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Not a Seamless Lunch

by Anna Linetskaya

 

Edgar was looking at the screen, but none of it made sense. What he had worked for, what he returned to day after day, was no longer there. The sense of deep unease took over him as the realization settled in: somewhere, someone had changed the meal preferences on his Seamless page.

He looked around the office to see whether any of his colleagues were facing the same problem. Unfortunately, the cubicle divider in front of his desk obscured most of his workmates. Meggie, the only person he could see without lifting from his ergonomic chair, was standing by the receptionist’s desk, her face as serene as that of a seasoned yogi. No wonder. Not only did she make it to Hot Vinyasa class every morning before showing up at the office at precisely 7:15AM, she also found time to make and actually bring her own lunches to work. That Meggie, she did not have anything to worry about. She did not depend on Seamless. Although usually it meant chewing on a wilted spinach leaf from used Tupperware, today, her independence finally paid off.

Meggie was no good; Edgar needed a more reliable source to estimate the seriousness of the  lunch predicament. He could Bloomberg-chat Kenny, his work buddy from Compliance. It would not be the first time they used the terminal for personal communication. Strictly speaking, such communication was against corporate policy, and it was Kenny’s job to preclude it. Yet, it was not the ethical implications of technology misuse, but rather Kenny’s complete uselessness when it came to food choices that stopped Edgar from going down that route.

Kenny, who called himself an omnivore, was, in Edgar’s opinion, simply a person deprived of taste buds, let alone a palette. Kenny would eat everything and anything, so long as there was enough of it. Rice and beans? Yes, please. Cheese nachos? Pack two. You say, “Kosher pizza?” Kenny says, “How high can I pile it on the plate?” In other words, Kenny was happy as long as there was Seamless, regardless of what it actually offered.

No, Kenny was no good either. Edgar needed to find someone of his own caliber, someone who could relate to his quandary. A person who, although aware of the calorie count and the circumference of their waist, was passionate about food. A person who saw lunch as a personal getaway from the humdrum of the office life. Someone who appreciated the fact that you get only one try when it comes to placing your Seamless order. There was no Redo button on that page, after all.

If there was indeed a firm-wide Seamless crisis (and not just a glitch on Edgar’s page), Sander the Foodie and Tim the Golf Guy would be the ones to show visible signs. Edgar made a decision: he would stand up and personally survey the field. But he would have to do so discreetly, so not to alter the natural state of his colleagues’ distress. For that he needed a believable disguise. Water cooler trips were painfully passé; the way to the men’s restroom lay through the corridor and did not allow for much observation. One last option remained: he would make his way to the Health Station.

The Heath Station was a rather new development, a by-product of the HR’s preoccupation with employees’ health and wellbeing. In a rare burst of creativity, the HR team had decided that the obvious solution to the problem of obesity—fewer calories in and more calories out—was utterly obsolete. What the office workers needed was more food but, this time, of the nonperishable and prepackaged kind. Granola bars, protein bars and shakes, fiber cookies, and fat-free crackers: anything that had the word healthy on its shiny packaging had already made or was quickly making its way to that magic cabinet, strategically positioned in the middle of the office floor.

The trip to the Health Station was ideal. It provided both a long, winding path and a perfect lookout spot. It also provided a much-needed pick-me-up snack. Edgar almost reached the coveted cupboard when a sudden “Later, all!” distracted him from the task at hand. To his surprise, the number of people from whom he was to choose his confidant was diminishing right before his eyes. Tim the Golf Guy (responsible for the awakening “Later, all!”) and five other colleagues from his group were exiting the office one by one. Only Meggie and Laura, a timid, middle-aged woman whom Edgar did not know well and had no interest in knowing better, remained.

The field trip. Of course. Of all days, today had to be Tuesday the 15th. The day that six out of nine people on Edgar’s team were scheduled to work at their new client’s office. Edgar recalled how happy he had been when they elected him to stay behind in the office with Meggie and Laura. With most people from his team gone, it felt almost like a vacation. He had his food, he had his Internet, and he had very few people around to bother him.

Little did he know that Tuesday the 15th would also be the day his trusted food deliveries, with their luscious but calorie-conscious offerings, disappeared from his Seamless account. Who in the world had decided to change the list? Who needed to fix what was not broken? But most importantly, why did it have to happen on the day Edgar got to get not one but two lunches delivered?

One of the reasons Edgar was so excited to stay behind on the field trip day was that he got to use the absent colleagues’ lunch allowance as he pleased. Of course, they would have to play fair and share the six extra lunch funds between the remaining people from the team. But out of the three remaining people, Edgar was one; Meggie did not use the lunch allowance lest she lost her “Homemade Lunch Queen” title; and Laura, who knew? With a little bit of nudging and a comment or two about the upcoming bikini season, she would surely give her extra lunch money to Edgar. And he would know how to use it wisely. He had his Favorite Seamless tags sorted exactly for such an occasion.

Edgar’s perfect plan was now ruined by events outside of his control. He had all the lunch credit in the world, but his trusted purveyors of sustenance were no longer there to supply him with their goods. Edgar found himself in a predicament right out of a children’s fable: he had everything he needed, but he didn’t know what to do with it. That was the only thing he could focus on as he sat back down on his ergonomic chair and stared at his Seamless page, still in total disarray.

For the second time in the last five minutes, an unexpected sound interrupted Edgar’s musings. The annoying bing was trying to attract Edgar’s attention to a new incoming email. In it, a faceless but very caring HR person was encouraging Edgar to please finalize his lunch choice so it could be placed promptly and delivered to his desk on time.

It was not that Edgar was afraid of choice. To the contrary, he appreciated the power that came with conscious decision-making. He grew up in a family of Jewish academics who evaluated every life occurrence in terms of a cause and effect (or, if not that, then at least a correlation). From an early age, Edgar’s parents had instilled in him the desire to choose correctly and the belief that such a choice was actually possible. You only needed to collect all the relevant information to make it.

So this is what he had to do now. Since he had been deprived of his preferred lunch options, he needed to collect all the information necessary to make a well-informed and, more importantly, correct choice of his upcoming unfamiliar meal. The first call of duty was the culprit itself: his Seamless account. Here, Edgar had to be careful not to misplace his anger; it was not actually Seamless the Company who had mixed up his options, but rather the omnipresent, conniving HR.

It was the HR, who, in the best tradition of Big Brother, oversaw from which six restaurants Edgar was to eat his lunch on any given day. Of course, such power could not have been delegated to a single department without the proper checks and bounds set in place. Although on paper it looked like the HR made the calls, in reality it was the result of the monthly employee survey which determined the lucky six. Edgar, ever an active corporate citizen, made sure to advocate for his favorites, which almost always made it on the list. Apparently, on Tuesday the 15th, the HR blatantly overstepped its power by changing delivery options sans referendum.

Now, Edgar needed to get to know the new players. He carefully studied the six unfamiliar names that appeared on his Seamless account. None of the descriptions that accompanied the names spoke to him; none of the wording enticed Edgar to sample the goods. How on earth, after being spoiled with his favorite restaurants’ follow-up surveys and having his ego massaged by their social media’s targeted campaigns, was he to choose from this unappealing mound of impersonal information?

The actual websites of the six contenders did not prove to be any better. Yelp pages did provide some nice visuals, but Edgar, a seasoned customer, knew that all the niceties of the presentation would be gone the moment the food was placed in the delivery box. Edgar saw the delivery box as the ultimate equalizing device: it stripped the food of all visual appeal, allowing the essence of the dish—its ingredients—to take center stage.

The ingredients. Here is where Edgar faced a real challenge. Only four out of six restaurants listed the ingredients of each dish on their respective menus, and not a single one provided the actual ingredient amounts used. It was simply impossible to say whether a chicken salad was a true chicken salad or a bunch of greens sprinkled with morsels of canned chicken meat. And what about all the sausages? Were they 100% beef or were there remnants of fatty pork added to the mixture for taste and texture? Although not observant, Edgar’s Jewish heritage rebelled at this purposeful omission.

Edgar decided to act. Instead of wasting his time on soulless descriptions, he would call up the restaurants to get all the information he thought was material for his decision. He hoped that the restaurant owners were at least savvy enough to provide a phone number and a sufficiently competent person to answer Edgar’s pressing questions.

Edgar picked up the phone and dialed the first number on the list. The handset was heavy and felt alien in his hand. It had been a while since he had actually used it. To Edgar, the concept of a phone conversation was a thing of the past, a feature of a society where people had not yet discovered the beauty of instant messaging. With it, you could take time to deliberate, to think the answer through, and to embellish it with visual content if needed. With a phone conversation, you had no such opportunity. By picking up the phone, you were entering the terrain of real-time debate and were foolishly subjecting yourself to the possibility of a verbal attack.

Edgar took a deep breath and suppressed his desire to hang up after the second ring. Luckily, an abrupt “Yes?” put an end to Edgar’s suspense. Although it was a rather unfriendly way to initiate a conversation with a potential customer, Edgar made a conscious effort to evoke the sense of appreciation and gratitude that he was trying to foster towards others, rude service people included. He had read somewhere that those who deliberately practice gratitude experience lower levels of stress and are on average happier and more resilient than their ungrateful compatriots. Despite his growing irritation, Edgar reminded himself that he should not take it personally and should not make assumptions about the person at the other end of the line. According to the little cheat-sheet of happy life principles Edgar had pinned above his desk, he also was supposed to “remain impeccable with your word,” even more so during the upcoming conversation.

The first order of business was to make sure that the person on the other end was qualified to provide the information Edgar needed. After confirming that it was indeed the correct restaurant and that they did deliver lunches on a regular basis, Edgar inquired about the person’s first name and dietary preferences. It was important to establish rapport so Edgar’s new phone acquaintance, Thang, could feel comfortable enough to share his honest opinion. It was equally important to establish whether or not Thang was affected  by any of the restrictive food fads, such as veganism, and to adjust the weight of his honest opinion accordingly.

Thang proved to be solid. Not only did he eat fish, meat, and poultry, he also happened to receive part of his reimbursement as lunch credit to be spent in the restaurant, so he had vast firsthand experience with the menu. Thang’s brief lament about being “short on cash to buy food for the family” did not dissuade Edgar; it was obviously meant as an ice-breaker and not as a real complaint. Surely, Thang could get a doggy bag ‘to-go’ to take lunch leftovers back home.

Edgar felt like he was onto something. Maybe the damages caused by the Seamless disaster  could be reduced to a minimum, after all. Although Thang could not name the exact amount of beef used in the Wild Meatloaf Wrap, he assured Edgar that, where Thang came from, “It would be enough to feed a family of four.” There was just one thing left to clarify, and it was not Thang’s country of origin. It was gluten.

What followed caused Edgar to temporarily loose his state of equanimity. He was prepared to face Thang’s potential ignorance on the topic and had his brief three-minute lecture on the dangers of gluten ready. He was prepared to discuss which modifications could be made to the wrap to make it gluten-free, and was ready to sacrifice some of the nutrients. He was even prepared to face the “Yes, it contains gluten” defeat. That he could handle.

What he could not handle was the blatant “So, you are Jewish and celiac?” remark. Who was Thang to box Edgar in like that? To put this label on him? No, Edgar did not have celiac disease or wheat sensitivity. But Edgar did have a right not to be labeled “celiac” every time he wished to avoid gluten. He was much more than his dietary preferences, and he felt it was his civic duty to nip any such attempt at objectification in the bud. Feeling that he no longer could remain impeccable with his word, Edgar hung up.

He stared at his phone, trying to process what was happening to him. Thang’s words touched a rough spot deep inside Edgar. It always came down to that with food, to the need to explain that it was not a matter of religion of allergies. Edgar simply liked to know what exactly he put into his body. The careful process of selection was time consuming and, on occasion, stressful, yet he accepted those small discomfort as the price he had to pay to stay in control. To stay in control in a world where the produce was manufactured, not grown; where a carton of milk could be spiked with arsenic; where a calf may not see the light of day before becoming a steak. How was that his prudence and responsible attitude towards food always managed to turn into a cause of conflict and mockery?

Edgar looked at his computer screen. The onerous message from the HR was still there, staring back at him. He needed to make a choice, and he needed to make it quick: it was by now 11:05AM, which meant he had less than five minutes before the 11:10AM order submission cutoff.

Overcome with emotion, Edgar took a deep breath and resolved to switch to cold logic. He thought he needed to make a choice, but did he really? Granted, the whole system was set up to foster this belief: the Seamless account was his; the HR prompted Edgar to finalize his choice. But there was a loophole in the system, and Edgar had seen it being used before. For some reason, his brain chose to suppress this knowledge, but now that Edgar had a complete recollection of it, his mind was set. He looked at the email, clicked Reply button and typed in the words that were sure to put an end to this lunch debacle: “In the meeting. Please, spend today’s lunch credit (mine, Tim’s, Sander’s) as you see fit. Best, Edgar.”

Edgar took another deep breath, clicked Send, and sat back in his chair. His gaze rested on the mood-enhancing lamp, which the HR strongly encouraged to position against the cubicle divider wall behind the computer screen. The deep indigo colors of the cubicle wall were supposed to bring a sense of calm, while the pale yellow and bright orange of the lamp encouraged one to rise to one’s potential like a rising sun. Edgar realized he hated those colors.

Edgar stood up. Suddenly, he realized he hated not only the colors but the very idea of the mood-enhancing lamp. He hated the cubicle wall. He hated Meggie, who was standing right behind it with her bright, toothy smile and her stinky collection of Tupperware containers. He hated Laura, who was munching on another carb-free, sugar-free, fat-free, fiber-rich protein bar she had just gotten from the Heath Station. Most of all, he hated the fact that he had just given away his right to choose to the very people who made all of this happen.

Did they really care about Edgar when they made those choices? Did they ever stop to consider his well-being or the fact that his bad cholesterol had gone through the roof since he had joined this workplace? Did they know that what he really needed was someone who could care for him without any hidden agenda?

Edgar stormed out of the office. He needed to clear his mind, and this time deep breathing exercises were not up to the task. Edgar needed a good old walk in the park, needed to feel the sun on his face and the wind against his skin. A walk like the ones he used to take as a child with his Grandpa. Back when he still could run and play and laugh, all under the watchful eye of his guardian, who pretended to read his Sunday newspaper in the shade of a poplar tree.

* * *

Edgar walked through the park entrance across from his office building. Most of the benches along the main path were occupied by people who looked very much like him. Those people, dressed in different shades of gray with occasional splotches of white and light pink, were the happy few who were actually allowed to step away from their desks during the day. Many of them were holding Styrofoam containers and paper bags covered with grease stains of different shapes and sizes. The aroma emanating from those receptacles overpowered all other smells in the park: the lunch hour had finally arrived.

Edgar’s stomach responded to the smell with a predictable rumble of hunger, but his mind refused to budge. He wanted none of this. He did not want to stuff his face with a dripping sandwich while checking his email on his phone. He did not want to gulp liters of flavorless coffee from a Venti cup to get thought the afternoon low. He did not want to eat from a doggy bag, even if it came from the most coveted food truck in the area.

What he wanted was to eat with abandon, just like he used to as a child. To eat without thinking that he should be eating something else, to eat without thinking that he should be doing something else. To eat food that had been prepared with love.

Edgar found an empty bench in a remote corner of the park and sat down in the shade. He closed his eyes. Like when they were all still living together and when the smell of his mother’s kotletu would force everyone to drop whatever they were doing and gather around the table. Like on a cold winter night, when his grandmother would heat up the oven, and while the rugelach were baking, they would all play cards and steal spoonfuls of warm custard from the jar. His mind was overcome with those pleasant memories; the stress of the lunch debacle slowly started to subside.

“Do you mind if I sit here, sir?” said a voice out of nowhere. Edgar opened his eyes and saw a little boy about ten yeas old standing next to him. The boy was holding a carefully wrapped foil parcel in his hands. Edgar shifted and gestured the boy to sit down next to him.

“My mom is over there, at the kiddies’ playground with my little sister. It is not often that I get to take my lunch to the park with them. I’m usually at school, you know. But when I do get to come here, I really like it.” The boy smiled at Edgar and started to unwrap his parcel.

“I hope it’s a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. My mom makes them the best! She knows that I like them, and she puts these little heart-shaped jelly beans on top. I’m all grown up now, but I still like it very, very much.”

As the boy unwrapped the foil, Edgar could see a huge smile lighting up on his face. Inside, the boy found what he was hoping for. His joy was pure, his satisfaction almost complete. Almost. Edgar could sense that something was amiss; something was stopping the boy from taking that coveted first bite.

The boy lifted up his head and stared Edgar straight in the eye. Then, without saying a word, the boy broke the sandwich in half, tore off a piece of foil, carefully wrapped one half, and extended it to Edgar.

Humbled, Edgar accepted the offering. He took a bite, chewed, swallowed, and looked back at the boy.

Seamlessly, all of it made sense.

 

 

BIO

Anna Linetskaya is an emerging writer who, after years of academic work and legal practice, finally finds herself writing pieces she truly enjoys. She is currently working on her first novel while completing her MFA in Creative Writing at the City College of New York. When not working on her book, Anna is sure to be found reading books of others. She is unapologetic about her reading locations and is particularly proud of her reading-while-walking skill. Her most recent publication, “myLife: a Story,” appeared as a series of installments in Visitant.

https://www.linetskaya.com/

 

 

 

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Day Hike

by Priscilla Mainardi

 

 

“What did you think of her?” I said to my brother. We had just started up the trail, wide enough here at the beginning so we could walk side by side.

“Nice,” Jake pronounced. “A little nervous, but who wouldn’t be?” He stopped and turned to me. “You should have seen the look on your face.”

“I hope I didn’t laugh. I thought Mom was kidding at first. I thought she meant Becca was like a daughter to her, not an actual daughter.” I stepped around a rock that stuck up in the middle of the trail. “Amazing that we never knew, or even suspected.”

“Mom didn’t even know anything about her.  Until recently, that is,” Jake said.

Becca had gotten in touch with our mother in late February, and they met for the first time a few days later at a halfway point in New Hampshire. My mother didn’t tell me any of this when she called me last week to confirm Sunday brunch with Jake, something we had done every few weeks since I moved back from California.   She just said, “I have something important to tell you and your brother.”

Becca, our new-found sister, was the important thing she had to tell us.

 

Jake and I began to ascend a steeper part of the trail. Afternoon sunlight slanted through the trees. I unzipped my jacket, loosened my scarf. Becca had complimented the scarf when I arrived at brunch this morning. My college friend Elvira always compliments people when she first meets them, to get them to like her. Was that what Becca was doing? I wished I’d thought of it myself.

“What happens now?” I asked Jake. “Is she going to be, like, part of the family?”

“If she wants to be. And if Mom wants her to be. I don’t think it’s so much about us.”

But it is about us, I wanted to say. Jake’s calm made my natural reaction — surprise, confusion, resentment at just learning about Becca now — seem somehow irrational. “I wonder if Dad knows about her,” I said. Our father left when I was in third grade. “And what do we know about her father?”

Jake held up a hand. “Wait, Lydia.  Are you forgetting we have a nephew now too?”

I laughed. “Right,” I said. “Andrew. How could we have made it this far without knowing anything about them?”

“Think how it must be for Becca to find out about us, after all these years,” Jake said. “Or how it was for Mom, having the baby taken away from her. Imagine how she feels.”

“Okay, Mr. Empathy.” Sometimes Jake was a little too nice. He lumped everyone together and acted like they were all the same, when they clearly weren’t.

We hiked in single file until we came to a fork. I described the route I’d taken once before, to the top of the ridge, then down along the stream that ran through the gorge. We’d end up a quarter mile down the road from the parking lot.

“Sure we won’t need crampons?” Jake said.

More snow appeared in the woods as we climbed but the trail was dry. “I doubt it,” I said.

Jake checked the time on his phone. “Just think,” he said, “two hours ago, we were sitting down meeting Becca.”

“Three hours ago, I didn’t even know I had a sister.”

 

“How did you find us?” I asked Becca. “I mean, find out my mother was . . . find out who your mother was?” I stopped, took a breath. I was trying to play it cool, a cool I didn’t really feel. Mangling my sentences wasn’t helping.

Becca gave a wide smile. She had her answer ready. But then she’d known about us, whereas we’d just learned about her. Maybe this explained her calm. Or maybe she came by it naturally. “Andrew fainted on the basketball court,” she said, “and when I took him to the doctor, they were worried that he might have a heart condition, and wanted me to check with his closest relatives.” We must have look alarmed at this, because she held up a hand, smooth and pale, with pink nails. “I asked my parents, and they gave me the name of the adoption agency. My lawyer wrote to the agency and told them the situation, and they gave me your mother’s name.”

“But Andrew — is he okay?” I said.

“Oh, yes, he’s fine. They decided he was probably just dehydrated.”

“Well,” said my mother, at her cheeriest, “we’re glad he’s okay, and so glad you found us.”

We were in her dining room, eating quiche and sausages and out of season strawberries. Sunlight poured in through the tall windows. My mother seemed a little too happy, her cheeks flushed an unusual pink color, her eyes bright. She kept jumping up for things she’d forgotten in the kitchen, a pitcher of orange juice, bread and butter. We usually ate bagels and cream cheese or French toast at the kitchen table, watching the birds come and go from the bird feeder outside the window. Brunch wasn’t usually this varied and complex.

Becca told us she’d grown up in Portsmouth, where she still lived and worked as a florist. She was forty-four and divorced, and Andrew was in eighth grade. She was tall and blond with little resemblance to either Jake, who was stocky and strong and dark, or me, of average height with medium-brown hair. She looked like she’d never done the things I’d done: put white powder up my nose, slept in a park wrapped in all my clothes, snuck out of a restaurant without paying, taken off my clothes in front of a camera.

I took a bite of quiche and gazed out the window. Most of the snow had melted from the grass, though there was still a little patch on the north side of every tree. Jake was describing his programming job, his girlfriend who worked as a physical therapist, the apartment they’d moved into together in Burlington. I had met his girlfriend, but hadn’t seen their new apartment yet. When did people stop seeing the places where their siblings lived? Twenty-six seemed too young. You think you’ll always be as close as when your rooms are next door to each other, and you kick each other every night for space on the family room couch.

We hadn’t even talked since the last brunch.  And Jake hadn’t seen my place either. I told Becca about the tiny cabin I lived in, that I chopped my own wood and worked at the general store. This sounded homey, like the store carried maple syrup and maybe bolts of calico, but I mostly sold hotdogs and lottery tickets. Becca didn’t need to know every little thing about me, and I broad-stroked it, hoping “I spent a few years on the West Coast” sounded intriguing rather than secretive. And who knew what Becca wasn’t telling us? It was our first meeting after all.

 

“Slow down,” Jake said. “I can hardly keep up with you.”

I slowed my pace and glanced down the valley where the sun lit up the tops of the bare trees. “You know, Mom used to say that to me all the time. Talk smaller steps. She was always criticizing me for something. Remember how she used to move my hair out from behind my ears all the time?” Becca’s hair was a perfect blond coif that curled in to cover her ears. “After awhile I started to think I might as well go ahead and actually do something wrong.”

Jake laughed. “Maybe she wasn’t criticizing, maybe she just couldn’t keep up with you. And maybe your hair did look better covering your ears.”

“You sound just like her.”

I meant it as a mild putdown but Jake just laughed again.

“What about my job?” I said. “She’s always after me to get a better job.”

“We all know you could be doing more with yourself than selling scratch-offs.”

“Can’t she just be happy I moved home?”

“She’s glad you’re rid of what’s-his-name,” he said.

He means Jimmy, my old boyfriend, who I followed to California so he could make movies.

“Still, maybe this explains a few things,” I said. “Maybe Mom was always measuring me up against some invisible ideal daughter.”

“I think you’ll have to let that one go, Lydia. Becca’s just another flawed human being like the rest of us.”

Later we would go to one of Andrew’s basketball games and I would see that this was true. She wore jeans and a sweatshirt, went without makeup, chewed her nails in the stands, joined in when the other parents booed the referee to protest a foul call.

“Was Mom upset about it all her life, do you think,” I said, “or did she just forget about the baby and move on?”

“I’m sure she never forgot,” Jake said.

“So she got pregnant and gave the baby away. Couldn’t she have had an abortion?”

“Not back then.”

“But still,” I persisted, “she kept it a secret all these years. Even though she knew this day might come.”

“Give her a break, will ya? This has been hard on her too. Hardest.”

He sounded like Elvira, who used to say to always err on the side of kindness and generosity. Or was it forgiveness and generosity? I could never remember. “Okay, sure, a break,” I said.

We’d been climbing steadily and stopped to catch our breath and take a drink of water. Jake seemed pretty calm about the whole thing. Maybe this was because he hadn’t spent the whole brunch comparing himself to Becca in every little detail — hairstyle, make-up, clothes, the way she spoke, held herself, had a worthwhile career.

But now that I thought about it, Jake hadn’t even looked all that surprised when Mom told us who Becca was. Maybe there was another reason he was so calm. I turned to him. “How long have you known?”

Jake held up a hand. “Hear that, Lydia?” he said. “That sort of rushing sound?”

I stood still and listened. All I heard was the rustle and creak of tree branches. “The wind?”

“More like water. Is there a stream?”

“I think we cross a creek soon,” I said.

We resumed walking.  Soon we came to the source of the sound. The creek had widened and gouged out a new course down the side of the mountain, carrying away rocks, uprooting trees.

“Last time I was here this was a trickle,” I said.

“Think we can get across?”

We were almost to the top of the ridge, so it didn’t make sense to turn around and go back the way we had come. I climbed up on a rock and looked for a place to cross. “How about there?” I said, pointing downstream where some fallen trees formed a makeshift bridge.

We moved down the rocky creek bank. There was more snow here, a thin coating with deeper patches here and there. The rocks on the hillside were unstable, and shifted uneasily when I stepped on them. I told myself that it didn’t matter who had learned about Becca first, now that we had both met her. Or that it shouldn’t matter. But still I was curious. “So how long?” I said.

“Only a little while,” Jake said. “I heard Mom on the phone one day when I was over there. It was soon after Becca had gotten in touch with her. She seemed upset when she hung up. I asked her what was wrong and she told me the whole thing.”

“Why didn’t you tell me?”

“It wasn’t mine to tell. But I know Mom wanted to. She just wanted to find the right time. Not have you learn accidentally, like I did.”

“Why didn’t she just tell me sometime when we were alone, like she did with you? Why spring Becca on me at a brunch?  She hardly ever even calls me.”

“She’s just trying to give you some space.”

We skirted a massive fallen tree, then angled upward to get back to the log bridge and the trail. Here the terrain was so steep there was no underbrush, no thorny bushes to impede us, and we climbed steadily. Finally we got back to the creek, and crossed it on the fallen logs.

We stopped to take another drink, then we were climbing again. Clouds moved past the sun. A chilly breeze blew and the tree branches scraped and rubbed against each other. We plunged into a pine forest. Tall trees darkened the trail, filling me a feeling of gloom.

Jake stopped. “Whoa,” he said. “What happened here?”

A section of the hillside had collapsed, leaving a steep cone of dirt and pebbles with old tree roots sticking up from it. A foot wide path was all that was left of the trail.

“Now I wish I did have my crampons,” Jake said, sizing up the narrow path. Then he shrugged and started across. I hesitated for a moment, looking for a safe place to step.

“You coming?” Jake said, and when he turned to look at me, his foot slipped off the edge. He reached for a handhold, but there was nothing to grasp on the rock wall, and he started sliding down the steep hillside. He grabbed one of the roots to stop his fall but it snapped.  He bent his knees and went down, sliding on his back to the bottom.

He landed in a tangle of rocks and fallen branches.  “Jake,” I called. “Jacob.”

His voice rose up to me. “Damn. Fuck. Son of a. . . ”

“Anything broken?” I shouted. “Are you bleeding?”

“No blood. But I wrenched my ankle. I don’t think I can climb back up.”

“Don’t move. I’m on my way.”

I went down the trail a few yards and looked for a way to climb down to him. “Don’t,” Jake called. “It’s too dangerous.”

I had only gone a few feet when I dislodged a good-sized rock, which clattered down the hillside.

There was a deathly silence after it fell. Heart racing, I called out, “Still there?”

“Yo,” came Jake’s reply. “You should probably go get some help.”

I climbed back up to stabler ground. “Can you call someone?”

“No service,” he called back up after a moment.

“I’ll be back,” I said. “Don’t get hypothermia while I’m gone.”

I went back along the trail a few yards, then climbed the steep hill and picked my way through the underbrush until I reached the top of the ridge. Here the trail descended through the gorge. It was the shortest way back.

The woods were clasped in dim light, and the temperature was dropping. I half-walked, half-ran down the trail, wishing I hadn’t left my phone in the car. But who would I call, even if I did have service? Mom? But I wouldn’t want to worry her. Becca had given me her number, but I didn’t think a forest rescue was what she had in mind.

The trail leveled off and narrowed to a thin ledge. To the left was the rocky drop-off into the stream, to the right the steep side of the mountain. A little creek splashed down the mountain, and the water had dripped onto the ledge and coated it with a thick layer of ice. Crossing it looked very risky. I could end up dashed on the rocks below. Instead I could go back up to the top of the ridge, and hike down the way we had come. But then I thought of the fallen tree I would have to get around, the make-shift log bridge to cross in the dark. Even if I could find the trail, it would be hours before I returned to Jake.

I had only taken two small steps across the ice when my feet started to slide. I held my breath, fighting for balance. Everything will be okay, I told myself, retreating. I just have to find a way to get across. Everything will be okay.  It was the same thing Jimmy told me when we were running out of money in Oakland, the same thing my mother told me when she came to visit me in the hospital when I got back to New York. I left Jimmy after we made the porno, with just enough money for the bus ride east. I felt nauseous and dizzy on the bus and blamed it on the diesel fumes and the stress of moving back home broke. But my period was late too and I thought I might be pregnant. I planned to borrow money from Elvira for an abortion.

The bleeding started in the middle of Pennsylvania. Elvira met me at Port Authority and instead of taking me to her place on Rivington Street, we took a cab to Bellevue.

It was an ectopic pregnancy, and I had to have surgery and stay in the hospital for three days. I wasn’t on the maternity ward, but on a wing with other would-be moms who had had some kind of trouble. My mother came, Jake came, Elvira. I was out of it for a day or two right after the surgery and when I came back to myself, I could hear a girl down the hall crying for her daughter. She called her name, Rosie, Rosie, Rosie, over and over all day long.

Was it like that for my mother? Did she feel that desperate and bereft when they took Becca away from her? At the time, while I was recovering, I just wanted the girl to shut up.

Kindness and generosity. And forgiveness too. I repeated the words like a mantra, the way I did when I thought about my father, who’d left us so long ago. I thought of him dropping to the ground to crawl on his belly to retrieve Jake’s baseball when it rolled under the back fence. I must have been six or seven. The army crawl, he called it, for tight places.  It was from his Vietnam days.

I lay down on my stomach and inched across the ice. When I no longer felt ice under my hands, I crawled a few more feet, then stood and walked. The trail blended in with the forest floor, disappearing and reappearing in the fading light. I forced myself to keep going.

The darkness was nearly complete now. I never even saw the second icy ledge.

 

I landed in a snowbank. I stood up carefully, and moved my arms and legs.  Nothing hurt. I brushed snow and ice and old leaves from my clothes and looked around to see where I was. I called Jake’s name, waited, called again. All I heard was the rushing of the stream. I made my way to the bank. Here there was less underbrush, and what little light was left in the sky came through the break in the trees above the stream bed.

It was too much to hope that Jake and I were at the bottom of the same ravine. I tried to picture the geography, but though I knew the trails, the map in my head was pretty fuzzy. I headed downstream for a few minutes, through a level wooded area, then back to the stream. I wandered toward the whitish glow of another snowbank. But when I came to it, I saw that it was the same one, the shape of my body still imprinted on it.

I sat down on a rock. The woods were eerily silent and black and I tried not to think about what other living things might be lurking out there in the trees.  I was starting to feel hungry, and went through my jacket pockets. Old ticket stubs, matches from a Brattleboro restaurant, tissues. I thought of brunch, of eggs beaten and baked into a crust, of warm sausages and bread and butter and strawberries.

This morning I had followed into the kitchen my mother when she returned for the bread she had forgotten. “Any other siblings out there I should know about?” I said, only half kidding. I unwrapped the stick of butter she’d set out on the counter.

She turned, holding out the bread knife. “I’m sure there are things in your life you’d like to forget. That you’re happy we’re not bringing up today.”

But you’ve always known,” I said, “and never said anything. That’s what I don’t get.”

My mother took her time arranging the slices of bread on a plate. I could tell I had wounded her though I hadn’t meant too. Finally she held the plate out to me.  It was the plate with the pinecone design that she used to serve cookies on when I was little. “Look, I’m sorry,” she said. “Can we just take it from here?”

I looked at her hand holding the plate, the familiar long fingers, the trim nails. Even the veins in her hand were familiar to me. My mother had a life before me, before Jake, before our father came and went. My mother had a Jimmy.

 

It was too cold to sit still. I had find Jake, get us out of here, call my mother, tell her I was going to look for a new job. Then I would drive up and see Jake’s new place, and together we’d go visit Becca.  And Andrew, too. Meet our new nephew.

It couldn’t have been much past six o’clock, and I could only hope that we were close to the road or the main trail that led up the gorge and that somebody, anybody, would happen by, close enough to hear us, or see us even, if we could manage to light a fire. I walked back to the stream. The moon appeared over the edge of the ravine, round and bright and so low in the sky it appeared extra large.

“Jake,” I called.

I heard a sound, a faint reply from far away that carried above the sound of the water, that might have been a squirrel or the wind moving through the trees. I went a little further along the stream and called again, then a little further.

“Lydia?” I heard my name again a few minutes later, more distinctly this time but still far away.  Jake was on the other side of the stream. I found a narrow place and tried to jump across but landed with both feet in the shallow water. I moved along the bank, water squelching from my boots, calling his name and hearing my own in reply, over and over again, until I found him.

 

 

 

 

BIO

Priscilla Mainardi attended the University of Pennsylvania and Rutgers University, where she earned an MFA in creative writing. Her work appears in numerous journals, including Pulse – Voices from the Heart of Medicine, the Examined Life Journal, and BioStories. She teaches writing at Rutgers University in Newark, New Jersey and serves on the editorial board of the online journal, The Intima.

 

 

 

 

0

Little Nell Answers the Bell

by James R. Kincaid

 

 

“It is not the death of Little Nell, but the life of Little Nell, that I object to.”
—K. Chesteron

 

 

“You realize, Nell, this Ohio Valley League we’re in is about as tough as they come.  You realize that?”

“I do, Coach.”

“’Ohio Valley’ sounds cozy, I know, like a mother’s arms, but it’s more like a brass-knuckles free-for-all when it’s football we’re talking about.”

“Uh-huh.”

“You realize that?”

“I do, Coach.”

“This isn’t the military, Nell; you can loosen up.  I want to get to know you a little, understand what’s driving you.”

“You mean what bats are flying in my belfry.  Why would a sane female want to play football?”

“I don’t mean to say you’re crazy.”

“What is it you want to know?”

“Why do you want to join the team?”

“Because it’s there.”

“Not bad.  OK, then, next question:  why do they call you ‘Little Nell’ at home?  I assume they do since I heard your brother yell that at you a couple of times in class.”

“That important to my football career?”

“Absolutely central.”

“I was named for my grandmother seven generations back, part of a string of Nell’s, all connected to Dickens’ famous—or was then—Little Nell.”

“I see.”

“Really?  You know about that?”

“Oh yeah, most famous child death in the century—fictional child death, I mean.  People crowded the New York docks as the packet ships came over carrying the latest serial part of The Old Curiosity Shop, calling out ‘Is Nell dead?’  Almost as if readers couldn’t wait for her to croak.  1840, around in there?”

“I’ll be damned.”

“Language, Nell!”

“Sorry.”

“That’s OK.  Didn’t think I’d know that, did you.  Took a lot of English classes in college, but I also Googled some stuff last night.  It sounded familiar, Little Nell, and there it was, all official and scholarly on Wikipedia.  Nell Trent, your name and hers.”

“And it’s been the name of all my Trent grandmas, Nell has.  Pretty goddamned corny.”

“Well, anyhow, foul mouth, tell me about football, which I don’t remember reading about in Dickens.”

“I’m fast on my feet, quick to learn, tough.  I can be the best running back you ever had.”

“Running back, huh?”

“You were expecting place-kicker, water-girl?”

“Maybe.  God, Nell, running back!  It’s not just open-field, you know, little of it is.  You go through the line, you block, you get the shit kicked out of you.  Not like you’re hefty, not at all.”

“Put me in coach!”

“Yeah, that John Fogarty song.  But it’s about baseball, where you’d not end up in seventeen different hospitals.  Look, Nell, I’m entirely open to you trying out, joining the squad.  But let’s be reasonable.”

“Just give me a chance, coach.  Don’t decide yet.”

What could he do but agree?

The physical arrangements—dressing area, showers, uniform, attitudes of the other players—were simple, simple, at least, compared to letting this little girl (and little she was) be a running back, participate in even one play at that position.  But how could he let her on the squad as a running back and not let her run a play from the backfield?  He could tell the boys on defense not to hit her hard, not to hit her at all, but word might get back to Nell, or the Title 9 people, or his own conscience.

So———————–

“You all know Nell Trent, I expect.  Here she is, anyhow, and we’re going to go through the playbook, Section 4-A and -B, with Nell at tailback.  She knows the plays, I think, and the rest of you idiots sure as hell should.  You’d better, as we have our first game in eight days.  OK, go get ‘em.  Defense, get ready.”

Section 4-A was safe enough, he figured:  passing plays where the tailback had sideline routes and some option runs, two to her, but even these allowing her to scoot wide and get her little tail out of bounds.

4-B was another matter:  off-tackle plays, a pitch-out that turned inside, some brutal blocking assignments.  Holy Hell!

But then it happened.  This kid, this Charles Dickens freak, not only could run routes faster than hell, she could somehow snake through the line and even block like nobody’s business, throwing herself at the ankles of boys double her size, getting herself upright in time to throw a second block.

No sign she was getting tired or, more important, mutilated.  More likely she’d cause serious injuries than sustain one.

Nell was the only one on the field not surprised by the way things were working out.  If anything, she was pissed at herself, disappointed in not shining more brightly, kicking ass more resoundingly.

* * *

The first game went well enough.  Nell played maybe a third of the plays on offense, Coach not entirely trusting what he’d seen in the practices, practices where Nell offered nothing but consistent evidence of being the best tailback in the conference – in any conference.

Still, he wanted to be cautious and limit the damage, if damage there were to be.  What damage there was, however, was all to the other team.  Nell not only scored a touchdown on a long run but managed to clear the way for a teammate to score another, caught two passes and completed another on an option.  Nobody on the field was playing at her level.

What choice did he have?

Nell, meanwhile, wasn’t exactly patient, willing to bide her time.  She understood well enough what the coach was doing and thinking, but it made her furious that he’d be such a candy-ass.  Smart enough, though, not to claw at him directly, she let loose on the kid she was getting used to bumping against in the huddle, the big and ungifted fullback. She knew him mostly by way of his ass, which she followed into the line on straight-ahead plays.  He wasn’t fast enough to block defenders on outside plays; the problem was keeping him from getting in the way of the ball carrier, her own self.

“That shit, that miserable shit!” she explained to DeCastro, the fullback in question.

He didn’t pretend to misunderstand:  “Yep.  Coach sucks.”

“He does that again next game, I’ll. . . .”

“Want me to talk to him?”

She was so stunned so forgot to abuse him:  “Would you do that?”

“Sure.  Why not?”

“Damn, that’s so nice of you – but no.  It’d seem like I didn’t have the balls to confront him myself.”

“OK.”

“You like football, De Castro?”  She had no idea why she was getting personal, as this blub was the last person she’d want to do that with, assuming she wanted to do it with anybody.

“No.”

“Why you here?”

“My dad.  Real boys play football, you know, like they also spit and cuss and fondle their balls.”

“You do all those things?”

“No.”

“Damn.”

“I’m lost out here, Nell.”

“On the field?”

“Yeah, on the field.  At school.  Everywhere.”

“Can I help?”

“Sure.  You’re the one who can.”

 

 

 

 

BIO

James R. Kincaid has published about forty stories and some novels: A History of the African-American People by Strom Thurmond (co-authored with Percival Everett), Lost, You Must Remember This, Wendell and Tyler (a new adult trilogy), Just Wally and Me, and Chasing Nightmares, along with a collection of short stories and a play, “The Court-Martial of Lt. Calley.” He has taught at Ohio State, Colorado, Berkeley, Southern Cal, and is now at Pitt.

 

 

 

0

The River Kent

by Annie Blake

 

for mein kleiner geist

 

paper is white like snow / my pen skates / scores the shine / i moved a mountain this morning / like it was running on wheels / because my five year old daughter said / look / i can now crack my own egg /

 

there was someone inside me who kept moving / i smoked a cigarette by the lake / the sun

the color of the inside of a blood orange peel / and the light of the fall / she wanted to keep trying to save kent / i held my breath / i knew dying had to do with patience / letting go of my greed

for money / when i planted my impatiens and it drowned sideways into the soil / i turned myself upright / my children were so happy / they clapped and sang like they were in a concert / saving the children of the world /

 

 

i still need to focus like the point of a spin / dive in without a splash / to retrace his old tracks / but i couldn’t suck in enough breath / showers of the holocaust / the tunnel i’m in / growl

of the sea / massa confusa / nine circles of hell / hot and spiritual / it doesn’t feel like a holy blessing /

 

i don’t want to leave men on sinking ships / children need their mothers / but if he was my son and he was all grown up /

 

i’m a gemini / twin pillars / gates of jerusalem / the east gate / jachin and boaz / promontories / there is a space on the shore where you can lie down and sunbake under its blue lights /

mountains have nipples like eyes / moist and primitive / they are still looking for something /

 

reductionists give me headaches / her voice / hollow tree / dead wood / my mouth an oval mirror  wide enough to swallow newborns / shape-shifting / inlet of her waist / the more fixed her core the more water can purpose her body / her face red / and her eyes hot and body wet in childbirth /

 

my husband shows me how to let hot water run through / till the pipes sound hollow / dirty water rises like reflux /

 

when my eyes open before dawn / i see a girl who is looking through my tallboy / i fold back

my blankets / i walk towards him / he is as tall as a man even though he is just a boy /

she said he was a hautbois / i said to her / who do you think you are / where did you come from / she continued kneeling and rummaging through my drawers like she owned them herself /

 

i told her to at least wait till i took out what i wanted / since everything belonged to me / she moved to one side / but when i searched / there was nothing there that was worth keeping / she took out all the clothes and washed them in the fireplace / bleached them till they were almost white / but i was still angry / so she put them back in my drawer / she told me to make an oboe out of all the wood / her voice was in her eyes / it came out in tufts of hair / they hurt me

like splinters of wood / she said hautbois was pitched wood or woodwind / syrinx /

 

i keep skating around on ice like my pen on paper / i have to stay in a circle

because that was one of the rules / two of my children deviated / skated through a wall

and into another room /

 

there was an underground kitchen my whole family was building / it was difficult to get into

this complex because there were skirting boards surrounding the entrance / we went down

an elevator / the kitchen could only be viewed like we were looking at it like a doll house /

it was opulent / and very expensive / we were all in a cherry picker because it was so high /

our heads were swinging and swimming like the clouds do before they break through with rain / cotton balls dipped in mud instead of chocolate / it wasn’t finished yet /

 

because idealism can never be realized /

 

i wake at five in the morning / pouring cereal like marbles into my cup / my doubts succulent

at sunset / they quaff water after a run /

 

living here is living without connective tissue / my surrogate father / hubristic like a fat balloon /  we wash our hands with spirits under the same tap / a ghost swung open the hallway doors

like the saloon doors of a country and western tavern / they told me she was curled up in a box

in the attic / or some other obscure place /

 

i broke my neck trying to wind through reeds / when i was young i thought they were weeds / i can hear a song within the ogham / crafted a flute and a whistle like the wind weaves them

for the thatching of my roof / that poke heaven / teeth through gum / she protected me

even as i dragged her around the house like a broken doll / she whines like a two year old / i have decided not to buy any more masks for my children to play with / i realized

that it was wrong of me to construct them from my own wood / i found her in a box in the attic / she was sitting in there / her legs crossed /

 

my children ask me to remember to smile when dropping them off at school / one says i look like a cross between an old man and a ghost / my other child says i’m a plum / sweet on the inside but my skin is so sour / they laugh / i frown / i say / i always smile to the children / for the grown-ups / it’s too much effort hiding what i’m really feeling /

 

a cross is hard to bear / loss pinned down with a nail on his feet / narcissistic triangulation

of families / the triangle and the trinity / hypostatic / a man with a black fencing mask is sitting fat like buddha and wrapped like an egyptian / he waits cross-legged for me /

 

i want to know the secret of nakedness and the stone soup / the girl rose and stepped up

the drawers like they were stairs / her body was blue / wings of flames / chimneys

are like cigarettes / they eventually burn out / she flew up the chimney / music of the oboe /

a channel or a river / songbird and church smoke / prima materia and flight /

au-dessus de la mêlée /

 

doors and windows can look simple / one or a hundred / zap me like static electricity / a man approached me / he said he just needed paper and spirits / i found some of my father’s whiskey and rolled up some paper / sunk it inside / message in a bottle / he gave it to me / i carried him up the drawers like i was climbing a scrubbing board / he was so heavy / his head dangled

like a newborn’s / the pain in his body made up his bones / i left him lying in the fireplace /

 

my sheer bed canopy / that reminds me how beautiful cages are not meant for birds

with wings /

 

the tiniest birds / the roundest bellies made of velvet or felt / like i dress my children’s chest /

as sticky as velcro / familiar names / i have tried so hard to forget / scare me like the groans

of planes skidding the sky when i’m supposed to feel safe in my bed / the robinia tree / the blood in rubinia and rubedo / is the most beautiful tree in my yard / but long enough to crash

into my children’s room if it falls a certain angle / my rapture in listening to what the wind

has to say is not full-bodied or pure / beauty is safety / i can never grip it for very long /

 

white journal paper / lines and snow / horizontal / snow white lies dead / horizontal like lines / schooner on a green lake when there is no smoke / she needs unity to rise to sit up like a chair /

for introspection / life and air in a glass box / holy water and fish / like saint rita in her coffin / her god gown is mystical but / i would rather sleep without it because when i sweat / my dreams are too morbid /

 

my child cries before bedtime / she said her dreams are scary because she can’t move or speak

in them / she might try to walk down the stairs and fall / i tell her i’ll come and settle her

if she cries / but she says / how will you know if you don’t hear me cry / mothers are like tooth fairies / they know how much it hurts to lose old teeth / to have a finger and money and blood

in your mouth /

 

 

i have to trust my mother / the one that’s grown with blue wings / trust she can take flight /

like airplanes flying for hours over the ocean / some birds look like fairytale animations /

i like them but i get confused / i don’t know whether these birds are made or real / they have tails / blue and precise like airplane wings / and a spoonful of sugar / marys

are always dressed in blue / she stares at me and never gives answers / i have to find the answers myself /

 

clouds pinned to wooden ceilings like cotton wood / like the overly thick eyebrows

of the president / his carrot and the stick / i’m sick of being mutually exclusive / of being patient with my legs / our feet are not a tail or wings / they tangle before i fling them into the sea /

my hand over my mouth / not to stop gulping water or to stifle a laugh / i have words that i can’t let spill /

 

i make letters from alphabet soup / anything linear and sensory that mutually exclusive people understand / they enjoy reading everything about me as long as i taste like honey /

i have a craving for sweetness / but i will never eat anything with more than eight percent sugar / i trained myself on blandness / so that i can taste hypervigilance / when everything is sweet

there’s no longer any inherent value / like sex without foreplay /

 

i walk into the bathroom and wring out the mat / i didn’t notice there was a flood / i see my shadow in the bathtub / i start panting like a hot animal / it looks like an egyptian pyramid

with long wooden legs / it’s my son / he’s sitting in a tomb or in linen / i pull up the body / i vomit skeins of threads / green and gold and a wine cork / his head is a jar / circumference

and the portal of pi / piping of the steam and the whistle of his beaks /

 

four and twenty blackbirds baked in a pie /

 

 

 

 

BIO

Annie Blake is an Australian writer and divergent thinker. She is a wife and mother of five children. She started school as an EAL student and was raised and, continues to live in a multicultural and industrial location in the West of Melbourne. Her research aims to exfoliate branches of psychoanalysis and metaphysics. She is currently focusing on in medias res and arthouse writing. She enjoys semiotics and exploring the surreal and phantasmagorical nature of unconscious material. Her works are best understood when interpreting them like dreams. She is a member of the C G Jung Society of Melbourne. You can visit her on annieblakethegatherer.blogspot.com.au and https://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100009445206990.

 

 

 

 

0

As I Lay Scratching

by AN Block

 

 

“Happy Valentine’s Day,” I tell my probably soon-to-be-ex-wife, Mad Lee, offering her a half-empty bottle of calamine lotion and some cotton balls.

Once we communicated just through our eyes. Today, I never know which Lee I’m going to get: Silent, Dangerous, or once in a rare while now, Romantic.

She shakes her head, as though flabbergasted I’m still hanging around, snatches the peace offering, tightens her lips, and says, “Keep your distance! Asshole!”

 

Our first so-called date, wandering around campus, amounted to a procession of awkward sound bites. Hot Lee was out of my range, but she looked so eclectic to me, even with the crazy eyes and corny holiday sweater, I got goose bumps. All I knew, this girl inhabited Planet Chameleon.

The Saturday night following I bumped into Mysterious Lee prowling the shadowy lit quad in sunglasses, wielding a flash light. “My roommate’s visiting some Yalie,” she blurted out, when I waved hello. “All weekend. Shacking up.”

“Yeah? And, I just scored some killer weed,” I told her.

“I like your style,” she said.

Shortly thereafter we landed in bed, don’t even ask how, but the fact that I’d had minimal prior amatory practice, without being dead drunk, that is, came to life quickly.

“Cool it,” she told me. “I got this.”

“Go for it,” I said, keyed up to the max. “Be my guest.”

So, Inscrutable Lee placed an ancient Paul Anka 45, Tonight My Love Tonight, on the turntable, set it to automatic replay, lit a ginger-scented candle, and we just slammed away for what seemed like an hour, before crossing the finish line in tandem.

“This,” she said, “is an omen. A new all-time record.”

We high-fived.

She brought me home to meet her mother Bella, who rolled her eyes and said, “True love? I’ll believe it when I see it. You two better shit, or get off the pot.”

We eloped four months later and spent our wedding night vowing we would never-ever-ever fall into the same traps our parents did, or settle for what they settled for in life. We would escape the cycle, liberate our consciences, stay relevant and transpire through every obstacle. Pure Lee made me swear we’d add only raw unirradiated milk and brown sugar to our coffee. We’d squeeze our own OJ.

Right after which she freaked out.

“We’re twenty-one,” she said, as we whizzed through the White Mountains on our two day honeymoon. “This is insane.”

“You’ll be twenty-two in a few months,” I said.

“But I don’t know who I am yet,” Hysterical Lee told me. “What my identity is.”

Right then, glancing up at the craggy-faced stiff lipped Old Man of the Mountain, I thought, Holy fuck, Smart Lee’s right!

“Come over here,” I said though, “and let’s play house. Worse comes to worse, we get a divorce. What’s the problem?”

“I like it,” Soft Lee said. “Hey, pull over, you.”

I got paranoid someone might de-materialize, but felt so invigorized from my Perfect Lee, I thought I’d bust. Was this really happening, could something this beautiful last?

Trouble surfaced one month in. “Ooh, Lee, thank you Lee for cooking such a delicious healthy dinner,” she’d said. “Why, Russell, so considerate of you to show your appreciation,” she continued.

One might conclude that our initial utopia had worn off.

 

Now, she stands in front of me, her eyes oblique slashes. She stops tearing at the scaly skin on her arms long enough to slather on gobs of lotion.

At times like this I go for a nice easy 7 miler, and let whatever sweat I work up drip where it may, but I’m nursing an Achilles now and there’s ice on the streets, so I stand there cringing, licking my lips.

“I’m an asshole,” I start singing, basso profundo, “I’m an asshole, I’m an asshole till I die, but I’d rather be an asshole, than a drunken Theta Chi.”

“Rules have been violated,” Righteous Lee says, and she goes on in her usual inherent manner.

“Okay, stop. Sweetheart, what are we gobbling about?” I ask her. “Did I commit the unpardonable digression of mixing whites up with reds and blues again?”

“I’ve told you, don’t throw your gross scummy nauseating clothes in with mine, ever. Do yours separately, dumb-ass.”

“No disrespect,” I say, “but isn’t there something still not quite right with you, upstairs? Shouldn’t you be still seeing that counselor-in-training?”

She goes bulimic on me. “Who ran out of gas on the highway? Who drops his oily junk oozing germs everywhere, leaving a bloody mess in his wake? Who married me under false pretenses?”

“Pretenses? Did I claim I had a neat fetish? Did I promise to fit you out in jasmine?”

“You led me to believe that you’d have a real job by now. Not tending bar. The situation is not under control, okay?”

“Hey, peace, baby.”

“Ooh, Russell Stone, high scorer on the basketball team!”

“I was.”

“Woo-hoo! At some Montessori School where your teammates just circled around the court and wouldn’t shoot the ball.”

Fill in the blanks: today it’s posing I’m an athlete, yesterday it’s how bartenders are drug pushing retro-bates who’ll lie in your face. “Weasels!” she’d said. The day before, I’m a loud “party hearty” fraternity brother polluting her air space with Old Spice.

The worst is this full-blown allergic reaction Awful Lee’s developed. She’s so fair-skinned, all I have to do is brush against her and she breaks out in rashes and welts. She starts to itch. Forget an occasional kiss, if I even dare step forward she shrinks back, scratching like crazy.

I get it: she’s trying to rewire my brain to her specifications.

What I don’t know though, being stuck in this whole allergic quagmire, is it really me, or is this more just Insane Lee?

 

 

 

BIO

AN Block teaches at Boston University, is Contributing Editor at the Improper Bostonian and a Master of Wine. Recent stories have appeared in Buffalo Almanack (recipient of its Inkslinger Award for Creative Excellence), Umbrella Factory Magazine (a Pushcart Prize nominee), Lowestoft Chronicle (a Pushcart Prize nominee), Solstice, The Maine Review, The Junto, Constellations, Contrary, and several others.

 

 

 

 

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Herman Loves Brooke

By Anthony J. Mohr

 

 

Tonight, Herman likes what he wrote. His head rests in his hands; his fingers reach up to what’s left of his hairline before they massage their way to his temple, then down the pale cheeks to the stubble on his neck. Even though the window of Herman’s apartment is open to the marine layer that makes summer nights in L.A. so blessedly cool, he sweats, for he is gazing at Brooke’s yearbook picture.

Herman feasts on her dimples, her eyes, the bangs across her forehead. He turns to her signature, Brooke Day Lord, sloping upward in the brisk penmanship of a seventeen year-old who revels in the adoration of her peers and the love of both parents. Nothing more than her signature appears in Herman’s yearbook, not even “Good luck.”

To other classmates Brooke wrote much more. Herman has a list, taped to the wall, of her send-offs. “Loved your parties.” “Remember the dancing Sunflowers.” “I’ll never forget that concert.” And she signed every one, “Love, Brooke.”

Then there’s what Brooke wrote to Matt Harper, about the grunions. They really exist, those little fish who ride in on the waves at night to spawn on the beach. Ask anyone who lives in Southern California. Grunion hunts make Herman recall how, when they were seniors, Matt Harper snatched away Herman’s chance with Brooke, snatched her thanks to call waiting, eight minutes into Herman’s only phone conversation with her. She had asked Herman to call back. He’d tried for two hours, but this time she had ignored the call waiting signal. That Friday night Matt had taken Brooke to the football game, and eight months later, to the senior prom. Herman had watched them dance, had gaped at them until his date got angry and went home. Matt Harper is now married to a ditz named Amber, but she is a friendly ditz, and when they happened to meet four years ago, Amber  had actually invited Herman to dinner. Herman accepted so he could employ the tactic he’d used with so many other classmates: ease the conversation into their high school days and keep evoking memories until Matt had suggested they browse through his yearbook. When they reached Brooke’s photo, Herman memorized as much of her message to Matt as he could. Moments after Matt turned the page, Herman had excused himself and gone to the bathroom, where, fighting back tears, he wrote down every word he recalled.

Herman knows he is not a stalker. Others may think him dim, but Herman is smart. Indeed, Herman can be brilliant when the topic interests him, and Brooke has enthralled Herman since they’d met in English class. A normal person would have banished her to the edge of memory. But Herman is not normal. No, that is not true. It is Brooke who’s not normal. She is charming, gorgeous, always talking with someone or laughing at something. How could anyone find comfort with another girl after meeting Brooke? Despite the years that have passed since graduation, as he did in school, Herman loves Brooke.

Herman’s plan is to make Brooke come to him. Yes, he will write to her, and his missive will be long, so long that everyone, including Brooke, will call it a novel, but every word in Herman’s novel will call to Brooke Day Lord. Brooke won’t realize what Herman has done. She will hear that an old classmate wrote a book, and—Herman prays —she’ll read it. Once she starts turning his pages, Brooke will realize that everything Herman says resonates with her. Herman will offer her prose carefully culled, at times from Brooke’s own words, so that Brooke will conclude that Herman understands her so completely she will want to know him once more, this time forever. Brooke will never learn Herman’s plan, for he has not approached her since high school. Of course Herman has dated since then. One girl snorted instead of laughed. Another swore too much and prefaced her sentences with “you know.” A third couldn’t stop saying “awesome.”  Worse, none of these women liked to read. Can you blame Herman for remaining faithful to Brooke? In her senior sketch, Brooke had confessed a passion for fiction, and mutual acquaintances tell him that Brooke still devours novels. If Herman can write a novel that sells, it will get into Brooke’s lovely hands.

 

Herman reflects on the progress of his plan. First he learned to write, a feat that should stun his teachers, should they read his novel. Ms. Skovern gave him a B in English but called his work insipid. Brooke got an A in that class and went on to an elite New England college where her degree in English came with a Phi Beta Kappa key. Herman matriculated to the local community campus, where they taught him to write business memos. Since then Herman has spent many dollars to develop a voice that calls to the world, not just to the insurance company where he works as an adjuster. First came the extension classes; next, the workshops:  Aspen, Breadloaf, Sewanee. Tin House, Kenyon, Squaw Valley. Within two years Herman had become such a fixture at these gatherings that many attendees were greeting him by name.

Herman has absorbed Steinbeck and Styron, Cheever and Roth. He writes constantly, to the point that more than one instructor gently suggested that “there is nothing more I can teach you.” That was the signal to enter Phase Two, during which Herman generated words about Brooke, at sunrise and at two in the morning, words about her body and her hobbies, her pet sayings and favorite movies, palaver at first, but turning sharper not only with practice, but data mined from Google and Lexis/Nexis. Some of his information came from beefy investigators working out of dumpy offices, happy to pocket a C-note for a couple of hours’ effort. And when Herman stumbled upon former classmates, he asked them about Brooke, always making sure to focus his inquiries on someone else—have you seen Amanda Bramalea? What’s new with her?—and then, as an aside, toss in a question about Brooke. Eventually Amanda Bramalea sent Herman a polite e-mail asking him to stop spying on her. He told the bitch he would—why risk trouble?—and switched the focus of his inquires to another girl until, seven months later, she too had called to protest. Herman never cared. He and Brooke hardly talked in high school, but now, trait by trait he was discovering what to write to convince Brooke Day Lord to link her life with Herman Blix.

He knows so much about Brooke now. When a dollop of information arrives, it goes into a file consisting of notes, some typed, some scrawled, but each a window onto the girl. Many of Herman’s finds are thumb-tacked across the wall above his computer. Almost three hundred identifiers—Herman’s word for them—are ready to make their way into his text. In high school Brooke liked Mustangs; now she drives a BMW. She once invited her friends to a lunar eclipse party that started at midnight. Her parents took her to Café Swiss for her fifteenth birthday. Taped to the opposite wall are articles—chiefly from their high school newspaper and a few from her college—that mention Brooke. Naturally her senior profile is there. Beside it is a photo of the Ala Wai Yacht Harbor in Honolulu, taken from a room on the twentieth floor at the Ilikai Hotel, the exact suite where Brooke and her parents once stayed. Below it is Brooke’s wish list from Amazon.com, featuring Above Hawaii and collections of works by Picasso and Miro.  She also wants Ann Patchett’s next novel, anything by Mark Twain, and several CDs.  (Among them, three Billie Holiday albums and Fetes from Nocturnes by Debussy.)  Thanks to his investigator, Herman possesses her handwritten voter registration form and a car loan application. Next to them is the report from a handwriting analyst: The tail on her y swings back, making her “clannish.” Her self-esteem is strong because she crosses her t’s at the top of the stems. Brooke has high ideals and aspirations; look at the height of her f’s. Farther to the right hangs one of Herman’s prize catches: a copy of a paper Brooke wrote for a college English class. Some Internet bulletin board had contained a statement that her professor returned student essays by leaving them in alphabetized slots outside his office. A hundred dollar payment to a friend’s cousin back east had convinced a townie to go there early in the morning, filch the paper, make a copy, and replace it before Brooke showed up. That essay contains golden nuggets that Herman can sprinkle throughout his book.

And the two have so much in common. They like orange juice. They don’t like scallops. They don’t like Snapchat. They use initials in their email addresses. They share the same birthday month. Their mothers play bridge.

Herman relishes weaving these snippets into his plot, every word of which arrows toward Brooke. Once, during Christmas vacation, Brooke sat on her date’s glasses. The first time Brooke kissed a boy, KOST-FM was playing Al Stewart’s Time Passages.  That one hurts, but to succeed, Herman must employ such details for his project.

 

Herman’s iPod plays a suite of hits from his senior year, the last time he was near Brooke, even though they walked the halls in opposite directions. The music drives him forward, typing ever faster until his fingers produce a mash of letters on the screen. Sheryl Crow sings, “All I Wanna Do,” and Herman’s head sways. “At least you had fun, and that’s what counts,” Brooke told Herman when he awkwardly described a party to her. Herman inserts the quote at a strategic plot point. Cruisin’ by Booker T & the MG’s blasts into his ears, and he patterns a paragraph’s cadence after that instrumental.

He stops drinking his Pepsi when the iTunes queue plays Sting’s If I Ever Lose My Faith in You. Herman types to the tune. He must retain some faith in Brooke for him to pursue this project, mustn’t he? Four songs later, at two A.M., Whitney Houston belts, “I Will Always Love You.” “I will always love you, Brooke,” Herman whispers after he backs up his chapter.

 

Work is sludge-slow the following morning. Telling his supervisor he must visit a hospital to interview a man who was hurt in a fall, Herman leaves his cubicle and drives his Toyota Camry to 2517 La Presa Drive, the house where Brooke lived as a teenager. The new owner is demolishing it next week, and Herman wants a final look. Herman breaks the lock with a hammer brought along for that purpose. As he suspected, the bolt is old and weak. No one will care; they’re tearing the place down. The interior offers bare walls in bad need of paint. No matter. Herman photographs it all, fills a memory chip with pictures of the house—even the closets. Herman is proud of his imagination. He has already guessed the layout, admittedly with the help of Google Earth and drive-bys. He happily realizes that only minor revisions will be needed to the scenes that take place in her high school home. But now he can add more details that Brooke will recognize: the step down into the living room, the view from what must have been Brooke’s bedroom into a back yard full of flowers, citrus trees, and the swimming pool.

Herman resumes writing the moment he returns home. Dinner consists of a bologna sandwich, consumed between key strokes. Tonight Herman focuses on Brooke’s early years. Obviously, he has copies of her birth certificate as well as her parents’ birth certificates and marriage licenses. He has found a blog about parental traits that produce model offspring, and he creates characters based on that information. The mother has no job, although before getting married she worked in New York for a fashion magazine.  Her father is a judge, which immunizes him from the pressures of business and frees him to spend time with his child. Mom and Dad are fair, affectionate. Neither parent ever spanked Brooke. Her parents are inseparable, for only a storybook marriage can produce such a happy girl.

Herman knows less about the grandparents. He re-reads their birth certificates and marriage licenses and goes on-line to verify that they are still—my God! Coleman Day died last week at the age of ninety-three. Natural causes, it says. The brief obituary serves up four identifiers: Brooke’s grandfather graduated from Syracuse, owned a chain of hardware stores, enjoyed playing the trombone, and saw action on Okinawa. “He is survived by his wife Martha, his daughter Marian, son Leon, and his granddaughter Brooke Day Lord. Services will be private.”

Herman kills off one of Brooke’s grandfathers. Beat up your characters, they told him in his writing classes, and be merciless about it. It pains him to expose Brooke to tragedy, even in fantasy, but Herman must touch her, and what better way than by taking her alter ego through a loss that, when Brooke reads the book, will be relatively recent? Herman debates between a heart attack and a lingering death. Which hurts more? Sudden death. He won’t let Brooke say good-bye. And then comes one of those moments when Herman just knows that he’s connecting with her. He writes furiously about how Coleman used to tickle Brooke. “She laughed so easily.” Herman knows Brooke seldom played with dolls, and he has Grandpa Coleman ask her why. “‘They’re for lonely people,’ Brooke said.”  Herman pauses to consult an identifier before moving on. “That night,” he writes, “Coleman told Brooke a story about a Princess and her invisible monkey who lived in the castle. One day the monkey ran away.” Herman describes how everyone in the kingdom searched for the creature. “Brooke clapped her hands when they found it, because even though no one ever saw it, the subjects knew that the invisible monkey made them happy.” Herman checks another identifier to confirm that she called Coleman “Papa,” and then Herman takes off again, fingers flying over the keys. “’Papa,’ Brooke said in a serious voice. ‘There’s no such thing as an invisible monkey. You made that up.’” When Coleman admits he did, Brooke hugs him and says, “’Now I know how to tell a story.’”  Finally—he can do it because he is writing a novel—Herman shifts into the grandfather’s point of view for the departure scene:

“After dinner you asked how you could become a princess. Something I ate did not agree with me and I asked if you could wait until tomorrow night for the answer. Sure, you said so lovingly. Brooke, I died that night, quietly, without kissing you goodbye. I heard you at my funeral saying that now you will never know how to become a princess, but you know that stories can make you happy. Brooke, that is the only time I remember you not smiling.”

 

Two nights later Herman invents a high school boyfriend and names him Harold. (Herman refuses to give the character one of those alpha male names like Rod or Brett.) Harold resembles Herman. This part is tricky, but Herman blends a few of Matt Harper’s qualities into Harold’s psyche, not many, just enough to increase the chance that Brooke will be drawn to the character. Herman has thought clearly about this and realizes that Matt Harper has more, well, life skills than Herman. But Herman can learn. By the time the book appears and Brooke reads it, Herman hopes to possess many of the qualities he gives Harold. Harold is the man to whom she will become engaged in the final chapter.  But first he must keep them apart through college, dialing down their relationship to occasional dates when they come home for the holidays. Harold must suffer through their Diaspora: “Harold broke free from his fraternity brothers just before one vomited on the slobbering babe who was next to him, grinding hard. Reeling up the stairs to his room, Harold staggered to his desk where he opened the yearbook and read, once more, what Brooke had written on graduation day:  

Herman reaches for his identifiers. He spends an hour blending her farewell messages, and every word that emerges belongs to Brooke:

Dearest Harold,

Remember me in your lifeRemember the good times, the parties, talks, midnight swims, papers, parents, teachers, tests, grunion runs, fun, dancing, birthdays, concerts, roses, roses, roses, roses, and sunflowers! Remember them all, and remember me.

Love and love,

Brooke”

 

A hard Santa Ana wind blows the following night, but the whoosh against his window doesn’t faze Herman, for somewhere in France’s Languedoc region, Brooke skips through a field, holding hands with her European boyfriend—an Olympic ski hopeful with a diplomat for a father. He presents her with a rose and a kiss. Is Brooke vacationing or studying in Europe? Both. She’s spending a year in Florence. Where is Harold? At home that summer, missing Brooke. Beat up your characters. Harold works at a wastewater treatment plant where only the thought of Brooke allows him to survive “the acrid, putrid stench that pierced the deepest recesses of his being.”

The wind abates moments before Herman finishes the chapter and withdraws a piece of apple pie from the refrigerator. Another hour and the street sweeper will appear in a snub-nosed truck that hisses as it moves. Herman’s iPod is not playing tonight because he preferred an easy listening station, thinking it would help him write the sunflower scene. It did, but now the music makes Herman reach for the phone and dial the first four digits of Brooke’s phone number before replacing the receiver.

“It’s 63 KBDeegrees in the Southland,” the disc jockey says. “You heard Ten Sleep perform a cut off their Woodwind album. Just got a call from Daryl in Santa Monica. Says he wants to thank us for playing Ten Sleep because it gave him the nerve to propose to Carla. And Carla said yes. Congratulations, Daryl and Carla. Now if any of you want to call in and dedicate your favorite love song to someone special, the request line is open. Call 323-KBD-HITS. That’s 523-HITS. Our music may change your life as well.”

Herman telephones the station and somehow gets through. He knows that Brooke does not have a favorite love song, so he asks the request line operator to pick something heartfelt to dedicate to her. He gives his name as Harold, for his plan could be in jeopardy if Brooke learns of his love too soon.

“You sound like you really care about her,” the receptionist says in a sympathetic voice.
“Yes,” comes Herman’s instant reply, and he adds, “I love Brooke.” Herman has whispered that sentence so often in the dark, but until this moment, no one has heard it.  His eyes turn moist. To Herman, Brooke is there, her perfect head resting on his shoulder.
“We’ll get it right on for you. I have a good feeling about you and Brooke.”
Whoever answered that phone keeps her word. “We just got a call from Harold, in Tarzana. He wants to dedicate a special song to Brooke. Are you listening, Brooke?  Because I think Harold loves you. Here it is, for you, Brooke. Harold’s a good man.  Don’t let him get away.”

The DJ plays the Luther VanDross version of Superstar. Herman stares vacantly across the room at the window through which only inky black is visible. He wonders if Brooke is listening. Is she with anybody tonight? She must be, even though last week Herman confirmed that Brooke is still single. Tears drop from Herman’s eyes, and he doesn’t bother to wipe them away. The music transports him to a beach on a night when  every inbound wave shimmers with grunions en route to the sand where they will lay their eggs and try their best to escape Herman and Brooke’s laughing attempts to catch them. She was supposed to be his girlfriend. If Matt Harper had waited one more minute before poaching on their phone call, Brooke would have hunted grunions with Herman, not Matt. She actually had asked him to take her come the summer. Since their phone call had occurred on October 10 (Herman still has that year’s calendar with October 10 circled), Brooke was asking for a date eight months hence, a date to spend hours with Herman in the dark, waiting for the grunions to arrive. In what would have been one of the few suave remarks Herman ever made in high school, he was about to reply, “You’re on, Brooke. How’s June 29? But I hope I get to see you before then.” But he never uttered those words, because Brooke had suddenly said she had another call, the call from Matt Harper.

Finally, Herman is ready to write about the grunion hunt that should have been theirs. Once he does, his first draft will be complete, ready for editing. Before starting that chapter, however, Herman must make certain preparations. He’ll begin tomorrow. He has saved enough money.

 

He calls in sick. Then, armed with a copy of the Times’ real estate section, Herman drives to Sunnyvale, the neighborhood where Brooke lives. His chest tightens as he turns onto Starlight Drive, Brooke’s street, a lane graced by eucalyptus trees. Herman avoids the urge to pass by her off-white cottage with its red shutters and roses in the yard. He has enough pictures of it. Instead he turns onto Jupiter Way, where he spots the house for rent. It is the closest available dwelling to Brooke’s, but its address is 12874, and Brooke once swore she would never live at an address with five numbers, so neither will Herman. Slightly farther away is a stucco duplex at 1103 Neptune Drive. From the roof, he can see Brooke’s chimney. He puts down a month’s rent. Being this close, Herman ardently hopes, will provide added inspiration as he writes the grunion scene and polishes his manuscript.

 

Nightfall. Tired after transporting his computer and reassembling his identifiers on the walls, Herman faces the empty screen. No words come. He climbs to the roof, where he sees Brooke’s chimney etched against golden moonlight. Still no words. Herman walks the neighborhood, as near to her house as he dares, and he lingers there until words emerge from wherever in his brain they slumber. Repeating the nascent phrases under his breath, he races back to his keyboard. Tonight, yards from where Brooke sleeps, Herman finishes that phone conversation, and his alter-ego Harold drives to the beach with Brooke.

Herman writes furiously without making a sound except for one “oh shit” when he accidentally deletes a phrase. Harold’s meeting Brooke’s parents in the foyer, the small talk Brooke and Harold share en route to the beach, the taste of the roast beef sandwiches Brooke made for their picnic—Herman piles on the identifiers. As they eat the carrots and celery she packed, Brooke and Harold talk of English class and Student Council, of ball games and algebra. After finishing Brooke’s chocolate chip cookies, they saunter along the beach, holding hands until the waves turn silver with grunion and Brooke runs toward the water. Herman peppers his prose with her trademark shrieks: “Neat,” as she sees the fish riding in on the waves, “Ick,” when she tries to pick one off the sand. Even when his iPod runs out of tunes, Herman does not stop typing. He hears no sound now except the tap-tap of fingers on keys. When the street sweeper whines past at three-thirty A.M., Herman doesn’t pause to look. Although the grunion run is over, the couple is not ready to drive home. They sit quietly in Harold’s Mustang, conversing through the night, listening to the surf, until Brooke announces that recently, a friend taught her to play the harmonica. The moment Harold says he would like to hear a song, she withdraws the  instrument from her purse and launches into Row Row Row Your Boat. Then Harold accepts her invitation to play, but he never makes it to the first merrily. After he blows  futile air, Brooke musses his hair and says he’s “cute.” He gives her back the harmonica, their hands touch, and then their fingers interlock. Neither speaks. Brooke and Harold are about to experience a sunrise, and so is Herman, who drips with sweat. His stubby fingers start missing keys at the same time that Harold’s fingers caress Brooke’s cheek. Herman has injected every joule of energy he possesses into this fictive moment. The lingering kiss at dawn, written the moment the sun illuminates Brooke’s chimney, makes Herman shiver, as does Harold when Brooke purrs, “That’s so good.”

 

On the day his lease at Neptune Drive ends, Herman finishes the book. Writing with Brooke nearby has yielded spectacular results, impelling Herman to hone his prose beyond what he believed his abilities allowed. Now, his last night near Brooke, one task remains before he performs the final spell-check and the final back-up. He needs to change Brooke’s name. To have done so earlier would have eliminated the impact that typing her name has had on him. Slowly, fighting his fingers which drag on the mouse pad, he slides the cursor up and left to the Edit prompt and clicks. The word “Find” appears. Another click. “Find what:” “Brooke,” Herman types. He feels unfaithful to her, but he must continue. Click number three: “Replace.” Up comes “Replace with:” Herman pauses. He is certain he’d feel just as nauseous if he were about to knife Brooke. “Do it,” he calls out and forces his fingers to type—he’s struggled for months to pick a name—“Jennifer.” Herman exhales before forcing his cursor to the “Replace All” tab. He grips his mouse harder. Press, and Brooke disappears from his book. “Darling, I didn’t want to hurt you,” Herman says aloud after he absorbs the message on his monitor: “Word has completed its search of the document and has made 1,104 replacements.” One more global search and replace, and Brooke Day Lord becomes Jennifer duPaige.

Tomorrow he will begin the hunt for a publisher. He knows it will take time, and he expects rejections. Charlotte Bronte, Agatha Christie, James Joyce. They all were turned down. Herman will be patient and persistent, and if he fails to place his novel, he will  publish it himself and seed every bookstore in Sunnyvale with copies. If he must, he’ll pay the merchants to display them. To place a copy before Brooke’s green eyes—Herman asks for nothing more.

 

The creamy white envelope jiggles between Herman’s fingers until he mangles it open and withdraws the check, a small advance but high for this little publishing house that Herman found on the Internet. But after months of queries and form letters saying no, Herman feels too shocked to scream, and he feels too good to cry. Wanting to do something besides stare at the draft, Herman bolts from his apartment and drives out to Brooke’s neighborhood, where he navigates his Camry along a route that resembles a comet’s elliptical orbit, streaming in from afar to approach but not touch Brooke’s Starlight Drive home before retreating into the cosmos via Moonridge Way and out to Morningstar Avenue until it intersects with Aurora, and Herman can retrace his orbit once more. As he drives, Herman ponders the effect his novel will have on Brooke. Will she reach for the phone or e-mail him? Will she suggest a grunion hunt or coffee? His book should appear in April, cool for the California beaches but a month into grunion season. They’ll meet at Starbucks, the one off the Coast Highway, a mile from her house, where they will giggle together as they plan their belated grunion hunt. Brooke will pack a picnic dinner, and Herman will find the best place to encounter those delightful little fish.

 

Herman remains disappointed that Brooke did not attend the launch party, held, at his insistence, in a book store near her home, even though within days his work is galloping up Amazon.com’s list. Reviewers warmly welcome him as a “new voice, mature beyond his twenty-nine years.” The publisher’s Monday morning flash reports stagger Herman. Several weeks later, his editor calls with the formal announcement: Herman has written a best-seller. The author manages to whisper thank you before stumbling to his couch where he lies torpid for the rest of the day, watching Brooke against his closed eyelids as she reads his pages and emits dainty gasps. Images of Brooke’s “aha” response remain with Herman for weeks, through speaking engagements in bookstores stocked with comely women who stroke their hair and try to flirt with Herman while he autographs their volumes. They want you, the Denver store manager says with a trace of envy. They think Harold is you. Harold is so caring, so devoted to Jennifer. Harold is a SNAG—sensitive new age guy. That’s you, Herman. But Herman remains expressionless as he signs his name, politely accepts the business cards women hand him, and sleeps with none of them, doesn’t even fantasize about them. Instead Herman repairs to his room in whatever hotel his publisher has ensconced him in whatever city he is visiting, and wonders if Brooke will contact him tomorrow. It’s been weeks since the publication date. Surely tomorrow an e-mail from Brooke will appear on his screen. Surely tomorrow.

But tomorrow does not bring Brooke Day Lord. Instead a studio executive calls, and a week later, when Herman enters the patio at The Ivy, the executive actually turns off his iPhone and exclaims that Lamm Brown has agreed to play the part of Harold. Dude, that’s huge. He’s got two Oscars. And we’re casting Alexandra Fields as Jennifer. She loved your book. Dude, she’s single. You hear what I’m saying? Now have your people call so we can make a deal. Herman hears but does not taste as he swallows his young greens. En route to the bathroom, he surveys the patio, for he knows that Brooke frequents this restaurant.

 

Herman misses it when he checks his e-mails the next morning. The suite of fan messages is especially long and he does not notice the initials “bdl.” Only later when he scans the list again does Herman see, in the “subject” column, “Congratulations from Brooke Day Lord.” Herman’s trembling hand cannot control his mouse. The cursor resembles a seismograph as it whips down the screen. If this is what he thinks it is, he is poised to embark on a new life. They will have so much to talk about, so much to do. And they’re still young, their lives ahead. Herman allows himself a two-second smile before his mood plunges and he wonders if he can hold Brooke’s interest through even one date. It took over a decade to craft the precise phrases that, he finally knows, have touched her. He won’t have time to do that during their first dinner, let alone across the rest of his life. Herman tries to reassure himself. Brooke has written. He has won her. With that thought, Herman double-clicks Brooke’s e-mail. Her words burst onto the screen, and Herman immediately hits the print key, fearful that a computer malfunction will make her precious electrons scatter. Only when he holds the hard copy in his hand does Herman stop shaking enough to be able to read:

“Congratulations on your book. It’s good to see a classmate doing well. Sincerely, Brooke”

Herman dives for the landline. He will not risk a dropped call by using his cell phone.

 

As his fingers race across the keyboard, Herman occasionally pauses to fork a dollop of apple pie into his mouth, eating it slowly, getting all the juices. He finishes his treat moments before the street sweeper arrives. It comes earlier here on Jupiter Court. The advance for his second book has enabled Herman to buy a house on this Sunnyvale street, less than a quarter mile from where Brooke lives. He sits there now, in his capacious writing space above the three car garage that contains Herman’s new BMW, the same model as Brooke’s. Taped to the left of Herman’s monitor is Brooke’s e-mail. He needs her inspiration. The sequel is harder to write, because his first cry to Brooke consumed Herman’s choicest identifiers, forcing him to rely on anecdotes he initially rejected. Oh, he can re-use some of her key speech patterns, but now Herman has to mine deeper for prose that will summon Brooke into his arms. Fortunately, the royalties permit him to hire a better investigator.

Whenever Herman becomes too tired to write, he estimates the weeks it will take to finish his book, the months before it’s published, and the date Herman might hear again from Brooke. At least a year and a half, more likely two years. Herman and Brooke will have entered their thirties, still time to start a family, still young enough to have fun. Herman remains optimistic. Brooke is still single. And did she not contact him? Yes, but when he phoned and left a message on her voicemail (“Hi, Brooke, this is Herman Blix. I really appreciated your e-mail and would love to talk to you.”), she didn’t call back. She also  ignored his second call. Is his Brooke that shy? He knows he can get her to come, this time to stay. And they’ll go grunion hunting. They will pick a silky night and pack a picnic and….

Stop daydreaming, Herman commands himself. Finish the book. Herman’s fingers take off again, tapping tapping tapping on the keys, reaching for the words that will make Brooke seek him once more.

 

He notices the e-mail three nights later only because he recognizes the name: Amanda.Bramalea@carefree.net. Even then Herman delays reading the message until his creative energy wanes, which tonight does not occur until three A.M.

“Oh my dearest Herman,

I am stunned at the way your book touched me. You kept me up all night, which is amazing because, as your character Jennifer says, sleeping is one of my favorite pastimes. When I finished, there were tears in my eyes and a smile on my lips. 

Herman, I am so sorry I suspected your motives last year. If only I had realized how you felt about me. I sensed you next to me turning the pages, saying all the right words. You know me so well, but how can that be?  We hardly talked to each other in school. I had no idea you were so perceptive. How did you learn about me and roses and sunflowers? I love them and love them. And calling Jennifer The Cat. I always wanted that nickname in school, but that flit Brooke Day Lord got it because she had green eyes. And she was allergic to cats. Fred, my little kitty, has blue eyes, just like mine.  Had I known what you were really like back thenoh well, that opportunity has passed. But has it really? We’re still young, aren’t we? If sixty is the new forty, our twenty-nine has to be the new fourteen. Okay, seventeen. That means we’re still kids. Herman, let’s be kids together. It’s fun to be a kid, isn’t it? Oh listen to me, so forward. What I mean is, let’s spend time together, while we’re twenty-nine and carefree. Let’s pick a night when the grunion are running. Do you have any idea how few people have ever seen a grunion run? You and I know that those fish are not mythical creatures. We’ve actually seen them, and it would be magical to be by your side the next time I watch a grunion ride in on a wave. If you will indulge me, I have to tell you about my last grunion hunt. It was in June after we graduated, and I was with Justin. I had packed a picnic dinner, and we drove down to the beach….”

To read the rest of Amanda’s e-mail, Herman must scroll down. He does not. He deletes it after scribbling the new identifier and taping it to his wall. Brooke is allergic to cats.  Herman did not know that until now.

 

BIO

Anthony J. Mohr’s work has appeared or is upcoming in, among other places, DIAGRAM, Eclectica, Evening Street Review, Hippocampus Magazine, North Dakota Quarterly, Saint Ann’s Review, War, Literature & The Arts, and ZYZZYVA. He has been anthologized in California Prose Directory (2013), Golden State 2017, and elsewhere. His work has received five Pushcart Prize nominations. He is an associate editor of Fifth Wednesday Journal. Once upon a time, he was a member of the LA Connection, an improv theater group.

 

 

 

 

“Herman Loves Brooke” originally appeared in the May 2008 issue of Word Riot.

 

 

 

 

0

Gail

by Lily Tierney

 

Gail just started her new job at a bank, and she could not help but notice the furtive looks the other employees were given each other.    Gail didn’t know it then, but they were betting how long she would last.   It seems that they have a constant turnover with this particular job.  The job is stat typing long charts that seem to go on forever.  Gail knew what she was getting herself into, but her unemployment was just about to run out when this company hired her.    It sounded like a lot of work with little pay, but she thought it was better than nothing.

So, today she is sitting up straight typing a bunch of numbers bored as hell.  Gail knew everyone was watching her especially the supervisor.  Her name was Gertrude, but they called her Trudy.  Her hair was completely gray, and she bragged about having all of her own teeth.   Her skin was surprisingly smooth without many wrinkles, and she wore high heels to make up for her diminutive height.    She was well past retirement putting her age at about seventy two or seventy three.  She was an old battle axe that kept her eyes on Gail all the time.   One time she rushed back from lunch to make sure Gail had enough work to do.   The other employees pretty much stayed away from Gail because they were afraid of Trudy.  On the other hand, Trudy stayed on their good side by not demanding too much from them.  If she tried any nonsense with them, they would bully her out of her job.  They all knew she didn’t really have any job, but came in each day to keep an eye on the stat typist.

Gail was given one break in the morning, and had exactly one hour for lunch.  One day, she tested Trudy by coming back a few minutes late.

“Gail, I expect you to be back on time.  I don’t tolerate any lateness.  You’re getting paid to be here to do your work,” Trudy scolded Gail in front of her co-workers.

It was the same with coming in the morning and going home at night.  If Gail was a minute or two late, the old battle axe was mouthing off about it.  The other employees would come and go as they pleased taking their time coming back from lunch.  Trudy would not say a word pretending not to notice.

Gail kept to the everyday grind wondering how long the previous typists lasted.  When she got her first paycheck, she felt a little better but not much.  She knew she had to get the hell out of this job.  It was the worst she ever had.  The bank rented five floors in the building.  Gail was on the elevator going to lunch when it stopped on the floor below.  A very professional looking man walked into the elevator and smiled at Gail.  She thought to herself that he must not know the rules about speaking to the stat typist.

“Hi, I have seen you around.  My name is Hank,” he said.

“Hello, I’m Gail the new stat typist on the floor above yours,” Gail said, taking a closer look at Hank.

“Are you going to lunch?  Well, how about if we go together?” he asked.

“Yes,” Gail blurted surprised by her forwardness.

Gail was a cute blonde in her thirties with an alluring smile.  She had beautiful green eyes that most men could not look away from.  Hank was under her spell.

“I don’t know much about the bank.  I am an outside auditor, and have been here for about a month,” he said.

“I’ve been here for only a week myself,” Gail said.

“How is your job?”  Hank asked.

All she could do was look silently at him with a little smirk on her face.

“I got it,” he said laughing.

She explained the job to him, and then told him about Trudy.  He listened shaking his head from side to side.  Gail admitted she would be going out on interviews soon.  She did not intend to stay there any longer than she had to.  Hank laughed and agreed with her.

“If you want, I could check with my company to see if they are hiring,” he said.

“That would be great,” Gail exclaimed happily.

Gail looked at her watch and realized she would be late coming back from lunch.  She finished her food, and explained to Hank she had to get back.

“Please, sit back down,” he said, grabbing Gail’s arm.

“But, I really have to go,” she exclaimed.

He picked up both checks and paid, and walked with her back to the office.

“Thank you for lunch.  I really enjoyed myself for a change,” she said, looking at Hank.

“How about you give me your number, and we can get together some time?” he asked.

“I would really like that,” she said, looking for a piece of paper and a pen.

She quickly wrote her number down and handed it to Hank.   They rode the elevator up together, and Gail watched Hank get off on the floor below hers.  The elevator doors closed and all she could think of was Trudy’s mean twisted face.  She arrived on her floor walking quickly back to her desk.   To her surprise, Trudy was nowhere in sight.  Gail sat down and started typing her numbers.  Then she heard Trudy’s loud mouth.  Apparently, she was having lunch with her granddaughter.  Well, wouldn’t you know Trudy was late coming back herself.  Gail was seething sitting there typing.  She felt like she was in a sweatshop or worse. Once, when she was in the bathroom getting ready to go home, she overheard two women talking.  They were guessing when Gail would quit.  One asked whether or not she would walk out like the last one did, or actually give notice.

Sitting there, Gail felt like picking herself up and walking out.  She hated the job, but she knew she needed it.  She sat and continued to type the stupid numbers.  Trudy was talking and laughing with her granddaughter, on company time, and watching to make sure Gail was typing her fingers to the bone.  Trudy knew Gail hated her and the job equally.  It was some kind of game they all played with the stat typist to help the days go by.  If they were having a bad day, or something personal was bothering them, all they had to do was look over at the stat typist and think how lucky not to be her.

The day finally came to an end, and she hauled ass out of there.  It was 5:01 p.m. when she walked toward the elevator.  It was empty when she got on and it stopped on the floor below.  Hank walks in and was surprised to see Gail.

“Are you heading straight home?” he asked.

“No,” she replied.

“Well why don’t we go to dinner?” he asked.

“I would love to,” Gail replied.

At dinner, Gail tried to unwind from a hectic and stressful day.  Hank realized how much the job was affecting her.  Hank was divorced with no children in his forties.  He was a pleasant looking man who looked distinguished with his glasses.

“Do you know anything about the numbers you are typing?” He asked Gail.

“I don’t know or care, but there is definitely something going on.  There is something weird about Trudy hiring me, because she knew I had no intention of staying,” Gail stated flatly.

“Anything else strange that you have noticed?” he asked.

“Everything,” remarked Gail half-joking.

“Do you think you could make copies of the stats you are typing?” he asked.

Gail looked shocked and surprised.  All she could think was something was fishy.  She thought of Trudy and a disgusted feeling washed over her.

“Yes, I can make you copies,” she said.

Hank smiled and looked very pleased.

The next day at work all Gail could think of was how to make copies of the charts she had already typed.  She needed a miracle and got one.  That afternoon one of the employees on the floor below them was having a birthday celebration.  Everyone including Trudy went to the party leaving Gail alone on the entire floor.  Gail took the charts and hurried to the xerox room to make copies.  She kept listening for anyone that might be coming back.  She heard no one.   She quickly came back to her desk putting the copies in her pocketbook.  She put the originals in the bin that Trudy would take at the end of the day.   She heard someone approaching, and saw Trudy coming back.  Gail sat back down and immediately started typing ignoring Trudy.  Trudy ran over to the bin removing the typed charts placing them in her desk drawer, then went to the ladies room.  Gail dialed Hank’s extension let it ring three times then hung up.  Gail thought to herself she could not wait to give Hank the copies.

At five o’clock Gail picked herself up without saying goodnight to Trudy and headed toward the elevators.  Hank was waiting across the street in the coffee shop.  She walked in and handed Hank the copies of the charts she had made.

“Gail, I am so proud of you.  You don’t know how much this means,” he told Gail in a very sincere tone.

“I am glad to help,” Gail said, and meant it.

Hank suspected there was enough evidence in the charts to charge Trudy and her son with bank fraud.  Her son worked on the same floor as Hank.  Surprisingly, no one knew they were related.  The two were fraudulently obtaining loans with fake documents.  Her son would approve the loans then deposit the money into his account.  He would then transfer the money immediately into a foreign bank account by international wire transfer.

 

The next day at exactly nine o’clock in the morning, FBI agents were waiting for Trudy and her son.  Gail watched as the FBI handcuffed Trudy leading her out toward the elevators.  Her son on the floor below got the same treatment.  The employees were all in shock and some started to walk over toward Gail to see if she knew anything about it.  Gail ignored them, picking herself up and headed toward the elevators for the last time.  She was starting a new job the following week with Hank as his assistant.  She could hardly wait!

 

 

BIO

Lily Tierney’s work has appeared in Harbinger Asylum, Veil: Journal of Darker Musings, The Stray Branch,  Illumen Magazine, Polu Texni, and many others.  She enjoys reading and writing poetry.

 

 

 

 

 

 

0

José María Writes A Story

by Annette Freeman

 

“You know very well you’re not real.” —Lewis Carroll

 

A man met another man going towards the faculty office. It was last Wednesday evening, and I overheard their conversation. I was waiting for a bus. The two men stopped to speak, and I heard one ask the other if he knew the story of the English Department colloquium that had taken place some years ago, the one which prompted the decision to remove Experimental Fiction from the curriculum. The second man said he had not been there himself, but he had heard the story from someone who had been present. I happened to have some information about this famous (or infamous) incident, and I turned towards the two men. I introduced myself and apologised for interrupting them. After explaining the reasons for my interest in their conversation, and also intimating that I had some details about the incident in question, I abandoned the bus stop and we all retired to the faculty common room. We settled down to listen to the story that the second man had heard from someone who had been there.

 

“This was six or eight years ago,” he began. I interrupted briefly to suggest that it could have been as many as ten. He nodded in assent, and continued. “A group of English post-grads had gathered over an evening wine in the campus courtyard café. There were six or eight in the group and the topic under discussion was The Story. I mean, of course” (he said) “the concept of narrative as a vehicle for revealing life, truths — or lies. Each of the students present had a different view. One argued deeply for the merits of Moretti’s views on distant reading and the irrelevance of the canon. Another was passionate about Barthes’ views on the pleasures of the text. Yet another was a fanatic about Borges and talked for half an hour about labyrinths. Each had a particular spin on how fiction worked, and what the limits were (or even if there were any) on what a writer could achieve.  After four or five of the students had given their views, each subtly different but equally earnest, there was a pause as a waitress hurried towards them bringing the pizza they’d ordered.”

It was at this point that I was able to interrupt again with the information that I had been that waitress. My companions were surprised and interested. I explained that I had been an undergraduate at the time, working a part-time job, and I’d managed to overhear only mere snatches of the now-legendary discussion, but I’d heard enough to make me wonder ever since just precisely what was said. I was intensely excited to have the chance to finally find out. Our companion continued.

“An older member of the group, a man with studious glasses and a striped scarf, returned from the bar with another bottle of house white (legend has it that it was chardonnay) and began refilling glasses. His companions reminded him that he had not yet given his views on the subject of The Story. His name was Dr. Joseph Martin and his specialty was Experimental Fiction, particularly that in the Hispanic tradition. Dr. Martin took a comfortable cross-legged posture on the couch and said that, indeed, he had a story for them. “Back in the ‘nineties,” he said, “I borrowed a copy of Lewis Carroll’s Alice Through The Looking Glass from a fellow I knew at school. He’d been given the book by a great-aunt, and he presented me with an anecdote to go along with it. I’ll tell you what he told me, and though I can’t vouch for the authenticity of it one way or the other, I’ve always thought that it had the ring of truth. You’ll have to decide for yourselves.” The students assumed expressions of alert interest. They approved of unreliable narrators, and prepared to engage with this story, whatever it was.

“Inside the front cover of the Lewis Carroll novel” (he went on) “given to my school friend by his great-aunt was a dedication, inked there in copper-plate handwriting: “To Mary Jo, from an admirer.” The great-aunt, whose name turned out to be Maria, told her great-nephew that she’d bought the book at a second-hand bookshop, long since closed, and that she’d found inside it, not only the inscription, but also a set of thin-folded pages.”

At this point, the students in the group couldn’t help some light-hearted jeering. The story was already difficult to believe, and it had barely begun. But their companion assured them that he was getting to the point, and that it was a point worth considering. He continued:

“My school friend and I discussed at some length how these pages might have found their way into the novel, and who their author might be. I wondered about the proprietor of the second-hand bookshop (who had been a notorious eccentric), but my school friend suspected his Great-Aunt Maria, a busty spinster who favoured pink crimplene outfits and who was known in their family for her pretensions to be a writer of fantastical allegories. When you hear the story told by those pages, you may understand why we were so interested in knowing their authorship.”

“Joe Martin was certainly a raconteur,” said the man who was telling us this story. “He knew how to craft the build-up, the hook, the tension, the telling details.” Certainly, I have never forgotten that pink crimplene outfit (though I had to Google ‘crimplene’). We had found a bottle of chardonnay in the common room fridge, overlooked from the last faculty drinks, and had settled down to listen, unconsciously mirroring the students in the story. The man who knew from someone who had been there, went on:

 

“ “This is the tale that was in that hand-written manuscript,” said Joe Martin. “My school friend had read the pages through as soon as his great-aunt had given them to him. He’d read them lying on his stomach on the floor of his bet-sit, on the floral carpet with the smell of dust in his nostrils. The hand-writing was, he told me (for I never saw the sheets myself) clear and legible, in blue ink; and the prose was literate and straight forward, leaving no ambiguities as to its meaning. It told a well-made story which followed a classic arc.”

The students protested: would he never get to the plot-line? Half the bottle of chardonnay was already gone, and they needed more pizza. At last he began…

“There was once…” What could be more classic than that opening? It lacked only the dark and stormy night, as I remarked to my companions in the faculty common room. “There was once a thin bearded man, a lawyer, who ran his own practice from an office in the city. Which city was not specified, but from the details which followed, I assumed it to be” (said Dr. Martin) “a modern western city in the 1970s or 1980s. The area of law in which he practised focused principally on commercial disputes. His days were filled with leases, contracts, commercial property, intellectual property, dictation to his secretary, and the reading of letters from his clients transferring their problems to him. In short, it was not a life that our hero found particularly congenial.”

I interrupted again at this point, as I wanted to know whether the story-teller’s use of “hero” indicated that we were going to hear a conventional Joseph Campbell arc; but our friend said no, Joseph Martin had merely adopted that term in re-telling the story to indicate the principal male protagonist, whose name was not yet revealed but which would be, momentarily. I nodded, and urged him to go on.

“Our hero was a great book lover. In his small apartment, where he lived alone, he had many books stored lovingly on bookshelves built for the purpose. There was little else in the apartment, as our hero was not someone who valued what he derisively called ‘things.’ In fact, apart from a large sofa which was also his bed, and a cupboard for his clothes, and of course a bathroom, the apartment held little other than the impressive array of books.

Many of these books had not yet been read by our hero, but his view was that a library of unread books was much more valuable than a library of books already read. Amongst his titles were the Karma Sutra, The Tibetan Book of the Dead, and Lewis Carroll’s Alice Through The Looking Glass. As soon as he had time he planned to read The Tibetan Book of the Dead, as he thought from its title that it would be a book after his own black heart. As to the Karma Sutra, he had purchased this in his youth when he had been under the spell of eroticism, but of late his interest in this subject had been waning. While he continues to admire pretty women, and is not immune to the pleasure of contemplating an impressive cleavage across a dinner table, these days he finds himself bored by the messy and brief business of sex. Alice Through The Looking Glass had been given to him by an aunt.

There was no kitchen in the ascetic apartment. Our hero ate all of his meals at a small bar downstairs where the waiters knew him, as he was such a frequent customer. He had his preferred seat on a stool at the window bench where he could read the daily newspaper, drink two or three espressos, and work himself up into a rage against the politicians of the day. After he’d been frequenting the bar for several months the waiters began to address him as ‘José María,’ which was not his name. He assumed that either they had mistaken him for someone else, or they had christened him with this Spanish name because of his dark beard and his habit of swearing colourfully under his breath while reading about politics (both well-known Latino traits.) He never corrected the waiters; he smiled to himself behind his beard when they called him José María. He liked the idea of having a nom de guerre, his real name unknown. He was a solipsist at heart, he thought.

One day, fed up with his daily work at the office, our hero decided that he would write a story. All his reading had convinced him that he too could write like those published authors” (the listening chardonnay drinkers smiled wryly in appreciation of this sentiment) “and in any case, his story would not be published. He would write for his own satisfaction.” (Chardonnay glasses were raised in salute.) “So in the afternoon he moved the hated commercial files from his desk, told his secretary that he was not to be disturbed, closed his office door firmly, and sat at his desk to write. He felt that he had some important and interesting things to say. For some time past he had been thinking, while driving to work, about a short story that he wanted to tell.

The story has as its heroine a woman, quite attractive, short, dark-haired, a nose like a strawberry and prone to smile a lot. José Marìa calls this character ‘Mary Jo’. He is pleased with this sobriquet, alluding as it does to his own pseudonym. This story, his first, describes Mary Jo as a rather eccentric person who lives alone, enjoys the company of handsome men, likes to read and to drink wine, and is a loyal friend. In the story, Mary Jo is taken out to dinner by a handsome bearded man, and the couple orders a good Rioja with their meal. It turns out that the bearded man” (who seems rather similar to someone we know, said Joe Martin) “is an incorrigible gossip. He asks Mary Jo a lot of questions about mutual friends of theirs, and about her love life. Since she is rather drunk, she happily gossips along with him. As the meal is finishing they are still chatting together amicably and maliciously. Mary Jo asks if the restaurant would serve her a glass of champagne. Champagne is one of Mary Jo’s weaknesses. The bearded man gallantly orders a whole bottle of Moet et Chandon and the two proceed to enjoy it together.

At this point in the conversation the bearded man asks Mary Jo to tell him an interesting story about her past love life. Mary Jo, it turns out, is a woman of little discretion who cannot hold her drink, and consequently she tells the bearded man about an affair she had in the past. This affair involved a love triangle and made a particularly interesting story, and the bearded man was well repaid for the champagne he had bought. The high point of Mary Jo’s anecdote came when she let slip a crucial detail about the man with whom she’d had the affair, whereupon the bearded man exclaimed: “I know him!” And indeed he did; and Mary Jo was mortified, even through the champagne haze.

Our hero, the putative José Marìa, was pleased with his first attempt at writing a story. He felt that his little tale illustrated the perfidy of the female and the reasons why sex is nothing but trouble. He drove home satisfied, and enjoyed dinner and a glass of red wine in the bar where they called him José Marìa, smiling behind his beard.

The next day he was sitting at his desk in the afternoon, dealing with the many terrible letters from his clients who wanted him to do many things immediately, and he was feeling put-upon and tired of it all. Perhaps, he thought, I will leave all this behind and become a full-time writer of clever and revealing stories. His secretary came to his door to announce that he had a visitor. A woman had arrived without an appointment and according to the secretary she was anxious to speak with him as soon as possible. Our hero put aside his daily mail and politely welcomed his new client into his office. The secretary closed the door as she went out and the visitor sat in the comfortable visitor’s chair in front of the desk. She was a short woman with dark hair, a distinctive strawberry-shaped nose, and a worried look. Our hero did not find her unattractive but he had sworn off all that sort of thing lately; he repressed any erotic thoughts. As he looked at his visitor she seemed strangely familiar, but he couldn’t place where he might have known her.

She soon came to the point of her visit. She blurted out her troubles, telling our hero that her name was Mary Jo, and that she had come to consult him, as a lawyer, about what she could do to stop a serious breach of confidential information. ‘José Marìa’ was dumbfounded. In a blinding light he recognised his visitor.

“But you cannot come to me for help!” he said. “You are my character and I am your author!”

At this Mary Jo burst into tears and the result was that José Marìa found himself in the peculiar situation of warmly embracing and comforting his own fictional character.”

By now the students drinking wine in the courtyard were laughing. I, waitressing at the time, was clearing glasses from nearby tables and I distinctly remember this moment, though I had no real idea of what had caused the outburst. I now learnt that the post-grads suspected Joe Martin of concocting this whole tale as a post-modern joke — the school friend, the manuscript in Alice Through The Looking Glass, the pink crimplene. Why couldn’t you tell us this funny tale without all that backstory, they asked? But he insisted that the story wasn’t his, that he had heard it from his friend who had found it in a book given to him by his great aunt Maria. And he went on: “it has another side, if you’ll stop scoffing for long enough to hear it.” The students urged him to explain himself, and he continued the story:

“Despite the fact that Mary Jo was a character whom José Marìa had invented in a short story, she felt real enough to him when he had his arms around her in a strong hug. Although he had recently decided that sex gave very little return on investment, this hug was pleasurable to both of them, and soon the author found himself in the possibly unique position of having an affair with a character from his own story.

But being the kind of man he was, José Marìa could not think about settling down domestically for more than an infinitesimal moment, and within a short time his affair with Mary Jo was over. She was rather upset about this, and for a while she would telephone and write him notes. But as he said to her, how could the relationship be expected to work, given that she was an invention of his?

Eventually Mary Jo accepted this philosophically and went back to the life he had created for her, living in her small apartment, reading books and drinking wine. At first José Marìa was curious as to whether Mary Jo could continue to have things happen to her, if he, her author, did not write more stories with plots and narratives describing her life. But curiously she seemed capable of carrying on alone, if in a rather monotonous round of doing the same things. But there was another concern. José Marìa was a kind, if eccentric, man and he didn’t like to think that Mary Jo, his Mary Jo, was sad or lonely. As she was his character he felt some responsibility for her. He decided to write another story in which her life improved.

In this new story Mary Jo was described as leading an inexorably happy life. She was given a wide group of friends, men and women, she went to parties, and enjoyed all the fun, sun and peace that her author could imagine. José Marìa couldn’t bring himself, however, to write a new lover for her. In this second story she always remained a little wistful and it was implied that she was carrying a torch for a certain handsome bearded man. Mary Jo came home to her apartment one afternoon after drinking wine in the sun with friends to find that a gift had been delivered. It was a small volume of Alice Through The Looking Glass. It was accompanied by an unsigned inscription which simply read: “from an admirer.” Mary Jo was thrilled to receive this gift and thought immediately that she knew who had sent it, though her author tried his best to stop her from leaping to conclusions. Similar small gifts continued to arrive intermittently over the next few weeks — nothing too ostentatious: a slightly worn copy of the Karma Sutra, or another small item that José Marìa didn’t want. He liked to see Mary Jo smile.

Despite that fact that he was a lawyer, José Marìa was also a skillful storyteller and he soon realised that his character Mary Jo was becoming flat and stereotypical, and to round out her character and make her more believable he needed to introduce some conflict into her life. So Mary Jo found the gift-giving puzzling, given her assumption about the identity of the gift-giver. She wondered if it indicated that José Marìa (her author) would like to renew their romantic relationship. Certainly she had been enjoying life recently, and she was smart enough to realise that she owed this substantially to José Marìa. She thought of him fondly and looked forward to the possibility of reviving their love affair. Unfortunately this possibility was scotched when, one evening on the promenade by the sea, she spotted José Marìa having an aperitif at a small beachside café (which had once been “their” favourite café) with a dark Spanish-looking beauty. It seemed that José Marìa had moved on in his love life.

Mary Jo, being only human, felt a twang of jealousy. Her author had included this trait in her character when he had first invented her. It was his belief that the tendency to jealousy is innate in all women (he was, at heart, a gentle misogynist), and so he felt that he could not leave this characteristic out of Mary Jo.

Mary Jo’s jealousy was well-founded. José Marìa had indeed gone back to his philandering ways. He took the Spanish-looking beauty on a short vacation to a tropical resort where they enjoyed a romantic weekend in a luxurious hotel. This was rather a large investment for José Marìa, but to ensure that he got value for money he took home with him the free souvenir sarong that the hotel had left covering the sumptuous bed. It featured palm trees and parrots and was vividly and tropically coloured, and had printed across it “Port Douglas” in large curlicue letters. José Marìa was happy with this souvenir, reminding him as it did of the enjoyable time he had spent on the hotel bed.

He returned home. Some weeks passed, as did the Spanish beauty, who moved on like all of José Marìa’s women. She had been a passing fancy. One day he was looking through his desk drawers for a misplaced document when he came across the half-finished story he had written about Mary Jo. He felt a little sentimental at the thought of her and decided to continue the story by sending her another little gift. After all, she was special amongst all the women he had known, in that he had invented her. So he wrapped up the souvenir sarong and left the small parcel on the doormat of her apartment on his way home from work. He had written on the package, in rudimentary Spanish (which he’d picked up from his last girlfriend): ‘para Mary Jo, un abrazo fuerte, J-M.’

When Mary Jo discovered the package and saw who it was from, she was rather annoyed. “Just another useless gift, sent to confuse me!” she said. She tossed it onto her coffee table with some junk mail and forgot about it for several days. Eventually she was curious enough to open it. Her character naturally had some stereotypical feminine curiosity, so she couldn’t resist forever. Mary Jo opened the package and shook out the sarong. She saw the words “Port Douglas” emblazoned across it and recognised it immediately as a souvenir sarong from a certain big hotel. It so happened that she was quite well aware of José Marìa’s trip to Port Douglas and with whom it had been taken. It had been the subject of extensive gossip in the chic waterside bars where their mutual friends drank cocktails, and of course, as we know, Mary Jo’s author had created her to be a gossip (that was where the trouble had started.) It did not take too much feminine intuition (with which Mary Jo’s author had generously endowed her) to imagine the sarong draped over the hotel bed and the goings-on which were accomplished on top of it.

José Marìa had included patience and intelligence in Mary Jo’s character, so she waited for a few days, thinking the matter over. Eventually she decided that José Marìa needed to know what an insulting gift he had given. She decided to write to him and explain the error he had made. As she composed this note in her mind a better idea came to her. She would write a short story in which retribution was delivered to José Marìa, gently but very clearly. She sat down at her kitchen table with a pen and paper.

Mary Jo took for the form of her story the contemporary fable. She favoured stories with a clear-cut moral message. After opening with a moving passage reprising their early relationship, and describing the shock of the gift in poor taste, she added a confrontation on the telephone. She called José Marìa and told him firmly that his gift was insulting. She included a little shouting (for verisimilitude — they were, after all, both strong-minded people). At first José Marìa could not understand what he had done wrong. However he eventually understood Mary Jo’s point when she threatened to send him an intimate item belonging to her new boyfriend (a person she invented for the purpose of the argument). José Marìa agreed that he would certainly not like to receive such a thing, even freshly laundered.

José Marìa was chastened, but he decided that it was best to move on and to forget all about Mary Jo, even though she was his creation. Mary Jo, for her part, certainly wanted to forget all about José Marìa. She went on with her life. One afternoon she was in her apartment stirring a risotto (her specialty — her author had made sure she was a good cook), and she was listening to the radio. The broadcast was a talk show which José Marìa often listened to when he was driving home. The radio host began taking phone calls from people who were encouraged to describe the worst gift they had ever been given. Mary Jo realised immediately that she had a winning story, so she phoned the radio show and broadcast — to the whole city — the story of José Marìa’s gift to his ex-girlfriend of the sarong upon which he had had his adventures with a new woman. The radio host was incredulous. People began calling in from all over the city, amused and amazed at the idiocy of José Marìa. As he listened in his car her author was appalled. She had named him to the world, but luckily ‘José Marìa’ was a nom de plume.

This story was Mary Jo’s revenge on José Marìa and she was satisfied with it. It suited her sense of justice, which her creator had made strong in her. The radio show was offering a prize for the best ‘bad gift’ story, and Mary Jo won it hands down. The next day a huge bunch of red roses and a beribboned basket full of chocolate was delivered to her door. But the day after she also received a letter from the radio station sending her two movie tickets as her prize. She wondered who had sent the flowers and chocolates. She had not written that ending to her story.”

 

As the man who knew from someone who had been there finished his report on Joe Martin’s tale, the chardonnay bottle stood empty and the faculty common room was still. We silently contemplated the devastating effect of allowing a fictional character free reign, of undermining authorial authority, and of generally letting meta-fiction get out of hand. We gulped a little and each turned pale, as the full import of such a nightmare scenario sank in. Unlike the mocking students of long ago, none of us doubted the truth of the tale. I rose, walked to the common room bookshelf and picked up a copy of Unamumo’s Neibla, a text which had, for a while after the incident, been more or less banned in the English Department. Now I knew why.

 

 

 

BIO

Annette Freeman is a writer living in Sydney, Australia. She was born and raised in Tasmania, which she suspects is reflected in her writing in ways too mysterious to analyse. Her shorter work has appeared in the University of Sydney Student Anthology, BrainDrip Magazine, Collective Hub Magazine and Travel Post Monthly. She has a Masters of Creative Writing from the University of Sydney, the support of a terrific writing group, and boundless respect for a fine sentence.

 

 

 

 

 

0

Meetings

by Margaret Karmazin

 

I.      I adjust my coat collar, straighten my shoulder bag strap and put on my Meetings Face. Better to do it now, like a method actor – get into character and make sure it doesn’t resemble Resting Bitch Face which I have a tendency to normally wear unless actually smiling.

This particular meeting is political, so I have made myself look competent and even slightly corporate.  Smoothed the hair out, put on a dark gray outfit, gold earrings and my gold colored watch. I have added an official looking notebook, which I will doodle in during the presentation, but unless you are sitting next to me and making a point of looking, I will appear to be “taking notes.”

Let me tell you right here that I hate meetings.  Anymore, I pretty much abhor most social gatherings, but I continue to attend them because They keep telling you that if you don’t, you’ll probably die sooner.  Really though? Enduring shallow relationships where no one gives a hoot about you except that you make financial contributions to the Cause or you fill up a space and make it appear that whatever this meeting is about is “working” are good for your health and give you more of a chance to make it to a hundred?

Gretta, the leader (she started it and we play with her bat) and Marcella, who is apparently going to be Treasurer/Secretary though no one seems to have any say over how the money is spent besides Gretta, are sitting at the head table. Everyone politely listens to Gretta’s stream of consciousness.  She has forgotten to shave or wax her throat, which is sprouting a forest of post-menopausal hairs. From this point on, out of terror, I will shave my own neck just in case.

“We need to come up with a different design for our business card,” Gretta says, which immediately gets my hackles up since I was the one who designed the logo, though I was not permitted to lay out the card.

Like the butt-licker I am, I immediately start doodling potential card designs in my official looking notebook. The problem is that Gretta seems to want entire paragraphs on this two by 3.5 inch piece of cardboard. Nevertheless I persevere, knowing the entire time that no matter what I submit, she will not choose it.  If it were up to me, I would make the card simple with a web address on it so anyone can just look at the website to see what the group is about.  Later I hand my sketch in only to be told by Gretta, “Several people have handed in ideas. We’ll decide later.”

What?  Were they all frantically sketching during the meeting too and somehow passed their papers up to her table without me noticing? Or did she collect these at some earlier secret rendezvous? And why won’t she smile?  Why can’t she fucking ever SMILE?

But I remain in my professional political meeting mode, holding onto my composure while visualizing her being ripped apart by hyenas.  The thing is though, I am not planning to do any of thing things she wants people to do like canvas for our Party or harass voters by phone. This is a rural area, people have barking watchdogs and guns, and a serial killer might live in one of the farmhouses – who knows?  And I personally hate it when people call me to tell me whom to vote for. So what am I even attending this meeting for?

I’ll tell you what for – just to be with other people of my own Party in this vast sea I live in of citizens from The Other Party.  I am here just for human companionship with people I don’t want to run over with a steamroller.

So I smile ingratiatingly and stay till the meeting is over, after which I escape to my car and drive the half hour home.  Soon I will be comfortably dressed in sloppy stretch clothes while wearing my Resting Bitch Face, and smug about having made the effort to socialize so that I won’t drop dead earlier than expected.

 

II.      I’m preparing for my Meditation/New Age group discussion meeting. For this, I adorn myself in the local New Age style of one hundred percent cotton leggings and soft tunic top, also cotton and preferably of ethnic design. Shoes, which will be removed at the door where you line them up neatly on a woven mat, are Birkenstock and constructed of nicely weathered leather though many of the participants are vegetarian or even vegan for the purpose of respecting animal rights. (Leather covering for massage tables is also conveniently overlooked.)

I wear my graying hair loose and fluff it as wildly as I can, before inserting large silver dangle earrings, handmade in Indonesia, and a silver bangle bracelet, ethnic looking though counterfeit. Gold is a no-no. Gold implies a woman who kowtows to The Man. My shoulder bag is soft brown leather so it can pass between the Political meeting and the New Age meetings even though a cow died in the making of it.

When I arrive, the leader, Sage, is setting up for Meditation with the help of Bodhi – her given name is Christine but she was blessed with this new moniker by a guru in Phoenix. Bodhi doesn’t talk much since she believes that talking distracts from her communion with the Universe and drains her spiritual energy. She is arranging an altar at the front of the room with little Hindu statues, incense and other paraphernalia. Sage regards me critically.

“Dennis and I would like to have a session with you.”

“What for?” I innocently ask.

“You need to work on some issues that have to do with honesty. We can help you. Maybe Thursday evening?”

“Honesty?”

“Uh, yeah. We feel that you need to work on that, that you’re not being totally honest.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I say, though I kind of do. She and I both know that I don’t live my life fully in the New Age/Hippie manner. So much for meditational tranquility; this cocky New Age dictator with her tousled red hair, hippie dresses and frequent supposedly subtle attempts to get everyone to take their clothes off and massage each other has ruined my mood.

“Interesting,” I say.

“What is?” she asks, her hand in midair as she decides where to place a Ganesh statue.

It occurs to me to wonder why all the Hindu stuff.  Are we supposed to be worshipping Hindu gods and if so, why?  I realize that I really don’t fit into this group…well, I do and I don’t.

“It’s interesting that Dennis would be giving advice on honesty when he spends all of his time complaining about what the war did to him instead of making a serious effort to clear up his own psychological problems and get on with his life.  I find it curious that he, who has no experience in counseling, would take it upon himself to advise me who took several courses in psychology and who read the entire DSM for pleasure. I think I will pass.”

Of course, Sage does not know what the DSM is.  “Well, if you change your mind, I think it would be good for you.”

I nod.  “I suppose you do.”

The others arrive, including Dennis who looks sourer than usual, and we sit on the floor in a circle. Everyone appears properly New Agey, especially Crystal who, though middle-aged, maintains an ethereal look with her floaty Indian dresses and pale blonde, fly-away hair.

“Why don’t we continue our work on expressing our anger before we meditate?” suggests Sage, which is not really a suggestion but an order.  Sage has a lot of anger of her own built up, due to having married while young and still a virgin and never having enjoyed sowing her wild oats. Apparently men in general are to blame for this or so one can deduce from her frequent ranting against them. She passes around throw pillows for people to beat up during tirades of their own and starts the ball rolling by handing the woman next to her the Talking Stick.

“Dawn, what is your state of mind today?”

Dawn, who is a wraithlike drama queen, gets right to it.  “I-I-,” she says flutteringly, “I just think I need some space. Joe just doesn’t understand. I mean he babysits Ariel whenever I ask, but it’s more than that. What we need is to see other people when we want to. You know, experience so we have more to bring back to the relationship.”

Uh huh, I’m thinking. Why doesn’t she just say she wants to fuck around? Talk about honesty. We’ve been over this before and somehow, her conventional husband expects her to stick to their original agreement made four years earlier at her childhood church in a white dress and tux and then celebrated at a backyard picnic.

I listen to her go on and then to the next person, a young guy wearing a man bun who is so accommodating that I want to punch him hard on the arm and shout, “MAN UP!”  He is worried about school. None of the offered classes enrich his soul.

This goes on until it’s my turn and I don’t really have anything to say.  It’s not that I never get mad – hell, half the time I am mad about something, but just not mad about the sort of things the group approves of.

But I try to fit in.  After all, don’t I come here for human contact and to make friends, though now I realize that these are not really people I’d want to have lunch with. I accept the Talking Stick and say, “Uh, yeah, the Me Too thing. While I can’t say that anyone has sexually abused me, I can identify with the rage.” I realize that this is coming out in a totally dispirited way. “I mean,” I add lamely, ” the men I personally have dealt with in my life were for the most part decent.”

Oh dear, I shouldn’t have said that.

Sage regards me with disgust and I hear a low moan from Crystal on my left.  “Maybe you’ve blocked out things that happened to you. Whatever.”

“This doesn’t mean that I believe Kavanaugh,” I clarify. “Because there is no doubt he did it. I just mean-”

Crystal reaches for the Talking Stick and in defeat, I hand it to her.

By the time I’m back home, I am so grateful to be there that I kiss the cat so intensely that he meows in protest. I set him down and vow never to return to that group, but undoubtedly, I’ll be there again the following week.

In the bedroom, I remove the silver earrings and, in rebellion, put on big gold hoops.

 

III.       It’s a half hour until I have to leave, but I’m dressed and ready. Driving at night is not my favorite thing to do, but the Writers Group has to meet then since some of the members have full time jobs. For this, I dress like I do at home, only without stains or bleach marks on the clothes. I do comb my hair and the earrings are silver hoops for no reason; I just like them.

The meeting takes place at Richard’s house. Richard lives with his partner Thomas and is Libertarian though only Democrats appear to support gay rights. Thomas greets us as we enter, but soon leaves for a meeting of his own. Richard sets out a plate of cookies and offers tea or coffee. I wonder if he minds hosting the group and would offer my own place, but it is not central to where the others live, as is Richard’s house.

Four others arrive, three long time regulars and the new Christian guy.  Christian Guy is in his forties and very meek – Walter Mitty of the twenty-first century.  He is, from what I have observed so far, a bit on the dim side, but everyone treats him with kid gloves, as they might someone with Down syndrome attempting to compose a poem. Christian Guy’s real name is Michael and he has brought the same story as last month, but revised.

Rachel begins. She is in her late fifties and comes off somewhat hard-edged and I remember she is a dog trainer, so appears to enjoy being Alpha and in control.  She reads her mystery story, which isn’t bad. The others critique mildly but everyone seems to like it. I don’t have anything to add, it seems okay and ready to submit somewhere. Myra reads her poem, which is about a sunset and is trite and boring, though of course I don’t say this. Rachel speaks up and implies that the poem is good and Richard chimes in with a restatement of what Rachel just said. I keep quiet; I’m a bit afraid of Rachel.

Then it’s Michael’s turn to read his revised story. Just like last time, the characters are simple-minded and it is ingenuous and saccharine sweet. God wins all in the end. I am thinking that no publisher I have ever submitted to would even consider it. Michael will have to send it to some cheerful, sentimental magazine if such a thing exists; possibly religious periodicals accept such things? Yet, no one mentions this problem, while I know full well they must be thinking about it.

“Um,” I say tentatively, “Marsha seems…um…a bit…not sure how to put this…maybe childish? Like she just accepts what Gregory tells her and decides to keep the baby even though she already has two kids she doesn’t take care of and has no means of support?  I mean, exactly how is she going to live? And what about her husband’s parole coming up? Will he get it or not? And will he continue to beat her up if he does?”

“Oh, I think it’s fine,” says Richard.

“Yeah, I don’t have a problem with it,” says Lee Ann, the mother of a teenage girl who is currently driving her insane and shows up frequently in her irate essays.

I feel confused, as if I am suddenly on another planet and not wearing any pants. The eternally suspicious mother is saying that these characters are just fine swallowing anything anyone tells them and that whatever the preacher says is right? Because Michael is fundamental Christian, we have to pamper his belief system?

Suddenly, I feel a violent stab of homesickness, picturing my sweet husband in his recliner cozily watching Netflix. I could be there with him now. What am I doing here with these people who obviously don’t like me?

But now it is my turn to read my latest sci-fi story, which takes place on a space station and involves a prostitute and a smug, rightwing head of security who wants to banish the ladies from the station even though the men are lonely.  A delegation of aliens is arriving for first contact and since the aliens communicate best through body contact and smell, the prostitute is called in to facilitate this form of communication. She is the heroine of the day while the smug head of security ends up humiliated.

At first, Richard seems to like the story though the others are quiet. Finally Rachel says, “Maybe you don’t need to be quite so descriptive of what the prostitute does in the opening. I mean, you can just say she is a prostitute.”

I don’t mention that this is exactly what rejecting editors tell you not to do.  Show, don’t tell, they always say. None of these people have had as much experience as I have of being rejected, nor have they had anywhere near as many things published.

“You know,” says Lee Ann, “I don’t think they really would ask the prostitute to meet with the alien. They just wouldn’t do it.”

I silently nod though I’d like to ask her how much sci-fi she has actually read.

Richard, who first said he liked the story, now says, “You had to bring politics into it, didn’t you?”

I am rather stunned and my face flushes. Yes, I brought politics into it since politics are actually related to everything in LIFE.  I want to scream, how come Michael can “bring politics into it” just by being fundamental Christian, but if I do it, it’s not kosher?

“That reminds me,” Richard goes on, “a friend of mine read your letter to the editor, the one about the Middle East? And he said, ‘I thought you told me she was intelligent.'”

While my face burns, I make the decision then and there that I will not return to the writer’s group. As I drive home, I wonder why I go to meetings at all.

Oh, I remember…it’s to make friends.

 

My husband turns his head as I open the door.  He is cozily in his recliner just as I had pictured, Roger the cat on his lap. The TV is on to a nature show where a mother cheetah is worried about protecting her cubs while she desperately searches for food. I have never been so happy to see all this in my life.

The next day there is a lake association meeting but I refrain and let husband go by himself.

 

 

 

BIO

Margaret Karmazin’s credits include stories published in literary and national magazines, including Rosebud, Chrysalis Reader, North Atlantic Review, Mobius, Confrontation, Pennsylvania Review, ASIM, The Speculative Edge and Another Realm. Her stories in The MacGuffin, Eureka Literary Magazine, Licking River Review and Mobius were nominated for Pushcart awards. She has also published a YA novel, REPLACING FIONA, a children’s book, FLICK-FLICK & DREAMER and a collection of short stories, RISK.

 

 

 

 

 

0

Suit Yourself

by Lindsey Godfrey Eccles

 

 

This afternoon while I’m showing a new listing the weather finally turns, and when I put on my rain jacket I find something in the pocket that I should have thrown away a year ago.  I continue the walk-through, showing my client the rock fireplace, the exposed beams and the “lodge” feel – he’s a nice young guy, born overseas, polite and sophisticated, the kind of tech money we depend on now – but the whole time I’m also palming a children’s puzzle piece, exploring its shape, noting the way it fits into my hand.  By the time we get to the chef’s kitchen I am feeling too warm.  Breathless, and a little nauseated.  I have to duck outside, and I sit down too hard on the damp stone steps.  My client is nice about it, but he’s spooked.  As we shake hands and I watch his car go down the gravel drive I know I won’t hear from him again.

I’m finding it hard to care.  I pull the piece out of my pocket.  It’s from the cheap kind of puzzle, hasn’t been treated well, and the shiny paper has almost come loose from the cardboard.  I slide out from under the porch roof and run my fingers over it, letting the misty drizzle cool my cheeks and the back of my neck.  I don’t want to think about the puzzle piece or where it came from or why it’s in the pocket of my rain jacket.  But what the hell.

 

I’m in my mid-fifties, and I live alone, which is absolutely fine with me.  I’m not married anymore, and I don’t have any children.  I do have a niece who lives in Florida.  Amanda.  She’s just three years old now, and she’s the light of my life – that is embarrassing to say, but it is exactly what I mean.  I can see things more clearly when she’s around.  I used to go down there every few weeks or so to see her, but my last visit was more than a year ago, when my brother kicked me out of his house seven hours before my flight.

I should say that I never got along with Stevie all that well when we were kids.  He’s a lot younger than I am, and we’re just different.  He didn’t finish college, and I did, and he thinks that means I think I’m better.  I do think I’ve done more with my life than he has.  That sounds wrong.  What I mean is that I’ve gone farther.  The distance from where we started and where we are now is farther, for me.  For example, Stevie tells jokes that make me uncomfortable.  I don’t think he’s a racist but on the other hand, I would have trouble defending him to someone else who thought he was.  Sometimes, I want to ask him, haven’t you been paying attention?  Haven’t you learned anything at all?

I always loved Stevie, but we weren’t close, and after our parents retired and moved to a golf course in Southern California we didn’t see each other much.  The gap between us always felt faintly embarrassing to me.  It’s a question, usually unspoken, but a question, when I mention Stevie to somebody.  Your brother is twelve years younger?  And they wonder.  But Stevie married Whitney, and now they have Amanda.

Things were getting better between me and Stevie.  He likes it, or did like it, when I visited, and for a while he was sending me photos and videos every single day.  I watch them over and over now, sometimes while I’m on the phone with a client or another agent.  There is one video of Amanda jumping into foam pit one of their neighbors built in his backyard for the kids.  The foam pit is safe, I guess, but the way she launches into it, belly first, it gets to me.  She is so brave.  I watch her over and over, flinging her head back, not even looking at the pit, not even watching where she is going.  She lands, rolls, stands bottom-first and lifts her arms for someone to pick her up.

But all of this is how it was a year ago, not how it is now.  From what I understand, Stevie and Whitney – she’s his wife, did I mention that? – have been having problems, as they say.  Stevie is more or less a stay-at-home dad, though I doubt he would describe himself that way.  He does some kind of freelance marketing, I think, but he doesn’t work much, and he doesn’t pay the bills.  This is okay with me, and I think it’s okay with Whitney, but I don’t think it’s okay with Stevie.  Whitney is a nurse practitioner in the maternity ward of the county hospital down there in South Florida, where they live.  They live on a golf course too, like our parents, but it isn’t very nice.  A little embarrassing, mostly flat, not many trees.  People drive golf carts around on Stevie’s street as if they were wealthy people of leisure, but to me they just look like they can’t afford cars.

Anyway, Stevie doesn’t work, and he stays home with Amanda.  They can’t afford day care on Whitney’s salary, even with overtime.  Stevie loves Amanda.  I can tell, from the photos he sends.  He likes to dress her up.  She has cheerleader outfits for the Dolphins and the Marlins and the Hurricanes.  We’re not even from Florida originally.  What gets me isn’t the outfits, though, so much as the way that he does her hair.  When he dresses her up he always puts her hair in braids, and not just the simple Pippi Longstocking style sticking-out braids, either.  He can do it all – French braids, the braids that look like fish skeletons, you know, intricate stuff.  He can do the braids that make her look like a Bavarian barmaid that snake all around her head.  It’s amazing what he can do.  I don’t know where he learned these things.  My mother never braided my hair, and even if she had, he would have been too little to notice.

It isn’t easy, I don’t think, even for a man in his generation, to stay home and take care of the kids.  He must get lonely, and he must have doubts.  I am not sure I could have done it myself, if things had worked out differently for me.

 

Stevie’s house is like a shoebox, a giant baby blue shoebox, lined up alongside dozens of other shoeboxes painted in various shades of pastel.  I always felt uneasy, walking down that street, which doesn’t have sidewalks or even a curb, but just sort of slopes down into a shallow drainage ditch.  Before the last time I had never visited during a big storm, but anyone could see that it wouldn’t take much to flood this whole neighborhood.  When I take Amanda for walks we stick to the middle of the street, which is okay, because the only traffic is retirees in electric golf carts.  Amanda likes those; she points at them and says “golf carts!”  “Are those cars,” I ask her, and she shakes her head all the way side to side with a big smile on her face: “Those are golf carts!”

The day before the morning Stevie kicked me out of his house was a Sunday and because it was September, that meant football.  I don’t watch the NFL myself, but I don’t mind the game.  It reminds me of when I was younger – there were so many afternoons in New Orleans at the bar I tended in the Quarter, with every sort of person walking in and out and the game on all day long.  And it’s something to talk about when there isn’t anything else.  I am sitting with Amanda on the pale green carpeted floor in the long hallway that connects the rooms of the shoebox like buds on a vine.  We are putting together a thirty-five piece puzzle, which is a little old for her, but she is remarkably good at puzzles.  This is a jungle scene, with every manner of African animal peeking out of a tangle of vines and leaves – including some that I am pretty sure belong on the savannah, not in the jungle.  I have my back propped up against the wall, and Amanda is sitting cross-legged on my lap.  It is hard to put the puzzle together on the soft carpet because the pieces wouldn’t stay joined when you try to add another piece, but there isn’t a free table in the house.  We do the best we can.

“Where’s the rest of the elephant, honey?”

Amanda frowns at the piece in her hand, then holds it out to me.

“Nope.  What color is the elephant?”

Stevie pounces on Amanda out of nowhere.  “The elephant is purple!” he shouts, and he lifts up Amanda, who cries “Purple Daddy!”  The puzzle piece falls on the carpet.

“Hey,” Stevie says to me, holding Amanda over his head like a trophy he’s just won.  She is giggling and kicking her legs.  “How about we invite some friends over for the game later?”

“How ‘bout that?”  Amanda says.

“Um,” I say.  It’s the last day of my visit, and I want to spend it with Amanda, and plus there are some things I want to discuss with him and Whitney.  Just some suggestions.  I’m not that kind of older sister – I would never tell somebody how to raise their child – I’m not my mother – but I have a couple of suggestions.  Plus, I don’t like the way he said it, as if he hasn’t already invited his “friends” over, as if I really have any say in it at all.

“Of course not,” I say.  “That’s fine.”  Stevie gives me a look.  I’m not always very good at hiding my feelings.  “That would be fun,” I say, stretching my lips into a smile.

“Great!”  He holds his hand down to me.  “Want some help up?”

I shake my head and brace myself against the wall to stand.  Stevie is already walking down the hall with Amanda held high, her auburn curls bouncing against the ceiling with the rhythm of his steps.  He knows I’m watching.

In the kitchen Whitney is cooking.  Or doing what passes for cooking in this house.  Sometimes it seems like days pass before I see these people sit down to something I recognize as a meal.  Whitney is digging through the cabinets pulling out bags and boxes, then reaches into the fridge for a three-quarters-full quart jar of something viscous and pale yellow.  My stomach rolls a little.  When she notices me watching she smiles brightly.

“Jackie!  Want to give me a hand?”

I nod and walk around the kitchen island.  I grab a saucepan from the drying rack where I left it earlier that morning and reach my hand out for the jar of yellow.  Nacho Cheez.  It is too thick to pour, so I try shaking it over the pan, and when that doesn’t work I run a little bit of water from the tap, close the jar, and shake it.  It pours like a charm.

I start when I notice Whitney watching me.

“This looks really good,” I say.  She smirks and turns back to the cabinets.

I’m not sure how to handle Whitney.  She seems to care about my brother, and she’s pretty, though maybe fifteen pounds overweight.  She used to be a dancer, apparently, but that is hard to imagine.  Now she works in a hospital and supervises a team of about a dozen other nurses, pulling three or four long shifts a week plus all that paperwork.  I appreciate that she supports my brother and my niece, really I do.  I just wish she could be home more.  Amanda misses her mother.

I turn the electric burner under the saucepan on low and find a little plate to put under the serving spoon I’m using to scrape up the yellow goo from the bottom so that it doesn’t stick or burn.  If there were an exhaust fan or a hood I would turn that on, but there isn’t.  I turn to Whitney.

“Maybe I’ll take Amanda to the park before the game?”

Whitney frowns a little, then smiled again.  “The game,” she repeats.  “Yes, that sounds like a good idea.  It’s so kind of you to come help us out.”

The park isn’t actually a park, but it is a good excuse to get out of the house.  At the end of the road, where the development ran out of steam in an open marsh, there is one lot with a driveway but no house.  It has been leveled, or built up, or whatever they do in this part of the world where developed land has to be wrestled from the swamp, but no house was ever built.  It’s okay for playing so long as you keep a close eye on Amanda, because God knows what would happen if you let her wander off the abandoned plot into the tall grasses and wetlands beyond.  You know the stories you read about alligators appearing out of nowhere and pulling little kids under the water?  I can’t think about it.  But I know other neighborhood kids play here sometimes, because we sometimes come across a deflated basketball or a plastic doll with multiple amputations in the scrubby weeds.  It’s like a sad little treasure hunt.

We haven’t been there long when Amanda starts complaining about being hungry, which, to be fair, she probably is, so we walk back.  The sky is low and close, like a winter hat I don’t want in this heat, and I have learned to be wary of ominous skies.  It isn’t like where I live now, in Western Washington, where the clouds can hang over you for days without giving up more than a drizzle.  Here, clouds mean business.  Amanda pulls her hand out of mine and runs up the cement walk to her house, startling me.  I look around and see two or three cars I haven’t noticed before, big shiny cars alongside the rows of pink and yellow and blue shoe boxes.  The cars seem so much more permanent than the homes.

Inside the party has started.  Rap music blasting away like no tomorrow, like it isn’t the middle of the day on Sunday.  I stoop a little and rest my hands on Amanda’s shoulders.  “Shall we go find your mama, little honey?”  I ask.  She nods, slowly, with a tiny frown etched between her brows.

I have to tell you a little bit more about Whitney.  I admire her.  It isn’t easy to do what she does, support a family on a nurse’s salary.  But, honestly, I don’t understand her.  I know this makes me sound old, and I feel old when I talk to her.  And I don’t understand her relationship with my little brother.  He treats her well enough, from what I can see, but she always has to check in with him.  Do you know what I mean?  Not just about important things, like what kind of car she’s going to buy, but about everything.  How Amanda will wear her hair that day.  Whether the jeans Whitney is wearing look all right.  And sometimes it seems to me that Stevie will say, seriously?, or you’ve got to be fucking kidding me, for no other reason than to remind her that most of the time she is wrong.

“Here’s your mama,” I say, as we work our way down the hallway to the little kitchen at one end of the house.  Whitney is still standing over the stove, but the pan of yellow goo has been set to the side to congeal.  She is chewing thoughtfully on a tortilla chip while she stares at a pot of water on the burner, uncovered, tiny bubbles forming and releasing from the bottom of the pot, well short of a boil.  A half-empty package of discount macaroni rests on the counter next to the stove.  “I decided to cook something healthy instead,” Whitney says.

“No like it!”  Amanda screams suddenly.  “No like paaahsta!”  Whitney flinches and her shoulders rise up around her ears.

“It’s okay, honey,” I say, lifting Amanda to my hip.  “Something healthy.”

“Pasta is yucky and bad!”

Whitney sighs and folds her arms across her chest.  She starts flexing and pointing her left foot, dragging her toes along the green linoleum of the kitchen floor.  Green to match the carpet.

“You don’t have to eat it,” she says.  “Mama’s just a little tired of chips and dips, that’s all.”

“How about I cook something?”  I say.  I love to cook.  On Saturday mornings I might drive an hour both ways just to visit the farmer’s market in Tacoma.  “How about I roast a chicken?  That makes a lovely Sunday supper.  And I could mash some potatoes to go with it, with maybe a little parsley sprinkled on top, for a bit of green.”

Whitney looks at me as if I am absolutely insane.

“Pars-ley?”  Amanda says, frowning again.  “No like it,” she says, but more softly this time.

“Or not,” I say, picking up a dirty sponge from the sink.  I wipe up some stray bits of gooey cheese dip and drop the sponge back into the sink.  “How about I order a pizza?”

“How ‘bout that!”  Amanda says.

“We’re fine!”  Whitney shouts.  She grabs Amanda, who squeals happily and kicks her legs, and puts her down on the countertop.  Amanda reaches her hand into the pan of cheese dip and presses a gooey yellow palm to her face.  Whitney takes a deep breath and sighs.  “I’m sorry.  Please do order pizza.  That would be very helpful.”

An hour later Whitney and Amanda and I have joined the “guests” in the living room at the other end of the shoebox, with a sofa, two reclining chairs, and an eighty-five-inch flat screen television.  I can barely look at it.  Amanda holds her hands over her ears.  We sit together on the floor in the corner of the room, next to the sofa, as far away from the television as we can get.  Sitting on the sofa is a large, friendly-looking man whose name, he tells me, is Sal.  I try to chat politely with him, but the noise from the television is so loud, even during the commercials, that all I can really do is smile and shrug my shoulders.  Amanda has found another jungle puzzle, one that I sent to her last month, and sets to work.  I try to watch the game a little, but the television is so large and close that I can’t focus.  It’s all flashing colors and bodies colliding and sportscasters yelling and really, it’s just too much.

I do notice something ticking across the bottom of the screen, separate from the game.  I find that if I ignore most of what is happening on the screen and focus only on the words at the bottom, I can just about make it out.  There are exclamation points and little symbols that look like rain clouds and lightning.  I try to look out the window, but the shades are drawn.

“I’ll be back in two minutes,” I say to Amanda, leaning against the wall for support as I stand.  I miss my yoga during these visits.  There doesn’t seem to be anywhere to do it that doesn’t feel silly and uncomfortable.

“Two minutes,” Amanda agrees.

I walk back down the hallway, scrunching the fuzzy carpet between my toes.  Outside I can see that the weather is about to turn even worse.  The air has that strange quality that you get down here, where it is so humid and so warm that even before it rains moisture beads up on the cooler surfaces of the sidewalks and the cars.  And then, while I’m standing there looking at the sidewalk, the first drops fall.  I look around to make sure nobody’s windows are down on the cars parked outside, but they’re all fine, closed up tight.  Then I take a few steps down the sidewalk so that I’m clear of the porch roof and tip my face up to the sky.  A drop lands on my right eyelid; another hits my chin.  I open my eyes when I realize another car has arrived and is idling in the street.  A reed-thin teenager is standing there, hefting a large, cube-shaped bag made of bright red plastic.  “Pizza?” he says.

After I’ve paid and thanked the delivery boy, I place the pizza boxes carefully on the kitchen counter, hoping the grease doesn’t soak through.  I’m looking through the cabinets for the largest set of matching plates I can find when Whitney appears.  “Amanda is asking for you,” she says.  “Oh, you don’t need to do that.  Let’s just bring it into the living room and throw the boxes on the floor.  Nobody will use plates anyway.”

“Fine,” I say.  Whitney grabs a roll of paper towels and leaves me with the pizza boxes.  Maybe I shouldn’t have ordered so many.  I manage to get them into the den – I can’t help thinking of it as a den, it reminds me of a room in our parents’ house, growing up – and look around for someplace to put them.  There isn’t a coffee table.  “I’ll take those!”  Sal shouts, jumping up from the sofa, and lifts the boxes out of my hands.  Then he drops them right on the floor.  Everyone laughs.  My cheeks start to burn, but I feel Amanda’s hands gently take hold of one of my legs, hugging me like a tree.  My hand drops to the top of her soft little head.

 

It is raining hard now.  I can hear it on the roof just a few feet overhead.  I’m squinting at the little ticker at the bottom of the television screen, but I can’t really read it and I don’t want to get any closer.  They are still showing the little cloud and the little lightning symbol, all the time now.

The game seems to be going well; everyone is happy.  Another one of the guests, Sue, who I’m told is the wife of the hospital supervisor, is pouring shots.  She seems nice, but I don’t like to drink during the daytime.

She won’t leave me alone.  “Julie!” she shouts.  Sal nudges her and whispers in her ear.  She corrects herself.  “Jackie!”  I smile and shake my head, pulling Amanda closer into my lap.  I should have mentioned, there are other little kids there, three in total, counting Amanda.  One of them is standing right up against the television screen, reaching out to touch it until Stephen swats his hands away, over and over, like it’s part of the game.  The other one, a girl, is trying to use the toilet in the one bathroom down the hall.

Sue has a bottle in her hand.  It looks like whiskey, with a picture of a red demon on the front.  “Are you sure?” she smiles.  Sue must be my age, at least, though she is very fit.

“No, thank you,” I say.

“It’s easier with some cherry coke.  I bet Whitney has some.  Want me to go see?”

“No, really.  Thanks.  I’m fine.”

“Suit yourself,” Sue says, and shrugs.  “I’m gonna keep my eye on you, though.”

Amanda squirms around in my lap until we are nose to nose.  Very slowly she opens her hand and presses her palm flat against her eye, then moves it to mine.

“Want to go for a walk,” I say, before I remember the rain.  “Want to check on the rain?  How about that?”

Amanda tilts her head to the side, then nods.  She scoots off my lap holding a puzzle piece that looks like an anaconda, or maybe just part of a tree branch, I’m really not sure.

Outside the rain has started to collect in the muddy drainage ditches on either side of the road.  The ditches don’t actually seem to drain anywhere.

“How deep do you think that is?”

“Two deep!”  Or maybe “too deep.”  I’m not sure.

I squat down on my heels next to Amanda on the concrete porch step.  “Now you know, honey, you must never play in the ditch when it fills up with water like that.  You know that, don’t you?”  Amanda nodded.  Then she threw her puzzle piece out onto the wet lawn.  As I was standing up to go fetch it, she took off running for the street.  When she reached the part of the lawn that sloped down into the drainage ditch – this didn’t take long, the lawn isn’t very big – she slipped, landed on her bottom, and slid towards the ditch.  The water was only a few inches deep, and she didn’t topple all the way over, thank goodness, but her sky blue cheerleading outfit was soaked.  When I caught up to her her lower lip was sticking out, her eyes screwed up like tiny wet pebbles, her face brightening to tomato red.

She screamed and screamed, and when I picked her up she kicked, not happily, trying to get me, kicking to hurt.  I held her away from my body as best I could – not easy, but I think I mentioned the yoga – and carried her back into the kitchen, Amanda screaming “I hate Auntie Jackie I hate Auntie Jackie I hate Auntie Jackie I – ”  It was raining hard now, and we were both wet.  I plopped her down on the counter and turned around to find some paper towels.

“Oh my God – ” someone was shouting, and I whipped around, just in time to see Amanda tumble head first off the kitchen counter, reaching out for something, I don’t know what.  Somehow I got my hip and part of my leg under her, so instead of diving straight to the floor she thudded into me, slid down my leg, and rolled across the floor.  I dropped the roll of paper towels but before I could get to her, Sue had scooped her up.  Sue was already wobbly, but she kept a tight hold on Amanda.

“Oh my poor little girl, poor little girl,” she was whispering, pressing Amanda’s soft coppery head against her chest.  Amanda was squirming and whimpering, and I needed to take her back and make sure she was all right.  “I’ll take you to mama.  I’ll take you.”

“Oh no,” I said, “Let Whitney rest.  I’ll handle it.”  Sue gave me a sharp look and turned towards the television room.  “Don’t worry, Jackie,” she said.  “I know you aren’t used to having small children around.  I’m sure her parents understand.”

I stood alone in the kitchen.  The counter in front of me was wet and muddy in spots from Amanda’s soiled outfit, and I could see streaks of crusty yellow cheese dip where the pan had been sitting earlier on.  There was some shouting from down the hall – happy shouting, I think, but was hard for me to tell – and all of a sudden I felt very warm.  It was warm in the kitchen and I knew it would be even warmer in that tiny room with the huge television and all those people.  My clothes were already wet, so I thought, what the hell, and I walked back out into the rain.

 

It was halftime, and the President was on the television.  I was watching from just inside the doorway.  I had heard her voice and got curious – what did the President have to do with any of this?  But of course tomorrow is the anniversary of the attacks, and people’s emotions will be high.  And she was even a New Yorker herself, sort of, for a while.  I guess it makes sense for her to say something.

“I still can’t get used to that voice,” Stevie says.  “Or that face.”  Everyone laughs.  The rain on the roof has gotten so loud that I can hear it even over their laughter, over the music and the television, but I can’t hear what the President is saying.  Instead I look at her face.  She is serious today, no toothy grins.  It is a difficult day for her, but I miss her grin.  I fell in love with that grin during the debates last fall, the way she could just shake her head a tiny bit and smile, no matter what happened.  I wish I could do that.

“It’s better than last year, at least.”

“I don’t think so.  At least Obama had a little class.”

“Are you kidding me?  What do you know about class?”

Two fat thighs, two small breasts, and a left wing,” stage whispers one of the men.  I take a step back while everyone starts laughing again.  I look at Whitney, holding Amanda, who is squirming away towards her daddy.  Who is also laughing.  Whitney is laughing.

“That was a good one,” Sal says.  I look around the room.  I was introduced to everyone, at some point, but I’m not all that good with names, especially when they come rapid fire, one after another, boom boom boom.  Besides me and my brother and my niece and Whitney, there are two couples – Sue and her husband, who is tall, slender, and silent, and Sal and his round little wife – and the two little kids.  The little boy, who I think is Sue’s grandson – is that possible? – is still right in front of the TV, though now he’s sitting cross-legged and picking at something on the floor that looks like a piece of pepperoni.  The little girl, who must belong to Sal, is pulling books off the shelf at the back of the room.  I remember what Sue said about how I wasn’t used to “small children” and the back of my neck gets hot again.

“Would anybody like a cup of tea?”  I ask, as loudly as I can without shouting.

Sal’s wife hears me and chuckles, patting my hand.  I stare at the President’s serious face, her calm blue gaze, her blond hair shorter than ever, almost a pixie cut.  Maybe I will get a haircut like that when I get back home.  I could drive into Seattle, have lunch with somebody, make a day of it.  I do that a lot.  I have a lot of friends, back home.

There isn’t much seating in the television room, but most of it is empty.  Everyone but Sal’s wife and Sue’s husband is sitting on the floor or leaning against a wall.  The floor is covered in pizza boxes and wadded-up paper napkins and half-eaten slices.  There are plastic cups of coke and whiskey all over the place.  I have a vision of Amanda picking up one of the cups of coke – which Stephen lets her drink when Whitney isn’t around – without knowing it has whiskey in it.  I want to gather them up but I don’t know which ones are abandoned or whose cup is whose.  I make my way over to where Amanda is sitting in Stephen’s lap, staring open-mouthed at the screen.  The President lifts a hand in farewell, and a car commercial comes on.  I lean down and whisper into Amanda’s ear.  “Want to come into the kitchen with me?  I could get you some milk in a sippy cup.”  Amanda frowns and Stephen wraps his arms closer around her shoulders.

 

I’m standing in the kitchen, looking out the front door, which is open.  The next door neighbor, an older gentleman like most of the people around here, is bent double under the weight of the sandbags he is carrying from a shed behind his house to his front porch.  I wonder if he needs help, and then I wonder if we should be doing something about sandbags.

One of the most irritating things about being a divorced woman in my fifties is the fact that everyone assumes my husband left me for a younger woman.  I can see it, the pity edged with contempt in their eyes.  These days, as often as not, I don’t mention my marriage at all.  It ended for a lot of reasons – not just the fertility problem, although that didn’t help – but to tell you the truth I just couldn’t stand the thought of growing old with him.  Couldn’t imagine a future with him that I wanted any part of.  And here’s something else I don’t mention very often – I felt the same way about my friends’ marriages.  Even the ones who seemed happy, or who said they were.  By the end, marriage just seemed pointless, ridiculous.  So I left him.  Of course if we had children it would have been harder to get away.  So that’s a blessing, I suppose.

My house sits in a little clearing, almost an acre, in the middle of a second-growth forest close to Mount Rainier, which is a big volcanic peak southeast of Seattle.  A lot of the homes I list are in the same area.  There’s a ski mountain nearby, so lots of vacation rentals in winter as well as summer, but you would be surprised by how many people live there year-round, like me.  Mostly retirees, of course.  There’s a former airline pilot, a somewhat well-known novelist, some people in their early forties who started at Amazon at the right time.  I’ve been there for fifteen years now, and I don’t imagine I’ll ever live anyplace else, so long as I can take care of myself.  You’d be surprised how many people visit from Europe and Asia, just to see our national parks.  I’m out and about with clients most days, especially on weekends.  It’s not as lonely as you might think.

 

I tip my chin to my chest and the warm water soaks my hair to the scalp, streams down my shoulders, my back, my legs.  My bare feet sink into the prickly grass, saturated now so that I am standing in a couple of inches of water, at least.  The drops pound onto the top of my head like a shower with a massage attachment.  I lift my face and smooth back my hair.  The neighbor with the sandbags appears on his porch, gives me a long look, and goes back inside.  The ditch between the lawn and the street is full now, rushing merrily with frothy brown water.  I see a styrofoam cup float by and disappear.  Next come a dirty tennis ball and a child’s sock.

Back inside I sneak into Whitney and Stephen’s closet to look for a robe, but I can’t find one.  Instead, I strip down to my underwear and wrap myself up in an oversized bath sheet.  When I turn around, Whitney herself is sitting on their bed with a plastic cup in her hand.  When I start to say something she lifts her other hand and sighs, then pats the bedspread next to her.  I sit.  She drinks the brown liquid in one long swallow, then wipes her mouth and tosses it on the floor.  I can hear shouting, and then the light pounding of a toddler’s feet running down the hall.

“Shut the door, will you?”  she says.  “I don’t want to drink anything else.”  She shrugs.

“Okay.”

She is still looking at me so I go on, “I think that’s fine.”

“I guess so.  You know Steve and I only drink on weekends.”

“Okay.”

“As far as I know, anyway.”  She laughs.  “We’re doing the counseling.  It isn’t helping, Jackie.”

“If you can just – ”

“I’m not blaming you.  I know you only try to help.  Please understand that.”

“I know you aren’t blaming me.  What would you blame me for?”

Whitney looks at me.

“Does this mean – are you going to file?”

Whitney lies back, crosswise on the bed.  “I don’t really have time.”  She puts her hands over her eyes.  “I’ll let Stephen do it.”

“Do you think, if you did something about the drinking, it might help?”

Whitney inhaled sharply.  “Watch it, Jackie.”

“I really don’t care if you drink or not, Whitney.  You brought it up.  I just want – ”

“I know what you want.”

A thought occurs to me.  Whitney has no siblings, no parents any longer.  How bad are things between Stephen and Whitney, really?  If they divorced, would she get custody?  Would she need help?  No, it can’t be as bad as that.  I push the thought away.  “Amanda is such a lovely little girl.”

Whitney sighs.  Her hands are still covering her eyes.  “Lovely, lovely, lovely.”

I stand up.  “Can I make you some tea?  I brought along my favorite.  It’s herbal and it tastes like licorice.  Will you try it?”

“Jackie, Jackie, Jackie.”

I sit back down on the bed next to her, staring at the window shade, which is drawn down, as always.  I listen to the rain pounding on the roof.

 

The little kids are running races down the hallway.  All three of them have been outside, I can see.  Amanda is still wearing her muddy cheerleader’s outfit.  They leave tiny damp footprints on the carpet.  Sal is leaning in the hallway at the end closest to the television.  He winks at me, then stumbles away.

I make my way slowly down the hall, hoping none of the little kids run into the backs of my legs.  I think maybe the game is over.  Someone has finally turned down the volume on the television, but the rap music is back on.  Maybe it’s hip hop.  I don’t really know the difference.

Amanda rushes past me yelling, “Daddy, Daddy, Daddy I am so fast!”  And then she stops dead right in front of me.  I stumble against her and have to reach down and grab the stiff collar of her jumper to keep from knocking her over.  I look where she’s looking, at the sofa.

Stephen is lying there, on his back, wobbling a little bit from side to side as if he’s trying to get up.  I start to laugh until I notice the look on his face.  He’s not trying to get up, I realize, he’s reaching for the bottle lying on the carpet next to him, demon side down.  He can’t reach it, and he’s getting frustrated, and then the smell hits me.  The whole room reeks of alcohol.  The other two little kids run past me and knock over a stack of books on the far side of the couch, shouting happily.  Sue is perched on the edge of the sofa and she swats at her grandson half-heartedly.  She turns and looks over her shoulder at Stephen.  “You want some help, sweetheart?” she asks, then leans down and tries to kiss him on the lips.  At least that’s what I think she’s trying to do, though her aim is poor and she ends up planting one on his chin.

Stephen sputters and rolls away from her, landing on the carpet.  I pull Amanda back so that he doesn’t land on her.  “Daddy?”  She says.

Stephen’s eyes are closed, but when he opens them he is looking straight at me.  He snarls, like an animal, an angry, wounded animal.

Sue laughs.  “What was that?”  Stephen snarls again, then falls back, his eyes closed.  Slowly he turns so that he is resting flat on his back on the floor.  His cheek is pressed against a plastic cup lying on its side.

“Could you take Amanda to her mother, please?”  I say to Sue.

“No no no no mama no mama no.”  Amanda presses against my legs.

“Sweetheart, she passed out a few minutes ago.”

“What?”

Sue scoots over to Amanda on her knees, then leans into her face.

“Sweetie, your mama is having a little rest.”

“Daddy?”  Amanda says again.  She pulls away from me and climbs onto Stephen’s chest.  He’s built like a bear, barrel-chested.  Whitney has told me, in one of those wine-fueled conversations where we are both saying more than we should, that she likes that about him.  But now I worry that Amanda will fall off.  Stephen’s t-shirt has ridden up towards his shoulders, and she grabs handfuls of the hair that covers his belly and chest as she climbs.  He grunts a little but otherwise doesn’t move.  Amanda lies belly to belly with him for a moment, then pushes herself up and sideways so that she is kneeling on his chest on her hands and knees.  It could be comical, but it isn’t.  “Daddy, play,” she demands.  Stephen doesn’t move at all.  “Honey,” I say, but Amanda won’t look at me.  I move towards her but she screams and wraps her hands in her father’s shirt and won’t let go.  “Daddy, Daddy, Daddy, Daddy!”  Stephen doesn’t move.  Amanda is red and sobbing now, screaming, bobbing up and down gently with the rise and fall of her father’s breath.

 

Sue was right; Whitney has passed out on the bed.  Amanda has fallen asleep too, on Stephen’s chest.  I have been checking from time to time to make sure that he’s still breathing.  I realize that I haven’t seen the two other little kids, Sue’s grandson and the little girl, in quite a while.  I can only assume that the rest of the adults have passed out in various places.  It isn’t really my problem – is it? – but they’re just kids, and none of this is their fault, and so I go looking for them.

They aren’t in the house, I quickly realize.  It isn’t a big place, with no attic and of course no basement, not in South Florida, and the house is not a whole lot more than a kitchen and a television room with a hallway in between.  Amanda and I sleep together in a closet-sized nursery next to her parents’ room.  When I woke up this morning I saw her sleepsack-covered bottom high in the air, her cheek pressed against the bare sheet.  She is so little, so delicate, so perfect.  There’s no one in the kitchen or the room with the television.  I think about turning off the rap music, which has gotten even louder and more unintelligible, but then I think, why bother.  I don’t want to listen to the rain.

I’m hesitating outside the door to Amanda’s room, but then I think to myself, what the hell, it’s my room too for this weekend, so I push it open.  It takes a moment for my eyes and my brain to connect, for me to begin to understand what I see, but there is a tangle of half-undressed arms and legs strewn across my blow-up bed on the floor next to Amanda’s white wooden crib.  “Mmm,” says the tangle, and I shut the door again.  No kids in that room.

I peek in on Whitney just to make sure the toddlers haven’t wandered in there, but they haven’t, and she is still alone on the bed, which is a relief, I will admit – one less thing for me to decide whether or not to do something about – so now I have to check outside.  The rain hasn’t slowed, and the thunder is coming regularly, booming and booming while the rain thumps like thousands of tiny fists over our heads.  This time the lights flicker when the lightning flashes, and I start to count, one Mississippi – but before I get to two the thunder booms again.

When I push open the front door, my breath leaves my body, my hands fall limp against my side, I am rooted to the concrete porch.  I wait, hoping that my eyes will stop seeing what they are seeing, that the images will resolve into something different, something that is not unthinkable.  Sue’s little grandson and the older girl are floating in the drainage ditch that runs along the street.  But – they are on their backs, on their backs, on their backs, and even as I start to run for them, stubbing half the toes of my right foot on the steps, stumbling down onto the waterlogged lawn – there are at least three or four inches of water standing over the grass now, rising up and up the porch steps, and I’m bleeding from my scraped-up toes into the water – the little boy surges up like a hooked fish, splashing and kicking the soiled water, and the little girl follows, grinning as she punches him in the belly; they are both gasping for breath and soaked, wet to the bone, but all the same they are laughing and yelling at each other and the little girl screams over and over, “I won I won I won I won I won.”  I make my way towards them, feeling the Florida mud ooze up from underneath the lawn between my toes as the water laps around my shins, seeping into the cuffs of my jeans.  The little girl is so delighted with herself that she lets me pick her up without a word and sits on my hip, grabbing my shirt with two dirty hands.  The little boy tries to stand up but he can’t, there’s too much water and the lawn with the mud beneath it is too slippery, and he falls down face first, so I have to put the girl down to lift him out – so he can breathe, for Christ’s sake – and then, because she thinks it is funny, she falls face first into the water too, toppling like a little tree, and yes it could be funny, couldn’t it, if it weren’t all so horrible.

Finally I have got the kids inside, and I’ve stripped them both to the skin, but the girl is too big for Amanda’s clothes and even if she weren’t, I’m not going back into that little room anytime soon.  The boy is still in diapers but I don’t see a bag anywhere that looks like it might have diapers in it, so I just wrap them both in towels and sit them on the kitchen floor.  There is a brilliant flash of lightning and the lights go out and the rap music stops as the thunder rolls over us like a train, before I even have time to think about counting.  The children are both staring at me, wide-eyed, as if I have something to do with all of this, as if the storm or any of the rest of it is my fault.  “Come on,” I say.  “Let’s go check on your friend.”

“We don’t have any friends here,” the little girl says.

 

Amanda is still asleep on her father’s belly, and so I take the last dry towel from the bathroom and cover them with it.  I stand over them, dripping onto the carpet.  Asleep like this in the dim, filtered light, Stevie looks so young, far younger than forty-two, which I still have to remind myself is his age.  When your little brother who is so much younger than you that he was in diapers when you started high school – when that man is in his early forties, then you know something has slipped away, gone forever, and you might as well just forget about ever getting it back.

I am standing in front of the quiet, dark television now, and I take a deep breath, close my eyes, listen to the rain on the roof.  It is so insistent, not like the rain back home, so soft that by the end of November I hardly even hear it.  People were never meant to live in places like this.  I walk around the room pulling up shades but it doesn’t make much difference, we are right in the thick of the storm.  I wonder if there is a radio, something that runs on batteries.  I wonder if there are flashlights.  I look out the window to the golf course across the street but all I can see is water.

I look back at Amanda.  I could take her now, right now, just take her and wrap her in a blanket and start walking.  Or, we could drive off in one of the trucks parked outside – it would be hours before anyone noticed.  By that time we would be so far away.  We could get onto the interstate before the water rises too high, drive north, fast, out of this storm, out of this swamp.  I look at Amanda again, sleeping on her father’s chest.  Her fingers are curled gently around the hem of his shirt.  He snores a little, and she rises up and down, up and down.

Back in the kitchen the other two children have gotten into the pantry cabinet, and there is breakfast cereal spread in brightly colored lumps all over the floor, which is damp.  I look around for an overturned bottle or carton, but I don’t see anything.  “Hey,” I say, “hey hey hey,” and I lift them onto the counter.  I sit on a stool in front of them and lean in.  “What are your names, anyway?  Please tell me your names.”

“Beth,” the little girl says smartly.  She tugs at the towel I’ve wrapped around her shoulders.  “And this is Josh.  His daddy is Sal.  He’s just two, like Mandy.  You should put a diaper on him.  He’s gonna poop in that towel.”

“Thanks, Beth,” I say.

“You better do it now.”

“I will,” I say.  “Can you two stay right there?  Can you be very still and very safe?”

Beth nods seriously as I point to the floor.  It is unmistakably wet, and a little stream of water is slithering from the front door towards the hallway.  Beth holds her towel in one hand and puts her other arm around Josh’s shoulders.

With the shades down it is almost dark in Amanda’s room.  I try not to look at anything as I sidle towards the chest of drawers where Whitney keeps her diapers.  This room, aside from what’s been going on down on the blow-up bed, is well kept.  You can tell that the child who lives in this room is loved.  I’m not looking at my bed – or what was once my bed, you can bet I won’t be sleeping on it again – but I can hear breathing, and there is a smell of alcoholic breath that pervades the air of the room with its tart funk, and another vaguely familiar smell that I am not going to talk about.  I can’t tell who’s in here, but I need to get out as soon as possible.  I slip my hand into the drawer and grab a package of diapers and the wipes from on top of the chest.  While I’m at it I pull out a handful of Amanda’s clothing too.  The drawer bangs a little when I close it, but no one stirs from the mattress on the floor.  When I leave I close the door quietly but very, very firmly.

In the kitchen we play dress up.  Beth is in a cheerleading outfit that won’t zip up the back, and Josh is wearing pink jersey pants and a sparkle tank top, but at least I got him into a diaper without incident, even though Beth was shouting, he’s pooping, he’s pooping! when I came back.  He wasn’t.  Apparently this is her favorite joke.  I take the towels I had wrapped the kids in and mop up the soggy, multicolored piles of cereal from the kitchen floor.  Then I roll them up –a breakfast burrito! I say, but Beth just stares at me – and push them against the bottom of the front door.  That doesn’t really keep the water out, and it just keeps snaking its way across the kitchen towards the hallway, as if the whole house sags right down the middle.  I walk down the hallway in my bare feet, and it already feels damp.  Back in the kitchen I study the front door, but there isn’t a bolt, no way to lock it except with one of those little toggles on the handle that doesn’t lock from the inside.  “Do not,” I say to the kids, holding up my index finger, “do not open this door.  Do you hear me?  Don’t open it.”  Beth nods at me, then looks at Josh.  Who knows what they think of me.  Who knows what they will do.

 

The next morning the sun is shining hard and bright, right through the unshaded windows into my eyes.  I’m lying on the sofa in the television room and Whitney is standing over me.  “What the hell, Jackie?” she says.

The light is blinding and I shade my eyes as I look down at the floor where Stephen and Amanda were sleeping next to me.  They’re not there anymore.

“What did you do?  I’m so embarrassed.”

“What did I do,” I repeat stupidly.  I have a pounding headache even though I didn’t have a drop to drink yesterday.  Whitney sighs, loudly.  I am running through what I remember: the water in the kitchen, the tangle of limbs on the blow-up bed in Amanda’s room, Amanda herself, Stephen snarling on the floor, the flood.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about, Jackie.  Where is Amanda?  Is she all right?”

“Of course she’s all right.  She’s in her bed.  Finally.”

What is that supposed to mean?  Finally in her bed?

“What about Stephen?  Is he okay?”

“Everyone is fine!  Why do you keep asking that?”

“Good,” I say.  “Great.  That’s great.”

“The floor isn’t fine though.  Just look at the goddam floor.”

When I stand on the carpet I can tell that it is wet, even here.  When I look down the hallway I see the front door standing open and sunlight glinting off brown water beyond.

“Why is the door open?”  I ask.  “There’s still so much water.”

“Why is the door open?  Why is the door open?”  Whitney laughs, and covers her eyes with one hand.  “That’s really funny.”

“Did everyone go home?”

Whitney’s laugh sounds a little insane now.  “You have no idea how embarrassed we are.  But we’re so lucky.  So lucky!  What if something worse had happened!”

I’m shaking my head.  I’m so confused.

“Jesus, how much did you drink last night after we went to bed?  That’s really sick, you know.”

What is she talking about?

“At least Josh was with you on the sofa.  Why you thought it was appropriate, or funny, or whatever it is you thought, to dress him up like that, I do not know.  Sue didn’t say anything, but I can tell you from the look on her face, she won’t be bringing him around here anymore.”  Whitney wiped the back of her hand across her face.  “Jesus, Jackie.  My boss’s wife.”

“I’m sorry, Whitney, but I really don’t know what you are talking about.”

Whitney stared at me.  “Sue woke me up this morning.  Standing over me and Steve and holding Amanda by the hand.  Apparently she was trying to wake you up but couldn’t.  The front door was standing wide open, Jackie – wide open – and Beth was playing around naked in the standing water in the front yard.  You know how dangerous that is?  There could be snakes, there could be alligators, there could be human feces – Jesus, she can’t even swim!  Anyway, Sue got Beth back inside and put some clothes on her, changed Josh and brought Amanda back to me and then she left.  So yeah, everyone is fine.”

I’m staring back at Whitney now.  I know that a lot of things depend on what I say next.

But none of this is my fault.

“It almost sounds like you are blaming me for what happened yesterday,” I say slowly, enunciating each word.

“Jesus Christ, Jackie!”  Stephen explodes from the hallway.  “You wanted to babysit!  You begged me to babysit Amanda this weekend.”

“What?  No – ”

“That’s why you’re here.  Just like always.  You know that, Jackie.”

I look at Whitney, but she is staring at the floor with her lips pressed together as if she’s afraid something will pop out.

“That’s not right.”

I came so far to get here.

“It is right,” Stephen says.

I sit back onto the sofa and curl my legs up under me.  “I’m visiting,” I say.  “I came to visit you, and Whitney, and Amanda.”

Stephen starts laughing an ugly laugh and turns away.

“I’m your sister,” I say.

Stephen spins around and faces me.  “Get the fuck out of my house,” he says.  “Just get the fuck on out.”

Whitney follows Stephen out of the room.

 

Amanda is lying on the blow-up bed and watching me pack.  There isn’t much to do, and most of my things are damp from resting on the wet carpet.  I want to tell Amanda not to sit on the blow-up bed but then I think, why bother.  She is clutching a ragged old stuffie in her hand and singing softly, “Ay, bee, cee, dee, huh eff gee.  Ellempee.”  Only two.  She is so smart.  She is going to be so brilliant.  “Come to your Auntie, little honey,” I say.  Amanda shakes her head no, then grins and crawls over to where I’m kneeling on the wet carpet.  Something inside me slips loose.  “What doin’?”  she asks.  “I have to pack, little honey,” I say.  “I have to go away now.”  I pick her up and I want to ask her to put her arms around my neck, but I know better.  She lets her head fall on my shoulder and kicks her legs gently against me.  I stand, holding her like that, for a long time.

Outside I send for an Uber but the driver calls my cell and says he can’t come down the street because of the standing water.  We consult on where to meet.  I take off my shoes and step onto the lawn.  Floating there, half stuck on some taller blades of grass, is a piece from a puzzle, waterlogged and peeling apart.  I put it in my pocket and wade across the drainage ditch.  In the middle of the street there is only an inch or so of water, and I almost call the driver back, but then I think what the hell, I’ve got seven hours until my flight, and I start walking.

 

 

BIO

A native Texan, Lindsey Godfrey Eccles has lived in Seattle for many years, spending as much time as she can in the mountains and occasionally practicing law. She is looking for a good home for her first novel, a magical reimagining of the early history and culture of the Pacific Northwest. You can find her on twitter at @LGEccles.

 

 

 

0

Surprise

by William Cass

 

 

The cabin phone rang just as my wife, Molly, and her parents were heading up the path for their morning walk.  I answered it and called to my father-in-law.  I heard Ralph stop and retrace his steps.  He looked in the window.

“It’s your sister,” I told him.

He made a face and came back inside.  I handed him the phone.  He walked into the kitchen with it after saying, “Yes?”  I turned the stereo down; he’d put on a Mozart CD before they’d left.  I heard him say, “When?” Then, “Shucks.”

So, I walked up the hall to look in on Sam.  He was asleep in his crib, his feed almost finished.  The pump made its soft whir on the pole.  I checked the connection at his G-tube and it was fine.  Molly had left all the parts to his nebulizer scattered about again, so I put them away.

When I came back to the front room, Ralph was just putting the phone back in its cradle.  We stood and looked at each other.  Finally, he said, “Well, my Aunt Ruth just passed.  She was eighty-something.  Sometime in the middle of the night when she was sleeping.  Down near Bakersfield or Barstow in California somewhere.  Where she’s lived just about forever.”

“That’s too bad,” I said.

Ralph looked out at the lake.  The sun had just touched the tips of the tall trees across it on the west side.  “Well, she’s the last one of that bunch.  That generation is gone now.”  We were quiet again.  Then he raised his eyebrows and said, “I’m going to try to catch the girls.”

I watched him pass the window with his tall walking stick and listened to his footsteps go off up the path.  I turned up the music again, but not as loud as it had been.  I poured another cup of coffee and took it out on the front porch.  A squirrel skittered up the side of a thick fir tree.  I could smell the dusty pine, not yet sun-warmed.

After breakfast, Molly stayed with Sam while the rest of us went up Hunt Lake Road to cut down a dead tamarack they’d happened upon on their walk.  I drove the four-wheeler, and her folks rode up in the old powder-blue pick-up.  They stopped just beyond the big boulder at the cut-off to Horton Ridge.  It was near a spot where Ralph and I had ruined a huge tam several years before by hanging it up between two alders as we ran out of the woods carrying the chainsaw and the ropes to escape its fall.

When he got out of the cab, Ralph grinned at me and said, “Did you see the widow-maker?”

“Sure.”  I laughed and shook my head.  “Someday we’ll go back and get it.”

“Not on your life, Paul Bunyan,” he said and lifted the chainsaw out of the bed of the truck.

The tree that day was thin but tall and stood about twenty yards from the road.  Ralph sat this one down perfectly, and we pulled it out towards the road with the come-along hitched to the back of the pick-up.  My mother-in-law, Marilyn, marked fourteen inches along the length of it with the hatchet, then hacked off the small branches and knots ahead of Ralph while he cut.  I hauled the rounds out and tossed them into the back of the truck.

The whole affair didn’t take much more than an hour, but the day had already heated up and we were all wet with sweat afterwards.  We sat on the rear bumper of the truck and passed around a thermos of lemonade.  We looked out over the ridge at the wide portion of Priest Lake below, at the two small islands that sat like gumdrops near the western shore, and the gray-green Selkirk Range that ran into Canada behind it.  A few white clouds high in the sky left shadows on the surface of the lake that otherwise shimmered in the sunlight.

“Maybe it will rain,” Marilyn said.

Ralph looked up at the clouds, then to the north towards Chimney Rock.  He shook his head.  “That would be nice,” he said, “but I doubt it.”

When we got back, I unloaded the rounds, then split and stacked them.  Ralph and Marilyn went down to the cabin because they knew it was something I enjoyed doing myself.  It approximated the kind of workout I might have gotten back in San Diego.  I didn’t like to run on the narrow dirt roads because of the logging trucks, and I wasn’t much of a swimmer.  I was good and tired by the time I’d finished.

I looked at the woodshed with satisfaction.  We’d almost filled it already that summer.  In reality, there was more wood than they’d need in any two winters, but I knew we’d go for more. Maybe a week would pass, then someone would see a dead tam and we’d have a project to fill half a day.  It was sort of like a small hunting expedition at Hunt Creek Lodge, which is what Molly had named the cabin when her parents bought it several years before after Ralph retired from Boeing and they sold their pretend farm in the foothills below Mt. Rainer.  Now they split their time between the lake and a rental near our place during most of the school year when we were both teaching.  They helped out a lot with Sam and all his appointments with the neurologist, pulmonoligist, dysmorphologist, and his other specialists and therapists.

I jumped in the lake, showered, and then we all had lunch on the front porch.  A small breeze had come up, and with it, little waves that Ralph called “sheep running” when they got large enough to crest white.

Sam was asleep again.  I asked Molly if she was able to do his range of motion exercises with him before he went down.

“Yes,” she said.  “And he took care of business on his own.  Ex-nay on the enema.”

I said, “Touché.”  I reached out my glass of ice tea to toast with her, but she’d already turned away.

After lunch, Ralph took a nap while the rest of us sat in the shade on the porch.  Molly did some planning for school and Marilyn did crosswords.  I read a book.  There weren’t many motorboats out on the water because of the chop, so it was quiet unless a logging truck went by up on the road.

A couple of hours later, Ralph came out on the porch carrying Sam, and handed him to me.  He said, “Either I woke him with my snoring, or he woke me with his squawking.”

“Hi,” I said to Sam snuggling him close.  “How’s my buddy?”  I rubbed the flat back of his head.  Sam moaned happily, burrowing into my chest like he did.

Ralph and Marilyn took their daily drive into Coolin for the mail.  I got Sam’s breathing treatment going.  After he was finished, I put him in the backpack carrier and Molly and I walked up to the falls.  We took along the coffee can pails in case we saw any huckleberries only to add small purpose to the outing.  It had been a light summer for huckleberries, and except up high on the north side of hills, they’d almost entirely passed.  But it was a pretty hike up through the pine trees and clearings that had been logged years before and were still full of daisies, lupine, and fireweed.  The breeze had cooled things a bit, especially when the sun hid behind the clouds.

We didn’t find any huckleberries, but on the way back down, Sam began to cry and had a small seizure.  We sat on a log and waited for it to pass.  I held him close and said, “Shh” into his ear.  It only lasted a minute, but afterwards he was wide-eyed, as always, and had that frightened look.

Molly dried the bottoms of his feet and his palms with a bandana.  “That wasn’t too bad,” she said.  We smiled at each other, but in her eyes, I could see the same pallor that had hung over everything since his birth, and, we both knew, always would.  She pursed her lips and blew out a breath.  We both sat up startled as an egret lifted out of a treetop and flew out towards the lake.

When we got back to the cabin, Ralph was coming down the path holding a flat box.  Marilyn walked behind him.

Ralph waved to us and said, “Hey, we have a little surprise.”

They stopped in front of us at the bottom of the path, and Ralph opened the box.  There were homemade brownies inside.

He said, “Linda sent these from Seattle for my birthday.  She’s the daughter who loves me.”

Molly smirked, then smiled.  I thought about early in our courtship when she told me that she’d been treated like a princess growing up, like she could do no wrong.

We went inside, and I put Sam down in his crib.  We all had drinks, chips, and dip on the front porch.  The end-of-summer shadows had lengthened, and a few more clouds had joined together to the northwest, tinged dark underneath.

After a while, Ralph went off for a sail in his little sabot.  The rest of us began his favorite meal for dinner.  I bar-b-qued chicken slathered with extra spicy sauce.  Molly and her mother made warm German potato salad and baked beans.  Sam awoke during his last feed of the day, but then fell asleep again, still listless from the seizure.

After dinner, we went down on the dock while the sun hung reluctantly below the bloated clouds.  We sat and watched it dip quietly behind the tips of the Selkirks just above Kalispell Island.  The sky there was all purple and pink, and those same colors were spread lightly across that side of the lake.  Molly sat next to Marilyn on the edge of the dock and watched her try to get Sam to kick his feet in the water.  Ralph and I were on chaise lounges facing the setting sun.

He said, “Aunt Ruth died early this morning.  She’s the one who lived in California.”

Molly and Marilyn turned and looked at him.  His face was still with the sunset on it.  Molly said, “Are you going down for the funeral?”

He frowned.  After a few seconds, he said, “Nah.  I didn’t know her well.”

My wife nodded slowly, then we were all quiet.  The barge that drove pilings from Copper Bay motored by slowly out in the lake.  It was a big gray metal boat that looked like an angular tug.  It went off past Four Mile Island towards Coolin.

“He’d better trot along before it rains,” I said,

“Let it rain, God,” said Ralph.  “I love a good summer storm.”

Some more clouds had gathered from the north over the upper lake, but were still high in the sky.  I said, “It just might.”

The light fell another octave as the sun crept behind the mountains for good.  The air suddenly had that lick of coolness that was different from what it had been.

Molly said, “Can we please go up now and open presents?”

We had Ralph sit at the head of the table with his gifts in front of him.  The rest of us sat around him.  There was a flash outside and the first roll of thunder tumbled down from the north as he was opening our card.  Inside was a gift certificate from a hardware store in Priest River for sixty-five dollars.

“One for each year,” Molly told him.

“Gee, thanks,” he said.

But I could tell he was pleased.  He opened Marilyn’s gift next, which was a pair of binoculars he’d bought himself in Sandpoint in June when she’d bought herself a salmon-colored cardigan that would be from him for her birthday. The second flash and roll of thunder tumbled much closer up the lake.  Leaves on the willow trees twirled outside.

We turned out the lights, and Sam squawked when we lit candles on a brownie and sang.  Ralph blew out the candles and darkness surrounded us.  Lightning lit the Selkirks once, then again brightly enough so that the lake was momentarily white.  Just after it, came a loud clap of thunder and its roll that jiggled the plates on the table.

Ralph said, “My.”

The first rain fell suddenly and lightly.  We knew then that it would only be a fast-moving shower.  We sat in the dark listening as the rain intensified briefly for a few minutes, then passed.  Molly let me take her hand, but didn’t return my squeeze.   Another scratch of lightning lit the sky and the thunder that followed it had moved south over Coolin.  The next combination was further off towards Mt. Spokane.

Marilyn turned the lights back on and clapped her hands in applause.  I did the same with Sam’s.  His head had begun to bob and his eyes were closing, so Molly took him off to bed.  Ralph was smiling, fingering his gifts.  The air had turned much cooler, a coolness that was at once relieving and caressing.

When Molly returned, we ate brownies covered with vanilla ice cream.  Then Ralph went down on the dock with his new binoculars, and I helped Marilyn clean up and do the dishes.  Molly told us she was going off to bed to read; I watched the back of her go off down the hall.

After the dishes were dried and put away, Marilyn went into the front room to watch television, and I took a bag of trash out to the root cellar.  Ralph was sitting in the old lawn chair we kept near the bar-b-que, the binoculars in his lap.  He had his head back looking up, I supposed, at the stars.  I had never seen him sit there before during the day or night.

He glanced at me and said, “Hey.”

I stored away the trash and stood on the river-rock patio we’d laid together the summer after Molly and I were married there five years before.  I looked up through the treetops in the direction he was.

I asked, “Looking for constellations?”

“I don’t know any constellations,” he said.  “I was going to learn about them, though, when I retired, as you probably remember.  I got that astronomy book a few birthdays ago.  I was going to do that sort of like I was going to learn to watercolor and lift dumbbells.”  He laughed once through his nose.  “Oh, I guess I’m really just sitting here thinking about my own mortality.”

I looked at him then.  He was a handsome man with salt and pepper hair.  I’d always admired him.  I said, “I suppose you’re entitled to do that.”

He was still looking up through the trees.  A few stars were back out after the storm’s passing.  He said, “I had a few surprises today.  Most of them were pretty nice.  That one about my aunt wasn’t.  Life’s full of surprises, I guess.”

I thought about that.  I thought about the spouses of two of our neighbors who had died suddenly during the last year; they were both in their mid-fifties.  I was forty-three.  I thought about Sam and his future, and felt my stomach fall, as it always did when I thought about that.

“Life is full of surprises,” he said again.  It came out quietly.  “I suppose you embrace the good ones and do the best you can with the ones that aren’t so hot.”

I nodded, though I knew he wasn’t looking at me.  I said, “That makes sense.”  Of course, I couldn’t know then that Sam would have all those pneumonias and hospitalizations upcoming, the tracheostomy and other surgeries, the wheelchair problems and round-the-clock care.  And nothing could have prepared me for the day a few years later when Molly would tell me that she’d become involved with another teacher at school, that she was leaving, that she was done settling, done being a martyr.

I heard Marilyn laugh inside at something on the television.  I’m sure Ralph had, too.  There was a faint rumble of thunder, but it was far away now.  The lake lapped at the shore.  Otherwise, it was quiet.  Nighttime there had a special stillness.  It made sleep run deep.  It was something I’d experience for only two more summers, but I didn’t know that then either.

Ralph sighed.  “Another day gone.  All in all, it’s been a pretty wonderful one.”

“Yes,” I agreed.  “It has.”

 

 

BIO

William Cass has had over 150 short stories accepted for publication in a variety of literary magazines such as decemberBriar Cliff Review, and Conium Review.  His children’s book, Sam, is scheduled for release in April, 2020.  Recently, he was a finalist in short fiction and novella competitions at Glimmer Trainand Black Hill Press, received a Pushcart nomination, and won writing contests at Terrain.org and The Examined Life Journal.  He lives in San Diego, California.

 

 

 

 

0

The Ultra Injustice

by Scott Bassis

 

 

Manuela was sketching in Central Park when she received an email from BN&T notifying her that her ePhone Ultra had been delivered. She almost left right away for Andy’s apartment. It was her apartment too, in the sense that she lived there, but Andy paid the rent.

The apartment was in Midtown. From Central Park, she would have to take the C to Times Square, then transfer to the 7. It wasn’t much faster than walking, and it was a gorgeous day. Yet, after the trek, she wouldn’t feel like returning to Central Park. She decided to stay put.

The concierge would hold it for her. Jack was on duty today. He was always pleasant and helpful. There had been some confusion the first time they met. Jack had asked her whose apartment she was cleaning, very slowly. She was carrying a duffel bag; he must have thought it had cleaning supplies. It was the suit Andy had asked her to bring over from her place. Of course, when she said she was Andy’s friend, in perfect English, he apologized profusely. Someone else would have held a grudge. She realized it was a simple mistake.

She sketched on the bench for several hours longer. She was lucky to have fascinating subjects, a sleeping homeless man, an elderly couple reading, a woman with three dachshunds. Unfortunately, a park ranger came on to her and wouldn’t leave her alone. She sometimes felt tempted to grow a Frida Kahlo unibrow just so she could sketch outdoors in peace. After excusing herself to the ladies’ room, she relocated to a rock with a view of the carousel. She was good at depicting children. As an art teacher at Saint Xavier’s elementary school, she spent most of her day with them. She understood how they thought. She appreciated how fragile they were.

Her sketches of children always had a wistful quality. Her own childhood had ended too soon, cut short by her uncle, Victor. He was the one person she allowed herself to hate. Whenever someone offended her, she told herself it wasn’t like what Victor did to her. She could forgive everything except that.

She sketched on the rock near the carousel for hours, until the sky darkened and the attendant locked up. She had a number of good drawings. She regretted not taking photos. They would be useful to reference for a painting. Alas, her ePhone’s camera was broken. The glass was also cracked and the battery shot. Yet, she would return tomorrow, with her new phone. Until September, she would have nothing but time on her hands.

She usually worked retail jobs during the summers to make rent. This year, not only was it unnecessary, it was out of the question. Andy had booked a three-week European vacation in July, one week in Italy, one in Spain and one in France. Their upcoming trip was one reason why she allowed herself to splurge on the just released, thousand-dollar ePhone Ultra. She was lured by the much-touted camera. She imagined snapping pictures of Sistine Chapel frescos, beachgoers basking in the Barcelona sun and sophisticated, cigarette smoking Parisians. Hopefully, she would acquire more than beautiful photos. Something told her that her ring finger wouldn’t be bare on the flight home. Although the school year had ended on Friday, she felt her blissful summer would officially begin tonight, once she had her ePhone Ultra. Her old, broken ePhone was the only blight on her happiness.

She walked at a leisurely pace back to the apartment. Entering the building, she beamed at Jack. He looked surprised. She was usually aloof. Socializing didn’t come naturally to her. She had kept to herself as a child; she still did. She stood at the desk, waiting for him to remember the package.

“Is there something I can help you with, Ms. Cruz?” he asked after a long, awkward moment.

“A package came for me around noon,” she said.

“No, I was here at noon. No package came,” he said confidently.

“I got an email,” she said in disbelief.

“Did you call the company?” he asked, as if that was the normal response, calling the company to make sure the notification wasn’t sent mistakenly.

“Let me check the email again.” She lingered at the desk. She sensed Jack’s annoyance as she pulled out her phone. She had missed it before, but there was a tracking number and a link at the bottom of the email. The link directed her to Express Delivery’s website. Evidently, her package was signed for by P. Chang at 11:46AM.

“Does P. Chang work here?” she asked, frantically. He shook his head, no, politely overlooking the question’s absurdity. The building had a staff of eight, six concierges, the super and the porter. None looked like a “P. Chang.”

“Try 11 West 43rd Street. They sometimes get us confused. It’s that building with the green awning,” Jack suggested. At once, she rushed outside and crossed Fifth Avenue. The building resembled Andy’s. They were both red brick, older construction, with a large lobby. The concierge was a gangly, goateed Latino. He looked about her age, in his early thirties. “Rafael” was printed on his blazer’s name tag. As she stood catching her breath, he eyed her warily.

“My package was delivered here by mistake.” She didn’t know that for certain. In fact, she thought it a longshot. Yet, instinct took over. Rafael grimaced. He, like everyone, especially servicemen in low level jobs, didn’t want trouble. “It was signed for by P. Chang,” she continued.

“Phil left at three,” Rafael said. She grinned. Her ePhone Ultra wasn’t lost now. It was delivered to Phil Chang, the morning concierge at 11 West 43rd Street.

“Do you know where my package could be?” she asked.

Obligingly, he looked around on the desk, the shelf overhead. He shook his head, no.

“It’s not here. When a name doesn’t match, we give it back to the Express Delivery guy. We don’t have it.” He gave an apologetic shrug.

“Okay, thanks.” She left feeling relieved. Her ePhone Ultra was on its way back to BN&T. She would get it eventually. At Andy’s building, she thanked Jack for being helpful. She told him the package was delivered there, but must have been sent back.

“Don’t worry, Ms. Cruz. Most people do the right thing,” Jack said. She smiled and nodded, but his words weren’t reassuring.

As she rode the elevator up, she remembered Lucas. Though it had been three years since he was her student, she still thought of him often. He was in second-grade when she had him. It only took her one class to realize that he was a victim of abuse. He didn’t say a word to anyone. He drew faces crying, a house in flames. He was extremely skittish. Paper ripped from the pad made him jump. Whenever someone approached him, his body trembled.

Undoubtedly, she was not the only teacher to suspect abuse. Yet, her colleagues collectively turned a blind eye to the signs. Of course, his classmates only knew that he was strange. Boys called him “weirdo,” “fag” and “crazy,” hit him for no reason. Girls bestowed on him the nickname “Loco Lucas.” He was subjected to constant cruelty.

She didn’t trust most people to do the right thing. In her experience, almost no one did the right thing. She returned to the apartment. Andy wasn’t home yet. He usually worked until around eight. Immediately, she called Express Delivery’s customer services line. She explained everything to “Kelly.”

“Uh huh, let me put you through to the driver on that route,” Kelly said. Her tone did not strike Manuela as hopeful.

“Yeah,” a gruff voice said.

“My package was delivered to the wrong building. The concierge said he gave it back after he realized it,” she said, blurring the truth a bit.

“He said that? No, it’d be scanned. It’s not scanned. Go back, tell him,” he said, as if he was offering friendly advice, as if the situation didn’t really involve him.

“Why should I go back? It’s not my fault,” she huffed.

“Hey, hey, nothing is no one’s fault. But it’s your package.” He delivered a thousand-dollar device in a BN&T box to the wrong address. Now it was missing, but it wasn’t his fault.

“Well, I didn’t sign for it because I’m not P. Chang. Now go back and get the package you brought to the wrong place!” she snapped.

“I’ll get right on it,” he said. She smiled stupidly for half a minute before realizing he was mocking her and had hung up.

She was getting too worked up. She wished Andy was here. He would calm her down. He was always supportive. She had never been afraid to open up to him about her past. He was older than she was; that was part of it, though plenty of men in their forties had the emotional maturity of a little boy. She called him.

“It’s just a phone,” he said.

“I know,” she said. He was right, of course. Still, even if it was just an ePhone Ultra, it was an injustice. Why her ePhone Ultra, of all the ePhone Ultras that were safely delivered to their rightful owners? It made her think, why Lucas, of all the children who never had to suffer? It was only chance. That was something people never realized.

Once, as she sat in the teacher’s lounge sketching, she overheard her colleagues discuss Lucas. Their voices conveyed a mixture of pity and contempt.

“That boy’s not right. He stares at me frowning the whole class, looking so pathetic. Sometimes, I can see tears.”

“I know. He’s picked on all the time, but can you blame them?”

“You think he’ll grow up to be one of those psychos you read about?”

She felt like stomping over there to defend him, shout, “Lucas could be anyone! He could have been you! He was me!” Yet, that would only make her look crazy, and do nothing to help Lucas.

“It’s just so unfair,” she lamented.

“Do you want me to call BN&T?” he offered.

“I’ll do it,” she said.

“I’ll be home soon,” he assured her.

They exchanged “I love yous.” She hung up feeling better, though it didn’t last long, about twenty minutes into her hold to speak with a BN&T representative. Finally, she relayed the events again to “Tonya.”

“You’ll have to speak to our Stolen Devices department, ma’am.” Tonya abruptly transferred her to more grating Muzak.

That word, “stolen,” hit her like a punch in the gut. Her ePhone Ultra had been stolen. She was the victim of a crime. She had been victimized. It made her sick. It made her furious. It made her feel like crying. She wished Andy was here to hold her.

“Calvin speaking, how may I assist you?” A voice finally said.

“Someone stole my phone. Express Delivery delivered it to the wrong building, and someone there stole it!” she declared.

“I’m sorry to hear that.” His voice oozed sympathy. He must have been experienced in dealing with distraught customers. As he spoke calmly and reassuringly, she couldn’t resist being lulled into complacency.

“So, if within thirty days you fax us the copy of the police report, your driver’s license, your credit card and the signed affidavit, we’ll send you your new device, assuming our investigational team approves your case,” Calvin said.

“Thank you,” she said.

“No problem.”

Only after she hung up, and gazed down at the list of tasks assigned to her, did she become indignant. Yet, she didn’t have the energy to call back, wait on hold, repeat the same story, be transferred to someone else and repeat it again. Resignedly, she slumped down on the couch. Feeling too upset even to sketch, she turned on the TV. She flipped through the channels until she landed on a crime drama.

She watched as the officers heroically tracked down the killer, stopping him before he had the chance to do it again. She knew it was just a cliched cop show, but it gave her hope. She would turn to the law. She wouldn’t be a silent victim, not now. This time, justice would be served.

As the credits rolled, she heard Andy’s key in the lock. She rushed to the door. She gave him a quick hug and kiss.

“I have to file a police report. Will you come with me?” she asked anxiously.

“Sure,” he said. She retrieved her purse, grabbed her phone and put on her sneakers. They headed to the station a few blocks away. As they walked, her hopelessness abated. Taking this step felt empowering.

“Why are you here?” a female officer barked the moment they walked through the door. Seeing Andy’s taken aback expression, Manuela decided to speak. The last thing she needed was for Andy’s snide side to come out.

“My ePhone was stolen. The package was delivered to the wrong building and the guy that signed for it…”

“So you never got it? It’s a lost package,” the officer said.

“Yes, and when I went to the building…” Manuela continued.

“We don’t handle lost packages. You gotta complain to the phone company. You never got it, it’s not legally yours. You don’t got the right to file a complaint.” The officer glanced to a male, forty-something officer at his desk across the room, bent over a file. “Benny, this lady’s phone got delivered to the wrong place and someone there took it.”

“She gotta complain to the phone company,” Benny replied, lifting his head up momentarily.

“Do you think I can just have a report? With that, BN&T says I’ll get a new phone. All of this will be over,” she pled. She smiled, thinking of the moment when she would finally have her ePhone Ultra. For two months, she would have no more worries, only art, travel and romance.

“Sorry,” the officer said. Manuela’s smile collapsed. The officer gestured to the door with her hand.

“This is ludicrous,” Andy scoffed. Glancing at him, the officer had an expression of mocking interest. She placed her hand on her hip, resting it on the handle of her gun.

“You’re a civil servant. My taxes pay your salary,” Andy continued unheedingly.

“It’s okay,” Manuela said, nudging him towards the exit.

“There a problem?” Benny stood up. He was taller than one would assume while sitting, about six and a half feet, with broad shoulders. As he approached, Andy let out an audible gulp. Other officers turned their heads, their attentions piqued.

“Thank you for your help,” Manuela muttered. She started to leave, but Andy didn’t move. She tugged his arm. Stirred from his petrified state, he stumbled outside.

“Unbelievable! They’re just lazy. I should go back and speak with the sergeant,” he seethed. Still, he continued to walk in the direction of home, rather quickly.

“Why don’t we call 311 instead? We don’t know who the sergeant will side with,” she said.

“You’re right. I’ll call as soon as we get back,” he said.

Though she doubted he would get anywhere, at least he wouldn’t end up in a squad car to a Rikers jail cell. There would be more bureaucracy, more hoops to jump through. It all seemed designed to make one give up.

“Let me try the building again. Maybe it’s turned up,” she said. She was wrong to put her faith in the police. She could only rely on herself, like always. When she had needed help most, no one had been there for her. It was why she had felt compelled to help Lucas.

“I’ll go with you,” Andy said. He clasped her hand. After a moment, she slipped her hand free.

“He’ll be nicer if I’m alone,” she said. Andy would be too antagonistic. In all likelihood, the resident at the other building’s corresponding apartment had it. The staff’s loyalty was to the tenant. The situation required delicacy.

“You sure?” he asked. She nodded. At the end of the block, they separated.

Unsurprisingly, Rafael scowled upon seeing her again. The last thing she wanted was to make trouble for anyone, another reason it was better to leave Andy out of it.

“I told you, Phil gave the package back to the delivery guy,” he said.

“I called Express Delivery. No one returned it. It wasn’t scanned.” She stopped herself from saying, “someone here has it,” though that was the logical conclusion.

“Maybe the guy forgot to scan it.” His tone of helpfulness couldn’t disguise the fact that he only wanted to send her off in another direction.

“Is there a security camera?” she asked. He frowned. She could see two, one pointed at the door, the other at his desk.

“Yeah, but you have to be a resident to see the footage, unless there’s like a lawsuit,” he said.

“What documents do I need to provide from my attorney?” she asked. Of course, she didn’t have an attorney. Even Andy didn’t have an attorney. But as a poor person herself, she knew poor people assumed all rich people had attorneys.

“I don’t know. You have to ask the super. He doesn’t work this late. You can fill out the form, I guess, even if you don’t live here,” he said begrudgingly. She realized that the form wouldn’t accomplish anything except to get rid of her. She noticed a neon pink Post-It pad on his desk.

“Can I leave my phone number in case someone brings it down?” she asked. It was possible someone would do the right thing and return it. He or she just hadn’t gotten around to it. It was doubtful, but possible.

“Of course.” He handed her the notepad and a pen. Under the heading “Lost Package Belongs to” she wrote her name, phone number and address.

“I’ll keep it here.” He stuck the Post-It in the center of the desk. He stared at her expectantly, waiting for her to leave. She couldn’t make herself go. She couldn’t give up yet. She may have been victimized, but she refused to end this night a victim.

“Do you mind if I fill out that form too, for the super?” she asked. He sighed exasperatedly. “Wait here.” He grabbed keys from the drawer. He opened the door behind the desk. He disappeared inside a supply closet.

Quickly, she dashed over to the elevator bank. She hit the button. She watched anxiously as the numbers dropped. From the concierge desk, there was a clear view of the elevators.

“Where’d you go?” She heard him exclaim as the elevator arrived. She slipped inside, smiling amiably at the exiting residents. As she rode up, it occurred to her that she might be committing a crime. The indifferent world had left her no choice. It was the same world that allowed innocent children to be tortured. She shouldn’t have been surprised that it would let her ePhone Ultra be stolen. She recalled another time she had been forced to take justice into her own hands.

When a teacher suspected abuse, there was a strict protocol to follow. She was to inform the principal, who would coordinate a session with a child psychologist, pending parental approval. She would certainly be fired for questioning Lucas directly. But she could protect herself, if she needed to. She was adept at lying to save herself, or someone else.

After Lucas had been in her class for a month, and seemed a little more at ease around her, she had him stay behind while she took his classmates to the cafeteria. When she returned, she pulled a chair up beside him. She had made two tuna sandwiches. As they ate, she asked him about his drawing, his other classes. She nodded at his one-word answers.

“Is someone hurting you in a way you find confusing? Is an adult telling you to do things you don’t want to? Things that feel wrong?” she asked. She smiled warmly. He put down his sandwich.

“My stepdad,” he mumbled. He took another bite. She touched his shoulder. He flinched. She expected him to cry, but he didn’t. She shed a few tears. She wiped them away at once. She didn’t wish to upset him. The less memorable this conversation was to him, the better for both of them.

“I’ll get you out of there,” she whispered, despite herself.

The elevator door opened. She marched down the hall. She stopped at apartment 7A and rang the bell.

“Who is it?” an elderly female voice asked. Manuela’s conviction drained out of her. She had no proof that the phone was here. She was acting reckless and crazy. Still, she had come this far.

“My name’s Manuela,” she replied.

“What?” the old woman croaked.

“My name’s Manuela,” she repeated.

“What? I can’t hear you. Hold on…”

Manuela heard the thump of a walker against the carpet. The old woman opened the door. She had pale, translucent skin and stringy hair. She wore a floral-patterned nightgown. The old woman eyed her suspiciously.

“My name’s Manuela. I’m the nanny for your neighbors, the Violets,” she said, inspired by the print on the old woman’s nightgown. “They think a package might’ve been delivered here by mistake. Did you get any packages?”

“Packages? I don’t think so.” She inched the door closed.

“It’s very important. You see, they were expecting several packages. One of them has medication for the baby. They know a package arrived, but it must’ve been delivered to a neighbor by mistake.” Manuela gave a desperate sigh.

“Oh my, come in!” The old woman swung the door open. Manuela followed her through the foyer into the kitchen. The apartment was tidy and clean, which heartened Manuela. Someone must have been checking in on her periodically.

“I put all my packages here,” the old woman gestured to an empty countertop at the kitchen’s entrance. Manuela glanced around the kitchen, which was orderly, uncluttered, and plainly package-free. She stepped back, throwing cursory glances around the apartment.

“I’m sorry. Maybe if you explain what happened to the pharmacist…” the old woman suggested, confusing Manuela momentarily.

“Um, yes, if it comes to that,” Manuela made her way to the door, her eyes still searching in vain for a BN&T box.

“But it’s a big hassle, I tell you. I lost my meds once. The insurance wouldn’t pay for it again. They wanted to charge me ninety bucks a pill. I said what am I supposed to do, curl up and die?” she huffed. Manuela paused, letting the old woman finish her rant. She seemed to be lonely.

“So what did you do?” Manuela asked.

“I asked to speak to the manager of the pharmacy. I told him I never refilled my prescription in the first place. I said there’s a glitch in their computer, or someone working there’s thief. I said if I die, my family will sue SRC Pharmacy for millions. I got my refill. Didn’t even have to pay the ten-dollar copay.” Speaking with renewed vigor, the old woman seemed to grow years younger.

“We’ll have to give that a try,” Manuela said, jokingly.

“In this world, you’ve got to fight tooth and nail. There’s a lot of horrible people out there,” the old woman advised her.

“So true,” Manuela said.

“Good luck,” the old woman said.

Manuela thanked her and left. She headed glumly to the elevator. Tracking down her ePhone Ultra seemed increasingly hopeless. She would return tomorrow, talk to Phil Chang and the super, but she couldn’t imagine it would do much good.

When the elevator arrived in the lobby, she slipped out quietly. She crept to the edge of the wall, adjacent to the concierge’s desk. If she wasn’t careful, she would find herself escorted back to the police station, and the officers would be even less pleasant this time.

She peeked her head out to see if Rafael was there. He was, sitting alone, staring into space. She returned to her position. She couldn’t wait too long. Someone would surely find her suspicious, pressed flat against the wall like a wannabe ninja. A minute later, she looked again. He was texting. Unfortunately, as she was about to sneak out, he put his phone down on the desk.

Before she could duck behind the wall, something caught her eye: a neon pink Post-it in the waste bin. Squinting, she made out her own handwriting. At once, she stomped over to the side of the desk. She plucked the Post-it from the waste bin. Startled, he leapt to his feet.

“Why did you throw this away?” She spoke in the same reproachful voice she used with ornery students. She held the Post-It up to him.

“You disappeared,” he said.

“So?” she said.

“I thought someone probably found your phone and texted you.” He shrugged. He lied with impressive ease. However, he wasn’t as good at it as she was.

“How did you know it’s a phone?” she asked. He breathed heavily. He shot a glance to the exit, as if he was considering bolting. Her eyes searched around his desk, under it, the shelves overhead.

“You said it was,” he said finally. It came off as petulant, like a little boy caught stealing, hiding the toy behind his back. Following her hunch, she walked around to the front of the desk, keeping her eyes fixed on him. He turned with her, but not fast enough. A phone stuck up from his back pocket. His phone was still on the desk.

“Give it to me!” she snapped. The elevator pinged. A resident strode past, ignoring them. As soon as he was gone, she held out her hand.

“Come on, you don’t need it. You live in Midtown Manhattan. Why don’t you just get another, or ask your sugar daddy to buy you a new one?” he sneered.

“You don’t know anything about my life,” she said. She was about to tell him exactly what she had been through, then she realized he wouldn’t understand or care.

“I wasn’t gonna keep it. I was gonna sell it online. I got two boys, six and ten. I was gonna use it to take them to Disney World. If you wanna go to Orlando, you buy a ticket, easy as that.” His voice grew plaintive. She could tell he already knew it was over.

“There’s a camera on us. No one’ll bother watching the footage unless I bring attention to it. I promise, I won’t get you into trouble if you give me the phone.” She used the same even tone she would with a kindergartner who had gotten his hands on an X-Acto knife.

They heard the murmur of voices. There were people just outside the door. Swiftly, Rafael took the phone out of his pocket. He placed it on the counter and slid it across to her. She snatched it.

“Bitch,” he muttered. He glared at her. He really despised her, just because she lived in Midtown Manhattan.

“Goodnight, Rafael.” A couple passed through the lobby to the elevator.

“Goodnight, Ted and Shelly,” he grinned.

She dropped the ePhone Ultra into her purse. She ran out, anxious to get away from Rafael and his resentful gaze. As she headed back to her building, a smile emerged on her face. She did it! She wasn’t the victim now. She was Manuela Cruz, Amateur Detective.

“Thanks again for that advice,” she told Jack. She slipped him a twenty.

“Oh, you don’t have to. That’s very kind. Thanks Ms. Cruz,” he said. She needed to, to reassure herself that he didn’t secretly hate her. She didn’t deserve anyone’s hatred. She had merely fallen in love with a sweet, caring man who happened to be wealthy.

“I got it!” she squealed upon opening the door.

“How?” Andy walked over with an astonished face.

“Well, first I talked to the person who lives in the apartment, a nice old lady. She didn’t have it, but by the time I went back downstairs, the concierge found it.” If he knew the real story, he would be disturbed, not to mention furious at her.

“He found it? Didn’t he look for it when you asked hours ago? It would have saved us a lot of trouble,” he fumed.

“What does it matter?” she said.

“I guess,” he agreed reluctantly. “I hope he was sorry.”

“Very sorry,” she said solemnly. She felt obligated to protect Rafael, even if he showed no gratitude. She left the phone in her purse the rest of the night. She didn’t want to think about it anymore. She snuggled on the couch with Andy, watching TV until they started dozing off, then dragged themselves to bed.

Andy set the alarm for six AM as usual. She rolled over and fell back asleep for a few more hours. The sun shone through the window. It looked like another beautiful day. She couldn’t wait to go outside, with her ePhone Ultra, to capture it. After breakfast, she called BN&T to activate the phone.

“Um, something’s wrong,” Doug in Customer Services said.

“What?” she sighed.

“Did you report the device as stolen?” he asked.

“Yeah, but…”

“I have to transfer you to our Stolen Devices department.”

Abruptly, she found herself waiting on hold. She brewed new coffee and drank two mugfuls before someone picked up. She spent that time coming up with a story that didn’t include a sticky-fingered concierge.

“Calvin speaking, how may I assist you?”

“I spoke with you yesterday, remember?”

“Oh, yes.” His voice conveyed doubt, but he must have been able to verify it. He seemed to be reading off a screen. “Your ePhone was delivered to the wrong address. You reported it stolen. I informed you of the required documentation for a replacement.”

“It turned out it was given back to Express Delivery. They forgot to scan it. Someone looked at the label and realized the mistake. I got it this morning,” she said.

“That’s great news!” he said.

“I know!” she exclaimed.

“Now all we need is the police report, a copy of your ID, your credit card and the signed affidavit we’ve mailed, and we’ll be able to activate your device,” he said cheerfully.

“What are you talking about?”

“The phone has been tagged as stolen. It can’t be untagged without these documents,” he explained.

“How can I file a police report if it hasn’t been stolen?” she asked.

“Of course, I apologize. You won’t be filing a stolen property report. You’ll be filing a lost property report. You should include how you recovered the item,” he clarified. She had lied her way into an old woman’s home, confronted a thief, risked her own safety, to file a lost property report instead of a stolen property report.

“The police wouldn’t help me,” she said. He didn’t respond. “How will I get them to help me?” she asked. The answer was apparent. She had to tell the truth. She had to explain that Rafael stole the phone. He would be fired. He would have a criminal record. He might never get another decent job.

“Once you provide these documents, we’ll be able to activate your phone. Take care and have a wonderful day.” She heard a click.

Flustered, she paced around the apartment. As she weighed her options, her thoughts turned to Lucas.

A week after she called Child Services, she received a memo from the principal stating Lucas had been disenrolled. He was moving to Arizona to live with his grandparents. Child Services must have obtained the evidence it needed; she was never contacted. Sparing him further torture turned out to be easy. It was a shame no one had done it long ago.

Her pride at rescuing Lucas quickly gave way to concern for him. Eventually, he might recover from the abuse, find a job he cared about, someone who loved him. Yet, he would always feel different, alienated from others. People would find him as strange as he found them. He would need to forgive those who were cruel to him. They couldn’t see their own pettiness. He would have to let go of his anger, regardless of how justified it was.

“We’re the same,” she wished she could have told him, wished he would always remember. It would have comforted him to know he was not really alone.

She couldn’t ruin Rafael’s life, though he had wronged her. He wasn’t like Victor. He had a son, Lucas’ age, who he loved and cared about. She would buy a new, junky phone, or maybe Andy could upgrade to a family plan with T-Cellular. She would be his wife soon, after all. He wouldn’t understand her decision, but he knew the futility of arguing with her.

However, she promised to treat herself to a new camera, an expensive one. She would take plenty of photos on her trip, of the magnificent art, the breathtaking architecture, the mouthwatering food. When she dwelled too much on humanity’s ugliness, she forgot all the beauty out there. There was nothing just about this world. She couldn’t let that keep her from appreciating how lucky she was to be alive.

 

 

 

BIO

Scott Bassis is a young writer eager to establish himself as a serious talent. He has had short stories published in Poydras Review, The Furious Gazelle, The Acentos Review, Open: Journal of Arts & Letters, Image Outwrite, Quail Bell Magazine, The Missing Slate, Jumbelbook, Furtive Dalliance, Fiction on the Web and Rainbow Curve.

 

 

 

 

 

 

0

Snit’s Wife

by Phil Gallos

 

 

You never know what’s going to come out of the woods.

It could be raccoons. When we lived at 49 Park Avenue, my first wife and I, we had a backyard like I have now – a patch of less than enthusiastic grass and then the mountainside: trees, boulders, cliffs, ineffectual fences. Florence Fullerton owned the house before she died, and we bought it from her niece. To Florence, the raccoons were neighbors, pets almost. She always had a fifty-pound bag of peanuts near at hand for them. We tried that. We thought it would be fun to feed the raccoons. But there was a dark side. They were pushy, rude. They acted entitled.

Every evening there were more of them. And there was something unsettling about looking up with a flashlight to see a dozen pairs of eyes shining back at us from the limbs and crotches of the beech trees and the maples. Then, later, after we were in bed and sinking into the peaceful embrace of sleep, the sky split by screams and guttural cries – caterwauling coons engaged in orgies of unkind sex.

Oh, sure, they were cute enough, waddling around propelled by their bulbous backsides. And the babies – adorable, I’m sure some would say, though I wouldn’t go that far. I think the word is too often inappropriately used. Nobody told us raccoons are a common vector for rabies. We were young and ignorant and lucky. We didn’t get sick.

In another house – the one I bought with Hanna, around the corner on Baker Street, after the passing of twenty-five years, after the passing out of one marriage into the possibility of another – there was the same kind of backyard against the side of the same mountain, Mount Pisgah, the place from which Moses saw the promised land. And no wonder. How could anyone stand on the rim of the ledges above our house, look out over this blessed valley with its lakes, its river and its verdant forest and believe there was a need to go any farther, even in February under a full moon at forty below when the beauty is the kind that can kill you without even blinking? But Moses had never set foot on this Pisgah, and the Old Testament has nothing to say about raccoons.

#

One warm day in the latter half of August, just before sunset, what came out of the woods was a woman.

I was in the kitchen, the back door open but the screen door closed, when I heard Onyx barking. I stepped out to see what had aroused his interest and saw her stumbling barefoot among the trees wearing something that looked like it must have been a wedding dress, what was left of it. She was also wearing a generous portion of dirt and random pieces of the forest. She wavered for a moment like a guttering flame, then fell.

This is no place to be clumsy or inattentive or exhausted. I’ve been up that hill a hundred times, and I still watch every step. The carpet of last year’s leaves on slanted land conceals mud and roots and limbs that can steal whatever traction you thought you had and send you flying to the side or forward or back; and there are more than enough rocks waiting to crack your skull whichever way you go.

When I got to the woman, Onyx was already there, licking her face. She was sitting where she had fallen, and I put out a hand to help her; but she didn’t want it. She got herself standing and continued down the hill, Onyx leading her toward the house, me taking up the rear.

She staggered into the kitchen, dropped to her knees, and pitched forward to all fours. She held herself that way for several minutes, panting like an old dog on a hot day, arms and legs trembling. Then she vomited onto the floor and passed out, falling face-first into her own mess.

I rolled the woman over, pulled paper towels from the rack, wet half of them, wiped the vomit off her, took care of the stuff on the floor. It wasn’t until I cleaned her face that Onyx began licking her again. It was around the sixth lick that she opened her eyes. She sat up, tugged at a twig that was hanging from her hair. I handed her a glass of water.

“What happened to you?”

She didn’t answer, didn’t look at me. She was looking at Onyx, who had stopped licking her.

“That’s my dog, Onyx. He’s friendly, but I guess you already figured that out.”

The woman put the empty glass on the floor.

“Would you like more?”

No response. I refilled the glass.

“Here. You can just leave it if you don’t want it.”

I set the glass beside her. She drank it dry and put it down.

I said, “Is that enough?”

She looked at me blankly and began to raise herself from the floor. I extended a hand. She ignored it and stood on her own power.

“Your feet don’t look too good. I can take you to the E.R. or to your doctor. Do you have a doctor? You want me to call the rescue squad?”

I could see Onyx was listening to me, but was the woman? It was hard to tell.

“If you just want to rest, I have a guest room. You can lie down there.”

She picked up the glass but didn’t say a word.

“Or you can use the couch if you’re more comfortable with that.”

The woman walked to the sink, put the glass in it. She ran the water and splashed her face. She was tall – five eight at minimum – with the legs of a long-distance runner; not particularly big above the waist but clearly strong: her arms sinewy, an archer’s shoulders. She turned away from the sink and looked in my direction but more past me than at me. She was scratched and cut and bruised and dirty; yet I could see a peculiar, subversive beauty flickering under the wounds and grime. Her hair, full of knots and debris, was a warm brown. Her eyes were large, turquoise, widely spaced; and her face had what a model friend of mine called “good lines” – prominent cheekbones, strong jaw – though the nose, long and a little flattened at the tip, didn’t quite fit; and her wide mouth was bent down at the corners as though the hooks of sadness had caught her there, and she couldn’t get free.

I said, “My name’s Baldr – that’s without the ‘e’ between the ‘d’ and the ‘r’…regardless of what you see on the top of my head.”

My intention was to lighten the mood, but the attempt at humor was lost on her.

I said, “What’s your name?” And, after a pause, “You can trust me,” which sounded absurd as soon as the words left my mouth.

I said, “You’re gonna be okay,” as though I actually knew what I was talking about.

It made no impression. Nothing I said made an impression. She was deep inside herself, her eyes open, the gates behind her eyes closed.

Then something in them changed. It was just a flicker, but I had to avert my gaze. It was like looking off the edge of a cliff, the last cliff in the world, the one you stand on before you jump.

She took a deep breath and moved toward me but strode past me and out of the room. I didn’t follow. It was clear that she needed more space than questions.

A door closed. I heard the toilet flush. Then I heard the shower.

I dug through my dresser looking for something she could wear and came up with a pair of flannel lounging pants and an old sweater that had always been too small for me but that I couldn’t let go because it was the last gift from my Aunt Gertrude. I placed these at the bathroom threshold and returned to the kitchen to assemble a meal.

I didn’t keep a lot on hand, now that Hanna and the boys were gone. There was a small steak in the fridge that I’d planned to eat with some leftover red rice and peas. I decided to give that to the woman. I’d be fine with a can of soup.

She emerged from the bathroom nearly an hour later wearing the garments I had laid out for her. She wasn’t striding now. She was hobbling. The adrenaline from whatever happened to her had waned, replaced by pain. She didn’t even glance in my direction. I watched her make her way through the dining room to sit down beside Onyx on the living room floor. She touched the side of his face. Then they engaged in what appeared to be a series of stare-downs; though they might actually have been talking to each other, communicating in a language that did not require words.

When the food was ready, I went to the living room and saw the woman curled up on the floor, asleep with the one creature in this house – or maybe in this world – she truly could trust. I let her be.

Next morning when I entered the kitchen, the woman was already there, ransacking my refrigerator. I said, “I’ll take care of breakfast.” She didn’t respond but withdrew from the fridge with a carton of eggs in one hand and a packet of sliced roast beef – my intended lunch – in the other.

“Put them on the counter,” I said. “We’ll add some veggies.”

There were seven eggs in the carton. I used them all, adding half an onion, the remains of a red bell pepper, a bit of broccoli, and most of the roast beef. I gave the woman two-thirds of the omelet. When she finished it, she went back to the fridge, pulled the rest of the roast beef, and devoured that, too. Then she downed the better part of a quart of milk.

I asked her, “Are you going to tell me anything about yourself?”

Silence.

“Give me a reason why I shouldn’t call the police.”

Silence.

“I don’t want to call them, but you’re not leaving me much choice.”

Silence. She walked away and curled up on the floor next to Onyx.

I washed my face, brushed my teeth, did the dishes, tried to figure out what to do next.

#

When Hanna left, she took all her belongings with her, perhaps to keep me from assuming she might return without my asking her, which was fair considering I’d been the one to blow it all up. It was about Jonathan, her oldest son. Hanna and I had been sitting on the front porch discussing where I fit in the family that was really entirely hers. She was wonderful; there was no doubt about that in my mind. But when it came to her boys, I had mixed feelings – had them since the beginning, when she was still living in Maine.

Actually, the mixed feelings were as much about myself as they were about her children. Did I have what it takes to navigate the path between the boys and their mother in a way that engendered their respect, if not affection, and protected her love for them – and for me – while maintaining my own sense of sanity? I wasn’t sure I was up to the task with one child involved, let alone three.

So it had come to the crucial conversation on the porch and my unvarnished words. Angelic Timmy was still angelic. Billy, the boy’s boy, was still funny and adventurous and easy to be with. The uncrackable nut was Jonathan: serious, skeptical, leaning hard toward cynical, quick to bristle.

I said, “Frankly, he doesn’t like me, and I don’t particularly like him. I am not going to jump through flaming hoops trying to make him like me. If he has any respect for me at all, that would be a sure way to destroy it.”

You don’t say something like that to the mother of her firstborn son expecting the best of outcomes; and that the discussion on the porch didn’t end in the worst of outcomes is exclusively creditable to Hanna.

She and the boys would leave, go back to York Harbor. She knew what she wanted. She would give me a chance to figure out what I wanted. If I came to understand that I wanted a life with her, she was ready. I had to decide that I was ready, too, and ready soon – not when her boys were grown up and moved away. Hanna didn’t say how long the chance would last, how quickly “soon” would be over.

At any rate, now there wasn’t a scrap of female clothing in the house.

#

I approached the woman lying on the floor beside my dog.

“I’m going out,” I told her. “I’ll be back in about four hours – maybe five. If you decide to leave during that time, please don’t take anything I haven’t already given you, and lock the door as you go.”

I got the usual nonresponse.

I drove to Plattsburgh fifty miles to go to Salvation Army and Goodwill and to avoid the local thrift stores where people might wonder why I was buying women’s clothing. Then I went to Target and to T.J. Maxx. I came home with six bags filled with shirts, pants, blouses, skirts, shoes, socks, panties. I chose a size that seemed to make sense and bought it and two sizes up and down from there in one-size increments. Bra size I couldn’t even begin to guess. If she wanted one she either would have to go out and get one herself or finally speak to me. Her first words could be 38C. I’d have been satisfied with that. At least she would have said something.

But when I brought the bags into the house and placed them in front of her, there were no words forthcoming. She emptied the bags onto the floor, sorted through the contents, made a big pile of what she didn’t want, put what was left into two bags and carried them away to the guestroom.

“Thank you,” I said, making no effort to disguise my irritation.

She replied by closing the door.

When she came out, the sweater and loungers I’d given her were bunched in one hand. She was wearing red Converse high-tops, black tights, a lemon-yellow knee-length skirt, and a pink cotton blouse over a black T-shirt. She extended the hand that held the bunched clothes, and I took them from her.

I said, “You look smashing.” I wasn’t being sarcastic.

No acknowledgment.

“I’ll get you a bra, but you’ll have to tell me the size.”

The woman sat down on the floor and began communing with Onyx. It was my turn to walk away.

#

The woman from the woods had arrived on a Friday. She spent that night on the floor and the next two on the couch. Monday evening, she was on the floor again, cuddling Onyx, while I sat in my father’s easy chair – my favorite place for perusing the newspaper, as it had been for him – reading page two of the Enterprise. It was the continuation of a front-page story about a missing teenage boy who had left his house Friday on his bicycle sometime between noon and one o’clock.

Some kids shooting hoops at Kate Mountain Recreational Park watched him pass, heading south on Route 3 toward the hamlet of Vermontville. They waved. He waved. A man mowing his lawn noticed him peddling west on Swinyer Road a quarter mile east of Paye Road.

“He looked like he was in a hurry,” the man had said.

I put the paper down. The woman was staring wide-eyed up from the floor. She must have been reading the front page while I was reading the inside.

“Did you know this boy?”

She said nothing, turned her gaze away, got up and went to the guestroom. The next time I saw her was at breakfast the following morning. There would be many more stories about the missing boy and the search for him, but I chose not to mention them to the woman; and she chose to avoid the newspaper, giving it the kind of distance usually reserved for carriers of contagion.

Over the succeeding days, the woman and I settled into a rhythm of approaches and distancings. I would approach, usually during meals, by telling her about myself, about my life and the people in it, past and present. She maintained her distance with silence.

I told her about the women – though not all of them – who had left their fingerprints on my heart and the men – there are only a few – who meant more to me than a quick wave on the street. Mostly I told her about Hanna: how we met at her bagel shop in a small town on the Maine coast where she’d moved after leaving a career as a Wall Street hotshot; how we had fallen in love and she’d rented an apartment in Saranac Lake; how she suggested we buy this house together, and we did; that things began to get tense; that I had issues with the oldest of her three boys; that it was decided I should have some time to myself to sort out my feelings and my priorities, and she and the boys went back to Maine. It had been five months since I’d seen her, though we telephoned and corresponded regularly. And I still didn’t know how I felt or what I wanted.

I thought if I let the woman from the woods know these things, she’d see me more as a real person, as someone nonthreatening, as somebody she could talk to and did not need to fear.

I told her about Saranac Lake, where I’ve lived most of my life: about its history as a lumbering and outdoorsmen’s town transformed into a health resort, a haven and last hope for people afflicted with tuberculosis from the late-19th to the mid-20th centuries. I told her about the famous people who had come here from all over the world and how some of them survived and some of them did not.

I’d insert a question every now and then: ask her where she was born, how long she’d been in the area, did she have a job, who were her friends, what would she like to do with her future – whatever I could think of that might elicit an answer and not frighten her. I might as well have been trying to extract information from my navel.

I told her what I could about the mountains and rivers and lakes surrounding the town and about the forest and the things that inhabited it. My verbal dissertations would usually come to an abrupt end whenever she finished eating. She would rise from the table and leave the room without giving the slightest indication that she’d heard anything I’d said, often terminating her audience in mid-sentence.

The only subject that commanded her attention was Onyx and his exploits. I informed her that he was not a pit bull but a pureblood Staffordshire, that he came from up in Akwesasne – Mohawk nation – sold to the stupid white man who didn’t care that the dog was more inclined to affection than combat and was better at licking intruders than biting them. I told her the names of all the mountains he’d climbed and the lakes he’d swum, how smart he is and how intuitive and observant, picking up on cues so subtle I never noticed myself giving them. It didn’t matter if I told the same story six or seven times. The woman would stay at the table until I finished. Then she would sit down with him and they’d engage in their eye-to-eye communion.

What was I supposed to do with this woman? Why wouldn’t she talk to me? Was she too traumatized to speak, or was she simply a mute? Wouldn’t she at least give me hand signals or write something down? Was she developmentally disabled? Or mentally ill? How could I help her to be whole again? Was that even possible? I wondered what would happen if somebody came to visit me. Fortunately, nobody did. I have my friends, but I’m not what you’d call a big entertainer. And I wondered what kind of trouble I might be making for myself by sheltering her. Was she a refugee? Or was she a fugitive? Each day, these questions arose anew, leading only to unsatisfactory answers.

And so, days became weeks.

#

It had been twenty minutes since I’d let Onyx out. It takes him about five minutes to do what he needs to do. The rest of the time he’d spent snooping around the neighbor’s compost bin and providing a landing strip for deer flies. When I called him to come in, the woman was entering the kitchen.

“Your dog’s white,” she said.

“He is,” I answered trying to be cool, trying to hide my astonishment – elation, really – trying to act as though these weren’t the first words she had spoken in the entire three weeks she’d lived in my house.

“And you named him Onyx.”

“I did.”

“A little obvious, don’t you think?”

“What would you have named him?”

“I’d’ve called him Amethyst.”

“You’re right,” I said. “Onyx for a white dog is too obvious. Amethyst is perfect. But I think I’ll keep calling him Onyx. He’s kind of averse to change.”

“But I can call him whatever I want,” she said.

“Yes you can.”

When she smiled – a smile that was gone as soon as I saw it – I damn near cried.

I gave myself a couple of beats to recover before I said, “So, since we’re on the subject of names, maybe you could tell me yours.”

Bad move. She left the kitchen, walked down the hall to the guestroom, closed the door. But five minutes later, she was back. She took a pitcher from the top of the fridge, filled it, and began watering the plants. During her time in my house, the woman from the woods had taken on more and more responsibility for the operation of the place. Silently, casually, and very competently, she assumed ownership of the chores: dish washing first, then watering the plants, laundry, vacuuming, mopping, dusting, cleaning the windows, the stove, the inside of the refrigerator, whatever didn’t require her having to leave the house. I always thanked her. I told her more than once she didn’t need to do these things, didn’t need to feel obligated. She’d say nothing and keep working. It had reached the point where the only thing left for me to do was cook. She seemed content to let me do that.

The woman was about half done watering when she looked up from a philodendron and said, “My name is Vivian.”

All the time she’d spent in my house, I had never told her my last name. I told her everything else, but not that. I decided to push my luck and ask Vivian hers.

“Unh-uh, Baldr”, she said. “You go first.”

“Dash. It’s Dash. Are you happy now?”

“My God, are both of your parents sadistic or just one?”

“Just my mother. My father is dead. And he was very kind to me when he was alive. So what about yours?”

“I don’t talk about my parents.”

“No. Your name. Your last name.”

“Snit. I am Vivian Snit.”

“You gotta be kidding me.”

Vivian shook her head. “And I don’t have my parents to blame for it, either. I did it to myself. I married Joshua Snit. He asked me to take his name. He said it would be proof that I really loved him. I should have heard that as a warning. I should have known, if he needed proof, I was with the wrong man.”

“I’m sorry,” I said.

“So am I.”

Vivian went back to her watering.

“So, what was your name before you married Joshua Snit?” I couldn’t help myself. Once I start asking questions, it’s hard to stop. She answered by turning her back to me. How long would she stay silent? I had no way of knowing.

Two days later, at breakfast, Vivian said, “Why haven’t you called the cops?”

“Beats me,” I said.

In actual fact, I knew very well why I hadn’t called the cops and hadn’t told her to leave, either. She was young and strange; and, since the separation from Hanna, I felt old and ordinary.

“That’s not much of an answer. For all you know, I’m a murderer.”

“Well, I’m still alive. Maybe I figured you got enough trouble in your life without me bringing in the law. I don’t know who you were running from when you came falling down the hill out there. Maybe it was your husband. Maybe…who knows? And maybe I don’t want to see you have to go back.”

The flicker of a smile crossed Vivian’s lips again, lingering a little longer this time.

“You’re almost as sweet as your dog,” she said, leaving the table. Then she joined Onyx in the living room.

So this is how it went: brief exchanges every couple of days embedded in a matrix of silence. At this rate, with the backlog of questions in me growing with every conversation, they’d be throwing dirt on my casket before the questions were all answered.

#

One afternoon, hoping to pry the lid loose from her recent past, I interrupted Vivian’s folding of freshly laundered towels with an intentionally pointed question. “If you’re married, where’s your wedding ring?”

She looked at me like I had just asked her to throw herself in front of a train.

“I left it on a particularly sharp stub…on a particularly dead spruce tree…in a particularly dark swamp. I told myself if I made it out of that place alive, I would never need it again. And if I didn’t make it out alive, no one was going to find whatever was left of me with that ring on my finger. One way or another, I would live a free woman, or I would die a free woman.”

She paused a moment, then said, “Do you know what I admire about you the most?”

I was afraid I’d screw it up, so I let her answer her own question.

“You never put Onyx on a leash.”

Vivian resumed her folding. She didn’t say another word for four full days.

#

It was a morning like any other, about two weeks after she’d first spoken. Vivian was washing the breakfast dishes. I was sitting at the kitchen table with my laptop, reading email. She shut off the water – the washing unfinished – turned around and leaned against the sink, hands gripping its edge behind her. I looked in her direction over the top of the screen. The way she looked back at me – well, I didn’t have to be a genius to know that I should shut down the laptop, put it aside, and pay attention. She spoke without any preamble, as though picking up the thread of a discussion after a momentary interruption.

“He got involved with this religious group. The Church of the Holy Procreator, they call themselves. The whole thing revolves around making babies. The purpose of marriage is procreation. They believe a man is like God because he is the one who makes the babies. The woman merely carries and delivers them. The man provides the seed. The woman is the soil into which the seed is planted. It’s insanely patriarchal. I don’t know how Joshua swallowed this. It’s so opposite what he told me he believed when we were dating; but, after we married, he began to change. The church thing was just the last brick in the wall. He became somebody I didn’t know. They called sex ‘doing God’s work;’ and they took all the sex out of it and left the work.

“They’d concocted this bizarre mythology based on ovulation. When I was fertile, I was his bride. It was the wedding night all over again, but better because the real wedding night may not have been the best time for conception. And rolled into this was the wedding ceremony, and part of the ceremony was the wedding dress. That’s where any similarities to our actual wedding ended.

“My first ovulation after we joined the church, Joshua brought my wedding dress out to me. I thought I’d never wear it again; but it was precious, and I kept it stored in a cedar chest in the attic – maybe for a daughter, if I ever had one. He said, ‘Put it on. Nothing underneath.’

“I thought, ‘A little kinky for him, but maybe he’s getting creative. Could be fun. ‘

“He told me to get on the bed. I did. Then he dropped his pants and mounted me. Really. That’s the only way to describe it, like I was a dumb beast. There was no foreplay at all. He didn’t kiss me. Didn’t even hold me. Supported himself on his hands like he was doing push-ups. He humped away until he planted his seed, as he put it, rolled off, wiped himself on a towel he had there, pulled his pants back up, and knelt by the side of the bed like a child and prayed aloud that the soil would be fertile and the seed would take root. I was appalled. I got up, pulled off the dress, went to the bathroom and took a long shower.

“I asked the other women in the church about this, if their husbands were maybe more loving. They said the biological part, the earthly part of conception was gross. The quicker it was done, the better. Nine months of pregnancy, the very earthly experience of childbirth, lactation and breast-feeding, all that biology was fine. No. Better than fine. It was beautiful. But sex, and the bodily responses that went with it, and the emotions that went with it, emotions they apparently did not want to feel – that was disgusting. I couldn’t figure out who was really driving this religion – the men or the women. It was like a symbiosis of sickness.

“Everything is timed around ovulation. Sex became a ritual. I guess for him it was a sacrament. For me it was more like sacrilege. Because there was no loving in it. No passion. No lust.”

“Mechanical,” I suggested.

“Yes, mechanical. And because it had to happen whether I wanted it or not, it was rape. And, as time went on, I wanted it less and less, so I got raped more and more.”

“Did you try to resist him?”

“I did. Sometimes I did. I fought back. But resistance was a sin. If I didn’t help him do ‘God’s work,’ I was sinning; and I had to be punished.

“Joshua raises pigs. There’s thirteen of them in a big pigpen out front of the house. The fence is electrified. You can adjust the juice for the kind of animal you’ve got inside. Pigs can take a lot of juice – enough to knock you on your butt. So that was my punishment. He’d put me in the pigpen and padlock the gate, which was also electrified. It didn’t matter what it was like outside. It could be fifteen degrees and raining bricks. If I sinned, out I’d go.”

I didn’t know what to say. I wasn’t sure if what she was telling me was even true; so, to try to get something more verifiable, I asked, “Where’s their church?”

“It’s in a truck garage way down the Cold Brook Road, maybe three miles east of Vermontville. Joshua’s farm is on the west side of Vermontville, off the end of the Paye Road. It’s about five miles from there to the church.”

“I’ve seen that garage. You could put a couple of semis in there.”

“They fixed it up inside to look like a church should look, and you can almost ignore the smell of diesel oil. The first time Joshua took me there, the leader of the group – they call him Pastor Paul – gave a long sermon about our duty to increase the number of believers in the world. He kept using that word, ‘believers,’ but he never said what we were supposed to believe in: was it God, was it Jesus, was it him, or was it just the need to make more babies, to keep the women pregnant? The rest of the service was very short. It almost seemed like an afterthought.”

“Did you know anybody there besides Joshua?”

“No. They were all strangers to me. I’ve never seen any of those people anywhere else. Later, as I got to know them, I found out they came from all around, but all from tiny little places that make Vermontville look like a metropolis.”

“Such as?”

“Oh, let’s see. How about Sevey’s Corners? That was the farthest away. Inman. Duane Center. Swastika. McCollum’s. Duane’s the biggest. The population there is, what…maybe 65? The thing that struck me was not how small these places are, but how isolated. The county bus goes through McCollum’s and Duane twice a day, but the other places, nothing. They’re like little planets out in space. These women are really in their own separate worlds – literally as well as figuratively. So their interaction with other women is limited. So they’ll stay pure.”

“As in purity of thought? Purity of ideology?”

“Exactly. It was disturbing. Anything I said that came from a different way of seeing the world and a woman’s place in it was met with espousals of how great their lives were. How privileged they were to be doing ‘God’s work’ and to have such supportive husbands to take care of them and protect them. They tried to convince me how fortunate I was to be chosen by Joshua to be the vessel for his seed, that God had smiled upon me, like each of us was an expression of the Blessed Virgin at the Annunciation. It didn’t matter that I had as many lovers before Joshua as he had years in his life. He was living a fantasy – their fantasy – and he was playing it out through me. That was another reason for the wedding dress on nights of procreation. It was always the first time. We women had to be always virgin. We had to be inviolate and inviolable. And the white dress symbolized the purity of our work.”

“Even though it was disgusting.”

“Even though it was disgusting. That was only one of many ironies they didn’t notice.”

“Irony is the devil’s work.”

Vivian smirked, then continued her recollection of the after-church conversations with the women.

“Most of the time, the only thing they talked about was babies – making babies, taking care of babies, making sure there would be more babies, sharing information on ways to make sure conception would take place, to make sure pregnancy would go full term, to make sure birth would be easy. They compared one child’s personality to another in birthing terms: Rebecca was difficult; Jordan was early; Mary was quick – as though the mother’s experience of the child’s birth determined the child’s identity. Once the babies reached a certain age, they were taught to take care of the younger ones. The oldest were nothing short of surrogate parents, sacrificing their childhoods to make it possible for the mothers to keep breeding.”

Vivian delivered the last sentence with a level of venom that was almost physical. I decided never to get her angry at me. I was nearly successful.

“I’m done with them,” she said. “Do you really need to know more? I’ve got to finish these dishes.”

I didn’t want to push her too hard, but I didn’t want to let it drop; so I waited until after lunch when I said, “But you didn’t get pregnant.”

“I still had some freedom at the beginning. I had actually hoped to have children with Joshua eventually, but when he got into the Procreator thing, the idea of making a child with him under those circumstances, those notions of what motherhood should be…I just found the whole thing revolting. So, after that first time, I went to my doctor and got an IUD. And just in case something went wrong, I planted special herbs in the garden: blue cohosh, black cohosh, angelica, pennyroyal. Joshua found out they were abortifacients. He pulled them up and burned them.

“That was the first time he hit me. I hit him back. Split his lip. He couldn’t believe it. He hung his head down, but I could see the tears, anyway. I thought he was crying because he had treated me so badly. I thought he was crying from remorse. I knew it wasn’t because of the pain. He’s very tough. Turned out he was crying because he couldn’t understand why he was being punished by being given such a sinful wife. He was following God’s plan. What had he done wrong to deserve this?

“I told him this wasn’t God’s plan. This was some twisted bullshit make-believe concocted by a bunch of men who were threatened by a woman’s power and enabled by a bunch of deluded, insecure women who were unable to find fulfillment in anything other than making babies – more and more babies – because they had to have something around more helpless than them. I didn’t say that so much as shouted it, spitting out the blood that was running from my nose.

“He didn’t argue with me. He looked utterly shocked, like I’d just kicked him in the balls, which I suppose was my intent. Believe it or not, I felt sorry for him. I went to him, comforted him. I thought I would leave, but I stayed. We slept together. No sex, of course – it wasn’t the right time – but I thought maybe what had happened and what I’d said would snap him out of it. He’d come to his senses. He’d see that the way he’d been treating me was hateful and the things he’d been believing were perverted. I was wrong.”

Vivian bit her lower lip, head bowed, hand against her cheek.

“Do you want to stop?”

“I’ll be alright. It’s just…it’s…. I feel like Persephone returned from Hades.”

She raised her face to the ceiling, took a deep breath, exhaled slowly, looked out the window…then back at me.

“I’d always been able to come and go as I pleased. No questions asked. A couple of days after the fight over the herbs, I said I was going to town for a while. Joshua didn’t say anything. He nodded his head. I got in my car; but, when I turned the key, nothing happened. I took a look under the hood. I thought maybe a wire was loose. There was a loose wire, alright. I could see it hanging where it should have plugged into the coil…because the coil wasn’t there.

“Then Joshua came up behind me. He says, ‘You’re not going to Saranac Lake anymore. You’re not going anywhere off this farm except with me.’

“I ran. He caught me, picked me up – Joshua is very strong – and carried me back toward the house, but not to the house. When I saw where we were going, I started punching and kicking him. He didn’t seem to notice. He opened the pigpen gate, threw me down in the slop, and locked me in…again.”

“I heard pigs are very intelligent animals,” I said.

“They are. I got to know them quite well. At least they treated me with respect.”

Vivian stopped talking. She looked out the window again, her eyes unfocused, as though what was beyond the glass was not what she was seeing.

“Are you alright?”

“Yes.”

I gave her another minute.

“You were talking about the pigpen.”

“Yes. I was. You’re right.”

After another few minutes, she said, “Joshua came back after dark. He pulled off my shoes and left again. I was too depleted to fight him. He didn’t let me out until the following sunset. He said he had a surprise for me. There was nothing creepy about the way he said it, but I was creeped out anyway.

“When we got to the porch, before he’d even opened the door to the cabin, I could smell it. It was like smelling heaven, considering I hadn’t eaten in over 24 hours. I have a high metabolism. I need a lot of food.”

“I’ve noticed that,” I wanted to say but didn’t interrupt.

“We went inside, and the table was set. He had a candle burning in the middle. He’d made it real nice, but I didn’t care about that. I just wanted to eat. Then, when he was asleep, I’d be out of there. I didn’t need a car. I just needed to get away from this madman I’d married. I’d walk to Saranac Lake, if I had to. It’s only thirteen miles. It would take me four hours if I kept a good pace.

“Joshua had made a big pot of venison stew. It was the end of our last deer, something you’d save for a special occasion. It was delicious. I ate two huge bowls of it. I actually started to thank him. Then I passed out. Just before it all went black, I realized Joshua had drugged my stew; and I knew this was only the beginning of the surprise.

“When I woke up, it was after noon the next day. My pigsty clothes were gone. Joshua had dressed me in a clean blouse and skirt. No shoes. No underwear. There was a chain where my belt should be. It was wrapped in velvet so it wouldn’t bruise me or leave other marks on my body. The chain was closed with a padlock that connected it to a cable by a loop made with a cable-clamp. The other end of the cable was clamped around a post that supports the main crossbeam in the cabin. The cable was long enough for me to go anywhere I needed inside the house. Outside, I could get on the porch but not off it.

“Joshua was outside feeding the dogs. They always make a big noise when he comes with the food. There are ten of them. He bred them as hunting dogs for big-game. It doesn’t matter that hunting big game with dogs is against the law. It’s the traditional way; the way things were always done going back to prehistoric times. Joshua insisted there were higher laws. This should have been a signal to me that there was something wrong, that he was not right for me. But, in the early days, he was so kind and so considerate, polite, deferential. And he was handsome and strong and very virile. Inexperienced, but virile. I thought I could teach him how to please me. Even temper his ideas about what he called God’s law, the law of nature. For all my own experience, I couldn’t have been more naïve.

“I looked everywhere for the tools that could set me free. They were gone. No wrench. No pliers. No hacksaw. No bolt cutter. He had taken them all away. One side of the kitchen faces the dog yard. I took a cast iron frying pan off the stove and threw it through the window over the sink. I screamed. Just screams, at first. Then words. Then sentences. I couldn’t seem to stop myself. I cursed him and his church and his God in every way I could think of cursing.

“The front door opened. Joshua stepped into the room. I grabbed a glass from the drying rack and hurled it at him. It would have hit him, but he was quick enough to step behind the half-open door. It shattered against the door frame.

“He said, ‘You can throw everything at me there is to throw. When you’re done, I’ll still come in, and you’ll still be on a tether.’

“The last curse I shouted was, ‘May your dogs rip you apart and feed the pieces to the pigs!’ Then I sat on the floor and cried.

“When Joshua came in again, I didn’t throw anything. Why waste the energy? He cleaned up the broken glass and put a piece of plywood over the window. He said, ‘You’d better start making dinner.’ Very matter-of-fact, like everything was completely normal. When he went to bed that night, I refused to go with him. He didn’t protest. I slept on the couch.

“I got up in the middle of the night to use the computer – an old laptop Joshua had gotten at a yard sale – to email my parents about my situation. They’d always been suspicious of Joshua, and they weren’t afraid of him. My parents and I were not on the best of terms, hadn’t had much contact since the marriage; but I knew they would do whatever was necessary to get me out of there.

“The computer was gone. So were the cell phones – which don’t work there half the time anyway – his and mine both, along with every pair of my shoes and all my underwear. How a bra and panties were supposed to help me escape is something I still haven’t figured out; but it certainly added to the creepiness factor. Maybe that’s what he intended. Maybe he thought that would intimidate me. A kind of passive-aggressive sexual dominance. I tried to call out on the land line. I hoped, if I whispered, he wouldn’t hear me. But it was dead. By this point, I wasn’t surprised.

“The way the chain was wrapped around my waist, it was easy to change blouses and shirts or pants and skirts; but a dress was more difficult, especially the wedding dress with its frills and its long skirt. The space between the chain and my body wasn’t wide enough to allow all that fabric through. When procreation day came, Joshua presented me with a pair of leg irons. I don’t know where he got them. I went nuts. I tried to whip him with the cable, but he got hold of it and wrapped all the slack around one of the bedposts, so I could kick and swing my fists, but I couldn’t go anywhere. Then he explained to me that the leg irons were just temporary, just so he could take off the chain so I could put on the wedding dress.

“He said, ‘Be nice, now. This dress is your purity made manifest. You don’t want to ruin it.’

“I thought I’d kick him in the face when he tried to put the irons on, but then I decided he would eventually get them on regardless. He was so much stronger than me, and I was as likely to get hurt as him in the process. So I stopped fighting it, but I didn’t cooperate. I made him do everything. He took my shirt and jeans off, put the leg irons on, unlocked the cable from the chain around my waist and locked the cable to the chain between the irons. He put the wedding dress over my head, buttoned it up in the back. Then he reversed the procedure with the chains and irons and the cable. He gave me enough slack in the cable to get on the bed. He was pointing at it. I didn’t complain. I got on the bed and assumed the missionary position. I had a little surprise for him. He climbed up from the end of the bed to mount me, and I kneed him in the groin. The look on his face was worth most of what followed.

“When he recovered, Joshua grabbed me by the ankles and slapped the irons back on. He wasn’t gentle about it. He dragged me toward him until my feet touched the floor and pulled me upright by the waist chain. He unlocked the cable. He threw the chain on the bed, unbuttoned the wedding dress and pulled it off.

“I knew what was coming next. I had committed an act of violence against his godhood. Such a terrible crime could not go unpunished. I thought at least he’d give me some other clothes to wear, but he didn’t. He said, ‘The sinner must repent or pay the price of her sin,’ and he pointed at the door.

“I tried to punch him, but he caught me by the wrist at half swing; and, the next thing I knew, my arm was twisted behind my back. I had no doubt he could have broken it if he wanted. He pushed me through the kitchen, opened the door, pushed me onto the porch. When we got down to the lawn, he let go of my arm. He said, ‘I don’t mean to hurt you. I trust you to go the rest of the way under your own control. God loves you.’

“It was those last three words. If he hadn’t said those last three words, I wouldn’t have done what I did next. It was stupid. I knew that even before I did it. I turned around and took another swing at him. He ducked, grabbed the ankle chain, and pulled me off my feet. I landed on my back, and Joshua dragged me across the lawn to the pigs. I thought he’d pull my feet off before we got there. He opened the gate and slid me to the far side of the sty. Then he took his time getting back to the gate, patting the pigs as he went. He knew there was no way I could catch him shackled as I was. He locked the gate behind him and walked away to the cabin.

“It had been raining all day and the temperature was dropping. I sat shivering, naked, covered with cold mud. I spent the night between two sleeping sows trying to keep from freezing to death, thinking I had to be smarter about what was happening to me. I had to be calm. I had to be patient. Sooner or later, someone would wonder why they hadn’t seen me, wonder what had happened to me, maybe come looking for me. Or Joshua would make a mistake. He couldn’t think of everything. He couldn’t control everything. One day or night he’d slip up. I just had to be ready, had to be alert to the opportunity when it presented itself.”

#

Vivian decided she would cooperate. But her body would not cooperate, not with that IUD in it.

“Joshua kept me in the house for almost a month. He only let me out again because people began asking what happened to me, why didn’t they see me anywhere anymore. He told them I was home sick. Then they started offering to come by to visit, to help, to bring meals, that sort of thing. He told me all this. He said, ‘I’m going to have to let you out. You can come with me to Gene’s. You can come with me to Norman’s. You can come to church. But I’m not going to take you to Saranac Lake.’

“He said he couldn’t trust me there. He could trust me in Vermontville at Gene’s. He could trust me in Bloomingdale at Norman’s. But Saranac Lake was the devil’s playground. To him it might as well have been San Francisco. Too much temptation for my weak character. He was afraid if he exposed me to so much sin, I’d become more sinful than I was already, and he’d lose the little progress he’d made with me since the day he put me on the leash – which I was still on except when he took me with him to church or to get supplies – to Gene’s and Norman’s, like I said. But even in those places, he wouldn’t let me get near the door unless he was standing next to me.

“After a few more months, Joshua began to wonder why I hadn’t gotten pregnant. He still had me tracking my cycle, only he didn’t trust me to check my ovulation alone. He had to be there to see the result. Then he had himself evaluated. His doctor said there was nothing wrong with him; he had a healthy sperm count. So, it must be me.

“Joshua didn’t want to take me to my doctor in Saranac Lake. He didn’t trust her. He set up an appointment with a gynecologist in Malone. I said a prayer. The doctor – Garfield Black – must’ve been a hundred years old. I didn’t know whether to laugh or to cry. When he refused to allow Joshua into the examination room, I knew half my prayer had been heard. I told the doctor about the Church of the Holy Procreator and the IUD. He understood. He said not to worry. I didn’t tell him about the leash or the pigsty. I didn’t want to get Joshua arrested or see him in jail. I just wanted to get away from him. He wasn’t a bad person. He was confused. Maybe something would happen to make him see how crazy this Procreator stuff was. He’d come around. And if he didn’t, I’d be gone. Time was on my side. My chance would come. So I didn’t say anything. That was the biggest mistake I ever made.

“When we returned to the waiting room, Joshua stood up and said, ‘Well, Doc, what’s wrong with her?’

“He got corrected immediately. The doctor said, ‘You will address me as Doctor Black, and there is nothing wrong with you wife. She has no anatomical or biological irregularities that would prevent conception. She is strong and healthy. Be thankful for that.’

“When Joshua asked the doctor why I wasn’t getting pregnant when he was doing everything right, the doctor said, ‘It’s not up to you. It’s up to God.’

“I could have kissed that man. You should have seen Joshua’s face. He got me out of there in a hurry.”

#

They went home. The months passed. The leash remained. Though Vivian was uncombative and cooperative, Joshua could not bring himself to trust her. He couldn’t shake the feeling that something was wrong with Vivian regardless of what Dr. Garfield Black of Malone had told him. There was something Vivian was doing to sabotage “God’s work.”

“He asked me outright one day – it was in March – ‘have you got one of those intra-uterine devices inside you?’ I said, ‘No,’ without hesitation, looking him square in the eye, doing my best to make a bald-faced lie sound like the truth. He didn’t believe me.

“He said, ‘Here’s the way it’s going to be. You are not pregnant this month, so you are going to be punished for one day. For every month after this that you fail to provide a fertile bed for my seed, you will be punished; and an extra day will be added to your punishment for each month that passes that my seed does not take root.’ I asked him if those days would be spread out through the month or consecutive. He said consecutive.”

Vivian paused, shook her head, lips pressed tight.

“I thought about killing him. There were many ways I could do it. But I might wind up dead also. Nobody but Joshua had come down our driveway in over half a year. It’s not an inviting place. There are five different signs at the beginning of the drive warning that this is private property and trespassers will not be treated kindly. Then there are the gates – two of them – locked at all times. The only outsiders with keys are the chief and the assistant chief of the Bloomingdale Volunteer Fire Department.

“The driveway runs a half mile west through the woods from the end of the Paye Road before it even gets to the first of our clearings, where the garden is. Then there’s a line of trees and another clearing – the old sheep meadow waiting to be a sheep meadow again, except Joshua doesn’t have the money to start a flock because of his 20% tithe to the church. Then more trees and the final clearing with the pigsty and the dog yard with its ten hutches and then the cabin, which was once half the size it is now. Joshua expanded it to make space for the children I was supposed to give him. Its only outside utility is the single telephone line that I insisted on as a condition of our marriage. Electricity comes from solar panels and a small wind turbine. Heat comes from wood. Mail is picked up at the post office in Vermontville. Joshua gets the propane tanks refilled at Gene’s.

“There was enough food in the house for a week. Enough firewood for maybe ten days. The leash wouldn’t let me reach the woodshed. The garden might as well have been a dream. Sure, I could kill him; but, if I didn’t starve to death before someone found me, I’d probably freeze. I put the idea aside. It was just too crazy.”

“By July, it didn’t seem so crazy – or at least less crazy than not doing anything. I was thinking, ‘If I don’t figure out some way to get away from here, I’ll end up dead anyway.’ Two days later, Joshua took me with him on his regular run to Gene’s, and I saw Walt LaVoy, their new employee. The first thing I thought was, ‘There he is. That’s my rescuer.’

“He was tall – taller than Joshua, though not as heavily built. Still, he was strong looking. He was just a kid, really. He told me later he was seventeen. Handsome in a mild sort of way. He lived in a little house on Sink Hole Road with his father and sister. She’s a track and basketball star at the high school. He was very proud of that.

“Gene had Walt stocking shelves, most of the time, so it was easy to talk to him in little bits; and I gradually cultivated a relationship with him. He was not shy but serious and courteous. I could tell he liked me. I’m sure he was flattered that a grown woman would pay such attention to him, relate to him as a man and not as a boy. Maybe he even found it exciting. Maybe he fantasized about me. I was hoping he did. I was counting on him wanting me enough to come to the farm and free me.

“Each time we went to Gene’s, I gave Walt a little more information. After several weeks, he knew where I lived, how to get there, and when Joshua was not around. I made him promise to keep whatever I told him secret. But I didn’t tell him about the leash. That might be too much for him. He might tell somebody. If Joshua got wind of it, I feared what he might do to me.

“I tried to be discreet, but Joshua must have noticed my little trysts with Walt. One day, as we got out of the truck at Gene’s, he said, ‘I want you to behave yourself. If I catch you talking to that boy again, it’ll be the last time you come here.’

“I was desperate. We went into the store. I didn’t go near Walt. When he approached me, I gave him a walleyed look and shook my head. Finally, he went into the stockroom. I took a can of soup from the shelf and tore the label off. Then I took a pen from a spinner rack and broke it out of its blister. I wrote a note on the inside of the label: ‘I’m being held prisoner at the cabin. Come free me as soon as you can. Bring bolt cutters and a pair of sneakers no smaller than size eight.’

“I folded it and dropped it on the floor where Walt had been stocking and said a prayer to the Goddess that Joshua would not see it and Walt would. Then I told Joshua, who was talking to Gene at the cash register, that I wasn’t feeling well and could we go home soon. As we left the store, he said, ‘Not feeling well? Maybe coming on to ovulation time.’

“He was right about that. I ovulated the next day. We did the procreation ritual as usual; but, when Joshua was done, he said, ‘Maybe you’re just odd. Maybe ovulation is not when you’re most fertile. I think we’ll try for a few more days.’ Somebody must have clued him in to the concept of the fertility window. He didn’t ask me why I hadn’t told him.

“That’s how it was, then. Each day, he dressed me in the wedding gown before he went hunting – he was after small game, using a Remington .20-gauge shotgun for rabbits or grouse or maybe a turkey or anything else he might flush…it didn’t matter the season hadn’t started. When he came back, I had to be ready for him to do ‘God’s work.’

“I didn’t know when Walt would come, didn’t know if he would come at all or if he’d even seen my note. And, if he had seen it, did he open it and read it or just throw it in the trash not knowing what it was? I could only hope he saw it and read it and remembered that Joshua always went hunting in the afternoon. That was the safest time to come.

“I didn’t dare change into regular clothes. I thought getting out of the wedding dress with the leash on might be easier than getting into it; but what if it wasn’t? What if I got stuck with it half off and couldn’t get it all the way back on again? If Joshua came home and found me like that, he would be angry. And it could be worse if I succeeded. If Joshua returned, and I was in street clothes, he wouldn’t be just angry. He would be suspicious. I couldn’t risk him thinking I was plotting an escape. For a wife to run away from her husband was the worst sin a woman could commit. No punishment was too severe. I would have to wait for Walt in the wedding dress.

“But Walt didn’t come. Not the first day and not the next. But on the third day, there was a knock on the door. I opened it, and Walt stood there, my young rescuer, with a hacksaw in his hand and a pair of track shoes hanging by the laces from his belt.

“I said, ‘Where are the bolt cutters?’

“He said, ‘We don’t have any. But I got my sister’s shoes.’

“He looked at me like he couldn’t quite figure out what he was seeing. Then he said, ‘I couldn’t get my parents car, so I rode my bike.’

“And then, like what he was seeing finally dawned on him, he said, ‘Oh my God!’ and stepped into the kitchen.

“I thought, ‘Oh my God, alright. Oh my God, no bolt cutters. Oh my God, no car. Oh my God, we’re screwed.’ But I said, ‘Don’t worry. We’ll be alright, but we have to move fast.’

“I stripped the velvet off the chain with a pair of poultry shears, and Walt went to work with the hacksaw. It was slow going and awkward. There wasn’t enough slack in the chain to put it on the edge of a table or something else stable enough for sawing. We got a piece of furring strip from the kindling pile and slipped it between the chain and my dress. I leaned against the wall and held the chain on the wood above my hip, and he got down on his knees to saw. He had to stop every few minutes to let the steel cool off even though we were lubricating it with cooking oil. It just got too hot to hold in place. He had to cut through both sides of the link. It seemed to take forever.

“While he was working, I told him how brave he was and how glad I was that he’d come, how thankful. He looked up at me like I was Guinevere or something. What a sweet boy. I wish we’d had more time.”

I saw the tears rise in Vivian’s eyes and spill over, silently. I brought her some tissue. She shook her head.

“This face needs to feel these tears,” she said.

Walt cut through the chain. Vivian was free. He unlaced the shoes from his belt and placed them on the floor for her to step into. At that moment, the door flew open and Joshua Snit stepped into the room, the Remington in one hand and no game in the other.

“That was not a good sign. Coming home empty handed? The hunter? The provider? It always made him feel inadequate, and that seriously shortened his fuse. Then he noticed my dress, oil stained and speckled with steel dust.

“I moved over to the sink. Walt was behind Joshua, now, standing between him and the door. His presence hadn’t seemed to register with Joshua, or the fact that I was off the leash.

“’What have you done to your dress?’ he bellowed. He was pointing the shotgun at me now.

“’Is there no limit to your sin? Must you sully everything that is pure?’

“I thought he might shoot me, he was so enraged. But he wheeled around, pointed the gun at Walt.

“’And you,’ he shouted, ‘you trespasser, coveting my wife these weeks! Do you think I’m blind? And so now you’re here to kidnap her? Steal my wife from me? Tell me why I shouldn’t kill you where you stand.’

“Poor Walt. He hadn’t bargained for this. He looked like he had just seen the end of the world.

“I said, ‘Stop it, Joshua. This wasn’t his idea. I lured him into it. I told him to bring the shoes and the hacksaw. Kill me if you’ve got to kill someone. He’s just an innocent.’

“But Joshua wasn’t hearing me. He pumped a shell into the chamber and aimed the gun at Walt’s chest. He said, ‘The Lord giveth,’ his voice rising. I knew where this was going. He was saying, ‘And the Lord….’

“Walt hadn’t moved. It was like his feet were nailed to the floor. I grabbed a pot by the handle – a big, heavy one – and swung it with all my strength as Joshua said, ‘Taketh away.’

“I don’t know what came first, the blast of the gun or the clang of the pot against the side of Joshua’s head. They both fell together. Poor blameless Walt. If you’re that close to the muzzle, it doesn’t matter that the gun is only meant to kill rabbits. When I looked at his face, so full of surprise at his stolen life, I felt a pain like I’ve never felt before and haven’t stopped feeling since.

“And then, before I even realized I was moving, I was out the door.”

#

Vivian ran from the house, left the front door agape and the screen door flapping in the wind. The hogs grunted greeting as they watched her go, her long strides carrying her past their pen and into the second growth forest west of the farm, down a long-abandoned logging road choked with saplings of aspen and birch. She didn’t think about the men she left in the house. She didn’t wonder if Snit was dead, didn’t doubt that Walt-the-rescuer was. She thought about nothing until she reached the Oregon Plains Road where it crossed the old Delaware and Hudson Railroad bed, long ago shorn of tracks and ties, and the logging road came to an end…or a beginning.

She stood for a moment and listened. Nothing. The wind had stopped. Silence, like the world was holding its breath. Then she exhaled and began walking the road south, the empty pavement stretching away before her, a straight black wound in the flesh of the forest; and, this being the Oregon Plains Road, it stayed empty. She looked down and saw the shoes on her feet, the ones Walt had brought. She didn’t remember putting them on.

As she neared the Swinyer Road, she heard her fear for the first time. It barked and bayed. Snit was alive. Would he catch her, capture her? No. He didn’t need to catch her. His hounds would do that. The only thing she feared now more than Snit himself was his dogs, the ones he’d bred to bring down bear.

Vivian froze for just an instant. Then she dove in among the trees off the road to the right, cutting southwest among gnarly Scotch pine, the ruffled skirt of the wedding dress snagging, slowing her down. She stopped long enough to tear it away mid-thigh and continued her flight. When she came to the unpaved swath of Merrill Road, she turned right again and followed it jog trotting over the bridge at Negro Brook. She would have waded part way across and then downstream to cover her scent, but the brook was swollen from recent storms, the water too deep, too swift.

Soon she came again to the old D & H, where she turned left following it south, the hounds distant but still audible even though a breeze had come up, and the trees – they were black spruce and balsam fir and so densely packed that the mossy ground they grew upon never saw the sun – the trees gave the wind a voice. It said, “Shhhhh,” as if instructing the creatures who lived here to tell no one of this woman’s passing.

Where the grade crossed Negro Brook, she stopped and considered, but the flow was even swifter here than it was under Merrill Road. The wind slackened again, and she thought she could hear the hounds closer now. When she stopped at the edge of a beaver meadow which only the previous year had been a pond, she knew she could hear the hounds closer.

She scrambled down the steep embankment to the meadow, thrashed her way across it pursued by emerald katydids and ruby dragonflies, splashed headlong across the small stream at the meadow’s heart, then trudged on through thigh-deep mud that splattered her dress and stuck to her legs like a thick soup and filled the holes she made in it as soon as her feet cleared the surface.

Past the abandoned beaver lodge, its inhabitants having forsaken this place for somewhere less accessible, finally fed up with rebuilding the dam the two-leggeds habitually wrecked, past a pair of overturned pines that had lain on their sides for generations, their naked and upturned roots like signposts to desolation, she floundered into a zone of sphagnum and scattered tamaracks. Was there a better place to fall down? Probably not; so she let gravity take her, then rolled onto her back. She lay there watching the summer clouds blossom in the heat, trying to match her ragged breathing to their smooth unfolding and waiting for the pounding to subside in her chest. She sank slowly into the moss. The cold and acid-clean water oozed up around her flanks, over her arms, between her legs. It soothed her skin, hot from exertion and from the insults of sharp twigs, whipping branches, and the mouths of biting flies.

She closed her eyes and listened to the voices of the hounds approaching. She knew what would happen. She had time now to gather her strength. The barking and baying suddenly ceased, the dogs caught in the maw of confusion, followed by yelping, alarmed and frantic, as they wallowed in muck that darkened the chest of the tallest of them. They would be going nowhere else until their owner rescued them. And how far behind was he? She didn’t dare guess. It was time to move again.

Vivian rolled back on her belly and crawled south across the bog, then up a trickling stream under a screen of spruce to another bog where she knew she could no longer be seen and stood up and marched west across the spongy ground back to the railroad grade, protected from view at that point by an intervening curve. She faced south again and walked.

Five minutes later, she crossed Bigelow Road, dirt surfaced and dead-ended, used by people looking for a place to shoot their guns or dump their trash and by other characters she didn’t want to meet. She quickly came a third time to Negro Brook – still not fordable. Two minutes past that, she was at Rickerson Brook, ponded behind a beaver dam and then roaring under the bridge the snowmobilers had built to replace the trestle the railroad removed for scrap. A minute later, she was standing at the edge of the highway between Bloomingdale and Gabriels. If she waited, a car would come, or a truck, or something, and someone would give her a ride.

But what if Snit went back? What if he’d gathered his dogs from the beaver meadow and gone home and got his truck and was driving around looking for her? What if he was the next one to come down this road?

No. He couldn’t get the hounds out and home and get here that fast. Could he? Better not chance it. Better keep to the old railroad bed.

Vivian dashed across the highway, then slowed to a brisk walk once she was in the shelter of the forest again. She was heading toward the Bloomingdale Bog, a huge boreal wetland and a mecca for birders and rare-plant enthusiasts and folks from Saranac Lake out for an afternoon stroll or bike ride. She didn’t want them to see her, and she didn’t know why. Half a mile south of the highway, she came to a power line. She stood beneath the wires looking east toward a hill, not very distant, clothed in hardwoods. Good shelter there. Easy walking. But she knew that between it and her was Twobridge Brook, to which Negro and Rickerson Brooks where mere tributaries. She stayed on the grade.

Then she heard voices. She ducked into the woods, lay on her belly behind a fallen tree and watched through the mesh of broken branches a family – mother, father, two children – passing northbound on bicycles. She could stop them, tell them what happened. But would they listen? Would they call 911? Would they pedal away frightened, thinking her obviously homeless and crazy? And if they did dial 911, would the authorities believe her? Or had Snit already called and given them some story that made her the villain? Would he do that? She held her breath, though it wasn’t necessary. The family never saw or heard her. They continued on their way.

A quarter mile south of the power line came the bridge over Twobridge Brook, the channel flanked by wide strips of marsh with hummocked grasses and clumps of cattails. Vivian crossed it at a full run, eager to get back to the safety of the trees. Beyond the bridge, the forest was close on the right; but, on the left, there was water, black with bog tannins, twenty feet wide and who-knew how deep, a one-and-a-half-mile ditch cut into the bog to divert water flowing from the east away from the railroad bed and drain it down to the brook. She knew that soon she’d be in the bog proper. There would be no more trees, no place to hide. The ditch was the only obstacle remaining, she thought, between her and the hill with its hardwoods. She knew there would be no bridges across it, but there would be beaver dams.

She chose a dam where the forest on the other side looked driest and the hill beyond looked closest. The dam was high and steep sided, narrow crowned and slippery, but she made it across and quickly found herself in a wooded hell of interwoven spruce and cedar where the only way forward was to crawl and the only thing to crawl upon were the moss-covered roots of the trees emerging from pools of water in which she could see her face reflected as in a dark mirror. After the first reflection, she avoided looking.

At one point, she almost gave up. She had fallen into a hole, the icy water shocking her like a kick to the kidney, and extricated herself only to find the way blocked by a chaos of blowdown. She had finally reached a strip of dry ground, finally managed to stand upright, and here was this wall of shattered limbs and uprooted trunks. There didn’t seem to be any way through. How far would she have to go back into the spruce and cedar hell to get around it? She was shaking from cold and exhaustion. What was the point? She was defeated. There was no escape. If Snit didn’t kill her, the forest would – the forest which had always been her ally and had now turned against her. She might as well lie down and die right here. And she did lie down, and she closed her eyes, and she did not die. She slept.

She awoke to a snuffling sound and a bad smell. She opened her eyes and turned her head to the side and saw the bear, a yearling by the look of it, not a dozen yards away. It seemed to be looking for something along the base of the blowdown. Then it found what it was looking for and disappeared. Vivian followed the bear. There was a way through the blowdown, and the bear knew it. Emerging on the other side on her hands and knees, Vivian stood up beneath the hardwoods and watched the bear humping up the hill until she couldn’t see it anymore. Then she, too, climbed the slope. When she was just below its crest, she turned right and followed it south. The air was warm here, the ground uneven but solid. The trees – maple and ash, beech and black cherry and yellow birch – were large and well-spaced, and what debris there was on the forest floor could be easily avoided. When she had thought she was trapped in a merciless world, the Goddess had shown mercy.

Though there was no trail, it was easy going for the next few miles, with a couple of hills and streams – easily negotiated – then the gradual climb up the long, southwest-trending spine of Brewster Mountain to its highest hump. She covered all this ground in less time than the eighth of a mile between the beaver dam and the blowdown. She rested.

There was no view from the summit, but Vivian could hear the stone-crushers chewing the granite that Greymont quarried from the core of the mountain four hundred feet below her and nearly a mile south. She would stay away from that, keep going southwest.

The descent was more difficult than the climb. It was booby-trapped with broken ledges under a cover of dead leaves and sheets of thick moss, a network of deep fissures, invisible to the undiscerning eye, waiting to break a leg…or worse. Vivian moved slowly. She picked up a stick and used it to test every step for hidden hazards.

Near the bottom of the mountain, she came to a small promontory, and from it she could see the valley that bounded the mountain on its south and the floor of that valley and what waited for her there. She had a choice between another marsh-lined stream or another spruce swamp. To the west of the spruce swamp was a beaver meadow or a bog – it was hard to tell which – turned tawny by the late day light, a place where two dark-water streams met. That was no choice at all.

She headed toward the swamp, aiming for what looked like the narrowest spot, though aiming didn’t guarantee hitting and narrowness didn’t guarantee ease of passage. By the time she reached the edge of it, Vivian had decided where she would go. Up to this point, she hadn’t been planning – just fleeing. She would go to Jenny’s place in town, in Saranac Lake, on Park Avenue. She could trust Jenny. Even though they hadn’t seen each other in years, she could trust her. It didn’t matter how long they were apart. They would still pick the thoughts from each other’s brains when they met again. It had always been that way. She would go to Jenny’s where she could rest, take her time, decide what to do next. And she could get there without much exposure, she thought.

Relieved and hopeful, Vivian entered the swamp. It was only a fifth of a mile from one side to the other. When she emerged from it, nearly an hour later, bleeding and bruised, she felt like she’d been flogged. Barefoot now – her shoes pulled from her feet in a pit of black muck – she hadn’t any idea what she looked like, and she didn’t want to know.

She came out at a power line. She turned right, followed the wires to a dogleg left and uphill from there to the back of the Lake Colby substation, its giant transformers humming with an energy Vivian wished she could tap. She ducked away to the left of the powerline into a windbreak of paper birch and quaking aspen that separated the substation from the mowed fields of Snowball Hill Farm. The windbreak ended in a clump of cedars. Fifty feet beyond that, she was crouching at the edge of Trudeau Road. It was an east-west thoroughfare at this point; but, a tenth of a mile to her left, it turned south. To her right, less than a hundred feet away, was a “T” intersection from which Mt. Pisgah Lane also ran south but at a slightly higher elevation.

On the other side of the road was what used to be farmland, now gone to houses. She chose a route below the houses on Mt. Pisgah Lane and above those on Trudeau Road, staying low, threading through tall-grass meadows and patches of third-growth woods. When she stepped into sunlight at Frog Pond, she rested. Beyond a strip of evergreens upslope, she could hear a tennis ball being volleyed on the courts at the Mount Pisgah ski center. Time to move again.

She put the pond behind her, hurried past the million-gallon concrete barrel of the municipal reservoir, and entered the beautiful, old hardwood forest that cloaks the mid-slopes of Mount Pisgah on east and south and west, broken by overlapping lines of low cliffs beneath which lie the backyards of houses on village streets: Old Military Road, Mountain Lane, Cliff Road, Baker Street. Looking down from the clifftops, she followed Baker Street nearly to its western end where there is a gap in the mountain wall, a steep and boulder strewn slope that gives onto a pair of bungalows – the one on the left yellow, the one on the right blue.

Vivian knew where she was, and she knew she should be just a little farther west where she could come out on the far side of the blue bungalow. Then she could run down a driveway to Baker Street, dash across it and sidle along the big apartment house that used to be called the Smithwick Cottage, coming onto Park Avenue directly opposite the place where Jenny lived.

But she couldn’t run down that driveway – couldn’t even walk down it, she was sure. It was paved not with true gravel but with stone broken by the crushers on Brewster Mountain. It was all pointed corners and sharp edges, and her feet would fail her there. They were bruised, cut, swollen; her toes every color but the color toes are supposed to be. They hurt. They throbbed. She would have to go straight down the sloping lawn between the two bungalows. It would be farther on Baker Street to the Smithwick Cottage. She would just have to run until she stopped running.

She was about to begin, to put the first complaining foot forward, when the thought she had least wanted to think forced itself upward into her consciousness. What if Jenny isn’t there? What if she isn’t coming back till late, or until tomorrow? Worse, what if she’d moved? What if someone else answers the door? Or what if she is there but not alone? What if she’s with a man? What if…?

Vivian took one step and felt she would faint. She was dizzy, her mouth parched more from apprehension then from thirst, though she was desperately thirsty. Another step. Then another. She was committed, now, by gravity if by nothing else. Two more steps, the slope steepening. She faltered but regained her balance. Then she started to slide, the soil thin and slick as grease. She grabbed a tree, forcing back waves of nausea, and continued downward like a drunk on a broken stairway in the dark. She heard a dog bark, watched its white body weaving upward among the rocks, biggest pit bull she’d ever seen, closing in quickly, jaw muscles the size of her fists. A door opened at the back of the yellow bungalow. A man’s voice called out, “Onyx! Come!” But the dog ignored the voice.

Vivian slipped again, fell backward, sat, the hillside spinning around her. Then a cold nose probing, sniffing her odors, and a long, warm tongue licking her face, soulful brown eyes telling her there was no need to be afraid. A hand extended toward her, the male voice that had unsuccessfully called the dog saying, “You’re lucky you didn’t break your head.”

Vivian slapped the hand away, stood, slipped, caught herself, stepped forward. She was surprised by how far down she had come. She was almost out of the woods, the dog leading the way, now, around the end of an old, wire fence, across a small yard more shrubs than grass, down stone stairs unevenly placed, through an open door, the man close behind. She pitched forward. She vomited. The room looked like a kitchen, but there was no shotgun and no blood. There was darkness. There was forgetting.

#

Five weeks after she first spoke, Vivian said, “I need to go back to the cabin. Will you take me?”

“Why?”

“Because you have a truck and I don’t.”

“No. I mean why go back? What is it that you need that’s worth the risk?”

“My identity.”

“You can get all that stuff replaced. Credit cards, passport, Social Security card, birth certificate, checkbooks, all of it.”

“I have some personal things. Some things that can’t be replaced. Things I’ve hidden from Joshua. My journals, for instance. Some other things, too; but mostly my journals.”

“But what if he’s there? Worse, what if he’s not there but shows up while we are? Do you really want to relive that horror show? I can tell you, I’m not interested in finding myself at the wrong end of a Remington.”

“It won’t happen that way this time. He’s not expecting anything. He has no idea I’ll be coming back. With Walt and me, Joshua must have expected something. He must have been waiting for days – maybe even weeks – pretending he was hunting but hidden somewhere waiting for Walt to show up, then giving him enough time to come inside and get me off the leash but not enough time to get me out of there. Now there’s nothing for him to wait for. He’ll never know we’ve been there. He’ll be hunting or fishing or laying a trap line. He always goes off into the woods or down to the brook when he’s done taking care of the animals.”

“Unless he’s still waiting.”

“Waiting for a what?”

“Waiting for you. Waiting for you to come back. You may think there’s nothing for him to wait for. I disagree.”

There was silence between us for several minutes while Vivian considered this possibility with pursed lips and a downward gaze.

Finally, she said, “Do you have a gun?”

“I don’t do guns.”

“You should have a gun.”

#

The next day, just past one in the afternoon, we drove to Vermontville. It was the first time Vivian had been outside in nearly two months. It was late October now, the color gone from the trees except for the aspens and tamaracks, the ferns cold-killed, the earth crunchy underfoot in the morning before the sun pulled the frost from the soil.

I parked the truck at the end of Paye Road, and we walked the long and rutted driveway westward to what had been Vivian’s home. I don’t mind admitting, I was scared.

We arrived at the final clearing. The cabin and its outbuildings stood exactly as Vivian had described them. It was warm for this time of year, the sun unhindered by clouds, no wind, the sky a brilliant late-autumn blue; but there was something sinister about the place, and it was eerily quiet. I felt like I’d fallen into an open grave.

“Where’s the truck?” Vivian asked, stopping us a hundred feet from the house. “I don’t like this. It doesn’t fit the pattern. He should be hunting in the hills. He always walks. The truck should be here.”

“Maybe after you left, his pattern changed,” I offered. “Or maybe his truck needed work, and it’s in the shop somewhere. Or he could be hunting someplace farther away.”

“I don’t like it,” Vivian repeated, doing nothing to soothe my jittery nerves. “And where are the pigs? They’re never inside on a day like this. And the dogs. Where are the dogs? They should be making noise by now.”

We advanced slowly, like a pair of wary warriors entering no-man’s land. When we stepped onto the porch, I whispered, “Are you sure you want to go in there?”

“No,” Vivian said more loudly than I would have wished, “but I’m going anyway.”

She opened the door, and we went in. The kitchen was spotless, as though a crew of cleaners had just departed. There was no dust, no dirt, and, most tellingly, not a stain anywhere. Everything was in its proper place. It was hard to believe that anyone had ever lived there, let alone died there. The rest of the cabin was the same – scrupulously clean, meticulously arranged. The woodstove looked as though it had never held a fire. The bed was perfectly made. The bathroom fixtures gleamed. The slants of sunlight falling through the windows were devoid of dust. It was uncanny. How was it possible to make a place so clean? There was no sign of the Remington.

“It’s got stuff in it, but it feels empty,” I said, more to myself than to anyone else.

“After the first few months, it was always empty,” Vivian said, “even when both of us were here…especially when both of us were here.”

She stood very still, then, as though listening to something beyond hearing.

“Go back to the kitchen,” she said. “Keep an eye out the front window. I’m going to collect my things, and then we’re getting out of here. I feel like we’re walking around on the trigger of a trap.”

No doubt about it, the woman had a way of assuaging my fears. I went to the window. She rejoined me a few minutes later, a day pack on her back, a small duffel bag hanging from her left hand.

“Let’s go,” she said.

We stepped out into the warm, still air. Not even a bird moved.

“What did he do with the animals? It’s like it was when I first saw it. Does he still think I’m going to come back? Is that what this is all about? Like turning back the clock? Like if he made it the way it was before, nothing between then and now would have actually happened? It would all be erased? All made unreal?”

Vivian moved from building to building with a purposefulness that made no sense to me. It seemed the plan of leaving immediately had been forgotten. I followed her, partly because I didn’t want to be left standing alone in front of the cabin, partly thinking I could help her somehow if something bad happened, though she seemed to me clearly the more capable of us should the situation turn ugly.

She was in command – maybe always had been, right from the beginning. She had come into my life only because she could go no farther. Yet even beaten and torn, unconscious on my kitchen floor, I sensed she was indomitable. She was more than a person. She was a presence. I had not taken her in out of pity. I had done it because I had something to give – or, rather, something that needed giving. Now, was there anything left she needed to receive? I hoped so. But was it mine to offer?

We passed the woodshed. It was full. Stuck in the top of the chopping block was a three-pound axe, bright as the day it was made and sharp as a razor. We moved to the dog yard. The hutches were all swept clean, each dog’s chain coiled and hung on a nail.

“I don’t understand,” Vivian said. “I mean I understand the pigs. He probably sold them. That’s what they were for. I understand that. But the dogs. The dogs were his pride. What happened to the dogs?”

“Maybe he took them hunting,” I said, aimlessly shuffling up the slope to the edge of the woods, trying to ignore the potential for disaster.

“Is that what this looks like to you, like they’ve just gone for the afternoon?”

I didn’t bother responding. We already both knew the answer. I kept moving upward, among trees, now, the ground covered by leaves still bright with color.

Vivian called out to me, “Up that hill is where I have my altar. It’s where I celebrate the Goddess. Joshua never bothered it. I don’t think he knows what it is.”

That’s when I saw something that stopped me cold, and it wasn’t an altar. It was something creamy white protruding from among red and yellow, orange and gold. I brushed the leaves aside with the toe of my boot.

“You better come up here, Vivian. There’s something you should see.”

When she was beside me, I pointed to the object at my feet. I said, “Do you know what kind of bone that is?”

“It’s not from a cow. And it didn’t come from a pig, I can tell you that.”

“But it’s a big bone,” I said. “And look at those marks. It’s been gnawed clean.”

“Oh, no,” Vivian moaned. “He couldn’t have. He wouldn’t.”

She turned away. “Let’s get out of here. Now!”

“But wait. There might be more.”

“No. I don’t need to see more. I know what I know.”

She was already out of the woods, running down the slope across the dog yard. She waited for me at the woodshed. I covered the bone and ran to join her. I glanced at the axe in the chopping block, the top of the block recently trimmed, the wood fresh as an accusation, it’s one blemish where the blade bit into it, the steel shining like the answer to a question I did not dare ask.

When we got back to the truck, Vivian said, “Tomorrow is Sunday. We’ll come back tomorrow.”

“Wasn’t today enough?”

“Not here. We’ll go to the church. We can hide in the woods across the road. I want to see if he’s still here, living somewhere else but still in the area. He wouldn’t miss church unless he was very sick or very far away.”

#

Sunday morning came without benefit of sleep. We parked on Fletcher Farm Road and bushwhacked an eighth of a mile north to Cold Brook Road, taking position behind some shrubby balsams across from the truck garage the Procreators called their church.

Vivian said, “I’m persona non grata, now; but I still don’t want Joshua to see me. I could do him a lot of harm, and he knows it.”

“Persona non grata?”

“If the wife runs away and doesn’t come back on her own and the husband is unable to retrieve her…”

“Retrieve her? Sounds more like talking about a duck that’s just been shot than about a wife who’s left home.”

“…That’s what they call it – retrieved; and, yes, the attitude is about the same. Joshua didn’t hesitate to send the dogs after me, though I don’t know that they would have retrieved me so much as ripped me to shreds. They were never my dogs, always his. But to get back to your question, if the husband is unable to retrieve his wife and has no contact with her for two full menstrual cycles, she is considered dead. Actually, more than dead. As far as the church is concerned, the congregation – including the husband – it’s as if she never existed.”

“Let me guess. Your second cycle ended yesterday.”

“You’re such a smart man.”

“I do my best. So, what happens then?”

“The husband is free to marry again, and all of the previous wife’s property left in his possession is burned in a ritual bonfire attended by all the men of the church. What can’t be burned is buried. You would be amazed at what they’ve buried – boats, cars, a tractor.”

“Valuable stuff. Couldn’t somebody in the group use a car or a tractor? Seems like a huge waste.”

“They don’t care. It’s evidence that the woman existed. It’s a symbol that a woman has left the fold, rejected them, repudiated their beliefs, their view of the world, their view of God.”

“Can’t have that, I guess. But just because they deny her existence, it doesn’t mean she’s actually gone. She’s still here. You’re still here. (Something in me wanted to say, ‘And I’m glad you are.’ Something else told me not to.) As far as your marriage is concerned, they may not recognize it, but the State of New York does. There are legal obligations, protections.”

“For me, yes, because we married before we became members of the church; but those who married in the church are on their own. There’s no connection with the State. The church doesn’t recognize the State’s authority in family affairs, including marriage. There is no marriage license, no public record. The woman who leaves – escapes is a better word – can make no claims. Whatever she doesn’t take with her, she forfeits; and the man owes her nothing.”

“What if there are children involved?”

“That almost never happens. There are enormous pressures to prevent it. I’ve only heard about it. It never happened while I was there.”

Just then, the congregation began to emerge from the garage. I still can’t bring myself to think of it as a church. First out was a burly guy who looked like he’d spent most of his life stevedoring.

“That’s Pastor Paul,” Vivian said.

“Where is his regalia?”

“They don’t believe in that.”

Then came family after family. There were lots of kids. After them came the couples without children. The last pair looked completely smitten with each other.

Vivian pointed in their direction. “That’s him! He’s here! I should have known.”

“So, I finally get to see this man in the flesh,” I thought. He wasn’t bad looking – kind of handsome, really – with thick, long chestnut hair on a square head that held a not unpleasant face. He looked stronger than anybody I’d want to tangle with – broad shoulders, barrel chest, big hands, one of which was wrapped around the barely visible hand of a woman – not much more than a girl, really: hip-length hair, wavy and golden, peaches and cream complexion, heart-shaped face, bee-stung lips, and with a nose that made me think she could be Cyrano de Bergerac’s kid sister, though it seemed to somehow magnify rather than mar her beauty. She was slender but fully formed; and she was dressed in a way that accentuated her curves, in sharp contrast to the married women and many of the singles. They stepped out into the sunlight like an advertisement for happiness.

“He didn’t waste any time,” Vivian said.

“She looks kinda young. Who is she?”

“She’s young, alright. Sixteen. She’s Melissa Vance – Charles and Rachel Vance’s oldest daughter: one of seven, plus three sons. They live on True Brook Road.”

“Not much out there.”

“That’s the way they like it. Joshua’s had his eye on her for a while. He had to have known I’d get away from him eventually. Look at her. She’s as ripe as a pomegranate. I’m sure she’ll give him lots of babies. They’ll probably tie the knot any day now.”

“But sixteen? If the parents don’t sign off and the marriage is not recognized by the State of New York, that’s statutory rape.”

“Not as far as they’re concerned. Not if no one says anything. And Melissa will be the last person to say anything. She’s got herself a good catch. Her parents won’t just permit it. They’ve probably encouraged it. And, as I said, the State of New York doesn’t matter to them. They’ve got God on their side. Joshua will bring her back to the farm. She’ll have her own garden. They’ll buy some pigs, maybe even some sheep.”

“What about dogs?”

“No. I don’t think there will be any dogs. Not this time.”

I didn’t bother asking why. I was distracted by Melissa Vance.

“Never marry a virgin,” I said. “You may be the first, but you won’t be the last.”

I could see the question forming in Vivian’s face, and I answered it before she could speak.

“Because one is never enough.”

“That’s a pretty blanket statement.”

“Well sometimes I’m just a blanket kinda guy.”

“I have no objection to blankets in the right circumstances.”

“I’m not sure I know how to interpret that.”

“I’ll give you a little time to figure it out.”

As Snit turned his head to say something to the pastor, I could see a swath of hair shorter than the rest.

“Looks like young Melissa’s beau had some emergency work done on his cranium. I wonder if she has any idea how much trouble is heading in his direction.”

Vivian must have been lost in her own thoughts.

“What do you mean?” she asked, though to me the answer seemed obvious.

“I mean he murdered a man, not to mention what he did to you.”

“I don’t think he really understood what he did to me. He thought he was saving me, saving my soul.”

“People will do as much violence to save your soul as they will to damn it,” I said. “Maybe more. And what about your rescuer?”

“I don’t know he murdered Walt. When I hit Joshua with that pot, it was all I could think to do. Maybe he would have killed Walt anyway; but what if he didn’t mean to? What if he was just trying to scare Walt and hadn’t intended to pull the trigger? What if the gun went off only because I hit him? And if I hadn’t hit him, Walt might have lived.”

“If you ask me, you’re giving credit where no credit is due.”

We waited among the shrubs for the remaining churchgoers to come out – those few men and women who were not coupled – and for the crowd around Pastor Paul to disperse and the cars to drive away. Then we returned to my truck and drove back to Baker Street; but, before I started it up, I turned to Vivian and said, “Snit may believe he’s got a winning hand, but I think he lost the game two months ago.”

“I’m not sure I know how to interpret that.”

“I’ll give you a little time to figure it out.”

“Thank you,” she said. “For being who you are and allowing me to be who I am.”

#

If I had thought Vivian’s silences were over, I was wrong. After our exchange in the truck on Fletcher Farm Road, she didn’t say a single word for three days; but she began doing outdoor chores – raking leaves, mulching the rosebushes, getting ready for the long freeze – and she went for walks up the hill with Onyx, often stopping to sit on a boulder about halfway up, staring down at the house sometimes for an hour or more.

The day she spoke again, I had just come from the Grand Union with two bags of groceries. She had been out also, opening the door before I had put the bags on the counter.

She said, “I saw Jenny today, went to her house. She’s still living on Park Avenue. She doesn’t have a boyfriend. She says she doesn’t lock her door. I can come any time I want. Stay as long as I want.”

“Are you gonna take her up on it?”

“Not yet.”

#

Two days later, after breakfast was eaten and the dishes washed, I was leaving the bathroom, having brushed my teeth and combed what is left of my hair, when Vivian stepped out of the guestroom clothed in a garment that covered her body the way a thin haze covers the hills. It was white gauze. It was not a dress or a gown – more like a cape than anything else, tied with a ribbon in a bow at her neck and open below. She stood facing me.

She said, “This is what I wear for my ceremonies in the woods, but I won’t need it for this one.”

She loosened the bow, and the cape drifted to the floor. Then she reached for the top button of my shirt and unfastened it. Then the next and the next. I didn’t try to stop her; and so she undressed me. She took her time, though it seemed there was no time or that time had not been invented yet. When she stood again after removing my socks, we were inches apart. The space went away with the time. I felt the tips of my fingers on the ridge of her cheekbone, then gliding over soft skin to the line of her jaw. Our mouths were ready, lips parted, the slight wind of her breath meeting mine.

What was that? Was that a hand on my shoulder? From behind? I turned my head, Vivian’s lips brushing my face beside the ear. There was nobody in the room but us, only the one man and the one woman. No one else. Not in the room. Not in the house. I knew it. I knew we were alone. But I believed we were not alone.

I looked away from my shoulder, still warm from the touch of someone who wasn’t there, faced Vivian again, her eyes upturned, head back, long neck fully extended and throat exposed. She was open, vulnerable, eager. I could see myself do what I wanted to do, could feel myself do it in the instant before doing it, my lips on the white, smooth throat, tongue touching the yielding flesh, the long journey of kiss sliding to her breasts, to her belly, to the secret below her hips. I could feel Vivian’s fingers in my hair. I could feel her pulling me to her. All before it happened.

I could see it. I could feel it. But I couldn’t do it. It wasn’t real. What was real was a hand that had touched my shoulder from 300 miles away. What was real was the memory of Hanna walking from our home, the door at the front of the house left open, the boys already in her car, and her looking back at me as she descended the steps toward it, looking back through the door she refused to close on me. I could hear her voice over the birds and the wind and the barking of a dog and the squealing of the children next door, though it was the gentlest of voices.

“Come to York Harbor when you’re ready.”

Then another voice, Vivian’s voice this time. “You have ten seconds to think about this.”

I looked at her looking up at me, tried to tell her with my eyes what was happening inside me. She walked away, leaving the gauze garment on the floor. I got dressed, picked up what she had left, went to the living room, sat in my father’s chair hoping it or he would make it easier.

Vivian returned from the guest room dressed to go outside. She had the backpack and the duffel bag. They were clearly not empty. She stood in front of me, lips drawn tight with exasperation, eyes bright with anger.

“Don’t be angry, Vivian,” I said.

“I’m in love with a man who’s in love with a woman who’s not here. What would you expect?”

“I didn’t mean for that to happen.”

“No. You were merely gentle, kind, attentive, respectful, supportive…. And you raised me from the dead. Like I said, what would you expect?”

“If it’s any consolation…”

“Don’t say it,” she cut in. “You’ll only make it worse.”

I wanted to tell her I was in love with her, too. I said, “How can you possibly know what I was going to say?”

“It doesn’t matter what you were going to say. Anything you say will make it worse. Especially if you were to say something utterly stupid like, ‘I’m in love with you, too.’”

I put my head in my hands; mumbled, “I’m sorry.”.

“Oh, shut up,” she said and walked toward the door.

“Are you going to Jenny’s?”

“Yes.”

“Then what?”

“I’m going to get a good lawyer, and I’m going to tell her what happened. Those people, Walt’s family, they deserve to know. I’ve been silent too long. It’s unconscionable.”

I stood from the chair, walked toward her. I wanted to hug her goodbye. She put her hand up to stop me and opened the door.

“Thank you,” I said.

“What for?”

“For the privilege of knowing you, a little bit…and…for reminding me who I am.”

“Go to Maine,” she said, and stepped out of the house.

I followed her, watched her from the deck at the top of the thirty steps that lead to the street. She was nearly at the bottom when she paused. I thought she would turn around, might say something. She started to turn, I’m sure of it; but the movement was aborted. She finished her descent, hitting the street at a half-trot, turned right, and headed toward the Smithwick Cottage without looking back.

I spent most of the rest of the day sitting in Dad’s chair with the newspaper in my hands, it’s words filing by in lines of meaninglessness. I read one paragraph five times before giving up, unable to absorb whatever it was the writer was trying to tell me. I had soup and a beer for dinner, went to bed early and confused, and fell asleep in vague despair, torn between relief and misery, soon besieged by nightmares of someone chopping meat with an axe, the blade coming down, severing flesh, shattering joints, chunks of muscle and bone thrown to the dogs. I could not see who was wielding the axe, not even hands on a shaft. There was only the blade falling, the meat in the air, the sound of the dogs tearing and gnawing. Then, finally, at dawn, a dream, not harrowing but more painful: a gauze cape floating to the floor, Vivian’s upturned face, a hand that wasn’t there touching my shoulder.

It wasn’t until late-November that I saw her again, though there was no indication from her that she’d seen me. I had just left the Blue Moon Café when she came out of the parking lot across Main Street and headed south, toward the Waterhole. She was with another woman – shorter, solidly built, black hair pulled back in a French braid. They walked in synchrony, arm-in-arm, contentment on their faces.

#

New York State troopers and Department of Environmental Conservation Law Enforcement officers arrested Joshua Snit on Thanksgiving Day, part of a larger State Police operation focusing on the Church of the Holy Procreator. He was charged with rape, bigamy, endangering the welfare of a child, and violating various wildlife laws. Other charges were pending the results of DNA tests on evidence recovered from Snit’s farm possibly linking him to the disappearance of Walter LaVoy. Pastor Paul – whose real name was James Polk – along with Charles and Rachel Vance, were charged as accessories for their part in marrying off sixteen-year-old Melissa Vance to a man who was already married to someone else: namely, his as-yet undivorced wife, Vivian Snit.

#

It had snowed during the night, then cleared and become much colder. Typical for mid-December. Now the sun was just rising above McKenzie Mountain, a blinding eye between twin summits. The truck was already packed. I locked the bungalow door, descended the steps to the street, got in, turned the key. No one had removed the coil. The engine started as smoothly as if it had been summer. I sat with it idling a few minutes, thinking about where I had been and where I was going. Onyx shot me an impatient look from the co-pilot’s seat. I said a silent prayer for Vivian, put the truck in gear, and headed east. If the roads were clear and the traffic less than awful, I’d make York Harbor before dark.

 

 

 

BIO

Phil Gallos has been a newspaper reporter and columnist, a researcher/writer in the historic preservation field, and has spent 30 years working in academic libraries (which is more interesting than it sounds). Most recently, his writing has been published in The MacGuffin, Stonecrop Magazine, Carbon Culture Review, Burningword Literary Journal, and Foliate Oak, among others, and is forthcoming in The Wire’s Dream, and Dark Ink Magazine. He lives and writes in Saranac Lake, NY.

 

 

 

 

0

Nothing Comes Back

by Susan Lloy

 

 

Sybil has never been good at letting go. Not her loved ones, not a pair of old shoes, not even a jacket she hasn’t worn in twenty years. So, when she arrived at her new abode she managed to drag loads of stuff that she knew she would never use and was left with the task of not knowing what to do with or where to store all of it. It is a small apartment and space will be problematic. Now that she is retired and free, she feels deflated and confined.

She had never been good at planning her life and fell into a dead-end job with a paltry salary in her early forties after travelling and changing countless meaningless positions. Retirement still seemed a long ways off. Yet, here she is, with scant money coming in from her pension and little savings. Dreams of travel and escape are far out of reach. As she stands with an unpacked moving box at her feet she thinks to herself; fuck… this is what it’s all come down to.

She has returned to her place of birth following forty-five years away and finds it hard to believe that she is actually here. She had always lived to escape this place, but here she is living in a section of the city she always despised. There had been no other choice. This corner of her pocket-sized world is the most affordable, but neighbors are in close proximity, balconies touch each other like shoulders watching a parade.

When she looks at her contemporaries she still feels young, though today, catching a glimpse of her reflection in the harsh afternoon light she knows she is getting on. She has one child, a daughter whom she rarely sees. Antonia, her spawn, has no intention of leaving the big city for a smaller one and isn’t planning a visit to her mother any time soon. They have always had a strained relationship. Not for any particular reason. They are like two opposite forces that repel instead of attract.

Antonia is an artist. A painter, who struggles and refuses to give up her dreams of becoming one of them. She believes she has it, even when gallery after gallery refuses to give her a show. Antonia is striking with an unusual red birthmark on the left side of her face shaped like a seahorse. Her mother always insisted it was a beauty mark declaring it made her special. But, Antonia never bought into it and the mistrust and difficulties began right there.

 

Sybil has never been what one would label joyful. Not as a child, not as a youth and not now in later life. Sure there had been good times, especially when she was tripping in the spring of early womanhood. Now everything seems flat. Expired. Occasionally, when she hears an old loved tune she will perk up. Dance about, remembering a time when things felt possible, yet when the song is finished she is left alone in the silence. A vacuum.

She doesn’t know how her world became this inconsequential. It is down to less than a handful of people. Because of this she has developed an unhealthy addiction to rummaging the Internet, searching out former lovers, classmates and foes.

Sybil lets out a sigh as she examines the unpacked boxes. She has an abundance of photographs. Some of these photos haven’t been looked at in years and she can’t remember some of the people’s names that are in them, but they remind her of a livelier time and this is why she keeps them. However, looking at them now she imagines if she dropped dead this very instant there would be so many things for Antonia to go through. She expels the thought from her mind.

 

The walls are thin here and she can hear the neighbors’ televisions and stereos. The one upstairs is a stomper and she can tell whomever it is wears shoes. She will have to have a word, explaining that she suffers from misophonia and could they not wear them inside. Sybil knows she will hate it here. She stands on her compact balcony listening to a brood of gulls call across the gray, drizzly sky.

One box contains a bundle of cards. Love letters from her ex – Antonia’s father. He is long gone, yet Sybil thinks Antonia will find solace in the words and perceive that she was created within a time of affection. Antonia was young when her father left. It’s part of her bitterness. Her dubiosity.

 

Sybil unwraps one of Antonia’s paintings. She is a figurative painter. It’s a self-portrait with a distorted face somewhat in the vein of Francis Bacon, her idol. It is disturbing to think that Antonia thinks of herself like this, but Sybil hangs it in a prominent spot with a wall all to itself. Her breathing is labored as she examines it.

Life has become small. Sybil isn’t on any social media sites such as Facebook. She has access though, from a time when Antonia often used her computer. It has become an unproductive habit. Looking for old lovers and people she has long lost contact with. Examining their lives, and partners. New kitchens, trips and what seem all the pleasantries of life. Sybil had let friends drop from her life. It seems like her life had been put on hold while others had moved on. If she reached out a reply would come, still it was her that had to do all the reaching. All those old friends in foreign lands had long forgotten her. Or had intentionally ignored her. It was if all the cozy worlds she once was part of had imploded and she was left with only a chill travelling her spine. Correspondence became painful, with the usual – same ol’ at the end of every Email.

She painfully organizes the apartment; however another purge will be necessary. A neighbor’s television bellows through the wall. As she lets out a long sigh, she ponders packing the whole place up and heading to the country. Somewhere rural. Close to the sea. An old magazine lies on the coffee table with a double-spread of the Grand Canyon displaying all its glory. The reds and rusts are warm and inviting and seem to say, what are you waiting for?

 

She doesn’t have money socked away for extensive travels, but a little for one special trip. Sybil had always wanted to visit the Grand Canyon and areas beyond. The desert. It was always near, especially when there was some commercial or film with its uplifted Proterozoic and Paleozoic strata and vividly-hued landscapes. Rivers, rapids, valleys with canyons and walls built of ancient rock. How breathtaking and humbling it must feel to stand within.

She has done her homework and knows it is a relatively short drive through from Vegas. Utah would be next heading to Zion National Park. She extends the invitation to Antonia to tag along, but her daughter declines insisting that she is immersed in a new series of works. It hurts Sybil. This tension between them runs like a fierce river. Unflinching and constant.

For the most part her clothes remained unpacked with fabrics hanging over opened boxes. She still holds on to items that are too small or too young. Nevertheless, she has kept them for her own unsound reasons, a trove of clutter and useless accumulation. She snatches up a flimsy top for the warm weather. Who knows? Maybe she’ll meet someone.

Her flight is the following week. She plans to stay one night in Vegas and make an early start the following morning. The itinerary is well coordinated and would usually take two and a half hours to reach Springdale in Utah, but she plans to stretch it out taking time for rest stops and scenic vistas. When she reaches her destination for the day, she’ll stay a night in Springdale and hike the following day to Weeping Rock in Zion National Park.

Sybil has done a little research and there is something about Weeping Rock that speaks to her. A kindred spirit, so she thinks. It isn’t merely the name, but also the photographs she has examined of the place, where the water continually seeps at the junction of two strata creating an arena of ferns, moss and wildflowers. An oasis on the side of a ridge. She imagines herself being able to breath freely there. Free of confinement and neighborly clamor.

Weeping Rock evokes a consciousness and awakens a part of her being that has been shut down. She feels that she needs a good cry. A release. And imagines she will get it there for the rock is forever wailing, as if its heart has been broken into a million bits.

Her flight is the following day. Most of the packing has been done save for a few boxes. She had put up shelves and arranged books. Hung favorite pieces on walls. It has begun to feel more like her, yet she didn’t see herself here. It’s as if she watches herself from a different sphere. As if she was a character in some film.

 

The heat assaults her as she hits Las Vegas. She has a place on the strip for one night at Planet Hollywood Resort & Casino and heads directly to her suite via the hotel-airport shuttle. It is midafternoon and the sun hangs high in the sky, but there is plenty of time to explore the strip, have dinner and play a few slot machines before retiring. Her road trip will commence after breakfast the following day.

It is the first time in her life in a casino. She has fifty dollars to play with. Not a penny more. The minute she sits down she becomes annoyed. There is noise everywhere. From boisterous loud drunks to screaming bachelorettes, bells ring and lights blink. It’s all a bit too much. In spite of she thinks, what the hell, I might as well give it a go. And go it does, on the second try. Sybil pulls the lever and PANG, out comes a ticket with a barcode. I won!

Everyone claps and shouts. Some look on with disdain. Why not me? Sybil turns in her ticket for a twenty-four thousand dollar check. She can’t believe her luck. Not bad for a five dollar investment. She treats herself to a good meal at the casino restaurant and heads back to her room to tuck in for an early night.

She has rented a Volkswagen Bug Convertible for the trip. She wants the wind in her hair and sun on her face. All of her senses opened for unfamiliar awakenings. The car is being dropped off at the hotel’s entrance. It is a shiny dark bronze metallic. It will mirror the colors of the canyon. She has purchased supplies for the expedition such as water, sandwiches and a bottle of good wine.

 

Edwin Smith lives in Wasatch County, Utah on a ranch not far from Salt Lake City. Edwin prides himself on being a direct descendant of Joseph Smith, the forefather of the Polygamy movement. He is not a genetic heir, but offspring of one of his five adopted children, although proclaim has been impossible to prove. Edwin grew up in the faith. As far as he can remember his kin had practiced plural marriage, as does he with his eleven wives, twenty-three children and five grandchildren.

Edwin is in his early sixties and still possesses a good physique, takes pride in his appearance and is a member of the Utah Film Industry. He still works as a grip on films now and again.

He bought this ranch in the early eighties. By that time he had long given up the notion that the more the merrier bought one a ticket to a special spot in the celestial kingdom. No, by that time he simply enjoyed the idea that plural marriage was a good thing. Made a more interesting, spicier life for a man.

Most of his wives were sealed by traditional practice, although there had been no prophet involved. Two of his ladies came from the film industry for Edwin was quite the catch in his youth. The others were locals and an old school sweetheart and had been chosen within a time when he held close to the thought that more kin were the best route to heaven. Through time the group had adjusted to these changes and the departures from the rigid rules of the church, which they had been accustomed to.

Locals frowned upon them and called them the ‘Smithsters’ and thought of them more like a cult than an offshoot of the Mormon faith, who are their neighbors in all directions. Initially, they tried to make a go of it by subsistence farming. Producing cheese, baking their famous Smithster pies, but ranching is a tough trade and because most of the clan has film expertise, they sought out a different direction of income – producing soft porn.

As righteous as folks like to think of themselves around here and beyond, sometimes they need extra flavor added to the mix. Things become rigid and boring. Edwin found a niche in this market and made a tidy living from their film production company. Edwin and his two wives who sprung from film work had educated the others in distribution and marketing. Some were designated to costume design, while others dealt with the children and managed mealtimes and the overall daily goings on about the ranch.

Mostly all of them acted in the films in some capacity, or they subcontracted parts out advertising in open casting calls for adult films or by word of mouth.

Their porn is subtle: naked women bailing hay, selling baked goods at a country fair, frolicking in a haystack, the local sheriff putting on the cuffs.

It draws a special sort of clientele. Country folk and farmers. People seeking a refuge from the Bible Belt dogma, which is the norm for this belief-filled land.

 

Sybil enjoys her road trip and has taken in several panoramas along her route, but now she is in Zion National Park and plans to lunch in Springfield then hike the Weeping Rock trailhead. There are a multitude of places to eat along the Zion Park Blvd, but she settles in at The Spotted Dog Café and has a hearty meal of roast beef, mashed potatoes, grilled vegetables and coffee. She figures she will need it for the trail ahead.

Before she leaves, she writes a postcard to Antonia. Sybil likes this lost world of card sending. Now everything is encased within a phone. She imagines Antonia caressing the image with her paint stained fingers and lovingly placing it a special spot, thinking to herself; I should have gone on that trip. But truth be told, Antonia could care less.

Sybil enters the trail and begins her ascent. Edwin has finished a shoot. He is currently working on a series where multiples of sophisticated and often erotic robots act out individuals’ fantasies in a futuristic theme park. The location is not far from Weeping Rock and is a lovely spot that Edwin finds himself repeatedly drawn to again and again. Sybil has chosen it too, though she is enticed by unknown reasons. They are like two bodies that submit to the force of attraction like sun and earth, earth and moon.

Sybil reaches Weeping Rock and rests her bones on a bench overlooking a carved out valley. The weeping water cascades over hanging gardens, which are moist with lush vegetation. The sounds are gentle and the smells rich.  There are few visitors today and Sybil is happy for this. She is alone save for one or two strays who stroll by every twenty minutes or so.

As she sits here she goes over her life. Antonia is her only kin. She wishes her late sister were next to her. Her ashes lie on a bookshelf in her new apartment. They say a loved one’s remains are a mix of many cremations. She hopes her sister is mixed with fun folk. Sybil watches the water and contemplates; will this be her last trip? Will Antonia get her big break? Will their relationship ever heal? Will she ever get laid again? It’s been over two decades since she has been intimate. It feels like a lost world, something intangible, as if trying to reconstruct a dream after awaking.

 

Edwin arrives soon after his wrap. He has always liked this spot and remembers coming here as a child with his sister-moms and brothers and sisters. They would have picnics and look out over the land believing that they had arrived in heaven, or at the very least, were nearly there. What could be more beautiful than this carved-out landscape? Though truthfully he just wants to get away from all of the hullabaloo at the ranch. With the constant screaming of the youngsters and whose night it would be amongst the wives. The rooster that is eternally argued over.

He sits on an opposite side of the look-out and takes in all of its beauty, letting out a deep breath after reaching this elevation. There is only himself and Sybil who sit staring out at the weeping water at this precise moment. Edwin remembers running around here with his siblings. Youth was a happy time. There was always someone to play with, make a fort or battle off invisible enemies between chores. He has lost touch with most of his brothers and sisters, as they do not approve of the porn.

“Certainly is a pretty spot, don’t you think?”

“Yes. There’s no denying that.”

“Mind if I park next to you?”

Edwin places himself on the bench next to Sybil. She is nervous. It feels like at least five incarnations ago since a man has flirted with her.

“I’m Edwin.”

“Sybil.”

“Well, nice to meet you Sybil.”

Edwin smiles and Sybil notices right away his handsome windblown face, his good teeth and full head of unruly gray hair, which blows this way and that. He is fit without a paunch and she is uneasy and her face is turning red. She feels a hot flash coming on. She starts fanning herself with her empty lunch bag.

“Are you a tourist or from around these parts?”

“A tourist. Your northern neighbor to be exact. Canada.”

“Oh, where there?”

“I left Montreal recently and have resettled in Nova Scotia, which I left just short of a half a century ago. Man! Can’t believe I just said that. How did we get this far?”

“How do you find returning to your ol homestead after such a long time away?”

“It’s quite strange. I’m not at all sure I’ve made the right decision.”

“Well… I’m from this wonderful land. Would you care to visit some other areas of interest?”

“I’m not sure about that. I have a fixed itinerary and my rental car is due back at a specified time.”

“Hey, don’t dwell on simple details. You can save yourself some cash, plus visit some places you hadn’t thought of. Return your car at the nearest drop off. I’ve got some time off. I work in the film industry and just finished up a week’s worth of shoots. What do you say?”

Sybil’s mind is racing. Who is this guy? He could very well be a serial killer, rapist or just a mere kook. Still, there is something in the tone of his voice and the spaces between his words that makes her trust him.

The rental was dropped off in Springfield and she embarks on a tour of Bryce Canyon and Capital Reef. Moab. The trip takes just over three days.

They hunted for fossils and loved the silence amongst the layered rock. Edwin is charming and affectionate. His touch warms her like a fire on a winter’s eve. All those years she remained celibate…sometimes even the massage from the hairdresser’s assistant would fill her being with uneasiness. A mere brush to the body that had been without intimate contact stirred the emptiness inside her.

On their second evening, they slept together. Sybil had been nervous and restrained, but following a couple bottles of good wine she relaxed and melted into him as if she had always been a fit with this man. However, she is no spring chicken and though her joints are not as limber as they once were and personal dexterity has become more challenging, she’s pleased that she didn’t end up in a full body cast with one leg supported by traction, which both surprised and relieved her. On the third evening Edwin proposed. Sybil was about to accept, yet before she can let the word escape from her lips he covers her mouth softly with his forefinger.

“Sybil. I must disclose something before you reply. I’m a polygamist. I have eleven other wives and, if you agree, you shall be the twelfth. We are not fundamentalists. I grew up in that strict world, but our family isn’t based on restrictions. Our values are communal. Shared work ethic regarding child rearing and household tasks, friendship and love.”

Sybil’s mind is racing. What is this? Who is this? What have I got myself into? He could be a proper psycho. Well, hold your horses. We had a three day-fling. We’re not exactly involved…

“Before you make a decision, why not come to our ranch for a visit? Meet the family, have a meal. Try a few days.”

Sybil agrees, though she isn’t sure why. The whole arrangement sounds wildly weird. Nevertheless, she calls Antonia to announce her new plans. She’d met a guy and will prolong her stay a little while. Antonia listens without offering advice or warning or even ‘have a good time’.

“Uh-huh. OK. Till later.”

 

Sybil sits silent for the ride, as they travel to the foothills of the Wasatch Mountain Range. Edwin sings a song and reassuringly rubs her knee. It is a beautiful spread hosting a large main house with smaller homes side by side and what appears to be a huge garage behind. There are goats, chickens, pigs and cows. Horses lazily graze in another pasture. Three barns sit in the distance. As they approach, children run towards the truck laughing and waving eager to greet, Edwin their keeper.

Edwin had telephoned ahead to alert his first wife of his intentions. She was to go down the line informing the other ten wives of a possible twelfth. One by one the women approached, all of varied ages. The youngest three probably in their twenties or early thirties. Sybil is surprised to see that they all look normal. No strange hairdos or pioneer type conservative attire. They wear jeans, T-shirts and Converses. A few with cool summer dresses.

The first wife, Meryl, who is around the same age as herself, comes towards her holding out her hand and welcoming her with a big, toothy smile.

“Hello Sybil. Nice to have you here.”

The others saunter over to make her acquaintance. Sybil makes eye contact immediately forgetting each of their names. Too many, too fast.

“We’ve prepared a tasty meal.”

Sybil is given a tour of the main house, which is clean and simply decorated. Photographs grace the walls showcasing the generations of multiple kin, some of which display 19th century garb and women sporting weird pompadour hairdos. They head out to the back of the house where a handcrafted wooden table roughly thirty feet long is situated with a similar sized table for the children off to the side. The meal is delicious and the atmosphere amicable, although from time to time Sybil catches the leer of a jealous wife sizing her up. Calculating competition.

After three days at the ranch Sybil accepts Edwin’s proposal. She likes the idea of company, not being on her own. Although she could only retrieve a tiny hint of the other wives feelings towards her, she imagines they will warm up to her. Sybil FaceTimes with Antonia and invites her to the wedding, but Antonia declines saying, “Mom! Are you out of your mind?”

They are sealed in an open garden with Edwin leading the ceremony. Not that he holds true in his heart these sacraments. No, he likes the idea of another lady added to the pot. He has not expressed this to Sybil, but her savings and pension must be added to the family purse. While she is having a bath following their two-day honeymoon, Edwin transfers her savings to his bank account. Now that she is married, he contacts her bank informing them all funds and investments must be e-transferred to their joint account. All of her passwords and personal information are easy to find; she doesn’t have the best security money-transfer apps on her iPhone – bank passwords, investments and pension access are easily accessible. Security questions are ready to submit. He had taken a photo of her signature when she returned the rental car. All he had to do was Login, send a false, forged photo of the marriage licence and Bob’s your uncle!

It took Sybil some time before she noticed that something was amiss. She discovered this when attempting to draw some cash from her account after she was handed her measly allowance by Meryl. She contacted her bank immediately, but they assured her that no fraud had taken place. Her husband, Edwin Smith, had authorized the transfers to their new joint account. After all, her status had changed. She was no longer single. Without taking further action, Sybil decides to sit on it for a bit, but tells the bank this is not the last of it. Edwin is now far from her heart. How could he do this without consulting her first?

Before she gets to confront him on the matter, Edwin is off on a film shoot. He will be gone for a few weeks. Sybil is added to the work schedule.

In the days prior to his departure, Sybil was already bounced down on the romance docket. The younger wives given preference. The older wives, including herself, tabbed further down for sleepovers.

Sybil had been allotted a room in the main house. There were ten bedrooms in this roost. It was a bright square room flooded with natural light. When she was given work duties in the house, such as dusting and vacuuming and whenever she was alone in the house, she explored. She examined each and every bedroom. Checked out the attire in each closet. For example, which wife had a better clothes collection and who had better shoes. She formed a hierarchy blueprint of this plural marriage.

 

One particularly warm, cloudless day Sybil heard a commotion. There was a small minibus of young, fit ladies filling the backyard area of the main house. She was curious if these fresh bits of flesh would be added to the fuse. She wandered over to the yard watching the ladies enter the huge outbuilding two by two. Until now Sybil had not been invited to this part of the ranch, but hey… wasn’t she one of them? At least for now.

 

The space is open and grandiose. The minute she entered she realizes it’s a film set. There are lighting kits and booms, video cameras and sets partially built or complete. She spots Meryl and a few of the other wives sitting inspecting the ladies from the minibus. They are instructed to remove their clothing and strut their stuff. Sybil can’t quite grasp the meaning of it all and slowly walks closer for a peek.

“Sybil, come here. So what do you think?

“Of what exactly?”

“These ladies, what else?”

“Well, they’re lovely. But what are they doing here?”

“Didn’t Edwin tell you about our production company? Peek A Boo Films.”

“No. Actually he did not.”

“Well we do pretty well with it. We produce soft-core porn.”

“Oh, do you now?

“The farm can’t run on its own steam, so we stared this about fifteen years ago and it brings in quite a tidy sum.”

Sybil takes it all in all the while fuming at Edwin’s lack of disclosure. First it was her bank accounts and now this. She doesn’t have any moral hang-ups on the subject. Hell, she even danced in an erotic club to pay her way through university once upon a time. Yet, how many more secrets are buried on this land?

 

Nearly one month has passed since she had set foot on the ranch. After the initial honeymoon, she felt familiar naggings and doubts nipping at her ankles. She felt like an outsider amongst the other wives. Fuck, even the children paid her no mind and she was pissed at being left alone following Edwin’s quick departure. Her savings and casino winnings had been swept away in what seemed a microsecond and if her money was simmering in the family pot she was barely getting a whiff of it.

 

She had telephoned and texted Antonia countless times, but typically, Antonia didn’t respond. Antonia had come into some luck. She was to have her own show at one of the city’s big galleries. She had immersed herself in her work preparing multiple large pieces for the exhibition that would open in one week.

She had noticed her mother’s messages, but didn’t want to be distracted by some lament that she expected was to come, for some of Sybil’s texts were dramatic and crazed. Antonia had been working on a portrait. It is her homage to Sybil. It is a large piece taking one wall of the gallery.

Sybil is isolated on a flat background with a distorted face and open mouth suggesting a scream. The face is somewhat grotesque and her hair is swept up over her forehead in an exagerated pompadour. She sports a prairie dress that hangs to her feet. The painting is strange and alarming, with dark pigments layering the canvas. Yet, it demands the viewer to stare. It evokes feelings of confinement and withdrawal.

The portrait sells on opening night to a prominent collector. Antonia sends a photo to her mother with a red circle next to the title, which simply reads – Sybil.

 

 

BIO

Susan E. Lloy has consistently published internationally since 2012. Her short story collection, But When We Look Closer, was recently published by Now Or Never Publishing. Her forthcoming collection, Vita, will be released April 15, 2019. Susan lives in Montreal.

 

 

 

 

 

0

The Harmacy

by Stephanie Mataya

 

 

A scowling kid followed shoppers with a mop as they entered the Harmacy, halfheartedly working to preserve the white of the floor. With specks of glitter embedded in the faux marble, the tile’s effect was gaudy and bizarre, contrasting with the rows and rows of colorful vials, syringes, and bottles of pills waiting to induce some illness or other. The kid looked bored, probably forced to work by parents who thought too much free time was a hazard, like asking for bad habits to form.

People filed in every few minutes with wet shoes dragging in the dirt of the city street. The scowling kid trailed behind each new entrant, pushing that mop back and forth with a lazy energy, leaving a gleaming floor behind, however temporarily. He dragged the soap bucket around with him, one wheel eeking out occasional sharp squeaks that scratched the eardrum.

The items on the shelves seemed to be organized by color rather than function, an inefficient choice, but aesthetically pleasing, somehow. It reminded Polly of the way she used to arrange Legos when she was a child, small to big, light to dark. She caressed the edges of a particularly brightly colored vial with her fingertips, turning it around to read the highlighter pink details on the backside. FLUretanol: induces feelings of achiness throughout the body in combination with interspersed waves of fever and chills. Relaxing sense of illness guaranteed to last 24-48 hours. Only one drop needed! Handy to-go size! Polly turned the bottle back into place. The scowling kid grazed her shoe with the soggy mop, drenching the side of her sock in an instant.

“Fuck,” she said under her breath, making her way away from him as quickly as possible. In the back of the Harmacy, the shelves were stocked with paraphernalia; pill cases with every possible branding (Ferrari! Louis Vuitton! Peppa Pig!); 10-packs of empty syringes in shades of neon, metallic, and pastel; pill cutters shaped like turtles or Pacman, and one designed as a row of teeth that Polly found especially disturbing. One lone employee manned the counter in the corner, and the line was long; fifteen people, looking bored, waiting for the prescriptions that would grant them a day or two of escape.

Polly had always avoided the Harmacy, thinking herself a pretty content, competent person. She was only exploring because of the insistence of her brother Travis, who sang the praises of the Harmacy. She knew she was strange in her denial; everyone else at her office took at least ten sick days a year. Yet Polly had never taken a day, never took the easy way out by swallowing a dose of pneumonia, gurgling a bit of bronchitis, or shooting up some blood poisoning. Everyone thought she was so old fashioned.

The truth was that Polly liked to be happy and healthy. When people detailed their sick days with glee, she simply couldn’t understand it. While the monotony of the day to day could get tedious, the snotting, vomiting, feverishly shivering alternative was not appealing.

#

“It’s about balance Polly, I’ve told you this,” said her brother Travis, as she sat in his living room later that day. Polly handed him a tissue and averted her eyes as he cleared out his nasal passage with a horrible honk. Smirking, he threw the dirty tissue back at her, and Polly grabbed a magazine from his coffee table and held it up to her face just in time to divert the sticky, crumpled mess.

“You asshole!” she said with a laugh. “That’s disgusting, you know. Ever think about germs?”

“Polly, really? Germs? You know this cold was expensive, they wouldn’t give me germs with it too so I could pass a freebie on to a buddy. Seriously, the way you talk it’s like you’re grandma and you still think that you can pick up a cold on a dirty subway car. Fuck, I wish. These are different times, you know.”

“Yeah yeah fine, but I just don’t get it. You look like shit. Can’t you get ‘balance’ from just living your life, without intervention?”

“Abso—ah-choo!—loutely not. I’m living the life today, total relaxation. Another tissue, if you don’t mind.”

“Get one yourself, you dirty bastard.” Polly laughed and feigned running away out of fear, detouring into the kitchen to grab a glass of water. On the counter by the sink was Travis’s bottle of pills, one left. She read the description on the side: Coldexetrin: catch a simple cold, perfect for a three-day weekend! One pill generates an ideal amount of fatigue to justify a day at home, while leaving you with enough energy for regular mobility. On the opposite side of the bottle was a removable coupon, offering two-for-one boxes of tissues. Travis shouted at her from the living room.

“Don’t you care about your poor, ill, bitty baby brother?!” he added a brief fake cry at the end, a throaty sob that might have had her convinced if she didn’t know him so well.

“You did this to yourself kid, and I’ll never understand it.” She made her way back to the couch, cautiously reentering the line of fire of tissues.  “Anyway, can we refocus, or is there snot clouding your eyes too? We need to make some decisions for this party.”

The siblings had been instructed to plan a “surprise” twenty fifth anniversary celebration for their parents and were supposed to be picking out stationery for the invitations, selecting flower arrangements, choosing a cake topper. Their parents had requested the party.

“Don’t you think it’s all kind of bullshit?” Travis asked.

“No, I think it’s kind of nice, in fact. Celebrating the endurance of love, life, etcetera, etcetera. What’s bullshit about that?”

“Endurance of love, my ass! It’s about flaunting success in front of other people. It’s about winning. Everything is about winning.”

“You’re such a cynic, Travis. I think it’s sweet.” She paused. Even as she said the words, she wasn’t sure if they were true. Perhaps she was old fashioned, but she wanted to believe that the celebration of love was something pure. One pure thing in the world that was increasingly tinkered with, increasingly subject to intervention. Love doesn’t need injections to make it successful, does it? Happiness with another person doesn’t require pill popping, does it? Her parents were happy, they must be. They still held hands when they walked down the street; they still called each other each evening when they were apart. If that’s not love, or at least an effort to maintain love, then what is? She pushed the thought aside and continued:

“Now, which do you think suits Mom and Dad best, yellow or coral?”

“Coral, if you’re gonna make me choose. Yellow is the color that liberal parents paint baby’s rooms. Giraffes and sunshine. Not very fitting for an anniversary show-off celebration, wouldn’t you say?” said Travis, in a moment of legitimate insight.

“I suppose that’s true. Looks like you need another tissue, kid,” Polly said.

#

The celebration turned out to be a modest affair; coral roses set in bud vases, a superfluous number of votive and taper candles. Polly and Travis’s father made half of their guests well up with tears as he gave a speech, thanking their loved ones for their support over the years, and thanking his wife for loving him.

“…and finally, to my Dorothy, for putting up with all of my shenanigans, and my socks all over the floor. For being my alarm clock when I inevitably sleep through mine, for being the mixologist to my chef, and for occasionally being my chauffer—all those scotch nights—am I right boys?! Getting back on track…for all of the beautiful vacations together, and all of the wonderfully relaxing sick days that we’ve enjoyed in one another arms. Sometimes I think those days have been the best of all. Sleeping in, cuddling each other’s feverish bodies. I feel truly blessed that we have been able to be ill together so many times. I never feel closer to you than I do at those times. The way we care for one another, I think it’s beautiful honey, I really do. You are beautiful, and wonderful, and I am so over the moon to shout it at the top of my lungs; we made it! We did it! Twenty-five years together, and happy as ever! We really did it! And one big thank you to all of you in the crowd tonight. We love all of you guys, we truly do. As a final note, the bar is open!”

The finale of his speech was met with a wall of applause, as though the audience was trying to clap away his words, one by one. Smatterings of laughter punctuated the applause, a perfunctory acknowledgement of Dave’s attempts at humor. Polly leaned over to Travis, whispering, “see, wasn’t that adorable? I think they are sweet. I want that someday, don’t you?

“Ha! It was exactly what I expected. The gloating at the end? ‘We did it, we did it! We won, we are better at marriage than all of you chumps!’ Great, really classy.”

“God, Travis, you look at things in the worst way. Is it really so terrible to be self-congratulatory on occasion? Are people not allowed to say they are proud of something they’ve accomplished? Don’t you ever pat yourself on the back?”

“Do you know how many pills Dad is taking?” Polly felt her face go pale; her smile dropped.

“What are you talking about? He seems really great, he’s happy.”

“You’re so fucking naïve, Polly.”

“Yeah, well you are fucking drunk, Travis,” she said, pronouncing his name exaggeratedly, in mockery of his tone.

“So what? He gave himself cancer, you dumb fuck.”

Polly stared at him in shock, not processing what he was saying, how it could be true.

“Fuck you. Go have a cup of coffee and go home.” Polly’s face flushed back to red, her cheeks burning.  She guessed that was the end of their civil period. The two of them never went more than two months in each other’s good graces. The mere fifteen-month difference in their ages meant they were always at each other’s throats. As children, always in competition for attention from their parents, always fighting over friends, always arguing over the differences in their privileges. As adults, it hadn’t been any better. Differences in salary, competitions for the most attractive partners. His cynicism to her optimism.

#

She visited her parents a couple of weeks later, when they got home from their self-dubbed “honey-versi-moon.” Her mom’s skin had taken on a tan hue, camel, nearly matching the leather couch she was sitting on. She radiated health, looking better than she had when she was young, when her face was shredded to exhaustion by the burden of raising two small, feisty children. Her father, conversely, was weathered to the extreme. His eyes looked as though they had deliberately retreated further into his skull to avoid the dangers of the world. There was far too much blue tinting his skin to be healthy. When Polly went to hug him, she strangled the gasp in her throat. She’d seen him so recently, how had he deteriorated so quickly?

“So, how was Tahiti? All beach huts and glass-bottomed boats, I presume?” Polly dialed up the cheeriness in her voice, choosing to ignore whatever was wrong with her father. She hadn’t forgotten what Travis said.

“Oh Polly, it was a dream. Does the sun have powers to reverse aging? I would wake up every day, take a dip in big blue, take a little sun siesta, eat exotic fruits—pineapple, passionfruit, and oh, what were they called, Davey? Oh yes, rambutan! Have you ever heard of them, Polly?” Dorothy laughed at herself, smiling and smiling, dancing as she spoke like a woman from an old film.

“Mom, you seriously look amazing. I think those fruits really worked for you. Something did over there, that’s for sure.” Polly turned the volume up on the TV to drown out the sound of her father retching.

#

Polly was supposed to visit her father in the hospital in the evening. That wasn’t a remarkable fact—rather, it had become the new normal. Wake up, brush teeth, work, visit Dad, order takeout, brush teeth, sleep. Her morning began as her mornings always did, with the alarm blaring, and Polly’s first thought being to change the sound that the fucking alarm made. The thought always left her mind as quickly as it entered, and she never remembered to change it. Plodding through her morning routine, her autopilot was interrupted when she walked into her kitchen with a splash. Half an inch of water covered the linoleum, the dishwater the obvious culprit. After the cleanup and calling the super and changing her socks, Polly’s mood was in the pits, and she was an hour late for work.

Rushing down the street to the office, her eyes landed on the Harmacy. The exterior of the Harmacy was brightly colored, the signage minimal and attractive. The modern design was well thought out, with the angles of the awning original and intriguing, the glass door a hexagon, strangely. Polly wondered how much that custom job would have cost. She was already late and a voice in her head said fuck it and she pulled the door open and stepped inside.

As always, it was bustling, strangers necessarily brushing shoulders in the crowded aisles. She did a lap first, curious. There were shelves in one corner with sliding plexiglass doors, secured with a tiny padlock. The sign on top said “Semi-Permanents,” with small, almost unreadable text below “Warning: overuse and abuse can lead to enduring conditions.” Those protected shelves were full of small vials black with droppers, brightly colored packaging abandoned for the particularly wicked illnesses. They looked familiar.

Polly thought about her evening plans with dread. Her father would be lying in bed, drifting in and out of consciousness, while her mother sat bedside, holding his hand and alternating between solemnly gazing at his withering body and small talking with whoever was in the room as if they were all healthy and hanging out at home. Nurses would enter and randomly prod the semi-conscious man, and Polly would divert her eyes, which only made her awareness of the smell more pronounced. It all felt like such a terrible cliché.  She knew he was dying, that he was nearly dead already, barely able to register the guests that came and went.

Polly left the Harmacy and headed back the way she came.

#

On the day of the funeral, Travis’s eye sockets were rimmed purple, the whites of the eyes themselves streaked with red as the myriad wisps of vein made themselves known. Polly, Travis, and Dorothy sat in the front pew of the church, Travis with a bucket tucked under his spot, just in case.

“I just couldn’t deal with this day with a clear head,” Travis had explained to Polly that morning, looking apologetic. She’d raged at him, pounding his arm in anger at what he’d done to himself. By the time she met his apology with one of her own for lashing out, his bruises were starting to bloom, like a spot on a canvas that a watercolor brush dipped in blue and purple has barely grazed.

In the church, Dorothy was sporadically silent and murmuring versions of “he just wanted a month off…it was supposed to be temporary.” She mostly sat with her head in her hands, until she had to perform the eulogy. Then, she stood, straightened her skirt, patted her hair, and made her way to the podium with shoulders back; suddenly looking more like a woman on a mission than a woman in grief.

“Dave loved life. He loved living every day with joy and finding excitement in everything. He would call me into the yard while mowing the lawn to show me the tiniest of frogs hiding in the grass. That’s a true story, if you’ll believe it. Davey was a soft man, in his heart. But life is hard. Life was exciting when we were young, when the kids were young. Oh, it was exhausting, but Dave loved chasing those kids around. Polly and Travis, your dad loved you so much. We’re so proud of them, and how they’ve gone on to build their own lives. But when they left and moved out, something changed. There was no hustle. No frantic activity. It was almost as if life stopped, in an unbearable way. You have all felt it, the monotony. The unchanging string of days that line up one by one and you can’t remember the last time anything notable happened. Dave was the best man I ever knew, but he was vulnerable to the promise of excitement. Excitement of any kind, anything that made one day look differently than the day before. I know I’m not supposed to say things like this on the day we put him to rest, but my Davey did this to himself. I hope that today you will all honor his memory and think about the fondest times you shared with him, but I also hope you’ll all think about stopping this. We all are doing it, and we need to stop.”

Polly looked down, mourning for her father, mourning for herself. She sat on her hands to hide the tremors that she couldn’t control, letting the tears fall down her face.

 

 

BIO

Stephanie Mataya is a graduate of Western Washington University, and spent her days there writing stories and reading books. She was shaped by her West Coast upbringing, and has taken great joy and inspiration from living in New York, Paris, and currently, Canada. Previous work of hers has appeared in Your Impossible Voice and Scarlet Leaf Review.

 

 

 

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Mr. Whiskey, the Greatest of All

by Evelyn Somers

 

“For he keeps the Lord’s watch in the night against the adversary.
For he counteracts the powers of darkness by his electrical skin and glaring eyes.
For he counteracts the Devil, who is death, by brisking about the life.”

—Christopher Smart
from Jubilate Agno

 

 

Isaac Martin stopped on his way to his dad’s house to pick up the mail. It was his first trip back home to Covington in two months. Winter had slithered away after one last, limp snow, and the grass-tufted tarp of spring was being drawn greenly over the yards in one fluid, fast motion. School would end in three weeks. He had been living in a church homeless shelter in University City, singing in their praise band in exchange for his lodging, and trying to complete his classes remotely, ever since he’d gotten arrested and thrown in jail (first) and kicked off campus (later) for an absurd dorm dispute with a fellow music major, a psycho Maltese percussionist named Den. In the end, the prosecutor said the arrest was ridiculous, and there had been no charges, but Big State U had not welcomed Isaac back. They’d sealed his future with a bogus investigation, and now he was trying to figure out what to do. He felt terrible for losing all his scholarships and ruining his future; though he still didn’t know what he’d done wrong. His sister, Jasmyn, said it was all about money and influence; but it was not just that, and they each knew it. They’d known it since he was nine and Jasmyn was fifteen. Something was right on them, tearing up their family. It wasn’t just him it was after. It was Jasmyn, and his dad. And most tragically, their mother, Adrianna. It had started when she was killed nine years ago. When his dad took to building his barricade and hoarding cats. Sometimes it seemed like only the band teacher, Mr. Wright, was on their side. But whenever Isaac thought this, he remembered St. Tamzin and imagined she was their side, too. Tamzin: a celestial agent of sometimes quixotic benevolence who seemed to reside mainly in and around Covington. Everyone knew about her, and some people called her “St. Tamzin,” though she wasn’t a real saint. No one was quite sure what she was. In fact, most people weren’t sure she existed, but they were afraid to disavow belief and lose her goodwill. Her arch-enemy, from the dawn of time—or, at least, from way, way back—was a she-devil evil bitch-spirit named Mary Black. Mary Black was the “something” that had been tearing up the Martins for years.

The mailbox was an antique cast-iron Victorian postbox that Randall, Isaac’s father, a scrapper by trade, had liberated from a condemned old mansion. The ornate box had a decorative medallion that looked like two lions facing each other, stirring kettle of apple butter. It was mounted on a pressure-treated pine post set out at the end of the driveway. The letter carrier couldn’t get to the Martins’ door because of Randall’s scrap blockade: a barrier of metal bits and appliances that he had picked up and hauled here. Stuff he could have made money off of, if he’d sold it instead of building the blockade. But no one would want the scrap now, and no one tried to steal it, because the cats had coated it with their spray.

Isaac had to juggle his pack and his trombone to get the mail. There was nothing that looked important in the box: a postcard advertisement for high-speed Internet. Then he saw that there was a real postcard stuck to the ad. Isaac had to peel the two cards apart. He gasped when he looked at the second card, the real one. It was addressed to his mother: “Adrianna Martin, Blue House, Pink Elephant Lane, Covington.” No house number. Pink Elephant was an actual road. There was not a blue house there that Isaac could think of, however, and his mother had never to his knowledge lived on Pink Elephant, though she had died there. Who the hell would play such a creepy joke?

But the stranger and creepier thing about the postcard was that his mother’s name and the first address had been crossed out, and above them was written, “No such person anymore.” Then underneath, the new direction, which was to “Mr. Whiskers c/o Randall Martin.” It was the Martins’ street address. There could be no mistake. Yet something about the writing: it was totally readable, but Isaac had not seen writing quite like it anywhere. Just looking at it made his skin prickle. Mr. Whiskers c/o Randall Martin

Mr. Whiskers was his father’s favorite cat.

The picture on the postcard, from the Roman catacombs (cat a combs?), was creepy too: a mountain of skulls in a dank, rock-lined subterranean chamber. The handwritten message, in fine-point marker in the same unusual writing, was on the front, across the photo of the skulls, not on the back, where it should be. It read “To My Darling Mr. Whiskers: ‘What you are now, we once were. What WE are now, YOU will be.’” As if the skulls themselves were speaking. It was signed “Your friend, counselor, and eternal lover,” with eternal darkly underlined.

Isaac read this again with a sensation he’d become very familiar with lately: a sensation that hovered between anger and disbelief. A creepy, anonymous postcard dredging up his mother’s death and threatening the cat? It was the last straw. One of many, since his arrest in February. Jasmyn said that depression was when everything felt like the last straw and your anger never left, just traded places with sadness, back and forth. He had never been depressed before, but she was exactly right. For a girl with only a high school diploma, whose main claim to notice was her breasts, she could startle them all with her wisdom. She’d inherited some of that from their mother, who’d been poor but country smart. The rest had come when she’d gone up on a pillar on the Big State U campus for weeks and become a pillar saint, denying her earthly self so Isaac could receive justice (it hadn’t worked).

He pushed his backpack up on his shoulder and headed for the scrap blockade. Randall had erected the scrap blockade just over onto the county side of their property so the city could not fine them. The blockade guarded the house, such as it was, and the Martins’ possessions, which amounted to nothing. And the cats, numbering a steady fifty. Their census should have waxed and waned: coyotes lurked in the brush, waiting to pick off the old ones. Hawks and owls wheeled above, peering down with accute raptor vision and waiting with infinite patience for the plump kitten that strayed too far from the clowder. Yet no cat was taken. They were not immortal entirely—the old ones died eventually of natural causes, and there were the usual fatal accidents and diseases—but some invisible entity guarded them from predators, at least.

You could cross the scrap line anywhere, but in and around the array of dead dishwashers and piles of old aluminum downspouts and barn roofing were lengths of two-by pried off old houses and barns, nails still poking through, ready to stab a foot. Isaac didn’t chance it. The “gate,” which sat between a heap of guttering to the rear and an overturned washer body in front, was a 1977 blue soft-top Chevy Nova on blocks. He opened the passenger door and got in. There was a terrible, gagging stench. It wasn’t cat pee—it was much worse. He scooted quickly across the seat to the driver’s side to get away from the stench and got out into the piss-smelling yard. That smell, the pee, he could tolerate.

Randall had left several days’ mail on the car’s dash, so Isaac grabbed it as he scooted and added it to the postcards. Before closing the door quickly, to seal in the unbearable odor, he leaned in and gave the horn three quick toots and was immediately swarmed by cats. Tabbies and piebalds and calicos and tortiseshells: they acted starved, though they just wanted attention. Soon more came: a mewling, leg-rubbing sea. When they saw where he was going, they set up a raucous meowing and followed him as he crossed the dirt yard. On the porch, in an old Shop-Vac drum—just the drum, no motor or or hose—a half-grown gray kitten peered over the rim to watch the tide of cats moving toward the porch. Next to the vacuum drum was a white wicker rocker with four cats piled asleep in the seat. They woke and cried drowsily at Isaac. The cats pooled and parted around him at the steps, trained to stay outside. He went up the steps, pushed gently on the front door, and found it unlatched.

Inside, Randall was standing in the middle of the living room eating Wheat Chex. Isaac was accustomed now to community meals at the shelter. He’d forgotten Randall’s solitary art of eating, another habit that had developed after Adrianna died: Gaze into space with a hollow stare. Hum and gulp and commune with the soul of . . . what? He was somewhere else; that was all Isaac knew. Like he was hearing a voice no one could hear but him. Not that they didn’t all sometimes hear voices. It seemed to be congenital among the Martins. Perhaps that was why Tamzin always hovered so near: they needed protection from the bad ones.

The cereal bowl was cracked and chipped. Some milk leaked from the corner of Randall’s mouth, a thick, ivory droplet. Evaporated milk from the food pantry. Randall poured it on the cereal without reconstituting it. Isaac had grown up with this. He used to think it was cream. Randall put it on noodles, too.

“You’re dribbling, Dad,” said Isaac. “And that bowl needs to be thrown away.”

“It’s fine. My dribbling—it’s fine, too. No worse than your trombone spit,” said Randall. He didn’t smile or greet Isaac, even though they hadn’t seen each other in months. He just hummed and finished the Wheat Chex. Then he set the cracked bowl on the coffee table, which was half a door from an old schoolhouse on iron hairpin legs. The knob was still on the door, and Randall used it as a cap holder.

“Why the bone?” he said, nodding at the trombone case.

“I have to practice. And I didn’t want to leave it.”

“Didn’t they kick you out of that place?”

“Yes. No. Not until May. I get to finish the semester. Jasmyn says they won’t risk a lawsuit by expelling me. She says they’ve perfected the art of the legally unimpeachable screw. The lawyer says so, too. Where’s Mr. Whiskers? There’s a postcard for him.”

“Don’t shit me.”

“And something from the vet clinic.”

“It’s his path-ology,” said Randall. “Why do you think I left it in the Nova? I’d rather not know he has cancer.”

Just then, Mr. Whiskers padded into the room, tail thrashing. They’d had him since his kittenhood, when Randall had found him, malnourished and near death, curled up hiding in the engine of an old wreck he was hauling. In the months before she died, Adrianna had fed him formula and brought him back. Later he’d lived mostly outdoors, until Randall had singled him out as a companion when Adrianna died. It was Mr. Whiskers who’d started the outdoor cats pissing on the scrap blockade, and the other cats kept doing it after he moved inside.

He was a truly handsome animal: a gray tuxedo cat, with four white paws, a white “shirtfront,” and a dashing white half-mustache above his mouth. The rest was a deep charcoal. He groomed religiously, and his short, sleek fur was thick and shining. His eyes were full-on green, and he had unusually long white whiskers (the occasion for his name) and eyebrows. His face and nose were long and noble. He wore a perpetual frown and would not tolerate fools or other cats; thus he was the only cat allowed inside. He walked with a sassy strut, and though he had been neutered, his ballsack remained prominent. Nevertheless, he had the dignity of a creature who has traded copulating in the bushes for higher pursuits. His tail and eyes were insanely expressive. The former twitched and switched like a whip; you always knew Mr. Whiskers was feeling deeply when the tail went into action. The eyes were almost human. When he was annoyed, they grew dark and unforgiving. When he was hungry or wanted attention, he stood on his hind legs, paws on your knee supporting him at full stretch, and gazed up into your face, commanding and imploring you. He was like a person in a cat body. In Randall’s estimation, he was the smartest cat ever made.

He was also a biter. Right now, seeing Isaac, he gave a high, wicked meow, flew at Isaac, and bit his ankle.

“Ow!” yelled Isaac and swatted him away.

Isaac had never taken to Mr. Whiskers. For a cat, he was full of dislikes and far too quick to bite, but he had to admit that Mr. Whiskers was very, very smart and loaded with personality. For a cat.

“He looks like he’s gotten thinner, Dad.”

“I been feeding him wet food and lard. He loves his lard. But I knew something was wrong, so Jasmyn took him last week.”

“Do you want me to open this?” said Isaac, pulling out the letter from the clinic.

“In a minute. What’s that postcard?”

Isaac showed him. Randall read it without his cheaters. His eyes were good for a man in his late fifties. For just a second he looked destroyed, and his face crumpled. Isaac wondered if he would cry. He’d never seen Randall cry. “I don’t understand why everything got turned so bad and why—”

“What?” said Isaac.

“Never mind,” said Randall. He took the envelope from Isaac and opened it and skimmed the pathology report. He looked down at Mr. Whiskers, who was lying flat on his side on the rug. “He’s been lying like that lately. I think he has a tumor in his belly.”

He showed the report to Isaac. Isaac read the dread word: Lymphoma. They had the cat’s name misspelled, and all through the report the pathologist referred to “Mr. Whiskey.” Mr. Whiskey presented with lethargy, shifting lameness, and reduced appetite. On physical exam Mr. Whiskey had enlarged peripheral lymph nodes (under the jaw, and by the hamstrings). CBC revealed increased WBC count (36,000 ref. range 5,500-19,500), mature neutrophilia and moderate lymphocytosis. Abdominal ultrasound of Mr. Whiskey shows many enlarged mesenteric lymph nodes throughout abdomen…

 

Jasmyn had had $4200 saved from her job at the nursing home for a Ford Escape, but she’d used most of it to pay for Isaac’s lawyer, and there were several weeks of lost wages from going up on the pillar to be a saint. And now Mr. Whiskers needed vet care, and she’d end up paying for it. But she didn’t say anything. She took Isaac back to the shelter the following Monday so he could focus on his homework and meet his teachers for lessons and his accompanist to rehearse. Before she dropped him off, they went together to the vet with Mr. Whiskers. Randall would not come. The vet had him down as “Mr. Whiskey” in the chart. “We have pretty good results with steroids. Mr. Whiskey would probably have another six months if we do that. With chemo, you’ll have maybe a year and a half,” said the vet. Steroids were $20 for three months. Chemo would cost more than the lawyer, and the cat would have to come back for treatments every week. It was a no-brainer, but Isaac felt sad. The sadness had traded places with anger. If Randall were there, he might have figured a way to barter for the chemo, but Jasmyn, who possessed many skills, lacked that touch.

“We’ll try the steroids,” said Jasmyn, and they were given a pill bottle. The tech had referenced the pathology report while writing the script; or maybe the vet clinic had him in the system wrong, and the bottle label, like the report, said “Mr. Whiskey.”

When Jasmyn pulled into the church lot to drop Isaac off, he asked if she wanted to come in and see his bunk.

“I don’t think so, Icey. I’m so mad about this every day of my life. You’re so smart and good; you’re just different, and no one gets it. I wish Mom were here.

“Does she ever talk to you?” said Isaac. He’d wondered more than once if Jasmyn had seen her when she went up on the pillar and denied herself.

“Does she talk to you?” Jasmyn asked quickly.

“You’re the one who stood on a pillar for weeks and hardly ate anything. You didn’t hear any voices?”

They’d both forgotten about Mr. Whiskers, in his Pet Taxi in the backseat, but now he mewed demandingly.

“Did you?”

Jasmyn said, “I heard things. It’s not what you think up there. I can’t tell you about it.

“Why not?”

“I just can’t. It was pretty rough.”

 

He went back home the next weekend to check on his dad. Mr. Whiskers looked thinner, but that didn’t make him any happier to see Isaac or the trombone. He streaked away when Isaac came in the front door.

But then, a few minutes later, he was hanging outside the living room doorway, waiting to ambush whoever stepped through. Eventually he gave up the ambush and simply strutted in, emitted his spine-tingling apha cat yodel, and bit Isaac’s shoe.

Randall didn’t say much, but he seemed hopeful. The veterinary supply company in the next county that sold him all the vaccine for the cats (in a hauling-for-meds barter, of which Isaac only knew the vague outlines) had given him a case of high-calorie gel. It came in tubes and smelled and looked like sticky fish toothpaste. Mr. Whiskers tried to run away from it, but once you forced him to confront a spoonful of the translucent, tobacco-colored gel, he was mesmerized and compelled by some irresistible quality of the gel to lick, lick, until he cleaned the spoon. Then he worked the stuff around in his mouth like a baby eating a ball of caramel.

“They say it’s a miracle paste,” said Randall. “If he gets fat again, I’ll believe them. It makes him hungrier, anyway. I doubled his lard, and he hasn’t puked it up.”

While Isaac was home, he borrowed Jasmyn’s car and drove out to the high school so Mr. Wright could listen to the pieces he was preparing for juries next week. Mr. Wright looked like he always did. He was balder, and he was growing a spotty beard. He was closer to forty than thirty now, and his wife, Ms. Figueroa, the former assistant band teacher, had just had a baby. First he hugged Isaac. Then he showed him a secondhand tuba in good condition that the band had bought recently. Isaac tried out the tuba. Then Mr. Wright showed him a picture of the baby—a red-haired girl named Veronica. He sang part of the Elvis Costello song about shouting and stealing clothes and the Empress of India. He acted like he always did, which made Isaac want to cry.

“All right, let’s hear you play,” he said, and Isaac got out his trombone and played the two pieces he was preparing, and a third, something he’d been messing around with.

“Wait. What is that? Did you write that?” said Mr. Wright.

“Yes. It’s only a little part. I think it’s going to be a symphony.”

“Man,” said Mr. Wright. “Look at you. Someone knocks you down, and you just get up and compose yourself.”

Isaac looked at him. “Did you really just say that?”

They both started laughing, and they were still laughing when one of the senior clarinets came in with a sack of belated Easter candy and offered them Peeps. Isaac grabbed one and ate it. He felt joy. This was joy. It was like things had always been here, in the band room, where he could imagine that something awful wasn’t eating their family. Isaac whooped and took another Peep and devoured it headfirst, little dot eyes and all, and Mr. Wright, smiling still, delighted to have him back, said, “What did she used to say? Roach-turd eyes?”

Isaac froze in mid chew.

Mr. Wright backpedaled. “I know someone who used to call them that. One of my cousins.”

He was lying. He’d meant Isaac’s mother, and there was no reason he would know what Adrianna used to say about Peeps unless they had spent time together privately, laughed together like he and Mr. Wright had just been doing. His mother was thirty-three when she died, and Jasmyn was fifteen. His dad was a fifty-year-old scrapper who even then was poor and not entirely on the planet. Mr. Wright was twenty-six and single. Isaac realized he had known about his mother and Mr. Wright without knowing. He remembered that Mr. Wright had been nice to him long before he was Isaac’s teacher. He had come to her funeral, and Isaac hadn’t wondered why. He was nine then. He didn’t think about why adults did anything: Mr. Wright had been Jasmyn’s band teacher at the time; it seemed to be reason enough.

Back at the church homeless shelter, he started a list of questions in one of his small notebooks that he used to organize his life and make sense of things. He kept the list with him when he was doing homework and wrote things down as they came to him:

Who sent the postcard to Mr. Whiskers?

Why did Den the psycho Maltese percussionist lie about me?

Was there ever a blue house on Pink Elephant?

Did my mother love Mr. Wright?

 

He finished his music history paper on the Ukrainian dumy, a kind of oral folk epic that in centuries past was performed by men who were disabled, or who apprenticed out as teenagers from poor families who couldn’t afford to help them. Isaac could relate. He went home again the next weekend. Five days until juries. His notebook was in his trombone case. Home felt different now that he knew he was probably never coming back to stay.

When he went through the Chevy gate and tooted the horn, the pee smell flooded his nostrils and cats swarmed him as they always did. It was feeding time, , and they flew away at a gallop when Randall came out on the porch with the food bucket. He walked around the side of the house to the retaining wall and poured a continuous string of cat chow along the top of the wall. The cats ran to it and lined up and ate; tails high, tails low. Fifty of them. So many that you could hear them crunching and purring from yards away.

His father saw him but didn’t wave. Isaac followed him inside and set his ’bone in the hallway. Mr. Whiskers sashayed toward him with a hint of unsteadiness. He was, in just a week, starting to look more like a Flat Stanley cat. Randall had gone in the kitchen, and he came back with a plate of tuna, biscuit crumbles, and lard. He sat and petted Mr. Whiskers in the hall while the cat ate. His callused scrapper hands were large and clumsy, stroking the cat’s side. Every one of the cat’s ribs showed, where his hands pressed the fur. Randall was talking softly. At first Isaac couldn’t catch what he was saying, it was so soft. But then he got used to the cadence, and his ears picked it up “You are the greatest of all. The greatest cat. Mr. Whiskers, you are the greatest of all. There will never be another cat as great as you.”

How could the father he knew be talking to a cat this way, crooning in its ear? The big hands ran over the thin ribs; and when Mr. Whiskers turned away, leaving the food only half finished, Randall picked him up as if he were made of fine blown glass. Mr. Whiskers put his face up to Randall’s and nuzzled him again and again. Randall crooned and Mr. Whiskers nuzzled. Neither of them acknowledged Isaac’s presence. It was love.

Love.

Quietly Isaac unlatched the case and slipped out the notebook and added My dad loves Mr. Whiskey, the Greatest of All, but he’s going to die to his notes.

 

Then his juries were over. They went as well as they could, given that he was depressed and technically homeless. He got all A’s. He didn’t think any of them were out of pity. His affiliation with Big State U was ended forever, and the future was muddy and clod-filled as a newly plowed field after a soaking rain. He could go home to Covington, help Randall pick up scrap. He could work at the bottle factory. He could finish his symphony, but what then? Who would perform it? He had no mentor to connect him with composing connections, no program to support him. Maybe he could start giving music lessons; but he wasn’t sure who would take them. He was not good with kids and had trouble talking to people; he made them uncomfortable. He was not antisocial; he just always felt how much he was out of place. He was not Mr. Wright, who everyone loved.

He decided to stay at the church homeless shelter for a while. There was no time limit for how long he could stay, so long as he helped with the music, and it was depressing to go home and see Mr. Whiskers wasting away. Each time, he was thinner, but Randall was in denial, munching cereal or noodles with Pet milk, humming his communion with the unseen whatever, nuzzling the paper-thin cat and saying that he was looking better, when the cat’s eye had begun to weep and he’d taken to pissing wherever he wanted, all over the house. Mr. Whiskers’s white shirtfront was getting dingy, and he slept twenty-three hours a day and then staggered up and picked at the tuna and lard; he wooled the fishy gel around in his mouth and smacked his gums sadly. His eyes were no less human, though, and you could see that he wanted to be himself and was trying to; his tumor-ridden body just wasn’t cooperating with his desire.

One night after Jasmyn took Isaac back to the shelter and he was lying in his bed, he started thinking about Adrianna and Mr. Wright and his father and the affair that must have happened when he was in second or third grade. He sat up and grabbed his notebook and wrote: All the adults I know have hidden pasts and secret selves, even the ones who are dead. Then he realized that he was an adult, too. My secret self is right here, he wrote. Meaning the notebook, but it was in his symphony, too.

Later that week, in Wednesday night worship at the church, they were singing a song that Isaac did not like because the lyrics were so overblown yet dirgelike. Isaac suddenly couldn’t stand to sing anymore. He kept seeing the cat’s human eyes, looking at him, pleading, in silent cat language, “I don’t want to feel like this. I want to strut around and bite you and be king of the cats, the Greatest of All. Please make this stop happening to me.”

He stopped singing. It took a while for people to notice. They kept on, the pastor playing lead guitar, the worshipers, some of them genuine homeless, all singing, and the other vocalists doing the harmonies, so into it that Isaac’s ceasing went unobserved. And now Isaac could hear another voice, inaudible to everyone but him. It gave him a terrible chill and made him think about the creepy postcard addressed to Mr. Whiskers. And about what Jasmyn had said: that she’d heard things on the pillar that she couldn’t talk about.

 

All things bright and beautiful,
All creatures great and small,
I will harm them, yes I will:
I’ll make them suffer, all.

Each little flow’r that opens,
Each little bird that sings,
I’ll ‘viscerate their colors,
and rip their tiny wings.

 

Who are you? Isaac thought; and in answer he heard, like an intruder in his mind, Ask your friend Mr. Whiskey. Ask your dead mommy. Ask your sister with the big tits. She thinks she figured me out up on that pillar and has me defeated, but she’ll be sorry. Ask Mr. Wright. Ask his sweet little baby Veronica. Ta-ta, Isaac! We’ll meet again, don’t worry.

The next morning he told everyone at the homeless shelter that he had to go home, his father needed him. He called Jasmyn, and she came and picked him up in a 2014 Escape.

“How did you get this?” he asked.

“How else? Dad,” she said. “He made some kind of deal for the down payment, and I can manage the rest.”

“What did he have left to trade?”

“Cats?” said Jasmyn.

They both laughed. But then Isaac had to tell her why he was coming home, and what he’d heard, the shrill singing that had chilled his blood. To her credit, Jasmyn believed him. “It’s Mary Black,” she said.

“I’ve got to warn Mr. Wright to watch his baby.”

But she just changed the subject. This frightened him because she must not understand how serious it was. She turned up the radio and would not say anything until they hit Covington. She took the long way around from the highway, and down Pink Elephant—and there was a blue house. It had been there all along; it was back from the road, amid a snarl of trees.

“Did you ever notice that house?” he said, pointing it out to Jasmyn.

“That’s where Mom died,” she said, and Isaac was silent after that.

They stopped at the back gate of the scrap line—it went all around their property on the county side. Isaac got out and opened it, and Jasmyn drove in, and he pushed it shut and wired it—it was a steel panel of barn roofing fastened on either side with a web of wire. It smelled redolently—the cats had even peed here.

Once the gate was secured and Isaac got back in, she turned to him. “Mary Black can’t get through the scrap line. She can’t hear us now, either. I don’t know why. I don’t think Dad even knows that’s why he built it. Maybe Saint Tamzin was talking to him, the way Mary Black was singing to you. Anyway, don’t tell Mr. Wright the thing about his baby, Icey. I’ve got this. But you can’t tell him.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Just don’t. Don’t. Trust me. His baby is okay. You asked me what happened on top of the pillar. Stuff happened. But I can’t tell you. Just trust me. I’ve got this.”

“What are you talking about?” he repeated. “What do you have?”

“Icey, I’ve just got this. Don’t ask me anything else. I can’t help Mr. Whiskers because Mary Black was after Dad, and she knew it would devastate him if the cat got sick and died. And maybe cats don’t count because they don’t have souls or something. But you and I have some protection, as long as we come back here every once in a while. There’s something here, inside the blockade that stops her. As long as we touch the ground here every so often, it seems like we take enough of it with us to keep her away.”

“Mr. Whiskey doesn’t have a soul?”

“I don’t know. He’s a cat.” Jasmyn obviously wasn’t interested in the question; she seemed more concerned about making sure Isaac wouldn’t talk to Mr. Wright. So he said he understood, which he did, up to a point.

But he avoided promising, and she didn’t notice.

 

Jasmyn was living in a duplex with two roommates and trying to save money, but going up on the pillar had changed her, and sometimes she showed up at Randall’s house for no reason and stayed for as much as a week. Isaac was staying there for the short term, singing for funerals at a hundred dollars a pop and practicing trombone and working on the symphony as much as he could. Mr. Wright had helped him start looking into other schools and said he shouldn’t worry about money yet; just see how things went. He decided to sit out a year and take some classes at the community college. He was delivering for Pizza Casa, using Jasmyn’s old car.

They’d all underestimated how long and valiantly a cat with lymphoma could live, how much of him could waste away and he would still be Mr. Whiskers. Randall built plywood steps to everything: even to the sink so the cat could nose around and lick the dishes if he felt like it (he didn’t). Six months passed, and he was still kicking. Then eight, then ten. Every morning when Isaac got up and came out of his room, Mr. Whiskers carefully climbed down the plywood steps from Randall’s bed and scratched at the bedroom door, and Isaac let him into the hall and he ran downstairs, white hocks flashing. How could he even run? There was nothing left. Then Isaac took him in the kitchen and got an energy drink for himself and plied Mr. Whiskers with bits of bacon, salami, butter, mayonnaise: a fatty smorgasbord. The cat would dig in for a few bites, then lose interest and wobble away. If you’d had x-ray vision, you would know that Mr. Whiskers’s bony pelvic girdle was shaped like a fearsome horned mask with two wide, rounded eyes set low, and a vast forehead below the horns. In the center of this massive forehead of bone were two perforations: a pair of angels or winged demons facing each other, bowed in prayer or secret powow. From behind, when Mr. Whiskers walked disdainfully away from his food, these same large bones of his hips jutted side to side in a way that made him look like a stately ship. He wore his imminent death with dignity; but his eyes still held that plea.

The morning came when Isaac got up and let Mr. Whiskers out and he ran with a staggering trot downstairs and would not touch his food at all. “Did you give him his pill last night?” Isaac asked, after Randall came in from feeding the cats and checking the scrap blockade.

Randall nodded distractedly. Someone had left a message on his cell about a refrigerator, and he was trying to figure out who it was.

“He wouldn’t eat at all, Dad,” said Isaac.

Randall shook his head and wouldn’t talk about it. Soon he went off to get the fridge. Isaac went out on the porch and warmed up his voice. All the cats disliked hearing him sing, and they acted out by sauntering over to the blockade and spraying. Then he heard the clang of the barn sheeting being moved around, and soon Jasmyn, who had worked night shift, drove up. He told her about the cat, and they went in and found him lying on the piano bench, sleeping in a way that was new in the last few days: a sleep of resignation and escape, in which he seemed to be pulling away from everything, but especially the pain of his tumors, which must have turned a corner in intensity.

“Poor Mr. Whiskers,” said Jasmyn. “We don’t let them go through this at the nursing home; we just pump morphine into them,” she told Isaac.

She stayed around while Isaac went and did the lunch shift at the Pizza Casa. When he came back, Randall was home. He was sitting in the front room with Jasmyn.

“We set a date,” Jasmyn told Isaac. “It’s next Wednesday.”

That was four days away. Isaac didn’t ask how Jasmyn had made this happen. “Are you going with him?” he asked his father.

“I can’t. Your sister will take him. She says he’s suffering and that we can’t watch him starve to death.” Randall picked up the cat and carried him out.

“Which do you think she wants more? For him to suffer? Or to die?” Isaac asked his sister. They both knew he meant Mary Black.

“I hope I’m right,” she said. “Because if I’m not, and it’s death . . .”

“Will he go to heaven?”

“I don’t know.”

“Mom won’t recognize him. The last time she saw him, he was a kitten,” said Isaac.

“Icey, it’s not actually like that. But it is kind of. I didn’t understand everything I saw on the pillar.”

She added, “I didn’t see Mom.”

 

The last day of Mr. Whiskers’ life, he woke and his bones ached, and the tumors in his throat and stomach gave him excruciating pain if he swallowed and made it impossible to eat without everything burning inside him.

But later the pain lessened. He nuzzled Randall, and for the first time in a while, it didn’t hurt when he was picked up and carried. He had always loved being carried. It was still winter, technically, but the day had turned out to be springlike. The boy who sometimes made a racket with the horn went off and came home smelling like pizza, and it woke his appetite for a second, and he ate some ham, and a few bits of salmon. Then the girl came, who smelled like her mother who’d fed him when he was a baby, and he knew what was going to happen. Tamzin, who watched over all the cats and fought the raptors away, and the dogs and coyotes, had whispered the knowledge into him. “Mr. Whiskers, I made you and now I am unmaking you. Seed to cat, to corse to earth.” He was going to the mother. The mother of the girl, but also the Mother of all.

The boy and the girl and Randall, whom he loved with the greatest love of any cat for any man ever, took him outside. He didn’t know why, but he was the greatest of all, and he had been placed in the engine of a car, where Randall had found him. He didn’t remember how he got there. Just that he was hungry and knew he was dying, but the man picked him up and carried him home, and he didn’t die. He was the first of many, many cats, and after the mother died, and the man started building his wall of metal, Tamzin had told him to piss on it. So he’d pissed and pissed, and taught the other cats to piss there, too. The more cats there were, the more they pissed on it. Mr. Whiskers had taught them, and they passed the knowledge from generation to generation, up to twelve generations (cat generations are short).

Outside now, he trotted a bit, listing to one side. He ate a piece of grass and looked into one of the window wells by the side of the house. The day was strange and new. He was weak, but Tamzin helped him explore.

The scrap blockade was a thing of beauty. Only he knew the secret. She could not abide cat piss. Not even the most imperceptible whiff of it,  picked up on a shoe or a car tire, while crossing the barrier. They were safe here because the cats had sprayed the barrier, every last inch, and Mary Black would not cross a line of cat piss to hunt a man, though she had gotten to Mr. Whiskers long before, when he was still in the car engine, planting a little seed of death.

It was a long way, but he did his best to saunter to the nearest point.  He walked past the pine tree that the woman had planted. Past a mole hill. (Why were the other cats not taking care of these moles?) Past a beetle coming to life in the warmth. He felt the instinct to chase it, but he was too weak.

He was tired when he got to the blockade. But determined.

Then he turned and backed up to it and sprayed with everything that was in him, to remind the others they had a job to do.

All the cats on the property, wherever they were, looked up.

“I’m the greatest of all,” he meowed to them.

The Pet Taxi was on the porch, but he disdained to look at it. He was looking at Randall, the man he loved.  Will I know you when I see you again? he asked.

Randall was asking the same thing at the same time.

“What do you think? Of course you will!” called Tamzin (but she was just a spirit, so none of them heard), perceiving Mr. Whiskers’s meow and glancing down for a second from where she’d been swatting away a hawk with its eye on a thin gray cat that was walking, very slowly, back to the house.

 

 

 

BIO

Evelyn Somers is the longtime associate editor of the Missouri Review and teaches writing and literature. She also serves as a staff writer for Bloom. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Georgia Review, Crazyhorse, the Millions, Florida Review, Southwest Review, South Dakota Review, Shenandoah, the Collagist, and Potomac Review, among many others. Her work in progress is a novel-in-stories about music, magic, and two warring female divinities.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

0

Invitations

by Kobina Wright

 

 

October 19th was thirteen days away.  After verifying that Marssarah Rabbat, known as March, had no plans, Bali Favre, decided to gather a few friends for March’s birthday.  Bali had initially planned for it to take place at her house, but it was the day after her gray morning, though she no longer felt the energy sucking dread of it, Bali felt a gnaw at the ragged tail of her mind and asked March, if she minded a change of venue.  March was thrilled, until she remembered Bren’s Sunday night meltdown.  Maybe meltdown was too strong a word, but there was definitely a waddling cycloptic attitude.

“If you don’t mind, run it by Bren before you set this in stone.  She was offended we didn’t invite her to Roman Sports Bar and Grill on Sunday.”  March was on her cell phone in the breakroom at her coffee shop, Steaming Mug.

March glanced up at the clock on the wall in front of her and then out through the small window that allowed her to watch her two employees tend to a short line of customers.  It was the time where morning rush was slowing to a trickle as break-time approached.

“Seriously?  She has to be invited to everything you do?”  Bali was standing at her bathroom mirror applying eyeshadow, then eyeliner with one hand.

“So… I think she’s under the impression that all my friends are her friends too.”

“Really…”

“Oh yeah.  Sunday night when I got home she was all pissy.  Yesterday, she acted like she was so busy she didn’t have time to speak to me.  Not that I care…”  The line was growing in the coffee shop.  The young woman, at the cash register, glanced over and observed March on the phone through the tiny window.  The woman raised an eyebrow and smirked.

“Wow.  Okay.  I’ll call her.  Get her permission to have your friends over to your house for your birthday.”

“Thanks lady.  I’d do it myself, but the line here is almost out the door.”

Bali examined herself for a time in the mirror.  She felt the breath of the troll in her head about to criticize her, so instead of waiting for it to speak, took two steps back from the mirror; tugged at her blouse; patted her butt through her jeans; grabbed her phone and walked away.  She dialed March’s landline.  Bren picked up on the second ring.

“Bali!”

“Hello Bren.  Glad I caught you.”  Bali slid her ten painted masterpieces into a pair of four-inch black suede booties.

In an unlit closet, Bali stretched on tiptoes to the high shelf above her clothes rack for her Mark Cross, python tote.   She tossed the empty handbag onto the bed and retrieved her full butter soft, milk chocolate leather handbag from the chaise near her bedroom window.  She picked up a bath towel from the floor and spread it onto the bed.

“Well, I called because I’d like to host a little shin-dig over there for March’s birthday.  It’s nothing fancy and it’s not a surprise.  I just got the ‘ok’ from March a minute ago, and wanted to call to make sure you’re cool with it.”

There was pause.

“You’re asking my permission?”

“Yes.”

“It’s March’s house…”

Bali thought, yes, girl, I know…  I don’t think you should have any say in the matter either… but to Bren she said, “You live there too, Bren.  I just wanted us all to be on the same page.”

Bali dumped the contents of the milk chocolate leather bag onto the towel and sorted through the contents.  Only the essentials would be invited into the python tote, which was a third of the size.

“Am I invited?”

“Of course you’re invited.  Bring your boyfriend, Alvin.  It should be fun!”  Bali could sense Bren’s eyes rocketing happiness, a cascade of glittery light.

“Okay!  Yeah, we should totally have it here.  We should make it a big party.  She’s got a ton of friends…”

“No.”  Bali stopped the content transfer between the two purses.  “Nothing big.  This will be a small intimate gathering.  Nothing more.”

Another pause.

Bali’s firmness startled Bren.  “Sure.  That makes sense.  A small party will make it special.  Who needs all that work planning a big party anyway, right?”

Bali didn’t dislike Bren, but hovered in a magnetic field in which Bren both annoyed and concerned her.  Bali noticed the widening of Bren’s eyes when Bali was near.  She saw the plastered benevolent smile, lips twitching ready to laugh at Bali’s smallest witticism.  Bren was too old for that – but there it was, posted on every corner of interaction.

She softened her tone. “What are you doing today?  I think I might try to find March’s birthday gift.  You wanna come with?”

“Aw!  I wish I would’ve known about your plans yesterday.  I plan to meet Alvin for lunch.”

“He’s not working either?”

“No, his shift ended early this morning.  He’s done for the rest of the day.  I figure I’ll let him sleep a few hours before I bug ‘im, then we’ll have a late lunch.”

There was a weasel in the story Alvin was giving her. It hid a stolen truth in its quiet earthy hole.  It was Alvin’s random work schedule that sounded a silent alarm.  She had no hard evidence, or even nearly opaque circumstantial evidence.  It would’ve been pointless to bring up unfounded suspicions.  She couldn’t articulate her concerns so then wished Bren a beautiful day.

This morning Elias would open the gallery while she drove out to Riverside Art Museum to take a look around in the museum’s shop.  If she had time, she’d have preferred to go to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art instead.  Where else could you get a Sister of Arp Coat of Arms scarf and a David Hockney, Expanding: February 1990 print?   But time was short and buying from LACMA’s online store didn’t really fit the aesthetic of the occasion. Buying local was charming, even responsible, she decided.  It was her duty to support the efforts of local artists.  She was a gallery owner, after all, even if it were lowbrow, and sold no art by any locals.

She had no doubt that Elias would open the gallery late, though Bali asked that he do his damnedest to be on time.  It was an issue, one that she didn’t want to knot bricks to.  She tried her best to be concise and professional in her brief speech, pointing out the value of his punctuality.  Without any emotion, he gave her his word.  Done.  The truth was, even if he were a few minutes late, she had no real room to balk.  Elias was remarkably reliable.  His craftsmanship was professional.  He even seemed drama-proof.

When she told him of the incident of the noise outside Saturday; her investigation and the shadow that moved towards her; the police coming by, finding nothing; he raised his eyebrows and mumbled a couple of phrases of disbelief, but didn’t appear overly concerned.  Despite his zombiesque reaction to the episode, he would, nonetheless, feel the ripple from the strange currents.  Yesterday’s three phone hang-ups were surely proof of it.  She felt a tickle of guilt over it.  Calling and hanging up… such a childish thing to do.

Bali picked up her cell phone again. She was prepared to leave a message, but it was picked up on the first ring.

“Hola!”

“Hola! Perdon! Tengo el número equivocado.”

“Wait.  What?”

“Jane?”

“Yes…?”

“Don’t answer the phone in Spanish if you’re not prepared to speak it.”

“Bali!  O-M-G!  I would have never guessed in a million years you’d be calling!  Hold on a sec.”  Jane placed Bali on hold, then picked up again.  “I’m back.”

“Why aren’t you in school?”

“Oh.  There’s no school today.  It’s some kind of teachers’ training or meeting day.  Or whatever.”

Bali remembered her days in school when the announcement came that there was no school on a certain day, for no apparent reason.  She remembered how lucky she felt, like finding a $20 bill on the street.  She reminisced about the feeling of unexpected breaks with Jane, giggling through adolescent spirited conspiracies about what the teachers were really doing on such days.

Before Bali, ran too far down the rabbit hole, she remembered why she was compelled to call.  It was all the ripples.  It was the acrid smell in the air left behind by childish logic.  Remembering her last interaction with Jane, Bali reflected on a silly battle of wills.  An ironic game of chicken played by a teenage girl and a very grown man.  The puzzle pieces from recent events needed further examination to determine if her young friend fit on any side.

“You remember when I introduced you to that guy, Max, at the gallery?”

“The one with the beard?”

“Yes, the one with the beard.  He doesn’t have a beard anymore though.”

“Okay.”

“In the gallery, were you trying to out-stay him?”

“Out-stay?”

“Were you trying to stall and make him leave before you did?”

A smile flickered in Jane’s voice.  “Maybe.”

Bali walked into the kitchen.  She scanned the contents of the refrigerator, pulled a bag of coffee out, then began prepping the coffee maker.

“Okay.  Maybe.  What about yesterday.  Did you call the gallery yesterday?”

“No…”

“Just to be clear, you didn’t call the gallery, maybe by accident… and then hang up?”

“No!  I wouldn’t just hang up like that.  Even if it were an accident, I’d at least say I messed up.  ‘Sorry. My bad.’  Something.”

“Okay.  Just checking.”

“Somebody did that?”

“Indeed, they did, but it was probably nothing.  Stuff like that happens all the time.”

“But not all the time to you.”

Bali smiled.  “No.”  Bali riffled through her cabinets and then went back into the refrigerator and pulled out a small plastic carton of lemon, poppy seed muffins.  She placed them on the counter then popped the lid.

“Since there’s no school, what are you plans today?”

“I don’t have any plans… I figured I’d live atomically today.”

“Atomically?”

“Right.  So atomic living is like, a theory made up by this girl, Kiran Ghandi.  It goes like this: when you have a choice between doing something, like, spontaneous or like, something ordinary, you should always choose the spontaneous one, if the spontaneous thing makes you happy.”

“Ah.  I see.”

“I saw Kiran Ghandi explaining it in a video on the internet.  That’s how I want to live for now on.”

“Interesting.”

“You should do it too!”

“I’m afraid that theory doesn’t quite work as well when you have to maintain a business and have bills to pay.  I suppose, though, it could be applied in small bursts in certain situations.  I’ll consider it.”

“At least I got you thinking about it.”

“In that vein… I’m going to drive out to the Riverside Art Museum Gift Shop today.  You wanna come with?”

“Heck yeah!  See!  Atomic living…”

“Now we just have to get your grandpa’s permission.”

“I’ll call him back right now!”

 

Jane left the house wearing printed jeans and a white pullover sweater.   Her strawberry blond hair was swept up in a top knot, adorned with an artificial daisy clipped to its base.  Jane’s perfume permeated the car with the scent of raspberries, licorice and vanilla.  She held a white handkerchief edged with lace.  Her eyes were watery and most likely red rimmed under her blue eyeliner.

“Are you okay?”

“Yeah.  I’m fine.  Just tired.  And I kind of feel like a headache is about to come.”

“I’m sorry you’re not feeling so hot… but you look so cute.  And you smell nice!”

Jane beamed.  Jane had worked methodically on acting cool, not wanting her to ever know that she very badly wanted to impress Bali, who was always so impressive to her.  Jane practiced setting her eyes a certain way.  She studied her look, determined to master hanging her lids at the center of her iris to nail the impression of world worn seriousness. Bali, however, was aware of the effect she had on the 15-year-old, and the attention she gave the girl gave Jane a sense of accomplishment.

When Bali and Jane had been on the 215 north for nearly fifteen minutes, Bali’s cell phone rang.  She had been expecting it and had considered letting the call roll into voicemail, but there was an opportunity mushrooming.  She would never admit – not even to herself – the petty enjoyment this call was about to bring her.   It was Bren.

“Hello Bren.”

“I have good news!  I just became free!  I can come with you to shop for March if you like.”

“Sorry.  I’m already on my way.  I’m on the 215 and I have Jane with me.”

“Jane?  Who’s Jane.

“You don’t know her.  She’s a brilliant fashionista who practices Atomic Living.”  Bali glanced over at Jane who smiled back at her.

“Oh.  Okay.”  Bren was afraid she might sound stupid if she admitted she didn’t know what Atomic Living was.  She’d look it up later on the internet.  “Guess I missed my chance.  Maybe I can meet the two of you there.”

“Don’t worry about it Bren.  We’ll only be there a second.  You take care and enjoy the rest of your day.”

Bren sighed heavily.  “You too.”

The phone was not on speaker mode, but Jane heard the exchange clearly as the brown hills in the distance approached and passed, approached and passed.  She felt a tidal wave of disappointment building up, racing towards her in the passenger seat at the thought of someone else butting in on her first outing with Bali.  She exhaled when Bali shut her friend down, and felt the wave recede.  No one as sophisticated as Bali ever wanted to hang out with Jane like this.  Her truth was, she hadn’t even known of anyone else as put together as Bali.  This was Jane’s day off and she got to spend it (at least part of it) with the most bad-ass woman she knew.

“Who was that?”  Jane dabbed at her nose and studied Bali’s profile.

“That was…Bren.”

“A friend of yours.”

“Not exactly.  She’s more like a friend of a friend.  She thinks she’s my friend.  I let her.”

“Why would you let her think she’s something she’s not?”

“There’s no harm in it.  She’s not in a good spot right now.  She doesn’t have a steady job, her boyfriend doesn’t seem to want her around much and as far as I know she has few friends of her own.  She kind of attaches herself to my friend March and her friends.”

“Like a parasite.”  Jane was proud of her quick assessment.  She studied her nails to hide her pride.

Bali chuckled.  “I don’t want to admit it, but that’s actually a spot-on comparison.”

“She sounds like a loser.”

“You shouldn’t call her that.  She’s not a loser.  She’s just a woman who’s just lost her way, I think.  Something has chipped away at her self-esteem.  She has a good heart.  She’s just very needy.”

“So you think she’ll eventually become your real friend…”

On the 215 north, they were passing the grounded airplanes behind the chain link fence of the old Air Force Base.  “I don’t know about that… Bren is a nice person, but she wants something from me that I can’t give.”

“And what’s that?”

Bali’s brown eyes twinkled as she glanced at Jane.  “I don’t know.  I have no words for it.”

The twinkle extinguished into a matted blank stare when Bali noticed, on the side of the road, a great white egret standing on the shoulder, as still as if it were standing dead.  Jane had spotted it too and they drove a half mile in silent reverence until there was another.

“Bali!  Another one!”

The second great white egret stood much like the first but Bali saw it quickly turn its head in their direction.  It didn’t look into the car, but beyond it and in less than a second, the car shot beyond its gaze.  Its lean white body was almost blinding in the desert sunlight.

Bali and Jane saw six more just as the first two, standing still, facing traffic on the dusty shoulder of the 215.  Some looked down at some crawling thing unseen by human eyes.  One looked up at the sky calculating.  Others were just seen, the details of their behavior lost from the shock of their presents and numbers.

Jane glanced at Bali with a mouth shaped like the letter “O.”  Her eyes were wide with the shimmer of a smile at the edges.  If the skies had opened up and suddenly snowed, the effect would have been the same on Jane.

For Bali, the sight of one great white egret would have been an anonymous gift of stolen breath.  The sight of eight was worthy of tears of gratitude, no doubt, but the birds, for Bali, were also a fence that surrounded a dark fog in which she could not see through.  It delighted her just as it had Jane, but it also brought a chill that pulled on the hairs of her arms and made her heart want to look away.  The army of great white egresses were ushering or guarding.  An unknown something was coming. Or maybe it was going.

 

 

 

BIO

Kobina Wright is a second generation California native with a degree in Communications from California State University, Fullerton. Wright is an artist, writer and entrepreneur and is a board member of The G.R.E.E.N. Foundation, an organization that helps to service the community through health education and navigation to support individuals and families to access quality health care.

Some of the publications Wright has written for include LACMA Magazine, The Daily Titan, and CYH Magazine. In 2001 she wrote her second volume of poetry titled, “Growth Spurt,” and in 2004, wrote her third volume titled, “Say It! Say Gen-o-cide!!” − dedicated to the Rwandan Genocide of 1994.

Wright’s work has been published in: The Bicycle Review; Boxcar Poetry Review; Burning Word Literary Journal; Crack the Spine; The Fiction Week Literary Review; The Missing Slate; Orion headless; The Passionate Transitory; Subliminal Interiors, Wilderness House Literary Review,  Blackberry: A Magazine, Blue Lake Review, Extract(s) and SNReview.

 

 

 

 

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The Plagiarist

by John Mandelberg

 

 

When I was serving time in a California state prison for grand theft, I decided to take an English class from a college correspondence program. Then a woman teacher from a community college came to give a writing class and I decided to sign up. Everybody in the class wrote about themselves and their hard lives, except me. I pretended to, but actually I borrowed the stories of other men’s childhoods and wrote as if they were my own. My real childhood was too empty to talk about. When the teacher found out that my stories weren’t really about me, she was surprised and confused. But then she gave me special attention, because I was more like a real writer.

She was in her late fifties, and seemed very calm and unafraid to be coming into prison. But also she seemed sad and worn-out. I started to talk to her more than I thought I would. She was not attractive or pretty but she had a look of peaceful listening that made me want to talk more. Her eyes were very full and honest. Sometimes when the only guard who did not forbid us to use the copy machine was there, I walked with her to the office down the hall and talked to her while we copied things.

She always answered my questions in a serious and respectful way without talking about herself. Once we were talking about poetry, and she said she had published a book of her own poetry. But she didn’t seem proud of it and didn’t want to talk about it.

After I was released, I went back to Los Angeles where I had lived before. But I had trouble finding a job. I got the idea that I could make money by writing a book of stories. I wrote to that English teacher asking her for advice. For a long time, I did not receive an answer. I thought she probably didn’t want to be in touch with any ex-prisoner. But months later, I got a note from her in the mail. She was now teaching at a different community college, further north in the San Joaquin Valley. She said she couldn’t give me much advice about writing a book, but she wouldn’t mind if I sent her my stories to read.

This letter was the only touch of humanity I had felt for many months. I decided to go visit her, even though I expected that I would frighten her and that I would end up depressed and hating myself.

It took me eight hours to drive up from L.A. to that town, much longer than I expected. It was already getting dark when I arrived. I didn’t have much money so I slept in my car. The next morning I tried to clean myself up and called the community college to find out when she was there. I rested in the city park. Then I went to see her in the afternoon.

I waited on the asphalt outside a bungalow classroom where she was teaching, and met her when she came out. She was surprised to see me, but still seemed calm and patient. She smiled at me. We talked out in the haze, then she invited me to a little office she shared with some other teachers. I asked her if I could see her book of poetry. She hesitated but then pulled it out of a bottom desk drawer. Though the tiny office was crammed with books on all sides, she did not keep her own book in sight.

I don’t remember the exact title of the book, but it was something about smoke, landscape, and a color – like “Smoky Landscape with Yellow” or maybe “Landscape with Amber Smoke.” I looked through it and thought it was interesting at first. But the poems were long and complicated. I had trouble concentrating on any one of them. I noticed that the book had been published twenty years ago. I asked her if she had written another, or planned to.

“No,” she said.

I asked why not.

She sat and thought about it. It was after three o’clock. The other teachers had left, but students were laughing in the hall. She stood up, shut the office door, and sat back down.

 

She said, “About twenty years ago, I was an instructor of English at Cal State University at —. I had just divorced my husband, but I was happy. I had hopes of becoming a tenured professor, I had many good friends, and I had just published this book – my first book of poetry.

“The poems were mostly about a trip to Italy I had taken with my husband while our marriage was strained. I had enjoyed the trip and the beautiful Italian landscapes with such intensity, perhaps because I also sensed that the end of our relationship was coming. I did not write any of the completed poems in Italy, but I was constantly scribbling fragments and phrases in notebooks. Then when I came home, I looked at the California hills and cypresses and olive trees, which kept Italy close to my mind, and I worked very hard at assembling the poems from all the scattered pieces I had collected.

“I had planned to dedicate the book to my husband, because I was grateful to him even if I no longer loved him. After all, he had supported me through college when I was already in my thirties, and he’d taken me to Italy. But after we separated, I changed the dedication to acknowledge a good friend, an old professor of Italian who had helped me a great deal with Italian words and historical references.

“I felt so happy that fall, full of hopes for a good career, proud of my little book, confident that I was now beyond the difficulty of my divorce . . . Then one day a strange woman came to see me in my office. It was late afternoon, just about the time it is right now.”

She looked at the clock for a while, then went on.

“This woman, with thick dark-rimmed glasses and snowy white hair, knocked loudly on my door and came in. She seemed agitated. I asked her, ‘Can I help you?’ I did not recognize her at all. She held out a copy of my book, and I was flattered to think that she might want me to autograph it – she would be my first fan! ‘Is this your book?’ she asked. ‘Yes!’ I said happily.

“Then she said in a cold, angry voice, ‘Do you admit that you have committed plagiarism, that you have stolen every one of these poems?’

“I burst into laughter. I saw instantly that this was a joke or prank, and my mind raced to guess who might be behind it. But the woman only became angrier. ‘Why do you laugh?’ she shouted. ‘I am giving you one last chance to admit you are a plagiarist! Do you admit it?’

“‘No, of course not!’ I said, still laughing. The woman threw a thick envelope down on my desk. ‘I gave you a chance to admit it, and you did not,’ she said. ‘Now you’ll be very, very sorry.’ Then she ran off down the hall.

“I felt puzzled, in a pleasant, amused way. I curiously opened the envelope. Inside was a folded wad of photocopied pages of verse, much of which seemed to be in Italian. When I unfolded the pages like a book, I saw Italian and English versions of poems very similar to my own, on opposite pages. It appeared that someone had made slightly altered versions of my poems and then translated each one into Italian. But each Italian poem was credited to someone named Maria della R—, and each English version was labeled, ‘translated by Ellen T—.’

“I laughed and shook my head in amazement. Someone had undertaken a vast amount of work just to play this joke on me – who could it possibly be? The only person I knew well whose knowledge of Italian could’ve allowed him to do this was the old Italian professor. But he had left after his retirement for an extended trip to Italy. Surely he would not have had time to translate all my poems while preparing for his long-awaited trip, and anyway a prank like this would’ve been completely out of character for him.

“I just sat in my office and marveled at this strange homage to me and my poems. I kept laughing in disbelief. And as long as I sat there, I felt completely sure that it was nothing more than a joke.

“But when I finally stood up to leave, and locked the office and walked down the deserted corridor, I began to feel a little disoriented and frightened. I knew I had written all those poems myself. I distinctly remembered the trip to Italy, the golden landscapes, the cypresses – I remembered scribbling the phrases in the notebooks, on hot nights next to the open hotel windows while my husband called for me to come to bed – and I remembered the months of work I spent back in California, in my new apartment after I left him, staring at the pale yellow-brown hills from my window, going over these phrases again and again, trying to stitch them together – working with iron concentration so as not to think about my broken marriage. How could anyone dare to say, even as a joke, that I had not written every word of these poems myself?

“But – what if I had imagined the trip to Italy, the notebooks, everything? That seemed impossible, but –”

She stopped here, and looked at me steadily.

“Since I am telling you the whole story,” she said, “I should also tell you that I . . . I had mental problems when I was younger. I had delusions, and terrible fears about things that were not true. I was hospitalized when I was twenty. It took me . . . it took me years, to, to feel that I belonged in the healthy world again. So you see, I could not be completely sure that what I remembered was real. In fact, as I drove to my apartment, I thought the appearance of the white-haired woman might have been a delusion, and I expected that when I came home and opened the thick envelope that now sat beside me on the car seat, I would find that it contained course outlines, or tax information.

“But when I opened the envelope again, it still had my poems, slightly reworked in English, then translated into apparently fluent Italian. It was not that a few lines were similar here and there, or that merely the overall narrative or shape of any of these poems was the same as mine. No – every line of every poem corresponded to mine, both in English and, as far as I could tell, in Italian.

“That night I managed to calm myself. Already the strange white-haired woman seemed like a creation of my own imagination, and if that was troubling – but perhaps you won’t understand this – it also meant she couldn’t really hurt me. When I noticed that my eyes kept turning back toward the brown envelope on the kitchen counter, I put it into a cabinet, out of sight. I felt pretty relaxed then, and I slept well.

“But the next morning, as I remembered the woman’s accusation, I suddenly felt a weird sense of dread. I arrived at the campus, and found a note in my mailbox telling me to see the department chairperson immediately. When I went to his office, the secretaries stared at me and whispered, and the chairperson looked very grim. He pulled out a brown envelope just like the one I had been given. My heart began to pound and I saw spots in front of my eyes, and I had trouble hearing what he was saying. It was a very serious matter: I had been accused of plagiarism.

“After that, my memory is blurry,” she said. She looked out the small dirty window, to a sidewalk that crossed the dead lawn toward the parking lot. “I remember vaguely that over the next few weeks, I was interviewed by the dean, by representatives of the faculty senate I think . . . by the vice-president for faculty or someone, and by lawyers for the university,” she said. “They confronted me with a letter, written apparently by the same white-haired woman who had come to accuse me on that strange afternoon. In this letter, the woman, Ellen T—, claimed that she had met me at a specific writing seminar four years ago, and that she had shared with me her translations of an Italian poet, Maria della R—, who died in the 1950s.

“I had actually attended that writing seminar, and admitted it, but I had no recollection at all of meeting Ellen T— there, nor of ever hearing the name of Maria della R—. Someone did some research, and ascertained that Maria della R— was a real Italian poet, known in her own country but untranslated. The name of Ellen T—, who claimed to be a doctoral candidate temporarily away from her studies, wasn’t known to any specialists in English or Italian literature, but that was not unexpected, since she had not yet published any of her translations. There was no Internet yet, it was simply impossible to quickly check out any of her claims in detail. And of course she supplied transcripts and letters and certificates from her college in New England to prove that she was who she said she was.

“Soon I also heard from the small press that had published my book. They had received material from Ellen T— also. They were withdrawing my book from their catalog and threatened to sue me as soon as she sued them.

“The university gave me a hearing, and let me try to defend myself. All I could say was that I had never heard of Maria della R— or Ellen T— before, that I had written all the poems myself, that I had no idea whatsoever who Ellen T— was or what motive she would have for inventing this story, or for forging dozens of letters and documents in order to slander me.

“After terrible indecision, I brought in some of my original notebooks to show them. This was so very embarrassing for me, because those notebooks also contained my, my . . . most private thoughts about my husband and my marriage. But the members of the committee just glanced through the notebooks, looking skeptical. They seemed to think it would’ve been easy for me to have written all these notebooks, just to cover myself, long after stealing the ‘real’ poems – perhaps even in the last few days.

“I was completely humiliated. They suspended me from teaching, without pay, and then cancelled my contract.”

She stopped speaking and sat quietly. She played with a pen on her desk.

Then she resumed in a calm patient voice, “I felt I was in an endless nightmare. It was bad enough to lose my job and my teaching career, but to feel that I had lost my sanity too, that I could no longer be sure what was real and what was not, that my roots in reality, which had once been so difficult to grow, had all been torn away . . . well, I . . . I felt very strange . . . Do you know what I mean?” She looked at me in her honest way.

I said I knew what she meant.

She went on, “None of my new university friends would see me, none of them believed me. I think they had all been surprised by how learned and classical my poetry was, since I’d seemed so dumb and innocent to them at first, and now they felt justified in their earlier opinions of me. I was frightened that I was having another mental breakdown – I can’t tell you how frightened I was. I went to a therapist, and then to a psychiatrist for tranquilizers. I wrote a long desperate letter to the old Italian professor, enclosing samples of the Italian poetry, begging him for help – but he did not answer me. I even went to my ex-husband, sobbing and pitiful, and he would have nothing to do with me. He shut the door in my face.” She smiled faintly and distantly.

“When I told the therapist that someone must want to hurt me very badly by spreading these lies about me, she asked me who that could be: my ex-husband? a colleague? a former student? But I could think of no one. Either I had committed plagiarism without remembering it, or I was having paranoid delusions.

“Maybe I had absorbed all those poems into my mind, blocked out the memory of the woman who had given them to me, then regurgitated them, word by word, on the trip to Italy. But then I had to wonder: did I ever really go to Italy? Was I ever married? Had my whole life been a delusion, and was I still twenty years old and in the psychiatric hospital?

“All I could do was to spend my days in a stupor of psychotropic drugs and daytime television. After a long delay, the psychiatrist was able to get me on disability, but I spent all my savings. I could no longer read, write or think. I was afraid to go to the store, I was hardly eating. Then one day I received a letter from my old friend, the Italian professor. He was back in Sicily, after traveling for almost a year, and had just now found my letter.

“He wrote urgently to tell me that the poetry ascribed to Maria della R— was a fraud. She had been from northern Italy, and the poetry was written in southern dialect and with modern, even americanized slang that she never would’ve used. In fact he suspected these Italian poems were not even written by a native speaker of Italian. He urged me to see a lawyer.

“By this time I was so depressed and numb that I didn’t want to see a lawyer. But my therapist was so surprised – I suppose she had never believed me before – that she finally dragged me to a lawyer’s office herself. The lawyer sent a private investigator to see me, and he said immediately that Ellen T—’s white hair and thick glasses were probably a disguise. When the lawyer received all the papers from my hearing, he noticed discrepancies and repetitions in the phone numbers and addresses Ellen T— had supplied for her references. The stationery from her college in New England was not authentic. And by now nobody was able to contact Ellen T— by phone or certified mail.

“I had saved all my old class rosters and teaching records, and the investigator was able to get additional information from the university. He found out that a certain female student of mine from several years ago had since been arrested several times for stalking an ex-boyfriend. I only slightly remembered this young woman, and had forgotten that she was an Italian major. But I recalled that she had been disproportionately angry at me when I gave her a B instead of an A. She was probably the student whose very hostile anonymous evaluation of me turned up in my personnel file, and if so, then her handwriting looked just like Ellen T—’s handwriting.

“The investigator tried to locate this student,” she continued, “but he –”

Suddenly she was interrupted by the loud ring of an old-style beige telephone, which was on one of the other desks. The coarse buzzing sound startled us. “That phone doesn’t usually ring,” my teacher said. She sounded unusually nervous. She let it ring several times as we looked at it. Then she stood up, picked up the handset and said in a tense voice, “Hello? Who is this? No, I’m sorry. What was the name again? She’s not here. I don’t know. I really don’t know who she is. You’re welcome.” Then she sat back down in her chair. I heard her sigh softly.

“The investigator was unable to find her,” my teacher went on. “She seemed to have vanished along with Ellen T—, and it was reasonable to believe that they were the same person. The investigator’s report, a letter from the Italian professor, and a statement he obtained from an Italian journalist who had known Maria della R— and who said she had never written any poems like mine – all these convinced the university’s lawyers, finally, that the charges of plagiarism were false.

“I quickly agreed to a settlement, since I was desperate for money, and after paying the lawyer and the investigator, I received about $17,000, most of which I paid to the therapist and doctors. My book was never put back in the publisher’s catalog, though. But my mind cleared, and I was able to get off disability, I worked part-time as a cashier. After three years, I was able to resume teaching English, but I have stayed at the community college level since then, mostly here in the San Joaquin Valley.

“I’ve never heard again from the woman who called herself Ellen T—. I think she may be in a psychiatric hospital herself, or dead. But I still feel frightened of her. I like to think she could never find me here.”

The teacher was quiet again. I realized she was done with her story, as far as it went.

I said this ex-student must’ve been obsessed with her.

“Yes,” she said. “I can’t understand why. I will never understand it.” She blinked her calm, full, peaceful eyes.

I asked her if she’d ever written poetry since then.

“No,” she said. “I’d be afraid that it wouldn’t really be mine.”

But, I asked, she couldn’t still doubt that her trip to Italy, her months of writing, her poems and her life were real, could she?

“It’s hard to explain,” she said softly, “but once that fear came back into me, it never went away.”

The haze outside the window was turning to dusk. I thanked her for her kindness in seeing me. I invited her to dinner, as if I had any money to pay for it. But she politely declined. I gave her a folder of my bad half-written stories that I had so much trouble finishing. We said goodbye. I drove back to Los Angeles in the misty night.

 

In a couple of weeks, I received back in the mail the stories I had left with her. She had written nice but very general comments. I was a little annoyed that she hadn’t been more helpful. When I was in her office, I had copied down the number of the office telephone without her noticing, and now I decided to try calling her in the late afternoon, the same day of the week as when I visited her, thinking she would be there. She answered the phone, and sounded surprised to hear my voice. But she agreed to talk with me for a few minutes.

She said she wasn’t really qualified to give me detailed criticism, but she encouraged me to keep writing. She said that it would be good for my imagination, even if I couldn’t get anything published. She said I should not have unrealistic plans to make money from writing fiction, because almost nobody does. And even if I did get something published, it would have to be in some obscure literary magazine which couldn’t pay me anything anyway.

I said that I had been thinking a lot about her plagiarism story. I asked if she would be offended if I used it in a story of my own.

She paused a long time and then said, “No . . . no, I’d rather that you didn’t.”

Why not, I asked her.

“Well . . . because it’s not really finished,” she said. “We don’t know why this former student did what she did, or how she managed to do it, or what happened to her. We don’t know what it means. It’s just an odd anecdote, and it’s not realistic – it wouldn’t work.”

But I replied that I could make up new details if I had to.

“No,” she said. For the first time she seemed a little impatient. “You asked my permission, and I am telling you no. If anyone is going to write about it, I should be the one. It’s really my story.”

 

In a month I decided to call her again. I had finally found a job but I hated it and was feeling a desperate frustration. I needed some goal to desire, I wanted something to want. I told her that I really wanted to get something published, even if I couldn’t get paid for it. But now I couldn’t think of any more ideas to write about on my own. My stupid job was fogging my brain. But I couldn’t stop thinking about her story. I told her I was becoming almost obsessed with it. Again I asked her if I could write it.

“No, please don’t,” she said. “Please. This crazy woman, if she is still alive, could read it and remember me and come after me again. Please – you’re frightening me. Don’t make me feel sorry that I trusted you. It’s my story, it doesn’t belong to you.”

I begged her.

“No!” she said. “Please – I’ve tried to help you. You have to realize that there is nothing more I can do. You have a false impression of me, you think I’m important somehow – but I’m nobody, I’m nothing! Please don’t write about me. To bring up all this humiliation from the past – I couldn’t bear it. I’ve suffered just like you have – please promise not to write about me!”

Now her calm quiet voice was full of anxiety, passion, and desperation.

“OK, I promise,” I said.

But then I decided to write this anyway.

 

 

 

BIO

John Mandelberg’s short stories have appeared most recently in Prick of the Spindle, Beloit Fiction Journal, Santa Monica Review, and Storyscape. Apparently nobody wants to publish his novels but so what, he’ll keep writing more anyway. He lives in Los Angeles and usually doesn’t like any movie made after 1950.

 

 

 

 

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