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THE TEARS OF THE GARDENER

by Robert Collings


The LaGrange Conservatory in Philadelphia is the most prestigious music school in the world for aspiring concert pianists, a fact that is well-known to professional insiders.  Juilliard may be more familiar to the public, but a mention of a diploma from LaGrange in the proper circles will always produce a reverent silence before another word is spoken.

A few years ago, one of the first-year students at LaGrange was murdered, and the case got a lot of attention in the local media.  The murdered boy was named Randall Taneda, and he was only 18 years old at the time of his death.  He had been shot point-blank in the stomach in his dorm.  The story also made the national news, but it was one of those open and shut murder cases that do not seem to have legs in the national consciousness, and the story quickly faded away.  The killer was a man named Alfredo Juan.   He initially denied involvement in the crime, but soon made a full confession to police.  He was found guilty and sentenced to death.  He had spent close to ten years on death row as his case worked its way through a myriad of appeal levels and various procedural delays.   Then, without apparent reason, Alfredo Juan demanded that his appeals be stopped and that he be executed as soon as possible.  Despite this, the legal process seemed to grind on, and the case gained some renewed notoriety in the local press over the new angle of a condemned killer insisting to be put to death by lethal injection.  As a reporter for the Philadelphia Sun, I became interested in the last phase of Alfredo Juan’s legal battles, particularly the reason behind his execution-by-choice.  I had never intended to be present at the actual execution, and I could never imagine being invited to witness such a grisly spectacle in any event.

I had made several requests to interview Alfredo Juan on death row, but all my requests had been denied.  Then, when his appeals had finally been exhausted and on the eve of his execution, someone from North Bend Maximum Security called me and told me that Alfredo Juan wanted to speak with me before he died.  I was told that I only had ten minutes with the condemned man and if I wanted a story then I should hustle down the Interstate to North Bend State Prison as quickly as I could.  The execution was set for midnight and it was now close to 7:30 pm.  I dropped everything and ran for my car. 

Before I tell you about my conversation with the condemned killer, some background detail might be in order.

All happy families may be alike, but there is no such thing as a happy family without problems.  Still, the Taneda family seemed about as problem-free as any family could be.  They were a third-generation Japanese American family and they had done well for themselves.   They lived in a suburb of Chicago called Oak Park, an affluent area just west of the city.   Randall Taneda’s father was a former concert pianist who taught music theory at Chicago University.  His mother was also a pianist, although she never made it to the concert stage.  She taught piano to advanced students who were still in high school, and she specialized in preparing the senior students for the grueling examinations they had to endure before they could go on to any post-secondary training.  

The Tanedas had two daughters who also played piano, both younger than Randall, but Randall was the crown jewel of the family.  Hailed as a prodigy by the time he could talk, he was giving concerts at local venues at age five and when he entered Grade One, he had already been written up in several trade magazines as an up-and-coming pianist to watch.  Up to the moment he left home to travel to Philadelphia, life for Randall Taneda seemed bereft of any drama at all.   He had no friends and no social life.  Other than the laurels he received for playing the piano, his only achievement in life appeared to be passing his driver’s test on his first try.  There were no funny stories about him, no goofball behavior.  All he did was play the piano from morning to night.  His extraordinary talent had put him on an upward trajectory through the music world, and Randall seemed content to ride the wave all alone, solemn and detached, finding fulfillment in the ability to dazzle anyone who ever came into his orbit.  Most aspiring youngsters who get accepted into the LaGrange Conservatory will charge out the front door and shout the joyous news to the rest of the world.  But Randall Taneda’s life on the concert stage seemed to be preordained, and acceptance into LaGrange was more like a formality than any grand achievement.   

Shortly after Alfredo Juan’s death-wish pronouncement that triggered my interest in the case, I made a visit to the Taneda home in Oak Park.  Mrs. Taneda was friendly and helpful.  She was quick to point out that Oak Park was the birthplace of Ernest Hemingway, and from the open doorway she pointed in the direction of the original Hemingway house.  Her husband was not there, and the older daughter had married and was no longer living at home.  The youngest daughter, Kate, was still at home and she was a senior at a local college.  She was not at school that day, and she gave me a pleasant hello along with her mother.  After that, she stayed in the background for the rest of my visit and I got the impression that she did not wish to be involved in any more publicity surrounding her brother’s murder.  I understood this, and I kept my own distance.

The first thing Mrs. Taneda wanted to do after I entered the house was show me Randall’s old bedroom.  I was surprised at the sight of the room when she opened the door.  Her son was just out of high school when he was killed, but this was the room of a child.  Mrs. Taneda insisted that the room was exactly as Randall had left it, and I did not seek further details.  The room was sparsely furnished with a small bed and desk and a kid-sized chest of drawers against the far wall.  There was a large oval rug on the floor with Disney-type caricatures of dancing musical notes.  Each note had its own happy, singing face, and all were frozen in the sort of over-the-top merriment that can only exist in the minds of children.  Mrs. Taneda had obviously preserved this room as a shrine to her son.  There were trophies and other celebratory memorabilia arranged in rows on every available surface, and all the walls were crammed with framed photographs of Randall at various stages in his charmed life as a musical prodigy.   The walls of the bedroom reminded me of those trendy sports bars where you can’t see the walls for the photographs.  I doubted that Mrs. Taneda had ever been in such a place and I had the good sense not to say anything.  There were framed newspaper clippings, too, all arranged in chronological order as one moved clockwise around the room, all of them a testament to the genius of Randall Taneda.  I was particularly struck by a huge, ornately framed photograph of Randall as a three-year-old that hung over the headboard of the bed.  It depicted a shining, scrub-faced child, perfectly coiffed and impeccably dressed in a dark suit and tie, sitting at a baby grand piano with his hands extended and his tiny fingers on the keys, chin up and eyes sparkling, flashing all those baby teeth in a huge smile for the camera.   If this room was truly the way Randall Taneda had left it, I could not help wondering how a teenaged boy could ever tolerate sleeping under such a picture of himself, in a kid-bed beside a kid-desk.  Just like my ruminations about the photos in the sports bars, I did not think these observations were appropriately solemn and I wisely kept my mouth shut.

I noticed that Mrs. Taneda kept the rug vacuumed with the loop pile all pointing in the same direction, and I tried my best to avoid stepping upon the dancing figures.

Aside from the time-warp of his bedroom, the only hint of anything out of the ordinary with Randall Taneda was something his mother volunteered to me towards the end of my visit.   This was a quirk the parents noticed when Randall was around six years old.   Mrs. Taneda told me that he suddenly developed a behavioral phobia when it came to the piano skills of other kids his age.  She said there was no lead-up to this, and it just appeared overnight.  Randall would either run from the room when another kid was at the piano, or he would press his hands tightly over his ears and close his eyes when forced to stay in his seat.  Ordinarily a talkative, articulate child, he had refused to explain why he was doing this or what might be wrong.  He refused to say a word about it.  His parents took him to a child psychologist, whereupon they both noticed an immediate change in Randall’s behavior.  Within two or three weeks, he no longer showed the slightest reluctance to listen to another kid play.  He continued to handle all the pressure like a true professional, and he never fell out of step again with any hint of quirky behavior.  His parents looked upon this episode as a temporary neurosis only, a blip in the radar, and Randall himself never once brought up the subject.  Mrs. Taneda insisted that Randall was “over the moon” with happiness when he pulled out of the driveway in his little car to begin the long drive to Philadelphia.  She never saw her son alive again.

My visit to the Taneda home did not last long, and I was surprised when Kate Taneda appeared and volunteered in her quiet voice to walk me to my car.   I thanked Mrs. Taneda at the door, and Kate led me down the walkway to the street.  When we were safely out of earshot of the house, this shy girl stopped walking and turned to me.

“Did my mother tell you my father was busy at his work?” she asked.  

“Yes, at the University,” I replied.

“My father doesn’t come home when he doesn’t have to,” she said.  “He avoids coming home.”

I knew what she meant.  “Your brother’s death has been hard on the family.  That won’t be going away, unfortunately.”

I could see Kate appreciated my candor.  She looked back at the house.  “You know how mothers keep a baby book when their children are born?  My mother never kept a baby book for me or my sister.  But she kept one on Randy from the day he was born until the day he left for LaGrange.  She goes into that room all the time and closes the door and reads from the book.  She reads out loud, like she’s reading it to Randy.  I can hear her.”

This gave me a bit of a chill, and I decided to be candid with Kate once again.  “Your sister got out, and you should, too,” I said.

Kate nodded.  “Did she tell you the story about Randy and how he went through a phase where he wouldn’t listen to another kid play the piano?”

“Yes, she did.”

“That happened before I was born,” she said.  “But I knew my brother.   He was a genius at a lot more than the piano.  I knew he would always tell our parents exactly what they wanted to hear.”

Kate then wished me a good day and she walked away without saying anything more.  I watched her go, and I hoped for her sake that she would soon escape from the house as her sister had done. 

If ever there was a study in contrasts, I would put the life of Alfredo Juan up against the life of Randall Taneda every time.  Randall Taneda’s life had been chronicled with obsessive care almost to the time of his death, whereas Alfredo Juan never even knew his real name or the date of his birth.   He told people he was born in Puerto Rico and came to the U.S. when he was still a toddler.  He did not know who his parents were, and he appears to have been shuffled around between various households in the greater Philadelphia area up to the time he was in his early teens, when he struck out on his own.  At a young age, he was alternatively called “Alfredo” and “Juan”, but he had never understood the connection between the two names.  He told the psychiatrist at his murder trial that he thought he had “12 brothers and sisters” but he was unable to provide further details.  He was mostly illiterate, and his exact schooling was unknown.  He described his entire education in a single memory where he saw himself sitting in a classroom and looking at “a big blackboard with white letters.” 

Until the criminal justice system started a rap sheet on Alfredo Juan, there had been no formal record that he had ever existed.  At the time he had his first juvenile run-in with the law for some petty theft, he had been using the name “Alfredo Juan” for most of his life and the name stuck as part of his criminal record, along with his fingerprints.  Although he had a rap sheet a mile long by the time of the Randall Taneda murder, it was mostly for things like house burglaries and purse-snatching and shoplifting, all piddling offences when it comes to the horrors of crime in the big city.  None of these offences had any violent component to them in terms of bodily harm to anyone, and none ever involved a weapon.  This was the likely reason Alfredo Juan had never done any hard time in state prison, and his multiple jail terms were only counted in weeks or, on rare occasions, one or two months.   He did drugs but never trafficked in them, so his rap sheet was remarkably free from any drug convictions as well.   Nobody knew Alfredo Juan, and nobody even saw him.

When the fingerprints on the murder weapon were traced to Alfredo Juan, his current address was unknown.   The police made inquiries at his last known address on his rap sheet, but they were told by the occupant that he did not know anyone by that name, although he said there was a guy who matched Alfredo Juan’s description who used to show up there with “crack pipes”.  The crack pipe man had not been there in over a year and the guy didn’t know where he was.   When Alfredo Juan was finally tracked down and arrested for the Taneda murder, he had been living on the streets and eating out of garbage dumpsters.  The police report showed that he had exactly 87 cents in his pockets.  Aside from the clothes on his back, these coins represented the grand total of Alfredo Juan’s worldly possessions.

Alfredo Juan initially told the police that he had never been anywhere near the murder scene and had never heard of the “orange” conservatory.  When he was shown the crime scene photographs of the murdered boy lying on the floor of his dorm with a gun beside him, he said he had never owned such a gun and did not even know how to shoot one.  When told that his fingerprints were found on the gun, he paused and said, “Well, maybe I was there but that don’t prove nothing.”   The police were patient with Alfredo Juan and eventually he gave them a full confession.

Like a lot of murder stories, Alfredo Juan told a story that was heartbreaking in terms of the fates that were aligned against Randall Taneda on the last day of his life.  Alfredo Juan said he had heard on the streets a few weeks before the killing that there was a music school on the outskirts of the city where “rich kids brought their money.”  The rumor was, these kids all came from various parts of the country and they all had large sums of cash on them when they arrived.  If you were able to rob one of these kids just as they arrived at the school, you could make a big score.  The rich students apparently lived in a “box building” until they paid enough money so they could move into the “big castle”, and this was the reason they brought so much cash with them.

Alfredo Juan said that he was not exactly sure about the directions, but he eventually managed to make his way across the city and up to the LaGrange Conservatory.   He knew he had found the right place because “it looked like a castle”.  He had been given a handgun by someone named “Carl” and he had agreed to split the money with “Carl” when he returned.  The police were never able to locate “Carl”, although the weapon itself, a 38 revolver, was eventually traced to a gun shop in Detroit that had sold the gun new a few years earlier.  The gun had gone through multiple hands since then and it was impossible to trace it back to “Carl” or anyone else.  

Alfredo Juan said that he walked through the main gate of the LaGrange Conservatory and went over to the “box building beside the castle”.  There were a few people around, but no one paid any attention to him.  When he reached the box building, he was surprised to be able to open the main door.  Once inside the hallway, he was surprised again to find that the first door he tried to open was also unlocked, and the room was empty.  This was the room that had been assigned to Randall Taneda.  He said he could hear a lot of “piano stuff” coming from the other rooms and he thought that maybe a “piano kid” might be moving into the empty room that he had so easily stumbled upon.  He told police he waited around just inside the door and listened for the footsteps of the “piano kid” so he could steal his money and split the booty with “Carl” when he got back to the city streets.  He said he was holding the gun because he wanted to “scare the rich piano kid”.  He repeated several times to police that he never wanted to shoot anyone because such an act would be “an offence against God”.

Alfredo Juan said he listened for approaching footsteps for a few minutes, but the sounds of the pianos made it hard for him to hear anything, so he decided to lean forward and put his ear to the door.  At that moment, Randall Taneda stumbled into the room with his box of clothing.  He had pushed against the door and was propelled forward when it suddenly opened.   Alfredo Juan said, “the boy run into me with the box”.   Randall Taneda immediately dropped the box, so they were now standing face-to-face with nothing between them.  In the same moment, Alfredo Juan pushed the gun into Randall Taneda’s stomach.  There was a brief struggle, and he pulled the trigger.

Alfredo Juan remembered how the boy just crumpled to the floor and he knew right away he was dead.  He said he panicked and ran out of the room.  He left the “box building” and ran across the grounds to the street, and then ran down the sidewalk as fast as he could to get away.  No one saw him, and no one followed him.  When he had exhausted himself, he stopped running to catch his breath.  It was then he realized he did not have the gun with him.   He wasn’t sure how he had lost the gun because he didn’t remember many details after Randall Taneda suddenly appeared in the room with his “big box of shirts”.  The police found the clothing scattered on the floor and the empty box had been tossed to one side, as if someone had rifled through the box looking for something.  Oddly, Alfredo Juan denied doing this.  He insisted the “piano kid” dropped the box as soon as he came into the room and it had stayed upright with the clothing in it the whole time.  Even when shown the police photographs of the scattered clothing and the empty box, Alfredo Juan remained steadfast.  He had never touched the box or anything inside the box.

Much like Randall Taneda’s acceptance into the LaGrange Conservatory, the criminal trial of Alfredo Juan was little more than a formality.   His lawyers tried to have his confession thrown out, but the police had done their homework and there was nothing the defense could do about it.  As soon as Alfredo Juan was arrested and brought into the interrogation room, he was read his Miranda rights.  When he said that he had understood those rights and did not wish to have a lawyer present, his interrogation began.  All of this was captured on camera, right down to the grand finale showing the chief homicide detective slowly reading out a 12-page written statement with Alfredo Juan nodding away and putting his mark on the bottom of every page.   The recording had even captured a muttered comment from one of the detectives off-camera as Alfredo Juan carefully signed the last page with an illegible signature that he said he used “only on important documents.”  The cop had remarked, “Poor bastard doesn’t know how important this one is.”   The criminal trial took three days, and the jury returned a guilty verdict in under an hour. 

The sentencing phase of Alfredo Juan’s criminal trial took a little longer, but the outcome was never in doubt any more than the original verdict.   This was an election year, and the DA wanted to send a strong message to the public that he was tough on crime and he was not going to tolerate any innocent kid being gunned down in the prime of his life by some scumbag vagrant.   The defense called a psychiatrist to the stand who had attempted to piece together Alfredo Juan’s fractured life history.  Among other things, the psychiatrist said that Alfredo Juan had been sexually abused throughout his childhood and was now left with a “tenuous hold on reality.”  None of it mattered.  The prosecution asked for the death penalty and the jury agreed. 

Alfredo Juan was then sent to North Bend State Prison, and this was where I was sitting with him over ten years later in a cramped interview room just off the death row cell block.   The guard had reminded me about the strict time limit, and he left the room without any further warnings.  Alfredo Juan and I were left sitting across from each other at a small table, and I was surprised at the lack of security.  There were no other guards and the two of us were alone in the room.  Alfredo Juan was not handcuffed or shackled, and he could have easily reached across the table in order to tear my throat out if that had been his disposition.  I had never broken the ice with an interview subject by having them lunge for my throat, but then I had never spoken to anyone with only three hours to live, either.   By the clock on the wall, it was three hours exactly.

Alfredo Juan had muttered a greeting to me, and then he just stared down at the table.  I was surprised at how short he was, and how passive he looked.  I had fully expected to meet someone with a chrome bolt running through his tongue and a body crawling with gang symbols and other sinister looking artwork, but this man had no tattoos and no piercings.  He did not even possess the sort of sneer one often sees on a dog-tough street punk.   He just looked lost and alone, like someone’s half-brother who shows up once a year for dinner and doesn’t have a clue what to say to the other family members.  I could see that his head had been freshly shaved, and there was a shadowy outline on his skull that showed he had hair if he had wanted to die with any.  He wasn’t being electrocuted, but perhaps this sort of tidy-up was still part of the execution protocol.  I didn’t know, and I didn’t ask. 

Although I had rehearsed my questions for him over and over during the drive to the prison, my mind had now turned idiot-blank and we just stared at each other.  Without thinking, I blurted out, “Did they give you a last meal?”

It occurred to me that I had just said the most insensitive and stupid thing one could possibly say to a condemned man on the eve of his execution.   I expected Alfredo Juan to hurl himself towards me in a murderous rage exactly as I had feared, but instead he just shook his head and kept looking down.

“The only good meals I ever had were in jail,” he said quietly.  “I never asked what they were, I just ate ‘em.  They say you’re supposed to ask for something special for your last meal.  I didn’t know what to ask for that was special, so I said I wasn’t hungry.  I didn’t want them laughing at me.”

There was true sadness in this, but I was not there as a social worker.  I tried again.  “I’ve written about your case, I guess you know that.”

“Someone read the newspaper stuff out to me,” he said.

“I’ve tried to arrange an interview before, I’ve always thought – “

“I didn’t kill that boy,” Alfredo Juan suddenly interrupted.

I did not want to hear this man’s protestations of innocence. “Mr. Juan – “I began.

“Call me Spike,” he interrupted again.  “That’s what the guards call me here, ‘cause they say I look like a spike that’s been nailed in something, like the body of Christ.”

Unlike Alfredo Juan, I did not warm to the comparison.  I said, “I don’t wish to call you by that name.  It is – not appropriate in the circumstances.  Why don’t you tell me why you asked me to come here?  I have tried and tried to set up an interview before, you always said no.  I’m here now, I’ll listen to you.”

“I didn’t kill that boy,” he said again.  “I was just telling the police what they wanted to hear.  I was hungry.”

“Mr. Juan – “

“Spike.”

“Please, I’ve told you I do not wish to call you by that name.  I am not calling you by that name, I refuse to do it.   Now I want to get something straight with you.  You can tell me anything you want, just do not tell me you didn’t do this crime.  I know your case, I know everything about it.”

Alfredo Juan was not impressed.  “There was a guy on the Row,” he went on.  “He told me about the Japanese.  He said they don’t kill themselves with a gun to the head, ‘cause then they can’t have an open coffin at the funeral.”

“What, you’re telling me that Randall Taneda killed himself?”

Alfredo Juan was still staring down at the table.  “Makes sense to me,” he said.

“Your fingerprints just happened to be on that gun, is that what you’re saying?”

“No, I was there.”

“You were there in his room and you surprised him, and you killed him.  We all know this.”

“You don’t know anything.  I was gonna rob him and then I just ran out.”

“You accidentally dropped the gun on your way out, is that what happened?”

“Makes sense to me.”

“You took the time to rifle through his box of clothing, didn’t you?  You were looking for money.  Was he standing back watching you do this?”

“I didn’t touch that box.”

“Who touched the box then?  Another student?”

“No, he did.”

“Who are you talking about?”

“That kid.”

“The piano kid?  Randall Taneda?”

“He must have scattered the stuff around to make it look like a robbery.”

I was determined to reason with him despite the valuable time that was being wasted.  “Mr. Juan – “I began.

“Spike.”

I was now feeling more at ease with Alfredo Juan, and I had forgotten that I was speaking to a man who now had less than three hours to live, by about six minutes. 

“Stop it,” I said firmly.  “Stop saying that.  We are not using nicknames like buddies on the street.  You want me to believe you surprised Randall Taneda in his room with that gun, then you dropped the gun, then you ran out, and then Randall Taneda himself scattered that clothing on the floor and shot himself in the stomach to make his suicide look like a robbery gone bad?  Is this what you want me to write tomorrow?  Your new fantasy story after ten years of telling the true story?”

Alfredo Juan shrugged.  “Maybe he didn’t want his mother to be ashamed.”

I was scolding him now and I knew my time was quickly running out. “You don’t know a thing about the boy you killed,” I said.  “You don’t know him; you don’t know his mother.  You have no guilt over what you did.”

Alfredo Juan was unmoved.  “You didn’t see the look in his eyes,” he said quietly.

“What look?”

“I looked into the eyes of that boy and God whispered to me.”

“Tell me what you saw in his eyes.”

“Sadness.  He was crying.  A person like you doesn’t know the look of true sadness, but I saw it.”

I tried to humor him.  “Okay.  You dropped the gun and ran away, and the boy killed himself.  Why didn’t you tell all this to the police?”

“I was hungry, I told you.”

“You must have talked to your own lawyers.  Were you hungry then, too?”

“I told them about the promise from God but all they did was look at me funny.  So, I didn’t say nothing.   Some promises, people just don’t understand.”

“So tell me then, what did God whisper to you?”

“God promised me that I would lose my soul unless I dropped the gun and ran.”

“That’s a warning, not a promise.”

“You don’t know true sadness, and you don’t know what it means when God whispers to you.”

“Maybe not, but I know a warning when I hear one.”

Alfredo Juan was adamant.  He said, “A warning is just a caution.  A whispered promise from God is a sure thing.”

I now had about a minute left, and I knew the guard was not going to negotiate.  “If you’re innocent like you say, then tell me why you insist upon being executed.  Will you at least give me that much to write about tomorrow?”

“You wouldn’t understand.”

“Is this why you brought me here?  To tell me things I won’t understand?”

“Well, I’d like a favor.”

I anticipated what was coming and I was going to draw the line.  “I will not write about your innocence and lie to people.  I am not going to do that.”

Alfredo Juan then threw me the hook that I will never forget.  He said, “They told me I can have somebody watch the execution.  I thought you might want to stick around and be out there when they do it.  I don’t know many people.”

I could not fathom this request and I did not know what to say.  Mercifully, the guard appeared, and I knew this crazy interview was over.   I rose from the chair and Alfredo Juan looked directly at me for the first time.  He said, “I told you I don’t know many people.  Would you think about it?”

“I’ll think about it,” I said, as the guard led me out of the room.  “I’ll give it some thought, that’s all I can tell you.”

“You wanna know why I’m doing all this?” Alfredo Juan asked me.

I was now halfway out the door, and I gently resisted the guard.  “Yes, tell me.”

“I don’t know, so you tell me,” he said.  There was a pause and then he added, “It’s only in a person’s last words.”

With that enigmatic response, another guard closed the door upon Alfredo Juan and my last memory of the meeting is watching him stare down at that table, a hopeless life about to end. 

Shortly after midnight, Alfredo Juan was given a lethal dose into his arm and he was pronounced dead about ten minutes later.  I did not attend his execution and I was feeling guilty for telling him that I would “think about it” when I had no intention of attending.   I did not want to watch anyone being put to death, and I felt no obligation towards Alfredo Juan.   My only face-to-face dealing with him was that ten-minute death row conversation, and I assumed that someone would show up and represent him, or mourn him, or whatever designation is given to those lucky souls who witness an execution at the behest of the condemned man.   When I talked to one of the reporters the next morning who was there, he told me that no one had attended for Alfredo Juan: no friends, no family, no one.  I was the only one he had asked, and I was not there either.  

The reporter I spoke to was from another newspaper and he seemed unaffected by it all.  “It was nothing, really,” he said.  “The guy was behind a curtain lying there on this gurney, all strapped down.  They put him to sleep and that’s it.”

“Still, you witnessed the death of someone,” I observed.

“My grandfather used to be the warden up at North Bend when I was a kid,” he said.  “They used to hang them, and he’d give me all the gruesome details.  This wasn’t like that at all.”

I thought about my discussion with Alfredo Juan in the prison, and his strange comment about a person’s last words.  “Did Alfredo Juan have any last words?” I asked.

“Oh, yeah.  Before they strapped him down, he looked out at all of us.  He said, ‘I apologize to God, but my life isn’t worth living.’  Those were his exact words.  He didn’t say anything more, and he was dead a few minutes later.”

“I guess you could call that a confession of guilt,” I said.  “He told me last night that he was innocent.”

“My grandfather used to tell me that every goddam one of them said they were innocent,” the reporter said.  Then he gave me a big smile.  “I got a kick out of Grandpa swearing to me just like I was an adult.  Different world back then.”

I thought about this.  I finally said, “All I know is, I’m sorry to God, too, and I wasn’t on that gurney.”

The LaGrange Conservatory was located north of the city in an area called Ambleside Park.  This was a multi-acre property that was protected from the street by a high boxwood hedge.  The hedge was manicured to such laser-perfection that you could have cut paper on one of the edges.  Only the roof of the school was visible from the street, but as you entered the property through the main gate you could see the venerable old building through a long row of walnut trees that surrounded the driveway.  To my untrained eye, the place looked more like a private hospital from the Gilded Age than an academy of learning, the sort of place where one would expect to find railroad tycoons and assorted robber barons convalescing in quiet luxury.  This was early May, and the grounds rivaled any English country estate in full bloom.  As I pulled off the driveway to the parking lot, I noticed several gardeners scattered throughout the property, all of them wearing identical blue-gray coveralls with the name “LaGrange” on the back.  They all worked like bees, hovering quietly over the flowers and the shrubs with a determined purpose, each one of them secure in the knowledge that they were every bit as vital to the LaGrange Conservatory as all those prodigies tucked behind the ivy covered, red brick walls.  

As soon as I got out of my car, I heard a cacophony of piano sounds coming from the smaller, box-shaped buildings to the left of the main building.  There were two of these buildings, both identical, one behind the other, and both constructed with the same red brick.  They even had ivy growing up around the windows and the doorways, just like the grand old mansion beside them.  By their architecture they were obviously built long after the main house, and they had to be the “box building” student residences that Alfredo Juan had described to the police.  The music coming out of those buildings amazed me.  It was impossible that every student would be playing the same composition, yet the piano-sounds reminded me of one of those Claude Debussy “tone poems” where a batch of diverse, random-sounding notes come together into an inexplicable and mysterious whole.

The residence closest to the parking lot was the building where Randall Taneda was killed.  His room was just inside the main door on the first floor, the first one on the left.  Alfredo Juan lay in wait for him in the vacant room, watching the parking lot and biding his time until the doomed occupant showed up.  Randall Taneda would have carried his possessions a short distance from the lot, entered through the main door, and in a few moments his life would be over.  I took a few steps forward until I was standing on the grass.  I was now closer to the building and closer to the piano sounds coming from the brick walls.   Alfredo Juan had been executed only a few hours before, and the music seemed like an uplifting tribute to young Randall and a funeral dirge for his killer, both at the same time. 

I was lost in these thoughts when I heard a voice: “No classes today.  The kids are all playing.”

I turned my head and saw one of the gardeners standing beside me.  He was an older guy.  He was listening to the piano-sounds and nodding in silent approval.  “Today they’re celebrating the birth of Tchaikovsky.  No classes, so what do these geniuses do?  They get a respite from practice, so they go off and practice all day.”

“I guess you have to practice your whole life to get accepted here,” I said.  “Probably all they know.”

“There’s a lot of dead composers out there,” the gardener said.  “Pretty soon, every day will be a holiday for the birth of someone.”

“Might not make much difference,” I said, half-joking.  “They all sound pretty good already.”

“Wouldn’t make the slightest bit of difference,” the gardener agreed.   “The classes don’t mean a whole lot.  The kids who come here can play rings around their instructors.  They just want to get that hunk of paper and then hit the world stage.  Nothing else matters to ‘em.”

I looked at the box building and thought about how Randall Taneda would have been banging away on his piano on every holiday and day off and every other chance he got.  “I write for the newspaper,” I said.  “I’ve done a few pieces on the boy who was murdered here a few years ago.”

The gardener had heard all about the case.  “That was a long time ago,” he said.

I nodded.  “They executed the killer this morning.  I thought I should come out here to observe the occasion.  Not sure why, it just seemed like the right thing to do.”

“Closure?” the gardener asked.

I was surprised at this insight.  “Yes, I suppose you could say that.”

“I hate that guy like everyone else,” the gardener said.  “Still, I don’t believe in capital punishment.  Too final.”

I pointed to the building.  “Randall Taneda’s room was over there, right inside the door.  As soon as he came into his room, bang.  They think there was some sort of struggle over the gun, but it was all over for him.”

“Well, I guess you’d know about the case,” the gardener said.

I thought about the hundreds of trial transcript pages I had read.  “There’s one part of it I just don’t get,” I said.  “It’s silly, really.”

“Oh?”

I said, “The killer, this Alfredo Juan, he insisted that Taneda came down the hallway from the opposite end of the building with his box of clothing.  He insisted he was listening for footsteps, and not looking out the window at the parking lot.   Obviously, Taneda would have come from the lot with his box of stuff because his room was just inside the door.  The killer would not be listening for any footsteps.  All he would have to do was peep through the blinds and look out the window at the lot.  And that’s exactly what he did.  It’s a little detail, and there’s nothing about it in the court transcripts or the arguments of the lawyers.  Didn’t matter anyway.   It bugs me, because Alfredo Juan had no reason at all to lie about such a trivial detail and then spice up his story with another lie about footsteps.”

“Well, the guy was right,” the gardener said.  “The kid had to walk all the way down the hall from the other end.”

“Why is that?” I asked, surprised.

The gardener nodded towards my car.  “There was no parking lot here then.  The student lot was behind the building.  They built the second dorm about five years ago where the old parking lot was.  They decided to build a bigger lot out front and you’re parked in it.”

Like a lot of answers to trivial questions, I was surprised at how obvious this answer was.   “I guess Alfredo Juan was telling the truth about the footsteps,” I said.  “He just lied about everything else.”

“The kid would have parked his car in the back lot and then carried his box down to his room,” the gardener said.  “That’s what I did, anyway.  Otherwise, you’d have to walk all the way around the building.”

I thought I had misunderstood him.  “What do you mean?  You had a room here?”

“My room was right across the hall from the one where the kid was killed,” he said.  “That was a couple of years before, and I was long gone by the time it all happened.”

I was still not getting it.  “You mean you were a student at this place?” I asked.

The gardener smiled and bounced the trimming shears in his hand.  “Hard for you to believe what can happen to a failed prodigy?”

I was ashamed now, and I stammered out an apology: “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean it that way.”

The gardener flashed a smile.  “Don’t worry about it, I get that all the time,” he said.  “My whole life I was told how great I was.  My piano teachers all told me this.  My parents told me every day.  When I got accepted into LaGrange my family held the biggest party you have ever seen.   My first day here, I walked from the parking lot down the long hallway just like that poor kid must have done.  All the dorm rooms have pianos in them, and all the new students were playing away like crazy.  I wasn’t ten steps into that hallway when it struck me that these kids were all prodigies just like I was.  They were all geniuses who’d been stroked their whole lives, just like I had been stroked.  I realized there was nothing special about me at all.  I was a star in my own little world, but I was just an average guy at LaGrange.  And there was something else…”

The gardener paused and looked over the grounds, admiring all the beauty and all the perfection.  “I would cry a thousand tears over this, but it didn’t matter.  I heard those pianos, and I knew those kids were better than I was, better than I ever would be.  The average person might not have noticed any difference in the playing.  But I’d heard enough to know.  I knew in that moment that I was never going to make it.”

I thought about Randall Taneda as a child and how he would cover his ears when he was forced to listen to another child play.  “Maybe you were being too hard on yourself,” I volunteered.

The gardener shook his head.  “Nope.  Once you think you can’t cut it, you’re toast.”

I was staring at the gardener now, waiting for him to say something uplifting about the redeeming power of wisdom and how in the end everything works out for the best.  Instead, all he did was hold up his pruning shears and say, “But I stayed close to the music.”

The gardener may have said something more, but I was not listening to his voice any longer or thinking about his tears.   I was thinking about Alfredo Juan, and how frightful it must be to know in your heart of hearts that your life is no longer worth living.   I was also thinking about Randall Taneda, the boy with such great expectations, walking down that long hallway towards the room at the far end where Alfredo Juan was waiting for him. 

Both would be listening to the voices of the pianos behind the walls; the dissonant sounds coming together in cryptic harmony, the whispered promises of things to come.



BIO

Robert Collings is a retired lawyer living and writing in Pitt Meadows, B.C. “The Tears of the Gardener” marks his first appearance in Writing Disorder.  Robert’s short memoir, “The Spaghetti Party – A Memoir of my Father”, is published online in the Euonia Review (eunoiareview.wordpress.com).  “The Man Who Threw the Punch” is published online in Scars Publications (scars.tv). “Boardwalk and the Upper Crust” has recently been published online in Mobius magazine (mobiusmagazine.com).  “The Man Who Threw the Punch” is forthcoming in Conceit magazine in April 2021, and in cc&d magazine in May 2021.These and other short stories are contained in Robert’s collection called “Life in the First Person”.  He’s also written a satirical novella called “One Dog’s Life”, along with two screenplays now doing the rounds of the agents and producers in Hollywood. Robert has not won many awards in his lifetime, although he’s proud of a “Participation Certificate” he received for coming dead last in the 50-yard dash in the third grade.


Boxes

by Alison Bullock


It all started because of an uncooperative carburetor.  Either it wasn’t firing or it was firing too often, one of the two, and so Etta’s husband Albert told her to bring their old Dodge Dart down to Iron Joe’s garage.  Iron Joe’s was on the far side of town, but Albert knew the owner and insisted the guy would give them a fair shake. Normally, he’d have been skeptical about letting his wife handle an errand so mechanical in nature, but it was tax season and he just couldn’t do it himself.   Though it was in a run-down, unfamiliar part of town, Etta reluctantly agreed to take the car over. 

She took the car sputtering and backfiring all the way down Central, and following her meticulous notes, turned left on Depot and right on Willard.  She passed a dilapidated newsstand, (the kind that sells magazines of questionable taste), and prayed that the engine would hold out.  By the time she rolled into Iron Joe’s parking lot, the car was coughing up plumes of black smoke.  She could just picture Albert’s reaction if he’d known. “Why the hell didn’t you have it towed there if things got that bad?” he’d say, making her feel incompetent and silly.  Etta had never been good at deciphering when something had crossed a line to being “that bad.”

The mechanic on duty was kind.  He didn’t mention the billowing smoke at all.  Just told her that it’d be a few hours, and asked her if she planned on staying. 

“Well, yes,” Etta said.  It hadn’t occurred to her to make alternative arrangements.  She asked the way to the waiting room, which turned out to be a single folding chair near the register, sandwiched tightly between the cigarette machine and gum.  Etta found the arrangement to be perfectly suitable, as long as she kept her elbows tucked in tight.

For the first hour she kept herself busy by looking through her accordion-style coupon case. She tsked when she saw that her 25-center on Hamburger Helper had just expired. At ShopRite, where they tripled your coupons, she could have gotten some practically for free.   Ahh well, she thought.  Another opportunity lost

She moved on to organize her wallet, smoothing a wad of crumpled bills on her lap.  George Washington stared up at her.  Something about him seemed familiar.  It was only after close inspection that Etta realized how much he resembled an old boyfriend she’d had back when she was a teenager.  Of course their hairstyles were nothing alike, but their mouths were nearly identical. The thought of Robby Wilding made Etta sigh.   Robby was the smartest boy in her English class—sensitive and kind. A boy who’d been so enamored with Etta, that when she was around him, she felt like an altogether different sort of a person. One night on the phone, he confessed to having had a crush on Etta the very first day he laid eyes on her.  He’d seen her from afar, but had known instantly. “What was I doing?”Etta asked, breathlessly. “Who was I with?” Robby couldn’t provide that level of detail.  He did remember sneaking over to her house that very night and carving his initials onto a painted, antique milk can in her front yard.  “That very first night?” she’d asked, nearly frantic with glee. She’d always considered herself somewhat plain, certainly not the type who normally drew that kind of attention. The very prospect thrilled her.  She’d hurried to hang up the phone, and raced outside to find the milk can.  There it sat in a sprawling patch of Black-eyed Susans.  Searching everywhere, Etta finally found his hastily scrawled RW near the base.  She traced the prickly lines with her fingers.  Etched in paint, and filled with teenage angst, it had been her first and only love letter. 

As it turned out, she and Robby only dated for a few months before his family moved away to Montana. The can, however, still remained in Etta’s possession even to this day.  She planted her geraniums in it every summer.  At first it had seemed disloyal to keep it, back in the days when she and Albert were first married, but now she was glad that she had.  The can reminded her that she’d once been desirable, if only to a seventeen-year-old boy, who surely hadn’t known any better.  A boy, Etta shuddered to think, who would be turning sixty any day now.

Sixty.  Etta couldn’t believe it.  She sighed and looked down into her lap.  The bills she’d been holding had fallen into disarray.  She hurried to shuffle them together, making sure to arrange them by descending denomination before slipping them back into the billfold of her wallet.  She checked her watch.  Her wait was not even half over.  Exhaling loudly, she rose from her chair, and purchased a package of peanut butter crackers.

“I think I’ll go for a walk,” she told the cashier, who only stared back blankly at her.  She seemed to evoke that response a lot from people—something that could be described as mild indifference.

A quick right out of the parking lot led her to a string of tired looking shops with faded awnings. The first one had a sign that read Posner’s Engraver’s.  Etta stood nibbling on her crackers while she contemplated the phrasing.  Something didn’t seem quite right.  The two possessives seemed to pose a grammatical problem.  The mistake did not bode well for management.  Next, she passed a store called Trinkets and Treasures.  It was a strange little hodgepodge of a place.  A sterling silver tea service sat on a shelf alongside a shiny purple bowling ball.  Etta thought of going in, maybe browsing a little; she did have a weakness for bric-a-brac, but in the end she decided against it.  Dusting already took up most of her Thursdays, she reasoned, and moved on. She was nearing the end of the block and about to turn back when she saw a sign posted on the door of a seemingly vacant storefront. 

Invitation to Life Seminar – Free- All Are Welcome

Etta’s interest was piqued.  She liked the idea of a seminar; the word itself thrilled her, sounding as important as a caucus or a summit. Suddenly Etta imagined herself as less of a disgruntled housewife, and more of a diplomat.  And wasn’t that just what she needed too?  An invitation to get started on her life, instead of just simply waiting around for something to happen? Imagine Albert’s reaction, she thought, when he asked her about her day over dinner that night.He’d be expecting some boring story about a 2 for 1 sale over at Shoprite, when she’d let it slip about the fascinating seminar she’d attended, and watch his jaw drop.  The very image of Albert’s stunned expression was so pleasing that it made Etta stop and rest one hand on the door knob.  But what if it’s some kind of trap?  she worried, picturing herself being bound and gagged by a group of religious zealots.  Oh, but a seminar, she countered, and in a moment of unprecedented bravery, she went in.

A series of cardboard arrows led Etta down a narrow stairway and around several corners until she finally reached a basement clearing.  For a long moment, she hung back, silently observing.  The drop ceiling had several tiles missing, and along the far side of the wall were stacks of unused, dusty chairs.  A portly, red-haired woman stood at the front of the room next to a faded green chalkboard.  The woman, who was clearly the teacher, was dressed in a floral caftan, the kind of garment sold at discount stores for larger women. Her wide feet spilled out over the edges of her embroidered velvet slippers, and her hands, which she gestured with frequently, were covered with yellow chalk dust.  Occasionally, the teacher bent down to glance at her written materials, which she kept stacked atop an old wooden crate.  The informal set up came as a disappointment to Etta, who had been hoping that her invitation to life might include a podium.

Though the room was nothing fancy, the teacher seemed to hold the undivided attention of her pupils, who sat in a single row of chairs with wrap-around desks.  There were three students all together: a grey haired man with a cane resting against one knee, a young woman with a baby in one of those portable car seats at her feet, and an enormously tall man, whose legs were so long, that he needed to keep them extended out in front of him, in order to keep his knees from hitting the desktop. As the instructor turned to write something on the board, she looked over to see Etta waiting in the wings.

“Excellent!  Another student,” she trilled, motioning for Etta to take a seat next to the young mother, right in the center of the front row. 

Etta paused.  Center seat of the front row seemed like an awfully big commitment, but yet leaving now, after she had already been spotted would be even more unthinkable.  Etta silently slipped into her chair while the class made a series of brief introductions. The young mother’s name was Jennifer, and she gave Etta a small smile while absentmindedly shaking a rattle in her baby’s direction, the tall man’s name was William, he had a distinguished air about him, and the old man’s name was Barney. 

“I’m going to ask you a question,” the teacher, who had introduced herself as Miss Marjorie, said.  She was handing out squares of paper and pre-sharpened golf pencils.

“You’ll have five seconds to record your answers, and I give you my solemn word that your answers will remain completely anonymous.”  Miss Marjorie emphasized this point by putting one hand up in a scout’s honor position before using the other to turn an imaginary key before her tightly sealed lips. 

“Write the first thing that comes to mind. Ready?”

Etta grabbed her pencil and watched it quivering as it hovered over the page.

“If you could change one thing about your life, what would it be?” Miss Marjorie prompted.  “GO!”

Etta’s pencil started moving spontaneously, as though it had a mind of its own.  Milliseconds later, she was flipping the paper over.  On the underside, in large looping letters, she had written the word MARRIAGE.   The answer had surprised even Etta herself.  It wasn’t as though the union were a blatant failure; she and Albert weren’t bickerers and he’d certainly never laid a hand on her.  Until now, she might have described the relationship as mildly disappointing.

“TIME!” Miss Marjorie screeched, and she scurried to collect the slips in a paper sack.  Etta wasn’t certain she felt comfortable turning her innermost thoughts over to a complete stranger.   “Come on now,” Miss Marjorie goaded, clearly picking up on her reticence. “Privacy killed the cat.”

Etta was fairly sure that it was curiosity that had led to the cat’s demise, but maybe her instructor was making a point.  Maybe an inordinate need for privacy could be equally toxic given the right circumstances.  In fact maybe Miss Marjorie, in her Walmart housecoat and Payless slippers, had gotten to the very root of Etta’s problem. Maybe she was too self-contained.  Etta glanced sideways at Jennifer, the young mother next to her, who virtually popped her paper into the bag, seemingly without a second thought.  How nice to be so implicitly trusting of the world.  Etta imagined Jennifer living a joyous and carefree life, listing her full name in the phonebook, and picking up random hitchhikers on a passing whim.  Tentatively, Etta added her own carefully folded square to the paper sack.

Miss Marjorie read the slips to herself.  “Well, that’s never happened before,” she mumbled. Etta and a few of the others cocked their heads in question. “You all wrote down the same thing,” she explained bluntly.  So much for Miss Marjorie’s pledge of anonymity.

Etta felt the blood rush to her head.  Miss Marjorie said not to worry, that this only meant that she could tailor the class to meet their needs very specifically.  Apparently the lecture hadn’t been planned beforehand.  Etta considered this cause for suspicion and was glad when William, the tall man, inquired what Miss Marjorie’s qualifications were to offer marriage advice.

“I am a seasoned actress William,” she answered.  “I deal in the human condition, which means that I understand people… their frailties…what makes them tick.” After a few seconds of uncomfortable silence Miss Marjorie lifted a finger and added,   “Once a man with a loaded gun broke into my home with the full intention of murdering me. Instead I made him a scrambled egg and convinced him to turn himself in to the police.” After another dramatic pause she said, “I know how to connect with people. I can teach you how to connect with your spouse again.”

Miss Marjorie turned away from them then, as though the matter were closed for discussion, and for the next hour she offered some of the most unorthodox advice Etta had ever heard.  Their first lesson was on how to laugh at their spouse’s jokes.  Laughing at a person’s jokes, her teacher said, was a form of generosity.  It created goodwill.

“Now listen carefully, because there’s a right way to do this.”  Miss Marjorie bent down and contorted her face as though suppressing a laugh.  “You see, you haven’t been getting along, right?  So it’s natural that your laugh will not come bellowing forth.  Instead, your laugh will escape from you, as if by accident.”  Miss Marjorie demonstrated.  “This kind of unintended laugh will be very satisfying to your partner.”

Etta raised her hand.  “Isn’t this all a little deceitful?  I mean shouldn’t we be working on being honest with each other, instead of play acting?”

Miss Marjorie gave her a dull stare.  “Sometimes, benevolence is more important than honesty.” 

Etta was shocked to learn that Miss Marjorie intended for each of them to get up in front of the class and demonstrate their laughs.  They were to stand up in pairs.  One of them was to simply utter the phrase, “Duck, Duck, Goose,” to which their partner was instructed to “unleash” their laughter.  Jennifer, the young mother, was paired with Barney, the older gentleman, and mercifully, they were asked to go first.  Jennifer’s was a giddy, self-conscious laugh that Etta didn’t find at all convincing.  Barney’s performance was even worse.  Too pronounced, Etta decided. Too obvious.

When it was her turn to stand in front with William, she wanted to bolt from the room, but couldn’t summon her legs to move.  Reluctantly she stood up, her palms sweating and her knees shaking wildly.  “Duck, Duck, Goose,” she fairly whispered.  William looked her right in the eyes.  A slow smile crept across his face and he let go a low, rumbling laugh so convincing that Etta began to wonder if there had been something really unique about her Duck, Duck Goose delivery after all.  The thought filled her with satisfaction, and without even planning it, she found herself blushing, turning her head away, and giggling shyly in response.

“THAT’S IT!”  Miss Marjorie bellowed, pointing her finger in Etta’s direction. “ERTHA HAS GOT IT DOWN PERFECTLY!”

After such a bold endorsement, Etta didn’t have the heart to tell Miss Marjorie that she’d gotten her name wrong.  If she needed to go by Ertha for the remainder of the class, so be it.

Towards the end of the lecture, Miss Marjorie retreated to the back of the room, where she pried open the brass lock of a nearby trunk. Reaching inside, she produced four dusty boxes and set them on the table, informing her students that there were “novelty items” inside.

“Don’t open them up until you get home,” she said.  “It will spoil the mystique.”

The contents of the boxes varied, although she guaranteed that each would provide fodder for their spouse’s jokes.  The students were to simply set their new acquisitions on their kitchen tables and wait for a response.  Their homework assignment for the week was to perfect their reactions to the jokes, the way they had practiced in class.

Homework? Etta hadn’t realized that the class was ongoing.

“How much?”  Barney, the old man, said, pointing at the box. 

“Twenty dollars,” Miss Marjorie said, “I’m selling them to you practically at cost.”  None of the students moved.

Twenty dollars seemed like a lot for a novelty item, especially one that she wasn’t going to be permitted to see first, but after all, the seminar had been free.

Etta eyed the boxes with curiosity.  The last time she had made a blind purchase like this was as a child, at the Greenville Town Fair from an enormous woman called “Mrs. Pockets.”  Mrs. Pockets wore a tent-like gown, not unlike Miss Marjorie’s, except that hers was covered in multi-colored pouches.  For a nickel, you could choose any pocket you liked, and the prize within it was yours.   Etta remembered how thrilled she had been with her set of wax lips, but equally exciting was the mystery of it all.  Mystery was definitely something that was lacking in her life these days.

“I’ll take one,” she said, rising up from her chair.

“Ooh, she’s a brave one,” William crooned, and the rest of the class nodded approvingly.  For the second time that day, Etta felt herself blush.

She left the seminar with her prize safely tucked under one arm.  She had been noncommittal (though secretly pleased) when Miss Marjorie asked if she could expect her “star pupil” the following Wednesday.  Apparently, the class was to run for five weeks.  Etta was well aware that Miss Marjorie could be some sort of huckster, and yet, a part of her yearned to go back.   She had experienced such a range of emotions in the one hour, from fear, to elation, to curiosity.  Etta wasn’t accustomed to having so many different feelings piggybacked together like that.  Somehow, she felt stretched

Back at the garage, the mechanic was just finishing up with the car.  He warned her about an unrelated problem with the back axle, and recommended that she make an appointment to get it taken care of as soon as possible.

“I’ll tell my husband,” she promised, and hurried out to her car.  She couldn’t wait to get home and open her box.

Once in her kitchen, Etta cast off her coat and immediately began tearing at the cardboard packaging.  Inside she found a tightly wrapped ball of tissue paper.  Hastily, she peeled off layer after layer, until she finally came to what she was looking for.

It was some sort of strange-looking doll, with unkempt, fluorescent-pink hair and an unfortunate nose.  Motion Activated Troll Doll, the package said.  Apparently, if you clapped or waved your hand in front of it, the doll would dance and sing.  Etta was irritated to find that she couldn’t test this immediately.   For twenty dollars, she would have expected the batteries to be included.  Judging from the troll’s costume (it was wearing a grass skirt and holding a ukulele) Etta guessed that it would probably be performing something Hawaiian.  Nervously, she went to retrieve two AA’s from the hall closet.  Suddenly it seemed as though the entire fate of her marriage rested in the hands of a five- inch plastic figurine.  She inserted the batteries and listened tentatively while the troll serenaded her with I’ve Got a Lovely Bunch of Coconuts.  Was it funny?  Etta couldn’t tell. 

Albert arrived home late from work that night.  Etta busied herself in the kitchen, her laugh at the ready.  When Albert tossed his keys onto the table as usual, the troll burst into song, but Albert was already halfway out the door, leafing through a stack of bills as he sauntered away.

“Goddamnit!” he muttered, “The phone company’s overcharged us again.”

As let down as Etta felt, she still doggedly pursued a reaction.  She wedged the troll between the salt and pepper at dinner, and tried stationing it next to Albert’s toothbrush at night.  The problem, as Etta saw it, was in how consistently preoccupied Albert was.  She’d never noticed how extreme the situation had become.  At any given moment, he seemed to be reading a paper, reviewing the bills, or watching television.

After three days without any reaction, Etta was ready to give up, when something happened that she wasn’t expecting.  It was Saturday, which was Etta’s laundry day.  She had collected Albert’s pile of socks and underwear, and was lifting the lid of the washing machine, when a familiar noise jumped out at her.  There at the base of the well was the gyrating troll.  How in the world?  Etta wondered, and then she realized how, and smiled.  And to think he never even gave the slightest indication of noticing the thing.

Finding the troll reminded her of an earlier time, when she and Albert were first dating.  They’d played a silly game that involved surprising the other with a rubber cockroach. How the game started, Etta couldn’t recall now, but it had gone much the same way, with one of them hiding the bug and waiting for the other to find it unexpectedly.  Albert had been better at the game, as he showed a great deal more restraint.  Sometimes he waited months before springing the cockroach on her, and this really led to a much bigger surprise.

One Christmas, at least six months after the last insect sighting, Albert presented her with a small, carefully wrapped package.  Inside was the cockroach, which of course made Etta scream and laugh, but underneath it was an engagement ring.  Come to think of it, the very presentation had been part of the reason she’d said yes.  She’d had fun with Albert.  Etta shut the lid of the washing machine, not knowing what surprised her more, the fact that she and Albert used to have fun, or the fact that she’d forgotten.  Well I’ll be, she thought, and silently crept downstairs to the garage where she set the troll on top of the lawnmower.

Spurred on by success, Etta decided to return to the seminar the following Wednesday.  Albert wanted the back axle repaired anyway, and what with Iron Joe’s opening on Wednesday, it only made sense to take it then.   An excited Etta dropped off the car, nearly skipping all the way to class.   Miss Marjorie greeted her in a new, magenta caftan, but with the same velvet slippers as before.  She enveloped Etta in a warm embrace, and whispered in her ear.

“So glad you could come Ertha,” she crooned, “we need your energy here.”

Etta never corrected her teacher.  The truth was she liked the idea of assuming a new identity once a week, and what’s more, this new version of her name, with the r in the middle, gave it a sort of growl that she was partial to.  Before the start of class William stuck out his hand to re-introduce himself.   “I’m terrible with names,” he confessed.

Etta embraced the moment.  “I’m Ertha,” she said, and then there was no going back.

Once they were all seated, out came a new batch of papers and pencils.  Etta worried that they’d be expected to reveal more secrets today, but thankfully she was wrong.

“Tell me three things that your spouse does well,” their teacher commanded. 

Etta thought hard and wrote down “yard work, bill paying, and crossword puzzles.”

Their assignment for the week, Miss Marjorie said, was to pick one of these talents to brag about to an outside party.  It was crucial, she explained, that their spouses should overhear them doing this.  They should arrange to be on the phone in mid-brag when their partner entered the room.  Barney and some of the others became so befuddled trying to decide who their contact person should be, that Miss Marjorie finally said it would be alright to just fake the phone call.  Etta pictured herself expounding on Albert’s qualities to a dial tone and cringed.  She raised her hand.

“We could always call each other,” she suggested.  Miss Marjorie thought this was an excellent idea, and had them exchange telephone numbers on the spot.

At the end of class their teacher pulled out a new set of mystery boxes.   The price this time was thirty dollars.  Once again Etta plunked down her payment, and considered it money well spent. The boxes turned out to contain some sort of headgear, which they were to attach to their phones.  Etta never learned why these were needed, but by then she had begun to trust Miss Marjorie’s instincts.

Once Etta had the gadgetry fully assembled, the phone seemed to ring non-stop.  The first call came from Jennifer. “Well you know how handy Bob is,” she said, before Etta even had a chance to say hello. “That man can fix anything.”  

A few minutes afterwards, William called to tell about his wife’s green thumb.  During dinner, the phone rang again.

“My Shirley is the best damn cook this side of the Mississippi!”  Barney barked in her ear.

Albert, who was busy cutting his rump roast while reading the newspaper, looked up.  He eyed Ettas’s headgear, (which she had worn to the table so as not to miss any important calls).

 “You got a family reunion coming up?” he asked.  Etta understood the question immediately.  Once a year, while planning her family’s reunion, she received a similar flurry of phone calls, usually from various cousins calling to make arrangements.

“These are classmates from that life seminar I told you about,” Etta said.  (She had described the seminar in the briefest of terms, never revealing the emphasis on marriage counseling).  

“Oh,” Albert said.  He raised one perplexed eyebrow, a man on the verge of asking a question. Then he thought better of it and turned back to the sports page. 

After dinner, Etta cleared the dishes and prepared to make her own call.  Albert was in the adjoining den and was definitely within earshot.  She dialed Jennifer’s number and went through the required pleasantries, but then she got down to business.

 “I’d be absolutely useless if the yard was up to me,” she said, quite out of the blue.  

“ ‘Course Albert does all of that.”  Etta walked a few steps closer towards the den. “He lays down that grub killer and even pokes those holes in the lawn, what do they call that?  Percolating the soil?” 

“Aerating!” Albert yelled in from the den. 

Etta smiled.  “Oh that’s right aerating.  See what I mean?” she said loudly.  “He’s practically an expert.”

Later, when Etta was at the sink scrubbing the roast pan, Albert came into the kitchen and leaned over her to get a glass out of the cupboard.  He stretched one hand upwards and rested his other on the small of her back.  It was the tiniest of gestures, and it was probably strictly for the purpose of keeping his balance, but still it made Etta wonder.

The phone calls continued throughout the week, with the compliments slowly growing more meaningful over time.  Jennifer confessed that her husband was better with the baby than she was, and Barney told about how his wife had once hocked her wedding ring to help him settle a gambling debt.  Sometimes, when they called, Albert would answer the phone.

 “It’s for you Ertha,” he’d say, clearly pleased with his little joke.  She’d had no choice but to tell Albert about the name mix-up, and he seemed to find the situation entertaining. 

All in all, it had been a successful week.  The troll had turned up once more; (she’d found it in the crock pot when attempting to make the Sunday stew, only to place it directly back into Albert’s shaving kit), and for several nights in a row Albert had come to the table without his newspaper. While the progress may have seemed small to some, Etta considered it progress just the same. She counted the days until her next class.

On the third Wednesday, Miss Marjorie taught them to meditate.  “What does meditation have to do with marriage?” Jennifer wanted to know.  Miss Marjorie said that to make an adequate half of a relationship, a person must be whole on their own.  According to Miss Marjorie, meditation would help them to achieve this state of totality.  They sat cross-legged on the floor, where everyone (with the exception of Barney) was able to find their “sitz bones.”  Miss Marjorie lit scented candles and instructed them to “go to the place where they were accepted.”  Jennifer shared later that she had gone to her sister’s house, and William said he went to his mother’s kitchen.  Etta was embarrassed to reveal her own choice.   After much deliberation she had decided to stay right there in Miss Marjorie’s basement.

She left class that day with a forty dollar mystery box; a box that turned out to contain enough candles for her to “build her own sanctuary.”  She set up shop in her sewing room, putting candles on every available surface, and placing a towel on the floor in the center of the room.  Every morning she sat on it, breathed deeply, and practiced the chants Miss Marjorie had taught her.

“What no headgear today?” Albert asked her once, while passing by.

“Headgear is not permitted in the sanctuary,” Etta told him gravely. 

Albert chuckled all the way to the kitchen.  Three days later when she came to do her meditation, she found the troll occupying her spot on the towel.

The following week they were assigned the task of mimicking their spouse’s mannerisms and favorite expressions.  Imitation, it seemed, was another form of flattery.  Miss Marjorie called it “mirroring” and said it explained why couples with a strong emotional connection began to look alike. 

Physically, Etta and Albert were practically opposites. Etta had straw-colored hair and a complexion so fair, she’d once been nicknamed “Beyond the Pale.” Albert, on the other hand, had hair that was almost black, and tanned so easily that an aunt of Etta’s had once referred to him as “that nice Egyptian fellow.” The prospect of the two of them ever looking alike seemed preposterous, and Etta voiced her concerns. 

Miss Marjorie sniffed. “The emotional connection is what we’re focusing on, dear.” She pulled an artist’s pallet and a glass of water, seemingly out of thin air and flicked a glob of yellow, and then blue paint into the clear liquid. “Our spirits emit auras with distinctive shades,” she said. “A scientific fact that I’m sure you’re all aware of.”

Barney nodded, somberly.

“The colors of two people’s auras can blend together, with a little coaxing. It’s a process I like to call empathic blending.” She swirled the contents of the glass, and held it up high.

Etta hadn’t ever heard of such things as auras, and suspected that Barney hadn’t either, but she was mesmerized by the tornado of yellow and blue, dancing around each other, intertwining, until they finally formed the most beautiful, verdant green.

Back at home, Etta tried her best on the assignment, but honestly wasn’t sure how successful mimicking Albert had been. She spent the better part of the week slamming cupboard doors and muttering obscenities.  Albert seemed more perplexed than flattered by the behavior, and Etta wasn’t sure if there’d been the slightest bit of aura blending.  Regardless of this minor setback, Etta remained upbeat.  It hadn’t been a total loss.  Their boxes had contained lovely hand held mirrors.  Besides, that was the week that she started getting together with some of her fellow students outside of class.

On Friday, Barney called and asked if she could give him a lift to visit his sister in a nearby nursing home.  Etta knew that Barney didn’t drive anymore (a senior van picked him up from class each week), and so she said she’d be happy to take him over. It turned out to be a lovely afternoon; they had a nice chat on the drive over, and Etta had even gone in to visit the sister, who was the spitting image of Barney, but with longer hair.

The next day Jennifer called to see if Etta would like to join her and the baby for a walk.  They went to the park, where they took the stroller up and down the paved pathways, chasing every squirrel that the little girl pointed to.

“Do you have kids?” Jennifer asked, as they walked along. Etta and Albert had been desperate for children, but after several unsuccessful pregnancies, (the last one life-threatening), Albert begged her to stop trying.

“We have a cat,” Etta answered. A memory rushed forward—Albert holding a cardboard box with a kitten inside, his eyes searching Etta’s, checking to see if he’d done the right thing.

“Meow!” said the baby, who had clearly been listening. They all laughed.

Etta hated to see the afternoon come to an end.   “See you Wednesday!” Jennifer called out her car window, as she was driving away.  Yes, Etta thought happily.  See you Wednesday.

Her weeks had taken on a certain structure that she found reassuring. It was only later, that she realized with regret, that the seminar would soon be coming to a close.  Miss Marjorie had said five weeks, which meant that they only had one last session together.  William called beforehand, and suggested that they all go out for lunch afterwards, as a sort of graduation celebration.  Etta thought it was an excellent idea.  Grandma’s Country Kitchen was just down the road, and Barney had recommended their tuna melts.

Their final lecture dealt with outside threats.  “When a country goes to war,” Miss Marjorie explained, “the citizens within generally stop bickering and become unified.”  She felt that these same dynamics could occur within a marriage.  If they could somehow arrange to be threatened or hurt by an outside party, she assured them that their spouse would quickly come to their defense. Barney reminded her that spikes in patriotism were often short lived.

“I’m well aware of that Barney,” she said, and she gave him a stern look.  “Remember, what we’re trying to do here is to build positive momentum within your relationships.  Ultimately you people will be responsible for keeping the ball rolling.”  Miss Marjorie said that outside threats could go a long way towards rebuilding intimacy, even inducing protectiveness and physical contact.

“Albert hasn’t given me a real hug in years,” Etta said wistfully.

While Barney remained skeptical, Jennifer became quite enthused by the idea of an outside threat, and suggested that they phone each other pretending to be bill collectors or obscene callers.  William wondered if a fender bender might be in order.  Miss Marjorie said that the right idea would come, and took out their two hundred dollar mystery boxes.

“Two hundred dollars!” Barney protested.

“The Grand finale,” Miss Marjorie assured them.

Some had to run to the bank across the street for the cash, but none of them even considered skipping that last purchase. They collected their final boxes at the door, each student hugging Miss Marjorie goodbye on the way out.  Over at Grandma’s Country Kitchen they all ordered tuna melts with four cups of steaming black coffee.  It was Barney who suggested that they open their boxes together.

“What, here?” Etta asked.  The opening of her mystery box had become somewhat of a sacred ritual.

“Why not?” Barney answered.

Etta felt silly explaining, though she thought she noticed that the others were somewhat tentative as well.

“I’ll start,” Barney offered, and nobody protested.  He pried the box open, and began unraveling the mass of tissue paper within.  Slowly he removed layer after layer, the suspense growing steadily all the while.

“Good things come in small packages,” William said excitedly, when the tissued mass had shrunk to the size of an egg. 

When Barney unraveled the final section, there was a brief moment of stunned silence.

“There’s nothing there,” Etta said stupidly, before rummaging through his discarded papers.

“Did it fall to the floor?” William asked, trying to be helpful.  Everybody bent down to look under the table, but all they found were their own feet.

“Check yours,” Barney said urgently, and they did.

“Empty,” they took turns saying, one after the other.

Etta couldn’t believe it.  “So she strung us along, to get what, an extra eight hundred dollars out of us?”

“I never trusted her,” Barney muttered.

“No wonder she wouldn’t join us for lunch afterwards,” William said. “I should’ve known she was making excuses. A clay cleanse? What does that even mean? People don’t eatclay, do they?” Nobody answered the question—the four of them suddenly feeling ill-equipped when it came to predicting the limits of human behavior.

“Maybe we should run back and see if we can catch her,” Jennifer offered, but nobody got up.  They knew she wouldn’t be there, just as they knew they’d never be able to track her down.  Barney astutely pointed out that after all that time they’d never even learned her last name.

Etta drove home feeling ridiculous and naïve.  Who would follow a set of cardboard signs into a basement anyway?  A bunch of desperate souls ripe for the taking, she decided.  Miss Marjorie had practically hand picked them. It was hard to believe that she had felt so adventurous and filled-up only hours before.  One empty box later and she was fully deflated. 

As soon as Etta got home she sank into a kitchen chair with her coat still on.  So it was all a big hoax, she thought. The sobs erupted unexpectedly and Etta quickly buried her face in her hands.  She never heard Albert enter the room.

“What’s wrong?” he asked worriedly.  “Is your mother OK?”

Choking out her answer, Etta told him about Miss Marjorie being a con artist and her box being empty.

Albert didn’t ask what box, or why it was important. He had always been a man of few words, and today Etta was glad of it.  Instead he did the unexpected.  He took his wife into his arms and held her, for what seemed like a very long time.


BIO

Alison Bullock‘s short fiction has appeared in Halfway Down the Stairs, Anti-Heroin Chic, Every Day Fiction, Boston Literary Magazine, Mississippi Crow, and the Momaya Annual Review. She was a finalist for one of Glimmertrain’s short fiction contests. She lives in Massachusetts. 

© Anne Jones Photography

Kerplunk

By Jennifer Makowsky


Today when I see our weekly list of clients and their pictures, I get excited about a man named Heinrich Garby because he looks like my father.  I run down to the morgue to find Mr. Defazio. He’s puttering around, pulling up his pants over his big belly and looking around like he often does when he doesn’t know what else to do with himself. It’s like he’s lost. It’s a sunny Saturday morning, but it could be midnight down here with the florescent lighting and lack of windows. I hold up the list with the guy’s picture, trying to fight the smile forming on my mouth. Adrenalin is zipping around inside me, but I try to ignore it and look serious.

“Mr. Defazio, I would like to do the make up for this man,” I say in my most sincere voice, standing up straight.

Mr. Defazio stops puttering and comes forward, squinting at the photograph. Then he looks at me with a scrunched forehead. “What, do you have something against this guy? You seem awfully excited, Elizabeth.”

He can always read me. I’m sure the look of excitement is all over my face despite trying to look grave. I’ve always had a hard time suppressing my facial expressions.

“No, it’s just,” I pause and then spit it out. “He looks like my father.”

The perplexed look doesn’t leave Mr. Defazio’s face, so I elaborate. “I know it sounds weird, but my dad disappeared ten years ago.”

“Disappeared? You told me he passed away.”

“I just said that because I didn’t want to talk about it. But it’s like he’s dead because he just vanished one day. Poof!” I throw the fingers of both hands out. “Like a magician waved a wand.”

The look Mr. Defazio gives me is one I am expecting. It isn’t one of sympathy. It teeters on disdain. He acts hard and embittered and hates tears and emotion. He says it’s because he’s from Jersey, but I know it’s really because he masks his emotions with other emotions that are easier for him to express. When his wife Mora was living, she had been a crier. Everything made her burst into tears. This made Mr. Defazio mad. I often wonder why he went into the funeral business when he hates tears so much. Sometimes he excuses himself from speaking with the clients of a funeral we are handling and goes down into the morgue and kicks the bottom drawers. There are dent marks from his shoes lining the bottom of one drawer in particular. It’s gotten worse since Mora died.

“Vanished?”

 “Well it felt that way.” I say. “He sent a letter a year later. He took off with some woman he’d been having an affair with. Last I heard, he was in California.”

Mr. Dafazio raises his eyes to the ceiling. “Always with the dramatics,” he says, putting his palms up in exasperation and then slapping them down on his thighs. “I thought you meant he went missing for real. Like the police were involved.”

I shrug. “Doing this guy’s makeup might give me some closure.”

He lets out a grunt and shakes his head, rubbing the back of his neck. “It’s not an easy case, Elizabeth. You might be better off letting me do it. Pretty grim, if you ask me.”

“What happened to him?”

“The guy worked for a local nursery. He was moving a Saguaro for the city over on the East Side when it fell on him. The thing weighed close to 3,000 pounds. And you can imagine the way it left him with all those spines in it. Not a pretty sight, Elizabeth.”

I remember seeing a story on the local news about it. Man Crushed by Cactus or something.

Occasionally Mr. Defazio lets me do the make up for the “tough“ cases although he does most of them himself. These are the victims of car accidents and gunshots with open wounds and lacerations that need layers of special makeup and powders. I’ve never seen someone crushed by a cactus.

I make a steeple with my hands as if I’m praying. “It could really help me.”

He sighs. “Fine. But you’re going to need tweezers and a lot of patience.”

He turns and shuffles toward the stairs to leave, but stops and puts his hands on his hips and looks at the floor, his back to me. “You’re a damn good desairologist. The best. Besides me, of course.”

A desairologist is the technical name for what I do. I never use it though. It sounds too formal like I’m a scientist or doctor. When someone asks me what I do for a living, I tell them I give dead people their color back before they bow out of the world for good. Before I did this, I was a hair stylist. One day after my then-client, Louisa, dropped dead of a stroke, her husband walked into the salon where I worked and asked if I’d do Louisa’s hair one last time, and her make-up. Luckily, I’ve always been good with cosmetics. I guess having once been a goth paid off.  All those years of using white pancake makeup and layering eye shadow weren’t for nothing. I now know how to blend and spread foundation like paint into a canvas. It isn’t lost on me that my skill at making people look alive comes from trying to make myself look dead years ago. Anyway, I made Louisa look almost better than she looked in life. After that, I signed up for mortuary school and never looked back. Since then I’ve been hanging out in the back of the 90-year-old building downtown six—sometimes seven—days a week, tinting blue lips pink and putting the last curls into women’s hair. When I’m not doing aesthetic work, I’m assisting Mr. Defazio with a bunch of other stuff—ordering caskets, memory cards, and flowers.  In a way, I’ve become his partner since Mora died.

Monday morning, after Mr. Garby’s family gives the okay, Mr. Defazio embalms Mr. Garby’s body and then finds me in the front office.

“He’s all yours, Elizabeth. Good luck with all that.” He shakes his head and makes a dismissive gesture with his hand as if he’s tossed out a dirty Kleenex.  I nod resolutely, standing up and wiping the palms of my hands on my jeans. I am excited to give Mr. Garby his last coat of shine, but a little nervous as I take Mr. Garby’s photograph from the desk and head downstairs to the morgue.

Mr. Garby is waiting for me on the metal table, dressed in a pair of Levis and a blue and black cowboy shirt. The outfit is fitting, so to speak, because my father wore Levis religiously and had a couple cowboy shirts in his wardrobe. Mr. Garby doesn’t look bad for being killed by a 3,000-pound Saguaro. As I step closer to him, I see his face is rosy from the embalming, but is perforated with dozens of thick cactus spines. His blondish gray hair has been combed out by Mr. Defazio, but there are still spines twisted through it and little clumps of dirt.

Before I get to his face, I cut Mr. Garby’s nails. It’s a myth that your hair and nails keep growing after you die. Your skin retracts, so they appear longer. But Mr. Garby’s are a little long to start with and there’s dirt beneath some of them. With his hand in mine, I start to talk to him. This is not unusual. I talk to the dead when I’m working on them.

“Hi, it’ me, Elizabeth,” I say, looking at the embroidery in his shirt—red flowers stitched into navy fabric. My father had one with a similar pattern but the flowers were green. I take a breath and just launch in, mid-story. ”I no longer have roommates. I bought a house,” I switch hands and begin cutting the nails of Mr. Garby’s other hand. My heart has sped up and feels like a throbbing fist in my throat. “And no, I’m not married. I haven’t met the one.“ I pause and click my tongue. “Remember how you were always telling me to dump Mike Tinnerson because you thought I was too good for him? Well I did it. Finally.”

I begin to scoop the dirt out of Mr. Garby’s nails with the end of the nail scissors and think of Mike Tinnerson who I dated when I was nineteen and going to cosmetology school. He was the last guy I dated before my father cut town. When I was with Mike, he would call me fat and openly check out other women. But when I wasn’t with him, he would whine when I stayed home to study instead of hang out with him in his father’s basement watching The Price is Right and getting stoned. My father used to call him “The Tin Man.”  When are you going to dump that rusty Tin Man? he used to say with an exasperated huff. You’re far too good for him, Beth.

After my father left, I fell into a depression and pulled the plug on that relationship. In a way, my father leaving opened up my world. I began cutting assholes out of my life right and left. Like an asshole-swiping ninja. It wasn’t lost on me that my father was acting like an asshole himself.

“Anyway, mom really lost it after you left. She must have used half her settlement from the divorce to get plastic surgery. I can’t say I blame her. Men can just go off and find a younger woman if they want. Any woman, really. Women her age are limited as to what they have left to pick from. Unless they look young.” I stop as a shot of panic ripples through my chest.  For a moment I hear my mother telling me to get out there and find someone before all the good ones are gone. I shake the thought almost as quickly as it crosses my mind and continue. “Anyway, she had a facelift and breast implants put in.”

I take the tweezers and begin plucking the large Saguaro spines out of Mr. Garby’s face, but there are smaller ones that require the magnifying loupe glasses we use when we need to see every last detail of something. “It’s been years since we heard anything from you. Did you ever marry what’s-her-name? Actually I know her name because I did some cyber stalking. I know Erica’s a makeup artist. Like me,” I pause and let out a tight laugh. “Well not like me. She works on living people in Hollywood or some shallow bullshit like that.”

I feel my throat tighten with anger and stop. At the same time, the door at the top of the morgue stairs opens, followed by the sound of Mr. DeFazio’s heels banging down the stairs. I pause with the tweezers in my hand. I know that angry descent. He walks by me without looking, around to the other side of the wall where most of the morgue drawers are. In a few seconds I can almost hear him kicking the bottom drawers before it actually happens.

When he settles down, I yell over the wall, “I take it your last client was a crier?”

The shuffle of Mr. Defazio’s shoes gets louder as he rounds the wall with an exasperated look like he’s just run a marathon. There are beads of sweat dripping down his forehead that he’s dabbing with a white handkerchief.

“What is it with people and all the emotion, all the drama?”

I laugh and say in a sarcastic tone. “You’re never dramatic, are you?”

“Well I’m not emotional!” he yells, giving the closest bottom drawer a swift kick.

“Not at all,” I say.

He groans and puts his hands on his hips, looks at Mr. Garby, and shakes his head wearily. “I don’t understand it, Elizabeth. This guy’s just moving a cactus on the East Side, doing his job, and then goes kerplunk, killed by a cactus of all things. I was just talking to a woman upstairs whose husband went kerplunk—just like that—working on the job. Mora went kerplunk doing her job—God rest her soul. Who’s next? Are you gonna find me down here one day kerplunked?” He walks towards the stairs again, looking up at the door, shaking his head. “I don’t know how God sleeps at night.”

After he leaves, I turn back to my father, I mean Mr. Garby, and get close to his forehead where there are still several larger Saguaro spines that need plucking. “His wife, Mora,” I say, “was upstairs with a local florist placing an order when she suffered a massive heart attack and died instantly at the front desk. I wasn’t there, thank god, but Mr. Defazio has mentioned her going kerplunk upstairs almost weekly for the past few weeks. I think because the anniversary of her death is tomorrow. If Mr. Defazio ever keels over on the job it will because all that rage will take hold of him and give him a coronary.” I sigh a long sigh that feels like it’s been sitting inside me all stuffed up for years. “I was angry for a while. Angry at you, which made me angry at a lot of things. But I’ve been feeling better lately. Maybe because I started seeing a good therapist. And I’ve been venting—telling all the other dead people down here about how pissed I am at you.”

The door at the top of the stairs opens again and the sound of footsteps clomping down the stairs makes me stop in mid-pluck and look up. Mr. Defazio is standing at the bottom of the stairs looking at me like he has something he wants to say. But he remains quiet, rubbing his belly like a pregnant woman.

“Back so soon? Did you forget something?”

He looks beyond me for a moment and then snaps to. “Yeah, yeah, I think I forgot my phone down here. I can’t find it.”

He putters around.

“I haven’t seen it,” I call over my shoulder.

I shrug as if I’m telling Mr. Garby What the heck is up with him? Mr. Defazio rarely forgets anything. As he’s walking around, half-poking around the drawers, he begins to whistle. That’s something he does a lot. He whistles the theme to The Andy Griffith Show and Colombo, the theme to The X Files, the love theme to The Godfather, which was his and Mora’s song.  Right now, that’s what he’s whistling as he’s pacing back and forth, not really looking for anything anymore.

“I wonder what God does this,” he finally says. “That woman up there was pretty broken up. Her husband was operating a forklift and had a heart attack. Only forty years old. What kind of God, Elizabeth? What kind of God?”

I put the tweezers down. “You got me, Mr. Defazio. What kind of God lets a lot of the shit happen that happens in the world?”

I’ve never seen him like this. He’s rubbing the back of his neck and looking at the floor. Normally, he would have come down and kicked the bottom row of drawers while shouting some cuss words in Italian before going upstairs again.

“Have you ever thought of therapy?” I ask.

“Thought of it?” He wrinkles his heavy, dark brow. “Like how?”

“I mean thought of going to therapy? It might help you sort some things out. It’s helped me a lot.”

“Come on, Elizabeth. I’m not crazy.”

“I know you’re not crazy. I’m not crazy either.”

He walks over to the table where I’m standing above Mr. Garby. “Well, you’re down here talking to this man like he’s your father.” 

“Ha ha ha,” I say in a deadpan tone. “Try it. The dead are great listeners and you don’t have to pay them. It might help.”

He looks down at Mr. Garby for a beat longer than he normally would. He holds his hand out and gestures to the tweezers in my hand. “Give me those.”

I hand over the tweezers. He swiftly plucks the cactus spines out of Mr. Garby’s face. Each spine leaves behind a little gray circle as he plucks it. “You’re taking too long, Elizabeth. How long can a man be so humiliated?”

“He’s dead.”

“I know that. I’m just sayin’,” He pauses and doesn’t finish his sentence like he doesn’t know where he’s going with it. Then he looks down at Mr. Garby. “Anyway, this guy whose wife I was just talking to upstairs had a daughter. Maybe five years old. Cute little thing. Now she’ll grow up without a father. And you,” he says addressing Mr. Garby now. “wherever you are. . . “ He raises his eyes to the ceiling, “heaven, the afterlife, wherever,” he turns his eyes back to Mr. Garby, “You’re without your kids. Without your wife. Totally alone.”

I get the feeling he’s really talking about himself. He’s unloading in a way I’ve never seen, like he’s a different person.

“Mora and I never had kids,” he says as he continues to pluck the spines out of Mr. Garby—behind his right ear now. “I told her I didn’t want any.” He pulls with more effort than is necessary. “It’s bizarre. I come from a big Italian family. You’d think I’d want a big family myself, right?”

He pauses, looking down at Mr. Garby. Is he waiting for him to answer?

“Why didn’t you want kids?” I ask, hoping not to break the spell.

“I lost two brothers when I was ten years old,” he says, still looking down at Mr. Garby. “They were babies. Twins. Had some kind of genetic thing.” His bald patch catches the overhead light, which is so bright it could burn a hole in the floor if we left it on too long. “I never really knew them.” He exhales then straightens up and continues, not looking at me. “I saw what it did to my mother. She was never the same after that. I think that had something to do with my decision to deny Mora kids. Now I’m paying for it.”

“In what way?”

He hands me the tweezers. “I’m alone,” he says, still not looking at me. “I’m totally alone, Elizabeth.”

I swallow hard. It’s like seeing one of your parents cry. I want to ask him if he’d rather kick a drawer or something.

I take a shallow breath. “So not true,” I say, turning to pluck the spines behind Mr. Garby’s left ear where a cluster of what looks like dead grass is caught in the back of his hair. I snatch it out. “You have your brother in Newark.”

“Yeah, 3,000 miles away.  And he’s got his own problems. His wife has a pill problem and his daughter’s flunking out of school.”

I sighed. “Wow, that sucks.”

“Yeah.”

There’s a beat of silence before I say, “You have me.”

“Yeah, yeah, I know I’ve got you,” he says waving my words away like they’re bees buzzing around his head.

I almost smile as he says it. It’s the reaction I was expecting. His vulnerable lets-talk-about-it attitude was odd, even if it was nice to see his human side. It was making me feel like we had switched bodies since I‘m the one always spouting about feelings and trying to draw his out, much to his annoyance. Now I’m almost regretting ever doing that.

“But you got your own life,” he says, looking down with his hands on his hips.

“You know my life is pretty low-key, right?” I roll the clump of dead grass between my thumb and middle finger. I’m always talking about how my job is my life and I practically live here. “I promise that I won’t let you go kerplunk down here alone. Cuz I’m always here. And not just here here,” I point to the ground to indicate the building. “I mean I’m here if you need me—that kind of here.”

He gives a long exhale and straightens the collar on Mr. Garby’s cowboy shirt then buttons the top button where the top of the scar from his embalming surgery is visible. “Honestly, let the man have some decency, Elizabeth.”

He begins to back away, then stops and looks up at the ceiling again. “Your father was a numbskull to leave, Elizabeth. I hope you know that.”

I sigh. “Yeah, I know.”

He’s heading back upstairs when I call out. “Thanks, Mr. Defazio. Just remember you’re not alone, okay?”

“Yeah, yeah, I know.”

He sounds like himself again. I can’t help grinning. I can only see him on the stairs from the knees down. I’m wondering why he’s just standing there when he says, “Call me Frank, Elizabeth.”

Then he continues back up the stairs, whistling the love theme to The Godfather.



BIO

Jennifer Makowsky is a writer from the Northeast who moved out west to attend the University of Arizona and earn her MFA in Creative Writing. Her work was nominated for a Pushcart Prize and has appeared in Gargoyle, The Portland Review2 Bridges ReviewMatador ReviewHeavy Feather ReviewBlue Earth Review, and others. She lives in Tucson where she teaches English to adults.  


Hit That Ridge Again But This Time Hit It Full Speed

By Riley Winchester


In the summer of 2003 I flipped a go-kart on its head in an attempt to impress my dad. I didn’t intend on flipping the go-kart, because my dad didn’t have some weird fascination with upside-down quadracycles, but in my attempt to impress him that’s ultimately what happened. What I was doing was following a simple order he had given.

Before the flip, I had been putzing around in the go-kart all afternoon with my younger sister Kylan in the passenger seat. We drove back and forth and around in laps in a brown barren field across the street from our house. I imagine we looked so tiny and slow in our cherry red 110cc go-kart, traversing the dry vast field like a Ford Focus driving through a Mad Max movie.

Across the street from us, my dad stood in our driveway and watched while he ate from a bag of cheddar cheese curds. At the time, I thought he was the biggest and toughest person in the world. He stood six-feet-tall; he wasn’t heavy but he was by no means thin—he had a small swell for a stomach, a flat chest, muscular biceps, and broomsticks for legs. 

I grew bored of driving the same routes and Kylan was too scared to drive, so I turned the go-kart back toward my house and started home. I was ready to take a break from driving and do my usual summertime activities, like reading lowbrow juvenile literature or paralyzing my mind with Nickelodeon.  

On the way back I hit a small bump in the ground that I hadn’t ever hit before. I was going slow enough that the go-kart only did an underwhelming little jump, bouncing maybe half an inch off the ground. I didn’t think much of it and kept driving toward my dad.

The closer I drove toward him, the more I noticed how excited my dad looked. His eyes had ballooned bright and his cheese curd chewing had been enlivened into cheese curd chomping. I stopped the go-kart about ten feet away from him and he ran up to the driver’s side and squatted down to talk to me.

“Did you feel that?” he said with a wide smile and raised eyebrows.

“Feel what?”

“That jump!”

“Uh,” I thought for a second, “yeah, I did.”

The smell of cheddar cheese emanated from his mouth and pervaded the air between us. My eyes squinted as I looked at him, attempting to block out the sun. Kylan sat silently in the passenger seat, not yet old enough or familiar enough with my dad to know what was about to come out of his mouth. But I knew, and I could already feel the nerves building up and the knot in my stomach cinch tighter and hotter.

Then he said it.

“Hit that ridge again but this time hit it full speed.”

———

Nobody asked for the go-kart but one day my dad came home with it and surprised us all—my mom, two sisters, and me. He had somehow jammed it into the bed of his pickup truck, and when he returned home he fashioned a homemade ramp to drive the go-kart down out of the bed. But since it was a kid’s go-kart, he couldn’t fit behind the wheel to drive it. So my first time behind the wheel of a go-kart I had to drive in reverse down a steep decline on thin planks of wood that had been rotting in the back of our barn for at least two full presidential terms.

I think it took me forty-five minutes to drive down the five-foot-long ramp because my foot was anchored on the brake and only let off it for millisecond-long intervals.

It was around the time of both mine and Kylan’s birthdays, so my dad justified the go-kart purchase by saying it was a shared birthday present for us. That summer I was hoping for either some new Yu-Gi-Oh! Cards or the latest releases in the Captain Underpants series—Captain Underpants and the Big, Bad Battle of the Bionic Booger Boy, Part 1: The Night of the Nasty Nostril Nuggets, and its sequel Captain Underpants and the Big, Bad Battle of the Bionic Booger Boy, Part 2: The Revenge of the Ridiculous Robo-Boogers. And I doubt Kylan had a go-kart on her birthday wish list. Nevertheless it’s what we were stuck with that year.

This wasn’t the first instance of my dad coming home with a new toy—as he called them—nor was it the last. At least a couple times a year he would come home with a quad or a UTV or a golf cart or some other small engine vehicle either packed into the bed of his truck or hauled in a trailer.

The funny thing was my dad always claimed the toys weren’t for him, even though we all knew they were. If he came home with a youth go-kart that he couldn’t fit in and drive, we knew his reason for buying it was so he would have something new to tinker on in the barn, a new engine to tear apart and figure out, a new project to consume his evenings and weekends.

My dad was a worker, blue-collar as they come, and he believed in the virtues of work, work, work, and then, when all the work is done, find some more work or make some more work. This was something I never understood. I didn’t like work, not one bit. It made me tired and sweaty, so why would I ever seek out more of it?

I thought my dad had some rare, still undiscovered mental illness—or at least some shades of masochism—because of his psychotic predilection for work. To me it was an unhealthy obsession with labor and an equally unhealthy aversion to leisure. We couldn’t have been more different in our philosophies.

My dad never sat still or slowed down. When I would help him finish a project in the barn, I thought I now had the freedom to sit and relax inside, read a book, study for tomorrow’s spelling test, level up my team in Pokémon Ruby on my Game Boy Advance. I would turn and start walking toward the house, then my fantasy would be interrupted by something like, “Grab me a 9/16 socket and a flashlight. And get under here and hold the light for me. It’s darker than rabbit shit—I can’t see a damn thing under here.”

His go-go lifestyle never allowed him to sleep in either, not so long as there was work to be done. And there was always work to be done. If I ever slept past 7:30 a.m. on weekends, my dad would Kramer-burst into my room, turn the light on, peel my eyelids open, and say, “Get up, don’t sleep your day away.” It was 7:30—the moon still hung hazily in the sky, the grass was blanketed with morning dew—and my day was already in danger of being slept away. When I would grumble and plead to sleep in for another hour, he would say, “Tough shit. When I was your age I was waking up at four in the morning to go milk cow tits.”

He wasn’t a man to ever slow down and stop and smell the roses, simply because he was too busy digging up an area for a new rose garden somewhere else. I didn’t understand. I liked slowing down and smelling all the pretty roses.

———

I swallowed down the gigantic nervous lump in my throat and said, “OK.” The word smacked of cowardice as soon as it left my mouth. I didn’t want to hit that ridge again, and I sure as hell didn’t want to hit it full speed. But I knew this was a rare opportunity for me, an opportunity to show my dad that I wasn’t weak or scared, and prove to myself that maybe we weren’t as different as I thought we were.

I turned the go-kart around and drove back toward the field, toward the ridge I was supposed to hit full speed, and away from the safety of my house. I sat at the end of the driveway, neurotically scanning back and forth across the street, checking for cars that I knew weren’t there. We were way out in the boondocks, no cars or any signs of civilization were within a country mile. And I knew that, but I needed to bide my time as long as I could before my imminent ridge-hitting death.

The go-kart trundled through the field. I stared at the ridge as I drove past it. I stared at it like an abandoned baby zebra stares at a clan of hyenas during a hungry summer in The Serengeti. Once I had driven what I thought was far enough past the ridge, I turned the go-kart around so I could hit the ridge while driving toward my dad. I figured if I was going to die trying to impress him, he ought to see it.

I looked at Kylan in the passenger seat—quiet, innocent, blissfully unaware—and wondered if I would be posthumously charged with murder after I inevitably killed us both.

The go-kart and I were still. My arms were rigid, hands glued to the wheel, right foot scared of the gas pedal. Sweat percolated through the papery hairs on the back of my neck. I licked my lips. They were dry, like the field I was about to barrel through at full speed against my will. The go-kart engine hummed, soft and unassuming. I took a couple deep breaths. I looked across the street toward my dad but all I saw was a fuzzy outline. The field ahead of me was speckled with heat mirages, looking like I was about to drive through a dozen little puddles.

Something possessed me—I don’t know if it was a murderous demon or a surge of dumb courage—and I hit the gas.

The engine screamed and I felt the stuffy air wash over my face as I charged toward the ridge. My foot pinned the gas pedal to the metal frame below it. It felt like I had broken the sound barrier in that brown barren field. I was going too fast and my mind was too scrambled to see where the ridge was. I started to panic, but my panicking was interrupted.

I hit the ridge.

And this time I hit it full speed.

The go-kart did a weak one hundred eighty degree flip, slammed back into the arid, compacted dirt, and kept moving forward on its head, sliding through the dirt and leaving a trail of red paint chips and indents in the earth.

When I finally came to, and when I finally found the courage to open my eyes, I looked straight ahead, out at the tree line off in the distance. It looked different now, like the trees were coming out of the sky instead of the earth. Kylan cried and screamed, castigating me for being stupid enough to flip the go-kart. Physically we were both unharmed—the roll cage, seatbelts, and helmets ensured that. But we were handling the mental trauma differently. Me, in shock and silence. Kylan, in tears and screaming.

I heard a familiar voice over Kylan’s screams.

“God damn! You really hit that, huh boy!”

My dad squatted down and looked at Kylan and me, still dangling upside down.

“I didn’t expect you to flip the damn thing,” he said.

He manhandled the go-kart back upright onto its four wheels and pulled Kylan out of the passenger seat.

“I’m gonna walk Ky back, OK?” he said. “You drive it back and pull it into the barn, bud.”

I tried to tell him I was too scared to drive it back but I couldn’t get the words out. It felt like concrete had been poured down my throat. It was then I realized I was nothing like my dad. He could flip a go-kart and get right back on it. I didn’t want to flip go-karts, let alone even drive go-karts. I wanted comfort and stillness and safety. I wanted to be anywhere but behind the wheel of that stupid go-kart in that stupid field.

———

Years went by and things remained the same. My dad continued his busy lifestyle, and I continued to do, and be, the opposite of him. He spent his time playing around with motors and listening to classic rock on the old radio in the barn. I spent my time playing online video games and listening to prepubescent boys call me slurs and say how they all had defiled my mom.  

Then in November of 2013 my dad was diagnosed with stage IV colorectal cancer.

Life hadn’t just thrown a couple speed bumps his way, it had laid out miles of spike strips ahead of him.

Still, he continued, to the best of his ability, to live the same life as he had before. He underwent a total colectomy in March of 2014, and his colon and the cancer were removed. He was fitted with a colostomy bag, which was now, without a colon, his only method of releasing excrement. He joked that he now saved so much time without having to stop what he was doing to use the bathroom, and he could be even more productive than before. Life, he thought, had regained a sense of normalcy.

But the normalcy was short-lived.

Seven months after the total colectomy, the cancer came back, and this time it refused to be defeated. The cancer perniciously took hold of his body and destroyed it from the inside out. It spread to his lymph nodes, his peritoneum, his lungs, tumors invaded his back and lumped along the crease of his spine.

By December of 2015, the cancer had completely seized his body and there was no hope of recovery, not even a miracle could save him. There is nothing else in this world that weakens and destroys someone like cancer, not even the most destructive war or brutal fight. Nothing else can strip someone of their essence, of their self—these always remain, even after the worst defeat. But cancer will. It will take these elements of someone’s being and shatter and trample them into the dust for everyone to see.

My dad was admitted into hospice care where he was put into a medically induced coma. His body was plastered with Fentanyl patches, his veins ran heavy with Dilaudid and Oxycodone and Alprazolam and Methylphenidate and other pharmaceuticals to alleviate his physical pain and shut off his mind.

I spent five days in a sofa chair by his bedside. I had never seen him sit so still, never in the eighteen years I had spent with him. He had never looked so small. His body had shriveled; bones now outlined the parts of his arms that were before inhabited by muscle. His face was sallow and pruned to the jagged corners of his jawline. The biggest and toughest person in the world had been beaten, abused, and destroyed into a frail little fragment of what he once was. For the first time in my life I was bigger than him, and I hated it.

The man I saw in the bed, I thought, wasn’t the same man I had known, the man who raised me. The man who was always on the move, never living a passive life, the man who told me to hit that ridge again but this time hit it full speed—because he wanted me to live fast and take chances like he did—was no longer there.

He died Sunday, December 6, 2015, at 2:25 p.m.

Sometimes I wonder if it wasn’t the metastatic cancer that killed my dad but the stillness. For five days he lay in that hospice bed, motionless, unable to get up and move and live how he always had. I imagine the back of his mind was filled with little anxieties the entire time he was in hospice—the oil change my car needed, the water softener that needed to be refilled with salt, the shaky stair banister that he planned on replacing. It must have driven him crazy.

After he died, my mom, sisters, and I individually spent some time in the hospice room with my dad. Although his body had been essentially dead since he arrived at hospice, and I had spent five days with him like that, it was strange to see him now eternally still. I sat in the sofa chair by his bedside and stared at him. I wanted to say something but I couldn’t. There wasn’t anything blocking my ability to speak—my throat was clear and my voice box was smooth and ready. I didn’t say anything because I thought nothing needed to be said between us. Everything that needed to be said had already been said, and it was now the time for silence.

As I stared at my dad longer, I created this image in my head of him opening his eyes, turning toward me, smiling, and saying, “Get up, we gotta go home and snow blow the driveway!” Or, “Come on, we gotta run to the hardware store right quick!”

Part of me thought it would actually happen. I convinced myself enough of it that I inched my right index finger toward my dad and poked him on the shoulder to check if he was actually dead or just faking it.

He wasn’t faking it.

I laughed when I thought of how ridiculous I must have looked, how ridiculous I was for even having a thought like that. I like to think my dad, wherever he was, laughed too.

———

Had my dad been born in the Neolithic Period, he would have taken the newly developed scrapers, blades, and axes and cultivated a thousand acres of land overnight by himself.

Had my dad been born in Antiquity, he would have given Plato a wet willie and said, “Shut up with all that science talk and gimme that hammer over there.”

Had my dad been born in the Age of Discovery, he would have circumnavigated the world three times over before Magellan had even left port.

Instead, he was born on a summery day in April in 1966, and he was my dad.

At times I thought the only thing we had in common, and the only modicum of proof that I was his son, was how much we looked alike—we’re basically twins born thirty-one years apart. We thought differently, we acted differently, we lived differently. He liked to work; I liked to think. He was fearless and outgoing; I was demure and reserved. He lived fast and didn’t think about consequences; I preferred to take things slow.

My dad once said that people have a lot more in common than they realize, but it’s just that differences stick out a lot more and that’s what we notice. I had never given that much thought until after he died—I had always discredited it as another one of his hackneyed little aphorisms he liked to throw around sometimes to seem intellectual. The differences between my dad and me stood out much more when he was alive. But now with time apart—physically and emotionally—I’ve become privy to all that we shared in common. 

We had the same sense of humor and laughed at the same jokes—whenever he heard a new joke somewhere, he couldn’t wait to share it with me. We never took ourselves too seriously, no matter how serious of a situation we were in. We both liked mindless action movies with no plots. We both liked Detroit sports, and we even went to some Tigers, Lions, and Pistons games together. We both liked to eat our French toast smothered in ketchup.

They’re little things, but they’re little things that mean a lot to me.

And I know they meant a lot to him.

The day I flipped a go-kart on its head I thought I would never in a million lifetimes understand my dad. I thought I could never understand someone so different than me, someone maniacal enough to convince a six-year-old kid to attempt suicide by go-kart. It was a confluence of confusion and terror. I wasn’t even sure if my dad was human. But, as it turned out, I just didn’t yet understand the simplicity of his life philosophy.

My dad wasn’t content with putzing around in a go-kart in the brown barren field across the street. That wasn’t enough for him. He believed that, sometimes, you just gotta hit that ridge again but this time hit it full speed.

 

 

BIO

Riley Winchester’s writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Ligeia Magazine, Miracle Monocle, Sheepshead Review, Ellipsis Zine, Beyond Words, Pure Slush’s “Growing Up” Anthology, and other publications. He lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

 

The Punk of Spring or The Rite of Punk 

By Ed Peaco


According to Amazon, the score of Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring cost $14.93 in paperback. This discovery delighted guitarist Franko Tucker, a self-branded prog-punk musician who was hipped to Stravinsky by Hermes Agee, a young Franko fan and fellow guitarist, though classically trained. From their friendship, they decided to make a punk version of The Rite of Spring for Franko’s band, Franko and the Futile. Franko had just turned 30 and wondering what he’d accomplished in life, and he realized he needed Hermy’s conservatory expertise to pull it off.

Franko, a tattooed stick figure of a man whose main nutrition came from bar food or what could be eaten quickly from a can, was squabbling with The Futile over whether to work up The Rite of Spring or play covers of songs people liked and knew. The Futile (prematurely balding drummer Merk Moskwa with his fedora, and Fletcher Harrington on bass with a heavy keychain slung over his hip) weren’t getting how cool The Rite of Spring could be. Franko settled the matter when Hermy, back from Berklee for the summer, insisted on Stravinsky and insisted to be there to avoid total collapse.

Hermy, currently wearing a man bun and a vintage sport jacket with elbow patches, had enlisted two players from his former high-school group, the Teen Strings, to make the effort sound more or less like Stravinsky. He demonstrated on his tablet with a music keyboard.

While Hermy was a necessity, Franko sometimes found him arrogant, an egghead type, irksome. However, he worked well with The Futile. They came around when Hermy told them their roles would be mostly the same — Fletch’s fuzz-bass throb, Merk’s double-bass kick-drum machine-gun approach. Better for The Futile, Hermy wrote a couple of raucous punk pieces for them — “Punk Prelude” and “Pots and Pans” — despite his mother’s preference that he stay on a strictly classical path.

Franko sported a colorful sleeve of tattoos on one arm, a scene of slithering creatures emerging from jungle greenery. He had a good fan base, at least in the sprawling city of Bristol Springs, Missouri. But some of his old friends from high school were the kind of folks he’d now normally avoid, as they were excelling in their careers and starting families.

He made an exception for Olivia Ellis, who he remembered from concert band.

One day, in Walmart, he was wearing his LeBron James number 23 jersey and shorts. He thought he spotted her in Produce, but he could have been wrong. He remembered Olivia as a gangly girl with long, shiny dark hair, strong minded, prickly, with few friends. He recalled she was married to a guy named Bob. But 12 years later, she looked filled-out, curvy. Her hair was short now, with a long shock that fell over her right eye. He had to say hello.

“Wow, you’ve put on a whole lot of ink since I saw you last — maybe since school?” she said.

“It’s on my fingering arm, to keep peoples’ eyes on me,” he said. “I’m making enough cash with my music these days: casinos, private parties, exhibition halls.” Thankfully, he wouldn’t have to talk about meeting quotas in call centers or busting down boxes at loading docks.

“Cool,” Olivia said. She talked about her work in real estate. “Did you know I’m working on a new development on the Central Square? Didn’t you say you lived there, on the west side of the square?”

“Yes, I heard something about that.” He had received numerous booklets and updates in the mail about the project, and consistently ignored them.

“The plans are for mixed use. You might end up where you are, but nicer — elevator, no more stairs.”

“How’s Bob?”

“Who, Shithead? His real name can’t be used,” she said with a clenched fist.

“I get the gist.”

“No, you don’t,” she said with piercing, dark eyes. “There’s more. I got a great attorney and the house.” Then Olivia launched into a story of being screwed at the real estate office where she worked. “I coddled a bunch of investors over a month or more,” she said. “I wiped their asses! Then the boss took me off the project. I don’t care anymore.”

They made plans for lunch after he returned from a two-week mini-tour of Russellville, St. Joseph, Ottumwa, Marshalltown, Kirksville and La Crosse.

MONDAY

After the overnight haul from La Crosse, the first thing Franko did was hit Aunt Millie’s for a pancake breakfast. Then he went to his fourth-floor walkup, but he found that fencing, blockades and huge wrecking machines were in place.

He bawled like a cow as he remembered he forgot about the demolition. He fell to his knees and bawled again, loud enough to be heard on the other side of the square. Franko had meant to look at the information before he left for the mini-tour, but as usual, he blew it off.

Now he was panicking, sweating in his armpits and crotch. He thought about Olivia Ellis. He couldn’t find her phone number at first, then he found it in his contacts.

Thankfully, she picked up. He tried to speak to her, but he was slobbering: “Help. I fucked up! Really fucked! Forgot. What to do, help me, help me. Help!”

“What’s going on?” she asked, trying to extract what Franko’s trouble was. He hadn’t removed his belongings from his studio apartment. “Stay where you are. I’ll meet you there. Franko, just breathe.”

When she arrived downtown, people were standing around, watching the setup for tear-down activities.

“All of this probably happened a day or two after the band headed out on the tour,” he said.

“Did you really leave all your shit in the building and go away for two weeks?”

“’Fraid so, but I did have some stuff with me.”

She swept into action, grabbed some city official in a suit, tie and orange plastic hard hat. He said they had a lost-and-found in the Public Works building, just a few blocks off the square. The plastic-hard-hat fellow told Franko to go there immediately.

“Could I take a quick look in my place before everything falls apart?” Franko asked.

The hard-hat’s reply: “No.”

At Public Works, Franko was grateful to find some of his belongings: boxed-up documents, a plastic tub including random things like dishes and a few books, a skateboard, spare guitar and keyboard, but not his laptop. He felt foolish but pleased to be with Olivia. He asked about his ancient MacBook laptop, but it was not among his effects.

Franko thanked the official and stood awkwardly, then skulked away. He returned to the square, where the crowd had expanded. Olivia drove home in her 370Z two-seater. She promised to return shortly with her spacious Chrysler 300 she kept for tooling around with clients. Well-to-do people in the crowd were cheering, and a few activists flew black flags indicating contempt over the destruction of longstanding structures.

Franko felt like flying a black flag, too, but he spent time avoiding people he recognized. After a time of sinking hope, Olivia returned. They filled the back seat and the trunk with Franko’s diminished chattel. He asked about the two upscale rides. “They’re used. You know, impression is everything in the real estate game,” she said.

—   —   —

Franko’s items actually amounted to a fairly substantial heap. They unloaded his crap into a spare room at the back part of her house, where Olivia made a place for Franko to work and sleep until he could find a place of his own.

“Have you checked with your insurance people?” Olivia asked.

“Who?” he asked, “No,” not wanting to admit he thought renter’s insurance was a big waste.

“You might get a check for some of your losses.”

Franko said, “My laptop is all I really want. It has all my music — all the tracks for The Rite of Spring. I had to break down and redo what Stravinsky did. I thought I was being brilliant by leaving the laptop behind so it wouldn’t be lost on the tour.”

“Have you heard of a memory stick, or even better: the Cloud?” He sat on an ottoman and hung his head between his knees. “I have a Mac. It’s got GarageBand. Use mine,” she said.

“Will I bother you staying here?”

“No, nice to have you here instead of Shithead.”

After dinner, Hermy came over to Olivia’s place to work on The Rite of Spring with Franko. Hermy plugged in and messed around with some intricate chord changes for a few minutes and immediately blew Franko’s mind.

“You have more talent in one broken fingernail than all the gray matter in my little tiny cranium,” Franko said.

“Have you actually looked at what Igor did?”

“Yes, that’s why I’m freaking out. I’m inputting chunks of The Rite of Spring in ways that will make sense for a six-piece. Franko and The Futile is just a simple garage band. What did I get myself into? Can we loop some of this?”

“No, folks will think it’s canned, and they’ll be right. We’ll just have to do the best we can.”

“One bar of 3/4, next one bar of 5/4, to a bar of 7/4, and, for a breather, three bars of 6/4, and back to 5/4. That’s why I’m getting ready for these screwy rhythms. And that’s why Merk and Fletch need something they can handle. Igor has made it really hard.”

Franko cued the second “episode” of The Rite of Spring on Spotify, then he gyrated and lurched from the abrupt directions of the piece. “We need a different title: The Punk of Spring or The Rite of Punk. Or both!

By now it was midnight, and Olivia was sleeping. Franko and Hermy decided to take a walk around the block. It was a mild evening. Halfway around, Franko was bathed in a sweet scent of something. He advanced toward the scent; he didn’t really know where it came from — flowering shrubs? He stepped onto the springy grass, seeking a more intense aroma.

“Hey, you better stay off people’s lawns. They don’t like that,” Hermy said.

At that moment, Franko detonated a ringing alarm, along with several flashes from the front-door area. A clumsily moving figure dashed out with a huge flashlight. The alarm stopped. The scowling man’s unruly hair became gauzy in the back-lit spotlight.

Franko, remaining stone-cadaverous still, saw that the approaching figure was wearing pajamas and a bathrobe. The garment slunk at an angle, with one side drooping. Then a big dog, growling and barking, appeared beside the man.

“Good morning, gentlemen. I’m Pleetus Ambercrombie,” he said, glaring at Franko. “And who, the fuck, are you?”

Then another fellow emerged from a home across the street and moved toward the others.

Pleetus looked over at the emerging neighbor. “Take it easy, Gibby,” Pleetus said. “I got Adolf here. He’s got a good bark that makes folks take notice.”

“But you might want to straighten up your britches,” Gibby told Pleetus. “These guys don’t look like much of a threat to me.”

Franko attempted to engage Pleetus, but the scruffy homeowner put his hand up like a traffic cop giving the stop signal.

“No trespassing,” Pleetus said.

Franko noticed that Pleetus had a chin beard about eight inches long, decorated with short stacks of beads.

Glaring at Franko, Pleetus thrust his hand into the pocket in the drooping side of his pajama bottoms and said, “Don’t approach me.”

Franko backed up. “Sorry, I just wanted to smell the shrubs. We’re just out for a walk. I’m staying around the corner.”

Pleetus busted out in an eruption of chuckling. “You’re a shrub smeller, ay?”

The big dog closed in on Franko, who tried to move away. It was making a muttering sound and did a half-circle to get behind Franko. Adolf was busy: nuzzling, growling and nipping. Then Franko felt something. “Hey, that dog bit me! Call him off!”

Pleetus said, “Adolf won’t hurt you. Nothing to worry about.” Gibby looked on, eyes darting from Pleetus to the two interlopers. “Go back to your house, Gibby,” Pleetus said. Then he focused on Franko and patted the drooping pocket of his pajamas. Pleetus called the dog, and it reluctantly returned to his master.

Franko pulled out his phone shakily and made a call. Luckily, Olivia picked up.

“Who’s yer callin’?” Pleetus asked.

“Our friend Olivia. She lives around the block,” Franko said.

“Oh, L’il’ Olive Oyl,” Pleetus said. “Just keep in mind, I got access.”

“To what?” Franko asked.

“I got access to use a firearm. Don’t approach me. Just think about what ‘Don’t Tread on Me’ means to you in your situation.” Pleetus patted his bulky pajama pocket, causing the bottoms to droop to his knees before he could hoist them up.

Franko had a little nervous titter over that, and Hermy whispered to him to shut up.

A vehicle arrived and parked two houses down the street. Olivia emerged. “Hey, I’m looking at you. Yes, you, Pleetus, the Barney Fife bum-fuck of the block,” she said. “You know the police have blown you off.”

“No trespassing,” Pleetus said.

“You are a pathetic old man. Just go back to bed with your dog,” Olivia said, as Adolf resumed barking.

Olivia corralled Franko and Hermy and brought them away from the fray. As they packed themselves into the 370Z, she explained that people have door-bell cameras for security. “I wish I’d told you all of this before I fell asleep,” she said. “Pleetus’s system is on a really sensitive trigger, and the lens is really powerful. He’s known as a local nut job.”

TUESDAY

Franko stayed up that night, recreating the score on Olivia’s Mac. While taking a break, he found old-west memes on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and the neighborhood website, portraying Olivia, Hermy and Franko as bandits. He recognized the photos all doctored up. Damn, the geezer had pretty good social-media skills, Franko thought.

When he woke up, Olivia was out. He hoped she wouldn’t see the pictures yet. Each mugshot was cast as an old-time sepia frame. Wording at the top of the image was One Way or Another, probably because Pleetus had enough social-media savvy not to use Dead or Alive.

Later in the morning, the two other perpetrator/victims of Pleetus’s digital onslaught found out. Hermy phoned Franko to whine about his mother’s nagging him for staying out late.

Olivia texted to Franko, “messed up last night. shudda stayed away”

Franko: “gonna blow over”

Olivia: “pleetus can be toxic”

Merk and Fletcher found out, too, and they thought the photos were fantastic. The only thing they didn’t like was that they weren’t included.

—   —   —

That evening at rehearsal, Hermy focused on the business of The Futile not being able to deal with five, seven, and such. “Not judging, just sayin’.”

Franko nodded toward The Futile and said, “Listen up.”

Hermy introduced Brianna and Bethany, twins from the Teen Strings, and handed out some sheets. “They’re known as The B’s.”

“Who’s who?” Merk asked.

“It’s easy to tell them apart,” Hermy said. “Bri plays the violin and has one side of her head shaved. Beth plays cello and has really long hair.” Then he launched into some notes. “The B’s will play the main dance melodies — ”

“ — if you can call them melodies with those brutal changing time signatures,” Bri said. “I had to add 13 new time sigs into my software. I haven’t feared time so dreadfully.”

“I wrote a short piece in four that will sound Rite of Spring-ish, or call it something else. It’s something you guys can riff on when we need it. Everything will be integrated,” Hermy said.

“Hold up,” Beth said. “This is the coolest — the really bitchin’est stuff — we’ll play until college. Hey, Bri, are you saying we should water down this stuff just for convenience?”

Bri swiveled toward her sister: “It’s a score for a ballet. How can dancers step to all this tangled rhythm? Some of that pounding at the end could just as well be in three or four.”

“Igor didn’t want to make it easy, but we can if we want to,” Hermy said. “Franko and The Futile will play over the B’s in 4/4 or just go orgasmic.”

“Or like a three-year-old?” Fletcher asked.

“Same for me?” Merk asked. “Noise ahoy! That’s ‘Pots and Pans,’ right?”

“Let’s carve out a chunk of the score so each player gets a solo. Do whatever we can,” Beth said. “There’s a lot of momentous shit for all of us.”

“I’ll point when we want explosives,” Hermy said. “Then I’ll give the throat-cut sign to back off. Don’t worry, Bri, the strings will be amped up just like everything else.”

“Hey, Hermy,” Beth said. “If it’s OK with you, let the B’s name thing go by the wayside? This will be our first professional gig.”

“So, how do you want to be called?” Hermy asked.

“By our names.”

FRIDAY: THE SHOW

Franko had two T-shirts for gigs, the prog choice, showing Frank Zappa’s album, “Hot Rats”; or the punk selection with a smiling skeleton holding a cocktail with “Holiday in Cambodia” by the Dead Kennedys. Zappa was the choice for his prog show of all prog shows.

The B’s showed up at the Error Code Bar, each wearing a Teen Strings hoodie.

Before set-up, Franko wanted to give a pep talk, but he couldn’t get anyone’s attention. Instead, he just chatted with Merk and Fletcher, while the B’s whispered between themselves about Hermy.

Merk interrupted the B’s, seeking another review of who’s who. Then Hermy went over some rough places and how he’ll cue them. The two string players tuned up, then they switched instruments and tuned again.

The B’s had a good laugh while others were confused, not getting the twins’ humor.

It was hit time, but few people were in the place yet. Two tables were occupied by girlfriends and the father of the B’s. Hoping to lure sidewalk traffic, Franko kept the front door open and continued to call for numerous unnecessary sound checks. After a while, the musicians got bored with the sound checks and dispersed.

Bri played magic tricks to pass the time. Beth fidgeted through all the sound checks and chewed gum to bother her sister. They decided to lose the hoodies; they’d be too hot on stage.

The open door brought in a few people. However, the tactic lured a police officer in as well. In a professional tone, the officer told Mike, the proprietor, that the loud music coming out of the open door was disturbing the patrons of the restaurant next door who were dining al fresco.

Mike told Franko, “Never prop the front door open ever again, and never do anything that would cause a cop to enter the building.”

Then eight young women barged in and told Franko, who was sitting on a bar stool, that they were on a bachelorette scavenger hunt. They assumed Franko was the owner. After a little banter with the women, he sent them to Mike. They had a large list, including something soft and something hard — “Could be from the same guy,” said the ring leader. After this quip, massive merriment burst out among the squad. Mike poured complimentary shots of cheap vodka all around and handed out beer coasters as business cards. Franko wished he were the owner and could have poured free shots for eight women.

The scavengers left after a disorderly chat with Mike, and in a short time, the room was beginning to fill up. The band assembled again. Olivia arrived and hopped onto the stage and collared Franko. “Hey, remember, if you make anything from your show, it goes to mortgage and food.”

Once Franko sent Olivia off the stage and the musicians assembled, they made a last and genuine sound check. He greeted the crowd, which was big for Franko and The Futile. They began to play The Punk of Spring or The Rite of Punk, with a two-part overture, “Pots and Pans” melting into the “Prelude to The Punk of Spring,” both by the trio of The Futile. Then the strings and Hermy executed some Stravinsky time fracturing.

Twenty minutes or so into the performance, in Episode Four, “Spring Rounds,” Franko thought he was seeing something around the front door. As people were moving toward the stage, he could make out an elderly bearded fellow wearing a black full-dress tailcoat tux and a stovetop hat. He was speaking into a bullhorn and scurrying table to table. During a quiet passage, the bullhorn overtook the music.

Franko thought it was some kind of fire alarm or tornado thing. He couldn’t hear the music. The bullhorn sounded like puking in his head. Then he could hear, and he heard words:

“Stop! You must stop!”

“You’re destroying America!”

“Degenerate music! Europe syrup!”

The crowd booed the intruder, but Franko still didn’t know what was up. He turned to the band and called for more “Pots and Pans.” Then he jumped off the stage, where he could more clearly hear the spew of the bullhorn.

“Degenerate intellectuals!”

“Horseface cosmopolitan!”

“A total botch-job sleaze!”

Franko realized that the asshole with the bullhorn was none other than Pleetus and his intricate chin beard. Adolph the dog was by his side.

Franko found a security guy. “Where were you?” Franko asked. “He needs to leave!”

“I thought it was part of the show. Sorry, boss.”

“The dog goes too,” Franko said.

“Dog? I thought it was one of them comfort critters. We’ll get it, chief.”

Bereft of his bullhorn, Pleetus could still bellow. On his trip toward the sidewalk, he had one more chant: “No trespassing!”

Franko hopped back on stage for the end of “Pots and Pans.” The crowd cheered.

The string players launched into the last episode of “Part 1, The Adoration of the Earth,” which sounded like a different kind of chaos. A ferocious, extended roar came from the audience. The plan was to have an intermission, but they played through instead.

After the show, Franko said, “It seemed to go really well until Pleetus got in the way. Even when he pulled out the bullhorn, it was OK. Did you see him getting the boot?”

“We couldn’t see it,” Hermy said. “I think the audience thought he was part of the show!”

Olivia came up to compliment the band. Franko said he couldn’t find her until he came down to deal with the mess that Pleetus was making.

“I was sitting with the B’s father, and we were comforting Adolf. He was whimpering under the table because the music was so loud, poor thing,” Olivia said.

“Anyway, ‘Pots and Pans’ was fun, the ‘Prelude’ sounded like a real tune, I mean something better than the stuff I write. And the actual Igor parts blew my mind,” Franko said.

“For me, the douche with the bullhorn was the height of my evening,” Merk said.

“Hell no!” Hermy said. “The B’s were killin’ it.”

“Joke!” Merk said. “You B’s were great!”

Beth was about to say something, but Bri hushed her sister. “Don’t get worked up about people calling us B’s. Come on, just be cool. We got our names in the flier.” Bri approached Hermy, cuffed him on the upper arm and congratulated him on his solo: “The shit!”

Beth did a curtsy before Fletcher and said, “The first distorted electric-bass solo on a piece by Igor Stravinsky. Well done!”

“It wasn’t distorted, it was fuzzed. I like the ZVex fuzz pedal,” Fletcher said. 

“Well, oh, anyway, Igor should be here.”

Merk caught Fletcher and asked him, “Hey, about what Franko calls us, ‘The Futile.’ We aren’t futile anymore. How about ‘Franko and the Funktones’?”

“No, we must own our futility!” Fletcher shouted.

“Well, I’m not going on tour being called futile,” Merk said.

NEXT MONDAY

Franko never read the paper except when somebody tells him he’s in it. This time, Merk was the one to tell him. The fussy performing arts freelancer really slammed The Punk of Spring or The Rite of Punk. They got a good laugh.

Desecration of a hallowed imperative of the canon, not to be smeared with excrement by barbarians. “Pots and Pans”? Disgusting!

Hermy wrote in a text: “kinda like Pleetus, different POV”

Fletch weighed in: “excrement, cool!”

Normally, Franko ignored phone calls from people he didn’t know. A few minutes later, he listened to the voicemail. It was Jane Zhah, the music director of the Bristol Springs Symphony. He thought, another nasty review? I’m up for it! Franko immediately called back.

Zhah said she was in the Error Code Bar for The Punk of Spring or the Rite of Punk. After Franko’s sputtering, Zhah told Franko the symphony is always looking for innovative music from local and regional composers whose work could be arranged for the whole orchestra.

“We have a ‘Best of Bristol Springs’ evening every season. This process would require a great deal of work for you and your ensemble, me, and our concertmaster. I hadn’t made up my mind about next season,” she said, “but after last Friday night, I’m all in for The Punk of Spring or the Rite of Punk. How about you?”

—   —   —

Olivia, at her cubical, called Franko, still energized by his conversation with Jane Zhah. Olivia asked him to come downtown for lunch. “Pleetus is parked next to the office. He has a huge banner on the side of his pickup with our faces like those Instagrams. Everybody in the office can see it.” She sounded a little jittery.

When Franko showed up at the restaurant, he found her, elbows on the table, head in her hands. “Everybody in the office was looking out the big windows, snickering, shooting weird glances at me. I just want to unload a lot of crap from certain people making my life miserable.”

After a few minutes, she stood up and led the way out, emphasizing her need for a drink. “What’s this, a liquid lunch?” Franko asked. When they sat down at a nearby bar, Franko saw that Olivia was trying not to cry, and he decided not to hug her or touch her hand.

They cozied into a booth, and she ordered a double of Maker’s Mark. She was furious, tearing up a cocktail napkin into little balls.

“My boss fired me with a text. It said he couldn’t have bad publicity, ‘people like you here.’ Can you believe it?”

“You’ll be OK. You always wanted to be your own boss.” Franko was doing his level best not to look happy or say anything about the symphony thing.

“I would have laughed except for the humiliation, but instead I almost lost it,” she said.

He asked for a club soda with lime, and the server asked Olivia if she wanted another. Franko was surprised that she was already ready for another.

“One thing, maybe a strange thing to say: Wish my picture on the banner wasn’t so bad,” she said.

“It’s OK.”

“No, it really sucks!” She laughed.

After a third and a fourth and maybe more, Franko suggested they leave. He was concerned about what she might do next.

She said, “Well, what the fuck, screw them all!”

Later, back at the house, she calmed down. He insisted that she drink some water and eat something. Her mood soured even more.

“Mr. Franko Tucker, what did you do this fine day?” she said with a sneer.

“I ran into some friction with The Futile. They were disappointed that they didn’t get their pictures up on the banner. But I like mine.”

“You like it, do ya? I’m the only one who’s getting crapped on for this. All because of you!”

“How’s that?”

“Think about it,” she said, throwing Franko’s favorite coffee mug across the room, making a gash in the wall and scattering pieces on the floor. “I got fired, terminated, dumped — do you understand any one of those?”

“OK, OK, OK. My bad.” He moved toward her in hopes that he could prevent her from destroying something else.

Sitting on the carpet, she pulled her knees up to her chin. She said, “One good thing: You’ve been in the house for a whole week and you haven’t screamed and threatened me yet. That’s 1,000 percent better than Shithead.”

“I know it was all my fault. What can I do for you?”

“When I get some clients, you can clean homes before I put them on the market,” she said. “And sorry I smashed that mug. Oh, and Public Works found your laptop.”

SIX WEEKS LATER

Franko got busy that Thursday morning when he heard Olivia pounding stakes for a real-estate sign: Open House: Sunday 2-4. He started in the master bathroom where he expected the worst scum. It was his first cleaning job. The tub looked OK, basic white, but with every squirt of chlorine-based cleaner and each swipe of the non-abrasive scour pad, the tub got more gleaming than before. One problem about this project was that the vicious fumes irritated his eyes and throat. It wasn’t all that bad, but his fingers, palms and wrists were on fire. He wondered how his new side job would affect his guitar work.

At least he could listen to The Rite of Spring on Spotify blaring from his phone.

Franko was still working on the tub as his stomach suggested lunchtime. Thankfully, Olivia arrived just then with sandwiches. His hands had turned a rosy brilliancy.

“No gloves, no knee pads, no safety glasses?” she said. “I told you to go to Harbor Freight and get some gear. I even gave you cash to do that!”

“I didn’t think I needed gear, but I guess so.”

“Yeah, your hands are melting!”

“Not really.”

She scrounged through her bag. “Here, it’s shea butter. Spread some on and work it in.”

“Nice,” he said, but he didn’t like the smell of women’s stuff on him.

They went to the store and Olivia outfitted Franko with a pair of PVC-coated rubber gloves and construction-grade knee pads with foam padding.

“You’re treating me like a kid,” he said.

“No, I’m treating you like an adult, which you do not do for yourself,” she said. “Do you still have those five twenties?” Olivia selected the gear and placed it on the checkout counter, and Franko delivered the cash.

Back at the house, she gave Franko a two-liter bottle of Mountain Dew for the afternoon. Hermy dropped in to see the place and to see what Franko was doing. Olivia gave Hermy a tour that wrapped up in the master bathroom.

“Franko’s working hard, and so am I,” she said. “I got my LLC from the state and the crap from the IRS. I sold the 370Z. Boo-hoo! But I needed quick cash.”

Hermy announced to Olivia that they were doing The Punk of Spring project again in the fall and next year with the symphony.

“Yeah, that’s all I hear from Franko,” she said.

Franko had little to say. For the first time, he had a chance to simply enjoy her presence. Her shampoo or cologne reminded him of the scent of the shrubs on Pleetus’s lawn. The association made him feel good and bad at the same time. He understood this mess had been the best thing that ever happened and the worst, tied up in a series of unlikely events.

She said she’d be visiting a few people who might want to list their homes with her. She told Franko his job was to finish cleaning the house by the end of the next afternoon, in time for the open house.

After Olivia left, Hermy sat down. They jawed about music and women, and Hermy complained about his mom.

“True, but you’re suffering from whiny-baby syndrome,” Franko said. “And you’ll be going back to school soon.”

“And isn’t it bliss without any crap from Pleetus since the show — nothing!” Hermy said.

While Franko finished the bathroom, Hermy remarked on Olivia’s beauty and her excellent lawn signs that made her look even better. “She looks like Kylie Jenner.”

“Really?” Franko said: “No, she’s older and she’s an actual person.” Then he wandered into daydreaming. He took pride in not doing something stupid, such as making a move on her. He felt like he was somehow being a grown-up, and it felt weird.

When Olivia returned, she was at first annoyed to see Hermy still there, but she eased up when she saw that Franko had made progress. “So, you really do have some useful skills — beyond the guitar,” she said.

“That wasn’t very nice, but I can live with that,” Franko said. “What about Hermy: Shouldn’t he be held accountable, too? He was there at the beginning of the whole Pleetus episode.”

“You, Hermy: You’re just an accessory,” she said. Then she turned her attention back to Franko with a guarded frown. “You’re the guy doing community service.”


BIO

Ed Peaco wrote numerous short stories in the ’80s, ’90s and early aughts. Then he took a different path as a writer for the regional newspaper where he lives, focusing on local music. This story fuses his interests in short fiction and music. He continues to write short fiction where he lives in Springfield, Missouri.
A few notes —
• Another story by Peaco is scheduled to be published in 2021: “Additional Guests” in The MacGuffin.
• “Systematic Desensitization”: Alabama Literary Review, Vol. 5, No. 1, 1991; and Santa Fe Writers Project fiction contest, 2002, posting among the best 65 entries
• “The Precarious Limb”: River Oak Review, Winter 2000-Spring ’01; and a reading of the piece, June 2002, Evanston (Ill.) Public Library
• Book reviews for the Antioch Review, 1996-2004




Small Acts of Rebellion

by Jenny Falloon


I saw Ann the other day. I was walking down Granville Street, and I could smell the sea, that wild pungent smell that always grabs me. It was raining lightly, the air damp as only Vancouver can be. I was on the side of the street where Hudson´s Bay Department Store still stands, amazingly, all six floors of it, and where I once stole a cheap hairbrush. Not because I didn’t have the money to pay for it, but because the salesgirls were yakking away, I was late and on my lunch hour, and I got tired of waiting. So I walked off with the brush. There is no excuse.

But back to Ann. She was sitting in the window of one of the few cafes still open. I knew immediately that it was her, although it was all a long time ago. She still wore her hair piled up on her head, although there was less of it, and the black had softened into grey.

I was of a mind to go in and say Hello, but my raincoat was wet, and I had my umbrella and my bag and Christmas packages. And I would have had to put my mask on. She was with a younger man. A son? We never knew what happened to her afterwards, although Sandy heard she’d taken the Greyhound Bus to Fort Lauderdale, where she had an aunt.

And what would I say? Would she even remember me? There seemed little point. But I stood there unseen, not ready to let her go. She had made a dent in my life.

They looked out of the window in my direction. A son, for sure. The same rectangular face and firm jaw, the pale skin, an elegance almost. She looked older, of course, a little ragged. I wondered if she still got those little flushed pink discs on her cheeks when she was agitated.

Mr. Biernes had hired Ann for her typing. Even by law office standards, where speeds of 90 or 100 wpm were common, she was amazing. Her long fingers, the nails painted a glossy blood red, would fly over the keys in a blaze of speed and accuracy. I used to picture her alone at night in her apartment – she lived in a lovely old building down on Beach Street that was torn down years ago and replaced with condominiums –  touching up her nails as she watched the news in her pajamas.

The Law Offices of Arthur L. Biernes occupied a small suite on the 5th floor of an old building on Hastings, across from Pacific Plaza.Mr. Biernes must have been in his early 40’s. Confident and hardworking, he would arrive most days by 8, his face made ruddy in winter by the sharp morning air, wearing one of his “sincere suits,” as he called them, brown or grey and not terribly well cut, a silk tie, chosen by his wife, I’m sure, and polished Oxfords.

“He always looks so smart,” I whispered to Sandy, that first week.

“Doesn´t he?” She smiled knowingly, inserting a blank Subpoena into her machine. “We like to think that his wife shines his shoes every day for him. ´Come here, Arthur. We can´t let you out with your shoes looking like that.´” We all laughed.

“Come here, Monica,” Sandy said one day from the window. “I want you to see  something.” It was lunchtime, and we were alone. Efficient and easygoing, she was a pretty girl with thick blonde hair and eyes such a startling blue that I used to wonder if she wore shaded contact lenses. She was engaged to be married in spring.

I walked dutifully across to the window and looked down at the street, busy with people and traffic. I was wondering what I was there to see when I saw Ann amidst the crowd, her red coat bright among all the black and grey, walking briskly across the street toward Pacific Plaza.

“She´s going to Mr. Biernes´s club,” Sandy said. ¨They will sit on one of the big soft couches in the Lounge, have a quick martini. Then they will go the small hotel down the block.¨

I was aghast. My mouth probably fell open. As I say, it was a long time ago.

“Does Mrs. Biernes know?”

“Good heavens, no! She thinks he’s at his club. And he is most days, but once in a while he spends time with Ann.” She gave me a knowing smile.

“But how can you be sure? Maybe they’re just having lunch.”

“Oh, Monica. They´re not ´just having lunch,´ as you put it. Those hotels – or motels, whatever they are – don´t do lunch. They rent rooms.” She stopped. “And if they were, having lunch, why don´t they just say ´We´re going to have lunch. See you later.’ I don´t think we would fall off our seats in shock. Instead of which, he leaves at his usual time and she leaves ten or fifteen minutes later and sneaks over to meet him. And we´re all supposed to be fooled.” She went back to her desk. “Look at her face when she comes in, her cheeks. They´re always flushed after she´s been with him. Like a clown.”

“But how can you be so sure?”

“I followed them once.”

“You followed them?”

“Yes, I followed them. It wasn’t difficult. We’re not a detective agency, but we do have that capacity.” She lingered on the last word. “In a way, that’s part of Personal Injury, knowing what people are up to. Sometimes you have to spy on them.”

“Do you know when it started?”

“Probably around the end of summer, when we got the Higgins case. Mrs. Biernes was in Alberta for three weeks.”

Clara Louise Higgins, Guardian Ad Litem for Thomas Lee Higgins, a minor, vs. Colonial Cabinets, an Ontario corporation, etal, was a wrongful death suit. Tommy Lee Higgins had died at three years old, in his bedroom, when he pulled open the top drawer of a five-drawer dresser made of particle board by Colonial Cabinets. The dresser fell forward on top of him, crushing him to death instantly. We had been retained by his mother, Clara Louise Higgins, a large noisy widow who had six children, all under 17, leading Ann to observe, “Well, at least she´s still got five of them. One less mouth to feed.”

“What an awful thing to say!” Sandy was aghast.

It was my first job. I liked working in a law office. I liked the routines, the deadlines, the eccentric clients, even the archaic terminology. Typing the first sentence of a Complaint for Damages – ‘Comes now (John Doe) and alleges’ – I liked the waya trumpeter in a floppy blue beret would pop into my head, a clarion call to justice. I liked the way Latin popped up all over the place.

I liked standing at the window late on a winter afternoon, as the sky darkened, watching tankers glide sedately into the harbor, watching people hurry home through wet streets, or to meet up with someone for a drink, somewhere warm and dry. I’d picture drivers cocooned in their cars at the crosswalk, windshield wipers sliding back and forth, lighting a cigarette, changing the station, fiddling with the heater.

I even liked the mass of documents Ann and I produced every day, the complaints, petitions, motions, the long sets of interrogatories – ‘discovery,’ it’s called – and taking them in their envelopes to the Burrard Street Post Office on my way home.

It was on such an errand that I ran into Mrs. Biernes a few weeks later. I had to file a Motion at the courthouse and decided to combine that with my lunch hour. I was standing at the lipstick counter in Hudson´s Bay comparing Max Factor´s Pink Brandy with Lancome´s Le Pink Drama when a voice said, “Hello, Monica! Fancy seeing you here.” Her serene, heart-shaped face, beneath exquisitely trimmed blonde hair, looked up at me. (I get my height from my father.) “How is Arthur treating you?”

“Very well,” I smiled carefully. “He’s a pleasure to work for.” I almost said ´your husband.’ “How are you?”

“I´m fine.” She pointed at one of the little smudges on my hand. “I’d go with that one. Better with your skin color and your brown hair. In fact, I’m on my way to see him at the Club. I don’t like it much, frankly, all those men sitting around in their leather chairs. But I´m rarely in town, so I thought I would surprise him for lunch. What do youthink?” She smiled at me coyly, as though they were newlyweds.

Since that day at the window, I had tried to separate Mr. Biernes into two men, the one who employed me – “Nice work on those Interrogatories, Monica!” – and the other. Ann was a different matter. She had to be taken as a whole. I was careful never again to stand at the window with Sandy at lunchtime waiting for the red coat to appear on the crosswalk below. There were things I could not get my mind around. After a while I stopped trying. It would come.

“I think it’s great idea!” I said. “He will be delighted.”

It was after 2.30 by the time I got back. The door to Mr. Biernes´s office was closed. Sandy was alone.

Everything had been cleared from Ann’s desk. The photo of her Aunt in Florida, the round glass ashtray, the packages of Marlboro Lites, the Nivea Cream, tins of peppermints, the Penguin version of Anna Karenina. All that was left was the typewriter, the telephone, a battered Merriam-Webster dictionary, a stapler, and a big ugly green blotter.

“What happened?”

“She’s gone.”

Gone?”

“Yes, Monica. She’s gone.”

The word hung amid the wooden desks and the swivel chairs and the filing cabinets. The only sound was the metallic purr of Sandy´s machine.

The files she’d been working on had been placed on my desk, next to the Tommy Higgins file, bulging with depositions, medical records, autopsy reports, furniture catalogs, and marked in block capitals on the outside WRONGFUL DEATH.

“All it needs is a skull and bones,” Ann had said as she put it there that morning.

Sandy turned her machine off and looked at me.

“Mrs. Biernes came into the office. Which she hardly ever does. So I was surprised, and I was all ready to chat. She said Hello to me but not a word to Ann. She went straight into his office. She didn´t even knock! Oh, well, she´s his wife.”

“She was in there I don´t know, ten minutes, maybe a little more, It was all very quiet. Ann just went on typing away, a mile a minute. Not a word. Then the door opens, and she comes out. She says Goodbye to me and leaves. Ann was still typing.”

“Then he buzzed Ann, and she went in, all very calm, and I heard voices, I heard them talking. I was at the copy machine when she came out. I heard her going through her desk, opening and shutting drawers, getting her stuff.”

“I didn´t know what to do, Monica.  I felt terrible, almost sick. What could I say?”

There was sorrow in those blue eyes. And something else. Things happen, I was starting to understand, and all you can do is watch and hang on.

“Finally, she had all her stuff, she had her coat on and her gloves. She never goes anywhere without her gloves this time of year. ´I’m going,´ she says, standing at my desk. ‘I’m sure you’ve figured that out. You may even have figured out why.’ And she gave me such a strange look, you know that blank look she sometimes has, as if there are things she knows that you couldn’t possibly understand. She said, ´I hope everything goes well for you. And Richard. With the wedding. Tell Monica that I’ve enjoyed working with her. She’ll make a good legal secretary.’”

Mr. Biernes didn’t replace Ann, even with a temp. Maybe he thought there was too little time, with the trial impending. Maybe he didn’t want another woman sitting there with a baleful gaze, blowing smoke rings, hair piled dangerously on her head. Maybe he thought he would give me a chance.

If he did, I took it. I worked hard. I put in long days. Ann’s words would ring in my ears. “Don´t forget the Proof of Service, Monica, to all parties. But especially to Jacob B. Herlihy, Esquire, a former alcoholic, as we all know, but a good lawyer just the same.”

Some nights I was there till 7 or 8. I would drag the plastic cover over Ann´s – now my Selectric and put it to sleep for the night. I’d stop on the way home at a Chinese take-out place on Robson, long gone, and get a carton of Chop Suey or Ginger Beef, and eat it on the couch while I listened to the news, across from the Murphy bed.

As Joan Didion said – her city was New York – “Was anyone ever so young?”

One day Mr. Biernes opened his door.

“Monica, have you got the Shiller Subpoena?”

“No, Mr. Biernes. It should be in the file along with the others. They were all issued the same day.”

“Well, it isn’t. I’ve looked.”

“Let me check,” I said, suddenly queasy, following him calmly into his office. “I’m sure it’s in there somewhere.”

Not to sound too Hollywood, but Robert Schiller was our star witness. A retired product engineer, he had done a study two years ago on dressers and the tendency of Colonial Cabinets dressers to lack structural stability and to fall forward when an upper drawer was pulled open – by a lad of three, say – causing injury or death. The study had concluded that Colonial Cabinets had been aware their dressers were defective and continued to manufacture and sell them anyway.

Ann had tracked him down in Charleston, South Carolina, and interviewed him on the phone. His name, address, phone number, qualifications, as well as her typed summary of the interview and a copy of the report, had been paper clipped to the Subpoena.  

All of it was gone, the Subpoena, the paperwork, the summary, the report. Everything. It was as if Peter Schiller no longer existed.

Sandy tried to get hold of Ann by phone. Twice she went to her apartment on Beach Street, the second time banging on the door and peering in through a window. The place looked empty. Mr. Biernes talked with a private investigator friend.

It was not, as they say, the end of the world. We had other witnesses, although none as strong as Mr. Schiller. We had a strong case. Juries are sympathetic to little boys when dressers fall on them and kill them, and to their mothers, no matter how many children they have.

But Mr. Biernes faltered. The zest seemed to go out of him. I think he couldn’t quite believe Ann had done this, had chosen this particular act of revenge. He would sit at his grand oak desk in his office and stare out of the window for long periods of time. He began to forget the names of clients. He missed appointments, court appearances. The robust “Good morning, Ladies” started to sound forlorn, all the more so now there were just two of us ladies to hear it. His brush with disaster had come too close.

Jake Herlihy, who represented Colonial Cabinets and was a member of the same Club, probably sensed this. So he offered to settle. When Mr. Biernes emerged from his office one day after numerous long phone calls and told us the sum they were haggling over, that Tommy’s brief life had been deemed worth, we looked at each other in dismay.

Clara Louise didn’t like it either and left the offices in tears and fury, along with the youngest three of her remaining children, who had spent the time sprawled in front of the small television in the 5th floor Law Library watching Happy Days.

As they all shepherded themselves noisily out of the office, the smell of defeat in the air, I pictured Ann, pale and impassive, glancing up from her machine for just a fraction of a second. “Take it, Clara. It´s the best you will get. And you´ve still got the other five.”

I stayed another year with Mr. Biernes, and he held on. Then I went to California, and I lived there a long time. But I came back. I missed the smell of the harbor, the tugboats puttering through English Bay at dusk, the damp. People ask me why I left California. Because it’s dull, I tell them.

Now, of course, we have the Women’s Movement, Feminism. Everything is different. Women have more power than before, more freedom, more choices.

A name caught my eye the other day in the Legal Gazette. Andrea Biernes is a Municipal Court Judge in New Westminster. There was a photo of her in her new courtroom, smiling confidently, gavel in hand. She may well be the granddaughter of Mr. and Mrs. Biernes. It is not a common name around here and like medicine, law often runs in families. Either way, I am sure Andrea is a fair and competent and hardworking judge. Certainly, she will have more power than I ever had – or Ann with her flying fingers and her Marlboro Lights, or Sandy with her watchful eye.

All the same, I hope she keeps a close eye on her husband. Those small acts of rebellion can surprise you. I know. I’ve seen them.



BIO

Jenny Falloon studied English Literature at UC Berkeley and years ago, wrote articles for Bay Area sailing magazines. She has lived in Canada, the United States, England and Spain. Since retirement, she has won prizes for her stories in the U3A Javea and Xabia Book Circle. This is her first published story. She writes brief political satires, fast fiction, and short stories.



Boomerang

by Ian McGaughey


It’s funny when it happens, when you’re on a long stretch of road and you pass the same car four or five times. Terry had been drinking a lot of coffee and found himself stopping often at rest areas and pull-offs. He’d sometimes see the older blue Ford pickup go on past as he made his way to the SaniCan, only to catch up with it later. Each time he passed, Terry would look over to try and catch the driver’s eye, an older, gray-faced man holding the wheel at 10 and two, but grayface never took his eyes off the road in front of him. He never moved.

Terry was making the two-hour trip from Tok to Delta Junction on a stretch of the Alaska Highway that roughly followed the path of the Tanana River, snaking its way through the snow-covered Alaska Range. He’d planned on making the trip a few weeks earlier, but the weather had been unusually mild for October, and he and his crew stayed in Tok to take in as much construction cash as they could before the long winter. Now into December, he couldn’t put it off any more.

He’d done this drive dozens of times, and never stopped marveling at the incredible beauty surrounding him, the high-reaching cliffs, crystal blue lakes and miles of black spruce. There’d been times when he’d have to wait for a herd of buffalo to amble across the road. Sometimes they would just stop in the middle, planted like big brown furry barriers oblivious to his need to get going, looking a him like a visitor from another dimension. Other times he wouldn’t see a single animal, and he’d clip along the vein cracked highway, fast under the pearl blue sky.

Terry liked these trips to Delta Junction. He wasn’t much of an outdoorsman, and his lifelong tendency toward tunnel vision kept him focused on the close and immediate. Hitting the road forced him to open his eyes and expand his view. He’d often ride in silence, forgoing music or talk radio in favor of taking in the expansive beauty around him.

And he would think, letting his mind wander, and remember.

“It’s time,” his father would say every Sunday morning without variation, sticking his large head into Terry’s bedroom, “let’s go.” Terry would roll over with the pillow on his head, trying to stay in dreamland just a little longer, dreading the weekly pilgrimage to the Tok Bible Chapel.

It was when his father died that he started going to church again as an adult, at first to comfort his mother, but later to comfort himself. His father’s death had been a shock, dropping dead in the lumber mill of a heart attack at 49. Terry’s mother followed less than two years later, but by her own hand. Her intense life-long depression raged after her husband’s death, and the accompanying financial woes led her to mix the grim cocktail of twenty-plus Valium and a quart of Yukon Jack.

Now, five years later, Terry was grateful his parents hadn’t been alive to witness the drama of his last couple years. The divorce, his ex getting custody of Meghan, his DUI—the result of his increased partying with the guys after (and sometimes during) work. His younger brother had done well in financial services in Seattle, and urged his brother to get out of Tok and come south. But Terry liked it where he was, he liked his friends, the guys on the crew, he liked the small-town simple life, he had just turned 30 and he wasn’t going anywhere.

But today he was going to Delta Junction, and he relished in the freedom and contentment only a road trip can bring. He shook off the thoughts of his parents and the troubles of the past few years and stared out the windshield. The sky was darkening and the temperature dropping. There was talk of more snow and cold weather coming, but it didn’t sound bad, and he figured he’d probably beat it anyway.

Besides, it had been months since he’d seen his daughter. He’d made so many false promises of a visit that he could hear his ex-wife was telling her, “See Meghan? Haven’t I told you not to get your hopes up about your father?” Terry loved his daughter, of course, but he hated seeing his ex and having to succumb to her rigid rules (remember, she doesn’t get any soda or sugar) and disapproving comments (you know, you’re getting a beer belly). Worse than that was her boyfriend, Alan the bodybuilder, who spoke little but wore a hostile, threatening look. Terry couldn’t believe this jerk was raising his daughter.

“So, you grow up around here?” Terry asked him one day, trying to make conversation.

“Nope.”

He turned on his headlights. The glare of the piled up snow on the roadsides contrasted with the dull black blur of the pavement. He was making good time and would be in Delta Junction by 5:30 or so.

There was a chill and he reached down to turn the heat up a bit more. The temperature was already minus 15. There was a movement outside.

He saw it as soon as he lifted his eyes from the dash. Oh no. The moose was big and running in a diagonal across the road toward him. No!

Instinct took over. He swung the wheel hard to the right. He saw the matted hair and black eyes. His truck screamed onto the shoulder. He missed the moose by a foot, but plowed into the high snowbank and lost control, getting airborne for a moment over the slight incline, landing with a hard crunch underneath and stopping some 100 feet off the road, half buried in a snowy depression.

He swore.

His entire windshield was cracked. His hands still held tight to the wheel. He caught his breath and felt pain in his wrists, but was otherwise fine. The fine-grained snow was up over the hood, blowing in mists around his truck. The engine still chugged away, impervious to the situation. He knew there was no way of getting the truck unstuck on his own, but tried anyway, gunning the gas and twisting the wheel.

Something about the lack of motion made him feel colder. He grabbed his heavy jacket off the passenger seat, jabbed his right arm into the sleeve and maneuvered it over his shoulders. He pulled on his ski cap and gloves, leaned hard on the door to push away the deep, light snow and stepped out into the cold.

Through the wind he heard a distant vehicle approaching. The snow was over his waist, making walking a challenge. The sound got closer and he pushed harder, making his way up the incline toward the road. It was the blue Ford. He started waving his arms. “Hey … hey!” He was still some 30 feet off the side of the road but could see the man’s outline in the cab of the truck. The ghostly, gray-faced man stared straight ahead. “Hey!!!” The man never looked, and disappeared into the darkening night.

Terry looked back at his half-covered vehicle. The white exterior of the protruding cab blended in evenly with the snow. He traced the path it made back to the road and saw the moose, standing on a knoll looking directly at him. “Hey, look what you made me do!” The moose stood motionless, offering no reaction. Terry worked his way back toward his truck, turning once to give the moose the finger..

He cleared snow from the tailpipe and got back in the warm cab. Cool blue lights of the instrument panel reported an outside temperature of minus 19. He shivered as he turned the heat up to max, noticing that he managed to get snow inside his left boot. He opened the window slightly to listen for oncoming traffic. Nothing. He checked his phone in case by miracle there was a signal, even though he knew it was at least another half hour of driving until it would crackle to life. Again, nothing.

And then something. A growing sound from the highway. He blasted his door open and retraced his steps up through the snow toward the road. It was an SUV coming from the opposite direction, a deep roar increasing in pitch as it drew nearer. This time Terry reached the shoulder, waving his arms high over his head. The vehicle slowed and the driver pulled across the road to Terry, rolling down his window. “You all right, buddy?”

“Yeah, just got forced off the road by a moose. I’m stuck down the hill.”

The driver looked behind Terry. He was in his early 20s with thumping, bassy rap music coming form the car. “Oh yeah. Wow.”

“Can you call me some help when you get to Tok?”

“Yeah, sure. I’ll probably have a signal if 30 or 40 minutes.” He looked at Terry. “You gonna be all right out here? It’s cold as hell.”

Terry agreed, assured him he’d be fine and thanked the man as he drove off. He turned to look for the moose. It was gone.

Back in the truck, the heat wrapped around his body as he thawed the deep chill from his short time outside. A couple other vehicles went by, neither seeming to notice him. No worries, he thought. That guy will be in cell range in about 20 minutes.

He looked at his fuel gauge. Wait—hadn’t it been around half a tank when he left? Why was it down to a quarter? Maybe he wasn’t remembering right, he thought. He wondered what his wife would think, now that he’s going to easily be a couple hours late. “Just typical, Terry,” he heard her saying. “Typical.”

It was funny and tragic to him how far apart they had grown. He had once been enthralled with her every move, every word she said, every gesture. Now he was filled with dread at the thought of seeing her for five minutes. He asked her once, “What happened to us?” expecting to provoke a sentimental response. Instead she berated him, “What happened to us? You fucked other girls while we were married, that’s what happened to us!”

It was true, of course. He slept with Monica twice, the girl in the construction office, as well as a stripper at a buddy’s bachelor party in Anchorage. She’d found out about Monica (they always find out, he’d been warned, especially in a small town like this), and in a moment of total honesty while pleading for forgiveness, he added the stripper to his confession.

“But that was it. It was stupid. I was drunk. It didn’t mean anything.”

His marriage to Diane had been far from ideal, though its beginning sparked many happy moments. The small wedding reception at the seafood restaurant in Seward, their parents and close friends drawn together by their shared joy. Their first apartment, sleeping on the floor that first night, too tired to unload the U-Haul, holding each other for warmth. The night Meghan was born, looking at each other with disbelief at the beautiful life they’d created.

Yet there had been cracks in the foundation along the way. Her extreme jealousy, his excessive drinking, the arguments about all kinds of things, stupid little things that always became so huge. Still, they’d usually make up with passionate sex, making him wonder if their fighting wasn’t a kind of foreplay.

As good as their sex was, it also represented one of their greatest tragedies. Sometime after Meghan was born, he began shutting his eyes tight, fantasizing that he was with the two college girls in the apartment down the hall.

A tractor trailer roared by on the road above him. The thermometer reported 25 below. It had been an hour since that guy had driven off. Should only be about another 20 to 30 minutes or so until helped arrived. The night had become dark, with no moon and thick clouds covering the sky. The wind was steady.

What the hell? His heart pounded. Why is the gas tank nearly empty? He couldn’t believe it. There must be a leak. Damn it! He thought he saw the gauge move. This is not good.

He started to brace himself for the push outside to investigate, but stopped. What would I do out there? If it’s leaking, it’s leaking. I’ll freeze trying to dig under the car to find it. He opened up the glove compartment, pulled out a mini flashlight and turned it on to see the dim glow from weak, old batteries.

He looked behind him in the cab to gather blankets just in case. He pushed aside yesterday’s newspaper, some cans, an old shirt. Where are they?

The realization that he removed his emergency blankets two weeks ago while helping a friend move hit him hard. You’ve gotta be kidding me! He pounded the wheel with his fist.

The gas gauge slipped to the wrong side of E.

60 miles away, his daughter was dancing, or maybe she was coloring, or maybe watching TV. Meghan had just turned six and this visit was going to be his belated celebration with her. He’d planned to take her to Fairbanks for the day, getting ice cream and going to a movie. He marveled at how much she changed each time he saw her, at times making him feel like a stranger.

Still, Meghan was always so excited when he pulled up. She’d be running down the steps before he even got out of his car, like she’d been watching from the window. It broke his heart to think that she’ll give up waiting tonight, that Diane was likely trash-talking him again, and he was helpless to do anything about it.

The engine sputtered. “Come on. Come on!” He shook the wheel as the comforting purr knocked to a stop. With it, the warmth pushing out of the vents was replaced by stillness. The temperature in the cab immediately began to drop. Terry zippered his coat up past his chin and pulled his cap down past his ears. “I’ll be fine. They’ll be here any minute now.”

But he was starting to think maybe something was wrong. It had been nearly two hours since the young man had driven off, promising to send help. A truck should have arrived at least half an hour ago. The road above had been eerily quiet, and now with his engine gone he could hear the wind race through the valley. He felt a deep chill seep through his truck.

Sometimes he thought he heard something coming up the road, but it was the deep cry of the wind. Terry was cold. The insulation in his old jacket wasn’t what it used to be. The sweatshirt he had underneath was thin. His jeans had gotten wet from his earlier excursions and were still damp. An occasional shiver gripped his body. He rocked back and forth to stay warm. Come on, any minute now. Come on.

He heard it. It was a big truck, maybe a wrecker. He forced himself into the cold, shutting the door behind him to preserve the little warmth still left in the cab. Yes, thank God! He started up the hill, but something caught his left foot and sent him sprawling face-first into the snow. The flashlight slipped out of his glove and deep into the powder. Bright headlights appeared, filling the black spruce with a twisting luminescence. He pulled himself up. “Hey!” The truck was going too fast, he thought. He resumed his climb. Hey!

The oil tanker never saw him, disappearing around a distant curve, its roar replaced by the unforgiving wind.

I’ve got to make myself to stay out here close to the road, he thought. He was maybe only 30 feet from his truck. Under the snow, the blue glow of his dying flashlight beckoned like a fire. He stumbled over and stared. The light made a perfect circle. In the darkness, it reminded him of photos of earth from space, a blue orb perched in pure blackness.

The wind blasted his face. He placed the flashlight into a pocket and worked his way up the hill, chin tucked into his chest. He had to be ready to flag down the next vehicle. The cold seemed to come from deep within him, radiating out from his core. He shivered hard, uncontrollably. He held himself in a tight embrace. His teeth were chattering with such violence he was sure they would break.

Come on. Please.

It had been an hour since the engine has sputtered to a stop. He figured the temperature was minus 30. He tried the old tricks, imagining a tropical beach and a brilliant, hot sun, or pretending to drink hot soup from a thermos, the wet heat falling into his body. Nothing helped. He could barely stand due to the convulsions, growing stronger and more frequent. He was weak and exhausted. He sat down to rest.

He was 15 feet from the edge of the road, down the slight incline but still able to see the barren stretch in either direction. He forced himself into a ball, trying to conserve any heat he still had. The wind pounded him. No matter how small he tried to make himself, it found him and tore into him with unrelenting power.

Minutes passed. He had to get out of this wind. He couldn’t believe how hard he was shaking. He looked back to the truck, the outline of the cab barely visible in the dark. Before the thought fully formed in his mind, he was in motion, half rolling and half crawling, making his way back toward the shelter of the truck.

When he got the the door he noticed he’d somehow lost a glove, the bloated white form of his hand grossly swollen, barely able to grab the handle. It took all the strength he had to push himself into the cab. He pulled the door hard and shut out the wind, laying across the seat, arms pulled tight against his chest.

Fire. Fire! He would build a fire. Why didn’t he think of this before? He’d pile the newspapers on the seat and start a small fire. He reached for the glove compartment, fumbling with the mechanism, trying to compel his fingers to cooperate to push open the release. The compartment door popped open and he reached in, pulling everything onto the seat, desperately looking for matches. Maps, aspirin, Band-aids, vehicle service manuals, oil change receipts. No matches.

He fumbled through the mess again. Come on. Come on! He slammed his bare hand onto the seat. It was then that he felt the weight of despair crash over him. He lay on the seat, muttering “I don’t believe it. I don’t believe it.”

A pale blue envelope on the seat caught his eye, one side torn where it had been opened. He turned on the flashlight to read the return address. It was from his daughter, addressed to Daddy Nichols. He pulled out the card with the words “Thank You” in silver swirly lettering across the top. Inside the card was a photo. Meghan was standing in a bright, green field holding the red plastic boomerang he had given her for her birthday the previous June, showing it to the camera, beaming with excitement.

There was no preprinted message inside the card, just Meghan’s blocky handwriting. I cant wait to play boomerang with you Daddy. Love, Meghan.

The flashlight was all but dead. He let it fall to the floor. As it hit he began to feel a raw surge of heat. He got warmer. Uncomfortably warm. He unzipped his jacket to get relief. Not enough. He took it off and pushed it behind him. He ripped off his cap, pulled off his remaining glove. He felt like someone had lit a fire in his chest, like he was burning.

He pushed out into the wind and fell onto the snow for relief. Just then, a blinding light hit him squarely. The sound of a large vehicle rose above the gale. He crawled toward it through the snow, still sweltering in intense inner heat. The vehicle roared closer, its beam getting brighter. The engine slowed and it pulled over directly in front of him on the shoulder. It was a heavy duty tow truck, bright and white with lights dancing in orange and blue.

Terry pulled closer, snow clasped tightly in both hands. The doors opened. He saw the figure emerging from the passenger side first. It was a woman, a woman in a simple white dress, radiant in the barrage of light. A man came around the front of the truck toward him in simple overalls, the glow of a cigar lighting his face.

Though it had been years, in an instant he had recognized the pair. Mom and Dad. “Let’s go,” his father said. “It’s time.”



BIO

Ian McGaughey was born in Virginia and grew up in upstate New York. He’s held elected office, lived in Alaska and currently works in government administration in Arizona. He plays the electric bass, and once considered dropping out of high school to join an Elvis impersonator’s backing band.



They Don’t Make Them Like They Used To

by Wendy Maxon


Luna always knew Principal Leavitt would phone her one day to discuss Trevor. She figured if she prepared for it, she’d be able to tolerate the shame, keep it at a slow burn to avoid a searing jolt. When she’d attended Fairview High School decades ago, she’d been vigilant about preparedness; she grew used to the side eyes and sneers of her classmates. But today, when she steered her dented Ford Escape into the parking lot of her alma mater and slid into the only space that hid the clump of birdshit on the passenger door, discomfort seeped so low into her belly she feared she wouldn’t survive.

They had made it to May 12. Trevor surviving eight months without being reprimanded was practically a record. Luna was no stranger to administrators’ offices, cramped back rooms that few parents got to see. But something about the Fairview lobby drained her; its claustrophobically tall bookshelves were flanked by photos of grinning scholar-athletes, and in every picture, the kids’ white teeth shone brighter than the sun. Luna tried not to stare at the photos, terrified she might see herself in her soccer uniform, an image snapped twenty years ago when she could grin at a camera without a care in the world. The disconnect between then and now made her ache.

Trevor had a radiant smile too, not that anyone saw it anymore. It resembled Luna’s, as did his crooked nose and tiny ears. But his picture would never hang on that wall.

While Principal Leavitt guided Luna down the admin hall to his office, beams of light shot through the high-arched windows and spilled onto the hardwood floor. He unlocked his door and welcomed her inside, steering her toward his enormous cherrywood desk. Stacks of paper obscured the top, along with a Fairview yearbook from last June. The thick, brightly-colored tome sported a photo of Fairview’s CIF championship tennis team on its front cover. Their star player, a skinny boy whose brown hair flopped over his terrycloth headband, clutched his racket in one hand and a silver-plated loving cup in the other. Luna’s own MVP trophy, now collecting dust in the corner of the closet, had been at least two inches taller. She hated how quickly she noticed the difference.

“Thank you for coming,” Leavitt said.

She looked up. “Yes.”

“Would you like some water?”

“No.” Water was what you offered small children when they cried, and she had to be a rock today.

Leavitt sat her in a leather chair meant to be comfortable; its chemical smell grated on Luna. “I’m sorry to tell you this.” He extended his hand, and she wasn’t sure whether his gesture or the lack of dirt under his nails put her off more. “Trevor hit another child.”

She felt small on her chair, her legs dangling like a gyroscope. “Oh, no. I’m so sorry. Which child?” She wondered if Leavitt would specify. When Trevor was two and pulled this shit in the “Fishies” room at daycare, they never named names. He hit a friend, they always told her.

“Francois Frello. Another student reported that Trevor hit Francois in the jaw.”

“Is the boy—boy? Is he okay?”

“He will be, but the nurses had to send him to a local hospital for stitches.” Luna wondered how Leavitt’s gaze managed to be both pitying and punishing at the same time. “You understand the liability issue here.”

Liability. Whose fault was Trevor but hers? Luna had noticed signs of trouble when he was still in diapers, the way he’d smile when he twirled her hair until her scalp stung, or how he held that colorful plastic shovel 24/7, refusing to lie down in his crib without it, and having no trouble bashing it onto whichever party pooper adult tried to pull it away. She always felt for her son, or so she told herself. They were all so tired. So tired. She used to sigh whenever she rubbed the red welts along her arm, trying to imagine what a one-year-old who hadn’t slept in weeks must feel like, lying helpless without adults in the room, having gone long past the milestone for crawling. Why couldn’t she teach him to sleep?

“Let me guess,” she said. “He can’t stay at Fairview.”

“I’m afraid not. We’re tasked with ensuring the safety of our community, and we simply can’t have someone endangering our students or fac—”

She leaned forward. “There are only two more weeks before school’s out. If you let him stay through May, we could use the summer to find another school. The credits for this year would count. Please.”

“Of course it will still count, Ms. Felles. Trevor might have some make-up work to do, but it will be easy. His transcript will read that he completed ninth grade at whatever school he attends next.”

He might have some make-up work to do, easy. “It won’t be easy for him.”

Principal Leavitt looked at her like he cared more than she did. “We’re sorry, but our hands are tied. There are other considerations.” He slid a low drawer open, and her chest tightened. He held up a long, white paper in one hand and offered Luna a small pink post-it with the other. “Would you like to take notes?” he asked.

She shook her head. Why bother? The comparisons between her son and herself came fast and furious these days.

  • GPA 1.9. 3.7.
  • Six detentions for frequent tardiness. Class Treasurer two years.
  • Two one-day suspensions for cutting class. Best smile.
  • Two suspensions for aggressive behavior. Co-Pres, Community Service Club.
  • One writeup for violent behavior, several student complaints. Required counseling, never attended. Subsequent detentions for tardiness, missed commitments. Most likely to succeed.

She and Devon had tried for a child several times before having Trevor. The first embryo slipped away from them, a burst of bright red on the bathroom floor at a Chevron gas station where they’d stopped on their way to Dr. Bill’s office to hear the heartbeat. They never figured out what went wrong with the second embryo. On the day of her D&C, just before Luna slipped under anesthesia, she mumbled to the surgeon that the baby’s body must be full of holes. After that, all she wanted was a child to repair the hole in her own.

Principal Leavitt pulled another sheet of paper from his doomsday drawer. “Here’s a copy of his transcript. His grades aren’t up to par with what is expected of a Fairview student. His teachers concur. One referred to him as ‘at best, a spirited child.’”

Luna couldn’t deny there was something about Trevor’s spirit. It had powered his fragile, fighting body through a pregnancy so high-risk she’d nearly bled out six times. Even with the complications and their consistently thinning wallets, she had created someone who refused to cave.

“Do you have children, Mr. Leavitt?” she asked. “You and your wife must know how awful they feel when they’re rejected. Sometimes the only way we keep kids afloat is to not turn our backs on them.”

A look of disdain crossed his face before settling into something softer. “I’m not married, Ms. Felles. We try not to make assumptions here.”

She shouldn’t have said that. Why couldn’t she stay quiet?

Leavitt leaned toward her. “There are always things adults can do to help. We offer several clubs and organizations here, which we look to as signs of talent and potential. But Trevor hasn’t joined any.”

“He tried, but…” But what? But he always came home in a bad mood. Grumbling about how he couldn’t understand the directions, and how that bastard Jackie laughed and elbowed him and called him slow. And that all the directions were stupid, and had she seen his Nintendo Switch? Was it charged?

Sometimes—who was she kidding, it was all the time—the two of them would sit on the couch, exhausted after a day of managing each task. She’d smooth the curls along his hairline, exact replicas of her own, and Trevor would reach for her hand and squeeze it. His fingers looked like hers, too but longer, softer, without the cracks and raw spots. He’d rest his palm on hers for several minutes before retracting it and grabbing his game console. Sometimes the gesture worried her, since other fourteen-year-olds didn’t cling to their parents. Maybe his brain was so far behind he’d never be able to catch up. But her heart still swelled every time they sat like that, staring in the same direction.

Luna wondered what Leavitt meant by wasted potential. Did it mean Trevor dreaming up all these stories, but forgetting to charge the electronic tablet so he could write them down? Twelve o’clock, Trevor. Don’t forget to charge your tablet at twelve o’clock or you won’t be able to do your homework. But the trash truck had come yesterday, and he’d been so overwhelmed by the noise that he just forgot. “It’s not going to do that every day, is it?” he had asked with his hands clamped on his ears.

Did it mean not using a pen because his motor control issues destined him to drop it and get frustrated? Deciding he didn’t want to write anymore because there was another sound outside and could that mean somebody was coming to take him away? 

Or did potential mean hoping that someday he’d be famous for making movies? Given Trevor’s illegible handwriting, Luna had to transcribe his two-hour spec script for Timeslipping Martians Save The World. They worked late into the evening on a blustery night last fall; Luna let him stay up until one am because his joy overflowed, and the spindly, multicolored flowchart that she traced for him grew into not one, but three subplots. The first day Trevor showed up to movie club with his script in hand, brimming with excitement, he didn’t know what Mr. Gremble meant by “Write down your action plan,” and didn’t think to ask. He quit that club after the second meeting, because he couldn’t remember even half of Mr. Gremble’s list of confusing definitions. It was okay. Mr. Gremble was too busy chuckling at subplot #2.

All these failures didn’t indicate potential, she wanted to cry out. They were failures. And as Trevor’s mother, she must have failed, too. Wasn’t creating a self-sufficient adult the most important part of motherhood? Wasn’t that the whole point?

She’d never say it out loud, not to Devon or her friends or anyone else, but Luna was scared. She read the news. She knew the kind of violent deeds frustrated boys did when nobody helped them do anything else. Was that his potential?

An acidic smell, maybe from the sheer amount of glass cleaner required to shine all those windows, made Luna draw up in her chair. She snatched the pink post-it and rubbed it between her index finger and thumb. “What did Francois say to Trevor before he hit him?”

“Whatever it was, it doesn’t matter.”

He was right, she knew. 

“We all tried to reach Trevor,” Leavitt said. “Every time I passed him in the hall, I advised him on how to get ahead. ‘Buck up,’ I’d say. I even called a special meeting to tell him what he was doing wrong and how to fix it. Did he tell you we were supposed to meet last Thursday at noon?”

“He tried to make it, but he just, forgot.” Twelve o’clock, Trevor. Don’t forget what you need to do at twelve o’clock. He had been so sorry, holding his ears.

Leavitt scoffed. “You have to try pretty hard to forget a meeting with the head of the school. Why didn’t he follow up and tell us? Why didn’t you?”

Her fingers rubbed the paper so fast she thought a flame might spark.

“Wasted efforts,” Leavitt said. “The amount of trouble your son has caused … it isn’t worth it to our school.”

Heat crept across her face and neck, down her ramrod-straight spine. She knew “it” meant “he.” He would never be worth it to them. But he was to her. No matter how awful Trevor was, how many times he pulled or threw or scratched or kicked, she would fight to have the soul inside him be seen.

Something came over Luna. Her fist flew out, cracked clean through two rows of veneers that must have cost Leavitt a fortune. His face caved around her hand, jowls ballooning over her knuckles. Blood streamed. A burst of Leavitt’s spittle hit the photo of the tennis team on the cover of the yearbook, landing just above the eyebrow of the magnificent, beaming boy. Spatters of blood fell in vicious stripes across the boy’s Bosworth racket.

Leavitt gaped at her. “Why, you loser bitch—”

She picked up the yearbook and smashed it so hard against the back of his head that something split. The sound snapped her back to reality. She yanked her hand away and froze. When the yearbook fell to the desk, the tennis boy on the cover landed face down.

Leavitt yowled. He grabbed his jaw and the back of his head, trying to contain the blood. “Sheryl!” he shouted across the room. “Get campus security on the phone. This woman just assaulted me.” He sneered at Luna. “You’re done,” he said through the curtain of blood that hung from his nose to his chin. “You and your son will never set foot in any school in this district again.”

She almost laughed. No, she imagined they wouldn’t.

“Did you hear me, Sheryl?” Leavitt screamed again at the door. “Call the police on Trevor’s mother!”

Sheryl shrieked when she saw Leavitt, then punched three digits into her cellphone. Luna looked at her plaintively, still in shock over what she’d done. Had she channeled Trevor? Maybe this was a small thing and the two of them could laugh it off, like they were recreating a scene from Timeslipping Martians Save the World. Neither of them would save the world now. Would they take her away? And if so, who would take care of her son?

She pulled out her own phone and dialed. “I love you,” she shouted to Trevor. “I love you more than anything.”

She couldn’t hear herself over the approaching sirens.



BIO

Wendy Maxon is a teacher in California who has published stories in Jersey Devil PressTales From The Moonlit Path, and City. River. Tree. In June 2020 she received her MFA in Creative Writing at the University of California, Riverside-Palm Desert. She appreciates satire and cultural subversion and loves to design wacky school field trips.



Larceny

by Sandra Yauch Benedetto

Renea was tallying up the money she’d spent on exorcists when she heard the elevator gate clatter open in the hallway. The out-of-pocket total was $17,683.21, because even after meeting her high deductible she had to fight with insurance to get “elective” services covered. On the plus side, she had just enough years in her work life left to rehabilitate her retirement savings. There was a knock at the door, and three more in even succession.

Renea froze. If I don’t move, they’ll go away. Silence strummed a hollow chord in the echo chamber of her head. I will win if I keep still. She was six years old again, hiding in a coat closet at her grandparents’ house, rationing woolen Pall Mall air, so that nobody could hear her breathing. Her brother should be onto another part of the house to seek their cousin, who would be giving himself away with giggles by now. Tension stretched taut between the decades. She waited for the sound of victory in the resigned retracing of footsteps.

Instead, a man’s voice called out, Hello, Mrs. Holten? Are you there?, and Renea was again at her kitchen table, with an abiding understanding that win-lose is a false dichotomy. To the door she must go. A familiar starched navy on the other side of the peephole foreshadowed what would come next. Despite knowing at the first knock that the presence in the hallway was yet another outgrowth of the shape-shifter that possessed her daughter, dread dropped like a cannonball through her body. It tore past her clamoring heart, gutted her viscera, and plowed through the floorboards.

“What is it?” Renea asked as she opened the door.

Officer Aquino of the SFPD presented his badge and introduced himself. Placid expression, even tone, an exhalation of ennui. Whatever he’d set out to prove twenty years ago had already been sufficiently documented, uncontested, and filed. Renea waved him in for the requisite inventorying of her studio apartment. Nothing about her decor signaled that a devil had been spawned in the room — not the misshapen couch, the cheaply framed print of Dali’s Old Age, Adolescence, Infancy,a depressed spider plant hanging in the corner, or the cluttered array of candles and totems on her TV stand.

“We’re not going to press charges, but I wanted you to be aware of the situation.” Officer Aquino’s eyes finally met hers. “You might want to tell your daughter that you have to live here, you don’t want her messing with your neighbors.”

So. Casey had attempted to steal a package from the lobby. It wasn’t the gravest sin she had committed since the fiend took up residence in her body, not even close. Apparently, the sister of a woman who lived in the building had held open the door for Casey, unaware that tenants were under strict orders from the landlord to never let in people off the street. Casey’s depraved mien and shadowy movements as she slithered along the mailboxes caused the women to become suspicious. They called the landlord, who checked the security camera in time to see Casey hauling out a large box. Officer Aquino apprehended her two blocks away from the building.

He sequestered Casey in the patrol car before delivering the box to its intended recipient, a divorced dad in his thirties named Derek. When Officer Aquino filled him in, Derek said,Oh, Renea on 5’s drug-addled daughter? Nah, just tell her to get some help. Had Renea known this, she would have laughed. Derek’s limited imagination couldn’t fathom the hours she spent unearthing reputable exorcists, weary but determined to keep digging, tolerating their musky fresh-from-the-earth zeal and piling up nothing but debts and resentments.

The first exorcist was recommended by a nurse at the women’s clinic where Renea worked as Office Manager, whose niece suffered from the same affliction as Casey. He balked at the last minute, citing a conflict because he was romantically interested in Renea. He did not in fact want to date her, but believed Casey’s demon to be irrevocably entrenched and was loath to add another failure to his portfolio.

The second exorcist was a frizzy-haired baby boomer who wore her reading glasses on a chain and rubbed stockinged feet together under her desk. Her business card read Demon Management Specialist in an all-caps gothic font. She was more fixated on Renea than Casey, to the point where Renea left mid-session, grabbing her daughter and shouting, This is not a two-fer! We’re done here!

The third exorcism, conducted by a team of experts in a facility in Oakland, was too slow-moving. The preliminaries dragged on for weeks, as if one needs to become better acquainted with the soul-sucker that is squatting in one’s body before kicking it the hell out. And the jargon, my god. Incubus this, succubus that, because sex must be at the root of everything. Not that these people condemned primitive sexual desire; they worshipped it. In Casey’s case, dysfunctional sexual relationships were a red herring. Renea could have told them as much during the initial consultation. Reservations aside, Renea would have seen the treatment through since it was likely their last shot, but Casey was expelled after threatening to use the crucifixes on the exorcists in what they described as an obscene desecration of their process.

There was no need to tell Officer Aquino about all that. After he left, Renea prepared for bed. She pictured her daughter grappling with the package, hurrying down the street to wherever she was going. What was the plan? She imagined Casey sitting in the police car, worrying a hangnail or biting skin off her lower lip. What was in the box? The nature of the contents might render the petty crime either more pathetic or more forgivable. Consider Grandma’s binders containing decades of genealogy research versus five thousand pamphlets of fascist rhetoric. It was not inconceivable that Derek was a fascist. He smoked cigars sometimes on the roof. Maybe it was a humidor in the box. Useless.

An hour after falling asleep, Renea jerked awake, said aloud, Are you OK?to nobody, and gaped at the ceiling fan until she registered that it wasn’t Casey as a baby suspended in a swaddling blanket from the ceiling. Usually during these middle-of-the-night awakenings, Renea hallucinated spiders descending on indestructible threads from the ceiling. The immediate panic and protracted confusion were unsettling.

She couldn’t fall back asleep. The cool pressure of a gel mask she found in her drawer didn’t help. At the intersection of her roving mind and the pliable midnight hour, her third eye pushed play on a reverse age progression of her daughter. Starting with Casey now, at twenty-three, tall and thin, eyes too big to hold the absence of feeling, stringy dishwater hair. A limp ballerina doll that had been washed too many times with dark colors. One that on occasion was animated by demonic possession, during which her eyes became radiant and hungry and her manic smile would devour the hopes and memories of everyone in the room. As frightening as that could be, worse were the glimmers of self-awareness and contemplation in Casey’s expression. Those invariably turned out to be the work of the master manipulator, that tricky shitfuck thief that inhabited her.   

Renea rewound to see Casey as she was in middle school, the age when girls lose confidence and the lights behind their eyes dim intermittently. They are on the cusp of something wonderful or terrible, like being at the top of a gaping roller coaster. The adults in their lives are weirdly absent after so many years of being constantly present. Either that or they’re waving inanely from below, oblivious to the potential dangers of the impending plunge. Friends are on parallel but separate tracks. Some will crash, some will soar. There’s Casey, smiling nervously as the ride plummets, bright, anticipating.

That must be when the devil saw its opportunity. It knew that Casey would never be so vulnerable as she was then, alone and suspended between two worlds. Renea had tried unsuccessfully to pinpoint a time and place of entry, but one of the many things she’d learned about demonic possession was that it wasn’t necessarily a cinematic, violent overtaking. It could be an insidious creep with periods of latency. In fact, it took Renea longer than it should have to identify the demon as such, and only then because the imp had carelessly left some noxious paraphernalia lying around. Naming her adversary was half the battle, after which she drew up plans to wage war. No more pleading heart-to-hearts with a creature that has no love or empathy. The exorcists were supposed to bring the big guns, but they were not leading her out of this quagmire as hoped. Who would help save her threadbare baby?

Renea skipped back to the early days, when her daughter was solid and intact, not the flickering phantasm she’d become. Toddler Casey absorbed everything in her orbit, her gray eyes like puddles that reflected or concealed, depending on the light. Her fine hair curled at the ends. She’d been curious and affectionate, by turns silly and solemn, with a stubborn streak that had Renea biting her lip daily. During her first few years, Casey and Renea spent all of their time together. Renea could recall the moment she fully realized that they existed as two distinct people. Obviously she knew that, but she hadn’t feltit with atom-splitting physicality until one day after Casey had turned three and was setting up a picnic in her bedroom for Harry Elephante and Madeline and tiny glass pig. She was absorbed in the task of arranging, moving in accordance with her own desires, as opposed to being held or placed or guided by her mother. Renea stood watching from the hallway, struck by the thought that her daughter’s mind was becoming, and maybe always had been, unknown to her.

Renea tossed the sleep mask aside and got up to refill her water glass. In the night-light cast by the open refrigerator, her feet shone cadaver-like on the linoleum. She thought about the apartment they lived in with Casey’s dad and how she used to check on a sleeping Casey every night and how, as she quietly shut her daughter’s bedroom door, she would take her mind to the brink of the unthinkable before shutting it down with a final resolution, I would die. She would not want to live if she lost this girl, the center of her universe. Then, having indulged this darkness, this warped fantasy of abductors, viruses, freak accidents and men who never learned how to cry, she could go to bed knowing that Casey was tucked in, safe, at home.

When Casey was older, after the divorce but before the demon had a foothold, their favorite thing to do together on weekends was take the ferry to Angel Island to walk around the deserted barracks. There were no careless drivers to watch out for, no huddled reminders of how forgotten and unreachable a person can appear. Sometimes Casey confided in Renea, after they’d been walking awhile and each step on the insular loop made everything feel inevitable, including a renewed closeness between them. Renea could still feel the weight of Casey as she leaned into her on a bench overlooking the bay one clear January afternoon, their shimmery city winking at them from across the frigid water. Casey wiped away tears before they had a chance to fall and professed to never want to speak to her best friend again. Walking back to bed, Renea breathed in, remembering. The scent of Casey’s shampoo and skin mingled in her nostrils for a split second of reclamation.

She climbed back into bed and eyed the ceiling fan. Now that her pupils were adjusted to the darkness she could distinguish each blade and felt foolish that she’d been tricked earlier. Yet, the terrible feeling that she hadn’t been able to rescue her imperiled infant persisted. She wasn’t sure she had the mental fortitude to continue revisiting the past, but her traitorous insomniac brain chose to brand itself with image upon image upon image. Grimy bathroom walls airbrushed in blood. Crumbled pieces of tooth found on, not under, a pillow. Rainwater running like the river Lethe through warped streets where the demon sought oblivion.

Renea continued with the last time Casey had visited her, in the fall. Renea buzzed her up and greeted her guardedly across the anti-halo that darkened the space between them. Casey showered, ate a hamster-sized snack, and fell asleep on the couch in a sunspot. The light gave the illusion of restoring a healthy glow to a complexion that had begun to resemble potato skin. Her breathing was so shallow that Renea put her hand in front of her nose to make sure air was going in and out. She wondered for the hundredth time how to extract her foe while Casey slept. There weren’t any viable options. Coaxing was worse than ineffective, it seemed to rile up the demon. The use of implements risked harming the host, and anyway, Renea wasn’t sure where exactly it hunkered down. That’s why she’d expended so much effort on exorcists. It seemed to be the only way.

After the sun had slid off the couch and into the corner, Casey woke up asking in a voice still sticky with sleep where Sasha was. Sasha the cat had succumbed to kidney failure a few years before. In spite of herself, Renea wondered if Casey’s question was reason to hope, a tiny crack in the demon’s scabrous skin.

Renea had spent years treading over the same recriminations and fears, furrowing her brain with the question of how exactly she had failed Casey. It boiled down to two possibilities: she’d loved her daughter too much or too little. Now, on this night not unlike many that had come before, it became clear that her reasoning was flawed. She had fallen for another illusory choice. She loved Casey enough. It was impossible to love a child too much. The question was, how had she loved her? I would die. Three words skulking in the fog as she closed Casey’s bedroom door every night.

A cry caught in her throat. That was it, then. All along, Renea had stockpiled worry as a means of fortifying their castle, so they’d be ready for whatever calamity the world threw at them. But worry was corrosive. It was her fault their castle became porous, with thousands of tiny holes for the invader to seep through, and now it was crumbling.

She flew to the bathroom, rummaging through the standalone medicine cabinet she kept in a corner. Pepto Bismol, ibuprofen, band-aids, aloe vera, hydrocortisone cream, no, no, no. There were no potent pharmaceuticals, lest the possessed one was on the prowl. Cotton balls, hydrogen peroxide. Maybe? Keep looking. Syrup of ipecac! Disregarding the brittle warning label, she removed the cap from the brown glass bottle and drank until it was gone. Take that.

What to do for the next thirty minutes until the ipecac did its job? She thought about chasing away the bitter taste with a glass of wine, but wanted to savor her enemy’s demise. Besides, Pinot Noir might not be a good look once she started throwing up. She could get dressed, but it was 4 a.m. and what was appropriate attire for a self-induced exorcism, anyway? Wielding a symbolic instrument couldn’t hurt. No crosses, please, not that she owned one. She scanned her TV stand and decided upon Casey’s dusty glass pig.

She didn’t have to wait the full half hour. The expulsion started eight minutes after she downed the bottle and she spent the next fevered hour hunched over the toilet in a litany of rank purification. Renea gloated at the indignity of the demon’s exit — all of her tremblings, pits, and shivers, all the wrong what ifs, backward glances and aborted plans, sucked down into the literal gutter. Outside, the city sparkled. Sirens heralded ninth hour salvations. Tonight, there would be a winner and a loser. Her demon, that had been living in her bowels like undetected cancer, biding its time, feeding on her cynicism and fear, was about to be expunged forever. Only after fixing this could she help Casey. Christ, she thought, that Grandmama Addams exorcist actually knew what she was talking about.

Spent, Renea lay on the tiled bathroom floor, glass pig in hand. Desperate to remain undiscovered, knees pulled up to her chest and upper back rubbing against her grandpa’s scratchy coat, Renea heard a crescendo of sirens. Something terrible was happening to somebody right now and here she was, alone. How quickly her fervent desire to remain hidden had twisted into an urgent need to be found. She unfolded the accordion door and peered out. She expected her brother to be on the other side of it. Instead, she found him with their cousin playing jacks on the kitchen floor. They hadn’t even been looking for her.

Casey was somewhere nearby. She’d been in the building mere hours earlier. The demon slipped up by permitting her to get this close to Renea for the first time in months. Its hold on her is weakening. Renea’s own demon disgorged, her stomach felt sublimely vacant. Come back to me, sweetheart. I know what to do. You invite your friends and arrange the picnic and everything will be wonderful. We will learn how to be brave.

She slept. As the sun came up, the sparkling crown of the Bay Bridge and the halo of Coit Tower dissipated. Alcatraz materialized as a poignant chiaroscuro on the water. The green parrots of Russian Hill squawked their good mornings. The sound of the buzzer penetrated her sleep.


BIO

Sandra Yauch Benedetto is a Chicago-adjacent mom, sometime teacher of high school students, and perpetual seeker of sunshine. She adheres to science and her dog’s gaze. She likes to write short things.








Sainte Chapelle

by Joanna Milstein

“It has to be breakfast,” I told Laila, although this was categorical and unfair, since it was Sunday and it was nine pm, and we were on the Upper West Side, generally understood to be a culinary wasteland. The navy-black December air chomped away at any exposed patches of our skin not shrouded by nylon feather-filled coats. My orange jacket kept my core warm, but the extra layers of downy lumps made me feel like a bloated, artificial bird.

“My mom also recommended this great Italian.” Laila said. “We should try it. I read the review and it sounded—”

“Breakfast. I want pancakes with maple syrup and American coffee and a glass of orange juice. With pulp,” I said.

We settled for a tiny French bistro. Laila and I had studied in France together, a happy time in both of our lives, so it made sense. I ordered coq au vin and Laila had branzino en papillot. Because sometimes you had to make compromises. I ordered a glass of the cheapest red wine on the menu.

“Do you remember that restaurant in Paris where I had the branzino?” Laila asked when our food arrived. “The restaurant was a tiny box, and there were murals on the walls? That was the best branzino I ever ate.” I didn’t remember, and anyway branzino wasn’t a French dish, but it didn’t seem like the right time to mention that.

“Don’t remember,” I said, looking down at my chicken thigh swimming in thick red-wine reduction with glassy onions and fat, round mushrooms.

“What would your father say, if he were here? I wonder what he would say.” Laila’s father was dead. I had loved him. I still blamed myself for not calling enough. It had been two years but Laila and I were always only three seconds from tears at any given moment.

“Can I have a sip of your wine?”

“You know you shouldn’t,” I said. Laila was three months pregnant. A few months ago she’d had a miscarriage.

Laila took a deep breath and held it as long as she could. It wasn’t easy for her. She’d gone to a New York private school and then a fancy college and graduate school where she’d won prizes. She’d been an acclaimed photographer, whose photographs had been exhibited in prestigious art galleries. Now she was pregnant and uninterested in taking pictures. She reminded me of an injured angel, ethereal, out of place in our modern, terrible world. Recently she had moved to LA with her husband, although she missed New York. Even the winters. Earlier that night she had told me, “I miss hibernating. I miss overhearing casual conversations about politics and literature. In LA, all the conversations I overhear are some variation of ‘Where did I park my car?’” I disagreed with Laila, although I didn’t tell her. I thought if I could only move somewhere warm I would buy a couple of sundresses and spend the weekends sitting by some anonymous, plastic pool and never miss winter again.

I had helped Laila get dressed on her wedding day, on a bright and sunny summer afternoon, over a year ago. Her mother had been shouting at her all day and her older sister, Fran, was upset that Laila was getting married. Every time Fran started to speak, she would start crying. “I’m just so happy for La-a-a-ila,” she would sob. So it was up to me, matron of honor, to tuck Laila into her white ballgown dress, covered in cupcakes of tulle and lace. Once the dress was on, she asked me to rub this water-soluble concealer cream all over her back to cover up her acne. (“It’s backne,” said Laila. “Get it?”) I was in a hurry and did a messy job and then tried to blot the flesh color off of the white gown, but that only made things worse. I hoped the stains could be photoshopped away.  

Laila had chattered on. “The concealer hides everything. It’s the stuff they use on porn stars,” she’d said to me. “Little known fact.” I had zipped then buttoned up the back of the dress. All of this had transpired in a small room near Laila’s mother’s bedroom that had been Laila’s father’s study in their house on a small stretch of beach that overlooked the Long Island Sound. Laila had pointed to a velvet pouch sitting on a ledge in the corner across from us. “Dad’s ashes, in an urn in there,” she said. “We’re burying, or perhaps I should say we’re dispersing him, later tonight, or maybe tomorrow. On the beach. Next to his favorite view. He’ll have it forever.” The wedding was beautiful. Laila kissed the groom before the ceremony even started, and she cried the whole time, when she said her vows and after that. Later that evening I gave a soppy speech about the first time I had met Laila (we were 9, we knew at first sight that we were destined to be best friends, we didn’t see each other for eight years after that, but as soon as we saw each other again it was the same as before, as it had always been, not unlike true love). I drank a bottle of tequila, I danced until my feet hurt with the tall best man, who had a Ph.D. in psychology. We talked academia through dinner.   

“Are you okay?” he asked me, when he saw me swallowing another shot of Patrón. I thought I was being discreet.

“Fine. Just fine,” I said.

“It’s worse to watch your friends get married,” Laila told me, as the evening pulled to a close, around 3 am. I was dancing with her Uncle Fred at that point, because he reminded me of her dad. “More traumatic, I mean. Why do you think I scaled that lighthouse on my own the night before yours?” She asked. I frowned. I still hadn’t forgiven her for that.

“My dad? My dad would be horrified. I’m glad he’s not here,” Laila said, soaking up the last drop of the red branzino sauce with a hardening piece of sourdough. “To see it, I mean. To see that man. Our president. To think.”

“I don’t want to think. I prefer not to think,” I said.

“Let’s talk about Paris,” she said.

“Do you remember when you gave the tour of the Cathedral of Saint Denis to those French tourists? When they thought you were their tour guide?”

“But they never paid me. I can’t remember why.”

“Maybe they paid online beforehand? Anyway, no one describes medieval tombs quite like you do. Remember our afternoon at the Musée D’Orsay? I finally saw the Luncheon on the Grass. And all those heavenly Monets. And Van Gogh’s Self Portrait. There must have been so much promise in 1900 when it was built, before the First World War. Before the world fell apart. Then they put it back together, so—”

“That’s not how it was. I only agreed to go because you begged me on your hands and knees. You claimed the D’Orsay was your favorite historical site in Paris and then had that panic attack and we had to leave after twenty minutes. And the museum, for your information, opened in 1986. It was a train station to before that.”

“There were so many people I couldn’t breathe. I never told you the D’Orsay was my favorite. I said Sainte Chapelle was my favorite place in Paris. I knew the original function of the building for the D’Orsay had been a train station. You never came to Sainte Chapelle with me, the royal chapel. Those high vaulted ceilings and the kaleidoscope of stained glass. Did you know there are over a thousand stained-glass windows? Did you, with all your knowledge, know that? I don’t understand why you never visited Sainte Chapelle with me.”

I did, of course, know about the stained-glass windows. I could have given a lecture about Sainte Chapelle in my sleep. And I remembered seeing the pictures Laila had taken of both the exterior and the interior, majestic images that had featured prominently in her 2012 solo exhibition at an art gallery. But as to why we had never gone together, I couldn’t recall.

Some years earlier, I had gone to Paris for the summer to conduct research in architectural history. Laila, who’d had a few free months before she had to start art school, accompanied me. She had planned to take French classes at the Alliance Française while I worked in the archives but most days she slept in. Anyway, her French professor was obsessed with moral philosophy and the criminal justice system. The fifth day of class, she had asked the students: If they were in a sinking boat and had to save only one of their classmates, which one it would be? This hadn’t helped class camaraderie. The seventh day of class, the professor took the group on a field trip to a local courthouse and they watched a multi-hour murder trial. Laila described making eye contact with one of the defendants, his expression of crystallized fear. She dropped out shortly afterwards. Laila didn’t feel like the class was helping her French, but I disagreed. She had acquired an unusual vocabulary. One day she asked me who, out of our mutual friends, I would save from a sinking boat.

I said I didn’t know. “You? Of course you. What do you want me to say? Being trapped on a boat on the open sea is one of my only true fears. Especially at night. Absolute nightmare material.” It didn’t make sense to Laila. She had gone sailing every summer since she was five.  

Without a class to go to, Laila walked around the city taking photographs infused with her habitual sensitivity and elegance, while I spent my time shut up in several Parisian archives and libraries, those magnificent gilded cage-temples of higher learning with lifetimes worth of unpublished and unlimited primary sources. Intense intellectual work increased my lust for life, which occasionally spilled over into lust for people. The more arduous the labor, the worse it got. While waiting to see documents or books, I sometimes fantasized about dragging someone, possibly one of the librarians, with me into one of the deserted carrels.

A musician I knew was teaching in Paris over the summer. We had dated a few months earlier when we had both been in New York, but had just as quickly given up. Our temperaments were similar. Selfish. Stubborn. But as we were both in Paris, fooling around seemed obvious and convenient. The musician had rented a fifth-floor walk-up similar to mine, and only a fast metro ride away. I liked to show up and ring his buzzer, unannounced, after the libraries closed, and then after we had finished I would have the rest of the evening free. It was July so unless he left the windows open, the apartment turned into a sauna. I was loud, partly for the release and partly for the performance-aspect. He said I had a voice like a soprano but I’m pretty sure that was just a line. I still cringe when I imagine him telling all this to his friends, and what the neighbors must have thought.

“When you came home at night your hair and makeup were always a mess, but you looked happy and relaxed.” Laila said.   

One weekend Laila and I took a trip to the countryside and I gave her detailed and exceedingly enthusiastic tours of the castles in the Loire Valley. She filmed the tours and asked me a lot of questions, acting as the narrator. As we stood on a balcony at the Castle of Chenonceau overlooking the arches, which extended out into the picturesque River Cher below, I explained that French courts in the early modern period had been peripatetic because the court routinely tossed their refuse in the moats, and therefore they had to move often, especially in warm weather. At the Château de Blois, I showed Laila the Queen Mother Catherine de’ Medici’s bedroom.

“Catherine was a skilled stateswoman, but her great passion in life was architecture,” I said on camera. “In a different era she might have been an architect. The construction of the Pont Neuf, the oldest, and in my opinion most beautiful, bridge in Paris across the river Seine began during her lifetime, and it is said she supervised its creation.”

“I remember the Pont Neuf—I crossed it on my way to the Île de la Cité, on the day I went to see Sainte Chapelle for the first time. Gorgeous bridge. I took more than a few pictures there. I had no idea a queen was involved in building it.”

“In addition to her architectural endeavors, Catherine was a wife and widow, and mother to 10 children, all of whom tragically predeceased her, save one, who was assassinated 7 months after she died. She died in this very room,” I said.

“Getting goosebumps,” said Laila. “Sorry. I meant to say, can you please tell our viewers at home the story of Catherine de’ Medici’s final hours?”

“It was strange.” I said, taking a step back. “The Queen Mother had heard years before from an astrologer that she would die beside Saint-Germain, so for years she avoided her castle of Saint-Germain-En-Laye and the parish of Saint-Germain-l’Auxerrois, any place with the name Saint-Germain. In 1589, as she lay ill her confessor walked into this bedroom. It wasn’t, however, her usual confessor. It was a much younger man whom she had never seen before.

‘What is your name, son?’ the Queen Mother had asked.

‘Saint-Germain, Madame. My name is Julien de Saint-Germain,’ he had answered.”

Laila filmed all of this, but has since lost the footage, and it’s a shame, because I’ve forgotten so much of what I used to know.

On Bastille Day, July 14, the anniversary of the French Revolution, the archives and libraries in France are closed. Laila and I had interrupted our shooting and studying and gone out to dinner in an outdoor garden in Pigalle where rats scurried back and forth between courses. We ignored them. After dinner we’d met up with an old French friend of mine, Charles, whom I hadn’t seen in years before I had randomly bumped into him on the escalator of the Centre Pompidou a few days earlier and we had made Bastille Day plans. He brought another friend, Étienne, with him. Open air parties were held all over the city and there were fireworks. The four of us went to one of the parties, which featured semi-undressed firefighters for no apparent reason, and spent the night dancing and drinking cheap champagne. I never admitted it to anyone, least of all myself, but I had been hot for Charles those years ago, although we were never friends like that.

We’d watched the fireworks and Charles had suggested we play truth or dare, also known as action ou vérité in French. When it came to the truth question, Charles and Étienne had wanted to know what Laila and I had done together, sexually speaking, and when the answer turned out to be ‘nothing,’ they had dared us to kiss. It all felt fun and familiar. Then we’d made the guys make out with each other, then we had made out with each of the guys. Charles had reached his hand under Laila’s shirt and I noticed.

Charles had invited us back to their apartment but we had declined. We haven’t spoken to those two guys since. All four of us are married, now, and married people try not to remember these kinds of things. Charles and his wife just had a baby, or so I’ve seen on Facebook.  

The night before we left Paris, Laila and I treated ourselves to overpriced ice cream sundaes at the famous Café de Flore, where the round, green café tables, the white awning with the green letters, the grumpy waiters with white aprons, were the same as they’d been since Hemingway used to drink there in 1921. We sat outside. An older woman with bleached hair and thick black circles traced around her feline eyes appeared wearing a black cocktail dress, slightly shrugged off her shoulders. “Just wait. She’s going to do her Edith Piaf impression,” I whispered to Laila. And within a minute the woman took a small gray stereo and speakers out of her bag and put it on the floor in front of her. She began to croon La Vie en Rose.

“Wow,” said Laila.

“Told you,” I said.

“Our Parisian swan song,” Laila said. And so it was. Her father first became ill while we were away that summer, and he never fully recovered. But he loved to hear our stories. The ones we told him. His own father had studied at the École des Beaux-Arts and Laila used to go there, sometimes, when she was feeling low, in an effort to reach out a hand to the past. On his deathbed, her father had asked Laila to tell him, once again, about our summer in Paris, so she had told him a few last anecdotes. Les autres sont reléguées au passée.

“Let’s write a script,” said Laila, “and perform it out one night at dinner in a crowded restaurant. And then people will hear us. It’ll be an experiment. An artistic experiment.”

“But Lai.” I said.

“Yeah?”

“We’d be performing without an audience. No one else cares.”

“So what?” she asked. “It’ll be for us anyway. It’s always is.”

“Lai,” I said, moving my fork to the edge of the plate. “It’s no use.”

“No use?”

“We’ve been adults for a long time now.”

I finished my wine and Laila finished her water, staring into our phones, the void, other patrons but we didn’t look at each other, not for a few minutes. I looked at the cracked wall, patched up with band-aid posters of Nouvelle Vague films. I used to collect such posters to decorate my college dorm room. I liked to think of myself as being worldly and avant-garde back then, when I’d only been to Paris once.

“I should take you home, L. Your mom will start to worry. We can split a cab.”

In the cab Laila clutched her stomach. “Look how fat I am. I can’t fit into those Paris clothes anymore, and I can’t afford to buy new ones.”

“You’re not fat, L.”

“You’re not pregnant. Lucky you,” she said, and clutched a roll on her swollen stomach.

When we got home Laila’s mother was waiting at the door. She threw her arms around me.

“I gotta pack,” said Laila. “Leaving tomorrow at 7.”           

Laila’s mother, Randy took my coat and draped it on the couch. “Let me give you a tour,” she said. She had moved to a smaller apartment at the tip of the Island of Manhattan, Battery Park. Laila had taken photographs of the neighborhood after 9-11, one of her earliest projects. “There’s my old building,” she said, pointing out one of the windows. It was dark, but I could see the lights over the Hudson, the Statue of Liberty, and Randy and Laila’s old apartment building. She brought me into her bedroom, where I saw the pictures of Laila’s dad, Thomas.

Laila came in and interrupted us. She was wearing only a bra. Her stomach wasn’t so swollen.

“Look at me, I’m a triple D!” she said, cupping her breasts with her hands. I remembered how she used to stare at herself in the mirror in Paris, how she used to say “Aren’t I pretty? I feel pretty.”

“Your boobs are enormous,” I said.  

“You would know, you saw them every day in Paris.”

In her bedroom Laila told me that Randy had started dating again. “Look after my mom, will you, when I’m back in LA,” she said. I said I would.

We stayed up all night waiting for the sunrise, to see the Hudson and the

buildings that surrounded it on all sides. Randy and I walked Laila down to the lobby and Randy gave her money for a cab. Randy asked if I wanted to come back up for a drink.

We sat upstairs looking out at the glowing city, and Randy poured us each a glass of wine. “There was a time when Laila asked me if she should marry some rich guy and have babies, and I said no. She had won awards in grad school, and her show of Paris photographs had just premiered. Laila was, is, such a gifted artist. She could’ve been a big name in New York right now. If she’d stayed. Now she’s pregnant and her husband wants her to stay at home, and definitely not lug all that heavy equipment around town in the heat. Maybe I was wrong, Randy. Was I wrong?”

“All I can say is I’ve never seen her as happy as she is now. She’s going to be a wonderful mother. It’s what she’s always wanted, in her heart. Did she tell you what’s she’s been doing out in LA? She’s a social worker. An unpaid social worker. She could’ve been a saint in another life, she has this talent for dealing with sick and needy people. A talent I don’t have.”

“I don’t have it either,” I said.

“You have other talents. I just hope you’re as fulfilled as Laila is, or that you will be, someday,” Randy said, and although she meant it nicely, I think, it made me feel wistful. In a way she was right, I was still searching for something Laila had found. She was grounded, satisfied, but I hadn’t changed. She was the artist, so why was I still the restless, rootless one?

“Laila’s got such a big heart,” I said, simply. “How are you doing? Are you holding up okay?”

Randy looked out towards the Statue of Liberty and I did, too. If we had made eye contact we would’ve both started crying. “The hardest thing might be the finality of death. You know, I haven’t given up on the idea that he’s going to walk through the door one day. I keep waiting,” she said.

I had no reply. We shared memories for the next hour, and then I said goodbye, promising I would call her soon, but I knew that I probably wouldn’t.

“Thanks for being such a good friend to Laila,” she said. “Paris changed her life, you know. She’ll never forget the time she spent there together with you. That solo exhibition, it was one of our proudest moments as parents, and I’m so glad Thomas was alive to see it. He was very grateful, he told me. He wanted you to know.”

“Laila’s my best friend,” I said. It was cold and windy, but I walked home. I undressed and got into bed.

Lying down with the curtains drawn, I thought of Laila standing in front of Sainte Chapelle, the only place we hadn’t gone together in Paris, even though it had been her favorite.

Laila, alone, staring up at that regal façade, her black hair illuminated under a halo of a thousand glass rainbows.

BIO

Joanna Milstein is a New York-based writer and historian. In 2019, she received her MFA in Fiction from NYU, and was awarded a scholarship to the New York State Summer Writers Institute. She holds a PhD in History from the University of St Andrews. Her thesis, “The Gondi: Family Strategy and Survival in Early Modern France,” was published by Ashgate in 2014. She is currently working on her first novel. 




He Left Early

by Emily Newsome

“This is where we’ll anchor.” 

She looked toward Jay as he killed the houseboat’s engine. “Here?” 

“Yeah, it’s perfect. Right between the mountains, no one around for miles…”

Her heart thundered as he trailed off. The spot he’d chosen on the lake was secluded indeed. An inlet pooled between white-clay, sandstone mountains surrounding them on all sides, stood stark against the clear black water. Like a canyon turned lake, in the middle of nowhere.   

“I bet we’ll get a perfect view of the sunset, right here.” He held up his hands, making a square with his fingers.  

She nodded, allowing a tight smile to splay across her lips. “Can’t wait.” 

“What is it?” He frowned, his dark brows knitting together. 

“Nothing, I’ll go get the girls.” 

“Sophie, Mia!” Her voice rang through the tiny houseboat. The soft patter of running feet followed. “We’re anchored.” 

“Can we go swimming?” Sophie asked, bouncing from foot to foot. 

“I already told you, it’s too cold for swimming,” said Mia, her older sister. 

“But I want to swim!”

Kristy looked down into Sophie’s young, hopeful face. “It’s too cold for swimming, sweet. But there are plenty of other things to do.” 

“Like what?” 

“Like play board games or… tag!” She gently tapped her daughter’s arm, dramatically turning to run outside onto the deck. Mia followed suit as Sophie whined, “Hey! That’s not fair!” 

Jay watched his wife and children run around the deck, playing chase.

“Play with us dad!” 

“Yeah, play with us!” 

He shook his head. “Not right now girls.” 

Kristy slowed her steps to glance over at Jay. “Come on, play with the girls for a little.”

He looked at her from across the deck where he was seated. “Not right now, I’m enjoying the lake view.” 

“Well, maybe I want to sit and enjoy the view too. But I’m playing with the girls, before I have to get dinner ready, unpack, and make sure everyone has what they need for bedtime.”  

Jay rolled his tired eyes, sliding a hand through his hair. “You really wanna do this right now?” 

“The whole point of this vacation was to spend time as a family.”  

“We just got here.” 

“Yeah, and already I’m the one having to take care of everything. While you sit there.”

“What have you had to take care of? I drove the boat, I anchored us! I mapped out the whole trip—” 

“This trip was your idea!” 

Sophie and Mia stopped playing.  

“Mom, it’s ok. We don’t need four people to play.”

Mia’s light, tiny hand grasped her own, pulling her back toward the game. Letting out a sigh, she turned back toward her daughters. Plastering on a smile, going through the motions. Pretending to be content, to be happy. 

She lay beside Jay that night, waiting for sleep. Her eyes began to flutter close, the desire for sleep pulling her down.

“Come here,” Jay said, sliding his hands over her body. “I’m sorry about early today.”

Silently, she turned into him, the warmth of his body suffocating. 

“You know playing with the girls is hard for me. My dad never did those things.” 

“I know.”

“You know?” 

“It’s fine,” she corrected.  

The tension tightened in the room. But after a moment, she felt his mouth press down on hers, hard. He didn’t ask permission. He never did. Even if he had, she’d likely given in anyway to save herself the trouble.

As he rove his hands through her hair in the darkness and over her body, she focused on the holes in the wood paneling of the ceiling, her mind numb. She thought about the icy black water they floated on while he thrust faster, his breath quickening. The whites of his eyes glistened in the darkness. She arched into him just the way he liked. Her urge for it to be over mistaken for pleasure. She let him flip her over, reveling the brief moment he pressed her face into the mattress and she couldn’t breathe. Mia and Sophie’s faces flashed in her mind. Delicate and slack with sleep in their bunks. She held on to them, a reminder of something good that had come from Jay. From them. From this.

When he finished, he peeled himself off her. 

“Night,” he said. 

She held the tears in her eyes and swallowed back the tightness closing around her chest. “Night.” 

~ ~ ~

She took another sip from the glass, the smooth wine gliding down her throat. She looked across the table at Jay. After two days of walking on eggshells around each other, she could see it in his eyes. Tonight was going to be one of those nights. The girls knew it too, as they anxiously chewed their food, swallowing loud. She set the wine glass back down. “I didn’t mean it like that,” she said. 

“Then how did you mean it?”

“I just meant, maybe you’re overreacting.”

Jay slammed the fork down on the table sending the dishes clattering. She jumped in her seat. Sophie started crying.

“Stop crying!” Jay yelled. “All you do is cry!”

Sophie cried louder. 

Kristy reached across the table to comfort her daughter. “Do you want to finish dinner in your room?”

Sophie nodded through her tears. Mia too.

“Ok, go ahead.” She glanced sideways at Jay, watching the girls grab their plates and head to their room on the boat. She shook her head. “Every vacation.”

“What was that?” Anger laced his voice.

“I said, do you have to ruin every vacation?”

His eyes widened, his face red with rage. “Nothing has been ruined.” He locked eyes with her. “We’ve been having a fine time.”

Casting her eyes down, she knew it was pointless. She finished the glass of wine, the silence thick and heavy between them, then rose to start the dishes. Her hands shook as she gathered up the unfinished food and plates, the boat tipping slightly back and forth as she walked. Her cheeks flushed from the wine she knew she shouldn’t have had. Just a few more nights on this boat, and they could go their separate ways.

She turned the sink on, listening to the water hit the metal basin. Gripping the counter to not stumble.

“I’m sorry.”

She looked over her shoulder at Jay, her mouth in a firm line.

“Just,” he brushed a hand through his hair, “don’t talk about my father.”

“I wasn’t talking about your father.” Or she hadn’t meant to. But in that moment, she couldn’t look past the similarities.   

“Can you ever just apologize?” 

“For what?”

“You say you hate fighting, especially in front of the kids, but then you do this shit.”

She turned the water in the sink on, hotter and hotter, then plunged her hands into the scalding heat, her eyes tearing up.

Jay shoved his chair back and stalked over to her. “Just apologize, I’ll forgive you, and we can forget about it. Continue having a nice vacation.”

“I’m sick of apologizing for nothing.”

His eyes widened at the sink. He grabbed her wrists, ripping them out of the steaming water. “What is wrong with you?”

She ripped her arms out of his grasp. “Don’t touch me.”

“Don’t touch you?”

“Don’t touch me!”

“You’re my wife!” 

She felt his hands tighten around her wrists, pinning them against her chest. He forced her back against the wall. “As unfortunate as that is.”            

“Stop.” 

She let her eyes lock with his. How had she ever loved this broken shell of a man? “Let go of me and I’ll stop.”

“That’s not how this works.”

“Let go of me,” she spat.

Anger flared across his face, every muscle in his body tightening. He grabbed her under the chin, forcing her to look at him. “You are making me angry.”

“Oh good, you’re trying what the therapist recommended.”

“At least I am trying.”

“I’m not the one who needs therapy.”

“Will you just stop!”

She felt her head ricochet off the wall as he shook her. Felt herself disconnecting from her body, her voice turning low and cold. “I’ll stop when you let go of me.”

“Mom?”

All the air went out of the room. Jay released his grip enough for her to rip away.

“What is it?” 

“I want to go home.” Tears threatened to spill from Mia’s eyes as she hid halfway behind the corner of the wall.

“We—”

“We’re not going home,” Jay said.

She ignored him. “Everything’s alright sweetie. We can leave tomorrow morning.”

“We are not going home,” Jay walked over to Mia. “We are spending the week on the lake as planned, and everyone is going to have a good time.”

Mia looked between her parents, confused and scared.

“Why don’t you go start packing up your things and getting ready for bed?” 

“Do not pack your things,” Jay seethed. “Your mother had a little too much wine tonight and is confused. We are all just going to get ready for bed, and then start a new day tomorrow. On. The. Lake.”

Mia shied away from Jay as he knelt down to brush a stray hair from her forehead.

His eyes ripped to his wife’s ashen face. “Now you’ve taught them to be scared of me?”

“You did that all on your own.”

“So I’m not allowed to touch my wife or my children?”

“Mia, just go get ready for bed with Sophie.”

Mia hesitated, looking into her mother’s eyes. 

“Now.” She jerked her head. 

Mia turned quickly, back into the safety of the small bedroom.

She tried to ignore the look on Jay’s face, the sympathy that threatened to bloom inside her chest for him.

“I’m going to bed.” Was all he said, as he turned away, defeated, retreating toward their tiny bedroom on the boat.

Her feet remained planted.

“Are you coming?” 

“I need to finish the dishes.”

~ ~ ~

The wind was cold as it brushed ripples across the dark water. Undistinguishable, was the separation between horizon and water in the blackness that engulfed everything.

She sagged against the railing.

She could jump over. What would it feel like to plunge into the frigid water? To have her body found a week later? If it was found? Lapping against the shore. Bloated and discolored.

She could almost feel the frigid, black waves and icy water rushing down her throat. Filling her lungs.

“You’re still up?”

She started at the sound of his voice. 

“Didn’t mean to scare you.”

She turned back out toward the water. “We need to talk.”

“I know. I’m sorry—”

“I can’t do this anymore.”

“I thought you said you wanted to talk.”

She let out a long sigh. “I want a divorce.”     

“Look, I know we’ve been having issues. I know I’ve been going through a lot lately and it’s not easy being with me. But I’ve been working really hard on my anger and the issues with my dad—”

“I want a divorce.” 

There was a long silence that wrapped around them. She could feel his eyes boring into her back, hear his breathing hitch as he battled with himself to remain in control. 

“We’re not getting a divorce,” he said. 

She turned to leave, wanting to be anywhere he wasn’t.

He grabbed her, threatening to bend her over the railing into the deep water below. “You think this is something only you get to decide?”

“Let go of me!”

“We are not getting a divorce!”            

She refused to let any fear seep into her eyes, keeping her expression blank as she shoved him back. He was so much stronger than her though, so much bigger. 

“Yes Jay, we are.”

~ ~ ~

Kristy struggled to stand, pulling herself up with the railing of the balcony. The world swayed around her as she stood and touched her forehead. Her fingers came away slick with blood.

Jay. Where was Jay? 

She leaned over the railing, searching the water below. There was only darkness. It had happened so quickly, she almost couldn’t be sure he’d really— but he had. She stumbled across the deck, reaching for the life-ring and struggling to untangle the rope, when she heard him somewhere in the distance.

“Help, help me!” he choked, the freezing water taking his breath away.

She imagined him fighting against the numbness and tingling, the tightening of his lungs desperate for air. Would he be able to see the vague figure of the boat, visible against the night? There was a ladder on the back deck. He could swim to it. But would he remember it? She knew his body would be slowing, the water chilling him inside and out. 

“Come on, come on,” she begged. Her shaking fingers ripped frantically at the ropes holding the raft to the railing. Knowing how cold the water was; there wasn’t much time. 

Finally, she got it free, falling back from the force. She tried to stand but failed. Her head pounded, her vision fading in and out. 

“Kristy, please!” he called, “I’m sorry!”

She imagined he was sorry as she crawled her way over to the other side of the deck where he’d fallen. Regret and fear were probably racing through his mind, knowing he had come outside to apologize but instead, had let the words die on his tongue. Their last moments together spent fighting, him hurting her—

Had he even kissed Sophie or Mia goodnight?

“Where are you?” she yelled.

She waited but heard no response. The night grew eerily quiet beside the pounding pulse in her ears.

“Jay!” she called.

“Kristy!” 

She couldn’t tell where his voice was coming from so she threw the raft overboard, praying it’d find him.

Waiting for a tug on the rope, or a sign of movement, she called again. “Jay!”

There was no response.

She reeled in the raft and threw it over again in a different direction. And again, farther than before. How long had it been since he fell? She should jump in, find him. Save him. She raced down the deck stairs around to the back of the boat, but a wave of nausea ripped through her. She covered her hand over her mouth, the world spinning, as she lowered herself to the ground. Leaning against the railing, she gasped for air. 

Then it dawned on her. He’d almost killed her. She’d probably be dead if he hadn’t fallen into the water. And the water—it was too cold. It had already been too long, and she knew. The chances of finding him in the darkness…

As the wave of nausea subsided, she slowed her breathing, shaking away the adrenaline coursing through her veins. She looked up into the night sky scattered with twinkling stars. 

The sky was beautiful. Her breath echoed in her ears, sending puffs of mist into the cool night.

She didn’t know how long she’d sat there. Didn’t remember when she’d started to shiver, or when her cracked lips had faded to blue. When she’d slowly made her way to her feet, her body groaning in pain as she walked over the deck, the boards creaking beneath her feet. She didn’t remember slipping through the sliding door into the warmth of the boat’s interior. Then washing up in the bathroom and bandaging the gash on her head the best she could, knowing it probably needed stitches. 

What she also didn’t remember, or maybe what she chose not to remember, was the feeling of relief that flooded through her as she lay down in bed that night, the side where Jay should be, empty.

~ ~ ~

Sun crept in behind the closed blinds of the small bedroom window the next morning. Kristy opened her eyes. Her head throbbed as she listened to the faint sound of water lapping against the boat.

She brushed her fingers over her bandaged forehead. It was tender. She knew the girls would ask about it, about Jay. But she would not cry. She knew her story, had gone over it a million times last night before she’d fallen asleep. 

Taking her time, she got up, reveling in the silence and peace. She knew it might not last for long, but stepping out into the living area of the boat, she didn’t care. 

Mia and Sophia were waiting at the table.

“Morning girls,” she said. She bent down to kiss them each on the forehead. 

“Are we going home?” Sophia asked. 

“Yes, sweet. We are.” 

“Today?” 

“Mmhm,” She shook her head yes and grabbed three bowls for them, filling each with cereal and milk. 

“W-where’s dad?” Mia asked. 

“He had to leave early,” she said, quietly humming to herself. “He left early.” 

Kristy looked out across the water through the kitchen window of the boat. The sandstone mountains, that had seemed like a cage before, glittered in the sunlight. Their vibrant hues of clay splashed across the inky, black water, covering the darkness with light.


BIO

Emily Newsome is an emerging writer living in Upstate New York, currently pursuing an Associate Degree in Creative Writing at Monroe Community College. Following this, she plans to obtain her Bachelor’s degree. Her work has been published in MCC’s literary magazine: Cabbages and Kings, and she was a winner of The Sixth Act’s Annual Student Playwriting Competition in 2020. She loves reading and writing in all forms and genres, and cannot wait to share her work with the world.

Sixty Days in the Hole

by L.D. Zane

            “9-1-1. What’s your emergency?”

            “We need the police and an ambulance now to the Just-a-Buck store on Perrytown Road in Riverton.”

            “What’s the nature of your emergency, sir?”

Rachael Bensinger walked up to the cashier—a Hispanic woman in her early forties—at the Just-a-Buck store on Perrytown Road, and stated, “I’m here for an interview with Mr. Patterson.”

            “And your name, sweetheart?”

            “Rachael. Rachael Bensinger.”

            “Pleased to meet you, Ms. Bensinger.” She extended her hand to shake Rachael’s. Rachael returned the courtesy. The cashier pointed to her name badge and said, “My name is Serena. I’m the store manager here.” Then she reached under the counter and handed Rachael a clipboard with an application and pen attached.

            “You can sit over there at the table and complete this. When you’re done, come find me and I’ll get Mr. Patterson.”

            “I actually completed one online and printed it out, along with my resume.” Rachael held them up. “See?”

            Serena gave a broad smile and said, “Then I’ll call Mr. Patterson now. He’ll like that you came prepared. He always likes it when someone is prepared.”   

            Yeah. Like I had a choice, Rachael thought.

            A fit man wearing a navy polo shirt, sporting the store name, tan khakis, and Nike sneakers walked up. Holding out his hand, he said, “Hi. I’m Dylan Patterson, the General Manager. I’ll be conducting the interview. And you are Rachael Bensinger. Right?”

            “Yes, sir,” she answered, shaking his hand.

            “Dylan or Mr. Patterson is good. I haven’t been addressed as ‘Sir’ since I left the Army. Okay?”

            He noticed her slight-of-build stature and long auburn pony tail.

            “Absolutely, sir… I mean, Mr. Patterson. Please call me Rachael.” She paused, then added, “Actually I prefer Rach.” What the hell am I doing being so chatty? Christ, Rachael, shut up.

            “Then Rach it is. Please follow me back to my office.”

            They walked to the back of the store, through two swinging doors, into the warehouse. Dylan made a left turn, stood to the right of his office door frame and, with his left hand, motioned for Rachael to enter. “Please, take a seat.”

            Not much of an office, Rachael observed. Looks like a converted storage space. Plastic chairs, and a cheap-ass desk, with the same type of plastic chair behind it. And they’re orange! This guy doesn’t stand on ceremony, that’s for sure. Apparently, he’s not trying to impress anyone. Then again, maybe he doesn’t have to.

            Rachael picked the chair to the left. Dylan noticed she waited until he sat before she followed suit.

            He looked at her application and resume for a few moments, put them aside, and said, “I’ll be straight with you, Rach. I’m seeing you as a favor to your PO.”

            Rachael sat up straighter in her chair, and said, “I wasn’t aware of that Mr. Patterson, but I thank you.” She then mustered up the courage to ask, “How do you know my Parole Officer, Rebecca Olson?”

            “A couple of years ago she was making visits to small retailers like us, asking if we would be willing to hire non-violent parolees or those on probation. I told her I would, if I saw the right candidate. We kind of hit it off, and still see each other on occasion. Our lifestyles aren’t conducive to a long-term relationship. Did I answer your question…Rach?”

            “Yes. And I’m sorry for that. It really was none of my business,” she said, squirming a bit in her seat.

            Dylan noticed. “Relax,” he said. “No harm. No foul. I opened the door, and you walked in. I like that attitude, for what it’s worth.” Without hesitation, he said, “I have a few questions of my own. I see you’re from Columbus, Ohio. Graduated high school and have an Associates Degree in accounting.”

            “Yes. And I also took a few more courses in business.”

            “Excellent. So what brought you here to Riverton?”

            “In my last year at community college, I met a guy who was taking a course in welding. We started dating, and eventually moved in together. We both finished our courses at the same time. The college had a placement service and found me the position doing accounts payables at All States Trucking.”

            “Good company. I know it well,” said Dylan. “They handle a fair amount of our freight. So how come you’re no longer there?”

            “I believe you already know the answer to that, Mr. Patterson.”

            “Ya know…you’re right. I do know the answer. Please forget that I asked that question. You’re not required to tell me about your personal past.”

            “No, I want to tell you, Mr. Patterson. I have nothing to hide.”

            “Okay. As you wish. Please continue.”

            “They also found Billy—that’s his name, Billy McKenzie—a job as a welder in this area. So we came east, found an apartment, and moved in together.

            “We were good for about a year and a half, but then Billy started hanging out with some real stoners from work. We both did a little weed from time to time; it never got crazy. But I could see Billy change. He was stoned almost every night. He had trouble getting up for work. After a few months, the company cut him for bad attendance. Billy promised he would get off the weed, but he didn’t.

            “He bounced from job to job, and eventually he stopped looking. During that time, I was promoted to assistant supervisor of the accounts payable department. With Billy not working, the money was getting tight, but I was doing well enough to keep up with my car and the apartment. Billy’s car got repo’d. We argued daily about the money. But it never got violent. Never.

            “Finally, one day the shit hit the fan. He came home totally blown out of his mind—drunk and stoned. He offered me a joint, and I took it, thinking that if I got a little high with him, we wouldn’t argue. I also had a couple of beers. Looking back on it, I don’t really know what the hell I was thinking.” She glanced down, and then said quietly, “Guess I wasn’t thinking.

            “I told Billy that he either needed to get and keep a job—any job—pronto, or we were through. That sent him into a rage. He trashed the apartment. When I tried to stop him, he slugged me in my left eye.” Rachael reflexively brushed her bangs to cover her left eye.

            “How long ago did this happen?”

            “About three weeks ago.”

            “He must have really laid one on you, because I can still see the remnants of it. I didn’t want to ask before, but now it makes sense.”

            “They x-rayed my eye at the ER after I was arrested. There were some slight fractures, but the orbit was still intact. I have blurry vision in that eye, but it’s getting better every day. I can drive okay.”

            “So what happened with the police? The report said you were charged with assaulting a police officer.”

            “Before we knew it, the police were at the door and demanded we open it. Billy opened it and asked the one cop, ‘What the fuck do you want?’ The officer pushed Billy aside and told him to sit down. He refused and took a swing at the cop. That was it. They threw him face down on the floor and cuffed him. He was screaming that the cuffs were too tight and cursing up a storm when they lifted him to his feet.

            “The one officer saw my eye bleeding, came over to me, and wanted to look at it. I told him to take his hands off of me, and to loosen Billy’s cuffs. One thing led to another, and apparently I grabbed a beer bottle and hit the officer in the head. I say apparently, because I don’t remember much about that night, and that’s the truth.”

            “Then what happened?”

            “We were arrested, charged, booked, and spent the night in jail. They arraigned us the next day and we were given Public Defenders. Billy and I appeared before a judge a few days later, and that’s when he sentenced us to six months’ probation because it was our first offense. He said we couldn’t leave the county, had to take random piss tests, pay a ton of money, and find gainful employment within two weeks. The judge said if we tested positive, didn’t find a job, or got so much as a parking ticket, we would be spending six months in the county prison. He also said Billy had to move out, being the apartment was in my name. We even got different PO’s.

            “All States wasn’t too happy when they learned of this. They put me on ‘Extended Suspension.’ HR said if I was clean after six months, they would consider hiring me back.”

            “Well, Rach, I hope you’re not holding your breath about being rehired. That was a nice way of them covering their collective asses. They’re not going to rehire you. Period!”

            “I know that, Mr. Patterson. I’m not that naïve. Rebecca—I mean Ms. Olson—said she believed I could straighten out my life and deserved a second chance. A few days later she told me about this job and that she’d set up an interview. Ms. Olson even helped me put together my resume.”

            “What happened to Billy?”

            “Since he didn’t have a job or a place to stay, they transferred his case to a PO in Columbus so he could stay with his folks, under the same conditions. I don’t know what he’s doing, and I don’t care. I haven’t heard from him since the night we were arrested.   Good riddance.”

            Dylan could see a twinge of sadness in Rachael’s eyes when she spoke of Billy.  “I appreciate you sharing your story, Rach. Seems to be in line with what I’ve been told by Ms. Olson. What other questions do you have for me?”  

            “Well, the first question I have is, how did you become the General Manager?”

            “Good question. Believe it or not, no one’s ever asked me that before. After college, I went through Army basic training, Officer Candidate School, and completed Ranger training. I did two tours in Afghanistan during my seven years in the Army, and came out as a Captain. I got married while in my fifth year in the Army. That lasted two years. I was discharged from the marriage just before I was discharged from the Army.” Dylan shrugged his shoulders and said pensively, “That life wasn’t conducive to a long-term relationship either.

            “I tried a few jobs, but nothing caught. A friend of mine said that he had heard about a guy who was looking for someone who knew logistics and had leadership skills, for a General Manager position. My friend didn’t know the guy’s name, but knew he owned a few Just-a-Buck stores. So I went to a Just-a-Buck store—this one in fact—and filled out an application and handed them my resume. A day later I got a call from Ross Wells, the owner. We met, and the rest is history.”

            “How long have you been here?” asked Rachael.

            Dylan looked up, and then said, “Hard to believe, but going on five years. We started with two stores, and now have six between here and Polltown.”

            I was spot on. Knew he was in his mid-thirties. “You said ‘we.’ If I may ask, are you an owner as well?”

            “Not yet. Nonetheless, I treat the stores as if they were mine. I like to believe I had a hand in the growth of the company. I think Mr. Wells believes that as well. He’s told me, more than once, that ownership is in the offing…and soon.”

            “And you believe him?” Rachael asked with a smirk.

            Dylan stiffened. His expression turned hard and cold. He responded, “Yes. Yes, I do. I have no trust issues, Rachael. Do you?”

            Rachael looked down and fidgeted with her hands. Why the fuck would I ask that? That was really stupid. I might as well apologize and leave. I’m not getting this job. I guess it’s prison for me.

            Dylan stood up suddenly. He looked down at his desk and shuffled some papers.

            Then both Dylan and Rachael started to apologize at the same time, their voices stepping over each other. Dylan broke the tie and said, “My comment was out of line, Rach, and a cheap shot. I’m sorry.” He sat down.

            “I’ll accept your apology if you accept mine,” said Rachael.

            “Deal,” said Dylan.

            “Any…other…questions?” Dylan asked with a hesitant smile.

            “Just a few.”

            “Okay. Go.”

            “What’s my position, how much does it pay, and when do I start?”

            Dylan folded his hands on the table and leaned in. “What makes you think I would offer you a job?”

            Rachael didn’t hesitate. “Well, for starters, I think you liked what you heard from Ms. Olson or I wouldn’t be here. You had every reason to blow off someone with a record—especially assaulting a police officer.

            “Second, I’m still here. You didn’t ask me to leave, even though I asked a few totally stupid questions.

            “Third, I think you and I have a few things in common.”

            “Such as?” asked Dylan.

            “We both have faced some tough situations—although I won’t compare mine to your military service—and we kept going. We’re not quitters. I’m not a quitter, Mr. Patterson. Stupid? Yeah. A quitter? No way.”

            “You’re not stupid, Rach. That’s obvious by your employment record and how you’ve conducted yourself with me.”

            “So when do I start?”

            Looking squarely at Rachael, Dylan answered, “Today is Friday. Be here Monday at 8 a.m.”

            “I’m assuming the usual retail work, like stocking and the register?”

            “Nope. Actually, I have something more challenging in mind, and have since I first heard about your accounting skills.”

            Rachael asked with some reservation, “What would that be?”

            “Well, I only have two full-time employees in each store—a manager and an assistant manager. Depending on the size of the store and its traffic, we also have two to three part-timers averaging twenty-five hours per week. My assistant manager here just quit after two months.” He shrugged again. “Such is the retail industry. So Serena and I need an assistant manager. Serena’s one of the main reasons this store has been so profitable. But she can’t do it alone.

            “I like to believe I’m pretty squared away with most aspects of this business, except one—which Mr. Wells brings to my attention, unfortunately, often.”

            “And that would be?”

            “Putting all the numbers together in a way that makes sense to both Mr. Wells and me. Yes, we have a great accountant, but we need someone who is in the trenches—so to speak—every day. We need real-time information if we are to really grow this business. But up to now, we haven’t found the right person.” He stopped, studied Rachael’s face for any sign of hesitation. Seeing none, he asked, “Think you could be that person—both an assistant manager and help me with my numbers for all of the stores?”

            “So I would kind of be your assistant, in addition to being the assistant manager here. Is that right?”

            Dylan smiled, and said, “I never thought of it that way…but yes. What do you think? Are you up to the challenge?”

            I’m in no position to be choosy, but I just don’t want to be taken advantage of and treated like some tool because of my situation. I was making excellent money before this shit happened, and I need to get back to that level as soon as possible. I need to go for it. Rachael responded coolly, “Depends.”

            Dylan’s eyes widened and he raised his eyebrows. Still smiling, he leaned forward and asked, “On what?”

            “On the amount of hours and the pay. I want to work as many hours as I can get. I’m not afraid of long hours, Mr. Patterson, as long as I’m being paid the right amount for the work I’m doing.”

            “We’re talking forty hours. And I won’t abuse the privilege, I promise. As far as pay goes… ” Dylan leaned back, put his hands behind his head, and looked at the ceiling. He then placed his hands back on the table and said, “Thirteen-fifty an hour. I know it isn’t what you were used to making, but it’s about a dollar more than I would start an assistant manager.”

            “Fourteen.”

            “What?” his voice raising an octave.

            “Fourteen an hour. I have no idea what you’re really going to need as far as reports for you and Mr. Wells, and experience has taught me that you don’t know either. I’ve been in this spot before. The more I do, the more you’ll want. I’m just building in some cushion for what I know will happen.” She paused, and then asked, “Are we still on for Monday at 8 a.m.?”

            Dylan stood and said, “We are. Welcome aboard.” He stuck out his hand.

            “Looks like we have a deal, Mr. Patterson,” she said, shaking his hand. “Do you inform Ms. Olson, or do I?”

            “I’ll take care of it. She said she wanted a call from me immediately after the interview. I’ll take you out front and formally introduce you to Serena and make her aware of your duties. She’ll be thrilled to know that she’s getting some reliable help.”

            He stopped for a moment, dropped his smile, and then said with the commanding tone of an infantry officer, “I, too, believe in second chances, Rach. Lord knows I’ve had a few do-overs. We’re all counting on reliability. If you start having attendance issues, or you come in here high or fail your piss test just once, you’re history. Are we clear?”

            “Absolutely clear, Mr. Patterson.”

            “Excellent. Then I’m positive we’ll have a great working relationship. And I really would appreciate if you would just call me Dylan. Okay?”

            “Okay…Dylan. What do I wear to work?”

            “Same outfit as mine. We start you off with two sets. If you are still here after thirty days, there’s no charge. If you leave before then, we dock the one check we hold back. We pay weekly, so you won’t get a check until the second week. Will you be able to manage until then?”

            “Yes. I still have some savings. But what if I need more than two sets of uniforms? How much is each set?”

            “They’re somewhere around thirty bucks.” Dylan looked away for a moment, then turned toward Rachael. “Tell you what I’ll do. I’ll spot you the additional three sets. After thirty days, I’ll recover the cost of the three sets over three pay periods. Does that work?”

            “Yes, yes it does. Thank you so much, Dylan. What do I wear until I get the first two sets?”

            “Serena always carries enough sizes on hand. But if she doesn’t have your size, she’ll call me. I’ll get them from another store and bring them in this Saturday.”

            “Thank you!” 

            “Great. Let’s talk to Serena, and then I have to jump. I have a lot on my plate today.”

The next thirty days went faster than anyone had anticipated—especially for Rachael and Dylan. They were now into their first full month of the Covid-19 pandemic shutdown. It was customary for Dylan to hold a team meeting with each store, once a week, and prior to opening for the day. The Perrytown Road store’s day was Friday.

            After going through some mundane issues, Dylan got to the pandemic. “This last month has been different, to say the least. I know we’re in short supply of hand sanitizer, toilet paper, everything made of paper, and stuff I never thought most people would think of as essential. I mean, we’re just about sold out of dish racks. Go figure!”

            Dylan paused for a moment to make sure he had the right tone of voice. He continued. “I do have another matter which I need to address. We’ve been gradually scaling back our hours. We’re now going to be open from nine to five, for two reasons. First, limiting our hours does mean fewer customers, but it also means there will be less demand for our products—especially the items we don’t have anyway. Hopefully, we just might be able to keep some of those high-demand items in stock.

            “Second, our employees have less time to be exposed to the crazies out there. Thanks to Rach running some numbers, we found that the highest amount of negative incidents at our stores happened after five. For those of you who are part-time—don’t worry, your hours won’t be cut. I will, however, need to see Serena and Rach after the meeting to discuss this further.”

            That’s a polite way of saying your hours are getting cut, thought Rachael. But hey, at least I’ll still have a job.

            “I know I didn’t bring much in the way of good news today, but we have to play the hand we’re dealt the best we can. This store was the first store Mr. Wells started, and all of you continue to make this the number one store in all the areas where it counts. I’m proud to work with each and every one of you. Are there any questions?”

            Teresa, a part-timer in her early twenties, raised her hand. “I’d like a few minutes of your time, in private, Dylan.”

            “No problem, let’s go to my office. Everyone else—keep up the great work. See you next week. Have a good weekend, and stay safe.”

            In less than fifteen minutes, Dylan came to the front of the store, backpack slung over his right shoulder, and asked Serena and Rachael to step outside.

            “Smoke ’em if you got ’em, ladies. I know I am.”

            “What’s up, Mr. Dylan?” asked Serena.

            “Well, for starters, your hours won’t be cut. Our original intention, as much as Mr. Wells and I didn’t want to do so, was to cut managers and assistant managers’ hours to thirty-five hours per week. But that won’t be necessary now…at least here.”

            “Why’s that?” asked Rachael.

            “Because Teresa just quit.”

            Serena’s eyes widened and she lifted her eyebrows. “Why? I thought she was happy here.”

            “She just said she had some family issues. I didn’t press her. But instead of allowing her to quit, I told her I would lay her off so she could collect. Between the state and the feds, she’ll do okay. I also told her if she wanted to come back, and we had an opening, I would rehire her.”

            “You’re a good man, Mr. Dylan.”

            “Uh…it was the least I could do, Serena. The question I have for the two of you is—can you handle the load with one less person?”

            “I’m sure we can,” said Serena, “especially with the reduced store hours.”

            “What do you think, Rach?”

            “Serena and I will talk with Terry and Gina to work it out. You won’t notice any change in our performance, Dylan.”

            Dylan smiled, and said, “I don’t doubt it. I can’t thank the two of you enough for holding down the fort, especially with all the shit that’s been happening. Before I get going, could I have a word with you, Rach? Alone?”

            Serena took the cue. “I should be getting back in. Have a good weekend, Mr. Dylan.”

            “You, too, Serena.”

            Here it comes. “You’ve done a great job, Rach, but we have to cut you loose being a convict and all. So sad. Too bad. Shit!

            Dylan got right to the point. “Drop the worried look. It’s all good.”

            “Just a natural reflex. Sorry.”

            “Yeah. I get it. But it really is all good. You’ve done an outstanding job helping out Mr. Wells and me. And you were right… We had no freakin’ clue as to what we wanted or needed. That negative incident report was brilliant. And we never even asked you to do that. Impressive work with us, and here at the store. Just know that Serena loves you. This brings me to the first order of business.”

            “Yes?”

            “Your pay. Because of the outstanding work you’ve done, and your initiative, I wanted to bring you up to fifteen an hour, but Mr. Wells overrode that idea. He said…” Dylan purposely hesitated, to keep Rachael in suspense, “‘Don’t be so fucking cheap, Dylan. Good employees are hard to find, and harder to keep. Give her sixteen-fifty.’ That pay raise starts Monday. Think you can manage on that?”

            Rachael had a blank stare. Her mouth fell open.

            “Wow! This is a first. Rachael Bensinger not commenting. I could get used to this. I’m going to continue, while you collect your thoughts. Okay?”

            Rachael just nodded.

            Dylan put his backpack on the sidewalk, pulled out an iPhone from a side pocket, and handed it to Rachael.

            “What’s this?” asked Rachael.

            “It’s called an iPhone.”

            “I know what it is, Dylan. I already have an iPhone.”

            “Mr. Wells and I felt badly about clogging up your personal phone with voicemails, texts and emails. Now—”

            Rachael cut him off, and said with a smile, “You get to clog up this phone. Right?”

            Dylan took a drag on his cigarette, pointed it at Rachael, and said, “Exactly. You always were a fast learner, Rach. We’ve already loaded it with all the apps you’ll need. If you need a new app—that’s business related, of course—just ask me and I’ll make it happen. I also loaded all the contacts you’ll need. You’ll find your phone number under your name. I’d appreciate if you keep it on you, and always on. I promise I won’t abuse that privilege either. And, of course, we pay the bill. You’ll never see it. You good with this?”

            Rachael turned melancholy, and Dylan saw tears form in the corners of her eyes. “Why so glum, Rach? I thought you would be happy with the raise and the phone. What the hell am I missing here?”

            “Guys just don’t get it.”

            “Not sure what you mean. Enlighten me.”

            “I’m not crying because I’m sad. I’m crying because I’m overwhelmed…overwhelmed by the whole situation. I’m thrilled and happy.”

            “You’re right. I don’t get it.”

            “What I mean, Dylan, is that a little over seven weeks ago, my life was in the crapper. Now, I’m just about at the same pay level I was before this whole shitty mess started. I have a good position, I have bosses who actually care about the people they employ, and—most importantly—” Rachael started to cry openly, “My work is appreciated. I’m appreciated.”

            Rachael collected herself. “I’m sorry, Dylan,” she said between sniffles. She wiped away the tears with the palm of her hands. “I guess it all came to a head. I’ve been holding all of this shit in. It won’t happen again. I promise. And I thank you for all that you’ve done for me.”

            “Hey… I didn’t do anything for you. I showed you a door. You opened it and walked through it. You made it happen. You’ve earned everything that you have. No charity here, believe me.

            “Now, if it’s okay with you, I need to motor or I’ll be late.” Dylan picked up his backpack, looked at his watch, and muttered, “Shit. I already am. Oh well. Savor the moment, Rach. Have a great weekend, but remember…”

            Rachael interrupted again, and said, “I know… Keep it tight and together. No worries, Dylan.”

            Dylan allowed himself an ear-to-ear smile. Before he headed to the car, he said, “By the way, and I hope this doesn’t make you cry again, but remember those three sets of uniforms you were supposed to pay for starting this month?”

            “Yeah. I can more than afford to pay it back.”

            “No need. You’ve more than paid for them for what you’ve done for this company. Debt is cancelled.”

            “Was that your decision, or Mr. Wells’?”

            “All mine. Mr. Wells allows, and expects, me to make executive-level decisions, Ms. Bensinger. Besides, he didn’t know I did it in the first place.”

            Before Rachael could respond, Dylan turned and sprinted to his car.

The next month was a blur. Businesses started to reopen; people were getting back to work, products which were once scarce appeared on the shelves—and stayed there— because the hoarding had diminished. Customers were actually behaving like customers, instead of hungry, cornered animals.

            At the end of his last Friday team meeting of the month, Dylan thanked everyone for their efforts in an extraordinarily difficult time. He also mentioned that he and Mr. Wells were planning on opening at least three new stores in the next year.

            At the conclusion of the meeting, Dylan said to Rachael, “I need some time with you. And don’t worry, it’s all good. Let’s grab a smoke.”

            Once outside, Rachael asked, “So what’s up?”         

            “First, I have some good news about me.”

            “Go on.”

            “Mr. Wells has agreed to let me buy in on twenty percent of the existing stores, and I’ll get thirty percent of the new stores, up front. Pretty slick, huh?” he said patting his back over his left shoulder with his right hand.

            “Forty.”

            “What?”

            “Forty percent. You know you’re going to be working your ass off on opening three new stores, and you should get forty percent.”

            “Okay. I don’t disagree, but what if he doesn’t agree?”

            “Then you negotiate. Get real, Dylan. He’s not going to cut you loose. You’re too valuable. He’ll probably wind up giving you thirty-five percent. I mean, what do you have to lose? The worst that happens is that he stays at thirty, and maybe gives you an option for more down the road. I know you’re not a wimp, so don’t start acting like one now. The guy loves you. He’s already said as much to me.”

            “He has?”

            “Yes. He has. He said you’re almost like a son to him—which I don’t understand, being that he has a son.”

            “His son is a fucking idiot, which is why Mr. Wells doesn’t allow him near the business. If you ever have the unfortunate opportunity to meet him, you’ll understand. Believe me.”

            Dylan remained silent for a minute. Rachael saw him nodding his head as if he was talking to someone. Then Dylan said, emphatically, “You’re right, as usual. I’ll ask him for forty. I meet with him today to iron out some of the details. I promise you, I won’t wimp out.”

            “That’s the Dylan I know. Charge that hill!” Rachael paused before she asked, “Is that it, or is there more good news?”

            “There’s more.”

            “Go on.”

            “Well, you’ve done a great job, Rach, which is why I might need to replace you as assistant manager.”

            “What? Why?” Rachael said raising her voice in both disbelief and anger.

            “Because Mr. Wells and I were hoping you would accept a promotion to the position of Assistant General Manager.”

            “I wasn’t aware we even had an Assistant General Manager.”

            “We don’t…yet. That’s why we were counting on you accepting it. And if you do, I need to replace you here.”

            “You know, Dylan, maybe you should have led with that. Sometimes you have the tact of a hand grenade.” Rachael crossed her arms tightly across the front of her body.

            “I suppose I could have broached the subject differently.”

            “Ya think?” Rachael said while rolling her eyes. She started tapping her right foot. “So who will be the assistant manager here?”

            “We have someone in mind from another store. It would be ideal for her.”

            “So, did you offer her the position?”

            “Nope. I wanted to see if you accepted the promotion first. It wouldn’t have been fair to offer her a position that wasn’t available.”

            “Does she even know that the position here might be open?”

            “Again, no, for the same reason as I just mentioned.”

            “Who would train her?”

            “Serena would. She said she wants to train the assistant her way, like she did with you, and I agree. And please stop that incessant foot tapping and chill the hell out! Christ, Rach, you’re always so fuckin’ defensive.”

            Rachael stopped the foot tapping, but kept her arms crossed. “Maybe I have good reasons for it.”

            “Maybe you do, but I shouldn’t be one of them. Quit making me pay for how other people have treated you. Okay?”

            Rachael dropped her arms, lit another cigarette, and shuffled her feet. She said, sheepishly, “I agree with Serena. Who wants the old assistant hanging around while you’re training a new one? So, tell me about this new position.”

            Dylan carried on as if nothing had happened. As far as he was concerned, nothing did happen. “Doing exactly what you’ve been doing with the numbers, except doing it full time. You’d be meeting with Mr. Wells and me more often, as well as visiting the stores more frequently. It’s come to my attention that the managers and assistant managers prefer hearing the numbers from you, because—and I quote—‘She’s one of us.’ You will be busy, Rach. But having you in this position is more important now than it ever was.”

             “Would I work from one of the stores, or from home?”

            “That’s your call. What do you prefer?”

            “I prefer to work out of this store, actually. I believe I’d be more productive. May I use your office when you’re not here?”

            “I have a better idea. If you accept the position, I can have a contractor build out another office next to mine—here. This is the only place I have an office, by the way.”

            “Would I be able to have a plywood desk and orange plastic chairs like you?” Rachael grinned.

            “Why, Ms. Bensinger, I am deeply hurt. I always thought my furniture had charm. It gives off a certain ambiance.”

            “It does. It says this guy is either incredibly cheap, or has very bad taste in furniture.”

            Both laughed out loud.

            Dylan relaxed his stance and lit another cigarette. “In reality, Rach, you’re not going to be spending that much time in the office. Nonetheless, Mr. Wells gave us a budget for new furniture. We can look together and pick out nicer stuff. I’ll defer to your judgment.”

            He’s finally learning, Rachael thought.

            “And speaking about shopping for stuff, part of your package of perks is a leased car. We can go shopping for one this week, since I would have to sign for it.”

            “What do I do with my car?”

            “Keep it. The leased car is for business purposes so you don’t rack up the miles on your car.”

            “Can I get a fancy SUV like yours?”

            “Uh, no. But I promise you yours will be safe, comfortable, new, and appropriate for your position. You won’t be embarrassed driving it.”

            “It all sounds great, Dylan. I’m flattered that Mr. Wells and you think that much of me. When would I start?”

            “This Monday would be great.” Dylan paused, and then said to Rachael, “I’m surprised you didn’t ask about the money.”

            “I just figured all the other perks would be my increase in compensation.”

            “Not even close, Rach. We’re putting you on a salary of forty thousand a year, plus profit sharing at the end of the year. That’s a six-thousand-dollar increase. So…do I make the call to the new assistant manager offering the job, or what?”

            “What if she refuses?”

            “She won’t. Quit stalling. What’s your decision, and don’t play hard to get.”

            “Absolutely, Dylan. Absolutely! Thank you, thank you. Please thank Mr. Wells for me, please. And I’m sorry I was such a bitch to you earlier. You didn’t deserve it.”

            “You can tell Mr. Wells in person when the three of us meet this week to design a strategy for opening these new stores. And I did deserve it. I thought I was being clever. Guess not!

            “I have a few calls to make before I head out. Have another smoke. You’ve made a number of people very happy by accepting this position, especially me. And, by the way, today marks the end of your sixty-day probation period with us. Congrats. You’ve come a long way in these last two months. Very impressive. For what it’s worth—Ms. Olson, Mr. Wells, and I are extremely proud of you. Well done.”

Yes! Yes! I know I haven’t said this lately, but thank you, Jesus. No, really, thank you. I can’t believe this is happening. Rachael threw a fist bump in the air. She flicked her cigarette onto the parking lot, and turned to go back into the store.

            “Nice dance, Rachael.”

            Rachael’s breathing became fast and heavy. “What the fuck are you doing here, Billy? I thought you were in Ohio.”

            “Is that any way to talk to your boyfriend?”

            “You’re not my boyfriend.”

            “I kind of figured that, since I haven’t heard from you in almost three months. I called your cell, but the number went to a different person. What happened with us?”

            “What happened? Are you fuckin’ kidding me? You hauling off and clocking me in my face. You damn near cost me my eyesight in one eye. We got arrested and all the other shit that came with it. That’s what happened! And there is no ‘us.’ Now get the hell out of my way. I need to get back to work.”

            Billy blocked her path. “Rachael, I know I fucked up, and I’m sorry. Can we at least try to work it out?”

            “No. Now move out of my way.” As Rachael strode toward the door, Billy grabbed her right arm with his left. His hand completely engulfed her slender wrist. “Let go, Billy. You’re hurting me.”

            “I figured you were going to reject me, so how about spotting me a hundred bucks. I’m staying with this guy and I need it for expenses.”

            “Bullshit! You’re stoned, and you’re going to use the money to buy weed, or whatever. I’m not giving you a fucking dime. Now, LET GO.”

            Rachael heard a firm, calm voice from behind her. “Let her go, Billy.”

            She turned and saw Dylan in the doorway with his backpack slung over his right shoulder. I’ve never seen Dylan’s face and demeanor look like that. That’s the face of a Ranger in combat. If I were the enemy, I’d be scared shitless.

            “Who the fuck are you?” asked Billy.

            “It doesn’t matter who I am, and you don’t want to find out. You just need to let go of Rach.”

            “I’m not leaving without her, or some money.”

            Dylan locked his eyes on Billy, allowed his backpack to slide off his shoulder, slowly reached into his left pocket, and pulled out a neatly folded wad of cash. “There’s over two hundred dollars here, Billy. Let go of Rach, take the cash, leave, and I’ll pretend this never happened. Okay?”

            “Fuck you,” Billy shot back. He turned to Rachael and asked, “Are you doing this douche bag, Rachael?”

            Dylan answered before Rachael had a chance. “No one’s doing anyone, Billy. Let go of her, take the cash, and split—now!”

            “And what if I don’t?”

            “That would be your first, and probably, last mistake.”

            Rachael shouted, “I’ve had enough of your shit, Billy. You’re never going to hurt me again.” She spun to her right, breaking his hold and, with both of her hands, pushed Billy.

            As he stumbled backward, he shouted, “You bitch,” and reached under his hoodie.

            Rachael felt as if she was hit twice in the gut by a sledgehammer. She slammed up against the store’s pane glass window, and slid down onto the concrete walkway. This pavement is cold, she thought.

            Dylan seethed under his breath, “No, no, no. I thought all of this shit was behind me.” Then his instincts took over. He put his backpack under her head, took off his jacket, stripped off his shirt and pressed it tightly against Rachael’s abdomen. “Christ. I can’t stop the bleeding.”

            Serena came to the doorway, gasped, and put her hands to her mouth. Choking back tears, she asked, “What happened to Rachael, Mr. Dylan?”

            Dylan remained calm, and said, “Get me a shitload of towels, Serena.”

            “What kind?”

            “Any fucking kind. Move it, Serena.”

            Dylan grabbed his cell phone with his free hand, and made yet another call.

“9-1-1. What’s your emergency?” inquired the male operator in a controlled voice.

            “We need the police and an ambulance now to the Just-a-Buck store on Perrytown Road in Riverton. Please hurry,” responded Dylan.
            “What’s the nature of your emergency, sir?”

            “I have a female employee who’s been shot twice in the abdomen.”

            “Is the assailant still there?”

            “No. He dropped his gun and fled on foot. Now get me some help, please.”

            “Stay on the line, sir, while I make the call. Your name?”      

            “What?”

            “Your name. What’s your name, sir?”

            “Dylan. Dylan Patterson.”

            Serena returned with an armful of towels. “Just put ’em next to Rach, Serena.”

            “Is she going to be okay, Mr. Dylan?”

            “Hand me three of those towels.”

            “They’re turning red as soon as you put them on,” cried Serena.

            Dylan now talked to Rachael. “Rach, listen to my voice. Just focus on my voice. You’re going to be okay. Help is on the way. I need you to help me pick out furniture, Rach. Listen to my voice.”

            The faintest of smiles crossed Rachael’s face. I hear you, Dylan, but I’m having a hard time keeping my eyes open. My eyelids are so heavy. I feel so tired. Why do I feel so tired?

            The operator returned. “The police and EMT’s should be there in a few minutes. Keep pressure on the wound.”

            “I know what to do. I was in combat.”

            “Understood, sir. I’ll stay on the line until the police arrive.”

            Within a few minutes two city police and a county sheriff’s car rolled up at the same time as the EMT’s. “I’m going off the line, sir. God speed,” said the 9-1-1 operator.

            Two medics knelt beside Rachael. The police pulled Dylan aside. “Let the EMT’s do their job, sir. Perhaps you could help us with some details.”

            “What’s her first name?” asked the EMT at her feet, while the other EMT put an oxygen mask on Rachael.

            “Rachael. Rachael Bensinger,” responded Dylan. She’s about twenty-three.”

            “Thanks.” Then the EMT spoke to Rachael. “Rachael, my name is Ryan. My partner’s name is Nilda. We’re with the fire department. You’re going to be okay, Rachael, but I need you to focus as hard as you can on my voice. Blink if you understand.”

            Rachael managed one blink, and then her eyelids slammed shut.

            “Rachael, we need to roll you on your side. This may hurt, but it’s necessary.”

            As Ryan rolled her onto her left side, Rachael let out an anguished cry. “Nilda, look for exit wounds.” Nilda looked and shook her head.

            “Shit,” said Ryan. “That means the slugs are still in there. I can’t stop the bleeding, Nilda.”

            “Her bp is falling off a cliff, and she barely has a pulse, Ryan. We have to move her, now.”

            A moment later, Nilda yelled, “No pulse, Ryan. It’s gone. I’m starting CPR.”

            As Rachael felt the chest compressions, she thought she heard Bruce Springsteen’s song ‘Human Touch’ being played over the store’s music system. What a strange song to play now. And why am I thinking about volcanoes?

            At that very moment, a geyser of blood violently erupted from Rachael’s mouth, filling her mask. Nilda ripped it off. Dylan broke from the police, cradled Rachael’s head from behind, and turned it to the side so she wouldn’t choke. Nilda continued with the CPR.

            “Don’t you quit on me, Rach!” yelled Dylan. “Start fighting, damn it. Be fierce. Fight!” A torrent of tears from Dylan pelted Rachael’s forehead like a hard rain against a window.

            Ryan looked at Nilda and said, “Nilda, there’s still no pulse. It’s over.”

            “It ain’t over until I say it’s over. Give me another minute, Ryan.”

            Ryan gave it thirty seconds, then grabbed Nilda’s arm. “It’s over, partner. Time to let it go.”

            Nilda slammed her fist into her medical bag three times, shouting, “Shit! Shit! Shit!”

            From some deep recess of Rachael’s mind, which she couldn’t quite pinpoint, she heard a calm voice. Congratulations for getting through your sixty days in the hole. Good job. In her mind, she smiled.

            A moment later, from a different corner of her mind, she heard a desperate, panic-stricken voice cry out, Awww shit, Rachael.


BIO

L.D. Zane served in the Navy from 1968 to 1975. Five of those years were aboard nuclear-powered, Fast Attack submarines. He lives with his wife in a small city in southeastern Pennsylvania, and is a member of The Bold Writers group.

L.D.’s short stories have been published in over two dozen literary journals. His first anthology, It’s Always My Fault & Other Short Stories, has recently been published by Pretzel City Press.

L.D.’s website is: ldzaneauthor.com



A Weed in the Canyon

by Susan E. Lloy

Clementine just purchased a small two-story house on Willow Glen Rd in Laurel Canyon with a lush side garden teeming with lemon, lime and orange trees. It’s absolutely lovely and completely renovated. She scrimped and saved her entire life and, with the help of an inheritance from an uncle, purchased it for one buck shy of a million, which is a steal for this area. The move isn’t at all practical. For one thing she isn’t American and will have to leave the country every six months in order not to be labeled an illegal alien. Nonetheless, she’s here.

Clementine had visited California and many of its counties numerous times wishing she could move to the Golden State. She doesn’t know a soul; yet an undeniable lure has brought her here. It’s the mystique of it all that played a significant slice of her decision. Much has happened here, the music scene that changed a generation, but that history is spent. Even so, there is an aura about this place. Maybe it’s only the warmer weather. It certainly puts a smile on a face instead of freezing one’s ass off as the northern neighbor where polar winds bite at a face, freeze toes and every single bone aches and cries out for comfort.

She has no clue of what to expect from relocating. Change. Something. No matter how insignificant. It felt as if days have remained stagnant the last twenty years and now that’s she’s left the life of the worker bees, she wishes to venture somewhere unknown. Taking in the scents of all unchartered.

It’s the first time in her life that she will live in a detached home since her childhood. For her entire adult life she has lived in apartment buildings hearing the continuous slamming of doors. Haunted by noise and smells of cooking not to her liking. This house is open and airy with an ultra-modern kitchen, dining and living room all in one breadth. Glass pilot doors open to a patio area and upstairs there is an additional living space with a fireplace for cool evenings, a closed bedroom, a courtyard off the second level and a roof garden. It’s sleek and sexy. What more could she wish for?

In all her years Clementine never really learned to drive. When she was young she had been in a serious car accident and two of her cousins had died. She never got over her nervousness of vehicles even if it hasn’t been constructive for her life. She does maintain a driver’s license, though never drives. She forced herself to acquire one to overcome her fear. Still, she has only been behind the wheel three times in sixteen years.

Her home is situated on a bend high up in the canyon and the closest store is more than an hours’ walk. Still, it will help with her weight. She has let herself go the last years. Hiding under think layers of clothes, which is required most of the year, with only a sliver of warmer weather allotted for thinner attire. Here lifestyle is paramount. Fitness. Clean habits. She never gave up smoking. It’s not a heavy addiction, nevertheless she can’t say no when having a drink that has become more of a problem of late. Hell, can’t I have something? It’s her go to for when she’s overdone it.

She sold everything, keeping only a few photographs inside her three large suitcases. Got rid of all her heavy attire. A fresh start – that’s what’s needed. Her kin are all gone and she is childless. What was there to keep her there – nothing. She looks at a photograph of her five-year old self, standing beside a snowman proudly pointing at her creation. It feels so different here with the ocean off in the distance and palm trees erect and alien.

There isn’t a thing to eat. Only a can of espresso she brought in one of her bags. Not even a drop of milk, but makes a stovetop brew. She’ll need the energy to traipse down the hill to the Canyon Country Store and back up again. She grabs a few bags and begins her descent down the winding road. The heat is intense and it scorches her exposed skin. Humidity attacks her hair making her gray locks look like a deviant scrub brush. Often cars pass. Some with surfboards, yet no one offers a lift.

She’s happy to be back in the land of Anglophones after leaving the French province, where she had become one of those people who swore she never would be. One that had lived there for decades, but whose French had remained shabby at best. She did try, but she was always lousy with languages and only had English acquaintances. French was not required for her job with an international import/export company and now she relishes in the thought that if she needs directions or whatever, she can easily converse in her mother tongue. Instead of doing her French best and getting a “Hein-quoi??” Which is the Québécois equivalent of “what the fuck did you say?”

She finally reaches the Canyon Country Store and takes a seat outside before venturing inside to purchase some provisions. They say, sometimes, you can see famous people here, although today there are only loud-mouthed, skimpily-dressed millennials wearing Lululemon and baseball caps taking selfies.

After having a meal and buying all the food items she can easily carry, she begins her amble up the road. By the time she reaches her house she is drenched in sweat and thirsty beyond belief. How she wishes for a frosty Margarita, but she doesn’t have any Tequila in the house. Beer was too heavy to lug up the hill, so she settles for a warm rosé with ice.

As Clementine sits on her garden terrace she feels a tinge of happiness. She does not believe in this state-of-mind. She simply isn’t wired this way. She remembers hints of such a feeling when playing with childhood friends, having a laugh when tripping or in the first bloom of love, but not in the day-to-day and all the therapy in the world won’t change that. When folks say, “I’m great” she believes they are total phonies and liars. Even so, her mood is lighter today.

The city is beautiful lying beneath her feet, especially at night when it is aglow and brimming with life. She ventured into downtown LA a few times to lunch watching the many young fit bodes stroll along the sidewalks, but felt consciously exposed in the sizzling sunlight with all of her abundance displayed in plain sight. She wished herself back up north enshrouded in heavy clothing – a tuque and winter coat and winding scarf partially concealing her face and neck. Here, there is no escaping. No snow gusts or freezing rain or a thousand brown-red turned maple leaves encircling one’s sphere.

It becomes more and more unusual for her to venture down into the city even though it awaits a few minutes from her doorstep. And although she loves the sea and went to the beach a few times, she was too scared to swim. The strong temperamental currents frightened her. She imagined them sucking her far out into the blue with hungry sharks lurking under the swell, ravenous for her generous form. She did enjoy the surfers though, admiring their courage and their highly developed art of riding the waves.

Even though it’s preferable to have her food and liquor delivered from favorite downtown shops, she still sets off every other day down to the Canyon Store. One afternoon after leaving the store she is offered a lift. A yellow, vintage Volkswagen van with a white top slows down along side of her.

“Hey there, you’re lugging a load. Can I offer you a ride?”

He looks friendly enough, with a smiling dog panting out the window; nevertheless he could be the local loony, but she accepts. The van grinds into gear and makes a series of wheezing sounds that reminds her of the van in, Little Miss Sunshine, trying to stay the course with all of its troubles.

“Where ya heading?

“Willow Glen Rd.”

“No problem, we’ll be up there in a jiff. It would be a shame to let a lady trudge up this road with all that gear you’re toting.”

“What’s your name?”

“Clementine.”

“And you?”

She somehow expected him to say Jax or Zane. Something vernacular Californian.

“I’m Bernie. And this is Chili Pepper.”

“Well, this is very kind of you Bernie.”

The dog quietly wags her tail revealing several patches of heavily matted fur.

When they reach her house he beams.

“Maybe we’ll run into each other again.”

She returns his smile watching as he turns the rig around with its groans and spurts of pain. He waves out of the side window and drives and slowly makes his way down the hill. After he is out of sight, she thinks that was kinda nice. She has become somewhat fatigued with herself. Solitude has a shelf life.

When moving in, her next-door neighbors came to welcome her, promising hello to invite her over once they returned, but they were heading to Sicily for five months. The only contact she has with folk here is the staff at the Canyon Store.

Clementine’s used to it. She’s more of a loner, although she can be quite social when she needs to be. The older she’s become people have become less significant to her. She prefers the company of birds or hearing the distant barks of coyotes that howl throughout the canyon every evening. Often they compete with hoot owls serenading everyone within earshot.

A hummingbird feeder hangs from one of the lemon trees and sometimes they come close to her like tiny fairies. One morning a coyote was standing on her patio with three of her cubs. Clementine threw some sliced meat cuts, which they gobbled up like there was no tomorrow. Afterwards, she thought perhaps she had made a mistake. One shouldn’t tamper with wildlife. Imagining them moving in, awaiting grub every day, yet that was their only visit.

Bernie settles in for the evening on an empty lot further down the canyon featuring remnants of an old foundation. His van is camouflaged amongst hearty overgrowth. He knows this locale is only temporary. Soon enough, the builders will arrive to construct a new home.

He is accustomed to this upheaval and has been homeless for years now. At first, he had aspirations of becoming a singer and drifted to Los Angeles in the early eighties. Initially he got gigs as backup vocals and playing acoustic guitar in clubs on the Strip, though in the end it never amounted to anything. He ended up doing odd jobs, mostly in restaurants. He gave it up completely following a motorcycle accident, which left him lame and in constant pain. Forcing him to walk with a cane carved from a tree branch.

Sometimes he busks for money downtown. The tourists are the most generous. Thinking he’s some old throwback from the music scene way back when. He eats a lot in soup kitchens and wanders the hills inquiring about yard work and handyman jobs and often he can earn a few bucks.

Clementine’s out of the loop as far as scoops go. The last time she read the news she saw a photograph of a wild elephant lying dead in a river somewhere in India. Someone had given it explosive fruit. It disgusted her and she vowed to stay clear of what’s going on in the world. It’s only shit.

The house is absent of a television or stereo. She wasted so much time staring at the screen and withdrew from music years ago. Compressed with neighbors and paper-thin walls. Sometimes, though, she twirls around her open space like some excited Dervish. Especially when she hears a tune from the B-52’s or the Ramones or something else to her liking from a car’s open window. She thinks a party would be amusing, but there’s no one to invite.

One evening while sipping a cocktail on her patio she hears a familiar sound. The voice of the van. It seems to be conking to a stop in front of her house and lets out a long series of grunts. She heads to the door and sees Bernie with a bouquet of wildflowers. Chili Pepper sits obediently at his feet.

“Bernie. This is unexpected.”

“Thought I’d take a chance.”

Handing her a mix of locally grown blossoms.

“Well, come in.”

She isn’t at all certain why she invites him in. Though truth be told she is bored with hardly a soul to chat with and celibacy has become too close a companion.

“Would you like a cocktail?”

“That would be nice.”

Clementine goes to the kitchen and Chili Pepper follows close behind. She prepares icy Margaritas in the blender and brings them out to the patio.

He sits across from her taking a deep, long swallow.

“This is really tasty.”

“Want another?”

“Sure. Can’t say no to that.”

She produces two additional delicious dripping glasses and returns with a plate of assorted cheese, crackers, seedless grapes, and a bowl of cold water for Chili Pepper, which the dog gulps down as if it is her last moment on earth. She is offered a few bits of cheese and following her treat, gazes back at Clementine with a grateful smile.

“So Bernie are you still working?”

She does not find this intrusive for they are of similar age.

“I do landscaping from time to time. Keeps me active.”

After the second drink Bernie asks Clementine if he can take a shower.

“I never had the chance before dropping by. I was in the neighborhood you see.”

Although she finds this odd and feels put on the spot, she agrees providing him with a fresh towel. She feels it would be unkind of her to refuse him. A considerable amount of time passes before he emerges cleaner with bits of water lingering in his full, longish hair.

There’s no denying he’s a good-looking man, reminiscent in a certain angle of light of a young Sam Shepard. Inviting, in a definite, raffish way.

“I feel like a new man! Thanks, I really needed that.”

Bernie has started to come over more frequently, but she wonders why he never invites her out to dinner, a movie or anything for that matter. She just assumes he’s stingy, an attribute she doesn’t respect in a man. Still, overall she likes him. He told her about his past. How he grew up on a farm in the Midwest. How he hated it. Forced to do chores upon chores day in day out. How his mother died from an accident when he was four. How his father was mean and beat him and the minute he was old enough to leave he headed here.

By the end of the month he is practically living with her. She even buys steep-priced chow for Chili Pepper from a vet. Chili has taken a shining to Clementine and often Bernie will have to limp over just to rub her head and get a wagging tail. His pained hip doesn’t hinder his sexual performance though, which has proved to be an extra benefit to the friendship.

One afternoon down at the Canyon store one of the guys, Wyatt, whom she’s gotten to know well, shines the spotlight on Bernie.

“Clementine. I realize this is hardly my business, however I’ve seen you from time to time with Bernie. You are a nice lady and I wouldn’t want you to get hurt.”

“What do you mean exactly?”

“Don’t get me wrong. Bernie is a cool dude and all, but he’s sort of a predator.”

“Predator!” You mean sexually perverse?”

“No. No, not that. A player. A sort of douche. It’s just that I’ve seen it again and again throughout the years. A single lady comes to the Canyon and he swoops in like a bird of prey. Ya know, gets chummy, and then makes his move to gain entrée so to speak. Get me? He’s homeless. Bet he didn’t tell you that one. He lives in his van.”

As she eats her lunch on the terrace the story of him being in the area, dropping in, and the ceaseless requests to use the shower start to sink in.

A few nights after following a carefully executed meal, Clementine puts the gears to Bernie.

“So Bernie. Why don’t you ever invite me to your place? Truthfully I get fed up with all the cooking. You know I do –  you once in awhile do, would be nice.”

“Oh, I will. Eventually. I’m ashamed, actually. It’s a mess. You know with the bum leg and all. I’m not much of a housekeeper.”

“M-m-m-m. That’s funny because someone told me, someone whom I trust, that you live in your van and that you make a habit out of befriending single women and moving yourself in. Trust me, I hate liars and I’ve met plenty throughout the years.”

“Man. If I had told you the truth would you have given me a second thought?”

“I dunno know. Maybe I’d feel less disappointed if you’d been upfront from the get-go. But, you never gave me the chance. I don’t judge most folk.

Everyone has had hard times. In spite of that I’d like you to get the hell out. I’ll find a way to contact you if I change my mind. I feel totally deceived and ripped off.”

“Clementine, please believe this wasn’t my intention. I would have told you sooner or later.”

Bernie gathers up his few belongings and his guitar and calls for Chili Pepper who knows a good thing and hides herself where no one can find her.

“Chili Pepper… come on girl. Chili…”

But before he can sniff her out Clementine pushes him out the door. Cane and all. An old tattered duffle bag just misses his head.

Several weeks have passed and no sign of Bernie. She feels bad about keeping Chili and is certain Bernie pines for his dog. Clementine puts a note on the message board of the Canyon Store alerting Bernie that Chili Pepper is happy and misses him since he doesn’t answer his phone. She asks Wyatt to tell him to stop by if he runs into him, but it is as if he has dropped off the planet. Or abducted for that matter.

Truth be told, Berne has already hooked up with another lady. A new addition to the Canyon, a newbie from London named Arabella. He left his van on the entrance driveway to the vacant lot, partially concealed by heavily laden foliage and high-tailed it down Mexico-way with his new squeeze. Not giving Clementine a second thought and a mere nano-second for Chili Pepper. Thanking his lucky stars that he didn’t have to stash her somewhere while he’s off gallivanting down South with Arabella, whom he met when he helped her with car trouble and charmed her on the spot right then and there.

Rain has been falling heavily the last week keeping Clementine housebound, preventing her from going down to the Canyon Country Store. Instead, she watches the worrisome stream of brown earth running down the road in front of her house. Chili Pepper has never been happier since her groom and shampoo down at the doggy salon. If Bernie were to appear now she’d give him the cold stare, ignore him and exit the room retreating to one of her many hiding places.

The downpour continues without pause and unbeknownst to Clementine the earth has started to shift. First, she hears a rumbling like an oncoming train. When she looks outside she sees that part of the road has caved in and her next-door neighbors’ house has collapsed like an accordion from the swiftly, accelerating mudslide. She picks up Chili Pepper and speedily walks down the road stepping over fallen trees, boulders and structural debris.

After walking for some time she sees the back of the yellow van lurking from under a palm branch. She opens the door and gently puts Chili in the back on the worn sleeping bag before rummaging around for the keys that are soon discovered taped to the roof of the glove compartment. To her amazement it starts without hesitation, although a little surly and stubborn. She turns the yellow van around, which sighs in disapproval, heading down the Canyon with one wonky wiper clearing her way.


BIO

Susan E. Lloy is the author of two short story collections, But When We Look Closer (2017) and Vita (2019). Susan likes to write about unconventional characters who exist on the edges of ordinary life and is hoping to finish her third collection by spring 2021. She lives in Montreal.




A Hasid in the Park

by Akiva Rube

I took a seat under the 40 foot stained glass windows of the Bobover synagogue. My father was sitting to my right, rolling his wet sidelocks around his finger. When the rabbi entered, the man at the front pounded once on the lectern signaling that services would soon begin. We prayed for half an hour and then I stepped out for a short break between the early and late evening prayers. Up the street the sun was setting and all around the shops had their metal gates pulled down and locked for Shabbos.

Standing outside on the curb I noticed Meir Miller and his younger brother Zalman by another synagogue across the street. I went over to say hi and we gathered around a low brick wall that surrounded a brownstone’s front yard. I sat on the wall and Zalman teetered on it with his arms out by his side.

“What do you want to do tonight?” I asked. Meir, who was standing with his hands clasped behind his back, suggested we stay home and play Risk. Zalman waved a hand dismissively, “Let’s get drunk and go to the park.”

Zalman was excited because we had gone to Gravesend Park — the newly renovated playground on 18th avenue– the previous Friday night, and found a group of teenage Hasidim, like ourselves, smoking on Shabbos. To top it off they were a mixture of boys and girls. Zalman grabbed his crotch and clutching it said, “Maybe I’ll get my dick sucked.”

“I’m down,” I said and Meir said he was too.

The side door of their synagogue creaked open and their father stepped out. Mr. Miller looked around and told his sons to come back inside. I wished him Good Shabbos and crossed the street back to Bobov.

When prayer ended my father stuck around to catch up with a few friends. I walked home ahead of him. Children playing tag ran in and out of the empty streets while their mothers and older sisters sat on their stoops and waited for the men to return.

At home, my mother was sitting at the table praying and my younger sister Chavi, all showered and dressed for Shabbos, was reading to the rest of the kids on the carpeted dining room floor.

“Can you see George peeking from under the yellow hat? Can you see him, Shloimy?” She asked. Shloimy nodded. My mother’s glasses rested near the tip of her nose and she looked over the lenses to Chavi. Then she turned to me and asked, “How was it tonight?”

“Good,” I said. I’m so zonked and hungry, what did you make?”

“The usual, gefilte fish, soup, salad, and chicken.” She pointed to each on the counter and gently rocked a bassinet with her foot. I gave Shloimy a little pinch on the cheek but he turned his face and put his arms around Chavi. We sat quietly then, listening, as Chavi read on.

After a few minutes, we turned to the sound of my father’s footsteps coming up the stairs and then his voice, he began to sing, welcoming the Shabbos angels in a short hymn. Chavi closed the book and my father came in bellowing, “Good Shabbos.” Shloimy stood up and ran into his legs yelling “Good Shabbos, Tati.” 

*** 

The Miller house was the next one over and as familiar to me as my own. Our parents had been friends and neighbors before any of the kids were born, and my earliest memories featured Meir and Zalman, the two oldest of the family. As kids, the three of us would ride our bikes up and around every block in Borough Park. And when we got bored, we climbed the garage that was behind their house and jumped along those annexed to every subsequent house on the street.

After my Friday night meal, I walked to the Miller house, as I did every week. I turned the knob to their apartment, which, like ours, was always unlocked. Mr. Miller sat with his back to the door at the head of their long dining table, beneath a crystal chandelier. As soon as I entered, Zalman, who was sitting at the other end and facing me, shouted in Yiddish, “Ah, Good Shabbos Reb Pinchus, how are you?” and I shouted back, “Thank God Reb Zalman, and you?” The little girls and boys started giggling and then imitating, screaming to each other, “Good Shabbos Reb so and so or “Good Shabbos Rebitzin” so and so. Mr. Miller turned to me with a smile and wished me Good Shabbos.

“Good Shabbos Pinchus,” Mrs. Miller said as she walked from the kitchen with a bowl of soup that she set down in front of Mr. Miller.

“Good Shabbos,” I said and stepped over all the Yiddish childrens books spilled from capsized storage containers. I sat down near Zalman. I turned around and Shifra, who’d just come in from the kitchen, was behind me, also carrying soup.

“Good Shabbos,” she said to me. She was the third child and only a year younger than Zalman. She wore a white, long sleeve shirt under a sleeveless, blue-belted dress, and a studded headband that puffed her hair in the front. She rounded the table and handed Meir his bowl with two bobbing knaidlach.

“Good Shabbos.” I said.

“What are you doing tonight?” she whispered. We’d told her last week about the people in the park.

“Not sure yet” I said smiling.

“You want soup?” she asked.

“No, thanks.”

Mr. Miller began a song about the beauty of Shabbos and all the boys joined in. When we were done, Meir and Mr. Miller began to argue about the meaning of a verse in that week’s Torah reading. Occasionally, I turned to see Meir stroking his hairless chin and furrowing his brow.

By the wall near Zalman and I there was a small table with a mix of silver and earthenware candlesticks, one for each family member. The wax had burned down and over. On the same wall there was a picture of a rabbi over a book with candles by his side.

***

There was a synagogue with an open liquor cabinet in its basement just a few blocks down. When we arrived we sat on padded folding chairs among stacked bookcases and drank from Styrofoam cups. Zalman found some orange juice in the fridge and added it to his cup.

“Screwdrivers all around,” he said. I smiled. Zalman had just learned this word and was now apt to say at any time. “Ah, I could really go for a screwdriver. You know?”

Within an hour we finished the bottle. Meir was rolling on the cold marble floor with his hand down his pants, and Zalman waved the bottle in triumph.

*** 

Even before entering the park we heard teenagers speaking in English and Yiddish, and pretty soon we were among them.

Clouds of smoke rose from the groups scattered around the playground, and coming up I could see a teenage boy with gelled black hair. He was wearing jeans and a t-shirt and had a cigarette in his hand. He and another guy stood beside a girl. She wore a sweetheart top that revealed a five-inch tattoo of the sun on her upper back. I asked the smoking guy for a cigarette. He stuck his hand in his pocket and opened a pack of Newports toward me. I removed one and placed it between my lips; he pressed on his lighter and I inhaled.

He turned to the girl and continued “So, which is it?”

Sukkis” she said.

He had asked what Jewish holiday she most missed celebrating. She went on to describe how decorating the Sukkah had meant a lot to her. Yes, it was her father and older brother who lugged the wood panels and bamboo sticks from the garage, laid them out in the driveway and built the structure that they would sleep, eat and sing in for a week. But she was the one who went to the arts and crafts store and bought paint, string, glue, and paper and designed much of the interior.

Then she looked at me and said “Hi, I’m Esty, and this” she said pointing to the boy who gave me the cigarette “is Baruch.” The other one who was slouching and had shoulder length curly hair was Yoni.

“My name is Pinchus” I said. “What do you all do?”

“I’m studying psychology at Hunter College,” she said. “I want to be a therapist.” Baruch was an EMT and Yoni was an English major at Brooklyn College. I told them what I did, which was go to high school. And even though not one of them was a day over 20 they went on about how much younger I was, and about how fast time passes.

“To tell you the truth, I think that as soon as you’re born you start missing opportunities,” Yoni said.

“Why stop there?” Esty asked. “Some opportunities might be lost in utero, no?”

“Exactly!” and he clapped his hands together.

Yoni’s favorite holiday was Shavuous. He still celebrated, he added proudly. Every year he and his “buddies” stayed up all night reading, instead of the Talmud, whatever books they’d read and appreciated that year.

They had a certain pride in the way they sounded and even lapsed back into Yiddish if they felt a point could be better made by its use. For two hours we talked and almost finished Baruch’s cigarettes, who, by the way, smoked them not like some inexperienced teenager, but like the Marlboro Man himself.

Later I found Zalman, who told me that Meir was lying passed out near the swings. Zalman poked Meir, “Hello, wake up.” But Meir was out. We got under his arms and carried him home.

Standing outside the Miller house, I was scared that a neighbor would come out and see us, maybe walk too close and smell the cigarettes. But we got in quickly enough and took Meir through the dining room where we had been earlier and into the room that Zalman and Meir shared. Zalman put Meir down on his bed and said to me “he owes me at least one cigarette.” He sat down near Meir and asked, “Who the hell were these people? They’re from here?” He put his hand on the window sill and opened the window. Then we heard a noise in the hallway. Zalman opened the door and it was Shifra. She was in pajamas, my view of her mostly obscured but I could see her briefly in a formless white robe, her hair undone.

“Go to sleep” he told her. She argued for a moment but then she was gone.

Zalman sat down again on the bed. “What’s up with these guys?” he said to me, his voice lower now.

“Some are in college.”

“Really?”

“Yup, Hunter and Brooklyn.”

“What I don’t understand, is where they go the first day.” He said.

“What do you mean?”

“Let’s say some guy decides ‘I’m going off,’ you know, ‘I’m leaving.’”

“Yeah.”

“Where does he go? Where does he sleep that night?” he emphasized ‘that’ by pressing his finger on the bed.

Meir rolled in the bed to face us and muttered, “It’s silly.”

“Oh welcome back.” Zalman said.

“What’s the point in ‘going off’?”  Meir said. “Just to smoke a couple cigarettes on Shabbos? Big deal.”

“It’s not about that.” I said.

“What is it then, sex? You think the whole world is going to line up to have sex with you?”

“Why not?” Zalman said.

 “It’s not about that either,” I said. “The question is whether it’s true. Do you believe it?”

“Why shouldn’t I?” Meir asked.

“Why should you, is the question, not, why shouldn’t you.”

“I believe in God.” Zalman said.

“Then how can you smoke on Shabbos?” I asked.

“I don’t know; I just want to.”

“I don’t understand that.” I said.

“You know, you’re talking all the time about the truth,” Meir said. “’Is it true? Do I believe it?’ But this has nothing to do with the truth. This is about two things,” he held two fingers in the air, “freedom and happiness. You go to the park and see people dressing how they want to dress and you think to yourself, I want to have the freedom of controlling how I look, which is really the freedom to control how other people see you. And I understand that, they are definitely more free in that and many other ways, but are they really any happier? I’m not so sure. Now ask me if I’m happy.”

“What?”

“Ask me. ‘Are you happy?’”

“Ok, Are you happy?” I asked.

“Yes, very.” he said. “Are you?”

I leaned back in my chair and looked at Zalman. Out the window I could see the yeshiva the three of us had gone to. Not far beyond that is where my grandparents lived. The nest to which I and my many cousins from across New York and New Jersey would flock for endless holiday and family celebrations, Sukkis among them. I like pulling wood from the shed and building the sukkah, I thought. And I like staying up all night on Shavuous learning with Zalman and Meir. I also like looking for bread crumbs by candlelight and unabashedly dancing with Torah scrolls.

“I am.” I said.

Zalman climbed the bunk bed and threw his pants over. I lay down on the floor but couldn’t sleep. After a while I walked home.

***

The next morning a cone of light shone into my room, the clock read 11:00 AM. I dressed quickly and masked the smell of cigarettes with Old Spice. When my father arrived I was waiting for him at the dining room table. The meal passed, as it usually did, with singing, discussion, and questions and answers. Exiting my house, I decided not to visit the Millers but to take a walk near the outskirts of our community. As I approached the implicit boundary between our neighborhood and the Italian one on 18th Avenue, the sound of running cars became more frequent.

I noticed Shifra on the opposite side of the avenue in much the same clothing she’d worn at last night’s meal. She looked both ways before crossing. 

Good Shabbos, we said to each other. We walked for a minute and then she said, “Let’s go to Manhattan.” When I looked at her, she showed me a Metro Card, cupped in her hand.

“I have enough on here for both” she said “to come back too.”

“What will we do?”

“Nothing, just walk around.”

“Where?

“I don’t know yet but we have to go soon.”

“Have you done this before?”

“Yes, are you coming?”

“Yes” I said and I followed her to the Fort Hamilton station where, out of view, we darted down the stairs and ran to the end of the platform.


BIO

Akiva Rube is a chemistry research assistant and laboratory instructor at Yeshiva University. He enjoys writing, cycling, and being involved in collaborative projects. 




The Costume Party

by K.D. Alter

My Uncle Bobby likes to say if you live long enough you’ll see everything, but I never thought I’d live long enough to see a 60-year-old man, ex-military at that, yelling “Go f— yourself!” to his wife’s folks who’re in their eighties or nineties maybe who stood there trembling like kittens. Duke was mad as hell on account the folks were asking him and Charlene to move off the ranch and he’d gotten into telling himself this was his place and not theirs. When they told Charlene (who the folks call Charm, and not sarcastic) she began hollering and storming about the place knocking things over, including some relics Grandpappy brought from Korea when he was in the service. When they walked out, Duke cornered them and stood about a foot away cussing their faces off. Grandpappy is still half a head taller than Duke but that doesn’t make a difference when you’re like 90.

Duke’s not his real name but Jean, but that name doesn’t fit his hat, boots, or 4 x 4 Ram 2500 Laramie with the jacked-up suspension which he bought off Ray Santos for a thousand bucks because Ray’s old lady left the windows down when they went away for a week and it rained every day and the truck got molded out. Duke spent all summer stripping and changing out the inside. He didn’t lower it down though, even though he’s always saying only a moron would jack it up that high. That and the driver’s door is jammed so you have to climb in from the other side. But Duke seems to like sitting up there. Maybe also he keeps it that way to keep Charlene from driving it because she has a hard time climbing up into it. I offered Charlene to fix it once and when Duke heard he took me out behind the barn and said, “You ever do that again and I’ll rip off your head and shit down your neck.”

I personally think the folks might’ve had better sense than to lay the news right to their face but could’ve called from Reno where they live most of the time. Right now, they were stuck out by the redwoods Grandpappy planted when he was a kid and I heard Grandma’s words choking in the wind, “I can’t take this, Henry.” Grandpappy was standing looking like he was trying to solve an arithmetic problem but Grandma was pink in the face, scared and angry and sorry all at the same time. The wind was blowing like mad and Grandma’s cape was flapping around like a tarp. Even Admiral, which is Duke and Charlene’s Newfie, was steering clear. He’s old and wise and can sense a bad situation.

Now I’m just the hired man and I’ve been told it’s not my place to butt in, but when I saw the folks standing so pitiful and Duke stomping around, I picked up a fitting I was working on and jammed it in the wrong way and went up to Duke to ask if he could help me set it right. I knew he’d yell at me, so I made myself goofy and I walked right up and held out the fitting and I go, “I know you’re busy but could you undo this thing because otherwise my whole hour’s ruined.” There’s nothing in this world Duke hates more than a wasted hour. It’s the folks’ money but he still can’t help himself. Sure thing he fell for it, his goatee getting right in the grease because his jaw does this funny back and forth on account of his Parkinson’s. The folks turned around and ran back in the house.

Duke and Charlene’ve been living up here since their house got foreclosed down in Orange County. From what I heard, they lived for two years rent free even though they could afford to pay, but the house got under water so they just stayed until the sheriff came and hauled them out. I’d sooner live under a bridge than in a house with a foreclosure sign on it, it’s a kind of disrespect to yourself. But Duke’s a skinflint and never misses an opportunity to get something for nothing. Charlene goes to the food pantry every week for groceries. When she pulls up in her 2010 5.7 liter Sequoia when everyone else is in some pathetic beater truck, she tells them it’s not for her. But she just brings it all home and then ends up throwing half of it out. Sometimes she offers some to me and Cherry, but we never take any.

After they got chucked out of Orange County Charlene begged the folks to let her stay up here. The folks agreed to it and moved out of the ranch house where they lived 22 years and they set up to stay down in the bunkhouse which was never really a bunkhouse but a single-wide that they busted out with an extra room and faced with old lumber so that it looked like a regular house and pretty nice at that. The ranch house is sweet but apart from the extra bedroom the folks added it’s just an old shotgun and it’s always a question about whether it’s better to put lipstick on the pig or tear it down and start over. The place holds lots of memories so they poured money into it over the years and it was pretty generous of them to move out to let Charm and Duke and Chatamoise (pronounced Shamwah), their daughter, move in. Grandpappy worked as a radar engineer for the military in LA until they retired up here full time. Grandpappy kept his souvenirs and photography stuff down at the bunkhouse and figured that’s where he’d work on them so they might as well move down there. That’s the same time they bought a second place in Reno so they could be near doctors.

Charlene’s main hobby in Orange County was going to estate sales and they never throwed anything out so they had literally a ton of dead people’s shit. The military moved it all up here for free. There’s lots of free things you get being ex-military people don’t know about. All I ever hear is vets bitching about their medical benefits, but in my opinion they’ve got it pretty sweet. Duke and Charlene are always running to the VA in Yuba. Charlene stockpiles all the medicine they give her. When me and Cherry go to the clinic we wait all day and only get a nurse who looks at us for like a minute and then ends up giving us antibiotics or painkillers no matter what we come in for. Anyway, when they came up here they didn’t have place for their stuff so they sold every stick of the folks’ furnitures in the ranch house, took down the pictures, filled it with their stuff and settled in like it was theirs all along.

Grandpappy’ folks were dust bowlers who came to California back in the day and though their furnitures weren’t fancy I could see why they’d be sentimental over seeing it all sold off for pretty much nothing. When they found out they went over to Jenna Ruth’s in town to try to buy it all back but most of it was gone already. I wouldn’t of blamed them for being mad as hell but Charm’s their only kid, or the only living one anyway since there was a brother who died young. The folks just sucked it up. They started spending most of their time in Reno.

Around that same time their old hand Devin died of hepatitis and they hired me to look after the place. Duke and Charm could’ve done it, but they don’t like to work. I heard them say to the folks lots of times, “You’re not gonna turn us into Devin.” Other times they call Devin a drunk and a bum. That’s not right because it’s Duke and Charm who’re lazy, watching TV and complaining how they don’t have any place for their stuff. Devin drank too much maybe but he did good work and they’re not half the man he was.

I bring lots of ideas to Duke and Charm about how to make money, sure-fire things like selling firewood, which’d also help against forest fires, or growing garlic—I know a guy up here makes 17 thousand an acre on garlic. I’d do all the work because I can cut trees, run cattle or farm in my sleep. But every time I bring something up they keep saying, “Oh no! That’d be too much work.” My theory is they got plenty of money because the folks pay for every lick up here and they’ve got pension and disability besides. Every time I pick up the mail there’s a check in it.

What changed was last summer when Grandma’s cousin came up from LA and set looking through the books and telling the folks they can’t afford to keep supporting “the kids”. I only know what I picked up from conversation here and there when I was walking around and the windows were open because it was summer, but something I heard the cousin saying is why can’t Charlene ever get a job because she never worked a day in her life and Duke’s been retired since he’s 39 when he finished his twenty in the navy.

It made perfect sense to me but Grandma especially kept crying how it was her fault and how they couldn’t just throw her Charmy off. They worried about where would Chatamois go. Chatamois’s twenty-one. She quit school when her folks came to live up here and she’s hardly ever off the hill. She doesn’t even know anyone, except for maybe me and a couple of the hippies who moved up here to grow weed. She hardly leaves the place except to go to the Red Bear to pick up smokes. She and her mom pretty much live in front of the TV. It’s a bone of contention between Duke and Charlene, him saying it’s no good for a girl to be stuck on her mom that way. I’m with him on this one, even though I also feel bad for Charlene. Chatamois’s her only friend in the world and Charlene won’t let her go.

I don’t mind talking to Chatamois, sometimes we go to the outdoor kitchen to smoke a J. She’s smart and sorta pretty too, but after a while she makes me feel uncomfortable because no matter who or what she’s always getting sexual. I got my old lady and I’m not interested in the least but I’ve seen Chatamois pull her shorts over her crotch right in front of Grandpappy, making like she was getting out an itch, but I could see she was enjoying his uncomfort and she was smiling and licking her teeth at me the whole time. I don’t want to look either but when I get fascinated by something I can’t help myself and the look she had on her face seeing Pappy fidget and look off like he was trying to solve a science problem in another universe is a sight my mind won’t let go of soon.

Anyway, after a fight at Christmas over the popovers when Grandma asked Duke to quit eating all the popovers before the meal and he and Charlene stormed out over it, I guess something clicked and the folks decided after all to ask Duke and Charlene to move out. They told them they had a year to do it, which in my opinion was as good as not asking them at all, but that’s what they did. I already told you about what happened on the day they told them. After the folks packed off I left too so I wouldn’t get interrogated by Duke about what the folks were saying in the house because he’s always asking me who said what about them and then making me swear not to repeat anything they say or do.

Charlene told Duke to quit worrying because the folks would change their mind. Eventually the ranch would come to them. Not that that would guarantee Duke’s security because Charm’s always threatening that as soon as she has the deed she’s going to find a new husband who doesn’t piss off the porch and have Parkinson’s. Charm’s a real piece of work all right. Grandma told me that when Charm was a baby she used to spread her poop all over the sofa. She also said, and she made me promise never to repeat it, that their son Eric, the one that died in high school, was really their favorite. It made me tear up to hear her say it, especially because the chances are Charlene knows it too, but that’s how families go on, I suppose.

Soon enough they all went back to drinking cocktails together, plastered and forgetting each other’s sins. No one ever mentioned Duke and Charm leaving again.

Until Halloween. I remember the day exactly because the folks invited me and Cherry for dinner down at the bunkhouse to celebrate. Halloween must be the family’s favorite holiday, because even though there’s nobody else to see it they decorate the bejesus out of the place. This year they went crazier than ever. Everywhere outside was blow-up monsters with lights and witch’s laughs coming out of them, skulls and bones, tombstones and a hanging mummy that really could scare you. Everything was even scarier because the wind was blowing like mad and the ghouls were straining at their ropes, leaping at us on our way to the door. Admiral wouldn’t even come near the place but stood about fifty feet out barking his brains out and looking like he couldn’t figure out why we weren’t out there with him. Inside you had to walk through cotton spider webs, rats with red eyes lit up and jerking all over the floor, and hanging from the chandelier was a canvas sack with a foot sticking out of it that twitched. I swear they must’ve spent a thousand bucks on decorations.

Grandma told me and Cherry to dress up. “Make sure you bring the right costume,” she said. I was too embarrassed to ask what she meant because Cherry and me’d never been to a costume party before. Cherry’s good at the sewing machine though and she fixed us up, me as a lumberjack, which isn’t that much of a costume once you think about it, and she dug up some of her gramma’s clothes and came as a country maid like from the 1980s. I brought an old axe I’d dug up the head to on a job over in Rackerby and I carved a handle for it.

Duke came as a Viking with a fur coat that went all the way to the ground and a plastic helmet with two horns. He also carried a shield and instead of an axe he brought a chainsaw. Me and him kidded around that we should trade tools but then we didn’t. Charlene came as a Mother Superior, with a habit, only with a joke crucifix that was about a foot long and jelly bean prayer beads. Cherry’s Catholic and whispered to me she was offended but I told her it’s all pretend and she should just make believe it’s funny but she said she couldn’t.

Grandpappy’ outfit was wild. He was the headless horseman, with a bloody stump made from a real pork chop at the top and holding his own head at an angle in front of his chest. He was about seven feet tall. I still can’t figure out how he got his head to stay at that angle. When he wasn’t using his hands he kept them around his head like it was someone else holding it. Cherry got pictures of it on her phone. Grandma came in wearing a homemade spider skirt that might’ve looked better on someone fifty years younger but she was kinda cute anyway once you got out of the habit of accidentally looking at her legs. She had cotton candy webs that she’d pick off with her fingers and eat.

Pappy is in his favorite mood when he’s fixing cocktails and even Charlene was helping in the kitchen. Me and Cherry were in a good mood too on account we had amazing news. I know Cherry didn’t want me to jinx it by telling too early but after one of those Moscow Mules Grandpappy makes I blurted out to everyone that Cherry and me were going to be parents. Everyone started clapping and laughing and I felt all warm toward the whole family, even to Charlene who hugged me and I could smell how loaded she was. She’s a happy drunk, which isn’t that much of a surprise because people usually become their own opposites when they’ve had a few. Duke shook my hand and said being a Dad was the best thing you could be in this world and he hoped for me it was a boy because looking after a girl was a full-time job. Chatamois, who acourse was dressed like a prostitute, went “Oh Daddy!” while pushing her tits up real flirtatious and everyone laughed the way you’re supposed to in a family and everything felt happy, if also a little weird.

Just when everything was cheery and I was hoping the family was finally healed, everything went to hell. I’ll tell it like I experienced it and then you’ll know how it happened.

Grandma made a cake for her birthday because it’s on November 2nd. Everyone was so merry she said why don’t we have dessert first for a change and she took the cake out and everyone sang Happy Birthday. Then outta nowhere Charlene started screaming at her mom that all this waiting was making Duke sick because he needed to eat on time on account of his Parkinson’s. Sure enough, Duke was sitting in one of the easy chairs staring off like he was a Viking who died with his eyes open, though I swear that two minutes before he was singing Happy Birthday with the best of them. He still had the chainsaw on his lap.

Well, Grandma told Charm that she could’ve just gone anytime and fed her husband because it was her job to. Charm narrowed her eyes in a way that always chills my spine when I see it and said, “You don’t give a rat’s ass about Jean or me but only yourself.”

Grandma said, “Don’t you dare talk to me like that,” and then something like “You wanna blame me but the truth is you never feed that poor man when he needs it so you’ve got nerve coming to my house blaming me.”

The way she said my house told the whole story.

Charm looked like she was deciding whether to walk out or not. I was standing there waiting to see what would happen next but Cherry’s smarter than me, at least when it comes to people, and she said, “This has been really nice but I think we’d better be going,” and she took my arm.

Now Grandpappy was standing in the kitchen the whole time nursing his drink and trying not to get killed like an innocent bystander. “No one’s going anywhere. This is a celebration and it’s not getting ruined by anybody’s bad temper!” he said, and he was staring right at Charlene when he said it. Charm looked like she might cry because Pappy is usually sweet on her. “Everyone sit down!” he went on, and then he turned to Cherry saying he and Grandma had a gift for her and for our new baby and he wanted us to turn around so he could get it and it’d be a happy surprise.

Charlene forgot all about Duke who seemed to be wearing his so-called Parkinson’s mask for real this time, but Chatamois was in the kitchen fixing a pile of gravy ham for her dad and told him to hang in there. That perked him up a bit and he started drinking his Mule again. I leaned over and said maybe he ought to wait for the food because drinking on an empty stomach can make you sick and a lot of times when you’re taking medicine for your brain you’re not supposed to drink alcohol in the first place. Duke just said “Jackass” through his teeth. I joined my wife and turned around toward the kitchen with our backs to the bookcase like Grandpappy asked us to. I was feeling uncomfortable, I don’t like accepting gifts in the first place, but Cherry took my arm and I waited and smiled at Grandma who was sitting in the other big chair with her feet up cradling her drink on her round spider belly, breathing deep and not really smiling.

Cherry asked Grandma if she was okay and Grandma gave a weak smile and said, “Don’t look, Sweetheart.”

Now I know the folks keep a lot of cash hidden in a fake book they have which is a good hiding place because they have more books than a library and you’d have to spend all day finding the one that’s got the money in it, and that’s if you knew money was in one of them in the first place. I knew it was the cash they were going for when Cherry and me turned around.

We stayed turned around smiling until I heard a giant “What??!!” from Grandpappy. Grandma bugged her eyes out and her drink fell off her lap. Cherry bent down to clean up the mess. She reached to take Grandma’s hand, saying “Grandma, are you okay?” but Grandma took back her hand and didn’t say anything.

I figured it was okay to turn around and what I saw was Grandpappy holding the fake book with the flap hanging down at the same angle as his head and he said, all sober, like in a kind of church voice, “There was nearly forty thousand dollars in here.”

The whole place was like a bomb had gone off and no one could move. Everyone was looking at everyone else but more at me than anyone.

All I could think about was how when the well stopped working a couple of months ago and it was an emergency and Duke called Grandpappy in Reno saying they needed cash right away to pay the guy from the pump company, the two of us were in the bunkhouse and Duke went to the money book and he saw that I saw. I made like I wasn’t looking but he told me right then and there that if there was ever money missing he’d know who stole it. I told him to hide it somewhere else because I didn’t want to get accused and he just said he would and I never thought about it again until Halloween when the money was gone and I could see from where Grandpappy was standing and the empty place in the shelf that it never did move. Duke said, “Well, Carl, where’s the money?”

Now I’m the first to understand that blood’s thicker than water even when the blood is bad, and as soon as he said that I knew the folks weren’t going to be blaming Duke but me and I just stood there and went, “No way! Nobody’s pinning this on me.”

Grandpappy said, “No one’s blaming anybody—yet. Now’s just about figuring out where it is and putting it back because that’s a lifetime of savings and no one here wants to bring Grandma and me that kind of suffering.”

“Maybe you took it to Reno?” Charlene said.

I think maybe Grandma could’ve thought a little harder before she yelled back, “Why are you always treating us like we’re a buncha doddering old fools?” And then there was another long fight I won’t repeat because it gets boring after a while everyone saying the same stupid stuff. But I’ll say it was pretty hurtful because Charm accused her mom of never letting go of her dead brother and that after forty years she still loved him more than her. Grandma and Pappy both cried for a while and Grandma even said she wished she was dead. It was heartbreaking just to be there and I’m not even part of the family. Everyone except maybe me and Cherry seemed to forget about the money. But even though I’d of rather been anywhere else but there, I knew there was no way I could just say, “All right everyone, Happy Halloween, Cherry and me are leaving.”

It was a real brainteaser about the money because I knew I didn’t take it but to be perfectly honest I didn’t think Duke or Charm did either. Not that they don’t steal all the time but their routine is to do it only a little at a time so you can never pin it on them. And almost for sure Chatamois didn’t take it because she loves her gramma and grampa too much. When Charlene was making Grandma cry, Chatamois climbed into her lap to make her feel better and that stopped the fight. Charlene growled at her like a bear but Chatamois just dug her face into Grandma’s shoulder and she had to quit. Right now Chatamois was back in the kitchen poking the ice in her drink with her finger, looking bored like she’d been through all this before.

Grandpappy said we’d all better go looking for the money.

Acourse everyone knew there wasn’t much point looking for it in the house. No one would take it all out and put it somewhere else in the same house by accident. But we all went looking anyway because if we didn’t then all there’d be left to do was stand around pointing fingers at each other and not even Charlene seemed in the mood for it though she kept looking daggers at me.

Grandma didn’t get up but just stared like she was in the front seat of the firetruck watching her own house burn down. She kept saying “We’re ruined.” And Grandpappy also said like five times, “We’ll have to sell the ranch.”

It wasn’t maybe ten minutes again before Charlene yelled out, her face red and her arms stiff like she was filling her diaper, “This is bullshit! It’s obvious Carl took the money so why’re we putting on this charade? That imbecile’s always snooping around and he knows damn well where the money is.”

Then Duke got up like he was going to punch me or something (which is of course a laugh) and said that’s it he was coming over to my place right now to look for the money.

I knew I had to keep my cool because even though I never took the money, if I got all angry it would look like I was getting defensive. So I go, “You can come over and search my place for as long and hard as you like. But in my opinion,” I said to the folks, “I think you took the money to Reno and forgot. I’m going home now. Duke’s welcome to follow me home and spend all night looking to his heart’s content. If he finds any more than fifty bucks he can keep it. You people are crazy and I quit.”

Neither Grandma or Pappy said a word as me and Cherry were getting our coats. Duke wasn’t going to follow me home. Even if I did steal the money he’d never know where to look for it, and it wouldn’t of been my fault if my dogs tore his nuts off either.

Well now I’ll tell you a happy ending because that’s what you’d need to hear right around now.

Grandma and Pappy went back to Reno the next morning and sure enough they found not forty but forty-two thousand in a paper bag. Grandma remembered when she saw it that she took it last time they went to Reno. They felt bad about not trusting me and called to ask if I’d come back and work for them and how did a pay raise to twelve bucks sound. I said I’d never work for Duke and Charlene because they were plain nasty and I know they’d never move off the place and the folks would never make them.

I don’t usually say everything I’m thinking but that time I did. Grandma said I had every right to be mad but Charm was their only daughter. Every time they crossed her she didn’t speak to them for a year. Now when they weren’t long for this world, they couldn’t afford it. They weren’t going to sell the ranch because it was too much trouble and also Grandpappy wanted to be buried on the ranch near his folks and Eric. They still needed me and hoped I’d come back. They even said they’d give me thirteen an hour as a bonus for having to deal with Duke and Charlene.

I thanked them but said they’d have to find someone else because not even fifty bucks an hour would be enough to work for those people. I said I’m sure they could find someone because everyone is looking for work in these parts and I was planning on thinking of leaving the area anyway. Grandma told me she’d recommend me to anyone who asked. And you know what? About a week later I got a card from them in the mail with a money order for two hundred fifty hundred dollars for our baby’s college fund. I knew I never wanted to work for the family again, but like my Uncle Bobby also says, everything’s good that ends good, and I’m glad because as long as I live I never want to hold a grudge.


BIO

K.D. Alter lives in the United States. He can be contacted at kda2433@yahoo.com






The Marginalia Game

by Adam Anders


The books lay in chaotic heaps across the floor, and the cracked glass of the grandfather clock threatened to join them. The house-sitting job was definitely not supposed to end this way. He wasn’t even supposed to be in the library.

The glass-paneled door was closed when he arrived and so he hadn’t noticed the book at first. When he did see it – conspicuous in its tragic position – the potential displeasure of the professor made him shriek inside. He could not allow for that. Not after that infamous lecture. Embarrassing himself in front of the Distinguished Chair in Literature with that obtuse comment. And that after he had failed to submit the marked undergraduate essays on time. Recovery from this was immediately necessary, lest he become just another errant, freshly minted PhD. His verbal prostration at the Professor’s office led to this.

“I tell you what you could do for me,” the Distinguished Chair had said, leaning back in his office chair and narrowing his eyes, “I’m off to an extended conference in Japan next week, and I usually have my son house-sit. He informed me this morning that an obligation will preclude him from being there the entire time. Would you take his place for 24 hours?”

Naturally, he agreed. If he impressed, perhaps his blunder in the lecture would be forgotten. A glowing recommendation from this professor was critical to a tenure-track position for himself, once out of grad school, of course. Failing the professor would, at best, mean relegation to a limited term contract and at worst, ignominy and a lack of any opportunity coupled with a poor network of connections. The book on the floor in this prestigious home library needed to be put back.

Standing at the library door, he had hesitated. The assignment was straightforward: watch the house, leave it as found. And the library was described as ‘strictly off limits.’

So, he eyed the book, lying there on the carpet spine-up, almost crying out like a wounded soldier on unfamiliar ground, reaching out to him. He stood. What would the professor say?

Specks of dust floated in the sunlight, down towards the floor. Light crossed the wingback chair, but the book lay just out of the sun’s reach.

“Get up!” He whispered in desperation at the book.

“Don’t leave me here, man!” he imagined the soldier-book calling back. “It hurts!”

“Dammit,” he breathed. He leaned forward, placing his palm on the brass door handle. And it gave way.

His heart pinballed in his ribcage. ‘Off-limits’ rung in his head. Flashbacks of his parents’ venerable home office abounded before him. He shut his eyes, shook his head and glanced around once again. Because the library door was unlocked no one would know if he stepped in just to put the book back where it belonged. His body lurched forward and stopped. The grandfather clock in the corner of the library loomed. An hour remained before the professor’s son was to arrive and take over from him. What if his son knew about the book and was tasked with putting the book back? Perhaps the book was meant to be there.

“Gotta get outta here man, we’re surrounded. Take me back to my shelf-base,” the book moaned in his mind.

“What were you doing here?” he said, crouching next to the book, trying to make himself as small as possible in the wilderness of that library.

He glanced around. The stately library delineated the discarded book as out of place. It was unnatural. In a professor’s home it had to be… purposeful. It had to have reason, logic, motive…it had to be, a test. Yes. Of course. Much like the professor’s fabled lectures. Always testing the limits of his auditor’s intellectual capacities. He and his fellow graduate students lived for those lectures; between them was stark existence, a kind of intellectual stupor, unfed, famished, dying for a fix of the professor’s wisdom. Female graduate students would glide about the entrance to the lecture hall, gloomy and sullen, with dark circles under their eyes – the standard insignia of the thirst for knowledge. Male graduates in their vicinity were languid, likewise sporting blood-shot eyes, but notebooks open, pens at the ready to note every detail of the appearance of the prof each day, his blazer, the color-coordination of the pocket square and his shirt or tie, the unique lapel pin or tie clip, the apparent naturalness of his perfect hairstyle and whether it was in any way different from the previous day; all this in hopes of coming closer to understanding the secret to such greatness.

“This is silly,” he shook his head. The Distinguished Chair was just a title. He was still a man. A man who apparently dropped books on the floor.

No, it was obvious. He was meant to see this, break the rules, for the good of the sacred wisdom enshrined in that book, symbolic of the elite nature of their vocation. This was his opportunity for apotheosis. Test or not, books did not belong discarded haphazardly on the floor. There was nothing wrong with what he was about to do.

The floor groaned underfoot. The smell of old books and leather gave him goosebumps.

“You’ll alert the enemy!” The book scolded him.

He looked at it. Moral Letters by Seneca.

Ancient philosophy? he thought. Excitement tingled up his spine. Suddenly he was in ancient Rome, Seneca beside him in a suitably attractive toga, though his own was of finer material.

He picked up the book, as if taking Seneca by the arm.

The edges of the cover were worn; the spine had creases in it. Worn, loved, understood, accepted. Yes, this professor understood books in the same… he nearly stopped breathing.

Thin black lines raced under the text. Scribbled notes filled the margins. Exclamation marks dotted the spaces between the notes.

The private notes of a tenured professor. His inhalation was almost an audible gasp. The inner musings of a great mind. They were the intellectual secrets of a renowned teacher. All the things imagined, whispered, heard on the grapevine, suddenly became very real. The idea that one could learn from him, directly– that from this moment one would experience the joys his wisdom, feast one’s eyes on his divine thought, then speak to him and suffer delicious dialectic at his hands – at every encounter! – was one that had been inconceivable, not considered even in his wildest dreams. These marginalia were gold, manifest in scribbles.

He drew a deep breath to stem his nerves and shaking hands.

No. It wasn’t right. It would be invasive of him. As invasive as suggesting that personal traumas – including the professor’s – biases all intellectual work.

He glanced at Seneca in his mind. In those deep brown eyes lay the guidance. Forethought. He had lacked it at the lecture, he would not lack it now.

He closed the book carefully, running his hand over the cover as if to apologize for the intrusion. It needed to be where it belonged, amongst the other books. But then, where exactly in the library would he place it? Where had it been?

“What say you, old friend?” he asked Seneca, who had been stoically waiting for him to begin the conversation.

The book opened easily, which was unsurprising, stoics were, of course, inclined to engage the curious. He flipped through the pages – an instinctive reaction to the splendor in his hand, but also a learned reaction to solving a dilemma. Ink always contained life’s answers. The pages came to a natural opening somewhere near the middle. There, on the left-hand side, three lines had been underscored:

When philosophy is wielded with arrogance and stubbornly, it is the cause for the ruin of many. Let philosophy scrape off your own faults, rather than be a way to rail against the faults of others.

“Seneca, my fellow citizen, I couldn’t have said it better,” he said.

Then another citizen engaged them.

Next to the underlined words, in the left margin, a note read: scrape off layers; keep the peels; thus, γνῶθι σεαυτόν.

He put his hand to his chest. It could only be a kindred spirit who would write intriguing marginalia on interesting passages.

He stared at it. What did it mean? And how in the name of The Bard was this going to help him find its place on the shelf?

He read the words several times. The foreign letters…he recognized them. Yes, his maddening roommate had a Spartan warrior on his desk with letters that alphabet inscribed underneath.

“Spartan warriors…Seneca, I believe our apostilist friend here is speaking to us in Greek. Naturally, you know Greek. I’m ashamed to admit I’ve yet to master the intricacies—” he trailed off; the mystery had overcome him; Seneca wasn’t listening anyway.

Did literary experts learn Greek? Perhaps it was a necessary part of knowing the ancient classics?

He glanced around the library. No books on Greek.

Looking at the note in the margin again, he ran his finger over the letters. The touch of the pen had been light, rushed even. This citizen was hasty, one of those cynic philosophers perhaps, those that lived naked in empty wine barrels and ate scraps of food with dogs. What purpose did this hurried bit of insight serve? The Greek words might hold the answer. Another page in the book could hold a clue. He flipped the pages carefully.

An exclamation mark caught his eye. Seneca spoke:

“Instead of adapting ourselves to present circumstances, we send out thoughts too far ahead.”

He scoffed at the statement, “My dear fellow, that happens to be where I disagree with the Stoics. How is one ever to achieve tenure in the face of the miniscule odds? Adaptation to the circumstances was certainly not—”

The third citizen interrupted with a sharp line shooting from the last underlined word to a note in the space at the bottom of the page:

Ha! Joyce would agree!

Joyce? As in James Joyce? Did Joyce know Greek? He looked up towards the surrounding shelves. There must have been a hundred books on the two walls that were shelved.

“Would James Joyce agree?” he asked the empty library. “In A Portrait of the Artist the theme of being in one’s head rather than in the world, is there…”

“Where?” asked Seneca.

“Joyce,” he shook his head, “never mind, it’s the point you were making that matters.”

“Our thoughts being too far ahead?”

“Precisely. The artist, his thoughts far ahead of his time, sees the ills of convention, and rebels against them.”

Seneca raised an eyebrow.

He let out a frustrated breath through his nose, raising his hands in a rushed apology. “I must be going, citizen. Salve.”

He closed Moral Letters and scanned the library for The Portrait of the Artist. The book was special to him. In it, the eponymous artist not only rebels against the conventions of his childhood but then self-imposes exile. As a boy, he did the same. The world and the bullies in it were distant and defenseless against stacks of books. His father had always said that wars began and ended with words. He supposed this was why his father said little to him beyond that. And it was why the local public library was his daily exile – it was his arsenal, at once his armor and his sword – a way to avoid the bullies and understand the fatherly insights not immediately evident to his boyish brain. But he was still always home for dinner. He wouldn’t have been entitled to eat otherwise.

“Yes, Joyce must agree.” It was an acute observation about Joyce. But where would Joyce be amongst the broad scope of these volumes?

The library suddenly seemed to grow around him. A cold sweat threatened to break out down his back. He approached the bookshelf and found a loose space between two books. After re-shelving Moral Letters, he lingered at the shelf, straightened his waistcoat, and turned to look for Joyce.

Framed photos on the desk caught his eye. Their silver linings reflected the sunlight. He took a step towards the desk to view the content so hopefully mounted, but he then stopped. He imagined the things he might see, and the thought of them was terrifying. For he knew what such marble heroes turned into once they stepped down from their podia into the real world. He knew because he saw them in the street, in crowded buses, in the refectory or grocery stores, and walking across campus exposed to the elements. They looked quite different then, and far more inauspicious: stocky, pasty, with tiny timorous eyes, almost filthy, stinking of sweat or burned red by the cold, dressed in shapeless tweed jackets and caps, coarse, aggressive, fallible. The photos, the marginalia, they had to be left, altogether too terrifying to behold in the light.

The floors creaked with his slow steps as he crossed the library and then the house to the kitchen. He leaned on the counter. The window at the counter overlooked the front lawn. He stared through it.

“Where am I? What am I doing here? How did I let myself get into this?” He wailed silently. All the while, inevitably, the smell of old books seemed to swell and catalyze his heart. He couldn’t decide what to do. What would the professor do?

The light outside drew his attention. A young maple grew in the middle of the lawn. Two small birds came to sit on the flexible branches. A growing tree. That’s what Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist was essentially about; youth, growth. He watched the birds. Love birds. There was love in Joyce, too.

“Youth, and growth,” he whispered. He took a deep breath and then held it. A connection between Joyce and the marginalia manifest itself in his mind’s eye. The young are dreamers. So, they tend to be ‘in their heads,’ that’s where Joyce agrees. Consequently, they also tend not to adapt to circumstances, just as Seneca suggested; as such, they rebel.

“Hm,” he grunted, “I wonder how many apostils are con…nected,” he drew out the last word as a further realization struck him. What if this opportunity to house-sit could be more than just watching the stately home? What if this was a game?

“Don’t be crazy, the professor is a serious person,” he scolded himself in a whisper.

Yes. But, the book on the floor…perhaps that was too haphazard to be unintentional? Perhaps this was a game. Yes, in this professorial library, where privacy and unregulated access was a privilege, here, in the very heart of academia, modern sages could be forged!

He guffawed in a sudden burst. “Oh, come on.” He scolded himself, but only half-heartedly.

A squint of light reflecting off the library door caught the corner of his eye. Curiosity harkened, it reached out, pulling at some invisible robe tied round his waist and breathing a flame of vitality into his heart.

He grinned. I might as well, I already entered the forbidden enclosure, let’s just see where these marginalia take me. He shrugged off his cares and pranced towards the library.

The titles and authors raced past as he scanned the shelves. No real order to anything, it seemed. Could he find Joyce if he searched for him? A better question would be, could an answer to this Greek riddle lie in that book?

“Joyce, Joyce, Joyce,” he whispered, craning his neck to the top shelves. The edge of the bookcase was nearing; the chime of the glass-faced grandfather clock standing next to it made him start. The professor’s son would arrive soon to replace him. The game clock began with a tick of the minute hand. Curiosity had a time limit. A good thing, too, because they said that too much tended to kill cats. He wasn’t a cat, nor did he have one, but he was nimble. Nimble enough to cross into the dominion of the prohibited and solve its mysteries. The arrival of the professor’s son would see him evicted from his search, relegated to the doldrums of campus life without engaging the professor in this game of scholarly chess, in this mystery of marginalia, leaving him cold, empty, just another apparition wandering the campus in search of truth. No, he wouldn’t settle for that. Game on.

Retreating to the winged chair, he sat carefully and stared at the shelves across the small square-shaped room. Would he really have to comb over every spine to find it? He shifted in his seat. He would not fail. He could not fail. He had failed with the professor before: he had failed to submit work on time. He had failed to listen carefully in lecture. This time he’d succeed.

He narrowed eyes at the titles. Many were familiar. That raised his spirits. But there had to be a better way of searching for books here, this was a renowned scholar’s library, there had to be some logic, some reason, something to it.

“Alright brain,” he said, “how do you like to organize knowledge?” The books were not organized by author, nor by title, so no alphabetical order here.

Order. Organization. The words echoed in his head. He surveyed the shelves again. Rows. Neat. The shelves were compartments of a kind. Compartments. Compartmentalization…a psychological defense mechanism linked to rationalization.

“Rationalization. Now that’s something a professor would think of.”

Rationalization was a way of explaining controversial feelings. Feelings would have to be organized by…

“Categories,” he whispered, and looked at the titles more closely.

The groupings were broad, general categories amongst particular shelves almost emerged, and then escaped his grasp like ethereal wisps of letters. It was more than category. Broader. He retraced his logic. Feelings. Feelings would be too restricted by category.

“Theme.” He smiled.

Love would be Joyce’s theme, for him at least.

And there they were. Left hand shelving, chest height. Books that could be thematically organized by the term ‘love.’

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, by James Joyce, almost jumped from the shelf.

He exhaled sharply through his nose and shook his head. The dust jacket was gone; he ran his fingers over the gold inlay on the letters and opened the book carefully, his heart pounding.

The first pages were clean, no marginalia to be found. But he would not be abandoned to a tragic fate.

“I know Joyce must agree, but what am I to find here?”

Stephen Dedalus, the hero in Joyce’s novel, jumped out and spoke to him, his words underlined on page 191:

“You made me confess the fears that I have. But I will tell you also what I do not fear. I do not fear to be alone or to be spurned for another or to leave whatever I have to leave.” He stopped. There was more, but the apostilist appeared again, distracting him.

On the inside margin, a note read: fear now overcome, love can grow.

What did it mean? There was insight in it, surely. If he could only see it. Six words; a secret hidden within. Understanding it would give him the key to this puzzle, bringing him one step closer to victory.

He read the note again. Fear…love…is this what was meant by Joyce would agree?

“Seneca’s reference to not being present could be equated with anxiety, or fear,” he thought aloud.

“Old Seneca may have said that,” Stephen Dedalus’ Irish inflection seemed to interject. “But it was Aristotle, I think—”

Aristotle? He slumped. This was getting complex. He sighed. What could it achieve? This mystery. Dedalus stared at him, mouth agape, halfway through his words. Expectant. Ready. Ready to refuse the fetters of fortune. Just like him. Yes. This was complex, but not too complex, no, not for him. He straightened and further abided Dedalus’ words.

“…who said the same attribute cannot at the same time and in the same connection belong to and not belong to the same subject.”

“Right,” he responded. “If you’re present, you can’t fear, and if you don’t fear…” He looked to Daedalus for a clue. “Stephen, you don’t fear being alone because you don’t need your lover. You’re alright on your own.” He flipped through the pages, stopping at a square-bracketed sentence that Dedalus spoke:

“The first step in the direction of truth is to understand the frame and scope of the intellect itself, to comprehend the act of intellection.”

“Of course,” he whispered. Academics were artists as well, artists of scholarship and intellect. “We’re alright on our own,” he said, filling out his chest.

An academic’s work was their passion, their love, others were simply a distraction. This was what the professor must have wanted him to understand.

He smiled. “Now, what were you saying Stephen?”

“I am not afraid to make a mistake, even a great mistake, a lifelong mistake and perhaps as long as eternity too.”

Right. Mistakes are part of the game. Upwards and onwards. He swallowed hard. That didn’t really make sense.

He stared at Stephen’s words for some time. The piercing clang of the grandfather clock made him jump and Stephen Dedalus disappeared. It was quarter past. A reminder of his time in the library quickly ending. His eyes flicked back to the underlined quote from the protagonist. Above the word eternity something in tiny blue ink resembled a word. Screwing up his face, he brought the book as close to his nose as he could without it going blurry.

“Hung?” he said aloud. “Eternity…hung…hung for eternity? No…”

 “Hoaq No. Not that either,” he added furrowing his brow, looking up in frustration. How to read this? The light-stand next to the chair. It had a drawer. This was the kind of library that would have a magnifying glass, and the drawer is where it’d be.

Tugging gently on the brass handle, the drawer barely gave way. Something slid inside. He gave another tug. The handle loosened.

“Shit,” he whispered.

Then he saw it. In the drawer, open just enough to see inside, a piece of glass with a brass rim flickered. A magnifying glass.

“I knew it. Great minds, professor, think alike,” he said in a sing-song voice with a shimmy.

He gave the handle another soft tug. It slipped out just slightly, but the drawer moved with it. The space it left was just enough to get a finger in. The drawer slid with effort, but the magnifying glass was his.

“Hogg?” he read the word aloud. Eternity and Hogg… So many damn authors with that name, but which was related to eternity?

He was up scanning the shelves before he completed the thought. None of the thick volumes had Hogg on them.

“That would be too easy, wouldn’t it?” He put his hands on his narrow hips. “Okay, think theme.”

Eternity could be about love, but he checked that collection first. No glory. Eternity was associated with timelessness. Time?

“I could use more time, that’s for sure.”

He turned to the shelves near the grandfather clock. None of the titles could have been clearly associated with time.

“I don’t know, the afterlife?” he thought aloud, considering other possible associations.

He searched.

No books grouped by religious or spiritual themes.

“Think like a tenured professor,” he whispered.

He collapsed into the winged chair and crossed one leg over the other. Think like a professor. He began to stroke his chin, which soon turned into an imitation of smoking a pipe. He imagined himself sitting across from the preeminent academic.

“How might we categorize eternity, old chap?” he said in a poor version of a mid-Atlantic accent (but the paucity of the accent was no matter).

He impersonated the professor’s reply: “This isn’t about categorization, dear fellow, but about theme. Thematically, the afterlife is—”

“About the human view of life, and its truth,” he cut the professor off with quick perspicacity.

“Indeed,” the professor would reply.

“Indeed,” he’d agree, and he took a puff of his non-existent pipe.

“Indeed!” he exclaimed in his own voice, jumping out of the chair.

Truth. Books on the highest shelf. The theme practically sang from their titles. There, in the middle, James Hogg’s The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner. He hesitated. Chills wafted over his skin.

This was the book that firmly set him on the academic path.

The philosophical mystery had chilled his teenage bones when he had read it more than a decade ago. Its case of demonic friendship had conclusively stopped his daydreams of befriending the idealized characters in the novels he loved. Its criticism of unquestioned beliefs stoked his skepticism. Its antagonist, Gil-Martin – or the devil – haunted the dark corners of his boyhood room for several nights afterwards.

The hands on the clock moved, making a sound like the ‘tsk’ of an impatient adversary.

“Time, time, time, running out of time,” he said, speaking over a rising chill. The mystery of the marginalia was somewhere here. Perhaps hidden in the evil in the book. A perfect juxtaposition for love. Yes, genius. Evil genius. It suited the professor. It suited him. He was close now. Close to understanding the Greek apostil. The taste of victory in a game of academic acumen was within his reach! He paused. Academic acumen didn’t sound like something that tasted good, if it had a taste at all. He chuckled and pulled Hogg’s work off the shelf. The small book was heavy in his hands.

Opening the book to a random page, his stomach dropped. Marginalia riddled its pages. It would be an impossible task to comb through all of them for a clue to how eternity was connected to the apostils in Joyce. He closed the book and beheld its cover. Justified Sinner.

“What does this have to do with love?”

“Nothing,” a voice whispered.

He whipped his head around. He was alone. Goosebumps ran across his skin.

He leafed through the pages again. Too many damn markings and notes.

“What moved you to such gratuitous analysis, professor?”

“What moved you to such a gratuitous question?”

He started. “Who was that?” He scanned the room. No one. He poked his head out of the library. An empty hall. “Hello?” Echo. He drew a breath and forced a short sigh.

He looked back at the book.

“A note or two, a clue laid here and there, that’s all I need.”

“You’ll never find what you’re looking for,” a voice growled.

“Yes, I will,” he said without looking up, his breathing quickening.

“Tsk, tsk, isn’t doubt the basis of all true intelligence?”

The book shifted in his trembling hands.

“You’re not real, Gil-Martin,” he said.

“Ahhh,” the whisper was more like a deep breath. “Then why reply? And why not open the book?”

He whipped opened the book from the back, almost tearing its pages. He wouldn’t be intimidated by a character, an idea, words.

Words.

He stopped. Of course, opening the book from the back. A standard practice amongst scholars – for it was there that acknowledgments, or more importantly, the indices, bibliographies, and endnotes were collected. But that was true only for scholarly works. Hogg’s book was, instead, literary, and yet, in such literary texts, good editions had extra blank pages at the back, for the inquisitive to take notes. The inquisitive, such as academics like himself, and the professor, obviously.

At the top of one of the first blank page, a note read: External labels are nothing. Position is nothing. It is the lie (see page 293).

There was nothing else on that page, and so he quickly flicked to page 293.

On the page in front of him, the devil came to life in two double-underlined sentences, hovering behind him, those red lips, wet, by his ear.

“We are all subjected to two distinct natures in the same person. I myself have suffered grievously in that way,” his voice was slow, like curling smoke.

“What do you have to do with the professor’s secret?” He whispered. He furrowed his brow as his eyes leapt straight to the marginalia next to the text, but he stopped. The devil’s voice was now in his head.

“Do you really want to know the answer to that? What if there’s nothing special in these marginalia? What if the secrets you seek reveal who the professor really is? Weak, like the rest of us. Nothing, like the rest of us. A simple dullard. Like you.”

“No!” His eyes shot to the marginalia desperately wanting to prove Gil-Martin wrong.

He read quickly:

Two natures: the lie and the truth. The truth is the individual divested of externalities/labels. The lie is ego. A line stretched from there to a longer note in the space at the bottom of the page, but before reading it, he reflected on the present apostil. It disturbed him. He was almost unwilling to admit the connection he saw between the notion of ego and his present understanding of the mystery.

“But-” it almost came out as a whimper- “how can you say that having the title of professor is ego? And if we are divested of the externalities of our profession, what possible truth remains? Without our titles of position, our books, our notions, our knowledge, we’re…”

His heart was beating faster now. Thoughts raced in his head. Somewhere in the darkened recesses of his soul, Gil-Martin chuckled.

Was his whole existence egoistic? Was he self-loving? Or was he simply vain? If so, could he overcome his flaws? He squeezed the edge of the book, gripped to his core.

He often sought praise. Naturally, he was diligent, even meticulous, though he had been accused of perfectionism at times. He liked hearing about how neat he was, how well-dressed; he went out of his way to please others – this house-sitting endeavor being one example. Was he then, afflicted by these vanities?

No, surely, he was not egoistic, simply ambitious, hard working with an eye for detail and a shrewd understanding of how things worked in his field. And what did this all have to do with what he had read in previous marginalia? His breaths were short.

He read on, seeking solace in the note at the bottom of the page.

As in Joyce, recognition of the ego is the beginning of overcoming it. As a form of self-acceptance, recognition is the beginning of self-growth.

He stopped before the end of the note.

“As in Joyce? What?” He sprung to the shelves and pulled out A Portrait of the Artist and re-read the note.

“Sweet beard of The Bard,” he whispered, seeing his mistake in interpretation of the previous note. “It’s not that the artist is fine on his own.” It was just the opposite. His hand began to shake.  The meaning of the notes became uncomfortably clear. Joyce’s eponymous artist was not afraid to face the worst because those fears have been laid out and he accepted them.

“Recognition of the ego,” he murmured, repeating the words of the note. “Self-acceptance.” Self-acceptance, without labels and externalities. The text and accompanying marginalia from Seneca made sense now in this paradigm as well. Seneca mentioned scraping off faults – the note emphasized this peeling or removal of self. The second Seneca line referred to sending thoughts ahead…

“Just like I’m doing with this house-sitting.” He barely got the words out.

The apostil for the second Seneca line referred to Joyce’s agreement. He now saw it. Joyce’s agreement meant we often focus on who we might be, instead of who we are.

Who we are… And who might that be?

The voice in his head then replied to his question. What do you mean who? Someone extraordinary. Natural, real.

After a moment, he snorted. There is no such person. Everything is pretense and masquerade.

Everything?

The house was silent, but for the ticking of the grandfather clock. Consciousness seemed to slip away from him with every tick of the pendulum. He wasn’t sure whether he was awake or asleep, for the realization that his striving to correct his mistakes with the professor, to improve the professor’s impression of him, that this behavior was the precise object of criticism of the prof’s most private insights and intellectual reflections, it all made reality seem so otherworldly and unbelievable that he felt he might have dreamt the library and everything in it.

He slumped into the chair and throwing his head back shaking himself awake, he could no longer doubt that this had all been real. This insight, this privileged passage into the mind of a genius had hardly made him wildly cheerful as one might expect. Quite the opposite. For perhaps the first time in his life, surrounded by brilliant discernment both academic and literary, he felt dreadful, and altogether aghast.

A melancholic apathy arose in him. This is what is must have been like for the tragic figures of literature. This was his moment of slings and arrows. No, his moment in the graveyard, overshadowed by the greats that came before him, he, destined to be but dust over the dead. Yes. Destined for dust. But instead of Yorick’s skull in his hand, he had this book. This damnable, cursed book.

He gave the marginalia a cursory glance. The final bit of the note at the bottom of page 293 in Hogg read: Self-acceptance is ‘a place of greater safety’ (thanks, Ms. Mantel).

A place of greater safety. That’s what he needed, not least to figure out how aspects of his character might have been detrimental to his understanding of the marginalia, and whether everything he thought himself to be and was proud of, was in fact being condemned by the professor in this intellectual game resembling a hall of mirrors of the mind.

In any case, he knew the next book in the apostilic sequence. A Place of Greater Safety, Hilary Mantel’s meticulously researched fictional opus on The French Revolution, had just won The Sunday Express Book of the Year. Putting Hogg back on the shelf, he noticed Mantel’s novel nearby. Of course, it held the same theme in this library as Confessions of a Justified Sinner.

“Yes, what was The French Revolution about if not conflicting personal truths? How appropriate, professor.”

He debated about whether to bother with it. The mystery of the marginalia had only served to ridicule him. This game turned out to be more like a rebuke, an admonishment of his attempts to be seen as a great PhD student, helpful, unfailing, reliable.

“So, curiosity does kill the cat,” he said.

His shoulders slumped. The clock indicated that the professor’s son would be there to replace him within thirty minutes. Thirty more minutes, every one full of the promise of agony.

He shuffled towards the door.

Mistake…the word rang in his head as he approached the threshold of the glass-paneled doors. A mistake – his life, his goals, an eternity of mistakes. He stopped.

“Mistake, eternity…a lifelong mistake!” He perked up. The underscored section in Joyce came back to him. Mistakes were part of the game.

He had made a mistake, his goals were perhaps mistaken, but perhaps that was part of the realization the professor wanted for him. Of course! Spinning back towards the library, he had to know more.

He grabbed Mantel’s A Place of Greater Safety from the shelf.

The novel was thick, over 800 glorious pages, and he had read it. The book was rife with marginalia. Looking to the clock again, he had no choice but to peruse these notes at random. Somehow, they had to bring clarity to the former questions. By the beard of The Bard, they had to.

He opened the first pages of the book. Underlined text with a marginal note was there on the left page:

He feared, in his secret heart, that one day in company the baby would sit up and speak; that it would engage his eyes, appraise him, and say, ‘You prick.”

He chuckled, once at the text, and then again at the note. The marginalia read: Don’t we all fear this? A sudden realization gave him pause. The observation was penetrating. He, too, had that fear. If he thought of ‘the baby’ in the passage as the undergraduates he taught or the people close to him that were unfamiliar with his field, well, then yes, they might well call him a prick. People could hate him for his confidence, perceived as arrogance, for his academic success, perceived as ruthlessness; and their perceptions had some truth in them. He clenched his jaw and flipped the pages.

There. A longer note beside this text:

For the establishment of liberty and the safety of the nation, one day of anarchy will do more than ten years of National Assemblies.

“What does government have to do with this mystery?” he wondered as his eyes moved to the note, ‘ain’t that the truth? same goes for the self…wonder if Mill would agree.’ The same goes for the self?

One day of anarchy…he looked at the door he left open to the library, then to the loose brass handle on the desk drawer, and the grandfather clock ticking away his house-sitting time. The books on the shelves arranged and placed almost haphazardly, particularly the ones he had used. Was he to understand, then, that liberty and safety were on their way for him? He looked at the note again. Mill, Mill…. who the hell was Mill? Scanning the bookshelves, he let out a frustrated sigh. The authors’ names on the spines were small. Couldn’t there be another hint? Which Mill and what theme would this fall under?

He ran his finger across the volumes.

Where is it? Mill. What a ridiculous name. Are you an author or a machine?

Craning his neck, he stubbed his toe on the bottom of bookshelf

“Damn it!”

He leaned over and reached out to the books for support. Some gave way on to the floor. Losing his footing, he slipped, slamming into the bookshelf. Another book fell on his head. He grunted in pain.

A Place of Greater Safety had fallen from his hands and he’d lost his place. He screamed as he burst to his feet.

Placing an open palm on the spine of three books at once, he pulled. They fell with a shuddered thud onto the hardwood. His eyes went wide at the disorder. The utter disarray. The beautiful disarray.

“There’s your anarchy!” He shouted at the walls in frustration, responding to the line he had last read. He pulled at more spines. Unruly thuds echoed throughout the house.

After a few shelves sat empty, he paused, panting, to admire the chaos he’d wrought. Books lay scattered in all directions and positions. Open with the spines up, their covers bare to the world of the library; other books were open with the spines down revealing pages of print marginalia. Some books had slid across the floor, still closed, others lay stacked on one another. One had its dust cover ripped. He picked it up. The book was something on neuroscience. The Developing Mind by Daniel J. Siegel.

“Quite,” he remarked. He shook his head and brushing it and placing back at a random spot on the shelf, he paused. He’d have to clean this up.

He slumped back down, leaning against the shelf. Another book or two went down with the coarseness with which he took his seat on the floor, legs extended.

“Fuck it. Fuck it all to hell.”

He closed his eyes, listening to the grandfather clock announce the ever-nearing steps of the professor’s son.

He reflected on the marginalia; on the test of character he’d been through. What was there in all this that could have interested the professor? Was it meant to prove the prof’s revulsion at his academic ability, his potential, or perhaps simply his personality?

Sunlight caught his face, and he squinted. He hadn’t finished the game. Why should he? The prof had made a point, and he understood. He was unworthy. The offer to house-sit was prompted by disproval, by condemnation, by profound irritation and disgust. The professor was after all the Distinguished Chair and a legend, and as such was unlikely to feel much pity, let alone approval, for an introverted grad student.

But then, did he really know this for certain? He hadn’t finished the game, after all.

The book he needed to continue this game, or test, or wicked jest, was the one by Mill. It was somewhere here, and it had a theme like all the others. Maybe I could deduce the theme from the previous note? he thought. ‘The self’ was the standout phrase. The text mentioned liberty, safety.

“Almost like the Declaration of Independence. All we need is the pursuit—” he stopped and stood. That was what the apostil referencing the anarchy of the self, was about. “Happiness.”

And there, on a right-hand shelf near the grandfather clock, books that might have had that theme. “Or the pursuit thereof…,” he said as he laid eyes on John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty.

The combination of ‘liberty’ and ‘Mill’ from the previous apostil could only be this. Excitement rose in his gut. John Stuart Mill was a political philosopher he could get behind. Mill’s idea of the ‘tyranny of the majority’ and the related danger of conformity had always laid the basis for his individualism. The professor did not disappoint. “Excellent taste,” he murmured approvingly. Evidently it was a good thing he hadn’t given up on his investigation.

He flicked through the pages. The marginalia were almost nonextant. A few circled page numbers, no underlines, no notes. “Dammit!” he grunted and tossed the book onto the pile. It landed open. He raised an eyebrow and picked it up.

A strong crease in the spine at this spot caused it to open where it did. Had he perused the book more carefully, rather than fluttering through the pages with his thumb, he saw that the volume would have easily opened here.

A passage had a square bracket around it on the inside – he would have missed it just flipping through. John Stuart Mill emerged with a pronounced dignity and a remarkably shiny bald head and spoke to him.

“Ask yourself whether you are happy, and you cease to be so.”

“Thanks, John, real helpful. Yep.” He imagined giving the philosopher a sardonic clap on the shoulder. Mill continued, undaunted, unperturbed, upper lip as stiff as a Victorian Brit could make one.

“The only chance is to treat, not happiness, but some end external to it, as the purpose of life.”

His eyes locked on Mill. A frustrated sigh escaped his nose.

“It’s the journey, as they say…” he said to the philosopher looking around the chaos he had wrought in the library. It was a grim scene. The tomes of wisdom with their insightful marginalia strewn across the Persian rug and hardwood floor as if he were one of Bradbury’s Firemen, amassing fuel for the fires of Fahrenheit 451. He snorted. How absurd. That he might burn books? Disillusioned though he was with this situation, he was no Guy Montag, the book’s protagonist. No, this situation was far more ludicrous, laughable, a mockery, a farce of what a graduate student performing the simple task of house-sitting was meant to be. It was grotesque, no, no adjective could do justice to this mess.

Where am I? What am I doing here? Why did I get myself into this? He wailed soundlessly.

In response to this ghastly spectacle, Mill seemed to motion towards the apostils on the page.

Above the square bracket, written lengthwise in the crease of the page, a note read: \ happiness, like love, is being; it cannot be a goal. Rilke knows.

He stared out into the sunlight beyond the window. It was true, wasn’t it? Seeking happiness meant engaging in everything except the feeling of happiness itself.

He sat there bewildered. He closed his eyes against the sunlight and fell into a daydream.

He was at a tailor. Elevated on a podium in front of three mirrors, he could see the suit being made to measure. His vision was close, zoomed into the details. Chalk marked the end of his shoulders, perfectly. The sleeve reached just to the base of his thumb – the right length to reveal a shirt cuff. It was double-breasted, formal but versatile, stitching brought it in around his waist for a snug silhouette. A smooth swipe of the chalk marked with perfect proficiency the end of his pant leg – the middle of the Achilles, to show off a stylish pair of uniquely colored socks.

Sunlight flashed in the tailor’s mirror. Bookshelves loomed before him. They were his own, but shorter, squat. He approached the shelves. His name glittered in gold on all the spines. It was his yet unwritten bibliography. He reached out. The gold began to flake. The walls moved in; cracking accented the sound of twisting of wood. He desperately began hoarding the books into his arms. Then there was smoke. All the books, including the ones he was holding, began to burn.

He screamed, startling himself out of the daydream.

Sweat rolled in rivulets from his once precisely groomed hair, which was losing its shape from the heat coming off his scalp.

“You… bastard,” he said aloud. To the professor primarily – for causing his world to come crashing down, but he just as well could have said it to himself.

He glanced down at the note again. ‘Rilke knows,’ the last words read.

“Just what I need, poetry to tear the gap into a widening void,” he said with a rising lump in his throat and closed the book. He glanced around the library. The books lay scattered haphazardly, ironically reflecting his own emotional state. He couldn’t leave them that way. Game or not, a library was a place worthy of respect. He squatted and began collecting the volumes.

When nearly all the books were back on the shelves, he slid a thin volume in a narrow gap between two thick books. The title caught his weary eye. Letters to a Young Poet, by Rainer Marie Rilke. He hesitated. So, not poetry, but advice? He thought back to the last note. He glanced at the clock: his replacement would arrive any moment. He shrugged. Why not? he thought. Flipping through the thoroughly annotated pages. A long passage in the first third of the book, underlined and annotated, stood out:

But that is where young people so often and so grievously go wrong: that they (whose nature it is to have no patience) scatter themselves at each other when love comes over them, scatter themselves abroad, just as they are in all their untidiness, disorder and confusion…: But what is to be done then?

“Good question,” he said. An arrow stretched from the last word to a note in the right margin: So each one loses himself for the other’s sake.

He shook his head. “I get it already,” he said as his eyes flicked to the note at the bottom: \ self-love is key; those that don’t see the need for it fall prey to the societal mores – Robinson says this.’ He grunted.

“Nice try,” he said. What was the point of following this apostil? What had he achieved by doing so thus far? Scholarly restitution? A guarantee at tenure? Fucking…divine omnipotence? No, just the bitter taste of truth, the torments of self-reflection, and a healthy dose of hopelessness. The path to redemption and knowledge had been a road of doom.

“My time’s up anyway,” he said.

Or rather, perhaps, his time had never really begun. The time he had had in life was spent ‘losing himself for the other’s sake’ as the apostil put it. Libraries had occupied the entire space of his life since he could read. They supposedly armored him with books and knowledge. The mystery of the marginalia had taught him one thing: his armor was overwrought, rusted, and at worst entirely unimposing to the type of person it was meant to impress. And therein lay the issue. So said the marginalia. Had he born the armor for himself, it may have had an impressive shine – a shine he could himself be proud of, at the very least. He was beginning to suspect that this was his parents saw too, from the beginning.

He put the book back on the shelf and replaced the remaining few. He took a step back and scanned the room. The magnifying glass still lay on the chair.

“Almost forgot you,” he said, walking over to it.

In his emotionally fatigued state, he pulled at the desk drawer without care for its fragility. His hand whipped backwards as the brass handle came flying off. Glass cracked on the clock as it smashed into the face.

“No! No no no no no no no,” he muttered, rushing over to inspect the damage. The shattered glass crept across the clockface in a spider’s web of a pattern. He raised his finger to a crack. “Ah!” he hissed after touching it. A ruby pearl formed on his fingertip. He put it in his mouth and shuffled back to the chair, placing the book on the light-stand. He looked back at the grandfather clock, then his finger. Another pearl was forming where he had sucked off the blood. He’d have to do something about the clockface. And his finger.

He rushed to the kitchen, tore a strip of paper towel from the roll next to the sink and wrapped his finger tightly.

The lock on the front door clicked.

He looked at clock, and his body went slack.

“If that damn game wasn’t the end of me, this will be.”

The front door creaked open.

He walked to the front door and nearly did a double-take.

A young man with a green mohawk and worn leather jacket nodded at him. “Hey,” he said, removing his jacket and throwing it on the coat stand.

“Chester? Right?”

“Call me Chess,” the man replied, walking over. He held up his hand nearly vertical for an informal handshake.

“You’re the professor’s son?”

“Yeah man, hey—what happened to your hand?”

“Oh,” he said and the blood-soaked paper towel around his finger behind his back. He gave a nervous chuckle, “Um, you’d better come in.”

They stood in the library staring at the crack glass face of the grandfather clock. After explaining the incident, silence fell between them. He glanced at Chess. Was he smirking?

“What is it?” he asked.

Chess’ reaction was almost like subtly shaking himself from a faraway thought. “Oh, my dad won’t mind if you tell him you’ll replace it.”

“Yes, as I said, that’s the plan.” He watched him. Chess had the look of someone who knew more than he let on. “So, you’re sure he won’t kill me? I mean, the library was off-limits.”

Chess laughed. “Yeah eh? Man, it’s fine.” He put a tattooed hand on his shoulder. The letters L-O-V-E stood out below his knuckles.

He stared at Chess, confused. “What’s so funny?”

Chess shook his head. “He doesn’t mind the unexpected. Spontaneity is a fascinating part of human behavior. It can lead to growth. A professor of literature can appreciate that.”

“So why was it off-limits?”

He chuckled. “Ask him yourself, he’ll be over in a second.”

“What?”

“Yeah, just drove him back from the airport, he’s just at the neighbors’ dropping something off he brought back from Japan.

His heart went into his throat, but before he could speak, a familiar voice called from the entrance.

“Helloo!”

“Dad, you should probably stop tormenting your favorite students with the book on the floor.”

The professor laughed. “Oh, yeah?”

Chess pointed out the grandfather clock and explained.

He watched in horror as the father and son duo smiled and chuckled in comfort. The professor turned to him.

“Well?”

“Sir?”

“Where’d the library take you?”

He swallowed hard.

“Here,” the professor motioned to the couch and chairs in the living room, “have a seat, tell me, I’m curious,” he smiled again.

“I’m sorry, I know it was off limits.”

Chess scoffed, then turned and looked him in the eye. “It’s not really off-limits.”

“What?” he asked.

“Chester’s right. With Seneca’s Moral Letters, lying on the floor like that, who could resist putting it back?” the professor stated.

“So, it was a test?” he asked.

The professor laughed. “No, more of a game.”

Chester rolled his eyes. “He does this to every grad student he likes.”

He drew a deep breath, somewhat calmed by the atmosphere, but still tense from the perplexity.

“So, where did it take you?” the professor asked again.

“Well, I don’t think I solved the mystery.”

“What mystery?” the prof said, smiling.

“The mystery of the margin—” he stopped himself mid-word, realizing how silly it sounded. “The Greek apostil. I wasn’t able to determine its meaning.”

“The Greek apostil?” the professor asked.

“Probably something from Plato,” Chess suggested. The professor nodded in understanding.

He raised an eyebrow at the professor’s son.

“It’s just I annotate whatever I read when I’m here.”

He suddenly felt as if he were in a shadowy wood, speaking to a specter in the dark.

“You wrote the apostils?”

“The marginalia, yeah some of its mine, some of its dad’s, but yeah.” Chess smirked sideways and then slapped him on the back before turning and heading to towards the kitchen. “You want a beer?” he called over his shoulder.

“No, I-” he stuttered. This was getting to be too much for one day. The emotional devastation of his self-realizations – or lack thereof really – were black hole enough, but this…this tattooed, green mohawk-sporting, carefree, anomaly-of-a-man, was not only the professor’s son, but the insightful, shrewd, learned and astute apostilist? This had to be an alternate universe. He turned to the professor and gathered his courage. “I thought there was a message, an idea you’d connected through the literature, professor.” He tried to make it sound like his adventure had had noble intentions, but the words came out weakly.

“Sure, it was my idea to leave the book on the floor and tempt you. The rest, that is, what you connected, and how, that was you. And that’s what I’m interested in.”

He jumped as Chess put a hand on his shoulder, having returned from the kitchen without notice.

“Your mind,” Chess said.

“My…my mind?”

“Yeah, how you connect the dots,” Chess replied, taking a swig from a bottle.

“How you connect ideas.” The prof clarified. “That’s the treasure of the academic world, isn’t it?”

He turned away, reddening in embarrassment. He looked at the professor’s son. Chess was scholarly, despite appearances, possibly despite expectations. And yet it seemed natural that his notes condemned academia. Chess wasn’t what others might have expected him to be, and yet he was still able to connect with others easily, seemingly also with his father through the marginalia.

“Well?” the professor pushed again. His title now somehow seemed most fitting for the piece of furniture on which he sat.

Valor slowly returned to him. He had something to bring to the table, despite the doubts of the day. The perilous hunt had, it seemed, been fruitful.

“It was about self-love, the connection I made…but,” he looked up at the both of them.

Perhaps the mystery was not quite unraveled. There was one last thing remaining.

“You wouldn’t happen to know an author by the name of Robinson, would you?” he asked Chess.

Chess wiped his bearded face with the back of his hand as he sat down. “Robinson?”

“Yeah, a friend recommended something by them, but I forgot the title. I was looking for it earlier.” He thought maybe that would be enough to assuage any suspicions about the placement of the books – he hadn’t been too meticulous in replacing them from the floor.

“Oh!” The professor exclaimed. “Well, I have a book by Marilynne Robinson called When I was a Child I Read Books.”

“Yes, didn’t we all,” he murmured at the floor.

“Yep,” Chess took a swig from the bottle, “All the time, man.”

“Would you like to see it? Is that part of the connection you made?” the professor asked.

“‘Nothing of significance occurs in isolation.’ That’s Robinson,” Chess said.

The look on the professor’s face was serious now, but welcoming. There was a wisdom to it, to the glint in his eyes, the subtle curl of his lips.

He sighed. “Sorry, professor, it doesn’t really fit my self-love hypothesis.”

“Well, actually,” the professor said in a gentle tone, “in ancient Greece, kings and generals used to visit the oracle at the temple of Apollo in Delphi for prophecies. They came to know their fate, before battles, before political marriages and other strategies.” His voice was calm; the words rolled out in a melody that had him captivated. “Above the doorway to the temple, inscribed in the stone were the words ‘gnothi seauton’.”

“The Greek phrase,” he whispered, remembering the first note.

Chess gave a small nod. “‘Know yourself,’ is what it means.” He paused as it sunk in. “But you can’t know yourself in a void,” he concluded.

“Even with self-love,” he murmured.

The professor smiled. “Especially with self-love.”

#

The books in the university library were empty. Bereft of marginalia, they were all rookies. Easy pickings. His first would have to be special. The feel of dusty spines beneath his fingertips was the bugle call, the gauntlet thrown, the bid to combat.

A small, thin, almost unnoticeable book stopped him deep between the stacks on the fifth floor. This was the keystone.

Light-blue lettering against its green cover read Self-Knowledge. Yep. This was it.

He found a comfortable chair and skimmed the pages. At the end of a middle chapter, the final sentences before the blank space caught his eye.

…forgive them for not always managing to be reliable correspondents of their inner lives.

He looked up and scanned the corner of the library furtively. No one was looking. Taking a pen from his pocket he scribbled in the margin: forgive yourself, too! And with a smirk, he placed it on the floor, spine up, open, and ready for written conversation.

Game On.


BIO

Adam Anders is a Canadian writer and teacher, living in Warsaw, Poland. Once upon a time, he worked as a scholar of the Roman Army, having earned a PhD in Ancient History. Now, he teaches History, English Literature, and Creative Writing at a private high school. 

He is also an ALM candidate in Creative Writing & Literature at Harvard University’s Extension School. In his summers he sails the seas, and in winter, he skis. 

6The Sins of Father Rickman

by Catherine J. Link


         Father Rickman was the oldest surviving member of his family. His parents both died in their early seventies and were buried in the historic St. James cemetery in East Galway, Ireland, where he was born and raised. He had outlived his siblings, and only a few cousins were still in the world, most much younger than he. 

         He didn’t care that today was his birthday. He was never one to celebrate much of anything, except the birth of Christ. That was the only day that had special meaning for him.  The day the Great Redeemer was born. He was a man in need of redemption, more than most, and so he had not lived his life to the fullest. Not by accident, but by design.

         He heard a noise and looked up from the pew where he habitually sat, his head bent in contemplation. He saw the approach of Bishop Lyle Morgan. He was younger than Father Rickman in earthly years, but he appeared older. In spite of his smile, his eyes were sad—a testament to the sorrows of the world. Today he wore a gray suit, civilian clothing.    

           “Father Rickman,” he said in a near whisper. “Would you like to visit for a while?” 

             He gave the bishop a bold up and down glance, then a disapproving grimace.      

            “Special occasion, Lyle?”

            The bishop chuckled at him. “Still a judgmental sonofabitch, Shawn?”

            “Think what you like.”

            “I just popped in on my niece’s wedding. She married into a Jewish family, so I decided to appear as Uncle Lyle, instead of stodgy old Bishop Morgan, not that anyone saw me.”

            “I didn’t ask,” Father Rickman said. 

            “Just making conversation, Shawn. Happy birthday.”

            “Only you would remember.”        

            “That’s because I’m the only friend you have,” the Bishop said. “And because I am an eternal friend, I’m making myself available to you now, as I always have. Tell me, Shawn. What’s been bothering you all these years?”

           “Besides you?”

           The Bishop laughed and nodded.

            Father Rickman’s first inclination, once again, was to decline the Bishop’s offer. But time was growing short, and he would be leaving this world soon. He looked up at the tormented body of his savior hanging from a gilded cross, and it came to him that he had to earn the redemption he so desperately craved.  

           “It’s an ugly story.”

           “Of course it is,” the Bishop said with a chortle. “Men are not born moral creatures, Shawn. We come to it by degrees. Our parents do their best to teach us, but we ignore most of what they say. Later, we learn by suffering consequences demanded by society. Then those of us who raise children learn it again as we teach our progeny. This is where the church has made some bad choices. We call ourselves fathers but we lack the practical experience of teaching decency to offspring. So how can we successfully instill decency in the strangers who make up our congregations?”

          “Interesting theory, Lyle. You always had a unique way of interpreting things.”

          “I followed a code of right and wrong that was my own, I admit.  From what I’ve observed of the new pope, he does the same.”

          “Does that excuse the common law wife you had for over forty years, the children you fathered by her?”

          “I don’t think of them as sins, Shawn. Instead, I feel guilty about pursuing the priesthood.  There were hardships thrust upon my family because of it, and I often begged both them and God to forgive my unrelenting ambition for power, the sin that set me on a quest to the Vatican.  It was just that God denied me the Holy See. Not because of my wife and children, but because of my self-absorption. Had I not put my ambition first, I could have been a better husband, father, and human being. Regret torments me, and I am being punished.”

          “Perhaps I, too, will be punished. We can spend purgatory together, deciding which of us was the bigger fool. I’m going to dinner. Join me if you can and maybe, after some wine, I will share my most unforgivable transgression.”

          The restaurant was quiet, the benefit of going out to eat on a Tuesday night. Father Rickman sat in a booth in the back, for privacy, and ordered steak.

        “The portions are large enough for two. I always take leftovers home.”

         “Perhaps you should eat more. You look pale, Shawn. And thin.”

         “I’ll eat a few extra bites, so you can stop worrying. Will that make you happy, Lyle?”

         “Ecstatic. So tell me about the abominations of Father Rickman.”

         “You don’t think me capable?”

           “We are all capable, and I am sure you have committed some error of judgement that you torture yourself over.”

            “Mine was not an error, but a choice, not unlike yours. I too have had a woman in my life. We met almost thirty years ago. She and her husband, and a preteen son. They would come to church regularly. Attend the bingo games, donate generously to the church and charities, and the boy sang in the youth choir.”

             The Bishop sat quietly, nodding.   

             “One day—her name was Nancy—she came to me and told me that she’d seen a ghost,” Father Rickman said. “She was working at the Bridgeport Convalescent Home, during the night shift, and she saw an elderly man walking the hallway. She called to him to see what he needed, but he did not answer. She went down the hallway, to the room he had entered, but the room was empty. She was baffled by the experience. She told her coworkers about the elderly gentleman.  As old people too often look alike, a few names were bandied about. Time passed and the incident lost its significance.”

                 “So no ghost?” the Bishop said. He looked disappointed.  

                “No, there was a ghost. The old man appeared again. He walked the hall, looking at every door as though searching for a room number. Nancy called to him and tried to follow as he disappeared down a corridor. She lost him in the maze of hallways. There were several such sightings, and Nancy became frightened. She had become convinced she was seeing a ghost. I listened, intrigued, but disapproving.”

              “And stubborn in your disbelief, no doubt,” the Bishop said.    

             “Yes. There are no such things as ghosts, I told her, except for the Holy Ghost, which is a spirit, part of the Holy Trinity. A coeternal consubstantial piece of God. For her to believe in the supernatural was to betray the teachings of the church, and Jesus Christ. ‘Do you think I’m crazy, Father?’ she asked me. I still had enough discretion at that age to tell her she was merely confused. There was a rational explanation, I assured her, and in time it would reveal itself.”

            The waiter came to pour the wine. Father Rickman was silent, until the man left.

            “I did not see her again for weeks. Her husband brought their son to mass, but she did not come. I asked after her, and the husband said her work schedule had changed. She was working Sundays now. I suggested she come to one of the nightly masses. Then, one Wednesday evening, she came to see me. The mysterious man had appeared again, she told me. He had come out of room A16 and wandered down the hallway. She ran after him and when she got close, she reached to tap his shoulder and her hand passed through his body. He stopped, turned and spoke to her. ‘You can see me, so I belong to you now,’ he said to her, then he disappeared.”

            “How odd,” the Bishop said. “Must be some outdated notion.”    

            “Perhaps, but the apparition was true to his word, according to Nancy. She was seeing him whenever she worked. He would follow her when there was no one else present to witness the haunting. He would accompany her on nightly rounds, from room to room. He would not enter but wait politely at the door. ‘Am I crazy?’ she asked again. I told her she needed medical or possibly psychological intervention and encouraged her to get a checkup. I assured her that there were no ghosts, and that to believe in them was akin to abandoning the church for a cult. I reminded her that nowhere in our Catechism was there a mention of ghosts.”

             “I have often thought that was an oversight on the part of the church,” the Bishop said.

            “Nancy wept, disappointed, and left me. I did not see her again for two years. When she returned, she looked exhausted. Unkempt, haggard, and nearly hysterical, she begged for my help. She told me that not only did she still see the old man, but he had brought companions.  She was now being escorted on her rounds by as many as five ghosts. The old man’s wife, their daughter and two sons, all three adults.”

            “You don’t mean it,” the Bishop said with a laugh. “How extraordinary.”

            “Nancy was able to converse with the old gentleman, but the rest of the ghosts did not speak. They would weep, make objects move, even let out with blood-curdling howls. Other members of the convalescent home staff could hear the weeping and the howling, and witnessed objects being dropped or thrown. Since it was always in Nancy’s vicinity, they thought that she was responsible. They had come to think of her as unhinged.”

            The food was being served, and the Bishop was so excited by the story that he knocked over a saltshaker. The waiter was startled and apologized, thinking he had been responsible. When the man walked away, the Bishop blurted out,

           “How dreadful for the poor woman. What happened next?”             

            “I asked her if she had gone to the doctor for a check-up. She said she had and it came to the doctor’s attention that she had suffered a minor stroke. At first she was glad, hopeful that the stroke had caused her ghost sightings, as well as other problems she was having within her family. It seems she had developed a revulsion to her husband of twenty years, and she no longer had a motherly feeling for their son.”

           “Peculiar,” the Bishop said.

          “I thought so. I counseled her on marriage and motherly responsibilities. Those were subjects I felt competent to discuss, but then she brought up the subject of ghosts again, and I became irate and advised her to go to a psychiatrist. She did not back down, however. She insisted that the ghosts were real, and that the old man had told her that all five of the ghosts belonged to her now. They were her responsibility.”

          “That is ludicrous. What does that even mean?”

           “Angrily, I badgered her,” Father Rickman said. “How can they be your responsibility? She had no idea, and I pounced on that. Of course it makes no sense, because it’s not real. You must turn loose of this delusion, or you will do yourself irreparable harm. She became upset and ran out of the church without another word. I did not see her again for an even longer time. Perhaps three years or more. She had changed considerably the next time I saw her. She looked wonderful. Healthier, nicely dressed and her demeanor was calm.”

           “Surprising,” the Bishop said.  

           “Yes, it was. She looked so well that I was hopeful she had freed herself from the ghostly delusions, but I could not have been more wrong. She had left her husband, she told me. She came to realize that she was a lesbian, and she had taken a female lover. Someone she had found true compatibility with. Her son had been angry and rejected her for a while, but he finally came around.” 

         “And the ghosts were gone?” the Bishop said.

         “No, and she was still being told that they were her responsibility.”

         “Shocking,” the Bishop said.

         “There were ten now. Three children about six to eight years old, and one young woman, perhaps twenty. And, of course, her own dead husband. He killed himself when she left him for a woman.”

          “That was unexpected,” the Bishop said, getting a bit loud. Father Rickman gave him a stern look to silence him. “Sorry.”  

         “I was furious with her. Your husband committed suicide, and you tell me about it as though it’s an afterthought. The man you were married to for twenty plus years, and you seem to have no feelings for him at all. What kind of woman are you?”

         “A fair question.”

        “I thought so. Her answer was unusual, of course. She explained that since her stroke she was not as emotional as she once was. She said she was happier now, even with the ghosts following her wherever she went.”  

        “I thought it was just a workplace manifestation.”

        “That was before. She had changed jobs and they not only changed with her, but they were now in her home. In the car when she drove. In the grocery when she was shopping. The worst time was when she got her hair done. The beauty parlor was so small that when the ghosts would howl or throw things, it was impossible for people not to notice. She began telling everyone she had Tourette’s Syndrome.” 

         “Seriously? Tourette’s? How creative. I would never have thought of it.”

          “I knew she was a smart one, and I suddenly realized that she was playing me for a fool. Telling me this ridiculous story about being haunted, all a pack of lies designed to amuse herself at my expense. I wondered if maybe she had recorded some of our past sessions. My pride was wounded, you see. My self-image was vulnerable. For the first time ever, I doubted my judgement and I was worried about my reputation in the parish.   

        “If there were all these ghosts around her, why didn’t you see them?” 

        “I asked her that, and she asked me if I wanted to see them. I didn’t want to, of course. But that shouldn’t have mattered. If they were there, I would have seen them.”

          “So what did she say to that?”   

         “Nothing. Suddenly, a howl reverberated around the church. A mournful cry that sent chills down my spine. I had been looking at her face and she had not opened her mouth, nor did it seem to be coming from her direction. It was coming from somewhere near the altar. Then, suddenly, lit candles were flying through the air and smashing against a granite wall. Moans of lamentation came from up in the choir loft. She smiled, then quoted a bible verse. John 4:48. ‘Unless you people see signs and wonders, you simply will not believe.’”

           “She was a clever woman.”

           “Yes, she was and it frightened me. You’re the devil, I shouted. You are the evil one, taken possession of this confused woman, using her for your own purposes. Leave this church, Satan, I shouted, holding my crucifix up like a shield. Now advancing on her, thinking of myself as one of God’s soldiers, forcing her through the front doors, I cursed her. I quoted scripture at her and thinking I should douse her with holy water, as they do in the movies. I cupped my hands in the font and splashed her.”

          “Did you really?” the Bishop said, and burst out in laughter, then, seeing the expression on Father Rickman’s face, he stopped. “Sorry.”

          “She was also amused by my frantic patty fingers in the font. Laughing at my pitiful efforts to banish her from the church. I must have looked like a moron. ‘I’m not the devil, Father Rickman,’ she said, unable to stop laughing at me. ‘I can’t help being haunted. I don’t want to be, but I am trying to live with it and not go mad. The ghosts are wanting something from me, but I don’t know what it is. I need your help.’”

         “Her laughter faded to an amused grin as she waited for me to say something, but I could not speak. I had fallen under some kind of strange spell. While standing in full sunlight, she shook the holy water from her hair and golden curls fell into place like a halo around her head. Still smiling, her mouth was sensuous. Her eyes were green. I had never noticed that before, but I could not miss it now. They sparkled like gems. For the first time, I truly saw her and what a vision of loveliness she was.”

         “Uh oh, that’s not good.”  

        “I regained my composure and asked her to leave. Then she asked me a pivotal question.  Do you want me to come back? Why I did not say no, I will forever wonder. She descended the front steps, looking back at me just one time, as she walked away. But the look was a turning point in my life. I will swear on the holy image of Christ, that when I went back inside the church I heard both weeping and laughter, yet the church was empty.”

          “Oh, dear. She left you a ghost.”

          “Nancy came to church regularly on Sundays. She would come to the rail for communion, and I would pass her over, but not before taking a look down the front of her blouse. She would speak to me, but I shunned her. She came for confession, and I refused to hear it. Yet, my eyes sought her out and feasted on her. This went on for a year. I shunned her and she punished me by giving me no peace. Every time I saw her she looked more attractive, and I could not help but be tempted. She had flawless skin, soft feminine curves, she dressed smartly and looked to be the epitome of good health for a woman her age. Of any age, truthfully.”

       “I can see where this is going.”

       “She brought her lesbian lover to mass a few times, and the woman was equally attractive, I must admit. Together they made a remarkable impression on me. Excruciatingly remarkable, I’m afraid. My imagination went into overdrive, and I wondered what they looked like together, en flagrante. Various scenarios tormented me day and night. My nerves were shattered. Many times I heard howls and lamentation, followed by sensuous moaning coming from the vestry. Startled, often embarrassed, I occasionally spilt from the chalice during communion, staining the clothing of our most prominent members of the congregation.”

        “That’s terrible.”

         “Even worse, on several such occasions, I yelled expletives loud enough to be heard in the pews nearest the altar. I even took the Lord’s name in vain in the presence of Monsignor Halliday. He came later to counsel me on anger management and decorum. Embarrassed by my faux pas, I told him I was suffering from Tourette’s syndrome. Thereafter, whenever we crossed paths, I performed various twitches of the face to maintain the lie.”

          The Bishop burst out laughing again, then apologized. “In tragedy there is often an element of humor.”

          “It did not feel humorous to me. Soon after, I approached Nancy and her friend to ask them not to come back to mass. That was what I had intended to say in a noncompromising manner, even threatening them with excommunication if I had to. But they had an aura about them, a savage innocence. They were beautiful, healthy animals, and there was an intense chemistry surrounding the three of us as we stood near the confessionals. It frightened me, yet I reveled in it. Perhaps it was the romantic light streaming in through the stained-glass windows that melted the ice surrounding my heart, because I could not say what I needed to say.”

         “Good. It is never right to ask a parishioner to abandon the church.”  

         “Instead, I clumsily asked Nancy if she needed confessing. She said yes. Then I turned to her companion and asked her the same. The companion smiled at me, then let out a shriek reminiscent of the dolphins at Sea World. That horrible sound filled the church.  Her face turned so red, it was nearly purple.  Her hair suddenly seemed to be standing straight up, as a flame dances on the wick of a candle. She opened her mouth to shriek again and I wanted to run, but my feet seemed glued to the floor.”  

       “What was she? Some kind of ghoul?”

        “I asked Nancy what she was, but she said she didn’t know. She assured me the woman was quite tame. And that she didn’t make that noise all the time, just when she got overexcited.  She said it was unfortunate that I had spoken to her. She had taken a liking to me and she wanted to be mine.”

       “Yours? You must have been frantic.”

        “I was so scared I was nearly soiling myself. I told Nancy that I’d thought the woman was her lesbian lover. She said she had realized, after a while, that she was not a lesbian after all. As for Maude, she had a crush on me and wanted to go with me, and there was no way to stop her.”

         “Maude? That strange creature was named Maude?”

         “Yes, and Nancy told me Maude had been born and raised in Wales. When she talked, which was rarely, she had a brogue. It seems she was frustrated that she’s been unable to move on. She didn’t enjoy being a ghost. Nancy asked me to help Maude with that.”

         “How?”

        “I wasn’t sure. Nancy suggested hearing her confession, giving her absolution, the same things I would do if she was still alive. I expressed my doubts, telling her again that I know nothing about ghosts. She reminded me that I would have one as my lifelong companion if I didn’t do something about it.”

          “Frightening.”

          “That spurred me to action. I decided to try giving her absolution. It may not work, but what harm could come of it? I refused to do it in the church, however. That would soil my conscience, and it would give Nancy more ammunition if this all turned out to be an elaborate hoax. She invited me to her apartment, saying ‘Please, Father Rickman. Don’t make me beg.’  I was an emotional wreck. Part of me wanted to see her beg. I pictured her on her knees, begging, and knew I could deny her nothing. But at the same time, admitting that ghosts exist was mentally disabling for me, and I swear by all that is holy, I was experiencing PTSD.”

          “Post-traumatic stress disorder?” 

          “Yes. But still, my physical attraction to Nancy was stronger than ever. I did indeed want to go to her apartment and breathe air infused with her pheromones. Her allure broke through my resistance, overcame my fear of entrapment and exposure as a sex-starved deviate.”

         “I don’t think PTSD was your problem, Shawn,” the Bishop said. “I’m not judging you. Please know that, but you had other things on your mind, in my opinion.”

            “Even after all these years, I can’t be objective about it. Maybe you’re right. She gave me her address and told me to come at 9:00 pm. I asked why so late and she said that getting rid of a ghost might be more appropriate after the sun had set and the moon was high. I was out of my depth. I would have gone along with anything she suggested. I arrived at 9:00 pm on the hour. It had been a long day. Time seemed to have stood still during most of it. I’d spent time with two of my parishioners who had personal matters to discuss. Compared to what I was dealing with, their problems seemed petty and self-imposed. I did not give them the best of myself that day.”

         “Hmmm,” the Bishop said. “You should have taken time away from the church to search your heart.”  

         “You know how stubborn I was as a young man,” Shawn said, taking a gulp of wine. “I showered, changed into fresh clothing, and time stood still. Someone had sabotaged the clocks in my quarters, I was sure of it. Unable to wait any longer, I left early, hoping to speed up time by picking up a bottle of wine and flowers. Then I realized my mistake. How do I explain behaving as though I was on a date? Mother told me never go to someone’s home empty handed, I could say. It was the truth. Lame but plausible.”

            “You have very fine manners,” the Bishop said. “I have always admired your etiquette.”  

           “Thank you. Banging on her door, all that twaddle went through my mind lickety-split and I was again banging on the door a few seconds later. And again, and again. What do you think of my good manners now? Nancy scowled at me when she opened the door at last and scolded me for making such a racket. My God, no one ever looked more beautiful than she did, with her show of temper. I imagined her slapping my face, and it was magnificent. Under that yellow bug light, her complexion jaundiced and her hair bleached like straw, she was a dream. If she hadn’t asked me in, I would have committed violence. I know it.”

            “I don’t believe that. You’re being too hard on yourself.”

            “I did not hand her the flowers and wine. Instead, I took on an aloofness to cover my embarrassment, hiding pent up passions behind a ridiculous façade. I put the wine and the flowers on her kitchen counter and began jabbering like a fool.”

             Father Rickman did an impersonation of himself. “Only if we need them, understand? I thought we might, but I’m not sure we will. Know what I mean? Better to have them than not have them, as I always say.”

         “Bravo. You sound just like Humphry Bogart in that old movie. The one with the statue of a black bird.”

       “Exactly. I seemed unable to stop babbling like some Dashiell Hammett character. I was even talking though my nose with a slight lisp. ‘We have no idea what might happen, see?  We might need a peace offering, if things go south. This could get dangerous,’ I said, shooting my cuffs.”

         The Bishop bellowed with hardy laughter, and Father Rickman chuckled, remembering his own foolishness.    

        “Nancy watched the spectacle, grinning, recognizing me for the fool she had made of me. Knowing this, I still couldn’t stop myself. She told me she was glad I came, trying to make me feel less embarrassed, I think. She said she had been afraid that I might change my mind. And again, I went on with my one man show. ‘That’s not the kind of man I am. Understand? Once I decide to do a thing, I get it done.’  I was still channeling Sam Spade. Once in the persona, it was hard to shake off. ‘So where’s the dame?’”

            “Dame? You meant Maude?” the Bishop asked. “She should have come with you. Isn’t that right?”

              “Very astute, Lyle,” Father Rickman said to him. “I hadn’t thought of that at the time. Nancy reminded me that Maude was my ghost. We figured that she must have been hiding, perhaps a bit embarrassed. Then she appeared out of nowhere and sat down on the sofa, hiding a grin behind one hand. I nodded to her and she let out another dolphin call.”    

              “She was saying hello,” the Bishop said with a smile.  

              “’Hello, Maude,’ I said, with an unenthusiastic wave of my fingers. Meanwhile, Nancy was arranging a place at the kitchen table where the three of us would be comfortable. ‘Should I open the wine and put out some crackers for communion?’ she asked me. I nodded, wondering why the hell I had not thought of communion as a way to explain the wine. I was grateful to be done with the Sam Spade impression. It was exhausting.” 

              “I can sympathize. I feel the same way about charades. Ridiculous game.”  

              “Nancy put the flowers in water and placed them on the table, saying they could dress up our little chapel. I think that was the moment I fell in love with her. She buried her nose in the bouquet and there was a satisfied little smile on her lips. I flushed with humiliation, like a fifteen-year-old boy, then I asked Maude to join us in the kitchen. Nancy and I sat at opposite ends of the table, and Maude in the middle. ‘Can you talk?’ I asked her. She let out a string of screeches.”

                “The dolphin noises?”

               “That, or a language spoken on an alien planet. ‘How am I supposed to work with this?’ I said, frustrated. Nancy said she could translate. ‘She mutters sometimes, unable to get the words out, and then there’s the Welch brogue,’ Nancy told me. She said they had developed a mental bond, and that I would develop one with her over time if she stayed.”

              “And so, we started. Doing all the right things, saying the appropriate entreaties. The time came for her to confess and she let out with a yammer that was so bizarre, I had to pinch my own buttock to make sure I wasn’t having a nightmare. Nancy was able to translate her story. Unfortunately, it was overtly pornographic, and hearing smut falling from Nancy’s moist lips was having an effect on my demeanor. I took a gulp of the sacramental wine straight from the bottle. Startled, both women looked at me with doe eyes, their lips slightly parted, each holding their breath, waiting for my next move. The thin fabrics they wore perfectly molded their breasts, accenting the shapes, exaggerating every quiver of anticipation. I needed another pull on the wine bottle.”

                 “Oh my,” the Bishop said, loosening his collar and wiping his red face with a monogrammed handkerchief.

            “When her sins had all been told, Maude wept with relief, and I very nearly did as well.  I had her say a prayer, as best she could. Lord Jesus, son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner. It was yammered out in an odd rhythm that made me think of a naked savage beating a tom-tom.             

Ld Jesses nod good, mery o’me, zinner.  Would you believe me, Lyle? That corruption of prayer got stuck in my head for weeks. I would find myself tapping my toe and reciting the sounds as she had said them, with that same savage rhythm. Sometimes it still comes back to haunt me. Telling it to you now will cost me some hours of distress, reciting it in time to the ticking of my father’s antique mantel clock, or the spin cycle of the washing machine, the timer I use to make three minute eggs. That piece of verse is not done with me yet.”

            “I’m sorry you told it to me,” the Bishop said. “I’m beginning to hear it in my head. Oh, dear.” 

            “Sorry about that. Well, I went through the rest of the litany with the two ladies, then we had communion. When I told Maude she was cleansed of all sin and was now worthy to move on in her voyage toward salvation, she slowly faded away to nothingness.”

             “Marvelous,” the Bishop said, with a reverent joy in his eyes.    

             “You’d think so, but I was disappointed. I admit that until that moment, I still didn’t believe she was a ghost. In all candor, I had envisioned a three way with the two ladies.  I did not know how I was going to justify my lascivious suggestion, but I was working on a rational excuse. Perhaps framing the sexual encounter as a sacrament, a beneficial cleansing of lust that would leave us free from carnal cravings forever after. Ridiculous, I admit, but remember that I was in the throes of PTSD and was willing to do whatever it took to bring about my own recovery. No matter the sacrifice.”

            It took a while for the Bishop to stop laughing at Father Rickman, so he took the opportunity to eat and drink some wine as the laughter died down. He was thoroughly annoyed.  

            “Are you quite finished?” Father Rickman asked him.

             “Sorry, Shawn, but it was funny.”

            “That being said, when Nancy, the loveliest woman I had ever seen, took a suggestive posture and gave me a come hither smile, I leapt across the table like a lion on a wildebeest, knocking what was left of the wine onto the floor, along with the dish of soda crackers and the vase full of water and blooms from the floral department of the local grocery.”

            The Bishop was silent with a shocked look on his face.

           “Yes, we stumbled onto each other like inexperienced teens, casting off clothing in all directions and leaping into each other’s arms by the time we reached the bed. It was the most poignant sexual experience I had ever suffered. I both hated Nancy and worshiped her. She’d turned me into an animal. She stripped God from my heart and mind and stood in his great stead. It was a magnificent night, but when the sun came up in the morning, Nancy was not in the apartment. I thought perhaps she was ashamed and did not want to see me again. I hoped that was not the case. I was completely in love with her, so much that I decided to leave the priesthood if she asked me to.”

        “Of everything I’ve heard so far, that is the most shocking. That you would consider leaving the church,” the Bishop said. “You have always exhibited a piety that was almost arrogant in its intensity. There were times when you did not seem human.”

      “And yet, I am among the most frail in my dedication to the church.”

      “What happened next?”

       “I gathered my clothing from the bedroom floor, the hallway rug, the living room hardwood, and the kitchen linoleum, putting each piece on in reverse order from which I shed them.  Now looking around, I found no definitive trace of her, which was disturbing. The wine was still staining the floor. The crackers were scattered, and the blooms still vibrant in a pool of water and shattered pottery. I cleaned the mess, then I scrutinized the apartment further. It was not much bigger than my own quarters provided by the parish. There were pictures on the walls. None of them had Nancy in them. There was mail on one end table.  Her name was not on it.  This is not her apartment, I realized. Whose then?”

           This part of the story tore at Father Rickman’s heart. He had to rest before he continued, and the Bishop waited, his eyes filled with pity.

          “I opened the door to leave, and a stranger was standing there with a key in her hand.  She took one look at me and screamed. ‘Please don’t be frightened,’ I said. ‘I’m Father Rickman.’ She stared at me, ready to bolt, but then she noticed my clothing, the collar. She did not run, but she cautiously stayed outside.”       

           “It must have been embarrassing,” the Bishop said.

            “I asked her if this was her apartment. She said it was, and she wondered how I got in. I explained that I was let in by a woman named Nancy. She told me that she had lived in the apartment for the past two years, and the woman who had the apartment before her was named Nancy, but she was dead. She had committed suicide, in that very place.”

              “Suicide. How terrible,” the Bishop said. “And you obviously knew her during that time, when she was so troubled.”

              “I must have looked stricken. The woman’s tone changed to one of sympathy. She came through the door and invited me to stay and have a cup of coffee. I told her no thanks and got out of there as quickly as I could. But then, before I got very far, I went back and banged on her door. I just had to ask. How did Nancy take her life? She told me that Nancy shot herself. Under the chin with an automatic. She’d read about it in the newspaper and became excited at the prospect of an empty apartment in the neighborhood. Her sister lived three blocks away.”

              Then Father Rickman chuckled. “I asked her if she believed in ghosts. She knew what I was getting at. She said that if I was asking if Nancy haunted the apartment, that she had no indication of it. The only noises that bothered her were the neighbor’s dogs. She said the damn things made the strangest sounds. She compared it to living next to a zoo. And they howled in the middle of the night sometimes. She said she’d complained, but it did no good.”

                Father Rickman sat silently now, sipping wine, waiting for Bishop Morgan to comment.        

                 “What you’re telling me is that you had sex with a ghost. Is that the upshot of it?”

                 “Well, yes, Lyle. You don’t have to make it sound so pedestrian.” 

                  “No, of course not,” he said, struggling for the right words. “It is a singular experience, Shawn. And tragic, to have found that special someone at a time in life when she was not…alive. But you accused yourself of having committed an abomination. I would hardly call it that. You are much too hard on yourself. One such encounter with a ghost might be called a minor infraction, especially since you didn’t realize, and considering the PTSD.”

        “Well, perhaps,” Father Rickman said, admitting he had a flair for the dramatic, and exaggeration. “I went back to my life, and the week dragged on, one joyless day after another until Sunday. I was hungover most of the time, wondering if all the craziness was just that. Was I crazy? Oh, how I wanted to be crazy. Nancy could be alive, and she would come to mass, with Maude beside her. Perhaps I had not killed her with my cold disregard and mockery. But when she did not come, I was faced with the truth, and I became a broken man. There were so many things left unsaid between us, and I did not know how to reach her. How does a mortal call on a ghost? A Ouija board, perhaps? I feared demonic possession so often associated with that game, especially since I’d become a believer in the supernatural, so that was out. The only safe thing I could think to do was visit her grave.”

             The Bishop, in his sympathy, wiped tears from his eyes and blew into his handkerchief.    

            “I found where she was buried and again, taking a bouquet of flowers and a bottle of wine with me, I went to her. Placing the flowers against the headstone under her name, I poured out my heart, hoping she could hear me. Telling her I loved her, and how sorry I was for not believing her. Then I drank the wine, and like a loyal dog standing guard, I slept six feet above my mistress. Nancy came to me in a dream.”

             “Did she really?”

            “Go home, Shawn, before you catch your death,” she said. “It’s going to rain.”

             “Was that all she said?”

           “At that time, and it meant the world to me. I awoke to a downpour that soaked my clothes and chilled me to the bone. I very nearly did catch my death. That was autumn of 1989, many years before you and I met.” 

            “I can’t remember a thing about 1989. My memory is failing me,” the Bishop said, with a confused expression on his face.

            “Nancy was clairvoyant, you see, Lyle. She didn’t realize it when she was alive but in death, through trial and error, she learned of her gift and how to use it. And I have been helping her ever since, as I should have been helping all along.  I suffer terrible guilt over how badly I treated her. Perhaps, if I had been understanding, she would not have killed herself.”

           “You and I met later, in 2010. Is that right?”  the Bishop said.

          “Listen Lyle. This is important. She tells me things about people, and I check on them to see if they’re alright. I pass messages back and forth between the living and the dead. As we did for Maude, I hear confessions and give absolution so a spirit will feel ready to move on. We’ve helped many such souls over the years. I’m glad you came to see me, Lyle. Nancy has given me a message for you.”

         “For me.” The Bishop said. “From my Anna?”

         “That’s right, from your wife. She sends her love and she wants you to know that she always understood your dedication to the church, and she never held it against you. She said you made her very happy. You can stop haunting now and move on. Anna promises that when it’s her time, she will come and find you.”

          Bishop Morgan let out a sob. A single tear fell from his face and disappeared before it hit the tabletop, and he was gone. The ghostly outline of his crumpled handkerchief lingered, then it too evaporated.

           Father Rickman finished his birthday dinner, eating a few extra bites, as he promised his friend he would do. He finished one more glass of wine.   

          “I’m so tired, my love,” he said.  How much longer must I walk this lonely Earth?”

           He could hear Nancy’s voice, a soft whisper in his ear that caused it to tickle.   

         “It won’t be much longer now, Shawn. And remember, dearest, you never walk alone.”


 BIO

Retired and living in Hamilton County, Texas, Catherine Link is a painter who occasionally teaches private students. She has won awards in local shows for her artwork and had one of her pieces included in the December 2013 issue of the Rotarian Magazine.   

She loves to write short stories, which is like a form of meditation for her, calming her nerves and taking her away from everyday life for a while.

Catherine has had short stories published in Dragon Poet Review, Corner Bar Magazine, Scarlet Leaf Review, Toasted Cheese, and Bewildering Stories.

She is married to Robert Link, also an artist and burgeoning writer. They have two grown sons. Douglas, who lives in Waco and enjoys painting, and Daniel, who lives in Northern California and is a successful fiction writer. 

The Woman Left Behind is Still Behind Him

by Shea McCollum


Celine almost couldn’t find the factory on her first day because of the awning. She had followed the directions left to her by her husband and taken the hillside road down into the valley. But instead of a factory, all she could see from above was an endless stretch of farmland. She was about to turn back to see if she had missed some fork in the road when she noticed the way that some of the distant barns seemed to ripple in the breeze. She continued making her way down the road until she found herself underneath a giant painted awning in whose shadow the factory lay hidden. There she joined the crowd of women that had gathered outside, waiting for the foreman to call out their names.

“Cigarette?” a lanky woman offered Celine her carton. She accepted gratefully and they smoked together in silence. Celine kept sneaking glances over at her between exhales. Almost all of the ladies gathered there, Celine included, looked nearly identical with their red lipstick and newly purchased trousers. They had all clearly seen the same poster in town with the bolded caption The Woman Left Behind is Still Behind Him. But this woman beside her was bare-faced, maybe a good ten years older than the rest of the crowd, with boots so broken in it looked as if she had been born with them. She didn’t seem nearly as nervous as Celine felt, or else she was better at hiding it.

“I wonder if they’ll give us an advance today,” Celine said to break the silence.

“I wouldn’t count on it. The foreman only pays on Fridays,” the woman replied without looking at her. “And don’t plan on making what your husband did. You’ll probably get about half.”

Celine glanced over at the woman about to ask a question when she answered it for her. “I worked here during the last war.”

“So, you know what it’s like inside?”

The veteran woman nodded.

“Is it difficult?” Celine asked. “The work, I mean. Were you able to get by okay?”

For a moment, the veteran woman’s lips twitched into the ghost of a smile, but she kept a straight face. “If you can learn to use an electric mixer, you can learn to use a drill press.”

The only other job Celine had ever had was on her grandfather’s farm. At the age of five, she and all her other young cousins were hired to sit in the dirt and pick all the grapes that grew near the bottom of the vine. They got five cents for every basket they managed to fill up. When she outgrew that, her parents put her in school, and after school, she had married her husband Richard. She’d spent almost every day since taking care of him and their house and eventually their two boys. The idea of working had never even crossed her mind.

Except once, a few years earlier, at a dinner party she and Richard had hosted for some of their friends. They were discussing how at the textile factory one town over, they had started to hire more and more married women whose kids were old enough to take care of themselves. Celine had only half been paying attention to the conversation until one of Richard’s friends turned to her and asked, “Celine, when the boys are in school, do you think you’ll ever get a job like Richard?”

Celine’s immediate reaction was to laugh. The image she got in her head of donning a matching set of jeans to her husband, of hauling heavy objects around (as she imagined much of factory work was consumed with), of returning home covered in sweat and grime only to have to cook dinner just seemed ridiculous to her.

But Richard cut in before she could answer. “No, the day Celine gets a job will the day all of hell freezes over.”

As it turned out, all it really took was the Japanese bombing Pearl Harbor.

Celine had never seen an airplane in person before. She had only seen grainy images of them in the newspaper or flying very distantly overhead. She had certainly never seen a half-finished plane, like the one that sat in the center of the factory floor. It reminded her a bit of a whale skeleton she had seen many years before hung up on the ceiling of a museum. There was something about seeing that unfinished beast that felt a bit like glancing behind the curtain. Seeing all the little bits of machinery usually hidden under the hard shell exterior was a bit like being given insight into how the magic trick that is flying works.

 But to Celine’s dismay, the foreman led her and the other new recruits past the plane to a station for riveting. The foreman showed them how to do it, making sure to always keep their hands behind the tool so they wouldn’t accidentally drill themselves.

“Here’s a stack of sheets to get you all started,” he said. “Bolts are in a box over there. Before you get low, someone with a cart should be by to drop some more off. If you finish before they do, come and let me know.”

He was curt but not unfriendly. It was obvious that having to direct women in the factory made him a bit uncomfortable. But he was grateful for their presence nonetheless and made it known in the little ways he could. Later that week, when Celine recruited one of her neighbors to come work in the factory, she’d found an extra bonus in her paycheck and a little note thanking her for her service to her country.

Celine found pretty quickly that the veteran woman, whose name she’d learned was Margaret, was right. The work wasn’t difficult. Actually, it was a lot like housework, rhythmic and a bit boring but not altogether impossible to master. She entertained herself throughout the day making friends with the women working beside her or listening to the radio. The foreman had it playing constantly at a low level throughout the factory, giving updates on the war effort. Celine never understood why until one day in the middle of a reporting on the previous week’s victories and losses when the factory spontaneously burst into raucous cheers.

“What’s going on?” Celine had managed to get Margaret’s attention over the chaos.

“The plane that they’re talking about, the one that took down the Germans,” she said breathlessly. “It’s one of ours.”

That was the first time that Celine understood what it was they were really doing there. It was easy to forget while mindlessly drilling plates together all day where the planes were going when they left the factory. That the bolts that she secured could be the same ones holding her husband’s life together from 20,000 feet off the ground. And from that moment on, no matter how tedious the work got, it always felt like it had an air of sacredness to it.

The only time the radios were ever turned off was when the foreman got on the loudspeaker to announce that there was a plane flying overhead. Everyone would stop what they were doing and wait in silence for the buzzing outside to stop. Of course, there had been only a few bombings on U.S. soil since Pearl Harbor and almost all by water, but the foreman would take no chances.

Every day the workers were given an hour break for lunch. Some of the women who lived nearby would run home to make food for their children before coming back, sweaty and more exhausted than when they had left. But those like Celine who lived farther off stayed and gathered under the awning together to eat out of their tin lunchboxes. Sometimes, Celine would invite some of the ladies over to her house in the evenings after the children had gone to bed and they would all drink scotch and talk into the late hours of the night as their husbands used to do.

She had even managed to convince Margaret to come by on occasion. Outside of the factory, she was somewhat less brusque, especially when they managed to get a drink or two in her. When Margaret was feeling particularly social, she would regale them with stories of the different jobs she had worked over the years. She made them howl with laughter at her telling of the time she worked as a switchboard operator and mixed up the lines between a divorced couple and a pair of newlyweds or about the one day she spent as a department store clerk before she got fired for refusing to wear pantyhose.

“But my favorite job by far,” she would always end her stories. “Has been working in this factory. It’s the only thing they let me do that matters.”

When Celine wrote Richard her weekly letter updating him on life at home, she sometimes mentioned these stories or gave updates about how their sons were doing in school, but she would rarely mention her work in the factory, even though she was doing exceedingly well. It was as if her years of sewing little buttons onto children’s sweaters or polishing delicate china had actually been training for the precision work required in the factory.

When she started finishing her riveting work faster than the women with the wheelbarrows could supply her with new materials, she went and told the foreman, who gave her increasingly more difficult jobs. Winding delicate copper wire into intricate patterns, dealing with tiny screws half the length of her pinkie nail, gluing and peeling fabric on the wing only to glue it back again.

Celine grew comfortable working alongside the remaining men at the factory. So much so that sometimes she would forget her place. One day as she was working beside one of the new recruits, a young man who couldn’t have been more than a few years older than her eldest son, she noticed that he was holding his hand in front of the drill.

She tapped him on the shoulder. “You’re actually gonna want to hold it like this,” she said showing him with her own drill. “That way you won’t accidentally get your hand.”

He looked at her for a moment with a blank face before glancing back over at the other men at the station. They were all looking up from their work at him waiting to see what would happen.

“I think I know what I’m doing,” he eventually said in a flat voice, turning his back to her.

After that, she was careful about how she talked with the men. She made sure to give all of her instructions in the form of questions to let them feel like they were the ones teaching her. Instead of “This is how you hold a drill” she would ask, “Am I doing this right?”

Eventually, Celine had advanced enough that she had worked on every step of the process that it took to make a plane and was pretty sure she could assemble one from scratch all by herself. That’s when the foreman placed her and Margaret in charge of training and looking after the new employees that were still trickling in every week. Being able to look at the bigger picture of things like this, Celine had begun to brainstorm ideas for a plane of her own. She showed them to Margaret, who helped her work out the technical details that turned her ideas into actual designs. Celine kept these sketches in a notebook, knowing that after the war, the factory would go back to making commercial planes, at which point she might gain the courage to pitch the foreman some of her ideas.

And then one morning, just as everyone was getting settled at their stations, one girl shouted above the chatter, “Turn up the radio!”

Someone did just in time for them to hear the announcer say, “President Truman has just informed us that the war in the European theatre has ended with the unconditional surrender of the German army.”

And as soon as he said this, the uproar in the factory was uncontrollable. People stopped what they were doing to hug each other, to laugh, to cry. It was so wild that for the first time since Celine had been at the factory, the foreman called for an early lunch. All the workers flooded the streets and joined the people of town already there celebrating. They drank wine and talked about what they would do now that there would be no more scrimping, no more saving up pennies or donating scrap metal. They speculated how long it would be before their husbands would return and what they would say to them when they did.

And at the end of their lunch hour, still flushed with excitement, still buzzing with conversation, they made their way back to the factory where Celine spotted Margaret hurrying in the opposite direction, a stack of papers tucked under one arm.

“Is everything alright?” Celine stopped her as she passed.

“You delude yourself into thinking things can change, but they never do,” Margaret said and brushed past her.

Celine looked down at the road at her for a moment before following the other women back inside the factory. There she found the foreman standing on the factory floor, waiting for them.

“I want to thank you all for your time here,” he said. “But as the men are expected to return home soon, your help is no longer necessary.”

Celine watched him in a daze as he began to call up all the women individually to collect their final paycheck. 

“Mrs. Rodgers,” he shouted and Celine floated to the front of the room. The foreman flashed her a wide smile as he shook her hand. But still, he couldn’t meet her eye when he said, “Thank you for your service.”


BIO

Shea McCollum holds a BA in Creative Writing from Pepperdine University. Her work has previously appeared in The Kudzu Review and Canyon Voices Magazine. She intends on pursuing her MFA in Fiction next fall.

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