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

 by R V Branham

 

 

UNO:

 

Recife

Pernambuco

Brasil

 

Dearest Martin —

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So we settle on a mutilation of the Portuguese.

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

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

Especially Those, he says, To Provide Cover.

Remember, sibling, you read it here first.

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

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

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

I must ask the Canadian doctor about Naná.

For entertainments, that is about it.

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

In Recife you would be crying turds.

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

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

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

Well this will have To Be Continued, too —

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

Often.

And soon.

Yrs in Harpo, Groucho, Chico, & Karl,

Eduardo

 

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

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

 

 

 

DOS:

 

To My Mama Dearest,

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

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

It is staggering, appalling, the poverty here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

As you suggested, I wrote to him.

But, so far, no response.

 

Yr devoted son,

Eduardo

 

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

 

 

 

TRES:

 

Dear Martin/Martina —

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On this point I kid you not.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I shit on those idle entertainments, though.

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

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

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

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

(& don’t tell Mama.)

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

The subplots are about me.

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

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

& then Naná left….

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

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

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

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

Well, time to go.

Estar Etrek is on.

Yr Concerned Brother,

Eduardo

 

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

 

 

QUATRO:

 

Dearest of Mamas,

Things here are much the same.

My students do very well, & are never absent.

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

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

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

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

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

Things kept disappearing.

So I finally asked her to disappear.

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

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

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

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

Yr Loving Son,

Eduardo

 

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

 

 

 

CINCO:

 

Martin —

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

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

So write, sibling.

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

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

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

But frankly, I remain bemused.

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

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

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

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

Or tried to.

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

I fucked off.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Except to Be Careful.

Very.

And quiet.

So, tomorrow I will look at used Volvos.

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

And, also, they stopped showing Los Invaders.

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

But there ARE binoculars.

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

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

We shall, we shall:

 

Eduardo

 

 

 

SEIS:

 

My Most Cherished Mama,

I am sorry if my last reply distressed you.

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

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

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

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

So, please, don’t worry.

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

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

Flora is past 70.

Please don’t worry about my love life.

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

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

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

Tell him to take up yoga meditation & drink buttermilk.

And you must tell him to relax.

But only after YOU have relaxed.

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

None at all.

Ask a counselor or psychologist, even a priest.

Padre & you did your best by us.

That is ALL a parent can do.

The rest is up to the Fates.

Love, Eduardo

 

 

SIETE:

 

….Sibling —

¿What’s the matter — cat got yr coño?

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

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

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

She sd: You Are The Father.

I sd: Prove It.

She sd: I’ll Let The Loas Prove It.

I sd: Go Ahead.

She did.

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

I had a second discussion with Flora.

I sd: Let’s Not Get Rash.

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

(Don’t tell Mama!)

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

Half-starved, badly beaten, but alive.

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

Dreams so real.

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

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

& all the curtains to the bedroom & bathroom windows of the Rolidei Palacio of Earthly Delights across the way are shut…

& of course the curtains of the Rolidei Palacia are red, though the red is more suggestive of the womb than of the dictatorship of the proletariat…

& the ghosts of all of Joseph Stalin’s victims dance on the ghost of el nuevo improved Berlin Wall…

& there is a new video game, “Consumers Of The World”…

& all the songs on the jukebox are politically correct…

I wake up screaming & Flora takes the sheet from me & turns over & snores.

Oh yes, in the dream all the heads are shrunken.

So, what do you think of that, Martina?

& another thing, this interminable weaving of To Be Continued came to an end last night when the teacher character went to the mirror & looked at himself, really looked & found an alien monster staring back…

At least they are bringing Estar Etrek back.

Drop me a letter, a postcard, a line.

I don’t have a phone…but Ix and Xhe do.

Moribundo TV Bar & Grille, just below the Rolidei Palacio of Earthly Delights, in Recife.

They are in the phone book, & on-line.

It is so strange, here in the Southern Hemisphere.

I will never learn these stars that blink interminably through the night.

(A Canadian nun starts to point out the Southern Cross to me, but it is occluded by storm fronts, & she insists that one of those stars is the nail in the right hand of Jesus, & I ask if it might not be the crown of thorns, or pack of cigarettes, & she looks at me funny, shakes her head at my impertinence.)

I will never get used to the way that water goes down the drain clockwise instead of counter-clockwise, like in the Northern Hemisphere.

Sometimes, I feel like I am on another world.

I have to go now, to return the binoculars.

If you cannot, & YOU cannot, be good, then be happy, be reasonably happy.

Lie to Mama, tell her that operation mierda was just a joke.

& speaking of lies & mierda & jokes, I’ve somehow been compelled to turn a little lie & joke into a somewhat bigger truth:

I’d written Mama, told her I might sign up for Asia or Africa, doing it more out of spite for her interminable meddling than anything.

Well now, I am in the position of having signed up for another term—in 14 mos. I may still be here, or in Zambia, or even possibly Nepal (or Southwestern India, where I hear they speak Portuguese).

I’m no more certain about why I signed up than why I’d teased Mama about it.

So lie, joke, or tell the truth.

And then go on, lead yr life.

Eduardo

 

 

 

[ end ]

[ last pg ]

 

***) eastern europeo mispronunciation… Spanish isn’t the only language that deliberately mangles its loan words…

 

 

##

 

for Laura Mixon Gould

 

 

 

BIO

rv branhamR.V. Branham has worked as a short order cook, firewood bundler, security guard, tech writer, aerospace clerk, book-seller, photo researcher, newspaper editor, paste-up ninja, Treasury Department terrorist, assistant X-ray tech, rape crisis counselor, social worker, translator, and interpreter. [Optional: As a ’70s survivor, he co-hosted a floating æther den (as if there were any other kind back in the day). ] He is author/compiler of Curse+Berate in 69+ Languages (a 90 language dictionary and phrase book of insult, invective, obscenity, blasphemy, and other political speech, now in its 2nd. printing, from Soft Skull Press). His fiction has been anthologized in Dinosaurs 2, Full Spectrum 3, Ghosts 2, Hybrid Beasts (a Red Lemonade e-book anthol.), and Midnight Graffiti; and in magazines including Back Brain Recluse (UK), Ellery Queen’s Mystery Mag., Midnight Graffiti, Isaac Asimovs SF Mag., Tema (a bilingual Croatian mag.), 2 gyrls quarterly, & online in In Other Words Mérida, Red Lemonade, & Unlikely Stories, The Writing Disorder, and W*O*R*K. His essays and interviews have been in the Australian artist book anthols. Mother Sun and Drawn To Words, as well as in Gobshite Quarterly, Paperback Jukebox, Portland Metrozine, and Red Lemonade (online). Two of his plays, Bad Teeth and Matt & Geof Go Flying had staged reading productions in Los Angeles, CA., and in Portland, OR. He is publishing editor of Gobshite Quarterly, a multilingual en-face magazine (a 100 page perfect-bound 6×9 trade paperback, double issue flip book), and as publisher of GobQ/Reprobate Books has published El Gato Eficaz/Deathcats (an en-face Spanish/English edition of Luisa Valenzuela’s classic magico-realist novel), as well as Douglas Spangle’s A Bright Concrete Day: Poems, 1978—2013, with bilingual chapbook & e-book editions of El Gato Eficaz/Deathcats , & collections of Russian and Croatian writing forthcoming in 2014 & beyond.

Gobshite Quarterly

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ruth Deming writer

SUITE 1003

by Ruth Z Deming

 

Drop Cap L rock 625ibby Korngold did all her research, as befitting the former head librarian of the Upper Moreland Public Library. Their track record of library directors was not very good. Mrs. Helen Jackson, a politically savvy tyrant who looked askance at the Asian and African-American influx into the community, had died of complications from kidney dialysis. The assistant librarian, Peg Forrestal, was quickly elevated to head, only to be diagnosed three years later with breast cancer, had them both lopped off, and gave up the post, though not the ghost, as she recovered at home.

The Board of Directors received ninety-seven resumes for the job.

Libby Korngold walked into the library two years ago, regal as the Queen of Sheba, wearing a stylish outfit – straw hat, lavender pantsuit with matching earrings – and charmed what she jokingly thought of as the nonagenarians on the board.

Two years later, she faced the very same board, though one member had died while crossing the street near her home, hit by a teenage driver.

And now Libby Korngold was going to disappoint them once again.

Folding her hands on the conference table in the glass room where she could see her beloved library and the patrons she knew so well, she smiled a weak smile.

“I have so loved working here,” she said, her voice breaking. “I hope you have been happy with me. For personal reasons, I must resign.”

She looked at their seven concerned faces. Faces she had come to love.

A chorus of indignation and puzzlement arose like an orchestra tuning up.

Betty’s voice soloed from the choir. “I know it’s personal, dear,” she said. “But might we have a reason, Libby?”

“Betty, you have been so helpful to me. You’re a wonderful voice at our Book Club, and you always attend our free Sunday movies. But I must ask for your understanding. It’s simply too difficult for me to speak about,” Libby said, tapping on the table.

“Just call it health issues,” she relented.

“Libby, we’ve come to love and respect you,” said retired engineer Aaron O’Neill. “In two years, you’ve remade our old-fashioned library into a modern one – free computer lessons…”

“And that Sunday movie program with Maurizio!” Betty chimed in.

“Your skill as a grant writer,” added white-haired Jeannie. “Who knew we could benefit from the Melinda and Bill Gates Foundation?”

Libby nodded and smiled. “Your skill in finding good directors is unparalleled,” she laughed.

“Yeah,” said Aaron. “Next time we’ll make them take a physical.”

Libby’s last day was that very Thursday, after presiding over the Book Club. The last book she would ever read was Open City by the Nigerian-American writer Teju Cole.

She had barely been able to follow the narrative of this highly-acclaimed first novel. Dutifully, she wrote down the various characters in her notebook and referred to it often during the discussion on a sunny day in late March. She would pose a question to the group, “Do you think the main character Julius will make a good psychiatrist?” She pulled off the discussion group well, aided by the ten women, all white, to her dismay, who regularly attended, each with a yellow name placard set before them. They spoke not as one voice, but as individuals, who often bickered and yelled at one another – nicely – throughout the discussion.

Diana Fogelman, a high-paid jewelry designer, took affront about real or imagined affronts to her Jewish people. W.G. Sebold got a good thrashing as did poor Teju Cole.

“I hate, absolutely hate, that the main character spoke about Jews as an ethnicity and not a religion,” said Diana in her high-pitched voice.

“Join the Anti-Defamation League,” her dear friend Sheila yelled at her across the table.

The five-minute yelling spree was finally quelled.

Libby didn’t tell The Book Club she was leaving, nor, of course, did she speak of the disease infiltrating her mind with every page she turned. “What if I have no mind left at all by the end of the book?” she thought. It seemed that reading fueled the disease and made it worse. Her neurologist – who diagnosed her with a long-winded progressive disorder she refused to learn to say or spell – scoffed at the idea that reading hastened the disease process, but who was he? He did not live in her head.

She wept while reading the lyrical prose of Open City and the wandering Jew aspect of the main character as he walked all across Manhattan. She wept for all the walks she would never take, the books she would never read, the concerts she would never attend. She imagined inviting Teju Cole to her library, the Gates Foundation would finance it, and introducing the community to this marvelous writer. Hers was the only library in the county to offer talks by first-rate authors.

Libby’s bed served as her reading space. While friends of hers looked forward to spooning before sleep with their husbands, Libby had preferred reading books or the New Yorker or information tucked inside the electric or water bill and pictured their tap water coming from underground pipes connected to a clean shimmering reservoir forty miles away.

Though she would never reveal to her husband what she and her friend Lynne had discussed, it was certainly possible that the man who slept beside her, Dane S. for Sheldon Korngold, a noted brain researcher from the University, had Asperger syndrome.

Relationships had always been difficult for this handsome well-dressed man. Libby never had to worry about his having affairs with secretaries or with his students. If he did have an affair or two, she would have been happy for him.

Dane refused to believe she was losing her mind, notwithstanding the evidence: the huge gaps in her speech – which he quickly filled in – and the yellow Post-it notes she stuck on the kitchen cabinets – flour, pasta, spices – and reminder signs placed throughout the kitchen: “Turn off burners.” Or the birthdays of Barry and Marty, their two grown children, pinned onto the kitchen bulletin board, next to her library schedule.

Did she love Dane? She supposed so. She did enjoy caressing him when he got into bed. She would massage his bald head, take his face in her hands, and stare into his searching black eyes. Rubbing her forehead against his, she said, “It doesn’t matter if you accept my diagnosis. You’ve accepted me and that’s enough.”

She told him she was so proud of him for being a gene researcher and finding genetic links to several mental disorders. She was certain that after she was gone, he’d tackle her own disease. “The Elizabeth Korngold Foundation.”

When Dane was about to leave for work, she walked with him, as she often did, to the circular brick drive where his steel-gray Infiniti was parked. They stood together a moment admiring their home on a quiet, out-of-the-way street.

“Look at your herb garden!” she said, with her musical voice, as she brushed her hand over the lush growth.

“It needs to be cut back,” said Dane as he walked toward his car. “Do it today, please?”

“I’ll do my best,” said Libby.

A school bus with “Lower Moreland” written on the side whooshed down the road. She watched it stop and pick up little Grace and her brother Max. How she loved little children, probably the happiest time of her life, when Marty and Barry were small and carried their own Superhero lunch boxes onto the very same bus.

Several years ago, as they lay in bed, Dane explained to her – which she so appreciated – a bit of incomprehensible physics – that Albert Einstein, his hero, had nearly given up a conundrum he thought himself unable to solve. This recognized genius had simply thrown up his hands in despair of ever finding the answer.

“We think of Einstein as perfect,” said Dane. “But like all of us, he struggled inside.”

Libby wondered if Dane was referring to himself.

“So what do you think happened?” she asked.

Dane reached onto to his bedside table and picked up his wristwatch with its huge black face. They had bought it years ago at a conference on genetics in Bern, an ancient-looking city with red-tiled roofs, an aquamarine lake and people scurrying about speaking German.

“Remember the clock tower?” he asked Libby, smoothing down the white eyelet cover. “Einstein imagined a car, an automobile, this was in 1905, so they had cars like the old Model T’s.”

He looked over at Libby.

“I’m following you, dear,” she said.

“Good. I expected you would. Now here’s Einstein’s eureka moment. He imagines a car driving away from a clock tower at the speed of light – that’s 186,000 miles per second, you know – so the clock on the tower” – Dane was speaking slower now so Libby could understand – “would appear fixed in time to someone in the Model T.

“There were streetcars in Bern. Loads of streetcars. We saw them, too, remember, dear? The clock’s light,” he said, tapping the face of his wristwatch, “could not possibly catch up to the streetcar, but the car’s clock would tick normally to the person inside.”

Libby nodded in understanding. She didn’t want to disappoint him and say she needed to go over it in her mind to truly understand it. She knew she would eventually get it. The trolley factor explained why Dane loved riding his 7:22 a.m. to work, a train, a trolley car, little difference, and feeling close to the ideas of Einstein, which he thoroughly mastered with his budding genius at the tender young age of seventeen.

Such conversations rarely passed from Dane’s lips for the past five years. His research swallowed him up and it was almost as if he had forgotten how to speak to anyone not connected with his work. It was futile for Libby to protest. She did not want to get in the way of his important work that one day may change the lives of people with schizophrenia or bipolar disorder or drug addiction.

She imagined how thrilling it must be for Dane to take the train to Thirtieth Street Station and then walking with his swinging black leather brief case to his lab at the University of Pennsylvania. “D.S. Korngold, PhD, MD” was stitched onto his white lab coat, which he’d bring home for Libby to wash.

She was that busy woman who got everything done. She and Lynne played indoor tennis every Thursday night, and on Sunday afternoons, Libby and her children would talk on the phone, while Dane was in his study rustling his papers.

She and Dane rarely went out together anymore. He claimed fatigue from a day at the lab. She would try to revive the relationship by asking, “What’s new in the world of the genome?”

In the driveway, Libby watched Dane ease himself into the Infiniti and pull the gray harness across his light spring jacket. Click! “Such finality,” she thought, knowing she would never see her husband again.

She leaned over, picked up his hand and kissed it, something she hadn’t done since the early days of their courtship, and then stroked his clean-shaven cheek.

“Listen for my ring when I leave for the train tonight,” he said, as he drove off.

Blowing a kiss, she watched him drive out the driveway, knowing he was on speed-brain, locked in his inner world of numbers and abstracts and hypotheses.

She cut back the basil, marveling at the delicious aroma. Spring, her favorite season, was inching forward, slow as the yellow crocus peeping out from the still-brown grass. The pink red bud tree, its tall pink spikes clambering toward the sky, was newly in bloom. In the fair weather, she would have her morning coffee and croissant on the front porch overlooking the brick driveway.

How she would miss it all.

Her desk was in the study, which was once little Barry’s bedroom. Entering the quiet room, with its plush off-white carpeting, she listened to the twittering of birds, then cranked open the window and peeked into the window box. Only the day before, a mother robin deposited three perfectly shaped blue oval eggs in her newly built nest. Even Dane showed enthusiasm – well, make that “interest” – when she brought him into the study. She was sorry she wouldn’t get to see them hatch and become those naked unfeathered fetus-like creatures who would one day grow up to look like their mother, with her purposeful yellow beak.

Purpose. Libby’s only purpose now was to rid herself of the incessant ravishing of her brain.

She sat down at her antique desk, with its gold inlaid swirling designs, that she and Dane had bought in the resort town of New Hope. In the days when Dane spoke. And Libby had a mind.

The letter she was about to compose to Dane must be flawless. Not because he was a perfectionist who made it to full professor at an unusually young age. She must have a good feeling, a feeling of satisfaction and completion, when she left it for Dane to find.

“Dearest,” she began, knowing it sounded old-fashioned and romantic, but happy with the words nonetheless.

When you arrive home tonight, I shall be taking a trip. No need to find me or call anyone. I shall be in touch tomorrow, Thursday, April 30. Have faith in me, darlingl I love you and the children with all my heart. – Your Libby

The note was written on her initialed – EJK stationery – Elizabeth June Korngold. It was a soothing cream color and her initials were embossed in orange, an emphatic energetic triumphant orange, like the setting sun.

Everything she did now would be for the last time.

The very last time.

For Elizabeth Korngold was going to die.

She packed a few personal items in a paisley bag she bought in the gift shop of their synagogue, the Frank Lloyd Wright one in Elkins Park, where their two sons had been bar mitzvahed in the huge chapel the color of the sands of ancient Judea.

Into the bag went books she would read in the car: “Sonnets from the Portuguese” by Elizabeth Barrett Browning and a book of poetry by Emily Dickinson. “I would not stop for death/So he kindly stopped for me.” She stroked the prickly brown leather cover, rubbed it against her lips and placed it in the bag. Into a smaller cosmetic case, she put her contact lens case and solution, her red lipstick, and a shiny blue pill box filled with Seconal. She quickly remembered her conversation with the head of the gift shop, Mrs. Ada Goldman, who said her newest granddaughter had begun crawling. Backward.

She chuckled out loud and then placed the call to the limousine service.

“Hello,” she said. “This is Libby Korngold. I’m ready for a pick-up in Huntingdon Valley, 1212 Greenleaf Way. We’re to go all the way to Cleveland, Ohio.”

She gave him her credit card number, as they had told her to do earlier that week.

Cleveland was her favorite city in the world. It was her childhood home, where as a teenager she never missed a radio broadcast of the Cleveland Indians with Jimmy Dudley’s excitable voice blasting from her transistor radio. “Looks like Colavito’s hit another home run!”

Looking in the mirror for a last goodbye, she patted her straight, shoulder-length black hair in place and reapplied bright red lipstick, blotting it with a piece of Charmin. She left it in the toilet bowl for Dane to find. As she headed for the stairs, she changed her mind and flushed it away.

* * *

In Brooklyn, jazz pianist Billy Morton kissed his wife goodbye and got in the taxi to go to LaGuardia. His wife was accustomed to his many goodbyes and though she missed him had a full life of her own as principal of an inner-city school where she was famous for hugging students and taking them aside for conversations, introducing them to the back and forth of dialogue they rarely heard in the poverty of their own homes.

“You are one helluva woman,” Billy would often tell her.

By 8 in the evening, Billy was in a beautiful hotel suite in Cleveland, which towered over a revitalized downtown of wonderful restaurants, boutique shops, book stores and outdoor cafes, which reminded him of when he played in Paris twice a year.

Whenever he played jazz clubs in Cleveland, he and Libby would meet once a year for a night at this same hotel, in the very same suite at the end of the hall: Suite 1003.

Like his wife, Billy also visited some of Cleveland’s inner-city schools and urged youngsters to study music. “Little brothers and sisters,” he’d tell his young friends, “if you don’t have a piano, go practice at church. They’re bound to let you. Pick up the drums or a trumpet. And if you can earn some money, by washing cars or doing chores, save up for an electric piano. Be your own Stevie Wonder.”

He planned to visit Eleanor Roosevelt Elementary School the next day, which would be a much-needed distraction from the difficult events of this evening. He had brought along some sheet music for his young friends.

Billy took off his sports jacket and hung it on the back of the dining room chair. Upon the glass table was a basket of fruit and a bottle of champagne from the hotel. A shiny metal corkscrew, the kind with two upended wings, was placed by the same invisible hands nearby. Billy walked slowly around the room, cracking his knuckles, smoothing down his mustache, and then reached into his suitcase to extract a bottle of coconut oil to rub into his chocolate-brown hands, the well-cared-for hands, with manicured nails, that earned him his living in one of the greatest modern jazz bands of the day, “The Billy Morton Quartet.”

Now in his fifties, he’d cut his teeth subbing for McCoy Tyner in the John Coltrane band. Billy and Tyner were still in touch. McCoy Tyner had embarked on a solo career and could bounce the keys better than ever in his seventies. He also pulled out a jade green smiling Buddha from his bag, about the size of a coffee mug, and placed it on the table with a clink. Billy laughed, then startled himself by hearing it turn into a sob.

“I must be strong,” he said out loud. “Be professional for my woman.”

Walking over to the door, he stuck his head out into the hall where he could hear someone push the bell for the elevator. A red Persian-carpet-like rug lined the hallway. He walked back into the room in his white shirt, without tie – jazz players didn’t need to wear ties, unless they were invited to the White House – which was the only time Billy put one on. He went into the bathroom, looked in the mirror, and whispered, “Hey Morton! It’s not going to be easy, but she loves you, and you’ll help her.” Splashing cold water on his face, he knew he would write another song about her. He’d written almost as many songs for Libby as he’d written for his wife Nora, who, of course, must never know about his lover.

Libby and Billy met when they were both single and living in San Francisco. He’d been playing a gig at the North Beach Jazz Cafe. They were immediately drawn to one another. Libby had her beautiful dark eyes on him throughout his performance, nodding and smiling and closing her eyes in ecstasy as he played. They went home to her small apartment on California Street, in the heart of the Haight-Ashbury district, where they became flower children, as they made love on the Murphy bed she pulled out from the wall.

After they made love, he watched her prepare a snack from her mini-refrigerator.

“Turkey with mayo and mustard, sweetheart?” she asked.

“Perfect,” he said, admiring her perfect body.

She boiled some water and they drank piping hot Folger’s Instant.

In the morning, they kissed goodbye and he returned the next three nights until the San Francisco gig was over.

Years passed. Each one thought of the other like a vanishing grace note as they easily settled into their lives without one another.

Libby found him again when he played at Zanzibar Blue in downtown Philly. She’d dragged a reluctant Dane to the performance, but after a gin and tonic, he was out for the night. Libby replayed her own performance from San Francisco and arranged to spend a few hours with him the following day in the Ritz Carlton where his quartet stayed for their four-day gig.

Would love be born again?

Directly after work, Libby drove downtown to the Ritz, and rode up the bronze-colored elevator to Billy’s room. She held out her red-manicured nails and watched them tremble in anticipation. As she knocked on his door, she heard classical music on the radio. Mahler’s Sixth.

She was too nervous to remember which movement, as she lay her forehead on the door.

Only one thing mattered. Would they become lovers again?

It was as if they had never been apart. Beautiful bodies – porcelain-white and café-au-lait entwined easily and knowingly. “I remember your smell,” said Libby, nuzzling her head on his chest, filled with tufts of African twisted hairs she hadn’t seen in over twenty years.

Lying side by side under a delicately colored lime ceiling, Libby posed the question of “guilt.”

“Guilt?” laughed Billy. “Guilt about what, for chrissakes?”

“About that horrible word. The ‘A’ word.”

“Oh, shit!” he said. “We aren’t about guilt. We’re above that. Besides, who made those rules, Lib? I sure didn’t. And I don’t approve. And never will. Never never,” he said, kissing her cheek.

After a pause, he said, “Listen, Babe. Jazz musicians are notorious for two things: drugs and women. Charlie Parker. Let me tell you a little about him.”

“I saw the movie, darling,” she said. “The same actor who played King of Scotland played Bird.”

“Incorrigible heroin addict. Once he got a taste of it, he kept coming back for more. Couldn’t stop though it was killing him. That and the liquor. He had a couple of wives though he never married the last one, who was Jewish, like you. Us black men adore you Jewish women.

“And we love you back,” said Libby, nuzzling closer to him.

She confessed feeling strange making love in the same city where she lived with husband.

“You Jewish women gotta stop getting yourselves in a tizzy. Hold your heads up high,” he said, kissing her hand.

Billy awaited her arrival in their other hotel. The Renaissance Hotel in Cleveland. The last hotel they would ever visit together.

He could always tell her knock on the door. A certain rhythm with her second and third fingers.

He rose from the couch and opened the door.

“My beautiful girl!” he said, opening the door and hugging her hard.

“Ah, the champagne’s already here,” she said, taking off her coat and putting it over the chair. “We must drink to our eternal night of love and freedom.”

He couldn’t put his finger on it, but she was different than the last time he’d been with her, a year ago. Yes, she was definitely different, as if a new person inhabited her body. An intruder.

They sat at the glass-top table facing one another and holding hands.

“And who is this darling creature?” she asked about the jade Buddha.

“He’ll keep us company,” Billy said. Libby stroked the Buddha’s cold face and body. “I shall take my deep sleep tonight, knowing he’s watching over us,” she said in her now halting voice.

“Whatever you wish, my beautiful girl,” he said.

“Let’s make a toast,” said Billy.

He popped the cork of the champagne bottle and poured the fiercely bubbling liquid into the long-stemmed glasses.

“Inhale it,” he said, as he stuck his nose inside the glass.

“Okay?” he asked.

“Mmmm,” she said.

“To our eternal love,” he said, his voice breaking, “to the woman I will never forget, and who I will take with me wherever I go. To my Libby.”

She touched his glass and took one deep sip.

“I …. like …. it,” she said.

They sat a few moments listening to Mahler’s soaring music, coming from a Bose in the adjoining living room.

“I’ve brought the note,” said Libby, with difficulty. “You know, the, uh, suicide note, so you won’t get in trouble. We’ll call Dane from the bedroom and leave him a message. Oh my God, so hard.”

Her speech, thought Billy, is like an unrehearsed orchestra trying to remember its notes. She was no longer his fluent brilliant Libby, his bubbly flirtatious woman who talked about her Sunday movie program, the lives of her sons, and who enjoyed reading him poetry after they made love. “I Sing the Body Electric” by Whitman. Seemingly overnight, she evolved into a hesitant, uncertain woman who time was defeating as every minute ticked by. He knew her to be a maverick, a pioneer. She was doing the right thing. He wasn’t sure he could take the same path but this was her choice, something she knew she’d do since she was a young woman. Suffering was not becoming. It was pointless. “Fuck, Job,” she had told him over the phone. Especially, as she said, if my brain is being eaten alive as if there’s a mouse inside having his way with me.

“I’d like to be as comfortable as possible when I go,” she said, stroking the Buddha’s head.

Billy noticed she avoided using the word “die.”

They arose from the table and went into the bedroom. Billy patted the white bedspread. Libby lay down in her taupe sweater and black pants, her high-heeled black boots keeping her company on her ride to the stars. She removed her contact lenses and put them in the case.

“Won’t be needing these anymore,” she said.

She gave Billy her home phone number. He dialed the 215 exchange and waited until it began to ring, then handed the phone to Libby.

She whispered that the answering machine was coming on.

“Dane, it’s Libby. I, I’m sorry to tell you that I can’t live like this, so I am putting an end to my suffering.” She sat up in bed. “I love you and the children, kiss them for me, please … well, goodbye, dear.”

Both she and Billy had looked up Seconal on the Internet and knew it worked very quickly, as long as you didn’t vomit. Billy, wearing his white sneakers, climbed in bed next to her. He handed her the glass of champagne, which still had bubbles on the bottom.

“You like the champagne?” he asked.

She nodded.

“In another life, you’ll be my bride.”

She nodded again and picked up the pill case. She shook it gently and they both listened to the soothing music of the pills rustling together.

“My deliverance,” she said.

Fully relaxed now, he kissed her on her forehead, her cheeks and her lips.

She was gone within four minutes.

After her body was removed, he checked out and went for a long walk in the dark night of downtown Cleveland. It was cool and breezy. April 30. A day to remember. He sat at a table in an outdoor café and ordered a turkey on rye and a cup of coffee.

Leaning back in the chair, he thought of nothing. Nothing at all. Sipping the hot coffee, he closed his eyes and saw Libby again walking into the jazz club in San Francisco. She met his eyes.

He listened to the sounds of the night. Couples walking by, talking softly or erupting into gales of laughter, a waiter setting down utensils on a nearby table. The music inside the cafe played Johnny Mathis singing “Chances Are.” A beautiful tune, he thought. He cast glances over the big black tent of a sky that seemed to swoop down beside him. He leaned back and saw the stars were out and a small silver plane arced toward the airport.

“I know you’ll understand this, Lib,” he whispered into his coffee, which warmed his face. “I feel fully alive. More alive than I’ve ever felt before.”

When the waiter came by, he asked if he could borrow his pen. He began scribbling music notes on his coffee-stained napkin.

 

 

BIO

Ruth DemingRuth Z. Deming, winner of a Leeway Grant for Creative Nonfiction, has had her short stories, essays and poetry published in Creative Nonfiction, Haggard and Halloo, Mad Swirl, Haunted Waters Press, and The River. A mental health advocate who writes articles to staunch the stigma of having a mental illness, she runs New Directions Support Group for people with bipolar disorder, depression and their loved ones. See NewDirectionsSupport.org. Her blog is RuthZDeming.blogspot.com. She lives in Willow Grove, PA., a suburb of Philadelphia.

 

 

Joshua M Johnson

LOVELY THINGS

by Joshua Michael Johnson

 

“The last romantic notion died in 1962 and we’ve been running on fumes ever since,” the man said on the radio, his voice bleeding into Lynda’s favorite country station. A hair-breadth’s adjustment to the tuner and the man’s voice disappeared. The suspension of Lynda’s LeSabre popped and groaned as the aged car dipped through the underpass where East Main suddenly dove under a railroad bridge. The underpass was where Lynda always started to wonder if she was doing the right thing. But the feeling will pass, Lynda thought, as she adjusted the rear-view mirror so she could see the baby boy sleeping on the back seat. She wondered what had happened in 1962.

It’d be quicker to take the freeway to New Hope, but Lynda didn’t want to take any risks so she took back roads over the foot of Lookout Mountain and on out to Nickajack. A warm breeze gusted off the river and through the car’s open windows. Lynda smiled, and started to feel better. She brushed her hair out of her face as the road wove along the river’s edge. She’d always felt close to the river, like the river spoke to her, but more like there was something the river always wanted to say but never did. A mile or so later the road began to peel itself away from the river and Lynda pulled off and alongside the faded peach wall of the abandoned motel she always went to when she stole children—the Scenic City Motor Lodge.

Lynda gathered the little boy from the backseat and took him to cabin twenty-four. A “J” was embroidered on his blanket so Lynda decided to call the boy Baby-J for the next couple of hours. I never thought to name one before, Lynda thought, and the newness of the idea made her smile. Baby-J lay on the bed and stretched his neck out like a sleeping cat, and for a while she forgot she’d stolen the child.

On the porch, Lynda sat in a rocking chair to think as a blue jay snatched a bug off the stairs between the porch and the dock. Ricky would be along in a couple of hours and then Lynda would go back to her section-eight duplex on Holly where car stereos boomed through the night. The idea of growing old in that house was unbearable, but Ricky said they’d be going away together soon. Live in the valley, raise a child or two of their own, build a cabin on the riverbank, have a big porch. And rocking chairs, Lynda had added. And rocking chairs, Ricky said, of course we’ll have rocking chairs. Sometimes the thought of it was loud enough to drown out the stereos when Lynda was trying to go to sleep. Those were the good nights.

Ricky said most people didn’t deserve children. Children are special, a gift from God, and someone had to look out for them. We’re rescuers, he said, liberators—saints doing the Lord’s work. Children deserved better than what they got and there were more than enough devoted couples in the valley to love them and raise them to fear the Lord. Ricky’s exaggerated smile always widened when he said things like this, and his voice softened. We’re rescuing the children of God, he’d tell her, and Lynda would let his words comfort her. She hated how she could believe what he said as long as they were together, but as soon as he left, her mind would fill with doubt again—and fear. She’d never known what it was like to know God like Ricky, but she often wished she could see things the way he did. It had to be incredible to know you’re doing the world good, she thought.

Baby-J woke up from his nap and began to fuss. Lynda got the bottle out of the LeSabre’s trunk. Just a little won’t hurt them, Ricky had told her when he placed it in the trunk, and they couldn’t have the neighbors hearing. Baby-J’s feet and arms kicked and squirmed beneath his blanket as Lynda opened the bottle, but she couldn’t make herself do it. Lynda set the bottle on the dresser and lifted Baby-J into her arms. She hugged him to her chest and returned to the rocking chair, and as she rocked, Baby-J soon fell back to sleep. Lynda continued to rock as the sky darkened. She knew Ricky would be there soon.

After a while Lynda noticed a large black snake coiled in the porch rafters looking down on her and the baby.

“How long you been up there watchin’ me?” Lynda asked. Snakes had never troubled her much, but Ricky always became irrational when he saw them. He believed them to be a bad omen.

The snake’s tongue flicked in and out of its mouth.

“That long, huh?” Lynda leaned back in the rocker, Baby-J still asleep in her arms. “Ricky’s late today. Sun’s already goin’ down.”

The snake hissed overhead. Its tail slipped off the rafter and whipped back and forth. Lynda realized Ricky would probably react badly if the snake were still there when he came to get the boy. She held Baby-J tightly in her arms. Ricky wouldn’t like this snake one bit and he would take it to be a sign from God warning him that there was something evil about the boy. The Lord wills it, he would say before doing something excessive—something awful.

Lynda took the boy inside, away from the snake. She sat on the bed with him and wound Baby-J’s blanket tightly around his body. She lay down and curled her body around the boy. She could feel his warmth.

She knew she had to save him.

Lynda searched the cabin and found a plastic tub of old gaskets and hoses in a closet. She dumped it out on the floor and placed a blanket inside. Outside, the snake had begun to wind its way down a post. Lynda thought she heard the crunch of gravel in the drive as she carried the tub and Baby-J down to the end of the dock. She glanced back at the cabin. The snake was on the stairs already and she could hear someone calling her name. Baby-J was still asleep beneath his blanket as Lynda placed him in the tub and eased him into the water. Lynda pushed the tub out into the current and watched as it floated down river through the rippling reflection of the setting sun.

When she returned to the porch the snake was gone and she was alone. She sat in the rocking chair for a while longer and wondered where the river would take the boy—if it would be kind to him. Soon the sun set, but Ricky never came.

 

That night Lynda lay awake listening to the steady parade of car stereos until the pounding was slowly replaced by the distant rumble of thunder. As the storm swept through the city, Lynda thought about Ricky and what she’d say the next time they were together. Ricky would know what she’d done—he always knew. He’d cry as he told her she needed to ask God’s forgiveness for going against His will and, because she knew her place so well, she would do it. Lynda only hoped Ricky wouldn’t abandon her for what she’d done. The first time they’d met, Lynda was just a girl in a cotton dress spending time with her aunt and uncle who were in town for a visit. The family had spent the long summer evening talking and playing cards on the porch of cabin twenty-four, and as the sun set, Lynda had gone down to the dock to dip her feet in the water. And that’s where she met him. Ricky said many things to her that first night, lovely things, things she no longer believed.

 

 BIO

Joshua Michael JohnsonJoshua Michael Johnson teaches at the University of Tennessee Chattanooga and his work has been published in SNReview, Static Movement, and Product 26. He has also been awarded the Ken Smith Award for Creative Nonfiction in 2008 and 2009 by the Meacham Writers’ Workshop. He is a native of Tennessee and finds much of his inspiration in the culture and places he experiences in the little southern city by the river he calls home.

 

 

 

Cassie Kellogg author

Dirty Feet, Squashed Tomatoes

by Cassie Kellogg

 

I started biting my nails again.

Well, not right now.

Last month, I think, I started that again.

I look down. I see dirt. Crumbly dirt. Not wet dirt. The floor isn’t dirty. I am. My feet are, actually. I don’t have on shoes because I don’t want to wear them for this. So my feet are dirty from walking to the back house from the main house.

That makes me sound rich.
I’m not.

The main house is small. I don’t know about square feet or anything like that but I know it’s a small house that only has three bedrooms and two bathrooms. It doesn’t even have a dining room or a living room. It has a kitchen that flows into the family room where my baby brother’s crib is set up and the tiny TV is perched on a sideways bookshelf and the couch has a dark purple throw that’s stained with apple juice.

The back house is a one-car garage that my uncle built when he first bought the house. I turned it into a place to paint when Uncle Henry sold it to us.

 

I haven’t painted in forty-five days.

I look over at the last thing I painted. I stopped because I realized no one had seen anything I’d painted, ever. There are canvas’s propped against the walls.

The last one I painted was blue and grey. I wanted to mix the paints to turn it black, but I wasn’t there yet.

My nail beds are bleeding now.

“Fuck,” I say. And then I say it three more times.

“Fuck, fuck, fuck.”

Mom used to say fuck when she thought I couldn’t hear her. She would say it after she fought with my dad. She’d go into her bathroom and start washing her hands roughly, and when she couldn’t get them clean she’d say it. I was usually there. I usually heard it, but still, she always seemed to be surprised when she’d turn around to see that I’d come after her.

“Maggie!” She’d yell like I was burdening her when all I was doing was standing there.

I used to start crying when she would say my name like that.

You know when a tired mom runs into an old friend in the grocery store at the worst possible time? When her kids are hysterically crying because she said “no” to the strawberry shortcake and she feels like shit because she’d just been screaming at the kids and now she sees this old friend who probably thinks she’s an abusive parent and she wants to set the friend straight but she’s still got to make the kids calm down, too?

That’s how I felt, like an unwanted old friend butting in on someone’s life when I have no right to do that.

She doesn’t say fuck anymore. She doesn’t say much of anything anymore. Well, at least she hadn’t.

This time she was depressed for sixty-eight days. Sixty-eight days of deflection, and of disinterested stares when I’d try to cheer her up, and of barely eating anything, and of sometimes forgetting that the toddler needed to be fed too.

Day sixty-eight was last Tuesday. Today is Monday.

Today, she told me I should bring in something I’ve painted to hang on the wall. I told her I’d go get one, but that’s not what I’m doing.

I’ve thought about it a lot.

I’ve thought about everything a lot.

I’ve thought about how even though the sixty-eight day stretch has broken, it’d probably only last about twenty days, if we were lucky. I’ve thought about how she told me last month that looking at my face made her want to vomit and leave.

I asked her what she meant, and where she wanted to go.

Her eyes became glossy like she was thinking of a place she would rather be and she finally said, “Anywhere else.”

I’ve also thought about how I cried when she told me “Anywhere else,” and how she responded to me crying by looking bored, bored, and just flatly said, “Don’t act like you’re surprised.”

 

Maybe I should bring in the blue and grey painting. I think about it for a minute, only because that feels like my default. During the good stretches, when she’s happy, I try to prolong it as much as I can.

Not for me anymore, but for June and Max. June shouldn’t be raised by a mom who hates her; I can’t do that do her. And Max is only two and a half. I have to protect them.

I used to have to protect them.

I don’t now.

 

My feet are dirty. Is that how I’d like to be remembered? Dirty feet and sad paintings?

June always has dirty feet. She would go outside into the garden that dad grew during the summers and jump in the soil, like really jump. She’d ruined dozens of tomatoes (they were her favorite to jump on), but dad didn’t care. Mom would yell at June and then yell at dad for not being mad and he’d just say to her, “Laura, you’re missing the entire point!”

June would say it wasn’t her fault, though, when mom yelled at her. She’d always look at her and say, “Maggie made me do it!”

That was her catchphrase. “[Enter person to blame here] made me do it!”

Someone always made her do it.

The garden thing though, well I did make her do it. I told her it’d be funny. It was for a moment. It made me feel like a kid again, like when you could jump on tomatoes and be happy to have tomato guts all over your feet and between your toes and things were still all right.

 

June is so different from us. If I am blue and grey, she is yellow.

June deserves all the yellow paintings.

Maybe one day she’ll grow up and move far away and be happy. And maybe, when she packs to leave she’ll come out here and look around and somehow just know, and she’ll take all the yellow paintings.

I hope she does, anyways. They are for her.

 

My feet are dirty. I’m staring at them. Well, going back and forth between staring at my dirty feet, the blue and grey painting, and the crate on the floor.

What am I supposed to say right now?

What does anyone think to say right now?

All I can think is that I really should just bring the painting inside.

 

I don’t.

Instead I remind myself of day three of the sixty-eight day stretch. Mom had been cleaning, but cleaning when she’s depressed isn’t regular cleaning. It’s scrubbing until her body is aching and bleeding, yes, literally bleeding. Her nails were breaking and bleeding underneath the nail beds because she was scraping the ground trying to get something off that had dried onto the tile.

I did something that day.

I told her she needed help.

Really, I did that. I said that to my mom. I think I said this exactly:

“Mom, I think you need to see someone. I think you need some help.”

She said this:

“Go kill yourself!”

 

I got this crate from the garden. It had cucumbers in it. I dumped them out onto the grass around the side of the house.

I press my toes against it, just barely.

I think when I do that I’ll want to step back, or run away or something.

I don’t want to, though.

 

Someone’s crying. June, I think. It sounds like her. I think my heart breaks a little because June crying is the happiest sound I’ve ever heard. She cries in a good way, you know?

I mean, she doesn’t cry because she hates herself, or because she just relapsed, or because her mom has been sleeping for twenty-seven hours.

June cries because she wanted five cookies and only got four.

June cries when she realizes it’s gotten too dark outside and she has to come back in now and stop playing for the day.

June cries for all the things any normal person wishes they could cry about.

 

I don’t go in. Not even after hearing June.

I should.

I know that.

But sometimes in life, I think I’ve learned, you have a bunch of things you should do, and the whole point is finding the one you should do the most.

And I think this is a thing I should do the most.

 

Do you remember when you were a child and you didn’t even know that people died? I do. I remember when mom told me her sister died when I was four. That was when I found out the big secret: people die.

I still didn’t get it then, of course, I was just four. But I found out that day that dying was a thing that people did.

 

I step up onto the crate. I move away the rope that I haven’t looked at yet. I don’t think I will at all.

 

Once I told someone that I thought I should commit suicide. It was mistake. They told me, “Then do it.”

They didn’t even ask why or anything.

I did tell them why, but only because I said, “You should probably at least act like you care.”

So they asked why, and I answered: “Because I have counted the days that I remember being good and the days I remember being bad and the bad outweigh the good.”

They said, “Your goodness isn’t something you get to define.”

They walked away after that and I still don’t know what they meant.

 

The rope just rests on my shoulder, waiting.

 

June isn’t crying anymore. That’s good. She’s good. Her good outweighs her bad.

 

I put the rope around my neck and wait to feel scared. I still don’t. I still don’t feel anything.

I look at the blue and grey painting and think that if I were to paint something right now I’d use those colors, but this time mix them until they were black on the canvas, because I’m there now.

 

I smell tomatoes and want to smile. Well, I want to want to smile, but I just don’t want to. Like I want to want to live, but I don’t want to.

 

I think of mom yelling at June over the squashed tomatoes and June saying, “Maggie made me do it!”

I’ve never said that. I guess because I couldn’t. I just never could. My only job was to not say it, in fact. My job was to say the opposite. Because how do you really say that?

 

But my job is over now, I think.

 

So I say it,

 

“Mom made me do it,” and kick my dirty feet forward.

 

 

BIO

Cassie Kellogg writerCassie Kellogg is currently an undergraduate student at Arizona State University studying English and Philosophy.  She works as an editor for Canyon Voices Literary Magazine and as an Editorial Intern for Pants On Fire Press. Her hobbies include reading books, blogging about reading book, and drinking Dr. Pepper. This is her first publication. You can follow her on Twitter @cassiiekel or read her blog at howshereads.wordpress.com.

 

 

 

 

 

Beth Castrodale

Con Artist

by Beth Castrodale

 

Drop Cap L rock 625loyd Shrumpeter’s thick pink fingers with the neat buffed-and-trimmed nails were a legacy of his grandfather’s and the only thing, it seemed, that connected him to a more substantive time–a time of metal, as if every plane, tank, and gun from the great wars had been melted down and turned into desks like fortresses, typewriters that clacketed like Gatlings, phones that sounded alarm with every ring.

Once, years ago, when Lloyd had visited Hal Shrumpeter Senior’s office at Furley Auto, Accident, and Life, the old man picked up a gun-metal stapler and hefted it in his hand. “In my day, son, these things were weapons. In fact, I once saw the office Romeo get cold-cocked with a Swingline. The chickens came home to roost for the office Romeo.” He laughed. “Imagine that.”

The stapler on Lloyd’s own desk was plastic and no heavier than a model airplane. He picked it up, tossed it, then squeezed it until he felt the pang of a spring then a loosening of its cheap inner works. It hit the trash can with a sound that was utterly unsatisfactory, nothing like the ring of metal on metal.

 

* * *

 

pull quote bethThat Lloyd continued to meticulously trim and buff his nails was something of a contradiction given the state of his life. Or maybe it was a necessity, a type of magic ritual now that he might have need of such things.

During his days at L.O.F. Marketing Associates, Lloyd now only made calls; he accepted none. Whenever the phone burbled, he waited until voice mail, now his only ally, interrupted after the fourth ring, accepted the caller’s wrath, and transformed it into an angry red pimple of light. At the end of the day, after a long walk into the weedy outer reaches of Industry Square, he would pick up the handset, press the red light.

            You have … forty-three new messages.

None of them had a chance against the # * keys and his crushing index finger.

    “I—”

Message erased.

            “You’d better–”

Message erased.

            “You fuckin’–”

Message erased.

On and on it went until the messages disappeared, one by one, into the electronic ether. He curled and uncurled his burning finger to limber it up, straightened his pens, and went home without saying a word to anyone. Keep your nails clean and stay low-key, he told himself. One more week, or maybe two, and you’ll be gone into a new life, a new town.

One night, after a solitary Chinese dinner, he cracked open his fortune cookie and pulled out the little note.

It said, “In all things, your intentions are pure. Your lucky number is 3.”

This uncanny truth rang of validation and permission, and he left a twenty for an eight-dollar check, as if to thank and appease any gods who watched over him.

 

This was the sixth time that Lloyd had been hired with a résumé that was an artful mix of truth and fiction and the sixth time that he’d reached these sweaty last days. He was on his sixth name, too: William Rutherford Howe, which, like the others he’d chosen, had a solid, presidential ring that seemed a recommendation in itself.

“Oh. You’re Mr. Howe, then,” the receptionist at L.O.F. had said on the day of his interview.

“Indeed I am.”

“We remember that name, of course. And your letter, such a letter. Please have a seat.”

He knew how to use words like indeed, precisely, and undoubtedly that suggested breeding–a gloomy yet romantic childhood at boarding school, a rigorous classical education in damp, dingy halls. Mustard plasters. Headmasters. He’d suggested all of these things in his letters and e-mails, in his phone voice, in his tailored yet not-too-fashionable suits, in the shine on his nails and on his high, intelligent forehead, all of which made him seem older than his twenty-six years. He’d cut a darkly impressive figure in L.O.F.’s sherbet-colored waiting room.

Inside the office of the sales manager, Mr. David Crubbage, he presented himself with grace, humor, and the proper amount of enthusiasm, given the nature of the work he would be doing. He hinted at, without specifying the details of, the painful end of a relationship that had brought him to this new city, this new start.

“Well, Mr. Howe. I can see that you’re more than qualified for this job. But I’m afraid there might be a problem. Not an insignificant one, I might add.” Mr. Crubbage tilted his head, thoughtfully.

“What might that be, Mr. Crubbage?” He braced himself for the news, willed his heart to slow its beating.

Mr. Crubbage sat forward and placed his elbows on the table, touched his fingertips together. “You’ll pardon me if I ask why a man of your obvious education, breeding, and experience would be interested in a frontline sales position at L.O.F. Marketing Associates. Might there be some other position that you would find more … more rewarding?”

Lloyd paused, as if in thought, though this was not the first time he’d answered such a question.

“I am an artist, Mr. Crubbage. That is my reward. Of course, I must support myself, so I chose a profession that comes most naturally to me—and keeps me in pigments.” He smiled. “Sales is that job, I can assure you.”

Outside, the bells of an old clock tower started to clang so loudly that he and Mr. Crubbage had to wait through a carillon interlude and the last toll of eleven to finish. All the while, they smiled at each other like new sweethearts.

“Welcome to L.O.F. Marketing, Mr. Howe.”

 

* * *

 

What Lloyd was was a rip-off artist. The reasons for his choice of vocation were not those an armchair psychiatrist might seek. His upbringing, though modest, had been comfortable, and he’d not suffered abuse beyond the ordinary. In his youth, he’d managed to make friends and mess around with some girls. He’d been a passable student in high school and then in college, where he’d received the philosophy degree that was to be his undoing–or his making, depending on how you looked at it. (“Why philosophy, son?” his father, Hal Junior, had asked when he first heard his son’s choice of major. “Where will that get you, exactly?” Three years later, Lloyd had a very good answer. But by then his father was dead.)

Sitting in the lecture hall, Lloyd had been stripped of his belief in free will. Later, in the library stacks, and in small seminar rooms smelling of chalk dust and trapped breath, he’d constructed something to replace that belief—something powerful if imperfect and perhaps dangerous, like a movie monster. In his final thesis Lloyd posited two ways in which Furley Auto, Accident, and Life might destroy Hal Junior: overwork (actual) and a shotgun blast to the temple (theoretical). Both means, he argued, were moral equivalents.

He received an A in the course and then was hospitalized.

 

Because Hal Junior was ailing by then, his oldest associate, Bill Menahan, visited Lloyd at Our Mother of Charity.

“When you get out, I’m going to set you up with something at the office. Just till you get on your feet. Some understanding of claims adjustment might be practical. And then there’s the paycheck, of course.” He winked and handed over the ketchup cup of pills that the nurse had left for Lloyd. “What do you say?”

Lloyd sat up to take the pills then sip from the bendy straw in his bedside glass. As he reclined, the white-walled room expanded, then snapped back, making Bill Menahan’s face jostle like a ball. Closing his eyes against this, he saw painfully bright light, not the whiteness of the walls but the scalding white of the 60-pound bond onto which he’d printed his thesis.

“In the developed world, nearly all work is a corruption of the soul,” he whispered. “I can provide a moral justification for a life of crime.”

 

* * *

 

In his early days on the con—when he could still tell himself it was an academic experiment—Lloyd had considered going it alone, setting up a basement office or renting cheap space where he could do the dirty work and then make notes for his never-to-be written It’s All Relative: Morals and Modern Work. But there was the trouble of sales leads—he had none of his own, and wouldn’t for some time. Working for others, Lloyd got the leads and base pay on top of that. More than that, he discovered that he had a real talent for talking money out of strangers. Never had he been so good at anything. Within a few weeks of his first con, he discovered a living and all but forgot his book.

Lloyd’s duties at L.O.F. were little different from those of his five previous cons. He was shown to the sales bull pen, given a briefing book on L.O.F. products (polar-grade camping gear, fruit-by-mail, slimming undergarments, novelty shower curtains, among others), and told to study up. His own mission, too, was little different: within two months, he was to ring up as many sales as he could and divert a certain number of checks to the temporary account he’d set up under the name “Leap of Faith Associates.”

The trick to the con, he’d learned, was to get out by eight weeks (the limit of customer tolerance, given the standard four-to-six-week delivery period) and to give any customers who asked for it a phone number—his own work phone number—to serve as a pressure valve for complaints until he made a break for it. Before accounting caught on to him, and before customer complaints about undelivered goods reached a higher level, he would be on his way to another state, with another car, another license, and, this time, perhaps another hair color. He might arrive in Montana as a redheaded trucker with a limp, a twang, and an aura of recklessness irresistible to women.

L.O.F., like the other places, was obsessed with the notion of the “team.” To get the job, he had to assure Crubbage that he was a “team player.” On his first day, he was welcomed to “Customer Satisfaction Team F,” housed in a quad of cubicles by the break room.

The members of Team F barely looked up when their leader, Rob, introduced Lloyd around.

“Hey,” said a kid who looked about 18. He was transfixed by the explosions on his computer screen.

“Death Ray is on all of the computers, William,” Rob whispered as he led him away. “In case you want to play it on your break. You get ten minutes every two hours, no lunch hour. In case you weren’t aware of that.”

These minimal glimpses of L.O.F.’s moral ruin made him all the more eager to get started. “Show me to the phones,” he said in a hero’s baritone that was lost on Rob.

As they approached his desk, a woman rose from the adjoining cubicle (in Team D, Lloyd learned later) and smiled distractedly, for she was on the phone. Her hair, a dark, blueberry color, was twisted up messily on top of her head and fixed with a pencil. She had beautiful brown eyes whose sheen dimmed, just slightly, the minute she saw Rob. She turned away and cupped a hand near the mouthpiece.

“Talking to her kid again, on the clock,” Rob mumbled.

“Who is she?”

When she sat down, out of their sight, Lloyd’s heart plunged, then lifted at the thought of seeing her again.

“Hope Topsfield. She’s a new rep, too. Let’s see how long she lasts.”

“What seems to be the problem with Hope, Rob?”

“William, I’m afraid she’s not making herself part of her team. I’m afraid she’s letting them down, us down.” Rob looked him straight in the eye for the first time. “So don’t get too attached. To Hope, I mean.”

“Not my policy.”

Rob nodded then extended his hand to the empty cube with the black console phone. “Well, here you are. You’ll get professional selling skills at eleven—I know you’re a vet, but it’s standard–then we turn you loose at one. For now read your phone manual and check your call list. Got it?”

“Certainly do, thanks.”

Rob gave him an abrupt, clammy handshake then vanished, leaving Lloyd to his inch-thick list of prospects.

From the other side, where the kid sat, came the sounds of apocalypse. Behind him, the lovely Hope cooed what sounded like a lullaby. It was a fine day to begin.

 

In these halcyon days of tele-sales—before the rise of the Do Not Call Registry—L.O.F.’s prospect lists were especially sweet, drawn from the ranks of catalog addicts, tchotchke enthusiasts, TV shopping junkies. As he flattered and cajoled these people over the phone, Lloyd often imagined them sitting amid personal museums of junk: commemorative Civil War plate collections, vibrating heated cushions, Wurlitzer jukebox banks, various lidded contraptions that tinkled popular tunes when opened.

“I’m sure you’re concerned about your grandchildren’s educations, Mr. Stearit. You sound like an educated person yourself.”

“I might be.” Stearit grunted and chuffed in what might have been impatience, disgust, or the symptoms of chronic illness. Like so many of the people Lloyd called, this man’s indifference–if that’s in fact what it was–was not great enough to get him to hang up.

“Mr. Stearit, do you know that 80 percent of elementary school students can’t identify even five of the United States on a map? Do you know that odds are that your grandchildren don’t even know your state’s capital? Madison, isn’t it?”

Stearit grumbled and made some kind of clicking sound with his teeth. Dentures?

“What are you driving at?”

“Our Wisconsin state shower curtain has been endorsed by the U.S. Geographical Education Center as a valuable learning tool. It is a detailed, topographically accurate, large-format representation of the Badger State, complete with locators of major cities and geographical features; lists of key industrial and agricultural products; depictions of the state bird, tree, and flower; and a timeline describing important events of Wisconsin’s rich history. If your grandchildren shower at least three times a week, Mr. Stearit, their reading and geographical skills are bound to improve. Studies back me up on this.”

“How much does this thing cost?”

“Thirty-nine ninety-nine, plus tax. Sixty-five plus tax if you order two.”

“Jesus.”

“I think you’re concerned about your grandchildren’s educations, Mr. Stearit. Isn’t that true?”

“It might be.” He rattled his teeth again. “But really, Mr. …”

“LaRue.”

“Really, Mr. LaRue. What does my grandchildren’s education have to do with a shower curtain? What does much of anything have to do with a shower curtain?”

“I’m just reporting the results of a–”

Mr. Stearit hung up the phone.

“That was pretty good.”

He looked over his shoulder and saw Hope standing by the cubicle wall with a steaming coffee cup. Lloyd was both startled and thrilled. Though he’d been on the job for almost a month, he hadn’t exchanged more than a few words with Hope, who was almost constantly on the phone, using one of two opposed voices: the halting, script-reading voice of her sales calls or the hushed, passionate voice directed toward her apparently constant personal crises.

She wore little make-up, but her clothes were snazzy–a fitted purple suit cut just above the knee, purple pumps, and shiny pantyhose printed with Eiffel Towers, gondolas, and passports. Her legs, Lloyd noticed, were quite shapely. He looked down, away, toward the carpeting, feeling his face growing warm. “Well, I didn’t get the sale. That’s not so good.”

She shrugged. “Yeah, but you’re new.”

“Not really.”

“Well, you would have tempted me. Is that really true, about the National Geographical Society endorsement? Because I have a kid–”

“It’s absolute rubbish, I’m afraid.”

Loathing surged through him, for Stearit’s rattling teeth, for Hope’s naiveté, for the smell and light of this place, which in a perfectly just world would be reduced to rubble.

She put a hand to her mouth, her brows arched. But she started to smile, then laugh, revealing the delightful surprise that she was a bit snaggle-toothed. This little imperfection clutched at his heart and stirred longing, mingled with a premonition of disaster.

“I’m glad you have a sense of humor,” she said, recovering herself. “You’ll need it here.”

Lloyd had never mistaken his conning skills for having a sense of humor. Still, he took the compliment.

“I’m Hope,” she said, extending her hand.

“William Rutherford Howe.” He took her hand and pulled it forward a little, considering whether to kiss it. But when he saw the look of anticipation, or confusion, in her eyes, he gave her hand a little squeeze and released it, regained himself. “What brought you here, Hope?”

“I’m raising a kid on my own.” She offered the explanation immediately, as if it were customary. “His father’s out of the picture. I mean, he’s not dead, he’s just … just a bum.”

“I’m sorry,” said Lloyd, though he wasn’t at all.

She shrugged, as if to dismiss any notion that she should be pitied. “I just wouldn’t want you to get the impression that I’m working here for the love of it.”

“Thanks for straightening me out on that.”

Hope snuffed a laugh against her hand and then swayed closer, almost drunkenly, lowering her voice confidentially. “Word’s getting around that you’re an artist.” She said artist in a near-whisper, in the way that some would say “bed wetter.” It occurred to Lloyd that he might have chosen the false profession that–at least in this place–was shrouded in mystery commensurate with his need for secrecy.

“So do you paint, or what? If you don’t mind my asking.”

Lloyd glanced down at his nails and realized, distantly, that their neatness might give him away. Ideally, they’d be dulled from solvents and chipped, perhaps flecked here and there with paint or yellowed varnish. “Well,” he said, “painting is part of it, yes, but I guess the proper classification—if the thing that I do must be classified–is that I am a mixed-media artist. I use paint, yes, but some of my works incorporate welded metal parts, paper sculpturing, automotive detritus, and other found materials. And I’m not above some cheap tricks with photo transfer, either.”

“I love art of all kinds,” Hope said eagerly, as if she hadn’t heard him. “When I was ten, and my aunt was living in New York, she took me to a Roy Lichtenstein exhibit. I never forgot it.”

Her expression grew solemn, almost bitter, making him wonder what particular, lasting appeal those cartoony, dotted images–the recriminating women crying fat tears, the bland apartment scapes, the vapid dialogue–had for her.

When she noticed his gaze, she did not change her expression, but seemed to include him in her memory, studying him like the representation he was–an assertion of form, lightness, darkness. Then, her eyes flashed with awareness that she was staring.

“Well,” she said at last, “I better get back to work.”

 

At the beginning of week seven, just as Lloyd’s voicemail began accepting the wrath of the stiffed, Hope disappeared for three days. He could have asked Rob, game boy, or any of the other members of Team F where she was but was afraid to hear the answer. It was the nature of corrupt organizations such as this to silently purge the weakest and most defenseless, removing their personal effects and name plates overnight, as if they’d never existed.

In response, Lloyd sold more aggressively than ever. Those feverish three days in the cube recalled to him that time in carrel 105 of the Randhoff Library when the ideas for his thesis had come together at once, as if he were merely their recorder.

When, on Thursday morning, Hope strolled into the office looking harried but otherwise fine, Lloyd could barely restrain his joy. He thought of ways he might approach her, of lines he might use to show his interest, casually yet unambiguously. These thoughts were checked, however, by the knowledge that he must leave in a week, two tops. What was the point of falling in love?

Still, Lloyd barely disguise his delight when later that day, Hope called over his shoulder in a voice that was both soft and insistent.

“I hope I’m not being too forward,” she said, clasping her coffee cup protectively close, “but I’ve been thinking about you being an artist, I mean a real artist.”

His heart skipped. “Tell me more.”

“Well, my friend Thea is on the new Arts Council, and she’s trying to put on a show of the local talent. It’s just a month off, and she’s having trouble fleshing it out, as she says. With something different, that is.” Hope was warming up a bit, becoming less bashful.

She continued: “There’s no shortage of puppy pastels, she tells me. Or peonies and teacups. What’s lacking is genuine work,you know? Something that might make people think.”

“I see.”

“It sounds as if you might do the type of work that Thea is looking for.” She lowered her eyes, and her cheeks flushed ever so slightly. “But I understand if you don’t have any interest in a small-town show.”

Of course, taking part in any sort of show was impossible, and Lloyd had an excuse at the ready: his works, as large as they were, would have to remain in storage until his new studio was built.

But his tongue felt suddenly thick and immobile, giving his mind enough time to focus on the familiar bright-heat from within himself, now narrowing to a laser-sharp point of inspiration. In his mind, the work of art, the work that he would create, was assuming the vertical, pronged height of an organpipe cactus.

“Of course I do.”

Hope rocked forward with joy. “Thea will be so delighted, William. If you want to bring in some photographs of your collection, she can–”

“Oh, there’s only one work I’d enter,” he said, his plan nearly formed. “I’m afraid the rest are in storage. “Perhaps you and Thea would like to stop by to see it? Perhaps this weekend?”

“I’d be delighted.”

 

This city, as it turned out, had an art museum, an impressive-looking if small one that boasted some lesser-known works by big names (Monet, Picasso, Giacometti) as well as pieces by local and regional artists, an Egyptian collection, and two rooms full of the glassworks of Joan Astra, a New Mexican artist who, Lloyd learned from the museum catalog, had attended a local university years before and had since “achieved international fame.”

He had not visited a museum of any kind for years, and something about the strangeness of being there, of walking through its echoey marble halls in the middle of the day (in a raincoat he never removed) made him aware that he was a criminal. The sensation was not entirely unpleasant. In fact, he felt remarkably at peace, especially as he ambled through the small eighteenth-century collection with its portraits of old scoundrels in velvet and lace. They fixed him with steely eyes that missed nothing of the truth about him.

Lloyd kept moving, skirting the Egyptian collection and the touring exhibit of nineteenth-century landscapes. He was here to see the large, modern pieces–the sculptures, the mobiles, especially anything made of television sets or car parts–understanding that he could not get away with making anything small or two-dimensional. His creation would have to be of a sufficient scale to forgive its inevitable ugliness and shoddiness.

He studied the stringy lengths of the two Giacomettis, looking for seams, connecting joints, or soldering and discovered nothing of its construction. The scrambled lines confounded him in their intricacy, their lack of beginning or end. A sculpture by Species Zero, a local artist, presented another impossibility. Some type of hybrid of an early submarine and the innards of a great clock, it would have required the resources of a Defense Department contractor.

Joan Astra, he discovered, was obsessed with pupas, which, according to an interview with her in the catalog, “are intended to embody the secrecy and contained fire of all life, all lives.” Her exhibit was full of glass pupas in all shapes, sizes, and configurations. A group of them hung, like a curtain of parti-colored cream horns, in one large window, scattering shivery globs of light—purple, red, and green—across the walls and floor. In another corner, a delicate totem pole of them reached nearly to the ceiling. Suspended in each transparent body was a different object that Lloyd could not connect to any particular theme—a pulled tooth, a rattle, a fortune cookie, something fleshy and obscure like part of an organ. “Journey,” it was called.

Astra’s grandest work stood at the center of the room–a nine-foot-high pupa within a pupa within a pupa, at the core of which sat a sculpture of a naked woman, arms clasped in front of her shins, shorn head tucked to her knees, like someone poised for a tornado. Lloyd knelt down and stared through the layers of bluish-green glass, which gave her the warped and dappled look of something under water. His first sense was that he’d seen this work before, perhaps in an airline magazine, or while flipping through channels on motel cable. But the memory held more weight than that.

He tapped the glass before he realized what he was doing, but no alarm sounded. He looked from right to left and then over his shoulder, and saw that the room was empty. Even the guard had disappeared; the measured scuff and squeak of her crepe soles echoed in the adjoining corridor.

Lloyd got up and stepped back to read the plaque. “Sea Woman Waiting,” it said. He scanned the Joan Astra write-up in the catalog for a mention of the work and found nothing but a studio shot of “the artist’s assistants” (a group of sweaty, long-haired men in their twenties, stripped to the waist like roadies) pouring glowing-hot glass for “Sacred Object.” In truth, he did not want to learn what had inspired the Sea Woman’s creation, or to see her molten origins, for he felt in his heart that she had never existed apart from him, that she was his own, necessary illusion.

Lloyd left the museum immediately, dropping the catalog in the trash can past the revolving doors. He hailed a cab and directed the driver to a lumber “super store” he’d seen advertised. It was time to begin his project, his other project. As the cab sped past the gloomy bungalows at the edge of town, Lloyd realized that his mind was repeating the words “Sea Woman Waiting, Sea Woman Waiting, Sea Woman Waiting.”

 

It was a revelation to Lloyd that roadie-like apprentices did the grunt work of important artists, but because he had no roadies—much less a vision—he cabbed around, aimlessly at first, buying lengths of lumber, a power drill and nailer, various hardware, spray paint, glues, and plaster of Paris. Eventually, he asked the driver (who was remarkably patient, or indifferent, remaining silent throughout the adventure) to cross the highway and drop him and his growing collection of supplies at Van-Tastic. There, for fifteen dollars a day, Lloyd rented a rust-speckled Econoline, loaded it with his purchases, and headed for a scrap yard that, according to Van-Tastic’s proprietor, carried “Grade-A Shit.” That one junkyard could be better than another was as pleasing as it was puzzling and made Lloyd grateful to have been saved from the inferior spots, which might have dimmed his fragile inspiration.

The guardian of the junkyard, a skeletal man toplit in his booth by a single bulb, barely looked up from his paper to wave Lloyd through the gates. Lloyd pulled the van to a stop along some stacked, rusted-out chassis and stepped out into the crispening air. It was near dusk, not long before closing time, he guessed, but he paused anyway, momentarily confused. Beneath him, the earth felt less than solid and seemed to faintly ripple, as if just settling down after some disturbance.

He moved past the chassis, past mounds of stacked tires and fenders. Behind a stand of old sinks and wringer-washers was the type of child’s car, run with pedals, that he’d owned years ago and hadn’t thought of since. Further on, silhouetted against the twilight sky, were the metal legs of an upturned kitchenette set very much like the kind that his grandmother had owned. The starbursts and galaxies on the chairs’ turquoise vinyl had actually entered his childhood dreams, twinkling and spinning in a silent wind.

This place had a museum’s mysteries, but without the keen glimmers of human calculation–without the con. And if anything was a con, art was. Lloyd did not doubt the genuineness of the artist’s passion, any more than he doubted the thing that drove him. But the willful creation of illusion was their life’s work as much as it was his. And if the illusion happened to convince and seduce, so much the better.

He moved on, looking here and there for things that might cast some sort of spell on Hope, realizing that all his choices would be presumptuous, based on the scantest impressions that were filtered through his own desires. He picked up a soiled dressmaker’s dummy, still stuck with pins, then put it back, understanding that the only thing that had drawn him was its suggestion of a woman’s form. Later, he scaled a treacherously stacked hill of scrap for a bike fender, painted bright metallic purple, that glinted like a lacquered curl in the last rays of a sun. Somehow, this thing stood out as being absolutely perfect and necessary. With time, Lloyd developed a churlish certainty of purpose that an artist might call “vision,” and this made him move fast; he was under a fragile spell that too much contemplation would break.

Reminded of Hope’s trip to see the Lichtensteins, he picked up a stack of old comic books that he’d found in a mildewed box, then some broken picture frames. In a far corner of the scrap yard, amid piles of broken concrete blocks and tile, he discovered some glass bricks that would have to come with him, though they were heavy and far from the gate.

By the time Lloyd had finished, just minutes before the yard’s closing, he’d accumulated a chest-high pile of junk. At a post near the gate, he rang a yellowed doorbell labeled “customer service,” summoning the booth man, who shuffled forth, then circled the pile once.

“That’ll be ten dollars,” he said. “Cash only.”

As Lloyd drove back through the gate, his van now packed to the roof, the booth man was bent toward the glow of a lunch-box-sized TV. He gave no sign as Lloyd passed.

 

* * *

 

Lloyd realized that the thing he was to create would look nothing like the organpipe cactus of his early vision; his ability and materials permitted nothing so graceful. After he’d pushed the cheap living room furniture aside and laid down a couple of old sheets, he mixed himself a bourbon and water in a convenience store tumbler and stood staring at the empty space, and drinking, until the back of his skull tingled pleasantly. Then, from the front hall and kitchen, where he’d crammed everything from the van, he carried in the pieces one by one, stacking them according to their weight.

When he had finished sorting the junk into piles, he paused again. He looked from pile to pile and in his growing drunkenness, felt more and more that he was standing in an indoor scrap yard. Other purposes and desires were not available to his imagination. The last time he’d felt this way, he’d also stood amid junk–in the driveway of his parents’ house, shortly after their separation, not long before Hal Junior learned of his cancer. It seemed in those days that the two of them, Lloyd and his father, were always standing, mystified, among things that had to be sorted or discarded, reluctant to admit that what surrounded them (the driftwood lamp, the mildewed boxes of games with their missing pieces, the black vinyl couch that nearly stripped the skin from the back of Lloyd’s thighs so many childhood summers) was garbage. At the same time, it seemed important to get rid of these things as quickly as possible, get them out of sight, and then find some new things—things free of history—to fill the putty-colored rooms of his father’s brand-new condo.

That college summer, Lloyd had been working as a clown at the zoo–as a “subtle clown,” he liked to say, for he wore street clothes and minimal grease paint. The job depressed him, but not for the reasons one might imagine. Every day put him in brutal touch with the sadness of childhood: the fascism of organized trips; the random cruelties inflicted by kids who were older, bigger, fatter, or skinnier; the hideous stuffed “prizes” clustered at the rafters of various attractions.

At first, Lloyd had tried to single out for attention the unhappiest-looking children, the ones who appeared most abandoned or misunderstood. But, almost universally, they shrank from him and kept moving. And Lloyd saw himself, momentarily, through their eyes–an incarnation of life’s ugliness and disorder, a portent of future cruelties that would come out of nowhere.

Eventually, he tired of these reactions and took to making kamikaze ventures toward clusters of malicious-looking teenagers, arguing lovers, tense-looking loners. He understood by then that his function was to annoy and thereby de-fuse, and so he looked for situations where his effect might be the most catalytic and useful. To his surprise, though, his approaches (in which he might tell a stock joke or two from his training or twist a balloon into one of three animal shapes) usually were met with a curiously patient silence, a forbearance bordering on politeness. Lloyd came to understand that, as Lethargio the clown, he was a good deal like a threat divorced from meaning or context, a mugger without portfolio.

It was in this frame of mind that, that summer afternoon, he’d driven to his parents’ house without removing his arched black eyebrows and down-painted mouth. He knew that this was an act of aggression against his mother, who had hinted that he should once again see Dr. Slocum, and just one more layer of strangeness for his father, to whom so many other things (aside from the dependable drain of his job) were now strange, and new. But his mother did not emerge from the house when Lloyd arrived. And Hal Junior seemed to take no notice of the grease paint.

“Thanks for coming, son.” He laid a moist hand on Lloyd’s shoulder. “I’m making a go pile and a stay pile, and the stay pile can be only yay high because the new place doesn’t have much room. Just use your judgment.” He winked, though his expression was grim, and the movement seemed like an illusion, a flickering of life in a sandstone head. “You know what the single man requires these days.”

Despite his father’s assurances, Lloyd did not know how or what to choose that day. He would have liked to think that the things he put in the stay pile would be of particular use to his father in his new life, but very few items on that driveway could be considered useful. So he chose the things that still held some residual fascination from the years they’d spent together in the jaundiced, pizza-parlor light of the basement. Among them, a footlong human skeleton suspended on a platform and wearing a fake Olympic medal that a young Lloyd had crafted, a salt-paste volcano (now growing crystals) that he’d made for his third-grade science fair, and an Indian rattle full of dried navy beans.

After a few minutes, Lloyd felt his father standing beside him again. He expected some mild reproach, or to be questioned as to whether there had been some confusion between the stay and go piles.

But his father was silently crying. This was maybe the second time in his life Lloyd had ever seen him shed tears.

“All these things you made, son. Such beautiful things.”

 

Sometime between ten p.m. Friday and one a.m. Saturday, after a third or fourth glass of bourbon, Lloyd had entered that fragile and magical frame of mind that some have referred to as the artist’s trance. He moved, stacked, glued, drilled, and hammered with a purpose he’d never before felt, following not so much a vision as an instinct. His choices seemed at once preordained and surprising, driven by a desire to discover what he could in these materials before the magic wore off and the sun rose, showing the junk for what it was.

One thing he discovered was that Hope was at the center of every choice. As Lloyd built the scaffolding of metal and wood, as he pasted the comic-book faces behind the wavy glass brick, as he affixed the purple bike fender at just the right crowning angle, he thought constantly of her shape, her voice, her gestures, her trapped glory.

Lloyd finished just after five a.m., as the sun was rising. He told himself he had to wait until at least ten to call Hope, to tell her that she and her friend Thea could stop by at any time.

 

Later that same morning, Hope regarded her son, Avery, from across their kitchen table. He had just finished a piece of the cake she’d baked to celebrate his six-and-a-half-year birthday. Now, he was making his usual morning effort to read from the Times.

“Mommy, what’s this word?”

Pointing an inky finger to the relevant spot, Avery slid the paper toward Hope, who read the word aloud: “perceived.”

“What does it mean, Mommy?”

Usually so proud of Avery’s ever-active mind, Hope was feeling cranky and ill-equipped for it this morning. “Seen, viewed.”

“Read it in the sentence please, Mommy.”

The word was part of a quotation from a Dr. Feldman, which in turn was part of an article titled “Dating and the divorced parent.” Hope considered that delving into this particular piece might not be such a good idea. But she tried to never be dishonest with Avery, and so she read Dr. Feldman’s words aloud: “‘Giving a child at least a perceived choice about the parent’s future mate seems to contribute to harmony, although the child’s choice need not be the central concern.’”

Avery made a face. “‘Giving a child at least a seen choice, at least a viewed choice.’ It doesn’t make sense, Mommy.”

Hope pushed the article away, but Avery reached for it, scooted it back between them.

“Okay,” she said. “It means you give the child what seems to be a choice—what they would see as a choice—so they feel they’re getting to choose, even if that choice is not really significant, to the parent that is.”
As soon as the words were out Hope was sorry for them. Surely Dr. Feldman would not have put forth such a cruel explanation.

Yet Avery registered no hurt or offense. He had the article back under his nose and was staring into it as if he might dissolve it through sheer concentration. (His brain is eating, Thea had once remarked upon Avery at his reading.)

Now he fixed his eyes on Hope.

“So when you meet a man, you might ask me if I like him but do what you want anyway.”

Hope cast him her silly-you look. “Avie, the article’s not about me. And anyway I didn’t say I agree with it.”

She got up from the table to get more coffee. The dull headache she’d awoken with had knotted itself behind her right eye.

“What if you fell in love with Dr. Feldman? Or someone like him?”

“That’s highly unlikely. Now put aside that paper and finish your juice.”

Hope drained the last of the coffee from the carafe into her cup and considered how she was heading for trouble with Avery. In fact, she was already deep into it, and she had no one to blame but herself.

At all times, Avery got most of what he wanted. But as Hope saw it, it was only because he was unusually appreciative and deserving. He never asked for more than what she would gladly give to him, in most cases.

Hope’s sister, Martha, who had money enough for two nannies, had voiced her disapproval about Hope’s parenting, and Hope no longer spoke to her. And Thea, now the closest adult in Hope’s life, had started making faces of distaste when she heard of such things as the half-birthdays.

But no one, not even Thea, knew about moofy.

To merely think the word, as Hope was doing now, sent a chill through her.

What was moofy? It was Avery’s word, Avery’s cry, invented years before to unite her breasts with his desire for food and comfort. As his vocal cords matured, moofy took on a husky insistence, tearing through the house like a separate being bent on making Hope its own.

Finally, around the time of Avery’s fifth birthday, she’d managed to end the breastfeeding, but there were still nights when he’d call out moofy—in his sleep, she assumed, she prayed. She’d lie in her bed frozen, sweating, thinking that if this happened once more, it might be time to call that family therapist Thea had recommended.

Sometimes in her own dreams Hope answered the doorbell to find Avery standing on the porch—an older Avery dressed in business-casual—tan khakis with a pressed blue shirt that exactly matched his blue eyes, which were set in a composed and mature face above the quizzical mouth of his childhood. His smile and baritone voice tinged the word moofy with what may or may not have been irony. He’d glance over her shoulder, into the depths of the house, then smile at her again and shrug, as if to say, Well?

In the dreams, she could never speak. Instead, she’d cover her aching breasts with her arms and will herself to wake up, or for the dream to change.

In the kitchen, as Hope began to rinse the coffee carafe, the phone rang and she answered it.

“Hope, it’s William. Can you and Thea come this evening, for cocktails and a little showing of my work?”

Hope’s heart beat hard with anticipation. “Oh, yes, I’d be delighted. What can I bring?”

“Nothing but yourself and Thea, of course. And your son, if you’d like.”

Hope couldn’t bring herself to mention, in front of Avery, that she was planning to call a sitter. “What time shall we say?”

“Seven?”

“Yes, wonderful. I’m so looking forward to it!”

Hope hung up and turned to Avery, who had neither finished his juice nor put aside the paper.

“What is wonderful, Mommy?” he asked, his eyes searing hers.

 

Lloyd had finished his preparations (including his first cleaning of his apartment) by six-thirty Saturday evening, poured himself a drink, and sat in his small living room to admire his work, which he’d called simply “Ode.” Including the bike fender, it measured just over ten feet high, and he might have built it taller had it not been for the limits of his ceiling.

Never before had he had any interest in creating art, much less the sense that he possessed any sort of talent, but now he wondered if, by accident, he’d stumbled upon some new path for his life. Part of him suspected that any artistic institution of at least the C level would consider his work to be poorly envisioned and executed. Yet he also believed that he’d captured some truth, some authentic statement about lived female life (Hope’s) that any moderately sensitive person would respond to.

If someone had wheeled “Ode” into a corridor adjoining Joan Astra’s, no one would see it as a fraud, of that Lloyd was certain. And it was just this vision—of “Ode” standing solitary in an antiseptic yet reverential gallery space—that gave Lloyd the near certainty of being accepted into Thea’s show, and Hope’s heart.

The phone rang again, four times, and the caller hung up without leaving a message. It was at least the fifth time this afternoon that he’d gotten a hang-up. Worry that Hope was calling to cancel kept him from picking up the phone. Lloyd speculated (foolishly, he realized) that she was not the kind of person to break a date through an answering machine message, and if he didn’t pick up the phone, she wouldn’t be able to break the date.

He hadn’t felt this way about a girl since college, but why? He hardly knew Hope. What if she were seriously dating another man? What if her ex were dangerously unhinged, the jealous, lover-killing kind? What if she honestly had no interest in Lloyd?

The phone rang again, and Lloyd gripped the arm of his chair as he counted to the fourth ring. This time the caller didn’t hang up.

William, this is Rob from work. I hate to leave this kind of message on your machine, but you’re not answering, so I guess I don’t have a choice. From the background came the sound of rattling paper, then of the receiver being muffled as Rob spoke to someone on his end.

Listen, we found some things in the call accounts that we’re a little concerned about, some things showing up where they shouldn’t be. I’m not saying it’s anything you did—I’m sure it’s not—but I’m wondering if I could come by a little later to ask you some questions, just to clear things up. If you’re around give me a call, OK? All right then, bye.

Lloyd drained his drink and sat up. He braced his trembling hands against his knees and put his mind to the problem. This wasn’t the first call of this kind he’d gotten since he’d begun his life on the con. In fact, he’d come to see such calls as blessings, signs that it was time to pull up the tent and move on. Up to now, the powers that be had been stupid or untutored enough to give him this kind of warning, and there was no reason to think it would be any different this time.

But this time, he wasn’t ready. Not yet. Over the past few days, he’d begun to reconstruct his vision of the future, and it no longer included packing alone in the middle of the night as hair dye or bleach assaulted his nostrils and scalded his scalp. Lloyd knew he had to think and move quickly, but this setback to his still-brewing plans left him immobilized.

And then the doorbell sounded. As he went to answer the door, Lloyd pulled the phone cord from the wall.

Outside, on the crumbling stoop, stood a woman of about fifty in a loose, ankle-length dress of purple and green satin. Her pointed face and small stature gave her a girlish look, and her graying hair had been done up with little pins studded with sparking flowers and dragonflies.

“William Howe?” she inquired.

Lloyd realized from her face that his own must have registered disappointment at Hope’s absence.

“That’s me,” he answered, trying to sound cheerful.

“Thea Granby of the Arts Council,” she replied, extending her hand, which Lloyd shook warmly.

“Delighted,” he said. “Won’t you come in?”

“Thank you,” she said, rummaging through her purse as she stepped over the threshold. “Hope will be here in a minute. She couldn’t find a babysitter for her boy, and she’s back at the car trying to make him fit for society.”

Thea fixed Lloyd with a conspiratorial look. “The child can be dear, but on occasion his behavior is, well.”

In that instant, Lloyd had a vision of his potential influence on this boy he hadn’t met. He saw himself sitting by the child’s side on the stoop, imparting wisdom that might change his young life.

…and when you discover that you need not meet society’s expectations—that, in fact, you can happily thwart them—the world will open up for you ….

Thea found what she was looking for in her purse—glasses. With an almost ceremonious gesture, she perched them on the bridge of her nose and stepped forward to face “Ode.” She then took measured little steps around it, like a druid going through the paces of a ritual. All the while she looked it up and down and made soft sounds of appraisal—whether appreciative or not, Lloyd couldn’t tell.

“You follow Ferber?” Thea, now behind the sculpture, poked her face around the side of it. “The Ferber works in glass and metal?”

“Some.” Lloyd prayed she wouldn’t probe much further than this. “I’m more influenced by Astra.”

“Oh, yes. Joan Astra. I can see that now. She’s a worthy inspiration.”

On completing her orbit, Thea stopped and stood with her hands on her hips, still staring at the sculpture.

“Well, I think it’s truly extraordinary, and we’d love to have it in the show.”

Lloyd’s heart leaped. “Seriously? You truly mean that?” He wished immediately that he’d been more subdued, as if he were accustomed to such invitations. “I mean, I don’t usually get much interest from people who run, you know, local shows.”

Thea turned to Lloyd and smiled in a way that suggested she was indulging him. “I can assure you that we’re not like most small-town arts councils. We want what’s new and different. We want the risk-takers.”

“Well, I’m certainly that.”

He laughed, and she laughed. She didn’t take her eyes from his.

“Pardon me for saying this, but has anyone ever told you that you resemble the young Gregory Peck?”

“For that, you get a drink. Gin-and-tonic? Wine? Soda?”

“Wine. White, if you have it.”

“It’s yours.”

As Lloyd turned to leave for the kitchen, he was stopped by the sound of commotion outside the front door—thumps that weren’t knocks, and something literally beastly—snarling? He turned to Thea, as if she might have an explanation.

“Prepare yourself for Avery Topsfield,” she exclaimed wearily.

Lloyd and Thea listened, immobile, as the thumping and snarling diminished, then ceased.

Slowly, the door opened, and in stepped a large-headed but exceedingly handsome little boy with enormous blue eyes that exactly matched his Oxford-cloth shirt—recently pressed but now bearing fresh grass stains. Though quiet, he was chuffing little post-tantrum breaths, suggesting he might still go off. Seeming to sense this, Thea approached, knelt to the boy’s level, and tilted up his chin to look directly into his eyes.

“How’s my Avery?” she said. “My dearest little Avery.”

He stopped huffing and became instantly composed. “Very well, thank you. And you?”

The boy’s sudden gentility disarmed Lloyd. He sensed that this boy—very much like Lloyd himself, as a child—was sensitive, highly intelligent, and very possibly misunderstood, leading him to act out in the only way he knew.

Quietly, like a handler creeping into a tiger’s cage, Hope stepped through the doorway behind Avery. She wore a fitted dress, slightly off-the-shoulders, whose yellow cast a glow upon her face, which was still fetchingly flushed from her struggles with Avery. Lloyd had never seen her looking so beautiful.

Catching Lloyd’s eye, she gave him an apologetic little wave and mouthed, “Hi.”

Lloyd waved back, a motion that Avery detected instantly. He looked at Lloyd neutrally.

What to do? It wasn’t his way to kneel before a child and pander, and he had the feeling the boy would see through this anyway.

So with all the confidence and authority he could muster, he said, “Avery, I’m Lloyd, and I’m very pleased to meet you.”

Avery regarded him with the same neutral stare and then looked at Thea, who gave him a smile and nod of encouragement. Then, he said over his shoulder, to Hope, “You said his name was William.”

This wasn’t the first such slip for Lloyd, and he quickly replied, “Lloyd was my grandfather’s name and my own nickname as a child. Sometimes, especially around boys who remind me of myself as a child, that old name comes back to me.”

Hope stepped forward and took her son’s hand. “Avery, what do you say when someone says they’re pleased to meet you?”

Avery seemed to be passing a bitter lozenge back and forth in his mouth.

“Avery?”

“I say, pleased to meet you, Lloyd.”

Lloyd—and the other adults—would accept this. Nothing could be gained by correcting him.

“Well,” Lloyd announced, feeling it was time to change the focus of the conversation, “I’m getting white wine for Thea. Now what can I get for the two of you? Soda? Wine? Gin and tonic?”

“White wine for me too,” Hope said. She kept hold of Avery’s hand but walked him farther into the room, near the worn armchair from which Lloyd liked to admire “Ode.” She added, “And water for Avery? I like to avoid soda, if I can.”

“Of course.”

Lloyd retreated into the kitchen and made his own drink first—a strong gin-and-tonic that he gulped and finished while preparing the others. Then, he placed the two wines and waters on a chipped glass tray left by the previous tenant and started for the living room.

The sight he witnessed stopped him in the doorway.

Avery was struggling toward “Ode,” mumbling rhythmically. On either arm, restraining him, were Hope and Thea. The three of them had their backs to Lloyd and did not notice him in the doorway. He kept silent and listened.

At first, Lloyd couldn’t make out what the boy might be saying. He strained to hear, and then did.

Awww-ful, awww-ful, awww-ful.” He said this over and over, like a mantra.

“Stop it,” Hope said in a hushed voice. “Stop it now.”

“But look, Mommy.” He pulled free of Thea and pointed to one of the glass bricks and the pasted-on cartoons. “Look there. You can see the glue. See?”

“Yes,” Hope said softly, taking both of his arms and kneeling to pull him close. “Yes, I see the glue. Now quiet down. Quiet down or you’ll get a spanking. And I mean it.”

“Please, Mommy. Just say it’s awful. Just say it’s awful and I’ll be good for the rest of the night. I promise.”

Avery stopped struggling and stared into Hope’s eyes, just as she was staring into his, and Lloyd was reminded of profiles struck on ancient coins, gods or royals of another realm. Not his.

When, at last, Hope obeyed her son’s command, Lloyd turned and retreated back to the kitchen. The rattle of the glasses on the tray must have caught the women’s attention, for they were at his back instantly, calling after him.

“Oh, William, I didn’t mean it.”

“Of course she didn’t mean it.”

Lloyd ignored them. He rested the tray of drinks by the kitchen sink, braced his hands on the counter, and stared out the kitchen window into the summer evening. Across the street, a sprinkler sputtered to life and hurled spirals of water onto some unknown neighbor’s yard. On the freshly black-topped driveway of another home, a young father knelt by his son, buckled the chin strap of his bike helmet. A bit of the good and normal.

Into this frame drove a black town car with darkened windows. It stopped at the curb in front of Lloyd’s apartment. A moment later, two men stepped out—Rob and Mr. Crubbage. Both wore neat shorts and short-sleeved dress shirts, and both carried bulging leather portfolios under their arms, but while Crubbage was composed, his face an unreadable mask, Rob’s eyes darted this way and that. Sweat stains showed under his arms.

As they walked across the yard, toward the front door, Lloyd sat down on the floor, aware that the women were still speaking to his back.

From the living room came a great crash, and Lloyd was stunned neither by that nor by the approach of his accusers. On some level, he’d long understood that he’d descend once more into chaos, the result of all too many theories and experiments when pushed to their limits. Now, he waited for acceptance: that great strength and weakness of Hal Shrumpeter Junior, and Hal’s faithful companion through a long, difficult, and honest life.

 

 

BIO

Beth Castrodale writerAfter receiving a journalism degree from the Ohio State University, Beth Castrodale worked briefly as a newspaper reporter and then moved into book publishing. For many years, she edited print and digital media for Bedford/St. Martin’s, eventually leaving to devote more time to her fiction writing. Since then, she has completed two novels, which she is currently shopping around, and she’s partway through drafting a third. She also recommends small-press books on her Web site, SmallPressPicks.com.

 

 

 

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