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Richard Hartshorn

Excavation of a Breathing Fossil

by Richard Hartshorn

 

My first mistake was pulling onto the shoulder when I saw the hitchhiker. She stood on the pavement in a patch of shade, sporting black heels and holding a cardboard sign that read Nautilus. Her hair was long and red, skin sandblasted with freckles. Once she settled herself into the passenger seat and wedged the sign into the back, I decided she must have been around twenty-four. After introducing myself as Kate, I asked her name. She looked up at the air bag advisory on the sun visor, scanned it until she reached the French translation, and said, “Danger de Mort.” We shook hands.

Caterpillars had erupted from the Earth during the summer solstice, infesting the district and making it their home. Tree branches were reduced to thread. I couldn’t walk outside in high heels without impaling soft bodies or draw the bedroom shades without black, suctiony lumps clinging to the glass and blotting out the sun. The Mayor, who would be up for re-election in a year, had proposed only one solution, and it involved the word flamethrowers. The idea had yet to be applied, but I shelved my habit of sitting with my back against the brawny oak in our backyard while flipping through gardening magazines – the trunk writhed and rippled with life, like a giant muscle.

“Where is Nautilus?” I asked the hitchhiker.

She fingered some caterpillar guts on the windshield and narrowed her eyelids. Why had I offered her a ride if I’d never heard of the place she wanted to get to? I didn’t look away. If I could handle a classroom full of third-graders, screaming and breaking pencils and shoving gum under desks, I wasn’t going to be intimidated by a woman called Danger. We shared stubborn eye contact as the engine stuttered and the sun baked the leather seats. Dust spores hovered between us.

“North,” she said, cracking the dead air and sending the spores whirling. “Take me North.”

We passed through three towns and rolled across the expanse of open highway. Danger simply pointed to the exits she wanted; she knew precisely where she was going, and I allowed myself to trust her.

Unable to endure the silence as we pulled onto a two-lane exit ramp, I blurted out, “My husband likes pornography more than he likes me.” She hadn’t asked why I was so cooperative, why I was okay with driving her as far as she wanted to go, but she was bound to.

I discovered Bryan’s hobby after a fight. Thinking on it now, I couldn’t tell you what the fight was about. Bryan wasn’t incredibly discreet with his personal things, but when I planted myself in his office chair and pushed his laptop open, I knew what I was looking for. I entered his email password (MyGirlKatie), ferociously clacking the keys as if I meant to hurt them. I expected – or perhaps wanted – to find questionable messages from young girls with slutty usernames, maybe his female clients from the gym, listing the scandalous ways in which they’d thank him for tightening their cores and molding their legs into smooth, toned trunks.

What I found wasn’t nearly as simple – Bryan had requested and paid for pornographic art, which he’d thought out in incredible detail: fetishistic mayhem I’d never thought could exist anywhere outside of science fiction. I looked through every drawing, from the rough sketches sent by the artists and approved by Bryan, to the finished products, trying to fuse my mind with Bryan’s and figure out the thought process that led him to this. Through his glowing computer screen, I tried to become him.

 

“So,” said Danger, “Did you divorce him and become a wandering transport servicewoman?”

“We’re still together,” I said. He’s in Los Angeles, meeting with some people who want to give him his own DVD series. He’s a pretty well-known fitness trainer. I substitute teach because I enjoy it. I wouldn’t abandon those kids even if Bryan got the deal.”

Danger forced a yawn. “I’ve never heard of him. I do kickboxing. That’s all I do. And look at me.” She dragged a hand across her flat stomach. I tried to remember whether any of Bryan’s fantasy women looked like Danger.

She flicked the radio on and twisted the knob until she found a station she liked. She tapped her heels in tune with a juvenile pop-punk song midplay.

“We’re doing okay, though,” I said, talking over the machine-gun guitars and braking at the cyclopian eye of the traffic light.

“Take a left here,” she said.

When the green arrow lit up, I took my foot off the brake, turned onto the main strip of whatever town we’d just entered, and pulled into the first roadside diner I spotted.

The diner was called Red Carpet Cafe’ and was decked out like a celebrity hotspot. The front steps led to a glass entryway underneath a maroon awning, adorned with star-shaped lights and a marquee featuring the day’s food specials.

Danger said she’d rather stay in the car, but agreed to come in when I told her I’d pay for breakfast. I tugged on the diner’s glass double-door, which made a shiff sound as it opened, and held it for her. The diner’s lobby, made to reflect the prestige of its name, was embellished with black-and-white photos of movie directors and beloved actors, and the tile floor was painted to look like a rolled-out red carpet. The air conditioning swept Danger’s red hair as she passed through the doorway, and there was a certain beauty about her, all the allure of any cover-story socialite I could think of, but in the out-of-makeup way. Playing her doorwoman and seeing her flounce across that red carpet in those black heels, I imagined Danger de Mort headlining the next box-office smash.

After a teenaged waitress seated us in a roomy booth, I used the cloth napkin to wipe away the remains of the caterpillars I’d clomped while walking from the car to the diner. Danger ordered an orange juice. I was too disgusted with the green and black smears on the white napkin, and with myself for my public behavior, to even look at the waitress. It must have been mutual, because she did not ask me if I wanted anything.

While we waited, I asked Danger about the tattoo on her forearm: a helical blue shell with a coiled mass of tentacles percolating from a hood-shaped opening. A single eye indented the shell, and it appeared iridescent, as though it had been painted with the film of a soap bubble.

“I’ll let you ask me one question about it,” she said, and I thought of a conversation I often had with Bryan about how celebrity actors must grow tired of fans asking them to quote their most famous characters or to slip into a phony accent they’d owned onscreen a decade ago. I bet everyone asked Danger about her ink.

I asked, “What did the tattoo artist use for the eye?” and I immediately wished I’d asked her what the creature was. But there was something about the eye, something about the way its colors seemed to change as Danger moved her arm, blue and purple and yellow, in flux.

“I told him I wanted everyone who looked at me to see something different,” she said. She swiveled her arm. The colors flickered. “This is what he did for me.”

The waitress returned and placed a sweating glass of orange juice on the table. She looked down at me, the shoe-wiper, the public menace with death mashed into her napkin, and asked, “Have you decided?”

I’d been so enchanted with the shining eye of Danger’s forearm that I hadn’t even begun thumbing through the breakfast menu. “Just a fried egg,” I said. “No butter on the toast.” I didn’t really want it, but not having glanced at the menu, I thought of the last meal I’d made for Bryan before he’d hopped a plane to L.A. He took his fried eggs underdone and his toast butterless; he loved to watch the yellow lump burst and drag the bread crust through the yolk.

The waitress scribbled the order on a white pad and turned to Danger.

“I want the Anne Francis,” she said, pressing her finger against an image of food on the menu. “Bacon, not sausage. Potatoes crispy, not burnt. And a side of raspberries. I’m sure you’ve got some back there.” The waitress jotted it down and scuttled off, probably suppressing groans. I was dying for a coffee, but was still embarrassed about scraping the corpses from my shoes and didn’t need another reason to draw attention.

My eyes meandered to the glitzy marquee menu and then to the wall of black-and-whites – had they really snagged Ingrid Bergman’s autograph? Danger, disinterested and withdrawn, stared at the backs of her hands.

I’d tried to treat this like an adventure, an outing with a best friend, but the silence made me see the hitchhiker as a stranger again. The freckles dotting her nose and cheeks were unfamiliar; the way she shook the hair out of her eyes was something out of a magazine spread. She didn’t even trust me enough to tell me her name. She was a kid. I was supposed to call Bryan in an hour to see how his meeting had gone, and I was countless miles from home, far from our bed, where I liked to lie when we talked on the phone, and far from my garden, where I could bury my hands when we were done.

Danger tore the fat away from the bacon with her front teeth. She smashed her egg yolks with a fork.

“What do you do for a living?” I asked.

She skewered a piece of egg and didn’t look up from her plate. “I don’t remember.”

“Why can’t you tell me anything about yourself?” I said, stabbing a chunk of my own egg and mirroring her mannerisms. “I told you about me.”

She went “Ah,” holding up a finger, indicating that I was to wait for her to finish chewing. After swallowing the eggy mass, she said, “No, you told me about your husband. I know more about him than I know about you. All I know about you is you don’t like caterpillars on your shoes. You said something about teaching, but I can’t see you taking care of children.”

“I like to keep a garden,” I said. “That’s why I hate the caterpillars. I make life. They chew it up. Your turn.”

“I used to cliff dive at Crooked Pitch. Happy?”

“You can do better than that.”

She put her fork down. “What if this is a test?” she asked. “What if Mother Nature put me on the side of the road with that cardboard sign?”

“Fine. What’s the test, then?”

“It’s not for me to figure out, Kate.” Her words came out like spit, yet she pronounced my name the way a protective sister might. I ripped off a piece of toast and clammed up. Danger’s egg yolks had spread across her entire plate, drowning the bacon. She sighed as if resigning, touched a finger to the white ceramic, and asked if I’d ever dissected an animal.

“Frogs in middle school,” I said.

She worked her finger through the yolk. “My father was a crabber and a fisherman. He was also a drinker. One night, he got loaded and brought home one of his traps. He’d caught something he hadn’t wanted. It looked like a tiny sea monster.” I pictured the sea-beast tattooed on her forearm. “I was bad that day. I broke a cup, muddied the kitchen floor, made a lot of noise. Cried for no reason. My father hated that.”

“Did he hurt you?”

The yolk began to solidify around the bacon and the barely-touched potatoes. She continued pushing her finger through it, and the yellow gunk collected at the end of her nail. “I was twelve,” she said. “I think he knew better than to hit me anymore, but I was still afraid. He put this, this thing in front of me, and he told me to eat it. Everything but the shell. So I did. With my hands.”

I needed her name now, but I didn’t have it.

“It made me stronger, Kate, pulling every tentacle from that shell. They were like weeds with strong roots. It took me a full minute to chew each one. I even downed the eye and scraped the rest of the meat out of the shell with my fingernails.”

“Why?”

“Because I knew he didn’t think I could do it. He’d passed out by the time I finished, so for all he knew I could have thrown it out the window, but it was still victory. I didn’t throw up, just gagged a little. Had a nice conversation with the bathroom mirror after that. I was pretty sure the thing had still been alive while I was picking it apart. Even when you swallow and it all stays down, that’s not the type of thing you ever really digest; know what I mean?”

“I think so.”

She stopped playing with the food and pushed the plate away from her. “I need to get the hell out of this place,” she said. She flagged down the waitress for the check. “Thanks for the ride, Kate. I can find my way from here.”

 

Every morning, I passed a Lutheran Church on my way to work. The church was older than my parents. God wants spiritual fruit, not religious nuts, the church sign once declared in blinding white letters on paneled wood. Bryan, slouching in the passenger seat, amended the sign: “God always re-gifts the spiritual fruitcake.” Even road signs weren’t safe from my husband’s wit.

We rode to a fancy French restaurant and he mimicked the waiter’s accent. We shared dessert, a slice of white cheesecake in a perfect triangle. After that night, I began recording the messages on the sign, even the ones that weren’t all that funny, and a year later I already had so many pad pages, gas receipts, and old napkins full of laconic scripture, I could’ve easily scribbled the opening chapters of my own Book of Holy Passive-Aggression.

A week into my summer vacation, a few days after breakfast with the hitchhiker, I overtoasted an English muffin while distracted by a talk-show on television, and began planning a trip to the store. I whipped the car keys around my finger and headed down the road – driving past the church, I could just make out the words, Fight Truth Decay, behind the wall of caterpillars.

The night before, I’d dreamed of graphite-sketched women with mile-high stilettos and pink hair stalking me through the halls of my old high school. They jerked with each step as though being drawn on the spot. “I miss you,” Bryan had said on the phone the night before, in the weakest voice I’d ever heard come out of him. He must have suspected that every word between us made me think of the grotesque pictures on his computer, of impossible naked acrobatics he’d never even suggested we try together but was quick to fictionalize with his fantasy women. When he said he missed me, I wondered if he was imagining me revving my little Japanese car and disappearing from his life.

“I miss you, too,” I said. I knew how I sounded. I wanted to hurt him. I also wanted to snuggle him like he was a child apologizing for a mistake, but I knew he’d be filming his debut fitness video the following morning and would be surrounded by sweat-drenched, hardbodied women in tight sports bras. He’d enjoy their blithe personalities, their flawless skin, and their exuberance for increasing their heart rates. He’d place his hands around their narrow waists to make sure they were squatting with immaculate form.

“I’m going to buy a brand new computer when I get home,” he muttered. “I’ll get rid of all that stuff.”

“Let’s not get into that now,” I said. You have to focus.”

“Whatever you want.” He sounded defeated, as though he’d spent all day gathering the courage to speak to me about this. After a breathless pause, he said, “I’m about to take my group through some stretches. We’re filming Plyometrics at nine.”

If the test video satisfied the fitness company’s bigwigs, Bryan would be called back to Los Angeles and his fitness program would be promoted on national television. This was supposed to be a time for celebration, but I couldn’t detain my shock at what I’d found on his computer, and the shock manifested itself in my speech. My hoarseness told him I’d been throwing up. Every avoided subject was a sign I’d been tearing through his suit-closet for incriminating pictures and revealing letters. I felt like a culprit myself. My tone was false. My voice, a lie. When I spoke, Bryan could sense my nightmares.

When he’d first received the call from the fitness company, we’d sat at the kitchen table and planned a weekend of poolside laughter, fresh hotel sheets, iced champagne, and commemorative photos to top it off, but hoping for any of that now seemed ineffectual. Bryan persisted with his promises to exhume a sexual seed that had been growing untrimmed for years.

“You’ll do great,” I said.

When we finished talking, I walked to the garden. I drove my hands into the topsoil, working them in until I couldn’t see anything below my wrists. I spread my fingers like roots.

 

When the geraniums had sprouted promising buds, Bryan returned. An airport shuttle stuttered up to the driveway and Bryan appeared from behind the sliding door, dragging two Pan American suitcases behind him. I waited at the end of the walk. When he reached me, he dropped the luggage and kissed my lips.

Over the next few weeks, Bryan’s behavior became erratic. He was constantly crouched in front of the television, watching and rewinding clips of his fitness demo. When I’d try to watch it with him, he’d tell me to let him concentrate. His computer never moved from its desk. I wondered whether he knew I’d been shuffling through his things. He kept his sentences short when he bothered to speak at all.

Mornings were percussed by Bryan’s wake-up cycle: swing the bedroom door open so the knob bashes against the wall; pore over DVDs and drop the television remote onto the wooden TV stand; lift and release dumbbells on the living room floor; hurl the sliding glass door of the shower hard enough that it fully closes the first time; and when going out for the mail, slam the front door to be sure it doesn’t stick.

I remember watching a news story one morning while drinking hazelnut coffee. A newscaster in a charcoal suit, poised at the entrance of an outdoor aquarium, chatted with a young woman in a yellow raincoat. A name-tag was pinned to her front, and the newscaster held a black microphone to her face as if offering her an ice cream. “The ocean was once full of externally-shelled cephalopods, half of which are now extinct,” she said, with a TV smile that made the contrition in her voice seem terribly detached. “That’s why this find is so thrilling, Mark,” she went on. The newscaster nodded dully. “These creatures are impossible to track, and no one has ever figured out their reproduction patterns. They are literally living fossils.” A red ribbon of text accelerated across the bottom of the screen, unreadable through the steam rising from my cup.

I peered out the window at the rhododendrons puckering in the post-rain sunlight, awaiting my attention. Bryan was becoming more volatile by the day. Once his increasingly raucous morning routine was finished, he would either sit by the phone or disappear until dinner. He was afraid to wake me up, even when he knew I wasn’t sleeping. I still dreamed of crudely drawn women with flesh bared, of Bryan’s laptop cord morphing into a white, snakelike rope, looping around my neck and constricting me until my dream body died.

On the television, the woman in the raincoat led the newscaster toward a stone pool. The cameraman tilted the lens so that the surface of the pool was visible. Starfish clung to the sides. Beneath the opaque water, two white blurs darted around the perimeter. “Only three aquariums on Earth have been able to produce fertile nautilus eggs,” the woman said, “but no one has ever raised one to maturity. The animals often develop shell formation problems. No matter what we do, it’s almost as though they will themselves to die through some sort of natural trauma. We are hoping for an entire family once these eggs hatch.”

I recorded the rest of the show and set the television to record every installment of the Channel 17 morning news for the next two weeks. I remembered the cardboard sign – Nautilus – clutched in Danger’s hands, and how after breakfast, she wouldn’t let me take her there. But I had: I’d asked her about the tattoo with the gleaming eye, which had led to her telling the story of eating the tiny sea monster. Nautilus wasn’t a physical place; it was a mindset, a birthmark, a state of conversation. Why hadn’t she needed me once we’d arrived?

That night, Bryan lay awake, whispering about the bosses at Morton Fitness, how they sat around a polished oak table and discussed how to dish Bryan’s ideas to the public, how to get people to believe him. He joked about their tacky suits and ironed black ties, about how out of place he felt standing before them in a yellow jumper and hightops. This moment was a balm for both our wounds, maybe, but where joking would have turned to laughter, laughter to teasing, teasing to frisking, frisking to lovemaking, there was only me, the blackness of the bedroom intermittently lit by the passing of cars, the echolalia of the neighbors’ dobermans, the stubborn crack in our small-paned window, and the thought of caterpillars devouring my jasmine and coating my home like a shell.

 

The air felt cooler in the morning, as though the house had taken a breath. While I roamed the kitchen, scrambling eggs and brewing fresh coffee, the phone began shaking in its cradle. Bryan rushed in, materializing out of nowhere. He scooped the phone from the cradle and spoke his own name into the mouthpiece. After a series of nods, nine instances of Yeah and six of Thank you, Bryan hung up. “It was Morton,” he said. “They’re giving me the DVD deal.” I finished arranging breakfast and slid the egg-laden ceramic plates, wedding gifts from Bryan’s parents, onto the table. Bryan barely touched his food as he explained his ideas for the fitness program; he had clever slogans, poster designs, and even sales numbers figured out in his head. I managed “Mmm-hmm” through a burning mouthful of coffee.

I stabbed a piece of yellow egg with my fork, rolling it around on the plate, thinking of the pregnant nautilus. I thought of Danger devouring tentacles like strings of white pasta.

Bryan left for Los Angeles again. After he kissed me goodbye and boarded the shuttle, I slipped his demo disc from its sleeve, dropped it in the DVD tray, and planted myself on the ottoman. Once the Morton Fitness logo – the silhouette of a woman jumping rope – had popped in and faded, Bryan appeared on the screen, clad in black tights and flanked by two women, each with slender arms and abs of granite. “Guess what?” Bryan said, turning to the camera as though the viewer had just stumbled onto the set, which was built like a three-walled gym, “You’re here for the Plyometric Cardio Burner. Get ready to jump higher, run faster, and get those ripped thighs. Are you ready, Karen?” The woman on Bryan’s right, a curly-haired brunette who looked about seventeen, fist-pumped her approval. I endured the full forty minute workout, fast-forwarding here and there when the endless squats began to bore me or when the women in the video pumped out thirty reps of a jumping-jack-knee-tuck hybrid of which I was quite sure I couldn’t do a single one. When Bryan finished the workout, he and the women were drenched. I couldn’t help feeling a bit proud. My husband, the fitness icon. “That’s it,” he said to the camera lens. “How do you feel?”

As the shot faded back to the Morton logo, he high-fived the unnamed woman, and the brunette approached him for a sweaty hug. I expected him to shoot her one of the glib retorts he always gave me when I attempted the sweaty hug, but he reciprocated. Great grins spread across their faces in what felt like slow motion. The screen went dark as they embraced, leaving me with nothing but this moment, as if they’d drowned in each other’s moisture.

 

I still blame the caterpillars for what happened to my garden. The army of trees behind our home, which reclined over seven acres of sprawling hills, had gone from their usual apple-green to an aberrant brown.

I had spent springtime training Carolina jasmine to climb a crosshatched fence I’d nailed together and painted myself. I’d propped the fence alongside our duck pond, which my father had dug with a backhoe a few years back. During the caterpillars’ assault, my jasmine was the last plant to die, chewed to stems over the course of two nights. I scraped clumps of black caterpillars from the trellis. They felt like soft meat in my hands. I collected the hanging pots, ripped up the roots of the spider plants, and dumped the caterpillars into the pond. A duck, gliding over the still water, pecked at the ripples, unsure. I tore the fence out of the ground and swore until my mouth went dry.

Bryan had been gone for over a week, and I needed something green in the yard again.

Determined to regrow my jasmine but completely ignorant of what I’d need, I drove to the hardware store. I passed the Lutheran church sign (In the dark? Follow the Son!) and turned onto Cocca Ave, crushing legions of caterpillars beneath my tires. I attacked the store’s aisles, sifting through barrels of seed packets and rearranging the architecture of the spade display. As I heaved the door open with an armful of gardening loot, I saw her.

The hitchhiker, in a maroon dress and black heels, stood on the curb between a chest-high recycling bin and a telephone pole plastered with fliers for missing pets. Her arm was extended, her thumb pointed toward the sky.

“Danger?” I didn’t know what else to call her. I wished she would lower her arm before someone else pulled onto the shoulder and whisked her away.

“Hi, Kate.” Her hair settled in a red curtain as she turned.

“I’m sorry,” I said, still feeling uninhibited. “I should have been more helpful when you told me about your father.”

The sign was tilted against the recycling bin, facing the road. “You don’t seem like the same person,” she said.

“Why are you hitchhiking? How did you get all the way back here?”

“I shouldn’t really say. There are rules.”

Thinking I had figured out at least one of the hitchhiker’s tenets, I didn’t bring up the tattoo again.

“What if we start traveling somewhere, but we never arrive?” I asked.

Half of her mouth bent upward like a sliver of moon. In pure daylight, her face was a white, freckle-flecked seashell.

“Please spend the afternoon with me,” I said. “Please.”

 

During the non-air-conditioned return drive, I explained why I’d been ransacking the hardware store. I told Danger about my dreams, how the grotesque hand-drawn women had returned after I’d watched Bryan’s workout video. That brunette, Karen, had appeared, often with tentacles sprouting from her neck and curling around mine; her skin was made of hard white lines, as though etched with blackboard chalk.

Danger asked my age. She said nothing else during the entire drive.

“Thirty-four,” I said.

She smiled warmly, as if speaking to a grandparent.

Summer heat began lightly toasting my skin, just as it had when I’d first shaken Danger’s hand in the car. Still wearing high heels, she stood in the garden over a backdrop of yellow and green. A white admiral fluttered over her shoulder; she swatted at her hair. Sunlight cut through the striped maples, and as Danger lowered her hand, her graffittied skin glimmered with color. Her entire form refracted in the hot beams.

In some ways, I felt safer with Danger than with Bryan, who moved from room to room like a ghost of himself, and whose invented ghosts had burst through the walls of my dreams. The house felt more familiar, even among the empty pots and rotting, leafless trees, than the Red Carpet Cafe’, dressed in its unnatural colors and bedecked with gaudy bullshit.

Upon seeing the ruins of my jasmine, Danger immediately bent at the waist and pulled the trellis upright. We crouched over the soil and planted the new seeds together. She dragged a shovel from the woodshed and asked if I had anything we could burn. We descended the concrete stairs into the cellar; I breathed in ten years of must. Soot rushed to occupy my lungs. Danger laughed as she wiped the dust from the surface of Bryan’s wine rack with her bare palm. “No,” I said, stifling a cough. “We can’t burn that.”

I led her to the wood stove, currently abandoned, which sat in the back of the cellar behind ceiling-high stacks of gardening supplies. “That’ll do,” Danger said. She dumped a shovelful of ash and white coal into the metal bin under the stove, then led me up the cellar stairs the same way I’d brought her in. She poured the contents of the ash bin over the surface of each dirt pile we’d made, around the foundations of every root in the garden. She promised me the ashes would avert the appetites of the caterpillars, and indeed, long after the last time I ever saw her, I would still clot flowerbeds with ash. Stems always issued unharmed from soil to sky.

“He likes her,” I told Danger after I fast-forwarded to the end of Bryan’s fitness DVD. “That’s why he’s been so good about his computer. He didn’t touch it when he came back from L.A.”

“You’re assuming a lot,” she said. I leaned back on the couch, sinking into the forest green upholstery. She arched forward, elbows on knees, grinding the spikes of her heels into the hardwood floor.

“You do the workouts?” she asked.

“What?”

“Maybe it would help if you did the workout instead of watching him hug a sweaty woman over and over.”

“I’m not in good shape.”

“That’s the point of a workout, Kate. Let’s do this – ” she peeked at the DVD sleeve, “– Cardio Burner, together. Then I’ll be a sweaty woman, and you can hug me, and you’ll see that this thing is in your mind.”

I refused. But even after I’d gone to the kitchen and had begun preparing a chicken stir-fry, I heard the Morton theme music and Bryan’s voice, followed by the sticky sound of feet on hardwood. She was doing it.

I couldn’t watch. I drew out the time it took to prepare dinner, making sure to place the dishes on the table just as Danger was wandering into the kitchen, and as she drifted through the doorway, a trail of sweaty vapor rose in her wake.

“Hug me,” she said, ignoring the steaming plates. I was boxed into the L-shaped alcove formed by the sink and the blue tile counter. I felt a feeling like fear, and opened my arms. Danger looped her hands around my shoulders. Something in her touch, her scent, her sweat gliding along my skin, her arms hooked flimsily around me – youth bled from her.

I asked her age, whispering into a drape of red hair. She said she couldn’t remember.

 

I awoke at midnight with a cold hand caging my wrist.

After dinner, I’d asked Danger if there was somewhere I could bring her. She told me no, not this late. I watched with admiration as she threw back four shots of Bryan’s special bourbon, and as I changed the sheets in the guest room for her, she clandestinely stumbled into our bedroom, snuggled beneath the calico quilt, and fell asleep. I would have woken her had I not wanted the company, a solid body to weigh down the other side of the bed, so badly. When I felt her hand, I imagined she was my teenage daughter. Envisioning myself with children, I noticed the caterpillar on the wall, traversing an orb of moonlight. I pretended this orb was a second moon, with the body of the caterpillar blackening the surface like a crater, and I whispered to my teenage daughter stories of how her father and I gazed at that same moon on our wedding night, surrounded by ramparts of gift-wrapped boxes, our skin dancing as our blood rushed beneath it. I held onto this fantasy until the caterpillar moved, making me forget the second moon. I leaped from bed, felt cold fingers slide from my wrist, grabbed the nearest object (Danger’s high-heeled shoe) and crashed it against the wall. The kill wasn’t clean. When I brought my hand down, the caterpillar scuttled away, and the heel of the shoe severed its body; the lower portion stuck to the wall and the upper portion retreated frantically until I smashed it with my bare hand. Languid, half-asleep, I got slowly back into bed, careful not to wake my daughter, and before I closed my eyes, I tried to shimmy my wrist back between her still fingers.

 

I woke to an open shade, a brown smear on the wall, the phone ringing, and a woman-shaped dintin the opposite side of the mattress. I grabbed the cordless phone from the cradle and groaned unintelligibly into the mouthpiece.

“Good morning, sweetheart,” Bryan said, sounding ready to take on the world. “It’s great to hear your voice.”

“Yours, too.” I gazed at the spot where Danger had been. Her scent, that of cinnamon and down, was everywhere.

“You’re speaking to Bryan Cross, the Nicest Guy in America. Trademark.”

“That’s what they’re calling you?”

“Yeah. I admit, it’s a silly marketing gimmick, but Morton liked my smile.”

“What about Karen? What does she call you?”

There was a long stretch of silence. “Who?”

“The girl from the video. The one who rubbed her sweaty body all over you.”

I walked through the bedroom doorway into the brightly-lit kitchen. I squinted and felt my way around. Danger sat at the table, eating oatmeal with a salad fork. Her hair was a shaggy red mane, and her eyes, black against the sunlight, were fixed on me.

“Katie,” Bryan said, “This is the way fitness videos work. You have to act all buddy-buddy with people and look like you’re having a great time. People who aren’t in shape feel like shit, and after they work out, their knees are rickety and they’re on the verge of vomiting. They need to know that a community of involved people is there for them, and it helps if those people appear as though they like each other.”

“How am I supposed to believe that? Why did you stop looking at porn all of a sudden? Your computer hasn’t moved from its desk since the first L.A. trip. Things don’t change that quickly, Bryan.”

“You’re right. They don’t. But it’s not what you think.”

I sat at the chair across the table from Danger. Her eyes were still on me. As she lifted the fork, dripping with mush, to her mouth, her tattoo shimmered. The oatmeal steamed. I inhaled brown sugar.

“I killed a caterpillar last night,” I said to Bryan. “They’re in the house now. And you’re not here. This is the kind of thing we’re supposed to do together.”

He forced a laugh. “Killing bugs?”

“Defending the castle.”

Another pause. “I know, Katie. I’m coming home soon. We’ll talk again.”

After hanging up, I realized I hadn’t told him about my nightmares of being strangled with wire, that even if Bryan never looked at his artwork again, it decorated my dreams, and every night it killed me.

“Hi,” Danger said with sleep in her voice. I reached across the table and touched her hand. She was wearing one of my robes. We linked fingers.

 

I threw jeans on, gassed up the car, and drove Danger to the aquarium (the Lutherans had put together a message about forgiving the wicked; the deluge of caterpillars teemed around the white letters as if hiding them from me).

Yes, she’d said when I’d asked if I could bring her somewhere. There were no hints save for the cardboard sign in the backseat of my car. The tide pool from the eleven o’clock news was set between an animatronic narwhal and the gift shop, the gaps filled with dozens of passersby whose expressions ranged from enthralled to fatigued. Children waved pearl-colored wind toys with dolphins for petals; the wordless chatter of tour guides vibrated through the walls; a little girl ran between Danger and I, treading over my feet; a woman with a ring on every finger took my hand and apologized for the girl.

“I’ve been everywhere,” Danger muttered, placing her palms on the stone rim of the tide pool and leaning over the surface of the water. “I just point my finger and go wherever the driver decides to take me. It’s an exercise in interpretation, I guess.”

She told me where she’d started. If it had been anyone else, if I hadn’t felt the softness of her hand, the honesty in the lines of her skin, that road map of veins and creases and invisible hairs, I would not have believed how far she’d traveled. I leaned next to her, watching the water. She tracked every ripple.

White blurs jolted beneath, bubbles rolled across the top like boiling tap water on a stove, the perfect living conditions described by the girl in the yellow raincoat on the news. I wished one of the creatures would bob its head, if it had one, above the surface and prove to me it was growing properly, that its shell wasn’t caving in, that it wasn’t willing itself to die.

Knowing why she had come here, why she’d needed someone to take her here, I took her hand again, lifted it from the rocks, unclenched it. I felt her bones relax. I set her fingers against my lips, one by one. The grooves in her fingertips were like the stony impressions in the face of a fossil, revealing layer after layer after layer. You are forgiven, I thought, kissing her toughened skin. These hands, these contrite fingers, tore that innocent animal apart, and that’s why you’re here. But the creatures in the pool can’t forgive you themselves.

Her eyes narrowed again, her expression tentative, and her chest rose and fell in quick beats, just as it had when she’d finished exercising and walked into the kitchen dripping. As she raised her other arm, her artwork came into view, that gorgeous prismatic nautilus, and I tasted sea salt as I touched her first two fingers to my mouth.

 

            Winter destroyed the caterpillars. I wished their passing had been more romantic, but it was better than local madmen spraying fire at every stalk of vegetation in the district. While lying awake and counting the speckles of light reflected by passing vehicles onto the ceiling, I contemplated whether my murder-by-shoe had been the turning point in the struggle, whether the caterpillars had just given up after that.              

Bryan returned, and during single-degree temperatures, when the spruces froze solid after a spritz of rain and the front steps were clumped with snow, he pined to go to Los Angeles more than ever. Every other month, Morton would drag him away to appear on QVC or lead a week-long workout series with the Army. I watched the news every morning and took to eating oatmeal with a fork. One Saturday, when the sun had cracked the clouds for the first time in weeks and Bryan was selling his exercise program on the Home Shopping Network, the phrase “disappearance of the nautilus” caught my ears through the popping of hot butter in the egg pan. According to the lady in the yellow raincoat, now flanked by two police officers with folded arms, a young woman scooped the animals out of the tide pool and ran off with them cradled to her chest. Without saying a word, she hit the glass door with her shoulder and vanished into the sun, her body blurring together with the bulk of the creatures, her hair like tentacles and their tentacles like hair.

 

I considered taking up hitchhiking, but I waited.

 

After the airport shuttle had pulled away, Bryan collapsed to his knees in the snow. I knelt next to him, took his face in my hands, and rubbed the tears away with my thumbs before they froze. He told me he wasn’t addicted; he’d only been curious. Karen was no one; he hadn’t spoken with her since the shoot. He hated how I avoided him and floated to other rooms when he was home, how I pretended to be asleep after he got up, how he’d lie in hotel beds with the phone resting on his chest, awaiting my familiar ring, missing me.

I said nothing; I couldn’t even comfort him. Moreover, I couldn’t bring myself not to believe him. I tried to make myself cry, but nothing came out. I took him by the hand and led him inside, dragging one of his suitcases and assuring him I’d unpack his things in the morning.

That night, Bryan kept me awake with ceaseless tossing and turning. Unable to take anymore, I kicked the white sheet from our bodies, watching it float from my foot and settle against the oak dresser like a curtain of fog. I rolled onto him. He tore at my thin nightgown, and after flinging it into the corner, he put his mouth on me, instinctively, like an animal struggling to seal a wound with saliva. In the morning, when sunlight shone through the fish tank and cast chlorinated ripples against the bedroom wall, I felt exonerated.

 

Bryan is in the driver’s seat. I am on the passenger side with Ruby, our daughter, resting in my arms. We are in the parking lot of the Lutheran church, where Bryan leads “celebrity workouts” with the church’s elderly members on the weekend. It’s an election year, and the church’s big sign shares the lawn with the names of political hopefuls. “Judge Russell,” Bryan quips, gazing at a lawn sign the size of a chalkboard. “I will, if I ever meet the guy.” He draws a long breath and lets the air settle into his chest. He scrutinizes the old church through the pocked windshield as though considering whether he wants to go in, whether he’s supposed to sit in the driver’s seat forever.

            Ruby gazes up at me, cooing for her bottle, her blue eyes like little mood-rings. I nudge my index finger into her soft palm, and she squeezes. One day, years from now, while Ruby and I are tending the garden together, dumping ashes over soil, she will ask me about my life, about the adventures in youth and romance that led to her birth. I will tell her about beginnings, how her parents fought off the caterpillars, and how the caterpillars finally left us – they all became moths, I’ll tell her, fluttering from their cocoons and filling the sky like a fireworks display.   I remember the scent of cinnamon and down, a road trip with no destination, and if I’d hitchhiked to Crooked Pitch instead of staying to give life to Ruby, how I’d have found a frozen high-heel-print at the water’s edge, the legacy of a little savior, Danger de Mort ascendant, forever kicking through the waves with the weight of the world cradled in her arms.

 

 

BIO

richard hartshornRichard Hartshorn lives in upstate New York and earned an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts. His work has appeared in Drunken Boat, Split Rock Review, Hawaii Women’s Journal, and other publications.

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Sarah Kruel Photo

Coat Tales

by Sarah Kruel

 

Drop Cap She sat on the window seat in the empty bedroom and looked out across the lawn. It was cold for October, and she pulled her sweater tight. The pine tree boughs bent away from the gusting wind, and the red maple leaves blew across the ground. She had always loved the changing seasons, but now she was going to a place that was summertime all year long. No winter coats this year.

She smiled wryly. There was nothing like a good winter coat, but things change. She had downsized and everything she needed was packed. Donations to Good Will had been delivered. Most of the furniture had been sold. Everything was unfolding as planned. She would live near her daughter in a place some people called paradise.

 ************

When she was a college freshman, she had saved two hundred dollars to buy a plane ticket home for Christmas. It was the first time she had been away from her family for so long, and she was looking forward to seeing them. Buying the ticket was going to take most of her money but she hoped to bring home a few gifts for everyone too. She couldn’t go empty-handed at Christmas, so on a late November day she took the bus into town to see what she could she find.

Westfield was a magical land of sparkling lights and store windows full of red and silver bells, glittering Christmas trees, and beautifully wrapped packages. She paused often to take in the colorful displays until she came to Barton’s. It was the biggest department store. Svelte mannequins in red evening gowns and gold lame tops with black velvet skirts beckoned to her. She pushed through the crowded store onto the escalator to Ladies’ Apparel on the second floor.

As soon as she stepped off, she saw the jacket. It was strategically placed to get the attention of anyone arriving on the floor – not in the coat department, but right there at the entrance. She went directly to it. It was golden suede, cut short and belted, and it was her size – small. The faux fox collar was soft and deep like sheep’s wool. She buried her fingers in it, then ran them across the smooth suede sleeve. She knew it was only for display, but she didn’t care. She unbuttoned it right there, took it off the mannequin, and put it on. Then she found a mirror and looked at herself from every angle. It was beautiful. She took it with her and walked to the cashier, counted out her money and stepped onto the down escalator. The coat was hers.

Outside the store the cold air hit her cheeks like a slap in the face. What was she thinking? Her money – the money for her plane ticket home – the money for the presents she would have brought with her – was gone. In its place was a jacket. She stepped off the crowded sidewalk into a doorway to open the bag, and pressed her fingers again into the deep soft collar. Her chest tightened. She was penniless and all by her own choice. It was terrifying and yet she was thrilled.

The bus ride back to campus was long and gave her too much time to worry. She could never tell her parents what she had done. They would be so disappointed if she didn’t come home. She had to find a way of making up the money she had spent. Some way she would just have to do it. She would not return the coat.

The next day she studied the help wanted ads in the local paper. Her cafeteria job was very time-consuming, and exams were coming right after Christmas. She had a term paper in philosophy due before vacation, but she had to do this. There was only one listing that seemed like a possibility. She called immediately and arranged for an interview.

She knocked on the door of the big stone house. Eventually the door opened and a woman with a walker stood before her. She was tall with curly white hair and round dark-framed glasses that stood out on her pale face. The walker seemed too small for her. She wondered if the woman was naturally hunched or if she was hunching to reach the handles of the walker.

“I’m Emily. I’m here about the job.”

“Yes, I know. Come in. It’s cold out there.”

The woman seemed well except for her dependence on the walker. She explained that she had difficulty maintaining the house by herself and that her emphysema had slowed her down even more. She needed help with cleaning and making her meals.

“So you’re a college girl, Emily. Do you have time for this?” Emily had already told her about her cafeteria job. “Don’t you need time to study?”

“Yes, I do, but I absolutely have to earn some money.”

“You sound desperate.”

“Well, yes. I really need a job. I need money to go home for Christmas. And for other things,” she stammered.

“You seem, as I said, a little desperate. Are you paying your own tuition? Isn’t your campus job enough?”

“My campus job helps a lot, but right now I have some unexpected expenses.” It sounded ominous, and she was afraid she had taken the wrong approach.

“Well I can see that you’re serious about getting work, and I think you can be a big help to me, but please tell me why you need this extra money so badly.”

Mary wasn’t going to be put off with vague generalities.

“I bought something that was not within my budget,” she said, hoping that would end the questioning.

The woman said nothing. She sat in silence until Emily blurted out “I bought this jacket,” as if confessing to a crime.

The lady threw back her head and laughed and laughed.

“Well, it’s beautiful. I love it. Carpe diem. I’d have bought it too if I were a kid like you. The collar is so elegant and the color – palomino, I’d call it – is perfect with your hair.”

They laughed together. It was good to tell someone who really seemed to understand. It was an impulsive act; it was irrational, but she had no regrets. And now it seemed that her money problems would be solved. The job was hers.

She liked Mary a lot. Even though she needed help, she was not helpless. She was full of life – funny, opinionated, strong. She’d traveled a lot, gotten married, divorced, remarried, and now widowed. She and her second husband had operated an antique shop, and her home was full of beautiful pieces from that time – highly polished mahogany furniture, china, glassware, all arranged as if the shop were open for business. One of Emily’s jobs was polishing and dusting, and she loved doing it because each piece was special and unique and usually had a story to go with it.

After the Christmas holidays, she continued to work for Mary. Suddenly it was March. She walked from the bus to Mary’s house with the jacket slung over her shoulder. It was a beautiful warm day though not yet spring. She knocked and waited for Mary’s hearty welcome to come in. There was no response for a long time, and then the door swung open. A tall middle-aged man whom she knew at once was Mary’s son extended his hand and introduced himself.

“Mary’s had a fall. She’s at the hospital.”

She’d been with Mary just two days ago. They’d taken a walk in the back yard and sat on a little bench watching the birds. It was so peaceful there with hyacinths and forsythia in full bloom. As always Mary told her stories and as always she also wanted to know what was happening with Emily. Did she finish her English paper? What was she reading?

Later that night Mary’s son called as he said he would. Mary had broken her hip. She would be in the hospital for a while, and then he was arranging for rehab out of state in the town where he lived. He wasn’t sure when she would be able to return home.

The rehab center was much too far for Emily to visit Mary, but she called often. The first time she called they gave the phone to Mary, but she never spoke. A nurse said she was having a difficult day. She was very weak and her emphysema had gotten worse. Emily called at least once a week to see how she was doing but never talked to her. She sent letters as well, but it was hard to keep writing when there was no response. She wondered if the nurses read them to her. Was she able to understand them if they did? Then just before the semester ended, Mary’s son called to tell her that Mary wouldn’t be returning home. She was no longer able to live alone. The house was for sale

She took her final exams and went back home for the summer. She got a job at the Dairy Queen and took her little sister to the beach a lot. She met a guy at work and they went to the beach together too. Sometimes to the movies. It was fun, but she was happy when September came and she returned to school. Mary would have loved to have her read the poems they were studying in English. She wrote a paper on Keats and wondered what Mary would think of it. She missed her. Winter came and she wore the “palomino” coat with no regrets.

************

            She graduated early and was ready to conquer New York. She had a job at Flower Fifth Avenue Hospital, an efficiency apartment on the upper west side, and a new wardrobe. The college uniform of sweatshirts and jeans was gone, and the centerpiece of that change was the cream-colored coat with the hood. It was long and full and elegant. It made whatever else she was wearing seem as stylish as it was. She was a grown-up in the real world!

She hadn’t even worked a day when the transit strike occurred. The excitement of the new job dimmed, replaced by the frustration of getting there. It was very cold and very early as she started off toward Central Park for her first day. She pulled the beautiful coat around her and shouldered her purse. People were everywhere – walking, running, on bikes. She crossed at 72nd Street and entered the park. School boys with backpacks scooped up the dirty snow and pelted each other with hard-packed icy balls. Men in suits with their collars up against the wind strode rapidly in rhythm with their swinging briefcases. Some rode motorcycles or bikes and had wool hats pulled down over their ears or scarves blowing out behind their necks. Women carried their heels and wore their tennis shoes or winter boots for the march across the city.

Cars were streaming across too. As she made the first turn, she saw that some drivers had stopped their cars and offered rides to the walkers who eagerly jumped in. Some walked backwards with their thumbs stuck out, hoping the next driver would take pity on them. It was so crazy, she thought. Hitchhiking across Central Park. Probably not a good idea. She shoved her hands in her pockets and trudged on, catching up to two other girls. They were giggling and sliding on the snow and occasionally sticking out their mittened thumbs. She was about to speak to them when a red Volkswagen pulled over, and they piled into the back seat, screaming in appreciation.

The driver laughed too. “Come on. Come on. There’s room for you.”

She hesitated and then slid into the passenger’s seat. He was handsome. His curly dark

hair hung below his ears and was blown about by the wind as the door opened. His eyes were

incredible, and his laugh was quick and loud.

They crossed the park in what seemed like minutes, and he announced that he was headed for 57th Street. The girls in the back hopped out despite his offer to take them wherever they were going. She got out as well. It would still be a long walk for her but at least she had gotten across the park.

“Where are you headed?”

“Just uptown a little bit.” She thanked him and hurried off.

No one knew how long the strike would last. That first day everyone seemed elated at the change of pace, at the adventure of it. By the second day the exuberance had waned for many. Hers had not. She was excited. The unexpected ride had filled her with nervous energy. Who would believe that on her first day of work she had hitchhiked with a gorgeous stranger.

On Tuesday she found herself watching for the VW as she started across the park. A few drivers slowed and offered her a ride, but she declined. Halfway across the park she heard a beeping horn and saw the red car slowing beside her.

“You again.”

“Yes, again.”

“Get in.”

She got in. She had hoped this would happen, and now she was speechless. This time there were no other passengers to fill the silence with giggles and silly talk.

“Where exactly do you work?” he asked.

“Up 5th.”

“Where?”

“Flower Fifth Avenue Hospital.”

“Oh my God. That’s really a hike. I’ll drive you.”

She protested but he had already turned up. The conversation became easier, but her hands were tight fists in her coat pockets and her palms were wet inside the wool gloves. When he dropped her off in front of the hospital, he said “I’ll see you tomorrow.”

She savored the idea and prayed that the strike would continue. And it did. Every day that week he drove along side of her in the red car just as she started out across the park. On Friday he had a bag of doughnuts on the seat and held it open for her. They ate and talked. It was easier now. Too soon she was getting out at the hospital and waving good-bye to this man who occupied her thoughts more than the new job and more than all the things she had anticipated with so much excitement only a week ago.

The week-end was eternity. She was restless. She hung the new curtains she had bought for the livingroom. She went to the movies with a girl from work. She cleaned the kitchen and rearranged the furniture. She even thought of taking a walk across the park but stopped herself because there was little chance she would see him.

Finally Monday came. She looked out the window by her bed. Something was different. Then she saw the buses lumbering along Amsterdam. The throngs of people she had become accustomed to were gone. Her stomach tightened and her excitement became despair. The strike was over. She sat back on the bed and stared at the floor. Maybe she would walk anyway. Maybe he would be looking for her. How silly she was.

She took the bus across town and changed to the uptown one. It had only been a week of quick rides across the park, but it felt like more. How could it end so abruptly? She had thought that they would become more than friends as they already had in her girlish fantasies. At first she pressed her face to the bus window, scanning the road for his car, but the red car never came into view that day or ever again. Nor did she see it parked in front of the hospital waiting for her when she left for the day as it did in her daydreams. It was a long time before she stopped looking for him, and so much longer for the sadness to pass. He had broken her heart, and he didn’t even know her name,

************

It was on the cover of the Woodward Winter Catalog. They called it a swing coat – three-quarter length with no buttons and a big wide collar and cuffs. It came in pumpkin which was on the catalog cover or eggplant. She ordered it that day. Pumpkin.

Before the coat arrived, she found out she was pregnant. It was ironic. She never dreamed that the loose swinging coat would become her maternity coat as well as the coat she would wear bringing home her beautiful baby daughter. When she saw it on the front of the catalog, she had only known it was a great coat.

It arrived by UPS. She tore open the box and put it on, then walked outside and down the block. The coat was perfect. Life was perfect. The baby would be perfect. She smiled and savored her happiness. She was going to be a mother.

Months later she took the same walk wearing the same coat as she pushed the beautiful baby girl in the handsome new carriage. She had quit her job even though she loved it. She would go back when the time was right – when the baby was in school or maybe pre-school or she would work part-time. She gave it little thought because she had no misgivings about her choice. It would all work out. There was no hurry. She was a mother now.

Before the baby came, Jim had planned to cut back at work and finish his graduate degree. Baby Laura changed the plan, and she felt bad for him. He never said so, but she knew he was frustrated about not completing his studies. She lived with this awareness for a while, but finally that was it. She announced to Jim that she could get a part-time job at night when he could be home with Laura. He could take one or two classes at a time right now and move closer to finishing. He protested as she knew he would, but finally she convinced him that it was a good thing for both of them

She had not considered that getting a job would be so hard. It never had been like that before. It was partly the hours, and she was over-qualified for many of the jobs that fit her schedule. Finally she accepted the fact that the only job she could get that would pay enough to make it worthwhile was waitressing. The hours worked. She could even work week-ends. The tips would be good if she worked in the right place. She’d done it when she was in high school and a few summers during college. She was good at it. She had made good money. It had been fun then – flirting with the customers, going out after work with the other kids who worked there, sleeping late, and back to work at night. It was a party that never ended.

But it wasn’t a party now. It was a challenge that she hoped she was up to. There was a job at The Carriage House and she went for an interview. The restaurant wasn’t open yet and it was cold in the empty dining room where she waited for the manager, wrapped in the pumpkin coat. She clutched the resume that she had revised to include her early waitressing jobs at The Corner Restaurant, Dairy Queen, and the Beach Front Hotel. Now those carefree days were more important than her master’s degree and the three years she had worked in labor relations.

She felt old and awkward as she watched the kitchen staff arriving, but the manager was nice and the interview was short. She was hired. She could start that night. The stress drained out of her body. She had done it. She swirled the swirl coat and walked quickly to the car. She was young again.

Every night she left the house as soon as Jim came home. On the day when he had classes Mrs. McCabe came and stayed with Laura until he got back. She was a wonderful lady who had raised four children of her own, and seemed to really enjoy spending time with Laura. Jim was happy to be getting closer to finishing his degree. And she was pleased with herself for making the choice.

Waitressing wasn’t much different than it had been when she was younger. Keep the customers happy. Chit chat or stay quiet and low profile, which ever she felt they wanted. She could do it. She could read the customers. She was organized and quick, and above all she knew “the customer was always right.”

It was a game really. She was an actress, and at each table she played a different role. It was fun, but not in the same way it had been years before. She didn’t really want her life to be a game. Sometimes right in the middle of the game, she wanted to stop – to say what she really meant or to say nothing at all.

That’s how she was feeling on that Monday night, working in the bar section. There weren’t many customers, but Monday was bowling night for the leagues so there were the regulars. They were big beer drinkers who always asked for snacks and didn’t tip well no matter how you played the game.

Five guys sat at a corner table near the door. She didn’t recognize them, but they were dressed like the typical Monday- nighters – jeans and sweatshirts or tee shirts with college names on them. Probably from the leagues. One wore a button-down shirt. He would rock back in his chair periodically and laugh. The others would join in. He was the alpha of the pack, she guessed. She could hear his voice above the others – something that always annoyed her. She wondered if he realized how loud he was or if he was intentionally talking to the whole room.

She chose the quiet and serious role for them – more because she didn’t want to play that night than because she saw it as their role of choice for her. More likely they would have warmed up to chatty-moving-toward-flirty as the night wore on. They were all pretty happy with themselves, and button-down was especially pumped up and full of himself. The others, although they gradually became less focused on his pontificating, were still clearly a bit under his spell. Probably he was their boss. He had some kind of status with them for sure.

As she approached with the third round on her tray and a refill on the pretzels, button-down tipped back his chair again and the back bumped her tray. The drinks sloshed, and the glass of vodka tipped right over and spilled on his sleeve. She righted the empty glass and apologized, but he began playing his own dramatic role. He jumped to his feet as if she’d scalded him with hot water, and began rubbing his sleeve with a napkin.

“Oh God, you spilled my drink.”

It was just a shot glass full of vodka. She apologized again and attempted to help him dry his sleeve. The other guys were quiet now as his anger grew. There was really nothing more she could do, nor did she want to. She watched him stomp out with his followers close behind him. As he disappeared, a sense of her own power came over her, and comforted her. Button-down and his boys were jerks, but she owed them a lot. Five boors in a bar had made it so very clear. She finished the night, and gave notice. The game was over. It was time to move on.

************

She wore her “big shot” coat every day during the impending merger. It was a gift from Jim. She saw it in the window at Bergdorf’s when they had spent a week-end in the city. He remembered that she had admired it, and there it was under the tree that Christmas. And it truly was a “big shot” coat. That’s what Jim called it. It was black cashmere with a long sash, conservative but trendy. She loved it.

The merger was stressful. There were position cuts to be made and her department got to deliver that news. There was job training for some. There were offers of relocation for others. Whatever the outcome was for a particular person, it was a radical change and a hard departure from what they had become accustomed to. And through it all she knew that her own position was in jeopardy too, after she had completed the necessary dirty work.

She started arriving early at her office to avoid seeing and especially having to converse with employees. She was aware of the lists. She knew who was going and who was staying. In some cases she had been a part of the decision

People cried. Men and women alike. People who had always gotten along with each other argued over silly things. They were angry and sad and had no recourse when she sat down with them to deliver the verdict – going or staying. If it was a layoff, she talked options with them. but once the bad news was presented, they heard nothing.

When Phil Black called her into his office, she was ready for her own bad news. They’d worked together for a long time. He was her boss and mentor. Sitting there in front of him she thought he looked old. His hair had grayed over the years and his face was drawn. Even though they had become good friends, it was hard to look at him, waiting for what was to come.

“Emily, you’ve done a great job with these people. It’s a very hard thing to do. And there’s no way it can make you feel good or even satisfied. Believe me, I know.”

She couldn’t make eye contact. How long would he drag this out? Her face felt so hot. She wondered if it was red and if he noticed. Finally she forced herself to raise her eyes and look at him.

“They want you to be the new Director of Human Resources.”

He said it mechanically. His smile was tight and forced.

“What do you mean?”

“Just what I said. They want you to be the new director.”

“What about you?”

“Retirement. They’ve offered me a generous package.”

“But you’re not ready to…”

“No. It wasn’t my plan, but sometimes things go differently than you expect.”

“But you don’t have to do it.”

“Yeah, yeah I do. That’s the deal.”

She studied the man. Phil had been her rock, especially over the past few months. After a day spent devastating people’s lives, she was so often ready to throw in the towel. He was the one who somehow patched her up and sent her home feeling that she could do it again the next day and not fall apart. But now Phil was the one. How could that happen?

“I can’t go into it any more than that, Emily.”

He stood up. She took a step toward him and stopped. There was a look in his eye. He wasn’t her mentor anymore. He was another casualty, and just like with the others, there was nothing she could do except step back and allow him his pride and his privacy.

“Okay Phil. We’ll talk tomorrow. I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay Emily. It’s okay.”

But it really wasn’t okay. He was trying to say the right things, but she’d been through the bitterness and the grief with so many others over the past month. There was no way to make it okay that they were being laid off or asked to take a lesser job or retire like Phil. He needed to keep it to himself. He needed to be strong. He couldn’t open up his rage or expose his shame that this was happening to him. She hugged him and left his office. They wouldn’t talk about it tomorrow or ever.

In a few weeks Phil was gone. She became the new Director of Human Resources for the merged company. Life went on. A new normal emerged. Jim teased her that the lady in the big shot coat was a real big shot now.

 ************

            She bought the grey coat with the mink collar for herself when they moved to Connecticut. It was supposed to be a little treat for her at that time of pulling up stakes and moving to a new place, but now her most vivid memory of it was one of pain and sadness. Even after so many years.

It was Saturday. Jim was home working in the yard, and she had gone to have her hair cut in town. When she returned, she parked the car in the front driveway and thought she heard him calling her name. She paused as he came running toward her.

“I’ve killed Big Boy. Emily, I’ve killed him. I ran over him with the tractor. I didn’t know he was there.”

Together they ran to the empty field behind the garage. Big Boy lay still in the grass. Jim threw himself on the ground and clutched the dog in his arms.

“Oh my God; oh my God,” he cried over and over, burying his face in Big Boy’s fur.

Her heart was pounding hard as she knelt beside them. Big Boy’s body was untouched. She laid her hands on the beautiful brown coat and stroked him, then howled in anguish as she saw the bloodied head where the tractor wheel had hit it.

“Big Boy,” Jim said again, tears filling his eyes. “Big Boy.”

This could not be. It could not. The tears streamed across her cold cheeks. They had had dogs and cats and even guinea pigs when Laura was a child, but this dog was their dog. They had gone to see him on a beautiful spring day, wondering if it was a good idea. It had been a long time since they had had an animal in the house. Maybe they were too old to start with a new puppy. Maybe it was more trouble than it was worth. But it was Jim’s good friend who pushed them to come and take a look at the last of the litter. “I saved the best for you,” he said. “He’s a special guy.” They said okay, but just to take a look. No promises. But they knew in the first moment they saw him that it was true. He was a special dog. He ran across the backyard with his mother following close behind him, ears flying backward in the wind, dragging a stick that was far too big for a pup. But he did it. Then he saw them and dropped it, running toward them like he knew he was to be theirs. And he was. For eleven years he had been so very very special. Their Big Boy.

She put her arms around the man and the dog and hugged them close to her. Together they wept. Finally she spoke.

“Jim, he’s dead.”

It sounded so cold.

“I killed him.”

“It was an accident. You didn’t know.”

The blood on Big Boy’s head had started to dry. He looked like he was sleeping in Jim’s arms as he had so many times for so many years. She took off her coat and covered him. For a long time they stayed there on the ground with the dog between them, silent except for gasping sobs. Finally she stood up.

“I’ll get a shovel.”

He didn’t respond so she started off alone toward the shed. She fought to stop herself from again crumpling on the ground and letting out her grief in deep gut-wrenching howls. When she finally reached the barn, she leaned against the wall of the old building and realized that her whole body was shivering. She steadied herself, gasping. She had to be strong. In the corner was Big Boy’s barn bed where he slept for hours while Jim puttered in his workshop. But he wasn’t really sleeping – just waiting for the glorious moment when Jim would put down his tools and say, “Wanna go for a walk Boy?”

She needed to get the shovel and get back to Jim but she felt so helpless. What could she say to him? The responsibility he felt took his grief far beyond her own deep anguish. There were no words that made any sense to her. People lost their sons and daughters in terrible ways. People suffered unjustly. She tried to put this in perspective but her emotions would not allow it. Her heart was torn apart. Wonderful Big Boy was dead.

She found the pointed shovel and carried it down the hill. Jim and the dog were still on the ground and his grasp on the limp body had stayed tight. After a few minutes, she took Jim by the shoulders and raised him up with the dog pressed against his chest. Her coat fell away and lay on the ground in a heap. A blood smear covered the sleeve and the black fur collar was stiff. She picked up the coat and wrapped it around Big Boy again.

Without speaking they walked toward the big chestnut tree where Big Boy had often waited for an unsuspecting squirrel that he could chase. That was the place. She started to dig. In any other circumstance Jim would have taken the shovel and done it, but he turned away unable even to watch. It took a long time, and the sunless day was darkening more. It was very cold now but her body warmed as she dug harder. When she felt the hole was big enough, she stepped away from it.

“Maybe I should get his bed.”

Jim didn’t answer. The finality of the big rectangular hole in the ground was unbearable. She was torn between getting the bed and prolonging this terrible moment or just getting it over with. Finally she went to Jim and together in silence they placed the dog in the ground. Once again she pulled the coat securely around the strong, sleek body. She looked at Jim and then began slowly shoveling the dirt back in place.

“Good-bye Big Boy.” She whispered the words to herself. Gradually he disappeared beneath the fresh dark earth. Their dear friend was gone.

************

            A car door slammed in the driveway, and she jumped up from the window seat. The limo to the airport had arrived. It was time to go. The doorbell rang. She took a quick look at the stark empty room, then hurried down the stairs to open the door.

“Hello Mrs. Haines. How are you?”

It was Douglas Butterfield. He had been a classmate of Laura’s in high school.

“Doug, what a surprise. I haven’t seen you in a long time. Maybe not since you and Laura

graduated.”

“That’s right, Mrs. H. I guess you didn’t know it was me when you ordered the car. When I came out of the army, I started the company – about a year ago.”

She could see how proud he was.

“It’s been a little scary, getting a big loan and all. I thought about re-enlisting instead. That would have been easier really, but it’s working out. And now I’m engaged too. Getting married next May.”

He looked so young. He had always had kind of a baby face and he still did. His blonde hair curled a little around his ears and there was a faint wisp of a mustache. He took a suitcase in each hand and marched toward the car. She followed behind, trying to match his quick step.

“These are heavy! I guess you’re planning to be away for a while.”

“Yes,” she said. “Yes I am.”

“Well, I hope you’re heading south. It’s going to be a cold winter here, they say.”

She climbed into the back seat and looked at the house once more as he backed out into the street. She was ready. It was time to go. He drove quickly through the neighborhood and onto the turnpike where he picked up speed. The exit signs flew by, announcing each vanishing town as they passed. She leaned her head against the back of the seat and closed her eyes, speeding to a place some called paradise.

 

BIO

Sarah Kruel  writerSarah Kruel has worked in the field of mental health and substance abuse treatment as a therapist, researcher, and teacher. She spent much of her career as the director of one of the country’s largest residential addiction treatment centers. She competes at major horse shows on the east coast and has written a number of articles for equestrian publications. She is also the author of a self-published book, Speaking of Success: Women’s Stories and Strategies for Living with Peace and Passion (available at Amazon and Infinity Publishing). The short story Coat Tales is her first published fiction.

 

 

 

0
Author David Ballenger

Life in the Black Cloud

by David J Ballenger

 

 

Drop Cap The first fire happened in 1990, on Martin Lane, in our home. I was fourteen years old and looking forward to my freshman year at Jackson High School. 1990 was the year my parents bought a brand new Ford Tempo that they promised would be mine when I got my license. And 1990, in case you don’t remember, was a great year to be a Cincinnati Reds fan. Marty and Joe were calling the games, Chris Sabo was wearing the Rec Specs, and the Nasty Boys were throwing heat. The Reds were never out of first place that season, and they swept the A’s in the World Series. It’s hard to believe something so good happened that summer.

One muggy June night that summer, I was in the living room shuffling through a deck of baseball cards and listening to the Reds on the radio, and in my sister’s bedroom, directly above where I sat and where Mom and Julie were sleeping on the couch, the blue light of the TV flickering on their faces, Dad built a fire. He poured kerosene on the carpet, lit the fire, closed the door to keep it concentrated above us, and casually walked downstairs.

I heard him coming—I knew the rhythm of my family’s footsteps on those stairs, how the different feet made them pop and moan—so I lay down on the floor next to the stereo. He stood in the kitchen and looked at us, and I pretended to sleep and looked up at him through one squinted eye. The light in the kitchen was at his back and cast a shadow over his face, but I could see that his mouth was slightly open. He pulled his tongue along the strip of exposed, yellowed, uneven teeth and sucked in his cheeks; it was the face he would always make before he hit me.

The game was in the fourth, no score, and it was Joe Nuxhall’s turn to call the inning. The middle innings carry the beauty of baseball on the radio. It’s a meditation, everything slows down, you hear the subtle noises of the ballpark—the vendors, the PA, the hum of conversation, the crisp leather on wood snap of a base hit—and the announcers have settled into the game. Between pitches, Joe Nuxhall said, “The Reds are off Tuesday, and if you like baseball, the Dodgers are playing in Pittsburgh.”

“Dumbass baseball,” Dad said. He had a soft, round, generous voice that must have been given to him by mistake.

On the radio, Marty Brennaman said, “You won’t be able to count me as one of the folks there.”

Dad tripped on the rug when he turned around to leave. He caught himself against the doorframe and stood there, and I want to believe he still had to think, had to make a decision about leaving his family in a burning house. His hands hung clinched at his side, thumbs grinding away at the insides of his index fingers.

Nuxhall said, “I think we oughta go because that’s who’s trying to catch us”

Mart Brennaman thought about this for a long radio minute and said, “Heck, I’ll go if you go.”

The door closed behind Dad. His truck started up, the headlights flashed in the windows when he drove past. He was on his way to Osco, a foundry in Jackson, Ohio, where he made parts for transmissions and compressors. Smoke wafted out of every hole of that place, day and night, and the molten iron glowed orange through its open doors.

When I was sure he was gone, I went to get a drink. I smelled the fire. Dense, slate-colored smoke filled the hallway and curled onto the kitchen ceiling. I hurled my glass of water and watched it disappear into the cloud.

I couldn’t go to my room, but I looked up the stairs and thought about what was in there—a picture of Darlene Fulton, my new shoes, the Barry Larkin poster, my old socks, everything. I waited to see if anything would make me risk life in the black cloud. Nothing would.

I ran to the living room and bent down on one knee next to Mom and shook her arm till she woke. Her head jerked up from the couch and, after a moment, she sighed. Her hair was flattened in the back. She was a waitress at Shake Shoppe and still wore her blue and white striped shirt with a patch on the sleeve of a man and a woman riding a tandem bike and drinking milkshakes; they held the handlebars with their left hands and with their right hands held their cups; they sipped their shakes through smiling lips.

Before I could say anything, Mom rolled off the couch and fell to the carpet on all fours.

“That son of a bitch,” she said. I’d never heard her swear.

Julie was still sitting on the couch. She was twelve then, her bony shoulders were brown and freckled. She sat up and said, “Is it over?”

Mom got off the floor and ran to the kitchen and started screaming.

“Get out, Tommy,” she said.

She ran back to the living room, pushed Julie toward the door, and grabbed a Bible off the shelf. I knew then that Dad had done this, and I knew something else in that moment. I’ve forgotten exactly what that something was, but it struck me as an understanding of the world, and for that I am grateful that Dad gave me a glimpse of clarity, of Heaven in the fire.

Marty Brennaman’s voice pulled me out of my trance. “Here’s the one-O to Davis. It’s a bouncer to Wallach. Could be two. On to DeShields, to Gallaraga, and Davis beats the throw. One on, two out.”

Waves of fire rippled over striped wallpaper and exposed the drywall. A picture frame cracked. A portrait of our family—Dad smiling and standing, his hands on Mom’s shoulder, Mom’s arms wrapped around Julie and me, our clothes bright and unwrinkled—curled at the edges.

Mom grabbed the front of my shirt and pulled me close. “Get out,” she said.

I grabbed a handful of baseball cards. Joe Nuxhall said, “A weak chopper to short. Owen scoops, throws, and gets Benzinger by three steps. End of six, no score.”

Outside, we watched our house burn with some neighbors who joined us. The fire engine and volunteer firefighters started work on the blaze. They hacked at it and doused it with water and watched for embers that would set the fields burning, but they couldn’t save they house.

“I don’t want to watch this,” Mom said. She’d turned away from the fire and walked down the road.

We turned on Fairgreens Road, and the asphalt seemed to be giving off its own blue light. A tunnel of trees and blackberry bushes along the road led us to Brenda Howser’s driveway where Dad had parked his truck. Mom banged on the door till Brenda answered; a calico cat stood next to her twisting its body around her legs.

“Tell’m his house is burning to the ground,” Mom said.

Brenda wore blue slippers, and she shuffled forward and grabbed the front of her pale green nightgown and pulled it tight against her chest. Her face wilted, and she looked like she would be sick.

“Chuck Phillips, you son of a bitch, your house is burning!” Mom yelled and kept her finger pointed into the house, her eyes on Brenda.

“Your home,” Brenda said and began to cry.

“Don’t be an idiot, woman,” Mom said. “Tell him to get his filthy ass out here.”

Dad appeared from the shadows behind Brenda. He pushed her aside and shut the door behind him. He was wearing brown boots and blue jeans and held his work shirt from Osco in his hand and on his wrist was the watch that his father gave him, the watch he said he’d give me someday.

“Where the hell you going?” Mom shouted.

Dad fumbled with his shirt, and his heels dragged in the gravel with each step. He didn’t say a word, just got in his truck and drove off.

Brenda was Mom’s third cousin and Dad’s mistress. She ran away from an alcoholic husband in Neon, Kentucky the year before and stayed at our house for a couple weeks before she started renting the house on Fairgreens. On occasion, her husband would show up in town and make trouble, and one time the sheriff had to drag him off to the county lockup. Dad gave her a snub nosed thirty-eight special for Christmas the year she moved here and not long after that, he started dropping by to make sure she was safe. Mom stopped mentioning her and inviting her over for dinner.

The light was still on in the kitchen, and Mom thumped on Brenda’s door again. “You gonna let these kids have a bed?”

Brenda opened the door and stepped back to let us in. She’d put on a housecoat, and she smelled like the perfume at the Revco pharmacy. Her face was splotchy, and she had a black bruise in the crook of her elbow.

“Give’em something to eat in the morning,” Mom said. “It’s the least you can do for stealing him.”

Brenda blinked a reply that Mom accepted, and Mom walked off into the night.

The house smelled musty and was stuffy from humidity. Brenda put Julie and me in a bedroom with a twin bed. I heard her move through the house and felt the weight of darkness with each light she turned off, leaving me with Julie’s deep breathing, and the sound of something moving around the room. I sat in bed straining to see everything and expecting to see Dad skulk into the room and give me a good thrashing for fouling up his plan.

When I woke the next morning, the calico’s tail was draped over my forehead. I went to the kitchen where Brenda was standing over the stove moving food around in a pan with a spatula.

“Where’s Mom?” I said.

“Up to the house.” Brenda set plates of fried eggs and sausage patties in front of Julie and me.

“Your damn cat put its butt in my face when I was sleeping,” I said.

Her eyes brightened for a moment. “That’s his bed.”

“Why you got a cat in the house, Ms. Howser?” I said. “Should just let’m roam.”

“I’ll consider that,” she said. She kneaded the back of her neck with her hand.

I had a list of other things for her to consider—air conditioners in the windows, carpet in the hallway, a dishwasher—and she listened and said things like, “Good idea,” and, “I think you’re right.” I thought she was strange talking to me like that.

She took the plates and washed them in the sink and brought the rag over and set it on the table for us to wash our faces and hands.

“Wash up?” she said.

“I’m good.” I reached out my hand for her to shake, and she did.

A while later, Julie and I left Brenda’s and walked up the road to our house. I looked at everything still going on around our tragedy, cows tearing grass out of the ground, a circle of crows in the distance ready to descend on rotting flesh, and people going about their business around their homes or in their cars.

Our home was now little more than piles of ash mounded around a blackened and smoking frame. Mom, still in her waitressing outfit, sifted through the debris.

Julie ran to her. “Is anything left?” she said. Mom pushed her back and scolded her for going so close.

I kicked around the edges of the rubble, inspecting the charcoal that used to be our walls and ceilings. Mom pulled her cast iron skillet out of the pile. She tried to wipe off the ashes with her hand and then threw it in the grass. She looked at me, her eye sockets hollow, streaks of black on her cheeks like the players on the baseball cards.

“Get on,” she said.

“What’m I supposed do?” I said.

“Just get your face away from me.” She went back to sifting through the pile.

I walked to the other side of the house and sat under an elm and watched Mom and thought about my face. People told me I looked like Dad, who was someone I didn’t want to look like. I wasn’t concerned with my face or being handsome, but I didn’t think his face was one I would have picked. I liked Eric Davis’s face on his baseball card, but Dad wouldn’t have liked it if I’d picked a black face.

I saw something in the grass about ten feet in front of me, toward the house. There lay Boba Fett, without a scratch, just like I’d left him on my dresser. I clenched him my hand and ran to Mom. As I ran, a school bus pulled onto Martin Lane. It came closer, and I saw that Dad was driving. The brakes howled, and the bus shuttered, hissed, squealed, and finally came to a stop in the driveway. The door folded open, and he jumped out, and I went to him.

“Some fire,” I said.

“Bullshit,” he said. He spit in the grass and scratched his forearm. “It was a bullshit fire.”

I walked beside him and tried to match his stride. “Where you been?”

“Been about doing God’s business. Don’t you know I’m a man of God, boyo?”

I held the toy up and said, “Hey, look. Boba Fett made it out. Not a scratch.”

“Don’t be a stupid,” he said.

“Good thing you didn’t leave your watch here, right,” I said, and he walked away.

Mom was still digging through the pile. Dad moved toward her, and she finally let Julie join her to escape Dad’s expected violence.

Mom scowled at him and kept her eyes locked on his. Our kitchen sink lay overturned next to her. “Everyone can see you, Chuck,” she said. “Go ahead.”

He stomped over and pushed her down. She guided Julie away from where she was falling and when she hit, a cloud of ash surrounded her.

“You been purified by fire, woman. Now, go get in,” he said.

He went and started the bus. Mom stood and told Julie and me to go with Dad. She went over and picked up the skillet and stood looking at what was left of our home, which was not much. The chimney had fallen over the driveway and crushed the Tempo. Some of Julie’s and my school art projects, recognized only by their color, lay melted on what was left of the mantel. For the last time, Mom stood among her things, her wrecked, broken, splintered, crushed, burned home, the skillet dangled in her right hand, and her body listed as if it wanted to settle into the rubble. Dad honked the horn until she finally turned and ambled to the bus. She climbed on board and went to the back row, set the skillet on the seat on one side of the aisle, and curled up into a ball in the seat on the other side. I didn’t go back to see her, but I could hear her crying.

We went down Martin Lane, the bus jangling under us, and turned left on Fairgreens Road away from our home and the lives we’d known. A wad of tobacco bulged in Dad’s cheek, and he spit the juice into an empty bottle of Ski he held in his hand. He called the bus the Jehovah Express and said we were looking for the Promised Land. I moved to the front seat so we could talk.

“God favors these hills, boyo,” he said. “We can do some right living now. Fine living. I’ll be a free man. I can be good, like my dad.” He glanced at the watch. “Ten-thirty. Right on time.”

“Did you burn it down?” I said.

“God burned it down. I was the spark,” he said. “I don’t lift a finger He don’t tell me to.”

I stood up and held on to the pole next to him and looked down at the deep creases in his neck. “Where’d you get the bus?”

“God provides, boyo.”

He got the bus at a junkyard and had it parked at a friend’s house while he was fixing it up to take to NASCAR races. There was a big yellow number two outlined in red on the side and a Miller Genuine Draft sticker on the hood. Dad was a fan of Rusty Wallace and Fords.

He slowed the bus at each side road, craned his neck looking for something, only he knew what. Finally, we turned down Salem Road. The tires sprayed gravel, and a cloud of dust swirled outside the windows. He pulled into a patch of weeds beside the road under a walnut tree, parked, and then wandered into the woods. The three of us sat there, waiting. Julie stood in the aisle next to Mom, rubbing Mom’s leg and humming “We Are Marching to Pretoria,” which was Julie’s song for the Eisteddfod that year in school.

On the other side of the road was a house with flowerbeds and a garden in the back. I imagined what they were doing in there, what shows would be on, and since it was a Saturday, I figured they must have been watching the Reds.

After an hour in the woods, Dad came back holding a bottle of whiskey, and I don’t know if he got it rambling through the woods or if he had it with him when he left the bus, but there was only about a half-inch sloshing around at the bottom.

He waved his hand at me. “Get out here, boy.”

I stepped down the aisle, slapping my hands on the back of every seat like I’d just returned to the dugout after a homerun. When my foot hit the ground, Dad hit me. I landed on my ass, and my head whipped back and knocked against the wheel. One of the lug nuts tore a hole in my scalp. Blood trickled down the back of my head and on my neck. Dad stood over me glaring; he seemed to get excited when I pulled my hand away from my scalp, the tips of my fingers coated with blood.

“It was bullshit,” he said.

I crabwalked up against the wheel, feeling panicky. “I didn’t do nothing.”

He ran his hand through his hair, which was the color of the dead grass. “This ain’t what the Lord told me.”

“Shut the hell up, fool.” Mom came out of the bus and marched toward him.

He hit her too, in the mouth. When he pulled his hand away I could see two small shards of her teeth embedded in his knuckle, and a long piece of white skin dangled between his fingers. Mom fell to her knees, and blood dripped from her mouth to the ground. Her top lip was shredded, and she was holding pieces of teeth in her hand.

“Every time,” she said through the blood and strips of flesh and gums.

He took one last pull on the bottle of whiskey.

“Sweet Franny. I love you,” he said. “You’ll never leave me. You love me too much.”

Dad threw the bottle near where she was kneeling and disappeared into the woods, again.

           *   *   *

The second fire happened four months later, on Salem Road. Summer had advanced, and the weeds around the bus disappeared, replaced by hard packed dirt. We removed the seats and made beds out of blankets on the floor. I would lay there at night and think about waking up in the house on Martin Lane, my bare feet hitting the carpet, and running downstairs to watch Saturday morning cartoons and Johnny Bench on The Baseball Bunch. I don’t really remember the carpet—its color, paprika maybe, its nap, short shag, Berber?—but I do remember a time when my feet weren’t cold, and I didn’t sleep with my shoes on. And it was safer there; Dad’s anger couldn’t take up all that space. He could only ruin a room or a level at a time. In the bus, his wrath filled every corner, every little hole left by missing screws, or torn piece of fabric, every corner brimming with rage and meanness. Osco fired him, so he spent his time passed out on the floor of the bus from too much drink or sitting in a lawn chair under the awning he’d made from a blue tarp, or roaming, God knows where, in the hills and forests around us. After a month, I knew the bus would stay where he’d parked it, under the walnut tree, our new home.

Mom didn’t talk much after he knocked her teeth out. When we lived in the house we told her our stories at the dinner table, and she would ask questions and smile, she used to smile. When she wasn’t eating—that’s the thing, she started eating everything once her teeth were out— she found a place to sit and suck air through the spaces where her teeth used to be. She became an ugly woman; when she closed her mouth her chin went up about an inch too far and made her face look like it was caving in, imploding.

Julie had always been a quiet kid, but she stopped talking all together. She’d disappear into the little nest she’d made at the front of the bus, and at night I could hear her singing her songs from school and praying. She asked God to make her a new house and give this bus to the Devil.

We started attending Salem Chapel, a little church just down the road. They were kind to us; the ladies treated Mom like she was one of them and complimented the dingy dresses she wore every week. I sat through the services and learned the Bible from the pastor: he couldn’t bend it to his will like Dad did, rather seemed to think he should adjust to it. When the revival preachers came through I made sure I was down at the altar getting my soul saved all I could.

That summer, I became friends with Walt Carlisle. He lived in the nice house with the flowerbeds and a TV that I could see flashing in the window at night. He was an indoor, airconditioned kid that liked to think he knew about the woods and the hills that loomed over us. He liked to go out for walks, and sometimes I would follow him, watch from behind a tree or rock when he would run from shadows and the noise of small animals. He told me that he heard bears, pumas, and other creatures stalking him but never showing themselves, and I told him he was probably right, that I’d also seen and heard the wild things, that they were large and capable of anything. He would look away, full of fear and curiosity, head nodding slightly.

I began to treat him like Dad treated me. He wanted things too much, showed his feelings too quickly, was too eager to run out of the woods, was too in love with his home. He had the face of a child, round and emotional. I showed him a strip mine about a mile north of his house. We climbed on the earthmovers and slid down piles of rock and sand. He wouldn’t stand close enough to the edge of the slurry pond, so I pushed him closer, watched his eyes bulge, felt his muscles tense in my hands, and I learned the power of cultivating fear.

One day, Walt and I went to the strip mine. After a while I decided to throw rocks at the fire boss’s trailer and ended up breaking a window.

“Why’d you do that?” Walt said. He went to the trailer and looked at the shattered pieces of window on the ground. “What if it rains?”

“They’ll be back Monday.” I picked up a shard of glass and threw it into the trailer. “Give me a boost, I’ll look in and see what they got in there.”

He said, “No.” He was getting nervous and thought he heard someone coming. I knew there was no one around.

He followed me to the slurry pond, and we stood on an eroded ledge a few feet above the gray-green water. He leaned out, and I inched closer to the edge. Just below where we stood some of the slurry had hardened into a thick, crusty paste. I pulled Walt even with me and told him to look at the sludge, and then I pushed him over the edge. He tried to duck under my arms, but the ground he’d used for leverage gave way, and he tumbled backward into the slurry. In a final, desperate spasm of self-preservation he grabbed my leg, and I lost my balance and fell with him.

The water was warm, and as I sank, my mind went back to the ledge, and I saw myself, but I was not me, I was my father, and Walt was me, and he was my mother, and he was my sister, and he was Walt. I sank to the bottom and felt around in the silt and mud for a way to push myself back to the surface. My hands and feet flailed, searching, clawing, all the while my nose filled with the mixture of the thick, muddy, coal dust and sand. My left foot found something solid, and I pushed myself up into the air and gasped and choked and cried.

I made it to shore, and the thick, black slurry hung on my clothes and skin; it was so heavy I fell to my knees. And it stunk. I kneeled on a pile of peat gravel and puked until my stomach began to spasm. When the sickness passed, I saw Walt sitting in the gravel next to me with his knees pulled up to his chest. His head was cocked to one side, his eyes were closed, and the sun shined bright on his face. A thin film of slime coated the left side of his body and his legs, but his feet were clean except where some of the muck was dripping off the hem of his jeans onto his ankles. I kept looking at his feet, pristine and motionless on the smooth rocks. Next to him, his socks were stuffed into his Reebok Pumps, the orange ball on the tongue still visible through the filth.

“I’m sorry,” I said.

He nodded and after a few minutes ran off into the woods.

“I won’t be like him,” I yelled at Walt. “That’s it.”

I wouldn’t be like Dad, wouldn’t believe what he believed or drink what he drank. I looked into the trees where Walt had disappeared, and I knew that we needed the Jesus that cleansed the Temple of God. Not the curious, young Jesus who got separated from his parents. That’s my father’s Jesus. Absentee and absentminded. Too full of himself to know the suffering he causes his family. No, we needed the Jesus that turned over the money changers’ tables. The one with fire in his eyes and muscles in his arms, the one who was furious.

I made my way through the woods, down Salem Road, to the abandoned Bangert place, grabbed a Rawlings baseball bat from the shed, held it in my right hand, the barrel resting on my shoulder, and walked home.

Mom and Julie sat in lawn chairs under the blue tarp awning. Dad was in the bus on the floor, passed out from whiskey, lying in his white underwear and an unbuttoned shirt revealing the spotted and scarred skin on his chest and belly. I found the keys to the car and went back outside and tossed them to Mom.

“Go to town,” I said.

She looked at the slime and mud drying and forming a black crust over my body but didn’t question. They got in the rusted Oldsmobile, and Mom let Julie ride in the front seat, and they waved at me and pulled away down Salem Road, and I watched them until they passed a coal truck and disappeared behind a cloud of dust.

After they left, I gathered dry branches from the woods and piled them under the back end of the bus. When I was done, the stack went up to the rear axle. It took two matches to light the fire. I backed away about twenty feet from the door, spun the handle of the bat in my hand, listened for movement, and watched the fire grow. Dad coughed and banged around inside for a minute, and then the door opened, and when his foot hit the ground I swung at his knees and felt his kneecaps crunch through the handle of the bat. He hit the ground screaming and coughing and curled up on the ground, his hands holding his knees, touching and assessing the pain.

“Are you ready?” I said.

“Goddammit, boy,” he said. “Shit. Shit. Shit.”

“That’s right. Look at me,” I said. “You know about this business.” I pointed to the filth covering my body.

The bus was full of smoke, but there were no flames.

He reached out his hand and scooted toward me. “Pull me away, boy. Pull me away.”

I crouched in front of him. “Stop,” I said. “You had your turn. Give me the watch.”

He looked up at me, and behind those petulant gray eyes I saw fear. “I sold it.”

The barrel of the bat slid down into my hand, and I hurled it like a javelin into his mouth. His face puckered, his eyes shut, tears welled up near the bridge of his nose, his mouth opened slightly, and I could see that his front teeth were cracked.

“Look at it.” I pointed at the bus. “Do you see anything?”

He tried to speak or couldn’t control his jaw; either way, he looked like he was chewing something horribly bitter, and he flailed in the dirt in the shadow of the smoke above us. And then the fire ignited the back end of the bus. I flung the bat through the door and walked to the tree line and watched Dad drag himself, mouth agape, dripping thick drops of blood onto the dirt, and behind him the bus burned.

 

 

BIO

David J Ballenger lives in Newark, Ohio, with his wife and three children. He received his MFA in Writing from Pacific University. This is his first publication.

 

 

 

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The Politics of Lonely

by Pamela Langley

 

Drop Cap Karen squeezed her Pomeranian into a human onesie and shared with me her visions of future motherhood. “You need full boobs for babies,” she informed me as Angel scooted the outfit across the floor. We were evaluating our images just before entering the ninth grade. Karen grasped each side of her tube top below her armpits, twisting the garment to adjust her glories and emphasize her point. “They’re essential for breastfeeding your babies, and boys love them,” she said.

At fourteen Karen sported an astonishing rack, but was concerned about mine. “You’re so scrawny, Anita,” she said, poking at my protruding collarbones and flat sternum, “you need to fill out.” Then she sighed and agreed there was hardly any hope for me, since my mother was definitely flat.

“Maybe you should get a padded bra.”

I considered the assortment of on-sale, department store bras that my mother purchased for me. The shriveled cups lay like deflated balloons in my underwear drawer. The women of my Greek lineage tended to be slim and long-boned, not built with the ample scaffolding that supported magnificent breasts like Karen’s, or those of my brother’s idol, Raquel Welch. Being flat didn’t bother my mother. She told me I’d appreciate it later in life when they weren’t dangling around my waist.

But what did I care about the distant future? If I had breasts now I’d gain an advantage like Karen’s. Karen and Raquel Welch were legends, objects of desire; I was a wingman—the comedic sidekick.

Later on at home I made a plea. “Mom, can you buy me a padded bra next time?”

“For what do you want pads in your bras? You have a darling little figure.”

“I don’t want a ‘darling little figure,’ mom, I want to fill out a blouse or a bathing suit top.”

“You do fill them out, just like nature intended you to, like a fourteen-year old girl should.”

With that, she continued to buy me unpadded bras off the bargain racks at May Company.

*   *   *

As the bustiest girl in ninth grade, Karen had broad carte blanche. When she entered fourth period geometry plopping into her chair with reverberating effects, Mr. Murrow habitually pushed back his glasses with a clammy forefinger and cleared his throat. When she approached him during free time with questions about angles and equivalents, she’d twirl a section of her hair with her finger, lean over her textbook, and explain her area of confusion. Mr. Murrow couldn’t keep his eyes from diving down those ocean swells of Karen’s breasts. He’d spend all the time she needed to help her out. As she walked away he’d grab Chap Stick out of his shirt pocket and rake it across his lips. If I had a question he’d point out impatiently that he’d covered it in class, or he’d turn my textbook to a page and bark, “Read here, you should know this.”

Males were collectively mesmerized by Karen. We’d walk to the 7-11 for Slurpees, our flip-flops snapping in unison, and cars would pass honking with reverbs of “blondie,” or “hey baby,” wolf calls trailing with the exhaust fumes. We’d lie on the beach, wiggling the tops of our toes in the scalding sand to create a chill, shifting our beach-blown hair from side to side. Guys would approach, barely a glance my way—sometimes backs right to me—riveted to Karen and her assets.

Karen’s divorced mother solely supported her three children on a secretarial salary. She was always turning out lights and whipping up saucy casseroles. More than once I overheard her behind the closed bedroom door screeching at her ex for child support.

At my house our foreign identity and general difference marked us. I looked nothing like the even-featured faces seducing the masses on magazine covers, or wrinkling their poreless noses and tossing their shimmering hair in television ads. My parents lectured against impractical or grand ambitions, and advocated honest “hard work” and the value of being “humble.”

We resolved that our trajectories would lead somewhere better than our mothers’. Karen’s considerable intellect was inconsequential to her goal of a stable, permanent family. My aspirations contrasted with my parents’ ethics about appropriate work. I sought to capture the gaze—TV, film, something attached to an end-note of being watched, as Karen was watched, not for her talents, but for her body.

*   *   *

In my sophomore year of high school my family moved to a distant, but nearly identical suburb of Los Angeles, where I initiated a personal redefinition. I boarded the bus headed down the vast asphalt boulevard to an Albertson’s with a Domino’s pizza on one side, and a tropical something-or-other tanning salon on the other. In the hair product aisle I selected Clairol’s highlighting kit. I couldn’t look the cashier in the eye as I counted out my change. The Clinique specialist at the mall explained how to emphasize my eyes and pop my emerging cheekbones, selling me corresponding trade tools. With money from a summer job, I joined Imperial Health Club. The makeover worked, I began to be noticed.

Karen and I remained in touch. Occasionally we braved the Greyhound bus ride through downtown LA, the ammonia odor of Skid Row permeating the ill-fitted window closures. In the bedrooms of our suburban homes we’d compare stories of the men who sat next to us on the bus striking up conversations. Some leering, some lonely, some who seemed protective—interactions evaluated through the lens of our increasing carnal currency.

*   *   *

After high school I enrolled at the local junior college where I took humanities, and elective courses like theater and dance. Karen went to USC and graduated with highest honors in the sciences. I received a graduation announcement in the mail with a scrawled note on the flip side: “Can you come,” she asked, and then in shaky writing, “I need you, Angel died yesterday.” But I couldn’t make the ceremony because I was getting my nose fixed a few days before the event. I sent along a card of congratulations apologizing for my absence and mourning the departed Angel.

The new nose took some getting used to; my breathing and voice were never the same—there was a ducky echo when I spoke. My mother would fixate on my profile sighing, commenting on how all the women on TV looked alike, “without any character” to their faces. Her unspoken disapproval was palpable.

After graduating, Karen got a first-rate job at a major defense company. I dropped out of junior college, floundered. I waited tables and started auditioning for community theater roles, sometimes playing to houses smaller than the number of actors in the cast.

I continually worked out, believing that one could maybe sculpt breasts from a body, but that only succeeded in firming up what little bit would have been better off remaining plump. I purchased a set of those malleable, raw-chicken breast inserts and stuffed them in my staunchest underwire bra, which seemed to work, until one day I grew careless. At a play reading, my slumpy posture squished one of the cutlets right out of my bra, where it settled between the bottom of my rib cage and my waistband. When I stood up I noticed one of the actors staring in wonder at my torso, where a half-cantaloupe bulge rested down around my belly. I threw the inserts out.

One evening I returned from rehearsal, and pulled an envelope addressed from Karen out of the stack of the day’s mail. I tossed my gym bag on the floor and tore the letter open. The pages smelled of pencil lead and excitement. I’ve met the love of my life, she enthused so vigorously that tiny leaden droplets scattered in the margins. I’m so READY. She told me their combined income could buy a house. And she was getting her master’s degree in Information technology, paid for by her employer. Oh, and she’d just been promoted. I was making minimum wage plus tips as a waitress, and sharing an apartment in Pasadena with two other women. I’d had to borrow money from my parents to buy a sofa and a used refrigerator. I assessed my apartment, the tacky Sofa-U-Love purchase flanked by mismatched armchairs and garage sale finds. I wasn’t even in a relationship. Men watched me now, like I’d craved, but when I scraped the veneer of attraction our intentions grew fuzzy.

So I went to see a surgeon, urged on by the phantom of Karen and her achievements, which I attributed to those breasts.

The pain from the implants was worse than the nose. For weeks I slept perched upright like a mannequin thrown against a wall. They throbbed like incessant bongo-drums, always reminding me they were there, and I suspected they weren’t enough.

I was still sore when I ran into Karen at a sports bar in Westwood. Wading through smoke and loopy patrons to reach her, I tapped her arm. We performed the squeal/laughter/hug that old friends do when they recognize each other in unexpected locales. She introduced me to her disinterested love, Bruce.

“It’s great to meet you,” I said, extending my hand. His grip was clammy and a ripe odor pooled around him.

“Hey,” he responded, his eyes never leaving the bar television as he cupped his hand back around his beer.

In the bathroom Karen made excuses for Bruce, his rough-hewn demeanor, explaining that he had his own construction company, was a guy’s guy. And, she added, “eager to start a family.”

“Are you thinking about marrying him?” I asked, wondering what they possibly had in common. In the stale fluorescent glare I noticed she looked different, an almost intangible sag in her formerly plush cheeks, shoulders slouched—a whisper of anxiety.

“He has traditional values, Anita,” she said, “and he wants children.”

“But, are you in love?” She seemed smaller, too, in the chest.

“Yeah. I mean, I spend a lot of time studying and he doesn’t complain because he watches his sports. It works. You look good,” she said, changing the subject, “You’ve filled out. Your … boobs!”

“I got them done, but I wish I’d gone bigger,” I complained, sneaking a silhouette comparison in the cloudy mirror.

“Are you seeing someone?”

“No one in particular; I’m keeping my options open.”

We returned to the bar where she smiled sweetly at Bruce, who nodded and tapped his cigarette tip into a Raiders ashtray. The beer glass was empty beside him, and he gestured for another without asking if we wanted something.

*   *   *

After the surgery I started to land better roles in bigger productions. I was reviewed in LA Weekly with descriptions that focused on “perfect for the ingénue,” “smoldering and sexy,” or “easy on the eyes.” Nothing about talent, but I was exhilarated.

In the lobby of the Pasadena Playhouse I stood for a meet and greet after a show. I recognized Janet Piedmont, who’d been Karen’s closest friend after I moved. She gushed, “I hardly recognized you, wow!” I could see her trying to determine what was different about me. I asked her about Karen and she told me that she’d broken up with Bruce.

“But I’m not speaking to Karen, I’m not sure if you heard,” Janet exhaled for dramatic effect, “because apparently she thinks it’s OK to screw her best friend’s fiancé when she’s lonely.”

“Oh, Janet. No, I hadn’t heard.”

Karen and the former fiancé were now a couple, but Janet was having the last laugh, she told me, because Larry was older and he’d had a vasectomy after a failed first marriage.

*   *   *

I started to land more work and moved into my own place. I kept seeking agents and hearing the same thing—you need to ramp it up. Own your typecast, commit. This is Hollywood, they’d emphasize, and even a large C doesn’t stand out. With all my potential invested in image, I returned to my surgeon to up the ante.

I had some time off for healing, so I looked up Karen and we met at Gladstone’s on the coast for lunch. I was shocked when she walked in. She’d lost weight, walked without confidence; her hair fell limp on angular shoulders. Where had that proud cleavage gone? Even in a knit tank top and short skirt, there were no head-turns when she entered. The waiter approached, focusing his fabricated smile on me.

“Are you ready for another one?” And after I answered yes, I had to point out that Karen needed a margarita. For the first time I felt I was occupying more space than she was, generating more buzz. She told me the relationship with Janet’s ex had been doomed from the start. He was older, she said, and didn’t want children. No mention of the vasectomy.

“You never feel safe when it starts like that.” Her regret was evident. “I can’t seem to find the good ones. How about you, anyone serious?”

“Nope, still searching.” I didn’t mention the married soap actor.

She told me she had just bought a house on her own in Torrance, convenient to her job, but lacking double sinks in the master. She showed me pictures of a typical post-WWII, pseudo-chalet/ranch. I stirred my Bloody Mary with the celery stalk and bragged that I’d finally secured an agent and a $2,000 per month North Hollywood apartment that smelled of chlorine, new flooring, and wafts of Roundup when the gardeners sprayed, but was central to most casting spots. Karen was pursuing a second master’s degree, news she shared without pride.

“I saw you in that State Farm ad,” she said, “I called my mom and we got such a kick out of it.”

“It’s one of my national commercials. That one alone pays my rent. Have you seen me in the vanilla vodka ad?”

“No, I missed it.”

“Well, I’m easy to miss. They focused on a younger model, but I worked the cameraman and got some screen time. Hey, do you think I should get extensions?”

She looked at me as if to determine whether I was joking. I figured she was envious. Then she leaned in so close I could see the moist corners of her eyes, the flaking bits of her drugstore mascara.

“Anita, do you feel like we’re missing out?” she asked me. “All our friends are married with kids. Their lives are so different from ours.”

“Their lives are ordinary,” I replied. “I want more, don’t you?”

She looked at me, pausing to chew a piece of fingernail, really ripping at it. “We’re almost thirty-three, there’s not a lot of time left to have kids. Janet’s married now, and pregnant I hear.” She sipped her margarita and licked the salt bits from her lips. “I’ve quit smoking and stopped taking the pill.”

“Why?”

“I want a child.”

All these years gone by, a thriving career, and still the imperative of motherhood.

“But your work, how will you raise it alone?”

“There are nannies, good ones, and agencies that screen them. I’ll figure it out.” She admitted that she yearned for an accident. We sat silent, our thoughts pounding in time with the surf.

“Don’t get extensions,” she said after a pause.

“But my agent thinks they’ll help.”

She smiled and I spotted the ghost of her former appeal. “Anita, I remember when you were so skinny, all leg and arm joints. You’ve changed, that’s for sure.”

I registered the comment as a victory.

*   *   *

Nearly eight years passed with only occasional e-mails and holiday cards from Karen. More broken relationships that she mourned and analyzed. A ratcheting up of desperation when she was cheated on or left. She must have felt that because I, too, was single, I’d understand. But I didn’t relate to her sorrow. I expertly deflected my mother’s what-about-my-grandchildren lament, and kept a steady stream of male friends in tow for holiday obligations.

For all Karen’s loneliness, her career soared. Each plaintive note mentioned a promotion or an enviable bonus, buried in the subtext of her sadness. I managed to keep booking print and TV ads, but the race for relevance was relentless. I discovered injections and spray tanning. As long as I focused on the advantages of a youthful chassis, I barely noticed those birthdays with relative strangers, or the solitude that ricocheted off the chic furnishings of my apartment.

While Karen pursued a permanent connection, I settled for doomed scenarios. I traded the married soap star for a married producer, who I left for an admiring CEO, who insisted he was almost separated. Dead ends. They made promises I didn’t require, and disappeared on weekends. I couldn’t care. There was always someone new to pick up where the last one had left off.

I fancied my life as enviable. I’d moved to a sleek Westwood high-rise with rooftop pool, doormen who greeted me by name and neighbors who were all in the biz. We gathered for cocktail parties, clutching our lemon drops and bite-sized sushi and discussing who was cheating and with whom. I bought a sable Pomeranian from top champion lines and named her Pumpkin. I brought her everywhere I went, wide child-eyes peering at the world from behind the screen of a Louis Vuitton carrier.

When I turned forty, most of my work changed to voice-overs.

One day I noticed visible rippling at the side of my right breast. The doctor determined my implant had ruptured and scar tissue had formed. The fix was lopsided, my nipple pointing outward and all sensitivity gone, but the “best he could do,” the surgeon said. And they’d found a suspicious mass that was “probably nothing,” but they’d taken a biopsy.

About a week after the surgery I checked my e-mails while Pumpkin curled in my lap. There was one from Karen, subject line: I Did It! It was a note to undisclosed recipients asking for our congratulations, she had achieved successful “implantation of triplets” into her friendly, but still unclaimed, womb.

Triplets! I tried to imagine what that would do to her body.

I fired off a response:

 

Hi, and congratulations! It’s been a while—what surprising news. I expect your life will soon be filled with diaper bags and interrupted sleep. But in a good way. Karen, I’m happy that you proactively achieved what you have always wanted. I’m still booking work and I have a dog that’s a Pomeranian, just like Angel. I’m happy for us both. We’re doing pretty well for ourselves, right? Please let me know when the babies come.

 

She replied to me explaining she had taken matters into her own hands and gone to a sperm bank where she selected a donor from a portfolio of profiles. She was traversing pregnancy well, she said, and had already secured a Romanian nanny. She attached a photo of herself to the e-mail. In the picture she stood on a concrete slab, slightly greened by shrill sunlight cast through a corrugated plastic patio cover. She was turned to the side, happily clutching her ripe belly with both hands. Her coveted breasts were more splendid than ever, ample—I imagined pulsing with purpose. She finally seemed happy, frumpy and framed by overgrown hibiscus and camellia bushes.

I couldn’t think of a reply, so I set Pumpkin down on the cool travertine, poured some Grey Goose into a shaker and made myself a drink. It occurred to me that for the first time in our adult lives, Karen would no longer be alone. But I would. I felt an impulse to smash something. Instead I texted my latest companion a message that we were through. I noticed I needed a manicure, so I scheduled a spa day with a deluxe mani-pedi and microdermabrasion for the following Saturday, and called the cleaning lady with certain complaints. I gulped my martini and made another. I phoned my doctor’s office where, after ten minutes of holding to muzak’d versions of “Don’t Go Chasing Waterfalls,” and “She’s Always a Woman,” they told me my lab results weren’t in yet.

My phone rang, caller ID mispronouncing my agent’s name. I let it ring. I rose, wincing from the sore incision and made another drink. I walked out onto my terrace and settled into a stylish chaise, purchased straight from the pages of Dwell magazine. I felt something inside me give, shifting like earth splitting from a quake.

Pumpkin jumped up and knocked my drink off a side table, the Italian glass shattering all around us. I grabbed her and walked inside, slamming the slider. I called my mother, but she wasn’t home.

My wound throbbed and I felt sick. I looked around at nothing but sterile design and pandering choices. Who lived here? Where had my humor gone? Did I have cancer? I sat on my chilly leather sofa and choked on sobs for being forty-something, for feeling broken, for awaiting a verdict, and mostly for ending up alone. Pumpkin whined and pawed at my tucked knees. When I finally stopped, I saw that the new ex had texted back with one word, “FINE,” in all caps. Outside, past the spotless glass, it was one of those spectacular Los Angeles winter sunsets, the sky like ash and smoldering embers glowing from the mouth of a kiln.

 

 

BIO

Pamela Langley writerPamela Ramos Langley lives in an exurb of So Cal, three degrees of suburban separation from a happening city center. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in Literary Orphans, The Writing Disorder, The Story Shack, Hippocampus, The Santa Fe Literary Review, Elohi Gaduji, The River Poets Journal, and elsewhere. She’s been nominated for Best of the Net, is Managing Editor of Drunk Monkeys, hosts a blog at langleywrite.com, and fantasizes that she’s progressing from aspiring to emerging.

 

 

 

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Jake Teeny writer

Recalling the Cold

by Jake Teeny

 

 

Drop Cap Along with their tray of food for the day, came a pistol. It slid across the cracked concrete of their jail cell like the sound of a rake against an icy sidewalk. None of the three men noticed it at first; each sat with his back against a different slate wall, no cots, just one bucket, their eyes, all bloodshot and purpled in degrees of retaliation, were closed, their chins against their chests. Praying? Trying to sleep? For them, there wasn’t much difference. If a Gestapo peered through the square cut in the upper third of their door, he would have seen James against the left wall, Raymond against the back, and Harold against the right. The scarred wooden tray holding three tin cups of mashed potatoes and three tin cups of coffee—all certain to have another cigarette butt floating in the middle of them—remained a few feet from the flap at the bottom of the door. Motionless.

Although none of them had seen it yet, the gun would be recognized as a revolver. An Enfield Mk II. A British made pistol more commonly known as the No. 2. The Germans fancied Allied guns, not too unlike the Indians’ collection of scalps. The No. 2 had a thin walnut handgrip and weighed less than two pounds. From barrel to butt, it was eleven and a half inches long with an iron, six-round cylinder. At the base of the handgrip was a small steel ring a soldier could use to attach it to his belt. And if any of the three men had scrutinized the gun (which none of them ever would) they’d have seen its serial number read O9624, the number issued to British infantryman Charles Cartwright, an unextraordinary solider shot by an elderly German civilian whose finger had accidentally, tremulously pulled the trigger on a rifle.

Now, that pistol lay in the middle of their cell.

Harold’s stomach growled, and his eyes opened, not because a new sound had broken the routine—flap slaps open, tray slides in, flap slaps close—but because one cup of mashed potatoes might trick his stomach into thinking, Enough. It never did. Harold was nineteen-years-old and had enlisted on July 14th, 1943, exactly thirty days after he had graduated from high school (a stipulation his mother had begged of him) and sixteen days (his lucky number) after he had asked his girlfriend since sophomore year, Betty Dawson, to marry him. She had said yes. Harold wore his blond hair as fashionably as the army would allow him, short on the sides, long on top, which complemented his lovely blue eyes, blue eyes always twinkling like birthday present watches. Now, however, only one of those eyes could open, the other like a large moldy grape sewn over the socket. He didn’t know it, but the German’s fist, Niklas Fleisher’s fist, had actually fractured Harold’s cheekbone, the same blow that had severed half a dime’s worth of tongue as Harold bit down in pain. The loosed pinch of flesh, sliced off in one snap, had rolled over the back of his tongue and caught in the back of his throat as he tried to swallow, gasp out a scream. Days later, and Harold’s raw hook of muscle still exploded with pain every time he tried to eat, but the moaning of his stomach was apathetic to such discomfort.

Harold’s good eye peeled open wider to stare at the revolver. He closed it. His mind must not have fully unglued from the darkness. He opened it again. The revolver was still there. The unintentional click of his throat summoned James’ attention across from him. James. He was twenty-three with hazel eyes, a venerable depth to them even as a child, both painted, now, with yellowy bruises. His nose was swollen, red, and crooked down the bridge, but before it had been dismantled, you could have seen the destined structure for his eldest daughter, Sandra, in it. His other daughter, Carolyn, was still too young, but James had hope. His nose had always been something he secretly prided himself for, and it was his nose, or so he told people, that had caught him his wife, Marie. He told it as though he had followed her perfume like a pink nimbus wafting the dance hall, his nose informing him he was in love before he even knew what she looked like. And when he had seen her, spotlighted in that yellow shoulder-strap dress, alone, between jitterbugging couples, he was prepared to get down on one knee right then. Imagining that story, now, however, just made him realize how much it would hurt his knee to shove it against the concrete. Imagining that story, now, and he didn’t even care if he had tracked her down in that dance hall at all. With his left hand—every finger but his thumb on his right hand, his dominant hand, broken in ghastly contortions—he brushed some of his long black hair off his forehead. The lice loved the length of his hair, gnawed and gnawed and stabbed at his scalp, but he had no scissors to cut it. They wouldn’t give him any. Tell us who planned it, they said. Name, rank, serial number. Name, rank, serial number. Tell us! The three prisoners all wore the same outfit over their slimming bodies: beige button down collared shirt, beige cotton slacks. Their clothes reeked of sweat and dirt, the stuffy, oniony smell of a moldering body. Before the three of them had been placed in this jail cell, when they were outside in the P.O.W. camp with the other Allied forces held in Stalag Luft I, where they could stare off at the Barth forest of beech trees, English oaks, pine, stare off at the flying “V” of geese, the lone herons, they could have traded cigarettes for soap. They could have traded enough cigarettes for someone else’s clothes. But in here…How many days was it now?

Raymond, the eldest at twenty-nine, gazed through slit eyes at the revolver on the floor between them. The square of flat ashen light from the door, filtered once through wintery clouds, again through the filthy window opposite their cell, told Raymond nothing about how many days he had been dragged out, interrogated (beaten), thrown back in, dragged out, interrogated (tortured), thrown back in. Raymond had come to judge how long he had been in there by how well he could remember the crunch of frosted grass beneath his boots. Time measured through the sharpness of memories: a crooked yardstick but a yardstick nonetheless. Raymond had sienna hair and sienna eyes. He wasn’t married, not because he didn’t want to be, but because he always intended to move out of Vineyard, Utah first. Before the war, though, he had just never got around to doing it. Silence rarely bothered Raymond (uninterrupted thoughts were an invaluable freedom), so even when a revolver suddenly slid into their cell, he appreciated the quiet. The three men never discussed plans for escape, didn’t ask what happened when they were individually pulled away. Harold used to blather on about his hometown of Portland, Maine, about his beautiful fiancé Betty Dawson, about the house they planned to buy, about his plans to go to college, about the names for the five children he’d have, the names for the three dogs he’d have—And then the incident with his tongue. Back with the other men, you were always hesitant to complain about your tragedies because there was always some poor devil worse off than you. Out of these three, though, Raymond considered himself unmatched, unless of course Harold continued chewing off more of his tongue. It had been an uncontrollable, almost instinctual pleasure for Raymond when Harold had been thrown back into the cell, blood leaking from the corner of his lips, whining lowly, like the words of deaf people, when he had opened his mouth and shown them. No more Betty. No more children’s names. Raymond had never wanted that, had never asked the boy to keep quiet or told him to shut up, but now that it had happened, there was nothing Raymond could do. Nothing he could have done. Still, that unfounded, cursed guilt for his initial thanksgiving burrowed trails through his stomach, and Raymond was helpless to fill them.

James had been on patrol with his good friend Ed Hathaway, before he’d been taken to Stalag Luft I. They had been walking the perimeter of their base in Obstgarten forest, snow everywhere, the boughs of pines, the wormwood, shoes, clothes, but it hadn’t been windy so it hadn’t been terrible. James was from Brunswick, Georgia, where winter just meant you didn’t wear your sunglasses as often. He had never imagined that such a cold existed until he ended up in Germany. Such a ruthless, insidious chill. He had been about to remark on the cold for the countless time to Ed (“it’s so cold my balls are up to my nipples!”) when the Jerrys had stepped out of the brush. Everyone but the leader had a rifle leveled at them, while the German in charge had an American made pistol, a Smith & Wesson .38/200, aimed at them. It, too, was a revolver, one of similar design to the pistol that lay in front of them now. Intentional? Of course not. But James couldn’t resist the anxiety at seeing such a similar weapon here.

The three men continued to stare at the gun, only glancing at the others when the others weren’t glancing at them. Their meager food, usually retrieved and distributed seconds after the flap closed, was forgotten. And after another moment of precipitous silence, James reached forward and picked up the pistol.

To most, the revolver would have felt surprisingly heavy. But to James, it seemed surprisingly light. Something so inanimate, so uncomplicated—kinetic force of the hammer strikes the firing pin, firing pin ignites the gunpowder, gunpowder propels the steel jacket down the spirally grooved barrel—could end something so animate, so complicated as life. Back in Georgia, James had kept a pistol of his own in a shoebox at the top of his closet, far out of the reach of Sandra or Carolyn. In truth, he had never wanted the pistol in the house, but Marie told him it would make her feel safer. Anything for that. She was always so worried, as if she went out of her way to scour the newspaper or misinterpret gossip to have something to fret over. Once James had been drafted, he had had to talk her down from numerous plans of escape to Canada. She had cried so much. Sandra hadn’t understood. Carolyn wailed because her mommy did. And all James could do was wave.

Raymond didn’t like that James had grabbed the pistol first. Raymond was the oldest by five years or so, and even in the most mangled cages of the most dehumanized creatures, seniority meant something. But the revolver had been farthest from him. To scoot and twist, to wring the pain from him like brown water from a soiled dishrag wasn’t worth it. Not when he could just sit there and breathe. James rotated the pistol in his one hand, twisted it this way then that, even stared into the barrel, something you were told never to do unless you were certain it was unloaded. Though such a decree was difficult to follow when you weren’t always the one directing the gun.

Across from James, Harold wanted to ask, What is it? but knew that such a question was terribly stupid. A gun, you dummy!—What do you think? So he said nothing and waited as James examined the chambers. He found only one round. One bullet. Five clicks, one bang. James couldn’t punch the cylinder out with just one hand to confirm this, but he was pretty sure. Damn, the fingers on his right hand. Name, rank, serial number. That’s what the pain spelled. That, and the name, rank, serial numbers of the forty-seven men those Germans had stood in front of them and shot. The Germans had taken fifty men; he, Harold, and Raymond were the lucky three. The lucky ones. The fortunate guys beaten day after day but not killed. Struck in the liver and screamed at, fingers snapped backwards. But alive. Stripped naked in officer’s quarters. Humiliated. Prideless. Worthless. Alive. And now this revolver. Given to them. Loaded with one slug. Either it made no sense or it made too much, and James was unsure which he preferred. So holding the gun for only another lingering second, he set it back on the floor in front of him.

There was a distinct difference between wanting and needing. Most people missed it, but Raymond didn’t. And he was pretty sure at this moment he just wanted the pistol. Wanted to hold it. To touch it. To press its outline against his chest. But no matter how much Raymond wanted something—even needed something—he never begged for anything. Never. Anything. His father had worked at Geneva Steel. Raymond worked at Geneva Steel. Well, used to work there before he became a putrid solider. On the drive over to the military base—after Raymond had won the first lottery of his life—his co-worker, David Atkinson, had been telling Ray (not Raymond) how much they were going to miss his talents at “fixin’ stuff” at the mill. His talents, that’s what they’d miss. True, Raymond was a gifted millwright, inspecting, repairing, replacing, installing, adjusting, maintaining, all the mechanical equipment involved with ingot production, even the giant boilers that poured the golden sludge of molten steel. The heat, the long hours, the hard work. Always dirty and hot. Oily and hot. Sweating his soul into his socks and undershirt, all to keep himself above the poverty line. Raymond should have been a foreman, managing rather than being managed. Twenty-nine may have seemed young, but Raymond was smarter than the average twenty-niner in there. Hell, he was smarter than the average thirty-fiver. How else could he have been so successful as a millwright? But they, too, knew this (“that position’s just not ready yet”), and they, too, knew (“we believe Dale’s going to take over—he’s got the years”) that if Raymond went from laborer to foreman (“look at your pa; he’s been grinding for decades”) it would mean the others would wonder why they were skipped over. And in this jail cell, nothing had changed. He was still sweaty, oily, starving, while the others skipped over him; while he watched Harold’s slender fingers pick up the gun next.

The first time Harold had held a gun was in Atlantic City. That’s where he had conducted his training after enlisting. There wasn’t enough room in the barracks, so they put him and a majority of the other enlisted up in hotels. It was the first time Harold had stayed in a hotel, too. Certain events bond people together, and when Harold had traveled on the bus out to the countryside, followed the drill sergeant to an open field with hay bales and targets on one end, a line of shooting stations and rifles on the other, was one of those moments for Harold and Kevin Lewin. Harold vaguely knew Kevin from high school baseball. Harold was the starting shortstop—wearing number sixteen—for his varsity team. Kevin, who Harold didn’t remember at first, had been a bench player for an opposing high school. Through pure luck (destiny?) Harold and Kevin ended up side-by-side at the shooting range. Neither boy had much of a clue what they were doing (“how do you work the bolt?”), but through the smell of sulfur, the shoulder bruises from the rifle’s kick, and the stories of high school sports, they became friends. Harold told Kevin about the first and only time he had tried a puff of a marijuana cigarette. Kevin, on a stroll one dark night, told Harold that his mother was Mexican (though Harold would have never guessed). But when they were deployed, Harold went one way, Kevin another. Harold still remembered the sound of Kevin’s laugh when Harold told the story of how he got chased by a cat. Harold still remembered Kevin’s squirrel-nosed look after he and Harold had their first meal in the mess (“you have to try my mother’s enchiladas”). But the nostalgia was only a brief guard against the fiery pain in Harold’s mouth. God, he hoped Kevin was all right. It was a selfish reason, but if Kevin was all right, then maybe Harold would turn out all right, too.

After what couldn’t have been more than twenty seconds, Harold returned the pistol to the middle of the concrete. He wasn’t sure why he had grabbed it—maybe because James had; maybe because there was nothing else to do—but he didn’t feel like holding it anymore. The way Raymond had been watching him, even James… Maybe it was the attention after such paradoxical solitude. Maybe it was just the simple weight of the gun in his weary arms. No matter. Back on the concrete, no more cold wood or cold iron in his hands, Harold felt better. And across from him, James was already reaching to retrieve the gun again. But from the back of the room, Raymond’s upturned palm extended toward him. Wanting.

This wasn’t begging, merely fairness. James got a turn. Harold got a turn. Therefore… James laced gazes with his cellmate, and Raymond knew those secret hazel eyes shared an understanding. Raymond just wondered if James, too, had searched the floor for three slips of straw. Only one chamber blocked the light passing through the cylinder. Just one. James didn’t break eye contact as he laid the pistol on the ground, his full left palm spidered over it. After a hesitation, he slid it forward. A sound like teeth scraped across brick. The revolver skated past Raymond’s left foot and through to where the lower part of his right leg should have been, catching the pistol before it thunked into the wad of thigh removed above the knee. He judged how long ago he’d had an intact right leg by how well he could remember the sweat. The lice were always bad but they didn’t stray from your head. The sweat…The sweat was everywhere. Inexorable. Not the runny kind of sweat, like the juices of a blueberry pie bubbling up in the oven. But the painful, stinging kind, like the sparks of burnt grease. On his shoulders. His abdomen. The backs of his hands. By the time he had been given to a doctor, he had lost a lot of blood from his wrecked knee. He had even distantly thought they could pour some of the blood that leaked into his shoe back into his veins, but he worried that it might be dirty blood, bad blood, if his feet had been swimming in it. On the surgery table—a butcher’s long aluminum workbench still flecked with dried cow’s blood—lay Raymond with one electric bulb, a forty watt, above him. Nothing too bright on its own, but surrounding that one light bulb were dozens of reflectors, repurposed Klim powdered milk cans, arranged in a geometrical cone. The doctor’s head bumped the lamp at one point, and it performed a dazzling twirl of lights, like the way a lovely woman’s dress bells out when she spins, and Raymond lay there stroking the cold table with his fingertips, entranced upward, as the Polish doctor prodded and mumbled at his knee. Do you want to be a legless son or a dead hero? Raymond couldn’t remember his answer, but he didn’t think it would have mattered to the doctor. Just like it didn’t matter to the revolver.

Harold had to turn his whole head to watch Raymond examine the gun, his swollen right eye just a throb of ungodly pain. But his left still worked fine, and that was good enough. Secretly—Harold knew the other two would mock this idea—he thought they could use the gun for escape. Why else would someone have snuck it into their cell? He figured they could hold it up to that square at the top of the door and threaten the next Nazi who passed. You better open up or you’ll eat a bullet with your forehead! But elaborating that plan to James and Raymond would cause his tongue far too much pain. He would just wait for one of them to suggest it, then nod as enthusiastically as his aching head would allow. Until then, though, his mind kept skimming, wouldn’t settle, kept rippling like the water in a glass from all the footsteps around the house. He kept thinking about his golden retriever back home, Dice. His warm body. Wet tongue. If Harold closed his eye and thought hard enough, he could just about imagine that pillowy amber fur curled against him. Dice, three-years old at the time, had been there when Harold had first met Betty outside the bowling alley on Lancaster Street. At school, he had seen her in the hall outside his locker a couple of times, chestnut hair, heart-shaped face, fine calves, but he’d never had a reason to talk to her. Only weirdos talked to girls they had no business talking to, and Harold was no weirdo. But walking down the sidewalk on Lancaster Street, a beautiful spring day, something Bing Crosby might sing about, he had spotted her in the middle of the block. Immediately, he loosened his grip on the leash to fuss with his hair, when all of a sudden Dice bolted forward after a passing milk truck. Using all his strength, Harold slowed Dice before they crashed into Betty. They came close, though, and she giggled, Who’s walking who? and Harold, so fuddled by the energy to restrain his dog, the chance encounter with Betty Dawson, said the first thing that came to his mind: I once bowled a 216, you know? Which, putting a “two” in front of his favorite number, resulted in a complete lie. It took him three months of going steady before he finally admitted the deceit, the whole time, not once taking her bowling.

Raymond continued to run his index finger all over that dirty iron before he popped out the cylinder and spun it. Someone had treated this gun well, oiled it, cleaned it. The cylinder spun fast, all the holes seeming to blend into one. Blend into one except one. But before the cylinder rested, with a flick of his wrist, Raymond snapped it back into the gun. Outside with the other men, there had been a German guard named Lukas Gottschalk, a slender man with dark hair and a narrow chin. Lukas had been a piano teacher before the war (“if you don’t like classical music, then you have never listened to Debussy”), and spoke relatively fine English. There was something different about Lukas: he held his rifle more loosely against his shoulder; he smiled resignedly when checking count. You actually like being a Nazi? Raymond had asked once as Lukas shared a sip of toasty coffee with him. They stood obscured, or so they thought, at the base of a wooden guard tower. Me? A Nazi? No, I just do what I have to. You understand. Raymond nodded. Sometimes I get a student who I know does not like piano. Does not like me. But he pretends; he moves his fingers and taps his foot. He plays the notes for his mother. He does not feel the music. You can play notes without playing music. Raymond let the revolver rest on his lap; he should really slide it back into the middle but couldn’t persuade himself to do so. Not while there was still the question. After his talk with Lukas, he didn’t see the guard for two and a half months. When Lukas finally returned, his dark hair was now cloud white, his slender frame slimmer. When Raymond approached him, Lukas appeared as though he saw the world through turned around binoculars. At the time, Raymond couldn’t bring himself to ask what had happened, but now, given the chance, he would have had one question for Lukas: did they give you a revolver, too?

From the moment Raymond had extended his hand—No. From the moment Raymond had staggered in after his first interrogation, James had known what Raymond would do with the gun. Raymond’s eyes hadn’t given it away. His slumped posture hadn’t revealed anything. James had known what Raymond would do with that gun, because James himself wanted to do the same. That’s why he had given it to Raymond, wasn’t it? Let him spend the temptation. Rid James of the choice. Each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire, John 1:14. The solitary confinement cell of Stalag Luft I did not welcome God. James did not welcome God. But all those Sunday mornings with his mother, with Marie (“you should have given me that shirt earlier, I could have ironed it!”), had made it instinct to turn to Him. Not a conscious choice. He should say something to Raymond. Say something.But what could he say when the cold was only beautiful in memory? What should he have said to Ed? Ed Hathaway, his friend. Those Jerrys had come out of nowhere. Had James been the one to lead them down that trail? Hadn’t he said the trees would buffet the wind better this way? He couldn’t remember. Didn’t want to. But James had said something then. With all those Nazi’s jabbering at them in that spiky-balled language. James had told Ed to take his hand out of his breast pocket. Take it out! But I just want to give ‘em some smokes. Show ‘em we’re alright, you know. Just want to—

Raymond knew the question, but not the answer. The answer. But that’s how it worked. You weren’t supposed to know the answer. Just the question. They had kept him, James, and Harold alive because of a question. Who was planning it? What did they know? Those greedy prisoners at Stalag Luft III, tunneling and digging and tunneling and escaping, had cost those in Stalag Luft I the lives of forty-seven men, (“German honor will not be affronted!”) had cost them their own escape tunnels when the Gestapo had raided their living blocks, torn up the floor, upended mattresses, found the bunk-bed slats structuring the crawlspaces that led to life with invisible walls, not fenced or concrete ones. The only thing left for the Gestapo to upturn was those behind it. Who were the leaders? The question asked before forty-seven men were shot in cold blood. The question asked every time Raymond was dragged into the officer’s quarter, interrogated (whipped), thrown back in. But if they still wanted an answer, why give the three of them a pistol? Why? Why? Because those Nazi bastards already knew the answer. They knew it from the beginning when those skinny Krauts with a working knowledge of English crawled under their living blocks and eavesdropped on their conversations. So as Raymond understood, it was never about the answer. Always the question. The question. The question. The question. Like the one right now. Which of these six chambers held the .87 inches of steel that would enter through the lower part of his jaw and exit through the base of his brain?

Harold’s tongue clung to the floor of his mouth like a corpse at the base of the ocean. Seeing Raymond now, the jitteriness of his eyes, the way the gun kept moving slightly into the air, then back to his lap, angled up to his shoulder, then back to his lap, Harold knew that he needed to swallow the pain and speak. If he hadn’t been so stupid. The gun wasn’t about escaping, at least not escaping in the way Harold had imagined. This was a method of escape. Even a fine one considering the circumstances, but never a good one. Like the way Harold had been forced to exit his bomber. Shot down, just like everybody else. Jumped out, just like everybody else. The only option for escape considering the circumstances. Not a good one, but he hadn’t any others. Raymond still did. He had to have a dog like Dice or a girl like Betty Dawson, or at least he had to know that there were other brothers with guns still out there. Harold reached out his hand. It was not nearly as firm as he would have liked it, soggy from all the punches into his bicep and shoulder, but it was out there. Calling. Please, thought Harold. Calling. Please.

Raymond judged how long ago he had felt safe by how well he could remember the taste of real eggs. They always served you real eggs on the day of an actual mission, not that powdered, yellowy rubber. He’d had his Sunnyside up, greasy and hot. The B-24 he’d been flying in that day, named Bad Luck 13—an attempt at jinxing a jinx—had been making a bombing run on Velgast, a city about eight and half miles south of Barth where he was held now. Raymond was the plane’s engineer, his aptitude as a millwright supposedly qualifying him for the role. They had still been ten miles outside of Velgast when the German fighters flew in, tattering every Allied plane in the sky. The vroom of engines and air were quickly replaced with the patter of flak, the sound of a Spanish god rolling his “r’s.” The men in the hull, Clarence Wiggs, navigator, Fred Brinson, bombardier, Craig Furman, left waist gunner, Arthur Powell, right waist gunner, and William Sternberg, tail gunner, lost their footing as the plane rocked and swiveled to evade the anti-aircraft fire. Within seconds, a bullet pierced the right-side window of the cockpit, splattering the co-pilot’s, Todd Greeley’s, blood and brain matter against the side of Captain Jeffrey Ragland’s face. Three feet back in the engineer’s jump seat, Raymond screamed horrifically, barely able to hear Captain Ragland shout at him to retrieve their chutes. Cold air whistled through the hole in the thick glass, Raymond’s fingers numb as he fumbled at the clasp on his waist. Open the emergency hatches! shouted Ragland into the radio. Open the hatches and prepare to—A triplet of flak tore through the cockpit’s front windshield, burrowing two bullets in Ragland’s throat, another in his chest. Nausea and fear. Raymond finally undid his seatbelt and staggered to the back. Bright morning light flooded through the open bombing bay as Wiggs and Brinson tried to shovel out as much of the explosives as they could. The target was still miles out, but with leaking gasoline, a hull crammed with explosives, and an onslaught of flak, any errant spark would turn this hulk of metal into a careening fireball. Raymond stumbled to the parachutes attached to the netting on the side of the plane, but two steps away, a round of flak burst through the floor, rocketed through metal, then cabin air, then the skin behind Raymond’s knee, then his femur, then his lateral condyle, then his patellar tendon, then the skin on the front of his knee, then more cabin air, then back through the side of the plane. Raymond lurched forward—pain like a jagged bullhorn jammed and twisted in his knee—and reached for a chute. Somehow, he grabbed one. Shaking, crying, he attached it to the clasps on his suit, when all of a sudden the vertical stabilizers were shot, and the nose of the plane began to rise, Raymond beginning to roll toward the tail. Through the flashes of his spinning world, he saw Fred Brinson and Arthur Powell get sucked out the bay without parachutes. William Sternberg and Clarence Wigg clung to the sides of the plane. Then Raymond tumbled over the cold, ridged metal and into the nothingness of morning sky. He fell…Fell…Emptiness. Then his fingers behaved automatically, reaching for the ring on the front of his jacket and pulling. In a righter state of mind, however, he would have remembered to wait for his body to slow down before he sprung the chute. Gravity could only pull the human body at a speed of 125 mph, but coming out of the plane like that, he was moving close to 165 mph. The wide canvas sail snagged the air and jerked every strap attached to Raymond’s body with the force of a high-rise noose. He screamed. The already severed tendons in his knee ripped further. Warm blood pooled in his shoe; his unstitching leg swung like a hypnotist’s fraying pendulum. All this, pain, unconsciousness, helplessness, as he delicately floated down to earth. If he just hadn’t grabbed that parachute in the first place. If he had just tumbled out with Fred Brinson and Arthur Powell. The parachute handle in his memory slowly transformed into a revolver. A No. 2. In his hand. Raise. Pull the trigger. What’s the answer? Where’s the chamber?

The slight paling in James’ right hand had alerted him first. Paling and then a subtle reddening. He wasn’t sure if the light whiffs, difficult to distinguish form the other noxious odors permeating the cell, came from his hand or not. Sickeningly sweet. Like whiskey with a hint of rotted tomatoes. The lack of blood flow from the horrific breaks in his fingers could be causing it. The gangrene. The dying, decomposition of his flesh. He couldn’t be sure (could you ever be?), but he believed it was gangrene. A disease that spread if untreated. Do you want to be an armless father or a wartime hero? In a sick way, James wanted Raymond to pull that trigger. He wanted his ears to crack with the shatter of gunpowder. He wanted to hear it in his head, not feel it in his head. Because if Raymond didn’t do it, if someone didn’t dispose of that steel bullet, James was afraid he might. Afraid. Marie, Sandra, Carolyn. Metal to metal could end it all. The pressure, the stress, the weight. Life was so heavy—so heavy—while death was just…a scrap of parchment? a swimming leaf? a fluttering snowflake? Damn the cold! The revolver in Raymond’s hand continued to rise—an iron finger accusing the heavens; Harold’s arm reached outward, bent at the elbow. Limp. And what did James do? The same thing he had done for Ed. The same thing he had done when they shot those forty-seven men. But there was only so much you couldn’t claim to know. Outside this cell, there had been a night where the guards had thrown them some bones from a dead horse. Grass soup with horse bones for supper! And afterward, after their cramping stomachs had been lightly patted, the men had drawn cards to see who would get to suck the marrow from the bones. They had given James the task of fanning the deck. If only he hadn’t seen the bottom card he would have never been tempted. But his sticky eyes led to a sticky palm, and he and two others got to crack open the bones and slurp up the fat. Ice on the ground. A jacket too few. Plenty of spoons but not enough bowls. Pull the trigger, Raymond. Pull the trigger! Please (James couldn’t say it, but he could extend his hand) please, Raymond. Please.

Harold saw James outstretch his hand, and Harold knew that Raymond wouldn’t do it with both of them pleading otherwise. He couldn’t. Harold hadn’t told anyone this, but he had never killed anyone in the war. He had never even fired his gun. Working up in that B-17 as a navigator (a job of guessing and estimation; “the compass is vibrating six degrees that way then ten degrees this way—we’ll call it eight”), his responsibility was to direct people. Never to release the bombs. Never to pull a trigger. After bailing from the plane and diving through the clouds, his parachute got tangled in the lower limbs of a beech tree. The gray evening, the ratatat of gunfire, explosions in the sky. Harold rustled and fidgeted—the German shouts always seeming to get closer—but his release latch was tangled in the cording attached to his sail. Unexpectedly, though, on his forth yank, the lines released with a woosh and he fell ten feet, crashing hard on his left ankle. Pain torched the outside of his foot and up the side of his shin. But before he could even consider the injury, a rustle came from the nearby brush. The dirt was damp and smeared with decomposing leaves. Harold fumbled at the revolver attached to his belt and aimed it at the sound. He had no idea where his other men had landed, where he was supposed to get back to. A rustle in a different direction. Harold scooted along the matted leaves—the wet ground soaking through his pants—till his back struck the trunk of the tree. He would wait for the man to show himself. Ally or enemy? A moment later, his question was answered. The dim, setting sun illuminated a figure in a knee-length dark coat, a Nazi symbol emblazoned on a red band around his arm. With Harold’s back against the tree, he was silhouetted, hidden. He had his pistol surreptitiously raised at the figure (pull the trigger, Harold! pull it!), but no matter how much he tried to steady himself, his hand was too shaky, the gun felt too heavy. He had a clear shot. An easy point and…But he couldn’t; he just couldn’t. And instead, he did the last thing he should have ever done. He cried. The German startled at the sound, but quickly approached Harold. When he came close, however, he bent and said, Friendly, friendly, and pulled a badge from his jacket. He was a Frenchman with a zippy, bee-like accent, pale blue eyes, red cheeks. Steamy tears rolled down Harold’s face—his ankle, this war—and he did his best to smother his sobs. Up in that plane, away from it all, distanced, separate. Now down here…Can you walk? We need to move. They are coming. We must hurry. Harold stuffed a sob back down his throat. My ankle, mister. My ankle. The Frenchman was confused at first, but then quickly turned and pulled back Harold’s cuff, examining the injury. How you say? Not broke. Okay. Can you move? Harold wasn’t sure. He didn’t even know if he could try. Flashlight beams bounced through the woods behind them. Here, we put you up against—No, cut in Harold. Go. Just go, mister. The Frenchman hesitated, glanced up at the approaching slash of lights, then crouched down to face Harold. Carefully, he kissed Harold on both cheeks, and mumbled something in French. He made eye contact, hesitated again, then hurried off in the other direction. Minutes later, the Nazis found Harold, back against the tree, hands in the air. And now, in this jail cell, Harold again had his hand in the air, but he was beginning to worry it wouldn’t save him this time.

When your whole body’s cold, you can hardly feel the tip of a revolver underneath your chin. Raymond’s eyes had been closed for half a minute now. He couldn’t stand their looks, their outstretched hands, this cell. He hoped he could ride this bullet somewhere else. Ride it like a hitchhiker going wherever the driver headed. Somewhere different. His finger was taut against the trigger. The cell was completely silent, soundless, noiseless, a vacuum. It took an intentional amount of effort to make a revolver’s trigger fire. The finger had to overcome steady resistance until it finally tottered—a tenth of a second; a flexed wrist—before squeezing so gently, so airily the rest of the way. A world decided by finger strength. They say your life passes before your eyes but for Raymond, it was just a random smattering of images. The flickering of his bedroom, closet lamp, three, four times before it finally turned on. The squawk of crows perched along the power lines as he walked down Amiron Way. The bruised Granny Smith apples Tuck Nicolson would sell for half the usual price. In the darkness behind his eyelids, in the mute cell, he could hardly distinguish his legs—leg—from the floor. The only difference between concrete and bones? You didn’t bury concrete in a mass grave of bodies when you were done with it. Raymond wondered if he should say something. Some kind of final word. Something for them to—

He pulled the trigger.

Click.

Raymond opened his eyes, his breath heavy. An answer to the question. Both men across from him said nothing. Hardly breathed. Raymond had needed to pull the trigger mid-thought if he had wanted it to happen. If he had waited and tried to—

(screamingscreamingscreaming)

Click. Click. Click. Click.

Raymond raggedly exhaled through his mouth and nose at the same time. Like a racing horse beaten and whipped but still losing. The gun rattled against his chin. Five answers now. Five answers to his one question. The cylinder had spun, spun, spun so fast, when he snapped it in. What were the odds? Was this a sign? Should he—

He half-dropped, half-slid slid the gun back to the middle of the floor—the sound of a silver lighter clattering, skidding along asphalt—and broke into tears. Snotty, coughing tears. His chest thrummed, his grimy hands clutched his face. Why him? Why did this have to happen to him? The earth had flipped and flipped like a coin until it finally hit and jangled with his face up. His face. Him. Raymond. He deplored pushing that revolver back into the middle of the floor. One more simple motion with his index finger. That’s all it would have taken. But no. No, no, no. Raymond never begged for anything. Was it fear? Was it cowardice? Was there a difference? Raymond had no answers, just tears and pain and guilt and his dirty hands shielding his dirty face, these teardrops the closest thing to a wash that Raymond had in…how well did he remember that loathsome crunch of frosted grass?

Across from one another, Harold and James made eye contact. The revolver again lay on the floor between them. Slightly closer to Harold this time. But just slightly. Both men did nothing for a moment—neither looking at Raymond, neither looking at the gun. Just each other. James had the feeling of a hundred tentacles all wriggling inside of his stomach. It was right there. Right there. Even youths grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall, Isaiah, 40:30. James had seen how Harold had been looking at the gun. The boy didn’t even want it. Didn’t understand it. Didn’t realize that James had given more than his name, rank, serial number when they started to crank that second finger back toward the top of his hand. Why break the rest when they had the answers? Why? Because it was never about the answers. Raymond knew that. Knew that a man not interested in answers could ask questions forever. What about Marie, Sandra, Carolyn? …But what about James? Having your body rot away while you were still alive seemed a high price for a scrap of metal pinned to your chest. Maybe Ed hadn’t really wanted to give those Jerrys some cigarettes. Maybe he had just been tired of the cold. Maybe he had just been tired of seeing so many brothers die. Tired of every question those mortars asked. Every question those machine guns pattered off. Maybe, in the end, James was just tired, too. And when you’re tired, nothing sounds better than undisturbed sleep.

He lurched toward the gun.

Harold reacted automatically. Just like in baseball, you had to wait for the batter to swing first. You could try to anticipate it, try to guess. But in truth, you always had to react. And reaction always meant starting a second, a half of a second, a tenth of a second behind. James’ left hand reached the revolver first, and Harold’s hand landed on top of it. Warm skin on warm skin. Just like the way he had been transported to Stalg Luft I on that train. Hundreds of strange, fetid Americans all crammed into a single train car. Flesh against flesh. Cordwood bundled, strapped together to be pitched to the flames. No room to sit, to lay, no room for claustrophobia, human waste on the ground, cold and gummy in their pants, the desire to scream, to push your way to fresh air. To openness. Bodies so tight against one another that a man could be standing dead beside you and you wouldn’t even notice. Betty had stopped sending letters four months before they’d taken Harold. His mother hadn’t stopped but Betty had. The last letter not signed, Love Betty. Just Betty. Harold’s fingers clamped down on James’, neither able to move the gun at first. Flesh, flesh, pistol, concrete. But James quickly began tugging, inching the gun closer to him, Harold equally fervent, back leaned forward, blood thunking in his head, his fingers trying to slip around that iron. Then—maybe James’ left hand was clumsy, maybe he miscalculated Harold’s dexterity, maybe he just grew tired of fighting—Harold wrenched the gun away. To the side, Raymond continued to sob, to bray terribly, but James and Harold ignored him. Both locked gazes. Both asked each other the same question with their eyes. But before any answer could be given, Harold aimed the gun and fired.

An avalanche of sound crashed about the room, and in the same instant, glass shattered, the bullet traveling through the square cut at the top of their door and out through the window across from it. The ringing in their ears took a moment to subside, Raymond’s own sobs quieting along with it. Then all three heard it.

The whistle of wind through the broken glass, the call of geese flying high above them, the shouting voices of Allied men.

 

 

BIO

Jake TeenyJake Teeny has a B.S. in psychology and philosophy and is currently working toward a doctoral degree in social psychology at Ohio State University. In his spare time (if such a mystical thing exists) he keeps a weekly blog, continues to write short stories, and is currently in the final stages of submitting his first full-length manuscript for publication. More of his writing can be found at jaketeeny.com.

0

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

0
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.

 

 

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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.

 

 

 

0
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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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.

 

 

 

 

 

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