she begged David Brian to take up a life of crime in The Damned Don’t Cry. She’d recently spent a week in to Los Angeles with her friend Hazel, who worked at a talent agency in Beverly Hills, returning full of stories about stucco houses with red tiled roofs and oranges you could pick off the trees yourself. Her problem with Communists was that they weren’t movie stars.

“Philip is such a showoff,” my mother said. “But he wastes it all on pranks.”

“I know what you’re wondering,” my father said as though the previous hadn’t happened. “Why can’t we tell the commies by their accents or their dress or their habits.”

“I’m sure you’ll inform us,” my mother said. “Well sir, that’s a measure of how clever they are.”

“See those moths buzzing around the streetlights?” Ted said. “They’re from the FBI.” “That’s enough, Ted,” my father said. “It happens to be a fact that Russian spies spend

months practicing to be Americans.”

“Do tell,” my mother said.

“They read our newspapers. Learn about our sports. Wouldn’t be surprised if they listen to transcriptions of Your Hit Parade. They could be living right on this block and you’d never know it.”

“Hah! J. Edgar Hoover!” Ted grinned as a swallow flew down the street. “Or is it Stalin

disguised as J. Edgar? Typical Commie trick.”

“We are all responsible for fighting this threat to our way of life,” my father said. “You boys might want to write this down.”

Already suspended from school twice, I had recently been threatened with expulsion when my best friends Rick and Ronnie fingered me as the ringleader in some vague shenanigans, though I had nothing to do with it. Rather than expel me, they suspended me a third time, reasoning that even if I didn’t do it I very well could have, which was the same thing. I sat out the idleness on our porch, reading The Man Who Sold The Moon while Ted brought my homework so I wouldn’t fall behind.

Maybe it was the fits of purposeless boredom that defined my whole existence, but something in my father’s warnings stuck to me. If he said Commies read Readers Digest Condensed Books, why shouldn’t it be so? If we had to protect American life from spies, why not help? On Saturday I watched Jerry Peters, across the street, working up a tremendous sweat as he pushed a hand mower across his front lawn. He didn’t look remotely like a spy, so of course he had to be one. He noticed me staring and waved a friendly hand. Perhaps the KGB had taught him to sweat like an American including the damp circles under his arms.

I couldn’t find any Martians with x-ray vision that exposed Communists so I telephoned old man Peters. “I know who you are,” I growled. “I know what you’re up to.” He recognized my voice instantly and threatened to call the police on me. Reform school was threatened along

with stern-faced judges, child psychologists. Summer in California suddenly made all kinds of sense; my mother called in a favor from Hazel to find me something. And so here I was in this concrete block room off Sunset Boulevard that housed the Hand Laundry Theater Collective, which would make an actor of me or die trying.

It was some kind of place alright; more like a garage or a former drycleaners than an acting school. Picture a symphony orchestra tuning up: energy without direction. Two people were discussing apartment rents in Sawtelle. A piano which everyone ignored. Also a table laid with newspapers, gum, aspirin bottles, a sack of jellybeans, water tumblers, cigarettes, a cap pistol. Props, I guess. All presided over by an exploding cigar of a director, which is what J.D. Wagner seemed like with his shock of black hair and sweatshirt. My mother stood next to me, dolled up like it was church bingo night.

“What have we here?” were Wagner’s first words.

“He was in Our Town,” my mother said. “In Michigan.”

“I asked Philip, not his mother,” J.D. said. “Now why don’t you sit in one of those chairs and just watch for now?”

J.D. turned and began talking about actors and directors with an extraordinarily beautiful young woman named Rudd Markson. “I don’t know. I think so,” she said, speaking the words with a theatrical intensity that left me oblivious to anyone else. It was scary how beautiful she was: not just her bone structure but her movements, how her body fell naturally into an elegant sprawl the moment she straddled a chair. The way her voice, even her features seemed like a window to her most private self.

The talk stopped. Rudd sat very still, considering something, perhaps. I felt I’d been sleepwalking through life till that moment. Why hadn’t anyone told me what real movie stars looked like?

This wasn’t what my mother wanted to know as she sat at Hazel’s living room table that evening with a bourbon and water. “Did you actually get to act today?” were her first words.

“I did the lead in Our Town,” I knew this was what she wanted so I gave it to her. “Just like in Michigan. No scenery.”

“Really?”

“Really. I also played Lady Macbeth. As an experiment.” “You played—”

“Henry Higgins too.”

“Philip, will you be serious a moment? You are very annoying.”

Recently a prankster, now an actor—how serious was that? Mostly I’d spent the afternoon just sitting and listening. “J.D. says we should aim for the primal trauma,” I said.

“It sounds like a con to me,” my mother said. This was exactly what I would have expected from my father. “Well it doesn’t matter. My boy is going to be an actor any way it has to happen, aren’t you, Philip?”

“What did you do today?” I asked.

“Oh, it’s the most awful thing. They’ve got me turning out scripts on the mimeograph. I can’t work those things. Ink gets everywhere.”

“Clint Walker came into the office today,” came Hazel’s voice. “He’s so tall! Six-five at

least.”

“Did you talk to him?” my mother said. “Of course I talked to him.”

“That so? I would have thought he’d be too stuck-up to talk to real people.”

“And that’s where you’d be wrong. He’s like regular folks, only a whole lot better looking.”

“Well now. It just goes to show.”

Hazel’s job typing up contracts seemed like the stupidest work in the world. “Maybe I’ll play Captain Queeg tomorrow,” I said. My mother reached out and touched my hand but her face said, This is your chance to make something of yourself. And if you don’t, I’ll blame you for it.

“What happened with the mimeo?” I asked.

“Another mimeo lady took pity on me and told me just to bind pages together with those little brass fasteners. So that’s my job.” Rather than answering I went to my room, tore a sheet out of an old notebook and wrote REVENGE OF THE REPTILE PEOPLE across the top.

The rehearsal studio was no more inviting the next day when J.D. handed me a sheaf of pages such as my mother might have fastened together. “Philip, go up there and work with Rudd.” Feeling like less an actor than a block of wood, I shuffled into the open space in the center of the room to play a ten-year-old, with Rudd my adoring mother. Paying no attention to my embarrassment, Rudd began to caress my face and smother my cheek with little kisses. When I froze, certain I’d muffed it, J.D. leaned toward me. “Do it again,” he said in a conspiratorial whisper. “But this time when she’s completely engaged with you, pinch her butt.”

I read my lines, always aware of J.D’s gaze, but when the moment came I froze again, clutching Rudd till she jumped up, fell over the prop coffee table and bumped to the floor.

“Philip,” said J.D’s voice. “What did I tell you to do?” When I saw his grin I realized it was he who’d pinched Rudd’s behind for me.

“Damn! Is this the Dempsey-Firpo fight?” Rudd said. “I could have broken something.” “The scene was flat before,” J.D. said. “Now it roars. Take two aspirin and do it again.”

When I finally put down the script and plopped into a chair at the edge of the room I spied another company member looking at me as if he knew me. “Answer me something,” he

said. “Does this burg remind you of Mars?” I agreed—something about those foothills against the sky at dusk.

“I have a past,” Chuck said, as though I’d asked. “Froze my kiester off in Korea in ’51 and ’52. Now I’m here where it’s warm, writing science fiction. Do you think J.D. is the biggest phony since General MacArthur?” I had no idea what he was about, shambling around like a bear in his beret, hornrims and bushy black beard. At lunchtime Chuck took me to the Galaxy bookstore two blocks away (“FOUR FLOORS OF SCIENCE FICTION”) where we heard Jack Allenby read a chapter from his bestseller Invaders From Planet Vesta. English, in his forties, he had a glow on his cheeks as he read in his clipped speech to a crowd full of young men in sport jackets, buzz cuts and glittery tie clips.

Afterwards, one of them asked, “If you don’t mind, Mr. Allenby, what’s the secret of your incredible productivity?”

“Glad you asked,” he nodded. “My agent says you have to have a book every 18 to 24 months to stay in the game. Bit of a strain, that. But I have a system. My secretary arrives at my home in Pasadena at 8:30. We have a cup of coffee, then we go into my study at 9 o’clock sharp. I dictate all morning; she takes it down in shorthand. We both have a cigarette at 10:30, then back to work till noon. After lunch she types up what I’ve dictated while I revise what she typed the day before. We turn out a chapter every two weeks.” He paused to chuckle. “I’m amazed she can read all my scribbles in the margins when I’m done revising. Then she retypes it all and we’re halfway there. Or as we English say, ‘Bob’s your uncle.’”

“Did you think that guy was as big a fraud as I did?” Chuck said afterward. “Do you think everyone’s a fraud?”

“Right-ho!” He fell into an impeccable British accent. “I’d like to thank my attractive and creamy complexioned secretary, Miss Fiona Balderdash, for making sense of my scrawls and pothooks. Yes, quite. Dear indispensable Fiona practically writes those books for me.”

“Why are you in J.D’s class?” I asked.

“If I want to make it in the science fiction market I’d better know everything about how stories are created. I guess that’s it. But I don’t really know. Maybe I’ll fire that cap pistol tomorrow for fun.” I pictured J.D. enthusing about what it did to the scene.

I felt a hand on my shoulder. It was mother, decked out in pearl necklace and earrings. “I thought I’d find you here. Have you made any friends in that class?”

“This is Chuck,” I said. “We’re learning to write best-sellers.”

“We’re at the stage where the Vestans advance on the U.N. with their demands,” Chuck

said.

“You know what I especially love about that story?” my mother said. “Where the aliens build a replica of an American town on Vesta so they can practice being Earthlings.”

“I don’t remember that part,” Chuck said. I could tell he was entertained.

“The houses are filled with transcriptions of Your Hit Parade,” I said. I knew my mother read nothing but romance novels. What would happen if I handed her a newspaper headlined VESTA DEFEATS EARTH?

“Vestans are more earthlike than we humans,” my mother said. “That’s how you can spot them.” It wasn’t the lying that shocked me, it was the casual insolence toward my father’s beliefs, his ideals.

“You’d fit right in on Mars,” Chuck said. “Are you an actress?”

“I’m in charge of story development for Cosmo Pictures. I read hundreds of novels and scripts to decide what we’ll produce next.”

“Why did you feed him that B. S?” I said as we drove back to Hazel’s place.

“I think he has important connections in the movie business,” she said. “It’s imperative to meet him at his own level.” She couldn’t get Chuck out of her mind. There was something humiliating about it.

“Your father called today,” my mother said. “Hap was hospitalized after a bank robbery downtown. Police shot the perpetrator as he left the building. Hap photographed the guy bleeding to death on the street. It made the front page. Hap needed a day to recover from the shock. Can you believe it?”

“Is that all?”

“Your pop’s helping Skip Ambler build a rocket launcher in his backyard.”

I looked into the darkness for Martians scurrying through the underbrush with their chrysoberyl eyes. Chuck was right. California was nothing like flat, platted Michigan.

One afternoon when I stole away from class to visit the Galaxy again I saw my mother leafing through a copy of Fantasy and Science Fiction magazine. She slammed it shut when she saw me.

“When did you get interested in science fiction?” I said.

“Chuck thinks I should produce science fiction epics exclusively,” she said.

I could hear my father saying, “Son, you can’t solve your problems by pretending.” There was more pretending going on here than in acting class but it only drove me deeper into my mother’s delusions. “Good idea,” I said. “that might get you a promotion.”

Next day J.D. told me to play a troubled kid with Chuck a high school principal. Sitting across from me, Chuck glowered so realistically that I knew why J.D. said we should live the part through emotional memory.

Until J.D. stopped us. “Why did you hesitate before disciplining the boy?” he said.

“I don’t know,” Chuck said. “It just felt right.”

“Don’t. Just keep going as if was the most natural thing in the world.” “Why?”

“What do you mean, why?” “What’s the reason, that’s all.”

“If you’re wondering about character motivation—”

“I mean I’ve been here four months and I don’t know what I’ve really learned yet.” “Right,” J.D. said. “Well it doesn’t happen quickly. You have to have faith.”

“No pep talks, please. No psychological stuff. Why can’t we just act?” “Easy, now,” J.D. said. “You haven’t been drinking, have you?”

“What if I have?” He seemed on the verge of causing grievous harm to someone, possibly himself.

“Look,” J.D. said. “Why don’t you take the rest of the day off?” Chuck’s shirt-tail was coming untucked as he shuffled toward the door.

When I got to Hazel’s after a long bus ride, I found Chuck seated in the living room across from my mother, both of them holding glasses of beer. A wedge of Chuck’s pink belly showed. The tabletop looked like a saloon at closing time.

“Guess who dropped by?” my mother said with a grin. “Chuck’s been entertaining us with tales of your director and his—how shall I put it? Antics.

“He’s nothing compared to some magazine editors I know,” Chuck said. “Pretentious,” my mother said. “He probably doesn’t even believe in scenery.” “How was your day at the studio?” Chuck asked my mother.

“I signed Clint Walker to a three-picture deal,” she said. “You what?” Hazel said.

“It’s still a secret. You won’t read it in the papers.”

“Your mother’s an amazing woman,” Chuck said to me. “But that J.D. He doesn’t know a scene from a Studebaker.”

“Call me when dinner’s ready,” I said, heading to my room. Over the next few evenings, in Hazel’s living room, I heard them discuss plans for a movie of Chuck’s work in progress, Pods. Developing the script, budgeting. Who would they get to star? My mom wanted Technicolor; Chuck leaned toward black and white. I realized there were some things I’d never understand about self-deception.

Those wooden folding chairs with their slatted seats remained perpetually arranged in a circle or semicircle while different cast members tried out their scenes under J. D’s demanding gaze. Alone one steamy afternoon, the others gone, I nibbled on jellybeans. The bus to Van Nuys wasn’t due for 45 minutes. I could picture Dr. Payne, back in Michigan at that very moment, telling a patient to open wide.

“Hey! I want to talk to you.” It was Rudd, coming up on me from behind. “Why?”

“No reason. I just think we should talk as one actor to another without J.D. around. I mean you can’t play scenes with someone and not notice things.”

“Maybe.”

“Because I think you could be a fine little actor if you’d loosen up, Philip.” “My real name is Clint,” I said.

“What I mean,” she continued “is you have to stop resisting your own self, know what I mean? I’m an intuitive actor but it took time to figure that out. I didn’t know you could make choices about how to play a scene. I thought my kind of acting was all there was. Give me some of those, will you?”

“What choices?” I poured jellybeans into her cupped hands.

“Why do I look in this direction? Why do I sit down at that moment? Why do I sit at all? That’s some peoples’ way. It’s J.D’s way. It’s Brando’s way. Not mine. For example, the couch scene.”

“Chuck says J.D. is the biggest fake he’s ever seen.”

“Never mind Chuck; it’s just you and me right now. Do you know you tighten up every time I touch you? Don’t be afraid to do something easy and intuitive with your body; the audience has a sixth sense about that.”

“Think the Tigers have a chance to win the pennant this year?”

“Let me give you my thoughts,” Rudd said. “I think mom is hungry for a little love. But it doesn’t make her lovable, it makes her overbearing. Her son intuits that.”

There I was, discussing character motivation with this looker. “I can’t go on being a cutup all my life. I have to do something real,” It was B.S. but I meant it too.

“Or you could try being more of a cutup rather than less. Great acting means doing what you’re already good at only more so.”

“Can I?” I pictured myself onstage tossing firecrackers into the audience whose cheering grew with each blast. This one is for the first suspension. BANG! This is for the second. BOOM!! That’s for Dr. Payne’s daughter Doris with her shining blonde hair who didn’t return my notes in class. Until my pop jumped up from the audience, grabbed me by the collar and told me to stop making a scene. He would have pulled me offstage entirely but in my imagination, Rudd intervened and persuaded him to give me just a moment more with the crowd.

“I hate everything about my life right now.” That slid out. “My brother can do everything. I can’t do anything. My mom wants me to be an actor—”

“Oh she does, does she?”

“—while Communists are taking over the country. What’s wrong with me anyhow?” “Come on,” Rudd said. “I’ll drive you home.”

Fading daylight made the flat floor of the valley look like another world as Rudd’s car reached Mulholland Drive. That stuff about my family made sense when I said it, less so now. “So tell me, Philip,” Rudd said as the car began to descend. “What are you most afraid

of?”

“Have you ever noticed how much this place resembles Mars?” “I asked you a question.”

“Or would you say it looks more like Venus?”

“Quit your kite-flying and answer me. Pretend I’m not an actress. Pretend I’m a carhop.” Below us tiny pinpoints of light moved along the boulevards like alien transport modules. I was afraid my mother would never return us to West Shackley Grove; equally afraid she would.

“What are you most afraid of, Rudd?”

“Getting too comfortable. Winding up in a movie contract where I do just what they tell me and I make a lot of money.”

“I don’t believe you. Why do you want to live like an ordinary person? You aren’t one.” “If I looked like a character actor I could do what I want. Live in a little apartment

someplace, maybe a beach house. Do interesting roles. Does that surprise you?”

Her words made me feel so commonplace. “Thank you for the ride,” I said as the car pulled into my street.

“And goodnight,” she said as I opened the car door. “You don’t like acting, do you?” “No.” I wondered how she could have figured it out.

“For what it’s worth, I’d respect you more if you just did what you damn well wanted.”

All the lights were off when I entered. Sinking onto the couch, I jumped right up again because I’d sat on one of my mother’s romance novels. For weeks I’d done what was expected of me but learned precious little about acting. “Do something character-defining,” J.D told us. I longed to notice a single flaw in some spy’s impeccable façade, tip off the feds, then watch with quiet pride as two blue-suited G-men led the Commie to a waiting car with two more agents lugging the mower as evidence.

Gradually, I perceived the voices of my mother and Chuck from her bedroom. Their talk was quiet and true, like two people who spoke so honestly they didn’t need to shout. I must have dozed off because after a while I made out my mother standing nearby.

“Philip?” she said. “Yes.”

“We’re going home next week.” “Why?”

“If you must know, Ted’s gone.” “Gone? From where?”

“Michigan. Your father called long distance. Ted found a job in New York. We don’t know how. At a fashion house.”

“Just left?” I said.

“Can you believe it? Threw away a college education. Your father was on the phone for half an hour; you know how he goes on so. ‘Never figured him for a dress designer, that’s for sure. I mean he was so popular with the ladies. Who’da thunk it?’” She mimicked his astonished tone so perfectly it was like he was in the room. “I’ve been a terrible wife and mother, Philip. If I’d been home, Ted would never have run off like that.”

“So that’s the reason we’re leaving?”

“It’s other things too. Everybody hates me. Your father. Ted. The mimeo people. I’d like to kill myself right now. What do I have to live for?”

“Ma!” I didn’t believe her dramatics. “Does this have anything to do with Chuck?” I said. “Now you listen to me, young man. You are never to mention Chuck when we’re back

home.”

“What do you see in that creep? He should have stuck to acting and not walked out on

J.D.”

“When I said never, I meant never,” she repeated. “Can you do that for me? Can you?

Please?”

I didn’t answer, just thought about my obligations to my family, to J.D. and a girl who looked like a movie star but didn’t behave like one. Eventually my mother returned to the bedroom and closed the door. Next day when J.D. told me to play a scene as though I knew a secret, I didn’t have to invent one.

My mom stared vacantly ahead as pop pulled the car into our driveway. “Welcome home,” he said. “Skip’s rocket blew up on the launcher yesterday. Nearly set his house on fire. Does that beat all?” The place looked like a movie set cleverly fashioned to mimic our house only they’d gotten the proportions wrong, or the scale. The new school year was just days away.

The first thing my mother did after putting down her suitcase was start opening and closing kitchen cabinets.

“What’s for dinner?” pop called from the living room.

“How should I know?” she said. “I just arrived. Get your own dinner; then you can have anything you want.”

“What are you doing in the kitchen?” “I thought maybe Ted left something.”

“I can make French toast,” pop said. “Do you expect us to be grateful?”

I soon found people didn’t want to hear about what I called “my Hollywood escapade.” They were more intrigued by Ted’s job as an assistant to a dress designer in New York. My mother spoke of returning to California to see Hazel but didn’t follow through. Pop must have realized something because at Christmas he closed the tax office and took her on a month-long tour of Europe.

Like my mother I started opening cupboard doors and slamming them shut again. I felt Ted would leave a trace of his presence in the halls of Shackley High, some flicker of a remembered good time on the faces of the girls he knew, as though he’d shown them a higher version of themselves only to have it slip away after he was gone. Vanished, like the last slice of angel food cake. This was something godless Communists would never understand which was why we had to stop them from taking over the country.

“I think I’d like to write to Ted,” I said. “Do you have the address?” “What?” my mother said from the next room.

“Nothing. I’ll get it from pop.” I slammed another cabinet door and walked out of the kitchen.

“What?”

BIO

Tony Van Witsen is a five-year resident of Michigan and has been writing fiction for approximately fourteen years, specializing in short stories.  In the summer of 2001 he enrolled in the MFA program in fiction at Vermont College and received his degree in January 2004.  His published stories and essays have appeared in a range of journals including The Missing Slate (featured as a story of the week), Ray’s Road Review, Crosstimbers, Identity Theory and Valparaiso Fiction Review.

0

Complicit

by Jane Snyder

Violet, disgusted, closed her eyes, lay as still and small as she could, hoping they’d go away, but they stayed, John and Dr. Walters, talking above her head.

I might speak, she thought, if they’d shut up. Her husband, John, old, thin, raspy as a grasshopper, showing off for Dr. Walters, the psychiatrist. Twenty years before, when Dr. Walters was an intern and John was chief medical officer, the nurses under Violet called Dr. Walters a pretty boy. Those young nurses were funny. She’d liked them so much, hoped they’d liked her a little too.

“Psychosomatic,” John said. “Well, I wondered. I did indeed. It came on so suddenly. Of course, I go back to when we called it hysterical blindness. Wandering Womb. I still think there’s something to that. Not at Violet’s age, of course,” he added comfortably. “But what do you think, Doctor?” Violet wished she could take a damp cloth, wipe the crispy bits from under John’s nostrils.

What Dr. Walters thought was that Violet’s behavior was a response to her daughter’s death. When he’d see her around town he said, with her daughter or John, he said, she was fine.

 News to Violet, this benign presence observing her successful adjustment to old age. John, Violet believed, would have liked it if Dr. Walters had said hello.

“One of those cancer tragedies,” her husband said, of Anne. “It seems as if it’s always the woman who’s the center of her family’s world, the one everyone depends on. When they become ill they’ve already exhausted their strength caring for others. They can’t put up any defenses against the cancer.”

Oh, so that’s what happened.

John was wearing a clean shirt today; hadn’t remembered to shave.

“Violet,” Dr. Walters asked. “Do you know your daughter has died?” When Violet worked at the hospital the nurses claimed Dr. Walters would raise his hand for silence when he spoke. Doctor at work.

Anne had died nine months ago. The doctor may have her grieving, Violet thought, decided she’d be the judge of that.

“What was her name, Violet?”

“Anne,” her husband said, embarrassed, Violet guessed, by her recalcitrance.

“Was her name Anne, Violet? I know you can talk if you want to.”

I was never so flattered as when Anne was small. I was a queen to her, could soothe, delight, comfort, enchant, entertain, anything. How she loved me.

“What was Anne like?” She was as dull as John made her sound, Violet thought. A good wife, mother, and daughter, put the needs of others first.

 It was what I was like when I was with her.

“You spoke last night, Violet. To that young man. Mark. You scratched his face.”

“Oh my,” her husband said. Not embarrassed. Currying favor.

Dr. Walters wants me to be ashamed, Violet thought. I’m not.

“Did you think you were in danger? That you were home and he was breaking in?  That he would hurt Anne?”

“Mark. I marked him.” Violet thought she’d spoken aloud but no one answered. You’d think a healthy young fellow could have gotten away from me. I wanted to hurt someone, she wanted to say, and you weren’t here.

“We cared for Anne in our home. With help from Hospice,” her husband said. “Our son-in-law just wasn’t able. It was easy for us, with our medical background.”

I cared for her, she thought. John came to Anne’s room once a day, showing off, as if he were on rounds with the residents. Keep the patient comfortable, he’d told the CNA. That’s the main thing in palliative care. She knows all that, Violet wanted to say. She works for Hospice.  

“Violet,” Dr. Walters said, taking her right hand in both of his. “I know you can hear me.”

Yes, and it’s no treat. Anger, now, anger is what I enjoy. She held onto it as tightly as Eliza held onto her son Harry in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, running over the ice floes, away from the bloodhounds to freedom.

“You’re a smart one, Violet,” Dr. Walters said into the room, performing again. Not for her so no need to listen. “And I’ll tell you: I’m not putting up with this. I know you can talk and if you’re not doing that very soon you’re out of here. Nursing home, assisted living. Whatever. This is 1995. Sicker and quicker. Hospitals don’t provide long term care. Get better or don’t. Your choice. Either way, you’re not staying here.”

Eliza felt the dogs’ hungry hot breath on her legs as she ran. They’d tear her apart if they caught her but better that than being dragged back and Harry sold away from her. She held on and ran.

Violet’s head dropped forward and she bit into Dr. Walters’ hand.             

“Really, Violet.” Her husband made a clucking sound.

Her mouth was pried gently open. Sue, the nurse she liked, would have done it.  Dr. Walters snatched his hand away. “So you heard me all along, didn’t you, Violet?” His tone was triumphant; she must have hurt him.

‘She’s never done anything like that before,” her husband said. Thinks he knows everything about me. Apologizing for me.

“I may have come on too strong,” Dr. Walters said. Violet imagined the bruise growing darker. The skin would coarsen, appear granulated.

“Oh, no,” her husband said. “No.”

“It isn’t that I don’t sympathize with your loss. But sometimes confrontation is what it takes to get through to a patient.” Dr. Walters had always been like that, Violet remembered, pluming himself on his “unconventional” methods, knowing more than anybody else.

John’s voice was creamy. “Oh, of course.”

What a toady, Violet thought. What a pantywaist.

When he said goodnight John kept his distance. Afraid I’ll take a bite out of him, too, Violet thought. “Tomorrow will be a better day,” he said, before leaving with Dr. Walters. Violet snorted. Trying to align himself with Pretty Boy. Just who do you think is going to take care of you.

John had been frightened last week when Violet stopped speaking. When he tried to take her to the hospital she inserted herself between the stove and the wall.

He told the Crisis Team she was the gentlest lady alive. Violet had kicked at them.

Like a donkey, she’d thought, braying.

“I wish you could have seen Dr. Walters’ face,” Sue said after they’d gone. She laughed. “I probably shouldn’t tell you that. I don’t know; I’ve never worked Psych before. We’ve got low census on 4A so they sent me here. It’s kind of fun.”

Violet began to wish she could ask questions. Sue, though, spoke as if Violet was speaking and she, Sue, was responding to her. “4A is oncology. I don’t know if that’s different since your time. My nurse manager sure has been talking about you. Linda Richards. Remember her? She wants to see you tonight before she leaves.”

Linda. Not an agile mind, not as pretty as some of the others, but persistent.

“You don’t have to see her if you don’t want to.”

Violet remembered when oncology was on the seventh floor and called cancer. This was when she was the nursing supervisor on night shift. Her choice. She could sleep when Anne was at school, be with Anne when she came home. On weekends when John wasn’t on call, she was supposed to catch up on her sleep. He’d take Anne to the hospital with him, stow her with a coloring book at the nurse’s station while he saw patients. Violet, when she was alone, slept deeply.

When she was small Anne was sweet and appreciative and time with her father had gone smoothly. The summer Anne turned twelve, though, John became fierce with her. Chubby, he’d call her and say there’s no excuse for that. Wanted Anne to drink warm water and lemon juice when she got up in the morning and instructed Violet to serve fruit for dessert. At dinner he’d quiz Anne on what she’d eaten during the day, tell her she must be eating more than that.

Violet said it was temporary. She’s not going to be heavy, she told him. We’re not. When Anne was a baby she’d been the same, get a little chunky, have a growth spurt and be thin again. Why bother her about something that would go away on its own?

You indulge her too much, John said. There are serious health risks involved here. The subject, he told Violet, was closed. He wanted Anne to exercise, made her go on bike rides with him. He’d sit up straight, spare and erect in his khaki shorts and gingham shirt, talking the whole time, to prove he wasn’t winded.

Anne was embarrassed, didn’t want her friends to see them. She swam in their pool every day, she said. That could be her exercise.

“You float on your back and daydream in the warm water. Genuine exercise is what you need,” John said, announcing plans to take her to the pool at the country club. “It’s bigger. You’ll get a real work out.”

Anne said the high school kids went there on weekends and she’d feel funny.

Perhaps, John told her, you’d be less self-conscious if you’d lose weight. In any case, we’re members, have every right to be there.

He took her one Saturday after breakfast. Anne was sullen. John was stolid, cheerful; pretended they were having fun.

Violet anticipated trouble but she’d worked a double and fell deeply asleep as soon as Violet and John left for the pool, slept till late afternoon when the smell of chlorine and emesis sent her rocketing up from deep sleep to the surface. Anne was gripping her hard around the waist. Shuddering, sobbing.

“Sweetie? Where’s Daddy?” He’d be angry with Anne for waking her and scold her for crying and getting in their bed. Like a baby, he’d say.

Anne sobbed louder. She was still in her bathing suit. Damp. She ought to have changed; she knew about mold and mildew. Violet felt the heightened anxiety she sometimes had at work when there was no quarter for mistake, when everything had to be done right. “Sweetie? What’s wrong?” There was another smell. Acrid and sweet. “Tell me.”

Violet cautioned herself not to yell, not to frighten Anne. She was frightened herself, guessing what was coming.

“Don’t be mad.”

“No. No, I won’t be mad.”

John had dropped Anne off, and, as Violet learned from Anne, had driven on to his office himself, too angry to tolerate his daughter’s company for another minute.

Anne had gone into the hall bathroom and swallowed the contents of a leftover bottle of baby aspirin on the top shelf of the medicine cabinet, the first thing she found, Anne said, crying harder. She’d gone to bed, thinking she’d sleep and not wake up. She’d lain there for a few minutes, feeling dizzy, but then her stomach had started to hurt and she’d vomited a big pinkish blob onto the rug.                                             “

“It’s a throw rug,” Violet said, thinking how inadequate this sounded.  “I can put it in the washing machine. It’s all right. Everything’s all right.”

Again she asked her where her father was. He wasn’t home, that was clear, or Anne wouldn’t have allowed her to lead her to the kitchen where Violet made lemonade from a can of concentrate. Anne gulped it all down even as Violet cautioned to drink slowly. “I’m not going to die?” She was diffident, wanting to know the answer, not wanting to show how much.

“No.” Violet thought of the things that could have happened. “Not today.”

“You’re sure?”

“Well, I’m a nurse.”

John, when he wanted to pull her up short would say, “Oh, I think I know, Violet. I’m a physician.”

Johns hay fever pills would have been enough. Or Anne could have made herself a noose and not been able to extricate herself in time. “Did you want to die?” Anne started to cry again. She had. She’d formed the thought and intended to carry it out. Violet felt something being pulled from her grasp.

“Why?” Imagine letting yourself entertain those thoughts. Actually thinking them, following where they went, not pushing them away. “What’s wrong?” Allow me to fix it for you, Violet wanted to say, put it in perspective for you, change it for you. I’m so glad you’re not dead, she wanted to say but already she was moving away from that. Moving herself and Anne away. “I’m so glad you’re all right. Whatever it is I won’t be angry.”

“Daddy is. Daddy’s angry.”

Violet wanted to promise to take care of it, wondered if she could. When she complained about the fat talk John only got harder on Anne. “I think it must have been a misunderstanding.”

Anne stood up. “I know what he said. I hate him and he hates me.” The lemonade had dampened the orangey pink powder around her lips.

She’s little, Violet thought, she’s just a little girl. “Oh, no, sweetie.” Do it right, Violet told herself. It has to be right. “Please tell me what happened.” She stood behind her, put her arms around Anne who seemed to grow smaller.

Her father had wanted them to swim laps but there were older kids in the lap lane. Larking, he’d said, not swimming at all. So he’d asked them, is this not the lap lane, specifically designated for laps? They’d shrugged.

A few minutes later he came back with the embarrassed lifeguard and the young people rolled their eyes and complied with her request to “move to the general pool area.”

“I didn’t do anything,” Anne said. “I didn’t say anything. He just yelled. He said they were rude and he was going to talk to their parents. And he said I wasn’t even trying. My stroke was lazy. I wasn’t doing it right or I’d swim faster. He said I must want to be fat.”

She’d turned mulish then, pulled herself onto the side of the pool to get out. He’d tried to pull her back but she’d run to the dressing room. He hadn’t gone after, Violet guessed, because he couldn’t bring himself to break the rule against running on concrete. He hadn’t gone into the ladies dressing room to get her. He’d called in to her to come out. “I know you’re there. You’re behaving like a spoiled child who needs spanking.”

She’d stayed in the shower till the same lifeguard, still embarrassed, came in and said her dad wanted her to go to the car. “He’s pretty mad,” she told Anne. “I think you’d better.”

I should, Violet thought, be telling her none of this matters. Only she couldn’t; she was feeling what it had been to be Anne, unable to get away from her father. “Daddy wouldn’t spank you,” Violet said, knowing this was true. He was too dignified, no matter how mad he was, to struggle with Anne. He was more afraid of looking ridiculous than Anne; the events at the pool would have been horrifying to him. I ought to tell her she’d done wrong, trying to hurt herself, Violet thought, say it isn’t as bad as she thinks, there is no problem that can’t be resolved. “I’m so glad you’re all right.” Fatuously. “You didn’t really want to die.”

Anne turned away.

“Now. You don’t want to die now?”

Anne got up, stood in front of her.

“Oh, sweetie. You can tell me.”

Anne paused, appeared to be struggling to pick the right words. Violet couldn’t remember Anne editing what she said to her mother before. “Don’t tell Daddy. I don’t want to talk to Daddy about any of this.”

“I don’t think it would be right to keep this from your father.”

Anne had never questioned her mother’s ideas about what was due her father before. “What about what he did?”

Violet imagined the three of them at a therapist’s office. A man of course, someone John would pick. Would interview first to make sure he wouldn’t question John’s authority. But maybe, she thought, I’m not being fair. Maybe he’d be shocked into a new approach. Or maybe John wouldn’t see the need for outside help, would talk to her himself. Violet imagined him sitting behind his desk and Anne, still with the grainy pink stuff around her mouth, sullen in the chair in front.

“If you think he’s right you’re no better than he is.”

“He shouldn’t have embarrassed you.” Anne glared at her, didn’t acknowledge the concession. “I don’t know why he did that.” Because he never lets anything go, Violet thought. “But it isn’t really the same thing. This is serious. He cares about you.” If she said love Anne would argue. “I know it doesn’t feel that way to you now.” 

“No. It doesn’t feel that way to me. Fat, fat, fat! If you tell him you’re as bad as he is.” This is ridiculous, Violet told herself, childish manipulation. I won’t be doing Anne any favors if I give in. The thought was in John’s voice. “I won’t tell your father,” she said. “But you must never do anything like this again.” Violet told herself she’d had no choice but to bargain. John would be furious if he found out. If Anne ever threw it at him in anger, for instance, accused him of driving her to it. “I’ll talk to your father. He never had a sister. I don’t think he knows much about girls.”

Or maybe he did. Violet thought of the distaste in John’s voice when he talked about Anne letting herself get fat. He knew how to hurt her.

You have to stop, she’d told John that night. No more talk about her weight.

No, he said, his confidence restored from the time spent in his office. He would not lower his standards and he would not be swayed by tantrums. He meant Anne. Violet was too frightened to be angry and she couldn’t match him in arguments. How had he harmed Anne, he demanded. Why did Violet ask less of Anne than she could do? Why was she selling their daughter short?

Violet wore him down, not talking. “Oh, very well,” he said, benevolently. “Since you feel so strongly. It may be, too, that the woman’s point of view has more value now that she’s an adolescent.”

Violet knew what was expected and expressed gratitude. John stopped twitting Anne on her weight, didn’t comment when she became slim again. He found other ways. A boy she liked who asked her out once, didn’t ask a second time. A poor grade in a class where she’d thought she was doing well.

“She’s her mother’s daughter,” he would say. As if Anne’s preference for Violet was a personal idiosyncrasy, like preferring broccoli to green beans. He could be humorous about it, telling their dinner party guests about Anne’s calls from college. “Fine,” he’d say. “She’s fine. If I answer the phone she’s always fine and her classes are interesting. And then she talks to Violet for an hour.”

Linda came after supper. She had the air of one conferring a favor by her attentions, no mention of Anne’s death or the circumstances surrounding Violet’ s hospitalization. In the old days, Violet remembered, Linda often expressed the belief that an elderly patient should be taken out of him or herself, needed to know they weren’t the only ones with problems.

 “Can you believe it? They’re having us chart four times a shift now. Every aspect of care, you have to write it down as soon as it happens.” Violet, who wanted to remain with her thoughts of Anne, listened in silence, nodding politely. Thick as a brick, thinking she, Violet, cared about that or wanted to hear about Linda’s children. Who were in college now, though, as Linda pointed out, they’d been toddlers when Violet retired.

Imagine that.

Violet longed for the quiet she remembered from night shift. The patients sleeping and the staff subdued by the stillness. She used to imagine herself walking through the patients’ dreams. A soothing presence, she hoped. She wasn’t usually imaginative. Being awake when others slept, moving through the dim corridors, gave a fairy tale quality to the time.

“She told me to take good care of you,” Sue said after Linda announced she had lots to do and went away. “So I guess I’ll let the other patients go to hell in a handbasket.” Violet, surprised, laughed. She was glad Sue was her nurse. “If she comes again I’ll tell her you’re asleep.”

She won’t come again, Violet thought. 

She admired the way Sue helped her to the toilet without making a thing of it. Got her ready for the night without talking overmuch. Good thing, too, Violet thought. You go on and on, ii makes the patient nervous. She asked Violet if she wanted to sit up, guided her hand to the button for lowering the bed, and to the call light, if she wanted a sleeper.

I won’t, Violet promised herself. I won’t give Dr. Pretty Boy the satisfaction. If he even checks on details like that. All style, no substance, was the way she remembered him. She moved to her right side, pleased Sue hadn’t closed the curtains. It was early summer and the sky was still light.

Nightshift started at 10:00 pm. Violet remembered it was always dark when she began her rounds but the summer darkness was different. Not as heavy. The stars, when they appeared, were less sharp.

Violet couldn’t see the ground from her bed. The shallow rooms on this side of the building faced Monroe Avenue. There was a little park on the other side. She remembered looking down on it. Mysterious in the night, flushed and pretty when the sun rose. A creek ran through the park and Violet was always surprised when she saw this evidence of a world beyond the hospital.

Snowfalls were impressive when seen from this high, she remembered. Whenever she saw one she thought of the ticker-tape parade they’d had for John Glenn in New York. She’d watched the footage from a television in a wakeful patient’s room. In black and white, the sky thick and gray with torn bits of paper.

The last year she worked, 1975, there was a freak snowstorm in April. It melted off before her shift ended but that night the snow twirled down in huge flakes. Violet had stopped to look for a moment when she got off the elevator on the ninth floor, the ward for respiratory patients.

Violet had come up, hoping to be useful, because the patient in 906, a Caucasian male of 50, moderately obese with a history of cocaine use, had coded. Acute myocardial infarction. They didn’t use the intercom at night. Violet had a beeper, something new then. She sat at the nurse’s station, answered the phone. She did rounds on the hour, walking from room to room. The patients were sleeping despite the hubbub, except for Ruth, an elderly woman, close to death herself. The room was bare, none of the pleasant clutter Violet would later assemble in Anne’s sickroom. Flowers, photographs, treasures from Anne’s childhood, as if their cumulative weight was enough to hold her, keep her there.

The second time she did rounds Ruth had gotten out of bed. How, was a mystery. She was too weak to even feed herself and ought to have been in soft restraints, Violet thought. If she fell she’d no doubt break her hip. Which would be painful and indicative of substandard care but Ruth was so weak, never trying to sit up, and old skin tears easily. The nurses would have thought restraints weren’t necessary.

She sat in the chair by the window, watching the snow.                                                       

“Isn’t it pretty?” She was small. Violet thought she could manage to get her back to bed on her own. It was a young crew of nurses that night and they’d want to be together, talking over the code.                                                                                   

“You’re cold, Ruth,” Violet said, holding Ruth’s hands, ringless and knobbed with arthritis, in hers. “Let’s get you warm.”                                                                               

She’d smiled a conspirator’s smile. “I’m so excited.”

“Of course.”                                                                                                               

Ruth stared at the damp, swirling snowflakes. “He’s coming.”

If she dies in the chair, Violet, thought, I’ll have to call for help. I can’t manage her if she goes slack.

“You wait and wait. You wait forever. But he always comes.” She pursed her colorless lips and hissed into Violet’s ear. “Santa.” She drew her head back a little to study Violet’s reaction.

Violet, entrusted with a confidence, nodded solemnly. “I think so.” The absence of personal possessions, of visitors, of anecdotes to establish herself with the nurses, suggested deprivation and institutionalization to Violet.

Ruth would have been a good little girl, she thought, anxious to please. Violet imagined her receiving a stiff doll in a dusty cardboard box, colored pencils, a jigsaw puzzle.

Her Santa Claus was driven hard through the cold night, Violet thought, imagining Ruth’s mother dreaming of a golden haired doll who cried mama, a teddy bear made of genuine mohair, telling herself next year would be better. 

Violet had made wonderful Christmases for Anne. She’d sit with John in front of the tree on Christmas night after Anne had gone to bed, tired, but replete, thinking about how lovely it had been and what she’d do next year.                                                                   

“You work too hard,” John would say, “Anne’s too young to appreciate it.” She wished he’d talk about what she’d actually done, perhaps admire the dish towels she’d embroidered for Anne’s play kitchen.                        

Ruth, still smiling, allowed herself to be guided back to bed. She was quiet then, but not still. Her hands reached up as if she was pulling threads from the air. Her eyes shone with excitement. She took fewer breaths. Ten one minute, then six. Four. Two shallow gasps.

Here, not here.

Violet left Ruth for a moment then to call the morgue and get a shroud and the body bag from the supply room. She would prepare the body herself, she decided. It would bother her less, she thought, than it would the inexperienced young girls. Ruth was even lighter than she’d supposed and the log roll to move the body bag and then the shroud underneath her was easily accomplished without help. ADC, After Death Care, it was called, and simple enough in the absence of family. No need to propitiate a coroner, or harvest organs.

Ruth was squeaky clean but a bed bath, with special attention to the hands and face was customary. It wasn’t necessary to place pads to protect the workers at the funeral home from possibly infectious fluids; Ruth was dry toast. Her limbs, despite the distorting effect of the arthritis, were graceful. Ruth’s eyes were open and Violet, imagining Ruth staring out into eternity, massaged the eyelids down and outwards till they shut.                                                            

Violet imagined Ruth smiling with delight, her thin fingertips stroking the soft cotton shroud, and realized she was thinking of Ruth as if she were still alive. A common mistake. She’d heard nurses talk to a child’s corpse, explaining what they were doing as if to reassure it.

Is that what you’d think about as you died, she wondered. Santa Claus? It was regrets usually, regrets the family didn’t understand. Not the steadfast conviction that someone, not God, was coming.                                                                            

Someone anyway.                                                                                                      

After the two orderlies took away Ruth’s body, Violet sat at the nurse’s station charting.  She was glad Ruth had died at night, when the other patients wouldn’t know.

The nurses were apologetic. The girl who’d been assigned to Ruth was near crying. “I’m so sorry, Mrs. Wythcombe. You shouldn’t have had to do all that. If you’d only called.”

“It was nothing,” she said, hoping the girl didn’t feel she was being scolded. The patient in 906 had also died, and Violet wanted to be kind and helpful, draw her good deed around her like a shawl, so that the nurses could relieve their feelings by speaking freely, but they went back to their charting in silence.

I didn’t know anything about Ruth, she realized. Not one thing.

She looked again into the soft darkness and imagined herself talking to someone. Perhaps Sue, when Sue came back. “To the old,” she’d say, “the dead are not so far away. They wait for us in another room. I’ll go to Anne soon.” Tonight, though, it wasn’t a calm, happy, nicely dressed Anne she saw but a fat Anne, her features sunk deep in protective fat.

What if Anne hadn’t resumed her young girl’s body? What if, instead of becoming slim again, she’d gotten bigger, spilled out of her clothes? What if she’d been grossly, morbidly, obese? Would Violet have harried Anne? Would she have looked at Anne’s body with disgust? Said ‘piggy, piggy, what’s in your trough,’ as John had done once when he walked into the kitchen and found Anne there, eating ice cream?                                                   

Anne’s face, as Violet saw it then, was blurred with fat and misery, a mirror reflecting Violet’s betrayal.

Unloving, complicit with John.

I didn’t love her enough.

John would hate being alone. No one noticing him. His little grasshopper legs rubbing all the time, rasp, rasp, but no one to hear. If no one watched him, if Violet wasn’t there, what would he have?

Violet, alone in the soft dark, tried to loosen her clutch on the bitterness she held, found she couldn’t. Reaching for the call button she thought how it would be one in the eye for John, for Dr. Walters, even for Linda, that Sue, substitute Sue, would be first to hear her speak.

BIO

Jane Snyder‘s stories have appeared in Cobalt, Lunate, and Bull, Men’s Fiction.

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TITO’S DESCENT

By Marylee MacDonald


If you lose a friend in his youth, the years after such a loss become a kind of afterlife, an unreality, as if you, yourself, are fixed in that time when death lies far in the future. At first, you miss them, and all the questions of whether there is a heaven immediately stand in your path. The person you love like a brother is gone, shimmering in the stream of memory, and that is the picture you carry forward, taking it out now and then and pondering how the miraculous and the tragic can coexist.

Back in April 1968 when Tito led us down into the cavern, we had no fear of death nor suspicion that what we were about to find would splash our names across the Spanish newspapers, and indeed, the newspapers of the world. With the promise of a few pesetas, two local boys — mascots, of sorts — agreed to guide us. The boys said that our destination, the Well of Ramu, had no bottom, that their grandmothers claimed evil spirits lived inside the bluff. Shepherds, standing on its top and looking out toward the Atlantic, had many a time been startled by the eerie-sounding moans of disembodied suffering. The moans came from a pothole called the Well of Ramu, but, perhaps I should explain for the benefit of those urban dwellers who will watch your documentary that this “pothole” was not the kind of pothole one finds in cities, where the asphalt washes away and a street crew must be summoned to throw in a couple of shovelfuls of macadam. This was a geological pothole, a hole in the tabletop of a bluff into which a stray sheep or goat might fall to its death.

Neither Jesús nor Aurelio believed the tales, but they thought it well to warn us. They wanted to show us a different cave. Some crawling, but big grottoes and excellent formations. Most certainly worth the effort and “much easier for the girls,” Jesús said from beneath the first traces of a mustache.

“Don’t worry about the girls,” Tito said, championing the three of us. “We go all together, or not at all.”

Tito sprang over the stone fence that encircled the pothole and dropped to his knees. “The main thing is to determine how much rope we need.”

Then, flattening himself on the ground and with a handful of rocks, he slid his shoulders over the abyss.

Potholes were new to our caving group. In fact, I had never heard of a pothole until Tito proposed this expedition. The guides were country boys and had never rappelled down into one either. Aurelio, the older of the two, warned us not to get too close to the edge in case our weight made the ground collapse; but curiosity got the better of them, and they, too, flattened themselves around the perimeter, cocking their ears and listening to see how long it took for Tito’s stones to hit bottom.

Your cameraman asks why we spelunkers didn’t lower a lantern. A lantern only works if the floor of the cave is near the surface. Otherwise, darkness swallows the light. We could only determine the depth by feel, so when Tito couldn’t hear the stones strike bottom, he lowered a lead fishing weight, the hefty kind fishermen in Ribadesella once used to sink their nets in the ocean. I suppose they must still use them, come to think of it. As to where he’d found one, I don’t recall precisely, but Tito was very careful about bringing whatever we might need for the caves he wanted to explore, and I think he had borrowed the weight from a cousin. By the time we were finished with our preparations, we had five climbing ropes of eighty meters each tied together.

The plan, Tito said, gathering us around, was for him to descend first, assess the situation, and then send down one of the guides.

Instead of saying “of course,” the guides looked at one another.

Aurelio, maybe fourteen, said that when the boys explored caves, they slithered along with flashlights until the batteries dimmed, at which point they backed out.

“Do you want to go down or not?” Tito said.

“I’m scared,” Jesús, about thirteen, said, “but, yes. I’ll try.”

“One of you must stay behind.”

“Can’t we both go?” Aurelio said.

“It’s better to draw straws,” Tito said. “If we get injured down there, the one up here can run for help.”

“Where should we go?” Aurelio said.

“The mayor’s house,” Tito said, nodding his head in the direction of the town across the river. “Or the Guardia Civil. And, if the one who draws the longest straw is still scared to jump into a dark hole, one of the women can show you how it’s done.”

The boys smirked at us girls.

The younger, Jesús, drew the short straw. “So, am I just supposed to wait here, or what?”

“Yes, wait,” Tito said. “Once we’re down, you’re the only way we can communicate with the outside world.”

Tito secured the rope around a boulder and attached carabiners to his climbing harness. Saluting, he slid over the lip.

Adolfo, a bull whose callused hands came from years of scything his father’s hay, stood over the coil, the rope running around his leather-vested back and through his hands. Counterbalancing Tito’s weight, he lowered our leader down.

There were twelve of us in the Torreblanca Speleological Society, mainly geology students at the university in Oviedo, plus Tito’s sister and one of her friends. The name “Torreblanca” came from the town where Tito grew up. I know “Speleological Society” makes it sound like we were some kind of learned group, sitting around and drinking port and discussing academic articles about rock strata, but we weren’t a “society” at all. Our youngest was fifteen and the oldest twenty-two. Eight were geology students — always out in the field, gathering rocks and carrying them back to the lab to hammer apart and examine. Tito, though still not finished with his baccalaureate, had already discovered his life’s passion. Tito was a real rock-hound, completely mad for rocks.

In order to join the Torreblanca Speleological Society, as founder and self-appointed president, Tito insisted that we each buy the basics: a helmet, carbon lamp, and Levi’s from the store where workmen bought their clothes. For caving, he preferred rubber waders, but he let two of us get away with hiking boots — what he wore when he went out with his mountaineering friends. His kit of chocks, carabiners, and climbing ropes filled the trunk of his car.

These days, when I think of Tito, I see him in that famous photograph: in his helmet and muddy, as we all were. Chin down, he is spooning cold beans from a can. We are all smiling and looking at him in wonder. His appetite had become a joke. Bony shoulders with a hunch that hinted at his shyness, all elbows and skinny legs, Tito was a study in angularity. A shock of hair hung over his forehead, and the camera caught him looking down into the can. If I have one regret, it is that Fernando, our unofficial Society photographer, having lined us up, did not say, “Tito, amigo, look at the camera.” I should so have liked to see the tiny windows of light in Tito’s coal-black eyes.

We later learned that the Well of Ramu was actually four hundred meters deep, the length of four football fields, and because of its depth, the temperature remained a constant ten degrees Celsius, barely above freezing. The caves we had explored before this were not quite as cold and often high up, generally an opening on the face of a cliff. To reach them we had to climb, and afterwards, rappel down the rock face. To do that, we slid the rope under our behinds and then leaned back, letting the rope play out as we backed down or bounced down the vertical wall. In the case of the Well of Ramu, we had no wall with which to brace our feet and slow our descent. Our hands served as our only brakes, and when we dropped into the pothole, the rope slid through our gloveless hands.

I was supposed to show Aurelio how to manage the rope, but as I lowered myself down, I found that even twining my legs around it did not slow my descent. By the time I reached bottom, my hands burned, and blisters were already forming. I pressed my palms together, wishing the pain would stop, and took a step back from the rope, my waders sinking in. Mud over-topped them.

“Watch out!” I cried. “Quicksand!”

Tito had been standing nearby and grabbed my arm. “I think we’ve landed in a riverbed.”

“It’s the San Miguel,” said Aurelio, letting go of the rope and dropping freely the last three meters.

And, indeed, the sound of water echoed through the chamber, a gurgle that made me think we might step into the channel and be washed downstream. The things I feared most in caves were being sucked by the force of a river that would be too powerful to resist or stepping out into space and dropping into a lower chamber. My armpits began to tingle and, despite the cold, sweat formed on my upper lip.

Partly to overcome this aversion to confined spaces and partly because of Tito himself, I had joined his club, and now that he had accepted me, I dared not confess that in narrow passages, where I had neither room to turn around nor squirm and where I could see only the boots of the person crawling ahead, I feared the rock would shift and crush me.

The two other girls followed next, and then studious Fernando, who had a crush on Tito’s sister, but was too shy to ask her out. Adolfo, whom Tito called “the human crane,” came next, and finally little Ruperto, the youngest member, age fifteen. A lighter snapped briefly, illuminating his profile, and a moment later, I made out the glowing tip of his cigarette. Trying to appear older, no doubt.

We had all made it down safely.

“Let’s see where we are,” Tito said. “Each of you turn a hundred and eighty degrees and take five steps.”

We did and, in the faint illumination of our carbide lamps, saw that the mud, the murky grayish-brown of a tidal flat, extended beyond the reach of our beams. The cave smelled like no other cave we’d been in before, the air dank and humid, like an ice box exploding with rotting cheese and moldy bread. The river, hidden from view, sounded close, but to reach it and possibly follow it to where it emerged from the earth, we would have to cross the reeking, gray pudding of mud.

The pothole, through which we had descended, and the rope, our only way out, stood behind us, and I was tempted to turn around and keep a hand on it. Were it not for the light falling from above, I could not have told up from down. It was discombobulating.

“Now take five more steps,” Tito said, as if we were playing “Mother, May I?”

When the group had spread out so that each person, leaving his companions, felt a chilling awareness of the cold, Tito said to stand completely still and tilt back our heads.

I did.

Looking up, I could not see the top of the cavern, only a barricade of stalactites as evenly spaced as the twisted, iron bars on a window.

“Which way, do you think?” Tito asked the guide.

“To the right,” Aurelio said, sounding assured for his age.

“To the right it is,” Tito said.

And, then, as if needing to justify himself further, the guide said, “The air is cooler in that direction, and the sound of the river louder. This way should take us to the cave I told you of.”

“And?” Tito said.

“From there we should be able to walk out.”

“But you don’t know that for certain?”

“I don’t know if the passage is open,” Aurelio said.

“Let’s take a quick look,” Tito said.

“What about us?” I asked on behalf of the female contingent.

“All for one, and one for all.” Tito waved his hand inclusively, beckoning us to follow.

His and Aurelio’s lamps bobbed toward the gurgle, less river than burbling creek, its sound magnified by the echo chamber of the cave. A drop of water landed on my cheek, but when I looked up, I still could see no more than I would have seen in my grandmother’s windowless root cellar.

Walking away from the rope plunged me into darkness. As I rocked forward, mud sucked the wader from my heel. I tested each step and waited for the ground to render itself firm. The others cried out and cursed the sucking mud. It was impossible to move quickly, and I was breathing hard by the time I could see that rocks and boulders blocked our way. I placed my hand on one of the rocks for balance. I stopped. Had the stone dislodged from the ceiling, or had the river carried it in? Maybe Tito could tell. Meanwhile, the hiss of carbide, snaking up the tube on my back, reminded me of the hissing, slithering, eyeless albino salamanders we had seen in another cave. I hoped we wouldn’t come upon any creatures like that in this airless space.

Tito told us to wait while they explored, and if this didn’t prove to be a passageway, we could search the cavern for another. So far I hadn’t felt the air movement Aurelio claimed would lead us to the other cave, and I began to think it would be better for us to stay in this large chamber where, at least, we could look back and see the shaft of light beaming down from the pothole.

Tito squeezed sideways through pointed, egg-shaped rocks as gigantic as those the Arabic astronomer Ibn Yunus was said to have used as gnomons. Meanwhile, Aurelio ducked into a fissure that looked as though it led to another cavern, and I thought he might find another big room, but without the river running through it. Shivering and hugging ourselves, we heard his boots splash through water and Tito cautioning Aurelio to watch his footing. When they found themselves in the same passageway, Tito called back and said they could stand upright, but not see daylight. That meant the walk out could take a long time.

At last, their lamps bobbed back in our direction.

They had been gone half an hour, and I had no confidence that we could get out this way. What if we encountered more blockages? It might be better to follow the river in the other direction. I turned toward the sound of water. Above me, I saw a flash of red. It startled me.

“What’s that?” I asked.

“What’s what?” Tito said.

“Red.”

“Where?”

Looking up and trying to relocate the color on an overhanging rock, I moved sideways from the boulder. Because I had taken my attention momentarily from the ground, my feet slipped, and I fell, scraping my blistered hands and letting out a yell.

Then Tito had me by the elbow. His lamp blinded me, and my heart thrummed in my ears. Unlike the others, I was an art student, and the vividness of that red could only mean one thing: paint. I squinted, looking in vain as my headlamp’s faint beam moved across the undulating rock above my head.

And then I saw it: the charcoal silhouette. A single horse’s head. The horse had ears, nostrils, and the same throat latch—that thickening on the bottom of its muzzle—as horses in the pastures of Ribadesella. What was different was its mane. The mane stood as stiff and upright as a zebra’s.

“Look up there.” I pointed.

“A horse,” Tito whispered in awe. He put his arm around me and drew me closer. He was trembling.

I had never been as aware of my body as I was at that moment. The warmth of another human being, the sideways pressure of his hip, the squeeze of his fingers against my arm, the ripple of sensation from my forehead to my feet, made me feel as if we humans were designed, on a primitive level, to connect with one another not just with words, but with the intimacy of touch; that touch was essential for our well-being and the reason we have bodies, not just souls.

The others joined us, and Tito released me. Once again our leader, he directed us to form a line and tilt our heads in unison. Tito’s sister, Eloisa, squeezed between us and put her arm around me.

Hefty little Pilar, one of the most irreverent women I’ve ever met, had her arm around my hip. “What gives?”

“Cave paintings,” I said.

“Like at Altamira?”

“Well, we’re not far from there.”

Our lamps illuminated a swath of red.

“Is that blood?” Pilar asked.

“No. Ocher or iron oxide.”

Honestly, at the time, I had no idea what kind of pigment paleolithic artists might have used. I only knew that blood would have darkened and chipped away.

The artist had applied an orange-red wash to the cave wall just below the horse’s head. In the illumination of our combined head lamps, a herd of horses jumped from the darkness. Six that we could see immediately, although with better light, the archaeologists would later document more. The herd faced the opposite direction and appeared to move across a plain of red that might have been grasslands set afire.

Of these figures, the best preserved was a mare in the fullness of pregnancy. Horizontal bands of black and white circled her legs, reminding me of the mimes who perform in traveling circuses. It gave her a comical aspect that drew a smile.

Most remarkably, the artist had painted her body violet. Could it be that horses in prehistory were violet? In every other respect the horse was as realistic as if Goya himself had drawn it.

We lingered, tracing the animals with our fingers and seeing if others agreed that, yes, that was a horse. Or perhaps a deer, for as we continued to examine the figures, we saw that some had antlers.

Our watches told us that the day had advanced past one o’clock, and though we had filled our metal canisters with carbide pellets, we had a maximum of four total hours before the fuel ran out.

We walked as a group around the cavern, unable to locate any other painted surface.

The Torreblanca Speleological Society was not a democracy, but Tito asked our preference. Should he attempt to monkey-climb the four-hundred-meters of rope and prepare to pull us out, or should we follow the river, in which case, we should get going or have Jesús send down more carbide just in case. Like coal miners, cavers have always used carbide lamps because the lamps can be refilled and the fuel costs next to nothing. With the river below, we would have water, and could add it to the canisters when the gas pellets fizzled out. The main thing was not to get stuck down here in the dark.

The group split evenly, six to six. We gathered around the rope and Tito called up to Jesús. Expecting to see his face looking down, I was stunned when he did not answer.

Tito turned abruptly toward Aurelio. “Did your friend run off?”

Aurelio nervously cupped his hands around his mouth and shouted.

Still no Jesús.

“Maybe he got bored,” Aurelio said.

If the passage proved to be a dead end, we’d have to come back here and wait for rescue. The ground was too muddy to sit.

“We need more carbide,” I said.

“I’ll get some.” Tito extinguished his lamp and took off his helmet. “Back in a second.”

Hand over hand, he ascended the rope, twisting it between his muddy galoshes. When he made it to the first knot, he rested and looked down.

“You can do it!” we shouted in unison. His face took on a look of determination. At the second knot he rested again, this time, calling up angrily, “Jesús, you lazy lout! Come over here.”

Jesús did not appear.

Halfway up the third section of rope, Tito began to slide. He tried to slow his descent at the second knot by clamping it between his insteps. That helped, but unlike when I had abseiled in, with the rope acting as a swing beneath my butt, Tito had no such control and landed beside us with a thud.

Determined to try again, he prepared to remove his galoshes.

“Let me try,” Aurelio said.

He did not even make it past the first section. By now, mud had made the rope too slippery to hold.

Tito put his helmet back on, and Ruperto took out his lighter and lit another cigarette.

“So, it’s to be the river. Aurelio, what is your opinion?” Tito said. “Should we follow it downstream or up?”

“My instinct tells me up.”

“Mine, too,” Tito said. “Back to the passageway.”

The prospect of discovering more paintings made us avid to stay underground, but not having the use of the rope made escape a necessity. Before we tore ourselves away from these paintings and began our trek to the exit, Aurelio ducked back into the fissure he’d explored. There he found a small chamber with deer incised on rock. Not painted deer. These were petroglyphs and finding them made him glad to have won the coin toss. Now, he could legitimately say he was the discoverer of the cave, or at least part of it.

Expecting more discoveries, we picked our way along the rock-strewn passage, our feet slipping on the slimy stones and me fearing that we would reach a dead end or an underground channel that would force one of us to submerge and try to swim against the current.

“Tito,” I called out, my voice swallowed in the dark. “What if our lamps go out?”

“I have some extra carbide,” he said, “and a dozen candles, but I suggest we not think of that and sing to keep up our spirits.”

“What shall we sing?” Maria Pia called.

“How about ‘Puppet on a String?’” Tito suggested.

Adolfo and Fernando began whistling, and the melody carried us along; however, we were concentrating so hard on where to put our feet that the lyrics simply drifted away.

After three kilometers underground, we caught the scent of fresh air. Just as the first sign of daylight appeared, our lamps sputtered out.

Ordinarily, when a cave is discovered, it’s a shepherd who stumbles in, usually unappreciative, which is why so few caves are recorded or mapped. But the Well of Ramu was different. No one knew it was there. We were the first.

Since then the cave has changed. Despite the three air locks, the artificial tunnel introduces outside air, and the unforgettable smell is gone. No one can experience it as we did fifty years ago.

It annoys me that I must pay an admission fee to bring my grandchildren, and it annoys me when people complain about the path being uneven and rocky and dimly lit. It is a cave. What did they expect? The last time I went there, a French-speaking woman was complaining to the guide, who happened to be Aurelio’s son, that she’d had to walk a long way back just to see a few paintings. She had expected more for her money.

When I heard this, I felt a tremendous sense of abandonment and loss. “You have been privileged to see one of the treasures of the world,” I said, “and yet you disparage it. This is not the same experience as going to the cinema.”

I wanted to tell her what a miracle it was to stand before those paintings for the first time, to wonder at the artists who painted them and held them sacred. To imagine the horses that must have been running wild. And I wanted to tell her about Tito, how vibrant and alive he had been as we probed these secret grottoes. How he dove into his can of cold beans right after we had made it back to the top of the bluff and startled Jesús, taking a siesta. How euphoric we were as we tore off our muddy clothes and had Aurelio direct us to the mayor’s house.

Would you mind turning off the camera? Good. Now I will answer your question. Do I think Tito was a risk taker? Certainly, no more than any other young man his age, an age that predisposes the male of the species to believe he will live forever. Tito had his full share of the invincibility hormone. It surged through his veins, and it was what drew us to him. Tito was brave. A leader. He believed in living life to the fullest, squeezing every drop of joy possible from his time on earth. And, remember, this was 1968, seven years before Franco’s death. In a certain way, to live boldly was an act of political defiance.

When Tito slipped in a mountaineering accident a few days later, his sister brought us the news. The Faculty in Oviedo called for a day of mourning. The train to Torreblanca filled with students, but we, who knew him best, drove. At the Mass, his father wept like a man who’d lost a part of his very soul. And because of Señor Bustillo’s intense grief, the authorities decided to name the cave in Tito’s honor. No longer the Well of Ramu, today it is the Cave of Tito Bustillo.

Just this morning, I was thinking about Tito, how he stood next to me in that cave and how my body rippled with pleasure. Tito and I might have had a future. Instead, what he gave me was a single moment of ecstasy. Following his example, I have sought to live every moment as if it were my last.

BIO

Marylee MacDonald is a former carpenter with a Master’s in Creative Writing. She’s the author of MONTPELIER TOMORROW, BONDS OF LOVE AND BLOOD, and THE RUG BAZAAR. Her forthcoming story collection, BODY LANGUAGE, is about people consumed by their infatuations, hungers, and fears. When she’s not at her desk, you can find her strolling in a redwood forest, hiking in the red rocks of Sedona, or exploring California’s Mendocino coast.

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The Art Collective

by Robert Boucheron

    

Swathed against the November chill in a woolen wrap and a silk scarf, still chic in her fifties, Nora Devereux made her way along Main Street. She walked every day, no matter the weather. The historic district, built in the late 1800s, offered endless vignettes—the intrigue of a cobbled alley, the thrust of a turret, a mask molded in terra cotta.

     Down a side street, Nora spotted something called the Art Collective. The grand old building had arches, carved keystones, and a beetling cornice. She detoured and peered in the storefront. The space was bare—white walls, a polished hardwood floor. Track lights hung from a high ceiling, bright as diamonds.

     A thin woman seated at a small pine table caught sight of Nora and waved her arms over her head, as though drowning. She wore a long skirt, a bunchy sweater, and a loop of beads that dangled from her neck. No one else was visible in the space. The gesture was not a cry for help but an appeal for company.

     Nora pushed through the glass door. The woman popped up, and her bob of gray hair flew.

     “Welcome to the gallery! The Art Collective is owned and run by a group of local painters, sculptors, photographers, and what-have-you. Many of the members are older and retired, including some retired art teachers. I’m Helen Tabasco, the artist on duty. Please look around, and if you have any questions, I’ll try to answer.”

     “Thank you,” Nora said. “I’m retired, too.”

     Trying not to ignore the artist on duty, Nora glanced right and left. The white walls displayed framed watercolors, sketches, collages, paintings, and photographs. Small ceramics of uncertain shape reposed on large white blocks. Here and there stood sculptures made from scraps of wood and metal, like primitive robots or post-industrial idols.

     “Are you represented here somewhere?” Nora asked.

     “Yes! Look for the big arrow.” Helen Tabasco pointed. High on a wall was her name in block letters with a cardboard arrow stuck beside it. Five canvases hung below. Nora felt obliged to take a closer look. Her heels clacked on the hardwood floor, and Helen followed in staccato counterpoint. In planes of orange, yellow, azure, and dark blue, the canvases were geometric views of a village in dry country. Cubism happened a hundred years ago.

     “Very interesting,” Nora murmured. She moved to the next artist, and the next. Helen was always few steps behind, tethered by an invisible lifeline. A telephone rang on the small pine table.

     “Excuse me,” Helen said. “I ought to answer that.” She hurried away.

     One side of a long conversation rang through the empty gallery. The subject was troubling, something to do with illness, a prescription to be refilled, and a cranky patient. Known only as “he,” the patient had accidents that required cleaning up after. Was he a dog or an incontinent senior citizen?

     Nora did her best to ignore this as she gazed. Strangely, nothing in the gallery reflected the wealth of architecture just outside the door, or the gardens and farms nearby. There were blurred portraits, bowls of fruit in unnatural colors, abstract splashes of black and blood red, and vistas of unremarkable hills. Street scenes reproduced a tangle of overhead wires, parked cars, and dented trash cans. The photographs were doctored, made grainy or dim, as if to disguise their bland subjects—a leafless tree, a railroad track. Artist names were posted above in bold type. Everyone got a few square feet of wall space, and a Featured Artist had a spread near the front.

     Nora gave each artist a minute and moved on. She was grateful not to have to talk. Truthful impressions were hazardous. Yet the gallery cast a kind of spell, like the stage of a theater. It made you want to believe.

     Nora worked her way back to the street door. A pocket of flyers hung there, and a neatly lettered sign was taped to the glass. The sign read:

The Art Collective is in search of talented individuals to join and exhibit their work for sale. Please take a flyer. Or call this number and leave a message. Or visit our website for rules, procedures, and a new member application.

     Helen Tabasco was still on the phone. Unable to desert her post, she grimaced with regret. Nora took a flyer, waved goodbye, and exited. The flyer explained:

Each member pays an annual fee and volunteers to staff the gallery twice a month. A portion of each sale goes to the gallery to pay rent and utilities. Members and their guests meet a few times each year for events like lectures and special exhibits. The month of December is the busiest, as people shop for Christmas.

     Nora had drawn with pencil and pen ever since childhood. Art teachers complimented her sense of proportion and distribution of light and dark. As an adult, she drew what struck her as funny or sad. They were quick sketches, done in an hour or two. She carried a pad and pencils in her bag. Weather and kibitzers could be overcome. She tried once to draw an old chair from memory and gave up halfway. Now she snapped a photo for later.

     Nora sometimes gave a drawing to a friend. She had not shown or sold her work. Until now, the idea never occurred to her. She had never taken an adult art class, and she was not sure she felt up to it.

     Could I learn how to paint? Nora asked herself. Do I have the patience to devote days to a single canvas? Where would I find a studio? My sketches are at least as good as what was on view. Maybe I should give it a try. If nothing else, I’ll have a new activity, meet new people. Volunteer for the cause of art.

     The gallery asked to see four or five samples with the application. In a tattered portfolio, Nora found a dozen or more drawings. She spread them on the floor of the apartment. They were of different sizes, drawn on different kinds of paper. How to choose? Should there be a theme to tie them together? Did they need to be framed? Custom framing was expensive. Ready-made frames that came with the glass and mat already cut might be acceptable.

     Over the next few days, Nora tiptoed around the living room. She rearranged the drawings, set some aside, and stepped on one by accident. It was creased, not ruined. Maybe it gained in character. In the end, she settled on four drawings that had nothing in common—a seedling in the crotch of a large tree, a shed built of discarded doors and windows, a pigeon soliciting a toddler who had a cookie, and a street vendor of scarves bundled up in her own merchandise.

     At an art supply store, the choices were overwhelming. After an hour of comparison, Nora found a plain black frame and bought four. Home again, she assembled the artwork on the kitchen counter. As she worked, she wondered. How many drawings had she given away, and what had become of them? All that was out of her hands. At the last minute, Nora swapped the street vendor for a poodle in a perambulator, with a ribbon in a bow on its curly head.

     The application asked for a name and address, media used, and any previous exhibitions. That much was easy. At the bottom, Nora read this:

Please attach an Artist Statement, or respond to these questions. What style best describes your art? How does the visual intersect the psychological? Where does it fit in the realm of phenomenology?

     Nora was stumped. She looked up “phenomenology,” but the definition was as opaque as the word, something to do with perception. At the public library, she browsed back issues of Art in America in the hope of picking up the lingo. “Line” seemed to be important, along with “profile” and “form.” She liked the adjectives “intuitive” and “spare.” That evening, she tried various combinations and ended up with this:

My work is grounded in the purely visual, without distractions of theory or interpretation. The line is intuitive, and the line is spare. The line marks the boundary of form implicit in the profile. Perception is profile, after all.

     The next day, Nora slipped the application and the four framed drawings into the bag from the art supply store. With this bulk under her arm, she walked to the Art Collective. A week had passed. Helen Tabasco was again on duty.

     “I’m here most Saturdays, except when I drive my husband to chemotherapy.”

     Nora explained her errand.

     “Wonderful! I’m also on the review committee. May I?” She reached eagerly into the bag and laid the framed drawings on the table. “Oh, these are very good! I see no objection to admitting you as a new member.”

     “When does the review committee meet?” Nora asked.

     “There’s no set schedule. You’re the first to apply.” Helen returned the drawings to the bag and placed it on a large white block behind her. A sculpture pedestal, Nora thought, or an altar.

     “Do I need to appear before the committee?”

     “Not that I know of. The others will come by and take a look. At some point, we will talk to each other.”

     “Will someone phone me?”

     “I suppose. It’s hard to say exactly what will happen.”

     This vagueness was far from reassuring. On the other hand, Nora had nothing to lose. She wandered the galley, and Helen returned to a large book that lay open before her, a book on the Desert Southwest.

     Nora gazed without seeing anything distinctly, as though struck senseless in the presence of art. A few minutes brought her to the door. She waved farewell and hallooed.

     “Thank you!”

     Helen looked up in alarm from her reading. Then she recovered.

     “Good luck!” She hallooed back.

     A week passed. Caught up in errands and holiday anticipation, Nora forgot about the gallery. It was off the beaten track, hidden on its side street. Another week passed.

     In December, happening to be on Main Street where she first saw it, Nora detoured again to the Art Collective. A different artist was on duty, a petite young woman with a striking figure, all in black. She wore a sleek silver necklace. She projected cool detachment. She did not stir as Nora approached the small pine table.

     “Good afternoon, I’m Nora Devereux.”

     “Astrid Unger. Can I help you?”

     “A few weeks ago, I left an application and some of my drawings here. Has the membership committee reviewed them?”

     “I don’t know anything about it.”

     “Helen Tabasco was here at the time.”

     “Oh, yes. She had to drive her husband to a medical appointment.”

     “She said she was on the committee and it was likely they would approve.”

     “Did she? That dingbat.”

     “Excuse me?”

     “Helen Tabasco gets confused. She has no authority to speak for the gallery.”

     “Is the Art Collective welcoming new members?”

     “We’re busy right now with the holiday season.”

     Looking beyond Astrid, Nora spied her bag on the pedestal, untouched. A couple entered the gallery from the street. Astrid stood and went to greet them. As soon as they were occupied, Nora slipped behind the table.

     The four framed drawings and the application were in the bag. Astrid chatted with the couple, well-dressed and middle-aged. The man held a lidded paper cup in front of his chest like a sacred object. The three took no notice as Nora tucked the neglected offering under her arm and walked briskly to the door.

     In the street, festive lights twinkled in the early winter dusk. Nora released a sigh, a wisp of vapor that instantly fled. She distanced herself from the gallery.

     A narrow escape, she thought. She could not have said from what, and nobody would ask. She refused to let the incident bother her. Still, what would become of poor Mr. Tabasco?

BIO

Robert Boucheron is an architect in Charlottesville, Virginia. His stories and essays appear in Bellingham Review, Fiction International, London Journal of Fiction, Saturday Evening Post, and online magazines.

Robert grew up in Syracuse and Schenectady, New York. His academic degrees are Harvard University, B. A. in English, and Yale University, M. Arch. He is an architect in Charlottesville, Virginia, where he has lived since 1987. His stories and essays on architecture and literature are in Bellingham Review, Fiction International, London Journal of Fiction, Saturday Evening Post, and online magazines.

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I as the being sui generis

sui generis – something odd

by Pawel Markiewicz

I have just returned from a walk with my beloved hound on foot, which has a good heart, the tenderly shaped by Erlking dog’s heartlet. I’m feeling very well at home, as well as blissfully. I have a light heart. It’s frosty outside, to wit It’s 3 degrees below zero, as If the Winter Queen ruled without any snow.

There is not a starry night. A moon is not visible. I dream of starlings of philosophers on sibyl-like heaven. I have not seen a red sky in the evening, such an Apollonianly marvelous charm, a weird of druids. All night long my dreams will be live in my dreamy soul. Afterwards I will sleep in a meek silence. I want to say You, my tender reader, a manifesto of my dearest dreamiest being.

As far as I’m concerned:

My immortal soul is typically German. I am able to feel a sempiternity, each poetical winglings, namely: Apollonianly tender-eternal vans that philosophize about dawn of ontology of poetries. My poetry, like a poesy of Poseidon’s dreamery, heralds fulfillment of each stars, morning starlet and shooting stars. Rilke likes me in the eternal time. Goethe said me he were proud of my meek poem, under the title: >Prometheus<.

In effect my body is Polish. I can indeed design neither robots nor spaceships such the Americans. My parents, my home, my language are polish. My polish blood seems to be indeed red. My nation knows: mourning and death, wars and subservience. This time is my polish time, the ontology and logic of starry night above the polish homeland.

In my heart the Japanese Basho lives who likes melancholic fantasy of a handful of haiku. My heart beats in rhythm of dancing samurais’, enchanted by each morning glow. My haiku are being carried  by some metaphysical traces of the eternity which loves my gorgeous three verses. In each haiku the beauty of sirens-like dreamery-miracle comes true, as if the Japanese soul had told me: Be thankful valedictorian of a sheening time!

Outside the body, there are magical romantic notions, which keep me one step closer to heaven, namely the gorgeous English poesy. Some Herculean muses bring me into: a woodland in the midst of England, next to a druidical fireplace. The druidic altar is also my heart, my whole being of the sui generis-miracle. English muses dancing under the most philosophical stars such my English hound, the mixed dog, between cocker spaniel and field spaniel, my houndlet, that likes huntings in a fairytale-like holt.

BIO

Pawel Markiewicz lives in Bielsk, Podlaski, Poland. He is a poet who also writes flash fiction. Pawel was (2007 and 2010) in Forum Alpbach, a village of thinkers in Austria. After his experience with poetry, he wants to write some good stories.

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Where the Street Learns Its Curve

by Donna D. Vitucci

 

 

As a child, there is a period when you do not leave your yard, a world drawn with a grade schooler’s compass. When you finally walk down the street and spy others, it’s amazing to step outside the known pecking order, to present you, only you, with no family attached. By the time you meet Connie Marlowe, her dead mother’s name was not spoke. None of you’d known this family existed, suffering and crying and being winnowed.

As a child, when you’re driven down streets, and especially with regularity your own street, your world begins to fan out. Your sponge-mind sees, accepts, files and your base expands concentric. Your core is the core of your one tree, and you are its pith.

Soon you can skip down the road in your mind and identify Donovan’s blue ranch, Bender’s new modern black-roofed house, a peach colored brick ranch with a mystery owner; Mrs. Overbeck’s shady porch attached to white clapboard; and then Marlowe’s blond brick ranch with pink trim, where Mr. Marlowe’s red truck anchors the gravel of the far right drive. Cars park on a second driveway of blacktop to the left of the front yard, partly blocking out a net-less basketball hoop.

Mr. Marlowe has a temper. With a swarthy complexion, prominent nose, dark eyes and hair that falls insistently front from slicked-back-ness, he’s the handsomest dad next to yours. Inside his house you learn to watch your mouth. He is “in sod,” and he can mow you down.

You’re lucky he doesn’t remember your name; he might tease you to the hilt or tell you to clear out of his headache. You can’t rest easy around this moody man. You, your little sister Karen, and Shellie, the girl next door — you’re just a locus of gnats circling Connie and her younger brothers Colt and Petey. Connie’s skin tone, and the boys’ too, make you guess their mom had been of the tropics, their mom a vacant color now cold in the ground. Her being dead polishes up the Marlowes. You want inside that family.

Winter shrinks the circle to you and Karen, the school back-and-forth, sledding the backyard where Mommy can watch you from the kitchen window as she irons. Tag-along Shellie from next door might join, since she never fails to horn in on your sled hill. She calls it her hill. You all climb it and sled it and use it and claim it. You learn to share, otherwise Shellie’s brother will bean you with an ice ball. The snow is deep, winter long, and homework incessant. The Marlowes ride your school bus, but Connie’s not assigned to your classes. Whenever you see her, she’s bundled in a blue coat with a hood, she goes hatless, her brown eyes wide in her dusky face. Her laughing with the boys in the back seat intimidates and needles you. In school’s realm you don’t even act friendly. Her bus-wiles and cutting up make her smarter than you by leaps.

Neighbors learn Mr. Marlowe has married Sadie Henfair over the winter.  How? When? Where?  This was no white dress church occasion, or people would have known. Talkers easily deduce the why– to help corral his five children. Alone he sure couldn’t do it all, or do it right, not even a little bit. Children sixteen down to six, with Petey the wobbly first grader.  Sadie adds her three colts to the barn—Jeannie, Sophie and Monique—12, 15 and 8. Too many names, but names are mostly place holders. Concentrate instead on the constellations, their creep across heaven, how the seasons suck and shed light, as your legs lengthen and strengthen and you lose your baby fat.

The Marlowe-Henfairs are the one blended family on your street, in your neighborhood, in your parish. Connie acquires a same-age step-sister. Jeannie’s in Connie’s and your seventh grade.  Call neither of them Cinderella.

Jeannie rubs her fingers absentmindedly across her forehead as she watches Connie push a white leather belt through the loops of her hip-hugger jeans. Boys just won’t leave Jeannie alone. Boys glom to Jeannie like bobby pins to a fridge magnet. Her forehead’s bumpy as sandpaper while Connie’s free of blemish, but the phone ringing constantly for Jeannie’s got handsome Mr. Marlowe in one of his black moods. All three of you bolt downstairs because he makes Jeannie take it in the kitchen where he sits at the large trestle table with his new wife. None of the girls are allowed phone privacy–one reason why they each, eventually, will run away.

For now it’s much lesser crime– junior high’s worst boys calling and asking for Jeannie, and while she talks with her back turned and her shoulders hunched to guard what she can, Mr. Marlowe says, “Bees to the new hive.”

Sadie says, “Shush,” puts the hand she’s smoking with on his wind-worn hand. Dark-skinned all summer and winter, for the moment he even glows.

You’re the smartest in the room but also the most naïve. You sense something shameful in Mr. Marlowe’s simple words. You swear you won’t be caught up with Jeannie, you’ll never be named alongside her, and you’re out the door in a flash.

 

A long alcove beside where the stairs cut into the second floor serves as the Marlowe children’s closet. Their clothes hang on long garment racks like those in a department store’s back room—boys’ to the left and girls’ to the right.  Minus any electric light there, the shadowy space inspires a confessional mood. Funny how no light fosters light. Your Catechism-coated childhood is starting to crack, and why? Because  amped-up wattage in the back seat on the school bus. Because Connie’s new half-family. Because Education Night the school required junior high parents to attend, where they divided boys from girls and ran gender-specific filmstrips about your changing bodies and God’s intentions. How can a “unique woman” emerge from your squirming? You look like puberty sounds—puny, half-formed, and eyeless.

 

In the Marlowes’ finished attic all six children sleep. Four beds whose head boards meet the wall along the closet exterior sketch out the girls’ section. Beds are arranged in a line a giant rabbit could bounce across one-two-three-four, if anyone could get away with jumping on the beds. A dresser with a mirror and a chest of drawers hold underwear, folded clothes, makeup, and jewelry you can buy up the street at Chinatown.

When Sophie turns sixteen she’ll drop out of school to work there, will be promoted from cashier to service desk to front end manager. Chinatown will be her realm. Sophie sits and rats her hair before the dresser mirror. She adds two inches to her height and three years to her age, after the liquid eyeliner.  Round the attic’s corner to the top of the stairs and that dead-on area holds one bed that Colt and Petey share.  Colt’s skinny ranginess doesn’t handicap him when he’s pounding his little brother. He’s elusive and slippery, you’ll learn. Sophie may be new to the house but she’s got vibrancy. Maybe she’ll teach you how to be taller, hotter. Sophie erupts from the bench, breaking the boys apart, whopping Colt with her rat-tail brush: “Leave. Him. The hell. Alone!”

Jeannie has been seated cross-legged on the floor, in a corner of the attic closest to the window, out of any fray.

“Who’s the smart one now?” she says. She winks at you. She’s got this whole new family of hers sussed out, and you’re not related but she includes you in the sussing.

She’s been penciling darker her rather light-brown eyebrows, and as in Sophie’s case, eyeliner also makes Jeannie Eqyptian-eyed. All the girls in the Marlowe house wear eyeliner. They are sister raccoons while you are of an entirely other species; you pace, hunted, through attics and basements. You haven’t got the goods these sisters have. They see you as furniture. Among them you might as well be hairless or blind. You are the bench where they rest their backs, the step-around in the kitchen while they’re intent on the door, and still they’re careful not to knock you over.

 

 

  

BIO

Donna Vitucci’s stories, poems, and creative non-fiction have been published in print and online since 1990. Her novels IN EUPHORIA, SALT OF PATRIOTS and AT BOBBY TRIVETTE’S GRAVE are 5-star-reviewed. Her most recent novel, ALL SOULS, along with the others, is available through Magic Masterminds Press. A Midwestern girl, she has relocated to the North Carolina piedmont, where she enjoys gardening, reading, walking and yoga.

 

 

 

 

 

 

0

My GWOT, Annotated

by Paul D. Mooney

(GWOT: “Global War On Terror,” pronounced Gee-Wot. It sounds dumber every time you say it out loud. Trust me)

 

Ours was (“Is” would be more appropriate. Nearly two decades long and the fat lady ain’t warming up yet) a peculiar war. At least, the part of it I played a role in. It was not, like some people might expect, a heart-pumping cacophony of action, explosions, and movie-style badassery. That shit never happened, at least not to anybody I knew. Most of our experiences involved large swaths of boredom with random moments of strangeness and tragedy in a series of locations equal parts bland and bizarre. Big, crowded ones like the sprawl of our gravel-paved FOB (Forward Operating Base). Big, empty ones like the vast swaths of desert between the tiny strips of green tightly bracketing the Helmand River and the distant horizon of the Hindu Kush. Small, crowded ones like the tiny Hesco barrier (Large, collapsible containers made out of chicken wire and overpriced fabric that are filled with sand and dirt to create fortifications and buildings. Think big, fancy sandbags) shed we worked out of crammed with outdated government laptops and dented filing cabinets. Small, empty ones like the sun-baked port-a-shitters that provided us the closest thing to privacy we enjoyed for seven months.

Of course, I didn’t know any of that at the start. Most of us didn’t. And the ones who did, the ones who’d deployed to a combat theater before, weren’t really thinking about such esoteric hogwash. Not while our whole detachment (a military unit formed for temporary and/or non-standard purposes) sat sweating on an ugly, beat-up, run-down bus pumping out exhaust as it idled on the sun-baked street in Camp Pendleton’s (Primary base for the 1st Marine Division, located north of San Diego, California. Prone to bouts of wildfires, flooding, and ill-advised tattoos) Las Pulgas Area.

That bus was one of those small, crowded, and decidedly dull spaces. The first small space of our generation’s war-proper for those of us who’d only been through non-combat zone pumps (filthy sounding slang for deployment) or, Christ help them, recently graduated from MOS (Military Occupational Specialty. A person’s job in the armed forces. Like on a GI Joe action figure’s file card) School. And it was definitely the first one of this particular deployment for all of us. A full-sized school bus painted the same rotten white color as all buses utilized by the military and jammed to the gills with Marines, Corpsmen (US Navy Sailors who serve as medical personnel for Marine units), packs, seabags, body armor, a smattering of guitars, an unknowable quantity of well-stashed pornography (Possession of porn is illegal in the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and the law extends to US troops and only US troops deployed there. Same goes for alcohol. Because war isn’t shitty enough), and everybody’s personal weapons.

Las Pulgas was one of the big spaces; a wide-open patch of uneven land ringed by high, grassy hills and filled with ugly, red-roofed buildings and vast concrete lots housing the personnel, trucks, gear, and guns of the 1st, 2nd, and 5th Battalions as well as the Headquarters of the 11th Marine Regiment (The artillery unit of the 1st Marine Division. The 3rd Battalion is stationed at Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center 29 Palms in the middle of the Mojave Desert, roughly halfway between Satan’s butthole and ballsack. The 4th Battalion was disbanded shortly after Vietnam). Suffice to say, there’s a lot of big machinery housed in Las Pulgas, which always struck me as a funny function for a place that’s name translates to “The Fleas” in English.

Even over the hum of the engine and the rumble of nervous chitchat echoing throughout the shitty bus I heard First Lieutenant Doggett’s girlfriend sobbing out on the sidewalk. I could see her, even from my seat near the aft of the vehicle, in the midst of the crowd out front of the trailer that served as the HQ for the Regiment’s rotating civil affairs detachments (This is a complicated one, so deep breath and bear with me: Civil Affairs [CA] is the term for units and operations focused on relations between the military, local governments and civilians, aid organizations operating in the region, and the like. The Marine Corps has several reserve units that fill this role but during the busier years of the GWOT it stood up temporary activity duty units under the commands of the artillery regiments. Personnel were assigned for periods of roughly a year; the first half focused on both specialty training in civil affairs and standard pre-deployment combat training and the second half consisting of the deployment itself. These Marines mostly came from the artillery regiments, like myself, but not all. Since the position guarantees going to a combat theater about half of us were handpicked from slews of eager volunteers. But since it’s a job with a low chance of participating in actual combat, the other half was forced into it as punishment for fucking up in some way. It made for a fun mix. Whew! I’m proud of you for reading all that. Have a cookie or something).

She had buried her mascara-smeared face into the shoulder of Gunnery Sergeant Aquino’s statuesque and stone-faced wife. One of the latter’s firm hands patted the former on her heaving shoulder with mechanical affection like some sort of hi-tech comfort robot. Something I would never describe her as to Gunny Aquino, but I filed it away in my brain as an apt description for the cold, beautiful woman currently comforting the Lieutenant’s buxom bucket of tears.

The rest of the significant others, friends, and family lining the sidewalk expressed varying degrees of emotional states running the gamut from bawling with despair to calm acceptance, the two aforementioned women representing the extremes of the spectrum. Nobody looked particularly happy, understandably. Even if some of them would no longer be significant to their current others by the time we returned from OEF (Operation Enduring Freedom, which is the one in Afghanistan). Some would be downright insignificant others (rimshot!).

Hell, Doggett’s girlfriend ended up dumping his lanky ass less than halfway through the deployment, right around ten weeks in. All those tears and weeping and ballyhoo added up to a whole lot of nothing the moment her Bikram Yoga instructor offered up a private chakra realignment session (wink-wink). Such is the risk of leaving someone you love all by his or her lonesome in sunny, sexy San Luis Obispo for a long period of time. Rumor had it that he was the very same longhaired, douchebag of a Jody (nickname for any civilian who bones a service member’s loved one while they’re deployed) who broke up the second marriage of Team 3’s CO (Commanding Officer. A unit’s first in command), Major Mercer, while he boated around with the 11th MEU (Marine Expeditionary Unit. Pronounced like the sound a kitten makes. Rotating combined Navy and Marine units on semi-constant nautical patrol throughout the more troublesome/newsworthy parts of the world) two years prior.

Doggett, our team’s XO (Executive Officer. A unit’s second in command. Why not EO, you ask? Because, as energy drinks and ESPN2 taught us, X is a way cooler letter), took it well insomuch as he didn’t end up dying from it despite his best efforts. Months three through five of the deployment for the young officer were marked by a constant string of semi-passive attempts to get outside the wire where something might shoot at, explode near, or possibly even stab into him. The XO of the civil affairs team assigned to the same district two deployment prior lost two fingers to a Taliban sympathizer armed with a hatchet and a significant percentage of his blood replaced by heroin, so rest assured that kind of thing happens in modern warfare.

Sergeant Popovich and I fretted over these developments at first, particularly given that Doggett had previously been the kind of happy-go-lucky fella who freely shared smokes, called enlisted guys “bro,” and offered hyper-critical teardowns of the homemade cards countless school kids regularly shipped over in bulk to us “Marnines” and “Amerracan Heros” overseas. And to think, some folks wonder what use an art history degree could be to a fighting man.

Our team’s CO, on the other hand, didn’t give the whole emotional mess much thought. I initially took it as a sign of heartlessness, or maybe dislike towards the diametrically chummy goofball of an executive officer she’d been saddled with, but in reality it was a case of her knowing the score. After all, it was her sixth deployment, the third to a combat theater, and she’d spent enough time in a front row seat overlooking breakups, long-distance divorces, and Dear John/Jane emails. Doggett’s fruitless and woeful hunt for a Combat Action Ribbon (Award given to US Marines and Sailors who have engaged in direct combat with or received indirect fire, to include IED detonations, from an enemy. Typically abbreviated as CAR and pronounced exactly how it’s spelled) or a posthumous Purple Heart (medal awarded to US military personnel killed or wounded in action) was nothing new to a salty campaigner like Major Carol Butterfield, callsign Gold Digger.

“Was that particular sobriquet your idea, ma’am?” Popovich asked with an eyebrow raised nearly to the Neanderthal-esque hairline that topped his pudgy face one evening after Doggett tramped off on one of his woulda-coulda-shoulda-suicide patrols.

We’d grown accustomed to them by that point. And I learned to take a little selfish relief from the fact that his patrolling kept me from having to share the burden of being the CA representative regularly outside the wire. Popovich was too vital to risk, being the only one who knew the overly complex computerized requisition system, and the Battalion didn’t allow field grade officers (majors, lieutenant colonels, and colonels) like Butterfield beyond the FOB walls unless necessary due to their being choice targets for the bad guys.

She guffawed in that biting, staccato way of hers; a throaty burst from a Ma-Deuce (Affectionate nickname for the M2 .50-caliber heavy machine gun. It’s huge, armor piercing, and a ridiculous amount of fun to fire) made human and awarded naval aviator wings (that description give anyone else an erection?), “Yeah, not so much. Nobody picks their own and they’re all pretty much on the stupid side. But that’s the whole point of call signs for us Air Wingers (personnel who serve in the aviation units of the Marine Corps).”

“Sexism?” I theorized.

“References to popular rap songs white people can’t justifiably pick for karaoke no matter how badly they want to (“Gold Digger” by Kanye West, featuring Jamie Foxx, Def Jam Records 2005)?” Popovich speculated.

“Both wrong. It’s mockery plain and simple,” she corrected us. “Though I suppose Uunaia (My last name. It’s Samoan) guessed closest, so he wins.”

“Ha! Suck it, Sergeant!” I gloated. Turning to Butterfield, “What do I win, ma’am?”

“You win attending tonight’s BUB (Battle Update Brief. A semi-weekly or daily staff meeting where the key members of a unit brief each other on the tactical, administrative, and strategic goings on of said unit. They’re very important and totally suck balls) in twenty minutes instead of me,” smirked the Major.

“Fuck.”

“Rumor is this one’s 214 slides long. New battalion record.”

“Fuuuuuuuck.”

“What do you have to do tonight that precludes you from such suffering, Skipper (traditionally a nautical term for boss or captain, but we Marines use it to refer to a commanding officer whenever we want to picture them as a flustered fat guy smacking Bob Denver with a hat)?” Popovich asked Butterfield with a sideways grin aimed at my misery.

“Nothing. But they never listen to me and it’s 214 slides so they can fuck right the hell off.”

“As can I, apparently,” I grumbled in defeat.

“Rank has its privileges, Lance Corporal. I’ll be in the MWR (Morale, Welfare, and Readiness) tent. Let me know how it goes. And somebody come get me if my XO ever gets back. Or dies,” and, on that cheery note, she sauntered off to Skype her husband alongside all the other Marines and Sailors quietly weeping/engaging in phone sex in that sandy, tent-shaped conduit to home.

“Look on the bright side,” Popovich suggested my way.

“Which is?”

“Damned if I know. Better hurry up and grab grub. By the time you get out of that briefing the chow hall will be closed. Shit, the war might be over,” he chuckled and redirected his attention to typing away on his SIPR (Secure Internet Protocol Router. Government Internet for stuff classified as secret or higher) laptop, meaning he was either hard at work answering Gunny Aquino’s request for permission to order more school supplies or firing off dirty emails to his wife while she floated somewhere near Catalina with the rest of the USS Stockdale’s crew. In which case he was also “hard at work” (wink-wink). Privileges of rank indeed.

“By the time I get out of there, the goddamn sun will have exploded and wiped our solar system from existence.”

“Then you won’t have to worry about going to the next BUB. Hop to it, dicknuts.”

“Aye aye, sergeant. By which I mean: fuck.”

“Fuck’re you doing here, dicknuts?” the infantry Battalion’s CO, Lieutenant Colonel Llewellyn Hebog, politely queried of me through the tight lips of his wrinkled, angry, trailer-park-Dracula face. He sat at the apex of the giant, U-shaped plywood desk that nearly filled the whole briefing room of the command bunker.

Arcing out to both sides of the old fucker sat the rest of the Battalion brass (Slang for high-ranking personnel. Comes from back in the day when their shiny insignia was made of brass. I think) along with representatives from each section of the unit and it’s supporting elements: our team, the FET (Female Engagement Team. Small units comprised entirely of women formed to gather intelligence from other women firsthand in countries where the local men don’t allow their wives/daughters/sisters to speak with the opposite gender. Sound vaguely sexist? It sure is. Because that’s how shit often works in the third world), the HumInt (Human Intelligence. People who gather intelligence directly from other humans) guys, a hatchet-faced woman who always wore Oakley sunglasses and black polo shirts and “absolutely did not work for the CIA so don’t even bring it up,” a team of Army PsyOps (Psychological Operations. They fight the enemy’s brains with science! And sometimes leaflets) drunks who somehow maintained a steady supply of illegal hooch, et al.

In addition to the true bigshots a crowd of underlings and note takers lined three walls, shoulder to shoulder. And all of their eyes peered at me as I stood off to the side of the projection screen upon which the accursed slideshow glowed. Well, the eyes that weren’t distracted and/or bored as shit. Or hidden behind sunglasses and definitely not CIA.

“Sir?” my quizzical response was the first thing I said in the BUB. Hadn’t even gotten to my spiel.

“Where’s your boss? Why the fuck I got a lance corp’l gawking at me instead of your Major?”

“Major Butterfield has a pressing personal matter to attend to, sir. But I am fully prepared to answer any and all questions that may arise from the CA update.”

The Colonel grunted and waved at me to proceed in a fashion his ancestors likely used when they required another mint julep fetched by someone they owned.

“Well, ladies and gentlemen, the construction of the main irrigation weir is ahead of schedule, despite the initial use of sub-standard concrete in the spillway. Coordination for distribution of food to the poorer families in the southern end of the district has begun with USAID (United States Agency for International Development. Government agency that helps people in impoverished countries. I’d mock them but they’re pretty all right) and the governor. Latter’s promised to lend us some ANP (Afghan National Police) support to get that done.”

I’d lost the attention of pretty much everybody in the room, though I didn’t hold it against any of them except the PsyOps Staff Sergeant snoring loudly into his threadbare maroon beret. Not because of the snoring, but because I smelled the whiskey on it and those greedy doggies (adorably PG-rated, insulting nickname US Army Soldiers) refused to share. That aside, I felt everyone’s pain. Not like I wanted to be stuck in this PowerPoint purgatory, let alone forced to participate in and prolong it.

War is hell. Which I guess makes PowerPoint some kind of double hell. I pressed on.

“The big hurdle coming up for us is the girls’ school we’re looking to build outside Shamblatan, about ten miles downriver from here on the west bank of . . .”

“Hang on,” Hebog slammed a flat palm on the desk and leaned in. “Girls’ school? Ain’t that gonna piss off some a them more hard-line locals? Like that ah . . . err . . . help me out, Charlie. The bearded feller.”

The downright aggressively likeable and absurdly muscular Battalion XO, Major Charlie Blank, shot me a sympathetic shrug before turning to his boss, “I have no idea, sir.”

“Fine, whatever. That Elder Hajji Whatever. He ain’t gonna like folk coming in here teaching their gals to read and math n’ shit. Ain’t he?”

“I suppose he won’t at that, sir,” Major Blank concurred.

“Ain’t asking you. I’m asking Lance Corp’l . . .” he trailed off and leaned forward in an attempt to read my nametape from across the room.

“Uunaia, sir,” I assisted.

“Sure, why the hell not. Well?”

“Well? Oh, still my turn to talk? Hajji Whatever. Thing is, sir, we’re working on that now and have a potential solution. We offered to pay for a bridge to go up over the Helmand right next to his compound. He’s so stoked about the prospect that he promised to publicly endorse the school if it’s made official. It’s a pretty sweet deal. A crossing there would cut the travel time for most of the wheat farmers from further south to the big market in town to boot, so it’ s a win-win.”

Hebog rolled his eyes towards the ceiling in contemplation, stealing further irretrievable seconds from my life.

“Bridge, huh?” he muttered at last. “Gonna have to think about it.”

“If I may, sir, we need to get the project approved and started ASAP if we want to continue the school construction uninterrupted.”

“Think about it, Lance Corp’l. That’s all. Who’s next?”

Somebody nudged the inebriated Army PsyOps Staff Sergeant, who indeed happened to be next, into relative consciousness and I returned to my seat at the table.

I reentered the CA office a few dozen eons later, my mood having failed to improve in the meantime. There I found a distracted Popovich and a cheerful Butterfield both typing away at their laptops in addition to a surprisingly present Doggett cleaning his disassembled M4 (carbine model of the M16 rifle you see in war movies, carbine being a fancy word for “shorter version of a gun”).

“Intermission over at the Bijou, Uunaia?” Doggett hummed without looking up from his task.

“Uh . . . sir?”

“The BUB, dude. Popovich said you’d be over there at least another twelve hours. New Battalion record and all.”

“No, it’s over. Thank Christ. At least I think it’s over. I kind of blacked out during the weather portion and now I’m back here. Unless I actually died of boredom, which would make this purgatory. Yeah, that adds up.”

“Wouldn’t this be hell?” Butterfield smirked crookedly.

“No, that would be another BUB.”

The others all muttered and nodded in consensus.

“Anything of note to report?” Butterfield asked while snapping her blocky computer closed.

I listed the highlights, “The PsyOps team has switched from vodka to whiskey, that guy with Bravo Company whose buddy accidentally shot him in the ass is gonna be okay, and the Taliban cut off another police captain’s head in front of his family outside Jarham. Also the Colonel says he’s gonna think about the bridge/girls school exchange proposal.”

“Goddamnit,” Popovich rapped his knuckles against his laptop.

“At least he didn’t say no,” I pointed out.

“No, not that hillbilly and his bullshit.”

“Hey,” Butterfield cautioned semi-seriously.

“Sorry, not that glorious and shining example of the finest tenets of our Corps who truly deserves to command over a thousand of our brethren. And his bullshit.”

“That’s the spirit.”

“Trouble on the home front is all.”

“Your wife accidentally forward another one of your erotic emails to the rest of the Chiefs’ Mess (Separate mess hall aboard US Navy vessels for enlisted personnel ranked E-7 and higher. Because they’re usually pompous dicks who can’t get along with personnel of other ranks) again?” I asked.

“Nah, she bribed one of the comm (short for communications) sailors to smash the boat’s server with a fire axe in case she does that again. Our daughter got in a fight at school is what happened. Some shitheel picking on her.”

“She win?” I asked

“The trans one?” Butterfield asked simultaneously. Popovich, long having considered himself the father of two boys and a girl, learned on pre-deployment leave that his eldest was a transgender teenage girl. As if falling into each of those categories individually doesn’t make attending middle school on a Marine base difficult enough.

“Oh yeah, kicked the shit out of the little butthole.”

“Nice. But I still think he’s looking to get some shooting started,” Doggett muttered absentmindedly.

“The other kid?” I asked.

“No, dumbass. Colonel Hebog.”

“Ah, of course. Wait, what?”

“I believe my currently-scatterbrained XO is jumping back to the first half of this conversation,” Butterfield surmised.

“Right. That. Stuff. What were we talking about?” Popovich sighed.

“The Colonel is holding out on giving the thumbs up to the bridge deal and the Lieutenant thinks it’s because he wants to provoke some gunfights with the local Taliban,” I recapped.

“Come on, this is an infantry battalion. They want to fight,” Doggett pointed out. “Why do you think they’ve conducted, like, three raids a week since we got here? In a district with eight Taliban left alive?”

“There’s eight now? Did they recruit two more since the last BUB I attended?” Popovich harrumphed. “Please, that hillbi . . . beacon of great officership or whatever I called him before wants to prove he’s the boss and demonstrate that building schools and handing out cash isn’t as important in a war as shooting people in the face.”

“If wars could still be won solely by shooting people in the face, this whole clusterfuck would have ended in a tickertape parade down 5th Avenue a decade ago,” Butterfield noted.

“They didn’t shoot Bin Laden in the face until 2011, ma’am,” I pointed out.

“Well they would have held the parade then. Shit, I’m not a ‘what if’ kind of person. My point is I agree with Popovich. Hebog’s flexing his muscles. He’ll give us the bridge after he gets some blood flowing back to his wrinkly, old pecker. Which is a sentiment that does not leave this office my young, gossipy Devil Dogs (One of the many, many nicknames for Marines. One of the least insulting ones).”

“Aye aye, ma’am,” we three subordinates chorused.

“He’s wants to get the shooting started in our district, mark my words,” Doggett added in a defiant singsong.

“Sir, with all due respect . . .” Popovich began.

“Oof, that’s never a good start,” Butterfield guffawed, her eyes and Doggett’s both rolling almost in unison. Privileges of rank indeed.

“. . . Isn’t that what you’re doing?” Popovich finished.

“Hey, I’m trying to get myself shot. Or at least shot at. Lightly shrapneled, perhaps. But myself and only myself. I don’t want anybody else getting hurt,” Doggett protested.

“Fair,” Popovich conceded.

“This may be the weirdest goddamn conversation of the deployment,” I pointed out.

“So far,” Doggett crooned as he slapped the upper and lower receivers (hey, what did I tell you about the diagram?) of his weapon back together with bemused finality.

“Hey there, Major,” Hebog’s inescapably ear-stinging drawl echoed across the FOB four BUB’s worth of evenings later, catching Butterfield halfway between our office and the COC (Command Operations Center) a few minutes after the latest PowerPoint purgatory’s conclusion.

From under the ramshackle gazebo that served as a smoke pit (designated area for the smoking of tobacco on any US military installation), with a Marlboro Light in mouth, I watched and heard as she made no attempt to hide her annoyed sigh. God love her.

“Word is your Sar’nt Poppinfresh raised his self a queer son,” Hebog chuckled like a corrupt sheriff in a cheap western. “Must have caught that from you feel-good, pussy-ass civil affairs fuckers, huh? Just kidding. Hear the little weirdo knocked out Staff Sar’nt Bucket’s kid.”

“Well sir,” my Skipper didn’t so much trail off as allow her attempt at a polite, appropriately subservient answer evaporate before it could condense. “If by ‘queer’ you’re referring to the Q in LGBTQ which stands for those who identify specifically as queer, or ‘questioning,’ regarding their sexuality, then I’m afraid you are incorrect. Sir.”

The squinty hillbilly’s eyes narrowed further.

“Matter of fact, Sergeant Popovich’s eldest is a transgender woman. Which would be the T for any weak spellers overhearing this exchange,” Butterfield ignored but definitely saw the double thumbs-ups that I and the two members of the FET smoking with me that evening flashed behind the Battalion CO’s back. “Her choice of new name is pending. But as I understand it, the modern Marine Corps is an all-inclusive, all-American fighting force where tolerance is extended to all but our enemies. Sir.”

“Point taken. But ain’t sure I appreciate your confrontational tone, Butterfield,” At least the old prick pronounced her name correctly.

Butterfield shrugged.

“Mm-hmm. Officers can get can Ninja Punched (Deceptively goofy term for a Non-Judicial Punishment or NJP. What happens when you get caught fucking up in a serious way but not serious enough to warrant a full-blown court martial like you see in the moving pictures. A Few Good Men and such) too, you know,” he finally cast an irked eye toward us enlisted types.

Butterfields shoulders sank a teeny tiny bit, succumbing to the difference in metaphorical weight between the brown oak leaves on her collar and the black ones (The rank insignias of majors and lieutenant colonels are both oak leaves, colored gold and silver respectively. Officer insignia worn in the field and combat theaters trades those shiny hues for matte brown and black so it’s harder for snipers to spot them and blow their brains out because that’s what snipers do) on Hebog’s.

“Apologies for my tone, sir. Been a long . . . decade. Give or take. But I’d appreciate you not disparaging the families of my Marines. Stick to insulting my idiots and me directly. Like good, old Lance Corporal Unpronounceable over there.”

I clicked my boot heels (though heavy duty rubber makes more of a thud than a click) and dramatically doffed my cigarette in deference to my Skipper.

Hebog snorted victoriously, though the exchange struck me as a more of a draw. Until the next part.

“Since I have your undivided attention for the moment, might I follow you to your office and further discuss the subject of the girls school/bridge project, sir?” Butterfield’s reserves of feigned subservience ran low.

“No.”

“O . . . kay. Perhaps tomorrow?”

“No. Full no.”

“Sir, I . . .”

“Ain’t approving’ it.”

The cigarette nearly dropped from my mouth. Motherfucker.

“Beg pardon?”

“Ain’t approving’ it. It’s a bullshit deal and I ain’t gonna allow it. Not in my district.”

“It’s not your district, sir. It’s the Afghans’ district,” the cigarette actually did fall from my lips, either from opening them to speak or out of shock that I’d spoken.

“Shut up, Unpronounceable!” snapped Hebog without looking at me.

“Not now, Uunaia!” snapped Butterfield in the same manner. “Why is it a no to the bridge? Elder . . . Whatever will not be happy if we nix that end of the deal and go ahead with the school construction.”

“And he can eat shit because I don’t want every fuckstick Islamic Fundamentalist in a hundred mile radius knocking at our front gate demanding concessions over every project he claims pisses him off.”

What a shockingly good point made in a relatively comprehensible manner.

“Fair enough. But we’re not giving up the girls school project, so . . .”

“Good, you shouldn’t. Deserves being built.”

“And if the Elder vows reprisals against the school like we suspect he might?”

“This is fucking Afghanistan, Major. And it ain’t your first rodeo. Every-goddamn-body and their mama vows reprisals every time a sheep shits on the wrong side the Helmand. Hajji Whatever’s pissing in the wind.”

“And if he ends up telling his people to start winging grenades, rockets, and those ever popular rocket propelled grenades at us in response?”

Hebog chuckled in the fashion of a born killer you at long last realize you’re glad is on your side, “Then we shoot ‘him in the fucking face.”

Doggett presented a sanitized and summarized version of the information exchanged in the above conversation during the fifth hour of his next eleven hour patrol, throughout which nobody shot at or exploded him to any degree to his continuing dismay.

Two days later Elder Hajji Whatever ended up throwing us a curveball and opting for the middle ground between Butterfield and Hebog’s predictions: paying one of the impoverished locals working construction on the expansion of the ANA (Afghan National Army) compound connected to our FOB to convey his displeasure in a most unsubtle fashion. While the Afghan troops prepped for their weekly Thursday night orgy (Real thing. Seriously. Just Google image search . . . no, wait . . . eh, do what you want) this enterprising young lad laid down his sledgehammer, snatched a stray Pakistani knockoff Tokarev (Old Soviet pistol model. Ever see one of those WWII movies where the Russian commissars start shooting their own troops for retreating in the face of the Germans? These are usually what they’re doing that with. Yay for fun facts!), tucked it into his robes, and furtively flip-flopped over to the gym. Even when cheaply made, a pistol’s firing pin striking primers sends rounds downrange. This semi-pro assassin managed to get off five before a quick-thinking, mid-CrossFit scout sniper with no neck crushed his skull with a precisely hurled 16kg kettlebell.

Of those five rounds one nicked a dumbbell, another put a hole clean through the padding of the bench press, the third shattered the cheap elliptical machine’s console, and the last two took Popovich smack dab in the heart as he cranked out a set of lat pulldowns. Our hirsute sergeant died before his killer’s twitching corpse hit the deck. It happened so fast he didn’t have time to look shocked.

Popovich, that is. Nobody could tell what the Afghan’s final mien might have been before the avenging CrossFitter grabbed an even heavier kettlebell and made sure the motherfucker was dead. Hard to read the expression on a concave face.

So for all their supposed hootin’ and hollerin’ and raidin’ for a big, brassy fight with the enemy, the only Marine the Battalion sent home in a flag-draped steel box was Sergeant Alexander Popovich. Slightly pudgy, extremely hairy, idealistic, directly supporting (term for when an individual or a unit is operating in a role alongside a specific unit but not fully tied into its chain of command), never patrolling Sergeant Alexander Popovich.

Before Colonel Hebog could arrange for a bullet to pass through Hajji Whatever’s skull, the Elder piled his favorite wife, favorite son, second favorite chai boy (Tweenaged house servant/sex toy that many middle class and wealthy Pashtu Afghans own at least one of. Let that sink in and then tell me how despicable America was for trying to instill some of its values on the locals. Eat a dick, moral relativism), three AK’s (general term for all weapons in the Kalashnikov family, the most famous being that classic staple of generic bad guys in both movies and real life: the AK-47), and twenty pounds of opium into a pickup truck and escaped across the border to Pakistan where he eluded authorities for several months before being captured and garroted by a Taliban officer who refused to forgive the guy for working with us infidels in the first place. So the whole affair turned out pretty disappointing for all parties across the board.

Somebody from S-1 (administrative section, or “shop,” of a unit) plugged a pair of travel speakers into an iPod and blasted a tinny rendition of “Taps” as six grunts (nickname for infantry personnel) carried Popovich’s coffin out the open flaps of BAS (Battalion Aid Station. Central medical facility of a . . . wait for it . . . battalion) two days after his death. Butterfield, Doggett, and I stood at attention in a row along the path of packed dirt the pallbearers took to the waiting Osprey (The V-22 Osprey is a Vertical Takeoff and Landing, or VTOL, transport aircraft that looks like the deformed baby of an inbred propeller plane and a helicopter with fetal alcohol syndrome. They’re great in theory, but in reality they’re terrifying death traps that have killed 39 people in crashes. Lowest bidder and all) while a dozen or so members of the Battalion staff assembled similarly to our left.

“That’s what they almost called me, you know. For my callsign,” Butterfield half-whispered in a sad, dreamy tone that broke my goddamn heart all over again as our shipmate’s body passed by.

“Ma’am?”

“‘Taps.’ They almost made that my callsign Taps. Because of Dan Butterfield.”

“Dan . . . Wait, the Civil War general? The bugle call guy?” Doggett queried from the corner of his mouth closest to the Skipper.

“There was both a Civil War general and a bugle call writer named Butterfield?” my grief-stricken brain played catch-up.

“One guy. Same person. My great-great-great uncle or whoever. Wrote ‘Taps,’ though I think they called it ‘Butterfield’s Lullaby’ at the time,” Butterfield explained.

“That’s a way creepier name it,” I opined.

“Right? Given its use,” Doggett agreed.

“So true. Which is why I’m glad they passed on calling me ‘Lullaby’ as well.”

“Also creepy. And somehow a little condescending,” I mused.

“Ah-ah-ah-ahem!” Hebog cleared his throat, thereby drawing attention to how loud our whispering had grown and the fact that none of the other assembled Battalion staff gave a shit that we conversed. We responded by not giving a shit about the Colonel in turn. Popovich was our Marine, after all.

“So, ma’am, they didn’t call you Lullaby because it’s too creepy even for the air wing. And they didn’t go with Taps because . . .” I prodded.

“Too depressing. And foreboding.”

The recorded trumpet notes ended. Then started over. That whole tune is barely a minute and a slow walk from the aid station to the LZ (Landing Zone) takes that long even without a coffin to carry.

Very fucking depressing.

The grunts reached the open ramp of the bird (Slang for aircraft. Because flying) and carried the coffin up into it, disappearing into its shady bowels with Popovich’s mortal coil.

“So why Gold Digger?” I pressed on, hoping new knowledge might temporarily edge out the melancholy.

“After the war Butterfield, apparently, went into government and got busted for some gold related scam. Think he was Undersecretary of the Treasury (He was actually Assistant Treasurer of the United States. Totally different thing) at the time.”

“Man, they really took your historical footnote of an ancestor and ran with it, huh ma’am?” Doggett ventured.

“Yeah, well, everybody gets pretty wasted at the get-together were the callsigns get handed out.”

Doggett and I nodded to each other. Of course.

“And, frankly, it could have been worse. They usually are. One guy in my first squadron wound up as ‘Shit Stain,’ for example.”

“Yeesh,” I breathed.

“Rough. Not as creepy as ‘Lullaby,’ at least,” Doggett pointed out.

“And not as depressing as ‘Taps,'” sighed the Skipper.

The Osprey’s rotors began their slow starting spins as the six grunts filed back out, unencumbered and blinking at the kicked-up dust.

“All right,” Butterfield sighed louder this time, her boots rustling the gritty ground as she turned away. “We’ve got work to do.”

“Like what, ma’am?” I asked earnestly.

“Damned if I know, but we gotta do it.”

That we did. Nearly two months of deployment remained ahead at that point but little of it turned out worth telling. Things stayed sad until rolling into predominantly boring and then, when we started turnover with the advance party (members of a unit who deploy ahead of their shipmates in order to liaise and coordinate with the unit they’re replacing) for our replacement team (who thanked us profusely and repeatedly for all our great work and then blamed us for every single fuckup they made over the first half of their deployment as is standard procedure), life got too busy to be much of anything else. Then we packed up our gear, chucked it into a series of aircraft across the world over a period of two weeks, and landed at last on the ugly, weed-lined tarmac of March Air Force Reserve Base (Riverside, California) one humid midnight.

From there another ugly, beat-up, run-down, rotten white bus drove us back to Las Pulgas to greet the dawn, a bedazzled  “Welcome Home” banner, and those others who remained significant. And so ended our madcap participation in OEF: twitching with impatience as we clambered off another rumbling, cramped, crummy vehicle surrounded by the big guns (M777A2 155mm howitzers) and rockets (M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems or HIMARS) in the heart of The Fleas.

 

 

 

BIO

Paul D. Mooney is an NYC born writer with pieces published in American Writers Review, The Big Jewel, three minute plastic, Task & Purpose, and more. You can see more of his work on his website, thewritepaulmooney.com, so long as he remembers to update it. He received a BS from BU, an MFA from SLC, and served four years in the USMC. He currently works as a copy editor at a marketing company and loves tacos, sailing, eating tacos while sailing, and his two cats (the dumb one and the fat one).

 

 

 

 

0

The Garden

by Leslie Boudreaux Tidwell

 

Thoris lay in his favorite tree and tried to remember his home as it had once been. He closed his eyes. Memories came and went as they pleased lately. On the days when thoughts could be summoned at will, Thoris tried to live slowly, letting each breath be its own morning, noon, and night.

There it was. Now he saw it. His forked tongue flickered on its own, already hunting for supper without him. But for now, his mind was still his mind, and the image of his old, perfect garden washed over him.

__

Everything in the garden–alive or not–had been special. It was how the Master worked. Thoris’ home tree was his favorite thing in the garden. In the morning, bark was green, soft, and new. At midday it was dark, rough, and brittle. Each night its dry branches leaned over and waited to be born again. It had lived hundreds of lives, each one a little different. Sometimes the leaves were greener, or more branches sprouted, or the fruit changed from small and red to fat and orange. Thoris memorized the detail of each life. It was the only thing in the garden that had to die, and he wanted to honor it.

At night, the Master spoke through the pores of every living thing. An instant before the sun disappeared, the garden would erupt with joyful humming. Every piece of creation served as an amplifier for his love. This love never translated to speech–at least not the tongue of the garden creatures. He remembered it as a dissonant, yet sweet song paired with the chattering of birds and the sigh of the woman when she felt sleepy. Sometimes the grass and leaves shivered, but he wasn’t sure if this meant the plants were being spoken through or were answering back.

After that chorus of heavenly noise, Thoris’ tree would die, and he would curl up to sleep, looking forward to its rebirth. He always chose the thickest branch as his resting place. It was the perfect spot to watch the sunrise. In the afternoon, after its leaves had come in fully, it provided plenty of shade for his afternoon nap. Somehow, the wood felt as soft as sheep’s wool.

It had felt that soft.

__

Snapping back to his current life, new corner of Thoris’ mind took hold. Eat. Hunt. Eat. He ignored the command to hunt–while he still could–and plucked a puny piece of fruit from a branch. He nibbled on it slowly, as mindfully as he could, and watched the sky. It was a clear day, but the sun felt hotter than usual.  Mice and lizards below him crept through the grass.  An urge seized him, and a chunk of fruit came rolling from his mouth. It painted his teeth like bloody flesh.

How effortless it would be with his speed and stealth to creep over and swallow them whole.

His eyes flashed from their normal yellow to black.  He shook his head and took another bite of fruit. Drops of dew leapt off the skin as he tore out large pieces to chew.  Not only did the fruit taste bitter this morning, but he could only bring the very edge of the surface to his mouth.  Most of it would have to be thrown away for the ants, or else he could place it on the ground and roll it around with his nose to reach the middle parts.  Thoris could no longer see his shriveling limbs. It would not be long.  Within a week, his legs would be completely gone.

Not only would he lose his legs, but he would completely lose the power to communicate with man.  That didn’t matter, though, for he had not seen the man in days.  He gazed off in the distance, and there stood the mighty creature appointed by their Master as a guard for all eternity.  It looked sort of like the man who had been born here; he had once been cloaked in that same light.  Unlike the man, this guardian’s eyes were not welcoming; nor were they cruel.  They seemed to be made of stone.  No newcomers were allowed, and the garden’s old tenants were slowly retreating to the new, frightening world.  It didn’t matter anymore where they lived now. The Master’s protection was gone.

Thoris could no longer stand the taste of the fruit. He rolled it off the branch with his nose and watched as one fly after another landed on it. His hunger gone, he waited for clarity to return to him. He tried again to remember the past, ignoring the raspy, cold thoughts that were creeping closer to the center of his being.

He thought about the day the announcement was made. It hissed out of the pores of every being like steam. Thoris remembered freezing in place as that heavenly noise came softly, sorrowfully, from him and every other creature and plant. The leaves of his tree rustled with the sound. The Master had spoken to them plainly. Thoris squeezed his eyes shut so tight that tears came out. Words were hard to remember. He focused on them. Cherished them. He begged them to come to his mind.

“We will try another way.  You beasts may stay or go, but you will not hear me for a while.”

“Where are you going, Master?”

“Ask the serpent.  The changes to come give me no pleasure, but something must be done.  This offense must be remembered.” 

“Serpent? Master, how have I offended?”

“It was not you, child. It was your neighbor.”
Thoris’ eyes flew open and flashed black again. His mouth opened in a twisted grin, and another word came to him. It felt similar to the word hunt. Kill. Kill. Kill him.

No. He shook himself so violently that he nearly fell from his branch. He steadied himself and spoke aloud. It hurt his throat.

“Olfrid. Cannot. Kill. Olfrid.”

The withering away of all serpents’ legs, the exile from their home, the fading away of music and thought… this was Olfrid’s doing. Those words, your neighbor, has blossomed into a vision from the Master. A final act of kindness. Thoris concentrated as hard as he could and asked for the vision again.

“If I see it again, perhaps it will stay with me when I am gone. Perhaps I won’t be completely lost.”

__

“The mornings come so quickly,” Olfrid grumbled as he crawled out of his hole. He hadn’t considered the inconvenience of an opening facing the east.

“The morning comes exactly when it must.” The answer came from the tree above him.

“Then why do I still feel sleepy, Thoris?”

“Because it’s time to eat. You’ll feel better after you’ve had breakfast. I was about

to go and pick fruit. Come with me.”

“I’ve eaten fruit with you so many times my teeth are stained red.”

“Such vanity, Olfrid,” Thoris teased. “Come on, the company will improve your mood.”

“If it’s all the same to you, neighbor, I’ll go for a little walk to wake up … get used to the light. Is it hotter than usual?” Thoris looked around and shook his head. Then he  descended from his branch and crept away.

‘I suppose I could cover the entrance at night,’ Olfrid thought as he walked away, eyeing the ground for fallen leaves.

The morning was damp and breezy. The grass sparkled and shook as he walked. It was almost too thick to move through. He spread the blades apart with his claws and lifted rocks with his pointed snout in search of leaves. The ground was perfectly clean–not even a speck of dirt out of place. He walked on, moving closer and closer to the end of the garden, to the place where trees got shorter and grass felt drier under his feet. Still no leaves.

Olfrid frowned. He had watched Thoris’ tree shed leaves in the late afternoon. Where did they go after they fell? Did they disappear into the ground? Were they carried away by the ants? Anyway, couldn’t he always climb a tree for leaves? But that doesn’t answer where the fallen ones go… He frowned and lowered his head to think.

The garden was home—a beautiful place. He enjoyed plentiful food, courteous neighbors, and a warm place to live. After a hard rain, he could count on the Master to open up the clouds and blanket him with warmth. The river provided him with cool water but also a place to admire himself. All creatures were proud of their looks, but Olfrid had a feeling that a little extra effort went into the serpents. Their scales were smooth and caught the sun’s light so nicely. He loved to look at himself in the water. His scales were large–much larger than Thoris’. They were a greenish brown with darker stripes wrapped around his body, with the occasional spot of white. His head looked noble, wide and pointed at the jaw narrowing to an upturned snout. His narrow eyes looked serious–the eyes of an intelligent creature. Many lazy afternoons were spent reflecting on these facts.

Olfrid also admired the beauty of his home and the grandeur of the evening song. It made him feel important. ‘Whoever made all of these things wants to speak with me,’ he would think. But the Master never waited to hear his words. As soon as the song was over, so was that feeling. That soft little squeeze near his heart and the buzzing of his mind returned to stillness. Peace. Absolute silence. Was it a satisfying silence? He could not say.

Olfrid’s body twitched again. New thoughts were making him feel uncomfortable, like the itch that came before shedding. But it wasn’t that familiar discomfort. When was the last time he had felt uncertain? Olfrid could not recall. When was the last time a question went beyond ‘where will I bathe today’ or ‘when will I have supper?’

Creatures for miles around might have heard Olfrid’s stomach rumbling, but he could no longer think of finding food. Instead, he spent a good part of the morning watching the treetops. He waited for the wind to pick up and make the branches whip wildly from side to side. Surely just one leaf would fall. Nothing. For some reason, this harmless leaf mystery had birthed questions that would never leave his mind as long as it was working.

‘Why have I never wondered before? About this or anything?’

He wanted to think about it more, to try and remember more about himself. Where had he begun? When had the garden begun? His heart squeezed. Then he felt another new discomfort. His stomach cramped painfully in a way he had never experienced.

‘Better to think about this later,’ he thought.

Berry bushes and fruit trees surrounded him, and a variety of tasty root vegetables were hidden underground. He only needed to scrape the earth gently, and one would appear. But none of these things sounded good to him at the moment. After half-heartedly prodding at the dirt, Olfrid decided to wander closer to the border. Maybe there would be something new to try there. He would put up with this growing discomfort and observe how it made him feel. The urgency was a little frightening but exciting at the same time.

‘I need to find food. Need?’

 It was a word he’d never used. The Master used it when he lay down rules. They needed to share with one another. They needed to sleep at night and give the garden time to rest and revive. They needed to stay away from… he could not remember.

Stay away from what?

Olfrid met the stranger at the garden’s edge. He was sitting on a large rock just inches away from the grass, and a violet robe was draped over his gaunt form. Beyond the stranger lay an expanse of orange and brown earth with a few scrub bushes poking out of the ground. Though Olfrid felt a breeze on his skin, it did not reach the land beyond the garden. None of the sick plants moved, nor did the stranger’s long hair. It was like looking at the pictures that the man drew for his woman in the dirt.

The stranger’s head was in his hands, and his shoulders were bobbing up and down. Olfrid recognized this. The man had done this on the nights before his woman was created. The noise was never heard in the garden after that, but he remembered what the Master had named it.

“Why are you crying?” Olfrid asked.

The figure startled. Then, after a pause:

“I am crying because I have no home.”

“How terrible. Would you like to live in the garden?”

“That garden is not mine,” he said.

“But it could be yours as well. There are creatures like you here.”

“They are not like me,” muttered the stranger.

“But they are.  They walk on thick legs.  They have fur on top of their heads.  They talk loudly and have long fingers,” Olfrid wiggled his own stubby fingers to demonstrate.

“Can they fly?”

“Why, I’ve never seen them fly.” Olfrid reared back on his hind feet, staring at the man with interest. “Can you fly?”

“I could once,” said the stranger, touching his shoulder tenderly.

“What happened?”

The man turned away from the serpent, refusing to speak.  Two holes in his robe revealed the parallel scars on his back.  Olfrid cringed at the shapes which did not seem to belong.  The wounds gave off a foreign stench, and the edges were moist and sticky.  At that moment, Olfrid realized the stone he had been sitting upon was also red. This substance looked like berry juice, but it smelled like something else. It smelled like Thoris’ tree at the end of the day, like the end of life.

“Those marks are not good,” Olfrid said, though he could not say why.

“No. I had wings there once. They were ripped from by body and torn to pieces.” The stranger returned to softly sobbing.

“Who did this to you?”  he asked, taking a single step forward.

At this, the man snarled and stared greedily at the garden. “The Master of your home did this to me. The tyrant. He saw my power and ripped it from me.”

Olfrid stepped away from the man and his venomous words.  He had heard from the Master that lies were a like a disease.  The stranger in violet scoffed at this reaction and looked down upon the animal.

“So he’s fooled you as well.”

“Quiet!” said Olfrid.  Don’t you know he can hear everything?”

“I do know.  Doesn’t that frighten you? How can you abide someone rattling around in your brain?”

“I’ve done nothing wrong and have nothing to fear. But if he hears you lying—”

“He tolerates lies,” the stranger leaned closer, clenching the parched earth.  “What he hates is the truth.”

“The master only wants us to tell the truth,” Olfrid recited.

“We can only tell what we think is the truth.  If the real truth is never given, we can claim innocence, even if what we say is a lie.”

Olfrid fell back on all four legs and lowered his head to the ground.  He frowned.  It was a strange feeling when words made sense in his mind but felt bad to hear.  Stranger still, the words reminded him of his own worries. His stomach churned.

“Don’t be afraid, now.  I have learned many secrets,” he crept closer now, inching toward the grass but never touching it.  “I could tell you the truth about your Master—about many things.”

“You—You’re a bad creature!  That’s why you’ve been punished!”  And with that dismissal, he ran away as quickly as he could.

__

Thoris felt ashamed.  He had stumbled upon this conversation during his morning walk.  He could have stopped his neighbor.  I didn’t know it was my responsibility, he said, knowing that the Master would hear but would not answer. He had gone home with a resolve to speak up if he saw the stranger again–to protect his friend Olfrid from the dangerous words of this intruder. But the pleasing sights and sounds of the garden had distracted him. That evening had been so lovely. He thought of that time while his memory still functioned.

__

A flock of white cranes made elegant shadows against the canvas of dusk. A black female serpent crossed his path–one with whom he had hoped to mate. She chose a smaller male with shiny yellow scales that rivaled the sun. They still smiled at one another and behaved cordially. There was no need for jealousy in this land filled with gifts. If he was meant to have offspring, the Master would also provide a companion for him. Perhaps the black serpent didn’t enjoy berries and the evening music as much as he. Perhaps the Master would mold a sweet and friendly creature from his own claw or one of his scales, much like the human’s mate.

Thoris loved the woman. Some days were veiled in vague feelings of contentment, but her birth was as clear to him as the first day he felt breath rushing into his lungs. He recalled her immediate affection and curiosity for everything around her. Her first question to the man was about his favorite place in the garden. The man obliged, taking her hand and walking her to a brook filled with silvery fish and swaying reeds. She scooped up her first mouthful of water and laughed her first laugh, unable to contain the fullness of those first moments. Then they walked together, reviewing the names of things. Unsatisfied with calling every serpent ‘serpent,’ and every deer ‘deer,’ the woman moved her mouth around to get accustomed to her language. Then she named them–she gave every creature a second name so they could be more like her and the man. Thoris cherished his name and the love he received from the woman.

There was so much to be grateful for and so much to do, Thoris thought as he climbed the dry, peeling wood of his dying tree. The leaves fell and curled themselves tighter and tighter until they were nothing. But he did not notice this. He was too busy reveling in the song and smacking down the last of his berries. Tomorrow would come just at the right moment, and he would go about his normal day. And there was something else that he would do. Something very important. What was it? Well, no matter. He would remember, precisely when he was meant to.

 

The following morning, Olfrid and his new companion were debating again. Thoris had forgotten his task and was far away, making the woman laugh with a song about beetles.

__

Again you call me a bad creature,” the stranger rolled a stone between his thumb and forefinger, sounding very bored. “It is not bad to oppose slavery.”

Slavery.  It wasn’t a word that anyone in the garden knew.  The part of Olfrid that loved the Master begged him to run away, to find a branch in the cool shade and never think of the stranger again.  But instead he allowed a trance to take him.  Slavery.  The word made his head ache a little.  The sound left a foul incense around him.  It sounded as wicked as a lie.

“What is that?”

“Slavery?” The stranger flicked the stone away and spread his arms wide.

“Slavery is this garden.  Slavery is what keeps his voice in your head.   I know, because I lived by his side.  I have seen what you’ve never seen.”

“You’ve seen the Master?”

“I have.  Even when I could not see him, I felt him.  There was no rest.  When I tried to drive his voice from my mind for one moment—when I tried to remove him from my heart just for an instant, he devoured my strength and cast me out.  My old friends chased me from home.  Some followed me, but they are even more mutilated and powerless than I.”

“And… their wings are gone, too?”

“No one here may have wings.”

Olfrid didn’t speak for a long time. “You think you’ve been wronged. You think you’ve been punished unfairly. You seem to be truthful. But this is more than I’ve ever had to think of in my life.”

He’s seen to that.”

“But all he wants is to be near us. Why try and be apart from someone who loves you and provides for you?”

“To know which thoughts are mine!” When the stranger’s voice raised, it sounded like a crackling fire. The air felt warmer around him. “To have one moment’s peace! Don’t you ever wonder?  Don’t you ever wish to know which decisions are truly yours?”

“I … don’t think of that.”

“Because he won’t let you.” For the first time, the stranger reached out for his companion. He gripped the serpent’s limb, and Olfrid thought he felt a searing pain upon his scales. When he pulled back, there were no scars, but the sensation remained.

“I can’t listen to you anymore.  These are all lies.  They’re lies!”

“Talk to the master tonight,” he called as the serpent made his escape.  “Don’t depend on my words! Find out for yourself!”

Olfrid crept away, almost free.  That night, he could not feel the Master singing through him. Instead, whispers of doubt circled him and kept him from sleeping.  By morning, his mind was neither his nor the master’s.  The garden’s little pleasures failed to satisfy him as they did when something small troubled his mind.  These new worries were so much greater than anything else in the garden—so much greater than a splinter in his foot or a cloud of dirt in his drinking water.  It felt like prickles in his chest.  Olfrid shifted from side to side until there was nothing to do but sit, and that didn’t help either.

The stars and moon were all pointed at him, staring, asking him questions.  What troubles you?  Why are you afraid? Whom do you seek?

“Is it true?” he asked aloud.

The lights of the night sky gazed back, unmoved.  Olfrid could not remember what the master’s song sounded like.

Every sunset ritual felt as distant as the birth of the world.

“I just want to hear you say it,” he pleaded many nights after. “Just once.  Say he’s lying.  I’ll believe you.  I’ll believe whatever you tell me. Just once. Aloud.”

Olfrid returned to the edge of the garden after days of waiting.  The stranger was not there.  He stared at the desolation, gently moving one toe towards the wasteland beyond his home.  He searched for green in the distance, but there was none.  The serpent could not imagine surviving there.  Moreover, he could not imagine an offense terrible enough for such a prison.  He had nearly disappeared into the brush when a voice emerged from the dead world.  There stood the stranger. His robes looked cleaner than before. His shoulders, straight and strong.

“Did he speak to you?”

Olfrid had many questions, but the sick feeling in his stomach told him to run.

“Leave me alone.  Stay away.”

“I am away,” he said, sitting down on the same rock where Olfrid had found him. It was also cleaner, the blood washed away.  “I thought I made it clear before that I won’t harm you. Now … Did. He. Speak. To. You?

“He … he didn’t,” Olfrid wanted to cry. “It was so strange.”

“And how did you feel?” He clasped his hands together and cocked his head. Listening.

“I felt … covered in mud. Buried.”

“And free,” the stranger clenched his fist, claiming a victory that Olfrid was not sure of.

“I feel sick.” The serpent lowered his head.

The stranger made a soothing, clicking sound with his tongue. Olfrid thought he’d heard an ape make this sound when its baby was chattering and fussing late at night. He drew back but could not turn away from this man who was not quite a man. The words the followed kept him in place.

“It’s odd at first,” he admitted, “but what you experienced was not a bad thing.  You challenged him, and he surrendered.” The stranger lifted his arms towards the sky.  “You … bested him.”

“He didn’t speak to me because he knows I was talking to you.” It was the first time Olfrid could truly admit his guilt. He stared at the grass–the grass that was still his if he wanted to walk upon it.

“Do not fear him, my little friend. Now that you know what I know, I’ve come to share another secret with you.”

“What can you tell me? I know what you are.  You doubted him and so have I, and now he’s sent you to live in a world with no life.” Olfrid panicked, stricken with a new realization.  ”It’s what he’s going to do to me. It’s why I can’t hear him!” He threw himself to the ground. If he begged, could he be forgiven?

“No life?” The stranger laughed for the first time. It wasn’t the quiet scoffing sound that Olfrid was used to. His voice was full of excitement.  “My friend, you haven’t seen all the corners of my home. I’ve explored it myself.”  He pointed out past the dusty hills. “Believe me, there is life. There is food. There is water. There is music sweeter than the Master’s. And best of all…”

Olfrid felt another pull. “What’s the best of all?”

“Everyone there has the Master’s eyes … the Master’s voice … the Master’s mind. Everyone is his own king.” The stranger’s lean arms and long fingers painted an idyllic picture in the air.

“How do I know you’re telling the truth?”

“Unlike the Master, I am happy to show you.” He was leaning towards Olfrid now, his voice small and secretive. “I only need you to help me first.”

Olfrid thought for a long time. He sniffed the air, looked back at the greenery, and waited for a breeze to hit his face. Any sign. In those moments, he gave the Master one more chance. If he is bad, tell me. I’ll believe you. When no answer came, he walked forward, lengthened his neck, and spoke:

“What do you want me to do for you?”

“I am afraid for the man and woman who live here. You can help free them. You

can go where I cannot,” he whispered.

“How can we free them?” Olfrid asked, matching the stranger’s voice.

“I remember when your home was created. The Master warned his children of a place they should never go. Do you know this place?”

“The tree,” Olfrid pointed at the garden, stretching his arm as far as it would go to suggest a long distance. “The one in the center of the garden.”

The Master often sang images of that tree into his creations’ heads. With it came woeful melodies and dark colors. Thoris had nearly chosen it as his home, but its trunk could not be climbed. Though its bark appeared coarse and covered in knots, to an animal it felt as slippery as the slime-covered stones in the water.

“That’s it. I’m sure he never told you why it was forbidden,” said the stranger.

“He only said it would harm us.”

“Why would he put something harmful in your home?” Another question to turn Olfrid’s stomach and make his feet feel restless.

“I never thought about it.” How many times had he said or thought those words recently?

“Think about it now,” the stranger pressed. “Think hard.” Now he was inches away from the serpent’s face. Without realizing, Olfrid had inched closer and closer to the garden’s boundaries. One claw had crossed that line and rested on the stone.

“I don’t know. I can’t. I just… I don’t feel well,” Olfrid said, his head swimming. Suddenly hot and thirsty, he gasped and drew back on his hind legs. The one traitorous claw backed away. The heat of the outside land left him feverish after barely one touch.

“Stay with me!” He reached out to Olfrid. The impatience in his voice might have betrayed the gentleness in his eyes of the serpent hadn’t felt so ill. “Stay strong. I have felt what you are feeling. It will pass.”

“My chest,” Olfrid gasped, a tear rolling down his scales. “Something is squeezing inside me.”

“Yes. It hurts,” the stranger purred, inching closer.

“Why does it hurt?” His legs bent and twisted from the pain. He curled up, his tail close to his snout. He closed his eyes tightly. Does the hurt come in through the eyes? The discomfort of hunger could not compare; it would have felt like a shallow splinter now. Tell me the truth and I’ll listen,” Olfrid begged. Tell me to run and I’ll run. I’ll never return to this place. The stranger watched the serpent’s eyes searching past the clouds, past the sky, past infinity.

“You’re dying,” said the stranger. His words were like a lullaby now.

“What is dying?” The word tasted like that other word. Slavery. Olfrid wanted to rub his tongue in the dirt after speaking it.

“Dying… is what’s inside of the fruit,” he said, stroking Olfrid’s back. The stranger’s hands looked smooth like the man’s but felt like the old bark of Thoris’ tree in the evening, and cold as the morning stream. “You were able to bring yourself to this moment without the magic of the fruit. Few can. Dying is good. It is the end of powerlessness. Your body and soul stops, and then you awaken a king. Like me.”

“I don’t like it,” Olfrid squirmed at the stranger’s touch. He pulled away.  “I don’t like it!”

“Take my hand. Now I will tell you. The Master thought for a long time about it—about whether his creatures should have his powers. It was fear that stopped him. If he shared his power, he would no longer be needed. Do you see? Do you see what your Master is now?” The stranger stretched out his hands towards the serpent.

“I don’t like this,” Olfrid repeated, breathing more heavily. “I don’t want this!”

Olfrid had known the stranger for only a few days. In the garden, that was enough time to love someone. This creature was more confusing. He seemed to know when Olfrid felt fearful or uncertain. Was that not like the Master? Didn’t he also know the minds of his creations? But what good was that knowledge if he ignored Olfrid’s pleas? Would the Master ever answer his children’s call? Would more of the Master’s children wake up wondering why they had never wondered before? Or would he be lonely in the garden forever, yawning through conversations of fruit and weather?

What happened next shocked the serpent, because it was so unlike his new companion. The stranger took Olfrid in his arms and cradled him. He suddenly felt as warm as the Master’s song. The roughness of his skin disappeared, or at least it no longer mattered. This was the answer Olfrid had craved. Every caress was an answer to his call for love, for attention, for acknowledgment. I am a living being. I have begun to wonder. Show me that you hear me. Show me that you understand. Answer me. In one motion, the dying creature’s doubt washed away.

“I am with you,” whispered the stranger. “Let the death come. It will soon be over. Then you and I will save the world from slavery.”

“Slavery.” The word made him die faster. “Death… will save me from slavery?”

Now a sweet taste filled his mouth.

“It is the only solution.” Gently spoken, simple answers. Olfrid accepted them hungrily. He relaxed his body and nestled in the soft robes of his master.

Olfrid felt a final spasm in his chest. It spread to his limbs, tail, and head. He felt something like spiders crawling around in his skull. A song rose up from his heart, a terrible song made of shattering and screeching. The noises scraped at his ears and eyelids. Flashes of coherence exploded amid the madness. Words. Lost. Death. Never. Betrayed. Soon, the noise and pain retreated like a wave, and Olfrid opened his newborn eyes.

The garden was as red as his new master’s back. He looked out to the lifeless world and saw a halo beyond the hills that had once been invisible. For a moment Olfrid was sure he could hear music. Different music. Vibrant, straightforward music with rhythm and words. He turned back to the redness and saw Thoris’ head poking out of a bush, but his neighbor looked different. There was a vibrating silver chain around his neck that had never been there–or that he had never noticed.

“What is that thing he wears, master?” Olfrid asked.

“What you see is a shackled beast,” the stranger hissed. Shall we free him as well?” The stranger’s voice sent Thoris running.

“This is slavery? This is what I did not see?”

“This is it, my friend,” he said, petting Olfrid’s head. “You finally see. You will free the man and woman, and then we will claim our kingdom. Go. Go into the garden while you still can.”

Olfrid hopped out of the stranger’s arms and into the tall grass. The ground felt hot, and a dusty wind pushed him in the direction of the dry world. Still, he was able to struggle against the unseen current. Thoris found him bounding out of the brush moments later and spoke to him frantically.

“Olfrid!  Olfrid! What did he say? What did he do? What’s the matter with your eyes?”

“My eyes? My eyes and everything else are new. I have been reborn by dying.”

“Re–” Thoris did not know the word. There is only birth. How could anyone be born again? Like my tree?… best not to think about it. “You look the same except… there is something missing when I look at you. I can’t find… something.” Thoris struggled as Olfrid once had, and Olfrid felt pity. “Please. Tell me exactly what he told you.”

“I cannot explain to a beast who has never wondered,” said the newly awakened Olfrid.

The reborn serpent looked into the face of his old friend and saw a stupid animal. Thoris’ words were like the single-minded babble of a stream running towards the open water. The shackle around his old friend’s neck made him want to cry, but then pity turned into disgust.  How could anyone be this blind? How had he ever lived like that? He pushed past the beast and ran towards the center of the garden.

__

The time had come. Something like a breeze was pushing all of the creatures out of the garden and into the barren world of punishment. Thoris marched along in rhythm with another serpent beside him, a female. They usually said good morning to one another, but today, he could not find that word. And anyway, her eyes were completely blackened. She is still a good female, he thought. I should find her whenever we settle. I will take her as my mate. Before he could move closer, another, larger serpent came from behind and nudged her forward. For a moment, his anger flared, and the word kill rose up in him.

“I am here. I’m still here. Forgive me,” Thoris said to the sky as he shook the thoughts away. “Forgive me.” He moved obediently with the current with his eyes on the ground. After days of uncertainty, the Master’s wishes were finally being set into motion. Birds flew toward the gray horizon. Trails of insects filed out onto the sand. The wails of the man and woman rang out as their bare feet touched the hot ground. Thoris could have fought the wind that pushed him away. It was more of a whisper than a shout, but he felt he should display obedience. Perhaps there was a chance for forgiveness. And if not…   A thought came to him.

“Master, just one more night in my beloved tree. Please.”

The wind pressed on a moment longer, then it stopped, and then it changed direction.

He bowed his head and crept home, plucking a berry here and there. They were bitter and made him feel sick. He could not get to sleep until he vomited them up again.

Other creatures were with him in the night. A wolf paced beneath him as the sun rolled away. It hoped that he would fall from his branch. Thoris had never been hunted before, but somehow he recognized the look of a hunter immediately.  I am like you, he wanted to say to the wolf. We hunt. We kill. The part of himself that was disappearing fought back. He listened for the music, for a voice, for the any pleasing residue that could sustain his mind.  There was no music, only the rustling of sleepless living things.

When the wolf gave up and prowled away, there came the serpent and a female. They had also decided to sleep in the garden. His female. He had not taken her as a mate, but she knew. She knew that she was his.  She knew and he knew, and she is using him to anger you. Show her you are strong enough for this new life.

Thoris woke up with the lifeless body of his rival under his foot. A red river cut its path in the dirt. His female had fled. He licked his lips and felt a quick pain. Slowly and carefully, he ran his tongue around the inside of his mouth and felt something small and sharp. He poked around with his finger, felt a sting, and then curled up his little body.

I cannot stop this? Your desire is for me to kill?  Master, I’ll venture to any corner of the world if you’ll save me from these desires. Master, can you hear me?

The mist thickened. He couldn’t breathe without coughing. While words were still with him, he thought of all the ways he could make amends. When an idea came to him, it immediately dissolved into nonsense.

In the morning, Thoris couldn’t wait to open his eyes and watch his tree come to life. He stared at the shriveled leaves and black bark. The sun kept rising, a handful of leftover birds chirped, but the tree would not awaken. In fact, as the sun climbed, the branches bowed even lower. Leaves turned to dust when touched by the wind. The wind. Thoris could not recognize the word, but he could feel it on his back, pointing him towards his new home. His new home filled with hunters, blood, and no words.

Olfrid and Thoris crossed paths many times after the garden’s end, though they didn’t always know. Most days, they reared back and struck at one another with their dripping fangs filled with a death less potent than the stranger’s. On rare days, Thoris could remember flashes of the old times, and he wished he could not. On these mornings, he could only remember his and Olfrid’s last meeting as thinking, speaking creatures:

__

“Where is your friend now?” Thoris asked as he stumbled toward his neighbor.

He was still adjusting to his new body.  Olfrid said nothing.  “Where are your songs as sweet as the Master’s? Where are your all-seeing eyes?” he demanded.

Thoris trembled at the dead, black marbles inside the slowly emptying head of his old friend. Olfrid slinked away, fixated on something else. He coiled up and watched a nearby mouse who sat bobbing upon a stone, as if thinking of a song.  “Olfrid, don’t—” But before he could finish the plea, Olfrid had stricken and swallowed it. Then, with a flicker of his fiery tongue, he slithered away.

 

 

 

 

BIO

Leslie Boudreaux Tidwell is a native of Lafayette, LA and lives there with her husband, Jake. When she is not teaching third graders or performing in one of her improv troupes, Leslie spends her private time writing and submitting short stories. In the 2019 NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge, she was awarded Honorable Mention for her crime caper, “Jane the Brain.” In her classroom, Leslie prioritizes writing instruction and aims to mold a new generation of authors who are excited to share their work with the world.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

0

 

Hung from a Mitzvah Cross

by Mark Tulin

 

April 6, 1968, was the day they tried to make me into a man.  I remember the menagerie of Jewish images that filled the synagogue that morning:  The Star of David shining through a big circular window on the ceiling, a man with curly sidelocks blowing the shofar, the Torah’s ancient scroll being unfurled by a young boy in a suit, worshipers rocking back and forth in prayer, and a white horse flying through the sky engraved in Hebrew lettering.

Despite this surreal moment, the day was not pleasurable. I wasn’t prepared to become a man.  I just wanted to be a goofy kid in short pants, a T-shirt, and Hi-Top PF Flyers.

I didn’t understand the custom nor liked the fact that I would have to get up in front of a room full of people and read an ancient language.

The barrel-chested rabbi with his thick black book called me to the podium.     “Marvin Hopper,” he said. “The only son of Mr. and Mrs. Hopper, please come forth.”

Maybe I should have practiced my Hebrew more. The tutor, Mr. Hershey, came over Grandma Edna’s house every Tuesday night, six-sharp. I spent an agonizing hour with a man I’d rather not know. While learning about my Jewish heritage was interesting, trying to pronounce Hebrew words was not.  I’d much rather be outside with my friends, swinging a baseball bat than being cooped up in the living room with a man who smelled of garlic.

I blamed the whole bar mitzvah debacle on Grandma Edna.  She wanted me to become a man in the worst way. She kept telling me that this is what Jewish people have done for centuries, and I was not going to “screw up” such a beautiful tradition.

Mr. Hershey, with his duct-taped bifocals and sparse hair, stood over me during our Hebrew lessons. He wore a white sleeveless shirt, revealing his ape-like arms. The bushy arm hair traveled all the way from his neck to the middle of his fingers.  All I could think about was how hairy his arms were and not the Hebrew lesson I was supposed to be doing.

Grandma was in the kitchen boiling eggs and chopping onions for tuna fish salad. The grinding sound of the electric can opener signaled to me that she was prying open a can of Star-Kist White Albacore.

Although I was grateful for Mr. Hershey’s help, I was hungry for a tuna fish sandwich on toast with a slice of tomato.

“Chhhah,” Mr. Hershey said, making a guttural sound with his mouth wide open.  “Like Challah.”

“Chhalah,” I said.

“Now close the back of your throat as if you were going to cough up some phlegm.”

“Chhalah,” I said more forcefully.

“Good boy,” he smiled and handed me a tissue to wipe the phlegm from my lips.

Eventually, I was able to say, Barukh atah Adonai, Eloheinu, melekh ha ‘olam without too much struggle.

I repeated the words over and over, hoping that some noble truth would click. I’d go to sleep reciting these words and dreaming about them as if they were people.

The longer I sat with Mr. Hershey, the more he perspired a garlicky odor.  It wasn’t the worst smell I ever encountered, but bad enough. I kept watching the cuckoo clock on top of the television console, hoping that the mechanical bird would pop out to notify me that I could unloosen my hands from the mitzvah cross and run for freedom.

On the day of the big event, I sat near the podium, scanning the crowd, watching my aunts, uncles, cousins, and friends nervously crumple the napkins with my name printed on it.  They waited in quiet anticipation for me to give them something to cheer about.  I hoped that they would be forgiving when I embarrassed myself.  My leather tefillin, silk prayer shawl, and plush yarmulke could not hide the fact that I was a bar mitzvah boy fraud and had no idea what I was doing.

An old man wearing a black trench coat with a long, flowing beard caught my eye at the buffet table. He stuffed his deep coat pockets with prune hamantasch, rye bread, and assorted meats.  He took a bottle of Manischewitz Concord and promptly put that into his pocket as well. I wrote him off as nothing more than an employee of the synagogue who was just doing his job.

The rabbi spoke a few words to open the service.  I secretly prayed that he’d forget that I was to his left and proceed with a regular Shabbat service without me.  But then he mentioned my name and the bar mitzvah in the same sentence, and I knew that I was doomed.

Once at the podium, I looked out into the crowd of staring faces and froze.

Seeing my wide-eyed stupor, the rabbi sneaked behind me and whispered, “Read these three lines in Hebrew. I’ll take over from there.”

I took a gulp of air, and this time I was all right.

I uttered the three lines of Hebrew, not worrying if I pronounced them correctly.  Most of my family members didn’t know a lick of Hebrew, so they wouldn’t know the difference between a good reading and a bad one.

When I finished my three lines, the crowd applauded like I just gave the Gettysburg Address.

The rabbi led a song in Hebrew, and everyone in the place was bobbing back and forth in their seats trying to repeat the words.

After the ceremony, my father stepped to the podium in his Florsheim boots and polyester suit and gave me and a giant hug.

“My little bar mitzvah boy,” he said, and gave my neck a squeeze for good measure.

Rich Uncle Sy didn’t say a word as he handed me a white envelope. He just winked.

My cousins, Hermie and Jacob, congratulated me with awkward handshakes, then nudged by Aunt Joanie to hand me their envelopes.

Grandma Edna, with her head full of hairspray, planted a sloppy kiss on my cheek while she stuck a lime-green envelope in my hand.

My alcoholic, Uncle Leo, was sleeping in the back of the synagogue with one hand in his pants and the other holding a card with a check inside.

My mother snatched all the envelopes out of my hand and put them in an old cigar box that she saved from elementary school.

As the rest of the family and friends congratulated me, I felt like I had truly accomplished something, even though it was only three lines of Hebrew.  For the next hour, we ate sandwiches, potato salad, and drank Pepsi. Uncle Dave from Shamokin played the accordion, and his son Louis played the snare drum. I was happy that everyone was having fun even though I didn’t like Polka music. In another few hours, I could remove my suit and tie and act like none of this ever happened.

“Where’s the box?!”  Where’s the box?!” my mother screamed, breaking up the festivity.

“I put all the envelopes in the cigar box—now it’s gone!” she cried.

“Where did you have it last?” my father asked.

“Right here, on the chair for Christ sakes!”

“Please, honey, you can’t say Christ in a synagogue. Are you sure you didn’t leave it in the lady’s room?”

“No, it was right on this chair—now it’s gone!”

My mother was very organized, especially when it came to money.  She would never misplace something so important.

The rabbi went to console my mother, who, by now, had worked herself into a full-blown panic attack.

I stood near the podium, looking at everyone in their suits and fancy dresses searching for the cigar box. Rays of light shone down from the big circular Star of David in the ceiling window. The mosaic of the white horse on the wall seemed to glimmer from the sun. Then I remembered the old man with the long, flowing beard.

“Rabbi!” I said, tugging the back of his sport jacket.  “There was a strange old man with a long white beard who hung around the buffet table, shoveling food and wine into his coat pockets.”

“Old man?”

“Yes, he wore a long black overcoat, a big dark hat covering his eyes, and had a white beard that came to his chest.  I thought he worked for the synagogue.”

The rabbi scratched his neatly-cropped goatee, trying to think who I was talking about.

“I don’t know anyone by that description, Marvin.  He certainly didn’t work here.”

After thirty-minutes or so everyone calmed down.  My family figured out that most of the money was in the form of a check.  And all they had to do was cancel the checks and write me out new ones.

Uncle Leo finally woke up and took his hand out of his pants.  “What’s all the commotion?” he asked.

Everyone laughed because they knew that my Uncle Leo was a hopeless drunk and out of the loop. The rabbi motioned people to get back to their seats because he wanted to make an announcement.

“I’m so sorry that this happened.  The thief will be reported, I can assure you.  Let us not concern ourselves with him any longer.  What has happened on the podium today far outweighs what one individual might have done to dampen our celebration.  There’s a young man to my left who needs all of our love and support as he continues his journey into adulthood.  It is all our jobs to see that he becomes a moral and responsible person in society—to harness his intellect, emotions, and actions in the service of God.  It is he that is our priority. Today he took the first step.”

“Such a young man!”  “So handsome and mature!”  I heard people shout out.

Everyone was so proud of me, but the only thing I thought about was that in another few hours I could take off my Glenn plaid bar mitzvah suit and cordovan wing-tips and go back to being a regular kid.

 

 

BIO

Mark Tulin is a former family therapist who lives in Santa Barbara, California. He has a poetry chapbook, Magical Yogis, published by Prolific Press (2017), and he has an upcoming book of short stories entitled, The Asthmatic Kid and Other Stories. His stories and poetry have appeared in Fiction on the Web, smokebox, Friday Flash Fiction, Amethyst Magazine, Leaves of Ink, Vita Brevis, among others. His website is Crow On The Wire <http://www.crowonthewire.com/ >

 

 

 

 

 

 

0

A Semblance

by Mateusz Tobola

 

 

Prologue

She was a creature of instinct, a being of distilled focus and unbridled appetite. She was determination personified, and she was a seething storm of desire. She was many conflicting things, but above all, she was whole.

Perched atop a low-hanging spruce twig – her favourite spot, she waited, seemingly idly. Hours went by, and with them came an unrelenting downpour, before she finally took notice of something worthy of her attention. Or perhaps it was just the hunger and weather that finally got to her. In the grand scheme of this particular late-autumn day, the trigger didn’t really matter.

Her body twitched, ever so slightly, as her focus eagerly shifted from the dead surroundings of her realm to the lone, chaotic movement in the air. The traveler was clearly weary, and looking for shelter, but in her mind – the prey was marked, and blissfully unaware of her presence. She enjoyed that part. The moth circled around the branches of an adjacent pine, frantically dodging the last of the subsiding rain, before it finally settled down against the mossy side of the trunk in exhaustion, a faint glow of fluorescent mushroom below. There, it would safely rest before further journey.

Plenty of that would be granted, soon.

It was a short trek, and one she was anxious to take. She retracted along the shaky sprig, and swiftly disappeared into the thick of needles, faint rustle of leaves the only proof of her existence as she made her way down her outpost. The wet mulch between the trees did little to hinder her silent approach, and before long she was scaling the opposite side of the pine. The climb up was a test of patience. She could easily discern the moth’s seductive movements coming from the other side.

Amateurish. Careless. Sweet.

She quickly reached well above her mark and coiled along a thick, curvy branch. There was little tactical advantage to be gained, she was well aware, but she was still a slave to her whim – and watch she must. The moth had spread itself flat against the tree and continued to remain stubbornly oblivious. Its dusty, scale wings were in full display, naked, and she could not help but admire them, if only for a bit. It was a tapestry of shape and dim colours, a flowing image she could not hope to imitate, only enhanced by the ever-present moisture in the air. Before she would take the moth’s life – the spider tilted its head rapaciously to the side – yes, she would take it all in, too.

She followed further up, around the trunk, and directly above her inattentive guest, before she even started closing in. Each step she took from this point on was graceful and calculated. She was soon barely inches away, blending into the moist bark just above her meal with astounding ease, when she suddenly broke her advance. The moth was well within reach, yet she remained motionless, each limb perfectly still – a fleshy extension of the unswerving focus she bestowed upon her target. In that moment alone, the moth was special. And from that moment on, it was all part of a dance. What she really yearned for, however, was a participating partner.

She tapped her heel just once against the damp of the bark, and bared her fangs raw in budding anticipation – a smile, really. It didn’t take long for her unwitting partner to take the cue, and the grisly festivities to commence. The moth finally realized the peril it was in, but it was a realization hatched far too late. Within half a flick of its wings as it desperately tried to break free, the moth was no more, cuddled oh-so lovingly in the spider’s embrace.

Day 1

A sweet, sickly scent brought her out of a long, cold slumber. An unfamiliar element had taken root in her domain during her absence and now shamelessly teased her senses. She was well sated and comfortable, curled up deep in the safety of her nest, but a familiar blend of anger and curiosity washed over her. She started for the surface.

She cleared the entrance to her mound of the remnants of season past, and confidently peered out, as she did countless times before. In an instant, a barrage of threatening sounds assaulted her. And what followed shortly was a shattering earthquake, one her fragile frame could barely handle. Somewhere in the distance, a tree fell under heavy onslaught of steel and muscle.

Her poise broken, she took a step back. But her curious nature would not be easily swayed. She emerged again, with unprecedented caution this time, and took a quick survey of her surroundings. No immediate threat was spotted, and she quickly realized she needed to get higher. The neighbouring pine served the purpose well, and high up the tree, she understood – her realm had changed. The sea of foliage she remembered so vividly was unmistakably thinner, and the towering, almighty trees, far fewer in number. There was a growing commotion coming in from a glade not far up ahead, filled with growls of hungry steel and animated by a stir of rising voices.

Her mind was racing.

She dropped to the ground and darted across the slowly waking plains, quickly closing in to the edge of the clearing. A small rock formation provided a temporary shelter, but for the first time in her adult life she found herself hesitant to advance. She pushed through the uncomfortable sensation with mounting disregard, and forced herself atop a flat slab of stone overlooking the site. What she saw gave her a pause.

The camp was bustling with life. Gargantuan figures going on about their business, yelling and pointing at each other as they carved the glade a bit wider with each command. Their loud tools did not know rest, it seemed, and the recognizable sickly-sweet scent of labour filled the air. There was a purpose to all of that, she quickly picked up, and the seeming disarray of movement and noise hid something far more sinister under the surface – a working structure. Chunks of the forest were ripped from their rightful places, dismantled on the spot with startling efficiency, and their carcasses hastily dragged in pieces back into the heart of the camp, only to be thrown next to a similar pile. Then, the process would repeat until another area was cleared. The more she observed, the more evident it became – her kingdom had a new master. And she watched for hours.

As the sun started setting down, a sharp, piercing sound cut the air – a herald of a day coming to a close. One by one, the woodsmen abandoned their posts for a promise of rest. And as she watched the titans retire for the night, and their tools grow silent, her calm renewed, as did her desire to return home.

Day 4

The earth trembled a bit more today. Like greedy fingers, the vibrations reached deep into the ground, and shook the foundations of her lair. But she was already awake. Ever since she had scouted the glade, rest eluded her, and thoughts of relocation intensified. The past few days saw the felling advance in all directions from the clearing. The tremors became more frequent, and the hours at which they occured bolder, stretching well into late night now. She had her extremities pressed tightly against the soft soil of one of the tunnels leading to the surface, and dared to miss nothing from above. Least of all the slowly growing, unnerving hum at ground level she just picked up.

Perhaps she should as the next thundering wave came in with a force unmatched. The tunnel contorted and the earth above her gave way to an avalanche of soil and gravel. Panic struck her as the weight of the world came crashing down upon her. Half-buried, she gasped for air.

Nature gave up another inch today. The spruce tree she liked to frequent – the one she was so strangely fond of, has just been unceremoniously ripped from where it belonged, its deeply seated foundations tearing deep at the ground in a hollow scream of protest. She knew, there was no going back.

She worked hard to get herself loose, her free limbs clawing with abandon at the ground, and finally, after what seemed like hours of debilitating labour, she managed to build enough leverage to pull herself out from under the rubble. Still dazed, she dashed deeper into the labyrinth, bouncing off the walls until she regained full composure. She went straight for the pantry. It was an expansive chamber, advisedly hidden deep, and by far the largest in her nest, built that way only to match the host’s appetite. High up the uneven ceiling, strung tightly side by side, wisely preserved, hung the sweets. Her mind was made up, and she would need all the energy for the journey ahead.

Day 5

She spent the waking hours of the next day relentlessly digging an exit. And when she finally emerged among moss and flowers, the surface greeted her with eerie silence. She picked up a wing flutter not far up, a bluebird spring-nesting, no doubt, but nothing else of substance made its way into the crosshairs of her acute senses. Confusion quickly settled in, and with it – as it happens, curiosity forced its ugly head into the conscious, taking over the steering wheel almost immediately. The camp was not that far away, after all, she started to muse, and she did not plan on coming back.

The journey to the glade was a brisk one, almost automatic, marked only by a passing realization of just how much thinner the usually lush, surrounding area had become in the recent days. On the spot, she found herself met with stillness. A carcass of the once thriving centre of giants’ activity stretched far wider now than she had anticipated. The stone slab she had visited previously was no longer at the edge of the clearing. Now, it was sitting uncomfortably close to two sets of brown-stained tents, serving quietly and with humility as a base for someone’s neglected fireplace. Mountains of logs, piled up as high as she could see in the glow of the rising sun, were spread strategically in between the lodgings – a lingering proof of atrocities past. But other than that, the place felt dead. Or just on the verge of dying, because right about that moment she spotted him.

A giant silhouette, appearing and disappearing between the shabby dwellings – a single man was walking around the corpse of the camp, whistling, undisturbed, as if he owned the place. He made his own pace, a twig playfully dancing in his right hand, and was soon reaching dangerously close to her position. This would not do, the thought crossed her mind with a lightning speed – barely split-second before she scurried between the safety of the tall grass around her. And from within the safety of the only allies she had left in this strange place, she continued to observe.

The giant sat down near the fireplace, and with the stick still firmly in his hand, he started poking at the fading embers. He let out a loud yawn as he did that, arching his back against the side of the tent behind him, and stretched his legs along the revived hearth. He seemed restless. His eyes wandered all around, undoubtedly looking for a cure for his boredom, before finally setting down, in defeat, on the freshly resuscitated flame once again, and then a bit higher up – upon a steaming, metal container atop the makeshift stove. He was clearly waiting for something. And as the sluggish passage of time could not be defied, he apathetically began to run the tip of his stick in the ground where he was sitting. The dirt under the titan’s feet must have proven a suitable canvas for someone of his talent, because before long he managed a satisfied nod, and a grin appeared on his round face as he inspected his handiwork. And what a marvel of art it must have been that it had distracted him enough not to notice the edge of his pants catch a stray spark from the hearth.

The fire took eagerly to the linen, like an overzealous lover, consuming as much as it was allowed to before it would be inevitably put out. With time, the spreading heat became too much to ignore, and the man finally became aware that a part of him was in fact on fire. She never heard a pitch that high. He jumped up in the air and started beating furiously at one of his legs, desperately trying to keep the hungry element at bay. And as he did that, the sizzling stove had the audacity to get in the way. A blur of motion and noise followed his fall.

First, a hollow thud of the massive body hitting the ground, joined shortly after by a clang of the stove falling over, and then another shrill scream as the boiling contents of the metal container emptied itself all over the man’s already panic-struck face. During all of this, to his credit, he never stopped wrestling with the burning piece of clothing. He finally rolled to the side and got the last of it off himself. He threw it away, with all his might, over his head. Right atop the tent behind him. She never imagined flames could shoot up this high.

Fascinated, she followed him all day.

Day 11

Watching the man had become a habit by now. He was a kind, if not a bit daft, creature. The empty camp already bore several scars from his shenanigans, the most recent one – a crushed storage shed, the result of an ambitious attempt to single handedly re-organize one of the largest log piles on the site. He almost died that day. To her surprize, she was even beginning to grow fond of the sketches he left all around the place. He draw in ground and carved in wood whenever tedium and inspiration happened to struck simultaneously. She understood none of the etchings, of course, but some of them did begin to feel familiar somehow. Mostly, though, she was attracted to the process behind it. If she learnt anything from her time spent shadowing the man, it was that his sort and too much free time didn’t mix well.

When the trips back and forth between her lair and the abandoned glade had become too much of a hassle, she dug up a temporary nest much closer to the vicinity of the camp. The past few days quickly blended all her actions into a singular focus – observation, and little else. She barely hunted, and she did not take to repairing the damage done to her nest at all. The man provided a degree of entertainment, true, but there were increasingly frequent moments when she found herself wishing she could approach him in a more direct way. For whatever reason, she knew not.

On that particular day, she hardly realized it was close to midnight before she decided to head back. The deep of the night caught her out in the open again, perched atop a tent and watching her subject under a full moon for the first time. She could not help it. He was fast asleep, and his resting, emotionless face finally started making sense to her in the glow of the withering flame he was cuddled by. His body turned, unexpectedly, and she saw burns running the length of his arm, a distant memory of a fire. And then, a sliver of something shiny on his wrist caught her attention before she could even begin to resist, instantly mesmerizing all eight of her usually vigilant eyes. It called out to her, with an undescribed intensity – begging her to draw just a step closer. Just. One. More. Step.

She slipped.

The fall was short and far from fatal, but still embarrassing. She rolled down the texture of the tent, much like a clueless child down a slide, and the momentum threw her between two soft layers of fabric, right atop the chest of the resting man. She froze immediately, but he did not wake up.

She was equally terrified and excited. They were never this close. From where she was sitting, she could feel an enormous power pumping life into the body under her. Up and down his chest went, not skipping a single beat. Suddenly, she felt like a sailor, in a scrappy, little boat, lost in uncharted waters, just barely hanging on against the raging storm under her. She clung tightly to a button on his shirt, with a desperate hope of getting used to the unyielding rhythm. Soon enough, she managed to find her balance. Encouraged, she crept in closer towards his face, a shy length of a button at first, and after a brief, hesitant pause, up the length of another one, nearer still. And she was getting ready to close the distance even more, until she sensed it.

There was an unseen presence lurking just outside the edge of the light’s reach. A low, hungry growl soon confirmed what she already knew – a different breed of predator was nearby. Not long after, a pair of mercury-liquid, silver discs came slowly into existence against the pitch-black background of the camp. Her body tensed immediately, and she promptly began backing up. She was ready to run, too, but in that decisive instant, she felt the warmth of the man’s breath brushing off against her body. Without thinking, she addressed her initial instincts with an aggressive jump instead, landing flat on the man’s face. The giant woke up instantly, and just before she was surprisingly gently slapped aside, she did find a peculiar comfort in the fact that she probably bought him a precious few seconds to react.

She was right. The man noticed the encroaching danger just in time. He jumped in front of the fireplace and kicked hard at the pool of embers. Neglected for far too long, the flames replied with indifference, sizzling out in the air way too fast to serve as an efficient deterrent against the feral cat. The cougar responded in kind with a vicious snarl and lashed out, barely missing its mark as it gracefully landed on the other side of the fire. The man ducked to the right and almost lost his balance in the process, the bottom part of him still half-asleep. A brief pause followed, with the two adversaries circling slowly around the flicking hearth, their eyes locked in an uninterruptible exchange.

During all of that, she managed to put a healthy distance between herself and the two combatants. She found a shelter under a thick layer of canvas, right at the entrance to one of the tents. She could not take part in this struggle, that much was obvious, but if there was a way to tip the scales even a bit, she thought. Backing up deeper into the safety, she stumbled upon the answer. Inside the tent, half-covered under a stained pillow, lay a tool she saw the man use repeatedly before with brutal efficiency. If only he could have access to it now. She mustered all her strength and pushed against the heavy object. It budged.

Outside, the encounter was beginning to reach a boiling point. Somehow, the man managed to get a hold of a thick branch and put the tip of it on fire, but the hungry animal was having none of it. If anything, its attacks grew more vicious by the minute, and it quickly became clear that its patience, as well as its fear of fire, were growing thin. At this point, even armed, the man was barely capable of holding his own. He was clutching at his burned arm all this time, a thick streak of red running fast down his elbow and onto the ground. There was precious little time left before the curtain call of this grisly play, and both participants seemed well aware of that. The stage was thirsty, and demanding more.

Soon, the loss of blood started to overwhelm his conscious, and dizziness began washing over the edge of his mind with ruthless ferocity. His vision blurred, and his perception became a slideshow of the events taking place before him. He registered a fall, then, a slowly rising growl started ringing in his ears as he struggled to command his senses back into order. He also felt an immense weight bearing down on his chest with tremendous force, but, surprisingly, it was the sharp, piercing sensation at the tip of his index finger that dared to demand the most of his attention. The supporting actor in this drama had finally entered the stage.

When the man collapsed, she knew it was the moment to act. And she did make sure she was noticed. She made a dash towards him and bit hard into the flesh of his hand, plunging her seasoned fangs deep into the soft tissue of one of his fingers, almost reaching bone. When he turned to her, she run, just slow enough to make sure his wobbly vision could follow the path she took, right towards the tool she had worked so laboriously to recover. He spotted it – a gentle flicker in the grass just outside the tent, and a faint spark crossed his eyes. Using what little remained of his strength, he desperately reached out, his hand shaking as he did, and greedily grabbed at the blade of the hunting knife. He let out a powerful howl, and even though the strength behind the scream quickly died, turning it into a pitiful yelp mid-breath, he still managed to execute the swing, driving the razor sharp head of the tool deep into the beast’s eye socket. The cougar howled and winced, his paws dancing on the man’s chest as if he were a plush toy, and soon enough its massive, muscled frame dropped to the ground, lifeless.

The man was breathing hard, weaving in a heavy wheeze every now and then. He was safe, finally, and all he needed was a little bit of rest.

Day 12

She did not sleep at all that night. She found a spot up a tree, near the edge of the camp, from where she could watch over the man as he rested through the night and well into the next morning. As the dawn was setting in, she decided to make her presence known. She dropped from the branch she was sitting on, slowly spinning down her thread with growing anticipation of their second encounter – lower and lower, until she finally reached the cool of the ground. She approached the man openly this time, wading through a pool of sticky, scarlet liquid before she gracefully climbed atop of him. He didn’t even notice. Why should he, she was little more than a breeze, and all his senses were occupied fighting off his condition. His breath came in labouring gasps, each next one audibly more shallow than the one preceding it, until all that was left of it was an unsteady rhythm of a drying up puddle. Perched atop his chest, she felt it all, and how wildly different it seemed to her from the ferocious ocean she fought against once before.

He was still drawing breath, but barely. His eyes were bulging out, unfocused, lips parched, smacking at some illusionary salve, and his hands, no longer at his sides, spread wide, hungrily grabbing at the blades of grass around him. She knew he was ready, and she was there to witness it. A life was coming to its fragile conclusion, but to her surprise, this time, she was not involved, merely an intimate observer.

She gently tapped at his cheek once. Then, she did it again. And when no response followed, the spider tilted its head curiously to the side and paused. A movement in the air has caught its attention.

 

 

BIO

Mateusz found out very early on that there’s a boundless amount of ideas floating just above his head at any given moment. The tricky part was always to pluck one at the right time and gift it with a form it truly deserved. Mateusz works in creative fields as a designer out of Central Europe, and revisits the writing outlet whenever he gets restless.

 

 

 

 

 

0

Gray Yogurt

by Cecilia Kennedy

 

 

The lotus flower on my laptop will devour me.  Its creator chose the most desirable qualities, magnified them ten times, and set the whole thing afloat, drifting through an eerily dark void on my screen.  The petals reach for my chin. I take the bait, click the mouse, and check my status:  unread, pending . . .

People once crossed networks of roads and took sidewalks lined with green grass and tulips to enter office buildings and drop off resumes on creamy, weighted paper. If they were lucky—and sometimes they were—they might meet the CEO and get a tour, shake a hand, and leave behind a trail of perfume or cologne—a hint of an impression that lingered.  That’s how I got my first job— and the last one I held for ten years before moving and discovering that the rules have changed: “No potential candidates allowed on the premises in physical form.  Send links instead to portfolio websites. Include a bio in X amount of characters or less. Use key words.”

For practice, I invented stories of 66 words or less:  Armed with a cursed pen, Cliff writes a memoir that haunts the Internet forever; To save her life, Ann drowns in the pages of a book. She lives on; A tragedy takes Lyn’s memory, so she writes the future on fortune cookie slips; Sparks fly as a mad scientist kisses her lab rat, turning it into a zombie.  I didn’t send any of these in. Instead, I spliced them together for my own social media pages in an attempt to attract jobs as a “content writer.” My Professional Summary link now reads:  Uses cursed pens to haunt the Internet and write the future zombie apocalypse on fortune cookie slips.

I check my status and hit “refresh:” unread, pending.

Minimizing the page, I start a new search and discover the elevator pitch, which answers questions that people may want to know about me: Who am I?  What do I do? How do I do it?  What do I do it for?  Who do I do it for?  The answers don’t form readily in my head, so I drive to the grocery store and stand under the fluorescent lights for a while.  Who am I? At the moment, I’m a consumer. What do I do?  I make lists and shop for the items on the lists, but sometimes, clever displays and non-food items distract me.  How do I do it? Quickly. The lights hurt my eyes and the man who beats me to the frozen food section every Saturday strangles me with a scent that penetrates my skin. What do I do it for?  I think that’s obvious. I can throw that question out.  Who do I do it for?  Again, an obvious question, I think . . .

–My side feels as though it’s splitting. I have to double over the shopping cart, until the pain passes–

When I return home, I put the groceries away and let the lotus flower on the screen lure me in again. Closing my eyes, I imagine that the petals are stroking my chin.  I click the mouse and check my status and hit refresh three more times. Pending, pending, unread . . .

There’s my profile picture.  It makes me look like something is suddenly funny and I’m tossing my head back with laughter. I’m just so struck by some secret punch line that I have to share the joke with the viewer, who will never understand and who will perpetually ask, “What could be so funny?”   This picture, which took over five hours to take and edit, makes the hysterically laughing woman, with the creased forehead look too old.  The light perhaps makes her hair slightly gray, though it’s not.  She’d never admit to that.

I minimize the window.

One of those social media surveys pops up:  The color of the outfit I’m wearing and what I just ate is my gangster name.  I’m gray yogurt. Who am I? I’m gray yogurt.  It doesn’t sound gangster enough, so I shout it out loud and listen for the echo.  I’m convinced I’ve convinced myself I’m gray yogurt. Now, I just need to figure out what I do.  I search for ideas through job postings and decide that I could tailor my qualifications to fit those for an administrative assistant in a medical arts building, but the pain returns to my side—as if hot needles were piercing into my flesh, over and over again—stitching something up inside me—or attaching something to me, but I’m ignoring the pain— typing furiously now because the deadline is approaching and I need to create a Twitter account with a very clever handle.  When I’m finished, I realize I won’t be able to get into an elevator with the hiring team for this position because actual physical candidates are never allowed “in person.”  So, I call the number listed on the job posting and leave my elevator pitch message, shouting loudly and clearly:

I’m gray yogurt—ready to deliver stellar customer service with my hardcore humanities degree! I’m all about hardcore customer service—able to write effective, meaningful, 25-character Tweets that will rock the Westside Medical Arts Building staff and potential patients—and existing patients—with a 100% zombie prevention rate.

When I’m finished, I cry. Of course I sound ridiculous—and I just sent my resume without including the key words. The pain in my side intensifies and my sobs echo off the pale walls of my windowless apartment. The burning, knitting together of needles in my side won’t stop.  Minimizing the window on the computer screen, I watch the lotus flower open its petals wide, to eat me I suppose.  The pain grips me—rips into me—and I have to pull my chair back from my desk, so I can bend over.  I believe that if I just hold my middle together, I can soothe away the agony, but the crease in the center makes the burning sensation stronger and I notice a leak—a trickle of thick, puss and liquid, angry and red, seeping out onto my shirt.  A round, lumpy mass bulges from the gray cotton fabric, as nausea pours over me in waves of hot and cold.

On the screen, the lotus seems to pulse and bloom in steady staccato rhythms. It grows a head with teeth, yet I’m more frightened by the lump beneath my shirt.  My body twists, convulses, and expels the contents of my stomach onto the carpet.  The air is ripe. Stepping outside seems to be the only relief. So, I stand up and gather the courage I need to look at the lump that’s seeping and oozing. My trembling hand pulls away the fabric, and I take in the sight of some kind of fluid-filled sac that’s purple, blue, and riddled with veins.  It too pulses in time with the lotus on the screen and I can see the stitches.  They are thick and black, holding this thing together.

The fowl stench in the air grows unbearable, and I remember to go outside. If I can manage to get outside, I can at least overcome the impulse to retch, which only prolongs the burning.

Outside, it’s raining.  The heavy drops cool my skin. I let the rain fall on the sac that’s stitched to my side.  The fluid mixes with the water and sloughs off into the muddy soil below. The whole thing simply detaches, and I’m left with just the stitches, which I begin to pull, carefully from my skin, letting them untangle and fall onto the shapeless sac in the mud.  The driving rain forces the gel-like material and the black stitches into the ground, making them into a form that’s much larger than it ever was before—and something about it looks familiar.  The blues and reds mix together with the outline of the stitches to hold them in place, if only temporarily. I recognize the beckoning petals unfurling.  A new lotus floats on pools of water in the mud.  It occurs to me to snap a picture and post to my social media page—to capture it for likes and comments—to attach it to my Professional Summary, but I don’t. I let it dissolve, and I walk away.

 

 

 

BIO

Cecilia Kennedy earned a doctorate in Spanish literature and taught English and Spanish for 20 years in Ohio before moving to the Greater Seattle area with her husband, teenage son, and cat. In 2017, she began writing fiction for the first time. Since then, about sixteen of her short stories have appeared in eleven different literary journals/magazines online and in print.  She also has a blog called “Fixin’ Leaks and Leeks,” where she chronicles her humorous attempts at cooking and home repair. (https://fixinleaksnleeksdiy.blog/)

 

 

 

 

 

0

The Two Potters

by Norbert Kovacs

 

 

The man and the woman made pottery in the large studio attached to their home. The man owned the studio and the home and decided the pottery they made. They painted this most times an off white with very simple designs, a favorite being small flowers. They gave their flowers small dot centers and narrow, thin petals crowded close together. The two made their clay cups and plates as if it were a duty. After breakfast each morning, the man went ready for the potter’s wheel in the studio. He made the pottery for its own sake and no other reason. He lumped the wet, soft clay onto his wheel to start and spun it. He shaped with his hands, hollowing out the hole for a vessel, flattening and pressing flat for a plate. He fixed his eyes on the clay as it spun and spun. As he worked, he talked to the woman who made items at her own wheel across the room. The two talked about their pottery, about whether they would make more or less than the previous day, whether one found it difficult to shape that day’s clay, who should fire in the kiln next, and so on. When he had shaped and fired his pottery, the man painted it the standard white that he liked above every other color. He took his old, well-used brush and painted the rims of  his work gray in thin, double-banded lines. He loved painting these neatly and in parallel. The two showed and sometimes gave their finished items to friends and family who were interested. The couple spent most of their day in the studio, but even outside it, the man thought about making the pottery.

The woman told the man as they were working in the studio one day that she felt tired and would stop early. She removed her black, soiled potter’s apron and hung it on a hook by the kiln. She was a quiet, reserved woman. She had a plain, lean body and bound her thick, blonde hair in a ponytail at her neck. Her dark eyes, dense and small, moved tensely behind her black-rimmed glasses; she had a face smooth and colored like a peach.

“After I take a nap, I’ll wipe in the clay bin,” she said. She meant the large wooden box where they stored wet clay. They cleaned it occasionally when it ran empty to keep the wood from rotting. The woman went into the house to lie down as the man continued at his labor.

An hour later, the woman returned, her hair slightly astrew from her nap. The man heard her moving and wiping at the clay box across the room as he shaped at his wheel.

“You won’t need  any extra clay?” she called to him after she had cleaned. “I found some stuck in the bin bottom.”

“No, I have enough to last today.” The man replied without lifting his head from the spinning wheel before him. After he was done forming and shaping a few last cups, the man had done. He set his newest pieces aside to continue the next morning and went to stow his apron. He discovered the woman standing over and admiring a clay hoop at her worktable.

“What is that supposed to be?” the man asked coming to her side. He was a large, tall man with strong arms and hands. Thick bands of brown hair hung over his forehead. He was much bigger than the woman.

“A wrist hoop. See.” She took the hoop from the table, slid it over her right hand, and let it dangle from her wrist.

“Sort of strange, how rough on the edges it is.” The man’s dark, narrow eyes moved over the hoop’s outline.

“I just started it. I have more to do to get it nice.”

“Certainly. Well, a diversion once in a while never hurt anyone.” The man slid the hoop off the woman’s arm and set it on a shelf beside where her apron hung. He hung his own apron on a hook beside hers and moved toward the hall for the house. When he did not hear her follow after him, the man turned and discovered she had taken the clay hoop from the shelf and was turning it over in her hand.

The next day, the man kept busy at his wheel into the afternoon. When he finally slowed at the work, he looked across the studio toward the woman; he had not taken note of her since early that morning. He discovered she had left her wheel and was molding a large cup on her work table. The cup was the size and dimensions of their usual except for the bottom and brim; she made these bulge outward in thick, heavy bands, each like the hoop she had made the previous day. The woman pressed her thumb into the band that formed the top brim to widen it, at each push forcing the clay out, round and thick. She added more clay to the brim as she worked.

“Why are you giving the cup those heavy bands on the top and bottom?” he asked. “We never do.”

The woman took her hands from the cup. “I thought someone might like drinking from a bigger cup than the ones we make. Besides, I think this type of brim and bottom look nice.”

The man made a face. “It would be awkward for us to do any new kind of pottery. We should do our usual stuff instead. We are used to it. We do it well.”

“But what if this new cup is good?”

“The cup isn’t. I mean, look at it. People checking out our stuff will say it’s strange that it has this wide brim. Our cups don’t.  Rather than have everyone feel bad over it, I’d do the pottery you have been.”

The woman set aside the new cup as the man urged, fetched some fresh clay, and started on a cup he could recognize. However, she did it all holding back a frown, and her dark eyes lowered.

The man entered the studio a few days later and discovered the wet clay bin was empty. The woman and he had gotten new clay for the bin only the past week and the man knew they could not have used it all since. “Would you know what might have happened with the clay in the bin?” he asked the woman.

She said, “I threw it into the woods behind the house. It was full of grit and sand and wasn’t any good to use. I was going to tell you.”

The man stared at her. “You might have let me check it first. I hadn’t seen anything to make me think it so bad. Now we’ll have to get new clay for today’s stuff.”

The two drove to the old man down the hill who provided them clay to get a new supply. They filled the bin from the back of their van and returned with it to the studio. When the two had set the bin again in its corner and made to get their aprons, the man noticed a black cloth hanging in the corner beyond the woman’s pottery wheel. He had not remembered the shelf there being covered. He crossed the room and pulled off the cover to check beneath it. He found the shelf full of newly made clay hoops and rings. He realized the items were all like the wrist hoop the woman had made earlier.

“So this is what became of the clay you said you threw out,” he said to the woman. “You’ve been making these when I’ve gone back into the house, haven’t you?”

She lowered her head. “I have.”

“You understand that there is no excuse for this stuff. I pay for all this clay; I expected you to make it into the pottery we always do.”

The man seized several rings from the shelf and dashed them on the floor. The rings burst and sent debris around his feet. The man reached for more rings from the shelf when the woman cried, “Please don’t. I won’t have those rings broken after the work I did making them.”

“Work?”

“For those rings. Please, I like the rings and hoops and to have them. Let me.”

“Are you being serious?” The man did not imagine it possible.

“Yes.”

“You would choose to go on making them?”

“Yes.”

The man scowled but sensed she was telling the truth. He did not feel he could dissuade her either, at least not easily. “Alright. Since you really want to, I’ll let you,” he said. “But it will be only after you’ve done the pieces I have expected made here each day. I own the studio and have decided what we make. I will make pottery our usual way even if you will not. But now you can get your own clay from the man down the hill to make the things you will. I fetch clay for the pottery I want done here. And if you’re to fire your things in my kiln, you must help me at my tasks too, like glazing the cups.”

The woman agreed. The man and the woman made pottery in the studio again at their two wheels. The man continued to shape his items per his custom. The woman made items for him as they agreed; many days, she finished these early and started on her own. However, the man resented the small freedom he had let the woman to create though it did not distract him. He made to discourage her for it. He moved around the studio, after tools and supplies that he did not need, just to get in her way. She withdrew from the spaces that the man invaded and did not complain about his taking them. She made her rings and hoops in the corner of her worktable, her back to him. She made them without slowing. She glazed the items and they shone in the cool electric light of the studio.

The man had let the woman use glaze as a one allowance but he thought poorly of her enthusiasm for it.

“You are adding too much glaze to those hoops,” he cautioned. “I had got it for the cups, you know.”

The woman used less and glazed fewer rings and hoops after the warning. However, the man saw she glazed these fewer pieces more. She glazed some rings in thin layers two or three times and admired them, once fired, under the light by her worktable.

Soon, the man discovered the woman cut corners in making their regular cups and plates. She left cups outside at night and did not fire them in the kiln as he said she should. She did not glaze all the plates as he had asked. At the same time, she made more of her rings and hoops once she had made their standard. The shelves behind her table filled with the things and it seemed she produced a greater number in each batch. The man realized the woman hoped to do more of her own pieces and less of his.

The woman wore some of the new rings she made as earrings. She said they were beautiful and that she felt beautiful wearing them. The man said the rings were not any good as earrings, for they were clay, not a shined or precious metal as he had seen women wear. “Clay is to make plates and cups,” he said. The woman wore the earrings in the studio and in their home anyway. She touched the hard, small rings with her fingers and studied them hanging at her ears in the mirror. She wore clay hoop bracelets on her arms when she had on the earrings too, saying they complemented one another. She wore the earrings and the hoops even when she was together with the man in bed and he asked she remove them.

“How can I enjoy it when you have those on?” he asked.

“The earrings make me beautiful,” she said and reclined before him.

The man grumbled. He did not argue the point however as he drew near her.

Soon, the man did not object to the woman wearing her ornaments in the studio or the house. The woman was beautiful after all just for herself, he thought.

The woman refined the new items she made, giving them special marks and features. She created rings of compact, neat O’s that she notched with squares and circles. She painted her creations and tried, as the man thought, to have them seem more beautiful than any cup or plate in the studio. She thought well enough of her skill that she wore her glazed and painted earrings in town.  She told the man that people had noticed and talked with her over the pieces.

“I made friends with a few of the folks,” she said. “Three of them are coming to observe me in the studio.”

The man was in disbelief. “I wish you hadn’t let them. Do I need to hear you and them chatter over your pottery while you make it?”

“I think the right word is discuss, not chatter.”

“You know what I mean.”

“I’ve invited the people and they are coming the day after tomorrow.”

When her friends made their visit, the woman showed them her creations on the shelves. She took out the rings and spread many of them in her palm. The man heard the friends ask for and be given several of the creations to keep. Then the friends went to her work corner and watched as she made some rings and hoops. After she had designed a few, one friend, a young man, said, “I love these rings you make. I am going to make my own.”

A young woman in the group raised her head. “I plan to do the same in the studio I will open. We can make them there together if you like.”

The man listening across the studio thought the two young people were ridiculous to talk about fashioning clay into rings. I will laugh at them as I do with the woman, he imagined. He worked at his wheel and felt that his pottery had the right pattern and form as ever. In the meanwhile, the friends encouraged the woman as she talked of making her work. The man saw the woman shape a new mound of clay and form it unlike he ever had known. The form had a large, very rounded hoop, just bigger than an armband. She propped this on a short stem atop a square base. Her friends fell silent before it.

“This is different than the hoops and the rings you have been making,” the young man beside the woman announced. “It’s more beautiful. It’s a piece of fine art.” The other friends agreed.

“I’ve never had this appreciation,” the woman said, breaking into a smile.

“I will create art in my new studio as you have done here,” her friend, the young woman, told her.

The man across the studio heard it all. The hoop on the stem did not seem art to him. The piece appeared too simple. It was not the great, highly shaped sculptures that he had encountered in art books. However, the woman’s friends treated it as something worth reflection.

After the friends left, the man complained to the woman about the hoop art. “I won’t let you make any more of it. I bent enough allowing you to do those rings. But these mounted hoops are too much.”

The woman turned from him. “I’ll work at my friend’s new studio then. She was alright with having that young man join her and she’ll be alright with me.” She added, “I could produce my pottery there and not bother with making anything more for this studio if you are that upset with me.”

The woman spoke seriously and the man realized she might go and do as she said if he pushed her. The woman long had been his partner and he did not wish to lose her. He decided to recant. “Don’t go,” he said. “I’ll let you create your artwork in our studio. Use the kiln to fire it—you’ve fired that many of my things that you should. I’ll make my things as I have in my half of the room and let you to yours. All I ask is if you would help me make a few of the studio-style items sometimes. Consider that I let you make your rings and hoops once you told me how important you felt about them. I didn’t stop you.”

“You’re right, you didn’t,” the woman said quietly. “You might be more considerate than I believed. I’ll stay.”

The woman made many artworks with the new freedom the man allowed. She created pots, vases, and boxes studded with small rings and large hoops. She made figurines and bas reliefs. She took liberties in creating each of her new pieces. Then the woman re-created the man’s usual pottery items, the cups and plates, in her new style. She made cups of hoops stacked upward and plates of hoops set one within another. The man, surprised by the designs, studied the woman producing this new pottery. He watched carefully as she formed a large, decorative plate.

“How can you round your hand on the clay’s edge like that?” he asked while she worked the item. “What happened to the ways I’d shown you to mold clay?”

The woman saddened, fingering the side of the plate. “I know those ways well. I’ve only adapted them.”

“But you do it so strangely.”

“I have my own style now. Even when it comes to cups and plates.”

The man felt upset to hear it. From the shelf near her, he picked up a plate that she had glazed and fired. The plate was a concentric nest of rings, some fat, some thin, arranged closely and fused into a whole. The plate had a smooth face despite its many-parted design and he imagined it could have been set on the wall for decoration. However, the form and the style were not his. He set the plate aside and returned to his potter’s wheel to create as he was used to doing.

The woman labored carefully over her work, the man discovered. He watched once as she made a new pot. She bowed her head over a mound of clay that was to become the object and shaped it with her hands.  Her hands lifted and goaded the clay into the form. She tucked and rounded where the pot was to bulge and flattened and pressed where it was to be straight. She smoothed and stroked the pot once shaped, and it seemed she touched a fine, fragile thing. Her hands made the clay clean and bright under the studio light. She had cared in making the old cups and plates well, the man remembered, but he realized she did much more in making her new pottery. The woman colored her works with glazes she got from her town friends rather than use the man’s any longer. She used ocean blue, sun yellow, and fire red pigments, bolder colors than the studio hues. The man never did figure how to color pieces as attractively.

One day, the woman took liberties firing in the studio kiln. She did not ask the man if she might use it per their habit. Sometimes she did it when the man had planned to fire and it irked him.

“I was about to fire a plate,” he told her. “I think you might have asked whether you could. It holds up my work.”

“You do not create as much as you had,” the woman said, “I’ve been doing a lot lately so I thought it okay to use the kiln when I needed. I didn’t think of being in your way.”

“And then,” she continued, “I’m trying all these new things with the pottery. You aren’t. Couldn’t my stuff be given some priority because of it?”

The man never had heard the woman argue for preference. But he quickly admitted to himself the woman was producing more than he. He had scaled down his production while hers had expanded. “However you like–” he said before walking to his wheel.

The woman placed her artwork on the same window shelf where the man had his finished work. Her tall, slender vases stood beside his fat cups, her hoop-eared pots beside his flat plates. She put cubes studded with rings next to his mundane, glazed dishes. The man realized the woman’s work was much different than his. She was developing forms and a style that he never would have.

As she continued her new endeavors, the woman brought her young friend, who owned a studio, to help in making an art piece. The man watched the two huddle in the woman’s half of the studio crowding close around her table. He called to them from his wheel, “Don’t you feel the two of you will get in each other’s way, bottled in that corner?”

“My friend and I have made things in smaller spaces,” his partner answered.

“Well, won’t you be questioning each other how to make whatever it is you’re making?” The man started all his items alone and imagined having a collaborator from the get-go would prove distracting. He had produced his best when he had forgotten the woman , the studio, and the world.

“We will I’m sure, but I don’t believe it will be a bad thing. Wait and see what we make before you decide.”

The man turned to his clay and spun it. “Alright, I’ll wait,” he said shortly.

The two women pieced the material before them. The man made a plate at his wheel, inspected, and liked it. He set the piece aside. He observed the women forming clay into rings. To do each, they rolled a bit of clay into a line and curled the ends. They then fused the ends of each ring within the circle of the prior, extending a chain across the  work table. They fired the clay form and fetched it from the kiln when done. The man faced his wheel and worked. He shaped clay into a few plates. He inspected the unfired plates and thought them clean and neat. However, he found it dull to study them long. He brought them across the room to fire. As he loaded the plates into the kiln, the man watched the women glaze their chain in blue and apple green. Their wide-headed brushes passed along and between the chain’s links and the glaze shone as the sun does on water. The man went to his seat and started a new cup. When the man’s plates had done firing, he fetched them and the women put their chain again in the kiln. The man returned to his work. He smoothed the side of the cup and held his hand there as the wheel ran. He turned it many times before he realized the cup’s side was not becoming any smoother or finer. He stopped turning and looked toward the women. They were retrieving the chain from the belly of the kiln. The two set the fired item on a tray and brought it to their table. The hard-glazed chain shone brightly. Its blue and green had become pure with firing. They lifted the chain and let an end dangle over their palms. The links slid and clacked against one another, their color shifting between deep blue and a fine, bright green. The man never imagined the women could have produced the thing. The chain was more brilliant and intricate than any item he ever had made. It was all hard clay but shifted like water in a stream. His partner played the chain in her hand and he quietly studied its changes of color and light.

When her friend left, the woman set the chain on a tray and went into the house for she was done creating that day. The man stayed in the studio, however. He made several clay rings at his table. He was going to link them into a chain that he hoped would be like the women’s. He made the rings for the links, long and stretched with heavy, bulked ends. The rings resembled two handles from his cups welded together. He fired the chain and retrieved it from the kiln. He glazed the work heavily in an brilliant white for he meant the piece to shine when done. He fired the piece a second time and brought the chain to his work table. He jostled the chain but found the thick-ended links failed to move freely. They clacked very hard in short motions. He realized his product was an ungainly creation next to the women’s.

The man was depressed when he resumed work in the studio. The woman now visited her friends at the alternate studio more often than she produced at home. He did not encounter her some days. He feared she might move in with her young artist friends and abandon his studio altogether. Lately he had become used to her producing art and liked to think of her work as a foil to his. He admired how when he held the line, she crossed it; where she endeavored freely, he maintained a cool control and order. He had come to know who he was as a potter by contrasting with her. He felt learning that difference had made them more of a pair. They could accept they were not a perfect union and, knowing it, still work side by side. If she left, he worried he would not be with the woman again. He tried new work in the studio instead of his old style in hopes of convincing the woman to stay. While he created with perhaps too strong a line and restraint, the man thought the woman might view him as an artist like those she had befriended in town. He hoped deep inside that this would keep them a close and loving couple.

 

 

 

BIO

Norbert Kovacs lives and writes in Hartford, Connecticut. His stories have appeared in WestviewGravelSTORGYCorvus Review, and The Write Launch. Norbert’s website is www.norbertkovacs.net.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

0

Offing Buck

by Victoria Forester

 

 

I can handle losing my husband to the television for every Monday night of football season, but I’m not giving up my place in his life to a five-hundred-dollar-man-stealer with shit for breath and a habit of rolling in the neighbor’s compost. “Larry,” I say, “I just don’t know if things are working out with Buck.” He gives me this can’t-you-see-it’s-Alex-Trebec-on-the-tube kind of look, but I go on anyways. “I thought it would be good for us, but now he’s driving me nuts. It’s been well over a year and he’s still no good with the neighborhood kids and, well, do I have to bring up the Labrada’s cat again? He doesn’t respect me at all and, frankly, sometimes I get the impression that he’s more important to you than I am.”

“Don’t be ridiculous, Kristi, he loves children.”

Can you believe the listening skills at play here? “Buck’s gotta go!” I scream. That’s when Larry gets all teary and defiant and picks up the 95-pounder—right off the floor and into his arms like a new bride—and carries him out the front door, yelling, “I’ll take Buck for five-hundred, Alec! The answer is what the hell is eating her?

I’m so angry all I can do is vacuum even though I’ve already filled three micro-filter bags with Buck hair this week and that was out of the den alone. I clean the house until dark muttering to myself. Around ten, I pull back the sheets and I have to pluck two fistfuls of Buck hairs off my side of the bed before I can lie down to call Gina.

“It’s me,” I say. “He’s not home yet.”

“He’s in the car, Kris.”

“In the driveway?”

“Yeah, I can see them from my living room. They’re in the back together.”

“You think he’s going to stay there all night?”

“Who knows. Let him. It’ll give him time to think.”

“What am I going to do?” I groan.

“Apologize. Say you were wrong. Lay low for a couple of weeks. Then, drive Buck to New Jersey. Let him out at a playfield. Get back in your car and come home. Tell Larry he ran off on you in Little Neck.”

So, for ten golden days it’s like a honeymoon. I can take a long walk without looking like an epileptic being jerked around by a dog who’s got to pee every two feet like an incontinent. Larry and I do everything together. We make lost dog flyers and take romantic walks around the neighborhood every evening asking if anyone has seen Buck, making new empathetic friends. We go to the movies to get our minds off him and, best of all, Larry really needs my sweet loving these days.

Then one night, we’re all cuddled up watching stupid pet tricks on Letterman and Larry gets a little teary. “When we get Buck back,” he says, “I’m gonna teach him how to do that.”

“Sure, hon,” I say. “That’d be fun.” I stroke his cheek and he scrunches my hair up in his fingers, working it back and forth over my ear. We’re about to kiss when there’s a scratching at the front door.

For the next two weeks it’s Buck the Wonderdog Walks Home. First night, he’s all matted and skinny and reeks of rotten meat and Larry stays up until four in the morning shampooing and conditioning his hair with cupfuls of my expensive Barbour products. It’s like a scene from Out of Africa with my husband pouring the warm water all over Buck’s hair from the white and gold-trimmed Lenox pitcher my mother gave us on our first anniversary. Larry uses his own toothbrush in the dog’s mouth and then uses it again on himself in the morning before he gives me a quick peck on the lips. He’s up early, with only three hours of sleep, singing and cooking eggs and extra bacon for the three of us. Reporters call us all day long and Larry decides to take a week off from work to teach Come Back Buck how to use and flush toilets just like that mutt on Letterman before they’re scheduled to appear on the local cable channel. Then, after an intense period of training, Buck takes a shit in my Louboutins and Larry calls it Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, insisting that he sleep between us in the bed each night. I have to put a pillow over my head because Buck moans when Larry scratches him behind the ears.

“How was I suppose to know he’d come back!” Gina cries into the phone before I hang up. Later, she slips a card in my mail slot for forgiveness and there’s an article clipping inside. Antifreeze Deadly Attraction for Dogs. That Gina, I think, she’s a pretty good friend.

One Sunday, when Larry and I are working in the yard, he starts wrestling with Buck in the leaves. He shrieks like a kid being tickled when the dog licks his face. “Whoa Buck, whoa big fella!” He laughs, then, “Har, har, honey, he just slipped me the tongue!” That afternoon, I go to the corner store and stock up on antifreeze.

When Larry’s in the shower, I show Buck the large blue puddle spreading out from under the car. He sniffs at the sweet liquid and then goes after two kids whipping by on their bikes in the street. I hear them scream until they reach Northern Boulevard and Buck comes trotting back. Larry leans out the front door with a towel wrapped around his hips. “What was that all about?” He asks.

“There are more important things for a dog to know than using a toilet,” I say and push past him. That night, while Larry cuddles with Buck and watches a re-run of Lassie on Nick at Nite, I watch for the involuntary flinching of Buck’s muscles, hoping for a trail of electric blue mucus snaking from his nose. In the morning after Larry leaves for work, I make coffee and look out the window. There are six dead squirrels in the driveway where the car used to be. They lie on their backs with their legs straight up in the air. I put on yellow rubber gloves that come to my elbows and pick them up one by one. I carry them in a triple lined trash bag to the dumpster on Hollis Street and come home to hose down the driveway. Buck growls at me when I come in the kitchen door.

“Blah!” I yell at him and wave my arms. “Go hitch the chuck wagon you shit-for-brains-leg-humping-home-wrecker!” He schleps to the bedroom and I spend a good half an hour at the kitchen sink scrubbing to the elbows with an antibacterial soap.

I call Gina ten minutes before Larry comes home. “I’ve got to make it look like an accident or Larry will start to suspect something. Buck’s already giving him clues.”

“Kristi, you are my vbf, right? That’s why I gotta tell you you’re starting to scare me. You think this dog’s ratting on you?”

“Look, Buck gets all tense around me. When he growls, Larry holds his nose up to his own and says in this weird baby voice, ‘It’s okay, tiger, it’s just mommy.’ It makes me sick.”

“You just have to get rid of this one and do it quick.”

“P.S. I know. I’m gonna put rat poison in his food tonight.”

Buck eats every last drop of his chopped liver and Raidux. I am practically dancing around the kitchen, but then I have to remember to act natural when Larry comes home, so I click on Oprah and cover up with my new cashmere pashmina.

“Hey, hon,” Larry says and kisses me on the top of the head on his way to the kitchen to feed Buck and get himself a beer. I yawn loudly and get up to follow him.

“So, how was your day?” I ask as usual, and Buck scarfs his second dinner like a starving hog. Then he starts regurgitating his food all maniacal demon like. Larry gets down on his knees near him and we are both screaming Oh my God! There’s blood in Buck’s foam and he can’t stop wheezing and heaving just like that Linda Blair from the Exorcist. I see the terror in Larry’s eyes and he holds onto the arm of my shirt like a child, crying, “What should I do, Kris? What should I do?” This is the very moment of my first regret. I swear to you, I feel like I’m falling through the earth, but I am right there on the floor with them. I think, O’Jesus, O’Mary, please stop this. Please don’t let Buck die. I’m sorry. I’m sorry for what I’ve done. Oh, our Lady of Perpetual Hope, forgive me for this sin!

Then, I’m like a woman possessed. “The emergency clinic!” I scream and, in two shakes, Larry, Buck and I are peeling out of the driveway going sixty-five through the streets of Bayside bringing our Bucky to get his stomach pumped for twelve hundred dollars.

Buck shits liquid charcoal for the next three days and I have to be at the ready to usher him out the kitchen door or I find myself cleaning the black soup off the linoleum every couple of hours. Larry spends half a paycheck on a steel and plastic organizing system of boxes and cabinets, shelves and utility pails for the garage. Every potentially hazardous substance is sealed tight. “Our house is baby-proof now,” Larry winks and kisses me through the air, but before I can say ho there, pardner, he’s sprawled out on the floor cradling Buck in his arms.

When Buck’s all better, Larry takes him to the mall to have their portrait done. He fixes a bow tie around Buck’s neck and they sit in front of a faux lake backdrop. Larry gives me the wallet-sized copies for my birthday and reminds me that money’s been a little tight ever since Buck had to have his stomach pumped.

Gina informs me, “If Buck can survive Raidux, he’s got at least ten or twelve more years on him. Maybe fourteen. Fifteen tops. You’d better get used to it, babe. Either that, or hire a professional.”

“What like a hitman?”

“That’s what I’m saying. It’s obvious you’re no Amy Fisher,” she says.

“I wouldn’t even know the first thing about how to find one.”

“You can find anything on the Internet.”

 

I arrange a three o’clock meeting with Oren Welch at the Blue Moon Motel across town. “I’m losing my husband,” I cry. “I married a different man!”

Welch rolls onto his side on the bed and runs his hand down his enormous belly as I talk.

“Look, I’ve got Buck hair imbedded in all my clothing,” I say and pull my shirt closer to him for inspection. The man takes an eyeful. Welch looks like a guy who would plow his Buick through a whole pack of children at a school crossing. He nods his big mooncrater face and slides his hand into his shirt pocket for a pack of Lucky’s.

“So, what you want?” He asks and lights up.

“What do I want? I want him dead,” I say.

Welch thumbs the wallet-sized portrait I hand him. “This is a fine-looking dog,” he says. “I got a couple of kids who’d love to have a dog like this.”

“Do you want this job or not?”

“Well, how ‘bout I just nap the dog. Christmas is coming.”

“Oren, can I call you Oren? Do you live within a hundred miles of here?”

“Well, uh—”

“This is the dog that walked home from Bayonne.”

“This is Come Back Buck? Oh, I don’t know …”

“I’ll get somebody else.”

“Nah. I’ll do it. It’s just I’m not used to whacking dogs. You know what they say: A dog’s a man’s best friend and all. And this—this Buck—well, he’s the best of the best.”

I start to put my wallet away.

“All right,” Welch says, “you want an accident?”

“Yes, an accident. When both my husband and I are home, so he never suspects me.”

“Fine. You got it.”

“What exactly am I getting?” I ask.

“Dogs get hit by cars all the time. You got yourself a $3000 hit-and-run. $1000 up front for my retainer.”

I sigh and hand him ten crisp one hundreds.

“Lady,” he says. “You should know you’re getting a screaming deal for offing Buck.”

 

I tell you, I’ve lived all my life by the book. I have never been involved in crime. I never even went through that shoplifting phase all my teenage friends seemed to live for. I am not the criminal type, but that dog has pushed me to limits I never even knew I had and I cannot go on like this for a moment longer. I am to let Buck out the front door at exactly 2:00 p.m. on Sunday just moments after Welch will plant the wounded cat across the street, drive off to loop around the cul-de-sac, and floor it when he sees Buck coming. Welch’s contract guarantees satisfaction.

It’s 1:58 p.m. on Sunday. “Bucky wanna go out?” I ask as I walk to the front door. Larry has been organizing the plastic buckets in the garage, sponging down their surfaces with a biodegradable cleanser. When I open the door, I see Larry heading down the driveway. “Where’re you going?” I call.

“There’s a hurt cat across the road. I think its leg’s broke.” He starts to run.

“No, wait!” I cry, and then Buck tears out the door after Larry. I hear tires screeching down the road. Across the street, the cat pulls its lower body along the ground with its forelegs. I let go of the screen door and, like in slow motion, it careens back and slaps the house. I run to the end of the yard. Then Welch plows his Buick through my husband and the dog.

Anyways, it’s been real busy at the house these days with the papers wanting to do follow up stories to “You’re a Million, Buck” and “A Dog, a Man, and the Woman Behind Them.” Larry even got his picture taken for People with Dana Reeves who told him never to give up hope. So now Larry takes Buck to rehab with him and Bucky’s learning to be a Service Dog. Just between me and you, it’s not what I expected out of life. I’m making interview appointments left and right. Redbook called me to do an exclusive on wives who stand by their men. The National Assistance Dog Service wants me to be the new poster girl for their ad campaigns because, it’s true, I’m what’s known as a looker. We sold the rights to our story to CBS and they’re airing the TV movie, Man’s Best Friend, next Sunday afternoon. We’re having a big party with all our new friends from further out on the Island, but believe you me it’s not all fun and games. Sometimes I have to run out of the house and chase the neighborhood kids away from the yard when I hear them yelling Tripod! Tripod! and rocks come flying over the fence. And then I go back in and Kitty wants me because, even though she’s got this high-tech motion-responsive wheeled cart, she still needs help with the big jobs.

And once in a while, Larry still cries, “Hon, I can’t stop thinking about the scared look on Bucky’s face. He looked even more scared than I was.”

I pull his head to my chest and say, “Shhh, baby, don’t worry yourself. We still got each other and one thing we know for sure: No matter what happens, Buck’ll always be here.”

 

 

BIO

Victoria Forester’s writing has appeared in or is forthcoming from various literary journals, including Washington Square Review, Spectrum Literary Journal, Funicular Magazine, and Moonchild Magazine. She recently became a doctor, but can only prescribe one insanely powerful sleeping pill in the form of a 300-page dissertation. Follow her on Twitter @DoveVictoria and Instagram @victoria.forester.

 

 

 

 

0

Recovery

by Paul C. Rosenblatt

 

 

After my wife Mim died I was lost.  Day after day of painful emptiness.  I ached.  Nothing was interesting.  I was just hanging on by my fingertips. Then one day, 14 months after she died, I decided I owed it to her to get back on my feet.  But I couldn’t just do it.  At 84 there wasn’t much of a “me” left now that Mim was gone.  I first had to figure out who I was.

How does a person figure that kind of thing out?  I don’t know, but it seemed that I had to have a self that was built on who I had been.  Who was I in my life with Mim?  And what of who I was then might still make sense as part of the self I would have moving forward?  I made a bit of progress thinking that through, but I was stuck because there was another very, very big part of my past life that I couldn’t come to grips with.  The person I was before Mim was someone I didn’t know or understand or maybe didn’t want to know or understand.  So I couldn’t deal with it.  But then I felt trapped and not able to move forward.  Instead of being back on my feet I was stuck on my butt, thinking in circles.

One morning I was sitting in the living room Mim and I had shared for years.  I hadn’t changed it after she died.  Still the same cream colored walls.  Still the walnut colored bookcase, filled with books one or both of us cherished.  Still the two easy chairs and couch with their faded flowery upholstery.  Still the same print on the wall of a forest.  I was sitting in one of the easy chairs thinking in circles about needing to get back on my feet but not being able to do it.  And then the phone rang.  It was a very strange call.

“Mr. Cohen?”

I didn’t reply, thinking it was a spam call.  But my pause didn’t deter the person on the other end of the line.

“Agent Jack Smith of the U.S. Justice Department.  I’d like to come by to talk about help you can give us with an investigation.”

I assumed it was a spam call, though I never had one like it.  Just in case it wasn’t spam, I thought I’d act like he was who he said he was.  “Mr. Smith, I’m sure you have the wrong number.”

“No, Mr. Cohen.  This is no mistake.  We in the Justice Department think you can help us.  Would 1:00 this afternoon be a good time to come by?”

“What’s this about?”

“I would rather tell you in person.”

I was curious, and thought I could use a break from thinking in circles. “Okay,” I said, “Give me your supervisor’s phone number.  If the person you say is your supervisor persuades me that you are who you say you are, I’ll see you at 1:00.”

After I hung up, I called the number he gave me.  The person who answered said she was the secretary to the Deputy Chief, Organized Crime and Racketeering Section, U.S. Attorney for Northern Illinois.  She told me that I couldn’t speak with agent Smith’s supervisor, but she sounded authentic and vouched for Smith.  And as she talked, the background sounds of a busy office increased my confidence that Smith was who he said he was.  So I decided I’d meet with him.

*  *  *  *  *

Promptly at 1:00 the doorbell rang.  I buzzed Agent Smith past the downstairs security door.  When he reached my apartment door, I opened it a few inches with the door chain secured so that it couldn’t be opened further.  He held up an identification card and badge.  They looked authentic.  The picture on the card matched the face on the man at my door, a distinguished looking African-American man.  He had on a dark suit, even though it was a hot summer day.  He was in his 40’s, balding, muscular, about 6 feet tall, and maybe 30 pounds overweight.  He looked safe enough, though like a man who had spent his entire life being serious.

I let him in.  Smith had a voice that commanded attention, a military posture, and no patience with small talk.  His first words after we sat down were about what brought him to my apartment. “Mr. Cohen, I am with the organized crime unit of the U.S. Attorney for Northern Illinois.  We have discovered a new source of information, but we cannot tap into it without unusual help.  We think you are uniquely qualified to provide that help.”

I snorted in amusement.  “I’m an old man, not qualified to do anything.”

He nodded but clearly didn’t agree with me, because he kept on with his recruiting pitch.  “We think your unique qualifications include your age and your past.  We know you were once associated with organized crime and served a prison sentence.”

It was a shock to me that he had brought up that part of my life, because that was at the heart of what I had been stuck about.  I didn’t understand who I was back then, didn’t like what I remembered about myself, and wasn’t sure how to deal with it or that I wanted to deal with it.  But I knew that dealing with it was key to getting back on my feet.  Quite a coincidence that a stranger would invite himself over to talk to me about what I had been struggling with.  I sat in silence, trying to figure out what forces in the universe brought him to me, what it meant that a federal agent knew I had done bad things and thought that was good, and whether his coming here now would help me.  My mind was racing, but I didn’t say anything.

Smith took my silence as an invitation to say more.  “In your 20’s you were associated with the Pinky Goldfarb gang and were convicted of assault and numbers running.  You served 37 months in prison and have been out of contact with organized crime ever since.”

I sighed.  Agent Smith was definitely putting it to me to think about my old self, but I didn’t know if I wanted to think about it now or talk with him about it.  I was feeling anxious and replied with words that were comfortable enough to say and moved the conversation away from my criminal past and time in jail. “While I was in prison, the Goldfarb gang was wiped out, every one murdered.  So I couldn’t go back to them even if I wanted to.  After I was released from prison I got a job as a conductor on the el trains and enrolled in night school.  I met Mim, the woman I married, my first week in night school.  I earned a teaching degree, we married, and I taught high school science for 37 years.  Mim was a wonderful partner, and teaching was a good life.”

Smith smiled the smile people give who want to seem like they appreciate what one has just said but are impatient to get on with their agenda.  “Mr. Cohen, because of your experience in organized crime and your age, you can help us in a way nobody else can.  Just two miles from here is an eldercare facility, Quiet Shelter.  It only admits residents who have been involved with organized crime and guarantees confidentiality for anything that is said there.  Elderly residents who know a lot about organized crime can say whatever comes to mind without risk of the information getting to the authorities.”

I laughed.  “Makes sense.  Lots of old farts babble whatever comes to mind.  Organized crime would need a place where their elders could blab without risk to anyone.  Do they call it Quiet Shelter because everyone’s quiet about what they hear there?”

He frowned.  “I don’t know why the name is Quiet Shelter.  But it is a shelter from gang warfare.  People from all gangs are safe there, even from gangs that have been at war with theirs.  It is also a shelter in that everyone who works there has personal or family connections to organized crime and can be trusted to keep secrets.”  Smith cleared his throat. “Now here’s where you come in.  We want you to become a resident of the facility for a month and then report to us what you learn about criminal activities.”

Shit!  Smith wanted me to walk into a nest of people my age who had done criminal things.  Would it be good or poisonous for me to be around those people?  Would I discover and come to understand pieces of myself from my criminal and prison days by getting to know them and by becoming a person who fit in with the social life at Quiet Shelter?  And did I want to discover those pieces of myself?  He was trying to push me into a place where I could possibly learn enough to deal with the part of my past that I’d been stuck dealing with.  Did I want that?  I felt a rush of anxiety.

And there was also the fact that mobsters beat, mutilated, or killed people who annoyed them.  I was often scared in my days in the criminal world and jail.  If I was in Quiet Haven as a snoop I’d be scared all the time.  I knew what they would do to a snoop if they caught one.  Lots of confusing thoughts, lots of anxiety.  But I’m a good poker player.  So I just looked at him as though I was calmly paying attention as he continued his recruiting pitch.

“My unit is particularly interested in money laundering, but we would use or pass on to other authorities anything you told us about drug dealing, illegal gambling, bribing government officials, hijacking, and other crimes.”  He leaned back and watched me, like the devil trying to con me into destroying myself.

I was thinking of saying, “Go to hell!  Get out!”  But I decided I needed to hear more.  Our conversation was pushing me to think in new ways about the old self I needed to deal with.  And I was puzzled by why Smith and his people had targeted me.  So I asked him:  “Why me?”

Smith replied with the assurance of a man who could speak for a powerful police agency. “You have an organized crime past, so you are eligible to live in the facility.  The Quiet Shelter staff would assume you know things that some people in organized crime would not want revealed.  We think we can trust you because you have not been a law breaker for 60 years, not even a driving violation.  You live near Quiet Shelter, so it makes sense that you would choose it.  We identified more than 50 people in this part of the Chicago area who could potentially help us.  But after checking out everyone you clearly are the best person for the job.”

I wondered what he meant by “checking out.”  “Did you people spy on me?”

“We did not follow you or tap your telephone, but we looked through court documents and reviewed your medical records.  And one of our agents sat next to you at a teachers’ union meeting last month and did a basic assessment.”

Ha!  HIPAA didn’t protect my medical records from the feds, even though they were not investigating me as a possible perpetrator of a crime they were trying to solve.  And I remembered the guy at the union meeting.  He seemed too interested in me.  I thought maybe he wanted to con money out of me, but he was conning information out of me.

Smith continued.  “Our man said you were smart and hard to read.  I agree with his assessment.  I think you would be good for the job.  For example, if you were shocked by my invitation to be an undercover informant, I could not tell.  And for an 84 year old man, you seem in good shape.”

“Looks are deceiving.  Sometimes I almost can’t get up from the toilet or out of bed.  Often I black out for a few seconds when I stand up.  I have back and hip pain every day.  In fact, I’m having trouble right now.”  I stood up carefully so as not to black out, but I couldn’t straighten up.  My left hip was, as usual when I first stand up, hurting intensely and feeling very unreliable.  I didn’t say anything to Smith.  I was focused on dealing with my body.  I pushed my left hand against the part of my left hip that was aching and walked slowly around the living room.  At the end of the third lap my back was hurting less and was less bent over, and my hip didn’t hurt and was working well enough.  So I returned to my chair.

Smith had quietly watched me stand up and walk around.  Once I sat down he said, “We know from your medical records that you have health problems, and those problems make it believable that you would need an eldercare facility.”

“Ha!  Being in bad shape makes me eligible for federal employment.  Agent Smith, this is entertaining, far better than daytime television.  But I never wanted to be a rat, and I know what people in organized crime do to informers.”  I picked up an AARP Bulletin near my feet and tossed it to the side.  “It doesn’t sound like anything a sane person would want to do.  What would be in it for me?”

He looked at me with a totally unreadable facial expression. He was a good poker player, too.  “It is a chance to help your country, and we would pay all your eldercare expenses plus the rent for this apartment while you were in the eldercare home.  We would also pay you $1000 a week.”

“Combat pay.  But I want to be safe.  How could I be safe being a rat?”

“Nobody in our agency will leak information that might compromise your safety.  And we would protect you by never using you as a grand jury or trial witness and by making all records of your role in our investigations top secret.”

“So I’d be on my own at Quiet Shelter?  If I screw up I’m dead.”

“We would protect you by having nothing to do with you.  Anything we did to try to protect you could tip off the Quiet Shelter staff that you are an informant.  The plan is that you would be there for a month and out of contact with us.  We would debrief you only after your month was up and you left Quiet Shelter.”

“Tough work for an 84 year old with no acting ability.  So how would I get in and out?”

“You would apply for admission on your own, and if you apply for one month, Quiet Shelter would automatically discharge you when the month was up and the money you paid ran out.  We will not contact your son, but you could encourage him to take you out periodically for walks, meals, and the like.”

My son Zach.  I still thought of him as a kid, but he was in his 50’s, had a nice job, and was planning for retirement.  I wouldn’t want to endanger him.  He would be worried if I went into an eldercare facility, and he would certainly visit and take me for outings.  Thinking about Zach made me want to get Smith out of my apartment and give myself room to think things through.  I stared at Smith, who was watching me like a cat eyeing a mouse.  “Okay, Smith, give me your calling card and a day or two to think about this.  I’ll get back to you with more questions or my decision.”

He handed me a calling card and we said our goodbyes.

*  *  *  *  *

After he left I went to my computer and looked up the Illinois Department of Health report of eldercare facility inspections.  It said that Quiet Shelter had no violations over the past three years.  Wow!  It’s a rare eldercare place that gets a clean “pass” on any inspection, let alone three years’ worth.  Then I did a web search for ratings of eldercare facilities by residents, family members, and friends.  There were seven ratings of Quiet Shelter. All were positive, 4 or 5 stars.

I went downstairs, squeezed into my old Honda Civic, and drove the two miles to Quiet Shelter.  It was a sunny day, and I don’t see well on sunny days, even with sun glasses.  Also, my reaction time is slow, and I get confused in complicated driving situations.  But I’m safe enough on streets I know, and the route to Quiet Shelter was along streets I knew.  I’d driven by the place hundreds of times, but it had never registered on me.  This time I drove slowly by the front, then turned to drive by the side and the back.  It was an imposing, four story, red brick building.  The grounds were well kept, lots of greenery and flowers.  Fences and shrubs made it impossible to see into the lower floor windows or to get close to the building anywhere other than at the entry to the building from the parking lot.  I thought about parking in the lot and going in to check out the lobby and get whatever brochures they had.  But just imagining doing it filled me with anxiety.  It felt so risky.  How could I help Smith when what he wanted me to do filled me with anxiety?  I turned around and drove home to think things over.

When I got home I made myself a cup of tea and sat down to write my reasons for going along with Smith and for not going along with him.  After a few minutes it was clear that my major reasons for not entering Quiet Shelter were the risk to my son and the risk to me.  I decided my son would be safe if he didn’t know about my working for the FBI.  The risk to me, I could live with.  It’s not like I wasn’t taking risks by driving, living alone, or even standing up.

As for reasons to do it, I was way too cynical about the criminal justice system and organized crime to think I could make a dent in the world of crime.  I didn’t need the money, and I felt no obligation to Agent Smith.  But as I thought about spending a month in Quiet Haven I had a horrible flashback, to a time I had avoided thinking about for decades.

As one of the bullies for the Pinky Goldfarb gang, I had been sent to collect protection money from a Jewish newsstand operator named Morris.  I had done dozens of “collections” and knew the routine.  I got off the streetcar and strode up to Morris, who was standing in front of his newsstand.  It was a cold, windy, dark afternoon in November, and it was drizzling.  Morris was a short thin man, with a thin beard, and thin clothing.  There was a little boy standing next to him who was also thin and wearing thin clothing.  I said with the confidence of an experienced bully who had a violent organization behind him, “Morris, I’m here to collect money that you owe Pinky Goldfarb.”  All the previous times when I collected money from a guy running a small business, the guy grumbled about it but always paid his $3.00 or whatever it was.  But Morris started screaming at me, “You fucking thief!  I hardly earn enough to eat and feed my family. We live in a tiny, dark basement flat with mice and cockroaches.  $3.00 is a lot of money to me.  Giving you $3 means we will eat almost nothing for days.  Look at my little boy Abie.  He’s the size of a six year old, but he’s 10.  We’re starving.  Leave me the hell alone.”  He turned and walked into his little newsstand.  I said, “Morris.  You know bad things will happen if you don’t pay.  You will lose your business and who knows what else might happen.”  He stumbled out of the newsstand and swung wildly at me with his right hand.  I dodged the swing and shoved him away from me.  He lost his balance and fell into the street.  His head hit the pavement, and instantly a big truck with brakes screaming ran over his chest and head.  He was dead.  His little boy Abie screamed and screamed.

As people gathered around Morris’s lifeless body, I turned and ran.  Three blocks away I staggered into an alley behind a row of stores, bent over and vomited.  Vomiting didn’t clean out what was in me.  It’s still in me.  I earned my living by extorting money from people earning barely enough to survive.  Doing that was evil. And then this guy Morris died.  I could have saved him.  I could have just walked away from him.  I could have let him hit me; it wouldn’t have hurt.  I didn’t have to push him away from me.  So many people going hungry because of what I did.  Morris dead.  And little Abie an orphan.  I hadn’t thought about that stuff for a long time, but I knew it was always in me, always eating at me.

Thinking about that gave me compelling reasons for spending time at Quiet Shelter.  My criminal past was at the crux of my being stuck trying to work out who I was.  It was who I was in those years in the Goldfarb gang and in jail that I couldn’t deal with or even remember well enough in trying to make sense of my past self.  Who was I back then?  What was there about me that I could do such harm to people?  How did all the other gangsters from those days live with themselves now?

Quiet Shelter would give me a chance to dig into my past.  I would get to know people like who I was and hear stories about people doing things like I did.  A month in Quiet Shelter might open up closed doors in my memory and tell me very unpleasant things about my old self, but I needed to understand that old self to figure out who I was now and what was reasonable to do next.  Maybe I’d learn from others how to live with an evil past.  A month in Quiet Shelter could be a godsend.

I didn’t need to ask Smith more questions.  I called his office phone and told his voice mail, “This is Cohen.  I’ll do it.”

 

 

 

BIO

Paul Rosenblatt is a retired professor who grew up in Chicago and lives in Minnesota.  As an academic he has published 14 books and more than 200 journal articles and chapters in edited books.  As a beginning writer of literary works he has pieces coming out in Streetlight Magazine, Avatar Review, and an edited book of writings.

 

 

 

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Thick Skin, Locked Jaw, Yes Ma’am

by Rina Sclove

 

 

Liana isn’t quite sure what to do with herself when the commander holds the gun out in front of her. She knows what she’s supposed to do — take it, lie on the mat, do the practice drill like they’d gone over. Hand on the barrel, finger away from the trigger, elbows tucked.

She knows what to do with her body. But what to do with herself — of that she isn’t so sure.

Body over mind, she tells herself. It is only her second day of basic training but she is a soldier nonetheless, all thick skin, locked jaw and “yes ma’am.”

The commander holds out a gun and Liana takes it, the metal sharp and cold in her palm. Like ice, but heavier, the kind of weight that she knows she isn’t meant to hold. Her hands carry it nonetheless — she is a soldier, after all — and somehow she makes it to the mat, lies down with legs spread apart, propped up on her elbows. When the time comes she lifts the gun, waiting for commands.

She had expected it to be different, somehow, as if accepting orders would feel more grave if she had a killing machine in her hands. She’d had nightmares about if for the full week after she was given the draft notice, envisioned her hands bloody with a stain she couldn’t remove, metal dragging her deep down into the earth, straight through the crust and into its burning core.

It is her body that she was chosen for, sturdy and strong, everything a soldier’s is meant to be. Her mind had also played a part — she’d gotten good grades in school and had always followed instructions perfectly. Nobody, though, had asked about her heart. She thinks of how she cried into her pillow for that bitter week and knows that it was a mistake, that they would have found something too soft to not be crushed within the grasp of army-greens.

She is just as much blood as she is bone and muscle, kindness in the way that is iron. This is something she knows, seeped from her heart to her mind, all the way to her palms, steady as they hold the cold steel of the gun. It comes as a surprise, then, that when the commander barks at her to load she feels nothing.

It’s because it’s an empty cartridge, she tells herself, pushes it in and ignores the way she knows it isn’t true.

The commander keeps shouting orders and Liana keeps following them to the letter. It is because she is a soldier, she tells herself. It is because the gun is empty.

Only it isn’t. Her arms have started to ache with the weight of it, unyielding metal turning her limbs into lead. How could it be empty if she felt it so sharply, if her arms were not screaming for all of the ways in which it is full?

The commander gives the order to shoot, and Liana is sure that this is the one that will make her feel something. She will cry, shake, scream, gasp for air, anything to let the world know that her skin might be iron but kindness is blood, all heat, bubbling as it melts the steel facade. That there are things that are stronger than her hands, and this, this will be the proof of it.

Only it doesn’t, not yet, and oh god what if I never –

No. She is a soldier, but she is kind, and she can be both. She has to be.

The target is shaped like a person. She isn’t meant to be aiming for anything, only getting a feel for how to shoot, but she can’t take her eyes off of it. It looks small, Liana thinks, though maybe it’s just the distance. At any rate, it should make her sick to shoot at it, should make her feel something, anything.

In the end, it doesn’t even make her hesitate.

She pulls the trigger, shoots the gun, feels the kickback make her entire body tremble. The gun is empty, the person metal, but this is still real, and she doesn’t know what to make of that.

Afterwards, the commander gives her notes on her form and she listens with a soldier’s ears, attentive and unyielding. So it is only when she is dismissed to sit with the others that she realizes that the kickback was the only thing she’d felt, that when her body shook it was only at one kind of impact.

Bea is crying, Veronica is staring wide-eyed at her palms, and Mich and Jo are whispering frantically over the guns lying in their laps. They are soldiers, all of them, and good people. Shooting at something doesn’t make you less of one. There is a war, after all, and a country full of other good people to defend.

Still, though. She’s supposed to feel something when she does it, and Liana can’t help but wonder what is so wrong with her that she can’t.

She has a soldier’s body, she’s always known that. But it is only when she looks to her arms and realizes that they are no longer struggling with the weight of the gun that she wonders if she has a soldier’s heart, too.

Had they looked at it after all? Did they examine it during her physical, peek into its caverns and crevices, feel it beat and decide that it was just as metal as the rest of her? Or was it the opposite? Had she forgotten in all of the chaos that soft things cannot be crushed, only molded, that they will fit any uniform so long as they’re put in it?

Kindness, steel, a gun in her palms — which will be stronger, when it matters? Will she?

Liana thinks of a target-shaped person, of an icy burden she can no longer feel beating in her chest and loosens her grip on the gun, finally registering the way the metal had bitten into her skin.

She doesn’t know if she has a soldier’s heart. Doesn’t even know what it would mean if she did. Still, she shudders as she casts her eyes towards the open sky, lips moving somewhere between a prayer and a promise as she begs for a good one.

 

 

 

BIO

Rina Sclove is currently a junior in high school at Princeton Day School. She lives in Princeton, NJ with her parents, two sisters, and beloved fish, Algae-Won Kenobi. She has previously had work published in Canvas Literary Journal and Adelaide Literary Magazine and hopes to become an author someday!

 

 

 

 

 

 

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