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“The Language of Flowers”

by Jennifer Lorene Ritenour


When I think about Amá’s death it comes in pieces and the memories, they’re all out of order, as if someone took them and shook them around in my head. The first memory is always different, but the last memory is always the same, with her being in a box. Right now, I’m thinking about her hair. It was thick, wavy, and soft brown, and in the light it had a little red in it. She didn’t have much of a waist but she had great legs. Thick in the thighs without being like Jell-O. She wore tight mini-skirts to show them off. The men whistled and she would smile. She drove them loco. It always made me laugh because I know she did it to mess with them.

*

Nicole lived in the apartment next to us. I felt bad for her because one time I heard all this yelling coming from her house, and then the next thing I heard was crying outside my window. I pulled up the blinds and I saw Nicole sitting there in the dirt where a bush should be. I opened my window and talked to her through the screen and asked her what was wrong. She just kept crying. I told her that she couldn’t be crying all night underneath my window, so she had to tell me what was up. And she got real quiet. She said that her parents were fighting and she didn’t want to be there anymore, with them. I told her that I had to sleep. We have school tomorrow. She didn’t move and kept sniffling. I told her that I didn’t want to hear her sniffles all night. Eventually, I took off the screen door and let her crawl into my window. She slept on the floor.

*

Amá used to say that she had a tickle in her throat. It wasn’t a deep cough but more like a hacking sound. When she’d finished coughing she’d grab a Ricola and suck on it. She kept a bag of them in her purse. I got tired of seeing her reach for those medicine candies. I told her to go to the doctor. I have no insurance mija, she would say. I told her to go to the free clinic. Her eyes looked foggy, like an old dog or something.

*

Amá taught me the sign of the cross and The Lord’s Prayer when I was real little. She’d said I didn’t need anything else. One day when she was dropping me off at school and we were stopped at a red light she asked me if I remembered the prayer and the sign of the cross. So, I showed her. A black mascara tear rolled out from underneath her sunglasses and she said, Nothing can get in the way between you and God.

*

I used to go to the liquor store after school. This guy from Iran owned it. I know he was from Iran because I asked him. His store sold Mexican candy and it was close to my house so I would always get Lucas there. The chili powder kind. It comes in a little plastic salt shaker. You shake it into your hand and then lick it. I brought Nicole there after she slept on my floor for the first time. She said she didn’t like hot things. So, I bought her limón flavored. She held out her hand, and I remember thinking how it looked like a scared white bird. I shook the candy into her palm. And she looked at me and she looked at the stuff in her hand, and I knew she was thinking that I gave her salt, but I told her it was okay. I poured some in my hand up and I dipped my tongue into my palm and she smiled. Then she dipped her tongue into her palm and smacked her lips and said it was okay.

*

My abuelos came to visit us from San Pedro, we lived in Riverside, and they sat on the couch and talked to each other in Spanish. I didn’t know hardly anything they talked about. I knew only the simple things. ¿Hola, cómo estás? And some of the bad words. Pinche. What I knew was useless. Sometimes my Abuelo would smile at me and I would smile back all awkward. My Abuelita, well, she couldn’t even look at me without sadness at that time. I think it was because she was ashamed of the sin I was born from, because my parents weren’t married, and probably because my dad left us. I only saw them during the holidays up until that point. When Amá  got sick we just sat on the couch and looked at our hands when we heard her coughing in the bathroom.

*

I remember once when we went to visit my abuelos in San Pedro and stayed the night. Amá wanted to take me to my first bonfire. It was just me and her at Cabrillo Beach though. My abuelos didn’t feel like going. Amá had on an orange-colored bikini, a white cover-up, gold sandals and she looked like a freaking Goddess. It was night, and we were sitting in front of the fire. I wore my regular clothes. Three men sat at a bonfire next to us. One was Mexican like us. They drank beers and sang songs to Amá. She laughed but it wasn’t a real laugh, it was a fake one, because she whimpered a little at the end. She was scared. And I just stared into the fire because I didn’t want to be around that. Then I felt really uncomfortable, like something was on my back, and I looked to the side and one of the men was looking at me all nasty. You know, where their eyes become slits. And he quietly puckered his lips. That’s when Amá said it was time to go and when we got into the car she cursed in Spanish about men and then complained in English that she can’t even take her daughter to the damn beach.

*

I had woken up all scared and sweaty. But I couldn’t remember my nightmare. Something about losing teeth. Nicole was sleeping on my floor that night, and my sheets were too damp. So, I got out of bed and I lay down next to her on the cool floor.

*

I remember one doctor visit at the clinic. Me and my abuelos and Amá. She was gone inside one of those little rooms. The doctor came out and said a bunch of Spanish to my Abuelos. My Abuelita put her hand to her chest. My Abuelo squeezed her when she said mi dios, mi dios. I knew that. I got worried. Then the doctor went back to the room and my Abuelos sat down and they had wet faces. I heard a nurse behind the counter say to the other nurse, without whispering, that she couldn’t believe that woman tried to hide it for so long, and the other one said that she would probably go soon. They didn’t think I knew English.

*

Amá used to have a picture of my dad in her wallet. It was the only picture I ever saw of him. He had thick dark hair and tanned skin, a long nose and hazel eyes. He wore a blue flannel shirt and some jeans and some boots. I had his hair, that’s it. I looked nothing like him. Except for the eyes. Amá, her eyes were a deep brown. She used to say, I thought I had a prince but he ended up being a pendejo. I’d ask her why she kept this picture then. She’d put it away quick and then say, looking down, that it was for me. 

*

Nicole had asked me what was wrong. We were in my bed, underneath the covers. It was cold, but we both had our hoodies on so I didn’t mind it much. I was crying then. I remember I couldn’t open my eyes and look at Nicole. I told her my mom was gonna die and I didn’t know why this was gonna happen and that there was nothing I could do about it. And it hurt so bad. I think it was in that moment I really felt it, before it even happened. It was like there was this burning thing in my chest and I couldn’t cry it out because I didn’t want to wake my family, and I didn’t want them to find out about Nicole sleeping in my room. She touched my face. And I opened my eyes. Nicole’s eyes were watery too. She said she didn’t know why my mom had to die. She stroked my forehead when she said this. I asked what could we do with all of this? She didn’t know. Nothing, she said. I let her hold me that night, my face in her chest. Our hot breaths under the blanket. She ran her hands through my hair and shushed me to sleep. 

*

Amá wanted to keep her hair. I found her once in the bathroom in her robe. She used to lay all day in that robe. It was pink and always looked so soft. Like she was wrapped up in cotton candy or something. I found her in the bathroom; she was sitting on the floor. Her robe had green vomit stains on it. Her hands were moving slow. And I could see her scalp. All she had were these thin wires sticking out of her head. She moved her hands over the tile like she was looking for the rest of her hair.

*

Amá came home crying once. I was sitting on the floor in front of the TV. I think I was eating macaroni and cheese. She came in holding her high heels, and there was all this make-up running down her face. She sat on the couch and lit a cigarette. Her hair was curled and framed her face like a lion. I told her she looked like a dead clown. She put her cigarette out and laughed. She laughed really loud. She asked me to come to her and I did. She wrapped her arms around me and kissed the top of my head. Mija, mija, she said. She told me that it was better to come home to a daughter then to a stupid man. She must have really thought he was the one. Whoever he was.

*

I waited for Nicole one day at the liquor store. She didn’t show up. So, I put the chili Lucas and the Limón Lucas in my backpack. When I got home, I knocked on her door. But I didn’t hear nothing. I wanted to turn the doorknob, but I was scared of her parents, these white people that yelled all the damn time but I’d never seen. I had put my face up real close to their window. Through the cracks in the blinds and I saw that her living room had nothing in it but carpet.

*

Amá was in the recliner and I was sitting at her feet. They were just like ice. Her skin, which used to be smooth and soft brown, was grey and loose. Her eyes were rolled up and her teeth were chattering. Her hair and her eyebrows were gone. She was just a round head popping up from her robe. Abuelo was holding her hand. He was on his knees, and he was asking God to help her. He said his prayer over and over to where it didn’t sound like Spanish or even English, but another language that only he and God understood. His forehead was all tight. Abuelita lit all these candles with pictures of Mary and Jesus and Saints on them. I asked her what the hell were they good for, these candles. Don’t do nothing but make the room hot. But Abuelita wouldn’t understand me, and I didn’t have the energy to try and say it in Spanish.

*

Amá sold Avon for extra money. She kept the samples she liked and convinced our neighbors to buy lipstick and rouge and all kinds of creams for their faces. On New Year’s Eve there’d be a line of women waiting to have Amá make them pretty, like her, and even if they didn’t come out looking like Amá, they came out feeling like her. Their backs straight and smiles all big.

*

One time I was sitting on a bench near the basketball courts at school during lunch; all the kids circled me and asked me where my weird friend was. The white girl who wore the same clothes every day. I knew what clothes they were talking about. A black T-shirt and a pair of dirty jeans. I told them that I didn’t know and that I couldn’t worry about it right now. And one of the girls got real sassy and said that maybe Nicole was living in a box in an alley somewhere. I told that puta not to play like that. And my eyes, I knew they had lots of anger in them because she backed off and got this fear on her face. She said that I really was weird like Nicole. Everyone left me alone. And I thought about the night Nicole held me to sleep. Then, I felt real cold. 

*

Amá was put into the hospital after her fingernails and toenails fell off. I used to rub the raw area, where the nail used to be, real light, when she was sleeping. After school I would take the bus to the hospital. I would sit in a chair in the room that Amá was put in. I would do my homework while these ladies, sometimes men, would come in and fix her wires and that little bag of water they put in her and that little bag of liquid for the pain. Amá didn’t talk much and I didn’t talk much. When she could talk she would say mija, and I would say Amá. And she would roll back. 

*

Mija, she said in a daze in front of the TV. ¿Qué? I said. The movie she was watching was Cinderella from the 1960s. The actress had brown hair, wearing her cleaning clothes, and had a perfect smudge on her white cheek. Nothing, she said. Then the fairy godmother came on the screen and waved her wand and changed Cinderella’s life. Amá laughed and said Cinderella was stupid. It’s better to be the Fairy Godmother because she can do anything she wants with that star shaped wand. I laughed too.

*

I went to the liquor store the day after Nicole was gone. I bought myself a mango sucker. I wanted something fruity. I sat on the floor against the store’s wall. The concrete was hot from the sun, so I kept my sandals on. I wanted to hear someone say: Hey.  And I wanted to look up and it be Nicole. I’d ask her where she’d been. She’d sit down next to me. She’d have cut her blonde hair short. She’d say that her parents got better jobs and that they moved into a house. That she had her own room now and she had lots of different clothes. Dresses. A light blue dress, almost silver, would look nice with her yellow hair. I’d tell her that it was a nice area, and what was she doing down here? She’d say that she wanted to find me and eat candy and ask me to live with her once Amá died. Her parents became good, like parents on TV, but this was just my daydreams.

*

The day I stopped doing my homework, I knew I was running out of time. Her eyes, the whites, turned as yellow as banana skin. Amá would shake, and finally I just couldn’t take it, and I asked the doctor why she shook and why her eyes were yellow, and he took off his glasses and he sat down and he looked at the floor and he said that her pain was so big that her painkiller had to be bigger and that plugged up her liver, which made her eyes yellow. I asked, what about the shaking, could you make her stop doing that? And he looked at me and he told me that the morphine wasn’t touching her anymore.

*

Amá sang in the bathroom while she crimped her hair. Everything from Gloria Estefan to George Michael. She didn’t sound like a Disney Princess but she didn’t crack any glasses either. Sometimes when she was on the phone outside on the porch smoking and talking, I’d go into the bathroom, stare into the medicine cabinet mirror, put on her lipstick, and sing all dramatic. She’d come back in, my lipstick already wiped off, and tell me that was a good impression.

*

I went to the liquor store and I bought the chili Lucas. The owner asked if I was sure I didn’t want the limón flavor like I always get. I told him I used to buy that one for my friend but she moved away and that I really like the chili kind. He told me he would make sure to keep the chili kind in stock. I thanked him and walked out of the store crying. I knew this was my last trip to this store because Amá was going to die and I would have to leave Riverside and live with my Abuelos in San Pedro soon. I don’t even know the store owner but he was nice to me without even knowing what was happening.

*

I remember her stomach being swollen like Amá was going to give me a brother or a sister. But I knew that it was all the sickness swelling up inside of her. My Abuelos ate downstairs at the cafeteria. I never felt like eating anything then but candy. Amá kept saying, No pueden encontrarme. And I told her that I loved her, but I don’t think she heard. Everything she said at that point was in Spanish. She would giggle, and I would get scared because she didn’t even seem like Amá anymore, she seemed like a demon with her yellow eyes. And for the first time I told God. I closed my eyes tight and I told him he did this to her and now it’s enough, that he needs to take her because her gums are red with blood now. And I opened my eyes. And I remember I saw the sickness in Amá’s stomach move. It went up the side of her chest, where her once full breast used to be. And then to her throat, like a frog, and I was scared that she was going to choke, but I stayed in my seat. Then her mouth opened and out of it came this large ball of moving lights. So many lights, like tiny rainbows. And it went through the window like it wasn’t ever there. 

*

One time Amá painted my toenails. Black and orange for Halloween. I felt silly with them, so I asked her to do it too. She shook me lightly by the shoulders and said that she wasn’t a niñita like me.  But then I gave her my sad-girl face, and she sighed and said okay. That day we wore sandals together to the grocery store but no one noticed our feet and that was okay.

*

I dreamt about Nicole. We were standing in a dark room. I couldn’t see the floor, the walls, nothing. She poured the Lucas into my hand and instead of the candy, it was sparkling light that fell from the container like water. Thank you, she whispered.

*

The church was filled with flowers. White ones, yellow ones and red ones. All marigolds. We had a picture of her when she wasn’t sick blown up and put on an easel. Her coffin was closed. No one wanted to see her all shriveled up and bald. I couldn’t listen to the priest; I just kept staring from her picture to her coffin. She was really in there. That’s what I kept thinking. And her picture, it was so weird, it felt frozen in time. And the other thing about it, about pictures of dead people, is that even if you didn’t know that they were dead at the time, you could look at their picture and think, that person is dead. Or at least I could always tell. But the priest, he made us repeat the words about Jesus and Mary and mothers and sons and stuff, and I didn’t know what the hell he was talking about, but he kept singing it like a song, and I swear each prayer lasted like twenty minutes. The whole thing took forever. At one point he had us stand and sit back down a couple times too. And that’s all I remember about it, the picture, the closed coffin holding her sick dead body, and the little priest at the podium singing. Then after that we drove to the cemetery and they brought the coffin to the plot and they lowered Amá into the ground, and when I saw that, I thought, it’s over. Her friends were there and a few men that I didn’t know, though none of them had been there while she was in the hospital, none of them, even when she was alive they couldn’t see her soul. Pendejos. We all looked down on that box. I was never going to see her again. I was never going to feel her curls on my cheek when she hugged me, or smell her musky perfume. I was never going to hear her sing while she got ready for work. I was never going to listen to her cry about her boyfriends. My fat tears plopped on her casket. She deserved a nice man, a prince, to love her. There was so much never. 

*

I skipped the funeral party. I left everyone in my old house, neighbors, cousins, tios, eating their food. It was the middle of the day and our apartment was right by the orange groves. I walked through them and smelled the citrus while I kicked up dusty dirt and listened to my Walkman with Amá’s Santana mixtape on repeat. As the sun went down behind the mountain, I made sure to get back home before everyone would worry where I was at. I just wasn’t hungry.

*

My new life in San Pedro, those who were born here call it pee-drow, began with Abuelo’s voice echoing in the house when he left to go to work, construction. The smell of his coffee floated into my new room under the crack of the door. Abuelita warmed up his pan dulce, just for a couple seconds to make it warm. My stomach grumbled before the hum of the microwave started and filled the house with sugar. I heard him leave from the rattle of the security door.

*

I went to the kitchen, and there Abuelita stood, back turned to me, with her arms up to her elbows and soapy water. She stared out the open window at the wall of jasmine on a trellis, and I wondered what she thought but didn’t ask. She was in a trance. Stared at the jasmine but didn’t really see it. She inhaled the perfume from the flowers and it was like her mind went somewhere else, somewhere private and hers. She shook her head and scrubbed a dish like she never even stopped. A pink concha, on a plate, was left on the table for me. I sat down and ate it in torn-off pieces. She made me a cup of decaf to go with it, brewed with cinnamon and sugar.

*

Abuelita wore a bright-colored sundress. A striped pattern of green, fuchsia and turquoise. Her gold-hooped earrings dangled from her thick earlobes when she would put a dish in the rack to dry. When she was done, she took her earrings out. She sat at the table with me and ate with me even though she probably wasn’t that hungry.

*

In Abuelita’s room there’s a dresser mirror with prayer cards shoved in the corner. Doilies are sprawled across its surface with one small jewelry box in the center. I open it sometimes. The wood smells like mothballs. Inside are two of Abuelita’s small hoop earrings, a pearl drop necklace, an opal ring, and Amá’s turquoise bracelet that she strung herself. I put on the bracelet. It hung on my wrist, heavy. She could have had her own jewelry store. I opened the top dresser drawer to find large silk panties, nylon stockings to the knees, Abuelita’s underthings. Among them I found a photo in black and white and recognized Abuelita because the small mole above her right eyebrow was there. The ‘40s and ‘50s, those unfair decades, but everyone looked like movie stars. I liked the way Abuelita’s hair was curled tight and how her teeth peeked from behind her dark lipstick. She looked at the camera, over her bare shoulder, all flirty. The blurred outline of her body reminded me of the fuzziness in dreams.

*

In the nightstand drawer is a wooden box with La Santa Biblia in gold lettering. Once, I lifted the rusty latch and inside saw the portrait of Jesus; one hand was raised, one hand tapped his chest, a thin golden halo surrounded his head. His face looked feminine and soft. His beard was trimmed into two peaks and reminded me of something more devil-like than holy. A ring of thorns squeezed his exposed heart. When I saw the drops of blood, I couldn’t help but flinch and bring my own hand to my chest. I flipped the thin see-through pages of the Bible. It fanned a smell of its own like money. I pinched out a piece of the page from the Bible with the word sangre printed on it and placed it on my tongue. Bitter. I don’t know why I thought it would taste like cotton candy. Jesus’ eyes squinted at me, and I snapped the book shut in its case. 

*

In my room there’s a crack in the wall. Stretched up near the ceiling from the Northridge earthquake. It happened in the middle of the night and felt like our house was a new toy in a baby’s hands. I got up and yelled for Amá, reached in front of me in the dark. I felt clothes. Lost in the closet. Freaking out, I told myself I was going to die in the closet, suffocate by sweaters. Then Amá wrapped her cold hand around my forearm and pulled me into the doorway. She held on to me tight while the earth moved under our feet. Though she held her breath, her heart beat fast against my cheek. I looked up at her face, focused on the mole above her eyebrow, Abuelita, not Amá.

*

Abuelo came home and smelled like a wet sock, and his hair was plastered to his head from his yellow hard hat. He barely said hello as he put his empty coffee canister in the sink and then jumped straight into the shower. He met us when the food was placed on the table, wore a fresh white T-shirt, sweat pants, hair slicked back from being shampooed. His face was freshly scrubbed, but his puffy eyes and droopy cheeks showed how tired he was.

*

From the kitchen table, I noticed a hornet’s nest in the corner of the window near our front porch. It looked like a honeycomb. I stared at the slick wings of the hornet, its jittery body crawled up, in, and around its nest. I pointed to it and Abuelo stood from the table. He sighed, grabbed the broom, and then went out the front door. I sat inside the house, safe, while Abuelo took the stick end of the broom, held his breath, counted to three, and whacked the nest. It crumbled like graham crackers.

*

I watched Abuelita through the window water the plants. She stood on the balls of her feet and stretched herself taller to get at the tomatoes that hung over our porch. Her chapped and rough heels lifted from the bottoms of her yellow slippers covered in dirt. I worried when she got shaky, like I wouldn’t be able to catch her. She wiped her sweaty face with the back of her hand and came inside the house. 

*

Abuelo put the paper down in his lap and told her she looked sick. But she waved her hand and said she was fine, just a fever. We told her to rest, and for once she listened. I hummed a song to her while she slept in the recliner. Abuelita’s cheeks were sagged, her mouth randomly chewed, her snores got stuck in her nose, and then came out in squeaks. She woke up for a moment and then settled back into sleep. I hummed a song to her sweaty forehead, her faded red eyelids, and the soft hairs in her nostrils. 

*

I made Top Ramen for dinner. Me and Abuelo ate in silence, slurped our noodles; neither of us got full. Cooking isn’t so bad, I said. When we finished our meal, Abuelo took the plates away and filled them with hot water and soap. He scrubbed them with a sponge and then turned them upside down on the rack to dry. The next morning, I made us cereal in the same bowls we ate the ramen from. As soon as I poured the milk in the bowls, rainbow bubbles rose; Abuelo didn’t rinse them well enough. That afternoon, our new neighbor came over, an Italian lady. She heard about Amá and made us lasagna. This dish of mourning, she called it.

Abuelita told me my clothes were like a boy’s. That I wear too many T-shirts and jeans. I told her just because our family has changed doesn’t mean I have to wear dresses all the time. I have one ugly dress, lime green with white polka dots. I wore it to Amá’s funeral. I refused to wear black. Abuelita had ironed it and when she was done, I pictured her wedged shoes sinking into the carpet as she approached my door, hanging the dress on the door knob to my room, sighing before she turned away. Sometimes she still tries to get me to attend misa and hangs that ugly dress on my door.

 *

Abuelita wanted to keep the vanity table when I moved in with them. Round with a gold filigree frame. No one used it since Amá died. It was in my room with a sheet over it. I got up from the edge of my bed and locked the door. I turned off the light on my nightstand. The moonlight peeked through the blinds in the window, enough for me to see without bumping into things. I took the sheet off and stood in front of the mirror. I stared at the outline of me with my face in the shadows. Amá, I said her name, and then three times I said: Araceli, Araceli, Araceli. In time, I saw a jasmine flower unfold it’s petals in the mirror. Her face popped out of its center. Skin soft and brown again. And then I saw her eyes, just two tiny dots of light in them. Her mouth opened and all of these spiders crawled out all over her face like rippling black smoke. I couldn’t scream, stuck in place, the fear rushed through me in hot and cold sweaty waves. You gotta let me go, Amá said. Her voice sounded like when I talked into the floor fan as a kid, all shaky. You gotta get it all out and let me go, she said. I grabbed my stomach. I told her I saw her in the light already. She said, that was my soul and this is my spirit. And then her image flickered and dissolved. I fell to the floor. All of the sadness I carried inside of me, keeping her spirit here, so unnatural, it all came out of me in one glowing stream.

*

I agreed to go to the cliffs with Abuelo one Sunday. Just once. He said he was too tired to go to the cemetery. It was too much to watch Abuelita cry over the names and dates on the marker of her only daughter. To watch her tears hit the stone and then dry up from the sun. Abuelo was too tired to go to misa. It was too much to see the rest of the people sit in the pews and soak up all the light from the stained glass windows of the church. So, me and Abuelo went to the cliffs, he gripped my hand and spoke in a Spanish that lost me. We had walked to the edge of our city, carrying old plastic grocery bags filled with jasmine that we had picked from the trellis that morning. We had dropped the star-shaped flowers one at a time over the cliffs. Watched them catch the breeze, float, and then fade into the waters below.

*

I dreamt I was in the darkness and I could hear Amá crying. Her tears sparkled with the light of her soul. I saw her face cover my ceiling. The same face I saw in the mirror. But this time she was smiling and this time there was no darkness and this time her tears fell from heaven and turned into white jasmine flowers that looked like stars and pressed upon my chest and rippled throughout my body as she sang my name: Viviana, Viviana, Viviana.

BIO

Jennifer Lorene Ritenour is from San Pedro, California and has lived in Las Vegas, Nevada. Her writing is informed by place. Her style has been described as dirty fabulism. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Witness Magazine and Waxwing among other places. “The Language of Flowers” first appeared in two parts in the Santa Monica Review. For more information visit: jenniferloreneritenour.com

MOHUA

By Maitreyee


I

The trees that stood before the gate of their house swayed in the gentle breeze. Spring had brought about tiny, yellow flowers on them. But the flowers had almost all fallen off by now. The Mohua petals filled the surroundings with a sweet, sleepy smell. These Mohua are said to be flowers of intoxication. Sweet liquor is made out of their juice. Some sages have called them the flower of attraction, flowers of illusion, and therefore fit to be metaphors for life. But those sages are mistaken; life is not what is sinful. Life is a penance; and that thing we do to escape from it, that is the actual sin. The drinking is sin, the wanting is sin, the dreaming is sin, and death is sin. Even austerity (unbeknownst to these sages) is a sin.

Salim knows this because his mother has made him learn it, many times over. You have to endure the life you are given, you have to be thankful in living it. But Salim has committed every possible sin on the list. He instinctively knows that. But logically, what Keshav says is also correct. If you do something not as an escape but as enjoyment, it turns from sin into penance, because it turns from escape into life. That is also how love works. He has read that love is the biggest redeemer of all; the most vital of feelings – he has read it keeps the heart beating and the universe going. But you have to enjoy it in order for it be a penance. Salim’s mother never taught him sex could be anything but a penance, a righteous act. And he knew it was correct because when he said that in class, their doctor, Miss Anshu, had him applauded. Until a few years ago, Salim would feel really lucky. He had love in his life, he had money, and he had a basement to live in. Jasleen had it better, Malik and Hafiz had it way better, but their mother had chosen him over them. He was supposed to get married to his mother when he grew up. But in recent days he has started to feel slighted when other boys spoke about girls they liked. When he said this to Keshav he laughed so high all the crows from the Peepal tree flew away. He said Salim’s mother was a b**ch and a c**t. Salim didn’t defend his mother. He had begun to learn how wrong all this in theory was. But this was his life and she was his family. If she wanted to marry him, she could. No amount of wrong could turn this from right.

Keshav was a slumboy of heavier built with long stretch marks on his ribs. He had recently taken up the job of selling IDs to potential buyers. When Salim had asked him where the photos in the IDs came from which they changed after being paid to, at first he couldn’t tell. One day, Keshav came up from behind and sat down on the slum fence by him, saying nonchalantly “I found out where they take the photos from.” On Salim’s asking many times, he said “They kill them. That’s what they do.” Salim thought Keshav was really cool. He knew people who are killed for the good of the world get to heaven. But he still felt a certain chill at the thought. That was always Salim’s fault. He could never change how he felt. Over time, Salim learnt which people were killed. That was the way it always was with Keshav and Salim, they learnt together and realised together. They chewed Mohua petals together. Keshav didn’t make fun of his book reading. He said Salim should create similar books for book-reading if he wants. “You should write it so raw and painful that the readers fear to read it” He said once “because they know it so real that they know what happens in the end.” Keshav is bitter that way. He does not believe in fairy tales. He likes books on murder scenes and fight scenes.

When it came to sex, however, he could never make it come at home. He thought he did well but as he grew, he learnt the difference between the robotic and the human. Keshav didn’t get the subtle difference. Nor did most people in fifth grade. Even Malik and Hafiz couldn’t make him feel. Not even for Miss Anshu who had become a contestant for his mother’s place in his little heart. But once his thoughts had run over Malik’s best friend; that’s when he had an inkling of what it should feel like. Malik played Men’s football at the neighbourhood club, and Salim often went to his practice, committing the young men to memory. Keshav said there was no difference in essence between a man and a woman; and he had read that in school too, men and women are equal in all things. But he knew he must marry a girl. When he first realised he would have equally liked to have Miss Anshu as his bride, he felt a huge sense of guilt. He didn’t even go to the slum wall to meet Keshav though he had promised stock. But it was true. He would like to sleep by her side, cupped in her arms. Feel her heartbeat and hug her from behind in the kitchen. Maybe she would let him marry a man later, too.

As Salim continued to grow up, things started to clear and cloud simultaneously. Almost all of the most important things in Salim’s life happened over the course of the summer in seventh grade. It started when the Mohua first blossomed in the trees, and climaxed when he met Keshav for stock on the first day of school after spring break. There was always enough stock at home. What Salim went to the slum fence for was not the stock but Keshav. He waited for him, his feet dangling over the kickable bricks. But when he saw a tall, dusky figure walk out from behind those trees of sin, his words got caught up in his throat. He found it funny that the first word he thought was ‘puberty’.  Salim had been waiting for his own. Keshav had grown up. Deep ridges now formed in his cheeks as his smiled; the tilt of his lips had become even more crooked. His eyebrows had deepened. Jaws chiselled out. He himself seemed unaware of it. Salim realised with that caught up throat he had not one but two things now, that for the first time in his life he wouldn’t ever be able to share with Keshav.

II

Salim walked up to the fence from under the shade of the Mohua trees and climbed to the other side. No matter how hard it is, he always must take the route through the front door during daytime. From here he could see his mother slouched on a plastic chair, her head towards the ceiling. He was a little surprised when she made no movement at his coming in. It was a good opportunity to turn right back out. On his way out he saw a bare-chested, broad-shouldered delivery man pass by him. He stiffened, his clenched chest loosening like rabbits. He knows what this is. A man’s jealousy. He walked about the corner and entered through the back door, his heart beating wildly.

The back door led through the kitchen to the cellar, which Salim had perfected into a basement living area. It was far from perfect, however. The house stood proud in what remained of an 18th century Thakurbari, with the first floor locked and sealed. Salim’s mother had rented that ground floor where she started a necklace making workshop. Salim wondered if the landlady knew about the basement. One day Salim had ripped off the plaster in the process of being thrown down the stairs and that had revealed passages, with several tiny rooms and one leading to the river. These days Salim didn’t like to spend the night in the basement. He wondered if the landlady was aware of the man who lived in the tunnel.

Salim had heard and smelled him walk, eat, hum and even smoke once. He found some rice and fish in the fridge which he took with him downstairs. The rubble from the broken plaster wall still lay around after seven months. He sat down on the floor and slid his right hand into his trousers. With each mouthful, he increased the intensity of the movements. Salim had wanted to go to the rooftop after lunch now that Keshav was away, but he didn’t get to do that. By the time he regained his consciousness, he could already hear Malik’s haggard breathing from the room above. With an involuntary sigh, he got up and climbed into the light.

But the noises had stopped. He could now hear the new man’s deep voice break into a cracking high-pitched scream. Salim ran into the bedroom in time to see the delivery man push his mother to the ground and lash belt after belt on her. Salim’s chest smarted again; he felt his blood rise up. Malik and Jasleen stood in separate corners, nonchalantly chewing on a paan each. Hesitatingly, Salim walked up to the man and placed his trembling hand on his collar. He didn’t look convincing at all. But he asked him to leave his mother alone. The man smiled and wiped his spit. He put a stop to his mother sleeping by them again.

From that day onwards, the horrible spitting man became a sole centre point for everyone. Their mother no longer spent much time with them. One night, Salim wondered if his mother had already changed her mind about marrying him. To pair intense dismay with infinite relief is an odd thing do to; but both resulted to tears that night and Salim balled up on the floorsheet and cried.

“Did the fisherman bite your hand again?” Keshav asked, breaking into his chain of thought.

“It’s a new one this time” he replied “He’s everywhere and everything now.” Salim had two new, hazy scars on the back of his palm. His eyes went back and forth helplessly, from his own scrawny body to Keshav’s lithe stomach and back.

The delivery guy was everywhere, but to Salim there was a newer, more exciting personage now, and he felt like crying when he thought of it. Salim was bringing back milk from the adjacent market on the first Sunday of his vacation, rejoicing in the well known smell of the flowers that adorned his path. The tree-grove started a little away from the hustle of the morning haat. His revere came to sudden stop when a tall, middle aged metrosexual passed by him to the opposite side. ‘Metrosexual’ was a word Salim had newly learnt on the internet. That well groomed man spiked a sudden chill in Salim’s arms. But no, not because of his appearance. It was his smell. A good smell? Perfume, shampoo? It was a musty, decade old smell of damp. Salim was only too familiar with it. Wishing Keshav was there, he traced the man to a clean, two storied blue house. Then he went home.

At home he stole some phenyl from the kitchen and cleaned all rooms on the passageway from the cellar to the tunnel. He even cleaned his own room. Then he dropped on his floorsheet and slept for the first time since his mother forgot of him.

Next morning after eating some bread and changing his trousers he waited at the Mohua groove for the clean blue thief. But he waited in vain. It was on the day after the next that the lean middle aged muse walked down to his home. Salim hid behind the tree and followed him at a distance. At the third turn he bent down to tie his shoes. Salim slid from behind the Peepal tree and sniffed the blue thief’s shirt. Sure enough, the smell was not there. Salim could even catch a whiff of the Phenyl. At that moment the man stretched up and turned towards him. A terrified Salim turned and sprinted towards the super mart.

Keshav had turned away to snicker at Salim’s retort. “Maybe you should rethink about marrying your hands-throwing momma then,” He said with a chuckle. “Bloody H**ker”

Salim knew what that was. But right now his eyes were fixed on the building at the other end. Every morning around this time the horrid delivery man would come up to drop off mail to this house. Oddly, he delivered all kinds of things. “Wo!” said Keshav “That’s boss. Wait it’s been a while.” He jumped down from the brick fence and ran up to the delivery man. Without knowing the exact words and while mixing up the profanities, Salim thought in essence oh crap. He jumped down too, and before Keshav could find him, reached school.

School was intolerable that day. On the hallway after the last class was over he met a classmate with long black hair. He pulled her into a vacant room (the hundred year old private school was filled with unused places) and pressed his body with hers. The enraged girl took a minute to realise what was happening and while he waited for the unfeeling, mechanical process to reach completion she landed a swinging chop on his throat and walked off. He could feel her crying long after she was gone. He stretched on the ground and waited for them to come drag him away. But surprisingly nothing happened. It annoyed him. He snorted some stock till he felt like himself and made straight to the tunnel. The thief was bundled up on the right side, probably sleeping. Salim produced a cracking kick for his shoulder. This time he was completely convincing. Before the man could react Salim held him up by his collar and laid punch after punch over his clean-shaven face. The man did not retaliate, but calmly accepted Salim’s vehement curses. They eventually fell down, both breathing heavily and wincing with pain.

III

Anil had a very straightforward routine in his everyday life. Three years ago he moved to this city, (some people might say like a creep) and has lived ever since on his lakhpati family’s inheritance. He was a man of simple tastes. In his early twenties he had run away from home with the ambition of joining the civil services. There he rose rapidly through the ranks, but was rumoured to have resigned after the woman of his dreams turned him down. If you could take a peek into his mind you would be able to see how he congratulated himself to have lived the classic bourgeoisie lifestyle, in a half-satirical, bitter sort of way. Every morning he would wake up, complete his training routine, eat his fill and go on a walk. At a certain time and certain point on his walk he would pass by a private school and look for a single mother who would be saying goodbye to the daughter. He would smile on his way and move on. That, he would happily often conclude, was all he allowed himself. His ardour for the woman, he would say, had all subsided except for a lingering affection; but her daughter was his daughter, and she was everything to him now. Most people snickered at this thought, some people wondered if it was perverted, but there was indeed nothing perverted about Anil’s love for the family he had claimed as his own. She might not see it, but he saw that vacant place in the little girl’s marvellously vast life and he wanted to be worthy of it. He was on good enough terms with her mother to be able to do that monetarily – as they owed their first meeting to that infant child – and for now, that was enough. He was even trying to give up smoking and drinking, because he couldn’t imagine the darling angel coming in contact with that swirling poison. He said this to the collar boy, whom he really found amusing.

“I did find you smoke once though.” Salim replied. 

“I do it whenever I am stressed. It’s my way of coping with everything that’s going on” said the blue thief, slightly ashamed of his easy life.

They talked for a while about some things. But the clean thief wouldn’t tell Salim what he was doing in the tunnel. On Salim’s commenting how it was his house actually, the thief made it clear to him that it wasn’t; it was the landlady’s house and his mother was the one who paid for it. Salim asked him if he wanted to buy some stock. The man thought for a while and said yes. He said his name was Sayan. Salim almost laughed out aloud. There were two things in the world that Salim knew well about. One was stock and the other was identity; this man was lying about both. This man had never taken a snort in his life. But when he produced actual bank notes, Salim made sure to get them exposed as counterfeit.

“They are real.” Said Keshav, holding them up in the light.

Salim was still enraged at Keshav for knowing the delivery man, better still for liking him. The worst part was the delivery man was actually fond of Salim. In a sick way Salim knew he was his favourite. One of those days, Salim and Hafiz were sitting down for lunch. It was on those rare occasions when his mother was not high. Salim couldn’t really eat like this; but he was really saddened by Hafiz receiving an extra egg. By the time the delivery man came home Hafiz was already done with both the eggs. The man asked Salim what was wrong. Hafiz told him about the prehistorically existing egg-serving story. He said the reason Salim was never happy about eating with them was because he was a little man who wanted grown man’s food. The delivery man picked Hafiz up and threw him against the wall. Salim bolted up terrified. The man picked up a hot ladle and struck Hafiz with it. All Salim could do was to cry and assure him that he did not want the second egg. He asked their mother cook another egg for Salim and made him eat it.

Not that Salim didn’t once use this to his advantage. By the third week, that man’s younger brother had started coming to their house too and had taken a fancy to Jasleen. Salim was horrified at the thought. And sure enough, she brew trouble. Mother and Jasleen had always been against each other about men, and she soon confronted Jasleen for shamelessly pursuing a man who was too good for her. She asked Jasleen why it was always her priority to ruin their mother’s life. Things soon escalated and mother held up Jasleen’s hand on the stove. The delivery man snatched Jasleen away from mother and the usual scenario was recreated. Malik who tried to come in between them ended up bleeding from his forehead. Salim yelled at the top of his lungs “Stop! STOP!” but no one heard him. In the end he had to make it end by piercing his hand through the pointy fishhook left behind by Jartha.

And this is exactly what he would never tell Keshav. This was the kind of thing his friend hated the most. It was the only thing that could ever made Keshav cry. Salim asked Keshav what the tunnel man could be doing. Keshav thought for a while and told him that recently a lot of young girls had been reported missing. The man could be a detective and hiding there to catch boss.

“Did boss do that?” asked Salim, his hands going cold.

Of course not silly, replied Keshav.

Anil knew about the identity-theft in the neighbourhood. He even knew about the drug racket. He was never bothered about any of that. But there was something about this missing person’s case; it caught his fancy enough to drive him out like in the old days. There was something artistic, mysterious about these kidnappings. To satisfy himself, he had hung around the gang leader, even lived under his girlfriend’s roof. He had not been wrong. Those people were as clueless about this as he was, and probably more worried. After all, this was not the way professionals did it. This was subconscious social mockery. But the dinghy tunnel turned out useful in the end. If not for that hiding place he would never have found out about the abandoned hydrogen plant by the riverside.

IV

Salim sat on the hill by the river in a dejected mood. His eyes followed Salima, his namesake, as she walked by the bank towards the ruins. She was Mehrab’s sister, the girl whom Salim had pinned to the wall the other day. Even though he knew he would never apologize, Salim felt uneasy every time he thought of it. Anil said he would never let a single sin touch his angel without her permission. He was sin. He knew if Keshav knew what he had done, he would have stiffened, and said in a soft voice “That’s an awful thing to do.” What if Mehrab had other ideas about this? Salim decided he would actually be really sorry if someone else ended up with the same unfeelingness.

Salima was soon out of sight. Salim knew girls shouldn’t be going about alone. He got down from the hill and did what he was best at doing. The sister crossed the Mohua grooves and the Palash grooves until she was pretty much walking through the barren land of the decaying chemical plant. Now the boy was really worried, almost sure she was giving up her safety for something stupid. They were walking through a path with only a few thorny shrubs and wild grass here and there. Salim kept to the grass. His heart stopped at the firm grip on his collar. “This is a first” said a well known voice from behind. “You are following a girl through creepstreet. Salim-Salima. Nice.”

Salim said nothing. He undid the hands from his collar and crawled ahead. The sister stopped before a bunch of trees. It seemed she would go towards the highway instead. Keshav had been only teasing him till earlier, but now he added. “Don’t follow her. Let’s go back. She might board the car.” What car? Salim turned towards him. Keshav said nothing, only pulled him backwards.

“Are you involved in this?” said Salim. Keshav shrugged. “It’s her choice. Let’s go.”

“Are you involved in this.” It wasn’t Salim’s own voice.

“Why do you care?” Keshav’s eyes shot afire. “Have you found yourself another whore so soon because your mother will no longer give you your midnight kiss?”

“Well maybe you should go look for someone else because you have successfully mocked and overlooked everything I have ever cared for!” Salim pushed the tall boy away. “Funny to hear you talk about whores after all the people you visit with your murder money! You never taught me any of that!”

Leaving the boy groaning on the ground Salim rushed to the road from where muffled screams were emanating. He crouched down behind the bushes but he could see no one. “This way” said Keshav in a hush. Salim followed his finger and saw two pale naked women carrying an unconscious body into the chemical plant. “Holy hell” said Keshav. Salim ignored him and tiptoed to a creak among the ruins.  Behind the chemical plants were series of abandoned workers’ quarters. The women crouched over the body like two mad cavemen. When they were close enough, they saw Salima was still alive but unable to make any noise. “The twin sisters,” an astounded Salim said under his breath.

But the women seemed to catch on to something. They got up to look around. Salim jerked back in fear. Keshav grasped his hand and led them to place behind the barrels. It was so dark and so jammed no one could know there was any space there except the ones within. Salim lay down for what seemed like eternity, spooned tightly in Keshav’s arms. Keshav closed his eyes and breathed in sync with him.

“I didn’t” Keshav whispered as they untangled after the women were gone “I didn’t meet any whores, with or without my stupid money.”

“One of us must go report.” Said Salim. Keshav nodded. “You will be okay?”

In those days they still kept up the telephone booth, but the nearest one was at the marketplace, which was six miles away. No one can run that distance that fast, but Salim had that day. How he would come to regret that decision! He had years enough to balance them out; to figure out what he regretted the most – the punch, following Salima, the goodbye or the moment he turned around. That was it. When he hung up on the kind dispatcher and lifted his head towards where Keshav waited for him, and saw the smoke rise into the sky. And he ran back. Fighting, fainting, falling he ran half the way till he realised it was pointless. He sat down on the wet ground and pressed his hands upon his aching jaws. It would take him months to learn how the kids had been tied together, gagged and blown up; it was originally meant to have been a house on fire but the plant had blown up too with what remained in it. It would take him years to learn the mechanics.

The whole neighbourhood knew how close the two boys were. His mother came down to meet him and wiped away his tears. Is my little prince doing well? She asked. Salim sat stoned, unable to process what she said. She placed her hand on his head and stroked his hair lovingly. Then she promised him she would make sure he felt better. But before she could kiss him, he got up. The Mohua flowers were long gone, leaving two old, commonplace trees behind. Miss Anshu’s Hospital wasn’t really far from his place. He calmly walked up to her and sat down. The truth is he doesn’t remember how she looked, why he sat down and what he said.

They waited till ten o clock. The police did arrive despite the commotion of the blast. His mother and Malik arrived. The roadside workers injured in the blast all arrived. It was unbearable. Mother and Malik put on a great show; their child would never say such a thing in any other circumstances except a shock of this intensity, he had been on drugs in company of the unfortunate boy, his mother had toiled lifelong for them etc, etc. When Salim realised he would have to go back to the basement anyways, he decided to go take a stroll.

Outside, Anil was sitting on a bedi smoking. When Salim saw him, he sat down by his side. Really sorry about your friend, Anil said. Salim shook his head. It didn’t matter anymore. He had successfully entered into the penance of life, nothing was anymore an escape. “Death is about to become commonplace.” he said, looking at the blinking lights of the unending queue of ambulances. Anil was amused again. But then Anil did the unthinkable.

He extended his palm and offered Salim a smoke.

The kid looked at the spiralling fumes. His lungs burned in anger yet ached for them. In the end he lost to an ancient sigh, and stretched his fingers out.



BIO

‘Maitreyee’ (She/Her) is currently completing her senior secondary from Kolkata, India. She likes to tell stories that deal with concepts of Behavioural Psychology, Perception and Dialectics. Her involvement with the heritage of Bengal, though relatively new, has had a great impact on her characters and the world they live in. Her work has previously been published by Rigorous and The Write Order. She has written for and is actively associated with Wallflower Scribbles, a student based social media community that aims to explore local culture and support youth empowerment in the region. She is planning to complete her first book ‘All Good Girls Go To Alsergrund’ in the very near future.


Annual Rites

by L. Shapley Bassen


     Sunday, March 4th, 2001, Marwa set aside homework (fine-tuning preparation for the Intel Science Fair in Brooklyn in two weeks) to accompany her Stuyvesant High School classmate Judy and her father out to a cemetery on Long Island to put stones on Judy’s mother’s grave. Judy lived uptown from Marwa in Greenwich Village. A monster snowstorm was predicted for Sunday night through Tuesday; TV meteorologists were frenzied, storm-tracking this and Doppler-4ing that. Dr. Yamaguchi, Judy’s father, was less depressed than Marwa thought he would be because he was “getting a chance,” he said, “to drive his midlife-crisis-red Nissan out of the City.” Marwa had stayed over at Judy’s on Saturday night so they could get an early start. Marwa didn’t understand the Yamaguchi family mood, especially since eight-year old Nina was coming along to the cemetery for the first time, but she had felt honored when Judy had asked her to come along.

     Dr. Yamaguchi was about the same age as Marwa’s father, in his fifties, but that was about the only similarity she could see. Dr. Y (Why?), as he liked to be called, was mid-height. While he was not fat, he had a distinct belly that pressed against the belt of corduroy slacks.

     “I am not a fashion-plotz,” Dr. Why apologized.

     Judy suffered not only over paternal wardrobe but also her father’s “faux-Yiddish that he somehow thinks makes him an honorary member of my mother’s tribe.”

     Marwa could not think of an occasion that could compel her father ever to apologize or speak faux anything. He was tall and trim. “A banker is not a shopkeeper.” She had never seen her father even in slippers without socks. But Dr. Why didn’t care Judy and Nina weren’t sons.

     Dr. Why was a Japanese-American who had married a Jewish woman. Because of the impending blizzard, they wouldn’t be going after the ceremony to the condo of her Lensky grandparents. Judy’s Lensky-Yamaguchi mini-genealogy included Dr. Why’s parents, both deceased, who had been in the concentration camps for Japanese-American citizens during WWII. He had family living “in Northern California where the mud slides,” Dr. Why added from behind the wheel.

     Beside him, Nina was occupied with changing a CD. 

     The sporty red sedan had just crossed over the Williamsburg Bridge and was moving toward a huge cemetery. Marwa had an early memory of this garden of stones. She had asked How do stones grow? Her older brother Sharif said Stupid girl. She thought (1) stupidity was bad; (2) girls were stupid; (3) there was an important difference between stones and living things.

     Dr. Why started singing. Nina put a CD in and pressed Play. 

    As Nina sang along with the motherly teapot from BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, Dr. Why stuck to, “Life is just a bowl of cherries…Don’t take it serious, life’s too mysterious…”

     “My father prides himself,” Judy said, “on singing a song when another one plays.”

     Dr. Y tapped his head. “You should see what flashes in your brain. ‘You work, you slave, you worry so’–”

     “–But you can’t take your dough when you go, go, go,” Nina sang.

     “Nice, Dad,” Judy grumbled.

     Marwa patted Judy’s hand. “Commiserate with the shark guy’s kids.”

     “What?” Dr. Why said.

    “Archaic sharks on the Discovery Channel, Daddy. They were a hundred feet long with teeth shaped like triangles the size of my hand,” Judy said.

     “I don’t want to imagine their kids,” Dr. Why teased.

     “Not the shark guys, Daddy, the sharks had the teeth,” Nina said.

     “Toothless scientists studying ancient sharks?”

     “Yes, Daddy, the scientists were utterly toothless,” Judy said.

     “They were not. They sat inside the shark’s jaw,” Nina opened her mouth wide. “They could both fit inside it!”

     Marwa thought of repetition. Arachnids had eight appendages, the octopus eight arms, oxygen’s atomic number was eight. She said, “The Chinese consider eight good luck. They exchange eight tangerines for the Chinese New Year.”      

     Nina said, “I’m eight.”         

     “Ijtihad,” Dr. Why praised. “It means the ancient Islamic tradition of questioning. Ijtihad.”

    The car had moved past the wide ocean views rimming Brooklyn’s Atlantic shore. The highway curved to parkway to eastern Long Island. Marwa looked out at the reddening trees. They would green next, willows haloed in yellow with neon forsythia. Purple, yellow, and white crocus were budding out of patches of old snow.

     The night before, Marwa maneuvered Judy away from morbid topics to a tetrahedron sculpture on a windowsill beside a giant geranium plant. It looked like Judy’s tiny two-dimensional Jewish star expressed in three-dimensional bronze wire nine-inch outlines stuck into a wooden base. They faced each other across the coffee table and put the sculpture between them like a Ouija board.   

      “Vibrations?”

     “None.” Marwa stood up and went to a tall glass centerpiece at the dining table. “Hey, this is new.”

     “Hey, be careful, it’s my mother’s last extravagance. My dad only took it out today. It’s a Klein Bottle,” Judy said. “Hand-blown.”  

     The transparent object looked like a one-legged stork bent over, its beak hollowed into a tube against the one leg. Marwa made a face.

     Judy said, “Wanna blow into it?”

     Marwa took the fragile object out of Judy’s hands and replaced it on the table. “We do not,” she said.

     Judy curtseyed, “You’re such a prude, Queen Victoria.”

     Marwa wandered over to two large prints framed above the couch. “I like the Magritte with the men falling like raindrops. Like scales on a fish, all in one direction. Like worshippers bowing to the Kaaba.”

     “You think conformity is beautiful?” Then Judy backed off, “Are you hungry?”

     “I dreamed last night that I was eating my way out of a bathtub filled with spaghetti.”

     Judy had chased Marwa into the small kitchen. They made grilled cheese sandwiches with tomatoes and sour pickles. Marwa didn’t tell Judy about Descartes’s three dreams or her own.

     Nor had Marwa told Judy about seeing Denim Prix (Pree) two weeks before, during February break when the Yamaguchi sisters had been away in Florida with the maternal grandparents she was about to meet at the cemetery. Denim Prix was the highest paid male model in the world, and he lived in Marwa’s building in Battery Park City. She had met him in September.

     Marwa’s parent were working that week in February, and Joey was looked after by Mrs. al-Banna, an Egyptian widow at their mosque. For this week that New York public schools had off, her mother took Joey to Mrs. al-Banna’s apartment over on East Broadway.

     Marwa had been left to herself to work on the Intel Fair preparation, which she had dutifully done until the weather changed for momentarily to Spring. The sun rose into a cloudless sky, and the temperature climbed to fifty degrees. Marwa might not have known, so engrossed in spreadsheets and graphs as she was, had not a pigeon perched on her windowsill and pecked at the glass. It had been months since Marwa had seen a pigeon fly this high and close to the building. All winter, there had been only seagulls and terns in the distance over the Hudson.

     Marwa stared at the blue-necked white pigeon. It quickly flew away, and then she looked down at the street. People were walking without coats. A carnival breeze was blowing at street level. Marwa decided to go out for lunch. Mounds of snow from the last storm remained, but melt was in the air, puddles everywhere. Marwa left her parka behind. She walked along the esplanade. The sun glittered on the river.  

     Pree wasn’t sitting on the bench where they’d met. He leaned against railing and stared at the water. He wore a dark wool cap pulled over blond curls. Pree turned and saw Marwa. The cap was a dark outline around a smile. His green eyes were outlined in brown. She smelled coffee brewing and thought his skin explained why coffee was called ‘brown gold’. She said yes to lunch nearby in a small cafe decorated for Valentine’s Day, all red hearts and bow-and-arrowed Cupids on the windows, doorway, and cashier’s counter. They found a table.

     Marwa kept talking.

     “The month of February is named for one of the aspects of the Roman goddess Juno. The whole month was sacred to Juno Februata, patroness of the fever — febris — of love. The original Valentine’s Day was Rome’s Lupercalia. Guys handed out proto-valentines with girls’ names on them to be partners in erotic games. I take Latin.”

     Pree signaled a waitress who tripped when she saw him. She spilled the water she poured   and rushed to put in their orders.

     “It’s a good thing she’s not carrying knives and oranges,” Marwa said. 

     “What? Why?”

     “The Koran tells of Yusuf, Joseph, ‘the noble angel’ and the rich women. They cut their hands with knives intended for oranges when they first see him. When they see Yusuf, their hands just slip.”

     The shaky waitress returned with their food and iced tea for Marwa, hot coffee for Prix.  

     Pree sipped and said, “It’s like acid.”

     “Your coffee?”

     “The way the waitress looks at me.”

     Marwa couldn’t swallow.

     “I don’t want you to think I like it,” Pree said.

     Marwa stared at a red cardboard heart. “The Catholic Church replaced Juno Februata with the mythical martyr St. Valentine. They said he was a Roman teenager who was executed at the exact moment his girlfriend received his invitation, the first Valentine.”

     “People look at me as if I’m food. As if they’re starving.”

     Marwa forced herself to take a sip of the cold tea. “There are a lot of people worse off.” It’s what her mother would have said.

     He laughed and pulled off his cap.

     Dizzied by his gold curls, Marwa thought of her hijab and blurted, “There wasn’t any observable differential.”

     “What?” Pree asked.

     “Deferential?” he asked.

     “Differential,” Marwa said. “The diamond I told you about in September. At the bench on the esplanade. I don’t know why I lied like that.”

     “To impress me,” Pree said easily, eating his sandwich. “It worked, but I didn’t believe you. Don’t you like your salad?”

     Marwa looked down and saw the food. She took a forkful, swallowing with the help of the iced tea. 

     “Why didn’t you believe me?” she asked.

     Pree shrugged. “I never believe anyone.”    

     As they were walking back to their building, he invited her to his apartment, then laughed when she said no. He twisted the gold ring on his middle finger

     “I hoped you wouldn’t. But you say the view is lousy from your floor.” Pree put his hand on her arm. “You may never talk to me again — but I want you to know something. From the time I was half your age, there were people — of both sexes — who wanted to buy and sell me. And they did. I even thought they cared. But it got — old and it got — ugly. And now I wish I could outvirgin you.”

     His hand steadied her. Then he let go.

     “Oh,” he swallowed a curse, “that came out wrong. I don’t mean — I don’t know how to talk to anyone,” and Pree left her rooted there.

     Why hadn’t she said anything or run after him, caught up? He didn’t want her. She hadn’t misunderstood him. It was just the sudden heat, the ides of February, all the others’ fevers for him including her own.

     The memory and its heat were blown away by the bitter March wind at the cemetery. Dr. Why walked ahead, taking Nina’s hand out of her coat pocket and putting it with his hand inside his big brown leather glove. Nina had been quiet since they left the highway for the wide avenue that took them past several large cemeteries. They had stopped at a strip mall of grave monuments and a florist where Dr. Why bought green metal cones and three bouquets of daffodils. You could taste the storm coming, a metallic flavor in the icy air. At the gravesite, Judy’s grandparents and uncle and aunt were shivering. There were embraces and small talk. Dr. Why, Judy, and Nina stuck the daffodils inside the cones into the ground.

     Judy’s Uncle Robert took out a prayer book and read, “Yis’ga’dal v’yis’kadash sh’may ra’bbo…v’imru. Omein.”

     Judy’s relatives all repeated, “Omein.”

     Judy and Nina joined in a second behind as their father did. The prayer went on for a short time, but Marwa knew it was over when a final-sounding “Omein” was echoed.

    The grandfather cried, but Judy’s grandmother just pressed her lips together tightly and held her husband’s hand. Uncle Robert’s wife unfolded a piece of paper and read a poem.  It was very short.

     “‘Once out of nature I shall never take/ My bodily form from any natural thing,/ But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make/ Of hammered gold and gold enameling/ To keep a drowsy emperor awake;/ Or set upon a golden bough to sing/ To lords and ladies of Byzantium/ Of what is past, or passing, or to come.’”

     Then each family member picked up a pebble from the ground and ceremoniously placed it on the top of the headstone. Marwa thought, Once out of nature, why would all the questions Nature forces us to ask even matter? They wouldn’t matter without matter. But they were the most important questions we asked here. Then a huge black crow flew to a tall yew hedge and folded its wings. It waited, flapped, cawed loudly, waited again, and then flew away. Nina huddled between her father and her sister, but she didn’t cry until Judy did. Uncle Robert’s wife had tissues. There were embraces again and tearful farewells. Back in the car, Nina made no move to put in a CD.

     Judy asked Marwa if Muslims observed annual mourning.

     “In the twelfth lunar month, Dhul-Hijah, at the end of the hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca, for Id al-Adha, in late January or February usually, we visit the graves of our relatives. The Feast of the Sacrifice. But all my family’s graves are in Egypt.” Although no one asked, Marwa filled the silence by adding, “The Id marks Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son at Allah’s command, according to the Koran.”

     “Did he kill him?” Nina said.

     “No, it’s the same in Judaism,” Judy explained. “Abraham’s son Isaac. There’s an angel or a scapegoat instead. A goat appears. Abraham kills the goat. That’s where the word ‘scapegoat’ comes from.”

     Nina said, “An escape goat? It didn’t escape. It should be an instead-goat. A steadgoat. Why’d God want to kill the son or a goat?”

     “Abraham wanted to show Allah that nothing was more important to him than Allah. For us, it is a sheep, not a goat.” Marwa said.

     “It was Abraham’s idea? Marwa, you said at Allah’s command. I don’t think he should’ve killed a goat or a sheep,” Nina said. “I’m going to be a vegetablarian.”

     “A vegetarian,” Judy corrected gently. “A vegan. Tell Marwa where babies come from.”

     “Doesn’t Marwa know?” Nina said.

     “She’ll admire your theory,” Judy encouraged.

     “Well, I don’t believe it any more, of course,” Nina began, “but when I was little, when I saw fat pregnant women, I couldn’t figure out how the baby would get out. Then I thought of belly buttons and figured baby buttons grew during pregnancy. When it was time for the baby to come out, a special baby button doctor knew how to unbutton the buttons. Like those trapdoor pajamas they put on kids.”

     Marwa realized that Dr. Why had been silent since he’d started driving back to Manhattan. He didn’t utter a word until they were nearly at the Williamsburg Bridge, and then he asked Marwa about her Intel Fair project. He expressed surprise when she told him it was not only her synesthesia but also his research that had inspired her, but Marwa saw the Crayola Timberwolf grey in his voice and could almost hear a low howl.   

     Every September for a generation now, I remember that journey with Judy’s family. I take the subway downtown from my lab to the 9/11 Memorial. I don’t leave from my apartment on the West Side. I need to go to work first before facing Pree’s name carved with the others into the black stone around and far above the waterfalls in the recreated foundation of the Towers. On the subway, I always retrace my steps of August, 2001. It was as blistering hot as the blizzard cold in March. That August day, Judy got a tattoo to mark her loss of virginity the month before. I got my ears pierced. I told Judy ear-piercing was okay because Safiyah and Fatima had gold earrings. In the summer of 2001, Judy and I had internships in different university labs and were anticipating senior year in high school. Judy messaged me at Stonybrook from Hopkins in Baltimore. In that July, Pree took me on a chaste date to a movie star’s mansion in Southampton. In her absence (starring in France), Pree vacationed there. The celebrity offered her home as penance for being one of the many who had abused his youth. After the hot day of tattoos and piercing, later in August, I broke Pree’s heart. Even at virginal seventeen, I understood that he was sacrificing his desire to regain innocence to my lust for his experience. Of 9/11, I have many memories. I have a thin scar over one eyebrow where I was cut by something falling out of the sky. It is better than a tattoo. When I go every year and penitently place a pebble at Pree’s name, I remember the rabbi at the cemetery: “The Hebrew word for ‘pebble’ is tz’ror which also means ‘bond.’ When we pray, we ask that the deceased be ‘bound up in the bond of life’ – tz’ror haHayyim. By placing the stone, we show that the person lives on in and through us.”


BIO

A native New Yorker now in RI, L. Shapley Bassen was the First Place winner in the 2015 Austin Chronicle Short Story Contest for ‘Portrait of a Giant Squid’. She is s a poetry/fiction reviewer for The Rumpus, etc., also Fiction Editor at https://www.craftliterary.com/, prizewinning, produced, published playwright: originally at http://www.samuelfrench.com/author/1158/lois-shapley-bassen, now https://www.concordtheatricals.com/p/1563/the-month-before-the-moon ; 3x indie-published author novel/story collections, and in 2019, #4, WHAT SUITS A NUDIST, poetry collected works at https://www.claresongbirdspub.com/featured-authors/l-shapley-bassen/
FB Author page: https://www.facebook.com/ShapleyLoisBassen/?modal=admin_todo_tour
LinkedIn https://www.linkedin.com/in/lois-bassen-11482a5/
Website: http://www.lsbassen.com/

The Two Missing Words

By Dave Henson


When a commotion outside Mep Dugan’s open bedroom window woke him, the dream scurried into the thick undergrowth of his subconscious. Widow Splenks was arguing with baker Brown. Mep stuck his head out the window and saw that a toss further down the street Lucas Diddle was shaking his fist at the milkman.

Mep wondered why nobody in the village got along anymore. The thought yanked the dream into daylight. The dream tried to squirm away, but Mep held it tight ‘till it was clear in his mind: Two words had gone missing from the village, and their absence was the reason no one got along anymore.

Mep couldn’t remember what the two words were but felt he’d know if he saw or heard them and so set out on his search.

The first place Mep looked was the library. What better place for words to hide? But after rifling through the pages of nearly a hundred books, he was overwhelmed. Volume after volume, shelf after shelf. Mep asked Lydea the librarian for help. He didn’t tell her the whole story. She had a way of arching her eyebrow at Mep and making him feel peculiar. Mep just asked Lydea to be on the lookout for two words that, while perhaps unknown to her, felt vaguely familiar. Words that seemed out of place, perhaps in the margin of a book or in a sentence where they didn’t belong. Despite Mep’s careful manner of asking Lydea for help, she arched her eyebrow.

The next place Mep sought the missing words was on Lerry Lowdly’s street corner. Lerry took to the corner from dawn to midday and spoke mostly nonsense to no one in particular. The village folk ignored Lerry’s gibberish, which Mep thought made it an excellent place for the words to hide in plain sight.

“A day of clouds seeks the shadows,” Lerry said as Mep approached him.

“Never mind me, Lerry. I’m just going to stand with you a spell.”

Mep listened as Lerry went on about such things as the soil having its way, bark shinnying up the tree and stones in soft places. After a few hours, Lerry announced that the river’s climb to the sun was steep and walked off.

Mep wasn’t ready to call it a day himself. A short ramble outside of the village, was a babbling brook — a tranquil place for missing words to hide.

When Mep got to the brook, he was shocked at how many rocks the words could be hiding under. But determined as ever, he took off his shoes and socks and waded into the stream. He flipped over stone after stone, but found no missing words. Exhausted, he sloshed to dry land and lay down under a tree.

… A pain in Mep’s foot awoke him — a crow was pecking his big toe. “Hey, stop that.”

“I’m here to help,” the crow said. “I have the two missing words.”

The crow told Mep that his tenacity was impressive and that it had long-standing familial ties with a murder of crows in the village. For those reasons, the crow gave Mep the missing words.

When Mep heard the two words, they shone in his mind like shafts of light through breaking clouds. No wonder their absence had caused so much trouble. Mep thanked the crow and offered to dig up some worms to show his appreciation. The crow said thanks, but no thanks and flapped away.

Mep, so excited he forgot to retrieve his shoes and socks, rushed barefoot to the village. He spoke the two missing words to everyone he met and convinced the town crier to repeat them over and over.

The missing words found their way back into the villagers’ vocabularies and conversations. Arguments grew less frequent and nearly stopped. But the villagers began to overuse the words, wedging them into verbal exchanges where they weren’t necessary, where their intent was to dismiss, manipulate or create advantage. 

One morning the crow who had returned the missing words to Mep glided through his open bedroom window. The crow told Mep that if the villagers didn’t stop using the words selfishly, they would disappear for good at dusk.

Mep spent the day begging his fellow villagers to use the rediscovered words as they were intended so that their little town didn’t again find itself in the throes of acrimony. No one paid him any mind.

Just before dusk, as Mep noticed the crow circling lower and lower, he came upon Lydea the librarian in the park. Mep explained all that was at stake to her.

Mep thought Lydea’s face softened, thought he’d gotten through to her, that there was hope. “Peace be with you, Love,” she said. Then she arched an eyebrow. “Now fuck off, you peculiar little troll.”


BIO

David Henson and his wife have lived in Belgium and Hong Kong over the years and now reside in Peoria, Illinois. His work has been nominated for Best Small Fictions and Best of the Net and has appeared in numerous print and online journals including Fictive Dream, Pithead Chapel, Moonpark Review, Fiction on the Web, Red Fez, Bewildering Stories and Literally Stories. His website is http://writings217.wordpress.com. His Twitter is @annalou8.

Matters That Concern Me

by Walter Weinschenk


I’ve experienced some difficulties lately.  I’m thinking of the most recent chapter of my life though that chapter may not be as recent as I suppose it to be.  Hard to say, hard to think.  I’m speaking of the project I’ve completed.  I have built additional brick walls within the confines of my room to buttress existing walls.  I had planned this endeavor for quite some time and designed it with precision and constructed it with care and, presently, the brick reinforcement that I had envisioned and needed in a dire way stands firmly before me.  Though it took considerable effort, that effort is best understood as a symptom, a side-effect or manifestation of limitless need, an ever-evolving need that I don’t quite understand.  It rises and dissipates, hibernates and wakes, sleeps and rouses itself in some part of me and, without hesitation or forethought, proceeds to wage war against me from within.  It is an asphyxiation of sorts.  The present expression of this come-and-go need, this rise-and-fall desperation is only one chapter in an endless array of chapters in my book of need and is by no means the last chapter or next-to-last chapter.  It can be said that the struggle to resolve some need or all need that arises within me serves to define me, more or less.  I had a need and this particular need could not be ignored and attending to it could not be delayed.  The nature of that need, this time, was much in line with the way it always is though somewhat at variance with it.  I have added a brick lining to the walls in my room despite the fact that the room was not very large to begin with and isn’t simply a room:  it is, in a very real sense, a sanctuary, some days more than others.  The old walls that defined the room (and there could not have been a room without the presence of those walls) had been in place for as long as I can remember and those walls continue to stand but, somehow, I became convinced that they were not enough.  I came to believe that the walls as they existed were in need of immediate fortification and so, now, they are fortified.  I was convinced that the added strength would provide longevity.  There was no other possibility, there was no other way to live, it could be no other way, it had to be just so, now and forever.  It’s done, at least for now and, perhaps, forever.

It took some time, I forget how much time.  It was backbreaking labor though I hardly remember having been engaged in the process.  The dull clay lining of brick, the color of overripe fruit, is solid and sublime.  The work is complete in every way at this particular juncture.  I know it, I see it and I presently experience it but the story of its construction is a dim memory, barely a memory which is, more or less, the equivalent of a dream and, like a dream, it is ephemeral and dissipates in time.  A dream cannot be explained and the same holds true for memory:  it cannot be explained.  I have created a new reality for myself in the form of new brick walls but I am the only one who sees those walls and appreciates that reality.  It is, nevertheless, a statement that I alone could make and stands as utter and absolute proof of my effort and, no doubt, I had to have made such effort to get to this point and achieve what has been achieved thus far.  There is no other explanation.  It is there, I am here and my new reality is confirmed by the fact that the area of my room has now been diminished by the area of space committed to, and consumed by, the additional inner wall that now stands flush against the existing wall to which it is adjoined.

The job seems to have been done rather well, at least that’s my impression.  Those bricks are as straight as straight can be.  They run perfectly across and around me as any horizon you might detest with all your heart as you stand upon the beach and peer out in all directions.  That horizon is the only thing you see.  It encompasses you like a circle of elderly trees.  Detest, I say, because that horizon is perfectly straight, sharp against the sky and well-defined in a threatening manner like the edge of a razor that needs to be kept at a distance for fear of the potential that lies within it like electric current that rides within a wire and can’t be seen but threatens because it exists and is, in this way, quite inhuman, perfectly inhuman.  The vertical lines are plumb, of that you can be sure.  What I’m left with is a hardened insular lining.  I am protected like a fox in a lair, a bear in a cave, no doubt you understand, you empathize, you’ve been there.  You might even picture yourself sitting in my room in place of me, needing something, wanting something, faced with a predicament that can never be defined even if we took all the time until the end of time and back to the moment that has just passed to define that need, that predicament, that problem and you might as well spend the whole of your life seeking a resolution that is somehow satisfactory.  In fact, it becomes you all at once and you find yourself doing just that, seeking something out, seeking the answer, all the while knowing there is no answer and so you let it go until it arises again.  It’s a never-ending start and stop.  I said that it becomes you and that is unfortunate but, after all, we are only human.  It is hard to keep it all in mind because the memory of the problem and solution are crushed, one atop the other, each forged into the other so that each consumes the other, each overtakes the other, each is enmeshed and adjoined with the other in the way that a crimson meteor crashes to earth and becomes one with it so that there is only one thing left.  The two become one and one is all that remains and all there is.  It is an answer of sorts.  The resolution has been formulated and all will be fine, at least for a while, until the problem reemerges years or months or seconds from now  and, once more, it will stare you down, mock you, concern you, seek your pity or petition you for closure until you can no longer stand that state of irresolution and you feel compelled to resolve it, once again, knowing that it’s not something within your power to resolve in any effective, enduring way.  For now, however, the new brick wall – my double wall – will suffice.  It is a holy bulwark.  It will harden until it is no longer capable of hardening and, at some particular time, it will cease to be a memory.  I will have become accustomed to it and I will come to believe that there never was a time at which it did not exist.

But it is not fear of a thing that gives rise to the problem and it is not fear of a person that gives rise to the problem because, in truth, there’s nothing I seek to avoid and I have no one to fear.  The problem is a bit more complex, I suppose.  It begins with me:  I bask in my own invisibility.  I celebrate my own distance from things.  I see a world that exists beyond my window and beyond my walls but I need to be decisively separated from it and I see the whole of the world through my window and through my mind’s eye and I remain far from it.  I am here and there, I am in and out, I can see but I can’t be seen.  I feel secure and insecure simultaneously and it is a remarkable thing.  I look out through my window, I gaze, I raise my head slowly so my eyes are positioned just above the sill and I peer out at whomever walks by.  I watch every move but he or she or they that I watch don’t feel my eyes upon them.  They don’t feel the traction of my vision upon their backs and they fail to detect the drag of my cognizance of their existence hovering over and beside them though it feels to me that my stare is so heavy and so immensely forceful that it surprises me that no one feels the trembling weight of it or senses the heat of it or hears the drone of it.  I know each who crosses the path of my vision at the very moment that he or she or they cross my path.  Their presence is announced long in advance by the shuffling of their footsteps upon the pebbly pavement and I feel their presence as their presence rises and fades, much like the memories and dreams that invade my consciousness in the moments just before my eyes are scalded open in the light of morning while (and all the while) I remain untouched, unseen, unknown and this, for some reason, has given me a source of meaning and method of experience that is personal and can’t be explained but exists and takes the form of an underlying vibration that coops the space within my being and evolves into a form of problem, an unwanted noise, a throb of consciousness that claims my entire attention as I pace the inner sanctum of my room.  It is, perhaps, the wriggling embryo of an enigma that lifts its head and arises unannounced and needs to be resolved and, when it yawns and wakes and pulses, it requires that I attend to it.  This is my pattern, this is my purpose, this is my sequence, this is the order and character of events that comprise the ether of my experience.  Those parts and participles and fragments are nothing more than pieces of problems that emerge in variant form but they coalesce, eventually, as a continuum, a unitary problem that has phases just as you and I experience the flow and confluence of day and night, wakefulness and unconsciousness though each phase has a different feel over time.  Consequently, my existence can be summarized as a continuing dialectic, a quivering procession.  My endeavor to resolve the problem is really my attempt to apply salve to an unending series of lacerations.  Problem, resolution, problem, resolution, over and again:  it is tantamount to a sweeping, desperate effort to satisfy a craving for refuge within an enclave or behind some rock or curtain or wall.  I seek an escape from the eyes of others.  I need to remain unseen.  I reserve and effectively retain my place outside the line of sight so that others may remain oblivious to my existence while my eyes fill with theirs.  I suppose there is nothing new or exciting about this.  I’m no different than anyone else.  I suppose we occupy ourselves in individual efforts to rectify or resolve whatever requires resolution, each in our own way, though I really wouldn’t know, will never know, can never know.

I rarely leave.  I stay within my own very well-defined perimeter that is framed by solid physical borders, now bolstered to an even greater degree by the addition of a solid brick lining with a surface so rough and real that it scrapes my skin as I brush my hand against it. Even if I wanted to saunter out on my own in the pale light of day, it would be difficult to do so.  Even if I no longer savored the space between myself and others and even if I felt compelled for some reason to link arms with he or she who walks down the street, even if I wished to join the ranks of humanity, even if I felt a need to stand on some street corner and greet each passerby as each walked by and extend my best wishes with joyful words that surge out of me and flow through the medium of my raspy voice, it would be so difficult, so extremely difficult.  It is difficult to leave the castle keep within which I have enveloped myself though, of course, I need to emerge every now and then because the exigencies of life demand it.  One must shop for groceries, one must buy clothes, one must argue with one’s neighbor or stand still upon the stool while the tailor draws the dull chalk like a knife across the coarse fabric of one’s new suit and one must sit in the chair while  one’s hair is styled as pieces of it fall past one’s eyes onto the floor and one must complete an array of tasks and indulge in various rituals and seek various allowances to accomplish the entirety of it all, the grand act of living.  One needs to leave one’s home.  If you wish to live, you have no choice but to leave and walk out into the world.  But to get out, one must get in and this is no easy feat.  First, there is the street and the doorway that would need to be opened, a heavy wood door, modern, pale like the skin of an old apple, beset by a small window that stares out warily like some cyclops eye, too small and high to be of much use to anyone and if that door were a face, it would be the blandest of faces, unknowing and apathetic.  Despite its appearance, that door would open easily but only after the latch is released and, unfortunately, it is often a bit difficult to manage.  It takes time to jiggle the key so that the latch turns but it becomes a habit after a number of attempts like anything else in life.  As you enter you would walk and as you walk you would find that there is a steady lowering of the ceiling that looms over you, high above your head at first but drops steadily at a gradual angle and lowers to such an extent that it almost brushes against your scalp as you pass beneath it and there comes a point at which you are forced to crawl along the floor to get to where you need to be.  As you proceed through the corridor, the flat blue matte walls are gradually overtaken by shadow but you navigate through it, narrow as it is, as the heat almost overtakes you and you struggle through two or three twists and turns, much like the jumble of paths and furrows that cross, back and forth, within some labyrinthine hedgerow until you are delivered into the confines of a small anteroom, not much larger than the dimensions of a Kashan rug, floral gray, onto which you step and from which you quickly step off, no larger than the top of a kitchen table, leaving it behind as you notice (and you will notice) that the room has no prominent features other than a bookshelf and lamp.  You notice that these walls, unlike the walls through which you have crawled, are spotted copper much like the spotted skin of your own arms that you can still see in the dim, dull light.  You sense the odor of plants and soil and moisture and, indeed, there are several wilting Philodendron set neatly on a narrow table that run the length of the wall in front of you.  At this point, you have no choice but to commit to climbing the black steel spiral staircase which you enter by stepping through an open archway.  You climb up and around the incremental steps that wind tight like a rubber band, your hand firm upon the winding rail as you walk in tiny, concentric circles and rise for an indefinite time and it seems like such a long time though you realize, soon, that it is but a moment until you reach the hallway, lit bright by a modest chandelier that protrudes overhead and shows you the way and guides you along but if you could only see the structure through which you have just ascended, you’d know that you’ve risen through a small white tower, a turret of sorts, which embraces a lone window with curtain drawn.  If you were to study this tower from the street, you’d note to yourself that the window is framed in black.  That window is my window.  You’d notice as well that my tower is topped with a cone roof, a primitive hat built of slate shingles that wind around in circles, smaller and smaller, culminating in a pin-like point at the very top but you are inside, not outside, and you have now come face to face with the cedar door to my room and, if you were to enter, you would notice the lining of brick that buttresses my walls and you would see the lone black-framed window with curtain drawn, that same window you noticed while standing on the street, and you would see me sitting at my desk or standing by the mirror or lifting the curtain that hides the window in order for me to peek out of it and, having arrived, you might not remember how you got there.  It may feel like a dream or a memory and, though your journey is vague like a dream or a memory, it is a reality nonetheless.  You are now here and being here is proof of the fact that you came here whether or not you remember the details of how it is you arrived.

This is how it is but this it’s not the entire picture.  What’s missing are the fields and forests of experience and the tangle of gullies and gorges of thought and need and resolution that come together to form an inextricable knot and comprise the evanescent conundrum that is my essential self. What’s missing is the sublime feeling that comes over me as I find my bed at night after having jettisoned many of my preoccupations.  I lie down upon a bed that is situated beside and beneath the sill of the window.  It is the very same window that you saw while standing on the street and would surely recognize if you were to enter my room.  I lie down and my head is so close to that window that I can feel the chill of its frame in winter and the heat of its pane in summer.  I am secure in the knowledge that my window is immediately accessible and it happens to be the case that many of my concerns wash away like leaves in the rush of a river in spring and this sense of peace arises only because I realize that my window is so close at hand.  The air settles around me and it is then that I hear the sounds of distant things.  I hear the rolling of railroad wheels.  I hear the insane drone of motorcycles on a highway.  I hear the languid roll of a plane overhead.  I hear all these things and, as I hear them, I feel myself drawn like a minnow into a gentle eddy of cool serenity.  I revel in the sense of distance between myself and the train and the motorcycle and plane and I can almost imagine the thoughts and concerns of the people aboard trains or those who ride motorcycles or sit high in flight above the clouds.  I delight in the mystery of that distance.   It feels as though I can see them though they have no conception of me and have no reason to think of me but I think of them always and can practically visualize the expressions on their faces.  I embrace them in my mind but they would have no reason to think of someone who thinks of them and projects a conception of them within his own consciousness and takes pleasure in that distance as he lies in bed on the verge of sleep and, in his final wakeful moments, wonders not of himself but of them.  It is an aberration of intimacy.  It is an elegy to the tenuous ties that connect me loosely to others as I meander through the shadows of their lives.  It is life literally passing in different directions, one past the other, each and all somehow free and somehow tethered.  This is how it is as I stare into the grey-black ceiling above me searching for planes and trains and motorcycles as the darkness of that ceiling becomes my own dark night and my eyelids sink into the floor of the gorges of my eyes like doors of a store that slowly close at the end of a long day.

This is how it is but it is only part of my particular picture because, like everyone else, I wake up.   These matters, these sensations, this procession of thought and the long coil of longing are the remains that I gather.  They are part of the whole.  The dreams that cascade through the thermosphere of my sleep are forever lost within the whirlwind of my own oblivion except for bits and pieces.  What’s left are fragments of thought and memories of a dream rather than the thought itself or the dream itself.  Dreams fade, memories fade, the sense of things fade, it all fades so incredibly fast.  No matter how hard one tries, those dreams and memories and sensations cannot be retrieved but for the edges and corners.  A moment or two passes and my thinking mind returns and its quadrants quickly fill with complete thoughts, rigid thoughts, and this barrage of thought is inconsequential though some of these fleeting thoughts are worth hanging onto.  There is always a category of thought that is key to survival and must be retained and developed if one is to navigate life and progress or proceed to some destination, however defined.  These are the mundane thoughts, the practical thoughts that serve as markers etched onto one’s mental compass and, in fact, much of my thinking is devoted to practical things such as cooking but I soon veer from the practical and settle into a quasi-reverie that is a peculiar form of consciousness in itself.  These are the moments that I spend wondering and peering out the window during the days that my eyes wish to wander like children.

In fact, my eyes have their own innate desire to latch on to those who walk by.  Passersby approach from the end of the street and cross directly in front of the window through which I stare.  I sit and wait and suddenly, as if on cue, I see someone, anyone, walking along the sidewalk in my direction.  There appears a man, there appears a woman, there appears the postal worker making his or her rounds, there appears the delivery man or the plumber or the electrician or the person who walks for the sake of walking.  If I wait long enough, I will have something that resembles an encounter, one in which my eyes are steady above the sill as I peer out, scan the street and behold some random person.  I will let my eyes latch onto his or her being and I will wind up thinking very hard and wondering very hard.  I gaze and theorize, I gaze and wonder, I gaze and fall into an ocean of want, a river of need.  I need to know who it is that my eyes follow.  I need to know the thoughts that are housed in his or her head.  I need to know what lies within the inner sanctum of his or her essential self but I know that it’s impossible to know.  There is no language through which that self can be communicated.  This question, this predicament, can never be resolved.  Conversation is inadequate no matter how honest and earnest and open a particular person might be.  That is the problem, it’s a real problem:  it is an unending deficit, a perpetual hiatus, an experiential nausea and it causes me to suffer from one moment to the next and, perhaps, I’m the only one who feels it and faces it and cowers before it.  I cannot know anyone in any real sense and, consequently, I’ve come to recognize and realize the vacuity and tyranny of raw need that cannot be assuaged.

If there is an exception, if there is one person who is capable of being known, it is the blind tenant who lives across the hall.  He is remarkable and astonishing but, as extraordinary as he is, I am discouraged in his presence.  I may visit him or not but I am less inclined than ever to interact with him and I have purposely kept my interactions with him to a minimum since these encounters always end in a way that is debilitating and unsettling.  I do visit him, however, from time to time.  I cross the hall, I knock on the door and I hear the latch unlock from within.  The door opens wide and the light of another world pours forth over me like shafts of sunrise.  Before me stands the blind tenant who ratchets his head down to face me and his face formulates a smile as soon as he hears my voice.  He is tall and heavy, his shoulders are wide and his red tussled hair falls unevenly about his neck and ears.  He embraces me, he grasps my shoulders, he pulls me through the door, he ushers me around a sparsely furnished room as he begins to talk and he rambles incessantly in a voice that is both gruff and happy and pleasing.  He offers wine or beer or bourbon and I take him up on it, I drink with him, I drink the beer or bourbon or wine and I ask for more and he delights in pouring.  I drink until I’m drunk, I laugh at his joke, I listen to his story and he and I join in laughter.  He laughs uproariously.  We toast each other.  We exclaim “to life!” in unison and we continue to drink but, invariably, the visit takes an odd turn.  He’ll draw me over to the large living room window that overlooks a street that runs parallel to the street that is mine to look out upon.  He’ll open that window as wide as he can and, as blind as he is, he’ll somehow know that someone is just then passing, close upon the sidewalk.  Somehow, he will spot that person who is no one in particular.  It may be some unsuspecting dog walker, for example, and he’ll yell “good morning” though its long past morning.  The dogwalker may yell back “good morning” and the blind tenant and the dogwalker might then carry on animated conversation about dogs and walking and the winter to come.  I can only hear one side of the conversation but I do hear the laughter that comes from each side of the window as that laughter punctuates the paragraphs of their conversation.  It is at this juncture that I begin to feel distance between myself and the blind tenant and the space between us explodes in the minefield of my mind and it is at about this time that I decide to leave.  Even though their conversation continues and the blind tenant and the dogwalker are happily engaged in explaining themselves and telling tales and recounting the twisting turns of their respective lives, I will feel an overpowering urge to leave, to escape, to run for my life and I will feel aching, debilitating need coalesce within me as though it were organic, soon to ferment like yeast or fester like infection.  I find my way out.  I fall through the door while the blind tenant continues his conversation.  I stagger back across the hall, I see my cedar door and I crash into it.  I open it quickly and I close it quickly and I throw myself onto my bed and I let the experience come to an inglorious end.  I let it become a memory, I let it be what it is:  something that I cannot quite grasp, something that evades me.  I proceed to let months or weeks or days pass until the time comes, once more, to visit the blind tenant.  Though it may be long, long, long into the future, that day invariably comes and, invariably, I summon the will to visit again.  I always visit again.

There is more, however.  There is more that I encounter, more to my reality and more to the tunnel of experience through which I pass.  There is the matter of rent and there is the matter of the landlady.  Rent is one of those things that one must deal with.  The landlady is real and my obligation to pay rent to her is real.  It is the pinion that holds the wheel in place and allows it to spin in circles.   There is also the matter of the landlady’s daughter who is no longer young but, when she was young, I was young as well.  When we were children, the landlady’s daughter would run in circles and I would run after her.  She had heather hair and her bangs would bounce against her forehead as she ran.  She would laugh while she ran and, when she laughed, two glistening teeth would ride high in her mouth and, indeed, she would laugh quite often.  I would laugh as well.  There was joy in running and there was joy in laughing and I recall running and falling and laughing.  It would not be an exaggeration to say that we were inseparable.  On occasion, she or I might sing.  We would collect sticks.  We would see who could jump the highest or farthest and we would march into piles of leaves with great vehemence.  We would strip petals from flowers in the garden.  We would dig through the dirt with our fingers.  We would retreat to the steps and sit.  It may have seemed as though we were waiting for someone to arrive or something to happen but, in fact, we were waiting for nothing and no one at all.  Her favorite color was blue and blue became my favorite as well.  Sadly, the friendship came to an end when she began having problems with her legs.  She had trouble running and then she had trouble walking and there came a time at which she could run or walk no more.  She sat in a wheelchair from that point on.   I saw less and less of her until I hardly saw her at all.

There is also the matter of the landlady’s son who lives somewhere nearby and visits his mother on occasion.  I don’t know his name though, perhaps, I should.  He is thin and his arms dangle as he walks and he wears a fedora and I find him repulsive.  He doesn’t comport with my conception of what a landlady’s son should be.  He doesn’t fit the model.  He is overly confident and self-assured, he is loud, he is argumentative, he is petty and you can tell that he tries not to smile.  He walks as though he owns the ground.  Ordinarily, this would not be a problem because, in truth, anyone can be loud or crude or narcissistic in some way, to some degree, at any particular time though some people more than others.  In this case, however, his presence is a problem.  Those who walk in my direction are forced to change direction to avoid walking into him.  He stands upon the sidewalk as if it were a conquered nation and his presence is enough to force those who pass by – those who I claim as my own – to avoid me, leave me, disengage from me.  The landlady’s son forestalls the only opportunity I have to behold the miracle of some other person, some stranger, some being who has a personhood all his or her own.  He repels all those who would otherwise enter my life and command my attention and serve as points of wonderment.  He destroys those possibilities.  He trespasses upon my psychic space as well:  though the silence of the evening doesn’t belong to him, the thought of him is enough to disrupt the delicate stillness and quiet harbor of my own inner peace.  He upsets the panorama of light and air and stars in the night that comprise my universe and he upends the reverie in which I may be immersed.  If he were to stand below my window and laugh or scream or berate his mother, his life would thereby be imposed upon my own – and so it is:  he disrupts both her life and my life in this fashion.  He imposes himself upon my personal eternity, he upsets the array of opportunities that are open to me at any given moment and, as he does, he folds my life into smaller and smaller dimensions.  Because of him, I cannot contemplate or confound myself with the mystery of trains or motorcycles or planes that I might otherwise hear in the distance.  I am prevented from contemplating or understanding those who happen to be walking along the sidewalk or rolling down the tracks or passing through the clouds or speeding down the highway as the sound of wheels and engines split the night.  My mind is pulled like a moon caught in gravity’s grasp so that it circles about him and is bombarded by his statements and exhortations.  The space we share is thereby sliced to shreds by his razor-edged voice.  Simply stated, I am dislodged from my world through his presence and I’m hurled into his.  My incessant effort to come to terms with my own world is upended.

There is another matter of concern and that matter is the dream that recently visited itself upon me.  I had a dream, most of which I can remember, and it was truly a memorable dream.  I dreamed that I looked down upon the street and noticed someone who slowly tilted her head, up, up, up until she was looking straight up, searching for me, patiently waiting for me to appear at my window.  When I lifted my eyes above the sill, I spotted her and, as I spotted her, I saw a smile that I think I’ve been waiting many years to see and I lifted my head so that I was standing tall by the window and gleefully yelled “how are you?” in as loud a voice as I could muster.  I didn’t care the hour and didn’t care if I upset the entire neighborhood with the sound of my voice.  I dreamed that she saw me and received my greeting and yelled in as loud a voice as mine: “how are you?” and it went on from there.  It was as happy an occasion as I can recall and it was a beautiful thing and I cried in my sleep and felt the drip of a tear as it ran across my cheek and jumped over my nose into my pillow.  At that moment, I woke up and remembered my dream in minute detail and this was quite unusual because I rarely remember my dreams.  I retained her image in my head and even though she was a creation of my own mind as it swam in sleep, I nevertheless thought of her as if she were real.  I thought about her often and I can’t help but think of her often.  Though her visit was not real, I spend time wishing she’d reappear.  I want her to search for me and find me.  I need to hear her cry out “how are you?” as if it were a statement and, if I were to hear those words, I would respond “how are you?” and I would luxuriate in her words and she in mine.

In addition to the matter of the landlady’s son and the matter of my recent dream, there is the more pressing matter of the landlady herself and the rent which lies at the core of our relationship.  In the absence of my obligation to pay rent, there would be no landlady and there would be no landlady’s son.  She exists, of course, and has a place in my life and has had a place in my life for longer than I can dream or remember.  If she did not exist, I would have some other reality to cope with.  I might live somewhere else, in some other town or city or in some other room or attic or cellar.  I might not spend most of my day peering out a window and, in that event, my eyes might not have the opportunity to lock onto the back of some unsuspecting stranger and I might not lie in the bed in which I presently lie while lost in the sound and mystery of the noise of trains and planes and motorcycles as the sound cascades into the plasma of the night.  I might live somewhere else and, for all I know, I might be someone else.  I might be well connected, socially adept, well-liked, sought after, loved.  I might owe rent to someone else and might have to answer to someone else but in a different way than at present or I might own my own home in which case I would answer to no one.  The possibilities are limitless but my reality, my only reality, is one in which I am bound to a person who has been my landlady for as far back in time as I can remember, to the extent I am able to remember.  Her need for me to pay rent emanates from her core and that need is palpable and endless.  In order to extract a check from me, she seeks me out and listens to me and cajoles me and soothes me and encourages me and insults me and this has been the case for countless years.  She can be kind, she can be understanding, she can be demanding, she can be disagreeable but she doesn’t know me and doesn’t seem to want to know me but I sense, in her case, that there is more to the story than her overriding need for me to pay rent.   She has tired eyes.  She draws her brown-red hair into a bun one day and lets it fall upon her shoulders the next because, perhaps, she lacks the strength to twist it.  There are times at which she seems lost as when her voice is weak and her eyes are red and the glistening edge of a tear appears beneath one eye, then another.  I can determine for myself that she feels defeated as when her left shoulder sinks lower than her right and her cheeks appear pale and the laces collapse upon the tops of her shoes with every step she takes, over and again, as if those laces share the burden of her defeat.  I think I can tell when she is sad though I say nothing and firmly believe that I shouldn’t say anything.  I’m tempted, during the course of her visits to ask, “how are you?” but I hold back.  It feels wrong or ill-timed or inappropriate or all of these at once.  I wish not to take the chance because, if I were to ask, “how are you?”, she may not answer and that would be devastating.  I won’t try, I just can’t, I know how it may go and it terrifies me.  The question that I could ask is a question that can’t be asked.  I have a strong sense that she has a multiplicity of needs that shroud themselves within a panoply of selves that cohabit within her but all this is based upon conjecture and the bits of things I’ve observed that I think I remember.  It is all part of my experience and it feels like dejection.

There is, however, the approach that I devised in my own mind based, to some degree, upon memory and dream and an element of hope which is a small raft in a large sea, difficult to cling to but the only thing one can hope to hold onto if one wishes to avoid drowning.  That hope will become a reality because I see it in my mind’s eye.  I am certain of it and I can say with utmost assurance that the event or experience I contemplate will happen as though it has already happened.  It cannot refrain from happening.  It is bound to happen.  Reality bends in my direction, it has no choice, it can be no other way just as history has no other option but to be whatever it is, at least to the extent that it can be retrieved or remembered or dreamed.  What will happen is this:  I will peer out my window and see a blue dot at the end of the street and that featureless blue dot will grow and advance in my direction.  That blue dot will define itself and come closer and take on the features of a human being and, before long, I will not see a blue blur but will see, rather, the landlady’s daughter once again.  She will approach in her wheelchair from far, far down the street and I will recognize her and find comfort in her familiar image.  I will remember her, to the extent that I am able, in the form and manner of the person she is and I will recognize the array of bits and pieces of her that have lingered in my memory.  The woman I see will be the same person as the girl I once knew.  I will realize that she’s been gone, long absent, deeply missed and I will suddenly realize how much I’ve missed her.  I will realize her as a person, here and now, in the course of this new time, this new immersion, this new day.  She will come from the far end of the street toward my window, closer and closer, and I will hear and feel the dull vibration of the steel silver wheels of her wheelchair as they screech and moan until that screech and moan ceases.  She will sit upright in that chair and I will see her situated directly below the sill of my window and she will allow the wind to lift grey tufts of her hair so they float like feathers above her head as the wind lurches past her in spasms and her hair will rise just so high as to reveal bright earrings, each laden with glassine diamonds that light electric, energized by the spears of the sun’s light that land like arrows and those glistening targets will fire like twisted lightning against the coral sky.  I will slowly lift my head above the windowsill and slowly stand and I will feel the gentle push of the airstream against my face and under my hair and around my shoulders and my features will be clear and evident for her to see and she will ask “how are you?” and I will respond “how are you” and I will let those words fly in the air in a manner in which they can be heard and felt and understood and they will be heard and felt and understood as a statement and they will mean and can only mean “I need you.”


BIO

Walter Weinschenk is an attorney, writer and musician. Until a few years ago, he wrote short stories exclusively but now divides his time equally between poetry and prose. Walter’s writing has appeared in a number of literary publications including the Carolina Quarterly, Sunspot Literary Journal, Cathexis Northwest Press, Beyond Words, The Closed Eye Open, The Write Launch and others. His work is due to appear in forthcoming issues of The Courtship of Winds, Ponder Review, The Raw Art Review and Iris Literary Journal. Walter lives in a suburb just outside Washington, D. C.



An Artist’s Whore

By Grace Ford


            The first stroke is the hardest—that’s what artists always say. They don’t speak much once they’ve gotten started, tucked deep into the fervid concentration required for true genius, but they tend to chatter a bit before their brush first finds the canvas. They get a little jitter in their hands, rolling and rerolling their shirtsleeves, shifting around on their stools. Creative nerves. Yes, the first stoke is the hardest. One particularly crude man told me that the same can be said about sex, and he grinned when he saw me blush. I never posed for him again.

            Once they put their brush to canvas, I become a body, my contours and angles theirs to consume and regurgitate. The exchange of money makes me a common commodity. Like a prostitute—you can wander the streets as the sun slips away, and if you have the right intentions, you’ll find one of us to strip down for you. These are the things I think about while I pose—an ideal time for useless thoughts—and the painters wonder why my skin flushes pink as the minutes pass. They ask if I’m feeling too warm, and should I like them to open a window? Sure, open a window; the passing breeze might distract me.

            “Is it the candles?” Mr. Barrow asks.

            I jump, startled. The linen sheet shifts beneath me. “I’m sorry?”

            He doesn’t look up from his canvas but stands now in a warm cast of firelight from the dozens of lit candles strewn about the room. The half-darkness is oppressive in such a small flat. His eyes flicker over his work, hungry, obsessive, grappling for a flaw.

            “The candles,” he repeats. “I like the contrast they give, but it can make the room rather hot. I could open a window.”

            There’s a window facing West, opening onto the lamplit street. It must be drizzling outside; the glass pings as its spit with rain. He doesn’t wait for my response, doesn’t even glance over to consider my expression—a charmer, he isn’t. The night air chases out the thick perfume of mineral oil and sweat.

            “That’s better,” Mr. Barrow says, and returns to his canvas.

            I say nothing, resume my pose: one arm supporting my head, which looks off with an expression of unassuming sexual allure, the other draped across my side to emphasize the curve of my waist, making sure to keep my thighs slightly crossed. Too much on display is distasteful, though not enough is boring. Art, it seems to me, must always strike a balance of provocative and socially acceptable. 

            Mr. Barrow is talker, always mumbling something, even now as he continues to paint. Technical musings about light and color theory that seem to spill out of his throat, unnoticed. It comes so quiet, I barely catch it, and I find myself straining to listen.

            Then, “I’d like to include the birthmark.”

            The beat of silence that follows is deafening. Out of instinct, my arm shifts to cover the dark, oblong shape that sits, like a stubborn coffee stain, in the crook of my waist. Part of it still shows, the massive thing.  

            “I told you up front, Mr. Barrow,” I say. “It’s my one condition: no birthmark in the painting.”

            “You don’t need to call me that,” he mutters, but I ignore him. He puts down his brush. “There’s no need to be ashamed of it. It’s very unique.”

            “I’m not ashamed.”

            “Then why hide it?”

            “Precisely because it is unique,” I say. “Recognizable.” I would kill for a glass of water at the moment, my mouth has turned so suddenly dry.

            His eyes linger on my face, and he does not pick up the brush again, instead grabbing a paint-stained rag to wipe his hands. In the glowing half-light, I lose his face to shadow.

            “Dorothea,” he says quietly. My name—I didn’t expect him to remember it. “Do people call you Dot?”

            I watch him, watch the vacant, deft movements of his hands. “Some people do,” I say.

            “May I?”

            “Mr. Barrow-”

            “If you call me Benedict, I’ll call you Dot. How’s that?” He smiles for the first time, and I think of the crude man who grinned at me over the lip of his canvas, eyeing my bare breasts. This smile is small and crooked, more of a grimace, unpracticed and unused. The opposite of a circus clown, but perhaps just as upsetting to young children. The thought makes me inadvertently smile back.

            “Fine,” I say. “Yes, that’s fine. Now are you going to paint, Benedict, or are we just going to chat?”

            He laughs, a short, keen sound, and that seems to be his answer. He plucks up the brush and sets back into his work.

            Two hours later, I pull a cotton robe over my shoulders as Benedict adds the finishing touches, of which there can never be enough, to the piece. From a standing position now, I linger near the settee, my gaze unable to settle. The flat’s layout is nauseating. It’s a tiny space, half kitchen and half art studio, the floor littered with stacks of books, crinkled paint tubes, and unfinished sketches. There’s an inordinate amount of furniture on the studio side, where I’m trapped, and a shocking lack thereof on the kitchen side. The whole place feels unbalanced, off-kilter. Reflective of the mind that put it together, perhaps. Unnerved, I start to inch towards the foyer where my coat hangs, intending to leave the man absorbed, unaware of my absence, but the floor creaks underfoot. Benedict snaps from a trance.

            “Oh, please,” he says. “Let me get your coat.”

            I let him because he said please, although he doesn’t sound too enthusiastic about it. He disappears into the foyer.

            I can’t say whether it’s curiosity or suspicion that draws me towards the painting, or if I even intend to take a peek at all. I seem to float towards it, thoughtless, willing to let my eyes consume it. My legs and breasts, milky white and slightly exaggerated, stretch across the velvet settee on the canvas, my face not truly my own but rather generally female. And in the middle of that Aphroditic figure, a dark brown stain.

            Benedict has returned, coat in hand. When I turn, he looks like child caught with his hand in the cookie jar, strikingly guilty yet pleading innocence with his eyes.

            “Paint it over,” I say.

            “Look at it,” he says, shaking the coat in hand. “It’s beautiful. Just look at it.”

            I repeat myself through clenched teeth, like an animal: “Paint it over.” I grab my coat from his hand as I pass him, the urge to hit him, slap him, harm him in some tangible way pounding at the thin skin of my mind as I do. He won’t do it, I know, not on the request of someone like me, but my face is burning and taught with fear that I can’t let him—a stranger—see. I leave him with a toneless “good evening” and scuffle out onto the London streets, headed for home.

⁂        ⁂        ⁂

            Lucille’s house has a leak again. Springtime showers have kept the roof damp and saturated, moisture gnawing through the wood. Drops cascade down to patter against the cast iron stove that sits against the far wall. They sizzle passively on contact—Lucille must have stoked last night’s embers back to life already, but the kettle is still in the wash basin. She hasn’t yet started her morning tea.

            The leak is a familiar trouble spot, one that my mother had patched up almost every spring when she was still around. On Sundays, when her employer insisted she take the day off—that’s when she came to see me. She’d splurge on the carriage fare to bring her down from the countryside and into London, still wearing her black maid’s dress and white bibbed apron, hair concealed under that horrid lace-trimmed bonnet. I could always identify the tell-tale sounds of the carriage horse’s metal-clad hooves clinking down the street, and my heart would swell. She paid for my stay in Lucille’s house monthly out of her paycheck, but in the springtime, she would patch the roof in exchange for one month’s rent free. I’d like to say she was generous, but really, she was just a show-off. I spent those Sunday afternoons squatted on the street outside the house, hand raised against the sun so that I could watch her work. She would hitch her skirts up to her knees— “The only time a lady can be indecent is when she’s doing a man’s work.”

            I had just turned twelve on the first Sunday that she didn’t show. I waited at the open window of my bedroom on the house’s second story, listening for the sound of the carriage horse. Lucille reasoned that the weather was too bad to make it down from the countryside—there had just been a late-winter blizzard, and the roads were slick with ice. My mother came the following Sunday, then missed the one after that, then returned again, then missed the next two. Her visits became fewer and farther between, until they stopped altogether. After the snow melted away, I prayed every night for the leak in the kitchen to spring, as if she might return to patch it up. The leak came back, but she never did.

            I grab a pail from the cabinet under the wash basin and set it on the stove top to catch the falling drops.

            “That leak’ll be the death of me.” Lucille waddles into the kitchen, stray hairs wiggling as she shakes her head at the ceiling. She has one hand on her bad hip, whichever one she’s decided is bad today, and the other on her chest as if she’s short of breath. “Either it or you,” she adds. Her cockney accent curls the end of her words. “You were out so late; I nearly went to comb the streets myself.”

            “Artists prefer the night,” I say, waving a hand towards the heavens. “They draw creativity from the moon, or something.”

            Lucille tsks at me as she waddles over to the wash basin in search of the kettle. “Cheeky, just like she was.”

            Never a day goes by where she doesn’t compare me to my mother—salt in the wound if I’ve ever seen it. I can’t blame her, of course. Old people reminisce as a form of grieving, because if they never stop grieving, the funeral is never really over. I can’t blame her, but I can’t thank her either. Best to just let her have her funeral.

            I’m headed for the door, mind set on St. James Park and the glorious show I’m sure to see today, when Lucille says, “It’s Sunday. Has she written you?”

            My next step falters, and I pause in the doorway. It’s been years since she bothered to ask that question. She doesn’t even check the mail slot for rent payments anymore, which leaves me to check it for death notices. “She hasn’t,” I say. “But she might.”

            The silence that follows is filled only by the ping of waterdrops from the unpatched roof.

            It’s late in the morning as I reach St. James Park along the River Thames, and the sun is almost at its pinnacle, preparing a lazy slip into the afternoon. The park is packed—absolutely stuffed. Tents hoisted, blankets spread, tea chairs erected for posh bums to rest on. The greenery is strewn with an amalgam of tussore silk, Dutch linens, and fine gingham. I stare, lips curving into a grin, and staring back at me are the perfectly circular tops of dozens of parasols, blushing ivory and crepe under the new spring sun. Of course, they must have parasols, lest they burn and ruin their porcelain skin. I find an empty spot on a slope, close enough to observe the scene but far enough away to not disturb it.

            If there’s one thing that’s predictable in life, it’s the schedule of the high society folk. It is spring, and the rain has eased for the time being, and therefore the lovely ladies and gentlemen of high society simply must promenade by the riverside. The tents and tables would be those of their families, their mothers taking tea in the shade while counting how many gentlemen beg to kiss their daughters’ hands. A mating ritual, that’s really what it is—the showing off of this year’s most eligible wombs.

            The scene plays out in front of me: the languid movements, the perfectly paired, color-coordinated couples strolling the garden paths, the hush of the Thames shifting in its bed. I could almost convince myself I was asleep, dreaming of a strange world in which humans were really just animals. Peacocks and tigers flashing their colors and stripes. How ridiculous it looks from afar, how absurdly lavish. I wonder if my mother ever thinks the same thing about the family she cares for, or if it looks different when you’re on the inside. Perhaps, despite their extravagant clothing, she knows them to be just as boorish as the rest of us. Perhaps she feels affection for them.

            Of course, she does. Didn’t she also promenade like a peacock when she came of age? She had a different gown for each gala, each ball—the daughter of a wealthy country gentleman is never to be caught in the same ensemble twice. Didn’t she, too, carry a dowry so large that young bachelors tripped over their trouser cuffs to win her hand? Before she got pregnant, that is, and threw it all away for a man whose name I’ll never know. Perhaps she shouldn’t have fanned her plumage so wide, and she wouldn’t have been sent off to servanthood under the hush of propriety. I might have known my father, my grandfather. I might not have been born at all.

            But then, who am to judge who a woman gets naked for?

            The ground vibrates close behind me—footfalls—and I glance up to see Benedict Barrow towering over me. He grimaces, the smug bastard, as if we should be happy to see each other. I look away, drawing my knees up to my chest.

            “Dot,” he says in that flat tone of his. “Haven’t seen you here before.”

            “Likewise.”

            “I come here to paint sometimes,” he says. I imagine he motions to a little easel set-up somewhere in the distance, but I don’t care to look. “May I join you?”

            I let out a grunt, some noncommittal noise that he apparently interprets as the affirmative. He settles on the grass beside me. My eyes fall to the ground, suddenly uncomfortable with the idea of him watching me watch the rich folk, although that’s what I came here to do. I have no other excuse at the ready, but I know the question is coming.

            “What are you doing here?” he asks.

            “It’s a nice day,” I say. “Just thought I’d enjoy it. Not much work on Sundays, anyhow.”

            He nods, stretching his legs out in front of him. “Even the wicked must rest, contrary to popular belief.”

            If it were anyone else, that would have gotten a laugh from me, but I can’t bear to give him the satisfaction. Wicked, indeed.

            A cool breeze blows in off the Thames, sending the tents and parasols swaying in a lazy dance. A large white sunhat tumbles across the grass with a man in pursuit close behind, undoubtedly on behalf of some beautiful lady. If I were alone, I would giggle, commit the scene to memory. Unfortunately, I am not.

            “I’m sorry about what happened last night,” Benedict says, and I go stiff. “I didn’t realize that it was so important. I painted over it, of course, like you asked.”

            My only response is, “Good.” I know he’s lying by the casual slip of his tone, but if I say anymore, I’ll give myself away.

            He seems relieved by my easy acceptance, visibly relaxing, crossing his legs Indian style. “Can I ask why it’s so important?”

            My fingers tear at the grass beneath me, and I look at him, take in the calculated eagerness of his expression, the shadow of genuine confusion. He wouldn’t understand my fear even if I explained, couldn’t comprehend my reputation’s fragile state. He is a painter, a generally disrespectable profession, saved only by the fact that it is a pursuit of the arts. Benedict Barrow can claim passion as his vice, the betterment of humanity as his goal, even as he sinks closer to impoverishment. There is dignity in his purpose, whether actual or performative. His mother can disown him while taking solace in the fact that he’s simply a “dreamer.” There’s no solace in your daughter being a whore.

            In my mind, I see his painting, my birthmark on full display, the birthmark that my mother used to trace with her fingers as she bathed me. She would say it looked like a cloud, and I, ever eager to be right, would tell her, “No. Clouds are white.”

            “Clever girl,” she’d say, pinching my side.

            I imagine her in her employer’s great hall, carefully polishing the silver as she does every Tuesday, only to look up and see that a new painting had been brought in. It might take a moment or two, as buried as I am in the recesses of her memory, to recognize it. Her eyes would linger on the brown cloud-shaped mark until they filled with hot, shameful tears. My stomach clenches in my gut.

            It’s only now that I feel the sting behind my nose, feel the slide of warm liquid down my cheek. I swipe the tear away with the back of my hand. Benedict stares out over the park, not seeming to notice. He might have forgotten that he even asked the question.

            “There’s someone who would recognize it,” I say. I hesitate, trying to ease the tightness in my throat, then add, “If they saw the painting, with the mark, they’d know what I do for a living.”

            He doesn’t acknowledge that I’ve spoken, not even a nod, just lets the words hang there like some limp, dead thing. I draw my knees closer to my chest. A game of croquet has been set up near the gardens, and the young men stand with mallets propped up on their shoulders like lumberjack. Fancy lumberjacks. The thought lifts my mood just a bit.

            “Pose for me again,” Benedict says, throwing the words out into the breeze.

            A sharp laugh explodes from me. “No,” I say, and he laughs too.

            Another minute passes in silence.

            “If I gave you something to wear, would you pose for me again?”

            “Something to wear?”

            “A dress. A gown.”

            “What’ve you got a gown for?”

            “Nevermind that. Would you?”

            He’s quite quick with his words when he uses them, isn’t he? I study his expression, eyes narrowed. I search for the hidden intentions there, on his countenance, the plan he’s undoubtedly spinning as we speak, but I find nothing. His gaze is characteristically vacant of anything but impulse and desire. I leave him longing for an answer as my mind wanders back to the painting, sitting on some easel in some corner of his flat, waiting to be sold—inaccessible. Just out of reach, existing only because I’ve allowed it to exist. Something hardens in the pit of my stomach.

            “I can’t paint the birthmark if I can’t see it,” Benedict adds, and one corner of his lips turns up in a smirk.

            I look out again over the grass, at the ladies in their glittering garments. A few have stopped to watch the croquet game, and they clap silently with their gloved hands when one of the boys makes a good shot. Benedict watches me watching them. He thinks he has me.

            “What kind of gown?” I ask.

            He offers me a hand and tugs me to my feet.

            His flat is just a few streets East of St. James Park, around the corner from an ornate catholic church that stands packed between rows of low-rent, low-maintenance residencies. I recognize the lane now in the light of day: a stretch nicknamed rue des affamés, which loosely translates to “street of the starved.” An affectionate nod to the creatives that flock to the area. How fitting for him.

            The flat is even more jarring in the day, without copious amounts of candlelight to romanticize its humility. It seems the décor simply fell from the sky, and Benedict never bothered to rearrange it. I wander to the middle of the room, uneasy, stepping around loose papers and books. Benedict retreats to a corner behind a folding room divider without a word. I glance at the front door, aware of all the empty space in the room, filled only with inanimate objects and our two bodies. My eyes flit around the room in search of the painting. They catch on canvas after canvas, some blank, some smattered with brushstrokes but ultimately unfinished, and a handful of completed paintings lined up against the far wall beneath the windows. None of them are mine, but I almost want to destroy them in its stead. My fingernails dig into my palms. He’s hidden it somewhere. If I try hard enough, I can pretend he did so out of shame.

            From the corner where Benedict disappeared comes the sound of a door opening, then closing again, and the swish of fabric against hardwood.

            “Here,” he says.

            I turn to him. From a coat closet in the corner, he’s pulled a dress, a full-length scarlet evening gown studded with false rubies and trimmed in gold lace. The film of dust and old age on the surface is apparent, but the color is as vibrant as if it were new.

            “The sun hasn’t touched it in years,” Benedict says. He carries it over, giving it a light shake. “It was my mother’s, but she has no use for it now.”

            The glow of the silk seems to pull my mind from the painting. I want to reach out, to touch it, but I hesitate.  

            “Do you like it?” he asks. “I know it’s a little outdated, but it’s the most expensive thing I own.”

            He says that as if it matters. “It’s beautiful,” I say.

            He holds it out to me.

            It’s ridiculous how fast I give in. I slip the dress on behind the room divider, telling myself that the painting could have been back there, and it was a good opportunity to check. It wasn’t.

            A long, oval mirror on the wall reflects my image, and I suck in a breath seeing it. The dress fits like a glove, the waistline falling just below my bust and hiding all of my curves in the flowing skirt. A stiff gold chiffon collar frames my face, the square neckline hides my breasts from view. Everything is enclosed, encased, like a suit of armor.

            Benedict sets me in his best armchair, an acceptable champagne-colored thing that could be passable with an artist’s touch. He gives me a book—System of Transcendental Idealism—and tells me to pretend to read.

            “Cultured ladies read,” he tells me, and I sneer at him. As if I don’t know what cultured ladies do.

            He moves me how he wants, until he finds the perfect angle, sun slanting in through the windows to fall across my cheek like a spotlight. Then, he takes up his position on the stool, and tucks into his work. At first, I try to turn my head ever so slightly this way and that, still searching for the painting among the piles of rubbish, but Benedict tells me to keep still, and I know I won’t find it today. We stay like that for hours, taking a break only to eat, until the sunlight ebbs away and casts the flat in graying night. He’s forced to abandon the piece for now, but I could have gone on for hours more—my muscles are barely tired, my skin white and cool under the touch of silk.

⁂        ⁂        ⁂

            I pose for Benedict Barrow twice a week after that day, always in the red gown; standing at the window, paging through a book, taking afternoon tea. I feel an ease in the work that I never have before, but then this isn’t work I’ve ever done—dressing up instead of dressing down.

            Every day, I look for the painting. The easels, canvases, books, and other rubbish moves around the room almost daily, but the one thing I want to see never appears. More than once I try to build up to the nerve to ask him about it, to quench my fears and leave the whole ordeal behind me, but I can’t seem to find the words. Benedict never seems to notice my pensive silence. He talks, constantly distracted, while he paints—stories of the family he never sees, the father he loathes, and I am more or less forced to lend an ear. Not that I mind it all that much. It seems to me that he hasn’t had someone listen to him in a long time, someone to think of as a friend. I haven’t either, although I refrain from telling long rambling tales about my childhood, content in the knowledge that I could if I wanted, and he would be forced to listen. We seem to have found a rhythm, the artist and I, come to an unspoken agreement about our relationship: he talks and paints, I listen and pose.

            As Spring is melting away into the long days Summer, the clandestine search for the painting fades from the forefront of my mind. If it were here and of any value to Benedict Barrow, I would have found it by now. I start to believe that he’s gotten rid of it, shoved it in some cupboard or closet to be forgotten by both artist and model. The new paintings are so much better. In the gown, my figure stands out like a bloodstain against the drab background—royalty among poverty—and I seem to almost lift off of the canvas toward the eyes. There’s no reason to keep the old pieces, strewn with the nude bodies of strange women. These are the real masterpieces.

            Benedict beams at each canvas when it’s finished, tells me it’s beautiful, tells me I’m beautiful, though only while riding that crazed, inspired high that plagues him in the afterglow of a finished work. His other pieces seem to disappear from the flat as the days go by, and with them, I imagine, my own nude depiction. I don’t ask, happy to see them gone, happy to let the memory of the night we met fade into surreality.

            It’s a humid Saturday night when Benedict meets me at his front door, breaking our little ritual. I usually knock twice, wait for his call from the main room, and then let myself in. The dress will already be slung over the lip of the room divider, and he’ll offer that crooked grimace of a smile, tell me he’s been expecting me.

            Tonight, he’s waiting at the door, and opens it as I raise a hand to knock. I jump back, startled, but Benedict is all teeth and hands, giggling as he pulls me inside.

            “Mr. Barrow.” I say his name with a mother’s scolding edge, but he doesn’t seem to notice. He bundles me through the foyer. My feet catch on various objects strewn about the floor, and he has to hold me up by the elbows.

            “I’ve done it, Dot, I’ve really done it,” he’s saying. He’s pulled me to the center of the room, closer to the table where a lamp is lit, the only light source in the room.

            “Done what?”

            “It’s happened, that’s what I’m telling you. We did it.”

            His hair is a mess, a flopping mass of dark spikes and curls—he’s been dragging his hands through it repetitively. His eyes are cloudy, glazed over as if he’s inebriated.

            “Have you been down to the pub today?” I ask, only half-joking.

            He laughs, giving me a good whiff of his breath, which reeks of Earl Gray but nothing else; he’s completely sober.

            “Tell me what it is and maybe I can be excited too,” I say, smiling. He holds me by the elbows still with clammy hands, gives me a gentle shake, hot breath wafting over my cheeks. For a moment, my stomach turns.

            “I sold a painting.” He breathes the words out. His eyes flicker wildly between my own. “At St. James Park, this morning. To a fine couple, a gentleman and lady with a daughter just of age this season. Rich folk, Dot. I mean rich.

            Though the sale of his art means nothing for me, I find his excitement infectious. “One of ours?” I ask.

            He nods, a sharp jerking movement.

            “That’s wonderful,” I say, if only to match his joy.

            Benedict releases me, letting out a long sigh and running both hands through his hair. In the lamplit room, his eyes glimmer—he might be crying, or maybe it’s just a trick of the light. He turns away, towards the little stove and wash basin in the corner, as if to take stock of the life he has now before he leaves it. He’s already forgetting that I’m there.

            “Wonderful,” I say again, a little too loudly. There’s a swimming in my gut that I can’t understand, so I try to swallow it. “You’ll be the talk of the town soon enough,” I add. 

            Benedict stands stock-still now, half-lost in shadow, gazing at the far wall. He could be in a painting himself, just now, the way the light is bathing his backside in a divine yellow glow. The way he stands removed from me, now the artist.

            “Which one did they buy?” I ask, quietly so that my voice doesn’t disrupt the refuge of the moment. I cannot end this, this pause before he says what I already know.  

            He is silent, glistening palms running through his hair again. My throat tightens. “Was it Lady in Red at the Window?,” I ask. My mouth is so dry. “That was my personal favorite, but you did such fine work on all of them-”

            “The nude painting,” Benedict says.

            “Oh,” I say, just before reality strikes me.  

            He half-turns back toward me, toward the lamp on the table. His features are a mask. He doesn’t look at me, won’t look at me, and if he did, I’m not sure that he would even see me. The bastard can’t even see me.

            My teeth are clamped down hard on my bottom lip, and I taste blood, though in my shocked state, I can’t understand where it’s coming from. My body trembles with each twitchy beat of my heart.

            “It was beautiful,” Benedict says. A smile is slipping absently over his face.

            I want to scream at him, but there—yes, of course, there it is—the wet electricity of tears behind my eyes. If I scream, I’ll cry, and maybe that’s what he’s wanted this whole time: the knowledge that he could have me and break me. My hand is over my mouth, holding it all in, and I’m running, running through the door, down la rue des affamés, passed St. James Park where high society promenades on spring afternoons, now sleeping under the blanket of night. I run home.

            Lucille greets me in the kitchen when I stumble in, ready with a dry towel to wrap around my shoulders. I hadn’t even noticed it was raining. I’m soaked down to the skin, wet hair matted to my face.

            “What a nightmare,” she says after a good look me, and I can’t help but agree. The painting is gone. My marked body is displayed like an exposé of my sin on some rich man’s wall for his wife and children to see. For his staff to see. For a maid who was once a mother to see, to recognize the cloud-shaped seal on her daughter’s side and know that she raised an artist’s whore. Despite all logic, my mind whispers, she knows, she knows, she knows.

            My limbs quiver as Lucille helps me into the bathtub. She doesn’t speak, keeps her eyes down and hands busy, for the sake of politeness if nothing else. I let her guide me like a child, settling me in the warm water, rubbing a washrag over my trembling muscles.

            She opens the drain once I’m clean enough, and gravity pulls the water into a torrent of yellow and brown, a whirlpool littered with debris from my body. My skin is exposed in the water’s absence, slick and red from heat and friction. My breath comes ragged, and my breasts heave in front of me, those bulbous lumps of flesh that men so covet, that they hang on their sitting room walls in front of the world.

            “She’s never coming back for me,” I say, and I choke on the words.

            Lucille kneels beside the bathtub, rubbing a calloused hand across my naked back.


BIO

Grace Ford is an undergraduate student studying creative writing at the University of Illinois- Urbana Champaign. Ford is attending the university on scholarship from her high school where she was awarded the Timothy Robert Creative Writing Award. She grew up in rural southwest Michigan, where she discovered her passion for writing at the age of nine, and she now lives in Springfield, IL with her family.


Hollywood, Guido Orlando, The Pope and The Mother

by M. F. McAuliffe



THE POPE

Was Pius XII. Who gave the world the commandments of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost; who told the world what sin was, fleshly and deathly, and when and how and how often to do penance.

GUIDO ORLANDO

Is sitting in the lobby of the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel at 2 or 3 o’clock on a Wednesday in January, 1983. He is sitting there for the calm of the lighting, quiet and comforting leather chairs and lounges where time doesn’t pass or change. It could still be 1953, with this constant stream of wide-eyed tourists happy to spend and be astonished.

Opportunity has always walked through the door of this hotel, always found The Great Orlando – King of Contacts, publicity campaign manager extraordinaire, friend of the Pope, of former kings’ former wives, hamburger chain owners, Hollywood small fry, Ernest Hemingway –

He has always waited here. The currents of the day have always brought every kind of creature to the web of his perception. The post-war years were good. The post post-war years not so good – too much television, the studios falling apart. The post post post-war years are thin and tedious, the glamour gone, the fascination; the only glittering gatherings retirements, funerals, wakes.

The hotel remains, his oldest friend. And so he comes to sit and see what today will bring. These people are, yes, almost, maybe, no. Too many, too rushed, too scheduled, too planned, too Disney tourist –

His luck has vanished. He’s living on stocks and favours. He needs a writer.

He needs a writer because people are blind. People have to be made to see; they have to be told what to see. How can they see The Great Orlando in these lesser, daylight times without someone new and young to tell them?

There is a woman coming through the doors.

THE WOMAN

Whose name is Francesca, is of a certain age: dyed hair, wide mouth. Who performs the attentive, emotional work of carrying a conversation further, whose speech is powdered and laboured, whose face is slashed with lines as though by knives, a vertical surface of vertical scars, whose laugh is a vocalized smile. Who has stopped writing.

Whose husband had left her fifteen years ago for a woman fifteen years younger, whose every affair since then has been with a writer, been a temporary, unsatisfactory, hopeful, hopeless saga. Her last fling but one – on her way back to Australia for work – had been on Hydra. An Irish poet, she said, whose friends had formed a committee to get Seamus Heaney the Nobel Prize.

In Australia she was a temporary tutor sitting across from Jayne, another temporary tutor, in their temporary office. They were both new to the college, new to the city or the state; they were both filling in for lecturers on sabbatical. They were looking at the agenda for the Staff Committee.

“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” Francesca, husky, half-laughing, half-strangled.

Jayne looked up and turned towards Francesca. They had both been drafted onto the committee, both hated it. The word committee reminded them Hinstantly of the Hincident on Hydra.

A committee to push for the Nobel! To push the work! they said. Jayne was as aghast as Francesca was amused. Work was good or it wasn’t, they said. Worth was slow, complex, immense, a filtering through decades or centuries of chance, usefulness and clarity slipping past time and change.

“Deciding a Nobel must be quite an undertaking.” Francesca was considering, elaborating. “I suppose there must be stipulations. Procedures. Lists.”

“Mm.” As Francesca didn’t say any more Jayne turned back to the staff committee’s list.

The world was a net, not a list.

“A committee’s the sort of thing a group of men would find reasonable, would do. A team passing the ball down the field for a goal.”

“Long live the kingdom of footy,” she said. Francesca laughed.

She pushed the agenda aside and pulled her stack of assignments closer. Francesca’s elaborations were so anxious to establish harmony they were wearing. Her parties were as fussy as her speech, full of introductions that introduced to no avail: old friends to new academics, new friends to experts in restoring old houses; tales of London, the ways of English and American crossword puzzles, wine from the Barossa and the Loire.

She didn’t want to agree or demur or argue or play compare and contrast. On its way to her cup of pens her gaze passed over the window – low buildings, smoggy trees, hazy, indeterminate distance, a gridded lack of mercy. She had to start putting out feelers for another job.

She gave the assignments the evil eye from the corner of her eye and saw, coincidentally, the assignments were a footy high. Oh, stop, she said to the larrikin streams of her mind.

Jayne was happy to see someone from home was coming to visit, but was still surprised when Francesca appeared in Los Angeles three years later to see her and her new American husband, a writer whose editor was not returning his calls.

Naturally Francesca encountered Guido Orlando as he sat at a small round table in the lobby of the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel at 3 p.m. on a Wednesday afternoon in early 1983. Tall, statuesque, long red hair and line-scarred face: she had the kind of used lusciousness he immediately recognized, a woman whose best gifts lay in the silk-soft flesh of her address book.

THE MOTHER

The winter evenings so dark so early. It felt like eight o’clock at five. Her arms were tired, the basket so full she could scarcely get her fingers around the handle. The string bag was a shapeless weight at her feet. Marriage had swallowed her. The beach and picnics, food handled and cooked, packed, cup and thermos; more baskets, her sister’s as well as their own, children born and fed and attended to, fed and fed and fed.

Glenelg on Fridays: the hairdresser, then Barnett the butcher, corned beef, flank, shoulder of lamb or lamb chops; the fish-shop next to it, butterfish, whiting, gar, bream; Coles, Woollies. The picture theatre at the top of Jetty Road, dark and uncrowded of a late morning, the entrance a dark square of presences as the tram carried her past, dark ghosts inviting her to darkness and light: Katherine Hepburn, Joan Crawford. How they swung their shoulders in the mansions where they lived, able to carry any weight and control where it went. Swinging their shoulders and legs they turned to the light with a quip and a dismissal. How nothing got them down.

The world came when they beckoned. Whether it came or not didn’t matter. How it was theirs to ignore from the beginning.

She almost missed her stop, rocking with the tram’s rocking, the old, comfortable leather seats, a tenth of a degree’s pale warmth because there was no draught from the doors, no wind behind the afternoon’s thickening darkness. The overcoat she’d made was warm, large, mohair; it swept, sweeping down her height, another arm or muscle to balance the weight of the shopping.

She got off at the tramstop, walked, turned the corner. The house was as dark as the street.

She put the meat and fish into the fridge, the rest of the shopping into the cupboards. Jayne was sick and still asleep. The Little Golden Book and the chocolate cat in purple silver paper stayed waiting in their brown paper bags, the bags twirled at the corners for the cat, flat at the corners for the book. She had to start dinner, see how the child was. Jay would be home at five, dinner immediately after. Tuna casserole: it was quick and everyone liked it. They could use ramekins instead of plates, eat in front of television. Jayne in her dressing gown if she was well enough to get up. Brian home from Lobethal for the weekend, easy to get on with.

#

Saturdays.

How they had become a battle and a grind.

Saturdays had been wonderful, dancing till the last tram, or sometimes going to the pictures with the girls from her table at work. They all loved the pictures, all talked and giggled about the awful side lanes the theaters emptied you into from the door under the red exit light, the crumpled newspapers, pie-wrappings, cigarette butts, trickles of water across the footpath. And the smell. And then all that gone as you stepped into Rundle Street.

They worked at the only milliner’s still open during the Depression. Laid off from time to time, they saved the ticket price and went when they could. The size of the auditorium, the semi-circular sweep of the balcony, sitting in the gods in the dark and the anticipation, the picture so large you were in it. You were still in it even as you walked to the swaying, rail-ringing tram. Even as you left the tram and walked home your mind still moved in thick, creamy light.

Before she was married she went home to her parents’ house, where she and her sister lived, instead of going home to the second best dancer in Adelaide. Jay was slight and quick, such a good dancer, provider –

Dancing! Helpmann so light on his feet at the Palais on North Terrace, the upstairs ballroom with the sprung floor and floor to ceiling windows looking straight into the plane trees; Helpmann such a dancer he’d gone to London, danced in the Royal Ballet, danced with Margot Fonteyn, danced in The Red Shoes.

After Helpmann left she danced with Jay, who was nearly as good, who wanted to marry her.

Had married her, Kathleen.

And taken all her freedom. She had to leave work; it was against the law for a married woman to be employed, taking a job from someone who needed it, unless she or her family owned the business. Now she had no money except the housekeeping, and though he was generous it was a donation; she knew it could change or stop. She saved from it, secretly, to have some hope of scope or decision. She lost control over her time: shopping, cooking, cleaning, washing. Though she could still walk to her sister’s in an hour she had to be back in time to cook the hot hotel dinner which was all Jay would eat, and a hot hotel breakfast every morning, even Saturday. Roast leg of lamb after Mass on Sunday.

Then the War, Jay working all hours, Holden’s making munitions instead of cars. She lived in silence, the sky was iron. The day France fell the whole city was silent, the colour of guns. Once television came all it was was guns, and that’s what they watched on Saturday nights after cleaning the stove, washing up, eating, cooking, preparing, watering the garden, gardening, trimming the edges, mowing the lawn.

There was no going back. Time wouldn’t stop; the war wouldn’t stop. It went on after it stopped.

How she had loved Marlene Dietrich, her cigarette smoke white as the gowns of the women her white shirts outshone.

#

The Hills moved in just after the maisonette next door was built, just after the War. The Hills made deep, rich garden beds: peas, beans, cauliflower, potatoes, turnips, trombone in winter; strawberries, sweet corn, tomatoes, and lettuce, and loquats and apples from the trees in summer.

Their chooks laid big, rich eggs, yolks almost orange. Mrs. Hill sold eggs to the neighbours and charged the same as the grocer. She sent Jayne to the side fence or the Hills’ back door to pay and bring the eggs back, heavy and fragile, shells thicker than any she’d ever known, the eggs themselves so round and solid, so large and heavy they almost spilled out of the bag.

Mrs. Hill told her she made Alec hand all his wages over every week; she added the egg-money. The Hills were Presbyterian. They never went out beyond the pictures, never invited anyone home, never visibly turned a light on after dark; they were saving for a house.

Some months after they moved in Mrs. Hill invited her to the pictures; her group went to the Bay on Thursday nights. Over the fence she explained she couldn’t go to Glenelg on Thursday nights, she had to be home to cook dinner.

Mrs. Hill’s mother eventually came to stay, old and sick, to sit on the seat outside the back door in the long warm afternoons, her ivory fingers and hands as stiff as the knees under her crotcheted knee-rug and one black dress.

Violets, Iceland poppies, pansies; deeply fragrant, almost black Burgundy roses, pink Lorraine Lee roses, gerberas, geraniums, hydrangeas; hibiscus, frangipani. As they came into flower she cut little bouquets from their garden and sent Jayne next door to give them to Mrs. Hill for the old lady. Eventually, over the fence, Mrs. Hill explained that the flowers made a mess, the petals and pollen spread a sticky dust.

#

She looked at The Advertiser on Friday mornings to see what would be on in town on Saturday, but Jay was up till all hours laying cement around the house before the war, at Holden’s till all hours as soon as it started, uninterested after. If he wanted to go out on Saturday night it would be to a Holden’s or Hibernians’ ball.

Helpmann had been gone twenty five years. His body had been so light it was almost though he weren’t there at all; as though they were both moved by an idea of movement so clear and encompassing he was only a point of balance and impulse, an almost intangible will and joy.

She didn’t like the Bay. She loved the Mount Lofty Ranges and the Morialta Falls, water breaking on the rocks in a rich white flow, a stream of the same white flash that diamonds caught. Even when she was putting out picnic sandwiches or pouring tea from the eternal Thermos she felt the pressure of that effortless sharp break into splendour. Sometimes, in the tram, tired, on the way home from shopping, she could feel it at the back of her mind, the wish for it.

Brian was her great comfort. She could talk to him like an adult, describe things to him. He’d understand anything she meant at a glance; they’d be convulsed before a word was spoken.

Jayne was late and an accident, sullen and a nuisance. She didn’t want to do anything; she didn’t want to be anything. She didn’t want to go out or get dressed up or play sport or go to the pictures. When she finally asked her what she wanted she said she wanted a cat.

Something else to be attended to and fed.

THE DAUGHTER

The next afternoon, a Thursday afternoon in January 1983, Francesca and Jayne and her husband sat in The Great Orlando’s current apartment. Mae West’s former apartment, he said. Francesca asked flattering questions; Jayne’s husband took assiduous notes.

Jayne was puzzled – The Great Orlando had offered them neither water nor tea nor coffee nor anything else. She saw no signs of actual occupancy. The Great Orlando to be on the skids if he was bothering with the likes of them, she thought; they had no experience, contacts, influence, power. It was crazy, it was nuts; it had to be The Great Orlando bored and going through the motions. It was all of them going through the motions. She didn’t have anything like a real job; the ink on her green card was so fresh it could have smeared. Her husband had a personnel job in a factory; the factory was relocating to one of the Carolinas, and they were not. At the college Francesca’s position was now permanent, no longer temporary. And that was the extent of their collective wealth.

After The Great Orlando had opened and stood at his door, offered his right hand, (his left around a long slim cigar), had bade them enter as though the carnation in his buttonhole had made him a monarch, and after the flattering, anxious questions and the expansive answers and The Great Orlando had presented them with the last copy of his Esquire profile as they left, after they walked over the pink and green terrazzo, down the slightly damaged steps, managed their legs and backs and shoulders into the cab Guido had phoned for, after everyone in the back seat furtively pooled the contents of their wallets, Jayne sat.

She was displaced. She was lost.

There he was and had been, all unknown, all along. An ancient and unsuspected spider, a mechanism, a robot hired for one amount of money to pursue a vastly greater amount of money, to spin his threads across countries, across oceans.

The ocean was Glenelg. The Bay, the beach was the edge of Southern Ocean, dark, unimpeded, breath-chokingly huge and thick, its wrinkled skin lying and heaving to the horizon and then continuing, rounding the curve of the world not in a block but in a net of waves and layers, each layer its own temperature and gathering of creatures and ever-darkening water, down to the fire-bearing fissures in the skin of the seabed, to slotted doors into red-hot, liquid iron; the Southern Ocean liquid on liquid, so salt and vast and unfooted her mind struggled at the conception of it, and it continued to Antarctica, cliffs and states and countries of tall white cold ice, silent until it shifted and uttered vast subsonic groans, bigger than all the cream, sandy beaches and yellow or dust-red deserts of Australia.

And there this man sat, beside her where she couldn’t readily see him, find his face, his aspect, couldn’t dismember him with her eyes; in his suit, carnation and moustache, wanting money, wanting to fabricate money out of the stories he told, the people he’d met, the people he introduced, manipulated, had photographed and published in the papers of gossip and record.

There he sat, web-bare above the terrazzo expanse of Mae West’s former floor, framed by pewter-coloured wrought iron stair rails descending from a corner, just as he had sat, walked or sat once upon a time in a dark wood hotel room in Hollywood, with a thin Hollywood afternoon curtained outside, when he had thread-footed across an ocean, ignoring it. And then across Europe, to the Pope.

Hired by hat manufacturers to persuade the Pope to exhort women to wear new hats to church, showing renewed devotion to peace and hope and the world after war, thanks be to God.

To exhort women, under pain of sin, to buy new hats to save American hat manufacturers and him, the spider in the dark wood hotel room one thin Hollywood afternoon, from bankruptcy.

At his behest, the Pope, who owed him a favour, had sent his edict into her childhood, the light her parents turned on from the doorway, into her sleep in the dark mornings, into her chest of drawers, the drawer where her hats and berets were kept. Get up it’s time to get dressed we don’t want to be late

Her father commanding, her mother in the bathroom, angry, sweating, dressed in her corsets, yelling about being late. They were late every day every week and it was her fault. They would be late and the whole parish would see, it was her fault her hair was tangled and took so long to do (she’d combed it, just finished combing it), her mother combing her hair again, yanking on more tangles, pulling on the roots of the hair she was plaiting, poking her head forward poking her shoulder forward, pulling the beret from her chest of drawers down, pulling the bottom edge of the beret down onto the ache spreading across the back of her head.

“Damn’ man and his hats!” Her mother was yelling, poking her shoulder, pushing her forward. “New hats! I was a milliner! As though I haven’t made enough hats!” Pulling her hair tighter, the first knot, the root of the plait a dull, tugging pain. “Men don’t have to wear hats. They have to take their damn hats off!”

THE POPE

Was someone her mother wanted to speak to.

THE DAUGHTER

Her mother was looking through the tramstop window. They were waiting for the tram to town. Her mother wanted to go shopping for material for clothes, patterns and material for a summer dress, for pyjamas, for blouses, so they were going to go to Moore’s, Harris Scarfe’s, John Martin’s, Myers, up the escalators, past the Manchester departments, to the tables with rolls of material. The patterns were at the counter, in huge, heavy volumes. Though they looked at them all they usually got Simplicity.

She hated the patterns, the dresses, the material, being measured, poked, pinned, turned, pushed, and fitted, hated the mess of her mother’s sewing and sewing table, set up for weeks or months. She hated being told how to look.

THE POPE

Of World War II, of The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, of sending Italian Jews to Germany. Pius XII was someone Jayne wanted to speak to.

“You’ve proved there is no God,” she would say. “We’re cursed with each other.”

GUIDO ORLANDO

And there he was and is and forever will be, in Esquire and his West Hollywood apartment, talking about his fantastic campaigns.

There he is, Jayne sees, a full-page photo at the front of the 1971 Esquire feature, nearly seven pages of a magazine which measured 13 ½” x 10” at the time, another one of those faces made more attractive by being half in shadow, veins on the back of a hand, a cigar, a cascade of medals, a knowing look; there he is, photographically surrounded by all those beauties, pretty girls and women who might as well have been machines machined into existence, the way he sold them, events, photos, reputations, outcomes. There he is in a modest Hollywood hotel talking feverishly though the night because he won’t spend the price of a sandwich to feed the Esquire reporter, nor the price of a dinner, either, though he insists on meeting at dinner time.

And in Mae West’s old apartment, that spacious ‘30s architecture, cool and clean, his skin is smelling of powder, is looking like paper; he’s a spider in a three-piece suit of armour.

There he was, falling into the past as first the taxi (dropping them all at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel) and then her husband, drove south (their ancient, third-hand Volvo) down the I-5, home to the South Bay.

In her mind Orlando is upright on the couch from which he rises twice daily – there are no more clients, he lives on the market because he knows there will be no more clients – to take his stocks for a walk. There’s a groove in the terrazzo where they’ve travelled out to the footpath, where he drags them by their leashes and Swarovski crystal collars like trembling three-legged chihuahuas.

She opened the window slightly to create some movement in the air.

The Great Orlando in Hollywood for decades – a happenstance, a spasm of cosmic junk, time, chance, money, talk; a tiny hidden Pope, a lobbyist, an agency, an army and proto-committee of one –

She closed the window. The air was as grey as the sky.

There must have been thousands of them. Tens of thousands; all the history of all the tumultuous plains, armies, monasteries, palaces, castles, roads, churches, cities, towns. All the minds, mouths, commandments…

By the hair on the back of her headie-head-head, the only question was how to stay out of their reach.


BIO

M. F. McAuliffe is an Australian writer and editor living in Portland, Oregon. Her long poem “Orpheus” was staged by La Mama as “Orpheus, an Australian Tragedy” at the Courthouse Theatre, Carlton, in May 2000. From Nov 2016-Feb 2017 her poem “Crucifix I” appeared in the Yoko Ono installation “Arising” in the Reykjavik Art Museum. Co-founder and co-editor of the multlingual magazine Gobshite Quarterly and Reprobate/GobQ Books, her titles include the novella Seattle, the short story cycle I’m Afraid of Americans, The Crucifixes and Other Friday Poems, and 25 Poems On The Death Of Ursula K. Le Guin. She is also co-author, with Red Earth Poetry Award-winner Judith Steele, of Fighting Monsters, and with Portland sculptor and artist Daniel Duford, of the limited edition artist’s book, Golems Waiting Redux.

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



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