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Little Red Wagon

by Richard Thomas

 

 

Rebecca hated her father for what he’d done, refusing to help him dig the grave, arms crossed, tears running down her face, the body under the tarp no longer Grandpa, no more secret conversations when they were alone, just the two of them now—her father the killer, her father and his constant worries, her father convinced that the old man had finally fallen sick. They’d been alone for a long time now, the three of them living off the land, the radio antenna built up tall in the back yard, stretching up into the sky. Nobody ever answered, but she sat in the kitchen, turning the knobs, trying to find a sign of life, anyway. The black box sat on the table, static and interference crackling from the device, the puddle of blood on the floor where her grandfather had fallen, the hammer that killed him still lying there like a sleeping snake. Sitting next to her, the thick, black lab nuzzled her hand, whimpering. Sadie was upset, she didn’t know what to do, and neither did Rebecca. She was a teenager now, but inside, she was still a child, a baby—and she felt helpless.

One percent, that’s what Grandpa had said—only one percent had survived. This had been several years ago, when one percent meant something. He’d tug on his long, gray beard and stare at the television set as the man on the news rattled on, updates so infrequent, most of the population dead and gone now. Around them, the world had simply disappeared—no cars driving by, no planes overhead, with the farm still functioning, but just barely. Their pantry was filled with canned goods—it had been easy to drive around their small town and fill up the bed of their pickup truck with more. In the beginning the stench had been unbearable, meat going bad, bodies lying everywhere, but over time the animals and elements picked at the bones, leaving little behind but broken, white skeletons. One percent had turned into another one percent, and that’s when it all went quiet, went dark. The second wave erupted, the mutation—airborne or dormant, nobody knew—and then no more frantic man on the television set, hair sticking out in all directions, shouting at the camera. No, there was nothing more after that.

Grandfather talked about keeping the race alive, that they had to find a female, a woman—that was why they had the radio going, why he’d built the tower, why they constantly scrolled up and down the dial, looking for any survivors. He was a handy man, Grandpa, able to build most anything out in the barn with his tools and charts—his years of engineering so helpful now that the world had moved on. A stack of books sat by his leather recliner—biomechanics, computer programming, artificial intelligence, and bionics.

“What’s your earliest memory?” Grandpa asked her.

“What do you mean?”

“Think back,” he said, easing into the recliner. “What do you remember, the very first thing you can think of?”

Rebecca sat on the couch, and pulled her long, brown hair behind her head and into a ponytail, something she did when she was concentrating.

“Anything?” he nudged, his hands together in a steeple, pressed to his lips.

“I remember a little red wagon,” Rebecca said, and he nodded. “And inside it are a bunch of puppies—little black bundles of fur. Was that here on the farm?” she asked.

Grandpa didn’t answer, merely raised his eyebrows and grinned.

“They’d been born on the farm and I was taking them down to the end of the driveway, there were six of them, and we were going to give them away. You told me I could keep the last one, but only the last one. That must have been Sadie.”

“What’s two times two, Rebecca?”

“Four, silly.”

“What’s four times four?”

“16.”

“12 times 12?”

“144.”

Grandpa paused, looking at her, as Rebecca focused in on him, her eyes shifting, the pupils getting smaller, then larger, then smaller again.

“144 times 144?”

“20,736.”

“Good girl,” he said.

Rebecca stood in the kitchen, watching her father dig the grave, out beyond the apple trees, the shovel piercing the dirt, over and over again. She loved her grandfather, and didn’t mind the private examinations. He said it was important, their little secret, and this is what her father had yelled at her about as he stood over her grandfather’s body—but he was wrong, so very wrong. After the world went silent, after they’d filled the pantry with canned goods and planted a new harvest, made sure the pigs still had their slop, the chickens clucking at their feed—all they had was each other. The well wouldn’t run dry, Grandpa assured them, they had water and food, and solar panels lining the roof, as well as the barn, the windmills spinning, always spinning, at the back of their twenty acres, down by the creek—Grandpa said he saw it coming, it was only a matter of time. He said a lot of things when she was lying on the cold metal table, out in the faded red barn.

In the beginning, she thought it was just part of her education. No school anymore, so Grandpa would toss out math questions, give her writing assignments, talk to her about history, and even human anatomy. It used to be exams at the kitchen table—stethoscope on her bony chest where breasts refused to grow—seemed she’d always been twelve years old. He’d look in her eyes and make noises, humming to himself, muttering okay and yes and just fine as he looked in her nose, checked out her sinuses, made her stick out her tongue.

He didn’t start taking her out to the barn until her incident with the fingers. She came to him as he sat in the recliner, a book in his lap. Father was nowhere to be found. And if Rebecca had probed her memories, she’d find that to be very accurate—at first. She was pale as a sheet, sweat running down her face, the fingers on her right hand bent back and sideways at strange angles—no blood, merely broken bones, bent fingers.

“Grandpa?” she said, “Grandpa, help me, help me…something’s wrong.

He leaped out of his seat, the book falling to the floor, Sadie sitting up, always the same weight, always black, her muzzle never getting gray, barking at the sudden movement and Rebecca’s panicked voice.

“It’s okay, sweetie,” he said, rushing to her, as she stared down at her mangled hand, holding it gingerly but feeling no pain, sick to her stomach, and yet, no blood gushed forth. He put his hands on her shoulders.

“It’s okay, I can fix it, I can splint it,” he said.

She felt his hands on her neck, her shoulders, pressing down, as if searching for something, and then she fainted.

When she woke up her right hand was in a cast.

“It’s okay, honey,” her grandfather said. “It wasn’t nearly as bad as you thought. A few fingers were merely jammed, two fractured, but I set them right. You should be okay. Any pain?” he asked.

Rebecca shook her head. There was no pain, none at all. She sat up on the cold metal table and looked around the barn. Sadie jumped up and placed her front paws on the steel table, licking Rebecca’s bare leg.

And then, her father was around more. Suddenly he was a dominant presence on the farm—always keeping an eye on her, chopping wood, feeding the chickens, no longer the ghost or rumor that he used to be. Used to be, she’d think. She searched her memory for her father—she saw him driving away in a beige sedan, a salesman she thought, the letters popping up in her head like a neon sign. Then she saw him with a briefcase, walking in the front door. She saw him place airline tickets on the kitchen table and pour himself a cup of coffee. Yes, she saw her father well.

After the accident, she would meet Grandpa in the barn on a monthly basis, but only when her father was out cutting the grass or running the thresher. Her grandfather said it was because he had to run tests, diagnostics he called them, make sure everything was working right, and that it was okay for a doctor, for him now, but not in front of her father—he wouldn’t understand. It always made her sleepy, lying on the table. He poked and prodded, mostly by her head, always studying her eyes, what he called optics, when he muttered to himself. He was gentle, always gentle, and by the time his hands were on her shoulders, her head, she’d fallen asleep.

The questions certainly didn’t make Rebecca’s father feel included, the way she and Grandpa would talk in the living room, math and science, complex equations and theorems, always going quiet when her father came into the room. They would laugh, and say that he had plenty of education already, go milk the cows, they’d chuckle, go toss some hay around, and they’d both make muscles, flex them, and her father would scowl, and leave the room. He never had a good sense of humor.

Her father was a quiet man, a big guy, strong and silent, a bit of a worker bee, she used to think to herself. Grandpa would say that he was so grateful her father was around more—now that he was getting old, and she could see it in his eyes, his hair and beard sprouting more white every day, the way his skin wrinkled, and the spots by his wrists. She worried about him. But it gave Rebecca comfort to see her father outside in the yard, splitting timber, lugging buckets of water or slop, bales of hay tossed around as if they were nothing, a downed tree cut and cut and split, only the trunk left, a chain attached, a tractor pulling it, and then his massive arms wrapping around the roots, pulling it out and lifting it up, as if it were made of paper.

All it took was one time, one instance of her walking out of the barn buttoning up her blouse, and her father’s scowl turned into rage. She heard them yelling, Grandpa assuring him it was science, there were no doctors now, he was the only mind they had, that he was just making sure Rebecca was healthy. Her father wasn’t very trusting—almost simple at times. She’d seen him cry over a dead rabbit that had been gutted by a fox, holding the creature in his lap, rocking back and forth, so distraught. It had upset Rebecca—not the dead rabbit, it was just nature after all, but him, he had upset her, his reaction. No emotion, never laughing, never joking, never singing or dancing when Grandpa put on some music, but this—crying over the rabbit. It made no sense to her.

So she stood in the kitchen, and watched her father bury the old man, Sadie licking her hand. She was suddenly tired, her batteries run down, and so she went to her bedroom, and lay down on the floral sheets, staring out the window at the setting sun, orange turning to red, so tired, so sad. Maybe Grandpa had been sick after all, one percent of one percent of one percent.

She closed her eyes and replayed the scene at the kitchen table, her Grandpa holding her hand, trying to explain something to her, what was out in the barn, frozen and kept for a reason. He spoke about her as if she were two entirely separate people—and he spoke of her father the same way. He talked about her mother, and when he said the word mother a jolt went through Rebecca, a wave of confusion crashing in her head—and where there should have been memories, nothing. He said he’d fix everything, in time. But he was getting old, he needed help, the work he’d done wouldn’t last forever—the radio signal must be stronger. He spoke of amplifiers and how they might have to travel, all the while holding her hand, and yet, all she could do was stare at him—mother. It didn’t add up, didn’t compute. Why had she never asked about her mother, why was there nothing to cling to, no memory? Her father had walked in and stood by the door, his face an eternal frown.

The day after her grandfather had talked to her in earnest, trying to explain that they were running out of time, she lay in bed, not wanting to get up, a candle burning on her desk, vanilla and sandalwood drifting to the ceiling. Images of her mother came rushing back to her—hanging laundry on a clothesline outside, her auburn tresses flowing in the wind, her mother with an apron full of eggs, coming from the chicken coop, her mother singing a lullaby as she poured water over Rebecca’s head in the bath, smiling as she did it.

“In time,” her grandfather had said, standing in the doorway. “Give me time. I’ll make it all whole again, I promise.”

But now he was gone. Rebecca felt weak and unable to rise. On the floor by her bed, Sadie slept, hardly moving at all. Rebecca could feel the great shadow of her father in the doorway—standing there, silent.

“Dad?” Rebecca asked, tears in her eyes. “Dad, come here.”

The big man lumbered over, Sadie not even raising her head.

“Tell me about my mother. I can hardly picture her. What happened, where did she go?”

He sighed and placed his hand over hers.

‘I don’t know, honey.”

“What do you mean?” she said.

“I don’t remember.”

Rebecca stared at him, as she felt the energy draining out of her body.

“What do you remember?” she asked.

Her father sat there, arms heavy, his head hanging low, a soft whirring sound filling the air, his frame suddenly growing weak, the room dark and quiet.

“What’s the first thing you remember? Go back as far as you can, what’s your first memory?” Rebecca asked.

Her father stared at the floor, the gears turning, trying to think back, to remember, something from his childhood. He held her hand, no longer warm, cool to the touch.

“I remember a little red wagon,” he said, and she nodded. “And inside it are a bunch of puppies—little black bundles of fur.”

Rebecca closed her eyes, two tears slipping out, as her chest moved up and down, slowly, and then, not at all.

“They’d been born on the farm and I was taking them down to the end of the driveway, there were six of them, and we were going to give them away. Somebody told me I could keep the last one, but only the last one. Who was that?” he asked the room. But there was no response—it remained silent.

He held his daughter’s hand, now cold, the black lab at his feet not stirring, the house around him closing in, the silence deafening.

“What have I done?” he asked.

 

 

BIO

Richard ThomasRichard Thomas is the award-winning author of seven books—Disintegration and The Breaker (Random House Alibi), and Transubstantiate (Otherworld Publications); three short story collections, Staring Into the Abyss (Kraken Press), Herniated Roots (Snubnose Press), and Tribulations (TBA); as well as one novella in The Soul Standard (Dzanc Books). With over 100 stories published, his credits include Cemetery Dance, PANK, storySouth, Gargoyle, Weird Fiction Review, Midwestern Gothic, Arcadia, Qualia Nous, Chiral Mad 2, and Shivers VI (with Stephen King and Peter Straub). He has won contests at ChiZine, One Buck Horror, and Jotspeak and has received five Pushcart Prize nominations to date. He is also the editor of four anthologies: The New Black and Exigencies (Dark House Press), The Lineup (Black Lawrence Press) and the Bram Stoker-nominated Burnt Tongues (Medallion Press) with Chuck Palahniuk. In his spare time he is a columnist at LitReactor and Editor-in-Chief at Dark House Press. His agent is Paula Munier at Talcott Notch. For more information visit www.whatdoesnotkillme.com.

 

 

 

Daniel Mueller author

The Embers

by Daniel Mueller

 

At potlucks you never failed to evoke the flesh and blood of the living Christ. Once all were seated at card tables in the church basement before plates heaped with Beth Ann Constable’s meatloaf, Ruth Goetzman’s chicken casserole, Helen Wolfe’s deviled ham puffs, Margo Humphrey’s German stew, and my then-wife Lorna’s short ribs, seared in batches on the stove and braised in the oven in tomato sauce seasoned with Tabasco, with arms outstretched and palms to the ceiling you asked the Lord to bless our food and reminded us that it was, in sacramental terms, no different from the morsels of bread and thimbles of grape juice distributed during communion. A skeptic at best, I said my “Amen” with the others and tried to ignore any pangs of conscience, but never forgetting that in Dante’s Inferno the lowest circle of Hell was reserved for hypocrites.

Dinners at your home, on the other hand, were served without a word of grace. You and Bev were close in age to Lorna and me, your daughters Holly and Jill close in age to our sons Leo and Vance, and in addition to the canoe trips down the Saint Croix River our families took together each autumn to admire the colors, every six weeks you would join us for supper at our house or we’d join you at yours. Still, as much as our families enjoyed each other’s company, I’d come to dread the moment when, our wives and children having retired to their respective domains, you would say, “May I have a word with you, Bruce?”

“Sure, Myron,” I’d say. Then we’d descend the stairs to one or the other of our partially modeled basements, to one or the other of our paneled offices, mine displaying in a locked mahogany gun rack the Browning 30-30 deer rifle and Remington 12 gauge pheasant gun that had followed me from childhood, though I’d lost all interest in hunting after the boys were born, yours displaying a framed diploma from Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington D. C. and many of the same photographs that decorated the walls of the church’s narthex, of you robed and beaming beside tiers of confirmands, teenagers in dresses or suits and ties with hair that seemed to grow in length and breadth with each successive class. In the lower right corner of each was a placard listing the name of our church, Good Samaritan Methodist, and the year of the confirmation. Three pastors had preceded you since the church’s inception in 1953, but since 1968, the year I completed my residency and first practiced obstetrics and gynecology professionally, you’d been our flock’s shepherd, and I knew no one to speak ill of you.

By turns self-deprecating and welcoming, in thick-lensed glasses that magnified your eyes to twice their natural size, you had the air of a counselor to whom much had been entrusted. I was grateful, as I’m sure you were, that most of our conversations were light. As we waited for Lorna and Bev to call us to dinner, we discussed whether the Vikings, your team, had a better chance of making the playoffs than the Packers, mine, some state and national politics but in strokes broad enough to leave the question of whether we agreed on fundamentals to the imagination, musky fishing, and church business, whether I thought replacing the carpeting in the aisles and nave a worthy investment of church capital, which I did not, or whether more money should be channeled into church youth programs, which I did. The only OB-GYN who was also a regular church member, I was the one you called upon to talk to each confirmation class about sex, not the mechanics of it, which by fifteen and sixteen all should have known, but the joy of it when shared with the right partner at the right time and, of course, the risks. Years before the outbreak of AIDS, I recited the litany of garden variety venereal diseases of which they needed to be aware and outlined the standard methods of birth control, from I.U.D.s to the pill and from condoms, diaphragms, and spermicidal jelly to sterilization by vasectomy or tubal ligation, and—while not the most exciting method known to humankind, I told them, certainly the most effective—abstinence.

If the termination of a pregnancy, also known as an abortion, was in the strict sense a method of birth control, I told them that I’d performed them only under the direst circumstances, when the mother’s life had been endangered by an ectopic pregnancy, for instance, or when diagnostic tests had detected in the fetus a fatal genetic disorder like trisomy 18 or a fatal disease like Tay Sachs, and would not perform them just because the mother, regardless of her age or station, didn’t wish to see her pregnancy through to term. This was a lie, of course. And you, who during each of my talks had sat with the kids in the living room of Yahweh House, a forest green bungalow bequeathed to the church by Delores Peacock upon her death at age 92, knew it. You knew it not because I’d confessed to you the guilt I’d felt at performing them, though I had. You knew it because both abortions—there had been two—I’d performed at your request on the teenaged daughters of prominent church members. In both cases, the parents of the pregnant girl had come to you for counseling, and while I wasn’t privy to your conversations, I’m sure you recited their options to them, including keeping the baby—it would be their grandchild after all—or putting it up for adoption. From our conversations, I gleaned that neither girl’s parents had been in favor of her seeing the pregnancy through to term. When I met with the girls themselves to discuss the procedure, neither, in truth, were they. Everyone involved, parents and patients both, agreed that to spare the girls the stigma and shame associated with their conditions their pregnancies should be terminated at the earliest opportunity, and not at an abortion clinic with Right-to-Lifers lying in wait to harangue and harass them but at a doctor’s office in an upscale OB-GYN clinic befitting their upbringings and class. And because of my reputation as a doctor and church member, you felt that I should be the one to do it.

The problem was, except in the instances cited in each of my sex talks, I had not performed an abortion on any of my own patients who had elected to have one but had referred them instead to the one partner of the eight of us at the clinic, Dr. Heath, who performed D and C’s discretely when he felt the situation required it and took, I think, some pride in the work, believing the Supreme Court ruling in Roe versus Wade toothless without physicians willing to handle the demand. In truth, Myron, my aversion to terminating a healthy pregnancy had nothing to do with the Supreme Court ruling—I believed then as now in a woman’s sovereignty over her own body—but rather in the part of the Declaration of Geneva that reads, “I will maintain the utmost respect for human life.”

All of this I explained to you, the first time in your office, the second time in mine, in the half-light from our desk lamps while we waited for our wives to call us to dinner, and both times you absorbed every word, your closely cropped head bowed toward your lap, your khaki trousers crossed at your knees, the grooves from your cheekbones to your chin carved, one never doubted, by the deep well of your compassion and desire to help those of your flock in need.

“Could you think of this, Bruce,” you said both times after I had finished, “as a form of tithing? Because that’s what it is. A tithe, an offering, a very generous gift.”

And both times that was how I viewed what I then agreed to do.

 

Between the first two abortions you asked me to perform and the third, six years elapsed. The church grew—our kids grew, too—and while I hadn’t washed the taste of the first two abortions from my mouth, I assumed you’d taken what I’d told you to heart and realized that despite my calling I wasn’t cut out for tithes of this magnitude. Another OB-GYN, Sunny Li, and her husband Niles, a radiologist, had moved to Minneapolis from Illinois and joined Good Sam in the meantime, and it occurred to me that perhaps you’d turned to her for assistance. Confirmation classes had more than doubled in size, such that the synod had assigned the church a youth minister to assist with the religious instruction, and the cultural endorsement of sex without consequence, ubiquitous in cinema, television, pop music, and advertising, hadn’t made being a teenager any easier.

Indeed, when Lorna handed me a copy of Hustler Magazine our younger son had squirreled away on the top shelf of his closet beneath a stack of Sports Illustrateds, I was as shocked as she by the explicit nature of the “artwork” inside—vaginas splayed open by fingernails manicured as if by airbrush, cameras positioned no further away from their subjects than I was from mine during pelvic exams, even the urethra, a speck, discernible to the untrained eye. Though I joked, “I had no idea Vance was remotely interested in his old man’s line of work,” and suggested returning the contraband to its hiding place, reluctant as I was to eradicate an outlet that, rechanneled, might lead to graver outcomes, I was saddened by the absence of subtlety, even if by today’s standards the photos might seem as antiquated and quaint as the pornographic cabinet cards my own father kept behind the bar as curiosities he pulled out for the amusement of patrons in the 40’s and 50’s.

Behind my parents’ tavern in Milwaukee, Wisconsin had stood the icehouse, and one of my jobs as a kid had been to chop ice for the wells from blocks nestled in the straw. While filling the wells from buckets one day, I told Lorna as I passed Vance’s magazine back to her, I first encountered the set of silver gelatin prints of female nudes—“naked ladies,” my friends and I called them—perched on divans as they smoked cigarettes at the ends of long holders or inserted hairpins into tresses before Baroque vanities. None of the women were entirely nude—each was draped in a bed sheet or strings of pearls—and yet once seen I couldn’t erase them from my mind, the shadowed loins, the thinly sheathed breasts and nipples, the powdered expressions of knowing nonchalance.

“So that’s why you became an OB-GYN,” Lorna said. “It all makes perfect sense. ”

It was a Saturday afternoon in the summer of 1980. The lawns were mown, front, back, and sides, the edges trimmed, and the boys had taken the Volvo, Leo in the driver’s seat, to Bush Lake to wash the grass stains from their ankles and forearms. I laughed, and Lorna did, too. Then she said, “Oh my God, Bruce, will you look at these?” and displayed a section of the magazine called “Beaver Hunt,” which featured snapshots that women from across the United States and Canada had had taken of themselves and mailed to the publisher, each with her legs parted as if by invisible stirrups, for the $150 that would be hers if her photo was run. Some sat on ratty sofas or chairs. Others rested on filthy shag. One I remember to this day lay sprawled across a child’s inflatable bathing pool, her tropical-colored bikini wadded on the grass beside her feet. At first I thought she was Katie Schnegel, an OR nurse with whom I was having an affair and, in truth, had slept that morning after rounds. Poor as the photo’s quality was, the crazy, gap-toothed, take-no-prisoners smile was Katie’s. So, too, were the brown pigtails. And yet upon closer inspection, a Jack-o-lantern’s grin of keloids at the base of the subject’s mound of Venus, presumably from a poorly incised Cesarean, differentiated her from Katie, who was childless.

Lorna, ever curious, wanted to know at which of the photos I was looking, and I tapped it with my finger. By then she was sitting in the chair beside mine at our kitchen table, squinting at the citations beneath the photos.

“Don’t tell me you recognize B.K. from Vancouver, British Columbia,” she said.

“I thought she was a patient is all,” I said. “But she can’t be, not if she resides in British Columbia, right?”

“You know who she looks like?” Lorna said. “Katie Schnegel, the OR nurse you introduced me to at the hospital.”

A month before, when the Mercedes dealership had been out of loaners, Lorna had picked me up after surgery as I was saying goodbye to Katie.

“Honestly, the resemblance would never have occurred to me, honey,” I said.

“Are you kidding?” Lorna said, “It looks just like her,” and I agreed, not about to point out the telltale scar that followed B.K.’s swimsuit line or, having by then scrutinized the image more closely, the mole on her vulva and larger-than-average clitoral hood.

Instead I closed the magazine and said, “Escarpment,” an innocent enough word that not long before had fallen outside either of our children’s vocabularies and, because Lorna and I had both liked the sound of it, was code for: Let’s make love at the first available opportunity. When our kids were younger, they, too, had delighted in the word and neither of us had felt the least compunction to give it context, both of us blurting it apropos of nothing. But as Vance and Leo matured, we had to become more sophisticated in our usage, reminiscing about the escarpments we had seen on vacations—the Mogollan Rim in Arizona, for instance, or Devil’s Slide in California—or would, we imagined, on vacations to come—the Serra da Mantiqueira in Brazil, Baltic Klint in Sweden, or Côte d’Or in France.

“Can’t you be any more original than that?” Lorna said.

“Under pressure, sure,” I said, and we retired to our bedroom, but not before returning Vance’s magazine to his bedroom closet.

In contrast to our working class parents, we saw ourselves as enlightened, and after all the talks about sex we’d had with our sons, their private lives were their business, we agreed, not ours.

 

The third abortion I performed at your request was on Teri, the 15-year-old daughter and only child of Glen and Myrna, who belonged to our bridge group. All four couples were members of the church, and while before and after services the wives planned each month’s bridge party, once we squared off in the four cardinal directions with our decks of playing cards and bowls of chocolate espresso beans, conversation ended, so well matched and competitive were we. Though friendly with both Glen and Myrna, I knew little about them other than that he was a tax attorney with a high-powered law firm downtown and she, unlike the other wives, worked, in her case as a French literature professor at a small liberal arts college in Saint Paul. Neither parent accompanied Teri to her consultation, which I thought strange since without a consent form signed by one of them I could not legally perform the procedure.

When I repeated this to Teri, who sat in my office in a chair across the desk from me as a clinician observed our proceedings from a second chair beside the coat tree, Teri replied, “No worries there. They’re Vulcans.”

“From Star Trek, the television series?” I asked.

“No,” she replied, “from Vulcan, the planet.”

“I see,” I said.

It was August, and I wondered if she’d attended the sex talk I’d given to the confirmation class in February. I had no recollection of seeing her there or, for that matter, ever seeing her before, not even at Glen and Myrna’s the half dozen times our bridge group had convened there. She was a pudgy thing, not from her pregnancy, for she was barely six weeks into her first trimester, but from baby fat that had retained a vestigial hold on her cheeks, arms, and thighs, all flushed from the eleven miles she’d pedaled across town on a girl’s five-speed Huffy she’d left in the waiting room propped against a ficus. A Ziggy t-shirt enveloped her like a sack, and stenciled onto the violet fabric was the fleshy, affable, long-suffering comic strip character holding up a picket sign that read, “Ziggys of the World Unite!”

“So wouldn’t that make you a Vulcan, too?” I asked.

“Technically, yes,” she replied, “though unlike Mother and Father I was born on a spaceship, and Earth is the only planet I’ve ever known. They, on the other hand, remember our home planet vividly.”

“Have they shown you photos of it?” I asked.

“Not photos in the conventional sense,” she replied. “Vulcans outgrew what humans know as photography, having developed the capacity to share memories with one another telepathically, through a phenomenon known as a mind meld.”

“And you’ve melded minds with them?” I asked.

“Oh yes,” she said, “we do it all the time. It’s how I know that Vulcan is a desert planet, far lovelier than Earth, and why we can go without water for much longer than the average human, who hasn’t had to adapt to such austere living conditions.”

“You do know you’re pregnant?” I said.

“So I’m told,” she replied.

“And why you’re here?”

“I’m here,” she said, “as a preliminary step to aborting said pregnancy.”

“That’s right,” I said.

Behind her sat the clinician, high-lit Afro wagging. I didn’t like being there any more than she did, but as a physician I believed it important for patients to understand each step of a procedure they had elected, and as I described to Teri the technique known as vacuum aspiration, I wasn’t sure Terri did. She had, after all, claimed to have been birthed onboard a Vulcan spaceship, and during my brief presentation had not so much as blinked, much less registered through facial cues that she grasped what would be done to her. Her expression was blank, and I felt less in the presence of a teenager who had gotten herself into a bind from which her parents, pastor, and I hoped to free her than in that of a traumatized psyche so deeply buried as to be unknowable without force.

“Not every patient who opts to abort a pregnancy,” I said, “can predict how she’ll feel about it later,” and recommended three psychiatrists who specialized in treating post-partum depression in patients who had lost unborn babies.

I wrote their names and telephone numbers on a prescription pad, and as I pulled the sheet from it, Teri said, “Don’t worry about me.”

“Oh yes,” I said. “I forgot. You’re Vulcan. Like Spock on Star Trek, you don’t have emotions.”

She laughed, and even it sounded mimicked, like a myna bird’s imperfect replication of human speech. “That’s a common misconception.”

“What is?” I asked.

“That Vulcans have no emotions. We have emotions. We’re simply not slaves to them, having developed highly refined methods of controlling them.” She smiled at me as if with great compassion. “I understand that this is hard for you, Dr. Holcomb.”

“I don’t perform abortions,” I said, “except—”

“I know,” she said.

“How?”

“The confirmation class, remember?”

Unlike the two teenagers on whom I’d performed abortions in the past, girls whose bodies had matured early and who, from the vantage point of having gotten pregnant, spoke with authority about the pressures they’d experienced, the temptations to which they’d succumbed, and the gravity of the decisions they were making, Teri might as well have been discussing a tonsillectomy.

If I was able to hide my agitation, the clinician was not hers. “What I’d like to know,” she said, “is whether that baby you’re carrying is Vulcan or not.”

Teri turned to her. “Of course, it’s Vulcan. I’m Vulcan. I was born into a Vulcan household.”

“But how many Vulcans do you know, honey,” the clinician asked her, “outside of your immediate family?”

“None,” Teri replied.

“So it isn’t even half human?”

“Not even half.”

I brought the consultation to an end by reminding Teri that the State of Minnesota required a parent’s signature. Teri assured me that her father would fax the consent form to the clinic from his office and, low and behold, it was waiting for me in my mailbox, signed by the relevant party, when I returned from walking Teri back to the waiting room.

That afternoon I fired the clinician for insubordination. She hadn’t worked for us long, six weeks tops, and I no longer remember her name if, indeed, I ever knew it.

“Do what you have to,” she replied as she collected her things from the lab, “but that poor child was raped. By someone she knows all too well.”

“We don’t know that she was raped,” I replied, though I knew it the same as she.

What was more, Teri knew that we knew it, for both the clinician and I had seen the flutter of panic as it came to her, what she’d admitted.

 

A few weeks later I came home from work to find my family seated at the kitchen table staring at a wrinkled flyer. September had arrived and the boys were back in school, Leo in 12th grade, Vance in 10th, and while I’d enjoyed horsing around with them all summer, Lorna had confided to me that she was ready to have the house to herself again. Leo captained the cross-country team, Vance played tight end on the Junior Varsity football squad, and from 7:30 in the morning when I dropped the boys off at school until 5:30 in the evening when the friends of theirs who owned cars brought them home, Lorna’s weekdays were her own. Never one to complain, she was less high-strung once autumn came, and over the years I’d come to associate the reds and yellows of the elms, oaks, and maples, through which sunlight filtered in resplendent hues, with domestic tranquility if not bliss. Not only that, Leo had been accepted into the U.S Naval Academy in Annapolis as a midshipman, having—on his own recognizance —solicited a letter of nomination from then-U.S. Congressman Al Quie in the months before Quie was elected governor, and with the money I’d set aside for his college education I’d put a down payment on an A-frame cottage outside Hayward, Wisconsin, the self-proclaimed musky-fishing capital of the world.

The lakefront property, bordered on the north by the Chequamegon National Forest, included a dock and the previous owner’s Crestliner fishing boat, rigged with a 90-horse outboard and in-dash sonar fish-finder, and at night as I fell asleep I imagined the lunkers that would surface for my plugs, spoons, and crank-baits. The previous Sunday Lorna had cancelled our upcoming canoe trip down the Saint Croix River with your family in order to spend the weekend “beautifying” our new lake place, an effort to which I hoped to add a trophy that, from snout to tail, would span the length of the fireplace mantel. What made me giddier still was the distance it would put between you and me, for the get-away would mean missing a Sunday worship service for once.

Though the abortion had gone well enough, with Glen having taken off time from work to accompany his daughter to and from the clinic, afterward I felt as if I’d not only ended a human life but destroyed criminal evidence. Without DNA samples from Glen and the fetus, for which one would need a court order, there was no way to establish paternity, and from this alone I derived solace. For his part, Glen, distracted and fidgety, provided none, and I wondered what Teri had told him about her consultation. If he was guilty and knew that I knew it, I predicted he and Myrna would leave our congregation and bridge group, and though I didn’t know it on the evening that Lorna, Leo, and Vance sat me down at the kitchen table to show me the notice Vance had removed from a telephone pole three doors down from our house, they already had.

The flyer had been crudely made, the lettering cut from newspaper headlines and pasted onto a page that had then been photocopied.

dR. BrUCe HoLcoMb, m.D.
YOUr NeiGhBorhOod AboRtioNISt
StOP iN foR yOUR freE ConFIDeNtIal cOnSultATioN
NO jOB toO sMAll oR ToO bIg!!!

At the bottom of the flyer were the addresses of my home and office as well as the telephone numbers where I could be reached. In the middle was an illustration, taken from an anatomy textbook, showing a baby, its eyes closed in slumber, nestled in the womb.

“Dear Lord,” I said.

“They’re up all over town, Dad,” Vance said. “So far Leo and I have ripped down more than fifty.”

“The first one I saw was five miles from here,” Leo added, “on a run. We need to report this to the police.”

“We will. We will,” I said, enveloped by something resembling shock. I say ‘resembling’ because I was as calm and cognizant of what was happening around me as I was in surgery, when all eyes but the patient’s were trained upon my gloved hands as they cauterized, excised, and sutured within a narrow opening. Yet I was also removed, as if observing myself from a distance, the way I, too, in surgery watched my hands, as if they, and not I, were responsible for the operation’s success or failure.

“It’s slander,” Vance exclaimed. “You don’t perform abortions.”

“You’re right, I don’t,” I said. “Not usually.” It was gratifying that Vance, too, had been attentive during my sex talk.

“What do you mean, ‘not usually’?” he asked.

“I’ve performed three,” I said, “in twelve years of practicing medicine.”

I said it not to redeem myself, for in truth I felt about what I’d done as he seemed to, his cheeks as flushed with outrage as they were when refs overlooked an opposing team’s penalties, but rather to hear what God would hear if He in his infinite compassion existed, which I doubted.

“You shouldn’t have performed even one,” Vance said. “That’s what you said.”

“That is what I said.”

“Then you lied to us,” he replied. “Why did you lie?”

I had no answer for him. In time, Leo said, “Give Dad a break, Vance. I’m sure he had his reasons.”

“Go fuck yourself, Leo,” Vance said.

“Hey!” I scolded him. “That’s no way to talk to your brother.”

“No, Vance, you go fuck yourself,” Leo said and slugged him in the arm.

When the boys were younger I would wash their mouths out for using less vulgar verbiage, but they were too old for that now, and I felt as if I, at the root of their disagreement, were powerless to rectify it. Lorna’s head was bowed. I did not discuss medicine with her and assumed she was as disturbed as Vance was by my confession. Raised in the Methodist tradition, she had never not gone to church and, before we were married, insisted our children be raised Methodist too. Upon first settling in Edina, she found Good Sam in the phone book, and from then on I mouthed the prayers and hymns, took communion, and wrote checks to the church that, I assumed, were as large as any in the offering plates. If the community’s affluence was reflected in the deep pockets of the congregation, many of my patients were church members, and in my more cynical moments I thought of the amount I gave to the church as my advertising budget.

Lorna looked up and said, “Let’s go to The Embers,” a dimly lit Twin Cities franchise that offered booth seating in a burnt umber décor and a crosshatched New York strip, baked potato, and wedge salad for under seven dollars, and there was one not five minutes away, just off the freeway next to a Howard Johnson’s. Lorna hadn’t started dinner, so we four piled into the Volvo as we did on other family outings, and in this soon-to-be defunct local institution had our last supper. Lorna ate mutely, and in time, I feared, I’d hear what she thought about what I’d done, but upon our return, after we’d played back all the answering machine messages from anonymous callers informing us that I was going to Hell, after the boys had retired to their bedrooms to finish their homework amidst all the phone ringing, Lorna and I lay in bed wondering if the ringing would ever stop, for by then the answering machine had reached its storage capacity and we’d resolved not to answer the phone again. Between rings, Lorna turned to me and told me that she knew Katie Schnegel and I were having an affair, that she’d observed me kissing Katie on the lips outside her apartment that afternoon and swanted a divorce.

“Why, Bruce?” she said. “Why?”

I could’ve fought to save our marriage. I could’ve told Lorna that Katie and I had broken up earlier that day, which we had, that the kiss we’d exchanged had been that of lovers acknowledging irreconcilable differences, which it had, and that the affair had been a one-time deal, which it hadn’t, but I didn’t.

The phone rang again, and I said, “Because when I’m in bed with her I feel like God.”

“Then I guess ‘God’ doesn’t live here anymore,” she replied.

 

I retired from medicine a year later, my heart no longer in it. Since then, I’ve lived a more or less ascetic life on Ghost Lake in the A-frame I bought in the weeks before Lorna and I divorced, and from April through October I fish for muskies. There are big ones in the lake, some thirty yards beyond the railing of my redwood deck and framed by balsam, birch, spruce, and hemlock that form a natural arbor through which, with binoculars, I can see who’s fishing the south slough. I’ve hauled in plenty over the years, though none as large as the one I’ve observed on still evenings lurking a few feet beneath my plug as I’ve jerked it across the surface to affect the appearance of prey. All the muskies I’ve caught up here I’ve returned to the water—the meat is palatable but packed with tiny, translucent bones and, once lodged in the throat, are difficult to extract—and I worry that the trophy fish I can see off the side of the boat, a six-foot-long, missile-shaped shadow I would mount above my fireplace if I could, remembers my landing it before, that something about my particular style of spin-casting reminds it of traumas past.

Lorna thinks I have too much time on my hands. At least that’s what she tells me when we talk on the phone every month or so. She may be right. Always we have a lot to talk about, our sons, whose accomplishments never cease to amaze us, and our mutual friends, most of whom we met through Good Sam. Though we rarely speak of our shared past, it’s never more immediate than after one of her phone calls. Then the man I am at seventy-five must reconcile himself to the man he was at forty-four, when our marriage ended and I left the church and OB-GYN clinic for good. Probably I wasn’t meant for matrimony. But until one has tried it, how does one know? I tried it, loved it, and would’ve continued loving it if only I could’ve slept with any and all OR nurses who wished to sleep with me, be they fat, thin, wide-hipped, slender-hipped, white, black, brown, or tangerine, my only stipulation being a sense of humor to compensate for my lack of one. Before Katie Schnegel there had been many, each funny in her way, and after her none.

What happens in a surgical theater stays there, and yet, for me, no sex was ever as scintillating or as satisfying as that with the nurse who had been in it with me, who’d handed me the very instrument the moment required, the particular scalpel, clamp, forceps, tenaculum, or retractor without my even having to name it, as if for the duration of the vaginal hysterectomy or the removal of the ovarian cyst she and I had read each other’s minds. That’s how it had been with Katie and me until she blurted out at the end of a successful, if taxing, myomectomy, as I was sewing the patient up after removing more than a dozen fibroids, “I want to have your baby, Bruce.” The anesthesiologist, a burley, bearded, bear of a man, laughed through his mask, as did I as I thanked her, for her tone had been that of one delivering a punchy compliment, glibly admiring of the feat I had performed. I didn’t think about it again until later that day when, lying spent beside me, she said, “I wasn’t kidding earlier.”

“About what?”

“Your baby.” She turned onto her side on the bed so that her pigtails stuck out at angles like those of an Arrow-Thru-The-Head, a popular novelty at the time. “I’m going to have it, Bruce.”

I asked Katie if she was pregnant, and she told me, “A month.” She’d stopped taking the pill three months before, and for the three days she’d known the test results, she’d been too frightened to tell me.

“I’m not asking you to marry me. I’ll raise the child myself. You won’t be responsible to it in any way, Bruce. I just really, really want a baby. Your baby. And, I guess, your blessing.”

Katie had gone rogue, and yet I felt oddly at peace, just as I did in the church sanctuary surrounded by stained glass and before me on the altar the cross rising into the airy heights of the chancel as if from a garden in full bloom. Before making love, I’d told her about the abortion I’d performed earlier in the week.

“The girl, fifteen,” I said, “had likely been raped by her father, a man I play bridge with, and frankly, I don’t know which to feel worse about, the taking of a human life or the destruction of criminal evidence.”

“Perhaps this is something you should take up with your pastor,” she replied.

“He was the one who convinced me to do it.”

“Maybe you should convert to Lutheranism,” she suggested.

“But Reverend Noonan is a good man,” I said. “He was only protecting his flock, doing what he thought best.”

Now, after lovemaking, Katie sat up in bed and said, “Perhaps you could think of this as returning stolen goods, a life we’re bringing into the world to replace the one you took.”

I wasn’t about to tell her about the other two abortions I’d performed for fear she’d want three kids from me instead of just the one. “Have you spoken to your doctor about options?” I asked.

“What options?” she replied.

“You know,” I said. Though I didn’t perform abortions, many doctors did, a D and C as effective and safe for early miscarriages as early unwanted pregnancies.

“You’re kidding, right?” she said. “You have got to be fucking out of your mind.”

“I have to go,” I said.

“You can’t leave,” she said.

As usual our clothes were scattered across her bedroom floor. I pulled a dress sock over my calf. “If you go through with this,” I said, “our relationship is over.”

“It’s already over. You’re married. I know. How convenient for you.”

By the time I was back in my suit, she was waiting for me by the door in an open robe, clothed from sternum to knees except for a strip down the middle of her the width of her neck. She followed me outside onto the walkway that looked onto the parking lot and street.

“You can’t be out here like that,” I said. “What if someone sees you?”

“I’m letting you off the hook. The least you can do is kiss me one last time,” she said, and as I did, I closed her robe and cinched it tight.

 

September is the best month up here, ask anyone. Muskies, fattening up for dormancy, are less discerning than at other times of the season and when striking a surface lure explode from the lake fanning their tails. Their returns to the water are just as spectacular, cannonball splashes that resound to the mottled shorelines. The air lumbers, encumbered by the smoke of burning leaves, except when the Packers are playing, and everyone holes up in front of their TVs. When Rogers connects with Nelson in the end zone or Lacy runs the ball up the middle for a touchdown, the chambers of shotguns and rifles empty into the sky, my own among them, and the reports echo across the lake.

Though you and I went our separate ways long ago, Myron, Lorna and Bev are still in touch, and it’s through Lorna that I know anything about you and of what your life consists, that you retired from the ministry more than a dozen years ago and moved with Bev to a condo in Saint Augustine, Florida. Good for you! Every July when you and she return to the Twin Cities for a week of catching up with old friends, Bev shows Lorna a stack of photos of you and her posing with your daughters, sons-in-law, and four grandchildren before landmarks in the oldest continuously occupied European-established settlement in the continental U.S.—the tourist district and its Spanish colonial boutiques and bistros, the beaches, harbor, fort, and lighthouse—and asks her to guess which one you’ve chosen for your Christmas card. Lorna always guesses wrong, basing her selection on the artistry of the composition—the scenery, light, and contrast of colors—rather than on the number of grandkids smiling, Bev’s sole criterion.

Every year, Lorna tells me, you and Bev try to persuade her and Lincoln to buy a little place down there, a condo like yours with an ocean view or, at least, a view of a cypress-lined fairway, the idea being that if only she lived in a popular tourist destination, our boys, their wives, the six kids they have between them, and I, who unlike Lorna did not remarry, would want to gather for reunions once or twice a year like your family does. But what neither you nor Bev can seem to grasp is that no one in my family, except perhaps the son or daughter I’ve never met, enjoys spending time together as a family, despite how we appeared prior to my termination of Teri’s pregnancy, and the onslaught of Right-to-Lifers it brought to the doorstep of my residence and workplace, forcing me out of the house and into an apartment more quickly than either Lorna or I anticipated, even after we’d shared with Leo and Vance our decision to separate.

Imagine waking before dawn to a man or woman—it doesn’t matter which—telling you through a megaphone that God loathes the sight of you, that to Him you are an abomination, that a seat between John Wayne Gacy and Josef Mengele has been reserved for you at Satan’s table. The sky lightens on a peaceful assembly of between five and twenty planted at the end of your driveway, at your property line, waving signs calling you Doctor Death and poster-sized laser prints of fetuses. More protestors await you at work, among them a minister in a clerical collar quoting scripture from a soapbox. As you pull open the door of plate glass, he points a finger at you, bellows, “Your hands are full of blood!” You wonder why you should be targeted rather than your partner, Dr. Heath, who has quietly terminated dozens of healthy pregnancies at the same clinic where you have terminated exactly three. But you know why. Though you can’t prove Teri is behind the flyers that reappear as quickly as they’re torn down, you know she is the culprit, that she is making you pay not for the human life you took but for the secret you made her spill.

If I tried to set up an appointment with you to discuss my situation—and I did, to no avail—I no longer hold you responsible for the ruination of my career and family. Lately I learned from Lorna of your imminent decline, your memory lapses, which, Bev tells her, are growing longer and more frequent, and of Bev’s worries about having to commit you to an assisted living facility, which she believes will kill you. Probably the time to ask for an apology has passed—you’re eighty, your life’s work complete—but if I did, would you say, “I’m sorry, Bruce,” or would you ask me why I chose to perform the abortions? Why, in particular, I performed the third one when I knew from performing the first two that it would violate my moral code?

“Because, Myron,” I would tell you, “I placed your moral code above my own, believing a Methodist pastor closer to God.”

“But you told me yourself,” I can hear you saying, “that you don’t believe in God, Bruce.”

And you’re right, Myron, I don’t, which leaves me again with the unsettling feeling that I performed all three because I liked you, because I valued your friendship and didn’t want to lose it, and in particular didn’t want you running to Sunny Li, the new OB-GYN in town, a church member, and a woman to boot, to ask her to do what I couldn’t.

But what am I to make of your utter dismissal of me at the time I needed you most? Despite the old chestnut about doctors having god complexes, I am no god and cannot bring myself to forget. You will have the luxury of forgetting soon enough, a silver lining in your situation. Or perhaps you don’t dwell on such matters. Why would you? For all our perceived closeness, I didn’t know you beyond what I projected onto you, a dynamic most doctors know all too well.

Of course, all of this happened long ago, those marvelous dinners our families shared, when our kids jumped on our trampoline until they tired, then lay on it staring at clouds or, if we were visiting you, played croquet until sundown when off they’d dash with Mason jars in search of fireflies that illuminated the ancient willow beside the creek that edged your lot. Across town from each other, you in old Edina, we in new, our homes were close enough to outdoor skating rinks that our kids could walk to them from November to March and return for supper so exhausted and ravenous that after coffee, when it was time for our families to part, we’d find all four passed out in front of the TV, not even “The Wonderful World of Disney” able to keep them awake.

 

 

BIO

Daniel MuellerDaniel Mueller is the author of two collections of short stories, How Animals Mate (Overlook Press 1999), which won the Sewanee Fiction Prize, and Nights I Dreamed of Hubert Humphrey (Outpost 19 Books 2013). His work has appeared in numerous magazines and journals, including The Iowa Review, The Missouri Review, Story Quarterly, The Cincinnati Review, Prairie Schooner, CutBank, Joyland, Surreal South, Another Chicago Magazine, The Mississippi Review, Story, The Crescent Review, and Playboy. He is the recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, Massachusetts Cultural Council, Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Henfield Foundation, University of Virginia, and Iowa Writers’ Workshop. He directs the creative writing program at University of New Mexico and serves on the creative writing faculty of the Low-Residency MFA Program at Queens University of Charlotte.

 

 

 

Virginia Luck Writer

The Bag

by Virginia Luck

 

Hours pass, we have been walking all night, this glazing winter night when the sky is so thick with snow we cannot break through but move along as if afloat, cold and wet and drifting.  The wind is from the north.

Except for a flash of eyes from the hollow of a tree we are the only ones.  There is the black earth that shines through the snow like ash, dead weeds spiking up, long winds rolling down from our eyes and out in front for miles, and we are on the road resting, no, we are walking, always moving, when it is this cold, this dark, light headed from no food or sleep, listening to the wind spinning snow in the dark, stirring snow like blades on a motor stirs water, the air so heavy about to fall, the way darkness falls with a kind of silence that is not a silence but a restraint, and then we are falling, scrambling on our hands and knees through the snow, looking around at everything that is the same thing or nothing at all because of the darkness spinning around so that it is impossible to know directions, but somehow we get up, we go on, forever it seems, your hand clenched tightly around the bag, held up close to your chest, beneath your jacket, all night, your hand around the bag, holding it carefully as if it is the hand of a scared child or a delicate flower withering away and it is, I think, something so delicate, breakable like glass that glitters under your arm, in your jacket, pressed up to your chest, so delicate, we must handle it carefully, you say, again and again, as you hold the bag out for me to take.

I touch the curve of your wrist as I take the bag and feel the heat from your hand on the skin of the bag, the distance of my shoulder from your shoulder and then too the space from my thigh and yours and also the weight of the bag, and suddenly I am filled with excitement hoping you will touch my hand.  I cannot think of anything other than this:  how we might place our hands together, at once, into the bag and take the contents, half in your hand and half in mine, out of the bag, hold them to our chests.  I am thinking how they will feel against our chests, if they are soft or if they will be rough and crisp.  I like to think they will be something like a gentle newness or a soft haze that is easy to move into and difficult to remove.

Even you say you feel the things in the bag like a voice inside your flesh, every nerve beginning to tingle outward from the center, and I feel them too: vibrating through the skin of the bag, humming as if charged by some electrical current, something like pain, no like fervor stinging the tips of my fingers, this tension that shoots up and down my arms all these forgotten feelings of us.  I squint outward hoping to see more of the things, like the things in the bag, flashing up from the snow like daybreak, wedged between two stones in the dirt, or obscured within the soft fleshy part of a stump peering out at us like two yellow eyes.

But mostly, because of the dark, I see only a vague shape of your body (there is no shadow) trudging along like an animal that is used to the night, so damn dark at times I think I’m going blind, not dawn, not dusk, not starlight, but total dark country, a blackness that spreads through to the middle like a kind of desire, a sense of excitement and danger in the night, pulling on our hearts and hands, whistling through the bones of our fingers like a forgotten affection: the silence that floats up from between two people.

“Listen,” I say, “our footsteps go fading into the dark.”

 

I close my eyes and for minutes I am walking with my eyes closed, listening to our walking, the ice crackling beneath us like the dry skin on our lips, and yes, the skin snaps and bleeds and I can taste the blood when I lick my lips and I can hear the land like the white of your eyes glancing back and the sound of your boots crunching the snow as if you are speaking to me, and you are speaking if ever so softly with your slow and careful steps saying: “It is delicate, you must handle it carefully,” the bag up close to my chest, against my skin, all the separate parts slipping around within the contours of the bag.  I stumble into the snow and then away from it and into nothing.  I open my eyes.  The moon appears like the blade of a knife across our faces and I see the fog floating at your waist and up the sleeves of your jacket; the snow stirring restlessly in the air and then lying down on branches, bending slowly to the weight like someone knelling.

My arms ache from the weight of the bag that seems to expand and increase in size with every step and I know, soon, I will not be strong enough, but it is the idea of opening the bag, your sweet familiar hands over my hands as we caress the things in the bag, that keeps me going and believing in my heart that you are right, that just a little longer, just outside our line of vision, and at any moment, the thing we are looking for will appear like a door to a room, the warm air rushing out all over our faces.  The sky will be blue, the snow less, and the thing we need will be lying in the sun.  I can see how perfect it is going to be.  You see it too, and it is real and we are almost there. This type of discovery happens very fast and can be anywhere, so we have to keep alert and always ready.

I want to ask you about the things in the bag, if when we have everything together will we see a spark like a woman’s laugh or a kiss that lights up your eyes, the green and blue I remember?  Will they move in our hands, will they shudder like the light in the wind, or our shadows along the cold rock colors of morning?  Or will they be still and silent and begin to look very old, covered in nakedness?  I grip the bag tighter in my hand and the contents seem to align with the curve of my palm and it is hard to tell if they are moving of if I’m moving them.

I also want to ask you about directions and time, which way and how long, if it is toward the west that we are walking where I see faintly, and only at times, the moon washed trees standing like a wall on the horizon, or if the trees are just my imagination because it’s hard to be sure of anything in the dark, hard to tell distances when looking out through the weather into the darkness, as it is also hard to look back and recall the path we took to get here, now that we are no longer there, and it is covered over in new snow as if we never walked along it at all.

But I do not ask anything since we are not used to talking, at least not in that way, and I know it’s overwhelming to wonder too much, especially when we are tired and hungry and we are constantly confronted with the night like deep water, that is, in and of itself, a type of question that asks over and over again at what point will things become clear?

And that’s when you say you see it shining up from the bottom of a ravine off the side of the road.  You jump and throw your hands up the air and yell:  “Its here it’s here!” I hurry to you and then I am at your side and I am looking over the ravine and I say:  “I can’t see it, where is it?”  You grab me by the shoulders and you point with your hand and with your body toward something that I still cannot see but the snow is pulling away from our feet and there are black rocks shaking on the edge like stars and the long night so cold on our backs I can feel it in my teeth and maybe it is there, maybe I just can’t see.

You go first and I follow, slipping on our hands and feet, gripping the black rocks jutting up through the snow that crumbles like old dry bread soundless against our thighs, collecting in the cuff of our pants, entangled within the fur lined boots, stumbling and falling backwards, always holding the things in the bag, delicate, breakable, held up close to my chest, under my jacket, in the palm of my hand.  My other hand reaching out for anything: black rocks, more black, more jagged, the earth that shreds beneath us burned black by the wind, teetering, panting, sweat down the side of my face and along the bone of my ear and then, in a moment that stops and is still, there is nothing to hold but the bag squeezed in my palm and we are falling, falling away – just the clouds of our hot breath scraping up the black rocks.

We land on our backs on the ground, in a hole where dead leaves and debris collect, and I’m watching your lips mouthing words that I cannot understand and I am watching your hands reaching out, turning over stone after stone after stone and there is nothing, nothing but dirt and rock and old dried out mud crusted like a scab over the ground, nothing but these stones crammed one above the other, nothing but my arms opening up like a wide mouth jar reaching out to you, my face into your stiff chest, your cold skin, this single drop of water on the back of my hand that slips between my knuckles and disappears into your hand beneath mine and then along the skin of the bag.

The sun appears above us with its shapes and lines across the low rolling sky collecting light like a patch. The snow seems to pause mid-fall and sway slowly back and forth, and somehow we are out of love, and somehow we’ve grown old, and somehow we’ve lost all the days before and all the days and years and decades before that, and we are looking around like strangers in the light and we can’t find anything, we can’t, no matter how hard we try and no matter how long we search and want things to be different there is no different, no shelter, no love, just a road that never ends and this desire pulling us along like a twig in the wind.

And so we do the only thing that is left to do.  We reach together with our hands and we feel with our fingers the things in the bag, and there are two, smooth as an eyelid and soft as a mouth, and we pull them out, pure and true, deep red almost black:  two hearts entangled with each other, barely beating, pressed to us like a sheet of paper plastered to our chests, and my body feels too as if it has no thickness, as if there is only my face and my eyelids that blink, the white of my eyes that are watery and heavy, roving back and forth, and everything is suddenly still, so still it seems an anguish of its own that nothing can touch, in which there is only our hearts and this stillness growing heavier and heavier, collecting momentum down our arms, this mounting anxiety asking:  Is this it?  Is this the end?

 

 

 

BIO

Virginia LuckVirginia Luck’s work can be seen in Typehouse Literary Magazine, Pif Magazine, Burnside writers and elsewhere; forthcoming in Juked Magazine.  She is an editor for the online publication Rawboned and lives in Seattle.

 

 

 

TELL ME ABOUT YOURSELF

by Dawn-Michelle Baude

 

The following reader survey should be carefully completed with a #2 pencil.

 

Are you a happy person? ___ Curious? ___ Interested in the lives of others? ___ Nosy (you never know what you’re going to find out)? ___ Bored (you knew it all, anyway)? ___ Have you ever wished someone would die? ___ Live again? ___ Do you have an estranged, indifferent, or intimate relationship with nature? ___ How often do you consciously observe the sky? Several times per day ___ Several times per week ___ I never look up ___ Please rate the validity of this statement: “The planets influence our behavior”: Very Valid ___ Middle-of-the-road Valid ___ Somewhat Valid ___ I follow Karl Popper ___ What is your favorite body part? ___ Least favorite body part? ___ Have you ever considered plastic surgery? ___ Reason? ___ Date of last procedure: ___ Do you talk to yourself? ___ In front of others? ___ Favorite public setting ___ Have you ever seen a UFO? ___ Number of orifices probed: ___ Have you ever had an OBE (Out of Body Experience)? ___ An NDE (Near-Death Experience)? ___ Length of the corridor of light: 5 feet? ___ 720 feet? ___ The distance between LA and Las Vegas? ___ What method of STD protection do you use: Medical? ___ Magical? ___ When you were little, what did you want to be when you grew up? ___ Did you do it? ___ Is there still time? ___ Can you touch your toes without bending your knees? ___ Does it hurt? ___ Have you ever dialed a phone number randomly? ___ Who answered? Guru ___ Weird Person ___ Friend ___ How important is truth in your life? Very important ___ Somewhat important ___ Not applicable ___ Do you listen to other’s people’s advice? ___ Do you often give advice? ___ Is your advice taken? ___ When is the last time you pulled the bed away from the wall and vacuumed? (Month/Day/Year) ___ If you need to find an important document, is it readily obtained? ___ How do you prefer your technology? Wearable ___ Pocketable ___ Disguised ___ Implanted ___ When you buy something, is sustainability important? ___ Price? ___ Reliability? ___ Convenience? ___ Brand? ___ Looks? ___ Hormones? ___ Do you judge people by their appearance? Within 3 minutes ___ Less than minute ___ Before I see them ___ Do you consider yourself stylish? ___ Marginal? ___ If called upon to voice your opinion in front of others, would you clear your throat? ___ Pause before speaking? ___ Blurt right out? ___ Who do you most want to overhear talking? ___ Do you have enemies? ___ Recent? ___ Old? ___ Ancient? ___ Antediluvian? ___ Do you play Ping-Pong? ___ Badminton? ___ Sniper Team? ___ Have you ever bought a product because you saw it advertised on TV? ___ Were you disappointed? ___ On a scale of 1 to 10, rate the accuracy of your news feed, with 1 as accurate and 10 as biased: ___ What news section do you read first? International ___ Pornographic ___ If you had to go one direction and one direction only, would you choose north, south, east, or west? ___ What is your favorite word? ___ Least favorite word? ___ List your favorite books and authors: ___ Not applicable ___ Do you have, or have you ever had, a lover with an interest in Feng Shui? ___ What was the first thing you smelled when you got up this morning? ___ Finish this statement: The world is getting: Way worse ___ Much better ___ It depends on my meds ___ Do you pick your nose in your car? ___ Are you virgo intacta? ___ Have you always been? ___ How often do you evaluate your appearance in a mirror: Several times per day ___ Several times per hour ___ What specifically are you looking for? ___ Have you ever lost consciousness in public? ___ What is the last thing you remember before you went blank? ___ Have you ever been Rolfed? ___ Cupped? ___ Visited a psychic? ___ Thickness of ectoplasm: < 1 inch ___ < 2 inches ___ Gooey ___ If you could be anyone other than yourself, who would it be? ___ The whole person, or just particular parts? ___ On which side of your scalp do you part your hair? ___ My hair does not have a sidedness preference ___ Are you easily flattered? ___ Average number of compliments received: ___ /day. Please rate your understanding of events outside your personal sphere: Excellent ___ Good ___ Fair ___ Poor ___ Not applicable ___ Do you like attracting attention? ___ Are you sensual? ___ Erotic? ___ How often do you think about sex? Now ___ Daily ___ Weekly ___ Monthly ___ Yearly ___ Never ___ Date of your last orgasm: ___ Are you most often shy? ___ Arrogant? ___ Resigned? ___ Predictable? ___ Repressed? ___ Liberated? ___ Joyful? ___ Anxious? ___ Combative? ___ Calm? ___ I am mutating constantly and refuse to be pigeonholed ___ Have you ever been assaulted by an archetype? ___ Please describe: ___ Is the past less important than the future? ___ More important? ___ I do not believe in linear time ___ How often do you search for your keys: Daily? ___ Monthly? ___ What keys? ___ What do you regret most about your life? ___ Is your guilt hereditary? ___ Acquired? ___ Viral? ___ Describe the best experience you’ve ever had in a stadium ___ In a park ___ In a bathtub ___. Have you ever been caught in an awkward moment? Please describe: ___ How many hours do you sleep per night? ___ Open-mouthed? ___ Close-mouthed? ___ Is your auditory, visual, tactile, gustatory, olfactory, magnetoceptive, or “Sale’s On” sense more acute? ___ If you were given an apple, orange, walnut, or boiled cabbage to choose from, which would you select? ___ Would you eat it or contemplate it? ___ Please complete this statement: ___ is the reincarnation of ___ Would you say that your speaking voice is an asset? ___ How do you feel about long silences in a conversation? Relaxed, because my interlocutor is considering my comments ___ Paranoid, because my interlocutor is plotting against me ___ Are you encumbered by consumerism? ___ Number of storage units leased ___ Have you ever used dental floss in a public setting? ___ Rate your grooming skill: Above average? ___ Average? ___ Why bother? ___ How many times do you wear the same underwear between washings? ___ Have you ever considered buying the soap powder ERA? ___ What is your favorite charity? ___ Tragedy? ___ Have you ever pondered the nature of meaning? ___ Have you ever been forced to wear a corsage against your will? ___ An electrode? ___ Do you eat the fatty portion of your steak? ___ Do you swallow it or spit it out after the chew? ___ Have you ever drunk milk out of a cardboard container? ___ A plastic container? ___ A breast? ___ What vitamins and minerals would you consider taking on an empty stomach? ___ Please rate your interest in nutrition: Fanatic ___ Moderate ___ It depends on how hungry I am ___ Have you ever walked into a department store and wanted to buy more than you could afford? ___ Did you get an exchange slip? ___ How often do you exceed the speed limit? ___ Park illegally? ___ I am on parole and never break any laws ___ Have you ever ordered something in a restaurant that wasn’t on the menu? ___ Was it really good? ___ When is the last time you went to a drive-in theatre? (Day/month/year) ___ Was it for sex? ___ For the movie? ___ Because you love your car? ___ Is the statement “nothing is permitted to retain its form” by Pythagoras? ___ Attributed to Pythagoras? ___ Falsely attributed to Pythagoras? ___ Consider the situation in which two people hail the same cab simultaneously. Are they fatally attracted? ___ Fatally repelled? ___ Indifferent? ___ Do you feel at home in a cowboy hat? ___ Do you massage your chakras? ___ Do you massage the chakras of others? ___ Do you know where your water comes from? ___ Who do you love? ___ Who have you crossed off your list for good? ___ Who deserves a second chance? ___ Have you ever been afraid alone on a street after dark? ___ Has breaking news ever made you weep? ___ Which artistic lineage would you claim? Objective ___ Subjective ___ Have you ever seen the big picture in any discipline? ___ Please describe: ___ If you had to earn your degree all over, you would study: ___ Please list the drawbacks to this reader profile: 1)___ ; 2)___ ; 3)___ ; 4)___ When did you first encounter beauty? ___ Do you consider yourself: Analytic? ___ Synthetic? ___ What do heliotrope, cerulean, and cochineal have in common? ___ What do you prefer: Complexity? ___ Simplification? ___ Can you rephrase the question? ___ Are you pronouncing this in your head as you read? ___ Who is speaking? ___ Have we met? ___ Consider this sentence: “In a didactic text, the tendency is toward infrastructure.” What is meant by the word “infrastructure”? ___ Where is Herschel’s Garden? ___ The Ampullae of Lorenzini? ___ In 500 words or less, recount the best story you’ve ever heard: ________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

 

Thank you for your participation.

 

 

BIO

Dawn BaudeDawn-Michelle Baude is an international author, educator and Senior Fulbright Scholar. The author of seven volumes of poetry (Finally: A Calendar, Mindmade 2009), two volumes of translations (Vision of the Return by Amin Khan, Post-Apollo 2012), three art catalogues, three communications books, and one children’s book, Baude has written for Condé Nast and Newsweek International, as well as various literary and art sites. Formerly of the American University of Paris, she has lived and taught widely in Europe and the Middle East. She is the art critic at the Las Vegas Weekly.

Forthcoming Poetry: Interim magazine, http://www.interimmag.org

Literary Criticism, “Making Strange” in Please Add to This List: Teaching Bernadette Mayer’s Sonnets & Experiments”: (Tender Buttons, 2014) http://www.tenderbuttonspress.com/products/buttons-al-undone

Literary Translation: Vision of the Return by Amin Khan (Post Apollo Press, 2012): http://www.postapollopress.com/vision-of-the-return/

Contributing Writer (art writing), Las Vegas Weekly: http://www.lasvegasweekly.com/sitesearch/?q=baude

Photo by Shane O’Neal

 

 

Joseph De Quattro Writer

Rubric for Getting Up in the Morning

by Joseph De Quattro

 

for Jen Schneider

 

1. PAYPHONES

 

In the end Colliver hadn’t put up much of a fight about seeing Dr. Gover, but when the nurse offered him a cup of water he declined it with naked hostility, swallowed the pill dry, then made a mocking face when transformation didn’t happen immediately.

“Still me,” Colliver said.

Dr. Gover stifled a small laugh. “It’s powerful,” he said, “but of course it’ll take some time to appear in your system.” Gover had been Vera’s idea shortly after everything had come out. As psychiatrists went he was in demand, but someone at her agency who knew him had called in a favor.

“Will it say hello when it appears,” Colliver asked snidely.

Dr. Gover looked at him. “Oh, you better believe it,” he said, playing along. “Like Beethoven on Eddie Van Halen.”

On the way out the female receptionist caught Colliver’s eye and smiled at him. He didn’t smile back, only stepped hurriedly into the glare of the afternoon trying to ignore her teeth, her cleavage, the fact that the sun was shining with the sort of seaside brightness that created haloed mottled discs beneath the eyelids. At Fifty-Second Street he found a working payphone, snatched up the receiver and dialed rapidly.

“Hello,” a woman on the line said a moment later.

“It’s ten six,” Colliver said. It was late March, past the formal start of spring but still cold, and now his breath in short, desirous rhythms came in ghostly white bursts. “I changed my mind.”

The woman, who was unable to contain a small sigh of impatience, said, “so you want to now, then?”

“Yes,” Colliver said. “Very soon. Same thing.”

“Yes, yes,” the woman said, “always the same with you. I know.”

Despite saying “soon” he didn’t in fact want to go over right away. Or, at least, he wanted to fight the urge, see if Dr. Gover was wrong, if the Xinaprien would in fact be some miraculous quick fix. Shut it all down inside him and make him head home.

For several minutes he milled about the mid-day crush along Third Avenue before turning down Fiftieth Street where he accessed the foyer of a nondescript brick walk-up, pressed a button and was buzzed in. On the stairs, and again despite what Gover had told him (or was it to spite him)?, Colliver noted that he felt exactly the same as he always did in such moments: as if he were drowning though not unpleasantly in his own blood, or, more accurately, adrenaline. Supremely alive and not the least bit hungry. Never hungry.

“Fresh,” he heard the woman saying. As usual the door to her apartment, 3C, was ajar and, pushing in after two quick taps, he found her shaking out a blanket, bed sheets.

“You see?” she said jovially in greeting but without really taking much notice of him. “Fresh.” She was small, French, older than Colliver, with pale well-scrubbed skin and a fading beauty.

“Always keep fresh,” she said again.

Colliver didn’t say anything, only undressed where he stood, put money on the bureau, then fell to the mattress and closed his eyes. As it went, he found himself thinking about payphones. About how they were a necessary tool, as if merely by lifting a receiver he gained instant access to this subterranean continent where until recently, shameful as it was to admit, he’d felt most at home, most himself, most alive. He had never once used his cell phone, not for browsing ads or making calls simply because, as he saw it, the sorted out, digital, modern world had no place here. He wondered how many payphones were left in the city, in America itself, and how much money he’d spent utilizing them since this started back before there was such a thing as a cell phone. All those quarters fished from his pocket then let slip from his fingers into the silver, vertical smiling mouth, while a tawdry colored back page advertisement sat balanced on the metal shelf before him. Stacked, how high would that tower of quarters have reached?

“Fresh,” the French woman was saying brightly. It was over now and once more she was shaking out the sheets while Colliver dressed silently. She didn’t accompany him to the door. He’d seen her enough times that she knew this was unnecessary.

Outside, before heading home, he spent a few moments contemplating the bright sun and that peculiar oxygenated heartbreaking clarity he always experienced immediately afterward.

 

2. BLINDNESS

 

That night Vera’s clothes, her hair and skin, reeked of Ethiopian food. She worked in Early Childhood Intervention and was in and out of houses all day. Mostly in Brooklyn.

“The twins again,” she said distantly while leaning against the counter and eating from a bag of dried apricots.

Colliver took one of the folding chairs leaning against the wall, opened it and sat down at the table. When he did so, it was as if he’d only just then appeared before Vera’s eyes, at which point she remembered the appointment with Dr. Gover.

“Was he nice?”

“A real comedian.”

“You should be happy that he made time to see you.”

“Ecstatic,” Colliver said. “I’m an ecstatic guinea pig.”

Vera made a face. “You know it’s not experimental.”

“Trying to give up a way of life is pretty experimental if you ask me.”

“Sex on an installment plan,” which was how Vera, as a way perhaps to ameliorate for herself the unseemly activity, had come to refer to it, “isn’t a way of life. It’s a problem. Laziness.”

“Laziness?”

“Supreme laziness. Easy way out.” Her voice was void of contempt but she was right. It had been the thing he’d turned to always when life got tough or tedious. “So where is it?”

Colliver put the orange prescription bottle on the table.

“And what exactly does it do again?”

“Makes you blind.”

“Don’t say that.”

“But basically that is what it does,” Colliver said. “Everything small, small, small, until nothing. Blind.” He was most concerned about losing the sun, so much so that in discussing his triggers with Dr. Gover he hadn’t mentioned it. He also hadn’t mentioned teeth, cleavage, or payphones.

“It won’t do anything of the sort,” Vera the caretaker, the fixer, driven by human cause, said sympathetically. Colliver looked at her. They were not now nor ever had been lovers. They’d become friends more than fifteen years earlier in college in Maine, lost each other a year later for another five, then reconnected platonically in New York. That spring when they’d first met Colliver was finishing his undergraduate degree while Vera, who would take another six years or so to finish hers, had dropped out and was working in food service on campus.

“We met during one of my existential crises,” Vera, with no self-consciousness, often told people who invariably came around to wondering about their situation. That was Vera. If she couldn’t express herself, no matter how private, then she’d rather be dead. “I was involved with an Israeli boy whom I loved but was very distant. It didn’t help my mental state. Everything around me shrunk but then one day passing through the food line there was Martin, very clear and close, catching cheese in his mouth like a dog. I’d thrown the cheese. He’d urged me to do so. Right from behind the counter where I worked. It was like nothing I’d ever done before. I flung the cheese like a Frisbee, a big piece of Swiss he caught with his mouth. There was something beautiful about him that needed—finishing, I guess is the best way to put it. That was the feeling. Like we had unfinished business even though we’d just met. But not sexual or romantic. I felt I needed to take care of him.”

Reunited in New York, they decided to room together in a small one bedroom apartment on the Upper West Side not far from Riverside Park, both of them surprised after several months by the serenity of the arrangement and the absence of hidden agendas. Vera’s job weighed heavily on her and so as the years passed it became easier to come home on a Friday night after a week of eight hour days administering tests to toddlers and spend the weekend with Colliver, whose own romantic ventures had become more and more limited, albeit clandestinely, to the pay as you go plan, something which would eventually put a strain on his finances, not to mention his soul.

“It doesn’t make you blind,” Vera said softly, “it changes how you—“

“What,” Colliver said. “How I what?”

“Observe. Take things in. Respond to your environment.”

“That’s just a sophisticated way of saying makes you blind.”

Vera ignored this but eyed him carefully. “You came right home? From the appointment?”

“Sure,” Colliver said. “Right home.” He didn’t tell her about the French woman.

 

3. ROOMS

 

Rooms were always the same, but somehow different too. Hotel rooms were dark, some too dark, lights down to aid deception. TV on. In the bathrooms of these hotels, which Colliver always made a point of investigating first, he invariably found used hotel issued soap. Little bars the color of taffy or white like chalk. Perhaps because the act that brought him to such rooms was so polar opposite, the sight of these soaps often made him think of his childhood, of the trips he’d taken with his parents and two sisters to places like Orlando or San Francisco. The soap in those hotel rooms was wrapped in waxy white paper upon which, in fancy script, the name of the hotel was printed. Here in these bathroom hotels throughout the city the soap was normally unwrapped, out loose on a wet vanity, and almost always grimy. Dirty bubbles on the surface as if just used. Traces of the previous man’s hands, no doubt.

Apartments were dark, too, but these often had hand soap in the bathroom sitting near the faucet. The pump kind, frequently diluted with water.

 

4. ADJUNCTIVITIS

 

Although Colliver and Vera more or less split their bills down the middle, excuses for his continued financial decline were generally believable and given a pass. As an adjunct professor he sometimes went a month, even three during summer, with no pay. Often when he saw the word adjunct on his contract, or on the door to the windowless office where all the adjuncts were housed tightly like a group of monosyllabic, pink-eyed ogres with empty desk drawers, the entire notion of adjuncting struck him as a condition, an infection of some sort, rather than a job. A cycle, a vicious one that offered satisfaction sometimes for a moment or two in the classroom, but always left him wanting: money, health insurance, a feeling of indispensability.

Because of this and due to their rather steep rent, Colliver and Vera lived without certain conveniences, namely comfortable furniture, allowed in part, and an unspoken part, because they weren’t actually lovers. If they’d been lovers the squalor would surely have been unacceptable and lead to depression, stony silence, or explosive fighting. Vera slept on a futon on the floor, Colliver on a ratty couch; they had no real stuffed furniture, only a couple of folding chairs, a table they’d picked up on the street along with a pair of bookshelves, and an eighty dollar splurge black lacquer café table from Target with padded benches that went together improperly so that they wobbled.

Before he’d revealed everything to Vera (finding himself one afternoon utterly exhausted by and unable to keep up with the shifting financial landscape of his lying), agreed to see Dr. Gover and go on Xinaprien, Colliver had never thought of the absence of something so basic like furniture as his fault. But the truth of the matter was that the money he’d spent in his many sexual liaisons the last few years could have easily gone toward furnishing the apartment. And handsomely so, too. Now he understood in a small but certainly horrible way how this unstoppable, driving force had literally impacted his daily life. His and Vera’s. Hour by hour. Minute by minute.

 

5. XINAPRIEN

 

The Xinaprien said hello formally one Saturday afternoon in mid-April shortly before the end of the spring semester. Side effects included bouts of conscience, self-reflection, apathy. It was big, Colliver noticed, on apathy. Additionally, it came with a rustling sound as of leaves. Vera was taking a shower when Colliver first noticed the sound. He thought it was the water. The sun was bright. He listened, looking out the window at the sun, then heard the squeak of the faucet. Silence. Then a moment or two later the rustling sound as of leaves returned, remained. This was how the Xinaprien appeared, announced itself, said hello. There was no Beethoven, no Eddie Van Halen. Only this sound which seemed to have no end.

 

6. ORGANICS

 

One night shortly after Colliver had come clean Vera decided to try and find out where it all began.

“What about your father?”

“I don’t think my dad did this type of thing.”

“No,” Vera said. “What about him as a root?”

“He’s dead,” Colliver said. “I’m sure by now he is a root.”

“Your mother, then. She smothered you, right?”

Colliver didn’t really know how or why it began. He had admitted both to Vera and to Dr. Gover that women’s feet had long been a factor. Sometimes he thought that if he’d lived in another American era when flesh was less a public focal point, the early 20th century for example, the deviant impulse might never have begun to grow. Now feet were big business: in commercials, magazine covers and ads, book jackets, the internet, the street. Feet became a gateway, a suggestive lead-in to something else. Not all, but some. And while this was nothing he liked admitting, made him feel strange in the extreme, he was told that the admission was in fact a necessary part of his recovery.

“Maybe I should take a break from teaching then,” Colliver suggested to Dr. Gover during a quick follow-up visit shortly after the Xinaprien had made its formal appearance. “I see feet everywhere.”

“Absolutely not,” Dr. Gover said. “It’ll be a good part of the process to fail.”

“Good to fail?”

“Allow the Xinaprien to work organically. What occurs in your system at the point of engagement is no different really than if you were shooting heroin. The physiological effects can be the same. In time the Xinaprien will be a little like manually switching off a bunch of lights, unnecessary lights, until those lights cease coming on altogether.”

“Isn’t that a bad thing, though,” Colliver said, “turning off lights?”

“I said unnecessary lights. You’re still operating under the impression that because you’re not ingesting a foreign substance, the feeling—the high—you get from this behavior isn’t physically detrimental to your system. You have to try to begin to see beyond the ethical or moral. The physiological concerns are real, too.”

“And the rustling sound?”

“Is it constant?”

“Almost always,” Colliver said.

“We can alter the dosage if you pre—“

“No,” Colliver said abruptly, concerned about losing the sun. “Leave it.” He felt he could live with the rustling sound so long as the sun didn’t go on him, which, to date, it hadn’t.

So he’d left the office that day thinking that feet, once part of the impulse, were now, under the Xinaprien, part of the control. Dr. Gover wanted him to see—no, that was wrong. He wanted him to look, but not see, allow the blindness to embrace him. Of course, these were not the doctor’s words. At least not specifically.

 

7. THE LAST ONE

 

Colliver often liked to think of the last one just as much he lived in a state of anticipation over the next one. The last one was known, etched in memory, the dark rooms, the images of himself and the other, the lamps, the bathrooms, the soaps, the smells. There were many smells: Chinese food, incense, desperation, semen, perfume, cigarettes. The next one was a fire of anticipation, a potential moment to coagulate hope, like what he imagined, if it could be recorded, what a fetus must experience moments before birth, or someone about to enter into death. Horrible but unable to deny a rising wave of unearthly release. This is how he’d described it. How he’d heard himself describing it to Dr. Gover and, since coming clean, to Vera.

 

8. COLLIVER’S FATHER

 

Very small, very far.

 

9. COLLIVER’S MOTHER

 

With fangs.

 

10. SANDALS

 

By the end of April he was doing what he could to avoid his usual triggers, accomplished to some degree by staying home a good deal, although this proved difficult with spring in full bloom at the window and pulling at him like two hands around his mid-section. Pulling and pulling.

“Make it through one day,” Vera had told him the morning of his last class of the semester, “then the next. You know how it is. Focus on now, not later, or then.”

But in class that final Friday it took all his strength not to take the sight of painted toes on display in wedges, flip flops, gladiator sandals, dress sandals, etc., and run ravingly mad to the nearest payphone, the one which held countless layers of Colliver’s fingerprints, and dial any of the numbers he knew by heart. In fact, though it was evident that the Xinaprien was becoming righteously established in his system, his desire of late had felt that much more acute.

Between classes he left the campus building where he taught Ethics of Writing and ran to the payphone on the corner of Sixty-Eighth and Lexington.

“Ten six,” Colliver said in a flat monotone, though he noticed for the first time that at these code words, the numbers of his birth date, he began to choke.

“Who it is?” the woman said. She was Latina. There were, it seemed, many Latinas.

“Ten six. Are you available? How’s one o’clock?”

“No one o’clock,” the woman said. “I do two. Okay?”

“No,” Colliver said. “One.” His next class was over at 12:50 and the thought of killing an hour, feeling as he did right then—sick, choking, but like someone had gutted him with a knife and his insides were pouring out (normally he felt they were filling up), drowning everything around him, filling the change receptacle at the bottom of the payphone, swamping the parked cars, bashing out the store front windows and the plastic domes covering the streetlights, knocking women’s shoes right off their feet as they passed by—all of this absolutely terrified him. It seemed he was losing or had lost the cold, calculated language necessary to navigate these channels properly, and thus the window that he could crawl through toward this feeling then back out like it hadn’t happened was beginning to close. Normally what was key was walling it all together, the feeling, the calling, the anticipation, the act, the slipping through the window then back out, as if to suffocate the down time of his life with it. That’s how it had to be. How it worked, what made it important. How he felt truly alive. Without that, without it he…

“One o’clock,” Colliver said again. He didn’t recognize his voice. In these moments everything around him in this public space usually went mute, but now it all simultaneously came into rapid, clearer cymbal crashing focus: the sound of heels and tires on pavement, the blaring of horns and chewing of food, the hairstyles and the color of the clothes, the scent of perfume or cologne, the way a briefcase was swung.

“Hello,” Colliver said loudly, choking. But the woman had hung up.

 

11. LANDSLIDE

 

He didn’t raise the concern with either Dr. Gover or Vera, but little by little Colliver arrived at the conclusion that a primary component of the Xinaprien had to be a kind of torturous element whereby it didn’t stop one from participating in whatever illicit behavior they or their loved ones were trying to get them to give up (the appetite raged on in him which is why he kept quiet) but made the act utterly void of any feeling altogether. It used to be why he got up in the morning, but now, unable to stop, it felt like self-imposed torture. Like a place in between one’s conscience, a cold objective place where the subject was forced to watch itself go on through the muck without registering a feeling or sensation one way or the other.

 

12. GOING ON

 

Colliver went on.

 

13. THE GIRL FROM CALIFORNIA

 

He saw the girl from California a total of five times, deep into summer, before the incident at the Marriott Hotel. Actually, he only really saw her twice: blowjob the first time which Colliver felt was conducted far too theatrically; second time it was a handjob which he insisted on when she took out a condom. Both times he failed to achieve orgasm. In thinking about it much later, he realized that he had never once checked the bathroom. Did not look for soap. Fallout, he assumed, from the Xinaprien.

The girl from California with the 415 area code was terribly pretty, had a reasonable rate ($100 for a short stay), dark, shiny hair, and dead black eyes that betrayed everything when she smiled with her perfect white teeth. She was tan. During the first two times Colliver had seen her, when he’d more or less gone through with it—sex was extra and he didn’t have enough for that—she didn’t take off her yoga pants but did let him see her breasts. She chatted casually throughout. The TV was always on and normally he could ignore it, but now he couldn’t help watching for a minute or two. Judge Judy. Another time it was Maury.

After this Colliver made two more appointments with her, each one ending in his not being able to commit either way: he had the money out, but couldn’t put it down, wouldn’t put it down. At the same time he gave no indication that he wanted to leave. Perhaps, he thought, this really was the Xinaprien’s torturous process. He felt he was outside, above himself, watching, unable to go forward or back. He had the feeling, the driving force, but he couldn’t put the money down on the bureau, undress and then fall, fall, fall to the mattress.

The third time this happened the girl from California was clearly annoyed, but she said she understood and let him leave without hassle. The fourth time, though, she found it hard to control herself.

“You have to pay me or you can’t leave,” she said. “Half at least.” Dark, small, strong, without waiting for a response she gnashed her teeth dramatically and kept her body flung up against the door so that Colliver had to physically move her out of the way in order to make his escape.

The fifth time he made an appointment with her was when the incident occurred. Colliver, increasingly sunk in a murky state by the Xinaprien, had thought little of the fact that over the phone the girl from California had agreed so pleasantly to see him, for she had made it quite clear the last time, the fourth, that he shouldn’t even think about dialing her number again.

But he had, and now he was on his back, on the bed, fully dressed, relaxed for the most part but saying he wanted to cancel, saying it as if to no one in particular. The girl from California came and stood over him, then with her lithe body climbed upon him like he were some kind of apparatus, one knee on his mid-section, a forearm across his chest, and repeated the word like she’d never heard it before.

“Cancel,” she said with her white teeth and dark mouth. “Cancel?”

Colliver, sensing a vibrato that scared him, lifted his head and looked around suddenly as if he’d fallen asleep. For a few moments they struggled gruntingly, wordlessly, in a rubbery maneuvering of palm-clasped outstretched arms. Colliver could not see the girl from California’s teeth now. They were hidden behind her pressed, whitened lips. He was surprised at her strength, or perhaps his weakness, but soon he managed to get up, moving her abruptly off him and onto the mattress so that she bounced, shiny black hair fanning out over her face. Colliver, dazed a bit by the exertion, got his bearings and turned for the door at which point the girl from California screamed “now!” at the top of her lungs and another girl, just as small and dark and beautiful, in a fuchsia mini-dress and white heels, bounded out of the bathroom (which once again Colliver hadn’t checked first as he normally did) and leapt onto his back.

Cancel?!” she screamed. Apparently she too was taken with the word. Colliver spun wildly around the room with this girl on his back. Her rage was savage, and now she violently scratched and pulled at his neck with her long fingernails like she was intent on getting down to bone and cartilage, until in one quick motion he turned and flung her to the bed.

The two girls from California (at some point amidst the chaos Colliver had decided that the second one was from California as well) gathered themselves and looked as if they were going to join forces and rush him. But they didn’t. In fact for a time no one moved. The three of them only stood and stared at one another in their heavy breathing silence, in the embarrassing ashes of this particularly horrible human moment, until Colliver, clutching his bleeding neck, backed out of the room and eventually exited the hotel.

 

14. A RUSTLING SOUND AS OF LEAVES

 

Almost constantly.

 

15. FLUNG ABOUT THE CRAVING FOR A FELLOW

 

Some time after the incident with the girl from California, two, maybe three weeks, Colliver went to a payphone and dialed her number by heart, the one with the 415 area code. He listened to an automated voice indicating that the number was not in service, hung up, then slipped the quarter back into the silver mouth of the payphone and dialed again. Once more he heard the same recording. Since the quarter kept coming back he kept using it, slipping it in, punching the numbers, knowing he was dialing right, always getting the same recording and yet trying again.

Eventually he must have gone home, left the payphone on Sixth Avenue and Fifty-Fourth, but it felt to Colliver as though he’d remained there for many days, inserting the same quarter, dialing the number, hearing the recording. The dialing, the action of his fingers, was like digging. Deeper and deeper digging into something that simply wasn’t there.

 

16. TASTE

 

It was some time in early September when he lost the ability to taste. Desire was more like it, for it wasn’t so much a literal loss as it was a steady revulsion at the thought of tasting, all people tasting, so that something switched off in his mind and it became difficult to eat. He dropped weight. The steady decline of his triggers, feet, cleavage, teeth, payphones, and the great sun, continued daily, becoming smaller and smaller. The urge, however, the desire, remained the same.

 

17. TELEVISION

 

Never off.

 

18. DAYS

 

“It’s like having my eyes propped open with toothpicks. What was that from? A cartoon? A Clockwork Orange?” It didn’t matter. This is how it felt to Colliver now, always feeling the urge, rushing to a payphone, choking through an arrangement, sometimes getting himself into a room, everything dim, dim, dim, but not out. Never out. Not fully blind. He’d been wrong. Seeing himself work through the motions for days (forty-six, ninety-six), but never once going through with it.

“Cancel?” he heard on more than one occasion. “What do you mean, cancel?”

Door after door smashing his backside on the way out. Apartment doors were bad, but hotel room doors were downright dangerous. Once, he returned home to find a split and bleeding welt on the back of his head. The anger, the screaming, the scratching, all there for him to hear, see, feel, watch. Without end. “I’m no longer alive,” he often thought. “If so, I’d be able to stop.” He thought this as he watched himself going through the motions, unable to stop. Everything else, all other considerations, escaped him.

 

19. AN AUTUMN, AN EVENING

 

Colliver could tell from the colors of the trees, the depth of the sky at mid-afternoon, that it was autumn but how many summers, falls, winters or springs had come and gone in order to arrive at this point he didn’t know. It felt like several cycles of seasons had come and gone. There was with him now the feeling that something was not fully arriving in his life, and a constant sense that it was evening, despite the sun shining clearly in the bluest sky. A feeling that it was late. Vera was there, but often for long periods she wasn’t there, too.

“I was silly to think I could finish you,” he heard her say once.

“Finish me,” Colliver said. “You mean kill me?”

“No,” Vera the caretaker, the fixer, said. “Complete something. Should I go?”

“For a time or for good?”

“I’ve made it too convenient, probably. There wasn’t enough at stake.”

She was right, Colliver thought, for there had to be a structure for a life, a pattern, rules, something by which one could eventually find their way into an upright, standing position. It had never been beautiful, he saw that fully now. In fact he saw that it was the very opposite of beauty. Still, it used to be why he got up in the morning, shameful as that was to admit. Even if he hadn’t planned on a call on any given particular day, even if he didn’t make a call for weeks, it had once been the thing that got him up in the morning, stood him up, put energy into him to get from one point to the next. Go on upright, aware of life’s grand possibilities.

Steadily though, on into whatever autumn it happened to be, these feelings had left him, been bled away, choked. A putting out, a switching off of lights. Unnecessary lights. So he was told.

 

 

 

BIO

Joseph De QuattroJoseph De Quattro has new fiction forthcoming this summer in Pennsylvania Literary Journal, and has had short stories published in The Carolina Quarterly, Turnrow, Carve, Zahir, The Washington Review, and Oyster Boy Review.  His fiction has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, and he is currently working on a new novel.

 

 

 

SYNCRETISM

by Ron Yates

 

 

Uncle Bart was my mother’s only brother. Growing up, I’d seen him maybe once a year at family get-togethers, and I had noticed that he seemed to be aging faster than my other seldom-seen relatives, who remained sleek and fat between reunions. I had the opportunity during the last holiday season to spend some time with him while he was up from Florida visiting my mother, ostensibly on business although I never knew the specifics. I was getting ready for my final semester at the university and trying to think about the future. By this time Bart had become wizened and unkempt, full of irony, anger, and malicious humor, like Nick Nolte in his role as Father in Hulk.

My dad had died from a heart attack the year before and my sister had married and moved away to Birmingham, so Bart’s presence in the house was not as inconvenient as it might have been. He was there for a week. I kept an apartment near campus, but during the break, I was in and out a lot, enjoying time spent relaxing in my childhood home and helping Mom get through the holidays.

 

Having this other male presence in the house was strange at first, sleeping in my sister’s old room, shuffling through the kitchen in the mornings in pajamas and slippers, watching TV in the den with us, and taking his meals at the kitchen table. I soon realized that I hardly knew my uncle Bart and was surprised to find a sense of humor and gentlemanly demeanor underneath his gruff sarcasm. After a few days, Mom and I both were enjoying having him around.

The three of us talked about politics, the economy, and the Middle East, but he didn’t talk about himself much. Mom and I knew, although it was never stated, that he had no one to spend Christmas with. He had divorced four wives without producing any children, and the divorces weren’t amicable. The most recent had occurred just this year, contributing significantly to his overall contemptuousness.

“Melba was a goal-oriented person,” he commented one morning as we were finishing up breakfast. “That’s what attracted me to her initially. Problem was, her goal shifted from accruing personal wealth to my ruination. Damn near succeeded too.” He took a drag off his Doral light, leaned in over his coffee mug, tapped his cigarette fingers to his gray temple. “I’m not as gullible as she thought, though. I had some holdings in Tampa and PC that she didn’t know about. I landed on my feet, as I’ve managed to do over the years. But, enough of that. Tell me about your plans for the future, what you hope to do with an English degree.”

Of course, I wanted to be a writer, like most everyone who majors in English. I hated telling people that, though, especially adult men who’d made lots of money. I didn’t like their patronizing looks of mild amusement or their admonishments of, “Well, yes, but you’ll need a back-up plan,” so I usually said that I planned to teach or get into advertising or public relations. Bart’s reaction, though, was not what I expected. In a sincere voice he added before I could answer, “Naturally, you’ll want to write.”

From the counter where she was rinsing plates and putting them in the dishwasher, Mom said, “Yes, but he needs a back-up plan. I’ve been telling him he should get his teaching certificate. He could get on at a high school close by and maybe even coach baseball. I don’t know if you remember, Bart, but that boy used to love baseball.”

He looked across the table at me and winked. Yes, he remembered, and I did too, the warm Thanksgiving afternoon we’d spent in my maw-maw’s backyard playing catch while my great-uncles, aunts, and cousins sat around eating desserts and watching TV. He had sensed my boredom and initiated the conversation, which led to an intense session of glove-smacking burnout. “I hear you’re a pretty good pitcher,” he had said from a front porch rocker. You’ll have to show me what you got someday. I used to pitch myself, might could teach you a few of my old tricks.”

I was twelve and shy, but my boredom and his seemingly genuine interest prompted an adventurous reply: “I’ve got a couple of gloves and a ball in the car.”

He hopped up out of the rocker, and we ignored the grown-ups for the rest of the afternoon as he devoted his considerable energies to throwing and catching with me. Then it was time to go, and when I saw him again I was a teenager and everything was different. Things were really different now, in the kitchen with Mom, Bart looking too decrepit to even play catch anymore. He took another drag on his cigarette then suffered a minor coughing spell. “I’m gonna quit these damn things one of these days,” he said as the spasm subsided.

He got up and shuffled to the counter to pour more coffee. “Of course, Ann,” he said to Mom, “he’ll need a steady income, insurance, retirement, and so forth, but if he’s got that writer thing in him, he’ll need to get it out somehow. I think he should throw some energy into it now while he’s young. Who knows, it just might lead to something. With talent, good material, and a little luck, a person can still make it writing and publishing.” He sat back at the table and looked at me. “I’d like to see some of your work. I was an English major too, you know.”

I didn’t know and, mildly surprised, told him so. “Oh yes,” he said, shaking another Doral from the pack. “I read all the classics, got especially interested in the American greats, from the Naturalists through the Modernists: Crane, London, Sinclair Lewis, Sherwood Anderson, and of course Hemingway. He was my hero. I wanted to follow in his footsteps.”

“So what did you do with yours? English degree, I mean.”

“Oh, I never finished. I only needed a couple of quarters—we were on a quarter system back then—when I decided to take a break. Went down to Florida, got involved in some business ventures, and one thing led to another. Never made it back to school. Kept reading, though, and thinking about it—for a long time.” His voice trailed off into despairing reflection.

I said, “Well, it’s never too late. I’ve had classes with lots of people your age. They’re called ‘non-traditional’ students—”

“Believe me, kid. It is too late for me. It’s your turn now, to shine, to make your mark in the world. We’ll talk about it more later, after I read some of your stuff.”

My part-time employer, Java Chop, a coffee house and deli near campus, had called me in to work that day, so I decided to swing by the apartment when I got off to print out a copy of my latest story. The working title was “Eb and Flo, a Love Story about Nothing.” It was an account of two androgynous characters who lead nondescript lonely lives, caring for their pets and following set routines until their chance meeting in a coffee shop. They each begin to organize their lives differently, to facilitate more “chance” meetings. They are slowly drawn into each other’s world, and through their coffee-shop dialogue, the reader follows them on their journey to completeness. I was pretty proud of it and eager to show it to someone. Although I had doubts about Uncle Bart’s critical skills and ability to appreciate what I was trying to accomplish, I hoped he would like it.

When I handed him the manuscript after supper he appeared confused for a moment. As the recollection of our morning’s conversation dawned, he said, “Oh, yes. Well now, this really looks like something. I can’t wait to read it.” He set the pages on the end table as he settled into an evening in front of the TV with Mom, watching their favorite investigative crime dramas. The next morning I noticed that the manuscript had been moved, but Bart made no mention of it during breakfast. It was the first weekday after the New Year holiday, and Mom had errands to run, gift returns mainly and an appointment for a pedicure. She seemed eager to get out of the house; instead of our usual bacon and eggs with grits, biscuits, and a full array of jellies, syrups and jams, we had Eggo waffles and microwaveable sausage patties. As we ate and chatted about the weather and how bad the traffic was likely to be, I sensed Bart’s eyes on me. I felt sure he had read the story and was examining me for structural flaws, signs of weakness that he was preparing to reveal.

I began to dread the moment of Mom’s leaving, of being left alone with him, and I tried to think of an excuse to leave with her. As she was putting on her coat and checking her purse to be sure she had the receipts, Bart looked at me. “So, it seems we have some time on our hands, alone, like old bachelors. An opportunity to . . . discuss things.” He raised an eyebrow diabolically, like an evil professor, then grinned. “I enjoyed the story. I’m impressed with your talent.”

Mom said, going out the door, “Bye fellows. You two try to behave while I’m gone. I’ll be back late this afternoon.”

When I answered, “Bye, Mom,” a small spasm of apprehension passed out of my body. He had said he liked the story, that I had talent. I surprised myself with how much this mattered, and I worked—at that moment and at times throughout the morning—to not let my need for his approval show.

He pressed the door closed behind Mom. “C’mon, let me pour you another cup of coffee before we get started.” As he shuffled across the floor in his slippers and baggy pajamas, I noticed his grizzled whiskers, his gossamer hair charged with static and standing off his head, but I also saw a light in his blue eyes I hadn’t seen before, a disconcerting impishness. “Let’s sit in the den,” he said, “where we’ll be comfortable.”

He disappeared for a second as I tried to relax in my usual chair. When he returned he was holding the “Eb and Flo” manuscript. He tossed it onto the coffee table and sat across from me on the sofa. “You’ve got some pretty good chops. On a sentence by sentence level this is right up there. It’s musical, lyrical, metaphorical, and all that. Your transitions transition and you’re able to do what all writers struggle with: move people in and out of rooms. But . . . the story is still lacking. In spite of your good writing, it’s a flop.”

I exhaled heated air from my burst bubble. “Well, thanks, I guess. For being honest—”

“But don’t despair. I’ve got what you and all writers need, material. I’m giving you a gift today, the gift of narrative thrust. Conflict, action, suspense, tension, drama—that’s what it’s all about.” He eased back into the cushions, reached for his cigarettes and lighter. “You might want to take notes.”

* * *

Back in the seventies Uncle Bart had been a student at the same college I attended. Aaron-Maslow had a wild reputation then, the number one party school in the state. He had begun as a serious student, a lover of literature with writing skills he hoped to develop. He attended on a full-ride scholarship—baseball and academics; he was full of promise and optimism in spite of the toxic political climate of that era and the increasing scope of domestic and international disasters. But after three years of college life—the stress of playing ball, staying in shape, and keeping up his grades in a cornucopia of sex, drugs, and rock and roll—he found himself on academic probation, no longer on the baseball team, and broke.

He was tall and good-looking with thick blonde hair to his collar and a mustache. He had managed to stay away from the heavy drinking, pot, and other drugs throughout his freshman year, but with lots of pretty girls and a party somewhere every night, the temptation became too much for a young man who had previously led a sheltered life. His hair grew, his manner of dress changed, and he formed new friendships with people who weren’t so hung up about grades and sports.

Bart had seen Davis around campus and had even had classes with him but didn’t get to know him until one night in May when he found himself at a party where the lithe and swarthy hippie was the center of attention. Upwards of 100 people—an assortment of freaks including students, faculty, and dropouts—had gathered at an old farm house a few miles outside of town. People were drinking and laughing on the porch, in the yard, and in clusters throughout the rambling structure. The main hive of activity, though, seemed to be back in the kitchen. Groups kept moving in and out of there in huddled discussion over loud strains of Led Zeppelin. Bart guessed the reason for the activity, and his theory was confirmed after he edged his way into the room to get another beer out of an ice-filled tub. Davis was leaning over the high Formica-covered counter, his straight black hair pulled back in a pony tail. He was flanked by a seriously interested group that seemed a bit younger than the rest, probably freshmen, two girls and a chubby guy with pink cheeks. Davis was holding forth, laughing, cutting his eyes from one to another, and showing them something on the counter. He was providing reassurance; then Bart saw them make the exchange: money passed into Davis’s hands, then swiftly into his jeans. The chubby guy said, “Thanks, man.” Davis responded by wrapping his arms around all three. “You guys are beautiful,” he said. “Enjoy, and let me know when you need more.”

Bart, hanging around the beer tub, became interested in watching this guy work. They exchanged glances once or twice as Davis displayed his charm through a steady stream of customers in groups and pairs, some excited and some apprehensive. There were lots of girls at the party and most of them at some point made their way to either Davis and his place at the counter or the beer tub. Bart, maintaining his vantage point, soon found himself in conversation with a hippie girl, breathtaking in her beauty.

She had reached into the tub, pulled up a dripping longneck, then tossed her head to settle her shag haircut back into place. In response to Bart’s stare, she smiled, flashing her big hazel eyes at his. “Hi. You keeping watch over the beer?”

“Oh. Yeah, I guess. This is an interesting place to stand. All the cool people end up in this room at some point. Here. Let me open that for you.”

He reached toward her bottle with an opener. She met him halfway and held the bottle firmly while he popped the top. Moving closer brought a slight misalignment in his mind. Her appearance suggested an herbal, organic smell, but her fragrance was more like expensive Parisienne parfum.

“Thanks,” she said with another slight head toss. He noticed the silver hoop earrings shaking against her fair skin. Thickly layered strands of hair the color of polished white ash swooped over her ears then followed her slender neck down between her shoulders. She smiled and let her eyes linger on his face for a moment. “So, when you say ‘cool people’ are you including that long-haired dude over there at the counter?”

“Sure, why not? I mean, he’s been the most popular guy at the party ever since I’ve been here.”

“Hmm . . . that’s interesting. Any idea what his secret is?”

“Not sure, but I’d guess he has something other people want.”

“Hmmph!” She knitted her brows in mock seriousness. “You don’t suppose he’s selling drugs over there do you?”

“Well, since his jeans pockets are stuffed with cash, that seems a definite possibility.”

She sidled a step closer and lowered her voice to a whisper. “What do you think he’s selling?”

“No idea. Something twisted up in tiny little plastic bags.”

Someone in the other room put on a new album and they became aware of the beginnings of a much gentler tune, quiet acoustic guitar and lilting vocals, then the chorus: “Skating away-ay, skating away-ay, on the thin ice of a new day-ay-yay . . .”

“Far-out!” she said, “Tull.” She sucked in her lower lip, half-closed her eyes, and moved her head to the flowing rhythm. “Ian Anderson’s a genius,” opening her eyes to his. “What do you think?”

“Great, I love Tull!” As soon as he had spoken he felt that he had let too much excitement show over their having such a small thing in common.

She nodded and smiled, glanced back to Davis, who was relaxing between customers at the counter. “I think I’ll mozy over and see what this guy’s up to.” She turned and he watched her walk away in her cut-off jeans and clog sandals.

A couple of guys he knew came into the kitchen with bags of ice and another case of beer to replenish the tub. Bart exchanged pleasantries and helped with the task. When he stood up and looked over at Davis and the girl, he saw that she was leaning into him, his arm around the small of her back, lifting her short denim jacket and exposing a pair of dimples just above the top of her hip-hugger shorts. With a hand against his chest she pushed herself away and turned, smiling, to look at Bart. With one arm around Davis’s waist, she motioned with the other for Bart to come over. Making the few steps across the room, Bart noticed that Davis was also smiling at him, as if they were complicit in some scheme that was just beginning to hatch.

The girl said, “You were right. This character has been up to no good. I interrogated him and he confessed.”

“Guilty as charged, your honor,” Davis said. “Question is, what are you gonna do to me.”

She grinned. “Help you spend the money, of course.” She nodded toward Bart. “He had you pegged all along. He’s an undercover investigator, you know.”

“Undercover . . . that explains it, why I’ve seen him hanging around the student center in the afternoons, and carrying books in and out of the library.” He smiled warmly, looked at Bart with eyes the color of dark chocolate. “Now that you’ve nailed me, I guess you should know my name.” He reached out his hand. “I’m Davis.”

Bart took the hand in the accepted thumb-locking hippie grasp. “Bart. Pleased to meet you.”

He looked at the girl. “I don’t know your name.”

She tilted her head causing one hoop earring to dangle, the other to lie against her neck. “Mary. Simple and easy to remember.”

They drank and chatted in the crowded kitchen, mainly about the assorted characters who continued to come and go. Mary was animated, doing most of the talking. Several times when partygoers approached Davis with furtive glances and veiled questions, he shrugged his shoulders, smiled, and held up empty hands. Mary asked, “Are you all sold out?”

“Almost,” he answered, with an implication in his eyes.

She said, “Uh-huh,” then turned to Bart. “So, what did you say you were majoring in?”

“I didn’t. Haven’t had a chance yet.”

“Let me guess. I’d say you’re of a practical turn of mind. And you have a sadness in your eyes for all that’s been lost. And your body—” she eyed him up and down—“suggests physical robustness. I think you’re someone who climbs around on mountainsides and in valleys digging up rocks, looking for fossils. You, my new friend Bart, are a geology major.”

Bart chuckled. “That’s a very interesting guess. Your insightfulness is staggering. But, unfortunately, you’re not even close.”

“She does that all the time,” Davis said. “She guessed somebody right last year at a party and hasn’t been able to stop since. She is a great judge of human nature. Now, if she could only match the natures up with the right humans . . .”

She laughed and pressed against Davis. “I figured you out pretty quick, though, didn’t I? I guess that’s what really matters.”

“Well, you’re right about me being what matters most, but I’m not as transparent as you think. There are some nooks and crannies in my psyche that you haven’t peered into yet.”

“There he goes, talking about his psyche. Davis is a psychology major, as you might have guessed.”

Bart said, “I would have never known. I’d have placed him in the business department. He seems to have mastered the laws of supply and demand.”

As they laughed, drank, and smoked their cigarettes, Bart noticed the mood of the party changing. Movement and noise subsided, replaced by a subdued camaraderie. Pink Floyd oozed from the speakers. Mellow. Joints were circulating everywhere in the smoky house, and people seemed content in their various groupings, engaged in deep conversation. “Our work here is done,” Davis said. “Why don’t we split, get out under the stars and enjoy the great outdoors.” He looked at Bart. “Come on, Man. I’ve got some things to show you.”

 

It was indeed a beautiful night, even when viewed from the inside of Davis’s old pickup. The three of them rode together through scenic rural areas Bart had never seen before. The truck, a Dodge from the 1950’s, was battered and noisy but seemed eager for the changing terrain, the washed-out curvy blacktops and steep hills. They turned onto a dirt road that after a few miles became barely passable. Picking their way over harsh bumps and ruts, they approached a wooden bridge that spanned an energetic rocky creek. Davis eased the truck over the planks, water gurgling beneath them, then pulled over and killed the engine and lights. The trees on either side were black and looming under the full moon. The road was mottled black with shadows, lumpy with rocks and potholes.

They had just finished smoking a very potent joint, and Bart was suddenly struck with a wave of paranoia. What the hell were they doing? Who were these people? Were they going to kill him and leave his body out here? Perform some weird ritual? These thoughts flurried through his guts, producing body tremors he could scarcely conceal. They sat quietly in the truck for a few moments before Davis began rummaging around under the seat. Finally he said, “Here it is,” bringing up something in his hand.

Mary said, “Cool. I’m glad you brought that. Lemme have it.” She snatched the roll of toilet paper from him and nudged Bart with her knee and elbow. “Open the door, dude. I gotta pee.”

He exhaled, almost laughed, and pressed down on the Vise-Grip pliers that served as a door handle. Davis opened his door and got out also. Mary stepped gingerly over the ditch and disappeared into some bushes. Davis came around to Bart’s side and handed him a beer. The air was filled with the sound of running water, crickets, frogs, owls, and other night creatures. They each lit a cigarette and listened for a moment. Davis said, “Snake creek. Cool, huh?”

“Far-out . . . literally.”

Davis slapped Bart on the shoulder. “I’m glad you like my back yard.”

From Davis’s smile Bart couldn’t tell if he was serious or not; then he heard Mary approaching. She handed Davis the toilet paper.

He said, “Why don’t you roll us another joint while I fix up a little something else for us.”

Mary said, “Sure,” and got back inside the truck.

Davis turned his back to Bart and, bending over the Dodge fender, began to make preparations. When Bart stepped in closer, he could see three individual sheets of toilet paper placed side by side. Davis removed his large black wallet, attached to his belt with a chain, and dug deep into one of the compartments. “When I saw how sales were going back there, I decided to stash a little for personal use, enough to divide up three ways, a good number—Biblical, you know.” He placed the small twist-tied package, made from the cut-off corner of a sandwich bag, on the fender. It was mashed flat from being in his wallet.

“What is that, anyway,” Bart asked. “I don’t mess with hard drugs.”

Davis grinned in the moonlight, his teeth flashing white. “It’s not heroin, if that’s what you’re thinking. It’s the love drug, MDA, kind of a combination of acid and speed. It’s great, really mellow. Makes everything all better.”

“But I’m short of funds tonight—”

“Don’t worry about it. This one’s on me. It’s not that expensive anyway.”

“But we don’t really know each other . . . why did you pick me—”

Again the flash of white. “I trust Mary’s instincts. She’s a great judge of human nature, remember?”

Davis’s hands were busy. “Here,” he said. “Hold this lighter up so I can see.” He used the blade of his pocketknife to measure equal portions of the white powder into the center of each toilet paper sheet. He wet his fingers and made three little balls, wrapping the tissue around the drug. The passenger door hinges creaked as Mary climbed out with a freshly rolled joint.

Davis said, “Cool, baby. Go ahead and light that thing up. We’re gonna find God tonight.” He handed Bart and Mary each a little drug ball and kept one for himself. Holding it up just prior to popping it into his mouth, he said, “Shall we?”

Bart glanced at Mary. She winked, swallowed down her drug with a big gulp of beer. He did the same.

 

He had never seen anything as beautiful as fire, Bart thought later, except for Mary’s face as she laughed and talked inside Davis’s teepee. His was one of five spread out along the grassy banks beside the creek, a little community not far from the bridge where he had stopped the truck. As they had topped the last rise in the old Dodge, bringing the teepees into view, Bart had expressed his surprise: “What the—”

“My front yard,” Davis had said.

“You mean you live here?”

“Yep. Great views, cool neighbors, and really cheap rent.”

Davis and Mary explained, as they parked the Dodge at the edge of the meadow, that Dr. Ostrakan of the psychology department owned the land and had agreed to the teepee settlement as kind of an experiment, a “simple living” collective. The professor didn’t care what they did as long as they didn’t erect permanent structures and took care of their garbage.

“It’s amazing,” Bart said. “That you can live this way. I’d have never thought—”

“It does have its downside. It was great last summer when we built everything, but over the winter things got kinda rough. Some nights we stayed in town at Mary’s place.”

Bart registered surprise. Mary answered, “Yeah, my parents don’t know about any of this. They still pay for my apartment and expenses, thinking I’m the model college girl. If they knew I flunked out this term, they’d shit bricks. I won’t be able to keep it a secret forever, though.”

“Let’s don’t worry about that stuff,” Davis said. “Tonight . . . ,” he made an expansive gesture, “the sky, the creek, us. This is what matters now.”

As the drug dissolved and found its way into his bloodstream and brain, Bart felt a dawning realization that Davis was right, that this—the here and now—was what mattered most. With childlike excitement he helped Davis build the fire, bringing in sticks of wood from the stack outside. Then he watched Davis’s expert hands as he prepared the kindling and laid the sticks just so in the rock-lined pit.

As the fire crackled and popped, the smoke, heavy and slow at first, began to find its way out the top. Mary’s face with the firelight reflected in her eyes, the music of her voice, and Davis’s reassuring smile had combined to produce a feeling of contentment unlike anything Bart had ever known. Now, with the fire burning clean, flames dancing over a bed of glowing embers, the contentment was still there, radiating out to blend with the heat of the fire and the warm souls of his new friends he had met only a few hours before. Amazing. Love, that’s what it was. Bart was experiencing true love—he was sure—for the first time in his life.

The fire melted all reserve between them and for a long time, they shared stories from their lives, their childhoods, hopes, and fears. Mary was the first member of her family to attend college. She had a little brother with Down Syndrome and other developmental problems. Mary had stuttered and been shy as a child but had miraculously blossomed through the loving encouragement of her fifth-grade teacher. Davis was a surviving identical twin. The brother had died in a car wreck when they were toddlers, cracking his head on the metal dashboard. Davis, standing next to his mother in the front seat, had been saved by her partially restraining arm, thrown out just before impact, an arm that had not been strong enough to hold both boys back from death. Davis himself had been cut and broken; he pulled up his tee shirt to show a star-shaped pattern of white scars on his chest and ribcage.

Bart felt that he didn’t have much to share from his sheltered life. He had stayed clean, made good grades, played ball, went to church a lot. Never suffered anything, really, other than the scrapes and bruises of a childhood that seemed too normal. But he wanted to share; he wanted to give them something of himself, so he told about his dream of becoming a writer, how he felt that he was born to do something important, to leave part of himself behind after he was gone. He sometimes imagined books he had authored on library shelves waiting to be discovered by new readers generations from now, and he sometimes dreamed books, but so far he had not been able to capture them upon waking, only bits and pieces he had used to construct stories. He had written several stories he was proud of. He told Mary and Davis they could read them some time, that he would be honored.

They listened. Mary leaned forward, smiling, big eyes looking over the impish flames at Bart. “So now I’ve got it. Your physical robustness is for living and experiencing all life has to offer, to get it into books; the sadness in your eyes is for the human condition and your need to make sense of it. You, my friend, must be an English major!”

They laughed. Davis said, “My God, Mary, you’re clairvoyant! Our very souls laid bare beneath your gaze!”

As the chuckles subsided Mary said, “That’s really cool. English is my minor, majoring in art. Did I say that yet? Was, I mean. Was majoring in art before I flunked out. Anyway, I love to read, and I write poems sometimes. I’m surprised I never saw you in the humanities building.”

“Probably because my classes are always early in the morning. We have to get our classes over so we can spend the afternoons practicing.”

“Practicing?”

“Yeah, I’m on the baseball team. Was, I mean.”

“Wow, a real jock! But I guess that must be tough. All the responsibility, people counting on you.”

Bart didn’t know what to say.

Davis said, “So, dude, that is cool. I read a lot myself. Who are your favorite authors?”

That got the words flowing again. Bart told about Hemingway and his quest for one true sentence; about Flannery O’Conner and her Jesus-twisted characters; Tom Robbins, his far-flung metaphors and social insight. Each time he mentioned a book or author Davis and Mary nodded their enthusiastic agreement and exclaimed, “Cool!” or “Far-out!” They were readers too, loved Vonnegut and Brautigan as much as he did. The discovery of their common interests was a wave that carried comfort like soft caramel throughout his body, and the night passed, slowly and wonderfully, inside the teepee.

The floor, constructed from planks salvaged from warehouse pallets, was strewn with old quilts, sleeping bags, and pillows; there was a chair, a mirror, and several shelves, one of which held a softly glowing kerosene lamp, another a wash basin. Plenty of fresh, gurgling water running just outside; warmth inside. Cold beer in the cooler, fine Columbian weed in Mary’s batik bag—what else could anyone need?

The sky, visible through the smoke hole, slowly changed from deep purple to gray, and the stars faded. The sedative effect of the beer was beginning to hold sway over the diminishing effects of the MDA, and, after eating roasted wieners and a big pan of popcorn popped on the fire, the three were nearly talked out. Davis turned out the lamp, then began to snuggle with Mary in what seemed to be their usual sleeping area. Bart reclined a couple of feet away, resting his head on a rolled-up blanket.

The fire had burned down to mostly coals now, three charred sticks producing a flickering medley of blue and orange. Bart closed his eyes, but inside his skull there was still much activity. The drug and the night’s revelations allowed only a measure of relaxation; sleep remained outside, a foreigner patiently awaiting entry. He listened to the soft popping and hissing of the dying fire, and from Davis and Mary’s blankets he heard murmurs and whispers that blended with the gurgling of the creek just beyond the canvas wall. From out there he heard frogs croaking as the night slipped away, along with owls, whippoorwills, barking foxes, and an occasional splash in the creek, but these animal sounds were slowly displaced by the sounds of Davis and Mary cooing and caressing under their blankets.

The murmurs became moans of pleasure, then pants and grunts as the couple made love beside him. He was outside their zone of passion, yet he felt a part of it. His pulse was synchronized with their rhythm, and he imagined the sensations of their mounting pleasure. He did not feel shame, embarrassment, or the need to turn away, but rather contentment, lying there with his eyes closed, wrapped in the warmth of the fire, blankets, and love.

As the tempo beside him increased, so did the volume and pitch of Mary’s panting. Their movement became strained, a struggle for release, and Mary yelped with pleasure. Bart felt something stir beside him, then pressure against his arm. Mary’s fingers were pressing, making circles on his wrist. Then her hand found his and squeezed tightly as she stepped over the edge into a free-fall of pleasure. As the grunting and panting subsided, the sounds outside became audible again. Bart drifted off to sleep, holding Mary’s warm, relaxed hand.

Before a week had passed the three of them were on their way to Florida. Davis suggested the move in a way that seemed natural, considering their current academic standing and future prospects. They loaded their most necessary and cherished possessions—amp, turntable, speakers, albums, Native American artifacts, a few pieces of handmade pottery, baseball gloves, camping gear, jeans, tees, and several boxes of Mary’s clothes—under a makeshift camper on the back of the old Dodge and headed south to Panama City. The general idea was to be bums, to sleep on the beach until they could find jobs and a cheap place. They’d be getting there between spring break and the summer vacation rush, the ideal time to seek out opportunities. Davis was persuasive, Mary seemed excited, and Bart was unable to resist.

* * *

Time passed and my Uncle Bart ended up staying in Florida, until the last month of his life, living out his days with sea gulls, the sound of the surf, and beach music in the background. He spent the years getting married and divorced and pursuing a variety of business ventures including night clubs, car lots, and liquor stores from the western end of the panhandle down to Tampa. He did drugs, drank, and smoke until a few weeks after he critiqued my story in Mom’s den, when he was diagnosed with lung cancer, already in the advanced stages. This would be the first spring break in many years that he would not spend on the Gulf.

After an obligatory round of chemo did nothing but make his hair fall out and leave him sicker, Mom contacted the hospice agency. A bed was set up—in my old room this time as it allowed easier access—and Bart was moved in as the dogwoods reached full bloom. He didn’t put up much of a struggle, letting the nurses, Mom, and the morphine have their way. During those last days he seemed to enjoy, more than anything, my company. At first I sought reasons to stay away from the house, a place that was taking on the smell of death in spite of Mom’s opening the windows to the spring breezes, and to immerse myself in work during my last schedule of classes before graduation; but after a week or so of trying to avoid the inevitable, I gave in, clearing my calendar of obligations for several afternoons.

Mom left us alone as much as possible, and we talked about literature and writing, the mysteries of life, and the amorphous webbing that binds us together with everything else in the universe. He laughed and was in good cheer most of the time, but he occasionally drifted off into staring, silent reflection. He was sharing deeply from the well of his collected musings, but he seemed to be struggling to go deeper.

When we had gone down to his beach-front bungalow at the end of the Perdido Key strip, just east of Gulf Shores, to bring him back to Georgia, we left most of his possessions for later and shut up the little house. But he had insisted on bringing a few personal items. There was a thick cardboard storage box, the kind made for holding files and records. It was battered and taped at the corners and the lid was sealed with layers of clear tape. As Mom was packing his slippers, toiletries, and necessary items, he elbowed me and pointed to the box sitting on the floor at the foot of his unmade bed. “That’s coming too. Me and that box have got to leave here together. Go ahead and put it in the trunk.”

I lifted the heavy box as he asked, without thinking much about its contents, and it rode with us back to Georgia. Bart’s final weeks slipped by, and I didn’t think of the box again until the afternoon when he told me to drag it out of the closet and open it up. I pulled out my knife and started to cut through the tape.

“Everything you’ll need is in there,” he said, breathing deeply from the oxygen tube at his nostrils as I pulled off the lid. “The stuff of life.”

The box was filled with notebooks.

“I took notes, kept journals,” Bart said weakly from his bed. “I always planned to sift through it, sort it out into stories and maybe a novel, but . . . I ran out of time. That’s all that’s left of me now. Not much to show for a life, is it?”

I groped for words. “You were a businessman. You provided goods and services. You helped other people to be happy and live their lives. That counts.”

“Goods and services. I guess that’s what it boils down to after all.”

I ran my hand along the spiral backs and cardboard covers, pulling one out into the light. The notebook was labeled in black magic marker on the cover. Neat block letters spelled out the word, “Environment.” The next one in the stack was labeled, “Lust.” I pulled out several more notebooks, each cover printed with a one-word title. Before I stopped and put the lid back on I saw these words: Crime, Jealousy, Punishment, Resistance, Revenge, Deceit, Murder . . . . There were lots of notebooks in there, but that was enough for now. “Wow,” I said, “interesting titles.”

Bart’s eyelids sagged over irises that had grown dull. “Yes. At least I had that. An interesting life. I was never bored, until now. This dying business is starting to get old.” He drifted off into a deep sleep from which he never fully awoke. A few days later he was gone.

After the sparsely attended funeral I carried the box to my apartment and parked it within reach of my futon. When I pulled off the lid, my hand went straight to the last title I had seen: Murder. I had to know if Uncle Bart had been a bad man. I suspected that he had, but, oddly—and I struggled with admitting this to myself—I didn’t love him any less for it. The notebook paper was yellowing around the edges, each page filled with Bart’s legible yet sloppy cursive. I read the first page carefully, skimmed ahead, then went back and read slowly. The notebook was indeed a first-person account of a murder that had been committed in the winter of 1976.

The victim was a sick old reprobate, proprietor of Ray Ballard’s Beachside Motel. He had provided Davis, Mary, and Bart a place to stay in exchange for their help in operating the establishment. The old man had other business interests and a trophy wife in her forties whose needs were not being met and with whom Bart found favor. Davis managed to charm his way into the old man’s confidence: Ballard, after an evening of drunken camaraderie with Davis, showed him a special stash in the maintenance shed that nobody, not even the wife, knew about. The scheme, according to the narrative, was Davis’s idea, but its enactment required Bart’s participation. He kept the wife occupied while Davis got the old man drunk then smothered him in his sleep. The wife was satisfied, upon discovering her husband dead the next morning, that he had died from natural causes. He had been in poor health for some time, and now she could collect the insurance. After waiting a respectable few days after the funeral, the young trio left the widow to her fortune, themselves making off with considerable loot, including boxes of war relics: Confederate belt buckles, bullets, canteens; gas masks from WWI; German Iron Cross and Swastika medals; a Samurai sword; Japanese Nambu and German Luger pistols; and various helmets, patches, uniforms, emblems, and flags. They also got away with a gallon jar filled with silver dollars. No investigation was ever launched.

What Davis, Mary, and Bart did afterward is another story, or maybe several. I’ll have to spend some time sorting it out. I’ll have the opportunity to do that now since Bart’s will named Mom and me as his only beneficiaries. He left her enough to allow for a comfortable early retirement, and she plans to move to Birmingham to be near my sister and the grandbaby that will be here in time for the holidays. Bart left me the beach house and $100,000. I look forward to moving down there after graduation and getting some writing done.

 

 

BIO

Ron YatesRon Yates received his MFA from Queens University of Charlotte, where he worked with many fine writers and teachers and completed a novel entitled BEN STEMPTON’S BOY, set in the rural south of the early 1970’s. Yates has recently completed a short fiction collection, MAKE IT RIGHT AND OTHER STORIES, a work driven by two key components of his aesthetic: a desire to create crisp, character-driven prose and to evoke place in a way that furnishes and textures the fictional dream.

Yates’s work has appeared in The Oddville Press, Still: The Journal, Bartleby Snopes, Clapboard House, The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature, Rose & Thorn Journal, and Prime Number Magazine.

He lives in a remote area of east Alabama on the shores of a large hydroelectric impoundment and has taught high school literature, creative writing, and journalism for many years.

When not writing, Yates enjoys hiking, taking pictures, tinkering around with old cars and motorcycles, and playing on the lake.

 

 

 

 

Tim Boiteau

Fugue

by Tim Boiteau

 

1

 

Dawn at O’Hare, foggy autumn morning, waiting for my connection. Spent the night on a bench with my jacket pillowing my head, tie pulled loose, tossing the platinum wedding ring into the air, trying to catch it on the tip of my finger.

Eventually it caught.

Coffee and bagel for breakfast. Pull out my tablet and stare at the photo of us in Thailand, the sea and sky contending blue. Make it my new wallpaper. A superficial gesture.

The woman on the bench beside me eyes the picture for some time before finally saying, “She is so adorable,” and then looking at me: “Looks just like you.” The woman is dark-haired, thin, but with all the wrong facial features, as if there had been some glitch in replicating my wife.

“Thank you.” The noncommittal response ends the conversation.

We look out over the tarmac at the fragile jet, its nose poking out of the rolling mist, written in the stars to deliver us to our destination.

She holds in her hand a tablet as well but after having pulled it out had merely paused forgetfully, her finger hovering over the surface. There is a picture there on display for me to see, obscured by the desktop icons: her, a man with a cleft chin, two sons, neither with cleft chins, all precariously set on the edge of the Grand Canyon, a gust of wind threatening to disperse them like spores over an impregnable land.

I look back up at the jet vanishing into the mist, appearing safer now with its frailty cloaked.

 

2

 

Four thousand feet, en route to Detroit Metropolitan, by coincidence she is still beside me, her tablet out, awaiting my response.

“Good-looking kids.” I offer, thinking I should add something to that delayed reciprocity. But maybe it’s enough. She’s smiling anyway.

“How many is this for you?” I say, turning, engaging her.

She purses her lips, sighs, her tongue feeling around the teeth. “The big 2-0.”

I nod. “A seasoned pro.”

“Weird during this in between time, a little nerve-wracking, invigorating, then . . . you adjust.”

“Sure . . . then comes 21.”

“What about you?”

I pause. “Lost count.”

At times I feel like I exist at the junction of hundreds of conflicting memory lines, a disconcerting feeling, an inappropriate topic for light, get-to-know-you conversation.

Probably she feels the same way.

“Come on. Don’t be shy,” she says, her hand flirting with the fabric of my jacket.

“Let’s just say I’m getting up there.”

“That’s either charming or pathetic. Not sure which.”

The flight attendant comes by.

“She’ll have a screwdriver, I’ll do a greyhound, both light on the juice.”

“That’s a bit presumptuous of you.”

“What? I’m buying you a drink. If you’d like it can be the toast to the end of our brief relationship. You do like screwdrivers, don’t you?”

“Sure.”

“Thought so.”

The flight attendant hands us our drinks.

“I gotta ask you something—”

“Let me guess: did we ever . . . ?”

“You look so damn familiar,” I say, snapping my fingers.

“To be honest, I don’t know. I thought the same thing about you.”

“If I really focus, close my eyes, I can see your face, I can see our daughter, Jenny, seven, wearing a white dress for her first communion, her knees are scabbed, you pull up these—uh—these little white stockings to cover the scabs, put these small, white shoes on her feet, she kisses you on the cheek . . .”

I open my eyes and find her smiling, shaking her head. “I’ve never had a daughter.”

I look into her Eye. “Maybe you just haven’t closed your eyes long enough. Cheers.”

“Cheers.”

 

3

 

McNamara Tunnel, Detroit Metropolitan, leaning against the moving walkway rail, massaging my eyes against the rainbow light art.

Twenty feet ahead of me is the woman, hand resting on the handle of her carryon, not turning back to acknowledge me. What did I say exactly? The memory of our conversation had already faded into uncertainty. Whatever may have happened, she has ignored me ever since I woke at landing. No matter: she’s already fading out of focus, the words that passed between us cooled air.

A relaxing pulse throbs out of the tunnel walls. Shut my eyes and envision my family. How long has it been?

A scrambling force knocks me over onto the tread, shocking me out of the trance.

My eyes flash open, stare into one large blood-red Eye, prodding me with urgency. After having satisfied itself with me, it removes a distance, and I can see the whole head of the man, disheveled, scraggly bald, the other eye static, diminished and gray with the sagging atrophy of neglect.

“Where’s my family?” he mumbles as I push him off and then, as an afterthought, help him up. “Have you seen them? Flew all night here to see them.”

“Christ, buddy. Don’t know if I can help you there. What do they look like?”

He stares at me for a moment and then says, clawing at my jacket to reach my full height, “I’ll remember when I see them.”

Then he veers away, knocking into the woman first, and then, it seems, by turns into everyone else in the tunnel, as if whatever kind of attack had done that to his Eye had rendered him blind as well.

When she has recovered, the woman turns toward me, and then—something in the way she looks at me in her moment of recovery: a buried memory—I know it for sure.

 

4

 

Four feet, the desolate city rolls past: crumbling graffitied walls, urban prairies, abandoned skyscrapers, boarded up groceries, iridescent black clouds of grackle swirling above, splintered roads rendered lunar by neglect and merciless winters, wind pounding against the car.

“Headed home, man?” the cabbie asks.

“Yeah.”

As I look out at the remains of the city, I superimpose images of my family over them. Tech doc advice: first few weeks, cycle through as many images of them as possible, play and replay recordings of their voices, vacation videos, every chance you get, until the word vacation is a beach in Thailand, home an abandoned city you’ve never cared for, wife a long-haired woman you’ve never touched.

“You use an Eye?” I ask after some time.

“No, don’t believe in that kind of thing.”

“Good man.”

“Tell that to my wife,” he laughs.

 

5

 

Late Sunday morning, my car, a Ford Taurus, gleaming red in the early light, my lawn neatly trimmed, surrounded by a tall wrought-iron fence, my house, an immense three-story sprawl, well-maintained, several Japanese maples spaced around it, their leaves reddening with the weather.

Next door, a black-fried mutant spider of where the neighbors used to live, wind gusting through the remains into our yard—cold—the grainy odor of carbon.

Across the street, the windows smashed, the place looted, maybe thirty dead dogs strewn across the overgrown lawn, the corpses in various states of decay, but the weeds alive with other things—oily rats, skittish bugs, unapologetic birds—feeding on the reeking piles.

I walk up the brick path to my home and present my Eye to the peephole.

The door opens.

“Welcome home,” the house intones.

I lay my suitcase at my feet and wait for a minute in the foyer, listening for the sounds of family. My daughter does not scramble to greet me. My wife does not bear a bottle of cold beer to me. The place looks as I remembered: clean, polished wood; minimally decorated; bathed in sunlight. The layout, however, is off: doors in doorless walls, halls for rooms. How is it that these sorts of things slip by? Smells different as well, but then odor is such a difficult thing to pin down and maintain, a more ancient system than sound and vision, like some druidic cult shrouded in myth and rumor inaccurately catalogued in history texts.

Experiencing this house and comparing, reconciling it with the memory house is one of those moments surreal in the junction, but then, as the woman from the plane had said, “you adjust.”

“Where’s my family?”

“In the living room,” the house replies.

“What a homecoming,” I mutter under my breath, turning vaguely towards where I remember the living room to be.

The hallways in this house interminable, after passing under several staircases and making a number of wrong turns, I eventually find the living room and spot the back of their heads, separated by a great distance on the long couch, Daphne with crow black hair, Chloe blonde.

“Hi guys.”

“Hi,” they say out of turn, their heads still directed towards the far wall.

I shrug my shoulders, dropping my luggage. “What’s up?”

“Homework.”

“Catching up on news.”

“All right.” I pause, expecting something more. “Well, I guess if you need me I’ll be in the study doing some work.”

“Okay.”

 

6

 

I roam around the house for an hour or so, finding several kitchens, guest rooms, libraries, before I finally find the study just as I remember it: a long wooden desk by the window; a bird’s-eye view of the course at The Dunes Golf & Beach Club hanging on the wall behind the leather couch; an eye-brain schematic on the other; a giant torch cactus planted in the corner; a few odds and ends strewn about the desk.

I sit down and for several hours code and analyze Eye data, replaying memories from the trip and categorizing them according to valence, arousal, and a number of cognitive dimensions. The episode with the woman I rate as highly arousing but neither positive nor negative, highly thought-provoking as well, but with only a small number of memory associations. The incident with the man I spend several minutes pondering over, and in the end mark it neutral, sensing I could deliberate over it for the rest of my life without ever coming to a firm conclusion. With the image of the man now paused in my field of view, I can zoom in in great detail until the near-transparent circuitry of the Eye lens is apparent, yet there is nothing telling in the appearance of the network, and certainly no analyst would be able to decipher problems so superficially. The man’s problem must be originating from some source higher up in the system. I send a short message to the Eye troubleshooting department.

Next I examine the scene of my homecoming. Upon entering the living room and spotting the back of their heads, the pupil responded by dilating several fractions of a millimeter, triggering a series of autonomic interactions eventually leading to a nearly undetectable increase in heart rate and skin conductance, and following this an over-compensatory constriction of the pupil and subsequent slowing of the heart rate to below baseline, the entire physiological event recalled as being the subjective experience of familial intimacy.

Nevertheless, I rate the scene as unpleasant, though certainly rich in memory associations.

“Honey?” a voice calls out from behind me.

“Yes?” I respond, staring into the computer monitor, at the reflection of my wife’s silhouette, my breath catching: a reaction that will have to be analyzed later.

Daphne, my wife, a flood of bittersweet images and sounds.

“Just wanted to let you know Chloe and I are doing a girls’ night out tonight.”

I spin around in the chair and regard her. “Girls’ night out?”

Tall and delicate, her eyes bright gray, just as I remember her, she leans into the doorway. My first reaction is to stand, walk forward, and slide a hand around her waist. Instead, I remain seated, staring at her.

“She’s going through something right now. I think we need some one-on-one time.”

“Fine. I guess I can rummage up something around here.”

 

7

 

After an evening of wine and cheese and reading in the cool air of the back porch, I finally call it a night and wander around the house until I find the bedroom with my wife in it. She is wearing a white silk robe I bought for her years ago while on a business trip in Japan. Everything else from that trip has now faded from memory—business contacts, hotels, food, temples, prostitutes—but I remember clearly the robe and the market where I purchased it, a touristy, lantern-lit street sunken into the crevasse between obelisk skyscrapers. I remember the pink cherry blossoms stitched into the back. She is simultaneously reading—a kind of unnatural green sparkling in the Eye—and watching me as I unpack.

“How was dinner?” I ask her.

“Excellent. Italian.”

“Chloe likes Italian,” I mumble to myself.

“I’m worried about her.”

“Hold on,” I say, entering the bathroom and turning on the shower. Thirty minutes later I re-emerge clean, fresh-shaved, naked, and climb into bed.

Daphne is asleep, her back turned to me. I pull up close and wrap my arms around her, feeling beneath the silk her soft body against mine, her scent exciting, long hair stimulating my skin and nose.

“Can we not?” she murmurs.

“Honey . . . I just got home. I missed you.”

“I need some time to adjust,” she says, her voice more limpid.

“What?”

“I have a very sensitive nose. You just don’t smell right. I’m sorry, but not yet. I know me, it’s not going to happen. For me this kind of thing takes time.”

“I used the soap you like,” I say into her neck.

She turns toward me, her face a crescent moon of streetlight and shadow. “You know what I mean.”

I pull away from her and let the cool air cleanse me. In one final attempt my hand reaches out to touch the back of her neck, but she recoils from the touch.

My eyes, dry and red, crave to be shut.

Eye clicking with overuse, my mind fades fast with sudden jetlag blackout.

 

8

 

When I wake I update my Eye, lying still for several minutes in complete blackness, which begins to fill with those nebulous submemories and primordial hallucinations, images and sounds by turns disturbing, peaceful and cathartic, some flies flitting in and out barely discerned, others lumbering behemoths unfathomable in scale.

When I come to I find the bed empty.

Two in the afternoon.

“Christ.”

I brush my teeth, standing naked in front of the window, watching the wind tear across the crumbling, verdant flyovers looping in and out of the city. Somewhere in the distance there are fires: the horizon underlined in brown.

Downstairs I find a kitchen and make some eggs and coffee.

Daphne appears wearing a sports bra and pants.

“Busy day?” she says.

“Where were you?”

“The gym. Must have lost track of time,” she says grabbing a bottle of water out of the refrigerator.

“Listen, I feel kind of bad about last night. It was really, uh, insensitive of me.”

“You were fine.”

“Well, even so—”

“Forget it.”

“Have you?”

“Buried deep in the dark,” she says.

“Great. I was thinking we should, I don’t know, do something together.”

“What do you mean?”

“Go out somewhere, maybe see a movie or something.”

“What’s the point?”

“What do you mean, ‘What’s the point?’”

She leans back against the counter, guzzles the water, and shrugs her shoulders. When I don’t respond, she decides to help me out.

“With us, at the beginning, it’s like this,” she says, struggling to find the right words, “and then just when I feel our time is the most ripe, there’s no fruit, there’s nothing.” She shakes her head and takes a sip. Finally she says, “I’m making dinner tonight. Any preferences?”

“Well, I’m allergic to shellfish, so maybe steer clear of that, huh?”

“No shellfish. Good to know.”

 

9

 

Chicken and sesame noodles for dinner. My two girls stare at their plates as they eat, only occasionally glancing in my direction.

“So, Chloe, how’s school?”

She shrugs her shoulders. “Last week a new girl joined our class.”

“Oh yeah. Where’s she from?”

“From here. Sort of. It’s complicated. I don’t really want to talk about her.”

“Suit yourself,” I say, rolling my eyes, and turning towards Daphne. “Great dinner, honey.”

She licks her lips. “What do you think, Chloe?”

“I decided today I’m going to be a vegetarian.”

“I’ll use tofu next time,” she smiles, looking at her.

“Okay, guys, what’s going on? Fill me in here.”

“Chloe, do you want to tell your father something?”

Chloe looks up from her plate and turns towards me. “Dad, are you going to leave us?”

“What?” I pause mid-chew. “What are you talking about?”

“I don’t want you or Mom to leave anymore.”

I turn to Daphne. “Did you two already discuss this?”

Daphne nods slowly, her eyes still on Chloe. “We had a little talk at dinner last night, just us girls.” She reaches out and squeezes Chloe’s hand.

“Come on, guys. Lighten up a bit. Honey, have you been doing your updates?”

“I never forget to update. Mom, I’m not hungry anymore. Can I be excused?”

“Sure. Go finish your homework.”

After she leaves, her footsteps faded up the stairs, I say, “What the hell’s going on?”

“She’s tired. Her mind is scattered. I don’t think she knows what she wants, and how could she?” She prods a piece of chicken with her chopsticks, then sips her wine. “Haven’t you noticed that after a while, not everything takes? Little pieces slip through. First a lamp disappears, then a rug, then one day there’s a new door in the hall, opening up into some wing you’ve never stepped into. People are trickier in some ways, but in the end it’s just like finding new doors in your house.” She looks up at me. “Sometimes I feel . . . like a jellyfish, like a jellyfish with impossibly long tentacles, dropping down so far into the abyss you can’t be sure whether or not they have any relation with each other down there in the past, only that you know they connect in the present up above because you can feel them tugging on the bell, but maybe they’re joined in a web if you travel down far enough into the dark, meeting at the vanishing point, or maybe they taper off into nothing without ever connecting.”

Junctions, I think, realizing what she is requesting is help, but all I can do is chuckle, “Honey, a little weird—”

“You don’t sense it? Almost like we are living with multiple memory realities where we aren’t whom we say we are, and our family aren’t whom they pretend to be. But then at the same time, we must be, we can’t be anything else than what we say. Otherwise, what else is there? What else can I be? I can’t be connected to so many inconsistent memories, so I have to pretend the others don’t exist. Can you imagine what it’s like for her? What are we doing to her?”

“She’s updating. It’ll be fine—”

“She’s too young,” she protests. “Her mind is growing too fast, maybe faster than she can update. What would that mean? Waking up and having outpaced the update? How would that feel? We need to do what’s right for her, for all of us.”

 

10

 

Later that evening I am sitting on the back porch in the cool autumn air, drinking a beer and reading a paperback thriller from one of the libraries: a vintage amusement. As I read, snippets of what Daphne said suddenly burst out of the darkness like fireworks, and, though I flinch at first, they fade just as fast, ignored by my undeterred mind.

“Dad? Can I talk to you?”

I look over my shoulder and find Chloe standing in the doorway, wearing a sweater and jeans. Small for her age, her skin a little too pale, faint bags under her eyes. I’ve never seen her so clearly before as I do now in the dim light.

“Hmm? What’s up, honey?”

She approaches, sits down on the wicker chair beside me, and gazes out at the backyard.

“Dad, I want to go on a Fugue.”

I choke on my beer and put it down on the side table.

“What?”

“A Fugue. I want to do it.”

“Where did you hear about that?”

“You know the new girl at school I mentioned?”

“How could I forget?”

“She told me. She remembers all of us from before. She says she was a cheerleader here last year. She won second place in the science fair with a tsunami model. I remember Sam did a tsunami model last year, and she got second place for it.”

“Was Sam a cheerleader too?”

She nods.

“Did she tell you what it means to go?” I proceed cautiously.

She nods. “She says it’s exciting. Everything’s new, but at the same time you remember everything, except it’s not like really remembering. It’s like remembering anew or like a memory from so long ago it feels new. And then when the new becomes old, you move again. That’s what I want.”

“Honey—”

“She says she was finally reunited with her parents.”

“She sounds a bit melodramatic.”

“What does that mean?”

“Overly dramatic.”

“Oh. She’s popular, even though no one believes what she says. Boys like her.”

“Well, they like her because—”

“She’s new.”

“Honey, forget what she told you about Fugues. Just at dinner you were saying you don’t want us to leave anymore, and now you want to do a Fugue? This is something for grown-ups. One day, maybe after college, you might decide to try it out, and that’ll be fine. If at that time you want to give it a try, I promise you I’ll pay for it.”

“Except it won’t be you, will it?”

“What?”

“It won’t be you when I’m in college.”

“Well, who else would it be?” I laugh, hearing and denying the falter in my voice.

She shakes her head, confused. “Someone else, but someone like you. I don’t know.”

“Hey, don’t talk about your Dad that way,” I say, running my hands through her long blond hair. “You know he loves you. He’ll always be here for you.”

“I’m not happy here with you and Mom,” she cries, burying her head in her hands.

I sigh and take a sip of the beer.

 

11

 

In the morning I update.

Afterwards I discover Daphne’s spot on the bed empty, still warm. I go down to the kitchen and have eggs and coffee, sitting in the breakfast nook with the paper, looking out over the front yard. More dead dogs across the street today. Even from inside you can start to smell the rot in the air when the wind blows right.

As I clean the dishes, I notice a post-it from Daphne on the counter: “Took Chloe to get a makeover. Don’t wait up.” Why she would write a note and not just send one is beyond me.

I proceed to the study and spend several hours working, when my Eye becomes irritated and I feel I must nap before it projects hallucinated memories or other unwanted oddities into my mind.

I dream my Eye has swollen to the size of an apple, pushing its way oblong out of the socket. I am afraid to touch it for fear of making the obtrusion a reality. Inside, interfacing with my brain like some parasite feeding off its host, is an infected network, wherein live my wives and kids, hundreds of them, maybe thousands, all altered by degrees from several prototypes, the real ones perhaps, the originals, sources so ancient, so far removed in time from the present, they seem more like the Eves, Cains and Abels of human genetic memory, and somewhere deeper still in the untested extremes of consciousness they fuse together into something both incoherent and unpleasant in its unattainability .

The Eye balloons outward even more, and I clench the bed sheets in pain, calling out for Daphne, but she does not respond, pulling away from me and receding to the door where she and Chloe whisper together, their faces growing into blank swaths of flesh. Then long hair sprouts out of the blankness, their chests flatten, their arms and hands, legs and feet invert, till their fronts are their backs, and that is all I can see of them.

Finally, when the Eye pops in a hot rain of blood and aqueous humor, and the fibrous peels of sclera lash against my face, I scream out once again, except it is no longer Daphne’s name I am calling out for, but some ancient word from a dead language.

 

12

 

It is dusk when I wake.

Time for an update. For the first moment in years, I stare at the light blinking in my periphery without immediately reacting, wondering what would happen if I waited and then just continued to wait.

After a time a lanky, dark silhouette appears in the doorway of my office. My peripheral vision recognizes it as Daphne, but as I turn and as the voice calls out, that perception is shattered.

“Dad, Mom said dinner will be ready in fifteen minutes,” the boy says in a voice cracking with adolescence.

I update.

 

 

BIO

Tim BoiteauTim W. Boiteau has published stories in a number of journals, including Every Day Fiction, Write Room, Kasma Magazine, and LampLight. He was a finalist in Glimmer Train’s 2013 Fiction Open contest. He is currently finishing a PhD in Experimental Psychology at the University of South Carolina.

 

 

 

Michael Davis writer

Cruel Stars

by Michael Davis

 

I saw my cousin, Teresa, in a shiny blue one-piece, sitting at the bar at Swan’s in downtown Fresno, highlights in her hair and a gold ring on every finger. It was the day of my grandmother’s funeral and Teresa hadn’t attended. Men were buying her drinks and hovering, men she seemed to know and not know, men she might have known and forgotten. She was a prostitute. We never spoke.

Saturday night and the old place was packed. I moved through the crowd and sat in one of the circular leather booths, which meant I was there to eat instead of trying to get stupid right off the bat. The waiter walked up and gave me an ancient, laminated menu. I ordered a salad and a bottle of the house wine they made in the back, even though it had formaldehyde in it and you could taste it. Then Rick Fuller saw me and came over to the table.

“Hey Mikey, how you doin’ man? How was the funeral?”

I shook his hand and nodded. “It was very nice.”

He was half Italian on his mother’s side and basically a good guy. Rick had a tight closed-mouth smile. He always noticed too much about you and added it up. When you ran into him again, you could see it in his eyes. He’d thought about you and figured another part of you out. I didn’t want to tell him I’d just left the wake and feared that before the night was over I might break a bottle on the bar or push somebody down some stairs or drive out to the vineyards and wreck my car in the dark.

 

The waiter brought the bottle and two glasses. Rick slid into the booth, leaned across the table, and said in a low voice, “Hey how’s the law stuff? Not so good if you’re drinking that, huh?”

I shrugged. “I’m a paralegal, Rick. My business is filing and making sure the checks get cashed. That’s it.”

He winked and clapped me on the shoulder. “Yeah, yeah, just admit you’re a lawyer, Mikey. Be proud. It’s a great achievement.”

“Like finishing this wine.”

Rick laughed but he also did the x-ray thing with his eyes, trying to look through my chest to see what was wrapped around my heart. He must have found what he was looking for because he got out of the booth with a hard smile. “That’s my wife waiting by the door. You know Francine, right?”

I nodded. I told him to have a good night and to give Francine my love.

“Right,” he said. “I’ll do that.”

He went over and put his arm around her waist. She looked back and waved. I waved, too, but she didn’t see because Rick pulled her out the front door. Francine Norton had been my high school girlfriend. Nineteen years later and Rick still hadn’t fully come to terms with that fact. Sometimes I talked to Francine on nights she went to Swan’s by herself and got dead drunk at the end of the bar. She never mentioned Rick.

But that’s how it went. People raised right know not to ask about family problems. At least, Rick knew enough not to ask about mine. After my grandmother’s service at the church, there’d been a shouting match in the parking lot before my family got in their cars to do the procession to the cemetery. It had concerned my grandmother’s fortune. There were different wills. Someone was lying. Accusations. Old grudges. Fingers pointed. They say you’re not supposed to talk about money right after church, but that’s all my family ever talked about.

The waiter brought a wilted salad that was covered in thin oil with a cherry tomato on the side. I poured a glass and said a prayer for Grandma. I couldn’t pray during the service. All I could do was cry like a man.

Why had I come to Swan’s again, especially that night? I could have gone anywhere. I ate slowly, wondering, trying not to look at anyone. I went to the stinking graffiti’d men’s room and splashed water on my face. And after I went back to the table, I stared daggers at my cousin in spite of myself, imagining going up and knocking her off her stool. Ghosts want revenge for what you did to them in life. Grandma believed that. So why wouldn’t Grandma be here, whispering over my shoulder, reminding me that the worst thing you could do besides cursing the birth of a child was refusing to pay respects to the dead?

I thought of the tire iron in my trunk. And although I wasn’t especially violent by nature, violence was part of Swan’s and part of Fresno and part of me. Tonight I could feel it. At one point, Fresno held the distinction of being the murder capital of the country. Swan’s was where the famous Sicilian gangster, Giacomo Portofino killed 27 people in a shootout with the FBI in 1963. People were still impressed by that. Swan’s kept a big happy picture of him drinking a glass of wine framed behind the bar.

Teresa’s laugh rose up over every other sound. She slipped off her bar stool, but the waiter was passing by at that moment and caught her. Everybody laughed and she blew him a kiss. She’d become a person who could laugh like a little bell on the day her grandmother went into the ground. It was a high fake laugh and the guy sitting at the bar next to her laughed too. Then he lit her cigarette. His name was Bruno Frazetti and I knew him from the old days when Teresa and me and a few other cousins of mine lived with Grandma over on Abby Street. That was when everybody was broke—before they laid the freeway in Madera and Grandma sold her empty acres to the Indians so they could put up a casino.

Bruno drove a BMW and thought he was a player. But everything he had was because his father built a box factory in Lemoore and worked himself dead for his family. Bruno had been after Teresa since dirt was dirty. Whenever I laid eyes on him, I thought he was pathetic. But I never truly disliked him until I sat in the booth that night at Swan’s, just close enough to listen, and watch them carry on like fools.

Tonight, he wore a long-sleeved red shirt with the cuffs buttoned, a gold Rolex, and designer jeans that barely fit his fat ass. The only thing bigger than Bruno’s clothes budget was his cocaine budget. But that had never been my business.

They didn’t notice me because they were sitting facing the bar. Teresa had a halo of cigarette smoke over her head. And even in the gloom of that stinking place, I could see the glittery material of her blue dress was the same color as her lipstick. I looked around and recognized a few more faces. It was a large circular building and had probably been something special back in the 1950s when it opened. There was a bar on one side, booths around the circumference of the floor, and a big dance area in the middle where people stood with their drinks and didn’t dance. Instead, they moved around, from one booth to another, into the crowd, back to the bar.

There were regulars and college kids from Fresno State who thought it was a cool dive. And then there were the drug dealers, who never used to be there a generation before. And every other girl was working. Still, it might have had character if it hadn’t smelled like old rot and rancid crotch and a hundred stale beers. The smell stayed with you even after you showered. I hated Swan’s, but I always wound up there.

“Isn’t he funny? He’s funny!” My cousin slapped Bruno on the back and the tall geeky-looking blond guy hovering around behind her tried to cut in said yeah he’s funny. Bruno was laughing the hardest, which meant he’d probably told a joke. His jokes were vulgar and not very complicated. After a few hours in his presence, you felt like your IQ was getting the same way.

“Hey, but that’s the truth. That’s real,” Bruno said.

“Seriously,” said the blond guy, who seemed familiar to me; though, I was sure we’d never met. “It’s just an urban legend. A myth.”

“Myth? Get the fuck out, man. No myth.” Bruno tipped back his beer and glared while he did it. He was fat, yes, but he was fast. He could snake his fist up under the blond guy’s chin before he knew what hit him. I’d never get near Bruno in a fight. I’d stand back and maybe hit him with a chair like Sam Trevino did once when we were ten and he caught Bruno stealing pomelos out the back of his mom’s yard. Sam picked up a patio chair and swung before Bruno saw him coming because Sam knew. But the blonde guy didn’t know his ass from a turnip.

Teresa turned around on her stool, winked at blondie, then patted his arm. “Yeah, why don’t you buy me another drink? That would be mythical.” Everybody laughed, even the blonde guy; though his eyes darted between Bruno and Teresa before he called over to the bartender, whose name was David. I knew him, too.

Fresno had 480,000 people but, in many ways, it was still a small town. In certain places, everybody knew everybody. And at Swan’s, on any given night, minus some of the newer drug dealers, some of the hookers, and the fraternity knuckleheads, you could probably find no more than three or four degrees of separation between anybody there. When we were kids, there was nothing to do but go to the movies or have a ditch party out in the vineyards. And then, when we got a little older, there was Swan’s. But I didn’t have one happy memory connected to it. I drank there maybe four or five nights a month and regretted it as much as anyone else.

I was sipping a second glass of wine that tasted like it had enough formaldehyde in it to preserve my internal organs in the pyramids, when Pia Burke and her drug dealer boyfriend, Vincent, sat down across from me.

“Hey, Mikey,” she said. “You mind if we share your booth?”

Pia had kinky hair teased into ringlets around her pretty heart-shaped face. I’d always thought she was a nice girl, but she had lousy taste in men. For example, Vincent. I’d seen him in Swan’s for about a year. He was in his early twenties, which meant he was probably ten or more years younger than Pia, who was around my age. She’d been dating one of Bruno’s friends before she met Vincent. Now she seemed stoned all the time. And Vincent was clearly an idiot.

“Sup esse.” He nodded to me when he sat down, then tilted his head back and squinted his eyes. He dressed like a Cholo with his hair slicked back, flannel shirt buttoned at the top, and greasy black jeans. But Vincent was a white guy. His first name wasn’t really Vincent. His last name was “Holland” or “Boland” or something like that.

“How’s work?” Vincent asked.

“Work’s work.”

He nodded, still squinting. “How’s life, though?

“It’s taking forever.”

“Huh. No shit.”

Sometimes I saw people at Swan’s I’d known in high school. Now that we were all in our thirties, I didn’t see them as often. I worked about an hour north in a town called Oakhurst for a divorce lawyer who had a drug problem and was cheating on her husband. People I knew saw me in Swan’s and asked how my law practice was because they didn’t know what a paralegal actually did. I’d always say business was business. They’d ask how life was. I’d say it’s taking forever. And I’d tell myself that one day I’d meet a nice girl and move out of the detached maid’s quarters behind Grandma’s house in the Tower District. But then I’d look around Swan’s and see the same old faces with the same old lusts doing the same old bullshit.

Pia had a beer, which she turned in place on the table with both hands as if she were tuning into a special frequency that only Budweiser could receive. “Hey Mikey, isn’t that your cousin, Teresa, over there?” She raised her eyebrows, then glanced at Vincent.

I looked over at Teresa for a long moment like I was trying to determine if it was really her. “Could be,” I said. “Looks a lot like her.”

Vincent nodded: the sage Cholo grandfather. Pia looked at me for a moment, then grinned. Her eyes were bloodshot. She had a smoker’s cough. “Ah, you see that, Vin. Mikey’s cooler than a cucumber. He sees Teresa up there with them dirty boys and he’s like, no problem, I’m cool. See that?”

“Dunno,” Vincent said. “Looks fucked up to me.”

I nodded. “Very fucked up, Vincent.”

Pia shook her head in the slow, dreamy way of those who’ve smoked one bowl more than usual. “I know you. I know your game. See, Vin, I know what he’s about. He’s waiting for all them to get drunk as fuck. Then he’s going to grab his cousin before they can do those nasty things to her. Am I right?”

“How’d you know?”

Pia grinned at her beer and turned it. “Because I know. See what I’m saying, Vin? Mikey’s cool.”

Vincent nodded. “Cool.” And then: “Hey, esse, you smoke?”

“I’m trying to quit.”

“No. Do you smoke?”

I shook my head. “The most I do these days is drink this shitty wine.”

“You got that right,” Pia said. “That wine tastes like hospital ass.”

“Sure does,” I poured myself a third glass.

They both got up. “We love you, Mikey. Don’t we, Vin?”

Vincent squinted at me. “He’s alright.”

They made their way to the bar. People had shifted around, blocking my view of Teresa. Suddenly, it seemed as if everything had been partially muted, like I was in a glass bubble while the world flowed around it. I tried to determine whether I was really going to say something to my cousin. This was getting set to be the worst day of my life, a day so bad it didn’t seem real.

The crowd was migrating around the bar more feverishly than usual. It might have been the full moon or the fact that payday had just happened. But the drinkers seemed agitated. A prostitute named Linda was in the booth next to mine, rubbing up against three college guys in sweatshirts and baseball caps. They looked like inbred triplets—agriculture science majors at State with just enough genetic diversity to let them know which lever to pull on the tractor. Linda was smiling and chewing on a strand of her blue-black hair while she listened to one of them explain something fascinating. She was cheerful because she knew she was going to rob them blind.

Things had shifted in my cousin’s situation. Now blondie was sitting on the barstool and she was in his lap, her arm around his shoulders. She held a Cosmo in that hand and leaned in close by his lips every time she took a drink. Bruno stood off to the side, ranting into his cellphone over the noise of the crowd. He wasn’t happy, but really, who was?

When they’d lowered Grandma’s coffin into the grave is when things started to seem unreal. I’d begun to feel like I wasn’t really there. I never knew my dad and my mother had died from cancer when I was six. I had no memory of her funeral. But I knew Grandma’s service would be etched into my mind for the rest of my life. And now I was at Swan’s as if nothing had happened. And Teresa was here, caging drinks off potential johns and working them up to a lather where they wanted a piece so bad they wouldn’t mind paying for it.

Lost in my thoughts, I didn’t notice Bruno, Teresa, and blondie until they were standing at the table, looking down at me.

“Well, well,” Bruno said. “He lives.”

“Pia said you were over here. But I thought she must be full of bullshit if my own cousin was here and he didn’t come up to say hi.”

“Hi Teresa. Bruno.” I nodded to the blond guy, who nodded back.

“This is Mikey. Mikey meet Darren.”

Then I realized why Darren had seemed oddly familiar to me when I’d first saw him. “You’re the weather report guy. On YouTube.”

Darren turned pink up to his hairline. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Sure you do. The guy on YouTube who always says, ‘This is what they said the weather would be. This is what it is’ with that bike horn. And you’re up on some roof in San Francisco and you show the sky and make jokes.”

He looked down at me and pressed his lips together. “You got the wrong guy, bud.”

“For real?” Bruno said. “Here, Mikey, find it.” He sneered at Darren and handed me his phone. The little browser was already loading YouTube.

“Lemme sit,” Teresa said. “I need to talk with my cousin. Family shit. Guys, go get us some drinks.”

Bruno and Darren both scowled at her. Then they went to opposite ends of the bar and eyed each other over the crowd.

“He really is the guy,” I said.

Teresa sighed and put her face in her hands. “Why are you here?”

“I come here, too.”

“I haven’t seen you around in like four weeks.”

“I haven’t seen you around at all.” I felt ready to burst. I felt like I might come across the table and grab her by the hair if she asked me where I’d been one more time. I wanted to tell her about Grandma and slap her face. I thought I should. I thought it might be the right thing to do. But seeing her in Swan’s hustling morons, after what happened today, I felt like I had a stone in my throat. I just looked at her. And she looked at me. And I knew she didn’t even know Grandma had died.

A few more people recognized me and came over to say their condolences. Teresa glared at them all.

“Who died?” she asked.

I just looked at her.

Part of me wanted to tell her that I’d made the right arrangements, that everything had gone the way Grandma would have wanted it. But another part of me felt that Teresa didn’t deserve to know. I saw to it that Grandma had a full Italian Catholic funeral with the auto procession and the roses on the casket and the Latin mass. It was very expensive. I paid for the whole thing. And the fucking priest was a real prick about the service, especially considering all the donations Grandma had made after she got rich. Probably thirty or forty people showed up for the service. When my grandfather died about seven years ago, maybe twelve people were there including me and Grandma. She got him a cheap aluminum casket and a wreath came from the Knights of Columbus. Then again, he was my grandmother’s second husband and wasn’t Italian. So he’d never really been accepted as a member of the family, even by Grandma. I had hoped my family would have acted better with each other just for one day. But I always forget who they really are inside.

Teresa was no different. She’d been putting away drinks like a machine. It was so awful, it was almost funny. I’d never heard of someone hooking on the day of their grandmother’s funeral. Teresa turned twenty-five in a couple of weeks. She was supposed to be in Florida still going to college. But now she’d turn twenty-five in Fresno, knowing she’d hooked instead and missed the funeral of the woman who’d mostly raised her.

“This is freaking me out,” she said. “Who dropped dead?”

“Who do you think dropped dead?”

“Shit, I dunno, Mikey. That’s why I’m asking. It was Uncle Jeff’s wife, wasn’t it? That fucking Lena. Anorexic bitch. Probably forgot to eat for a month.”

The truth was right in front of her. But Teresa would have believed that aliens had come down and abducted half the family before facing the fact that Grandma was gone.

When she was nineteen, Teresa moved to Miami to live with her stepfather who worked in a bank. Her mother, my aunt Cecilia, had moved out of grandma’s house and was getting high every day at that point and didn’t care. So Teresa just left without telling anybody. I didn’t see her for years. But then she was back. Just like that. All grown up. And her being in town was supposed to be a big secret. She didn’t tell anybody, not even me. I had to run into her down at the Fulton Mall one day outside a pawn shop.

“Mikey,” she’d said, “not a fucking word to my mom that I’m back.”

“I haven’t seen her. I’m taking care of Grandma now.”

“Yeah? Good.” She gave me her card. It said she was a massage therapist.

I asked her where she worked and all she said was “Outcall only.”

Back then, I was naïve enough to think she must be doing alright and to wonder what her grim look meant. When I mentioned it to Grandma, she just shook her head and said, “That little putanalia won’t get a dime out of me.” That’s when I knew Teresa must have gone down the wrong road and that her frown had probably meant something along those lines. Grandma was never wrong about things like that. What would Grandma say about this situation, I wondered.

“Mikey,” Teresa said, “Whatever. Let’s not talk about dead bitches. Since you’re here I need a favor.”

We both glanced over at Bruno, who was saying something to the bartender. I typed “crazy weather guy San Francisco” into YouTube. A black dot at the top of the browser blinked along with SEARCHING. I couldn’t see Darren because of all the people getting in the way.

Teresa waved her hand in front of my face and craned her neck like I should have been paying attention. “Hello?”

“You’ve got to be kidding me, Teresa. You want me to do you a favor.”

She shrugged and nodded. “Fucking-A. This is important. It’s money.”

“So, what, you want me to start giving massages?”

She slammed her fist on the table and the heavily tattooed couple now making out in the next booth paused and stared.

“Listen.” Teresa looked over at Bruno again. She lowered her voice. “Darren wants to buy some shit and Bruno’s gonna sell it to him.”

“Drugs? Drug shit? You want me to help you with drug shit, Teresa? Since when is Bruno a drug dealer?”

“Keep your voice down,” she said. “I need the money, Mikey. I can’t even begin to tell you how bad.”

“I don’t know who you are anymore. You’re not my cousin.”

“Look, just fuckin’ shut up, okay? Back me up. That’s all I need you to do. Just this once. For fuck’s sake.”

Bruno came back with a grin and a tray of glasses. “It’s two-for-one vodka tonics.” He set the tray on the table. Then he slid into the booth and looked from my cousin to me. “I interrupt something?”

“Bruno, honey, how long have you known me? You know I don’t drink vodka.”

“Well fuck, Teresa, you told me to go buy drinks. It’s two for fucking one.”

I put the phone on the table in front of Bruno. “It’s him alright.”

When he looked at the phone, he immediately forgot he was irritated and his grin returned. He held it close to his nose. “Well I’ll be damned. He’s a faggot.”

“He’s not a faggot,” Teresa said, drinking a whole vodka tonic and putting the empty glass back on the tray. She wrinkled up her nose. “Oh, I hate that shit.”

“Yep. Faggot,” Bruno said. “Hey Mikey, look at this.” Bruno held the phone close to my face so I could hear the audio. Darren was on the roof of a building in downtown San Francisco. He was wearing an oversized brown sport coat and his hair was dyed green. He was talking in a Kermit the Frog voice about how the weather man was an idiot. He had a bicycle horn that he used as punctuation: “Partly cloudy with a 60% chance of rain? Jim, Jim, Jim. Why do you lie to us, Jim? Look at this blue sky!” Then he honked the horn. When the wind picked up he said, “Whoa!” and honked the horn twice over his head.

“What’s up?” said Darren as he came over to the table. On the video, he looked like a bad cable access comedian. Here Darren was tall and thin in a nice polo shirt and jeans. But it was him. He looked pale and wary now, his mouth was set in a hard frown like he’d been in the bathroom thinking things over. He’d also taken advantage of the two-for-one vodka tonics and had bought a tray. Between us, we now had eleven mixed drinks.

“Nothing.” Teresa took the phone away from Bruno and clicked it off.

“Oh shit, guys, sorry. If I’d have known you’d already bought all that, you know.” Because the booth was shaped like a big horseshoe, there was just enough room for Darren to edge in. Bruno didn’t want to scoot over, but Teresa glared at him and so he shook his head and moved a foot in my direction. Then he turned his head towards me and mouthed, faggot.

I should have stopped with the wine, but I started drinking vodka tonics. A person should never do this. It will make you sick and bring you bad luck. And for me it was even more terrible than that because whenever I drank hard liquor in any quantity, I eventually blacked out.

I’d wake up the next day without my keys or my wallet, wads of receipts in my pockets, and weird things strewn around my living room, things I’d taken out of people’s front yards. I once found a racing bike balanced upside down on my kitchen table. Another time, three potted ferns sitting in my bathtub, all watered. I was afraid that if I kept drinking like that, one day I’d wake up covered in somebody’s blood. But I felt terrible already. The drinks tasted terrible, too.

“Well, I got these ones for me and Mikey. Teresa don’t drink vodka. So that means those are for you,” Bruno said.

Darren nodded and looked away. In jail, he’d be the one who got sold for a pack of smokes. The way he peeked at Bruno, I could see he was afraid of the fat bastard, ready to jump up, keeping the corner of his eye on him at all times. I could see a lot of things—like maybe Darren had wanted to get some outcall from my cousin and maybe she’d talked him into some drug shit in the process. Or maybe Bruno thought that by being Mr. Drug Dealer with the Big Balls he was finally going to get her in bed for nothing and at least be able to close that chapter of his stupid unfulfilled past.

What I couldn’t see was the right thing to do for Grandma in this situation. I’d taken care of her for so long but now, at the most critical moment—when she wasn’t here to give me advice or even pat my arm, like she did toward the end, to thank me for feeding her some soup—I was failing her miserably. Grandma wouldn’t be sitting at Swan’s with these idiots. She’d call Teresa a putanalia and go on home and that would be the end of it.

We are the custodians of our loved ones. We carry their memories like precious cargo in our hearts, the priest had said. It might have been the only good thing he’d said in his whole funeral sermon. It stayed with me, though I didn’t think those lines were worth the seven grand I’d paid the diocese the week before. They should have had a fucking string section for that much. Woodwinds. Kids with incense burners on long chains and old guys holding up statues of the Blessed Virgin. Instead, everyone drove their cars in the procession to Lady of Victory. The priest was just a kid. His last name was McLeary. He had red hair and freckles and he looked about twenty-eight.

“We shouldn’t get too fucked up,” Teresa said. “There’s that thing.”

Bruno took a sip. “Yeah, that thing.” He looked at me. “You know about that thing, Mikey?”

I nodded.

“About that. I don’t know if—“

“Shut up, weathervane. Drink your shit.”

Darren shut up and drank. Teresa looked between them, her brow furrowed. She nudged me with her foot under the table. “I want Mikey to come along.”

“Oh yeah?” Bruno put his arm around me. He smelled like old sweat and too much Polo. “You want to come along, Mikey Mike?”

“It’s good,” she said, “’cause he’s a lawyer.”

Bruno nodded, took his arm back, and lit a cigarette. “That’s good. That’s what we need. Right, weathervane?” He blew smoke in Darren’s face. “I forgot that about you, Mikey. How’s business?”

“Business is business,” I said.

“Goddamn. That’s just what a lawyer would say.”

So we drank. I stopped at three, when my vision started clouding. Bruno and my cousin polished off the first tray and saw to it that Darren drank all the drinks off the second. He vomited once beside the booth. Nobody noticed but me. When we went out to the parking lot, it took Bruno a long time to find his 750i. He fell a couple times. Darren sat on the ground and put his head between his knees.

By the time Bruno’s headlights went on at the back of the lot that Swan’s shared with five other businesses, I had Yellow Cab on the line. But Teresa was getting her second wind. She grabbed my phone out of my hands and put it in her pocket.

“No you don’t,” she said. “You’re always backing out on me, Mikey. Not tonight. I need you on this.”

“I won’t be any good to you messed up.”

“Bruno likes you. Just make sure he doesn’t do something stupid and everybody gets paid.”

“But I don’t get paid. And I think there’s something important I need you to know, Teresa.”

“You owe me,” she said.

My mouth was dry. I had an upset stomach and the ground was tilting to the left. “No, really. I’m gonna call a Yellow Cab and then I’m gonna tell you something I need to tell you.”

“I don’t think so. And don’t act drunk. Somebody needs to be sober besides me.”

Bruno pulled the car over and we got in—me in the front, Teresa holding Darren up in the back. Then we swerved onto Belmont Avenue.

“Don’t drive fast,” I said.

Bruno punched down on the horn and held his fist there for two blocks. Then he yawned as if nothing had happened. “It’s my fuckin’ car, Mikey.”

Nobody said anything after that. We drove down Belmont, made a left on Blackstone and a left on Clinton. In the process, we passed the old place on Abby. I turned around in my seat to say something about it, but my cousin was busy making out with Darren, who may or may not have known what he was doing. I turned back around. Bruno hadn’t noticed. He had his head resting against the glass of the driver’s side window.

When we made a right on Maroa, I couldn’t take it anymore. I had to ask: “Where exactly is the drug shit located?”

I imagined low-riders, deserted parking structures, crack houses with tatted-up Cholos sitting on porches. But we were now in one of the nicer areas of Fresno—Fig Garden. The streets were heavily treed and there were big old houses there from the thirties and forties that people still took care of. During the day, you saw golden retrievers and kids on bikes.

“My mom’s house.” Bruno burped.

And that’s exactly where we went. I hadn’t been there in twenty years, but the same pair of enormous plaster lions were still on either side of the red brick walk. The wide lawn that sloped up to the front door was precisely detailed just as it had always been. And the columns in the Colonial façade were pure white, clean like cleash, as Grandma used to say. She’d never liked any of Bruno’s family except his dad. And even then, she’d only approved of him because he’d worked himself to death at fifty-three—something she thought was an admirable thing all men should try to do. I might have been the only male on the planet that my grandmother had ever truly liked. Then again, she hadn’t liked most women, either.

Bruno parked at the curb and we filed silently up the front walk—four vodka-laced ghosts looking for dope at midnight in Fresno, California. He lurched left and right while he tried to fish his house key out of his pants. I came next. Then Teresa and Darren, who was holding onto her arm with both hands. There were lights set in the lawn every few feet and, as we passed through them, I had a sense that something awful was about to happen, something shameful.

I wasn’t a superstitious person. If you’d asked me, I would have said I supported science and antibiotics and things like that. But I still believed in god. And between the four of us, I felt we might have each committed sins of Old Testament magnitude in our short lives. My cousin alone surely rated her own plague of locusts.

I felt tired and worried and not right in the head. So I said a prayer to Grandma’s spirit: Dear Grandma, help me out like you always did when you were alive. I know I’ve failed you and Teresa is a putanalia, but we know not what we do. So please help if you can. I don’t want to get arrested tonight or die caught up in some drug shit. Amen.

The house had a security alarm. Bruno forgot the code and had to put in ten different combinations before he got it right, cussing and bitching the whole time. My cousin and Darren were standing on the bottom steps of the porch, hugging each other and making out like kids in the back of a high school dance. Darren seemed about to collapse at any moment. I couldn’t see what was motivating my cousin to keep on with him. Was he some kind of long-term project? Some kind of secret billionaire?

Sometimes, I wondered how it all worked. My cousin met them all at Swan’s and went from man to man, took referrals. She once said she had regulars who paid her bills and took her out to dinner. She said they were all clean and nice and the worst thing you could say about them was that they were all married to ugly hateful bitches.

Teresa told me these things on the night she called me in tears from the Greyhound Bus station in Baltimore. She wouldn’t say how she got way out there, but she asked could I please wire her some money for a ride back to California? I bought her a flight instead. First class. And I wired her some money for new clothes so she wouldn’t look run down when she got on the plane. I thought it might have been a new beginning for her. But she just said thanks Mikey and told me that one of her regulars would get her at the airport. And all I could think of was Grandma’s old Italian slang. Putanalia. Putanalia momps. Big prostitute.

After Bruno got the alarm turned off, he had to undo the five door locks and wait in the doorway for his mother’s Chihuahua, Little, to come up and sniff his hand. Then we were in and Bruno shut the door softly behind us. He told Teresa to sit on the marble bench by the door and she guided Darren to it. Then Bruno grabbed my arm. “Let’s go quiet,” he whispered.

We crept up the grand staircase to the second floor balustrade, past the big chandelier that hung halfway from the ceiling, gleaming and flickering in the dark like a crystal explosion. Bruno led me down a hallway carpeted with a Persian runner and six-foot high Chinese vases that sprouted afros of dried brown reeds. The house was nice, but it smelled like dust, mildew, cleanser, like a bad scene getting worse. If you’d overflowed the toilets and smoked a few cartons of cigarettes, the place would have smelled just like Swan’s at bar time.

When I’d last been to the house, I hadn’t seen the extent of the whole place. I’d only stood in the entryway for a few minutes waiting for Bruno to come down. He’d been a lot thinner back then when we were kids and spent extra time on his appearance. While I waited, his mom had given me a glass of lemonade and a cookie. She listened to a lot of opera. I remember it piped through the house on a sound system, like the whole house was singing La Traviata.

“Where are we going?” I whispered, but Bruno just shushed me and motioned for me to follow. We turned down another hallway identical to the previous one, stopping at the end. The door had a gold knob and it squeaked when Bruno opened it. He held his finger to his lips. Inside, his mom was in bed, hooked up to a respirator. When she inhaled, the rubber bellows on the machine compressed with a soft hiss. There were other machines—a full row on either side of the bed. Everything had tiny winking lights and digital displays. Cables crisscrossed the floor like vines. I was afraid to move in case I accidentally ripped out some cord and Bruno’s mother, Josephina, died in screaming convulsions.

Bruno also stepped very carefully. I got the impression he’d done this before. He picked his way around the medical machinery towards the cart of medications against the far wall. He’d spent his whole life tiptoeing around this enormous house. And he was still doing it. Only now, at age thirty-two, instead of stealing money out of his mother’s purse he was taking her dope. Bruno got a large Tupperware container from below the medication cart and pulled up the lid on one end. Inside were what looked like several hundred blister trays of pills. He grinned at me and put a few handfuls in his pockets.

His mother didn’t stir. All she did was breathe through her machine. I wondered if she went far from her bed these days or if she ever left the house. How could she exist hooked up to all that shit? Would Bruno invite me to her funeral along with Teresa? Would I go? Would my worthless cousin wear a modest black dress and a veil, put a bouquet of lilies on Josephina Frazetti’s coffin, and say the Ave Marias and the Acts of Contrition like she should have done today with her own family?

On our way out, Bruno barked his shin on a TV table by the door that had his mother’s cosmetics on it arranged like a museum display. It rattled and a couple of lipsticks fell over. He gasped. His eyes got big and he looked over his shoulder at his mother, whose breathing hiss in the machine had sped up. He pushed me into the hallway ahead of him. Then we paused and listened.

There was a storm of coughing and the sound of her hacking up phlegm. “Bruno? Bruno, it’s dark. Is that you? Bruno?” Josephina Frazetti’s voice was thin and hoarse, nothing like the way I remembered her—a tall Italian lady with big hair, always laughing with a Pall Mall between her fingers and something wonderful simmering in the kitchen. Now her voice had the grave in it. It was like the old folks used to say, La morte e la sorte stanno dietro la porta. Death and fate are always waiting behind the door. And behind that door: a ghost from the past with only machines and pill boxes for company. No wonder she was dying. Bruno put one hand against the door to steady himself and covered his face with the other.

There were many moments in my life of which I had not been very proud. But I thought that stealing hydrocodone from a sick old lady who used to give me lemonade and cookies when I was ten years old might have qualified me as a bastard among bastards. When we got to the bottom of the stairs, I put my hand on Bruno’s shoulder.

“Hey, man, you sure about this? Why is she sick, anyway? Was it the smoking?”

He straightened his shirt, retucking it under his belly and mopped his face with his hand one more time. Then he looked at me for a moment and his mouth twisted into a sneer. “What are you, Madam Butterfly?”

“Where do you get this shit, Bruno? That’s a musical.”

“See, Mikey, only you would know that. She ain’t gonna miss it.” Bruno pulled out a blister tray and handed it to me. “They bring it by the box load. If she took all the shit they bring her, she’d be up there with Jimi Hendrix and the angels.”

I looked back at the chandelier and thought of spiders that die in their webs. I’d seen that once when I was a kid. A hairy garden spider built a big web in the top corner of my bedroom window. Then one day it must have gotten sick because it slumped. A few hours later, it was hanging inverted by a single strand, its legs open like fingers from an upturned palm. It stayed there, perfectly still, for days.

“I remember her from when we were kids. It just doesn’t feel right, you know? ”

“That’s cause you’re a herd animal, Mikey. You baa with the sheep. You gotta think outside the box.” Bruno took a cigarette out and held it to his lips. But then he remembered where he was and put it behind his ear.

“You don’t need the money,” I said.

“Nothing’s ever about money.” We went outside and he began locking all five deadbolts quietly behind us. “It’s about power. Doing whatever the fuck you want to do. But that’s fine, Mikey. Not everyone can be an alpha.”

We found Teresa and Darren down on the street, leaning against Bruno’s car. They were holding hands and they both looked relatively sober. When Darren saw us, he gritted his teeth like he’d swallowed a live eel and it was trying to find its way out.

“Here you go, Meteor Man.” Bruno took the blister trays out of his pockets and handed them to Darren. Then he squinted like Vincent the fake Cholo and crossed his arms. I wondered if Vincent and Bruno watched the same movies.

“So pay up.”

Darren nodded and fished a wad of bills out of his pocket. He wobbled a little, but Teresa held him steady.

“No,” Bruno said. “Give it to her.”

Like a robot, Darren obeyed.

“That’s $500,” Teresa said. “Don’t you want any?”

Bruno frowned, took the cigarette from behind his ear and lit up. “Come on Teresa. You know you need it.”

She hugged him. He hugged her back with one arm, holding his cigarette out to the side. Bruno’s expression glazed and he seemed for a moment like that smirking moonfaced kid who’d get in a fight with you one day and come by the next to show you his pet frog.

“Thank you,” Teresa said.

He cleared his throat and puffed on his cigarette. “Don’t mention it. You could have asked in the first place and I’d have given you the money.”

When my cousin hugged him a second time, he added, “But this makes sense, right? Haley’s Comet over here needs his drugs.”

“Look,” Darren said, holding his hands up. “I’ve been taking a lot of shit from you all night.”

“Grew a pair, huh?”

Teresa stepped between them. “Get in the car, Darren.”

“Yeah, Star Chart, get in the fuckin’ car. Or don’t. I don’t give a shit.”

After a moment of staring, Darren went along.

“See that, Mikey? I could tell him, go fuck that lamp post and he’d probably do it.”

I nodded, thinking about what I’d seen pass between Bruno and my cousin, wondering what I felt. He hugged me with one arm and Teresa with the other.

“Back to Swan’s!” he said.

“Back to Swan’s!” Teresa clenched her fist in the air, her other hand clutching the tiny inner pocket in the side of her dress where she’d slipped the money.

There was an hour left until bar time, but the same crowd was still there, the funk of body odor and cheap cologne, the lot packed with cars. Darren wobbled to his Jetta as soon as we got out. He wanted Teresa to come with him, but she said she had some things to take care of and she’d call him tomorrow.

“Good riddance, pissant,” Bruno called at his back. I guess Darren had had a difficult night—difficult enough that he no longer felt up to fisticuffs. He went over to the Jetta, got in, and swerved out of the lot without making eye contact. I didn’t think we’d see more of Darren the YouTube weather man. He didn’t live in town and he was already blackballed. Bruno would keep calling him names until complete strangers started asking him if he was that kid named Star Chart. And no woman would want to be seen with a guy named Star Chart unless he was paying her. And even then.

We got a table and more drinks until Teresa found one of her regulars and said she was leaving with him. I felt a sense of panic when she said it, thinking that the last chance to tell her about Grandma was passing by. But I didn’t know what was going on inside me, what new thing had coiled up where my anger had been. I felt a tear roll down my cheek, but my cousin didn’t see it and I wiped it away. She was busy tying her hair back, telling me I could call her next week and we could talk about whatever was so damn important.

I said okay, that I would, knowing I wouldn’t. Then it was just me and Bruno, who proceeded to drink as much as humanly possible in the remaining forty minutes before bar time. At one point, he forgot that Teresa had left and he walked all around Swan’s yelling her name. He even stumbled into the ladies’ room and sent a few angry girls in CSU Fresno sweatshirts running out, complaining to David the bartender that Bruno was kicking the stalls in calling for some chick. He sat across the booth from me and wept. He told me he loved me. He said he was going to buy a big house in Alaska where we could all live together like a family and get drunk whenever we wanted. He asked me if I thought Darren hated him.

“You know,” I said, “I can’t tell anymore.”

Bruno nodded. “Who can?”

At bar time, Swan’s kicked everyone out—a ragtag group of freaks like extras in a late-night movie about zombies from Mars. Their cars lurched out of the lot in all directions. Bruno went to sleep in his BMW.

I wandered the black streets of downtown Fresno, unsure of where I was or where I had to go, my only memory of what I did for the rest of that night being the moment I looked up at the sky. It was late enough that I could see the tiny pale stars winking like the lights in Josephina Frazetti’s bedroom. And like Mrs. Frazetti, I might have called out to those lights in a feeble sick voice, hoping someone would answer.

 

 

BIO

Michael DavisMichael Davis’ short fiction has appeared in Descant, The San Joaquin Review, The Jabberwock Review, The Black Mountain Review, Eclipse, Cottonwood, The Mid-American Review, Full Circle, Hayden’s Ferry Review, The Georgia Review, Storyglossia, The Chicago Quarterly Review, Willow Springs, The Normal School, Arcana, The Superstition Review, The New Ohio Review, The Painted Bride Quarterly, The Atticus Review, Isthmus, the Earlyworks Press Short Story Anthology, Redline, and Small Print Magazine. His collection of stories, Gravity, was published by Carnegie Mellon UP in 2009. He has an MFA in fiction writing from the University of Montana and a PhD in English from Western Michigan University. He lives in Bangkok where he is a lecturer in English at Stamford International University.

 

 

 

 

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.

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.

 

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.

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.

 

 

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.

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

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.

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

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.

 

 

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.

 

 

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

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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