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David Haight writer

Everyone’s a Fool for Somebody

by David Haight

 

Sean approached Lemon’s house with a sense of unease. Maybe he forgot. Went out. Perhaps he had fallen. Aunt Barbra told him on the sly (although he wasn’t sure if it was a general secret or one to be kept only from him) that he had fallen in the shower and now wore an emergency response system around his neck. Sean didn’t want to believe that. His father wasn’t that old and it ran counter to his stubborn personality. He peered to the right and felt sick at the abandoned driveway.

As a teenager, he and Alex, his favorite cousin growing up would sneak into the house and spend the weekend getting drunk, watching game shows while Lemon was at his cabin preparing to but never fishing watching baseball games getting drunk. Sometime around two or three in the morning they would order pizza. At the approach of the always rusted out delivery car, its signaling headlights, and the ding-dong of the doorbell Sean would race to the entryway, inevitably slipping on the top step and bounce down the remaining stairs in a hail of expletives to the amusement of the delivery guy. On one occasion when it failed to arrive Sean called the next morning to be sternly corrected that the driver had attempted to deliver their pizza, had repeatedly called, pounded on the door, and finally peered through the large bay window to find Sean and Alex passed out on the living room floor. Sean repeated the gesture but through the long thin window that ran the length of the front door. It was dark inside. Its five shag covered stairs and black railing that guided you to the living room and kitchen were in deep afternoon shadow. Maybe he didn’t want to see him. He turned the knob: it was locked. He considered the garage door when Lemon appeared in the window leering out suspiciously, fear in his face. He cautiously opened the door.

“I didn’t recognize you.”

“I just grew this beard, mainly to piss Lisa off but I’m kind of taking to it.”

“Me too,” Lemon said pointing to the unkempt grey beard poking angrily out from his face. “But I don’t have anyone to piss off. I just got lazy.”

He refused to leave the safety of the doorframe as if he still didn’t believe his own eyes, as if Sean were a stranger of solicitor and not his son. Sean instinctively took a step back.

“Can you go get my trash bin?” he asked pointing towards the street.

There was a single black wood stump rotting at the end of the driveway. There used to be three on either side, in a triangular design, each connected by a large, thick decorative chain painted gold. When he would sleepover as a kid he would attempt to tightrope his way across them only to have Lemon bellow from the upstairs bedroom window to get off.

“Make sure it’s empty. Is it empty?” Lemon hollered squinting at Sean and the large green canister.

“Yes,” he hollered back.

“Are you sure? Completely empty? Because I didn’t see you lift the cover and look inside.”

He wheeled it back.

“Put it right here,” he said still holding the screen door open, indicating the brick between the front door and the garage. Sean did as requested and lifted up the lid allowing Lemon to confirm that the canister was indeed empty.

“I’m afraid I’ll slip on the ice,” he said, tugging at the garbage can uselessly with his left hand balancing on his legs which were as thin and stiff as uncooked spaghetti.

When Sean was a kid Lemon would visit him and his mother, set a paper bag on the kitchen counter, say a quick abracadabra, pull out a bottle of vodka and two-liter of Pepsi from the bag and fix exactly one drink. Once he had finished it, he would hold out the glass to Sean, “Get me a drink, huh Champ?” Returning with the replenished glass Lemon would proclaim, “Such a good boy,” with that big endearingly smug smile. There was always a request of some sorts: shovel my driveway, mow my lawn, fetch me my sunglasses, skip over to the dairy section and snatch a carton of milk, run me to the liquor store, requests that followed Sean into his adulthood. Sean hadn’t seen Lemon in five years but outside of the request just made there was no smile, no confirmation that he was a good boy, nothing. This grizzled person didn’t appear to be the same man.

“I got it,” Sean said, urging him back into the house.

Once inside (and to the surprise of Sean) Lemon closed and locked the door. In all the years he had lived there Lemon left the door unlocked and open even when he slept. No matter how many times he pointed this out to Lemon he refused to bolt the doors or even upgrade the flimsy locks that could be breached by a heavy sneeze. It was a boring contest of wills they had engaged in since he was a little boy. Eight years prior Sean stayed briefly with Lemon when his marriage hit a rough patch. There were many nights he awoke to the sounds of sirens and police officers commanding faceless men to the ground while he crouched at the large bay window peering senselessly into the shifting darkness. Had he not been so exhausted from arguing with his wife he never would have gotten a good night’s sleep. Once he slipped out the French doors in the back and tiptoed to the front hoping to witness a crime but instead ended back in the kitchen eating a bowl of cereal back up against the refrigerator. When he awoke the next morning, still against the refrigerator, the front door was miraculously unlocked and open. Lemon registered the consternation on Sean’s face.

“One night I was lying in bed and a white van pulled into my driveway. The next thing I know some guy is creeping up my stairs. Once he saw me he ran out the door. He must have thought I wasn’t home,” he said double checking the deadbolt before leading them up the stairs.

“Unbelievable,” Sean muttered to himself, noting the heavy deadbolt with disbelief.

Lemon turned around at the top of the stairs and despite having to steady him with the wall a fire flashed in his eyes so intense Sean blanched. It recalled that summer day when he was fourteen. Lemon had lost his job and despite the fact that Sean was coming for his regularly scheduled weekend visit had begun drinking that morning and was drunk when his son arrived. Sean knew it the moment he laid eyes on him. His body moved like an over-oiled machine and his eyes were hollowed out. “Hey buddy, come on up, come on up,” he said greeting him in the kitchen doorway. Sean punched him as hard as he could. His fist catching him square in the chest. Lemon’s fist cocked itself tight into his armpit. Sean ran. He ran through the living room, out the French doors, through several back yards and walked the streets until he was certain Lemon had passed out and he sneaked up to the spare bedroom. It was astonishing that the broken down body of this broken down man had any heat left to rage.

“I told you for years to fix the locks. The neighborhood is dangerous. Hell, when I stayed here there were seven different times the cops were busting someone trying to break into someone’s house.”

“I guess I can see why,” he said, the old reds, as he used to call it, dying down quickly like a cheetah after a hard fast sprint unable to run any longer. “I never park in the driveway.”

“And the only light you ever have on is your bedroom light. The place looks abandoned.”

For the first time got a good look at his father. Besides the uncared for beard, his eyes were red, the lids heavy with, exhaustion or maybe a medical condition he was unaware of, there a large rash on the side of his neck and it appeared as though he hadn’t showered in months. He was certain if he gave him a good shake dead skin and dandruff would engulf the room like a snow globe. Then there was the walk, he shuffled like an old man. He wasn’t sure what had happened to him over the last five years but he seemed to have aged fifteen years since the last time he had seen him.

They reached the landing. There was a card table dropped in the middle of the living room buried in papers, faded and curling pictures and a cribbage board several of the colored pegs chewed down to half their size. Next to the whale of a television set were stacks of half-opened boxes of varying sizes bought (presumably) off of late night infomercials having migrated home to die.

“I need a cleaning lady, do you know one?” he asked with a chuckle, shuffling into the kitchen grabbing his wallet and keys from the kitchen table, where they were greeted with more junk, a foot of papers, a dead rose, two sets of dice, a rotting orange peel, a dissected clock, and a plate with a half-eaten unrecognizable meal.

Sean surveyed the room ignoring the reference to his mother and her house cleaning business which she gave up years earlier. The linoleum was cracked and peeling, there was a water stain threatening to annex the entire ceiling, dishes peered out of the kitchen sink, the faucet dripped and on the counter stood a row of six or seven glasses filled halfway with tobacco-brown water an avocado pierced at right angles by toothpicks split down the middle, tan reptilian tails curling up in dismay into the bottom of the glasses.

“Have you ever thought about moving?” he asked.

“What for?” he asked dismissing him with a wave of the hand. “I just had the roof fixed.”

“I didn’t notice anything,” he said looking up.

“I just did the backside,” he said. “The leak was on the backside.”

“They’ll do that?”

“They didn’t want to but I insisted,” he said and started digging through the pile of junk on the kitchen table. “I knew it would drive you crazy.” He handed him a wrinkled receipt.

“That’s truly the stupidest thing I’ve ever seen,” he said. “Why would you do that? If you ever want to sell this place you’re going to have to redo the whole thing.”

“You mean you’ll have to do it after I die.”

After a long indecipherable silence he said, “That’s not what I meant.”

For a moment everything threatened to go south.

“For doing nothing I sure have a lot of bills. I sat down the other day and sent out seven. Seven. Can you believe that?”

“That’s a lot,” he said surrendering. “Let’s go.”

They made their way cumbersomely back down the stairs towards the garage. Sean peered down the second set of steps into the basement. Although it was pitch black he could still make out darkness upon darkness like memories stacked upon one another and knew all of his grandmother’s things were still down there, unorganized, uncared for, like a great ship sunk at the bottom of the ocean. In the garage Sean found that Lemon’s once majestic Jaguar had decomposed and (as he would soon discover) barely operated past its rudimentary functions. There was an eyeliner of rust above each wheel, the bumper clung helplessly to the body of the car, gave an unhealthy roar when started, shaking terribly as if it had Parkinson’s and took all of Lemon’s powers of concentration to keep on the road. Why Sean was surprised is hard to figure but he was. It was the one luxury item Lemon consistently indulged in throughout his adult life. Sean was a junior in college on his way to finals, his car stalled (on an overpass no less) when he got the call from Lemon. “My third baby died, you up to get number four?” Looking up the street at the traffic beginning to back up, his nodded his head, “Can you pick me up?” He sprinted the three miles to school and he and Lemon cruised to the dealership, passing Sean’s stalled car on the overpass (which Lemon didn’t recognize). For a man who had been a proud Cadillac owner his entire adult life he was swayed rather easily to purchase the shiny tan Jaguar. They pulled into an American Legion.

“We’re not going to Mr. Mix’s?”

“The place turned,” he said shoving the car door open with immense effort. He stood seeming to reflect for a moment, perhaps about the intimations of time or the lifelong struggles he had had with his boy or alcohol but in the end it seemed he just needed to catch his breath.

“What do you mean?” Sean asked over the top of the car.

“Can’t we just go in?” he barked.

They took a seat at the small bar. The place was nearly empty. There was a thin old man on the far side of the bar reading the newspaper and at one of the tables a couple in their forties was eating eggs and bacon, sipping on bloody Mary’s chatting quietly. Country music was playing softly at a low hum and several televisions were playing the same baseball game which the bartender and the couple were keeping tabs on. The bartender recognized Lemon immediately and drew a beer at which Lemon nodded affectionately.

“All right, let’s hear it.”

“I don’t drink vodka anymore,” he said definitively, saying nothing else so the force of his statement could be felt. As was always the case this message wasn’t for Sean but his mother. Somehow, through the combination of memory, time and wish-fulfillment Lemon had decided it was his drinking that had ended their relationship. In reality the reasons were many and complex but it safely absolved him of most of its responsibility. In the years (and decades) since they had parted she had wisely (through Sean of course) reaffirmed this belief as a way of hedging her bets. It was the one thing she knew he couldn’t quit.

“Good for you,” he said eyeing his father. Even if he was telling the truth, which Sean had no reason to doubt she would never be a part of his life? He wasn’t sure if he should find it pathetic or strangely enduring his father’s faith in true love.

“It was tearing my stomach up,” he added, unsure if stopping for health reasons or stopping exclusively for her was the right play. He searched his sons face and eyes but he gave nothing away. “I didn’t want to stop, mind you,” Lemon started, taking a pull from his beer.

Sean smirked, “You’re losing credibility.”

“My point still counts,” he said. Sensing his son didn’t believe him he continued on. “You know my giving up vodka is a sincere attempt to mend fences not just another promise I can’t keep?”

“I know dad,” he said.

“It’s not easy.”

“You don’t really need to do that.”

“Like hell I don’t. That’s all I ever heard was how I drank too much, how I embarrassed her. She always brings up that dinner at your place like it’s the end all-be-all of the world.”

“You sat on the floor in the middle of her dinner party and refused to get up.”

“Eh. You guys never could joke around,” he said irritated by the memory.

“And what exactly was the joke? It doesn’t matter. What you’re trying to do is noble but unnecessary.” Nothing Sean was saying was coming across the way he intended. There was a look of confusion and helplessness in Lemon’s eyes as if he had invested all of his life’s savings in a stock that was worthless, that he was being evicted, that his entire family had died in some horrible fashion. People are more transparent than we like to admit. They don’t lie. Not really. They just aren’t capable. People present themselves for who they are, with every word, gesture, even with what they don’t say and yet we repeatedly, stubbornly refuse to recognize them, as his mother had refused to recognize Lemon for thirty-odd years. “What I mean is you are who you are and that’s fine.”

There was an awkward silence.

“Aren’t you going to have a drink?” he snarled, attempting unsuccessfully to stare his son down.

“Yes, dad.”

“So, order already.”

There was a second more protracted silence.

Sean shifted on his stool and leaned close to his father. “I can’t start my car if I have anything to drink.”

As adults, drinking had become an essential part of their relationship, which Sean didn’t mind. He enjoyed drinking with Lemon. They had little in common and alcohol made it easier for them to pretend they weren’t two individuals who had no business being in the same room together much less go through the motions of a father-son relationship. It allowed them to talk, or at least argue and Sean and Lemon loved to argue: about religion, politics, race, women, music, movies. You could name any topic and be certain they would have opposing viewpoints. It was the fuel that drove most of their interactions, away or more accurately around the resentments they hadn’t the courage to speak about and was now dominated by the great unspoken subject: lost time.

“Ah, you too? Get him a Coke,” he said signaling the bartender, unfazed. Lemon, for all his faults was not a judgmental man or thrown by the lapses of other people’s judgments. As a brash young man Sean had dismissed this as simple self-absorption but as he had gotten older and grown to dislike socializing he appreciated what a rare gift this was. “I got picked up after leaving Mr. Mix’s a few years back. It was only a matter of time. It’s astonishing I’ve only had one. But I was pissed,” he said with a snort.

“That couldn’t have been pretty.”

“No more or less than usual when that much booze is involved,” Lemon said a smile easing across his face.

“What did you say?”

“Nothing,” he said. “Nothing that didn’t need to be said. I’m in the back of the squad car, trying to get my bearings, and let me just add that I found it unnecessary to have the handcuffs so damn tight. They hurt and I made sure to tell the prick. But nothing. He just kept driving. I asked where we were going, still nothing.”

“You didn’t know you were going to jail?”

“Finally I leaned forward, my face against the grate and told the son of a bitch that he should spend his time arresting real criminals and I spit at him.”

“I’m sure that went over well,” he said popping an ice cube into his mouth.

“Cops do not have a sense of humor,” he said with authority. “Well, you probably know that.”

“No, they don’t,” Sean said readjusting himself on the stool. “I went a little apeshit when I got tagged.”

“You? Mr. Congeniality?”

“Oh, I was sour. And you’re totally right by the way-” he said. Lemon pointed to himself playfully. “I hate to admit this especially to you but I was saying every vile thing that popped into my head.”

“Yeah you were,” Lemon said egging him on as if they were both sitting, hands tight behind their backs in the back of that squad car in the middle of the night.

“I hope you get cancer. I hope your wife gets raped, hope your kids get molested. You name it. Monstrous behavior really. But I wanted a reaction for Christ sake. This bastard didn’t even blink. He couldn’t even bother to make eye contact in the rearview mirror.”

Lemon chuckled.

“Back at the station before I had spiraled into a pit of shame, they were about to retest me when I noticed that the officer’s uniform was buttoned incorrectly,” he said running his finger up and down the center of his shirt. “You cops are all fucking stupid. You go through the academy and are in charge of protecting the public and you still don’t even know how to button your own god damn shirt. I feel safe. He tests me. I fail, again. He leaves the room and I sit there for however long but when he comes back in his shirt was buttoned correctly.”

“Bam!” Lemon exclaimed.

“I let him know that I got to him. Oh, he pretended like it was nothing. But it felt like a victory.”

“It was a victory, “Lemon said, and pushed the empty glass towards the bartender and ordered another. “They’re not priests, with a calling, although don’t get me started on those perverts. They’re just schoolyard bullies. They love the power of that badge; pushing people around, telling them what to do. Think about it, think about every cop you’ve ever known, they’ve all been assholes, the guys that never got laid in high school. Those bastards don’t give a rat’s ass about right and wrong. He didn’t care that you were drunk or breaking the law.”

“They’re keeping the roads safe. Either one of us could have killed someone.”

“You can’t possibly be that naïve?”

“How am I being naïve drunk drivers kill thousands of people?”

“Sure, drunk drivers do kill people, and that pisses people off so you use that as leverage to pass strict-ass laws which generates millions of dollars. As a result the government can toss out all kinds of statistics about how they are protecting the public and use all that cash for whatever they want. Once the public’s anger is satisfied they never ask where the money goes and I guarantee they bring in more than they need. If it saves lives that’s icing on the cake, the shit they put in public service announcements to make bored housewives, religious types, and liberals like you feel better about the privilege you determined to feel shitty about.”

Sean dragged a bowl of pretzels his direction and tossed a couple in his mouth. “You’ve put way too much thought into this. I have to worry about shit that actually happens, shit a little closer to home, my home,” he said refusing to take the bait. “You want to talk about money? My kid’s braces had to wait a year because of that DUI. We couldn’t take a vacation. You want to see a woman learn to hate? Change her lifestyle or deny her child every little thing, because that’s what Sam suddenly became, her kid, like I was a benefactor and not the kid’s father.” After a moment he added, “I didn’t even think his teeth looked that bad.”

Lemon shrugged. “Once a woman gets something in her head it’s nearly impossible to change it no matter how ridiculous the proposition.”

“Braces aren’t ridiculous,” Sean protested. Then resigned, “But I get the gist of what you’re saying.”

“I don’t miss that,” he said, with a knowing shake of the head that Sean was immediately annoyed by.

“What?”

“Oh, being accountable to someone else’s whims.”

“When was the last time that was an issue?” he asked too harshly.

“I guess you don’t remember getting up at the crack ass of dawn to go fishing, getting the gear in the boat, finding our spot only to have grandma start ringing that infernal cowbell from the end of the dock, around nine o’clock just as the fish would start hitting? You could hear that thing all the way over in the bay. It didn’t matter that we told her the night before not to make us breakfast, that we didn’t know how long we’re going to be out? She had made up her mind and nothing was going to stop her from making that breakfast.”

“You were so pissed,” he started with enthusiasm. “We’d begrudgingly pack up our gear and head back to shore.”

“And there she’d be standing at the end of the dock as happy as a pig in shit.”

“She never had any idea why you would get so mad. She really thought she was just being helpful, doing her part.”

“That’s what she wanted you to think, that’s for sure.”

“Come on,” Sean said with a dismissive wave of his hand. “She didn’t fish or drink. She wanted to be a part of something.”

“You always saw the sweet old lady she wanted you to see. She knew what she was doing, bursting into tears the moment I lost my cool: I made you two this beautiful breakfast, you never appreciate me, the whole nine yards, all so I appeared monstrous to you and mom.”

Sean thought for a moment. “She marched into the kitchen and came out with a plate of bacon.”

“The proof of her selflessness,” Lemon said wryly. “The tears already gone if they were ever there to begin with.”

“Which you unceremoniously smacked out of her hand. You ran up the deck,” he said starting to chuckle, the distance of years turning their drama into nonsensical farce, “through the cabin, out the back door and up the driveway screaming, ‘You’re driving me nuts! Literally driving me nuts!’”

“Even from beyond the grave she has the power to make me look like the giant asshole. That was part of her twisted genius. Ah, that’s giving her too much credit,” he said taking a swig of beer.

“I think it’s much simpler than all that.” Lemon raised a curious eyebrow. “Don’t you think she was pissed that Pop left everything to you?” he asked choosing his words carefully.

“He didn’t do it for me for Christ sake. I’m sure it killed him to do it. It was to protect us in case anything happened to her. Not that she ever saw it that way. She wanted things her way and if she was denied she forced your hand until it went her way. There was no reason why breakfast couldn’t wait until ten or eleven. Or why the cabin needed to be in her name. Not at her age. Christ if something happened to her we’d lose the cabin.” Lemon sat with that crooked smile. Sean looked into his lap. “That was the last of the bacon, too.” He signaled the bartender who brought him another beer.

“It’s weird after all that give and take now she’s just gone.”

“No doubt giving God a run for his money,” Lemon said downing half his beer. “The first thing I thought when Shady Glenn called and told me she had passed was who is going to sing Amazing Grace for her at her grave?”

“As everyone is walking away,” Sean said with a shy chuckle.

“Isn’t that strange? Everyone hated when she did that.”

“No one ever knew what to do. People were half-way to their fucking cars and here this strange woman starts singing in that high off-key falsetto.”

“And you couldn’t blow her off. I mean that song and the occasion. To leave would be insulting.”

“But everyone turned around and trudged back to the grave.”

“See what did I just say? She forced your hand every damn time?” Lemon said. “I think she envisioned everyone joining her-“

“but no one wanted to and no one did.”

“Aunt Beth was always forced to put her arm around her and lead her away as she went on with her crying without tears routine.” He stared at his knees. “How many times did that idiot do that?” Lemon said warmly. “I know she did it at Aunt Shirley’s and Beth’s, maybe Michael’s which as I recall you were late for.”

“I was. I was at Sloane’s house and couldn’t break away.”

“Bullshit. Your mother was holding you hostage. Don’t play innocent with me. I know her ways. She was finding excuses for you to stay at her house so you’d miss the funeral. Fixing a faucet or some nonsense right? You don’t need to answer.”

There was a momentary silence and breaking of the momentum of their conversation.

“I thought pulling out Amazing Grace at her funeral but I couldn’t muster up the courage and no one would have thought it was funny.”

“You should have done it.”

They were silent. It’s too bad that Lemon wasn’t at her bedside when she died. He would have been disgusted but satisfied when her last words were, “I had a happy family life,” even when all evidence pointed to the contrary.

“We went to that bar in Garfield after her funeral, remember, that tiny one at the edge of town, and that group of college kids came in to get supplies for their ice fishing expedition?” Sean asked.

“How many of them were there? Four? Four,” he said with conviction. “How could I forget? They each ordered a case of beer and a bottle of whiskey. They were shit canned when they came in the god damned place.”

“The one guy pissed his pants while they were waiting. Just stood their ordering while a steady stream of piss flowed down his leg like it was the most normal thing in the world.”

“And they still served him, all of them,” Lemon said dryly. “A lesson for you,” he shot to the bartender.

“I can’t imagine how they got their shit onto the ice,” Sean said with amazement. “Or how they must have felt the next day.”

“Like a nuclear bomb had been dropped on them, that’s how.”

“I liked doing that with you,” Sean began cautiously. “Fishing. I know I wasn’t the most athletic child something I know disappointed you.”

“Ancient history,” Lemon said feeling his son trying to pry open the lid to the past.

“Fishing fit my personality, you know? It was slow and meditative. The blue sky and water and the green of the trees. I thought the rush of a northern hitting my line was like making contact with a baseball. And you were a great coach, no seriously, you told me when to open up the reel, when to give the fish line to run, when start reeling it slowly back and once at the side of the boat lifting it gently so as not to slip the hook from its lip as you got the net beneath it.”

“I remember I lost that lure I brought you from Hawaii,” Lemon said. Sean sighed. “That really pissed me off. I made a big stink about not letting you tie it on yourself. I thought I tied it on so well and then phew off it goes one hundred miles off into the sunset. You sat there will that frozen smile on your face trying not to be disappointed.”

“But I was,” he said letting out a huge laugh that Lemon joined him in.

“You know what I hated the most about the DUI?”

“The money,” Sean said pointedly, continuing to laugh.

“Paying the money was one thing but the loss of my license really hurt.”

Sean let out a cackle. Lemon’s face puckered in confusion.

“You drive a three mile radius from your house.”

Lemon reflected. “I’m not gonna walk! I had Jeff tell the state I worked for him so I could drive. That way I could get groceries and run errands. Stop by here,” he said with a nod lifting his glass.

“That was quite a risk,” Sean said feeling legitimately concerned. He nearly added, “you could have called me,” but knew that at the time he would have greeted Lemon with scorn using his son as a patsy for his inability to help him. What kind of example are you modeling to your grandson? He would have asked knowing full well Sam never needed to know. And what grown man needed having his grandson’s well-being thrown in his face at one of his lowest moments? Anyway you have Jeff, he would have added ruefully.

Jeff was a middle-aged mailman Lemon had met at Mr. Mix’s several years back. As best as Sean could ascertain, Jeff (like Lemon) had alienated most of his family and all of his friends; had no hobbies outside of drinking and had decided that was the last train he would ever take; they soon became inseparable. He had always been suspicious of Jeff’s motives (for no actual reason than the domination of his father’s time something he never acquired the skill) but the resentment he felt towards Lemon trumped it and road blocked any desire he had to investigate his suspicions further. Sitting with his father now he realized it was loneliness, not family or love or loyalty that was the strongest glue between people.

“I’m just playing.”

“Liar,” Sean threw back.

“No, it was those classes they make you attend. Did you have to do that? Yeah, it’s pretty much required now days. Christ. Those sob stories nearly killed me. Kids clean and sober killed by a drunk driver. Still,” he went on with very sober eyes, “it takes a lot of money from hard working people like you and me. It still is a legal product, isn’t it Jimmy?” he asked the bartender.

“Sure is Lemon,” he called back over his shoulder.

“That’s what really pisses me off. This is a capitalist society. So Jimmy here, in order to make his business successful should in theory serve me as much as he can, right? And yet, and yet, I am penalized for doing just that. I get it, I get it, I could injure someone.”

“You could always call a cab.”

“I’m just, what did you say, sour. I’m sour about it. They really do fuck you over,” he barked. “Assholes and bullies. Although I’m surprised you got behind the wheel seeing as you always bust my ass about it.”

“I wasn’t drinking and driving just to do it,” he snapped back. Calming down he continued, admitting, “I was angry. I had my own shit going on.”

“Like?” Lemon said picking up the fresh beer that had been set in front of him.

“A few weeks before I went to track for the first and to date only time,” he said with finality. “I drive by it all the time on the way to work without even noticing it and then one day I felt a thrill. It looked like the Coliseum but fresh and new, banners hanging across it, flags growing from the top. I should have left the minute I walked in because the spell is immediately broken. It’s drafty and dirty, the floor is covered in half-smoked cigarette butts, spilled beer and the place is crawling with desperately unhappy men cursing their fate and scowling at anyone who has the luck to win a few dollars.”

“And who go to the bar afterwards?” Lemon asked.

Sean nodded. “But I had a plan. I wasn’t like these guys. I wouldn’t play it down to zero. I wouldn’t chase the loss. Once I won I would leave, I would come home the victor. And all of our problems, financial and otherwise would disappear into thin air,” he said wiggling his fingers. “Because we all know how money solves every problem.” He threw him a sarcastic frown.

“No?”

“No,” he echoed. “I lost. I lost fast and I kept on losing. I felt like those assholes I’m behind every day at the gas station buying lottery tickets, holding up the line. You don’t know how many times I’ve shouldered up to one, ‘Why don’t you give me that cash, it’s the same difference?’ or I’ll ask them ‘You ever win?’ They always say yes. ‘As much as you’ve spent?’ At that point they usually tell me to mind my own business or to fuck off.”

“Rightly so.”

“I was no different. Six hours later I was pulling into the 1200 Club and my adventure came to a sudden, dull end. I sat there until closing and finally went home, slunk up to the spare bedroom locked the door where I stayed for three days. I missed work, the whole thing. Lisa didn’t have any clue what was going on but when she finally figured it out.”

“And they always do,” Lemon said

“Any sympathy for my missing work, the depression soared out the window.”

“If you need any money.”

“What?” he asked horrified. “No, no. That’s not why I’m here. Let’s get things straight Lemon, I’ve never asked you for anything much less money and I’m not about to start now.”

“Calm down cowboy,” Lemon said calmly, a thin smile perched on his face. “I know. I didn’t think that was why you were here. All you ever have to do, all you’ve ever had to do is ask. Just know that going forward.” Lemon chuckled then held up his hands for forgiveness at his son’s flash of anger.

“All right.”

“How did you get a DUI if you were locked in your spare bedroom for three days?”

“When Lisa finally discovered how much money I lost she jimmied her way into the bedroom, it must have been six or seven in the morning and just unloaded on me. Told me I was jeopardizing our family and Sam’s future, not my future of course, throwing in resentments that had built up for years which I’ll spare you. Needless to say she was so pissed she kicked me out and by kick me out I mean she chased me down the street. I didn’t have shoes on. I didn’t have car keys. I was lucky I had my wallet. I went straight to the bar and got as drunk as I have ever been.”

“I’m still not following. How did you get a DUI if you weren’t driving? How did you get into the bar?”

Sean shook his head. “I go to leave and I don’t know what time it was but it was getting dark. Now I’m sick of feeling guilty and I’m pissed. I’m the bread winner, it’s my money to do with whatever I see fit. There’s no way in hell, I tell myself, that I’m walking home and I sure as shit ain’t calling Lisa. So I walk a few blocks to the library and steal a bike and that’s how I get picked up.”

“And the shoes?”

“I got the shoes from a shoe store in a strip mall on the way. Of course they wouldn’t let me in – no shoes, no service. I had to give money to this little black kid to pick me out shoes which of course were a size too small. The story of my life lately.”

Lemon chuckled to himself. “You’re nothing if not original. Always have been.”

The bartender dropped off another Coke. Sean was feeling bloated by all the soda and would have loved to share a drink with his old man. He tried to calculate how much a taxi would cost from the bar to Lemon’s and back home again but the thought of trying to explain it all to his wife and then the annoyance she would have shown at having to give him a ride to his car the next day exhausted him before he could even come up with a number so he dropped it.

“I thought of you when Obama was elected,” Sean said with a smile, expecting a fight. Lemon had always been casually racist. All through his teen years whenever Sean started dating a new girl Lemon’s favorite joke was to say, in front of as many people as possible was, “No, seriously, she’s really attractive for a colored girl.”

“Dad,” Sean would cry.

“You can bring her over anytime.” Sean would always wait for it. “Just make sure it’s dark out.”

“I voted for him the second time,” Lemon said.

Sean leaned back in his chair. “You’re fucking with me, right?” He turned to the bartender. “He’s fucking with me right? You guys planned this.”

The bartender shook his head.

“You’re the only person I told. You can’t tell anybody.”

“Why did you vote for him?” Sean asked.

“Well that Romney was horrible. Obama said a few things, I can’t remember now that I really liked. He seems like he cares about people. I don’t know. He seems like a president. On everything else,” he said holding up a fake ballot, “I voted Republican.”

There was so little about this man Sean recognized.

“How’s your boy?” he now asked.

“Sam’s doing well,” he said.

He nodded. Then he nodded to the bartender to bring him another beer.

“You’d love him. He’s not like me at all,” he said expecting a laugh. “He’s a natural athlete. He’s a little on the smaller side but demanded he be allowed to play football. I was a nervous wreck that first night-”

“How’s mom?” Lemon asked.

Sean sighed. Not only because of the flippant way in which he dismissed his only grandchild but because he knew he had a hand in it. He had resented Lemon for so long, kept him at arm’s length for most of his (and Sam’s) life, what other result did he expect? He gave him next to nothing but demanded extraordinary measures from him. And when those extraordinary measures weren’t forthcoming (how could they be?) it only compounded his anger and disappointment. It wasn’t fair and was designed to fail. He also felt his father had no use for him other than a means to his mother. It was the only question that mattered, that ever mattered to Lemon. It had just been a question of when.

“She’s fine.”

“Is she married?”

Sean laughed involuntarily. “No. She’s not interested in that at all. (Because of you he thought unfairly.) She’s busy with her dog park friends.”

Lemon made a face. “Who?”

He was sure Lemon didn’t even know what a dog park was. “They are friends she made walking her dog. They go out for wine, go to museums. She’s busier than I am.” His father’s face was blank. “It’s a designated area just for people to bring their dogs. They can let them off their leashes-”

“Because if she was I would be pissed off. I’ve been asking her to marry me for 35 years.” He downed the rest of his beer. “Think of that.”

That was typical of Lemon to simplify something that was utterly complex. Sean let it go. It seemed that Lemon and his mother calcified their relationship in opposite ways: Lemon had romanticized it, she had demonized it. Watching him sitting on the bar stool stooped over, hair on the verge of falling out he hadn’t the heart to contradict him. Even a few years ago he would have railed at him, pointing out that it was his son, sitting with him, reaching out for a connection while she had moved on definitively, but he couldn’t. She was the only happy memory he had left in him.

“Take it easy.”

“I’m just saying. She’s the best woman in the world.”

“I know she is.”

“You tell her that,” he said unable to make eye contact with his only son.

“I will.”

That sense of hopelessness that he had always carried around with him in regards to Lemon was starting to resurface.

“What time is it?” Lemon asked, animated.

“Two-fifteen, why?”

“Jeff is going to come over later and help me figure out how to use this cordless phone I bought.”

“Cordless phone? I didn’t even know they sold those anymore.”

“If you can stay you could talk to him.”

“Why would I need to talk to Jeff?”

Lemon shrugged. “He’s my best friend. I told him that,” he said and added without any self-pity, “He’s my only friend.”

“I know,” he motioned for the check. The bartender didn’t notice. He motioned again. He handed him a credit card.

“I gave him the cabin.”

Sean was hoping the topic of the cabin’s ownership wouldn’t come up. He could handle being put in the middle of his parents, by both of them. They had been doing that his entire life. He was equipped for that, he was an expert. But when it came to the cabin he was lost. Lemon had acquired the cabin in 1966 before he was born. He had spent his summers up there water skiing and fishing. As he got older he had always assumed he would inherit it or once he made his way in the world, became successful, somewhere in the back recesses of his heart waited for that call from Lemon to go in on it with him. One day the cabin would pass from father to son and from him to his own son, Sam. His mother told him he was crazy, that Lemon would never do that. First, she would say, you were raised by me. Second, you have my last name, not his. And third, he will keep that cabin from you despite me. He never believed it. Now it turned out his mother was right all along. He hated her too.

Behind the bar a thin older woman was tying her apron around her substantial waist.

“Sally, come over here,” Lemon said, motioning to her.

“Hey Lemon who’s this handsome young thing?” she asked in that overly flirty way that never seems out of place in a bar in the middle of the day.

“This is my son Sean.”

He shook her hand. “It’s nice to meet you.”

“I’ve heard a lot about you.”

I’ve heard nothing about you. Does he buy you drinks at the end of your shift? Tell you how my mother left him? Screwed him over? Does he tell you the kind of father he was? The lack of financial and emotional support he gave? No, I’m sure not. That’s not what guys like Lemon do. They put a great face on their lives and the choices they’ve made all while sitting alone, in a shitty bar in the middle of the afternoon. For a brief moment he felt like calling Lemon out. But he knew better. For every lie or half-truth he had indulged in, with this waitress, his drinking buddies, Jeff, himself, his mother had done the exact same. It took him most of his life to figure that out. The moral high ground, if it existed was just another part of the mythology we all create in order to survive. In the end everyone is consistently the hero of their own story.

“Hope to see you again,” she said and sauntered away. Lemon watched the heavy swaying of her hips.

“You called me at eight. Jeff calls at ten.”

“What?”

“When you called me, I thought something was wrong. That mom had died. I had already started putting my pants on. Jeff always calls at ten.”

It was last Sunday when Sean called, breaking their five year silence. He hadn’t planned on calling that morning, although the desire to see his father had been burgeoning every year. He couldn’t get through a day without his mind circling back to his father. He told no one, at least not anymore. If the subject was broached his mother withered in choleric silence or set herself ablaze if she had consumed too much wine. His wife was no better. Having been raised by two reasonably blithe parents she couldn’t comprehend the immense vacuum left by Lemon and got tired of hearing about it. Sure, he had a Bible’s worth of complaints: he was financially negligible, selfish, self-absorbed and casually cruel. But he was also witty, charming, loyal, and didn’t give a rat’s ass what anyone thought about him. His wife was the inadvertent reason he called. They had woken up, hung over and in the shadow of a late night argument neither remembered. Her brother called cancelling dinner plans she had been looking forward to all week. When Sean balked she bellowed, “What about your father?” and stormed outside for some air. Fuck this, he said to the empty room, opened his phone and dialed his father’s number. He was barely aware of what he was doing when he heard the familiar sound of his father’s voice.

They paid and drove back to his dilapidated house. He walked Lemon in and was grateful Lemon had forgotten about Jeff. Sean slowly removed the cordless phone out of the box like something of great and inestimable value and plugged it in demonstrating how it worked and explaining that it would have to charge overnight before it could be used.

“And I can walk anywhere around the house?” he asked only-half joking.

Sean told him he could and probably out into the yard. He hung it up.

“That light means it’s charging.”

“Aw, that’s great. I’m becoming pretty modern,” he said with a chuckle.

“We should have lunch again?” Sean managed to say.

“My schedule is open,” Lemon said.

They hugged.

Lemon felt small in his arms. He wanted to assure him that they were friends. He hated the idea of his father with one friend. Now you have two, he wished to say, but didn’t. Not because it was sentimental or because of any residual disappointments but because as much as his bulging, angry heart wanted it to be, it just wasn’t true. Like so many things in Sean’s life, friendship with Lemon would have to be earned. He would have to cut loose the past and all the sour feelings that came from not having the father son relationship he wanted. It might require more strength than he had. Feeling his father’s thin, frail body in his arms it would be slow and might never happen. Maybe they didn’t have it in them. But he had to try.

Lemon watched from the window as Sean got into his car and rolled down the driveway. They each gave a single wave, then Lemon made his way to his bedroom and Sean home.

 

Sean was stunned and furious with himself when a couple of days later, over coffee with his mother when she told him with disgusted glee, that Lemon had been calling again.

“He leaves long idiotic messages,” she spat.

“About what?”

“Who can tell? I can’t understand half of what he’s muttering on about. Remember this, remember that. There’s still time. Something about a cantaloupe he has in his refrigerator for me. Nonsense. Utter nonsense.”

Once when he was a little boy he had to go to the airport with Lemon and they were running late, they needed to run to make it to the gate on time. So they ran, through the airport, Lemon with his tan raincoat towering above his son, the essence of confidence and cool. “We’re just like O.J. Simpson in those car commercials.” Sean nodded, the coolest kid in the world. It didn’t matter that he had no idea who O.J. Simpson was.

“Just ignore him.”

“I can’t believe I ever loved that man. He wore that green sweater to every family function for years. I would buy him sweaters, expensive sweaters for Christmas, birthdays. He never got the hint. It smelled. It was embarrassing. Remember when I threw away that sliver of broken mirror when I cleaned his house? I thought he was going to murder me. You don’t throw away people’s prized possessions. Prized possessions. That man makes no sense.”

“He thought you were dead.”

“What?”

“The day I called him. He thought you were dead and was panicked.”

Anna was silenced, in a sick, demented way. The color drained from her face. She stood up and left her immaculately, if moderately decorated kitchen.

Jeff had the cabin. Lemon was calling his mother. And like always Sean was neither thought about nor included but left out in the cold, a worthless fool when it came to Lemon.

 

 

 

BIO

David HaightDavid Haight was born in Minneapolis and educated at Hamline University where he received a degree in English and later an MFA in Writing where he was distinguished by the Quay W. Grigg award for Excellence in Literary Study. He published the novel Overdrive in 2006, Me and Mrs. Jones in 2012 and his newest book, Lemon, a collection of short stories, will be published in August.  He lives in the Twin Cities with his wife Lynn.

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Walter Thompson

The Roofer

by Walter B. Thompson

 

My daughter’s ex-whatever, the father of her boy, had gone by the nickname Coal Oil back in his teen years. Don’t ask me what it means. I would hear about his exploits when I brought my ham into town for the farmer’s fair on Saturdays. This was when I wasn’t a crazy hag to all them, before I fucked up my right eye and started causing a fright. “Did you hear about Coal Oil, wrecking his Pontiac with Mary Bender in the front seat?” said the men selling their watermelons and their soybeans and their little wooden sculptures of nothing. Coal Oil was always doing something wild and catastrophic with a girl. But the next week, he and his Pontiac would have made off without a scratch, and a new belle would have taken the previous one’s place. His real name was Marvin Fortenberry, but to me, he would always be the Stain.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I came in with the dogs late one summer evening in 1977, and found Marvin Coal Oil Fortenberry, Stain on me and my life, lying across our little futon in the living room of the farmhouse, his eyes shut and his shirt open, a full ten years after he’d left Canterbury and Jenny and our little Hal. I stood there for a few minutes to let my shock subside. I was not, had never been, a woman easily surprised by men and their little magic acts. But even I could admit that his sudden reappearance was an event beyond normal comprehension, a sort of shitty miracle. I’d named him the Stain on account of his tendency to ruin beautiful things, but until then I hadn’t realized how his obstinacy, his refusal to disappear, was what made the name truly fit.

He looked old and tired, which was good. His hair was still long and blond, but greasy too, and he’d ditched his styled goatee for a patchy beard. Across his protruding gut—another new and welcome feature—stretched a fat, pink scar. His new chubbiness in the middle made his legs look spindly and weak, two little straws in black jeans. I still had my shotgun under my right arm. I always brought it with me when I took the dogs out on the property in case I encountered a turkey. Marvin was breathing like a pig, loud and hard. I raised the barrel up and poked it into his fat pincushion belly. He woke up right away with a small shout.

“Stain,” I said.

“Mama Dear,” he said back.

“Don’t call me that,” I said.

“I know now I must be back home, since you’ve got a gun on me.” His voice, once trumpeting and fluid, had sharpened into a scrattle.

“Don’t you think for one second I won’t kill you,” I said.

“Wouldn’t be of any use, Mama Dear, seeing as I’m already lined up to die,” he said, and smiled. The face that had looked so worn and unfamiliar suddenly became itself. Marvin Fortenberry’s smile was like crackling fucking lightning. You could hear it as well as see it, and even I had appreciated that smile in spite of the man who wore it.

I still had the tip of the shotgun barrel pushing into his stomach when Jenny and Hal walked in from the kitchen. “Mama,” my daughter said softly.

“When did he get here, honey, and why’s he on the couch?” I asked, keeping my eyes on the Stain.

“You may be surprised, my dear,” he said, still smiling, “that I don’t have much in the way of strength. I need to nap just about every hour these days.”

“I didn’t ask you,” I said.

“He came into town this morning,” said Jenny. “We ran into each other at the drugstore, and…”

“Jenny invited me to come here,” he said.

“Shut up,” I said. I turned my head around to look at my daughter. She was scared, just like before. The same resignation on her face.

“Granny,” said Hal, who stood next to his mother like a little soldier. “This man has got some stomach cancer.” His blonde hair hung off his forehead in feathery streams. I looked back at Marvin and couldn’t escape the damn resemblance.

“Hal and I had ice cream,” the Stain said, grinning at my grandson.

 *  *  *

Later, the wind came thundering in from the north. I stood out beyond the front porch and smoked five cigarettes in a row and waited for Jenny. It was June, but so far the summer had felt unnaturally dry. The northerly wind meant a summer shower, since they always traveled by way of Kentucky. I watched Poncho, one of the pit bulls, as he dug around the shadows of a gingko tree near the fishpond. Poncho was an ornery bastard, and a storm would upset him. I knew I had to force him into the basement soon. Every little chore, all the things that kept me sane and walking upright with each long day, seemed broken and useless now that the Stain had come back to my daughter. He’ll be dead soon, I reminded myself with each new cigarette.

“I’m sorry, Mama,” was the first thing Jenny said.

“Oh, sweet Jesus. You don’t have to apologize.”

“He was just…there. Picking up a prescription. He looked the same. I didn’t know what to do.”

“I thought he looked like shit,” I said. “Did you put him on the sofa in my room like I asked?”

“Yes, Mama.”

“Good. Keep him where I can see him.”

I could feel Jenny looking at me. I offered the pack of cigarettes to her. She pulled one out with a shaky pinch of her fingers.

“You do not, under any circumstances, let him act like a father to that boy.”

She didn’t say anything back. Just stared, like me, at Poncho, who kept circling the same hole he’d been working on for forty minutes. I knew she wouldn’t obey me. It was too much to ask. Hal spent most of his days in the summer wandering the woods near the quarry, at the back edge of my property. He looked for turtles and frogs. I had tried to take him out on turkey hunts, but he hated getting up early and got sick of lifting a gun. Even I, with my crazy bedraggled hair and my ruined eye and my loud, ugly boots, was nothing compared to the monsters he’d invented to keep him company.

“I’m worried for the garden,” Jenny said.

“What’s he going to do to your garden?” I asked.

“Not him. The storm.”

“If you want,” I said, “I can get a few boards and try to set up a gully to divert the flood.”

“I shouldn’t have built it at the bottom of the hill like that,” she said. Her vegetables had been thriving despite the drought, and I liked to tell her it was because she had been happy.

“Sooner or later, the whole damn house is going to be washed away,” I said.

I stubbed out my cigarette in the dry grass and walked towards Poncho, clapping my hands and whistling. He tensed up and looked at me, then barked. “Leave it alone, Poncho,” I said. “It’s just the coming storm fucking with your head.”

  *  *  *

That night I got no kind of sleep. The storm was worse than I would have thought: great metallic bangs and cracks, the wind screaming, Poncho howling from deep under the house. Plus, I had to keep my good eye on Stain, lying in my sofa chair and breathing in that weird little pig way. At a little after two, when the lighting was exploding in a constant blue throb beyond the window shade, I heard him call out in pain. At first it didn’t sound like words, then I realized he was asking for me.

“Mama Dear! Mama Dear!”

I threw the quilt off me and sat on the edge of my bed. His face was moving back and forth, and his eyes couldn’t quite find me. “What’s gotten into you now?” I said.

Finally his fit stopped and he looked at me. “I need a bowl or a bucket,” he said.

“Aw, go on and fuck off,” I said, lying back down.

“Or you’d rather I just puked on myself?” he said.

When I came back from the kitchen and threw the bucket on his lap, I saw that a dark puddle had collected on the white sheet not three inches from where I had been sleeping. My first wild thought was that I had peed myself out of worry, but there was no smell, and I was not such an old lady yet. In between Marvin’s chokes and sputters, I heard a pattering. Then I looked at the ceiling and saw the leak.

I didn’t know Jenny was in the room until she spoke. “That ain’t the only place,” she said. “There’s a bigger one in me and Hal’s room.” She was looking at Stain, who had his face buried in the black plastic bucket.

I walked with Jenny through the hallway that spanned the house, back to front. My grandfather, who’d built the place with his bare hands, had believed that a person shouldn’t have to walk around something when a straight path can be made right through it. Now, his home was beginning to break down. Over the last several years, I had begun to notice the first signs of a house entering its old age: at times when no one else was listening, I heard cracks and sighs in the wood behind the walls. “Did he tell you how long he’s got left?” I asked Jenny. “What kind of medicine he takes? Who his doctor is, for chrissakes?”

“Mama,” she said, and turned around. She had a fury in her face; I could see her wide brown eyes when the lightning flashed. “He’s staying here because it’s the only safe place for him.”

When my daughter got like that, I knew better than anyone, provocation would only set her towards hurting herself. She walked back into her bedroom and I noticed another puddle on the floor of the hallway.

“Mama Dear.” The Stain was standing behind me, holding his bucket up like he was posing for a picture with a newly caught fish. “You ever install a bathroom in this joint, or are you still old fashioned?”

“The outhouse can be found in the same place it’s always been,” I said. “I won’t help you walk, and bring that bucket back so we can use it for the ceiling.”

He nodded. Watching him walk away, I noticed how he had lost his proud country swagger. His belly pulled him towards the earth; his back was hunched. Marvin Coal Oil Fortenberry had traveled back and forth across the country, broken how many hearts and laws, and all he’d become was an old man. When he reached the hill, a few meters into the backyard, I saw him slip and fall on his ass in the mud. I opened the screen door and walked out to him. The wind and rain struck me like a hot, sweaty breath. “Don’t trouble yourself, Mama Dear,” he called. He tried to sit up in the mud and fell down right away without a sound. I pulled the bucket away from his hands and tossed it into the blackness behind me. He’ll be dead soon, I told myself as I lifted him out of the muck. He’ll be dead soon.

  *  *  *

What did Marvin Fortenberry do, you might ask, aside from making my girl believe in things that couldn’t be true, knocking her up and fleeing the state? He stole cars. He broke them down and sold the parts to men who lived in trailers near the Cumberland River. I’d been down to see these men before, once to buy a bitch from a litter of pit bulls and again to threaten a man who’d been stealing hams from my smokehouse. Now I heard the place had become a little hippie refugee camp, with a bunch of lost kids setting up tents and peace flags and skinny-dipping until they shriveled. Still, the rednecks wouldn’t have been forced out. I wondered how they all got along.

The day after the storm, I parked my truck at the bottom of the road that skirted the Canterbury bend of the Cumberland and found out how things worked. The men still had their trailers and the little dirt paths that snuck between the bushes to hide all the stolen vehicles. The hippies were too stoned to know where they were or that they were living in proximity to dangerous people. A young man approached me wearing a little cardboard Indian headdress, shirtless and covered in red river mud. “I knew it!” he kept shouting, following me at a pace of a few meters. I tried to ignore him, but he kept it up too long, so I picked up a stick and threw it at his head.

He cowered and it hit his neck. “Ain’t you got somewhere you can be besides here?” I asked him.

“Mr. Yawkey wants me to watch the path to his trailer in case I see someone…someone tall…a tall man. I’m supposed to yell and scream bloody murder if I see a tall man coming down the path with an intent to do harm.” His accent was strange, probably Midwestern.

“So why are you screaming bloody murder, if I ain’t a tall man?” I said.

“I thought you were the lady who sold dope.”

I shook my head and kept going. Yawkey was the person I was here to see. I could imagine how he’d gotten the hippies to do his bidding—offered them drugs, most likely, or a place to hide in case they had dodged the draft and the government was still after them. He and the Stain had done business back in the day, but something had gone wrong between them, and now they hated each other. Among other reasons, I was there to see if the Stain’s old enemies knew he was back in Canterbury.

Through a crappy plastic window, I saw Yawkey asleep on the shag carpet before I even knocked on his trailer door. He was a fiddle-thin old man with long legs and thick ugly glasses. When he saw who had come calling, he sat up and frowned.

“So you heard too,” he said when I walked inside. The trailer smelled awful, like unwashed clothes and bad coffee and weed. “Coal Oil. That bastard.” So, word had spread.

“I heard, yeah. Did you see him in town?” I asked.

“From what I could tell, he even talked to Jenny at the pharmacy. How’s that sit with you, Mama Dear?”

“It sits awful is how it sits.”

“So, let’s hear it.” Yawkey stretched his arms towards his toes.   He was into yoga and other weird stuff. “Your theories, your hypotheses. Why did Coal Oil Fortenberry come back?”

“Actually, I ain’t got none of that. Don’t want to think about that Stain a second more.”

“I’m sure the government’s on him too. I heard his number had come up for ‘Nam five years back, but can you imagine that asshole—”

“I came to ask,” I said, “if you could point me to some morphine. I’ve got a friend at the old folk’s home outside town. She’s an ex-junkie, so they won’t let her ease her pain.”

Yawkey’s eyes grew small under his glasses. He knew me pretty well, enough to tell when things didn’t fit. Since I had fucked up my eye, it had been harder to tell lies. I guessed that I squinted, and when I did that the scar tissue struck my tear ducts and I started to look upset. Or maybe people simply regarded me as more untrustworthy now, in general.

“That all, Mama Dear?”

“When the fuck,” I said, stepping towards Yawkey as threateningly as I could, “are you idiots going to stop calling me that?”

He smiled, showing me teeth that had grown maroon from abuse of chewing tobacco and God knows what else. “That all, ma’am? I mean, morphine should be a fucking snap. Just a quick jog down to the pharmacy, a few cents in the register.”

“You know I’m good for the money, Yawkey.”

“Aw, hell. With these damn kids around, maybe I can find some right quick,” he said.

“It has to be real stuff. Used in hospitals and all,” I said.

Yawkey sighed again to show he understood and he was sick of looking at me.

The hippie kid was still there when I came out of the trailer. “You sure you’re not here with any dope?” he asked me. I shook my head at him and the strange world that had swallowed him up.

  *  *  *

The Stain spent the next two days sleeping and barfing. The rain came back on the second night and opened the holes in the roof even wider. I refused to let Jenny spend any time tending to Stain. Instead I emptied his bucket and walked him to the outhouse every hour. He couldn’t make it seven yards without slipping in the wet grass.

I took a couple trips into town to see exactly how much people were talking about him. I sat in the back of The Bend, an old dive joint near the train station, and listened to the men’s conversations around the pool tables. There wasn’t much about Stain. A few old stories of his youth: the time he’d thrown a bottle at the retarded mailman. The time he’d slashed his own uncle’s tires. The time he’d knocked up Jenny. But most of the talk was tame. The consensus seemed to be that Marvin Fortenberry had stopped into town briefly then moved on. Canterbury had grown quiet in the Stain’s absence, and nobody wanted to believe that the noise had returned.

In a previous life, as a girl with two good eyes and decent looks and hair that wasn’t rumpled and dirty at all times, I’d cruised around Canterbury every now and again. It was cleaner then: easy, hand-painted shop fronts and men in little suits. Lots of small ugly features crackling under the surface, though, and these things were what had excited me. It had been years since I’d come into The Bend for a drink. It was where I had met my husband, Jenny’s father, but since he’d turned out to be such an unholy bastard, I’d stopped coming back. Now all of the men at the pool tables stared at my eye, of course. But some of them were brave enough to ask me how I was doing.

“Can’t complain, except my roof’s leaking,” I said.

I almost wanted to tell them about the Stain right then and there. “Can’t complain, except the sonafabitch who broke my daughter’s heart is holed up in my house, and if any of you fellas want to come around and tear him to pieces, seeing as he probably did each of you some wrong back in the day, be my guest.” But I held off, thinking of Hal. At his age, if he found out that his father was such a bastard, it would be worse than not knowing his father at all. That was my mission: spare Hal anything worse than a stranger dying of a bad disease.

I wondered what had become of the Stain’s seductive side until I found him sitting next to Jenny on the picnic table outside the back door. He was telling her a story, pushing his hair, greasy and unkempt as it was, across his forehead. The same old play, acting the nervous teenager. When she laughed, I felt sick and left to go tend to my pigs.

I kept them in a pen about fifty yards away from the house. The smokehouse nearby had been on the farm since my grandfather’s time, but no one had used it for anything but storage until I came to run things. It was a sad building, not twenty square feet wide, painted a yellow-white that turned to grey once the sun got low. I had torn down the walls to install a cinder block foundation seven years earlier, but had kept the same 1890’s wood. Lately, I had been noticing the padlock on the smokehouse door had been scraped and tampered with. Today, I saw that the door was wide open.

I heard Hal’s voice before I stepped inside. He was singing. “Lizard little lizard…where did you run? Lizard little lizard…I’ve got a gun.” I paused in the doorway and waited until he noticed I was there and stopped.

“Sorry, Granny,” he said. The sliver of light from the outside shone on half of his face. He crouched underneath two large hams, the only two in the smokehouse. They hung from the same hooks that my grandfather had used, years and years earlier, to hang deer and bear meat in the backyard. The air was unbearable inside, thick with haze and reeking of dead pig. I hadn’t lit the fire pit in weeks since the drought had done so much drying on its own. Besides, I was running out of hams.

“What have I told you about coming in here without me, Hal?” I said. “What have I told you about messing with that lock?”

“I saw a newt. It ran in here and I thought I’d catch it,” he said.

From outside, I heard someone whistling. The sound was deep and crisp, and didn’t seem to belong here with my grandson crouching on the dirty floor. I turned to look outside and saw an old, slim man in a black fedora and a denim jacket leaning over the railing of the pigpen. He was reaching his hand out to one of the sows, trying to attract her with his whistling.

“Granny,” Hal said. “Mr. Fortenberry bought something for me.”

“What’s that?” I asked, keeping my eyes on the man in the hat. He stared down at the pigs, but I could tell that he knew I was looking at him.

“A pair of roller skates. Ordered out of a catalog,” Hal said.

Obviously, the Stain had been talking to Hal while I had been in town. He’d found out that Hal and Jenny liked to watch the roller derbies on Friday nights. An image popped into my mind: the three of them watching television together, Stain with his arm around my daughter, drinking a beer, the satisfied husband.

“How long were you in there?” I asked Hal. He walked up next to me and I placed my arm across his shoulder almost without thinking about it. I could feel the sweat through his shirt.

“Not too long,” he said quietly. Hal had seen the man as well, and was nervous. I told him to run back to the house, and he did so, keeping his head to the ground to avoid looking at the stranger. The man, for his part, didn’t look up until I called out.

He was lean in the face as well as the body, older than me, probably, but clearly in command of himself. He smiled gently, and it made little pockets under his eyes. I walked towards him, tracing my hand along the top of the pigpen fence as I went. By the time I was a few feet away, he had already wished me a good afternoon.

“What’re you here about?” I asked.

“I met Yawkey last night at the Roamer Hotel, and I’ve got that thing you asked him for.” He tipped his hat at me when he was finished speaking. I tried not to laugh at him, but it was impossible to resist. He only smiled back when I did.

“The Roamer Hotel. That’s high living for a drug dealer. You must be doing well for yourself.”

He laughed at me like I’d told a joke, and leaned into the fence with his back arched like he was doing a callisthenic.

“I’ve only been here for a spell,” he said. “You know, odd jobs.” He removed something from an outside pocket of his jean jacket. Yawkey had wrapped the morphine in several paper grocery bags. I felt the heft and shape of a bottle as the man put it in my hands.

I told him thanks, and he did it again: the slow, simple tip of his cap. “To use it safely,” he said without a change of expression, “there’s a little dipper that’s in the bottle cap. Just a couple of drops every six hours.”

“What if I don’t want to use it safely?” I asked.

He dropped his gaze to the ground. “You trying to kill yourself?”

“It’s not for me,” I said.

“Right. Yawkey told me. A friend, right?”

He might have been making a joke, trying to keep the weird conversation going. He might have been harmless. But if I knew Yawkey, I knew that he’d heard about the Stain’s stomach cancer and had put two and two together. “What do you know about morphine?” I asked. “You supposed to be some kind of doctor?”

“No, ma’am. I’m a roofer,” he said.

“What’s Yawkey got you delivering drugs for?”

“Roofing work has been hard in this town. Living at the hotel is a drain on my pocket. Like I said, odd jobs.” He held up his hands and shrugged. “Yawkey has me making a few deliveries, and I heard up in town that your roof was leaking. I took it upon myself to kill two birds with one stone. If that’s all right with you, of course.” Again, he tipped his hat. I would have been irritated, but he seemed genuine, or at least stupid. And it had been a while since a man had shown me such forceful manners.

“You want to fix my roof?” I said. “Hell, I can do that myself.”

“But you haven’t,” he said.

“I’ve been busy.”

“That’s why you should hire me,” he said. “In town, they call you a hell-raiser. Now why take time away from raising hell to fix some stupid old roof?”

I laughed, and he laughed back, looking right in my eyes, like it had been me that had made the joke.

“Fine, fix my roof. I’ll give you a hundred dollars. As long as you can do it in a couple days.”

He smiled and nodded at my offer, then stared at me for too damn long. I looked down at the sow. She was pressing her snout against my leg, in the space between the hem of my skirt and the top of my boot. I suddenly felt odd that I was wearing a skirt in front of this man. Normally I’d have been in pants, but Jenny had been trying to put me in skirts lately, and I had to admit that sometimes it felt good in the heat.

“You smoke hams in there?” he asked.

“And turkeys, or whatever else I can shoot and eat.”

“Been years since I saw an old smokehouse like that.” His accent wasn’t Tennessee. It was more deeply Southern, muddy and squishy. “Your son go hunting with you?”

“He’s my grandson. No, he just likes going in there cause it’s creepy. Like a haunted house.”

The roofer nodded, then looked at his feet. I wondered why he was still trying to make conversation.

“You need ladders? Anything?” I asked him.

“I got a truck, and a Mexican boy to help me. They’re waiting up front.”

“Well,” I said, “you best get started on it, then.”

He smiled and started to walk away, and I immediately saw that he had a pronounced limp. Something was seriously wrong with his left leg.

“Hey,” I called. “What’s the matter with that leg?”

He laughed, this time turning his head up at the sky. “Oh, nothing, except it doesn’t exist,” he said, and pulled up his left pant leg to reveal a long shaft of wood. It ended with a brown boot, which made me notice that his other boot was black. The roofer bent down, knocked on the peg leg with his knuckles, and laughed again.

“Doesn’t that present a bit of problem for a roofer?” I asked. “Getting up and down a ladder?”

“Well, if you don’t believe it, just come and watch,” he said.

I followed him back around to the front of the house. As he passed one of the windows on my bedroom’s side, I saw him take a glance into the dark room. We reached the front, where a Mexican boy who couldn’t be older than fifteen was sitting on the hood of a blue Chevy pickup. There were ladders, paint cans and shingles stashed in the bed. In broken Spanish, the roofer instructed the boy to unload the truck and lean the ladder up next to the front porch. Poncho, who had been watching from under a bush, charged at the boy when he set the ladder up. The boy half-screamed and swung a paint can at Poncho, but didn’t hit. I clapped my hands. “Poncho, shut the fuck up,” I said. The boy cursed under his breath and ascended the ladder with his arms full of equipment, and Poncho wandered away.

“Sorry. The boy scares easily, I guess,” the roofer said.

“What do you need him for?”

“Just watch.” The roofer limped up to the edge of the ladder and called out, “Hey! Garcia!” The boy leaned over the edge of the roof and tossed down a heavy rope. Without any pretext, the roofer started climbing, using just his arms and ignoring the ladder. He was stronger than I might have thought given how skinny he was. The Mexican boy was strong too: he held the rope with a bored expression on his face until the roofer had hefted himself to the top.

“You do that every time, huh?” I asked from the front yard.

“No ma’am. Sometimes the wind just carries me up, like the breath of God.”

A thought jumped into my mind. It told me: this man is as much a roofer as you’re a nun. But the way the roofer laughed at his own joke made me brush the thought away. He was an old cripple—harmless, or at least a man that I could handle if any shit went down.

I headed back inside. Stain lay on the futon in the living room now. He was angry, refusing to speak. I had broken up the conversation at the picnic table. Above us, the roofer and his boy hammered quickly, and in the kitchen, Jenny was making a racket with the pots and pans. Hal was off somewhere, looking for newts or playing with the dogs.

“Stick out your tongue,” I said. I let two drops fall before closing up the bottle and shuffling it back into the paper bags. His head fell back slowly. I saw his eyes close with deep satisfaction.

After a few minutes of him lying still and me sitting close on the edge of the futon, my butt up against his belly, he spoke. “I ain’t here to make trouble now. Just here to die. That doesn’t mean she can’t talk to me if she wants to.”

I wondered what he had seen in his ten years of exile. Maybe he had been to Vietnam and back. Maybe he’d been running the whole time. “You’re in my house,” I said. “You’ll die the way I want you to.”

He shook his head slowly and fluttered his eyes at me.

“Don’t know what you’re trying to do,” I said, and stood up. “Ordering my grandson those roller skates. The boy lives on a farm, Stain. Where’s he supposed to go skating?”

He smiled. The morphine was working—I saw the muscles in his face relax and settle like water. I stood for a while and listened: Stain’s heavy breaths, the hammering and shouting from above, Jenny running the tap. The room turned dark as a cloud passed. I walked to the bedroom and settled on the sofa chair. Quaker, another pit bull, sat on the throw rug and whined at me a few times before resting her head between her front paws.

I fell asleep to the soft thuds coming from the roof. I could tell when the roofer was walking around—there would be a soft pat then a loud thud as his heavy wooden leg took a step. Jenny woke me hours later and said dinner was ready and the roofer had left for the day. I realized I had been thinking about him in my sleep—not dreaming exactly, but drifting upwards to the sound of his footfalls.

  *  *  *

That night I found Jenny curled up on the futon with her arms around the Stain. I hadn’t slept; instead I had been pacing in the backyard and smoking like a teenager. Seeing Jenny lying with a man—this man, worst of all—filled me up with sadness. I just hadn’t been expecting it, and I’d thought my mind was in a place where I could expect anything. The shotgun was in one of the closets in my room. I carried it into the living room and watched the Stain’s face in the moonlight. I imagined lifting the barrel, pointing it to his nose, and pulling the trigger. I imagined how Jenny would scream when I blew off his face. There would be blood on the futon, and Hal running in from his bedroom. It would be a nightmare. “He never loved you, baby girl,” I said in the silence. They kept holding each other close and breathing deeply. I walked outside.

I followed a path in the backyard that eventually led to the woods and the quarry. I didn’t go that far. Instead I stopped at a magnolia tree whose roots pushed up the ground in knuckly welts. The night was hot and calm, and the moon was near full, making the trees and grass in the woods glow almost blue.

I shouted. At first, I screamed to high heaven like the crazy old woman that I was. Just nasty guttural noises from my throat. Then it turned into a word: “Fuckers!” I was only a few feet away from the magnolia. I lifted the shotgun and fired it into the trunk. Bark sprayed everywhere. I felt it on my face, on the scar around my eye. “Fuckers!” I screamed, again and again. It didn’t do much good.

  *  *  *

The next morning, the sun rose hot and angry, as if the end of the drought had offended it in some way. I gave Stain morphine and left him there to struggle with his breathing. Jenny was quiet. She must have sensed that I had seen her on the couch with him. She knew I was leaving for somewhere, but didn’t ask any questions and volunteered to take Hal and the dogs for a walk.

There were many more hippies in the woods this time. I recognized the boy from the other day as he chased a bare-breasted blonde girl down the bed of a creek that tumbled towards the river. As I headed to Yawkey’s, more kids stumbled through the bushes to get a look at me. All of them were so young and so tan. They stared at me like cats ready to pounce. “I’m not your weed lady,” I yelled at them. They kept their distance but stared and stared and stared. I was happy to reach Yawkey’s cinder block steps and rap on his door.

“It’s open,” he called.

The smell was worse on account of the heat. Yawkey sat oddly upright on his couch with his eyes closed. A naked hippie girl was curled up on the shag carpet with her back to me. She stiffened when I opened the door but didn’t raise her head.

“That you, Mama dear?” Yawkey shouted.

“I’m right here,” I said.

He opened his eyes and took off his horrible glasses. I knew he couldn’t see me any better, but he smiled. “I was about to make a margarita,” he said. “Boy if things ain’t getting crazy around here in the heat.”

He rose and walked into his kitchen area, where an unidentifiable brown mess lay strewn all over the counter among a pile of dishes. Yawkey picked up a tequila bottle and took a swig.

“The man you sent to me,” I said. “How’d you find him?”

Yawkey laughed. “You mean Long John Silver? Ain’t it crazy the types that turn up in this town sometimes?”

“Just tell me.”

“You remember Mary Bender? She’s the one who gives these kids their dope. She’d met him through selling drugs at the hotel. Or he fixed her deck, or something. Anyways, he came to me. Heard you’d asked me for morphine, and volunteered to deliver it.” As he walked to a powder blue icebox in the corner of the tiny kitchen, opened it, and pulled out a tray of ice for his margarita.

“So you don’t know why he’s here, in town?” I asked.

Yawkey looked at me and made a show of blinking his eyes innocently, like a maiden from a fairy tale. “You suspicious of him?”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“What I’m asking, Mama Dear, is if you have something to hide.” Yawkey smiled in his sickly way. I felt like kicking him in the kneecap, but I just stood still, like a statue of a moron. He began loading his ice and tequila into a blender. It appeared that these would be the only ingredients in the margarita. “It’s so strange to me,” he continued. “You went through years and years swearing revenge on that dumb Stain that broke Jenny’s heart, and now, all of a sudden—”

“He’s dying,” I said. I blurted it out. “He’s already dead. Just let me make sure it happens how I want it to.”

Yawkey held up his hands in mock innocence. “That sounds like a plan to me,” he said. “You just let me know when he’s finally kicked it, and I’ll put on my grave-dancing shoes.”

The blender started and the girl in the other room shouted something out. Yawkey smiled again.

Without really thinking, I picked up a china bowl from the counter and threw it across the kitchen. It shattered against the wall and left a milky splash. The girl shouted again but still refused to move.

Yawkey yawned. “You come here to fuck with me? I gave you all you wanted.”

“The man with the wooden leg,” I said. “Is he trying to kill Coal Oil?”

“I told you, I don’t know. You should realize by now that as much as we don’t get along, I always tell it to you like it is. From one angry soul to another.” He paused and made a toasting motion towards me with the blender pitcher full of tequila slush, then took a long drink. “And if you really suspect him, why are you here wasting time talking to me?”

“I’m just trying to understand,” I said. The hippie girl groaned when I spoke. Yawkey looked over at her with a grimace. “You best get going, Mama Dear,” he said. “This ain’t a scene meant for your kind eye.”

He glanced at my scar and smiled. I threw open the door. Something was bearing down on me—the heat, the bugs, Yawkey and the hippies, something. I ran, half-sprinted, up the hill to my truck and let sweat mix with the dust on my face and in my hair. I felt surrounded, but there was nothing but the road and the woods.

When I got back Jenny and Hal were still out with the dogs and the roofer and the Mexican boy were striding around on top of the house. As I walked in the front door, the roofer tipped his fedora at me with the sun behind him. I turned my head down. Stain was still asleep, but a strange toxic smell like gasoline and dirt had filled the living room.

“Hey!” I shouted.

He opened his eyes and stared like he had never seen me before. “Where’s Jenny?” he asked.

“Never mind,” I said. “Did the roofers come in and see you?”

He shook his head and shrugged at the same time. I waited there for the rest of the day. At a little after three I heard Jenny and Hal come in the back door. I was irritated to be surrounded by so many people, even if two of them were my daughter and her son. Looking out the front window, I noticed that the Mexican boy had loaded the ladders back into the truck. The roofer stood there, smoking a cigarette and waiting for me.

“So?” I said when I came outside.

“Patched up,” he said. “All the spots you told me about.”

I wanted him gone as soon as possible. “You did good work. Let me get the money from inside.”

With a fast but uncertain flick, he reached and grabbed my arm. He smiled and let his grip loosen as he spoke. “As for payment, ma’am, you needn’t worry now. Why don’t you come and meet me for drinks tonight, and we can settle it then.”

I knew he had motives. I had sensed it all along. If I had been the me from a week before, I would have slapped him or kicked his knee. Ever since seeing Jenny and the Stain on the couch, however, I had lost all my abilities to see inside of people. I told him that a drink would be fine. He let go of my arm and smiled again. That bovine smile. “I just feel it would be easier on all of us,” he said.

  *  *  *

The roofer told me to meet him at the Blue Tavern, right at the bottom floor of The Roamer Hotel. I hadn’t been there in twenty years, and it had turned from a dance hall with light wooden floors into a soggy dive, full of dartboards and mirrors and crooked unpainted tables. I didn’t recognize anyone inside—two black men sat hunched in conversation at one end of the long bar, and the bartender was a pale boy who couldn’t have been more than twenty. He took my order, a bourbon, and darted his eyes around like he had done something wrong.

One of the black fellows stood up and walked to the jukebox. I watched him spread his arms across the glass case and puzzle over the songs for an eternity. Someone tapped me on the shoulder and I started.

I was surprised that I hadn’t heard the stomping of his wooden leg on his way in. The roofer wore a light brown suit that wouldn’t have looked out of place if the bar were still a dance hall. I couldn’t decide if his whole fashion, the fedora and this suit and the little red handkerchief poking out of his front pocket, made him look older or younger in its unsuitableness. What was clear was that the man looked comfortable.

“I hope this isn’t strange for you, ma’am,” he said.

I shook my head. “I don’t mind. Just my daughter and the boy back home. I need to leave them be every now and again.”

“If you want, you can just leave me the money and head home. But I can buy you a drink. You look very nice.”

I had forgotten how I looked. Nothing special: just an old blouse and a pair of jeans, and a few brushes of my hair.

“I’ve got my bourbon right now, thank you, but I’ll let you know if I need more.”

The boy behind the bar poured the roofer a vodka drink. He didn’t seem to want to look at either of us, and turned his back as soon as the roofer had paid him. I decided that I wanted to keep quiet but stay right where I was.

After a long silence, the roofer started talking, answering questions I hadn’t asked him. “Mobile, originally, is where I’m from. My daddy worked on a shipyard, but he was afraid of the water and so was my mother. We moved around, everyone looking for work.”

I nodded with each thing he said. I felt like a stupid dog following a ball, up and down. “Then, there was the war, the first one, and Daddy got killed,” he said. “My mother couldn’t take the grief so I worked to keep her calm and happy. It was hard, for sure.”

For some reason, this part of his story made him smile. He went on: “You wouldn’t believe it, but we moved up to Chicago. I was employed by a company that built some railroad engines, but just as soon as we got up there, I got laid off and started drinking.” He paused and tilted his head. “Then she died, and I really started drinking.”

“Where did you go?” I asked.

“I went all around, the streets and such. I was full of anger, so it was good the army found me. I would’ve done worse than drink and wander. Your grandson’s lucky he’s got two women looking after him. So there was the army for a while. The second war, I was in the Pacific. Did some killing. You don’t need to hear too much of that.”

“I don’t shy from such things,” I said. “Is that where you lost your leg?”

He smiled and chuckled. “I guess I mean I’d rather not talk about it. But as you know, as I know you know, it wasn’t the war that brought me here. It was that man you’ve got in your house.”

The barlights sharpened around the roofer’s face as I nodded again. “I thought you had motives,” I said.

“I’m sorry,” he said, “For being deceptive with silence. It’s how I’ve been for a while. And now that I’m here, and I’ve found the bastard, I don’t know what I want to do.”

“I just want to keep my daughter safe. And my grandson,” I said. The whole conversation felt light. We’d known each other for years, it seemed.

“Oh yes ma’am, yes ma’am,” he said. “I think…maybe what I really needed to do was just talk to you and leave. I’m full of ugliness, you see, and it makes me sick for you to see it.”

“What did he do? Coal Oil? What did he do to you?”

The roofer took a long and careful sip before going on. “He left me, and he didn’t need to. Left me in a place…well, I just needed years to get back to where I wanted to be.”

I told the roofer that Marvin had come to my house to die. He nodded and smiled, and I felt that he was dancing around me as I talked. “Like I told you,” he said. “I don’t know what I want to do.”

We sat in silence for a while. The man at the end of the bar stood up a few more times to play a song, and during one number the roofer bobbed his head up and down. I didn’t recognize the singer, but it was a woman, and the music was quick and jazzy. Then the music stopped, and the two black men left. No sound came from the street—Canterbury was a dead town—and the young bartender seemed to have vanished.

The roofer slapped his hands suddenly on the bar and made me jump in my seat. “How about this,” he said, as if he had reached a firm and perfect decision. “I just leave in the morning.”

“That’s what I want you to do,” I said.

The roofer stood up from his stool and tipped his hat at me again. Without a word, he turned from me and headed towards the door. As I followed him, I heard the bartender stepping out of his hiding place, wherever it had been.

The roofer walked out onto the sidewalk and turned to the door that led to the upper floors of the Roamer Hotel. I kept following him. He didn’t look back, but let his hand linger for a moment so that I could catch the door behind him. He strode up three flights of stairs, slowly lifting his crippled leg again and again, and, at one moment, he looked down at me from a landing and smiled. On the fourth floor he opened a door and walked into his room. When I caught up, I saw that he had not closed the door completely. I knocked.

He was in front of the door in less than a second. “Please come in,” he said.

The room was dark and uncomfortable. The only light that the roofer had turned on was a small lamp on the bedside bureau. He kept smiling and not speaking, and sat on the side of the bed. The fedora was off, and I saw that he had a full head of close-cropped white hair.

I walked into the center of the room and turned away from him to a mirror that hung on the wall. Even in the semi-darkness, the pink scar across my eye was the brightest thing on my face: it shone, it throbbed, it looked back at me. Jenny had always said it looked like an arrowhead to her. The point poked out just above my eyebrow, and the edges were slightly serrated above and below the lids. The eyeball underneath, cloudy and white with disuse, always seemed to want to move of its own accord when I saw it in a mirror. But it was dead.

“How did it happen?” he asked.

In my mind, I could hear the words: my husband liked drinking. He drank himself into such a frenzy one night that he shot a mule and attacked me with a knife. Now he’s locked up. It was simple story. I’d learned to live with it, that much was for sure. Still, I was up here, in this roofer’s hotel room, and I didn’t quite understand why. He’d triggered something inside me with all his stories of shipyards and wars. He probably thought he was seducing me. But I didn’t feel anything romantic—just a desire to see a part of a man’s private life: an open suitcase, a hairbrush, clothes laid out for the next day. It was something I hadn’t thought I’d ever want to feel again.

“Are you going to tell me?” The roofer was still sitting on the bed, but he wasn’t smiling anymore. I wanted to tell him, so badly. If I told him, though, the words would leave my mouth and never come back, and I felt that I would never again be able to choose when I could be silent.

“What about your leg?” I asked him. “Was it Coal Oil?”

He didn’t answer. He was behind me now, holding something in his hands. I was angry with myself for acting like such a selfish fool. I needed to get back to the house, to Jenny, to Hal.

The roofer had the cloth on my face before I could think anything more. Something smelled rich and toxic. I screamed out, “You sonofabitch!” but the cloth and his hand muffled my voice. My legs slipped away from me, and I was on the floor, and the roofer was stepping over me, and the world was going dark. Pieces of everything were tilting out of place.

  *  *  *

When I woke up, my head felt wrong. It could have dropped off in the night, or just gotten crooked and turned around. A soft blanket lay on top of me—this wasn’t right, I never slept under anything except my quilt. I opened my eyes.

The roofer was gone. It looked like he had never been in the hotel room at all. He had even folded and tucked the other side of the bed. I still had my boots on, which made it much easier to run from the room and jump three steps at a time out of the hotel, then run across the street without looking at anything but my truck, parked a block away on the square. The sun had not fully risen, but it was already hotter than the day before.

There was his roofer’s truck, all full of ladders and everything, parked in front of the farmhouse like it had never left. I hurried inside. Coal Oil was gone: all that was left was a sweat mark on the futon where his head had rested overnight. I listened at Jenny’s door and heard her breathing and Hal’s, one heavy and the other quick and soft. My shotgun stood waiting for me near the backdoor. Three of the dogs—Poncho, Quaker and a terrier mutt I had never thought to give a name—were already up. They watched me with eagerness as I gathered the gun, and I opened the door for them to follow me into the backyard.

Two wet streaks ran through the grass and up the hill past the outhouse. We followed them silently until they reached the woods and the path that led north and out of my property. It made sense—the roofer would be taking him to the quarry about a mile away, where he could dump the body. I didn’t know how long ago the roofer had taken Stain from the house, or if he’d had to drag him all the way, or if his leg had slowed him down. I told myself that I still had time.

The path twisted through the woods, where the air was even heavier and more sweltering. The dogs followed silently. Poncho and Quaker followed my steps, and the terrier darted ahead now and then, keen to the fact that we were headed somewhere with purpose, not just out for a walk on the property. After ten minutes I felt sweat dripping from my hair and down my cheeks. All fright had left me now, but I felt old and tired.

The woods vanished away when we reached the top of a ridge. I saw the roofer instantly: he was sitting on a log near the great brown gulf of the quarry that opened up in front of us. Marvin Fortenberry lay nearby, curled up like a baby but still breathing, I could tell even from a distance. The roofer saw me and jumped, then pulled a pistol from his pocket and limped over to the Stain. I lifted my shotgun into the air and fired off a shell. The roofer stopped, hesitated, then raised his gun. But I’d had enough time to get down the slope in a running stumble and reload another shell.

When I got close enough to see his face, I knew he wasn’t going to do it. He was terrified. He glanced at me, then out into the quarry. The sun had risen and now hovered at eye level, and we both squinted.

“If I don’t kill him,” the roofer said.

“Shut your mouth,” I said. “You dumb bastard.”

“You don’t know what he did,” he said, his voice reaching an almost tearful whine.

“I know enough of what he did, to a whole lot of people. What does it matter? He’ll be dead soon, and so will you.”

Nearby sat a duffel bag, and Poncho had occupied himself by sniffing and pawing at it. The roofer raised his arms and walked over. The gun still hung loosely in his hand.

“Don’t shoot my fucking dog neither. I’d rather kill you over him than the Stain.”

The roofer dropped the pistol next to the bag. Poncho looked at him without interest and strode away. The roofer crouched down and unzipped the bag, then produced his fedora from inside. He didn’t seem to want to look at me, and I was pleased by it. “You’ve got to take care of your people, I guess,” he said. “That’s an important thing.”

“If you walk that way,” I said, and pointed with the barrel of my shotgun to the west. “Around the quarry after about a mile, you’ll find a little road. Follow it to the highway.”

“Thank you,” he said, like I’d just told him directions to exactly where he wanted to go. Watching his black fedora bob on top of his head as he shuffled away, I didn’t linger on certain questions, like whether he’d intentionally made himself look polite and old-fashioned. Like Yawkey and Stain, the roofer was just a man beyond my world. The kind of idiot who left himself and the people around him in pieces—losing women and money and legs, but still coming back for more. I was glad to see him leave. When I got home, I would inspect the patches on the roof myself.

I lifted Stain from the gravel and put his arm around my neck. He had puked on the front of his shirt and couldn’t speak. He’ll be dead soon, I told myself. His feet dragged in the grass along the path and the impatient dogs bounded around us in elliptical patterns. It was a slow slog.

When we got back, the sun was fully up. I let Stain fall out of my arms and lean against the outhouse. “Mama Dear,” he gasped. “Can you believe that shit back there?”

“With you I can believe most anything,” I said. “Call me that again and I’ll break your damn morphine bottle. I don’t have to make this easy on you, Stain.”

While he hung there catching his breath against the outhouse wall, I looked down on my part of the world. Jenny was bent double in her vegetable garden near the house, weeding, I assumed, since there was no room for anything new to be planted. She wore my mother’s wide green gardening hat. She saw us and waved. She had no idea what had happened. The flooding from the thunderstorm hadn’t hit the garden too hard. I’d attributed it to Stain venturing out to the outhouse so much that he’d left trenches and craters where his fat body hit the ground, and the water had collected in little bogs. I laughed. The bastard had been good for something.

Hal came running from nowhere holding a cardboard package. “They came, Mr. Fortenberry!” he was shouting. My sweet little boy. Soon, he’d roller skate himself the hell away from me. There was nothing I could do.

 

 

BIO

Walter B ThompsonWalter B. Thompson is a native of Nashville, Tennessee. His work has previously appeared in The Bicycle ReviewCarolina Quarterly and elsewhere. He received his M.F.A. from the University of Wisconsin, where he is currently the Halls Emerging Artist Fellow at the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing.

 

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Platform of Truth:

Transcript of selected interviews from a documentary video

by Anna Boorstin

 

Abigail Levy,
The Candidate

I decided to run on a whim. I was fed up with everything I heard on the news. I’d worked, I’d raised our kids, now I had time to do something useful on a bigger scale — if that doesn’t sound too naive.

 

Nancy Clarkson,
The Candidate’s Friend

You know, most people get angry at the way politics doesn’t work, and then they don’t do anything about it. They sign some petitions, put up articles on Facebook, have some heated discussions with friends. But for Abby? — classic zero to sixty. One day she walked into my office and announced she’d done her research, filled out the forms and paid the filing fees.

Of course, I was surprised. Who really does that?

Abby and I have known each other since the eighties. Since even before she knew Marten.

Yes, she asked me to manage her campaign. What can I say? She’s a big believer in rising to the occasion, so my lack of experience wasn’t as important to her as my politics and my organizational abilities.

I said no. I already had a paying gig. Who knew when another one might come around? It isn’t like the film industry is growing jobs these days.

 

Marten Lund,
The Candidate’s Husband

When we had our children I supported any decision she would make about continuing to work. If we were in my home country of Denmark, there would have been more options for her. We often talked about it. She knew I wanted to stay in the U.S. while my career was going well. She always said it was a privilege to be the one to raise our children. But especially at the beginning, when they were little babies, I had the freedom and she did not. She has been on the sidelines so-to-speak for many years and now she wanted to make a contribution.

 

Margaret Gerraty
Abigail Levy’s Campaign Manager

I was delighted when Ms. Levy hired me.   The Congressman stepping down, well, he was a twelve-term Democratic stalwart. There was opportunity there and the race was wide open.

Ms. Levy had no experience, you are correct. However, she is a well-educated, articulate, and proudly liberal woman.

Our strategy had real potential. I thought Ms. Levy countered her lack of experience with the image of a quick study, an educated person who would take all the available information and use common sense to make good decisions. She said, “Who could be better prepared to govern than someone who takes grade schoolers on field trips and chaperones teenagers on Grad Night?” It helped voters relate.

Yes, especially women.

She also asked big questions like, why don’t people trust government? Why are folks more likely to trust McDonalds and Coca Cola with their well-being than the F.D.A. or O.S.H.A.?   Government should be the good guy. And corporations? Well, their goal is to make money.

Actually, I thought Ms. Levy managed her lack of religious identity quite well. She talked about Science, and quoted Gallileo, the one about God giving us our brains so we’d use them. The use of the word God was helpful, I think.

Absolutely. You can say I agreed with her politics.

 

Kelsey Kiernan-Sokol,
The Volunteer

The hardest part of my job was calling people. So many of them acted like running for office was a weird way of getting PR or something. They couldn’t believe that Ms. Levy actually wanted things to be better and not just for herself.

For me? Her whole “truth” thing was the best. I think people should put it all out there. Everyone is covering up sh*t nowadays.   Oh, sorry. Can I say that?

 

 

Nancy Clarkson,
The Candidate’s Friend

The “Platform of Truth” was her big idea, you know, her campaign mantra. She was going to answer all questions truthfully, be truthful in all her promises and plans.   I guess it’s kind of rare that politicians do that, or even promise it. It sounded brilliant, but I did wonder how it would work in practice.

 

Tobias Levy-Lund,
The Son.

Mom’s always been big on truth. She thinks it’s a major problem for the entire species. She said that whenever there’s a lie, things go wrong.

Yeah, when we were growing up, Mom wanted to know what us kids were really doing. Really.

She’d only punish us if we lied — like if I said, “I was at a party smoking weed,” I wouldn’t get punished, but if I lied and she found out about it, she’d ground me or whatever. It was different. The worst was if she told her friends what she knew, and then their kids would get in trouble.

 

Abigail Levy,
The Candidate

I didn’t want my campaign to become all about revealing secrets. That’s all you journalists do nowadays.

I thought, I’ll just get it all out of the way, talk about the dodgier aspects of my life, and then I can campaign on my ideas.

 

Margaret Gerraty
Abigail Levy’s Campaign Manager

You’re right. The Platform of Truth was our undoing. TMI, no way around it.

 

Nancy Clarkson,
The Candidate’s Friend

Well, obviously it didn’t work. You could even say it was a train wreck. But, like real wrecks, you know people can’t help watching. Kind of like a reality TV miniseries about politics.

 

Marten Lund,
The Candidate’s Husband

The publicity has not made my bosses happy. They usually love any mentions in the news — more people will come watch their movies is how they see it — but Corporate gave them trouble here. So they gave trouble to me.

Our kids? They have their own lives and any embarrassment…

No, they don’t complain. They know their mother.

I am not saying it is often that their mother embarrasses them. Of course not.

 

Tobias Levy-Lund,
The Son.

You’re joking, right? They can’t fire me for what my mom says. Plus, have you looked around this office? It’s all about gossip and scandal. I’m supposed to be the IT guy and instead, everyone was on me for the inside scoop. People asked me all kinds of cr*p. What was it like growing up with a crazy mom, if I’d done anything I wanted, stupid sh*t. We had rules like everyone else. Just because Mom was honest about mistakes she made — maybe they thought she let us make the same mistakes. Yeah, right.

 

Margaret Gerraty
Abigail Levy’s Campaign Manager

It didn’t take long for local press to decide that different was “quirky.” By the time the Internet news picked it up, they were going with “crazy.”

I think that’s when I lost control.

 

Kelsey Kiernan-Sokol,
The Volunteer

One night when I was there late with a bunch of people and we were eating pizza and she was eating with us she told us about how she did a lot of speed in college. Just to get her work done, you know? But she also made sure we understood it was bad for her and we shouldn’t ever do that.

I felt like I could tell her anything.

 

Margaret Gerraty
Abigail Levy’s Campaign Manager

The final straw for me, personally? It was actually her remark about her husband’s Danish citizenship. She said, “Why would he want to become an American citizen?” We had our biggest disagreement then. How could she not understand that she appeared un-patriotic? Un-American?

 

Nancy Clarkson,
The Candidate’s Friend

Marten? Marten did his usual thing. He hid out. He had sets to design and build in a hurry, like always. The office handled a few calls from reporters, especially when the whole, “Why would my husband want to change his citizenship?” thing happened. I did my best to stay out of it.

 

Marten Lund,
The Candidate’s Husband

I got in trouble for having a “crazy” wife who points out my Danish citizenship when many people feel the film industry moves too much work elsewhere and gets in their way — traffic jams, you know — when we are shooting here.

 

Abigail Levy,
The Candidate

There’s another instance of the kind of patriotism that’s frankly, just idiotic. And yes, I’m aware that I’m doing it again. People who watch this story will say, “There she goes again.” But it is stupid to deliberately avoid seeing what is working. Just because it comes from outside our own great country doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be open to it. You wouldn’t tell an artist to not be inspired by Rembrandt or a writer to not check out Austen because they’re not Americans. Where would our country be without Lafayette and the French? Health care actually works in some other countries. We should check that out.

 

Barry Reid,
The Opposition

Abigail Levy handed us priceless material. When she said, “Everyone could use a little therapy,” my candidate jumped 6% in the polls!

No I actually don’t know where he stands on therapy. You’d have to ask him. I can tell you that he’s never been in therapy.

I make a list for candidates when I take them on. We sit in a room, he checks off the things on the list that pertain to him, I make notes in my head and then burn the piece of paper right in front of him. It’s a good system.

 

Kelsey Kiernan-Sokol,
The Volunteer

How can you know from the very beginning that you need to lead a perfect life so one day you can run for office? I know people hide bad things. But what if they didn’t need to?

 

Abigail Levy,
The Candidate

But let’s face it, what is really working? Our political process is a mess. Everyone’s is. Though I should say I admire the Scandinavians. That’s not only because I’m married to one.

Yes, I’m being simplistic. I do know that. But so are the people who say, “America right or wrong” and call our house and tell my husband to go back to Denmark. Believe me, I have times when I want to go live there.

I know, I can’t seem to help it. Maybe I’ll get a job on MSNBC now.

I’m joking. No, not my thing. Besides, everyone’s a commentator these days. And how did that get to be a word? Commentator?

 

Barry Reid,
The Opposition

We really weren’t ever worried. She was a novelty candidate. Like a movie star, you know.

I am in no way comparing Ms. Levy with President Reagan.

Reagan was different. He had a vision — a great vision, as his legacy shows.

For one thing, her politics are on entirely the wrong side. She is pro-government!

 

Tobias Levy-Lund,
The Son.

You’ve gotta understand my mom. She loves that show, The West Wing. She binge watched it with each of us when we were old enough, kind of a “command performance” thing. I think what she loved most was that all the characters were trying to make the world a better place. She thinks that’s something we should all aspire to. Mom loves that sh*t.

Yeah, if you wanna say that my mother forced us to watch The West Wing, go right ahead. I don’t think anyone’s gonna call child services.

Of course she knew the show wasn’t real. Just ‘cause she wants the world to be more like that… Listen, when I was a teenager I thought her ideals were pretty lame. But now… now I’m glad she wasn’t so cynical, that she really cared about making things better. So now I probably sound really lame, right?

 

Kelsey Kiernan-Sokol,
The Volunteer

No, I turned eighteen June 15, which was a week after the primary. So I couldn’t vote. But it would have been really cool if she’d won.

 

Marten Lund,
The Candidate’s Husband

Abby has great ideas but she can be also naive… Sometimes I wonder if that is part of being American. Many great ideas and too idealistic. We in Europe… well, we are more practical I think. I always have the same with Abby since we met — she makes me proud and then I am infuriated. Long marriages can be like that.

No, I’m not saying my marriage is too long. What did I say before? I love Abby. We are happy together.

The cocaine? I’d like to think the press in my country would not be so much interested in that as here, but maybe they’d do just the same. I don’t know. When I met her it was quite normal.

I mean that it was quite normal on movie sets. I was never particularly interested, but she loved it. She said it helped her stay awake after lunch. She has low blood pressure you see and meals…

No, I don’t think low blood pressure is a medical problem. I think that actually it is good for you.

 

Margaret Gerraty
Abigail Levy’s Campaign Manager

First, there was the “discovery” that she’d had a Danish au pair — legally, as it happened. But there are a lot of glass houses here in SoCal, so any “nannygate” that might have been directed at us never got off the ground. I remember feeling so grateful that my candidate did everything on the up-and-up. Then she admitted having taken Prozac, and worst of all, cocaine. It all unraveled.

Talking about the cocaine was a huge mistake. She was never arrested, and never had a long time problem, but that actually made it worse. It seemed like she was a dilettante, a casual user. If people thought it was a “problem” for her they might have been sympathetic. I will say that when we did polling, there were a surprising number who liked the honesty and said she’d been young, but for most everyone else it was the deal breaker.

 

Barry Reid,
The Opposition

Remember when she described her idea of why people hate government? Talk about a gaffe! It was totally un-f***ing believable, if you’ll excuse my French. She actually said OUT LOUD and IN FRONT OF A MICROPHONE that people must think about all government as if it were a giant DMV populated by overweight black women who care more about their manicures and their gigantic pensions than helping the good folks in line! Talk about not minding your P’s and C’s if you know what I mean. Of course it made headlines. She had to explain over and over again how it wasn’t what she thought blah blah but something she imagined other people thought. It stayed in the news for more than a week, which is forever in campaign time. We didn’t even have to publicize it!

Between you and me and the lamppost, our bureaucracy, well… it wasn’t such a bad comparison.

If you quote me on that I’ll have you in court so fast your head will spin.

Yep, by then it was pretty much over. I might have actually had a moment of pity for her.   But in my business that is not an option.

 

Abigail Levy,
The Candidate

Look, I understand that I often speak my mind without thinking about how my words will sound, well, out of context. But don’t you think it’s a problem that there’s no place for that kind of spontaneity anymore? Public figures can’t just be good at their jobs, they have to be good at talking about their jobs. Spin is simply another form of dishonesty.

Well, I do think media is a huge part of the problem.

Yeah, yeah, you’re just reporting what happens. I know. But answer me this? Who actually reports things more simplistically? Me or the mass media?

I’m rolling my eyes because… because I feel like it. What’s a little eye-rolling going to do now?

After all this, I’m going straight back to therapy. And feel free to tell that one to the world. There’s nothing wrong with being in therapy. Everyone has problems they need help with. It’s like — you want to play the piano, you get a piano teacher. You want to learn about yourself, what motivates you, how you react to things and even — and I really believe this — how to be a better person — you go to an expert — to someone who’s studied the human brain. That’s another thing. I don’t understand why so many people distrust experts.

 

Margaret Gerraty
Abigail Levy’s Campaign Manager

All-in-all it was a… an experience, I’ll say that. There was some good in there along with the catastrophes. Of course now I have no idea if I’ll ever get another job in politics.   Maybe this documentary will help.

Actually I am disappointed. I did think she had a lot to offer. She was honest. But it was no way to run a campaign. There’s only so much you can change in one go-around. It really is too bad.

 

Nancy Clarkson,
The Candidate’s Friend

Yes, I did. I voted for her.

 

Barry Reid,
The Opposition

The truth thing? Well, I just don’t think it’s a good idea. The electorate wants to think candidates are perfect. I don’t know if there’s anything we could or should do about it.

 

Marten Lund,
The Candidate’s Husband

Abby deeply cares, you see. It’s one reason that makes me love her. Politics should be about right and wrong, we think.

Sorry, I need to get back to work. All I can say is if you have anything else you should ask her.

 

Abigail Levy,
The Candidate

In retrospect?

Clearly there are many things I don’t understand. I tell myself that the 99% must be uninformed and/or snowed by the media. So many of them vote for the people who want them to remain consumers and corporate serfs. I’m more and more disappointed and furious — yes, I am still furious — about how so many politicians laud wealth and self-interest as solutions to our problems. What happened to wanting a better world for everyone?

Yeah, there goes my idealism again. I don’t know how else to be. If I can’t hope for better things, with my advantages and education, who could?

 

Tobias Levy-Lund,
The Son

Look I never thought she’d win or anything. I’m actually kind of proud of her even if the whole thing ended up embarrassing. And Mom always says, “If you don’t embarrass your kids you’re doing something wrong.”

 

 

 

BIO

Anna BoorstinAnna Boorstin grew up riding horses, playing board games and reading. After attending Yale, she worked as a sound editor on films such as Real Genius and Clue. She raised three children and is happy to have (finally) found her way back to writing. Her story, Paper Lantern, made the Top 25 of Glimmer Train’s August 2013 Award for New Writers and was recently published in december magazine. Her Lizard Story was in Fiddleblack.  She also blogs at Yalewomen.org.

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Jon Fried author

A Little Bit Closer to Water

by Jon Fried

 

 

Time for a new house. Up the hill? I asked her, and she shrugged. Up the hill was further from the water. Not that it mattered how close or how far you were. When the time would come, it would come.

When she stood at the foot of the bed, deciding, I saw again how big she was. Almost six feet, and strong. Thick shoulders, thick legs. Not muscled, and not fat, just big. And a soft, young face with small, dark, sharp-focused eyes that took in everything and gave away little.

 

It was all very upsetting and horrifying beyond imagining, and as catastrophic as Catastrophe itself, but I liked it. Not liked, really, but accepted it. Readily and easily. I have to admit it. I missed those that I missed. I was often terrified, usually numb, frayed to threads by the permanent state of shock, of course all that. But people get used to just about anything, and if all you need to do to find a clean set of sheets is walk into the house next door; if all you need to do to find a meal is poke through another freezer; if all you need to do to find a good coat is open another closet door, adjusting becomes quite a bit easier.

 

I took a car, newer and fitter than mine. I drove for several days. Saw other drivers, and was always sure to wave, but there were enough of us on the roads that we didn’t need to stop, a wave would do. There were just no people manning the pumps or the mini-marts or the motel desks. All the slim jims and doughnuts you want. In one motel the water ran cold and I just walked around until I found the boiler room and flicked the switch. By the time I got East I’d been through a few towns where the lights were out. And under the “Welcome to” outside of one town a handmade sign read “Water Unsafe.” But for the most part there were just enough of us to keep things going. One guy at the water company. One guy spinning reruns on the TV station. One DJ who did eight-hour shows and then slept a couple hours and then went out for something to eat. The refrigerators were still humming.

 

It had been about three weeks since the big sweep, and we knew things would progress, but no one knew how quickly. You didn’t worry, though. That was like worrying about rain when you’re three feet underwater.

 

She wore shapeless grey and khaki clothes so I was more than a little surprised when she hung by the closets. Never tried much on—none of our absent hostesses were tall enough—but she would hold up a sleeve, or finger a hem, and I could hear a murmur. Once, she pulled out a sleeveless black velvet dress with a white sash. Last hurrah? And a red one with a slant hem. Though at laundry time, she’d just find some more sweat pants and sweatshirts in the drawers.

 

It was a bug. A germ. A virus. Retrovirus. Or some other subject of a thousand lousy books and movies and magazine features. And yet it did its own damage in its own way. Not contagious, this was a mantra, and yet the thing spread. No blame was ascribed, since we were in the terror lull, after striking some secret deals with our enemies. The terror folks—those we knew of—were so terrified themselves they came clean on their every move, hoping we would stop it if we’d started it, and cure it if we hadn’t. Nope and nope. All that was over.

 

Her calm seemed like immunity. Maybe like my thirst. I drank water all day for years. On the theory that if it’s prescribed when you’re sick it can’t be bad for you when you’re not. And may even prevent.

 

A huge rambling old Greek revival with electric candles in all the windows. We wandered around and I wondered aloud how they’d heated the thing. I was beginning to do everything aloud, I think because she was so quiet. She pulled off her sweatshirt and tossed it on a table by the door. It was nice and toasty; whatever it was that heated the place was working fine.

 

It was all very sudden, and very thorough. A few months ago, there was hope someone would find a cause, even a cure; now there wouldn’t’ve been enough people left to produce it and pass it around even if they had.

It was apparently a fairly painless way to go. A little fever, sometimes some nausea, and the beginning of the thirst. Then the revving and the sleeplessness. And finally the calm, the sweet calm, and the drenching in euphoria, the casual but unstoppable union with the thirst, with the overwhelming need to drink, and at the same time with the need to be outside, stretched out in the open air. The fever spikes again, and the victims of this microbe or this wave or this force find themselves seeking water, some local stream, the old canal, the town pool, the nearest beach, or failing that a puddle they’ve made with a garden hose, or an open hydrant. That’s where it ends, half in the water, half out, and whatever it is that makes it so makes the skin turn hard, which keeps the smell in. A good thing, as there’s nobody here to take them away anymore. That ended a while ago. A month. Two months. Before the big sweep.

 

When I hear the voices now I tend to talk. And she is so silent.

 

She’s got the big limbs and I’ve got the big theories. Some invented, some borrowed. This appeared to be my last and best chance to unload them. She didn’t seem to mind.

 

Getting into bed the first time we were like a long-married couple, neither attracted particularly to the other. But damn if we were going to let the opportunity go.

 

Open doors meant empty houses. Not contagious.

 

One open door meant a man inside, screaming at us, waving a bottle, my house my house…until he got a good look at us and stopped. Not sure what he was expecting, but not us. We waved, no worries. And just went to the next block.

 

She did speak, at least once a day, and usually about animals. The dogs and the cats. She did not speak like someone who was silent most of the day. Her voice was quiet but utterly clear, with perfect diction, and perfectly relaxed. Where have all the doggies gone, she said one day, as we stood on a back porch gazing at some enormous bright blue dog house in the corner of a huge yard. I said, you won’t tell me anything about you, but how about your parents. You the child of an English teacher? Speech coach? Lawyer? Folk singer? That got an eyebrow.

 

The drive was supposed to be a respite. When I got close to St. Louis, I thought I’d treat myself to a four-star hotel, but then I thought I’d better cross the river first. I was determined not to look as I crossed the bridge. I saw some cars parked on the bridge. The effort to keep my eyes straight and only straight made my hands prickle with heat and sweat on the steering wheel. I decided on a city without a river and headed for Bloomington.

 

At a gas station in Youngstown a man pulled up to the pump behind me. I was terrified and considered finding some means of self-defense in the store, but he seemed so glad to see me I instantly felt the same. He was also breathless and in a hurry. About 35 or so, a square, beer-and-football kind of face. He was on a cell phone, which he held away from his body as he told me with a laugh there was a group going from bank to bank with dynamite. He told me there was a club downtown with girls. He told me a month ago he’d had a wife—he admitted they were separated—and two boys. Come on, he said, waving his cell toward his big round gut. He seemed to want my company very much, and to assume I’d want his. I’m going home, I said, and I pointed east. He nodded and winced and he returned to his cell phone and I was forgotten.

 

At a rest stop in New Jersey all I could find was ice cream for dinner.

 

I met her on the bridge near the mall where, the sign intoned, revolutionary forces fought a delaying action against superior British forces trying to outflank Washington’s line.

 

What I was before was gone and that was OK with me.

 

The Theory of Likelihood. In explanations of the paranormal or extrasensory I estimate that the likelihood of someone making the thing up for whatever reason is so much greater than the likelihood of the thing being true, that discounting it all becomes an unfortunate necessity.

 

The Accident of Happiness Theory, also known as the Employability of Genius Theory, states that genius—and happiness—have everything to do with the intersection of an individual and a setting. Also called the Shakespeare Theory: an ambitious wordsmith drama star shooting for the big time today would have ended up in Hollywood; big shot for sure, but to be Shakespeare, he needed Elizabethan English and the Old Globe just as much as they needed him. The theory goes on to say that someone growing up in the 70s may be happy but that same person in the 80s will be miserable and both will hate the 90s. City people born in the year 9000 BC came 6,000 years too early. Country people born now will never feel right walking on pavement.

Me, for instance, I’m pretty well suited to an absolute calamity where you just have to let go of everything. You, too, I think. That’s why we’re a good match. No eyebrow on that.

 

I led her to my street at the bottom of the hill. It was easy to talk about the people that used to live there because I hadn’t lived there for several years and they could have been long gone as far as I knew. I told her about the Derringers, who introduced me to pornography in their basement. I pointed out the Berman house, now presumably without Rick, the boy who taught me basketball, or Jane, his gorgeous, long-limbed sister. There was the house of Jody, who never looked both ways and one day darted out in front of a car and with a squeal of brakes had both legs broken. Like Jody, I couldn’t stop. There are the Perrys, here are the Smalls, right by the fire hydrant where my brother crushed his bike, my brother who had called me several weeks before to tell me in a raging drunk that he had it, mother fucker, he had it, mother fucker he didn’t want to die, but he hoped he could find the mother fucker who did this so he could just blow him away with his bare hands. That’s one of the voices.

We arrived at my house even though there was no reason to be there. I had no clothes there.

I stood looking at the chipped and cracked flagstone walkway up to the dusty red split level. Couldn’t walk on it. Couldn’t budge.

Did you have any pets? She said in a casual voice as if she’d been chatting me up all along. No, I said. Did you? She unfroze me.

She took a few quiet steps onto the grass and peered into the Ginsberg’s bushes. She slowly squatted and began patting her knee. Raising her eyebrow. Aren’t the cats…trouble? I began. She turned her head toward me and mouthed the word, dog, over-enunciating to make sure I’d get it. There was a rustle and the dog broke the other way. She flinched and stood quickly, and then stepped toward it but it was many houses gone.

 

The first house we tried was up the hill, where the big houses are. An English tudor with a huge, cream-themed living room; cream couches, cream carpet, cream drapes. A cream piano. Creamy art on the walls. Big windows to a huge backyard. A dead dog by the birdbath.

 

In the first days of this perfect murderer (perhaps murderess, with its feminine delicacy) the sun shone on rumormongers. Walking by a garden, I blurted: “Rumormonger sunflower, sprouting quickly and in glory, turning to catch the warm rays of bogus useless information, producing many beautiful seeds and then falling over. Good one?” A shrugging little tilt of her head and I laughed aloud. That someone so still and silent could tolerate my blurtings and my jokes was something of a miracle.

The rumors were geographic: safe in the desert. Rumors were homeopathic: eat salt, drink more. Rumors were ecstatic: the messiah it must be because of its essentially merciful nature. There were runs on vitamins, there was the word histolic everywhere and I still don’t know what it means. There was some substance in some blood type that maybe just maybe was better to have. First O pos, then neg, the B then A. There were dazed newscasters listing departed colleagues. There were newscasters heading for New Mexico with maps of our blue world covered in red. On the positive side there was a general cessation of hostilities in most conflicts around the world. There was a tremendous bringing together of neighbors as no one knew what else to do. And then the sweep and moot was the word of the hour.

 

Hello, I said as I approached on the bridge. She looked up fast, flight or fight, and saw no danger. Neither did she speak. She looked back toward the stream, where we could see several former citizens sometime after their last drink. Unless you’re looking for someone, you can’t stay here, I said to her. She looked up at me. When she finally broke her silence, she said I want to find a dog. She spoke quietly, but was not whispering. She looked at me very closely before she spoke, and then let her words float out over the stream. I think that was the only thing she said the whole day.

Are you looking for a pet? I said, meaning her own, but I knew that’s not what she meant and my voice making conversation sounded utterly stupid. Back when the media were still pumping out their pages and their signals, there was talk of the pets. It was first found in cats, turning them feral. Bloodthirsty, not water thirsty. The dogs, however, were thought to be safe, and even offer protection. That’s what she meant, although there had also been talk about dogs, now, too. I’d heard it on the radio, the last AM out of Denver, a few days before I left. There’s talk about dogs, now, I said.

She looked at me closely again, trying to figure out if there was any sense in me at all.

Come on, I said, I’m going to see what food’s left in the Minimall. My treat. She turned away from the stream, did not look at me.

Please come with me, I found myself saying. To this woman a head taller than me. I thought of Youngstown. She walked off the bridge and I walked with her toward the mall.

 

It took a day to find out her name. I asked so many times it became a joke, and as soon as I found a joke, I stayed with it until she smiled.

Will you tell me your name if I promise not to use it? Will you tell me your name if I stop asking who you were looking for when you were standing on the bridge looking downstream? Will you tell me your name if I tell you it doesn’t matter if I know your name?

 

Angela. Mixed race, I think African-American and WASP. Big as she was, her little head made her seem gentle. And she had the soft sweet face of someone with a pleasant mother.

 

One morning as we drifted beyond my neighborhood, I took on the role of guide, though she may have grown up nearby, too, for all I knew. In Union, the black part of town? This was Lakawanna Township, southern section, the Jewish section.

 

It was with great Jersey pride that some local historian wrote in the 20s that our town and its vicinity was actually bought from the Lenni Lenape and not just for trinkets but for pound sterling, some four-digit amount that was no $24 embarrassment in trinkets. When the Indians returned to hunt on the land the next winter, clueless about the white man’s ideas of property, the colonists explained and ponied up the same amount of cash again for the hunting and fishing rights. The first residents agreed and went off to Michigan and I guess I don’t want to know what happened to them there.

I know you want to hear this, I said.

Tell me where you’re from and I’ll make up something about your town, too.

Her eyes smiled, even though her lips stayed soft and straight.

 

She would not tell me where she was from. She would not tell me what she used to do. She did not want to tell me anything, including why she wanted to keep silent or even that she wanted to keep silent. I was going to have to be OK with that.

 

The cat got her arm in the moonlit beauty of a center hall colonial. The thing had been coiled on the stairs and sprang in the dark we were enjoying. I’d said, check out the moonlight. As I tore the cat away, the cat clawed her skin. Then it sank its claws and its teeth into my arm. I flailed in blind terror. I hit its skull on a glass doorknob with enough force that the sound was like bone, not like fur, the limbs of the cat splayed as if I’d plugged its tail into an outlet and it was electrified. It was dead, and the two of us were standing, arms bleeding, looking at the dead cat.

Slowly, Angela sat on the floor. And gathered it carefully into her lap

 

It’s not contagious. Not contagious.

 

Angela took her first outfit after she fell chasing a dog. A mud-crusted golden, it leapt around as if it couldn’t remember whether the master was home or the hunt was on. She neared, and the dog circled around itself and began to run and then turn back. Baffled. Keeping his distance. Finally Angela took a lunging step, she must’ve known it was a mistake, and it was the first lapse of patience I saw. She slipped on the wet leaves on a lawn whose gardener hadn’t come in a while. I heard her curse, a whisper, and I loved it, I rushed over to help her up, but I really wanted to hear another curse word. Didn’t. We went inside and she found the right dresser. She did it with solemnity and honor. Blue sweats. Mid-calf.

 

After a few days, about the time we stopped pausing by the photos on the walls and the mantles and the dressers and the bedstands, we decided that the cat wounds were healing uneventfully. We celebrated. Goodbye solemnity. Now we were the bad kids sneaking around the homes of our parents’ friends when they were out of town.

 

We only drank the good stuff. Single malt we’d never heard of, never could have afforded. The wine cellar. We were the occasion it had been saved for.

 

It occurred to me that those of us alive might be alive because of some quirk of our immunities, and that we could be safe, and that any children we would have would never have to worry. They couldn’t ever catch it, whatever it was.

 

The theory of rapid and unexpected evolution. I used to wonder with my brother what would be the next step in human evolution? Losing the vestigial pinky toe? Bigger heads for bigger brains? Hooves for speed? But now I realize that that we don’t compete in a physical world anymore, we compete in a cultural world, and we are looking at social mutation, behavioral advances: it’s no longer about how many babies you can have, but how you can take care of the one or two you get, and not how you can beat out your neighbor, but how you can get along. Hail the return of the matriarchy. No comment from Angela.

 

I’ll tell you the real problem now. Guys like me with a theory about everything. That got both eyebrows going. Good one? Eh. Oh come on. All right fine, a good one. All without words.

 

For all my talking, I actually do believe I’m not a bad listener. I’ll pry open a scowl or a sigh. But here the best I could do was pretend to be chivalrous. Offering to make meals, making sure she had the coat or sweater or umbrella she needed. She nodded her thanks. She was never unfriendly. There’s no doubt she enjoyed the sex. She just never pretended I wasn’t a stranger. She also listened to everything I said.

 

Let’s walk up the hill. Better views, bigger houses.

A lovely walnut entryway. Deep white shag beyond.

 

She pulled out two or three videos and I very much liked the idea of a triple feature, but we couldn’t get the thing to work. We tried every combination of buttons on every black box and remote control, but could get nothing on the six-foot screen except the occasional screech of static and frazzle of wavy lines.

Perhaps we should retire upstairs, I said in my gentleman’s best. We strolled around several bedrooms larger than the master bedroom in my house until we found the master master, a huge beige affair with another huge screen, a recessed oval light fixture at least eight feet long and four feet wide, several skylights, and a bed big enough for eight.

 

Every new bed got the same treatment. She stood at the foot, peered at the night tables, fingered the spread, looked around the room. Then she’d pick a side, usually the left.

 

She was the first partner I’d never discussed birth control with.

 

Will you tell me anything now? Maybe you will tell me your age, simply because that’s the one thing most women won’t tell. She smiled at that. Can I ask you about things that don’t have anything to do with the past? She considered this, silently. But I couldn’t think of anything.

She carried a purse and kept a bone in a bag inside it. For the dog she was looking for. We made a couple of roasts and added to the collection. Never made a roast before. Came out OK.

 

In the morning we were hung over and thirsty but that was a thirst we weren’t afraid of.

 

We were tempted to stay put a couple of times, and this seemed like the best buy so far. An English Tudor, or fake English Tudor I should say, with old wingback chairs, little tables and floor lamps beside them, and floor-to-ceiling book shelves in just about every room. A freezer full of chickens in the basement. Nice, Angela said. Aloud.

 

On the second night the voices grew bodies and my brother and sister stood in the hallway just outside the master bedroom door in a dream that was not a dream until several minutes after I woke in a panic sweat. We gotta go, I said, as soon as she was up.

 

We walked a long way, crossing the bridge, though we didn’t look. We went to the cheap part of town with the skinny side yards and the vinyl siding. She let me pick the streets. Together we chose the homes. I liked this neighborhood. The beds were smaller. The rooms were smaller. We were in closer physical proximity. But there wasn’t as much to laugh at, so we went back up the hill.

 

Around dinner time we pick a place we think might have a view and walk around the house to look for signs of pets: pet doors, food dishes inside. Cats, bad. Dogs, good. Once inside she relaxes. A glass of wine helps. The only breaking and entering we did was into wine cellars.

 

After I’ve slept with a woman, I always fall in love with her, for as little as an hour and as long as years, and it always stays with me, at least some, even long after we’re through.

In Angela’s case it took a week before her face changed. Her body changed. Our sex changed. Her face, still small and gentle, was furiously beautiful, a perfection, her body the same. Our sex, better for me, worse for her, I think. Now, I love that her body’s bigger than mine. Wrapped in her long limbs a few heavenly minutes before she rolls over and moves away to sleep.

 

I woke one morning with Thoughts on Abrahamic Religion in the silence of a Southwestern-themed, cathedral-ceiling master bedroom with a view of a golf course. Patriarchal rage imbues the fear and the poetry of the great faiths. Rabid belief is a survival tool in the warrior culture. Each system must accommodate the need for order and the experience of awe. All of them are brutal, all of them beautiful, all of them corrupt in practice, but what do you expect? I glanced over for rebuttal, got none.

 

For a few seconds now and then she lets me investigate her hair. Half afro, half dark brown waves. To the touch, calm and rich.

 

Some days we’re walking along enjoying the sunshine, feeling invisible, like it’s the old days, like it’s still the Age of Anonymity. In the sun I catch a hint of red in her hair.

 

We made love several times before we held hands. I took her hand listening to the first jet we’d heard in days. I could feel her reasoning with herself: don’t want to but no reason not to.

 

More on Faith. Why would any omnipotent thingy create something that might not choose him? The usual reasons, I suppose: loneliness, boredom, the need to be greeted in the morning, adored at night. I could say we project on to this godhead both the needs of the parent and of the child, such is oneness. Or ask, which came first the chicken or the language? The egg or the idea? Whichever.

 

Though there were signs of pets in half the houses we chose, the first dog we got close to was a filthy Irish Setter scampering frantically after some squirrel and then luring us into a pink stucco monstrosity we would have never otherwise set foot in, now that we were in our Victorian phase. We heard running water. Smelled chlorine. We stood on the pink marble of an elevated foyer; to our left, two steps down, was a den, to our right, three steps down, a living room under six inches of water. Wavering as if the floor were some drunken white marble. Some slippers were floating by the piano bench near the door. Beyond the living room was a dining room one step up under an inch of water and beyond the dining room was an indoor pool overflowing into the house. There was a body by the spout pouring water and Angela made a shuddering cry, recoiled, and then stumbled back outside. With the dog calling from the other side of the heavy, carved wood doors, I had to pull her away.

 

Stomach flu and cold symptoms were not symptoms of the other, so there was something almost delightful in them. When I found her in a wall-to-wall mirror bathroom holding her stomach and grimacing I leapt up. I would nurse. And god bless her she let me. I put her into some rich woman’s silk pajamas and luscious cotton bathrobe. I gave her some analgesics. I made her some tea. I brought it to her in bed. I read her some Shakespeare and when she chuckled and waved me back, enough already, I went across the hall to sleep in the boy’s room.

She got better. We slept together again.

 

One night after dinner, we were combing through some jazz aficionado’s wall of CDs. Did she like jazz? No answer. OK, maybe that was not specific enough. Did she like Miles? Bird? Lady Day? Ella? Sarah? Ricky?

Ricky? She shot a glance. Just checking. There is no Ricky. I thought I heard a laugh. I know I saw a smile.

 

One night drunk, maybe the same night, I step right on the glass coffee table and swoop down on her sitting on a big boat of a couch, my heart pounding as if it’s our first kiss because it is our first kiss that’s not in the dark of someone’s marriage bed. I am aflutter. She gives me a bit of a sigh. Wait, she says with her palm, like an older person cautioning a younger person. Though I’m sure she’s younger than me.

 

Please let it be something we ate, or the liquor, or a relapse. I woke up to the sound of her barfing in the master bath and I raced in there. She was on her knees on a deep, white, shag stand-in-front-of-the-toilet rug, but she heard me coming and she held out a hand toward me. Her hand was part fist, part claw, pointing right at me and it said stay away. Don’t come near. Leave me alone she said aloud. The first angry words I’d heard her say. I walked over to her and she started shaking her head. Go she said, gulping down air between heaves. Then she threw up again, a wave that convulsed her, and I think brought some relief. She looked up a second and glared at me, OK, you happy now? You seen enough?

I couldn’t get closer to her. I couldn’t leave her in there. The breathing smoothed out a bit after a few minutes. I thought she was done.

Sorry she said.

Then she went again.

Go, she growled.

I went.

 

In the morning she said, No more pork. And laughed. We both laughed.

 

That wasn’t it. False alarm.

We went on.

I’d stopped hearing the voices. I’d not wanted them to stop. I’d not wanted to say goodbye then or now, but I admit it was a lot easier without the reminders.

 

Sober in the daylight I stare at her face. Face of intelligence, features soft, but sculpted flawlessly by whatever it is that sculpts features. I stare at what I can only describe as her personhood.

 

Out for an evening stroll we turn a corner and there are headlights in our eyes and then blue spinning lights and we hear what appears to be a man’s voice over the speaker: get down and show us your hands. Face down. On the sidewalk. I’m about to comply when I hear a girl’s voice saying cut that out, and we hear some giggling and laughter and the speaker snaps off and the car speeds away, with a two-second yelp out of the siren for see ya, suckers.

That was our only run-in with authority.

 

We could take cars but we like to walk.

 

Sometimes in the bathrooms I am tempted by the narcotics, but she wrinkles her nose.

 

Sometimes I find her with her face in her hands. Though not for long. Soon she springs up, opens her eyes, exhales, as if she’s just splashed her face with cold water and is ready to start the day.

 

I woke early and watched her sleeping, enormous in a simple cotton nightgown. For at least an hour I tried to think of what I would do or say or be to her when she woke up. Will you answer more of my questions now? Are we really lovers now? Can I run my hand along your long thigh as you wake? Can I make any of the usual lover’s assumptions? No, no, no, no.

She rose suddenly and went downstairs to make some coffee.

 

So I presume you’ve got some African history. What you don’t know is that I do too. I’ve got a nephew with black kinky hair who looked like he walked out of an Ethiopian religious portrait. So I always laugh a little when my brother says we’re Jew through and through. We have a cousin with orange hair. Can’t imagine how that might have happened, running across Europe for a couple of thousand years.

 

The Freaky Diaspora Theory is not a theory at all, just an observation that among the oddities of our world are the two diasporas that found themselves suitemates in America. I’ll say this now as fact because there’s no one left to contradict me…two of the fondest targets the world will ever know. With histories as opposite as they are similar. Can you imagine the hit parade or the story lines or the championship parades without the blacks and the Jews? Maybe, but why bother?

 

If history’s a soothing tick-tock then I guess the clock just broke, and I can’t help but miss it.

 

I would like to discuss, if there’s no objection (doesn’t even get an eyebrow, but that’s OK) the racism between blacks and Jews. Of course you’ve never imagined such a thing Angela but trust me it’s out there. Her smile, is just barely there, but I see it and she knows it. I once had a creepy awful Jewish slumlord. I was in college. The top floor was too cold for the mice. And the next year in the city I was knocked down by three black tough boys who took the boombox I was carrying. Therefore I hate everybody?

She was dozing on the love seat and I said, well that put you out. She raised an eyebrow, and my heart lifted.

Here’s more of my history you haven’t asked for. My great grandfather owned a small dry goods store in Waco, Texas in the early part of the last century. He was the only storeowner on Austin Avenue who let blacks in the front door. He had one hired hand, a black man who became a friend of the family and who named his kids after my grandmother and her siblings, Pincus, Isadore and Ida. When my great grandfather died, my mother, about seven, remembered looking up from the graveside and seeing hundreds of blacks faces lining the fence outside the Hebrew cemetery to pay their respects. There were two obituaries, a short one in the white newspaper and a full page in the black. The family displayed both of them on the store counter. Proud liberals, such proud liberals. And just think, it’s over now. Politics is over now. Race is over now. Maybe pride is over now, too. Who’ll miss any of it? Another sleepy eyebrow.

 

I want to tell her I how I feel about her but I have no idea how I can do that without making it sound like a critique of her silence, so I just keep talking about everything else.

 

She began changing sweatsuits once a day, sometimes more, even though they were always short on the ankles and wrists and she looked like a kid.

 

One day I woke up in a wallpapered room filled with antiques and old little frosty glass knick-knacks on the tables and the little shelves of the open rolltop desk and I was sure it was a Sunday. Just had that Sunday morning feeling. With no work the next day it was also something of a holiday feeling. With a lover asleep next to me it was a getaway vacation feeling. With no idea what day it really was I snapped on the radio. DJ was playing old swing tunes and seemed unaware that his mic was on, picking up his off-tune humming along.

 

A black lab met us at a back door and flooded into Angela’s arms. She produced the longest string of utterances I’d ever heard come out of her. ThazzasweetiepuppysoaloneI’mherenowbaby. I could’ve used a little of that, but it was still good to hear words like those coming from her.

 

The dog had just about finished the toilet water and was looking skinny. We made steak for three. We found a corner of the basement he’d stunk up, and we were impressed at his orderliness. Catlike.

 

Angela searched the house, a rather drab 70s place (we were on to modern) until she found a leash. What do you need that for? I asked and she just lowered her eyebrows at me. To keep him safe, stupid. She didn’t have to say it.

When she reached down to put on the leash, the dog licked Angela’s face. And for the first time I saw her smile. Really smile. I saw those great big, perfect teeth light up the grey afternoon sky. A high blissful tone sang from her throat, unlike any sound I’d ever heard from her – or maybe anyone.

 

When we found out what dog food he liked best, we went house to house til we found it and we stayed until it was gone.

 

We let the dog in first, and in one house, a sprawling glass box affair, he chased a cat right out the kitchen cat door. Angela looked over at me to say, See? I think it was the first time she’d been asking for my reaction. I say I love it. I mean him. I love him.

 

We called him Labbie, rather I called him Labbie. She didn’t have to call him anything. She whistled. Loud whistle. Hadn’t heard that before either. He’d come running from anywhere in the house.

 

We saw someone a couple of blocks away before Labbie caught a whiff and when he did he barked him (or her) out of sight. We might have wanted to talk to that someone. We decided that Labbie knew best.

 

I told her I loved her after a wonderfully drunken night of sex where we went room to room, the boy’s room with the trophies, the girl’s room with the trophies, and back to the parents’, where we’d had enough and just lay sloppy in each other’s arms. She looked into my eyes, really looked, another first. And she sighed. As if to say I wish I could.

 

Answer me now. There’s been more sense to your silence than to my chattering but maybe now you will say something. Another smile with the eyes, unbetrayed by the lips, and then she says, all right. I’m Irish. I don’t know why but I laugh like it’s the last joke in the world.

 

We are downtown, no shops open, a few others coming out of delis and restaurants, Labbie silent at Angela’s command. They wave at us, but no one’s stopping, no one believing anything but the food they have in the car they have. There’s no unfriendliness, though, and I’m thinking it’s simple: there’s no unfriendliness because no one’s got a reason to be unfriendly.

We near a corner. From around the corner a raging dog comes running, all-out stride, foaming at the eyes and blazing at the teeth, full attack, straight for us, too sudden to move, and Angela is calm as ever—no, calmer, somehow ready for this moment. She simply holds up a forearm to take the teeth of this dog, and as it leaps to accept her invitation, I lunge at it too late. But it’s not too late for Labbie who flies out of nowhere and smashes skulls with this attacker at the last possible second and as they fall to the ground in a writhing mass of dog death I pull her away, both hands, all my strength. I hold her and we watch until it’s done. The raging one limps off. She rushes to Labbie, takes his bloody body in her lap.

 

We’d had a couple of weeks, the three of us. That was the best.

 

One day I woke and she was a husky blue shadow in the dawn at the foot of a huge bed looking down on me with a large glass in her hands. Chugging it. Water? I said. She nodded. The dim light hid her emotion from me, but not the sound of her heavy swallows. Just stood there, chugging at me. I pushed back the covers, rushed to the edge of the bed, stood up, and was about to knock the glass away when I stopped myself. I sank back down on the bed. She met my stare between gulps of water. Then I stood on the bed again, and approached her slowly and reached for her and gently pressed her head to my chest. See, this is what it would have been like if we’d never met and you had a boyfriend the right size. I didn’t say it. I didn’t say anything. Finally, I shut up.

I bet she would have laughed.

No, not laughed. Just raised an eyebrow.

 

 

 

BIO

Jon FriedJon Fried has published short fiction in Third Bed, Eclectica, Bartleby Snopes, Beehive, Pierogi Press, Pindeledyboz, Map Literary, Scissors & Spackle, Lamination Colony, New Works Review, The Doctor T. J. Eckleburg Review and Prick of the Spindle (soon) and other literary journals and e-zines, as well as songs he has written for a rock band he co-founded called the Cucumbers, which has released several recordings. He is working on a collection of stories about work called Transcendent Guide to Corporate America and a series of novels based on some colorful characters in his family tree. A Little Bit Closer to Water is set several years ago, so some of the media references are a little out of date.

 

 

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Adult Jeans

by Evelyn Levine

 

The Girl was dragged to the mall by her family. They took the large forest green suburban. When they arrived, the family flopped out of the van like fish freed from hooks. Little Jimmy even fell on the asphalt and scraped his knee. They got ice cream at Priar’s Creamery to heal Little Jimmy’s wounds.

“Can I get a bite of that?” Uncle Bill asked Little Jimmy, already reaching to take the frozen treat.

Uncle Bill took a giant sloppy adult bite off the top of Jimmy’s mint chip ice cream. Little Jimmy whimpered small and sad, and took the cone back. It now had a deformed top: an ugly ridge down the center of the previously perfectly scooped domed delight, and it was dripping.

The Girl did not want to be at the mall, it was too soon. She told her family it was too soon, but they didn’t agree.

“We have shopping we have to do,” said The Girl’s mother.

“That’s right, it is nearly Christmas,” said her father. He adjusted the neck of his argyle sweater.

The family split up between wings of the giant commercial wonderland. Everything was garlanded and mistletoed. The gargantuan synthetic Christmas tree was up and covered in shining ornaments, sleigh-bell-infected music echoed through the halls. There were no real pine needles or peppermint candies in sight yet it smelled like pine needles and peppermint. A fat man posing as Santa would start working at “The Magical North Pole Gingerbread House Photo and Holiday Greeting Card Center” in two days. Two days had passed since Thanksgiving.

The mother handed The Girl a couple of twenties and instructed her to buy some new jeans. The jeans were the reason she had to go to the mall. The Girl only had one pair left because she had secretly destroyed all of the rest in protest. The dark blue jeans went in the dryer for a few hours too long, the white ones accidentally fell into the load of reds, and the purple pair got lost (under three feet of dirt in the backyard late one rainy night). For about a year The Girl refused to change out of the one pair of jeans for anything: parties, church, bed.

* * *

The Girl kept the same pair of light blue jeans for over three years after the accident. For the first six months her mother was sympathetic. She knew The Girl was deeply depressed. But, as the months turned into a year, the family decided to take action. At first her mother had tried just getting The Girl new jeans. She measured her daughter and guessed her size in the stores but the jeans she bought for The Girl never fit. Some jeans fell down over her hips and others grabbed too tightly on her thighs, and they were all too short.

The Girl ensured the jeans never fit by slouching, wearing multiple pairs of underwear when she tried them on, or simply disagreeing with the style. Did she say bellbottoms? No, she meant skinny—wait, boyfriend cut. The Girl would tell her mother that she didn’t like jeans when they were anything but blue, and they had to be just the right blue. They were never the right blue. Her mother was fed up with bringing home jeans for The Girl, and The Girl retreated further and further.

The morning they sought professional help, Dr. Sinnlose Bedeutung, the mother went to the backyard to call her daughter in for breakfast. The Girl was in her treehouse as usual. However, unlike the everyday silence of reading, or soft sounds of singing, the mother overheard The Girl in a one-sided conversation.

“Last week when we went to get groceries—”

“At Ditmart, yeah–”

“Well, then Dad picked up the big bag of groceries and the cans all fell through the bottom! In the middle of the store.”

“Yeah, it was just like that time–ha, ha”

“Yes! We went out to dinner with your Mom on her birthday and then we told the waiters–”

“And all of the ice cream went everywhere!”

“Glass, chocolate fudge sauce…”

“The guy in the giant Sombrero–ha, ha, ha!”

“He was so confused.”

The mother had heard The Girl and Minnie tell this story many times but now half was missing, at least for the mother.

* * *

Dr. Sinnlose Bedeuting was a New York Times Bestselling author to a “groundbreaking” children’s psychology book called Die Probleme Kindern or, The Problems of Children. The mother read the book in one night after picking it up at the airport waiting for the father’s delayed flight to arrive. When he came out of the arrivals gate, she went running towards him with the book first, outstretched in her hand.

The father did not consume the book with such passion and fervor. However, the father loved his wife and worried for The Girl. The mother believed Dr. Sinnlose Bedeutung was their only chance to save The Girl.

The Girl’s very particular situation moved the family up Dr. Sinnlose Bedeuting’s waiting list quickly. One day, a few weeks after emailing his office, they received a phone call with a recorded message saying they would have their phone consultation with the doctor the next day at 2p.m. The half hour phone consultation would cost them five-hundred dollars and “The Child’s presence would not be permitted for the duration of the conversation.”

The mother waited impatiently by the phone, reading the same line of The Problems of Children over and over again in anticipation.

The Child is not self conscious enough to communicate their own mental dysfunction and must be treated as one with Aspergers or another social syndrome… The Child is not self conscious enough to communicate their own mental dysfunction and must be treated as one with Aspergers or another social syndrome. The Child is not—

The phone rang. The mother yelled to the father to pick up the line. The three spoke for half an hour. Dr. Sinnlose Bedeutung had broken English. He read the overview of the case and prescribed a treatment at 1:50pm, just before his assistants had dialed the family’s number.

“What do we do?” the mother pleaded into the receiver.

“Es ist sehr sehr wichtig” a breath, “Ah, I mean, it is very very important that she be immersed” said Dr. Sinnlose Bedeutung. The heard some pages being turned back and forth.

“She needs to buy the — eh — jeans” he said.

“We have been trying but she won’t take any that we have gotten for her” said the father.

“Ja,” he replied blandly.

“She refuses them from any store” added the mother.

“Doch, ach so, she must be immersed in the experience, so that she may ground herself in reality. She needs to buy them herself in das gleiche Mall. Erm, excuse me,” he stopped. Typing clicks and clacks filled the receiver. Then an indisputable spacebar. A pause.

“In the– same mall” Dr. Sinnlose Bedeutung finished, a satisfied resonance in his voice.

The father was outraged and hung up his side of the phone. It was seven minutes before the half an hour was up. Every minute counted twice, as almost seventeen dollars and as almost seventeen dollars closer to curing The Girl. The mother finished the conversation.

The mother and father shared a pot of coffee before the father went to pick up The Girl from school. The father called Dr. Sinnlose Bedeutung a crackpot in a mocking german accent.

“He is a kreckpoot darling. He is all pop-psychology nonsense.”

When the father picked The Girl up from school that day she climbed into the green van and the father saw the shredded, dirtied, and harrowed jeans. They barely stayed together on his tiny daughter’s frame. Her brown hair was perpetually unbrushed and her blue eyes bleary.

That night, the mother and father concluded conclusively. The Girl would have to come along to the mall for Christmas shopping that weekend and buy her own jeans.

* * *

They told The Girl that they had to go to that mall because the other was two hours away, and then the other mall was three hours away. That was too far away, even for a Saturday. Her parents told her that repeatedly. The night before the trip to the mall The Girl laid prostrate on the linoleum floor in the kitchen. She begged, she promised to do extra chores, and she even told her parents to cancel her allowance. Forever. She refused dinner and desert, which was apple pie, which she loved. The Girl cried all night and it made no difference. The Girl tried to hide the following morning but it was all for naught because she just hid in her treehouse.

The family didn’t want to leave the Girl at home alone to waste away the day in her treehouse reading, they said. And, she did need new pants. But really, the family didn’t want to leave The Sad Girl alone to vanish.

* * *

The black and white checkered tile floors in the mall were mopped and shined so thoroughly, the Girl worried when she stepped on the black tiles that she would fall into her reflection. She crumpled the two bills her mother had given her in her sweaty left hand and stuffed them in the only pocket without giant holes: back left. She began to hop along the white tiles. The journey to the other wing of the mall where the Gape was, began.

In her only jeans, the Girl had clambered over logs, through branches, and tripped down streets chasing the school bus. She had ridden her bike and fallen off, harvested carrots and mud pies from the garden, and she had done all those things with Minnie. The jeans were now so short, it looked as though the Girl had gotten a shin extension. What were a pair of boot cut jeans were now a pair of capris with some holes, for extra air. That is what the girl said when people asked; she needed extra air.

The jeans also had patches. The Girl fingered the stitches on the flower patch above her knee. She liked the daisies, they smiled fondly at her. She liked the softened denim and the frayed edges she could braid when she was bored or nervous. She held on to the daisy patch as she danced from one white square to the next. Maybe she thought, she wouldn’t reach the store before her parents and everyone was done shopping, and then she wouldn’t have to go to that wing of the mall. It was unlikely. She kept hoping anyway.

The Girl approached a large modern fountain on her right. Water fell from a metal hoop suspended from the ceiling by shiny metal wires and other pipes. It was two floors up. The water rained down into a shallow black iron basin. Children stuck their hands under to feel the sharp streams. The air was chlorinated and the chlorine permeated the Girl’s brain. She swore she could taste it. The Girl remembered the day when she and Minnie stuck their hands into the fountain.

“You can throw these pennies in, but do not stick your hand under the fountain” The Girl’s mother had told them, handing each a few coppery coins.

When the Girl’s Mother turned her back to look at some mauve silk outfit in a storefront, Minnie and the Girl reached out to catch the water in free-fall. It tickled and stung a little bit too and they laughed. They both wiped their wet hands on their pants, behind their knees, hoping the Girl’s mother wouldn’t notice. Later, the two girls were surprised, the water stained their pants dark blue. When the water dried, they both had upside-down dark blue handprints on their pants. They must have dyed the water blue. Minnie and The Girl found that idea strange and silly.

The Girl put her hands on the backsides of her knees and felt the presence of the blue stains on the light denim. Minnie had completely ruined her light pink jeans. Neither of the girls ever got in trouble.

The Girl lost her footing jumping with her hands behind her knees and nearly fell into a black tile. She straightened out her arms for balance and steadied herself. Some passerby looked at the girl and wondered where her mother was, others thought about the sale on flatscreen TV’s and navigated quickly around the suddenly wider obstacle. Some huffed and hissed at The Girl.

* * *

Uncle Bill was in the Sharper Image store, like always, testing out the massage chairs, while Little Jimmy played with the remote control cars. The wouldn’t buy anything and Uncle Bill would yap on and on to the poor salesperson. He would tell the salesperson about how the founder of the Sharper Image was an alum of his class at his college, Yale. Some days Uncle Bill even said that they were friends back in the day, at Yale.

“What an opportunity I missed back at Yale,” Uncle Bill would say shaking his head. The salesperson would have to agree, reluctantly.

Then, Little Jimmy would beg for a red remote controlled car and the two would leave the store, Jimmy in tears. Uncle Bill did not believe in buying toys. Every boy is a man in training, and men do not have toys.

* * *

The Girl tip-toed, trickling down the first floor thoroughfare. To her left, in the center of the division of the main vein of the route, kiosks parked their petit a-line roofed carts. Some attendees sat idly on their tall stools, legs dangling, figuring that the monogrammed keychain market knew themselves and didn’t need to be reminded. Other attendants were stool-less, on their feet, black pants and brightly colored polos communicating fun and sensible vibes in association with their products. The last form of attendees were the exotic, aggressive and “foreign,” pedaling lotions and cremes with salt and herbs from the Dead Sea in ambiguous European accents. The Girl’s mother did not like the way the attendees grabbed.

The Girl thought the attendants voices were funny and wondered why they never tried to reach out and douse her hand in the thick “revitalizing” cremes.

The Girl thought about all those afternoons Minnie and her spent making potions. They didn’t consider themselves witches, but they had never read anything that said they too couldn’t make potions that would work. Some potions were dry and made of twigs, leaves, silk flowers, and plastic animals. Other potions were made with water, and a little bit of milk for that beautiful moonstone color (but they weren’t supposed to waste the milk like that, so it was a secret). If either girl had a particularly hard day at school, they would meet up later at The Girl’s house and make a potion for the problem. The day before they went to the mall together and ruined their pants, they made a very special new potion.

Minnie adjusted a purple tasseled lampshade slipping off of her tight brown braids. It looked like the lamp had two sets of tassels, the longer set thick and with multicolored bow clips on the ends. She always lost those little plastic clips. The Girl dawned her towel head wrap and lucky silver plastic beads. The two girls circled their hands over a small orange plastic bucket that once held chalk. It was the cauldron.

The Girl was being bullied by a boy named Ned at school. Minnie asked The Girl if she was being “chastised.” Minnie went to the advanced school downtown. The Girl didn’t know what all the words Minnie used meant; she didn’t mind though because she knew they weren’t bad words.

The Stop Crushing Me potion was a dry potion. It consisted of one plastic alligator, symbolizing Ned, the annoying boy, twelve flower petals from the pink rose bush, one palm frond, one small plastic butterfly, symbolizing The Girl and her desire to be free like a butterfly, a whole peel from a clementine broken up into little bits because they had just had an afternoon snack and one feather, because it was pretty.

The girls chanted around the potion for several minutes and then got up to do the official potion-casting dance. But, unlike the many other successful days of the dance, The Girl stumbled in the final high kick and accidentally spilled the dry potion on the floor and on Minnie’s exposed brown ankle. The girls didn’t know what to do; they had never spilled a potion before. The Girl told Minnie it was fine, and Minnie said it didn’t actually matter cause magic wasn’t real. Still, something was off.

* * *

The Girl’s mother and aunt were together no doubt, at some store like Chido’s perusing the clothes. They would talk about how if they lost five pounds, life would be simply better.

“If I lost five pounds, I think I could squeeze into this red number” one would say picking up a red dress.

“If I lost five pounds, I think I would be better in bed,” the other would whisper. Then, together they would cackle.

“If I lost five pounds, I think I could get a raise at work–” one would say seriously, and then the other would interrupt.

“–You know, I read this book that said that skinny women get paid more.”

“Wow,” the first would say.

“Yeah,” the other would say.

“That is not okay,” the first would say.

The women would leave the store with scarves and five-pound resolutions.

* * *

The Girl tip-toed on the white tiles. She was getting near the turn off for the Gape and North Wing restroom. The Girl hadn’t been back to the mall in three years. So far, it looked about the same. The Calendar 365 store, that only sold calendars was gone and the Jamble Juice that was replaced by a frozen yogurt place replaced by a cupcake place, was now a pie shop called Gimme a Slice. The Girl had no idea how the new North Wing restrooms looked.

* * *

“It’s only four stores” her father had told her as they pulled into the parking spot earlier that day. The Girl knew it would take hours.

“And, it is only one pair of jeans” her father said pulling the keys out of the ignition. He undid his seatbelt, turned around and held the Girl’s hand for a moment. Then he kicked into high gear.

“Let’s go kids!” he said to everyone, leaping out of the van.

The Girl’s father was crossing the mall alone with the Christmas shopping list and his silver fountain pen. He loved the feel of a physical list in his hands. He said that. The Girl was pretty sure it was because he couldn’t figure out to do it on his phone. Her father insisted the list was more definite, more tactile and serious, and he could use his pen. It was a nice silver pen. He said he liked to check things off his list. He would get everything just as it was written and no more and he preferred not be disturbed while doing so.

Christmas Shopping List

  • Red remote-controlled car
  • Williams-Sonoma seasonings gift basket (with black truffle salt)
  • Silver daisy charm bracelet 8’’
  • New York Yankees (not Mets) Cap
  • Wrapping paper from Washington Middle School art program fundraiser

 

* * *

The Girl turned the corner of the North Wing of the mall and looked into the candy store that on her right. Giant decorative lollipops bordered the back walls and garlands of wrapped candies hung from the ceiling. Spinning silvery chocolate kisses topped to the towering self-scoop candy bins. The rush of sugary air and color collided with the Girl’s senses. She stood still on a white tile and stared into the store. Her chest suddenly shrank and her heart pounded. It felt like that time a small bird was trapped inside her second grade classroom, and it just kept slamming against the windows and couldn’t get out. But now, the bird was trapped inside of her.

Minnie and the Girl had bought sour apple strip candies and malted milk balls at the candy store. The Girl had the malted milk balls and then after tasting some of Minnie’s candy, realized she should have got the sour green apple strips. They were really sour candies so Minnie went to every water fountain where they stopped in the wing of the mall. It became a game.

Eventually Minnie really needed to go to the bathroom. They went to the North Wing restrooms and the Girl waited outside with her and Minnie’s candy. They never got to all of the water fountains.

* * *

The Girl passed the candy store and saw the Gape down the hall, a dark blue sign with brightly lit white letters. Then, she saw the dark blue sign for the bathroom. She touched the crumpled money in her pocket then put her hands back behind her knees. Did she really need new jeans? Wasn’t there somewhere else she could get them? No, this was the place to go. These were adult jeans and she was supposed to be an adult.

* * *

The Girl was standing near the slatted wooden benches in the middle of the hall eating Minnie’s sour apple candy. The Girl lifted the bright green sugar-coated chewy strips and slowly lowered a few into her mouth. She liked to lick the sour crystals off of her lips. It was fun the way the sharp crystals rolled around her taste buds.

The Girl had hardly been standing there for a moment when a strange low groan became audible. It stopped. Then, there was another groan and a rumble. The Girl’s hand went back into the bag of candy. She opened her mouth. There were a series of crashes. Thundering, the noise echoed across the mall corridors. It was so loud the girl went to cover her ears, but then she heard Minnie’s cry. The scream careened over the deep noises and cracks of collapse. It was not a word or series of words but just a long call of pure desperation. The scream pricked every inch of The Girl’s body, summoning an army of goosebumps that stood at attention. The circulation in the mall stopped for a moment of human shock. All that could be heard was a chorus of humming lights, soda machines, air conditioners and the incessant Christmas music jingle.

The Girl ran in to the bathroom. She surveyed the scene through the dust of the fallen debris. Minnie was nowhere to be seen among the rubble. But, there was an enormous red, yellow and white clown statue, laying across the mounds of stucco and tile. It had a characteristically friendly smile and one waving arm. The Girl slammed down on to her knees and starting digging through the rubble with her hands. Her fingernails split, bled and filled with mushy plaster. She dug through the wet mess, pieces of the ceiling continued to fall and pipes were leaking. The Girl tried to lift the heavy pieces and look under them but she was too weak. Every muscle in her body strained in the absence of more strength. She yelled for Minnie. She hoped for a familiar small brown hand stacked with beaded bracelets. The Girl found nothing and did not stop. When the paramedics and emergency services came, they had to tear The Girl away from digging. She screamed as a fireman lifted her up from behind under her arms, and tried to fight against her forceful displacement. The paramedics wrapped The Girl in a blanket and had an wide-set fireman with a big white beard watch her; he kept her from running away.

* * *

The serious and suited on television used the words “unprecedented,” “unexpected,” and “quick” to describe the accident. Eye-witnesses with giant shopping bags cried crocodile tears and spun stories of shock and terror. The news cycle feasted on the girl sandwiched under the clown statue.

Engineers determined that the cause of the collapse was structural. Arguments rang out over what had been the final straw. It was a load-bearing problem around the piping and there weren’t enough support beams. There were enough support beams, it was lightening-quick Costa Rican mold, they said. The truth: there was no mold. It could have happened any day, they said. Although, it was hard for the to ignore that upstairs, right on top of the restroom, stood a new bronze eight foot tall clown statue celebrating fast food glory. The sheer force of the stature could have crashed through two floors. They said it wasnt the statue.

The new North Wing restroom was funded “anonymously,” though the money that might as well have come with a Smiley Meal Toy. Money changed hands and further investigation became private. Then it stopped altogether.

They all told The Girl that Minnie’s death was instantaneous and painless, but the scream that day, forever set in her mind, disagreed.

* * *

The Girl stood in the North Wing of the mall on one white tile. She was dizzy. The Christmas music and smells stirred around her and her vision blurred. She wanted to be gone. She stepped forward, straight on to a black tile. She prayed she would fall through. Was she in the world of her reflection the black tile promised? No. Her mouth felt sour. Something was fighting to come out. Would the bird finally be freed? The Girl’s mouth opened and the sourness cascaded all over her pants, it went through the holes, dripped down her bare legs, into her pockets, on her shoes and on the black tile below. The smiling daisies frowned.

* * *

Three deep breaths later The Girl turned away from the direction of the restrooms and stepped, shaking and soiled, into the Gape. She walked past the infant section, and then through the kids section and to the women’s. The Girl could smell her curdled self but kept moving to the women’s jeans. Two female employees stood behind the check out desk whispering and casting concerned and quizzical looks at The Sullied Girl in the women’s section.

The Girl left the mall wearing a new pair of light blue jeans, a little stiff, a little darker than she dreamed, but fitting. She met up with her family at the fountain carrying the sad daisies by the soft white string handles of the paper Gape shopping bag. She sat in the van on the ride home wondering if she had lost something.

 

 

BIO

Evelyn LevineEvelyn Levine is a senior English major at Whitman College. A native of San Francisco, she hopes to one day be able to afford the rent. Evelyn enjoys spending time with her vocal cat Alan, baking for friends and family, learning Tai Chi, and playing the mandolin (albeit unskillfully). This is Evelyn’s first fiction publication.

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Aaron Weiss

In the House

by A.A. Weiss

 

We take turns raking up leaves because we don’t have actual jobs. The trees aren’t so healthy and die a lot, or at least spill their leaves during the wrong parts of the year. There is never anything left by autumn. I remember being afraid that one of those sick trees would die, for real, and collapse into the house and through my window and right into my crooked bed. But that actually happened once, later, and it wasn’t such a big deal. Whatever dream I’d seen was much worse than the reality. The tree didn’t even break the window.

We, in the house, are all fat. Everyone follows a pattern. You come in the house—skinny, large—however that might be. Then you gain weight proportionally to how much servicing your head needs. They feed you so you’ll feel better. There’s something psychological to it, I think. You don’t think when you’re eating. So if you can’t stand raking leaves and can’t sleep with another person in the room and finally wake up when the floor boards squeak, and then can’t go back to sleep, and get stiff back pain with metal, folding chairs and don’t like to “sound things out” and hate having your Polaroid taken—then you’re gonna get some food. That’s the pattern.

So it isn’t anyone’s fault that we all get so fat so quickly. Not really. The doctors and house workers just want everyone to feel comfortable and food is an obvious remedy. That’s how it happens. Pizza parties were only on birthdays at first, then later on school holidays and then later on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. The food pacifies us.

The house wasn’t made specifically to support large young folks. The ones who grew big just surrendered to a large act of suggestion. The real theme of the house is to turn sad folks into happy ones; or rather a simple explanation like this is good enough for now. The house workers are paid to entertain us and feed us and talk to us. They get paid extra if we talk.

There was a meeting, awhile back, where all the people who worked for the house got together and talked on their own, without us. Some said we were too fat, and some said being fat was okay if we were happy, too. The house workers then asked the doctors, like they always did, and the doctors looked at charts and diagrams and determined skinny folks would be happier, in theory.

They started with rope jumping, which I was okay with, but that was too advanced for most of us. As a group we needed to work on coordination. And you needed a waist to bend for sit-ups. It was all just a little bit sad. So the house workers decided to take us away, put us on tour, so that we’d stop associating the house with physical torture.

We went bowling on that first outing. It was also a billiard hall and an arcade and a place that sold beer, which we all wanted to look at and possibly sip. I wore a pair of Velcro bowling shoes, more room on the ends than the sides. I remember thinking the lanes were like rows of corn and I was a giant looking over them. I used to look at everything as if I were a giant.

The whole experience of “exercising” us took about ten minutes because the balls were big and no one could hold them. The house workers complained and were told how professional bowling establishments didn’t have baby-balls or bumpers. Our gutter balls were depressing, and that wasn’t allowed, so we ended up chicken wings and watching Jurassic Park on the alley television.

They consulted a professional camp counselor for this second trip, and we were each given a sleeping bag to lean against on the bus. I think everything—the backpacks, the tents, the bug spray, the headlamps, the maps, the trail mix with dried fruit—was all donated. It had to be. We got the windows down and the bus stopped smelling like mold if you had the breeze in your face.

All the house workers were with us, four total, I think, but there was only one doctor. His name was Walker the Doctor and nobody liked him, I remember that. I didn’t like him. Still don’t. He is the doctor with the uncomfortable hairpiece and the soft voice. If you cry he will pet you on the back. I hate that. But he was in control of this bus. I looked at him, sitting up there in the front, talking to the driver with his calm voice and hands, and it was comforting to know that he was the same person inside and outside of the house. It wouldn’t be like I was going to learn this guy had a different life—could speak six languages and played the guitar—was interesting and, in fact, all my hateful presumptions were wrong. That would have worried me. But this doctor had no secrets, no surprises, no identity that I wasn’t aware of. His unchanging character was like: “Okay everyone, this isn’t going to hurt at all…Exercise is going to make you feel better…We can’t touch your toes for you…”

The house workers told us right away how we wouldn’t be able to do everything. The park was very large, included much of the area’s Atlantic coast, and had far too much ground to cover. But the trees were tall and green like I wanted them to be—big, healthy needle trees with squirrels and humming birds and everything else that I wanted to see. That’s what I was thinking just then—how separate it was from the house.

After pitching our tents some of us went off to the rocky beach and were followed by the doctor and a couple house workers. It was at the bottom of a hill and the doctor had to pay money. The water was cold and I convinced everyone to go hiking. I remember thinking how perfect the trail I wanted to walk sounded in the guidebook. It was the “View of East Coast paradise” and I think you could see a lighthouse, some lobster boats and even a few whales if there weren’t any clouds. And I had a group of folks wanting to go up with me—young, fat ones that had ground-floor rooms because they couldn’t handle the stairs. To my surprise, Walker the Doctor said, yes, go, and all of a sudden I was leading a group of us, slowly, up the craggily rock beach with only two house workers accompanying us. I was happy.

So the Precipice Trail, the one I’m talking about, went directly up a granite cliff. It was strenuous, no doubt, but I had confidence after reading of the switchbacks in place and the iron rungs stapled into the mountain. They’d support me, I thought, no problem. I imagined myself riding a clock pendulum, swinging to the top. That’s how it would have looked if you spent the whole day watching me.

 *  *  *

The two house workers now fronted our convoy of young fat folks, already panting from the exertion of walking carefully, as instructed, over the rocky beach. The house workers met the ranger first and had to listen to a prepared nature speech about Peregrine Falcons. They were dangerous birds, territorial, nesting on cliffs, and would attack the eyes of whatever threatened them, and so on. And they had claimed our trail for the rest of mating season. That was the speech.

The unarmed ranger said no, absolutely not, we couldn’t go, I couldn’t go, no one could go, not even the house workers if they went on their own. “It’s not personal, it’s nature.” And I think the house workers said something like: “…please…we bought a permit to exercise these folks…”

And even though the ranger said nothing about talons, I knew the falcons had them. I imagined large claws ripping up a baseball glove. It seemed every animal in the world had a built-in weapon, something intrinsic—or forcefully acquired—to warn other birds or people or menacing pieces of plastic. That’s what I was thinking.

The sun was at my back, so I didn’t have to squint. Then a man came, arrived walking, and a few things changed. And it wasn’t a change that I noticed to be good or bad. It passed like I imagine a concentrated blast of evolution would—leaving you in a foreign place without any how-to books. But at this point, I didn’t even know who he was. I should mention that. But I remember this, I said: “Damn, he looks just like my Mom.”

I’m not making that up. I really said that. It was the first thing I thought after I saw him.

He slipped behind all of us large folks and the unarmed ranger was too preoccupied with our exercise permit to notice him going onto the path. The forest was covered with soft things, the crunchy branches still on the trees, and he was wearing green army pants too, so that might have helped him blend in. I just remember him thanking me silently, with a wink, then disappearing up the path. He probably thought I was some type of leader.

He didn’t come back into view until later, when the ranger raised his binoculars in disbelief. The man with green pants had started climbing the Precipice and he’d taken his shirt off to get a tan. His shoes were good, you could tell because he wasn’t slipping like the ranger was saying he would: “The trail hasn’t been prepared,” and so on. But the climber was so far away that only the wind could carry the ranger’s words, and by then they were meaningless.

It looked like a rubber action figure was moving up the wall, fluidly, without joints. He wasn’t going back and forth around the switchbacks like I thought he would, but rather made a straight line up the vertical granite face. So he must have known something about climbing. The man was small up there, but I could see that much.

The ranger had a radio instead of a gun and called someone who yelled at him. A Bar Harbor police cruiser pulled up and the cop and the ranger started talking. They were friendly to each other, probably were friends, and appeared to enjoy the climber’s show. The unarmed ranger didn’t look afraid like he had been before, when the climber first appeared on the mountain. The bosses would see it his way, he imagined, I think. “You can’t stop some people,” they would say, “…and he does look good up there, like he knows a thing or two about climbing.”

Twenty minutes later there was a new ranger shouting threats with a bullhorn. He was privileged with a better uniform than the first ranger wore, one that looked closer to real military, with a larger shield. There was also a growing audience that might have distracted the climber. Arriving parents lifted children onto their shoulders for a better view. Retirees on their way to the rocky beach paused to look, towels draped over arms, floppy hat-brims pushed up for an unobstructed view. The cop surveyed the scene and decided he wasn’t going to do anything.

I was present the entire time and I don’t think any of these things fazed the climber at all. That is to say, it was definitely the falcons that made him fall.

There were four rangers now—the youngest, two middle rangers and a final old ranger—and they wanted to arrest the climber when he came back down. They needed to demonstrate how forceful angry rangers could be. The cop had gone back on patrol at the request of the old ranger, so he was gone, but the parents wouldn’t take their kids away like he asked them to. The retirees refused to carry on down to the rocky beach.

The birds were noiseless, or at least were from where we stood. I don’t know what the climber heard as they came off the cliff side. The falcons moved in a group, there were three, and they went for his hands as if knowing which method was most efficient. Like I said, the Precipice wasn’t an up-and-down mountain, the climber just chose to attack it that way. It was more like a jagged face with many levels. He didn’t fall that far. He rested on his stomach about twenty feet below where the birds had met him. Everyone stood up taller on their toes at the same time looking for movement or blood, anything, but it was hard to see without binoculars.

The old ranger didn’t speak and I wondered if he would be the one to retrieve the climber. Or maybe his job was over, I thought. I remember feeling anxious more than worried. I had nervous energy, and I asked a house worker if I could go get the man, honestly believing the workers would let me do anything if I asked politely. I wanted to cry, not because of the tragedy, but because I thought I could do something active to help and knew, impotently, that no one would let me.

The whole event seemed more like a movie than an accident. When it was over, everyone kind of stood up and nodded and left. There were no sweating climb partners speed-climbing to reach him, and no exhausted though still screaming wife, and there wasn’t a white-faced relative waiting to identify the body. No one around knew who he was. The doctors would be the first to know his name, or possibly the helicopter medics if they checked his wallet for a picture. Only then would they know what his face was supposed to look like—or they could have asked me. I knew what his face looked like. But no, we went home, to the house, after sticking our feet in the ice-cold water at the rocky beach and collapsing our tents without ever sleeping in them.

A week later a house worker forgot to recollect his newspaper from the breakfast table when he went to wash his dishes in the kitchen. There were lots of sad things in newspapers, international mostly, and this was a rare chance to see something forbidden. The sound of dishwater would drown out the sound of crinkling newspaper, I realized, so I grabbed the paper and spread it out. My heart raced because I was touching something forbidden. My fingertips were sweaty, and I couldn’t get the pages apart, so I scanned the front page.

I don’t know if it’s like this for everyone else, but if I’m looking at a whole sheet of newspaper, spread out over the table, I can use my mind to cut out everything that I’m not going to like. But I don’t always get to choose what will interest me. It’s like a subconscious filter that works before I even realize I’m missing something. I might skip over an article because I don’t like the picture beside it or because the headline doesn’t have a name or for some other reason of detail—I don’t really know how it works. And sometimes I’ll go back to a page I just turned, not trusting myself, and I’ll say: “Nope, you were right—you don’t like politics and you don’t worry about gun control ever passing and you don’t care who’s running for sheriff because you can’t vote anyway and you don’t need to lose time looking at the Wal Mart ladies model plus-size underwear.” And I’ll just remind myself that I’m one of the people I can trust—if that makes any sense.

I found the obituaries.

The man’s picture came out of the print before I even knew what to look for. Due to the rarity of the circumstances and the tourist-dollar-implications of his death, he’d been given kind of a starring role in this edition of the death pages. The man had been a victim of a climbing accident, with no local family, and the autopsy had been in Bangor and his name was Arthur Boyd.

I am also Boyd, I should mention, and this was not one of life’s amusing coincidences, my having discovered the man who’d fallen off the Precipice trail was my namesake, but a touch of high-consciousness to the center of my being.

I howled.

My compatriots around the table, previously perhaps envious of my newspaper and at least partly complicit, were now clearly re-afraid of authority and left the premises. So when the worker returned from washing his dishes I was alone, clutching the paper and screaming. I was crying, but if he’d looked closer he would have seen that I was elated, connected to the world, and really not a danger to anyone or to myself. What I’m saying, you know, is that the guy freaked out, in my opinion, and that I didn’t require the tranquilizer injection.

When I woke up, unrestrained at the hands but tucked tightly into bed by a blanket around my waist, Walker the Doctor said, “You’ll be treated like an adult.”

I wished to speak about the Arthur Boyd.

“My colleagues don’t understand that people like you, Alan, good people, become adults many years before normal children.”

I agreed with that. I’d been more mature than the kids at school.

“The only way to run our house is to accept reality; you guys are already adults, yes, but you will have to remain in the house until your maturity coincides with the normal adult laws that pertain to drinking and driving and smoking and voting and renting movies. You’ll just have to wait at the house until the rest of the world realizes how old you are.”

This was a well-practiced pacifying speech, way off-topic.

The newspaper containing the death pages in question had been folded into an approximate eight by ten size that he could put on his clip board. I saw it poking out from the sides. He was currently writing on it.

“Arthur Boyd,” I said.

And as though Walker the Doctor knew what I wanted, what I was getting at, linguistics aside, he said: “There are many people with your name. Here, there, everywhere. You’re not related.”

“Necessarily,” I said. I’d meant to say not-necessarily-related, but maybe, but I was too emotional to get it all out. I then thought to mention that Arthur Boyd had looked exactly like my mother, as a way of proof, but only, “Mother,” came out, and then, worst-possible-scenario, my mother was on the phone while Walker the Doctor stood in the corner, standing at a legally responsible distance, pretending not to listen.

“I love you, Alan,” she said.

“Arthur Boyd,” I said.

As though worried, she said, “Your name is Alan.” She paused for me to respond. “Alan?”

“If he was family,” I wanted to say crisply, clearly. “I could have lived with Arthur Boyd. But now he’s dead and I’m sad about that.”

I didn’t get all the words out.

Walker patted me on the back as he took the phone away. He spoke to my mother. His tone was even, polite, professionally supportive as if nothing in the world would ever change, and that was okay. I couldn’t feel my legs, so tight under the blankets, and so I kicked like I was doing extra-hard sit-ups for the military, hoping to untuck them, which Walker the Doctor must have taken as very aggressive, because he pinched my neck again and then I felt very sleepy. The air in the room changed. I was alerted to the walls taking on different tones—browns, reds, oranges and other comforting shades. Walker was using his voice, still calm, though wanting something from me, but I didn’t hear specific words, so he wasn’t a bother. The door was open and what I wanted was getting closer. What had just recently felt like burning was now just warmth. I was enveloped. I smelled spaghetti sauce and toasted bread and thought, pizza!

 

 

BIO

AA WeissA. A. Weiss grew up in Maine and works as a foreign language teacher after having lived in Ecuador, Mexico and Moldova, where he served in the U. S. Peace Corps from 2006-2008. His writing has appeared in Hippocampus, 1966, Drunk Monkeys, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, and Pure Slush, among others, and was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. He lives in New York City. Website: www.aaweiss.com

0
Veronica

Van Hulse

by Veronica O’Halloran

 

 

The net this morning. Hulse is dead.

 

Immediately:

The body. Two boulders on a squalid mattress – nude? half-clothed? clothed?

Did he die in his sleep? Was he on his way to lunch, failing to arrive?

Infarction, stroke, congestive heart failure, massive unspecified cardiac event?

Auto-erotic asphyxiation? Rough trade too rough?

The colour of his skin when they found him. Who found him? Did they have keys to the house? Break a window? Call the police?

Was he alone?

Who lived with him?

He was unlikely to have had a cat.

The net’s already gabbling about the funeral, suggesting our pequeño PM elect’ll be there – our arts-defunding, abortion-banning, gay-bashing, state-forest-mining, ocean-plundering, refugee-imprisoning, medicare-privatizing, pension-cutting, wage-depressing, poor-bating, billionaire-coddling Vladimir Putin mini-action figure, our very own Putinesca of the South Seas, who emerges, dripping, bare-chested, tiny-Speedo’d, onto the sandy edge and front page of every new morning; our untethered id-monster, our new national lowpoint, grinning over every sky and behind every bathroom mirror, here to be us, here to stay –

Hulse made him thinkable.

More realistically:

The room. There, on his right side, huge and mounded, on a respectable bed, his left shoulder and back covered by a dressing gown of thin fine dark grey silk, his body lies cooling. In this box of early winter light the motes are floating unseen. The traffic fluctuates outside.

There are crushed velvet curtains, His glasses are on a table. There is the ticking of a small clock. It’s the clock he had when I knew him.

The kitchen is shadowed and cold. He used to be a good cook.

So he is dead. As dead as his parents, the one he loved and the one he hated; as dead as his oldest friend, as the teachers he by and large despised, who knew it and gave him a Third for his pains.

He – His body is still in the front bedroom, in the tarnishing light. The world is continuing. Tick by tick by tick he’s becoming meat. The friends will be on their way, will discover him.

Tall, high ceilings. Shadows.

I don’t want to look at his office, clunky Microsoft monstrosity or sleek, subverted Apple; photos with the famous, small-canvas stand-ins from large-canvas stars of Australian art. I don’t want to see the mechanics of what he’d become. I know what he became.

He outstayed his welcome.

It was that insistence he had: Attend to me, attend to me. He’d been beaten as a very small child. He needed nurturing but couldn’t stop dominating long enough to accept it. And so one day in the study-room, we – I watched, appalled and fascinated – threw his bag through the window, forcing him downstairs to save it, and locked the door behind him. (How thin his old schoolbag was when he picked it up; how it gaped shapelessly; how the empty brown paper bag inside it gaped, the only thing in it, gape inside gape.) It was three on a Friday afternoon; our translations were due at five. People could only give him so much time. He was my friend more than theirs, and he was trespassing.

Of course he didn’t want to go home. His father’s viciousness; his father’s corrupt, corrupted, terrifying face; soft, squashed, unmoist; uncooked dough; white mud after the passage of a column of tanks. A jagged opening for sharp, yellow, misshapen teeth. His father had been a coast watcher during the War, observing enemy troopships, isolated for weeks or months at a time, raped by the rest of the squad. His mother, bright-faced, smiling, dutiful, dependent, had been cut off by her relatives for marrying beneath them. Of course Hulse wanted to stay with us.

That was the year he was seventeen. Brilliant, lonely, a grass-blade burning.

He gave me a pot. I have it still, a small, unfired clay pot for holding bath-oil, I think – too small for olive oil, too large for perfume – with one intact amphora-shaped handle and a delicate body with one small hole, dug up, he said, by his uncle, a construction engineer working in Cyprus. It needs to be appraised… I wonder if he had a Will. It would have been like him to make one, feeling grand doing it, gifting, bequeathing. He needed to feel grand.

The house is grand enough, proportions, size. Grotty floor, counters, toaster, crumbs. It’s a gilded shack.

Oh, Hulse! Jesus!

 

*  *  *

 

We sat on the slope above the artificial lake and smoked, two children hooking it from lectures. Green-grey eyes and dark copper hair, an old pair of skinny brown cords, but you skinnier. The fags were yours. A payday splurge, broke three quarters of every month. Bonded, Education Department money.

The day you directed us, one of the Post-Grads in his Beetle, you, me, to the house in the hills your parents were renting then, wisteria over the front verandah. You made omelets. We ate under the flowers and talked about Winnie the Pooh. Childhood – hail and farewell – an informal tableau: the one you wanted and never had, happy portent and happy prelude to a brave new life: Joden Van Hulse, man of letters, boy wonder.

In any college in the U.S. You could have taken tests, passed, and bypassed most of the material they taught there. No doubt about it. But that was Australia, and I don’t think that’s possible there, even now. Lord, being punished themselves, how they believe in punishment.

So Hulse went exploring, skipping lectures, talking to the brightest people he could find, always in the caff, learning how to win the match game from Last Year in Marienbad – Most of our year was perpetually writing: essays, translations, tute papers; noses to the grindstone, just like high school, though in my case with a louche party or two thrown in, there and back on the back of Hulse’s scooter. He needed company; he needed a reciprocating passion.

So there he was, in the caff, while we were in the library or the study room. There he was when The Imperial Schematic first appeared; there he was, brilliant, well-read, aching for the position his temperament and gifts were ideally suited to; there he was, better equipped than any of us.

And there Warner Gilchrist was, as the months went by and the months revealed, firmly in the only editor’s seat there effectively was, firmly active editor and part-owner of the press The Schematic was printed on, and firmly, wordily, overweeningly occupying as many columns as he was printing.

“Bubble,” Hulse laughed, appalled, choking, back of wrist to mouth. “Can you imagine all that orange pubic hair?”

We both hated Warner. Even two years out I could see that he’d probably get all the angels and stars on the Christmas tree – the scholarship, the tutorship. His stupidity was fashionable and most of his teachers were fools. But Hulse understood what I did not: that editing the student paper was the established path to becoming a writer or critic of real reputation – Chris Pollnitz, Peter Craven, Christos Tsiolkas – and so Hulse lobbied Warner, and for a couple of months we were the Schematic’s joint literary editor. I gathered some good material; Hulse passed it on. I had to drop out but Hulse kept gathering.

Three or four issues later he told me that nothing we’d presented was seeing print. Again Hulse understood what I did not: that Warner would keep locking him out for the next two years and the succession would bypass him after that; that Warner had not only locked him out but had done it after pretending to let him in; that no matter what Warner accepted, from us jointly or from Hulse alone, he’d never print a word by anyone else if he could help it, that the literary editorship was at best a title, and in effect a waste of time, a cruel joke.

I was too busy to pay much attention. But Hulse was humiliated, and rather than continue in humiliation, he resigned.

For culture I’d had tantum ergo and mea maxima culpa and watching other kids get caned. I had things to read, things to learn.

But there Hulse was, in a desert: superbright, bored, compelled to be there another three and a bit years (Teacher’s College bonded), poor as a church mouse, ugly in some ways, openly homosexual when homosexuality was still illegal, nothing to learn, nothing to do, and as gifted as Oscar Wilde.

By the following year I was running out of time to be his friend. I had to produce a huge amount of work or lose any hope of a job that wasn’t an office or a shop or a short drive from suicide. He began to know people, I had the impression if I came up for air and had time to hear, I was relieved not to have to know.

By the time he was writing his thesis I’d been working in country schools for a couple of years. I saw him during the holidays. At the end of the second year we met at his local. I was working, so I paid. Just as the waiter was handing me the receipt Hulse remarked that I lacked charity.

I’m sure I’d said something tart, but that remark so annoyed me – for its truth or falsity, I’ve never been able to tell – I didn’t see him again for ten years.

The weight of not seeing him… It always felt like ten years. But now that I’m piecing it together, I find it was actually not quite five.

I’d finally got a full-time job in Melbourne. At the employment office, the day I applied, I’d bumped into Hulse’s old friend, George. He’d got married; we all had dinner and kept in touch; George put Hulse in touch with me.

He came into the office. As soon as I recognized him – waved copper hair a wiry scribble of black frizz, unkempt to the point of dirtiness, heavy, hand-spun Mexican cardigan shapeless, filthy as if he’d slept on a hillside – I bundled him out. The shock was his face, his head, ballooned and thickened with flesh and bone – so much thickened bone – skin shining with grease, eyes huge behind his glasses, blinking; huge head turning, looking about, myopic, goblin, looking about, looking for my desk –

I got him to the pub across the road, set him up with brandy, got some food into him. He was starving, had been for years, he said; the weight was from eating spaghetti, so much, so long. He was in Melbourne to meet Acheson Tooms, the columnist, the ad-agency man, the nationally known, leftwing columnist and ad-agency man. Tooms’d been retained by The Age to revamp its look and increase its market share. Tooms wanted to see the mockup Hulse and a friend had put together.

He was staying with George and Serafina. He was most like the Hulse I’d known when he was talking about the work. Otherwise – It was partly the sheer skankiness of what he had to tell: being fired by Flagstaff High (the Teachers College bond) for being openly gay; a junior Arts Council administrator’s offer of a Fellowship for a blowjob (waste of a blowjob). Partly it was that he was as broke as I had been on the edge of being for years, and in his presence, in his implicit request for patronage, I could see myself losing everything I had, and still not being able to rescue him. (The pain and abandonment in his eyes as he held his gaping bag and looked up at us.) Partly I was afraid of what his proximity would involve me in, madcappery in quarters seamier than I wanted to visit, demands on my mind and time I couldn’t meet. I was ashamed of all this subtext, and ashamed of my relief when he said he was leaving.

He was booked to go back to Adelaide by bus. The night before he left I had a party at my flat, everyone I knew and all the wine I had, among the beanbags and the cushions on the rug, everyone mellow and happy in the yielding, endless early autumn evening that flowed through the windows, the air and the grenache so soft I still remember them.

Tooms hadn’t paid Hulse and was no longer taking his calls.

And so Hulse caught the bus with no idea what he was going to do.

The bus crashed.

I must have heard about it from George: Hulse in hospital in East Melbourne, hairline fracture of the pelvis, refusing painkillers any more potent than Valium for fear of addiction. As well as my full-time job, I still had the part-time teaching job that had paid the rent while I was a student, I’d teach two nights a week, visit Hulse two night, and spend the weekends marking the long, mid-year assignments for two large classes. After a couple of months I was exhausted. I quit teaching, though I liked the job; insisted, though it was the middle of the year.

            Oh, what a blow that Phantom gave me, Hulse read to me from bed. He was released o George and Serafina, on crutches, to finish recovering. I was relieved and guilty and ashamed, too ashamed of my relief and reluctance even to get in touch.

A couple of months went by. I thought Hulse was back in Adelaide, “Do you think there’s some genetic component to alcoholism?” George said, one lunchtime. (I knew where George drank at lunch. Occasionally, I needed to, too.) “Hulse used to ask me to smuggle grog into the hospital and give it to him when the nurse wasn’t looking. And we both know about his dear papa.” (George? Visiting? Hulse always made it sound s though he had nobody.) (Of course George and Fina would visit him. Of course they would.) (Hulse never asked me for grog / that was interesting / he used to read to me to forget the pain.)

“He’s still at our house. He just sits and drinks all day. Fee likes him but she’s pregnant. She’s tired and he’s demanding, When he was well enough we asked him to leave. We put him on the train. When we got home that night he’d broken a window and climbed back in.”

Of course Hulse didn’t want to go back home, to the tumbledown farmhouse he was renting near Victor Harbor with the mockup friend, which had neither comfort nor care, which was miles from anywhere, no car, no money –

I didn’t offer to take him. I should have. But I hid from Hulse in anger and dread, from George and Fina in shame.

He did leave, eventually.

It was Warner all over again: Tooms locking him out after promising to let him in. (How many other little teams did Tooms have on the long finger? How many people did he do that to?)

I saw Hulse that Christmas – a jumbled impressions of a small flat somewhere in North Adelaide, a little silver Himalayan cat he’d procured from somewhere, to breed for money. A tiny, delicate cat, shimmering fur, tiny bones. She weighed nothing.

The following Christmas he told me that he had bred her, didn’t have the money to take her to the vet, and she died.

That he had seized that tiny, airy nothing and tried to force it to work for him – His greed and ruthlessness. The death of the cat, that black tide in my stomach, swallowed anger, disgust, grief –

Shit, Hulse! Why didn’t you just get a job for a while? Just for a while, just shut the fuck up, get a job, get some money? The Ed. Dept. fired you. You didn’t owe them time or money. I know you were beaten until you were six years old, I know you were seduced at a party when you were twelve. I know it’s a miracle that your sweetness survived as long as it did. But why the fuck didn’t you just get a job, any job, just for a while?

I remember exactly the small cottage in Chapel Street he bought in ’79, with the compensation from the bus crash. I was surprised that he’d bought a house, though looking back, I see it makes perfect sense – his father’s poverty, the abyss always nearby. That was the house we were in when He told me about Warner’s death. He was also starting to write for some obscure political rag.

If Tooms had paid him, acknowledged him. The doors that would have opened!

 

*  *  *

 

I can’t remember exactly when he began the affair. The net says it was ’73. I think it was ’72. We were still at ease, speaking.

He told me he was considering it. He was living in Tynte Street, across the road and down a bit from Channel Nine. He was skinny, still; the sun was knifing into my eyes; the house he was renting a room in was large and white (wrought iron balcony), two storeys; my body was leaning into departure, his was leaning over the fence.

George mentioned it to me once, at the beginning. I was relieved he was as dubious and quietly aghast as I was. We weren’t disturbed because Hulse might have fallen in love, but by the very real possibility that he hadn’t. The man’s eminence terrified us. We thought of Icarus. We spoke of the actualities, the calculating / humiliating Mrs. Thursday Night aspects of the.

            Deal is the word that comes to mind. Oh, God, Hulse, stop! I am aware that that’s the automatic American idiom for anything from an eventuality to an arrangement.

            Situation, then.

I could never stop you. I couldn’t even stop you trespassing on our time.

The net says the affair was long-running.

So was he your rich lover when you had the cat? Were on the dole? Taking your mockup to Tooms? Breaking George’s window and starting to break our hearts?

Did you end up killing the cat because you didn’t want to be a whore?

 

*  *  *

 

I left Australia at the end of ’81, relieved to be out of the concrete fog of the place, the official, semi-official, informal, familial, banal and endless nagging, bullying, micromanaging, minging, yattering; to be out of the smothering non-language, away from the closed-down loss of hope after the fall of the Whitlam government. To be able to think and breathe.

I don’t know how Hulse came to edit the Southerly Vista; he wasn’t one for writing letters. I phoned him a few times, those first years (when trans-Pacific calls were far from cheap); he told me then. I assumed the mag pre-existed and that he’d been hired in the usual way. It very gradually dawned on me that that might not have been the case.

I never knew where the money came from. It always seemed to me that the money followed on the affair. It was certainly subsequent to it. (Where else could the investors have come from? Where else could access to them have come from?)

In ’86 Hulse bought one of my stories. I used a pseudonym. My own name appeared under a letter I hadn’t written.

In ’88 my mother died; my father was ill with grief. We went to Adelaide, stayed with my father, saw Hulse at the Vista‘s offices. He gave us ten strange, distracted minutes, talking of mad, deliberate AIDS carriers, looking half-mad himself while he waited for the Vista to come from the printer. We rose to go. We needed lunch. He recommended a restaurant we couldn’t afford.

The second time he bought a story from me I didn’t hear from him at all. In ’95 I ran into an old Adelaide friend in Rochester, New York. We stood on the sidewalk, in the wind off Lake Ontario, my ears so dysfunctional all I could hear was the wind, and all I could feel was the way they were swelling in the velocity of the cold. We went to a coffee shop to hear ourselves speak. Hulse had published the thing in ’93.

I knew immediately. I couldn’t believe it; couldn’t credit that he’d do it and that he’d actually done it to me; couldn’t believe he thought I’d never know. Adelaide’s a small town. He’d published it under my name. Some time after I wrote to Hulse the Vista‘s managing editor apologized, enclosed a cheque, blamed the clerk.

That was the last day of our acquaintance.

 

*  *  *

 

In 2005 I was trying out a new search engine, testing it on old names and obscure places. There was an image bank as well. I read the photo.

You’re at a Wine and Arts Festival, unrecognizable except for your lips: ballooning skull, head, neck, all ballooning again and still, not with air or bone but with flesh, cheeks hanging, spreading, thickening, not quite loose enough for jowls; thinning hair (more skull, more thick and brutal bone) – your grossness, suggesting greed, suggesting little piggy eyes (they are, small, watery), suggested pig. But pig is wrong, beside the point, beside the soul, beside the vomited mountain of fat that you’ve become. You’d glisten like aspic if I stepped away and looked back.

And then I read the articles.

When the owners sold the Vista you went to The Age and then to Murdoch, arguing that the Timorese have no claim on Timorese oil and that Aboriginal land claims are irrational, falsified, and a hoax, especially those based on the claims of women – You’re against anything but the expanding power and reach and purview of the rich, against the whole box and dice of a middle of the road social democrat polity, against the rights and claims of people as battered as you were, who owned even less than you did –

And while you were with Murdoch you went speech-writing for Satan’s altar-boy, that earlier PM, the one who introduced barbed-wire prisons for refugees and indefinite prison for their kids, and who, on the excuse of child abuse, marched in and took control of Aboriginal reservations.

Reservations tend to lie within proposed mining leases.

You weren’t like that on the grassy slope.

What have you been doing, Bella, while I wasn’t there?

What are you doing dead?

 

*  *  *

 

Warner screwed him. Tooms screwed him. For all I know The Australian Worker screwed him.

The money for the Vista came from the affair, one way or another. Judging by the net, the Vista‘s literary section truly was great, everything the Schematic’s should have been, probably, in method, everything he recommended for The Age.

 

*  *  *

 

And so, he’s dead. And this is the cargo of things that won’t be said at the funeral:

That in his quest for power he did great and permanent harm to many people poorer and less powerful than himself; that he abetted the most destructive drives and elements in Australian society, making it acceptable for “decent” people to vote for a fascist government; that if Tooms had paid him, acknowledged him, if Warner hadn’t lied to him and humiliated him, if the Imperial Schematic had never been set up the way it was, if the students who owned the press the Schematic was printed on hadn’t also officered the Student Union and so made both ends of it, and brokered and signed off on the deal, some of all this might have been avoided.

 

*  *  *

 

That knot of us, the three I knew and half-knew: Warner, dead of his father’s blind love and his own conceit, ’79; George, that frail angel, that small, constant universe of compassion and delight, seroconverted, gone, ’91; and now you, standing beside me as I work, telling me how to get that photo to print, with that hesitant, trademark stutter you had when you were stunned by what I’d failed to see and were trying to be tactful, a hungry ghost.

 

*  *  *

 

Online the local vocals – the prefects and hall-monitors who appropriate everything, accustomed to owning and legislating every level and dimension of the word appropriate – pity him, deceived by power, mocked for his weight –

As though that is the point, as though the suffering he denied and justified can be pitied and personalized and foibled away, as though his loneliness were an absolution, as though the self-deception that enables ambition weren’t also a choice, as though blathering over the coffin and the corpse will leave anything whole or mended –

Stop your blithering! Leave us, who knew him before any of this, when he was all hope and gifts. Leave us to our grief!

And then explain to us, who’ve never been explained to yet, the difference between dishonesty and corruption and the way things are done.

 

 

BIO

VeronicaVeronica O’Halloran has taught English, Media Studies and Cultural Studies in high schools and colleges in Adelaide, Melbourne, and Los Angeles. She now lives in Cuença, Ecuador, where she is working on a book of short stories and completing a novel.

 

 

 

0
James Gallant

Andrew the Vihuela-Player

by James Gallant

 

Daniella the black cat sneaks into the chamber, hides beneath a chair, and waits until Andrew is absorbed in his vihuela, then ascends lightly to the windowsill. She likes being there–his playing sweetens her sleep–but he does not like having her in the room. The contented rattle in her throat disturbs pianissimo. Aware of her presence he will remove her bodily.

Today, though, she is not the disturbance: There is a rapping at the door. He opens to Lady Cobb. “Andrew, Jayne needs your help in the kitchen.”

Lady Cobb’s smile has the slightly ironic edge it has always when Jayne and he are associated in any way. She has never approved her husband’s assigning the two servants adjacent private rooms connected by a door– another demonstration of Sir John’s understanding and generosity, as far as Andrew is concerned.

He follows Lady Cobb down the stairway to the kitchen on the lower level. He wears the same fustian work clothes and heavy shoes of Sir John Cobb’s other male retainers, but his red hair is longer on the sides than theirs, the remains of a fashionable haircut he received before playing for Queen Elizabeth.

Dark-haired Jayne, well-endowed in bosom, thigh, and rump, bends over the hearth pot she stirs. When she turns his way, her cheeks are rosy, her forehead curls matted by steam. She’s all business as she equips him with a wicker basket and knife, and orders him into the kitchen garden to pick lettuce and early raspberries. Her hostility has been palpable since she learned he is to leave the Cobbs. Did she suppose they would live together forever, man and wife for all intents and purposes?

There had been a shower while he was at his practice; the flagstones leading into the garden are wet. After hours of musical abstraction, the garden is a bower of loamy-smelling bliss, and his spine tensed by concentration relaxes as he bends over the chartreuse lettuce and plucks leaves near their gritty bases. The lyrics of the medieval troubadour song he is setting to music are running through his mind:

Absent sun,
Stay beneath the dark sea.
Lest he sail, I be undone.

Drowned star,
If you should leave your watery tomb,
Then what is dear to me is far.

Fair moon,
Cease movement, save my life
Weave a spell, forfend the noon.

Eternity,
Deface the heartless calendar.
Rest in peace, my surety!

 

Footsteps in the grass beyond the raspberry trellis, and voices: Andrew’s surrogate parent and benefactor Sir John Cobb and (Andrew assumes) Richard Hakluyt, who was to have arrived today from Paris with his fiancée Duglesse Cavendish.

“Spain is selling wool from America more cheaply than we can ours. English dominance in the market will end.”

“What will become of our sheepmen?” Sir John asks.

“I fear the worst.”

“King Philip’s been very quiet since Drake embarrassed him at Cadiz. What do you suppose he’s up to?”

“I have no idea, But the Pope called him a coward for letting Elizabeth and a pirate tweak his nose, and he’s a very proud fellow.”

“Been to our stool room since you arrived, Richard?”

Hakluyt laughs. “No, why do you ask?”

“Harrington’s installed for us one of his new odorless flushing commodes.”

“Well, I look forward to being odorless!”

“So do we all!”

The two men are laughing.

Andrew’s knife slips from his hand and lands in the grass.

“Who goes there?” Sir John calls.

Andrew peers around the edge of the raspberry trellis and smiles at the two older men.

“What are you doing, Andrew?”

“Picking raspberries.”

“I’ll have you know, Richard, that lad is one of the finest instrumentalists in England….Andrew, this is Reverend Hakluyt, the author of Diverse Voyages Touching the Discovery of America.

“Might I ask why one of the finest instrumentalists in England is picking raspberries?”

“Why are you picking raspberries, Andrew?”

“Jayne told me to.”

Sir John winks at Andrew.

“What instrument does Andrew play?”

“The vihuela.”

“I’d no doubt be impressed no doubt if I knew what a vihuela was.”

“An old Spanish instrument resembling our lute. My father brought us one from Aragon years ago. I once showed it to Andrew when he was a boy and I have never seen it since except in his arms.”

“A born musician.”

“So it seemed. John Dowland arranged for him to play recently for the Queen.”

“But he’s a servant?”

“His parents were servants of ours. They died in a fire here some years ago, and Andrew became our charge. Soon he’ll be going to Denmark as a musician at King Frederick’s court.”

“Really? How did this come about?”

“Frederick and my wife are cousins, you know. He paid us a visit after doing business in Edinburgh earlier this year. When he heard Andrew play he wouldn’t leave until we agreed to part with him.”

“And you did?”

“It was either that or have him stay longer and consume all my best wine!”

“The stories we hear of Danish tippling are true?”

“So it seems.”

“Will I get to hear Andrew perform?”

“This very night.”

 

A pleasant mid-summer evening. The Cobbs, Hakluyt, and couples from neighboring estates, dine on tables arranged amid flower beds in the walled garden.

Andrew does not ordinarily wait tables, but a scullion is ill, and Lady Cobb has asked him to help out. The meals Andrew takes with other retainers do not include meats except at Christmas and Easter. Never having acquired a taste for them, he finds the stench of flesh in the oven room faintly nauseating. He delivers a plate of roasted blackbirds to the garden, and takes up a position to one side of the diners to await commands.

“You wouldn’t believe the number of fine palazzos being built in Paris,” Hakluyt remarks. “Every Tom, Dick, and Harry must have one, it seems.”

“But how does every Tom, Dick, and Harry afford one?”

“There’s an Italian usurer on every street corner offering loans at some incredible rate of interest.”

Andrew tries to imagine wanting a palazzo.

“I was recently at a house whose larder was bare. The owner had so much money tied up in house payments, he could barely afford to eat.”

“I’m much too fond of my roast beef to fall into that trap!”

“So am I!”

Desserts having been served, Lady Cobb whispers, “Andrew, put on your livery.”

To Andrew’s way of thinking, performing in the nude would be symbolism more apt than the garish livery, but since he’s going into the great world as a performer he may as well get used to looking like a juggler. He dons the red-and-gold striped doublet with pansid slops,* gartered gold Venetian silk hose that ascend to the lower hems of the doublet, and a red slouch hat with a golden feather. Vihuela in hand, hoping not to be seen in this getup by other servants, he makes his way back toward the garden.

Jayne smirks at him as he passes the open doorway to the oven room.

Twilight is deepening. Candles have been lit on the tables in the garden. Andrew seats himself in a corner some distance from the diners to pluck the strings softly as he tunes them.

“Duglesse, is your cousin Thomas still drinking tobacco?”

“He’s never without his pipe since coming from Virginia. I was with him in London last week when a Puritan preacher approached us. He informed Thomas that a person who breathes fire and smoke belongs in the bottomless pit and will soon be going there.”

“I hear that a servant saw smoke coming from Raleigh and thought he was on fire. She poured a bucket of water over his head.”

General laughter.

“This is all very interesting,” Lady Cobb says, “but I believe I heard the enchanting sounds of the vihuela.”

The guests smile at Andrew.

“Isn’t he splendid in his new livery?”

“The raspberry and blackbird man has become a Bird of Paradise!” Hakluyt exclaims.

As Andrew draws his stool nearer the guests, Lady Cobb describes his “wonderful opportunity” in Denmark. He does a bit more fine tuning, plays a series of swift runs, and then composes his thoughts a moment before playing a fantasia from Luis de Milan’s pieces for vihuela, followed by his transcription of a lute gigue by Valentin Bakfark, and then his own lengthy, demanding fantasia.

His playing has engendered awed silence in his audience and altered the ambiance of the gathering. At last a woman murmurs, “I didn’t want that to end.”

“I feel I have been to heaven and back,” says another.

The guests rise from their seats, stroll pensively in the moonlit pathways of the garden, or, wanting to be alone with their thoughts, make their way to their quarters in the castle for the night.

Andrew is on the verge of sleep when the door opens tentatively between his room and Jayne’s. He simulates the hoarse breathing of a sleeping person, and the door closes with a bang.

*   *   *

There is a forest of masts tilting back and forth gently in the harbor at Plymouth Sound. Rowboats large and small ferry passengers and baggage to ships on either side of the stream. Dock workers and carpet bag-toting sailors swarm among oxen and drays, kegs of gunpowder, tall piled coils of thick hemp rope, cannon ball pyramids, tar tubs, barrels of salt beef and salt pork and beer. The sounds of vendors ringing hand bells to advertise their wares reach the cliff above the harbor where Sir John Cobb and Lady Cobb stand with Captain Smathers of the ship Wanderer.

“What an amazing sight!” Sir John exclaims. “How long has the Royal Navy been in port?”

“All month, locals tell me,” Smathers replies.

“A confrontation with the Spanish must be imminent.”

“That’s possible,” Smathers agrees. “The sun and moon were bloody over Plymouth three times this past week.”

“You’ve no doubt heard the Pope declared Philip King of England?”

Smathers laughs. “No, I hadn’t.”

“That would make you and I Spanish subjects.”

“Best of luck to the Pope and King Philip!”

Smathers points a finger. “See those the two men examining demi-cannons? Lord Admiral Howard and Francis Drake.”

“I shall remember this sight as long as I live.”

“It’s been wonderful seeing you again Peter,” Lady Cobb remarks. “How soon will your ship depart?”

“As soon as they’ve loaded the Cornwall tin–within the hour.”

Lady Cobb touches her husband’s arm. “John, we should say our farewells to Andrew

“Indeed.”

The three make their way down stone steps connecting the cliff to the harbor.

 

The sea chest Lady Cobb has had prepared for Andrew’s voyage to Denmark consumes most of the floor space of his small cabin. Andrew assumes he will be asked to perform soon after arriving at Elsinore, so it will be important to stay in practice while en route. But he cannot seat himself properly to play with the chest consuming floor space. Once the ship is underway he will ask Captain Smathers if the chest might be relocated. Meanwhile, seated in his bunk, he studies in the dim light cast by a spirit-lamp his transcription for vihuela of John Dowland’s lute piece, “Fancy #3.” He can hear the piece in his mind’s-ear as he makes small changes in it.

The little bells dinging somewhere nearby are a distraction. He wishes they would stop.

 

With the sea chest in the middle of the floor there is room enough only for Lady Cobb. Sir John remains in the open doorway.

Lady Cobb extracts from the sea chest a bottle and says to Andrew, “This contains cider. You will find it very refreshing after the salted meat served aboard ship.”

The pervasive melancholy cast of Dowland’s music might be explained, Andrew supposes, by the fact that he has never found preferment at the English court. On the other hand, temperamental melancholy might explain his never having found preferment, since, as Andrew knows from personal experience, Elizabeth favors lively gigues and saltarellos.

“Before biting into a sea- biscuit,” Lady Cobb advises, “examine it to see if rodents have been there before you.”

“You may lose a tooth biting into one,” Sir John adds.

Lady Cobb removes from the chest a small rectangular metal container open on one end. She holds it up for Andrew to see. “If you place this little oven near a fire, it will soften your biscuits.”

“Where is he going to find a fire aboard ship?” Sir John asks.

Andrew is proud of his transcription of “Fancy No. 3,” although to play it well will require a great deal of practice. He should probably exclude it from his performance repertoire for the time being.

Lady Cobb extracts a jar from the chest. “You can also use the oven to heat this soup Jayne has prepared for you.”

Andrew wonders if it poisoned.

 

The Wanderer makes its way out of Plymouth Sound into the English Channel and sets a course for the North Sea. Captain Smathers is at the window of his cabin in the poop deck, hands clasped behind his back, when he sees something that makes him reach for his spyglass: a multitude of ships’ masts frail as toothpicks coming up over the southwestern horizon.

As a favor to his friends the Cobbs the Captain invites his young passenger to dine with him that evening. As they sit at the captain’s table awaiting the cook’s delivery of their meal, Andrew is reflecting on the inferiority of Dowland’s polyphonic works for vocal consorts to his lute solos. The trouble with words is that they come into music bearing the dross of the human ordinary; they lack the enchanting otherness of sounds generated by sheep guts and wood.

Smathers has been contemplating the absent expression on the young man’s face when he breaks the silence: “I think we may have narrowly avoided an encounter with the Spanish Armada this afternoon. We would no doubt have heard cannon fire, had there been a battle. But one can only wonder what the morrow will bring.”

Andrew has no idea what the Captain is talking about.

“Hard to say what the outcome would be. The light swift carracks of the English are superior to Spanish galleons from the standpoint of maneuverability.”

Smathers’ eyes narrow at the young man’s smile which seems a curious response to his remarks. (Andrew has heard him to say that the English have “light, swift carrots.”)

“On the other hand,” Smathers continues, “the Spanish have a great many galleons. They might lose a number of them without losing a battle to the carrots.”

Smathers has gathered from the Cobbs that their young man is exceptional in some respect, but his smile is that of an idiot. Smathers’ extensive experience of idiocy over the years while managing crews has sensitized him to its symptoms, and generated a theoretical interest in the subject. He has gathered from his reading a little nosegay of quotations on the subject. Erasmus in Praise of Folly alludes to Pythagoras who after many transmigrations–his soul had been embodied at one time or another in “a philosopher, a man, a woman, a fish, a horse, a frog, and, I believe, a sponge”— concluded no creature was happier than “that type of men we commonly call fools, idiots, lack-wits, and dolts.”

The cook enters the cabin and places before the two men plates of salt beef and suet pudding. The Captain digs in. His passenger nudges the beef to one side of the plate with his fork, downs a spoonful of the pudding, and winces.

 

Smathers honors Andrew’s request to relocate the sea chest. A music stand now occupies the middle of the cabin floor. Andrew, seated before it struggling with the devilishly difficult left hand fingering in his transcription of “Fancy No. 3.” is thinking, “I have brought this on myself”–when the North Sea generates one of its sudden howling squalls. The ship begins to heave dramatically, its timbers creak. Andrew is aware of the disturbance, but he has trained himself to ignore the distractions that abound in the world and perseveres. By the time the ship’s jostling ceases, he has mastered, for the time being, the fingering for “Fancy #3.” Savoring the pleasurable aftermath of self- and world-overcoming, he ventures from his cabin up to the deck.

The sun on the Western horizon is a luminous orange perched on the edge of a grey table. The crew are firing blunderbusses into the air, celebrating an escape from pirates who had been gaining fast on the Wanderer before the storm overturned their hoy.

Captain Smathers, aloof from the hilarity on deck, greets Andrew, and informs him that the ship lies off Schiermonnikoog.

“Ah,” Andrew says.

Schier is grey–the island of the grey monks. A storm once drove me aground onto Schiermonnikoog. I stayed for a time with the Cistercians. They wear grey habits.”

“Hmph.”

The Cistercians had struck Smathers as idiots.

*   *   *

Ordinarily, musicians and painters at Kronborg Castle, Elsinore, eat simple fare from bread trenchers with other servants. Today, though, at Queen Sophie’s Arts Appreciation Banquet they dine on pastries filled with beef marrow, roasted swan and cranes and pheasant, eels in a puree, and bream. The wine is flowing.

Andrew’s life at Elsinore has been strangely uneventful so far. He had assumed he would be asked to perform soon after arriving, but a month has passed, and nothing has been asked of him. He has enjoyed ample free time in which to maintain his skills as a player, and to work on his compositions, but he has felt at times like a ghost haunting the castle. Is the King even aware of his presence? When Andrew had mentioned his not having once seen Frederick to the English pastry cook whose arrival in Denmark had been almost simultaneous with his, the cook replied that the King had sought him out three times to request specific pies.

“You eat like a bird, Andrew,” remarks Lady Gyldenstjerne at his side. Gyldenstjerne, drama coach and arts coordinator at Kronborg, is a tall, big-boned Dane with wide-set eyes. She devours birds with gusto.

Axel Bente, the music-master, seated on Andrew’s other side, says, “The Scottish ambassador told me the North Sea winds did more damage to the Spanish Armada than the English warships. Protestant winds, he called them.”

“King Frederick’s sensitivity to music must be very great,” Andrew remarks.

Bente cocks an eyebrow. “What gave you that impression?”

“When I played Dowland’s Lachrimae for him in England, he wept.”

“Was this late at night?”

Andrew nods.

“I assume he was in his cups?”

Frederick, when his eyes filled with tears, had been gazing at Andrew over the rim of a tall flagon.

“Not to disparage your considerable talent, Andrew, but if Frederick’s had his nightly quota nearly anything will make him blubber.”

“I understood he was to be at the banquet today.”

“He’s in negotiations with the Scottish ambassador. By the way, they want you to perform with the Elsinore Town Band on Hven next weekend.” Bente’s grimace expresses personal abhorrence of this obligation.

Andrew wonders who “they” are.

“Be at my place in town this afternoon at four to rehearse.”

“The band makes such a merry sound!” Gyldenstjerne gushes.

The English pastry cook wheels into the Great Hall a cart bearing a gigantic Lombard pie* that brings a susurration of wonder from the banqueters.

Bente leans close to Andrew. “See that girl with the straw-colored hair by the Queen? That’s Princess Anne. She’s been making eyes at you. I’d not respond to that overture, if I were you. Frederick’s trying to marry her off to James the Sixth of Scotland.”

“She doesn’t look much like a queen,” Andrew observes.

“What woman does before the makeup artists and dress-designers go to work? I mean, strip your Queen Elizabeth of corset, farthingale, and ruff, you’d be looking at a plucked chicken.”

Gyldenstjerne’s eyes roll.

With Lombard pie under their belts, the guests are burping and sighing. The banquet seems to be winding down, and Andrew senses his liberation is at hand when Lady Glydenstjerne offers him her personal guided tour of Kronborg Castle. It does not seem politic to decline her offer, so he follows the rustling skirts that overlay her substantial posterior along a narrow corridor out into the deeply shadowed central courtyard of Kronborg Castle where she discourses on the significance of the Neptune Fountain, and the sculpted figures of Moses, Solomon, and David (Frederick’s predecessors in the administration of Justice) in niches by the Royal Chapel entrance.

“You’re going to love the royal tapestries,” she says as they enter the Hall of Knights. “They portray the kings of Denmark from the beginning to the present.”

The tapestries remind Andrew of Boethius’s remark that in things that do not move there is no music.

“Axel said the town band is to play at Hven. What is Hven?”

The question stops Gyldenstjerne in her tracks. Judging from her look, his question has betrayed abysmal ignorance.

“Why, Hven is Tycho Brahe’s island where he will entertain the royal family and the nobles this weekend.”

Andrew does not think it wise to inquire who Tycho Brahe might be, but Gyldenstjerne seems to have guessed his ignorance: “Mr. Brahe is the first man to have observed a new star in the heavens.”

“Ah.”

“It proved that the superlunary heavens are not immutable, as commonly supposed. And his observations have confirmed Copernicus’s belief that the planets rotate around the sun. Of course, he is not of those who believe the earth does.” Glydenstjerne shakes her head at the preposterousness of such a notion.

It escapes Andrew why people would want to know which heavenly bodies circle which. Do they imagine clarity in the matter would enable control of these movements? If not, what difference can it possibly make?

Escaped at last from Gyldenstjerne, he is in his private quarters embracing the vihuela, which warms to his touch, when someone knocks at the door. Vihuela in hand, he opens to a page who hands him a copy of Emil Fritjok’s Latin Life of Tycho Brahe, “with Lady Gyldenstjerne’s compliments.” The vihuela pops a gut that flies from the soundboard and lashes the hand of the astonished page. Andrew thanks the page, shuts the door, throws the book in a corner, ties a new string on the vihuela, and enjoys two hours of blessed communion with his music before he must go to town.

When he opens his door to leave for the rehearsal of the Elsinore Town Band, girly-gangly Princess Anne, her straw-colored hair in a bouffant, is in the corridor. “That was so lovely! What is your instrument?”

He tells her. She places a hand on his arm and looks up at him pleadingly: “Teach me to play!”

 

Axel Bente’s flat in Elsinore is above the fishmonger’s shop.

Bente leads Andrew to the back of the apartment into a staircase with a window overlooking Elsinore backyards: board fences in various states of repair, chickens picking at grain, a goose, a pig pen, a mulch pile, an overturned driftwood-grey wheelbarrow with its wheels in the air.

Members of the Elsinore Town Band sit on short logs set upright in the yard. A cornetist toots, a crumhorn whines, a sackbut blares flatulently, a tabor-player drums a taut skin. Three neighborhood mongrels side-by-side on their haunches, throats elevated, howl supportively.

Bente shoos the dogs, and introduces Andrew to the band.

“I don’t know how to tell you guys this, but Brahe’s wife wants us to dress as animals when we perform on Hven.”

Groans.

“Good ol’ Kirsten!”

“People laugh at her,” Jaeger the cornettist says, “but if you ask me that’s one fine piece of ass.”

“Yeah, and the beauty is,” Hans adds, “there’s enough of it to go around.”

Bente opens a chest which stands along the back wall of the house. “Question is, can we perform in these getups?” He extracts a furry one piece costume. “Hans–bear?”

“Why not?”

“Obviously our cornettist should be the cock–Jaeger?”

“Better cock than cuckold,” said Jaeger. He inserts the mouthpiece of his instrument through the short beak, and sounds a cockle-doodle-dooooooo.

A window nearby slams shut.

“Peder–you be the wolf….Skraeder, cod?”

“I’ve always felt a bit supernatural.”

“Cod,” Bente says, “fish.”

Andrew dons the raven’s head.

“Who but an ass would lead this group?” Bente says, pulling a papier-mâché donkey head over his. He brays hollowly from within. “First Up, ‘Rufty Tufty.’” He raises a director’s hand, and sets the band in motion.

Andrew has no idea what he’s supposed to be doing, but strums a rhythmic background. The donkey gives him thumbs up. The string Andrew had just tied on the vihuela breaks. He continues strumming with it flying about.

*   *   *

Below looming, grey, Kronborg Castle with its high walls and onion-minarets, parallel rows of spear-bearing guards form a corridor reaching from a pier to the gangplank of a barge docked in the Oresund.

The royal bloodhounds and riding horses, and their keepers, and the members of the Elsinore Town Band, await boarding for the short trip to Hven. The summer sun is intense. Andrew shares the shade of an umbrella with Axel Bente who is ruminating on the political implications of the just-signed marriage contract that will unite Princess Anne with King James of Scotland: “James is the son of Mary Queen of Scots, and grandson of Henry VIII, so he’s heir-apparent to the English throne. He marries a Protestant princess– that reassures Elizabeth he hasn’t the Catholic leanings of his mother. For Frederick, the marriage settles the longstanding issue over ownership of the Shetlands and the Orkneys– and it makes the rascally Princess someone else’s problem.”

Andrew nods as if he were following this line of reasoning, and remains silent for a time so as not to change the subject too suddenly. “You know, I haven’t once been asked to perform solo since I arrived in Denmark. I’m wondering why Frederick wanted me to come here.”

Bente looks at him blankly for a moment as he adjusts to the change of subject. “Frederick collects virtuosos—not that he gives a rat’s ass about music–or astronomy or philosophy. He wants people to regard Elsinore as the northern Florence.”

Eight heralds in purple tights, white tunics, and caps with big plumes dyed violet descend the walk to the pier, halt, level their horns, and sound a brassy tarum-tarum-tarahhhhhhhhh.

“You’ll find the Danes are very big on fanfares,” Bente says. “It’s all Frederick can do to get one of his sluts through the back door of the castle without those boys tooting.”

The King and Queen, accompanied by Princess Anne, the boy Prince Christian, and servants, descend the walk to the pier. Frederick’s long, ruddy, deeply- lined face floats atop a large white ruff. His bloodshot eyes meet Andrew’s briefly, without recognition. Following the royal family are an assortment of Danish nobles and the Scottish ambassador George Keith, a red-haired, freckled-faced, buck-toothed fellow with a permanent smile. Princess Anne breaks through the corridor of castle guards to brush against Andrew and whisper, “When do my lessons begin?”

Bente gives Andrew a look.

The King and Queen seat themselves beneath a canopy in the barge. A pair of servants begin waving long-handled fans. A third hands the king a tankard. The gangplank is drawn up, and deckhands equipped with long poles shunt the boat into the stream. Oxen tow to the edge of the pier a second barge which the royal hounds and horses, their keepers, and members of the Elsinore Town Band board.

“What’s this about lessons for the Princess?” Bente asks.

Andrew shrugs. “Her idea, not mine.”

“Be careful, Andrew.”

 

The voyage to Hven is brief. As the royal barges approach the island, peasants on shore toss their hats in the air and make loud huzza-huzza. Barrel-chested, sandy-haired Tycho Brahe, with the dwarf Jepp at his side, greets his guests in front of his red brick castle Uraniborg* with its peaked roofs, dome, and balconies.

“Hello, dear little Jepp,” Queen Sophie says.

Jepp gives her the finger.

Brahe leads his guests to the entrance of his observatory Stjärneborg and pauses to let them savor the inscription in gold letters on porphyry:

`Consecrated to the all-good great God and Posterity. Tycho Brahe, Son of Otto, who realized that Astronomy, the oldest and most distinguished of all sciences, though studied at length, still had not obtained sufficient firmness, or been purified of errors, and in order to reform it and raise it to perfection invented with incredible labor, industry, and expenditure exact instruments suitable for all kinds of observations of the celestial bodies.

 

“I can only imagine it must have been like to observe the birth of a star,” says the admiring Lord Kaas.

“Yes, I perceived its implications for affairs in Russia, Finland, Sweden, and Norway,” Brahe acknowledges. “I informed King Frederick of these and he rewarded me with the professorship of astronomy at Copenhagen.”

After dinner, the Elsinore Town Band performs “Begone, Begone my Jug,” and “Haloo, Fair Birdie,” and there is a skit in which Tycho Brahe’s sister plays Urania, muse of astronomy. Brahe shouldering lightly a large globe impersonates the Titan Atlas who declaims, “It is I who have taught astronomers from the time of Hercules and Hipparchus to trust not other men’s observations of the night skies, but attend to them patiently with their own eyes, using well-constructed instruments.”

In a second skit, Princess Anne dressed in green tights portrays Daphne. Apollo is the Negro son of a cook and a wardrobe manager at Kronborg. He wears golden tights and a spiky gold sun mask as he chases Daphne around a screen depicting a leafy rural scene.

“Save me Mother Earth!” Daphne cries.

“Tarry,” Apollo pleads. “I am no lion or a tiger, I am Phoebus Apollo. I hunger only for thy lips.”

“Which pair?” Daphne ad-libs over her shoulder, cracking up the sun god who trips over the edge of the screen and falls to the floor.

Skit director Lady Gyldenstjerne closes her eyes.

Princess Anne plants a foot on the back of the fallen god and addresses the audience. “The moral is, if you can make a god laugh, he might not fuck with you.”

The Danish nobility are in stitches.

Queen Sophie stares at the ceiling.

Scottish ambassador Keith is reconsidering the marriage agreement he just signed on King James’ behalf.

 

The dormitory on the second floor of the castle sleeps the dog-trainers, the grooms, and the Elsinore Town Band. The day’s heat lingers there. Andrew finds sleep impossible in the large assemblage of snorers, and rises from his pallet toward midnight to look out a window into the labyrinth below. At its center is a white marble bench bathed in moonlight. Sitting there and playing something simple and sweet on the vihuela would be pleasant, he thinks. He dresses again, picks up his vihuela, and leaves the castle.

High walls of shrubs border the paths of the labyrinth. Reaching the center proves more challenging than he imagined. At dead ends he must retrace his steps, and while doing so he hears footsteps nearby. Someone else is in the labyrinth. When he finally reaches the center, he starts at the sight of Princess Anne seated on the marble bench. She wears white tights beneath a white tunic, and has her knees drawn up to her chest. A pair of lean hounds at her feet growl at the sight of Andrew. Anne drops her feet to the ground and sits upright. Pleasure and apprehension blend in her face. “Did you follow me here?”

Andrew, torn between a desire to backtrack into the labyrinth and the absurdity of doing so, holds up the vihuela in explanation of his presence.

“You’re going to give me a lesson?” The Princess slides to one side of the bench to make room for him.

Andrew hesitates, wondering who might be viewing what is ostensibly a tête-à-tête from one of Uraniborg’s many windows, but he approaches the bench. He seats himself a comfortable distance from the Princess, and lays the vihuela across his lap. She reaches over and runs an exploratory finger across the strings. “Such a beautiful instrument.”

“I understand you’re to be queen of Scotland.”

“So they tell me. It keeps me awake at night.”

“You’re too excited to sleep?”

“Too depressed.

“You don’t want to be the Queen of Scotland?”

“Would you?”

“Many women would leap at the opportunity.”

“Even if they had to marry James Stuart?”

“What’s wrong with James Stuart?”

“Well, he’s skinny, and bow-legged. They say he wears padded clothing to bed at night–he’s scared of being stabbed.”

“That might be a good idea, in Scotland.”

“He also plays the bagpipes.”

That might be a reason not to want to marry him, Andrew thinks.

“They say when he concentrates, his tongue falls from his mouth.”

“I sometimes drool if I’m very intent on what I’m playing,” Andrew confesses.

“You needn’t have told me that. My father wanted James to marry my sister Elizabeth. She’s prettier than me, but she’s getting kind of old. He probably wants young tail.”

“You’ve met James?”

“No–and he isn’t coming for the wedding.”

“Really?”

“The Scottish ambassador will be the proxy husband. It’s all just politics. You know what? This afternoon I overheard one of the grooms calling me a dog.”

“Off with his head.”

“But it’s true, I’m not beautiful. What’s the good of being a princess if you aren’t beautiful?”

“I would think being a princess would be especially valuable if you weren’t.

“You agree with the groom, then?”

“I didn’t say that.”

“Would you like to fuck me?”

Andrew strums a descending chord progression on the vihuela.

“Are you a spy?”

“Why do you ask?”

“Wouldn’t put it past ‘ol James to put one on me–and you’re English.”

“It’s not the same as being Scottish.”

“Lucky you.”

“I’m no spy.”

“James sent me a girdle of Venus.”

“What’s a girdle of Venus?”

She pulls the neck of her blouse aside to reveal a blue pearl-studded wrap about her chest. “I’m to wear it until he takes it off personally. Isn’t that special?”

Andrew plays a bit of Gaucelm Faidit’s longing-saturated troubadour melody from the twelfth century.

“That’s so lovely. Teach me to play that thing. Please?”

“Here? Now?”

“Yes.”

“It’s not like teaching a dog a trick, you know.”

She punches him on the bicep.

An unfortunate choice of words.

 

Andrew is walking along a corridor of Kronborg Castle from the music studio to his private quarters one day when Princess Anne appears out of nowhere, seizes his hand and draws him through a doorway into a steep, spiraling staircase leading down into the bowels of the castle.

“Bet you haven’t seen our dungeon.”

“I didn’t know there was one.”

“Silly! Every castle has a dungeon!”

A guard or two has accompanied Anne ever time he’s seen her lately. “Won’t they miss you upstairs?”

“Who cares?”

She leads him to the foot of the stairwell, and along dirt paths cut between earthen banks.

The main feature of the he torture chamber is a freestanding stone pillar with inlaid iron rings. “They hang a prisoner from the rings, and poke him with hot irons, or shoot arrows into him,” Anne explains. “Can you imagine?”

Andrew can.

The dungeon is a cell with rocks walls whose width and height diminish at its far end.

“No bars,” Andrew observes.

“They install them when there’s a prisoner. They can locate them all the way to the back so a person can’t even sit down.” She demonstrates, wedging herself into the acute angle where the walls meet. She simulates helplessness, and a blast of sexual radiation from her midriff causes him to start back to the stairs. He has only just returned above when a squabble in the corridor causes him to look over his shoulder. Two tall castle guards, each with a meaty hand under one of the Princess’s elbows, are carrying her off. Her feet are off the ground, thrashing about.

 

Gertrud’s Tavern in Elsinore has become Andrew’s refuge from Kronborg Castle. He would never try to compose music there, but the noisy tavern has the paradoxical effect of heightening concentration as he is editing his compositions. When he enters this afternoon with his vihuela bag on his shoulder, the tavern is unusually quiet. The barmaid Agnete greets him: “Hi Cutie.”

On his way to the back room, he passes seated at a small table the balding Englishman often at the tavern lately. Andrew had been told that he is a member of the English theater company performing repertory in Elsinore.

Today, the Englishman bends over the text of his play that will receive its premier performance at the Elsinore Town Hall next week. The play set in Elsinore has a story drawn from Danish history. It should have immediate local appeal, but something about it is elusive for the playwright. Staging Hamlet in Denmark will hopefully improve his understanding of what he has written, and perhaps inspire revision, before he plays it to the more discriminating audiences of London.

 

William Bull, a stocky, red-faced bit-actor in the English company, storms into Gertrud’s looking for Tom Boltrum, another actor. Bull is enamored of Abigail, the pretty young widow of Elsinore who has just told him to leave her house and never return. Bull thinks he knows why, and he’s going to have it out with Boltrum, who is usually at the tavern when he’s not working. He is absent at the moment, so Bull seats himself near the entrance to wait for him.

Gertrud and Agnete are in the tavern’s side yard roasting meats for the dinner crowd when Boltrum enters.

“OK, why’d you do that?” Bull says.

“Why’d I do what?”

“You told Abigail what I told you in confidence.”

“What you told me in confidence was she loved no one but you. When I told her that, she couldn’t stop laughing.”

“Leave her alone, you whoreson codpiece! She’s a nice girl–and as it is you’re screwin’ every woman in Elsinore under age ninety.”

“I’ve left you a spongy old malkin or two.”

Agnete reenters the tavern as Bull punches Boltrum. Boltrum punches Bull in the nose, knocking him to the floor. Bull picks himself up slowly, bleeding from the mouth, gives Boltrum a hostile look over his shoulder, and exits the tavern.

Boltrum seats himself at the bar, and Agnete places a bowl of ale in front of him. “What was that all about?” Tom’s head is aching, he doesn’t want to talk about it, so Agnete goes into the kitchen to wash dishes.

 

Andrew, in the back room revising of his new work, “Princess Anne’s Gigue,” had been unaware of the struggle out front. So, too, the playwright, his attention riveted by the inadequacies of Hamlet’s soliloquy in act three, scene one:

Here’s a thought: Suppose I kill myself?

                         Ye gods, the problems! And who can say for sure
Whacking away at them with a bare bodkin’s
Nobler than just stabbing oneself in the gut?
Slough the mortal coil! Eternal slumber!
That might be a way to go–although
Sawing it off, we tend to dream, and what
If nightmares dog the suicide?

 

The last line of the soliloquy–“Conscience doth make cowards of us all”—isn’t bad. The rest of it needs work, but the playwright’s creative energies are at low ebb and time for the actors to learn new lines is growing short. He is considering getting drunk and forgetting about the soliloquy when there appears before his imagination a chart of the celestial houses spinning like a top from which a voice issues: “To be or not to be. That is the question”–a superb replacement for the clumsy first line of the soliloquy. The voice continues: “To die: to sleep/ No more, and by a sleep to say we end/ The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks/ That flesh is heir to, ’tis a consummation/ Devoutly to be wish’d.”

The Englishman is writing down lines as fast as they are dictated when Bull comes through the door of the tavern, withdraws a sword from his pant leg, and runs Boltrum through the gut, back to front. The tip of the sword lodges in the front of the bar. Agnete reappears, a dish towel slung over her shoulder, Boltrum is sitting upright on his stool, a carcass on a spit. “Get you another, Tom?” she asks before noticing the lack of animation in his startled face.

She rushes into the side yard. “Oh my god,” Gertrud says, “that’s all we need with the mayor trying to shut us down. Did anyone see it happen?”

“I don’t know.”

As the two women dislodge Boltrum from the bar, Gertrud eyes the Englishman writing feverishly at his table. They manage to get the corpse off the bar stool and into the kitchen. Gertrud opens the door there and glances up and down the alley. They drag Tom Boltrum into a grove of pine trees on the hillock beyond the alley.

When the fit is upon the playwright, lines just keep spilling onto his pages. The slightest event or sensation is assimilable in language Odors of roasting meat are coming into the tavern from the side yard. The playwright scribbles in the margin of his playbook, “Something rotten in the state of Denmark” He will use it somewhere.

A woman’s voice beyond the tavern shrieks, “Poor Tom’s a-cold! Poor Tom’s a-cold!”

The playwright dips his quill in ink.

 

Preparations for the wedding of King James and Princess Anne are furious at the castle. Dress-designers, carpenters, furniture-makers, and carpet weavers throng the halls. Fabric chandlers push about handcarts loaded with of silks, velvets and brocade. The tailors’ assistants stitching away in corners outnumber spiders.

The musical consort for the royal wedding is to include Andrew on the vihuela, two recorder players, the court lutenist Raphael de Angelo, and Axel Bente on the viola da gamba. The consort is rehearsing one day when an officious little German tailor appears in the music studio with a tape measure around his neck and orders Andrew to stand up.

“Why?”

“I measure you.”

“Measure me for what?”

“Your clothes for the coronation at Edinburgh.”

Axel Bente gives Andrew a look.

Andrew learns that he is the only musician from the court to be so honored.

His new clothes include two doublets with short skirts, flies tied with colorful silken bows; a high-crowned, short-brimmed muffin hat with a feather; shirts with standup collars, lace at the neckline and wrists; a long, fur-lined cape; and a collection of cotton stockings in various colors with leather garters.

He is practicing the vihuela in the music studio one morning when a cannonade thundering from the castle ramparts cause him to peer through a narrow window overlooking the Sound. Ships flying Scottish colors are approaching the pier below the castle where Danish dignitaries have gathered. A fanfare from the Danish royal hornsmen answers one from the deck of a Scottish ship. Horns glint in the sunlight, water shines, cannons boom. The Scots come ashore wearing identical cartwheel linen ruffs at their necks, tall black hats, and pointed beards.

Andrew is present with the Elsinore Town Band at an entertainment for the visiting Scots that includes the performance of the skit “Solomon and Sheba” in which King Frederick plays Solomon. Lady Kass (she of the beguiling décolleté) is Sheba. Solomon has been drinking and requires the aid of servants to ascend the riser steps to his throne chair. Sheba, too, is none to steady on her feet, and as she presents the riddles to test Solomon’s wits her speech is slurred. Solomon’s responses, slow in coming, require prompting from Lady Glydenstjerne, but suffice to convince Sheba that the king is indeed God’s elect. She wishes to present personally one of the many gifts her servants have lugged from Arabia in a mule train: a bowl of honey-laced date pudding. She ascends the steps to the throne very carefully with it and has reached the next-to-last step successfully when she trips, spilling pudding and bosom into Solomon’s lap.

“Oh my God, the goo!” exclaims the laughing Solomon as he fondles the slimy Sheba.

Servants come rushing with mops and towels.

The Elsinore Town Band strikes up “Hark, the Dog is in the Pork.”

*   *   *

At the wedding rehearsal, Anne’s lady-in-waiting slips into Andrew’s hand a poem King James has sent the Princess on which she has scribbled a marginal note: “God, he’s a maniac!”

TO MY QUEEN

Whenever I’m oppressed with heavy heart,
I need but take my pen, and recollect
The blessed hour when first my eyes beheld
The image of my Queen, this earthly Juno.
Three Goddesses of equal reputation
Spied the beauty, and nearly came to blows
O’er who should rule her. They Apollo
Asked, who said, “Bless this paragon
By sharing her; and so it came to be
If counsel’s what I need, Athena’s nie;
Chaste Diana mounts to hunt with me;
And if I’m tired, and would to bed repair
I fold in soft embrace my Venus fair.

In the Royal Chapel, the Princess exchanges vows with the freckle-faced, permanently smiling, proxy husband ambassador George Keith. Andrew is with the musical ensemble in the choir loft, and from his vantage, Anne in the white, hooded dress that flows around her and spills onto the floor seems quite overwhelmed by the weight of ceremony and authority– not at all herself.

*   *   *

The flotilla of Danish and Scottish ships leave Elsinore and steer northward in mild early fall weather. George Keith, the proxy husband, his stiletto beard flapping in the breeze, follows Anne around on the Gideon like a faithful dog. Anne shoots exasperated looks across the deck at Andrew.

Anne’s lady-in-waiting hands Andrew another of King James’s literary efforts with another of Anne’s notes: “I’m married to a lunatic!”

 

TO MY QUEEN

The wings of your enchanting fame have reached
Me across the wide and stormy sea.
Your smile will be my antidote against
The melancholy that oppresseth me,
And when a raging wrath within me reigns
Loving looks from you will bring me peace.
Whenever you will see me heavy-hearted
Practice then, sweet doctor, your magic art.

 

Andrew notices Keith gazing at him with squinty eyes.

Winds intensity as the ships enter the Skagerrak. Great waves begin to roll the Gideon from side to side and up and down. From peaks there are dizzying panoramas of churning white waters which disappear as the ship’s prow drops into dark troughs. Gray-faced and vomiting, Andrew retreats to his hammock in the forecastle where he embraces the vihuela, hoping to prevent its destruction. The Gideon springs leaks. All through the night the crew man the pumps.

The winds die abruptly at daybreak, and the cobalt sky and silver sun are innocent-looking. Ships that launched with the Gideon are nowhere to be seen. Admiral Munk orders the Gideon steered to a small harbor visible in the distance which turns out to be at Flekkeroe, an island near the Norwegian coast. The Flekkeroean farmers, learning of the ship’s fate, invite the passengers and crew into their homes, but warn that drought and poor fishing have reduced their food supply to subsistence levels.

Admiral Munk, touched by their hospitality and their plight, orders foods brought from the Gideon to be distributed among the cottagers, but discovers while overseeing this operation that the salt beef and pork in the ship’s hold are moldy. Sea biscuits swarm with brown grub worms, and maggots have infested the dried apples. The victualer in Copenhagen he had thought trustworthy, though Catholic, has obviously stocked the ship with leftovers from other voyages. The beer is sound, however, and he orders a barrel of it delivered to each of the homes entertaining the Gideon’s passengers and crew.

The largest log house on the island is Peder Pedersen’s. A note delivered to the house with the barrel of beer informs Mrs. Pedersen that Princess Anne of Denmark and other nobles will be staying with her and her husband. Mrs. Pedersen picks up her broom and sweeps vigorously the dirt floor around the fire burning on a stone slab at the center of the room. She replenishes the lamps with cod-liver oil, sprinkles fresh sprigs of juniper about, and draws the trestle table and benches from the wall.

Princess Anne requests that Andrew the vihuela-player, though a commoner, be lodged at the Pedersen’s, “because I think we will have serious need of entertainment while the ship is being repaired.” George Keith accedes to this request–having Andrew near to hand will facilitate surveillance. However, he assigns the young man to sleep in Pedersen’s barn with members of the Gideon’s crew, rather than in the house.

Mrs. Pedersen, wearing her festive red bunad with its elaborately embroidered high bodice, long pleated skirt, and white apron, places before each of her noble guests at table a quantity of hemp seeds, thick slices of bread, and a bowl of the ship’s beer.

Peder Pedersen bows his head.

“Lord,” he commences, “we thank you for your bread, and your seeds. People ask which came first, the chicken or the egg. What I would like to know is which came first the plant or the seed. I mean, where would chickens be without grains?… While I am on the subject, why do pea vines watch the sun so carefully all day long? Do they not trust what it is going to do next? Lord, these things are beyond our understanding. As the Good Book says, we look through a dirty window. But we thank you that our guests have come safely through the storm and brought us this first-rate beer. Amen.”

George Keith’s perpetual smile is a plaster replica of itself.

The bread’s consistency is chewy. It has a flavor evocative of pine needles. Peder explains that in hard times the residents of Flekkeroe and neighboring Kristiana bake this bread from fir bark ground into meal.

The beer and hemp nuts are popular.

After downing numerous bowls of beer, Peder leaves the room, and returns dragging behind him the ax six feet long with a worm-eaten handle and an oversized blade that he found buried in his hemp field. He speculates that it belonged either to the primeval giants, or the trolls who delight in baffling humans with curious objects planted about the countryside.

For his next act, Pedersen withdraws a jaw harp from his pocket and twangs a sea-chantey. Mrs. Pedersen is shaking her head back and forth gently as she rises to clear the dishes.

“Where’s the vihuela-player?” Princess Anne wants to know.

 

The vihuela-player is asleep in Pedersen’s barn loft. He sleeps the rest of that day, and all through the night, awaking in the morning to the sight of the smiling George Keith staring at him from an upper rung of the wooden ladder leading to the loft.

Keith informs him that he is to have sole possession of the loft. Members of the Gideon’s crew who were to have shared the space with him have escaped to the mainland. Andrew is instructed to take his meals at the table of the Alfhid family whose farm adjoins Pedersen’s. When Andrew goes there, the widow Alfhid and her three chunky blond daughters, hair braided atop their heads, are pleased to have a male guest at table and smile collectively as he wolfs down his fir-bread and hemp nuts.

Back in Pedersen’s barn, refreshed by long sleep and nourishment, Andrew takes up the vihuela. Resentful of his inattentiveness in recent days, she is cold to his touch, but he knows from experience exercises will correct the situation, and begins playing. Sunlight through narrow cracks in the planks generates a soft, warm light, and the barn has a pleasantly sweetish smell compounded of hay and animal dung. The raw pine siding makes for wonderful acoustics.

*   *   *

News that his bride is on Flekkeroe reaches King James and stirs his remembrance of Leander who swam the Hellespont fearlessly to reach his inamorata Hero, virgin priestess of Aphrodite, and it occurs to him that shipping to Norway personally to rescue the princess would be a wonderful adventure. He broaches the subject with Lord Chancellor Maitland.

“Entirely too risky,” Maitland says. “If something were to happen to you, all hell would break loose here.”

It occurs to James that undertaking this mission without Maitland’s approval would demonstrate his independence of the man many regard as de facto ruler of Scotland. There would no doubt be danger in the excursion, of course, but if he were he to drown history would remember him as one of the world’s great lovers, and he would be spared a reign likely to consist of trying to pacify squabbling Scottish lords and prelates while fearing constantly poisoned whiskey or a knife in the back.

 

At Flekkeroe, word reaches Admiral Munk that ships other than the Gideon which survived the storm have been blown to various points along the Norwegian coast. The flotilla reassembles near Flekkeroe and launches for Scotland, but makes small progress before being blown back to the island again by another gale. A second attempt to sail a few days later meets with similar results. Munk, inclined previously to scoff at rumors of witches casting spells on the mission to Scotland, is no longer sure they can be ignored. In any case, he has had his fill of fir bread and hemp nuts, and the beer is running low. He orders the Danish ships back to Denmark for the winter.

The Scots hope to make further attempts to reach home with Princess Anne before winter, but while waiting the unusually numerous fall storms in the North Sea to subside they elect to relocate to the more comfortable surroundings of Oslo.

Andrew, unaware of the ships’ departures, enjoys meals and sociable palaver with the Alfhids, and takes long walks along the coast with Ingrid Alfhid. To hear him play while she works, Ingrid works in the hemp field nearest the Pedersens’ barn during the harvest. Andrew attracts a various barn audience: a Maltese cat who purrs intensely, cooing pigeons roosting in a corner brace, a trio of field mice all ears atop a bale of hay. One evening a fearless white moth alights on the vibrating soundboard and contemplates Andrew with beady black eyes.

Andrew is experimenting with imitations on the vihuela of mouse chitter, cat purr, donkey bray, and owl hoot.

 

King James, having made covert arrangements for a personal quest of Princess Anne, enters the North Sea with six ships and three hundred sailors–better equipped than Leander had been. Two of the ships go down in storms, and sailors die, but the King reaches Flekkeroe where he learns that Princess Anne is in Oslo. He dispatches his chaplain David Lindsay there to arrange for an appropriate royal welcome and a repetition of the marriage vows, and expresses his desire that while on Flekkeroe he might sleep in the bed that had been Princess Anne’s.

Mrs. Pedersen sighs, puts a fresh loaf of fir-bread in the oven, and picks up her broom.

Lying in bed his first night at the Pedersens, James recalls that King Solomon, to advance his knowledge of the common people, roamed the rural countryside disguised as a peasant, and it occurs to him that while at loose ends on Flekkeroe he has a wonderful opportunity to do the same without the usual encumbrance of guards.

The next morning, in garb supplied by the amused Peder Pedersen out of his personal wardrobe, James hikes gaily from Høyfjellet, through Refsdalen and along Kjærlighetsstien to Bestemorsmed. In the afternoon, he lies beneath a sheltering rock by the sea, lulled asleep by the sound of the surf washing across pebbles.

Awakened by the mournful call of bitterns, and distant tinkling of cowbells, he is returning along a narrow path between the fields of the Alfhids and the Pedersens when he fancies hearing from a Norwegian barn what he cannot possibly be hearing: a work for lute by John Dowland with which he is familiar, and his sense that the place is enchanted is confirmed by the sight of the buxom, blond Ingrid Alfhid asleep in a furrow of the hemp field. His tongue falls from his mouth. He realizes that he is experiencing the Platonic “divine frenzy” of which Marsilio Ficino speaks that blends alienatio and abstractio of Saturnian origin with warm Venusian influences. Solomon, when he first laid eyes on the Rose of Sharon during his rural rambles, had undoubtedly experienced something similar.

*   *   *

When James steps from the carriage in front of the Bishop’s Palace at Oslo he is wearing a black velvet cloak lined with sable. His padded vest swells his torso, and when he removes his puffy high-crowned black hat to shake hands with the Bishop, he looks to Princess Anne standing nearby like a colorful beetle with small head disproportionate to its body.

The Bishop is delivering an ornate Latin blessing, when James spies the gangly, frowning young woman with frizzy yellow hair beside his friend George Keith — Princess Anne, obviously, though she bears small resemblance to the flattering pictures he has seen of her. He walks toward her dutifully in his shambling bow-legged gait, embraces her in a manly fashion, and attempts a kiss from which she turns away at the last moment, and his lips plunge into yellow frizz.

After the wedding vows are repeated, Anne goes to bed complaining of nausea and headache, and James in his private quarters at the Bishop’s Palace writes:

O cruel constellation which conspired
To seal my dismal fate before my birth!
My well-intentioned mother told her midwife,
“Spare no pains in bringing him to life.”
Her hopeful milk I drank a year and more;
And later, I imbibed inspiring waters
Drawn from Pierian spring by gracious Muses–
But lacked the ease to nurture fruits of wonder.
Born to royalty, a Scottish king.
A privileged lad, you say? The truth is rather
Job am I, whose patience Satan sorely smote.

Anne malingers, and as she and her new husband become acquainted while playing card games at bedside. She expresses her longing for music, and speaks of the admirable string player who was with the company on Flekkeroe. She wonders what has become of him. James recalls that Apollo is god both of music and medicine; that Democritus believed music could cure snakebite; and that music restored Odysseus to health after he was gored by a wild boar. He inquires with George Keith concerning the whereabouts of the musician of whom Anne had spoken.

Keith has a little talk with him about Andrew.

 

When the storms in the North Sea do not subside, and winter snows come early, the Scots abandon their plan to reach home before spring, and request permission to winter at Elsinore. King Frederick has been rejoicing in the dispatch of his madcap daughter to the hinterland, and does not relish the prospect of her rapid homecoming, but he dispatches sleds to Norway. In the dim light of a frosty morning, King James swathed in furs stands in a sled sheathed in black velvet and silver bangles and delivers a flowery valediction before a cluster of shivering, Oslo dignitaries.

The sleds depart in a blizzard and press on to Quille, and from Quille to Baahus Fortress on a cliff circled by a river at the Norwegian-Swedish border. Six hundred Swedish horsemen escort the entourage across the frozen Gotha-Elf and the Swedish Landflig, through Varbjerg, and Halmstadt. In the last leg of the trip, small boats convey the Scottish entourage down the Oresund to Elsinore.

Oh god, thinks Anne, I’m going to have to be seen with him in front of people I know.

The Danish royal family, and representatives of the court are milling around in the cold central court at Kronborg Castle as the Scots cross over the castle moat.

James meets for the first time his father-in-law and mother-in-law. “Amazing place you have here,” he says, looking around the court as he shakes the tremulous hand of King Frederick.

“The west wall was completed only last year,” Lady Gyldenstjerne puts in. “As you can imagine it has improved our security greatly. The fountain you see on your left is the work of Adriaen de Vriies symbolizing the Danish preeminence in the North Sea and the Baltic Sea.”

“Where’s Anne?” Queen Sophie inquires.

James looks around. “She was with us a moment ago.”

The Princess knows all the hiding places in the castle.

*   *   *

Fond as Andrew is of the acoustics in Pedersen’s barn, living there in bitter cold weather is impossible, and the Alfids have taken him in at their farmhouse where he is continuing to develop techniques for imitating on the vihuela the sounds of mice, cats, donkeys and owls that he is incorporating in a new solo work for vihuela, The Barn Suite.

 

 

 

 

 

* The vihuela, a precursor of the modern guitar, was played in Spain in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Tuned identically with the Renaissance lute, and close to the modern guitar, it had twelve strings (six pairs double-strung) rather than the modern six single-strung.

*A short dress-like garment with pleated panels.

* A pie made of custard and fruit.

 

 

BIO

James GallantJames Gallant, who lives in Atlanta, contracted the writing disorder at an early age, and has been basically incapable of making an income as a result.  His disorder led to a fortunate marriage to income-producing university professor and Romantics scholar Christine Gallant who as a girl had romanticized the idea of marrying a writer. At times she had said later, “Be careful what you ask for.” Gallant attended graduate school at the University of Minnesota where he concentrated in Renaissance studies, traces of which survive in “Andrew the Vihuela-Player.” This story is one of nine short works involving historical classical guitarists–some (like Andrew) pure inventions, other based loosely on the lives of actual performers. Two of the other guitarist stories have appeared in other journals. The pieces as a group would make a good collection, Gallant believes, if anyone were interested in publishing it. Grace Paley’s Glad Day Books published his The Big Bust at Tyrone’s Rooming House/a Novel of Atlanta in 2004, and his essays and fiction have appeared in a number of magazines, including The Georgia Review, Epoch, Massachusetts Review, Story Quarterly, Mississippi Review, Exquisite Corpse, North American Review, Raritan, and Witness. He has a short novel, Whatever Happened to Debbie and Phil, and a collection of thematically-related related creative non-fiction pieces, Visits in Time and Space, neither of which have publishers at the moment.

 

 

 

0
Carmen Firan

The Boiler Man

by Carmen Firan                                                                                  

 

 

In buildings like this, boiler men are indispensable. Especially during winter when the radiators clog, filters need to be changed, and pipes crack just when you need them most, on a frosty weekend. The residents at 89-13 62 Avenue were lucky. The super was also a boiler man, a member of a profession learned and practiced diligently in Eastern Europe where everything’s out of order or out of place.

Maybe the term “plumber” is more precise, but in his native country his specialty had been radiators. Back during the communist era, the boiler man had an ace up his sleeve since rumors had it that the secret police kept track of suspects by planting microphones in the radiators of suspicious tenants. He had to be trusted —not just skilled—to convince people that he didn’t work for the police.

Dick, who had won the green-card lottery, took his wife and daughter by the hand and didn’t stop until they reached Sunnyside, Queens. There, in only two weeks, he found this job as a “super” —the guy who does everything.

“I don’t believe in lotteries and that stuff about luck. I played on a whim to prove to myself that I couldn’t win. Everything I ever got in my life was through hard work. Nothing ever fell into my lap. This time, God knows, the devil stuck his nose into it. I didn’t really want to move to America, but once I got the visa, I figured, why not go and see how they live over there.” That’s what he confessed every chance he could, as he caressed a bushy moustache he thought boosted his sex appeal. “But I don’t like it here. I miss my little house and the vines and fruit trees in the courtyard, I miss my drinking friends and life over there, poor, sure, but happy. I worked, I didn’t work, something came up and I lived well, whatever. If it wasn’t for my wife, who kept bugging me about my daughter’s future and all that stuff, I would never have left everything behind.”

Dick looked like he could lift three buildings at once. He wore large denim overalls without a shirt, an outfit that showed off his muscular arms and hairy chest. His “super’s office” was in the building’s basement, surrounded by boilers, air conditioners, tool sheds, old furniture, torn mattresses, all kinds of useless items, and garbage bags. Basically, Dick ruled an underground empire.

At night, when the garbage was taken out in the well-to-do neighborhoods of Queens, Dick hit the streets in his vintage car, packed it with whatever could be reused, and unloaded his loot in the basement. He managed to stack up a serious collection of TV sets, microwave ovens, tape recorders, chairs, vacuum cleaners, rugs, outdated computers, and whatever else one might need to outfit a brand-new home. Some were in great shape; others he fixed and sold for nothing to newly arrived immigrants who’d ended up in Sunnyside. “I’m doing a good deed,” he’d explain defensively, “this is what I learned at home. Take from the rich, and give to the poor. What I get out of it isn’t important. It’s more of a communal gesture, since everybody here is so into the collective spirit.”

Dick had won over all the residents in the building he administered quite with competently. He carried old ladies’ grocery bags to the elevator, walked dogs, babysat for young families, tended the lawn outside the building, and, of course, replaced pipes and filters, unclogged toilets, and, since this was the country of technology, fixed computers, too. He couldn’t really be called industrious, but he was smart, skilled. He never refused a tip but didn’t rip anyone off, either.

This new world didn’t scare him anymore. He’d found out he could get what he wanted even without speaking the language because Sunnyside was populated by his countrymen. The stores, restaurants, pastry shops, medical offices, churches, and newspapers in his native tongue tempered his longing for the mother country. Occasionally the ghetto bothered him, and he’d snap with superiority:

“You immigrate to get rid of these folks and end up living with them. It’s the same ethnic borsh, only thicker.”

Despite rebuffs, he was capable of shedding tears over a native folk song heard in bodegas where people argued for the democratization of the old country, which some denigrated, some regretted, though none would ever admit that they felt like foreigners in both places. It was an unspoken dilemma they would be buried with.

“Well, they have everything here, except tomatoes like the ones back home,” Dick sighed over a glass of vodka, which was emptied more and more often and earlier and earlier in the day.

Dick was a romantic. A giant with delicate features, he was sensitive to miniatures. He loved small animals; maybe that’s why the mice and bugs that haunted his “super’s office” in the basement didn’t faze him. He didn’t protest the rabbit his daughter brought home, the rabbit which they kept in the bathroom; he loved the flashy fish swimming in an improvised bowl, the jar for pickles that they took out to the balcony in summer. He loved etchings and had even tried to find work as a house painter. With or without his clients’ consent, at the end of a job he painted thin stripes and floral motifs that set off the walls from the ceiling, a delicate water lily around the chandelier or colorful birds above the kitchen window.

“We have to embellish our life,” was his motto, which he practiced how he knew best.

His large hands, accustomed to pipes and hardware, could be gentle and soothing. He caressed animals, tended flowers, and cried during love scenes. Despite the dirt under his nails, and his T-shirts soaked with sweat at the chest and underarms, he wasn’t a repulsive boiler man. You noticed his virility and not his smell, his vigor and not the clothes worn out from crawling underneath sinks and toilets. He loved his wife and adored his daughter, whose every whim he accepted. Provided she was good in school and behaved.

“Life is a simple thing. I don’t believe in chance. Everything fits together, and as long as you act with common sense, there are no great surprises. If you can avoid abuse and excess, life is decent, the way it’s supposed to be. I’m not an intellectual but I feel certain things, I don’t know how. My grandfather was illiterate, but he knew everything. He died in peace one afternoon, after he’d washed and shaved, called grandmother to his side, held her hand, and told her that his time had come. He closed his eyes and a few minutes later he was gone. Light, beautiful, serene. Now people die with violence, death isn’t liberation any more, but a condemnation, a humiliation.”

Dick hadn’t read one book after graduating from vocational school, a two-year program where he learned all about the heating profession. He only watched movies and sometimes leafed through newspapers. Still, nature had given him poise that could pass as wisdom, perhaps inherited from his grandfather. He had some odd habits too, which could make him an interesting drinking partner.

In the evening, a few friends he’d made in the building descended to the basement, where he had improvised a warm, bar-like atmosphere that resembled his home back home. He’d brought in a plastic garden table from the street and a few odd chairs, even a sun umbrella that he stuck proudly through the hole in the center. Next to it he kept a cooler filled with beer and vodka. He and his companions played folk music and debated the state of the world. One neighbor came from his hometown. They’d been neighbors even back then and left the country just a few months’ apart. It’s a small world, but even smaller in Queens.

“Guys, I don’t know why, but since I left the old country, I’ve been plagued by memories. I remember everything, you know, everything! Early childhood, my birth, even before it.”

The boiler man amazed them with his stories, which included some disturbing details, like remembering his own birth.

“No kidding,” Dick would tell them, his eyes blurred by the power of memory. “I witnessed my own birth.”

At first they didn’t take him too seriously, but in time Dick won them over, and then they listened with baited breath. Each time, they asked him to tell them more stories about being born. They emptied one glass after another not fully believing what they heard but were moved by such an odd experience.

“Actually I remember details from before I was born, from the time I swam packed in my mother’s belly. You don’t have much space to move around in there, and your movements are restricted. The last stages of the pregnancy are the worst. Moving gets more and more difficult. You want to turn but can’t, you kick with your feet and hands but nothing happens. I remember that during the last weeks I wanted more than anything to do a somersault. A few times I rebelled out, I’d grown too much, and I think I kicked my mother too hard because I immediately felt her hands grabbing my heels to calm me down. I recognized her palms instinctively. They caressed me even when I hit her with rage.  I wasn’t nervous or restless, I had no reason to be, it’s warm in there and you don’t lack for anything.”

“Didn’t you choke?” Dick heard a puzzled voice.

“How could you choke?! I never breathed with more ease in my life. Everything’s natural and clean, you wish you breathed air like that all the time! The temperature is constant, same with the humidity, everything’s constant, know what I mean? Just the way it has to be, just as much as it should be. Nothing unpredictable or uncomfortable. You’re always satisfied. You’re never hungry or thirsty, and if you need food all you have to do is think about it and you’re immediately fed with delicacies. You want fish, you can be sure that soon your mother will crave just that, and, because a pregnant woman is always granted her wish, she’ll get fish, and you’ll extract its very essence, the reason why you want to eat fish in the first place. And even if she doesn’t eat fish when you crave it, you end up eating the essence of fish, because you extract from her whatever the fish contains. Get it? I’m trying to make everything simple, but I’d like you to understand how it works. You suck in everything you need from her and the poor mother knows it. She loses iron, even calcium. Some even lose their hair or teeth, their nails turn white, their faces have spots and they’re always worn out. Whoever says that a pregnancy invigorates a woman doesn’t know what they’re talking about. It drains her but you couldn’t live better anywhere else. In there I was happy. After I got out, I never felt as protected. It’s a divine harmony that’s hard to define because we never experience it in real life. My friends, we are born happy. Whatever happens afterwards, God knows!”

Sometimes he’d be paged for an emergency. A flood, a pipe, an anxious old woman whose vacuum cleaner wasn’t working. Dick would run there right away, fix whatever needed to be fixed, and come back to the basement where his friends waited for him, enveloped in cigar smoke. He came back with hands even dirtier, sweat dripping down his forehead. He’d curse, gulp a glass of vodka that would ruffle his moustache, knock his fist against the table, and continue his stories.

“What bothered me there, though, was that I had to keep my eyes closed. Strangely enough, I could still see. I don’t know what it feels like to be in other women’s bellies, but in my mother’s womb I saw an extraordinary world. But I never felt any smell or saw any color. Unfortunately I don’t know anybody who can confirm my impressions or exchange opinions. I haven’t met anybody who was aware of his fetal life or who witnessed his birth. I have a memory, some say, ancient, abnormally large and old. It’s possible. And since I moved to Queens it expands every day. Although I believe that memory is infinite. But people don’t try to remember that far back, or maybe they can’t imagine that it’s possible to remember the time before your birth, not to mention the birth itself, which seems so natural, since everyone was present at one’s birth, right? If you remember yourself when you were five, why not remember the five seconds after you came into this world? Isn’t that the same? The same life?”

His drinking friends would nod in agreement. For the moment, the boiler man’s point of view made perfect sense.

“I saw many things in my life, but nothing could top the world in my mother’s belly. Entire cities, archipelagoes made of jelly tubes, galleries of pipes stretching like nerves along fluid walls, a complicated architecture of channels, mazes, tunnels and grottos, abysses, a sky of stars, perfect shapes swimming through a delicate spider web, everything murky, like a half-done drawing, like a miniature map of the universe. I could hear my heart beating in the middle of the universe, and I kept floating like an astronaut caught in those transparent laces enveloping me, and rocked me gently like a mild summer breeze. Even stranger, I recognized all these as if I’d seen them before, I behaved as if I had been in my mother’s belly before, as if I had memories from another pregnancy. I wonder if I was born more than once.”

At this point his audience usually lost patience. Some mumbled in protest that they were being dragged into surreal territory, others looked at Dick with pity, a grown up man, a giant, raving and ranting, but they were all curious to hear the conclusion. Then Dick swallowed another glass of vodka, wiped his moustache with the back of a hand covered with brownish creases, and lowered his voice, while his eyes sparkled conspiratorially.

“There’s no pleasure in being born. First of all, it’s a long, painful, dangerous process. You pass from that perfect harmony to an unimaginable convulsion, you struggle, you push with your head first, you kick your legs, desperate to get out, nobody knows why, because it was so cozy in there! But at some point you’re not allowed to stay inside any longer, you have to leave! The worst is that you feel your own mother straining against you, as if she wanted to get rid of you. At first you lose your balance, you slip, and no matter how much you wrestle, the head drags you down, it suddenly becomes very heavy, as if filled with lead, your ears pop and stress increases. Your head enters a dark tunnel. This is the most difficult and frightening part of the process. The tunnel of darkness.”

“I’ve heard that story about the tunnel before,” one of the neighbors told Dick, “but it happens when you die, not when…” He didn’t dare say more. The word birth had already sent shivers down his spine.

“When you die, it’s a tunnel of light,” another interfered, “and in this one it’s dark.”

“Pitch dark,” Dick confirmed. “The first sensation is terrible. You choke, you drown, your hair gets caught in all kinds of roots, I heard something rumbling like a volcano ready to erupt. I pushed as hard as I could, my neck was stiff, and I thought I’d be trapped inside forever. One of my shoulders was stiff from all that effort. I suffered from pains in my left shoulder until I was 5 because of my passage through that thin, black, cold, damp tunnel. Then I felt the first smells, just as unpleasant as the sounds that were waiting for me once I was pulled outside. Because the truth is that you can’t make it by yourself, eventually you are pulled outside by others. I coughed and I began to sob. They grabbed me, wiped me dry of the lava, and undid the roots wrapped around me, irritating my skin. I was dying of cold and I’d turned green from all the effort and shouting. I opened my eyes but saw nothing. I heard strange, metallic, piercing screams around me. Suddenly, I felt hungry but this time no essence satiated me. I’d be administered hundreds of gallons of milk until I was fed up with it. They wrapped me, covered me, and laid me on a bed. I was alone. In my mother’s belly I’d also been alone, but here, outside, it was a different way of being alone. Dry. Cold. Deafening. I had only known happy loneliness until then. Now a desperate loneliness began, and I think that’s when I was scared for the first time. I understood what it means to be alone. To waver between happiness and despair. To be expelled from the world. To see, to hear, to feel, and not to be understood.”

The neighbors were already sad; they drank out of spite and experienced everything as if they’d just been born themselves.

“Look, I remember the first night of loneliness as if it were now. They put me in a bed face up. From there, through the dark window, I saw the moon for the first time. You will ask me how I knew it was the moon. I knew. I’d seen it before. Here, how? Hell knows! And, all of a sudden…”

Dick’s phone rang violently. Mrs. Simpson from the 9th floor had an emergency. Her toilet was clogged and she had guests in half an hour. The boiler man got up at once, duty came before everything else. He left his audience with the story unfinished, grabbed his toolbox and a few minutes later knocked on Mrs. Simpson’s door. She was waiting for him eagerly.

“Dick, you’re a miracle. What would I do without you?! God sent you to us!”

 

 

BIO

Carmen FiranCarmen Firan, born in Romania, is a poet, a fiction and play writer, and a journalist. She has published fifteen books of poetry, novels, essays and short stories. Her writings appear in translation in many literary magazines and in various anthologies in France, Israel, Sweden, Germany, Ireland, Poland, Canada, UK and the U.S. She lives in New York. Her recent books and publications in the United States of America include: Inferno, novella, (Spuyten Duyvil Press), Rock and Dew, (Sheep Meadow Press), Words and Flesh, (Talisman Publishers), The Second Life (Columbia University Press), The Farce, (Spuyten Duyvil Press), In The Most Beautiful Life, (Umbrage Editions), The First Moment After Death (Writers Club Press). She is a member of PEN American Center and the Poetry Society of America and serves on the editorial boards of the international magazines Lettre Internationale (Paris-Bucharest) and Interpoezia (New York). She is the co-editor of Naming the Nameless (An Anthology of Contemporary American Poetry), Stranger at Home, Poetry with an Accent, Numina Press, and Born in Utopia (An Anthology of Romanian Modern and Contemporary Poetry), Talisman Publishers. www.carmenfiran.com

 

 

 

0
John Tavares

Skinny Sister

by John Tavares

 

Maria grew excited at the prospect of travel in Winnipeg, as she chatted over the telephone with her Uncle Manuel, who invited her to visit his house. Her mother had given her permission to travel to the Winnipeg and stay at her uncle’s place in the suburbs over the March break holidays. These days Maria received the impression everybody was treating her special. She felt exhilarated: her life and circumstances were finally starting to get better, to improve, since she had lost weight. Now she was skinnier than she could ever remember. Earlier that evening her brother Andre had taken her cruising around the streets of Sioux Lookout in his Corvette and had even offered to allow her to drive his precious sports car, but she had refused. Although she was old enough, she didn’t hold a driver’s license and getting a driver’s license was not a priority with her. Besides, she didn’t feel confident and skilled enough to drive a motor vehicle. Definitely, she didn’t want to smash her brother’s Corvette in an accident; he loved his sports car more than his former girlfriends. Andre had also taken her to a sparsely attended movie, which she considered sophomoric, but she had enjoyed the experience since she hadn’t visited the local theatre in a few years. She liked the ambience of the big screen, even though the carpets were worn and threadbare and the seats were torn. During the movie, she chatted with Andre, who was, surprisingly, nice. During a particularly boring section of movie billed as hilarious, Meatballs, which seemed to alternate between the perverse and juvenile, she bought a medium-sized box of buttered popcorn at the takeout counter, took the saltshaker, and shook salt over the puffy kernels. She kept sprinkling salt on the popcorn and couldn’t saturate the puffed kernels with enough sodium crystals. Scrunched up in his leather bomber jacket in his driver’s seat, her considerably bulkier brother was relieved to see his skinny sister receiving nutrition, eating some form of food. After all, she was his only sister—his only sibling, in fact. He didn’t mind having her around and could easily imagine the hysteria, blame, and mutual recrimination that would occur if she died.

After she slipped into bed at home, as Maria tried to sleep, she could feel her heart beating irregularly. Her heart felt intensely irritated. As she continued to feel excited by the prospect of visiting her uncle, an abrupt pain hammered against her chest. It felt as if her heart had blown up like a balloon and then burst. The fear that she was suffering a heart attack and that she would die paralyzed her momentarily. She felt the urge to scream to her mother to call for an ambulance, but she realized it was probably best if she stayed calm. Bringing up her knees to her bony chest, against her pointy breasts, she sat up in bed. She tried to cope with the pressing pain and gauge its strength and significance. Perspiration breaking in beads on her brow, she slumped and breathed hard. Assuring herself she would not die, she lay her head on the pillow and eventually fell asleep.

The following morning, she felt as if somebody as bulky as her brother was kneeling on her chest. Since she needed a break from school and usually seized any opportunity to skip class, she decided she better visit a doctor and called the clinic. The doctor who examined her was new to the town of Sioux Lookout: he was dark, handsome, and had a big butt. He looked like a stereotypical cop, which was how Maria would have preferred the appearance of any potential husband. The doctor methodically went through the physical examination, listening to her heart and lung sounds through her stethoscope, but she was so hyper his manner seemed abrupt.

“How much coffee have you been consuming?”

She shifted uncomfortably as she lied. “I just drink a few cups a day.” In reality, she drank about a gallon a day.

His brow knitted, he wrote some notes on ruled paper, pharmaceutical company stationary. “Now I’m interested specifically in these chest pains. How did it or does it feel? Is it intense, oppressive, severe, brief, or prolonged?”

The questions confused her since she was distracted by his movie star looks. Her mind had been racing recently and she gave a clumsy, rambling response. Doctor Whitney handed her documents and forms and gave her instructions to visit the hospital for blood tests and an electrocardiogram. Later, as she walked across town to the hospital, and reviewed the appointment in her mind, she realized she was a walking contradiction. She thought she may have had a heart attack, yet she was walking from the medical clinic to the hospital, with a pain in her jaw, arm, and chest, yet she was walking across town like nothing had happened to her. After she stopped by Lee’s Cafe for a few cups of coffee, she walked to the hospital. In the outpatient laboratory, a grey-haired woman in a lab coat took two vials of blood from a vein in her lean, muscular arm. Then a nurse brought her to the medical laboratory technician, who happened to be the father of a classmate with whom Maria argued and fought in the schoolyard. But she felt euphoric, despite the persistent pain in her chest. After the electrocardiogram, she felt relieved she had no time to return to school. She headed to work at her part-time job as a grocery clerk.

At Valencia’s Supermarket, while she was changing the price tags—which, she had complained to her mother, was illegal, at least according to her economics teacher—on endless stacks of canned tuna fish, her boss with his large bald head fringed with white hair approached. He told her she had gotten an urgent telephone call he wanted her to take in his office and she went to answer the telephone in the manager’s office. While she looked around the piles of invoices and order forms and payroll slips on the manager’s desk, a nurse, a local who shopped at the store, whose voice she recognized, said she should report to the clinic immediately to see the pediatrician.

After she was ushered into the doctor’s office, she instantly recognized the pediatrician, who practiced mainly in Winnipeg, since she had recently seen him on a local television news documentary. He was chief of a surgical team transplanting a donated organ, a healthy liver, into a critically ill indigenous child. Doctor Jansen asked her questions about how much she ate and how her parents treated her. He wanted her to travel to the Health Sciences Centre in Winnipeg for treatment.

“I need to speak with my mother first.”

“I’ve already spoken with your mother, and she gave me permission to treat you and understood the gravity of your illness.”

She swallowed and gasped. “Illness?”

“Based upon laboratory analysis of your blood you’re malnourished and undernourished and at risk of sudden cardiac death.”

“Sudden cardiac death?”

He impatiently tapped the medical chart with the tip of his pen. “Sudden cardiac death.”

After the appointment, Maria walked to the bank. Since the bank was already closed and the westbound Via Rail train would be leaving for Winnipeg that evening, she had to call the manager from a pay phone. She withdrew a few hundred dollars from her savings account, money she saved from earnings at her part-time job. After meeting her mother at Lee’s Cafe for coffee, they both walked to the travel agency and bought a train ticket to Winnipeg. Although as soon as she had turned sixteen she had written the test to obtain a beginners drivers’ license, she had never taken the practical road tests and had never obtained her driver’s license. Her mother couldn’t drive her to Winnipeg in the pickup truck or the Cadillac because she had been charged and convicted of impaired driving for the second time. Her brother Andre couldn’t drive her to Winnipeg in his Corvette because her mother would not permit him. He would drive on Highway 72 and the Trans-Canada highway with the urgency and speed of a paramedic heading to the scene of an airline crash. Besides, her mother didn’t want him to miss his grade twelve classes when he was already a year late in graduating. And, since he was still making payments on his Corvette, he probably didn’t want to miss a shift of work at Ralph Curtis Motors where he was an apprentice mechanic.

By the time she arrived at the Health Sciences Centre in Winnipeg early the following morning she was riding a roller coaster of emotions—euphoric one minute, gloomy the next. At the Health Sciences Centre in Winnipeg, Maria took an almost instant disliking to the head nurse, who kept insisting she gain weight. Nurse Carlton reminded her she had to gain an average of four kilograms per week or she would lose her visiting privileges and wouldn’t be allowed to leave the ward. Her intransigence would force her into bed rest. Nurse Carlton set down a long list of rules that Maria supposedly had to follow as a patient, including never having guests beyond visiting hours. What did Maria care anyway? She was only expecting the occasional visit from Uncle Manuel.

Every morning, Maria faced a battery of medical diagnostic tests. She travelled through a vast network of tunnels underneath the hospital complex, en route to a CAT scan in the neuroscience wing, an EEG in an epilepsy clinic, intelligence quotient tests in the faculty of psychology building beside the power plant. Every morning a young male nurse, recently graduated from Red River College, would meet her, and offer her a fresh strawberry milkshake with a smile and a warm touch. He would chat with her and ask her how she was doing. Was she gaining weight? Why or why not? She considered the male nurse good looking and she liked him, but he aroused Maria’s suspicions. Were the doctors and nurses trying to set her up, make her feel good, brainwash her into thinking this guy had something going for her? In her hospital room, which she shared with six patients, Maria watched with fascination as a young diabetic, two beds down from her, injected herself with insulin. She felt some sympathy for the girl with leukemia, who lived on a farm, and left the tub they all shared lined with grime and dirt.

Her Uncle Manuel visited her occasionally at night. He would bring her upstairs in the hospital complex to the cafeteria. Knowing her fetish for ice cream, he would bring her a one-litre container of gourmet ice cream in an exotic flavor such as chocolate chip cookie dough, or pineapple coconut. But he was depressed over the pregnancy of his daughter, who wasn’t married, and would soon start weeping. Eventually Maria was introduced to a psychiatrist, a thin, frail-looking woman with a pitted, wrinkled face.

“She wears these, like, expensive pant suits and looks as if she was way past retirement age,” she commented during a visit to her Uncle Manuel, who was starting to wonder why she simply couldn’t eat and become healthier.

The psychiatrist told her about her luxurious lifestyle, the television satellite dish at her family cottage on Lake Winnipeg. Then she started asking Maria about her parents, her family, her relationship with her brother, and her career aspirations, and she broke down. Maria went hysterical and paced around the room. She insisted she wasn’t the person who had starved herself. She wasn’t the young woman who limped because she had broken her leg after falling from the Queen Elizabeth District high school roof one August night while looking for a peaceful dark place to make out with a girlfriend. She wasn’t the girl who hadn’t had her period in seven months or who no longer had a sexual interest in guys.

Later, the ward nurses told her she could go downstairs to the refrigerator in the staff kitchen below and eat whatever she wanted whenever she desired. After meeting her uncle or arriving home from an outing downtown at about nine or ten p.m., she hurried downstairs and helped herself to the cuplets of ice cream in the freezer compartment. First, she would plunge her finger into the vanilla or chocolate ice cream to test it, to ensure it was the proper texture and creaminess. The ice cream couldn’t be too hard or too soft. Having peeled the lid off the paper cuplet, she would stick her finger into the ice cream and taste it. If it was the correct creaminess, texture, and hardness, she would grab a plastic spoon and eat it on the spot; if not, she would set the lid back in place and put the cuplet back into the freezer box with the indentation her finger made in the ice cream. Occasionally she tested more than ten cuplets of ice cream before she found one that satisfied her. When she found no ice cream that suited her taste, she became bitter and angry. One afternoon Nurse Carlton confronted her about the cuplets of ice cream.

“What a waste.”

“The nurses on the floor said I could have ice cream whenever I wanted,” Maria protested. After she started sobbing Carlton pursed her lips in consternation and left her alone.

Allowed to leave the ward after undergoing all her morning tests and examinations and meeting all her doctors, Maria would skip lunch and not even bother with the hospital cafeteria. She would grab her Sony Walkman, which contained her Tattoo You cassette, the narrow black tape nearly worn out since she had listened to it straight through at least three hundred times. She rode the city transit bus to Portage Avenue, where she’d eat a piece of pizza or a submarine sandwich before wandering around the stores and shopping malls downtown. Bounding downtown with her seemingly limitless energy, she liked the narrow elongated shadow her thin body made on the sidewalk and the way the pressed cloth and sharp cuffs of her snug jeans hugged her body, wrapping neatly and tightly around her legs and ankles. During her trips downtown she started shoplifting, stealing fashion accessories, lipstick, eyeliner, and eye shadow from the cosmetics sections of the department stores downtown, Hudson’s Bay and Eatons, and slipping them inside her coat pockets. She tried to be casual and cool about her petty thefts. Traipsing from music stores and bookstores in the Eatons Place shopping mall, she also stole a few Rolling Stones cassette tapes and magazines and paperback novels. If anybody apprehended her, caught her, or called the police, she decided she’d pretend she was disabled, deaf and dumb, and gesticulate wildly and excitedly, making grunting and guttural noises. If necessary, she’d try to communicate through non-verbal messages she was a patient at a hospital and hurry off.

Towards the end of her second week as a patient at the Health Sciences Centre, she rapidly strode down the hallway to leave the ward on her afternoon outing. Her long thin legs marched steadily forward and her headphones acted as a comb for her unruly, untamed hair. But Nurse Carlton blocked her path, with her tall wide figure overshadowing Maria’s skinny stature.

“This time you’re not going anywhere. Your treatment regimen has been changed to behavioural modification. That means bed rest. You won’t be allowed to leave the ward until you’ve gained ten pounds and even then only after you’ve gained an additional five pounds a week.” Carlton gestured back towards the room, but Maria stood motionless. So she grabbed Maria’s arm and pushed her back to the room. “You can’t be doing whatever you want anymore.”

“I don’t do whatever I want. I’m confined to a hospital.”

“Everybody is being such a soft touch with you, letting you do whatever you want.”

“That’s not true.”

“You’re a spoiled brat. It’s that simple.”

“You don’t know what kind of life I live. You can’t pass judgement on me.”

“You’re undisciplined and unruly. At least you’re not a slut, although that might come later. You need discipline, rules, routines, regulations.”
“You’re just being bossy. You love power.”

“Somebody has to look after what’s in your best interest. Otherwise, you’ll never be well.”

Clenching her Walkman in hand and against her side, Maria tried to leave the ward. When she managed to slip past her room door, which held six hospital beds but now contained only her as a patient, Nurse Carlton dragged her back inside. The old woman was strong, Maria thought, but she decided she would assert her independence. “Nobody is going to violate my constitutional and legal rights!” she shouted as Nurse Carlton restrained her by the arm.

The nurse and Maria became entangled in a pushing and shoving match. When Maria tried to bolt from the hospital room again, the nurse clenched her wrist and ripped the Walkman out of her hand. The portable stereo crashed to the floor. When Maria retrieved it she saw that the plastic lid that covered the cassette player had broken off. The starched white hat that normally rested on Nurse Carlton’s august head had also fallen in the struggle, so Maria quickly ran over to the headgear, stomped on the top with her running shoes, and kicked the crumpled piece across the polished waxed floor.

“Get the hell out of here. You’ve broken my cassette player. Now what am I going to do? Listen to nurses crabbing all day long?”

Whimpering, Maria abandoned any hopes of leaving just then. Cheeks quivering, wide-eyed, trembling, Nurse Carlton tried to maintain her dignified composure and erect bearing, although she felt aghast and shocked by this outburst, this affront, this unruly behaviour. She picked up her crumpled, dirtied hat and, seeing this rude, undisciplined patient was finally subdued, trooped her bulky mass back to the nursing station.

Although the cover case for the portable cassette player was broken, Maria still tried using the Sony Walkman. When she tried to play The Rolling Stones’ Tattoo You cassette tape she discovered the knitting needle-like rotors wouldn’t turn so she couldn’t hear the music through the headphones. She dropped back on her bed and started reading a magazine, Cosmopolitan, she had shoplifted. When Carlton finished her shift at four p.m., she sneaked to the telephone in the ward lounge and made a long distance call to her mother at the insurance office in Sioux Lookout where she worked as a broker. The staff at the Health Sciences pediatric ward weren’t allowing her to leave the ward and one nurse had broken her Walkman, Maria protested. Although her mother told her things would get better and promised her a new Walkman, Maria continued to cry into the telephone.

“I don’t belong in a pediatric ward. I’m too old.”

“You’re still in the right age group.”

“I had to drink a milkshake with radioactive dye. Then doctors scoped my intestines and checked my insides. They stuck a little camera connected to cables up my ass.”

“Oh, Maria, do you have to talk that way over the phone?”

“Well, it’s true, and I could even see my guts on a television monitor. They told me not to eat anything the day before, but I had some late night snacks. So they had a mess on their hands, but I didn’t care—they deserved it, and I laughed afterwards. I wasn’t going to deprive myself of ice cream for some medical test.”

On the verge of weeping at her insurance brokerage desk, her mother sighed. “Before you weren’t eating, and now you’re eating nothing but ice cream. Maria, you have to consume a balanced diet.”

“And the pain in my chest is getting worse.” Maria grew quiet and weepy. “I bet I had a heart attack.”

“Maria, the doctor said there’s nothing wrong with your heart. They said your electrocardiogram was OK.”

“They said there were anomalies and changes in the tracings they couldn’t explain.”

“But the doctor said you shouldn’t worry about the electrocardiogram.”

“Well, they didn’t feel the pain I felt. And I still have chest pain, but at least it’s not as bad.”

“Maria, the doctors said your electrocardiogram is not a concern.”

“And, Mom, the nurse got into a fight with me. She made me break my Walkman, and I think she did it deliberately.”

“You were fighting with a nurse? Oh, my God. We can’t have you arguing with hospital staff. I’ll have to talk with the head nurse.”

“She was the head nurse.”

“You were fighting with the head nurse? Oh, my God, what are we going to do about you? Well, I’ll just have to speak with the doctor about your conduct. But you do whatever the doctors and nurses order.”

“I’m not into bed rest, mom. The pediatrician never said anything about bed rest. And what about my Walkman?”

“Don’t worry about your music. We’ll get the player fixed—sooner or later.”

“Mom, I want out.”

“No, you’re not ready. You need to get better so you can return to school.”

“I don’t care about school anymore.”

“You’re going to back to high school and then university whether you like it or not. But we’ll discuss education later. You just follow doctors’ orders and remember to eat. Now I have to return to work. Just enjoy your spring break. Appreciate the rest while you still can.”

Muttering absently, Maria set down the receiver after her mother hung up the telephone. Her mother didn’t want her to gain weight; she wanted her daughter thin and lithe, svelte and fashionable. She had always reminded her of the importance of maintaining a slim figure and had always bought her diet soft drinks, artificial sweeteners, low-calorie salad dressing, low-fat peanut butter, fat free yoghurt. Her father, who had a potbelly, couldn’t care less and said he would die with a full stomach. He accurately predicted his own demise: he died, of a massive myocardial infarction, two years ago, with a full stomach, after dinner of tenderloin steak on Sunday evening, with a telecast of The Wonderful World of Disney in the background.

After returning to her room, Maria tried to listen to The Rolling Stones’ Tattoo You cassette tape again. When the Walkman still wouldn’t work, she decided that she had enough. Although she wasn’t certain what she would do, she decided she wouldn’t tolerate being bullied by the head nurse. She had enough of being imprisoned in the hospital ward. Perhaps she would call her Uncle Manuel and ask her father’s brother if she could stay at his house in Transcona. Depending on how expensive the nightly room rates, possibly she would stay at a motel downtown, even if it was seedy. For the first night at least she could stay in all night cafes.

She picked up her broken Walkman and placed it in her backpack. Then she decided she’d carry the cassette player in her hand while she walked and tried to fix the device. She shoved the rest of her most valued belongings in her backpack, although she tried to make it look as if she was still occupying her room by leaving certain of her rumpled clothes lying on unmade bed. Then she looked out the window. It had suddenly gotten cold and was probably around minus ten degrees, not including the wind chill. She checked the Yellow Pages for a listing of electronics retailers and appliance repair shops, preferably downtown, where she could have her Walkman fixed. She tore two yellow pages out of the Winnipeg telephone directory, folded them, and stuffed them in the tight pocket of her jeans. She walked past the nursing station without turning her head. She just pressed straight ahead and nobody challenged her. Relieved to be free, she moved down the back stairs and outside of the hospital. She hiked on the street in the cold, the smoking rising in curls from the pipes and smokestacks for the furnaces and power plants.

As she headed down the icy street she realized she had forgotten to withdraw money yesterday. She had left her bank card inside her wallet, which she had left inside the bedside table drawer in her hospital room. She didn’t even have a Winnipeg bus ticket, only a small amount of cash in her pocket. “Eff it,” she muttered, startling a passerby, a mother in a quilted down-filled ski jacket pushing a baby in a stroller. She would figure something out. Shivering from the chill of an unseasonably cold spring in Winnipeg, she continued to walk through the Health Sciences Centre, a vast complex of brick and concrete buildings, old and new, heading in a direction that she knew would bring her downtown. She continued walking along Sherbrook, striding quickly. A thin, reedy, diminutive man, with a shaved head, crossed the street, along which only an occasional motor vehicle passed, and strode alongside her. He was actually short, nearly a midget. Why did she attract the trolls?

“Do you want some speed?”

“I don’t do drugs.”

“Wow. A goody-two-shoes. I like them. But most goody-two-shoes never let on because they want to act cool. I’m not a narc.”

“You don’t look like a narc.”

His smile faded and his expression turned blank, as, seemingly disappointed, he looked down. “You sure you don’t want some weed?”

She glared at him.

“Do you want to mess around?”

“No.” Her expression grew alarmed, her voice trembled, and her cheek and eyelid twitched when she saw the intensity in his masculine gaze. He pulled out a knife and pressed the blade flat against her collarbone. “Now do you want to fool around?”

“I’m having my period.”

“Nice excuse. We can do it through the back door. I prefer it that way because you don’t have to worry about babies.”

He pushed her down on her hands and knees against the dumpster. She thought she needed to distract him, as she clenched the Sony Walkman against her bony thigh. Her grip tightened on the portable cassette player and her muscles tensed. She clenched her jaw and the tendons and gristles tightened and twitched across her lean cheekbones. She said she needed to stand to take off her top. As she revealed her slim waist and gripped her Walkman with the other, she asked, “Are you, like, a drug dealer or a pimp?”

A chance existed she might have offended him and angered him, but she saw that he looked flattered. She had distracted him and might have just asked him if he was a brain surgeon. She quickly brought up her arm and smashed the Sony Walkman against his face. She whacked the walkabout tape player over his head until she was breathing hard and he was stunned. As she brought down the Walkman on his head, she remembered the pediatrician’s words, “Sudden cardiac death.” She couldn’t believe the damage her manic burst of energy had inflicted, his head bruised and face smashed to a pulp and streaked with blood. She had knocked him unconscious, and his body form was sprawled along the sidewalk. After the rush of energy, she stared at his prostate form, which was breathing regularly, and started to feel afraid again. Lost, she ran along the Sherbrook Street sidewalk, towards what she hoped was the broad street and lights and traffic that was Portage Avenue. She needed a bite to eat, just a bite, and a pay telephone.

The encounter somehow put her in the mood for fast food. She walked furiously, with long bounding strides, until she reached Portage Street downtown and found a twenty-four sandwich shop open. She ordered a foot-long submarine sandwich, all dressed, with shredded lettuce, olives, sliced onions, diced peppers, gobs of mayonnaise, chopped mushrooms, sliced tomatoes, and every variety of cold cuts, sliced ham, pastrami, salami, and mozzarella and cheddar cheese. Then she raced to a MacDonalds fast food restaurant and ordered a large super thick chocolate milk, a bacon double cheeseburger, a large serving of French Fries, and a coffee. She sat alone at a table near the window overlooking Portage Avenue and watched the elderly, bar and nightclub patrons, street people, police officers, bus drivers, and pedestrians, the lost and lonely, walking past to their apartments, houses, sleeping bags in a doorway, or benches in a park. As the night stretched, she had a few more refills of coffee and bought a few more vanilla soft ice cream cones for dessert, sneaking in yet another ice cream cone before they turned it off for the daily cleaning. By the end of her meals and snacks, she felt sick, nauseous, bloated, disgusted with herself. She locked herself in the women’s washroom in the fast food restaurant and vomited just about everything she had eaten that evening. She scrubbed, washed, and rinsed herself at the sink. Looking in the mirror at her reddened eyes, she realized she had nowhere to go but back to the Health Sciences hospital.

 

 

BIO

John TavaresBorn and raised in Sioux Lookout, in northwestern Ontario, John Tavares is the son of Portuguese immigrants from Sao Miguel, Azores. He graduated from social sciences at Humber College and journalism studies at Centennial College. His previous publications include Blood & Aphorisms, Plowman Press, Green’s Magazine, Filling Station, Whetstone (Canada), Broken Pencil, Tessera, Windsor Review, Paperplates, The Write Place at the Write Time, The Maple Tree Literary Supplement, Gertrude, Turk’s Head Review, Outside In Literary & Travel Magazine, Bareback Magazine, Rampike, and The Writing Disorder. Moreover, he had about a dozen short stories as well as creative nonfiction published in The Siren, a college newspaper. He has had articles published in East York Observer, East York Times, Beaches Town Crier, The East Toronto Advocate, Our Toronto as well as community and trade publications such as York University’s Excalibur and Hospital News, where he interned as an editorial assistant. He broadcast a set of his short stories as a community radio broadcaster for CBLS in Sioux Lookout one summer. He has recently written a novel and is an avid photographer. Having acquired an Honours BA, Specialized, in English at York University, he has returned to his hometown of Sioux Lookout.

 

 

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mitchell Grabois

Transparency

by Mitchell Grabois

 

Wasps colonized my attic. I had to grab a can of wasp spray from my wife’s hand. She was a farm girl and stronger than me. She grabbed the can back and hit me in the head with it.

Our love was being overwhelmed by our differences. I found the wasps’ buzzing comforting, consoling. I heard messages in the drone, messages designed for me alone, telling me about the true nature of the universe. My wife said that if the droning didn’t stop, she was going to fall off the wagon—was I too stupid to understand?

Yet now that she’d hit me with the can of wasp spray, she couldn’t use it. She had created an inner barrier that she didn’t understand, but was unable to surmount. She went outside without saying anything, got into her old Pontiac, and headed down the road. She was going to the meth house. Whether she was going to do meth or just fuck the meth maker, I didn’t know. But I couldn’t pursue her. I was too engaged in listening to the wasps’ messages.

 

After I’d learned everything I could from the wasps, I went out on the front porch. I sat in my rocker and pretended to speak with my wife:

The world is corrupt, and pain closes us off to each other. We crave injections of transparency. We want to become floating windows, our religion Windex.

I see right thru you, girl, as if I were a psychologic genius. And you see thru me as well.

Crows and robins fling themselves thru the air, but part of what they think is air is us. We are annoyed, they are annoyed. It is significant, one of the downsides of transparency.

 

 

 

 

 

Angels

 

It’s a nice piece of fiction or nonfiction I’ve written—I can’t tell the difference anymore. I’ve hypnotized myself and can’t undo it—this is the creative process. Creativity has confounded reality. It doesn’t matter. Nothing’s at stake. It’s just words on a page.

It’s not my adult son’s maid vacuuming his carpet while crying over what’s happening in the Ukraine, where she’s from, and where her parents and sister still live. She’s thin and has a lot of prominent veins in her arms and shoulders. She has a firm grip from working hard. She can’t find her business card in her purse. She tells me I know a lot about women.

It’s not kidnapped girls in Nigeria, raped and traumatized. The difference between their conscious minds and unconscious minds is also blurring, but not in the service of art.

I want to use my wealth to buy them, all of them. I want to educate them and put them to work in my restaurant, in my factory, in my amusement park. Wherever they want to work, that’s where I want them to work. I will pay them $15/hour, well over minimum wage. I will bring their parents here. I will get them medical treatment for their poor and neglected bodies.

 

But, despite all my good intentions, I ended up getting too close to Heaven. Angels melted my face. It’s not that they lacked compassion or had a cruel streak—they were just following the laws of Physics. Even angels must follow the laws of Physics.

 

 

 

 

 

Rubber Crumbs

 

My father escaped the Nazis, went to NYC to his Uncle’s tenement, looked around and said: Holy fuck! This fucking place is going to kill me sure as Hitler (or whatever the equivalent was in Yiddish). So he went west, stopped in Colorado, got work on a ranch, learned Spanish. He was Rumanian, but easily passed for Mexican.

This morning I wake in my armchair in the living room of the ranch house he built by hand. A book of Yiddish poetry has slipped from my grasp. I pick it up and go wash my face. Today I’m putting down rubber crumb infill in my corral. The granules prevent flyout, splashing, migration of base, and promote traction and drainage. Shock absorption is maximized. The rubber absorbs more impact than sand and reduces the repeated concussions horses sustain from being ridden on hard surfaces. It’s easier on the horses’ joints and the crumbs don’t freeze in winter. And it keeps dust down. I like a dustless arena.

My father never knew anything about this. It wasn’t available while he was alive.

 

I try to focus on rubber crumbs and whatnot, but I have to put some focus on Green Energy, because placed too close to my home, these turbines are black as the soul of the energy company’s greedy CEO, with their noise, shadow flicker, and subsonic vibration.

I might have expected my sensitive wife to develop Turbine Syndrome, but me? I was a Marine, born to fight and conquer. Nothing bothers me, but I’ve also been felled by Turbine Syndrome. After all the armed enemies I’ve faced for my country, it is turbines that have defeated me.

I pray I won’t become a slave to sleeping pills, but I know I need sleep—I need to care for my stock—and this is the only way to get it.

 

 

BIO

mitchell GraboisMitchell Krockmalnik Grabois has had over seven hundred of his poems and fictions appear in literary magazines in the U.S. and abroad. He has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize for work published in 2012, 2013 and 2014. His novel, Two-Headed Dog, based on his work as a clinical psychologist in a state hospital, is available for Kindle and Nook, or as a print edition. He lives in Denver, CO.

 

 

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Ctrl + A

by J Hudson

 

He’d spent the night. She awoke before him and made coffee and toasted an everything bagel for him and was now typing on her laptop at the table.

“What size font should I use for my resume, ten or twelve?”

“It depends, what typeface are you using?” He didn’t look up from his iPad.

“Calibri.”

“Calibri isn’t professional; use eleven point Times New Roman. It’s the generally accepted typeface of business.”

“New Times Romans is boring.”

“It’s Times New Roman and Business is boring. But that’s life.”

“I want to use, Garamond or Calibri. I like the look of those fonts.”

“You mean typeface. When discussing the aesthetics of letters or numbers or punctuation styles, you refer to them as typeface, not fonts. A font is a collection of tools.”

There was a sense of recitation in his definitions of typeface and font. He sounded like a robot parrot. She chuckled and said, “You’re a collection of tools.”

“Really? That’s not funny.”

“You’re not funny.”

“Good come back. I guess that’s why I have a job and you don’t.” He sipped his coffee and went back to reading the Times online.

She hit Ctrl + A and changed everything on the page to Times New Roman. She examined her vitae and then him, lounging on the couch and his white tube socks resting on her glass coffee table. She selected Comic Sans MS from the drop down menu, saved the document, exited the program, closed the lab top and sat back to enjoy her hazelnut coffee.

 

 

BIO

J hudsonJ Hudson is a local food and arts organizer from Akron, Ohio. He is a member of both the Kent Zendo in Kent, Ohio and the First Congregational Church in Hudson, Ohio.

 

 

Photo by Ash Adams Photography

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Ninon Schubert author

Day Three is the Hardest

by Ninon Schubert

 

 

Stay away from triggers

Barb turned off the alarm. The lingering smell of beer, frying fat and sweat took her breath away. The craving was back instantly – just arrived at work and already on the verge of cracking.

She left all the doors wide open, hoping there‘d be enough wind and sun to flush out the grime. But the wind was no more than a trickle and any natural light was swallowed up by the plush carpet and the nervous flicker of colours from the poker machines in the gaming room.

She would feel empty and restless, the leaflet had warned, today was day three and day three was the hardest. Barb dug into her pocket and got out her bad-effects list:
– dried up and shrivelled in the mornings
– headaches all the time
– clothes stink
– money down the drain
No relief.

It didn’t help that she’d had a dream about Sergei. In the dream his features were pulverized to gravel and blasted into her eyes, nose, mouth and lungs. Barb had woken up with a violent fit of coughing and spent the next few hours trying to resist the urge to light a cigarette. She got up, prowled around the house and emptied the fridge waiting for Sergei to move out of her head and the craving to subside. But the moment refused to pass. Around her the darkness ground to a complete halt, leaving her stranded in the middle of the night, blaming herself for everything.

Keep yourself busy and breathe deeply, the leaflet said. As the cleaners arrived and started vacuuming, Barb walked around gathering the dirty glasses that had been left by the evening staff. She checked the gaming area, her movements weaving and folding into the liquid gloom and the flashes of green, yellow and red from the poker machines – her routine creating a thin, protective membrane that shielded her from the outside world.

“Hi, how’s it going?” a woman’s voice called. It was Mandy popping in on her way to work. “I got you some of that nicotine gum.”

Barb turned and was suddenly unable to say anything at all; her eyes filled with tears, her hands shook.

“You okay?” Mandy came up to her holding the gum.

“Knowing me I’ll get addicted to that, too.” Barb took the packet.

“Go easy on yourself,” Mandy said, “just take things an hour at a time and buy that inhaler if it gets really bad – that even worked for me.”

“D’you think it’ll get rid of Sergei as well?”

Mandy laughed, “You never know – try putting him in the mouthpiece and burning him.”

“I’d have to burn him out of my head first.”

They walked back to the entrance and stepped out into the glare of the Melbourne summer. It was still morning and already the bitumen was wilting in the sun. The outside world curled and broke in a massive wave over Barb’s head. She could feel its eddies and flows and treacherous currents mingling with the weight of a sleepless night: heat, light, cars and voices all crashing down on her.

On the other side of the street people were going about their business. One woman stopped and looked at something in a shop window. It was Olivia. The wave churned and foamed around Barb’s legs, dragging her down into its undertow.

Mandy grimaced. “She’s my first customer today.”

Barb stared at her.

“God knows what she wants,” Many added.

A tram came hurtling down the road, cutting through Barb’s field of vision and wiping the street clean in its wake: when it passed, Olivia was gone.

Mandy stepped out on the road and turned back briefly. “Don’t forget to use that nicotine gum!” She waited for the next tram, dodged the oncoming traffic to the other side and hurried up the road. Before she disappeared around the corner, she waved.

Go easy on yourself, Mandy had said. Stay away from triggers, the leaflet recommended. What a joke – the whole day was turning into one big trigger-happy trigger.

 

Learn to chew the gum

Just as Barb was about to go back inside, she saw old Theo coming out of the supermarket with his shopping. He shuffled up the road, leaning and creaking like a derelict shed, two plastic bags flapping at his sides.

“Where do you think you’re going?” she shouted.

Theo turned, swaying slightly. Barb beckoned to him. His face lit up as he shuffled towards her.

“Ferguson won’t be in today – he never comes two days in a row,” Barb said as Theo drew level.

Theo hesitated, then grinned like a little kid, “I’ll just drop these bags off at home then,” turned and creaked back up the street.

The minute Barb went inside, the artificial light and the smells wrapped themselves around, calming her down. No chance of Olivia materializing in here. As Barb walked past the entrance to the gaming room something caught her eye. There was a dark shadow near one of the poker machines – the one where Sergei always used to play. Someone was hunched over peering into the corner. She broke out in a sweat.

“Hello?” She stepped into the room and paused, waiting for her eyes to adjust to the dimness. The lights of the machines threw blotches of colour onto her skin.

“Sergei?”

What was he doing?

When she finally worked up the courage to go over, there was no sign of Sergei or anyone else. It was just the plastic tree, half hidden in its corner. Time to have some of that gum. She tore open the packet and read the instructions:
– chew on gum gently for approx. 1 minute
– park gum in cheek to let lining of mouth absorb nicotine
– chew gum again when taste fades
Chew and get a grip.

What an arsehole Ferguson was. People had complained about Theo hanging around the machines. One woman had accused him of harassing her and someone else had claimed Theo was trying to interfere with his game. All he did was talk to people. Barb stuffed another piece of gum in her mouth. Ferguson had frog-marched the old man out with everyone watching. Who would do that to an eighty-two-year-old? And yesterday had been her second day. The day that nicotine withdrawal symptoms peak, the leaflet warned. She’d have murdered for a smoke. Instead, she screamed at Ferguson and almost lost her job. In the end he’d been content to take her into his office and taunt her by lighting up a cigar and puffing the smoke in her face as he gave her a lecture on how patient he was.

She spat out the gum and started rifling the back of the bar for a packet of cigarettes. Just one drag and everything’d be okay. The evening staff always kept a packet stashed away somewhere. She imagined herself outside, leaning against the wall, inhaling deeply, feeling the sun on her skin and the rush of smoke in her lungs.

Theo arrived just in time to save her with a packet of biscuits. She ripped it open and demolished one after another in quick succession.

“Plenty more where that came from,” Theo said, beaming at her.

 

Understand your habit

A couple of hours later a few people were dotted around the poker machines but none of them were regulars. The rest of the day staff had arrived and the smell of food drifted in from the kitchen. Theo was perched on a stool at the bar trying to peer into all corners of the gaming area.

“Forget it,” Barb told him.

He put on his innocent face.

“You‘re not going in there. If anyone complains to Ferguson we’re both done for. Wait for Jack or Christos.”

A plate of chops and mash was brought in from the kitchen and she put it down in front of him. “My shout.”

Barb ate the last of the biscuits while Theo tucked into his chops. He’d started hanging around when his wife died, but he never played, never drank and never smoked. He was drawn to the flickering lights like an insect to a bed of flowers, fluttering from machine to machine to strike up conversations, telling people the most personal things completely out of the blue. Like how his son Nick had just taken off one day to spite his mum, and if Theo hadn’t tracked him down in Western Australia when she was dying of cancer, she’d never have seen him again.

As Barb brushed away the biscuit crumbs she realized her craving for a cigarette had waned slightly. You should keep a smoking diary for at least a week before you quit, the leaflet said, you should understand your habit. Barb hadn’t bothered – she knew that smoking boosted her self-confidence and helped her relax. With Sergei, her intake had doubled.

Jack, the laundry owner from up the road, sauntered in and, as usual, surveyed the place for women. Apart from Barb there was only one other woman in there, although she must have been at least thirty-five, well over Jack’s usual cut-off point. No matter. At the sight of women he went into automatic. Like a poker machine: throw coins in the slot and it starts whirring, flashing and making funny noises. Barb had seen through him the minute she clapped eyes on him. Unfortunately, she’d fallen for Sergei instead. Mandy, who’d almost lost her beauty salon paying off her husband’s debts, had warned Barb over and over, stay away from him, he’s bad news. But Sergei gave Barb one of his paintings and she loved it so much he promised to paint a whole series for her. He told her no one had ever appreciated his paintings the way she did; no one inspired him more.

 

Build your resolve

The door opened. Christos, who owned the wedding shop next to Jack’s laundry, took one last drag of his cigarette and stubbed it out before coming in. He walked up to Barb and blew the smoke straight at her. It skimmed her cheeks and set her skin tingling. For a moment it felt like Sergei running his fingertips down the side of her face, lightly touching her lips, her chin, her neck.

Christos was looking at her. “Sorry, did you want one?”

“No thanks.”

“Sure? You’re allowed to have a break, aren’t you?”

“I said, no thanks.”

“What’s wrong?”

“You know bloody well I’m trying to quit.”

Christos put on an air of being hurt. “Just offering.”

“Yeah, right,” Barb pushed his beer across the counter.

Suddenly he grinned.

“What’s so funny?” Barb asked.

“Why are you in such a bad mood? No wonder you’re always being dumped by your boyfriends.”

“Since when have you been sober for long enough to keep track of my boyfriends?”

Christos looked as if she’d just punched him in the face. Theo tugged at his sleeve and pushed him towards the gaming room.

Christos downed his beer, slammed the glass down on the counter and the two men moved over to the poker machines. They greeted Jack, who by this stage was teaching the woman how to press the buttons rhythmically for maximum effect.

“I’ve got a bit of celebrating to do,” Barb heard Christos say.

“Good news?” Theo asked.

“We won that court case – my lucky socks won the day,” he pulled up his trousers to reveal a mass of blue and white stripes.

Theo gave him the thumbs up.

Christos seemed to remember something, turned around and called to Barb. “I saw Olivia on the way here. She was having a laugh with your mate Mandy outside her beauty parlour – I didn’t know they were so pally.” He grinned.

Jack, who now had his arms around the woman as he stood behind her and operated the machine, winked over at him.

Bastards, Barb thought, but her craving was back with a vengeance. What was it the leaflet recommended? Set your quit day and make sure you tell your family and friends so they can support you. It conveniently failed to mention what to do about the Christoses of the world. Or the Sergeis.

Why had things gone so wrong?

She had meant that evening to be a celebration but Sergei never came.

Everything had been fine up till then. They’d even set the date for him to move in – the spare room would be his studio. Instead, Barb found herself leaving endless messages on his voicemail, trying desperately not to sound desperate. She’d never found out where he lived – he was in between places, he said – so she wandered around hoping to see him turn a corner, leave a front door, step out of a car, go into a shop or just hesitate somewhere for one brief moment long enough for her to re-enter his life.

Weeks later she came home to find a message from him saying that something had come up and to stop ringing – he’d get in touch with her. Famous last words.

 

Reward yourself

In the afternoon, when Theo had gone and Jack had generously offered to accompany the woman back to his place, Bernie came in.

Fat, squat Bernie who threw money into three or four machines and then ran around in a frenzy trying to work them all simultaneously. He got into such a sweat that his permed hair stuck to his forehead and the dark patches under his arms grew till they joined up on his back. When he came to the bar to get a drink his body odour was so pungent it made Barb shudder, but she developed the knack of leaning away to scan the room as they spoke. She got to know him better when his wife kicked him out. He told Barb he’d come home one day to find his things strewn all over the veranda and the front door fastened by a sparkling new lock. His wife had worked long hours at one of the local supermarkets and Bernie had promised to take her on a world tour – they would stay at all the best hotels. But she got tired of waiting and lending him money. After they separated, Bernie put in even longer hours at the machines, scrambling around, never far from total meltdown. It was healthier than drowning his sorrows, he claimed. At least it kept him fit. He reckoned he ran about five miles a day and that it was a great way of losing weight. He told Barb about a system he’d worked out that involved complicated sequences when pressing the buttons. It was guaranteed to turn him into a millionaire and win his wife back. As it happened, she’d met someone else and wanted a divorce.

“How’s it going?” he asked Barb.

“I keep thinking I see Sergei.”

“I used to come home at night and I’d think Liz was lying in bed,” Bernie paused, “it looked like her head was on the pillow.” For a while he was lost in thought. “You’re too hard on yourself, you should try playing, that always works.”

“I don’t know, Bernie.”

The leaflet recommended trying out new activities when you quit smoking – give yourself the feeling that you’re gaining a whole new life. Somehow she didn’t think that included gambling.

Bernie started his usual routine of throwing money into various machines. Christos went outside for a cigarette. Barb watched him leaning against the wall, smoke curling upwards, twisting and turning, developing a life of its own, beckoning and full of promise.

A group of men came in and headed straight for the gaming room. One of them started an argument with Bernie for hogging so many machines. Barb was too busy trying to overcome her craving to pay much attention. She breathed deeply. The craving didn’t go away. She went over her bad-effects list. Still no change. Then she tried to think of all the rewards that came with quitting:
– grumpy
– unhappy
– getting fatter
It was useless.

 

The new you

Late afternoon and who waltzed in? Barb felt a sudden silence descend around her and looked up. Bernie was staring at something near the door and Christos was grinning.

It took Barb a moment to realize what was happening. By that time, Olivia’s smile was hovering somewhere between the entrance and the bar, floating through the room completely disconnected from her person and making its way over to Barb. When it got there, it hung in mid-air and broadened.

“I had a wonderful facial at Mandy’s, she’s very good, and I was thinking – she could do with a bit of publicity so I offered to help with some brochures. Sergei’s doing the artwork.”

Barb’s mind scrambled to connect the smile to Olivia’s voice and face.

“I just wanted to let you know that we’re expecting a baby.”

Barb felt a rush of air and a door slamming shut with a soundless bang.

“I wasn’t sure if Sergei would tell you but I thought you’d like to share the good news with us,” and with that Olivia turned and walked out, still smiling.

From the kitchen came the sound of shattering glass.

Some more blokes came in wanting drinks and change for the machines. When things had calmed down, Barb was dying for a cigarette and this time she knew she’d crack. She’d kept it up by telling herself, just one more hour, just till lunchtime, till Theo leaves, till the next customer arrives, the next plate of food, the next beer, the next coin in a slot. Now there was nothing left to keep her from hitting rock bottom.

How could she have been so stupid?

All that talk of feeling hemmed in and wanting to leave Olivia to focus on painting. Barb had gladly offered to fill the void – she’d given him money for exhibition space, a vernissage, invitations and ads in all the right magazines. She’d refused to believe Bernie when he told her that Sergei had used her savings to pay off a money lender who’d lent him money to pay off gambling debts.

“Barb … Barb!” Mandy‘s voice interrupted her train of thought.

Barb looked up.

“Are you okay?” Mandy asked.

“I need a smoke.”

“Go get yourself that inhaler. I’ll hold the fort here.”

Barb hesitated.

“Go on,” Mandy insisted. “I’ll wait.”

The sun beat down as Barb waited for a gap in the traffic. Mandy was right. She shouldn’t be caving in now.

By the time she got to the other side of the road, Barb knew what to do. She’d have Mandy over for dinner, she’d apologize for how cranky she’d been lately and together they’d make a list of new things to do:
– dancing lessons
– cookery classes
– finding the right man
A whole new chapter. You’ll be gaining a new, healthier life, the leaflet said. That was it, Barb thought. They would make plans.

When she came out of the chemist’s with the inhaler, there was a tram at the top of the hill slowly making its way down. Barb crossed the road and hesitated, catching a few moments of sun before plunging back into the gloom and the fluorescent lights. She didn’t know what made her turn around. On the other side of the street people were going in and out of the shops: a woman with a pram losing her patience over a dawdling kid, a man in a business suit, and another man hurrying away. All Barb saw was the back of his head but she knew immediately who it was.

“Sergei!” she shouted.

Instead of turning around he walked away even faster. Or was that just her imagination? She hardly knew what she was doing. She bolted back across the road. A car screeched to a halt. The driver blew his horn furiously. Barb kept running. It wasn’t till she heard the loud clanging of the tram, saw it looming above her and the horrified face of the driver as it shuddered to a halt, that she realized what she was doing. She jumped out the way. More cars slammed on their brakes on the other side of the tram. Shaken, Barb made her way to the kerb. People were staring at her.

When she looked around, Sergei had gone.

 

 

 

BIO

Ninon SchubertNinon Schubert is from Melbourne, Australia, but currently spends most of her time in Germany and Ireland. She has been writing screenplays for films and TV for a number of years. In 2010/2011 she wrote and co-produced the feature Sleeping Dogs which screened at international festivals and received a number of awards and nominations. One of her short stories, An Hour to Kill, was shortlisted for the Writers’ Forum (UK) short story prize. Day Three is the Hardest is her first short story publication.

 

 

 

 

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We Don’t Sweep At Night

by Suzanne Ushie

 

When I first saw the slender girl in Dad’s Passat, I asked Mum if she was our new housegirl. But Mum said, “No. That’s your cousin, Agwukiwhun,” in a low and grave tone, as if I’d said something unforgivable. In truth, Agwukiwhun wasn’t my cousin. Our late grandfathers were best friends. They’d fought together with the Nigerian troops during the Second World War. If Mum was telling the story they were stationed in Kenya, and if it was Dad they were stationed in Burma, and if Mum corrected Dad, he said the story involved his father not hers so he was right.

I didn’t know what to make of Agwukiwhun. When we were introduced on the veranda she said, “How are you? I’m happy to meet you,” without mixing up her tenses. She looked me right in the eye. Her fair skin had an uneven tone, darker on her face than her body, suggesting frequent sunlight. She had a brittle jheri curl and wore an ill-fitting dress. After I put away the sack of corn her parents sent to thank us for taking her in, Dad told me to show her around. She said little in the kitchen while I explained that the fridge prevented food from going bad. In the living room, where I turned on the television with the remote control, she said they had a black and white TV back home. I felt silly, yet grudgingly impressed. Our red brick house, with its chintz sofas and high ceilings, didn’t seem to awe her. She didn’t stare at the King Louis XV-style desk in the hallway. She was nothing like the other village girls who had come from our hometown Bedia to live with us in Calabar.

In the past, those village girls, essentially housegirls, slept in the room beside the garage. Sometimes, just before Mum left for work at the Ministry of Agriculture, she carried out raids and found cubes of Maggi and packets of salt they’d stolen. Afterward she gave a long lecture, solemn-faced, that often ended with the housegirl weeping. Sometimes Mum wept too. “They steal because they have so little,” she often said. Her ideals were marred when our last housegirl drained half her Chanel No. 5 with a syringe. “Common thief! You’re leaving this house today,” she’d said as she smacked her. That was months before Agwukiwhun came and flung her frayed green wrapper over my closet door. I didn’t like sharing my territory with her. The wrapper weighed on my mind and one day, while she showered, I slipped it under her pillow.

When Agwukiwhun returned I watched her search the closet, fling open the drawers, fiddle with the paper garland draped over the dresser as if her wrapper could possibly be there. She picked up the notebook where I had doodled Udoka’s name. I quickly said in Bette, “It’s under your pillow,” not wanting her to know I had a crush.

“You should have told me to keep it somewhere else if it was disturbing you,” she replied in English.

I wanted to slap her. What stopped me was the fear that she would slap me back and my brain would turn to mousse. Something about her toned arms convinced me. Besides, she was sixteen, two years older than me, though it was hard to tell since I was taller than her. None of this mattered to Mum. She didn’t want me to be a spoiled only child so I cleaned and cooked with Agwukiwhun. On humid afternoons I chopped fresh green ugu, lumpy carrot sticks, dry fingers of okro for ushaw soup.

“Those slices are too big,” Mum would say to me.

Agwukiwhun knew exactly how to curve the knife, to cut the okro into jagged pieces. I tried to mimic her motions but mine lacked the effortlessness of hers. By the afternoon she wrote the poem, my slices were almost perfect. I had just stepped back into the kitchen after lunch when I heard Mum sobbing. She stood by the granite-topped counter, a sheet of lined paper in her hands, Agwukiwhun’s body pressed against hers in a haphazard embrace. The poem itself was rather banal: stanza after stanza of praise for my parents, a sun and a star in every other sentence, Thank you spelled as Thenk you. I hoped—prayed—it didn’t mean Agwukiwhun would attend Canaan Model School with me. It would have been a travesty for my parents’ charity to stretch that far.

“Oh my God! She has so much potential,” Mum said to Dad, breathless with discovery, when he returned from a conference in Benin. He told her everyone had an innate potential so that word itself, potential, was meaningless. Sometimes when Dad shared one of his numerous self-made theories, I was certain he would have been better off being a philosopher instead of an engineer. To my relief, he wasn’t moved by Agwukiwhun’s affection-winning tactics. Still, he enrolled her in Holy Child, the all-girls secondary school on Marian Hill, altering the order of her destiny. She was spared from the commercial academy with its broken louvres and bumpy floors.

All Holy Child students wore their hair short and natural. As Mum chopped off Agwukiwhun’s jheri curls, I subdued the urge to shred the dark tufts and fling them far away.

* * *

I was sitting in the backyard when Mum called me from her bedroom. I pretended not to hear. I knew she wanted me to clasp her bracelet, or do up her zip—another mundane task to help prepare her for the usual evening outing with Dad. I glared at Agwukiwhun when she leaned out of the kitchen to say Mum was calling me. Surely Agwukiwhun knew I had ears.

Mum looked chic in a floral print dress. I fastened her necklace and she did a mock twirl in the middle of the room, smelling of Shalimar, coaxing Dad to change out of his tweed blazer into something more cheery. I had dinner after they left. A tumbler slid out of my hand while I did the dishes, the foam-covered splinters splashing across the terrazzo floor.

Agwukiwhun walked in as I picked up a broom. “Our people don’t sweep at night,” she said, her voice laughingly ominous. “It’s against our culture.”

I rolled my eyes and began to sweep. She pried the broom from my hands, tossed the splinters into the bin. I disliked the way she was looking at me. Mum had given me the same unflinching look during our last trip to Bedia. “Don’t embrace anyone apart from your grandmother,” she’d said with no further explanation. The holiday morphed into one of avoiding strangers and sidestepping relatives. When an effusive aunt succeeded in embracing me, I tottered on the cusp of despair. I went into the bedroom, took off my clothes, and examined my whole body. Because I didn’t find anything strange, I didn’t tell Mum. But this was different. I had knowingly defied a warning, probably brought on some cultural curse.

The next day, I waited until Agwukiwhun had left for the market before going in

search of Mum, plotting the best way to share my unease without sounding crazy. Mum was reading Homes and Gardens in the living room. When she saw me in the doorway, she straightened herself and removed her feet from the leather ottoman. “Aha! I was just going to call you. Please get me a Fanta from the fridge.”

I placed the frosted bottle on the side stool and left. I should have known she was the wrong person to talk to anyway, especially when she was planning to plant another vicious shrub on the lawn.

I found Dad unscrewing a lamp holder on the porch. I asked him if it was true that we don’t sweep at night.

“What do you mean by we? Our family?”

“Not just our family. All Obudu people.”

“I see. And where did you hear this?” He didn’t wait for my response, for which I was thankful. “Well, some of our people believe that when you sweep at night, you sweep away your family’s wealth. Absurd, of course.”

“What if it isn’t?”

He turned to me, his serious face in place. I knew he was about to say something interesting and mystifying. He removed his glasses and smeared a lens with his fingers. He told me to wear them and I did. He asked me to tell him what I saw. I could barely see anything. It was like looking out of a window on an early harmattan morning. I told him I could see the bougainvillea on the fence through the lens he hadn’t touched, and through the other, a cluster of blurry shapes.

“We can either decide to view the world clearly or decide to complicate it for ourselves,” Dad said. “People usually choose one over the other because that’s all they’ve been taught to do.”

Did he mean Agwukiwhun was right? Wrong? That I shouldn’t be frightened? I didn’t get it. I was just pleased he thought me high-thinking enough for one of his little nuggets of intellectualism. I memorized those words and waited for an opportunity to show them off.

Days later, Mum and I were watching Quiz Time. The presenter was wearing a tight white shirt and bright red shorts. Mum said he resembled a capsule in that outfit and what was he thinking when he got dressed? I repeated Dad’s words. Mum laughed and laughed, and when her mirth quietened to soft pants, she said I must have been spending too much time with Dad.

* * *

At the end of the term, Agwukiwhun’s report card arrived, cluttered with As and Bs. Mum stopped hovering around the kitchen. Her conviction that Agwukiwhun was different, that she wouldn’t mix pepper into chin-chin dough or pour salad cream into groundnut soup was sealed.

The first time we took Agwukiwhun to Akpe, the monthly get-together of Obudu people, Mum showed her off to the other women in identical bouffant blouses.

“This is our new girl,” she began, beaming.

As always, one of the women commented on how big my breasts were while Mum smiled a small, victorious smile, as though she were responsible for their growth.

Agwukiwhun and I sat under the awning with the other children. A group of them were playing musical chairs to a Remedies song on the stereo. Someone asked me to join in and I mumbled something about being tired. I had outgrown the phase where I could dance around white plastic chairs without looking dim-witted.

A surly-looking girl laughed. “Don’t mind her. She has no brother or sister yet she feels she’s bigger than all of us.”

In spite of the music and the laughter, the mood turned grim. I should have told her she had mosquito legs but I couldn’t bring myself to speak.

Agwukiwhun got up and pulled the girl’s ears in a swift, experienced motion.

“You better say sorry now or I’ll deal with you.”

“Sorry oh. I’m very sorry,” the girl said, sounding as stunned as I was. I had never really had anyone fight for me, with me, and it brought on a new lightness.

Agwukiwhun and I were silent on the drive home. Even Dad noticed. He glanced in the rearview mirror and asked if we were still in the car. I thanked Agwukiwhun later, not only because I felt that by defending me she created a bond, but also because I owed it to her. She shrugged and said, “That girl is stupid,” and continued unpegging her clothes from the worn twine by the water tank.

We didn’t speak until the next week when Dad and Mum travelled to Eket for a wedding. I sat before the mirror and redid my plaits. Agwukiwhun said I wasn’t doing it properly. She collected the comb, parted my hair, and made a neat cornrow.

“Hey!” I pulled the unbraided section of my hair together. “Doesn’t it look like a big bunny bum?”

Agwukiwhun said nothing. I realized then that she couldn’t possibly know what a bunny bum was. When we watched Friends that evening, it became clear that she waited for me to laugh before laughing.

I told her about Udoka. My exact words were this: I think a boy in my class likes me. He sat two rows away from me, good looking in a non-threatening way. The kind of boy who could be your best friend or your boyfriend. Every so often I pictured his long arms wrapped around me—of course I never told Agwukiwhun this silly part. She gave me her forthright look. “How do you know he likes you when he has never spoken to you?” she asked, chuckling in a way that made me long to prove her wrong.

She was right, though, about one thing: menstrual periods were a nuisance. She would rush out of the bathroom, a forgotten blob of foam at the back of her neck, water from her body dripping onto the Berber carpet, just in time to wear a sanitary pad. I wondered how it felt to do that.

“Show me your pad,” I said after watching for the fortieth time.

Agwukiwhun stopped. “What?”

“Show me. I want to see what colour the blood is.”

“Your head is not correct. You better enjoy yourself now.”

I had no idea what she meant. Until the day I felt my intestines constrict. In the toilet I found a map of blood, the weak red of ground tomatoes, spreading across my panties. Mum embraced me as if I had come first in my class and said I should behave myself since I was now a woman. My stomach hurt so much I could hardly focus.

“I told you to enjoy yourself,” Agwukiwhun said when I moaned about the pain.

* * *

Late one night, in the deep yellow flicker of a candle flame, Agwukiwhun taught me the Lord’s Prayer in Bette. Soon I was singing the mournful, stirring lyrics along with her.

Mum peered into our room, a hard white mask applied to her face. “Your Bette

is improving,” she said admiringly to me. But by the third straight night, her tone grew blunted by irritation. “If I hear a single sound from this room again I’ll knock common sense into both of you.”

Agwukiwhun didn’t laugh along with me after Mum left. I thought it a bit too respectful.

“Come on, laugh,” I teased. “Mum doesn’t really mean it.”

“I don’t feel like making noise,” Agwukiwhun said.

“Weren’t you singing just now?”

It was then that she told me about the woman she had lived with in Port Harcourt. She kept her voice low at first, gaining momentum as she went along, stumbling over English words when it would have been easier to tell the story in Bette.

Her parents were reluctant to let her go. But the woman was her mother’s second cousin, recently widowed, and needed help with her three-year-old twin sons. The woman told Agwukiwhun to call her Mummy. And Agwukiwhun did, even with the contrivance in the woman’s easy acceptance, in the unassuming way the woman sent her to the community school and gave her torn novels to read. The twins ate only if Agwukiwhun fed them, sulked if she scolded them. The woman regarded their closeness with an exaggerated fondness. “Go and share this with your big sister,” she told the twins whenever she brought home oily packets of boli and fried fish.

On the day the younger twin called Agwukiwhun Mummy, the woman was disturbingly silent. When it happened again, she said she would show Agwukiwhun who the real Mummy was. She emptied a pot of beans, filled it with water, and ordered Agwukiwhun to drink up. After Agwukiwhun retched, the woman regarded the mess and said, “Now see what you’ve done.” I could just hear it. Her tone would have been pained.

“Did you go back home?” I asked.

“No. I stayed with her,” Agwukiwhun said. “I kept on calling her Mummy even after she started beating me. Then I went home for Christmas. I was annoyed when my parents started touching the Hollandis wrappers she sent to them. They said God will bless her. I didn’t go back to Port Harcourt. How can I live with somebody who disgraces my parents like that?”

“How about the twins? Do you miss them?”

“Small.”

I mulled over her story long after. It seemed to me that something in my head had dislodged and no matter how hard I tried, I wouldn’t fix it back in place.

The next time I saw one of her poems on the dresser, I read the melodramatic lines about the sun and the stars without laughing once, and then put it away.

 * * *

At first, when Udoka dropped a note in my locker, I didn’t tell Agwukiwhun. It never occurred to me that the universe could do as I bid. On languid afternoons, after all, I had lain behind the sofa and played FLAME with his name and mine. Despite all my scheming it had always ended on the E: Enemies. So when I read the slanted writing that declared his affection, I tried to ignore the pause in my breath. But he caught up with me right after assembly.

“Did you get my note?”

I said yes, suddenly shy, aware of alien sensations taking anchor inside me. He gave me a jumbo pack of Mars bars the next day. A trinket box that purred as it slid open the following day. I returned them all. I just want to get to know you better, he wrote in another note. I smirked at his unoriginality, and then he stopped sending me gifts, leaving me strangely flattened by loss.

I showed Agwukiwhun the notes at home. She said I should be glad he had given up. “Boys will say anything just to touch that thing between our legs,” she added.

I evaded her eyes.

“So you like him.”

I didn’t deny it.

“Well, you can kiss him if you like. But if he touches your lap…” She switched to Bette for effect. “You’re finished!”

“How do you know?” I asked. “Has anyone touched your own lap?”

“Yes, of course.”

Was that a way of saying she had had sex? I couldn’t believe how casual she sounded. Anyway, who knew what else people did in those murky village streams apart from bathing and urinating and fetching water? I wished for some of her clear-eyed confidence. I wished I could say ‘yes’ but not ‘of course’ if Udoka asked me out. But a week went by. An uneventful week of nursing a tension headache that intensified each time I saw him.

“Stop thinking about your chewing gum boyfriend,” Agwukiwhun would say whenever I didn’t answer a question immediately.

Boyfriend. In it I heard the sound of a beginning. In it I saw a sign that me and Udoka were united. And when Dad said “some stammering chap named Udoka” had phoned while I was at the salon, I found out I could still walk and talk when I wasn’t breathing normally. I hadn’t given Udoka my number; he must have looked it up in the phone book or got it from someone. The implications of this thrilled me: he would not have bothered if he didn’t care. As I made to leave, Dad gestured at the diary in the alcove. Udoka had left a message. I nearly laughed. Dad had written the name of the caller and the time of the call and the purpose of the call: to seek clarification on a class assignment. At least it had been Dad who answered the phone, not Mum. She had begun to stare at my breasts, a tentative smile in place of the victorious smile, perhaps in fear they would grow bigger with her approval.

I practised what I would say to Udoka. I would tell him I knew he really hadn’t called because of an assignment. I would reach out and caress the soft fuzz above his lip while the tiny space between us crackled with our own kind of magic. Only when we were finally alone, in an empty classroom after a physics lesson, all I said was a limp, “I heard you called.”

He stood by the desk next to mine, his pale blue school uniform crease-free, his voice a little too shaky. “Yes,” he said. “I wanted to ask you something.”

He gazed at the floor. I glanced away for a minute or two. Then I felt, on my cheek and neck, the sudden heat of his mint-edged breath. I turned. He was moving closer with his eyes half-closed. My nerves lurched. My courage dissolved. Not once did I look back as I fled. I smoothed my hair in the girls’ bathroom, leaned against the sink to steady my heartbeat. An odd tightness filled my chest.

I wouldn’t have told Agwukiwhun if she hadn’t brought up his name on Saturday afternoon. We were playing Ludo in our bedroom. I threw the dice, another wasted attempt, and Agwukiwhun said some people couldn’t focus because of their chewing gum boyfriends. I told her to leave me alone. It must have stunned her, the acrimony with which I spoke, because she said I should have known that she was just joking. She asked me if I had quarrelled with Udoka. I told her everything. Well, almost everything. I left out the girls’ bathroom bit.

“It’s just like a film,” she said, pronouncing ‘film’ as ‘feem’.

“You’re not serious.”

“It’s good that you didn’t kiss him. All that saliva.” She grimaced. “Don’t worry, you hear? Your chewing gum boyfriend will talk to you on Monday.”

“I don’t care.”

“Liar.”

“Is kissing that bad?”

She said, “I don’t know oh,” in a sing-songish tone, and I wondered if indeed she had kissed anyone before.

“You’re the liar,” I said. “You know.”

Agwukiwhun didn’t reply.

“Show me how to do it. Or is it against our culture too?”

“You’re talking nonsense again.”

“Dare me,” I said, illogically bold.

“Shut up.”

I leaned forward and pressed my lips against hers. She moved sideways, giggling, toppling everything from the Ludo board to the multi-coloured tokens. I’m not sure who shifted closer first. What I’m sure of is that I gulped when we felt the slippery warmth of each other’s mouths, because her saliva tasted very much like mine. I glanced at the doorway—nothing else to look at, after all—and there was Mum, her mouth opening and closing with no sound. This went on for another moment or two. And then she walked towards Agwukiwhun, who had already crouched, a hand raised above her head. A hard slap, a harder knock. A punch. A kick. At some point Agwukiwhun pulled Mum’s sleeve, enraging her more.

I got up and stood between them. “Mum, please stop.”

Mum narrowed her eyes as she struck me. My head grew so hot, so heavy the sounds that had finally begun to come out of her mouth were indistinguishable. Foolish g…Thwack. Idio…Thwack Thwack.

“Aunty, please forgive,” Agwukiwhun said. Mum paused. I ran into Dad’s study and locked the door. I didn’t come out until Dad returned from work. He examined the welts, pinkish-brown like earthworms, streaked across my arm.

“Good grief. They were just curious,” he said to Mum. “It’s normal for girls their age.”

“Normal?” She lifted an eyebrow. “Oh. Is that what they call sin these days?”

Dad sighed in a way that said, “Let it go.”

Again, Mum lifted an eyebrow.

“It’s my fault, Mum,” I said. “I kissed her first.”

Mum winced at the mention of ‘kiss’.

I nudged Agwukiwhun who had been silent and sullen throughout. “Tell her.” I could hear the desperation salting my voice.

Agwukiwhun looked away, sublime in defiance.

The palpable presence of an ending settled in the room. Mum threw Agwukiwhun’s clothes into a blue Ghana Must Go bag. Dad stood by and went on and on about the importance of mercy. Not that it worked. The next morning, Agwukiwhun left for the motor park, waving off my feeble sorrys. They were trite, I know, but I couldn’t think of anything else suitable for the situation. The moment was too surreal for a proper goodbye. When I said I would visit, her smile was hesitant, somewhat mocking, as though she knew, even then, that we would never see each other again.

 

 

 

BIO

Suzanne UshieSuzanne Ushie grew up in Calabar, Nigeria. Her short stories have appeared in several publications including Fiction Fix, Overtime, Open Wide Magazine, Conte Online and Gambit: Newer African Writing. She has an MA in Creative Writing from the University of East Anglia, England where she received the African Bursary for Creative Writing and made a Distinction. She lives in Lagos, Nigeria.

 

 

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Jacqueline berkman author

The Amino Algorithm

by Jacqueline Berkman

 

Drop Cap The cameraman counted down from 5, the lights went up, but it was only after the host crooned “You’re watching Dr. Morgan” and the Caribbean music was cued that Jordan Bickwell’s lower back really began to sweat.

He had not felt like this on the ride over. On the contrary, his confidence had inflated like a balloon with each skyscraper that blurred past, and by the time he arrived curbside in front of the studio he was bloated in his assurance that he had figured this whole mess out. He was nothing but show tunes and smiles in line for his VIP badge, and after receiving the message that Josephine was in hair and makeup, he strode over to the green room with adrenaline-fueled purpose and a head full of vague sports metaphors: he was the coach and she was his star athlete, stakes were high but they had prepared extensively, and all there was left to do before the show went live was to have one final “go get ‘em” talk and a recap of everything they had worked so hard to prepare.

But as soon as one of the distressed hairstylists let him in he could see that Josephine, hopped up on caffeine and gesturing excessively at no one in particular, was in no mood to rehearse. In fact, she didn’t seem in the right mind to be out in public, let alone on live television. And so he left the green room and made way his way to his assigned seat third row from the front with the sinking feeling that the only thing gained from the impromptu meeting was a behind the scenes look at his author at her truest and basest self: hysterical and doused in layers of hairspray.

It was for a few anxious moments that he sat like this until that damn Caribbean music was cued and Dr. Morgan, hands behind his back, leisurely made his way across the stage amongst the uproar of applause. Once he arrived at a spot deemed suitable, he stopped and stared into the camera, in a way that could only be described as soulfully. “Hello, everyone,” he said, the wave of his voice rising up against the cacophonous amount of applause. His timing down to an art, he waited until it died down to resume speaking again. “Hello, and thank you for joining us today. In today’s episode, we are exploring an industry that we encounter regularly; yet neglect to truly reflect on. The self-help industry: how helpful is it? The launching point for this discussion will be the newly released self-help title The Amino Algorithm by nutritionist Josephine Williams, which makes the controversial argument that much of the obesity and weight issues in this country are the result of cravings which can be curbed by amino acid supplements.”

Jordan took a deep breath, the buzz of an incoming text jolting him. The message said, only, “Let’s hope Dr. Morgan doesn’t mispronounce the names of any of the supplements.” Gritting his teeth, Jordan put his phone back in his pocket. As if he didn’t have enough to deal with, he now carried the additional burden of knowing full well that among the thousands of viewers tuning in to catch the full story behind The Amino Algorithm, a book he had once been proud to call himself the editor of, his father, Dr. Richard Bickwell, was among them. The main difference was that unlike the rest of the viewership, who in Jordan’s mind remained faceless entities solely representing TV ratings, his father was a visceral presence, without a doubt reclining on his leather couch in his monogrammed pajamas, invigorated by spite and reveling in the chaos that was about to unfurl. And also unlike the rest of the viewers, Jordan had to take the train up to the suburbs directly following the show and face his father at his 75th birthday party.

“As many of you have likely already heard” Dr. Morgan said, cutting into Jordan’s reverie, “The Amino Algorithm was brought to national attention by Stuart Jimenez from Allentown, Pennsylvania, whose qualms with the medical advice herein has gone viral. With a twitter page that surpasses 100,000 followers and a blog drawing nearly 300,000 unique visitors just this past month, Stuart has proven that he’s a force to be reckoned with.”

Jordan shifted in his seat. The rehashing of the statistics and the mention of Stuart’s name prompted another wave of panic. He took a deep breath and tried to reassure himself, once again, that he and Josephine were more than prepared for this. But the self-soothing that had been so effective during the cab ride no longer worked under the harsh glare of the studio lights, because the fact of the matter, no matter which way you sliced it, was that Stuart Jimenez was a profoundly unsettling creature. A self-employed electrician by day and a savvy social media strategist by night, Stuart’s qualms with The Amino Algorithm had originated with a negative Amazon review less than two months before and, in the handful of weeks that followed, catapulted into a full on anti-self help social media campaign, throttling Jordan’s life in a way he had been wholly unprepared for.

“Without further adieu,” Dr. Morgan said, “Let’s bring Stuart on stage to tell his side of the story. “Stuart?”

The applause rose again, and in Jordan’s flustered state it took him longer than it normally would to register the physical presence of Stuart himself. Immortalized through his fiery tweets and blog posts, Stuart in person was, quite simply, a disappointment to the imagination. 5’6 was a protruding stomach, receding hairline and wire-framed glasses, Stuart did not look like the media titan that he was, and when he waved at the crowd with a gentle flip of the hand Jordan tried to reassure himself, momentarily, that the man’s physical mediocrity surely diminished his online potency. It had to. People were visual, if nothing else.

“Welcome, Stuart,” Dr. Morgan said, gesturing to an empty chair on his left. “Have a seat.”

Stuart settled into his plush leather seat and waved once again at the crowd, a wide grin plastered across his face.

“So,” Dr. Morgan said, settling into his standard repose, leg crossed at the knee and right hand scratching his clean-shaven chin. “How’s it going?”

“Doin’ alright,” Stuart said, his voice booming with a self-righteous gravitas. And Jordan was struck once again by the randomness of it all, thinking of all of the books he had worked on that had seemed far more viable candidates for the Dr. Morgan show than this. Well, really one in particular. Sensible Slimdowns.

Sensible Slimdowns had gone on sale only eight months before, and had gnawed at Jordan in a way that, given all of the current drama rocking his world, could only be seen as a kind of foreshadowing. A cookbook written by former supermodel turned new age foodie Moonflower Jardine, Sensible Slimdowns had received a noted amount of flak from a Galaxy Post columnist who made the claim that having a supermodel pen a cookbook “only continued to perpetuate the female psyche’s troubled relationship to food.” The comment, pretentiously academic and lacking in sources, had ignited a debate in quite a few feminist blogs, and the whole experience had thoroughly gotten under Jordan’s skin, as it was the first time he had dealt with the wildfire of the internet and its potential to burn him.

Though perhaps what stung even more was the subsequently spectacular argument he had with his father about it. The two, out to dinner at a sushi restaurant in Soho, were always contentious on topics of work anyway, as his father repeatedly insinuated that he didn’t approve of the “new age hogwash” Jordan brought into the world, and Jordan, though he never said it aloud, constantly found his father, with his clinical asides and constant gripes about insurance companies infringing on his personal space, to be out of touch and condescending. Why they ever even got together in the first place was unclear except to say that, in those gaps between conflicts there could sometimes be a shared joke, a common reminiscence, something resembling closeness between them. But it managed to get obscured and tossed aside easily, as there were so many catalysts that could spark discord again. And Sensible Slimdowns was certainly a catalyst.

Jordan recalled their dispute clearly: after describing what the Galaxy Post columnist wrote and the negative coverage picked up by the feminist blogs, his father guffawed between sips of sake and said “This is what you spend your time thinking about? For Christ’s sake, there are actual problems out there,” before going on to say that he sided with the writer, supermodels had no business writing cookbooks, and what was his son doing publishing this crap anyway. “Is this the value of a Yale English degree?” he finally said, and the comment, though not entirely surprising, threw Jordan off balance, and in a reactive outburst of spite he threw a wad of cash on the table and left without saying goodbye. He hadn’t spoken to his father for at least a month after that, waiting for his anger to diffuse in much the same way he waited for the snarky comments surrounding Sensible Slimdowns to dissipate.

It had been a trying time, and who could have possibly known that it wouldn’t even compare to the tidal wave of problems that would plague him when he moved forward with the The Amino Algorithm?

Back up on stage, Dr. Morgan got down to business. “Stuart, let’s begin by mentioning your latest YouTube video, ‘Amino Acid Supplements and Other Dieting Failures,’ which has reached nearly one million views. Can you tell the American public, some of whom haven’t been following the saga, about your rising status as thought leader?”

“Sure,” Stuart said, clearing his throat as he segued into his presentation. “Look, let me just begin by saying that I’m not perfect,” he said, with the confidence of someone who had recently graduated from a media coaching program. “I like Jack in the Box, and some nights I can get through three beers easy. Which was all good and fine until my wife started complaining about my gut, telling me I needed to get in shape. So I started jogging and dieting but it wasn’t really doing much, if you want to know the truth, and it’s hard to keep that up if you’re not even noticing any results to begin with. So anyway, that’s kind of how things were going until a couple months ago, when I heard Josephine Williams being interviewed on the radio about The Amino Algorithm. When she described how people would benefit from her program, and how all of the supplements she advocated for were totally natural, something clicked in my head, like, wait, maybe this could actually help me.” Stuart paused for a beat and took a breath, looking earnestly into the camera, before continuing. “So I went out and bought the book and started talking one of the recommended supplements and within just a couple days I start feeling sick.”

Jordan’s phone beeped again with an incoming text. His father. Well, what was the poor guy expecting, to get better? Jordan sighed.

Following their month long separation after the Sensible Slimdowns blow up, tensions between Jordan and his father subsided as his father’s critical focus turned away from Jordan’s line of work and more towards bemoaning the state of healthcare as a whole. As the majority of his colleagues switched from private practice to take jobs in hospitals, he spent many a dinner conversation ranting about how, as the insurance companies came crawling in like so many soul sucking tax collectors, all of the autonomy of private practice was growing obsolete, how thank God he’d get to retire before he’d have to call himself anyone’s employee. And while it had been a welcome relief to no longer occupy his father’s number one grudge with all that was wrong in the medical world, the chasm between the two of them had noticeably widened again in the last couple of weeks leading up to the Dr. Morgan taping, his father’s clipped asides about his son’s foolishness aligning himself with a half-brained pseudo doctor appearing by the dozen in passive aggressive text messages and emails. Jordan could only wonder what the live show would provoke in his father, and how he would likely be the brunt of it as soon as he came over for the birthday party.

Back on stage, Dr. Morgan’s eyebrows arched in response to the not-new news that Stuart had become sick as a result of taking these supplements. “Stuart,” he said, “tell the audience what some of your symptoms were after you started feeling sick.”

“I just felt like garbage,” Stuart said. “I was getting dizzy spells, feeling super lightheaded. And I got painful cold sores on both sides of my mouth.”

“That sounds terrible,” Dr. Morgan said.

“It was terrible,” Stuart said. “Once I finally was able to get in to see a doctor, which, let me tell you, was no easy feat, he told me that I had had a herpes outbreak induced by the amino acid supplements.” The audience gasped. Stuart, undoubtedly versed in the importance of timing, gave it a few beats before he pressed on. “Apparently, the supplements so heartily endorsed in The Amino Algorithm can speed up or worsen viral outbreaks.”

“And there was no mention of that in the book?” Dr. Morgan said, glossing over the potentially awkward backstory of Stuart’s longstanding struggle with herpes.

“No,” Stuart said. “I mean, there was a general medical disclaimer, but nothing about these side effects.”

Dr. Morgan nodded vigorously. “So,” he said, “Would you say that’s when you started reaching out to express your opinions via social media channels?”

“Yes,” Stuart said. “I mean, I was mad that Ms. Williams could leave out so many important details, that the entire marketing team promoting the book could leave out so many important details. As a customer looking to lose weight and without much knowledge into the world of diet supplements, I felt that I had been manipulated, and that using social media was the only way I could really get my two cents in.”

With that, the audience burst into a hearty applause. Jordan craned his neck on both sides in an attempt to identify the source, but it was futile, because it came from everywhere and all at once.

“You present a compelling case, Stuart,” Dr. Morgan said. “But in order to gain a well-rounded perspective on the issue let’s bring Josephine Williams, author of The Amino Algorithm, up on the stage. Josephine?”

The transitory Caribbean elevator music was cued up once more and Josephine walked onstage, her frizzy hair coiffed with hairspray and her body turned away from the cameras as if they were unwanted paparazzi. There was a much lighter level of applause upon Josephine’s entrance, and, to Jordan’s mortification, several boos. Jordan thought back to all of their conversations, to her nervous state in the green room, and he held his breath and desperately hoped that she would not crack.

“Welcome, Josephine, and thank you for joining us,” Dr. Morgan said.

“Thank you for having me,” Josephine said as she took the seat on Dr. Morgan’s right side, her teeth clenched into a small, hard smile.

“Now, Josephine, I’m assuming you’ve been hearing the discussion that has been raised out here, in which Mr. Jimenez recapped his unfortunate side effects after consuming amino acid supplements endorsed in your book, as well as his frustration about the larger implications of the book itself. Do you have anything to say in response to all of this?”

Although she looked composed enough, Jordan saw Josephine intake a massive gulp of air and could practically feel her knuckles turn white as she gripped onto the arms of her chair. Seeing her like this, every effort to remain placid despite signs of bursting like a rattling tea kettle, made Jordan think back longingly to the year before, when the book had only been a question mark of a proposal, still ephemeral enough to dismiss. Why had he insisted on it? Why had he proclaimed to the editorial team that Josephine Williams was a genius, that The Amino Algorithm was the next big diet revolution? Why did anyone actually listen to him?

“To answer your question, Dr. Morgan, I have a lot to say in response to Stuart’s qualms,” Josephine said, her back ramrod straight as she rotated between looking at Dr. Morgan and the camera. “First, I want to thank Stuart here for purchasing my book, and I apologize sincerely for any unfortunate side effects that he experienced. But I can assure you that all of the claims made in my book have been extensively researched, fact checked, and meticulously edited, thanks in large part to my editor sitting right over there, Jordan Bickwell.”

Jordan had not expected that. The spotlight beamed down on him, aggravating his back sweat once again as he silently fumed at the thought that his face was now on thousands of television screens all over the country, not the least of which his father’s. In that moment, Josephine was not his hapless author but Lady Macbeth, a dreadful, conniving bitch determined to sink him down to tragic Shakespearian depths along with her. As soon as the lights swung away from him back onto the main stage, he drooped into his chair, bitterly recalling the half brained epiphany he had way back in high school when he decided he wanted to be a book editor in the first place.

He had been fourteen, on summer break before tenth grade, sitting in the beige waiting room of his father’s medical office, of all places. He had begun going there during the long, blank stretches of his summer days because he enjoyed the lunch breaks when his dad took him out for cheesesteaks or gnocchi and the car rides home when they listened to Presidential biographies on books on tape, those rare windows of time when his father didn’t have more pressing matters to attend to. And it had initially given him a flush of admiration to sit in that waiting room and observe the people sitting around him, reading outdated copies of Golfers Digest and biting their nails, all united in their quest for his father’s advice. But like the gentle shift of a changing season, his admiration began to give way as he noticed that many of the patients seemed as agitated leaving their appointments as they had walking in, their hands clutching prescription requests and their eyes on the carpet, as if tracking the pattern for the answer to an unresolved question. This was only confirmed one afternoon returning from the bathroom when he overheard a woman on the phone in the hallway saying, “Dr. Bickwell just gave me another round of antibiotics,” before chuckling and adding “well, let’s hope he knows what he’s doing this time.”

The comment, though undeniably tinged with annoyance, seemed innocuous enough, and yet when Jordan returned to the office he felt that things had somehow changed. That the waiting room, once a beacon for legitimacy and answers, had transformed into just another place where people bided their time and accumulated more questions. Any thoughts he had entertained of pursuing medicine began to dismantle as he unconsciously drifted towards a professional path that was low risk, and concrete, with results he could instantly and indisputably see. Which was right around the time that he discovered medical pamphlets.

Up on stage, Josephine, eyes still squinting against the harshness of the studio lights, cleared her throat. “Anyway, before I fully delve into Stuart Jimenez’s concerns, I want to emphasize a point which I believe to be very important,” she said. “I want to reiterate the importance of medical disclaimers.”

Dr. Morgan nodded tentatively. “Medical disclaimers,” he said.

“Yes, medical disclaimers,” Josephine said. “Every book that promotes any kind of medical advice has to have one. If you look at the copyright page in my book, you’ll find it. It reads as follows: ‘this book contains advice and information relating to health care. It is not intended to replace medical advice and should be used supplement rather than replace regular care by your healthcare provider. It is recommended that you seek your healthcare provider’s advice before embarking on any medical program or treatment.’” Josephine looked up at the camera, her face rosy with a defiant flush. “What I’m trying to say is this: my book is based on extensive research, but whenever you propose some kind of medical solution, someone will inevitably have an adverse reaction, and I can’t assume responsibility for every individual experience. I never intended for my book to replace the advice of a medical professional.”

Jordan took a deep breath. This comment was the hook, the baseline for the rest of the rhetoric that he and Josephine had worked to cultivate. They had prepared for this, and all they could do now was see how, on live television, people would react to the stream of logic that followed next.

Though his attention was divided, because even though he knew this moment was crucial, he found himself preoccupied by his memory of first discovering medical pamphlets. He had been sitting in his father’s medical office on another afternoon when he saw them, squashed in between outdated copies of The New Yorker and Good Housekeeping. They were gray and drab with a bold Helvetica typeface on the front that read: “5 Smart Ways to Avoid the Flu During the Winter Season.” Inside, the pamphlets contained practical if not slightly rudimentary tips, such as “Wash Your Hands” and “Get Enough Sleep,” and, after reading them, Jordan felt his stomach churn with acidity and his hands begin to tremble. What bothered him, what irked his fourteen year old heart, inflamed by the possibilities of honors English and George Orwell, was his profound belief that the pamphlets’ idiotic title and depressing presentation was preventing anyone from picking them up and reading them. Back then, nothing could have possibly seemed more preventable.

Suddenly invigorated, he left his father’s waiting room and ran to the drugstore across the street and bought a composition notebook, returning to the medical building once again only to jot down ideas for alternative titles, including ”5 Essential Flu-Fighting Tips for the Winter Season,” “The New and Improved Flu-Fighters Guide,” and “10 Surefire Flu-Fighting Immune Boosters.” He started carrying the notebook around everywhere as if it were an appendage to his arm, jotting down ideas whenever inspiration struck him. He began to cultivate the stance that words were powerful, something he would continue to hold onto as a staff writer for his high school newspaper, while pursuing his English degree at Yale, and throughout his fifteen year career thus far as an executive editor at Birch Tree Publishers. It was a career that, despite the disapproval of his parents, had proved quiet and largely comforting, the conflicts largely contained to the insular world of editorial board rooms, books churning through a predictable nine month cycle only to be released from the womb of their imprint to the increasingly indifferent outside world. It didn’t call for much self-reflection, and Jordan liked it that way.

But all of that changed, of course, when Stuart Jimenez came along.

Under the harsh glare of the studio lights, Dr. Morgan was intent on keeping the conversation on track. “Stuart, I’m curious as to what you think about Josephine’s point regarding medical disclaimers,” he said, turning his head to a precise 90-degree angle to face his guest on the left.

Stuart shrugged. “Honestly, I think it’s crap. Pardon my French,” he said, above the dim laughter of some of the audience members. “I mean, it just seems like something you say on the spot when you’re in a bind.” He furtively looked over at Josephine before continuing. “All I know is, when I was sitting in my car that morning, listening to the promotional interview about the book, the supplements were really positioned as an ‘all natural’ solution for weight management that you could handle on your own. That was the whole appeal for me, that I could manage this on my own without the hassle of seeing a doctor. But, as you know, I did have to go see a doctor. And it was a huge hassle. So that pissed me off.”

This sparked a hooting applause from the crowd. One person yelled ‘hell yeah’ and another yelled ‘I feel your pain, Stuart!” Jordan turned next to him and saw a woman cram a bonbon into her mouth, her face contorting with brain freeze as she licked the remaining pieces of chocolate off her fingers.

Dr. Morgan raised his hand to quiet the thundering applause on the set, and Josephine, straightening her Ann Taylor blazer, cleared her throat once the riotous applause died down. “Look,” Josephine said, her voice muffled by lingering applause, “Look,” she finally said again, her voice firmer. “I’m not a therapist, but after listening to Stuart’s complaints and hearing the vehement response from the crowd, I can’t help but wonder if the real source of everyone’s frustration is not the advice in my book but the state of healthcare in this country.”

With that, as Jordan had predicted, there was a perceptible shift in the air. He leaned forward in his seat, wondering how the crowd would react, how his father, sitting at home, would react. He looked at his phone as if it was a guiding compass, but there were no messages. He dropped it in his pocket, cradled his hands in his chin, and looked intently at Josephine.

Dr. Morgan cocked his head, surveying Josephine as if she were a very engaging pet. “That’s a very interesting claim you make, Josephine,” he said. “Would you care to elaborate?”

“Certainty,” Josephine said, adjusting in her seat so as to get comfortable before her epic diatribe. “When I read Stuart’s original Amazon review covering his grievances with my book, I couldn’t help but notice how it took a couple weeks for him to be seen by a doctor after his symptoms began. And after following him closely on his blog, I was equally disheartened to read about his actual experience seeing a doctor.” Josephine picked up a piece of paper. “I’m quoting Stuart’s blog describing his experience with his doctor at the local medical clinic. He writes, ‘the kid, basically straight out of medical school, just smirked at [me] like [I] was some sort of sucker.’” Josephine turned to Dr. Morgan. “Now, this statement is troublesome for a few reasons. One, it took too long for Stuart to be seen, two, the doctor he saw was young and inexperienced, and three, he was treated with a lack of respect. Now, I would probably attribute this lack of respect to being rushed. In light of our current healthcare system, doctors are increasingly strapped for time as they are pressured to tend to more and more patients, which probably accounts for this young doctor’s brusque manner.” Josephine turned back to Dr. Morgan. “I can’t help but feel that the reason Stuart’s sentiments are resonating so much with the crowd is because many people feel like Stuart, that going to the doctor has become a confusing, bureaucratic hassle, and are therefore shifting their medical needs away from doctors and towards self-help books, like mine. But I have to emphasize once again that no book can replace the advice of a medical healthcare professional. If anything, I hope our discussion today reminds us it is imperative that we as a nation keep checking in about how all of the recent healthcare changes are working, or not working, as a whole.”

At that, a moment of silence washed over the crowd. Even Dr. Morgan, known for his composure and camera-ready retorts, looked caught off guard. And what began as a slow clap from one audience member slowly ricocheted into full blown applause, and Stuart, before secure and composed, likely growing into the idea that he was a beloved media figure, seemed to grow invariably tense as he realized that his moment of glory was slipping away from him. Dr. Morgan cleared his throat, turning his back on Stuart as he faced Josephine. “Well,” he said, his voice raised several octaves, “this conversation has certainty taken a very interesting turn. It’s time for a commercial break, but when we get back, we will continue the discussion, examining self-help within the larger context of healthcare as a whole, and then we’ll take a Q and A from the audience. Stick around. You’re watching Dr. Morgan.”

The Caribbean music queued up again, and Jordan sprang up as soon as he had the chance, simultaneously elated at what was most definitely a strategic victory and infuriated at his author for calling him out on live television. And it while he was en route to the green room for a check-in with Josephine that he nearly collided into Stuart, who looked very agitated, a line of sweat etched across his foundation-pancaked forehead. A moment of eye contact passed between them, and in that moment a flicker of recognition seemed to cross Stuart’s face, though his expression was burdened and unreadable. And Jordan, expecting a relieved pride to wash over him, instead felt his stomach cave in with nausea as he checked his phone, waiting in vain for feedback.

 * * *

After the show, there were hours of celebratory drinks, time blurring by in an Irish bar while Jordan and Josephine knocked back gin and tonics and blurrily monitored Amazon for The Amino Algorithm’s massive upswing in sales. Jordan’s boss dropped by for a round, sloppily promising Jordan a raise despite the questionable profit margin of Birch Tree Publishers during the last fiscal year, and when Jordan finally excused himself to catch his train at Penn Station he collapsed in his seat with a drunken relief that had lasted all of 30 minutes before giving way to the familiar dread of the suburbs.

Upon arriving at his parent’s stop, he dropped by the only local grocery store that had not yet closed and bought a lemon meringue pie because he couldn’t remember anybody stating a blatant aversion to it. Dessert in hand and a vibrant headache throbbing in his temples, he walked three extra blocks and up the snaking driveway of his parent’s home and rang the doorbell, surprised to see his father open the door in a neck brace.

“Well what do you know, it’s the man of the hour,” his father said. “I wasn’t expecting you. I thought you’d be celebrating your victory in the city.”

“Mom told me about your party weeks ago,” Jordan said. “I wasn’t going to miss it. What happened to your neck?”

“I sprained it a few weeks ago reaching in the back of the pantry for wheat thins.”

“You’re kidding.”

“I wish,” he said. “But that’s what happens when you get older. The little things become more consequential. Until you can’t even reach for a box of wheat thins without paying some sort of price.”

“Christ.”

His father shrugged. “It’s not that bad. Come in, won’t you? Your pie can join all of the others.”

With a sheepish grin Jordan walked in and hugged his mother, waving to the rest of the small group, including the Rubenstein’s, the Anderson’s, and the nosy widow Doris Bukowski, who filled in the gaps of her loneliness with useless information about everyone else.

“Ooo, the local celebrity has arrived,” Doris said when she saw him. “Straight off the heels of the Dr. Morgan show. How does it feel?”

Jordan shrugged. “I think it’s only a matter of time before I’ll be fending off paparazzi,” he said, humoring Doris, who in turn laughed too heartily, her full-throated chuckle revealing several missing teeth.

“Well, for what it’s worth, I think you very well hit the nail on the head with what’s going on out there,” Mrs. Rubenstein said. “Michael here is going to start working at a hospital soon because the insurance companies have made his private practice too unaffordable to maintain. They’re driving all the doctors out, and it’s a big confusing mess for them and the patients alike. And then you’ve got all of these HMO plans trying to maximize patients seen per hour, treating doctors and patients like cattle in the process. No wonder everyone is trying to turn to self-help for answers.” Mr. Rubenstein, a long time colleague of Jordan’s father, acknowledged his wife’s grievances with a humorless nod, his face stuffed with apple pie.

Jordan’s father yawned. “We live in troubled times,” he said, “and this is all great fun but I’m about to fade.” He looked directly at Jordan. “Why don’t you come have a chat with your old man before he hits the hay?”

 * * *

They made their way to his parents’ room, with its musty smell and floral comforter and medical plaques and awards propped up on the walls. His father, waddling like a confined chicken, peeled off his sheets and climbed slowly into bed so as not to provoke any sudden movements in his neck.

“Comfortable?” Jordan said.

“Enough,” his father said, sighing against his pillows as he looked at Jordan, his expression unclear.

“I can’t believe you didn’t tell me you hurt your neck,” Jordan said.

He shrugged. “Why burden you with unnecessary information?”

“So you can email and text me nonstop about how I’m always making dumb career choices, but you can’t tell me you hurt yourself?”

“I only tell you what you need to hear,” his father said, a grin spreading across his face. He coughed. “Anyway, I have to hand it to you. How you and Josephine handled that today. You took all of the weight off the book in a way that made perfect sense. It was…” His voice trailed off, lost in thought. “Well, Christ, Jordan, it was brilliant. There’s no other way to say it. The way you turned things around out there today was god damn brilliant. You could have made a great lawyer.” He shrugged, laughing to himself.

“What?” Jordan said.

“Just, watching the show. Hearing about all of this social media stuff. Twitter followers, blog posts going viral. It’s a different world. Makes me feel old.”

“Well, you did strain your neck getting wheat thins, so maybe that’s not totally off the mark,” Jordan said.

His father laughed “Touché.” He said. “Can’t argue with that.” He sighed, looking straight ahead, his expression unclear. To his side, Jordan noticed a tall, opaque purple bottle perched on his nightstand.

“What is that?” Jordan said.
“What’s what?”

“That bottle on your nightstand.”

“Oh.” His father tentatively turned his neck to look over. “It’s an Agave Nectar Protein shake. From that health food pharmacy a few blocks away.”

Jordan laughed. “No kidding,” he said. “You, drinking an Agave Nectar Protein shake.”

“Of course I’m not going to drink it,” he said. “But it’s got a lot of antioxidants, which your mother is very concerned about these days. She’s convinced that if I drink it I’ll live longer. I keep it on the nightstand to make her feel like I’m listening.”

Jordan nodded, smiling at his father with his puffy neck brace and resolute expression and accepting, in that moment, that this all made perfect sense. “Sounds like a win-win situation,” he said.

 

 

BIO:

Jacqueline berkmanJacqueline Berkman is a writer living in Los Angeles with a background in publishing and public relations. Her short fiction has also appeared in The East Bay Review. 

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Writer Samantha Stier

Plugs

by Samantha Eliot Stier

 

We started wearing earplugs to help with the insomnia. Well, for me it’s insomnia, but for Carl it’s just that he’s a light sleeper and I keep him awake with my insomnia, or so he claims. The real truth, I tell him, is that he keeps me awake with his snoring. The neon tennis-ball colored rubber bullets are like sleeping pills; a few minutes after we pop them in, we’re both out. Carl keeps saying we should be careful, that it might get to the point where we can’t sleep without them. What would happen if we were staying somewhere where there were no earplugs, he asks. I tell him that’s ridiculous, we haven’t stayed anywhere but our own house in years, except for that one horrible trip to visit his parents in Michigan last spring. He says we shouldn’t be relying on the earplugs to sleep. By then I have mine in, and I can hardly hear him. It feels like we’re underwater. “What?” I say. He tries to keep talking but my eyes begin to close as I watch his lips move. “What?” I say again when he stops. He just sighs and pops his in. Then we sleep. It’s so good with the plugs. It’s deep sleep. I feel like I’m making up for years of not sleeping.

 

In the morning, the alarms go off, first mine, then his, eight minutes apart. The cat starts pawing and then clawing us. I never want to take out the plugs, but I do, pop-pop, and for the next few moments, the world is loud and ugly in my ears. The cat is meowing. Carl is snoring. His alarm is still going off. Outside the window—open, how Carl likes it—cars zoom by, screech, honk, blast music. I lie absolutely still, letting my ears readjust, wanting more than anything to slip back into the quiet of the plugs and sleep.

Carl gets out of bed to feed the cat. I hear him murmuring to her in the kitchen, nonsensical lovey-dovey-baby-talk in a voice still gravelly from sleep, as he pours her dry food into a dish, then cereal into bowl for him. He eats breakfast without even washing the cat food off his hands. I can tell because I keep listening for the sound of the tap, but it never comes on.

I get up finally and brush my teeth. I face my side of the walk-in closet, now filled with clothes that are suitable for work: starchy blouses that require strategically invisible bra straps and rigid skirts that keep my knees prudently trapped together. Slippery black heels that make the arches of my feet ache. I miss the days when I never left the house, when I never changed out of sweats.

 

We started wearing the plugs about a month ago. Our friend Ronnie suggested it. We were at a barbecue at the condo he shares with his girlfriend, Laura, and somehow we got on the subject of my new job, and I said that I had been having trouble sleeping ever since I started it. I think it’s the waking up early. I used to work from home selling my jewelry online and I’d do most of my work at night, crawl into bed around three or four in the morning. Then the money stopped coming and I had to get a real job working in an office for an actual company, something to do with social media—I can never remember the exact title—where they expect me to plan my day around them. I would get so stressed at night thinking about waking up at 6 the next morning and driving on the freeway, it would take me forever to fall asleep, especially with Carl snoring in my ear. I kept him up, too—he’s a light sleeper, so every time I moved around he would heave this great sigh that I suppose was meant to make me feel guilty. Carl denied that, of course, since I said it in front of Ronnie and he hates it when I make him look bad in front of Ronnie, who, he always likes to remind me, he’s been friends with for years, since grade school. I think he likes the idea of having an old friend from grade school better than he actually likes Ronnie.

Anyway, Ronnie went into his bedroom and when he came back he gave us each a little plastic-wrapped set. A sample. “Laura doesn’t get it,” he said. “But I swear these things will change your life.”

Ronnie’s an EMT and he gets giant bags of the plugs for free from the ambulance. Every time we go over there, he gives us a little baggie. Last time I didn’t even want to go, but we were out of plugs so I went with Carl anyway and listened to Laura blabber on about the joyful little fourth graders she teaches. At the end of the night Ronnie gave us a bag and I figured it was worth it. We got some good sleep that night.

 

When the plugs are in, I sometimes feel like I can’t even hear my own thoughts. If I stand up, I feel like I’m floating. I’ve started doing this thing, where if I wake up in the middle of the night to pee, I slap the bathroom walls with my hands to make sure I’m awake and not dreaming. I’m always dreaming about trying to find a bathroom because I have to pee. I’m worried that one night I’ll pee the bed. It’s starting to become a real problem, but not so much so that I’m going to stop wearing the plugs.

The cat likes the plugs, too. She plays with them when we leave them out, chewing them to a pulp and pawing them across the floor till they’re black with all the dust and grime I haven’t had time to clean since I started the Job. In the mornings, she’ll bite them right out of our ears. We have to explain to Ronnie that part of the reason we run out so quickly is the cat.

* * *

One night Carl tells me I get a dreamy look on my face when I put the plugs in. I tell him he always has a dreamy look on his face, to which he replies “What?” and I see that his plugs are in too, so I shake my head and turn over to sleep.

It’s true, though, about him having a dreamy-looking face. Carl has very droopy brown eyes, a heavy jaw, and shaves his head because he thinks he is balding, which he really isn’t, except maybe his hairline is receding a bit. He’s sort of dopey-looking, the kind of person you wouldn’t stand behind during checkout at the grocery store if you were in a hurry, or someone you’d be extra nice to, because with the shaved head he sometimes looks like a cancer patient. I told him this once and he was very insulted. Carl is just a slow-moving person. I’m always waiting for him. He takes forever to get ready in the mornings—devotes ten full minutes to applying Rogaine—or on the rare occasion we go out and he can’t decide which of his three outfits to wear. He gets distracted easily, usually by Google. He googles everything. If we walk by an apartment for rent, he googles the listing to see how much it is, even though we have a house and a giant mortgage to prove it. He googles all the gross stuff that goes on with his body. We’ve been more than an hour late because of Carl’s googling.

 

Carl and I have become one of those couples that has a routine so solid, if we miss even one thing we do, we fight about it for hours. One Sunday, I suggest we skip Ronnie’s, and Carl gets very huffy. He claims I never liked Ronnie and I never give Laura a chance. I tell him Laura is a painfully dull person, and she always wears bikini-style underwear that cuts diagonal creases across her butt cheeks, which you can see through the yoga pants she insists on wearing even though she’s not doing yoga. Carl asks why I’m looking at her ass anyway, and I say it’s hard not to since she’s always sticking it in our faces, but that he probably likes it. He gets mad when I say that and leaves, slamming the door. I hope he’s going to go to Ronnie’s by himself, but not thirty seconds pass before he comes back in and says he’s sorry. And even though I’m mad, I feel obligated to forgive him, because the couples’ therapist we went to (only one time, a complete waste of $120) said I should try to be more forgiving.

At Ronnie’s, I try to get Carl to look at Laura’s panty-creased ass, which he refuses to do. Finally I give up. While Carl recites a list of googled facts about the beer we’re drinking, Laura tells me a story about a colleague with an eating disorder, which I think is meant to be a funny story, so I paste a smile on my face and laugh here and there, but the whole time I’m thinking about that baggie of brand new neon earplugs Ronnie’s going to give us at the end of the night.

I think dreaming is sort of like tripping on drugs. And it’s addictive. I never craved sleep like I do now.

I tell Carl this. He says dreams are nothing like drugs. He did acid one time in college, and he always holds it over me, the fact that he has had this drug experience I never had. He thinks it somehow makes him more worldly, more mature. I say that dreams are probably more trippy than an acid trip, and he gets very upset. He wants to know how I could possibly say something like that, having never done acid. He looks like he might cry. He starts to say something else, but the plugs are in already. “What?” I ask. I wish I could wear plugs all day. I want to wear plugs whenever Carl starts telling me what he googled. I could hide them with my hair.

It’s going on a solid three months of the best sleep I ever had.

 

There are some side effects, though. When I use the bathroom in any unfamiliar place, including at work, I have to smack the walls to make sure I’m not asleep. I try to make sure no one else is in there first. I’m afraid I’m dreaming and I’ll wake up in a puddle of urine if I don’t do this every time. When I eventually dream about smacking the walls in the dream bathroom, I have to add more to it in real life; I slap my cheeks, the walls, and say something out loud; a sentence detailing my observation of the bathroom. Carl can hear me doing this at home. He immediately googles it; he tries “fear of wetting the bed – adult,” “slapping bathroom walls,” “obsessive compulsive behavior during urination,” but nothing that applies to me comes up. He says I need to talk to a therapist. Carl always talks about seeing a therapist for every little thing, but he never actually does it himself. He likes the idea of having a therapist better than going to one, which was one of the reasons we never went back to couples’ therapy.

This is the kind of person Carl is: he still has the business card of the banker who helped him open his account at Wells Fargo about a hundred years ago, all the ink rubbed off by his wallet, and he calls the guy any time there’s a problem with his account or he has a question. He calls the guy his “banker.” I tried to tell him that this guy is not his personal banker because this is not 1952, that he’s just another employee at Wells Fargo and it ultimately makes no difference which stiff-suited, oily bank employee he talks to, none of them actually work for him. Whenever I tell Carl this, he uses it as an opportunity to point out how I am always trying to cut him down. I tell him not to be an idiot.

 

Things are getting bad at work. My boss says my behavior is “disruptive” and that I have an “unenthusiastic” attitude. In our next conversation, after a presentation for a client who is impossible to please, he says my attitude is “bitter” and “offensive.” A coworker hears me doing my obsessive bathroom thing and tells my boss, who seems to agree with Carl that I might need professional help. He even gives me the name of his wife’s therapist.

 

I worked at this tween fashion clothing store when I was a teenager and I hated it. I hated it so much I tried to get myself fired, since my parents wouldn’t let me quit. I rang up the customers wrong. I stocked shelves wrong, putting the XXL size pink skinny jeans in the XS section. I showed up late and took hour-and-a-half lunches. I was rude to everyone. My boss was a forty-year-old Asian man named Phillip, and he thought I was just about the greatest thing to walk into his ugly linoleum-floored store. He was always reprimanding me, then smiling and saying not to take him too seriously, he wanted us to be friends. He bought me cake on my birthday and clothes from the store that were too small and pink and sequined. I realized eventually that he would never fire me. The minute I turned eighteen, I quit. I told Phillip I was moving to Argentina.

 

Carl says I am too cynical. I ask what that means and he says I am disenchanted with life. I laugh, which makes him puff out air. He’s trying to have a serious talk. He thinks I don’t love him. I tell him he’s being ridiculous and I want to take a nap. I start to roll the plugs between my fingers until they are thin enough to slip in. They expand with a slow whooshing noise in my ears. Carl is still talking, so I say “What?” until he sighs and leaves.

 

I have these recurring threads in my dreams. One of them is that I’m having an affair with Ronnie. In the first dream, we are both in his car, which has been abandoned on the beach. It’s half-submerged in ocean water. Ronnie tells me that the doors are locked and we’re eventually going to die when the water fills the car. We mutually agree to have sex—for the last time. When I wake up, I wonder why we didn’t just roll down the windows.

 

I get fired the next day, and go home to nap. My dream continues as if I never woke up, never went into work, never got fired. I dream that Ronnie and I have somehow escaped from the car, and he’s helping me find a bathroom because I have to pee. In this dream, Ronnie wants to tell Carl about the sex, but I say he can’t. Ronnie says Carl will understand, because we thought we were going to die, and it seemed like the natural thing to do.

It’s getting more and more awkward when we go see Ronnie and Laura on Sundays. Eventually I stop going altogether. To my surprise, it doesn’t even cause a fight.

 

I have developed an ear infection. There’s no way around it. I have been trying to get the plug into my left ear for a full ten minutes now, and it just hurts too much. Tears are streaming down my face. I am sobbing. Carl comes home and asks me what’s wrong. I tell him I might possibly have an ear infection, and he puts his arm around me and whispers that it’s okay, just don’t wear the plugs tonight, we’ll go to a doctor tomorrow. This makes me cry harder. I keep trying to get the plug in, and it feels like I’m driving a pickaxe into my ear. Carl pulls my arm away. Stop it, he’s shouting, you’re going to hurt yourself.

But I can’t stop. I want that earplug in. I want it in so bad.

Finally he gets me to drop the plug. It rolls onto the ground and the cat pounces on it instantly. I can’t stop crying as I watch her destroy it with her claws.

Carl doesn’t understand why I’m so upset. A couple nights without the plugs won’t kill me. When he looks at me, I see pity in his eyes. Pity, and a tiny bit of something else, like fear.

I lie down with the one plug in my right ear, which makes me feel lopsided. Carl lies down next to me and puts in his plugs, which seems very unfair; I feel like he should sleep without them in solidarity.

I wait until they’re in before I roll onto my side and look at the spot on Carl’s neck that he missed while shaving. That little uneven patch of wiry black hairs irritates me so much I want to punch him, right in the neck.

“Carl,” I whisper. I dig my fingernail into his arm until he yelps.

Irritated, he points to his neon yellow ears. “What?”

I lean close and drop my voice to below a whisper. “I’m having an affair with Ronnie.”

He doesn’t hear me. I roll back over. I think about when I was eighteen and I told Phillip I was moving to Argentina. Maybe I’ll do it for real.

 

 

BIO

Samantha Stier Samantha Eliot Stier’s  stories have appeared in many literary journals, including The Faircloth Review, Black Heart Magazine, Infective Ink Magazine, Mojave River Press & Review, Citizen Brooklyn, Drunk Monkeys, Gemini Magazine, Spry Literary Journal, and Blank Fiction Literary Magazine, and were featured in L.A.’s 2014 New Short Fiction Series. She has an MFA in Creative Writing from Antioch University Los Angeles, and lives in Venice Beach, California. You can visit her at http.//samanthastier.com/.

 

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john oliver hodges author

Ethel’s Mountain

by John Oliver Hodges

 

Ethel taught me guitar when I was like nine. I wrote one on trying to kill Maria, my mother, with rat poison. Woman wouldn’t die so I dropped a brick in her face. Nowadays I’m a forgiver. Don’t obsess over stupid shit. I look around, sure, and say see, I’m not the only sad tit with a slit. That’s quoting a boy I knew. A prince! A creative genius! There’s tons of them out there. I was hit by rocks—that’s what made me strong. Only when Ethel picked me up from Malaprops, this cool bookstore in downtown Asheville, I hoped she wouldn’t know me. On my bench I wanted to be nobody, a eyeball in the air, but my posture, Ethel said, told it. I felt my strength trickle out my ears. If that wasn’t injurious enough, Ethel said, “You look like Maria.”

Ethel stopped at a roadside market for tofu and cauliflower. Her treat, she said, but for future meals we’d split shit fifty-fifty. I bought McIntosh apples special for me, plus a bag of salted peanuts, roasted, in their shells.

Ethel drove, turned in at a dirt road that steepened ridiculously. Those ridiculous hills what like I see featured in my dreams, nightmares more like. In those dreams my life is like held together by a hair. Snap, that’s it. I had broken up with another asswipe. Another creative genius. A prince! The thought of living with Maria horrified me so bad. I emailed Ethel. Ethel said live with me in Asheville.

Before I say another word, gotta say: once upon a time Ethel was to receive her doctorate in psychology. From Harvard. During those last weeks of school she quit the deal and traveled to Africa’s Ivory Coast with a religious group called The Brotherhood of Light. For two years Ethel lived in a grass hut on the beach and made love to two hundred black guys. She had a monkey that she loved very much. It slept on her mat with her and screamed like a baby. In Africa Ethel played cello on the beach. She “breathed light,” purifying herself so that she could positively influence others when she returned to the United States, where she picked up as a “Creative Consultant” and suffered from insomnia that she fought by counting, instead of sheep, the faces of her black lovers. I know this detail from overhearing Maria, or, “my mother” gossiping with a friend about Ethel. But also, it was right after Ethel returned from Africa that she babysat me for the eight months that Maria and my dad toured Europe. My dad is a history professor. He was writing a book on the architectural consequences of ancient Rome—that’s why they went there, to gather clues overlooked by writers of the same topic. While they were gone, Ethel spoke often of her monkey, and of the “negroes” that she considered family. She spent a lot of time in our backyard, naked, playing cello.

Ethel pulled into her place on the side of the mountain, a half acre carved from the rock, her trailer laid out under the sun like a Wonder Bread loaf. Fucking loaf sat lonely in the center of a rectangular field of high weeds and grass. Somebody threw it out, looked to me like. Whoever would’ve thought the thing was hollow, that a woman or two could live in it?

In Ethel’s living room an upside down machine greeted me, and a bunch of ad hoc musical instruments. Ethel shelved the groceries, then escorted me down the hall to the room where she kept her books and unsold artwork, a gazillion swirly colorful paintings of moons and stars and angels and clovers and shit. The colors were just like major fucking colors with little variation—she had a psychedelic theme going on. Some of Ethel’s paintings looked like botched tie-dye shirts. Together we carted the stuff down to the backmost room, what had been Ethel’s painting studio before she switched over to doing collages in Adobe Photoshop. Back in the room I was to sleep in, Ethel pulled a blow-up mattress from the accordion closet, and brought out her vacuum cleaner which had a blowing function. Halfway through blowing up the mattress, using her hand to form a tunnel for the air to pass through, she realized it wasn’t the best way to inflate a mattress. I took over. I blew with my mouth. I blew and was blowing up the fucking mattress, really blowing up a sweat with my mouth, but Ethel said, “You probably shouldn’t do that, Nix. I used the vacuum cleaner on the wasps and roaches.” The white dust issuing from the valve between blows, what I had been sucking deep into my lungs, I realized, was boric acid. The black specks in there were dried ant bits and wasp legs and stuff.

I did not stop blowing. I just blew the mother up and capped her. The mattress took up eighty percent of the room.

Then Ethel said, “Let me show you how I do things, Nix.” I followed her to the bathroom where, forgive me but, uhm, it smelled really bad. I wanted to split. Turds wallowed in the commode like bloated tadpoles! “This is how I flush,” Ethel said. She lifted a bucket from the floor, poured the water into the basin where the stored-up turds broke apart in the bubbling turmoil before zooming through the pipes. In my mind I was like GET ME OUTTA HERE, so you can imagine my happiness when Ethel took me outside to see the barrel that collected rain water off the roof. This water I was to flush with. After “dropping a load” as the princes say, I was to go outside, fill the bucket with rain, return, then flush unless I wanted to “maximize flushes,” in which case I should save the turds for later. “Why don’t you just do it outside?” I asked.

“Outside?”

“I can dig you a hole,” I said.

“Are you serious?”

“Wouldn’t you rather do it outside?”

“I don’t want you shitting in my yard, Nix.”

“I would never do that in your yard, Ethel,” I said. “I’ll make you a compost toilet, it’s one of the more useful things I’ve learned in life.”

“That doesn’t sound right.”

“I can walk up high on the mountain,” I said.

Ethel eyed me, not just eyed-me-eyed-me, but busted straight through my eyes with her eyes. She scanned me head to foot, eyes lingering on my unshaved shins and sockless ankles. My shoes were like ratty pink Converse with duct tape wrapped around one. Ethel brought her eyes back to my face. She said, “You really do look so much like your mother, Nix.” She’d found my weak spot, was trying to exploit it, jab me, push my buttons, make me scream. To her ugly-ass comment I made zilch-o expression-o. “The blue hair is a cute distraction,” she said, “but it’s no smokescreen. I see straight through you.”

“How’s my liver? Nice and healthy?”

“Why did you change your name? Sarah’s a lovely name. I don’t know why you changed it.”

“I’m a woman of the new world.”

“The world is neither old nor new,” Ethel said, us the arguers. After thirteen years you’d think we’d be peachy, but Ethel was bitter. When she picked me up from the bookstore she went on about how Asheville was a spiritual wasteland, Ethel an expert on spirituality. Hadn’t she spent two years on the Ivory Fucking Coast living in a grass hut while making love to black guys? She was proud of her spiritual knowledge, took comfort in the poems of Rumi. Her bumper sticker read ONE WORLD, but as she drove she boiled over the guy behind us. She’d look in the rearview, go, “Slow down you creep!” and jam the brake pedal then let go, looking back and forth from the mirror to the road, sweat dripping all down her forehead. She’s big, Ethel, you’d have to call her fat. Not fat but huge. All over the place. The word is obese.

“The world is a pain in my ass,” I said. I said, “I see no problem with a hole in the ground way out here in the middle of nowhere. I never liked sitting on a thing like that, doing it like that, but that’s what they teach you when you’re little, right? If you think about it it’s a little funny.”

“Funny?”

“Don’t listen to me,” I said.

“Are you condescending to me, Nix?”

“What? No. I’m just saying that nothing I ever say is worth a shit.”

“That’s no way to talk about yourself,” Ethel said. We were quiet then. It was weird. We had all this time ahead of us. It was like three in the afternoon, only, so I asked Ethel could I mow her yard. Her yard was a mess of really tall weeds and grass.

The shed was behind the trailer. Ethel walked around with me. An enormous wasp nest hung above the entrance. I amazed Ethel by crawling up there and using the key to unlock the thing. On my knees I slid open the doors, yanked the mower out and pulled it into the yard. I amazed Ethel again by crawling back into the shed to retrieve the gas can. I filled the tank, primed the engine, yanked the cord a half dozen times until the engine kicked to life. The grass was way too high for a normal mow. I had to always be like fucking starting the mower again each time it died. The only way to mow really was to lift the front end of the mower, doing wheelies, and then let the mower blade down slow. Lift it, let it down, like a Pac Man mouth, lift, let it down, chomp chomp chomp. I chomped along all beautifully, knocking down the homes of lady bugs and really destroying that miniature ecosystem unique to Ethel’s trailerside terrain. I loved the smell and the sound the mower made. I was in motion. I was a powerful, happy, active entity of the world, only brushing up against the trailer a wasp dropped down from a nest concealed below the rain gutter. It fell upon my nose like a shred of leaf and curled up and stung. I felt another sting my neck. Then my belly. A wasp flew up my skirt. All over I was getting it, so ran, slapping myself as I took the steps on into the trailer. I shot down the hall and burst into Ethel’s room. When I saw her on the bed, I screamed.

It was like this huge white body down there that shifted, its network of dangly fat pockets jiggling all over. The large body raised its head, peeling its gaze from the TV where Coleman Barks did Rumi.

“They bit you?” Ethel said.

I crouched, trying to hold back the pain, but it kept needling into me. I whimpered and slapped my side, further squashing a wasp that I had already killed. I pulled my shirt away from my skin and Ethel and I watched the gross thing plop dead into her rug, its legs still twitching.

“You are all physical desire and greed,” Ethel said. “You have an imbalance. You feed your body but not your soul.”

The massive body seeped from the bed and pressed against me and sort of folded around me, the milkyness drooping over my arm.

“No,” I said. I pulled away and fell backwards, kicking. “Don’t!” I cried, and Ethel stood, her extremities taking up so much space in the world, in many ways beautiful. If I was a pair of eyeballs perched like flies in some corner of the room, I would have been impressed, and would have held Ethel in high regard, my second cousin so very very fat, a woman whose pride fed itself on the flakes of skin raining down from the Great World Spirit.

“It hurts,” I said.

“I know.”

“They attacked me. I was just—”

“You invaded their world.” Ethel helped me back into the crouched position, the smell of her sweat all gushing around me in bitter waves. Ethel put her hand on my spine.

“Careful,” I said.

“The sting of a wasp is a minor catastrophe, Nix, that’s what Uncle Stanley always said about the hole in his tongue.”

“I remember Uncle Stanley.”

“Uncle Stanley would pull his tongue out for me to see the hole in it that was shot out by the Nazis.”

“He didn’t show me that,” I said. It hurt to talk, Jesus.

“I know it hurts, Nix, but you really shouldn’t barge in on me. I like to be naked.”

“I don’t mind.”

“Yes, but I do. I mind.”

“I’m sorry,” I said.

“You should be ashamed,” Ethel said, and was looking down at me with her furrowed brow. I felt as if I needed to be punished. Ethel said, “Get undressed. I will be back in a minute but it may take a while to find the calamine lotion. I don’t normally have these little emergencies.”

Ethel left the room in a huff. I stayed crouched, holding the pain to myself as Coleman Barks continued to read Rumi on the TV. His face was all bearded and sly with horned eyebrows and a huge enraptured forehead. He was filled to the brim with himself, the fucking asswipe. “The worried wife reaches the door and opens it,” he said, and I really wanted to cry. I was remembering how, back in the old days when Ethel was my babysitter, she often made me act like her monkey.

Ethel returned with a pink bottle. She wore a purple dress now. She looked mad.

“What?” I said.

“I told you to undress. I don’t understand it, Nix. Here I am taking time out of my day to help you and all you seem able to do is fight me.”

“Oh gosh, Ethel, it’s not that bad. Give me the lotion. I can do it myself.”

“Don’t be stupid,” Ethel said, “you can’t get your back,” and she leaned over, grabbed the hem of my top and pulled it. The material scraped over my stings. I wanted to scream. “Goddamnit Nix, lift your arms!”

I should have knocked. I wasn’t thinking is all. I was real sorry about it now. It was easiest not to fight her. She threw my top onto her mattress and told me to stand so I stood and she applied Calamine lotion to my stings. There were two on my back. One of my breasts had been stung down low on the side. She was very gentle with her administrations, but then she said I had lovely breasts, “symmetrical” she called them. I was supposed to say thank you, which I did say even though it made me feel like the stupidest asshole. I just wanted to get this over with. “Your nipples have grown out nice and long,” Ethel continued. “That will be good for when you have children. They’re unusually dark in color. That means you are smarter than the average woman.”

I was not going to stand here having a conversation about my nipples, but when I didn’t say anything, Ethel sighed, clearly disgruntled. “Thank you,” I said. Ethel smiled, eyeing me enviously, or so it looked to me like. What I was beginning to fear, that she would now ask me to remove my skirt and underwear, didn’t happen. She shoved the bottle into my hand and said she guessed I could do the rest. She left the room to cook dinner, closing the door behind her so as not to let out the cool air issuing from her dumbass wall unit.

Ethel prepared our plates and we sat cross-legged on her living room shag, her upside down machine hovering over us like a black ironing board used as a torture device. The ankle straps really bugged me, but across the ironing board, in pink cursive, was the cheerful slogan: Get Your Life In Shape. Ethel promised to show me how the thing worked once I was nice and settled in, a demonstration I looked real forward to, as you can imagine.

Our dinner was steamed cauliflower, tofu and rice, very white, which we pointed out to each other with some amusement. What kind of diet was that? Not a good one, you could be sure. Ethel tried asking a few questions about my mother, but I evaded the topic. I simply had had it with Maria. I thought of her as that woman. She was all taken up with her image of herself as a matronly do-gooder sort, a woman of infinite longsuffering patience and understanding. She drove around Atlanta in her expensive hybrid automobile, stopping in at the lower-class elementary schools where she had implemented programs for kids to learn how to play music. When I was little, she played the guitar, but was it her who taught me to play? It was Ethel during those eight months that she and my dad romped Europe, checking out the cathedrals and public stadiums and castles and chalets. When that woman returned with her fattened ego and heard the song I wrote about her, the one where I drop a brick on her face while she lays out by the pool, trying to get a tan, she slapped me, even as I sang, and snatched away the guitar Ethel gave me. I don’t know what she did with my guitar. I asked Dad for a new one. He said if I wanted to express intense emotions I should learn ballet and offered to buy me lessons. I should have done it but I wasn’t feeling very creatively inclined at that point. Looking back, I see what a stupid little pouting bitch I was. Did I mention that I’m a forgiver these days?

Ethel and I talked music throughout dinner. Ethel hoped we would play tons of great stuff together, and said I would fall in love with her Dobrograph, this instrument she designed and was seeking a patent for. The Dobrograph was a regular dobra rigged up with a few extra low-end guitar strings to give it a bassy sound. The main special feature of the Dobrograph, Ethel said, was that you could plug it into the computer. When you played the instrument, a digital painting was made. You could control the color settings to match your artistic vision, and Ethel was working on other settings, too. A friend helped her with the software and technicalities, she admitted, but the concept was all hers. She would show me her Dobrographic images later, but what she really wanted to know, right this minute, was how I saw myself in five years.

“Can’t say.”

“You have to imagine yourself surrounded by the circumstances you want to create.”

“Is that Rumi?”

Ethel laughed heartily. “No dear, it’s not Rumi, it’s Wayne Dyer, probably the greatest philosopher of the twentieth century.”

“Okay,” I said. I said, “I want circumstances where everybody doesn’t want to be liked by everybody. That makes them unlikeable. I want circumstances where everybody wants to be hated.”

Ethel didn’t like my answer, so I elaborated. I said, “I don’t like that everybody wants to be kings and queens.”

“Nix?”

“Yes?”

“Why don’t you try telling the truth for a change? What kind of woman do you want to be in five years? I think that’s a pretty simple question. Will you please try to answer it? I don’t ask questions for no reason, I mean, wouldn’t you like to be a famous musician like Jewel? I’m telling you that I can help you achieve your goals.”

“I hate my voice,” I said. “I gave up singing when I was nine.”

“So what would you like to do with your life?”

“Race cars in the Daytona Five Hundred.”

“You’re just like your mother.”

“No, really,” I said.

“The spitting image,” she said. “Ever since you arrived you’ve kept me at a distance. You’ve condescended to me, and acted like art is a thing that people who can’t live a normal life do as a second choice.”

“I don’t want to talk about her,” I said.

“When I visited her last year, I met her new husband. He was all right, I guess, but I had been thinking that we would bond and that I could help her achieve her goals, but she let me know, through her behavior, that I was crowding her style. I had to pick up and leave a week early. She wasn’t like that at all when we were little. I don’t know what happened to her.”

“She wants to be a queen,” I said.

“You’re just like her,” Ethel said. “You contradict everything I say.”

The stings were beginning to itch. I hadn’t smoked since Ethel picked me up outside of the bookstore earlier. I wanted to go out and be alone in the new night under the stars. Ethel just talked on and on about her art projects. I sort of interrupted her to see if she wanted me to wash the dishes, thinking that would get her to shutup. She surprised me by saying, “Why yes, Nix, I’d love it if you washed the dishes.”

We took the dishes into the bathroom where it still smelled like consolidated shit, and she pulled aside the shower curtain to reveal a bucket filled with dark water. She told me to throw the forks into the bucket, and then instructed me on the exact method she used to wash her dishes. I just wanted a fucking smoke, you know, but I knew it would break her heart if I told her I wanted to be alone. She was saying that in the morning we would do toning together. “What’s toning?” I asked, and she smiled in the same sort of Coleman Barksian way where you felt like a heap of raw crap was being splashed in your face. She gave me a long explanation, and said that she wanted to make my Personality Wheel on the computer. I said, “Can we do it another time? I really am tired, Ethel.”

“Well, okay, but there’s something pressing I need to tell you. You know, you ought to know better than to leave peanuts out.”

“What?”

“Those peanuts. I ate them while you were out there mowing the yard.”

“That’s okay,” I said.

“No, I don’t think it is. You really shouldn’t do that.”

“I’m sorry,” I said.

“You should be,” Ethel said, and I felt as if she wanted to slap me.

What a bitch I’d been. I’d gone and messed up Ethel’s system. Sometimes all I’m ever good for is messing shit up for people.

“Forget it,” Ethel said, and I tried to picture myself living here another day. The weird toilet and the wasps and the roiling folds of white flesh sort of hovered all around me, giving me a sticky cramped feeling. Ethel had the same bulging-out cheeks that my mother had, and the Jewish curve to the nose. I didn’t like it, or the eyes pushed down into the sockets, Jewish brown, you’re so full of shit that your eyes are brown, that was us. Ethel wanted me to be a staple in her weird-ass mess of a place where to release your bodily fluids you had to enter a room of atrocious odor.

I said, “Do you mind if I go outside, Ethel?”

“You’re not planning to shit in my yard, are you?”

“No, no, nothing like that.”

“Well, I guess so, but don’t be long.”

Finally! Once outside I lit up and stepped barefoot through the freshly mowed grass. I sat on a cinderblock discarded near where the driveway met with the steep mountain road. When we’d first arrived, Ethel, in her usual complaining way, pointed out how the culvert below her driveway was clogged with bone dry orange dirt. Ethel was afraid that if it didn’t get cleaned out soon, the pipe and a good part of her driveway would wash down the mountain like what happened to a neighbor. She’d asked would I dig the ditch out and clear the pipe. I said sure. I love doing work to help a place out, but I pictured myself tomorrow chopping the dirt with a shovel, sweating away at the whole thing and maybe Ethel coming down from the trailer with a glass of lemonade. I pictured myself hanging upside down in her upside down machine, which was a thing I would also surely have to do tomorrow, and eating more meals with her. This fresh breath of freedom entered my lungs like a warning. I did not want to go back inside, but still it was far better than living with Maria.

My mother was in the clouds, so corroded by arrogance and vanity that if you ever tried to reach her, to make any kind of contact with her on a down-to-earth human level, her only response could be to change the subject, feign ignorance, or bury over your sincerity with new news about some great thing she had done. She’d donated money to some Chinese girl trying to get a degree in chemistry; she’d helped produce a CD by some under-recognized “African-American” musician. She played violin pretty good in a quartet, Maria, but she could not improvise to save the world. Bitch needed a book to read from—that was a sign of higher breeding. She would die believing that all she’d done in life was make the world a better place. The last time I tried to forgive her, because I think I would feel better all around if I forgave her, even if I can’t have a decent relationship with her, she started in on the German artist staying at her house, how he’d recently lost his mother, boo hoo hoo, and hint hint. She didn’t want to be forgiven for anything. The last thing she wanted was to be acquainted with her own daughter. She knew absolutely nothing about me, had absolutely zero interest in the troubles of my brain, or what happened to me while she toured Europe with my dad. Eight months is a long time when you’re little. A lot can happen to your child in eight months. It has always been this way. I wasn’t cruel about it, but she would not listen.

As I sat out there smoking, twice Ethel opened her door and peered out. She felt antsy about me being outside by myself, I could tell, so I headed back towards the Wonder Loaf. I needed to take a dump. I knew that this was breaking the rules of Ethel’s mountain, but I cut into the patch of chest-tall weeds that I hadn’t yet mowed, found a good spot and lifted my skirt and squatted. I wiped my ass with grass and dirt and cleaned my hand on the dry earth and weeds and returned to the trailer.

“There you are,” Ethel said.

“The one and only.”

“Will you be going to sleep now, Nix?”

“Sleep sounds good.”

“Wait a second,” Ethel said.

“What, what is it?”

“I didn’t realize that you smoked, but that’s not what I’m talking about. What’s that other smell? Did you shit in my yard, Nix?”

“No, uh uh.”

Ethel grabbed my hand and smelled my fingers. “You did!” she cried, looking at me aghast, her mouth hanging wide open and red and trembling wet with spittle. “And then you lied to me about it!”

“I’m sorry,” I said.

Ethel slapped me. It did not feel strange. I was not horrified. I felt that I deserved it, but in my mind I knew I should say something and that I should not stand for this ever from anybody. It was not no teensie slap neither. It was a solid clap across the face. I like to think I would have said something had I more time to react, but Ethel was quick to the draw—she said, “Why why why, that’s all I want to know. Why is it that the nicer I am to people the crueler they are to me? It never stops, I get it from everybody, so why, Nix, why did you make me do that?”

“I said I was sorry!” I shouted.

“Stop that, stop it, stop crying, look at you! Didn’t I ask you please to stop this? We’re supposed to make each other feel good, not bad like you keep doing. I can’t believe you would lie to me, straight to my face, Nix. It’s against everything about us, who we are! I think we should go into my bedroom right this minute and listen to the poems of Rumi on the TV.”

“No,” I cried, and my jacked-up crackling voice disgusted me. I wished Ethel would slap me again, I just felt so awful, and like such a horrible piece of shit. I had backed myself against the faux cedar panel wall. I was trying to smear my tears away with my palms, careful to avoid rubbing the wasp sting that had caused my nose to swell up. Apparently Ethel didn’t like this either. She grabbed my wrist and yanked me down the hall to my room and shoved me onto the blow-up mattress. She said, “You’re gonna have to do a lot more than change your name if you want to become a decent person. It’s coming back to me now, what a thankless unruly child you were.”

I was afraid. I did not want to hurt Ethel’s feelings anymore. She might retaliate if I gave her lip, but hadn’t I promised myself that I would be courageous from now on? No more princes! I had told myself, and this thing about Ethel should have been just as true. She was so huge. She loomed over me all dangerous-looking in her sinister red headscarf, her pale jowls fractured with delicate aquamarine veins shaped like family trees. She looked like she might fall on me if I said the wrong thing, and I remembered myself as her monkey back then, how I screamed out howlingly for her and scratched myself and rolled in the grass and ate bananas. I was too old for that sort of thing, I mean I was fucking nine, but she wouldn’t stop, and then she’d get angry when I didn’t wanna play. One time she even pushed me into the swimming pool. “Don’t think I don’t remember, either,” I said. “You sure you want to go there, Ethel?”

I was looking her dead on. She knew I wasn’t bluffing. I don’t remember a quieter moment. Some seconds passed. Ethel smiled. She said, “We’ve both been through a lot of stress today, seeing each other again after all these years. What matters is I’m so glad you’ve come. You’re still the little girl from before. My monkey,” she said, and winked, and she said, “It’s wonderful how we are everything we have been, how nothing we have been can ever be erased. You are the same as you were, full of music and filled with light, but very stubborn if I do say so myself.”

“That’s quite the romantic revision of history,” I said, and watched the hopefulness that had started to suffuse her face drain. “No, no, forget I said that,” I said. “I’m happy to be here. I’m sorry I was a bitch to you.”

“Oh really?” Ethel said, her face coming back to life.

“Yes, I’m really sorry,” I said, and I was. I should have said this before, but somebody ate Ethel’s monkey. Ethel had loved that thing more than anything. It was her baby, but one of the villagers came and got it while she was at prayer. That’s when she began to distance herself from the Brotherhood of Light. If not for the monkey incident Ethel might still be in Africa.

Ethel sat down beside me. We hugged and made up. Then she stood up. She was going to lock me in for the night, she said, and went to the kitchen and returned with a glass of water and clay casserole bowl. She said, “In case your bladder cries out for mercy,” and giggled. She stooped and set the items on the floor between the mattress and accordion closet. I thanked her, but didn’t mean it, which made me an asshole and a liar, but fuck it. I was just like remembering some extra stuff here and everything, like how she’d wanted me to wear a makeshift diaper to be more like the monkey she’d lost. She said, “I’m here for you, Sarah. In the morning I’ll get you up for our toning session. We can eat breakfast. It’ll be like old times.”

Ethel locked me in. I heard the padlock click to. I heard Ethel walk the hall and close her door. I waited, then fucking unlatched the window and slid the lower panel up to check the screen. It was tight. When I pushed on it, the screen along with its frame didn’t pop off like I’d hoped, so I cut through it with my Swiss Army Knife. I wasn’t thinking. I’m a dumbass. I fucking spilled from the slit without first throwing out my knapsack. Plus I was barefoot. Tough titty, bitch! I went out to the road and walked down the mountain and made it to the paved country road that would lead me, if I walked all night, to downtown Asheville.

But like, what kind of person would leave without word? Talk of cowardly! That’s not the picture I wanted of myself, but a car driving along stopped—it was a fancy, shiny black Saab—and I climbed in. The guy taught Experimental Narrative Theory at Warren Wilson College, he said. “Cool,” I said, and he said, “The night’s clear and full of stars and promise.” I was like, is he a poet in his free time? Another creative genius? I was going to ask but he said, “I’m very shy. Normally I would not ask this. . . ”

“Yes, ask what? Go ahead and ask me. I don’t care.”

“I’d like to give you money.”

I thought about it.

“To talk,” he clarified.

“I see.”

“You look dead broke,” he said.

“You wanna talk about what?”

“I just need voices in my life is all.”

“My voice is ugly and cruel,” I said, but he told me his name. He was Abner Gibson Grierson. His friends called him Abby. He went on as if trying to convince me that he was respectable. He said he was mildly famous in his field of study. He said his father had been personal friends with John F. Kennedy, and that his mother’s paintings were currently on display at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.

By my eye he was handsome. Thin, looked about forty. His hair was the color of dark tobacco, about shoulder-length and parted neatly to the side. His face was the type that might be described in an old book as gaunt or febrile. I liked the dark circles under his eyes. His button-up shirt was crisp around his neck, and tucked in. I felt that if his style of dress varied, it was to the smallest degree. It was sweet of him to break through his shyness to make his offer. I felt sorry for him, especially when like out of nowhere he told me his wife dumped him for a champion long distance bicyclist.

“Ouch,” I said.

He sighed. He looked at me dreamily.

“I’ll check us into a hotel,” he said. “We can talk all night.” When I didn’t say anything after that, he said, “I want to hear your story, Nix. I want to hear what’s missing from your life,” and he started in on what he called “erasures,” saying that what appeared to be missing from a thing was what interested him most. He went into detail about it and I began to see that maybe that’s why his wife left. He probably needled her to death. “You have problems,” Abner said to me, “I can tell,” and he said, “I want to know every little detail about you. That’s where the mystery is. Together we can work things out for the both of us. The trick is to begin to start sharing and see where it takes us.”

Abner was vulnerable, an open bucket into which I could spew my bile. I had gotten his hopes up, which was shameful, but that’s what happens when you’re a stupid fucking bitch like me.

“For all we know,” Abner said, “the beautiful stars have conspired in our favor. Do you believe in the stars, Nix? For all we know we have been chosen by the stars. Do you like to drink?”

“I like you, Abby,” I said, and was flattered, he was so clean. I knew I smelled bad, and was a eyesore with my swollen nose. I wondered if he’d prefer that I showered first, once we got to the motel. How long would it take before we started touching? Would Abner, or Abby as his friends called him, shower me with kisses? I saw us talking, getting heart-to-heart on the bed. I saw the clothes coming off, saw him banging me as the TV light flashed against our bodies. I would be doing some good in the world. Abby would be left feeling wanted and renewed in the morning, but the whole thing would’ve been a patch is all. I was old and wise enough to at least know that.

I told Abby I wasn’t going to any motel with him, but if he wanted I would blow him in the car because I felt bad about his situation. Abby looked at me then as if I’d broken our unspoken contract. Because I’m such a stupid selfish bitch, I’m often confused when it comes to unspoken contracts, that’s how I am, I don’t seem able to help it. Abby’s look made me panic. I grabbed his forearm. I said, “Please. I can make you feel real good.”

Abby sorta snorted and shook his head but he pulled into the Big Star parking lot. He parked and I leaned over so nobody could see, and tugged his shirttails out, did his buttons and made for myself a decent playing field. I’ve been told by princes that I’m good at this. Most women are cocksucker-cripples they say. Abby wasn’t circumcised. That was new for me, and he was extremely sensitive. Thirty seconds in he said, “Oh my God!” and squeezed my shoulders. I froze, didn’t move, but he started coming. It was only a little, like they sometimes do, a small release, I guess, what the last creative genius I was with called a halfgam, a really attractive word. I had sort of thrown myself on Abby. But then I started back up and his hand reached in through my shirt. I said, “Abby, not that one,” and felt bad for not telling him why. It was ungraceful to speak. Abby took up with the other and it turned him on, but he kept saying, “No, stop it!” and he’d squeeze and we’d freeze. Each time he released me, that was my queue to start back. We went on like this until he couldn’t stand it. His stuff tasted like watery melted Philadelphia Cream Cheese mixed with habanera jelly.

“Pain,” Abby said.

I sat up. “What?”

Abby put it away quickly. “Pain,” he said, not looking at me, and I heard him say, almost in a whisper, “You are such a wonderful sex bunny.”

“For a minute I wasn’t sure you even liked any of this,” I said. “I mean, I know you did, but you made sounds.”

“Look at you,” he said, and was looking at me.

“You know you don’t believe that,” I said. I didn’t like where this seemed to be going. That stuff he’d told me before, about wanting to know everything about me, was garbage apparently. I held out my hand. I said, “Nice meeting you, thanks for the ride.”

Abby grabbed my wrist. He wrote some numbers on the inside of my forearm. “I want you to call me,” he said. “Will you call me? Say you will.”

“Sure,” I said.

“Promise.”

“I’ll call,” I said, and heard in my voice that I’d sounded annoyed. I hadn’t meant it that way, so when Abby released me I felt really horrible, as if I’d insulted him. I deserved to be smashed in the face is what I was thinking. “I promise,” I said.

Abby just looked at me. He thought I was lying, I could tell, but I was free to go. I was going to go, but Abby said, “Nix?”

“Yeah, hey?” I said, tossing my head back glamorously and free and easy. Wasn’t I a rough and tumble chick, a carefree tumbleweed blowing through the cities of our awesome country?

“Do you know what a scumbag is?”

Please don’t do this, I thought.

“A lot of people think it’s a vile person, but that’s not true. A scumbag is a used condom, which I mention because you didn’t have to swallow.”

“Oh,” I said, relieved, and almost said, “Thanks for reminding me,” but that would have sounded horribly sarcastic, which went against my quest to become a better person.

Abby smiled. He had a nice smile. I opened the door and stepped into an oily puddle.

The walk back to Ethel’s was like seven miles, and the whole way I’m like feeling like a complete shithead. Abby was going through rough times. He’d talked confidently, sure, but it wasn’t a smokescreen. I saw through him. He might’ve been suicidal. That was the vibe I got a little bit here and there, but I dissed him. I just hated the fuck out of me. Walking along the old highway I felt hunched over and drippy. By the time I arrived at Ethel’s mountain my feet were pretty raw.

My first business was to destroy the evidence of my selfish nature. In the moonlight I found my stupid excrement. I carried it down the mountain and threw it into the woods where nobody would find it. I scraped my hands back and forth over the orange dirt road, then smelled them. I smelled cream cheese. I went back to the trailer, propped a cinderblock up longwise beside my window. The maneuver was tricky, but I got up there and jumped, sort of dived through the split screen so that my upper half was in my room, my lower half dangling outside in the moonlight. As I hung there, the sill cut into a wasp sting. I wanted to cry out so bad, but if I woke Ethel she would stomp down the hallway. In my mind I saw my face lift to see her squeeze naked through the doorway. As I imagined it, so it happened. She grabbed my head with both hands and yanked, and my legs disappeared from the night.

 

 

BIO

john oliver hodgesJohn Oliver Hodges has published two books of fiction: The Love Box and War of the Crazies. He lives in Brooklyn, and teaches writing at Montclair State University in New Jersey. “Ethel’s Mountain” is his second story to appear in The Writing Disorder.

 

 

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Venus Awaits

Venus Awaits!

by Charlie Brown

 

When I heard the news that Gerhard de Shannon had died, it threw me into a time warp. News being a medium of the now, as opposed to history as a medium of the then, imparts feelings ranging along the whole spectrum of available time. That report made the seventeen-year-old inside of me ready to cry.

But let me back up, for you probably don’t know who de Shannon was. You aren’t alone, because very few people knew his name.

He was a science fiction writer, author of many novels. I can’t put an exact number on it because De Shannon’s name graced no hardcovers. His purpose in the literary scene was to be the hand crank on the pulp machine. It didn’t matter what subject he chose, his publishers would plunge into his work to feel up the curvy breast of the least common denominator. His rumination on humanity’s isolation “One Stands Still In Time” came out as “She-Pirate of the Nazi Space Cruiser,” the cover featuring a leather bikini clad woman who did not appear in the book. And since Black Out Press’ main distribution point was pornography shops, it didn’t matter.

Hopefully, few of the self-love aficionados were driven to existential despair when they actually read the book.

 

Now, in 2010, my favorite childhood author is as anonymous as the person who coined the phrase that’s the point of this story: “The golden age of science fiction is 13.”

 

But now I’m not telling the whole truth. Yes, he was my favorite writer, but I didn’t find him first. That would be Joey Greenbaum.

Joey found a collection of de Shannon’s novels at the bottom of his father’s underwear drawer, each missing the cover. So he actually read them and was inspired by the prose. The books’ illustrations were later found between his parents’ mattress and box spring. They didn’t excite him as much.

But that was true for most things. Joey only had two passions in life: sci-fi and computers. Back in Cleveland in 1976, when we met de Shannon, you would have said they were the same thing.

Joey would become one of the first programmers at Atari, working on those blocky video games that, when we saw them in the 1980s, felt like an “Amazing Stories” cover come to life. He’s a millionaire many times over, but whenever I see him, he wears a clip-on tie, insisting the common hand knot “does not compute.” And, yes, he says things like that.

 

But in the year of the United States’ Bicentennial, people like Joey didn’t have regular access to programming terminals. So, when he had to leave the high school computer lab for home, he spent his free time breaking the spines of paperbacks.

His eyesight teetered on blindness, so he had to get extra close to make out the words on those pulpy pages. This didn’t diminish the speed of his reading, usually passing along the book in under three days.

Joey and I, as well as our small group of friends, read the classics first. Asimov, Bradbury, Heinlein and Clarke hooked us, but soon any book with a robot or spaceship on the cover sang its siren song, the 75 cent price tag falling within our allowance’s borders.

 

I was the only one not in the computer club. I was in the band. Being the geek within the geek group led to loneliness, especially when your best friends would sometimes only speak FORTRAN (Jesus, Esperanto would have been easier for me), but it worked out alright.

I would go on to be a drummer in one of those New York post-punk groups who’ve come back into fashion. We were never big, as we crammed too much jazz into our guitar-drum duo, but I got to see some of the greatest music ever made while few people were watching.

Once Joey told me he was disappointed I wasn’t Devo’s drummer. I said I would have rather been in Pere Ubu. He said he didn’t know what that meant.

 

But back to de Shannon and why he was in Cleveland. Because we read so much sci-fi, Joey decided we should also create it. After all, with a few weird ideas, some faster-than-light travel and a couple of laser gun battles, the story would just write itself.

We incorporated the Shaker Heights Galactic Writers’ Group, the meeting hall Joey’s basement. It was incumbent upon each of the members to help decorate, so I went to the used record store and bought Yes albums strictly for their covers. Tony Maselli, who ushered at a grindhouse downtown, had some old horror movie posters. And, after Joey worked out the design grid on graph paper, Dave Pulaski glued them to the wall, then painted a space scene around the paper. We weren’t cool enough to splash out for a black light.

 

It occurs to me that you may not know who Pere Ubu is. Just listen to “Songs of the Bailing Man.” You’ll either love it or hate it. It makes no difference to me.

 

Three months after forming the club and two months after the basement’s nerd psychedelia was finished, Joey found the de Shannon books. They didn’t just excite us; they ripped open the fabric of time and space, revealing a hidden universe way cooler than anything we envisioned.

All of the issues kept to the side in the Golden Age, like sex and drugs, came front and center in de Shannon’s work. But beyond that, there was an overarching darkness, the main theme being an inevitable, doomed future for the human race because of interstellar forces beyond our control. Pure ambrosia to the high school sophomore who can’t get laid.

Each of the back covers featured this endorsement: “From the author of ‘Venus Awaits!’” But when we asked for it at the Walden Books in Russel Park Mall, we got blank stares. Asking them to order it, we found it was out of print.

As spring turned to summer and the heat of the coming Bicentennial celebration ratcheted up to simmer, Pulaski provided the breakthrough. Dave wanted to go to art school, convincing his father to take him to New York to scope out campuses. He knew he didn’t have a prayer of attending, as five minutes in the city would have his union-dues dad screaming about animals free in the streets, but he wanted a shot at seeing the city and some of the museums.

 

Pulaski never came to visit me the whole time I lived in New York. He settled into a job illustrating ads for local newspaper and TV. He told me one Christmas when I visited one trip was more than enough.

“Christ, how can you live with those freaks? They’re just being weird for weird’s sake.” I told him most of those cats were my friends because they liked the music I played. He told me he started listening to Yes because of those albums I bought and he preferred Styx and Kansas to my band. The blue collar never fades.

 

Pulaski came to the Galactic Writers’ Club giggling after his Manhattan run. When we asked him about the big city, he said nothing, unfolding a wispy paper. Greater New York City phonebook, Desplas to Devigne. There, misspelled with a capital D, was Gerhard de Shannon and his Lower East Side address.

I thought we should call him, but that seemed too immediate to Joey. As club president, he decided upon a plan: a writing workshop lead by de Shannon. We would pay for his train fare, plus an honorarium. A phone call to Amtrak priced the ticket at 50 bucks. We would offer him another $150 for his time, also requesting one copy of “Venus Awaits!” It took another three weeks, but he sent a letter of acceptance.

He would come in mid-June for a weekend and stay in the meeting hall, because Joey’s basement was the only one that could house a guest.

 

I don’t have to imagine what went through de Shannon’s head when he got the letter. When I moved to NYC, I looked him up at the old address. He had been committed to Bellevue and, after a few days of working up the nerve, I went to visit him. He recognized me right away and we talked once a month for a few years, until I started touring and didn’t have the time anymore. When I got back from one road haul, he had checked out of the hospital, but hadn’t returned to his apartment. I never saw him again.

When I first visited, I asked him about that weekend and his amber teeth spread into a smile. Here’s the thing about young writers: de Shannon hated them. Obviously, you’re thinking his lack of success made him frustrated at the boundless energy and high self-delusion of the initiate scribe. But you’d be wrong.

Yes, writers bothered him. The company of his peers left him breathless as they consumed all the oxygen in a room. The hard blowing wind of self-importance made him seasick.

But it was the young part that bothered him most. While true that de Shannon could barely tolerate a room populated by more than five people, twenty bottles and a jazz-filled jukebox, the under-25 set triggered the rusty fishhooks of regret stuck in his back. Youth was wasted; it was his only real philosophy.

But the money we offered would cover the rent, assuring him one month free from hustling the netherworlds of the publishing industry. And he had never been to Cleveland.

 

He obviously meant the last part as a joke. When I tell people where I’m from, they always say some version of “that’s too bad.” I mean, how can you explain the inside joke of the USA was actually a great place to live? It wasn’t, but I have to defend the city. I need to pretend I’m making my parents proud.

 

The initial rush of a guaranteed paycheck was replaced by fear of not being able to locate “Venus Awaits!” He called the used book places, The Strand and all that, to see if there was a copy floating about. He gave them the alternative titles: “The Raft to Pleasure,” “Of Alien Bondage,” even “Venus’ Hairy Delta.” Nothing.

That meant a trip to Times Square, the old 1970s “Taxi Driver” Square before Rudy Giuliani washed his cultural bleach over the streets and stores. He decided to go during the day, mostly so solicitation from prostitutes and pimps would be a trickle, not a spurting hose. The bustling hub wrapped its sleazy neon in the red, white and blue bunting of patriotism, vendors hawking cheap polyester flags next to spank mags and dildos. Some of these silicon johnsons were star spangled for the holiday.

“Made me goddamn proud to be an American,” de Shannon told me between puffs of a cig.

He crapped out on the first two stores, but Friendly’s, one of the back alley joints, proved to be a virtual archive of Gerhard de Shannon’s oeuvre. But he had to keep within the budget, so the 35-cent copy with the cover title “The Voyage Between Her Legs” (a translation of the German title) would come to Cleveland.

 

In Bellevue, he reminisced about that edition of the book. He had sold it to Black Out as a value-added reprint so they would also publish “Ozone Nights.” They would retitle the new book “Steamy Moon Stories.”

He remembered what Black Out’s publisher, Martin Blandiss, who de Shannon described as a thin, balding man who always wore a vest but never a jacket, told him that day. “Gerhard, if you could write a sex scene, I’d triple your pay.”

“I responded, ‘Martin, I’m touched. I didn’t know you actually read my books.’ We laughed for years over that one.”

 

De Shannon pulled the novel down, noting the address of the store in case he ever needed more of his work. But, as he started towards the counter, his inner voice started yelling at him, wanting him out of that shop pronto.

Tucking the book into the back pocket of his jeans, de Shannon sprinted out the front door. The guy behind the counter, a piggy 23-year-old with stringy blonde hair, chased de Shannon to the street, running full-on into a vice squad phalanx about to raid the place. The cops didn’t stop de Shannon and the author had his prize for the Shaker Heights boys.

 

The voice in his head is not a metaphor. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

**

Joey went with his father to the train station to pick up de Shannon. I look back now and can only imagine what this man saw when he descended into the basement that Saturday. It may be hard for you to remember, but the teenager feels grown up, that adults should treat him with the respect of a peer, when all the elders see is a bubble of youthful gas.

So this man who had lived a half-century walked into a room with nine kids sitting on the floor. Fashions of the time meant we were wearing ringed t-shirts with blocky letters, candy-striped jeans belled at the bottom and thick, black plastic glasses. Yes, each and every one of us had the same frames. Only the prescription varied. Worst of all, seven of ten had hair cascading over our foreheads.

When I asked de Shannon how he saw us, the writer’s instinct took over: “I looked upon da Vinci’s ‘Last Supper’ and it smelled like Clearasil.”

 

Maybe there is something to biology determining our lot in life. How many self-described nerds fall into that visual? I don’t understand the haircut thing, but I was blessed with back-flowing locks. I could have had the perfect feathered middle-part cut when the ‘80s turned, but by then I was too punk for that.

But the glasses? In the Middle Ages, Joey would have been considered blind and would have had to beg for food. But his eyesight, which prevented any sports acumen, led to his intense studies. Remove Michael Jordan’s eyesight and he could’ve been a prize-winning scientist.

But what amazes me is the people who look like this now made it cool. When my old band mate and I went on a reunion tour, we saw all sorts of women sporting this look who, bodily, were more attractive than our original fans. I preferred the first set, as both them and me were pleased as hell someone actually found the other desirable.

 

When de Shannon joined us in the basement, I immediately felt his presence. His hair was ghostly silver and hung to his collar, sideburns and goatee still flecked with black. He wore a patterned polyester long-sleeved shirt despite the season and his bell-bottomed jeans covered thin, Italian leather zip-up boots. Whatever he was, he was different from our parents and I wanted to be him.

I saw my friends felt the same awe. Except Joey. He had the whole car ride for the aura of hip to envelope him. He stood in the doorway, arms crossed and head bobbing, a stance that hip-hoppers would eventually make iconic. Joey told me in the ‘90s “it was the coolest I ever felt.” And he knew Steve Jobs.

The only seat was a hot pink beanbag chair which was offered to the guest of honor. De Shannon sank into it, assuming a half-lotus position. He held out his hands, open-palmed. “What’s on the agenda, cats?”

We delved into our writings. It was rough going for most of the guys. I had no delusions what I was writing approached readable, much less would soon be featured behind a four-color cover on a dime store rack, but the rest of the guys thought they were creating decent prose. De Shannon destroyed these thoughts.

But he said it in an encouraging way. He used a red pen to scratch out wide swaths of unnecessary exposition, tired dialogue and bad ideas. But a few of us got hand-drawn five-pointed stars indicating de Shannon liked a phrase or idea.

Morty Sherrod got three such stars and, when de Shannon handed him back his typed pages, he cried with joy. De Shannon told us, “Don’t think you’re all doing badly. I threw away five novels before I sent one out. You just have to learn at what point you stop being mediocre and begin actually writing.”

 

Morty was the only one of us who went on to be a writer. He went to the University of Southern California, studying screenwriting. Coming out of college, he got hired by Roger Corman to write and direct sci-fi and fantasy exploitation films. He once told me that de Shannon’s words kept him going when he was looking for work. “I knew eventually I would begin writing, just like Gerhard said. I guess Roger didn’t care if I was mediocre.”

When I saw him in 1987, he looked like an extra from “Miami Vice,” wearing a white sport coat and mirrored sunglasses, although he still had a pudgy waistline. He summed up his life this way: “I still have all those perverted thoughts of a fifteen-year-old geek. I just get to turn them into movies.”

He would marry three C-list actresses, dumping each wife when they turned thirty.

 

When the carnage of the workshop ended, de Shannon looked drained. It was closing in on seven o’clock and he rubbed his face with both hands, then shook out his arms and fingers. “Let’s get a beer.”

Teenaged heads darted from side to side. Nine sets of eyes eventually landed on me, as I once went to a bar to see The Ramones. I cleared my throat as de Shannon stared me down.

“There’s a liquor store close by. My dad always goes there.” I had no idea if my dad went there or not, but I did to buy Utz’s chips.

“Perfect. Who’s driving?”

The heads swiveled to Joey, who had to drive his kid sister to ballet. He slunk upstairs, returning with keys to the Chevelle station wagon, chin tucked in his neck. “We also have to pick up the pizza?” He ended on that questioning note soon to be how every young girl would speak.

De Shannon opened his arms. “Groovy. It shall be a feast.”

The pizza place and the liquor store were within a block of each other, so we split into two groups. Joey flew solo to grab the three pies and I brought de Shannon into The Cork’N’Crate for the liquid portion.

This was long before Americans cared about the quality of their booze, so the store was four aisles of bottles and a buzzing fridge unit. The best wine was Gallo. Beef jerky on a clip rack by the register was probably the best-tasting thing in the whole store

De Shannon went straight to the refrigerator, stopping in front of the Genesee. I saw him counting on his fingers, then he turned to me.

“Guess we’ll need a case.” He grabbed the suitcase of beer by the cardboard handle and walked up to the counter. The pudgy counterman, close to sixty and grey flat top standing at attention, swiveled his head to look at me.

“You ain’t buying this for him, are you?” He had that scratchy, high-pitched whine of the Ohio native. “Cause we got plenty of pop is he’s thirsty.”

“No, sir. My nephew’s just giving me a ride down the road. Got a card game in a few and needed something to lubricate the night, if you get my drift?” Here, de Shannon put his arm around my shoulder. I felt this weird pride, as if we were actually related. “He’s a good kid. You ain’t gotta worry about him.” De Shannon mimicked the counterman’s voice, but the guy didn’t notice.

“Okay, then.” He accepted a ten dollar bill from de Shannon and watched us walk out the door.

Joey sat in the driver’s seat as de Shannon slipped into shotgun. I rode next to three cardboard cartons wafting tomato- and pepperoni-scented air.   Joey’s eyes narrowed behind his thick glasses. “That’s a lot of beer.”

In five minutes, we were back in Joey’s driveway. Mr. Greenbaum was watering the lawn and the stream of water ceased as he released the metal pistol grip screwed to the top of the hose.

“What is that, now?” Joey tried to block the case of beer from his dad’s sight, but Mr. Greenbaum cut us off from the front door. “That’s a whole lot of beer, son.”

Joey looked like a flower trying to close its petals, while de Shannon maintained a blasé demeanor. I looked at Mr. Greenbaum staring down his nose through his own thick glasses. It took a few seconds, but de Shannon broke the stalemate.

“Well, there are ten of us, Eugene.” De Shannon lifted his eyebrows. Mr. Greenbaum’s face erupted with a toothy grin.

“Aw, hell, Joey. I didn’t know you even liked beer.”

“I don’t!” Joey’s head popped out of his collar now.

“Now I know why the six pack doesn’t seem to go as far as it used to.”

“Dad, I don’t know what you’re talking about!”

Mr. Greenbaum elbowed de Shannon in the ribs. “When I was their age, jeez. We would do anything to get our hands on some of these. The hard part was finding an opener. With these pop tops, it’s just too easy, right?”

“Better get these in fridge, boys. Also, let’s eat before the pizza cools off.” De Shannon walked through the front door and Mr. Greenbaum went back to the hose. Joey grabbed my arm as we walked inside.

“You know I don’t drink beer. I don’t want to get in trouble.”

“Joey, jeez, cool it. It’s okay.” I opened the door to the basement. “Your dad wants you to drink.”

Joey shook his head, but he accepted it as we set up for dinner.

 

I had never drank beer before either. There was no reason behind it. We just didn’t think about it. I know the teenage years are supposed to be a rebellious time, but I didn’t feel that way until I got to New York. There I pulled a 180 and tried everything put in front of me. I’m not proud, but it’s true.

I laughed in Ian MacKaye’s face when he told me about his whole straight edge punk thing. I said, “No sex, no drugs, no booze, huh? I did that at fifteen, just not by choice.”

I like Minor Threat’s music, but come on. Most punks were nerds anyway. Let them have some fun.

 

After the pizza was gone, de Shannon loosened up. He had drunk three beers, telling us about meeting Isaac Asimov. De Shannon introduced himself at the Hugo Awards and Asimov refused to shake his hand.

“He told me, ‘You cheapen our art, Mr. de Shannon.’ I told him ‘Nightfall’ was the worst story ever written and he responded that it had been reprinted many time. ‘Now who’s cheap?’ I said and walked away.”

“But I love ‘Nightfall,’” Pulaski said.

“In five years, you’ll see it for the hack work it is.” He finished his fourth beer in a big gulp and laid out that old chestnut. “Remember, guys, the golden age of science fiction is 13.”

“Wait, you mean the stuff we’re reading is bad?” Joey looked angry because he hated wasting time. He thought he was investing in something by reading so many books and now one of his heroes had told him otherwise. But de Shannon softened.

“Not all of it. The thing is those older sci-fi guys have great ideas, but they don’t write very well. They see their stories as a way to get across a vision of the future, not as an exercise in literary excellence.” He popped the top on a fifth can. “When you get older, you’ll want to read something at a higher level. Maybe it will be the New Wave guys like Ballard or Morcock. Hopefully, you might read some Joyce or Faulkner. Or Hemingway. Whatever. It doesn’t matter. But you will outgrow the boom-pow stuff, because it’s for kids.”

“Are we wasting our time reading your books?” Joey’s face was boiling red.

“I don’t know.” He pulled on the beer, receding into the bean bag. The room quieted for a whole minute and some of the guys looked ready to leave. I opened a second beer, facing de Shannon directly.

“You said sci-fi guys have great ideas. Where do they come from?” This focused all my friends. Even Joey looked curious again. We had been struggling with finding stories to tell and now, maybe, this guy could give us some insight.

 

Of course I know this is a standard question to any writer and one no professional wants to answer. I have been asked a million times how to write a song. I usually say put words on paper and your hands on an instrument and see how they go together. Nobody ever likes this.

 

But this hoary question caused a metamorphosis in de Shannon. His lips slumped into a frown and his eyes bagged. Maybe it was the beer, but he was upset.

“How many times I’ve wanted to answer that question. They always ask it and I never say anything. Well, fuck it. Right here and now, I’m telling you the truth.” He went to the wall where Pulaski had drawn our solar system and de Shannon pointed to Venus. “After World War II, I was stationed at Okinawa. In the middle of nighttime guard duty, a great light blinded me and I awoke in an alien spaceship.

“They said they were from Venus and I was chosen to be their herald. In 2010, they would take over Earth and I was to prepare the human race for their eventual slavery. They implanted something in my brain, I think it must be like one of those computer tapes, and I should transcribe their messages for broadcast.

“From that night on, I heard the voice in my head prompting me to write. It also looks out for me, like when I was buying this.” He went to his overnight bag and handed me the book he stole from Times Square.

“What’s it saying now?” Joey sounded afraid. De Shannon turned and faced the corner like a misbehaving fourth grader.

“To kill all of you because you know too much.” His voice caught on his words and he sobbed.

The meeting ended quickly after that. De Shannon slumped in the corner weeping was too much raw emotion for kids who fought to keep theirs tamped down. I was the last to leave, as Mr. Greenbaum came to take de Shannon to the train station. Joey said later he was too scared to have that crazy person staying in his house overnight.

The writer looked at me, his face like an off-kilter Comedy mask as Mr. Greenbaum pointed him upstairs.

“Kid, it’s a good thing those Venus guys are terrible writers. Nobody could believe the shit I wrote. And, most importantly, nobody wants to read it.” He yelled out, “Venus awaits!” He laughed finally, but it was cold and froze my insides.

 

When I saw de Shannon in Bellevue, the first thing he told me was the voice was gone.

“I don’t know if the tape broke or if they gave up. But the messages have stopped and I don’t have to write them down anymore.”

“Then why are you still in here?”

“You think that was the only thing wrong with me?” His smile made me laugh and I promised to sneak in some beer. I could never get it past the front desk.

**

What bothers me is that de Shannon’s death came in the year the Venusians said they would cause the end of Earth. My brain knows this is a coincidence, but my heart wants to scan the sky. Should I look for the bright lights? Or should I just go on living without worrying about impending doom?

I re-read that tattered old pulp book he gave me about once a year. Now, I’ll have to look at it again and search through it carefully, just in case Venus awaits us all.

 

 

BIO

Charles BrownCharlie Brown is a writer and filmmaker from New Orleans. He currently lives in Los Angeles, recently receiving his Masters in Professional Writing from the University of Southern California, where he runs Lucky Mojo Press and Mojotooth Productions.  He has made two feature films: “Angels Die Slowly” (to be released by Ytinifni Films in June 2015) and “Never A Dull Moment: 20 Years of the Rebirth Brass Band.” His fiction has appeared in Jersey Devil Press, The Menacing Hedge, Aethlon, and what?? Magazine as well as the anthology “The Portal In My Kitchen,” due in 2015.  He teaches journalism and composition at various community colleges.

 

 

0

The Waiting Game

by Lou Gaglia

 

We had trouble at the golf course right away because Tommy didn’t wear a collar shirt. The tee-time man behind the desk gave him a look and pointed in the direction of shirts for sale, but Tommy said from the rack, “Twenty bucks? For a shirt?” My dad frowned to himself and eased over to the racks and picked out two shirts. He held the maroon one up against Tommy’s chest and said, “This looks pretty sharp.” Tommy dug into his pocket but Dad held him off and bought both shirts. “First beers are on you,” he said while Tommy gave a sour look to the miniature man hitting a golf ball on his shirt pocket.

Jesse already had a collar shirt on, and so did Dad and me, because we knew the subtleties of golf etiquette, but Tommy didn’t know a thing about golf customs and changed right there in front of the tee-time guy, who gave Tommy a from-under stare. When he stopped minding Tommy’s business, he filled in his oversized tee-time book with our names, and then we were free to walk sideways out of the wee office door where our clubs waited. Dad had lent Tommy his old set and Jesse had borrowed his father’s, and we strapped them to our rented hand carts and hoofed it up the long hill to the first tee.

Two days before, after I had met Tommy’s friend Jesse, Tommy explained to me that Jesse was really quiet, and not to take personally that his only two words to me on first meeting had both been, “Okay”—first after I told him I was going to ask Tommy to play golf, and then after I asked him if he wanted to come along. The next day, when Jesse passed me in front of my building, he muttered, “Tomorrow will be my second golf game in the history of my life.” He continued down the block without breaking his stride, and left it at that.

While waiting in front of Jesse’s building in the morning, Tommy warned me offhand that Jesse was a shy guy and to just leave him alone about the talking thing, that Jesse talked when he felt like talking and no more. He had been traumatized at an early age at a ventriloquist show or something, Tommy said, and if Jesse spoke two words in one day it meant he liked you, and if he said three words then he wanted to marry you. “I think I’m in trouble, then,” I said, and we laughed, but Tommy added that even when Jesse wasn’t talking at all he was still a fun guy to be around. He could sing exactly like Elvis or Bing Crosby whenever he wanted—he chose one voice or the other, depending on his mood—and he sang at some strange times, too. He was super shy, though, especially around women, and hardly ever talked—let alone sang—if there was a woman in sight. I told Tommy I could relate to that one, since I was already pushing thirty—at a whopping twenty-seven and a half years old—and that my happiness clock was ticking away, so to speak. Tommy told me he didn’t even have a happiness clock and that he was already thirty and to stop reminding him how much life stank.

At the top of the hill Dad warmed up by swinging his driver over and over again. He was trying to swing without accidentally dragging his back foot around to join the front one, but he had a hard time of it. Jesse stood there leaning against his driver like a pro and looking off at the field while four guys in front of us were busy teeing off. Tommy had an iron of some kind, maybe a three, and he was off to the side whacking at the clover. My father asked him what the hell he was doing.

“I hate bees,” Tommy said.

“You’re gonna piss them off,” said Dad.

The starter sat in his cart looking holier than thou, all official-like, with his little pad and pencil and his watch. He held up his palms to us, like the Pope, after the last of the foursome had finally teed off and walked toward their beloved balls, which were all scattered everywhere on both sides of the rough. His holy palms indicated that we had to stand off to the side, not on the tee box, and wait. Tommy rolled his eyes at me. “This is already bullshit,” he mumbled. “Too many of these Long Island rules…”

Dad came over and said to Tommy out of the side of his mouth, “You got to wait for them to take their second shot before you tee off. Otherwise you’re going to plunk them in the head.”

“I’m already teed off,” said Tommy. “This is a hell of a lot of waiting.”

“This game’s all about waiting,” Dad philosophized, and Tommy smirked. He edged his way onto the tee box as the last holdout from the group ahead of us set up his fairway shot by swiveling his hips and then backing off his ball and then going near it again to swivel his hips some more. The starter eagle-eyed Tommy who had gotten too close to the tee area, and then, out of the blue, Jesse began singing, sounding almost exactly like Elvis.

“Hey, don’t, don’t do that,” the starter warned Jesse.

“What’s the name of that song, Jess?” said Tommy with a laugh.

“Uh…‘Don’t’.”

“I coulda guessed that.”

“Well, why’d you ask, then,” my father put in from behind and then turned to the starter. “Isn’t this guy ever going to hit? He looks like he’s going to take a shit out there.”

The starter looked down at his little book and then at the group coming up behind us in fancy riding carts. It was a foursome of two men and two ladies, maybe in their forties. The ladies wore white shorts and white sneakers or golf shoes. The men were all decked out in golf shirts that they hadn’t bought from the office. They gave me and Tommy a look as if to wonder what was holding us up.

“Some fun, Frank,” Tommy said to me but loud enough for everyone else to hear. “One guy’s wiggling his ass at us out there, and these four are on the pro tour.”

I almost kept myself from laughing, and the wiggler had finally hit his ball about fifteen feet to the right, so it was time for us to tee off. Tommy stepped up first, about to hit his first golf ball, but he acted like it was going to be no big deal.

On the train he’d told me that maybe golf would be a good way for him to get his mind off that Karen woman. He was crazy about her, he told me—no, he loved her, he corrected himself—and it was all so much like riding a roller coaster because he couldn’t control what was going to happen or not happen, that he just had to wait. I didn’t tell him my own story, partly because my story was short—that I had no one at all—and partly because Jesse sat across from us reading the newspaper. He’d given no hint that he heard or cared about anything Tommy had told me, or maybe he’d heard it all before, but I didn’t want to talk in front of him, and probably couldn’t have talked to Tommy about it anyway. Tommy was crazy for Karen, but I was crazy on a roller coaster for different reasons, the main one being that I couldn’t talk in the first place, which sank in at the end of my Jeannette era during our last ditch disaster of a pizza lunch. I’d given her up for real, for good and all, and I was free of her at last and pretty happy about it when I got back to Brooklyn that night. I slept like a baby (waking up crying every few hours), and for the next day and the next week I missed her like mad, even though I couldn’t stand her. Then, to chase her out of my mind, I made the mistake of deciding to ask out every woman I liked and some that I saw on sight, just to force myself to talk.

First, I marched into the library and asked Kelly out for a simple coffee, but she smiled and said no thank you like she was doing me the biggest favor of my life to tell me to take a hike. I knew I shouldn’t have started with her again, because I’d already written to her and was embarrassed enough. I felt like a schlep—whatever that is—even worse than when I’d read the letter back from her that asked God to bless and keep me. But after her no, I couldn’t stop. I asked out the girl at the nail place, but spotted the ring on her finger too late. Then I took off work, over the heated objections of Rob, and went out to the Thursday afternoon Mets game, just to watch baseball and look for strange women to ask out, figuring it might be easier to ask them if I knew I didn’t have to face them again around my neighborhood. I had a book of Rilke poems with me, and glanced between innings at the poems and the women, but every nice-seeming woman in the seats around me was occupied with a boyfriend or a husband or whatever they were. I was pretty down after the game, walking among hundreds of women up the stairs on the way to the El train. Ready to forget my stupid idea, I held the pole and tried to read Rilke. But in between lines, I caught sight of a woman alone, reading a book too. She sat on a seat closest to one of the doors, reading Dostoyevski, and she looked up at me for just a second, so I went over to her, and amongst the crowd of other Mets fans frowning their way home, I said, “Dostoevski’s pretty good,” but she didn’t say a word, just kept her eyes on the book, and I wound up turning around and holding onto the pole, my face burning up. Some of the riders standing around me and sitting next to her glanced at me. And at the next stop she got off, raced ahead along the platform, and went into the next car.

In the morning on the way to work, I usually stopped on Market Street for breakfast after crossing the bridge, and talked a little with this girl Tracy, who was maybe a few years younger than me. She was nice, but was probably just being friendly because it was her job to sell coffee and buns to slobs like me who were on their way to stack books all day. Anyway, her mother owned the place, and she looked like a neighborhood toughie, like nothing scared her, and Tracy acted the same way, but only when she talked to her mother and some of the regular neighborhood customers. I tried not to look at her much, unless she was walking away with her back to me completely and no one else was looking. My asking days were over, I brooded.

So all of that—from God’s pipeline, Kelly, to the nail girl, to the train woman, to Tracy and her tough mother, to being twenty-seven and a half, to not being able to talk about any of it to Tommy—left me in a sour mood, on top of which I still had to testify at that trial not long after my rejection spree. In the waiting area outside the courtroom, I got a nose bleed right before I was called in. I had a tissue up one nostril while I answered questions, and then I had to get up and point my shaky finger at a diagram board of East Broadway and show everyone where I was and where the shooter was. There were two Chinese guys sitting at the defense table, and I glanced over once. They looked like lost little kids in their brown suits, and I couldn’t tell which one was the guy who shot the little girl because his back had been to me. Then when their defending lawyer, from the back of the room, asked me questions, she wondered why I’d told the police the shooter was five foot eleven when he was only five foot seven. “Well…” I said, “a guy with a gun looks pretty big to me.” Everyone got a laugh out of that, even the judge, and I took the opportunity to unplug the tissue from my nose.

Anyway, after I was all done, I had to leave the room without knowing what happened, guilty or innocent, and I headed straight out and into the street. I cut through Columbus Park but didn’t stick around, because every teenage kid or guy in his twenties looked like gang members to me. At home I expected to be shot every time I left my building, kind of wincing as I came out. I felt better off on Chinatown streets, because there were so many people around that I could be anonymous, like a speck, and I always walked different routes to work, and sometimes took the bus. It helped to pretend I was Richard Kimble, turning my face away from those who looked my way. Tracy’s coffee shop was the one regular place I went to besides work and home, and I got to talk a little bit to Tracy, even though it was only about how much butter I wanted on my toast or ask where the cream was. I liked to sit there and sip coffee and take half-second-glances at her shoulders when she went by and her mother was occupied or talking tough with some customer. It felt like the only place in the world where no one could shoot me.

But Tommy didn’t know any of that either. When he hooked his tee shot along the ground all the way to the fence through the woods, Dad told him he’d just killed some more bees. Tommy smirked and motioned for me to go next but I motioned to Dad and stepped behind Jesse. I wanted to wait and go last.

Our balls were spread all over the course for our second shots, so we walked in pairs on either side and then branched off for the ball hunt. Alone, I had a chance to wonder about the future possibilities that had been racing through my mind since my last pizza meeting with Jeannette. One after another, images of my future raced by. I tried and failed to slow them down and think about each one, starting with my working for Uncle Eddie at the race track as a hot walker or as a groom. I’d be around horses and horse men and sniff manure all day, so I didn’t like that idea. Then I pictured myself sitting in a classroom at the community college, doodling in the back while a professor type droned on from his notes. I saw myself living back on Long Island and married to Jeannette, my face in my hands and shaking my head over having forgotten her two-timing ways. Then I imagined staying in Brooklyn after all, saying no thank you to Jeannette for good, and then coming out of some Chinese take-out place and being shot by a thousand bullets and eventually going down in a dying heap near some garbage bags. Finally, I dreamed of forgetting all of that and escaping back to Italy and staying there this time, where I’d meet some nice Italian girl and bake bread all day or lay bricks or have my own pizza and ice cream stand. I’d write poems, my precious poems, on the side. The baker or brick layer or pizza vendor job would be enough for me, because I’d be living with her big family of uncles and cousins and parents, and eventually I’d learn to speak some Italian. I’d play with our seven or eight kids and otherwise roam the countryside with my notebook in hand.

A whining cart rolled up beside me. It was the golf course Pope. “Come on, come on,” he said. “You have to play faster.”

“Oh.” I looked at him. “Okay, thanks.”

He turned around in his cart and peeled out just as I smacked the ball in a hurry, slicing it wildly and just missing the back of his head. My heart jumped and I covered my eyes, but luckily he was too busy hurrying off in a huff to notice that he’d just escaped being killed.

Later we were all on the green together. The foursome behind us waited in the middle of the fairway while we putted our balls everywhere but near the hole. I was still thinking of my future, but even though I smiled at Tommy’s comments and at Dad’s jokes and laughed when Jesse sang something, each foggy future that stretched out in front of me was a lonely one, because none of those guys would be there. That moment—of laughing on the green together—would be gone, and so it felt lonely there too because my thoughts were inside myself.

On the second hole, Dad stuck his tee into the ground just as Jesse sang again, this time from Bing Crosby’s “My Buddy”. I swore he was Bing himself for a second.

At that point Dad hit a perfect shot dead center of the fairway. He picked up his tee and laughed. “Keep singing there, Jesse.”

Tommy stepped up. “Sing for me too, Jess,” he said, but Jesse got shy about it and clammed up.

The starter rolled up in his cart just after Tommy teed off into the woods. The people behind us, he said, complained (he counted on his fingers) about our slowness and our singing. “Who’s singing?” he wanted to know.

“What is this, Catholic school?” Tommy burst out. “Can’t a guy sing?”

Dad shushed Tommy, but Tommy and the starter still scowled at each other for a while. “You have to keep things moving along here,” the starter said, slowly, like maybe Tommy couldn’t understand. Tommy smirked at him and Jesse winced and said he was sorry and it wouldn’t happen again. The starter still glared at Tommy and then raced off like a bat out of hell.

“Jesse,” Tommy said, as I stepped up to the tee box, “you keep singing, whenever you want.”

“No,” Dad said. “Just play. We’re gonna get tossed if we keep this up.”

“He can’t throw us out. We paid.”

“Oh, yes he can. They got rules.”

“Too many,” Tommy said, looking steamed, and I stuck my tee into the ground.

Meanwhile the group behind us had caught all the way up and parked their driving carts right alongside our walking carts. They were waiting to tee off already, and I hadn’t even gone yet, or Jesse either.

Along the fairway I watched Dad help Tommy search for his ball, then talk to him while waiting for Jesse and me to find ours on the fairway. Pretty soon Dad had Tommy doing all the listening. Whatever he was saying wasn’t about golf, because they both leaned on their clubs and didn’t move while waiting for Jesse and me to swing. The people behind us were right up our backs waiting to try their own fairway shots, having already teed off. One of the balls rolled right near my feet, so I kicked it a little. Another landed near Tommy and Dad, and Tommy tossed it backwards. Then one of the men in the group must have said something because Tommy turned all the way around, but Dad held Tommy back and stepped in front of him. He talked to the guy himself and then waved for me and Jesse to move off to the side and then wildly to the group to go on ahead. After they all took a whack each, we gathered together, and Dad told us we had to let them play through. “Fair is fair,” he said. “The heck with it.”

There was another group farther behind us, but they were still finishing the first hole.

“Look, they got a kid with them,” Dad said, “so now we can play without people up our asses…at our own leisure,” he added.

At around the fifth or sixth hole, Tommy walked with me because our balls had both landed out of bounds in the same area, and he told me I was lucky to have a dad like my dad.

“He’s a gentleman,” Tommy said. “I wish I could be like him.”

We searched in the high grass for Tommy’s ball first. “My dad,” he said, “he didn’t play golf with me, but he hit me with a golf club once, right in the back of my legs.”

I stopped chopping through the high grass with my club and looked up. “What for?”

“I didn’t move fast enough, something like that. Anyway, your dad is all right. My dad, I love the guy, you know, because—out of respect, I don’t know—but he hated me. Maybe he doesn’t now. My mother keeps calling me lately. Our old dog died, so…” Tommy found his ball and threw it out onto the fairway, and we started looking for mine.

“Your dog died, huh?” I said, to keep the conversation going.

“More than one dog. Another one when I was a kid. Anyway, he’s all broken up, I guess, so I’m supposed to go see him.”

“Maybe bring that girl, that girl Karen.”

“Not a chance. Not in a million years.”

“Maybe later then,” I laughed, and found my ball and threw it onto the fairway too.

“Maybe never. Anyway, me and her, we’re just friends, just friends. I don’t even want to think what’s going on. I told you that on the train, it’s like riding a roller coaster, so I’m just waiting. Anyway…” He took a hard swing at his ball but it went straight up and down about fifty feet away. “Anyway, you know, she’s a nice girl, and she thinks I’m good, for some reason. But after one meeting with my father…geez, forget it.”

“Friendship over,” I said.

“Right, gone. And he’s prejudiced against the Chinese. You think I’m letting her near him? Every word out of his mouth is about the blacks and the Chinese and whoever else. When I was a kid—go ahead and hit your ball first. That kid and his parents are catching up to us.” I hit my ball and he went on. “When I was a kid, I saw my father and his friends beat the crap out of this guy outside an apartment building. I don’t even know where. I was pretty young. Anyway, they kicked the crap out of him and threw all his stuff out of his apartment window—a mattress, a bunch of clothes, a table, everything. He was a black guy. I don’t know if that had anything to do with it, but I just sat in my father’s car watching the whole thing. They were kicking him in the back.”

“Wow,” I said.

“I’m not letting him near her. I don’t know, Frank. I want to be different, and she’s the first nice thing—” Tommy caught himself and stopped talking. “All right,” he said, “let’s catch up.” We were quiet while we hit our balls and then walked after them. When we got within sight of Jesse and my father, we heard Jesse singing like Bing Crosby and saw my dad twirling his club with a smirk on his face.

“There he is, your dad,” said Tommy. “He’s a wise guy but he’s a good guy. I’ll bet you a hundred bucks he makes some wise-ass remark when we get to him.”

“I don’t want to bet that,” I said.

“What are you two trying to do, let the little kid play through too?” Dad said when we reached him, and me and Tommy just smiled to ourselves.

The starter came around on the 7th hole because he said someone complained about Jesse singing again. “Yes, sir, sorry sir,” said Tommy, and after the starter left, Jesse sang from, “Don’t Be Cruel,” but not too loud, while Dad smiled and Tommy cracked up, hands on knees.

I watched Jesse. He played quiet, and walked quiet, and looked out at the field quiet and hunted for his ball quiet. He was quiet and shy, just like Tommy said, and just like me, except at least he could sing and get people to laugh. I was feeling down just being around him, and even though he was a good guy, I began to hate him, especially when we reached the 8th hole next to four women who were teeing off on the 5th, and without seeing them yet, Jesse sang the first half of Elvis’ “I Want You, I Need You, I Love You…” The girls looked back at him and laughed and Jesse got all red. I stood off to the side, quiet and mad, while Dad and Tommy and the girls laughed at the red-faced Jesse, who immediately clammed up. Not one of those women looked or smiled back at me once during the entire hole, only at shy Elvis.

On the 9th and last hole for us, I popped my tee shot into the air toward the woods and it hit a lady on the head or shoulder, I don’t know which. Her husband took up the ball and whipped it underhanded at me along the ground before I could explain that I didn’t have time to yell fore. I fielded the ball, though, and with all my madness and aloneness and quietness steaming inside me, I threw it overhand right back at him. It sailed over his head. “Don’t you throw the ball at me!”

I fumed my way along the fairway, and didn’t even play the rest of the hole, just watched Jesse and Dad and Tommy play it out. Tommy looked over at me sideways a few times.

After the last putt was sunk, Dad sidled over to me. “Let’s see,” he observed, “you hit a guy’s wife, and then you throw the ball at her husband.” I didn’t say anything.

Near the clubhouse, the guy himself appeared, right in front of me, and he said sorry and held his hand out. “I didn’t mean to throw the ball at you, I’m really sorry,” he said. I shook his hand back.

“No, no, it was all my fault,” I told him, and when he’d gone, before we headed inside for our beers—Tommy’s treat—Dad added, “And then the guy apologizes…”

Tommy laughed and swatted my shoulder with the back of his hand. “What a tough guy you are,” he said in a low voice, and I winced without a word.

 

 

BIO

Lou GagliaLou Gaglia’s work has appeared in The Cortland Review, The Oklahoma Review, The Brooklyner, Prick of the Spindle, Waccamaw, Eclectica, Amsterdam Quarterly, The Hawai’i Review, and elsewhere. His collection of short stories, Poor Advice, will be available from Aqueous Books in 2015, and his story, “Hands” was runner-up for storySouth’s 2013 Million Writers Award. He teaches in upstate New York after many years as a teacher in New York City.

 

 

 

 

 

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Clarissa Nemeth writer

The Claiborne Refuge Workbook

by Clarissa Nemeth

 

What to Expect at Claiborne Refuge

God brought you to the refuge to save your life from alcohol and/or drugs, through a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. You are not here by chance, but by God’s plan. Jesus says, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28).

Throughout your program at the Refuge, you will be pointed to Jesus Christ as the Bible describes and presents him. He alone can give you victory over substance abuse. “If therefore the Son shall make you free, you shall be free indeed” (John 8:36).

You will learn to pray, to share your burdens with Christ, and to experience the peace and comfort of his care for you. “Cast all your anxieties on Him, for He cares about you” (1 Peter 5:7).

You will learn of your need to trust and depend on Jesus Christ, not only for victory over abusive substances, but for literally everything in your life. “Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself unless it abides in the vine, so neither can you, unless you abide in Me” (John 15:4).

 

THE PRINCIPLES OF LIVING

You admit your are powerless over your addiction, that your life has become unmanageable.

Q. Why is it so liberating to know that you are powerless over your addiction?

Your cousin went to prison a few years back for stealing the Hamblen County Sheriff’s car. He got liquored up and took it right out of the sheriff’s driveway on a joyride, then ran it into a ravine down by Ratliff Road. After his picture got in the paper your grandma said there was something wrong with the men in your family, some bad line in the blood that just kept passing down. You already knew that. Everybody in the county knew that.

Your grandfather once shot a man in the face just because he thought he was ugly. One uncle beat his wife so hard he gave her epilepsy. Last time you saw your daddy, he had warrants out in three different states. Your older brother got so high once he ran half-naked through a plate-glass window, trailing blood down the road and screaming about the end times. A cousin out in Jefferson County raped a little girl in Dandridge. He said he didn’t even know why he did it, just seemed like a good idea at the time.

You wanted to be different. You wanted to be better. Look how far that got you. You were – you are – just like the rest of them. You tried all you could, and it wasn’t enough.

Here they tell you over and over again that nothing you can do will fix your life. They tell you it’s time to surrender to God, that he wants you to come to him, that they are all praying you will let him embrace you. Why not let God try and fix you, if he wants to so much? After all – and they will remind you of this – you don’t have much left to lose, do you?

Paul explains the struggle between good and evil in Romans 7:13-24. Put that same struggle in terms of your addiction.

Paul says that he wants to do good, that he wishes for it, but that the evil within him longs for nothing but sin.

You know about that longing. Remember the first time you got drunk, the first time you got high, the first time you stole, the first time you snorted a line of Oxy. The sixth time. The fortieth time. The seventy-seventh time. No one made you do all of that. There was always a choice. How many times were you convinced that it would be better just to die? But that burning, clattering wanting coursed through you, and always you took the next swallow, the next pill, the next snort, the next drink. There was a little hollow voice inside of you mouthing no and it always got drowned out by that howling need for more, more now, again. It got to where that wanting grew into a creature all its own just carrying you along with it. Even now you feel the wanting. In your skin, your teeth, your very bones. The wanting wants everything; it will want until there is nothing left of you.

But if they split you open right now and that wanting poured out, there would still be a tiny sliver of you left in there, scrabbling for a little more purchase on this life you almost threw away.

Paul says it isn’t easy. You could tell him, no shit.

 

You make a conscious decision to turn your life over to the care of God; you open your heart and mind to the power which is Jesus Christ, your Lord and Savior.

Q. How do you have access to God’s power?

Remember what happened when you killed your first deer? Your uncle made you run your knife down the animal’s gut and look at what spilled out. He made take off your glove and reach down into that steaming pool of blood with your bare fingers. He made you wipe that hot blood in two broad streaks below your eyes. You’re a man now. You’ve been blooded. Trouble runs in your blood. Blood alcohol. Bloodshot eyes. Bloody footprints tracking on your wife’s carpet. Blood smeared on tissues, dripping out your nose in red droplets to stain the pillowcase, on your toothbrush from bleeding gums. Blood pounding in your ears. Blood on her face when you split her lip; blood on yours when she spat it back at you. Blood in your blue veins, beading when you pull out the needle. Got to get it in your bloodstream so it feels good.

Blood on the cross. Christ bled, too. Just like you.

Q. How do you know that God will not just get tired of you and throw you out of His kingdom?

You don’t have too many good memories of times when you weren’t high or drunk, but one of them is the day your daughter was born. You got drunk to the gills that night, sure, but the moment she came into the world, you were there. You and your wife maybe never should have had a kid in the first place, but the two of you made that little person, and the first time you held her, you remembered thinking it was impossible that you’d had any part to play in creating something so tiny and perfect.

Of course, later you learned that tiny perfect creature could scream about as loud as her mother, could cry until you wanted to tear down the walls. She could shit more than a horse and puke all over the place and throw her food everywhere. When she got to be a toddler she started throwing tantrums, and once she gave you a black eye – you had to lie to the guys at the bar and tell them you got into a brawl out in Jeff City. Sometimes you’d imagine shaking her until she shut up; sometimes you wished she didn’t exist. But you never forgot that you made her. You’d never say you did a real good job as her father so far, but still – you never forgot that you made her.

Supposedly, God feels the same way about you. You have trouble imagining that. But you can’t ever imagine being as small and as new as your daughter on the day she was born, either. Another impossible thought – but true. Why not the other?

 

You admit to God and to yourself the exact nature of your wrongs and ask Him to enable you to turn from them.

Q. Why is God so insistent that you confess your particular sin particularly?

The first time you got arrested, they caught you stealing money from unlocked cars in the high school parking lot. The cop who found you brought you home to your grandma and she slapped you so hard your ears started ringing. You said your friends put you up to it.

She slapped you again and said, you lie like a pig in the mud.

No, you insisted. They made me do it. I didn’t even want to. I’m sorry.

You’re the sorriest goddamn fool I ever saw, she agreed, but you ain’t sorry for stealing. You tell me now what you’re sorry for. Go on. Tell me the truth.

Back and forth you went like that, slapping and cussing until you finally said, Fine! It was me. It was all me. And I’m just sorry I got caught.

There you are, she said. Don’t you lie to yourself about what you done or why you done it. You own what you’re sorry for. Only way to go about it.

She came to court with you later, made you shave and put on nice pants, stood beside you in front of the judge, and made you tell him all that. What you did and why you did it. The judge said at least you were honest.

That time, you got community service. That time.

Q. It is not enough to confess your sins…what else must you willfully do?

Your daddy knew what a rat he was, knew it better than anyone. He’d tell you all the time, when you were real little, how sorry he was. Sorry for hitting you, sorry for spending the grocery money, for smashing the window, for letting the electricity go out again. Your daddy was just about the sorriest man you ever knew.

See how far those sorries got you. Sorry didn’t make the bruises go away. Sorry didn’t fill your belly. Sorry didn’t clean up the glass in the carpet. Sorry didn’t pay the electric bill. You can’t heat up sorry on a hot plate. Can’t give sorry to the repo man. Can’t crawl under sorry to sleep at night.

The Lord didn’t say to the cheating woman, I’m real glad you’re so sorry, honey.

He said, Go, and sin no more.

 

You make direct amends to people you might have harmed except when to do so might injure them or others.

Q. So often in your life, you have betrayed the trust of loved ones. Is it possible to make amends?

If you made a list of everyone you ever hurt, you could fill pages and pages. If you could crawl on your hands and knees to everyone you’d ever hurt, you’d scrape your shins and palms to the bone and still have people left to crawl to.

It should be getting easier now, as the days pass, as the fog lifts from your brain, to remember in excruciating detail every wrong. You remember your daughter’s face, for instance, on the day you came home high and ran over her dog in the driveway. A small note on your ledger of debts, but not one that you will ever forget. You will know every way you failed, every way you hurt, every way you disappointed. Tally them; tattoo them on your skin; carry them in your mouth like bitter candies.

You remember your wife, soft and tart the way she was in high school, her face unlined, her laugh like a tinkling bell. She could drink you under the table back when you first met her; that, of course, was some years before you started living on the table. You remember the way her nose felt when you slammed your fist into it, how easily it gave to your strength, the pop of the breaking bone. It didn’t even leave a bruise on your knuckle, but what it did to her —

Sometimes it will feel as if everything and everyone you ever touched fell apart. No one who knows you trusts you. No one who knows you believes you love them more than a ziplock baggie of Oxy or a bottle of Early Times. It’s easy to believe that God can forgive you; that’s his job, it’s what he promised to do. He wrote a whole book on the subject. But your grandma, your wife, your daughter – they never made any such promise.

You cannot make them forgive you. You cannot make them trust you. You can’t make them love you. All you can do is put on your dress pants, your nice shirt, your shined shoes, and wait for them each Sunday afternoon. Hope they will come. Hope they will see you there, just once, waiting. Trying. Putting them first, for once.

The rest – it’s up to them.

Q. The carrying of grudges and bitterness takes you away from the blessings of God. Can you be free from such mind control?

If you made a list of everyone who ever hurt you, you’d fill pages and pages. You know about grudges. You know about settling scores.

You can’t quite remember how old you were when your grandma told you your mama’s relations in Harrogate didn’t want anything to do with you after she died. It was after your daddy left, which they held up as proof that you came from trash. You told your grandma you didn’t care, that you didn’t want anything to do with them, either. But the first time you did crank in high school, you drove out to the cemetery in Harrogate with the idea of taking a baseball bat to your mama’s headstone. You swung that thing till your arms ached, bashing it against the granite again and again. When you were done the bat was all dinged up but that headstone didn’t look too different. You settled for smashing the little vases of flowers her relations put up beside it. A few weeks later you drove by again and saw those vases had been replaced. It was like you hadn’t even been there. All that anger, searing you, burning up inside, came to nothing.

If you expect God to forgive you, if you hope that others will forgive you, you have to forgive in turn. Sometimes your anger feels like the mountains you see from your window: massive, solid, insurmountable. But mountains can be climbed. Step by step. They say the view up top is something to see indeed.

 

You seek through the power of prayer and meditation a conscious contact with God, praying only for knowledge of His will for you and the power to carry that out.

Q. Does God actually hear prayer?

When you were in the Claiborne County Correctional Facility, just a skip down the street from where you are now, you were coming off the Oxy and were sure you were going to die. They put you in a cell with a guy they called Brother Keith. Brother Keith talked to God all the time. You were curled up in a ball, shivering and trying not to shit yourself, gnawing on that nasty prison blanket just to keep from moaning, and there’s Brother Keith, praying. Peering out the tiny slit of a window that looked out onto the parking lot and saying, Another beautiful day, Lord, thank you very much. Eating breakfast and saying, Lord, you know how much I love when they have them hot biscuits, thank you very much. Tidying up his bunk and saying, Lord, if it’s your will I sure could use some healing on these old knees of mine.

Finally you screamed at Brother Keith to just shut up, shut the hell up for five fucking minutes. God didn’t give two shits about his knees, God wasn’t in this place, God wasn’t anywhere, and if he was he would surely have killed you by now like you’d been asking him to.

Brother Keith let you holler at him for a while, then came over and knelt down next to you, even though you must have smelled like roadkill. Brother Keith put his cool hands on your sweaty forehead and said, Lord, I pray here for my brother who is in pain. I pray that you will comfort him. I pray that you will give him just a few moments of peace.

Maybe it was the prayer; maybe the touch of his hands; maybe it was hearing, for the first time, someone pray for you instead of at you. Angels didn’t come down from the ceiling. Your pain didn’t even go away, but while Brother Keith was praying for you, you didn’t feel like dying anymore.

You didn’t quite believe that God would ever listen to you. You were not even sure, then, that you believed in God. But you did start to believe in Brother Keith, that a trickle of his faith might flow through his hands and into you.

Eventually you found out that Brother Keith was in the Claiborne County Correctional Facility because he’d been driving down Lipcott Road in Tazewell on an expired driver’s license and hit a little boy on a bike, a little boy who would never walk again.

Brother Keith called himself an instrument of God.

Sure, you quipped. Jesus healed all the cripples, so you had to go make him a new one.

But Brother Keith showed you a letter he’d gotten from that boy’s mother. Pretty simple letter. She said that she was praying for him just as she prayed for her own son; that she forgave him.

That surprised you. If someone broke your daughter’s back, you’d never write a letter like that, not in a million years.

But Brother Keith said that was living in God’s image. That God loved you no matter what you did, that he would forgive you no matter what, and that he felt your pain as keenly as he felt that boy’s, and that mother’s, and his own.

Brother Keith is the reason you’re here. Before you left for the refuge, you made him promise to pray for you. You still aren’t sure that God hears you when you pray, but it makes you feel better to know that Brother Keith is out there praying for you.

You’re pretty sure God listens to him.

Q. What is the “power” that God gives you?

Your whole life you’ve been told you weren’t good enough. Not smart enough, not tall enough, not handsome enough, not rich enough. You’ve been a disappointing son, grandson, brother, boyfriend, father, and friend. There have always been people who’ve had more than you, did better than you, felt happier than you. It always felt impossible to catch up; it always felt like all the nice things in life were for other people.

But if you believe in God, you have to believe that God himself made you, and that he didn’t make you wrong. That’s the hardest thing for you to accept: He didn’t make you wrong. You are God-made and God-breathed as much as Adam, as much as the Pope, as much as the Queen of England. And as much as your father, your mother, and your pedophile cousin out in Dandridge.

You are no worse than anyone, no better than anyone. There are no magic words, no combination to unlock the possibility of good within you, no pill to take that can change you forever. All the power God can give to you, he already has. All you have to do for God to love you is be.

You are good enough. That knowledge frees you and it scares you. It redeems you and it humbles you. It makes you grieve and it gives you hope. You are good enough. You are good enough. You are good enough.

 

You have come to accept the priority of your life as: God, family, church, work, and self.

Q.What’s the big deal about “family”?

Think about your family. Your mama and your grandfather are resting deep in the Claiborne County earth. You wonder if the warrants caught up with your daddy before the drugs did. You may never know. Your brother is in Memphis, doing his third year of six for meth manufacturing. Your grandma, so old now she’s half-deaf and her hair is falling out, still kills her own chickens and bakes her own bread. You have a wide constellation of cousins and aunts and uncles in Jefferson, Hamblen, and Claiborne counties. Throw a rock around here and like as not you’ll hit someone you’re kin to. Sometimes you feel like all these people who know you are a web to catch you if you fall. Sometimes they feel like your destiny, binding you to a fate you never wanted. How much easier would it be to just start again, in a new place, where no one knows you? To make a new family full of people you haven’t already disappointed?

Remember the bonfires with your cousins; remember running through the woods with your brother; remember your grandma feeding you chicken broth when you were sick. Remember your uncle teaching you to shoot. Remember your daddy, tossing you up into the air when you were little. He never let you hit the ground. You were never as alone as you thought you were.

Think about your daughter. She’s seven now, with long blonde hair she won’t let her mama cut. Think about the last time you saw her happy, blowing dandelions in the front yard. Think of her laugh like the prettiest music you ever heard. Your wife will not come to see you on Sundays, but she sends you your daughter’s drawings in the mail. You hang them up on the drab particleboard walls. It looks like her favorite color is green.

Your wife will not come to see you, not yet, but she sends you those drawings and some shirts of yours that she’s mended. The packs of cigarettes that get you through the day. The butterfinger candies she knows are your favorite. Maybe she shouldn’t be, but she’s still your wife. She’s still the mother of your child.

They are yours. You are theirs. Your family made you and unmade you, as you made and unmade them. They gave you all the pain and love you’ve ever known. They are the tether to a past you’d like to forget, but also the bridge to a future you might make. You can’t take one without the other.

Q. Why should God be the number one in your life?

From your window at the refuge you can see the mountains on the Tennessee/Kentucky border. As long as you can remember, they’ve been there. You can remember taking field trips up there when you were still in school. You remember learning about how fragile they really are, how each one is made up of so many different parts; each flower and root and stem and log have a role to play. The tallest pine tree and the biggest bear are just as important as the smallest salamander and the tiniest ant.

It is hard for you to believe in God from inside a little room with an altar and some stained glass windows. Harder still to believe in God from the plywood benches of the refuge, surrounded by men who stink of sweat and tobacco and unwashed bodies. God doesn’t seem beside you in the lukewarm showers, the smell of someone else’s shit fogging the air in the tiny bathroom; he doesn’t walk with you to the sterile dining room where you recite your daily Bible verse to the Pastor’s assistant each morning at breakfast.

But looking out at those mountains, it’s easier to believe in God and his power. Each morning when you look out there, you try to meditate on God’s creation. Just one of those mountains is more complex than anything you’ve ever known, and there are endless ridges of them rolling off into the distance, farther than your eyes can see. Those mountains are so much bigger than you, and they have no wants, no needs. They are not eaten up with longing and sorrow. They do not know desertion or loneliness. They just are.

That is where you want to get. You want to trust that no matter how loud and angry and burning your need is, it is nothing compared to the wide world. You want to believe that God will provide for you, to temper your desire with the promise of peace. Surely, if God can take care of those mountains, he can take care of you. You have to let him. You have to tell him that you’re ready to let him.

 

You, having had a spiritual awakening through Jesus Christ, will try to carry this message to all those who suffer from addiction.

Q. Can dwelling in the word of God in thought and deed truly prevent you from succumbing to your addiction?

The truth is, you hate this place. The refuge isn’t much more than a reeking warehouse. You hate lining up for the meals like a child at school, hate standing in a corner while the staff look under your mattress and in the pockets of the shirts your wife sends you, hate sharing a room with an illiterate and toothless meth addict who needs you to read him his daily Bible verse over and over again until he can memorize it.

They tell you that this is what it means to dwell in the Lord, to devote every waking minute to learning his word and divining his will and praising his goodness. It’s hard work. Maybe the hardest of your life, and there’s nothing pleasurable about it.

Sometimes you think of giving into the longing. One smuggled can of beer from your rare trips to town would be enough. You’d be free. You hate the regiment of it all, the predictability. You have always preferred standing on the edge of the cliff, playing the daredevil, leaning out farther and farther over the abyss.

Across the street from the refuge, on a hillside in view from dining room’s big picture window, is a cemetery. When the craving is at its worst, when the tedium sets your teeth on edge and your head to pounding, you look up there. You know what’s waiting for you at the bottom. You know how close you came to falling.

You wouldn’t say it to the Pastor – he prefers positive thinking – but you have a feeling they built that picture window with that view in mind.

Q. How can you practice Jesus’s commands when they are so different from what you are used to?

What scares you most is the thought of life outside this place again. There are no drugs here, no open bars, few choices. The rules are very clear. The ways you can fail are spelled out for you, and all you have to do to make it each day is exactly what you are told to do.

But when you’re done here, when they hand you your certificate of graduation and they bless you and pray for your future in a circle of brotherhood, you’ll go out and you’ll have to start again. And you are afraid, not so much of how you might fail but of why.

You’re afraid of just how boring life really is. When you were using and drinking, when you were teetering on the edge of oblivion all the time, when everyone you loved was afraid for your life, it was terrible, yes; but it was also exhilarating. You were the star of your own show, the center of attention, the instigator of constant prime-time drama.

Each day you think of something else that’s waiting for you out there. Job applications, rude customers, worn-out brake pads, headaches, lost keys, colds, lines at the bank, termites, dog shit on your shoes. Before, you chose not to handle those things. You got high instead. Now you will have to learn to deal with all of it, and at the end of the day no one will congratulate you for patiently waiting to use the ATM or remembering to turn down the heat at night to save on the gas bill.

Each day you’ll have to make a thousand choices, over and over again. To serve God and not yourself. To honor your family and not your addiction. To turn the other cheek instead of striking with a raised fist.

Even Saint Thomas had his doubts.

Once you leave, they will not let you back into the refuge unless you stay clean. There are no second chances here, no allowances for relapse. But they do expect you to come back to testify to your new brothers in Christ about life after salvation and recovery. You will have to stare into the thin, wrecked faces of men struggling to make it through each minute. You will have to pray over them as if you can speak with God’s authority.

You know that they will look up at you, the survivor, and ask you if what you have is worth it.

And how will you answer?

What will you say?

Q. If you are born a sinner, and even your “good” deeds are born of sin, and it’s sin you love anyway, and God hates and condemns sin – what hope is there for you?

A.

 

AFTER COMPLETING THE WORKBOOK AND YOUR BIBLE STUDY, BUT BEFORE YOU GRADUATE FROM THE REFUGE, PLEDGE THE FOLLOWING FOR YOUR SALVATION, SOBRIETY, AND SECURITY:

I realize that I am a lost sinner who needs forgiveness and salvation. I believe Jesus wants to forgive me as the Bible promises, so here and now I give him my life. I pledge to follow him in Word, Thought, and Deed; I confess to my addiction, my sins, and my weakness, and will overcome them through the Blood of Christ.

 

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BIO

Clarissa NemethClarissa Nemeth is originally from Gatlinburg, Tennessee. She has a Bachelor of Music degree from Boston University, an M.F.A. from North Carolina State University, and is currently a doctoral candidate in creative writing at the University of Kansas. She primarily writes about individuals and communities in Appalachia and the New South and is working on a novel about the tourist towns of Sevier County, Tennessee. She lives in Lawrence, Kansas with her husband Greg and their pit bull, Boogie. This is her first publication.

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