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Charles Lowe

Dear Mrs. Wei Wei

by Charles Lowe

 

I am a graduate student in my mid thirties living in the U.S. with a dining common worker from a district shaped like a dumpling in the north of China and have, for some time, been worried – even before she told me her ex wanted an interview with me before the two of us could get married, an announcement greatly troubling as I was unaware that I was both a candidate for marriage and a candidate to marry a woman who was still seeking advice from her ex.

“You afraid to meet?” Mrs. Wei Wei asked.

“Of course not, I’m busy correcting the first batch of papers,” I said, “on the most significant event in a student’s life.”

“Don’t worry,” Mrs. Wei Wei smiled.

“I’m not,” I smiled. “I know who Mrs. Wei Wei is,” which was true. Mrs. Wei Wei was the pen name my possibly soon-to-be wife took when she wrote an advice column for The Tianjin Daily. Her readers also called her the Good or Wise Auntie or the Queen of Dumplings on account of the culinary references spicing up her column.

The first I saw of the Good or Wise Auntie of Tianjin was inside an album Mrs. Wei Wei showed me on our second date. The album was moldy from having been stored beneath a bed she and her sister had shared. It had a bent corner either from its journey from the Machang District to graduate housing in UMASS or from a smaller yet less well insulated travel cross town from campus housing to a sublet, which she shared with a Born Again couple until she moved in with me.

Each plastic envelope held a photo. The first showed Mrs. Wei Wei with her mother next to a Ferris wheel near the Hai River. Mrs. Wei Wei’s mother had broad shoulders and a face touched by sunlight mixed with gravelly soot. An inky swirl overlapped the thin eyelids of the Good or Wise Auntie enough so that I didn’t recognize the Queen of Dumplings until I spotted a smile surfacing on the edges of her lips. The second flap was empty. The third showed Mrs. Wei Wei in a gray factory uniform. A line looking like a thread was stuck to the edge of one sleeve. Mrs. Wei Wei’s roommate at college was in a fourth posing in front of a mirror, but flipping through the other pages I did not find evidence of the man I was to replace, assuming Mrs. Wei Wei’s choice met with the first Mr. Wei Wei’s approval.

Of course, my possible future wife had not always been Mrs. Wei Wei. Her preparation for the role started one Friday evening when at age six she was entrusted with pinching together the ends of the rice dumpling wrappers: a task which afforded her the chance to listen in on the advice ladled out in equal portions to her relatives in Tianjin, Shenzhen, as well as a few in a beach suburb of LA. While slicing the pork and scallions as well as preparing the vinegar and soy sauce, her Auntie espoused on the medical efficacy of ginger to heal a romantic wound. Her mother, sister, and uncle took turns molding the dough from scratch while each furnished a point on the significance of good planning: the principle applied in equal measure to the use of yeast in helping the rice dough rise and to the employment of favors, guanxi, to facilitate a deal with a municipal government official.

But while her mom, sis, and uncle as well as auntie all had a significant impact on her columns, her elder cousin was the most profound influence. The cousin had risen to be the Assistant Loan Office at HSBC, a noted criminal enterprise in the district, and had acquired over a steady climb a well-measured understanding over how to prepare advice that could burn off a tongue. Her favorite piece was THE TALLEST BLADE OF GRASS HAS ONLY ONE DESTINY. The cousin made a slicing motion down her right breast so as to complete the thought before adding extra ginger for mom’s but not uncle’s dipping sauce.

Mrs. Wei Wei recalled the heaps of ginger that scorched her cousin’s sauce when she was biking in late March during the windstorm season when a curtain of soot and dust descended onto Tianjin. Mrs. Wei Wei was a cub reporter and was weaving out of traffic: one hand on the loose handlebar of her used Schwinn. The other hand she used to push aside a curtain blanketing her eyelids when a truck, carrying used tires, hit a motorized cycle to Mrs. Wei Wei’s right, crushing one spoke but leaving the cyclist undamaged. Mrs. Wei Wei considered then asking the chief editor for a post that did not involve chasing down factory managers on a used Schwinn with loosely attached handlebars throughout the Nankai and Machang Districts.  But she remembered the destiny of a tall grass blade and pedaled through a few more storms none so severe as the first. After swerving one time around an accident committed by a cute Lada, Mrs. Wei Wei returned to a washroom where as the sole woman on staff, she felt entitled to a bit of privacy.

The news she heard, while dislodging the mix of soot, dust, and gravel from her right pant leg, was not especially memorable.  The present Mrs. Wei Wei was toasting the chief editor for his generosity in agreeing to let the advice columnist transfer to the business page. The six preceding Mrs. Wei Wei’s had all managed in the course of six months to transition out of the Health & Science page to departments as varied as travel and hygiene. None of these gentlemen wanted to remain a good or wise auntie, apportioning out common or uncommon sense to the teenage and twenty something women who composed Mrs. Wei Wei’s primary audience. “But I am thinking,” Mrs. Wei Wei added in a voice soft enough not to wake her Born Again housemates, “maybe my elder cousin is wrong. I know that sounds ridiculous. A Junior Loan Officer from HSBC wrong, but anyway to be the taller blade may be worth the chance. I am taller than the average girl in the Machang and Nankai Districts and am tired of pedaling through a thick mix of soot and gravel.

“Without much preparation, I rush out the washroom to offer the services of a family of Mrs. Wei Wei’s. The Chief Editor pretends not to see the toilet paper, which I later find clings to my black corduroys, and declares ‘you can be Mrs. Wei Wei for now.’

“Okay, the edges of my dry lips tighten. I am still a reporter. So I still have to drive through a mix of soot and gravel to discover a factory that through its workers’ collective efforts has overtaken a counterpart in Liverpool, England. I clutch onto the handlebars that have loosened again on Race Course Avenue and arrive at mommy’s where I take over the mixing duties while Miss HSBC (my cus’ nickname) offers help on how to inflate travel receipts, the critical attribute of a junior loan officer, so I cannot be Mrs. Wei Wei until 10 when I return to our apartment. The husband isn’t back from the library—and can start the advice. The girl wants a hukou.”

“What’s that?” I asked.

“A residence permit, they’re impossible for a country girl from Henan to get unless she bonds with a fellow with legal status. So that’s what I tell her. Find a legal boy. Better if he’s a blade of grass that’s slightly confused. Fix yourself on him. Don’t let go. After signing off for the first time as Mrs. Wei Wei, I feel reasonably satisfied resting on my first husband’s leathery skin, his breathing as if through blades of evenly sliced grass, when I see I may be Mrs. Wei Wei only for a short time. What I will be after? A letter arrives. The note is on a slender sheaf of rice paper.”

Mrs. Wei Wei showed me the rice paper, which was slight enough to crumple up in my palms.

Dear Mrs. Wei Wei, for the past 6 ms, my husband reads to me the dream of the red mansions until I want to get big just to close his thick lower lip. Still my belly is a wide-open valley. We’re living with his Mom who complains she’s had to give up her bed, no reason. Mom tests the mattress. The blanket does have firm corners. Still I haven’t blown up. Am joyless. Mom claims I’m defective and wants to return me to my real mom, but my real mom claims it’s the dumplings my husband’s elder sis’s fed me and has taken to bringing over stinky tofu until my nose blocks up. I’m dead. Mom wants best bed back. What should do?

                                                Lost and Possibly Less a Bed

Mrs. Wei Wei was beaming at me, the ink from the rice paper bleeding into her fingers. “I’m confused,” I said.

“Simple,” Mrs. Wei Wei kept beaming. “The girl is living with her husband’s parents. They’ve given her their bed and hope she can produce a grandson for them as soon as possible.”

“And,” I added, “despite heavy doses of classical literature and traditional cuisine, Ms. Lost and Possibly Less a Bed hasn’t become pregnant, and her in-laws are blaming her.”

“Exactly,” Mrs. Wei Wei tightened the corners of her lips.

“What solution did the Queen of Dumplings serve up?” I smiled.

“Break the skin,” she said, completing her advice with the same slicing motion as her elder cousin had perfected.

“Really,” I took the letter from Mrs. Wei Wei’s hand.

“She’s not been…you know, penetrated.”

“That can happen?”

“Sure. Chinese boys are idiots. We’re all been married to one. The mom is the true problem. She’s going to require physical evidence.”

Mrs. Wei Wei took the letter from my hand.

Dear Lost and Possibly Less a Bed,

            Do not worry. Your problem calls for a simple recipe. Be sure to have the right grip. Put too much inside the wrapper. The dumpling falls apart. Too little mix. It looks like a dead roach. Here’s what you do. Find the fold of skin. If you need help, ask a local auntie. Gently nudge the fold of skin with the tip of a broom handle. If there’s blood, you know the answer. Here’s the answer. Kindly keep a sample hidden in a folded corner of the sheet on your side. Shut the lights off. Second rule. Men want to believe they are in control. Keep the lights off. Mrs. Wei Wei has learnt that destiny through her many experiences, preparing dumplings and salted river fish. After your Mr. Wei Wei starts on top of you, grip his shoulders like you’re holding onto the blade of a butcher’s knife. Guide him over you. Let him believe he is in control, that you are following him, not the other way around. Never scream. He’ll hear his own screams anyhow. When your Mr. Wei Wei is asleep, pour a few droplets of blood near the bottom corner of the bed. Left or right, doesn’t matter? If your mom’s got a maid, let that small potato remove the sheet. If she doesn’t, you do. Make sure to leave the sheet out. Your mom will see the answer. She’ll let you rest comfortably on the best bed. She may fold the top sheet. Soon you’ll be throwing up in a squat down like any other woman. You will be happy.

                                                Yours Mrs. Wei Wei

Mrs. Wei Wei took out a photo. The baby appeared to be a blurry dumpling except the eyes, which were directed at my stomach. “Lost and Possibly Less a Bed has a beautiful baby,” I said.

“That’s Sunny Smile’s,” Mrs. Wei Wei said. “I get about one snap a week. It seems like every countryside girl with a proper hukou in the Machang and Nankai Districts is applying the end of a broom handle.”

“You’re sure that happened?” I asked.

“Truly,” Mrs. Wei Wei beamed. “When these countryside girls arrive in Tianjin, no aunties or moms are around to give them advice. They only have Mrs. Wei Wei. Some of them can’t read, but there’s always a crowd in front of the bulletin board. I use to watch them huddled up, reading me in the park. I really love it and would’ve stayed Mrs. Wei Wei if my husband hadn’t caught me with the Assistant Editor. That doesn’t end it, but it does start the end.”

“Mrs. Wei Wei had an affair,” I asked.

“Doesn’t matter,” Mrs. Wei Wei shook her head. “My first husband believes I have an affair, and I do let the frog-eyed assistant call me to his office every 3 on Friday afternoon.. His nickname is Frog Eyes, but I’m not a Junior Loan Officer at HSBC! I’m the good or wise auntie and patiently listen to Frog Eyes complain about his wife. She’s from Szechuan and very small in size, so understandably, the short girl floods the skin of a river fish with bits of hot peppercorns while everybody knows you use a little salt, which you can hide with snowflake beer. ‘True enough,’ Frog Eyes says with a high squeak, ‘you want some real Tianjinese fish flavored with a mild dash of ginger.’

“His office lacks an open window, so I go along: what else can a Queen of Dumplings do? He doesn’t order fish. We have fried dumplings: the edges burnt. With green tea, lots of the brown leaves getting caught between my teeth, so I tell him quick. I say, my husband is waiting for me (he’s not). Frog Eyes says he understands and starts following me to my apartment even if our fifth floor faces a post office that is on three concrete columns that are chipped like the wok my mom gave to me as a wedding present.

“Frog Eyes tears up, explaining how his short wife once adds salt instead of spicy peppercorn but way over so even the delightful taste of snowflake can’t hide the grains. I rush up the stairs, two at a time, in the shoes Miss HSBC lends me. They’re one size too small, my feet shaking so that though the guy reaches below my flat chest, he strides ahead of me, slowing down enough to relay the time his mother-in-law visits. His short wife truly burns off the old bitch’s tongue with some vinegar wine when we reach the door of my apartment, which I open a little: figuring to keep Frog Eyes out and me in when Frog Eyes falls against the door, his right shoulder scuffing up the thin wood I have scrubbed that morning—and am surprised then to see my first husband turn partway from a bookcase we keep standing with two slender metal poles.

“My first lets his black-framed glasses slope down the bridge of his nose. He has thin wrinkles which deepen along his brow. His eyes are sunk into his skull, his eyebrows look about to vanish.

“I try explaining the exact circumstances starting with the wrestling match with my immediate superior but stop at the point when my feet shake against the wooden stair. No one’s listening. Frog Eyes I guess decides spicy peppercorns aren’t a bad way to scorch a tongue. My first has also fled towards his mother’s villa on Race Course Avenue, though unlike Frog Eye’s wife, the fish his Red Mom serves is heavily salted.

“In any case, I was thinking his Red Mom must be slicing me up like I was a piece of ginger. His Red Mom, coming from a pure Red family and treats me like I am from the black class: which I am, my great-grandfather growing a li of rice in Suzhou, though that fellow loses the small plot in a mahjong game. Anyways, our family owns property three generations back. Hers doesn’t, so whenever Red Mom speaks to her Black Class Daughter, Red Mom makes the mix like an interview, the questions stiff enough so a black class daughter can dust them in midair.

“I make the half hour travel in five, weaving through a wave of bikes, but my first is already behind Red Mom’s custom made door. It has two iron sheets and a turtle cut into its bronze skin. I try shouting the name of her red son into the turtle’s downturned mouth, Shen! No answer. I say, Red Mom, please forgive. This time I look at the door handle which is shaped like a dislocated thumb. Still no answer, and put my fist through the part of the door just below the turtle’s shell until my fist bleeds into the part between the dislocated thumb and the turtle’s downward smile. No answer again. I try all over, figuring I only have to press some more like I’m peddling down Race Course Avenue: one hand gripping the handlebar, the other pushing through a mix of soot and gravelly dust. No answer, I put my head down on the walkway leading to my Red Mom’s four-floor house. The cobblestones feel cold and smooth—when my black class mom digs her fingernails into her younger daughter’s shoulder.   After, drags that daughter back to the daughter and her husband’s fifth-floor apartment next to the three-legged post office. The first Mr. Wei Wei doesn’t return for another week.”

Dear Mrs. Wei Wei,

I received a note once. The note was signed G.B., the initials of my about-to-become ex. The envelope lacked sufficient postage but was meticulously packed with the collection of letters I posted to G.B. over the five years we were together.

“It’s over,” my now ex-girlfriend put down, the ‘o’ and ‘e’ curved in a precise manner, though the ‘t’ had a ridge squiggling onto the blue lines of the perfumed paper.

I am still hurt even though I’m about to be marry another, assuming I can gain her ex’s approval. But I was starting graduate school, and, as you know, when you’re beginning a new phase, it’s natural to put off painful questions such as why did G.B. affix insufficient postage to an envelope containing all my love letters? Was it a standard passive aggressive maneuver? Or was she careless?

“Are you curious?” a co-worker asked at the beginning of an overnight shift at a group home serving catatonic adults including the staff.

“I have a friend from my home. She’s tall like you,” she added, “and reads books—like you. She’s a writer: only she’s been paid. Are you interested?”

The co-worker looked at me.

I didn’t answer and showed up on time at Bonducci’s, a café facing the Amherst Commons. The first thing I noticed. Your face was tilted at an awkward angle. Your hair was dotted with gray sparks. Please don’t take this wrong, but I didn’t find you attractive. I found you pleasant enough. You had a nice smile, the corners of your lips tightening ever so much, but you didn’t say much. I thought your English wasn’t very good and wondered what we’d have to talk about if we ever were alone.

I went back to work an overnight shift at the group home. I hadn’t been on a date for seven years and was bored and overlooked my fears. I called you. “Do I want jiaozi, fried dumplings?” You asked.

“I’m a vegetarian,” I said.  

“Some Taoist monks in my district have the same problem.”

“You have an understanding nature,” I said and showed up on your doorstep with a bottle of juicy juice.

The door was open. I walked in. You were stir-frying bits of pork in a chipped wok. I put down the orangey tangerine beverage and watched you prepare the pork and the tofu mixes while applying the bottom of your palm to flatten a hunk of rice flour dough. I picked up an Advocate and started skimming the classifieds for a used Schwinn. We were both quiet like we’d been married for some time and had run out of things to say. You put a bowl of dumplings in front of me and told me to go ahead, but we weren’t that married, and I waited for you to finish off the string bean and onion stir-fry before I tried to balance an underfed dumpling on a chopstick. The dumpling fell apart. You asked me if I wanted a spoon. I said I could do without but couldn’t.

You took the chopsticks from my hands, lifting the rice flour wrapper to my lips. My head was tilted forward. My mouth was open. I was hungry. You put the wrapper closer. I swallowed and felt the shreds of tofu catch the back of my throat. The shards of ginger burned my tongue. My eyes filled with tears, but after a while, I did grow used to balancing the mix of ginger and tofu on the tip of my tongue. I didn’t say another word, and when you got up, I followed you down a narrow hallway past the door of your bedroom. On the edge of your night table was a matted photo showing a couple. The man smiled, appearing to offer a hunk of ginger. You put the frame down before turning off the lights and digging your fingernails into my shoulder blade.  

You moved into my apartment a few weeks later and after several months more, I decided to stalk your ex. That seemed the reasonable course. He knew I was a candidate for marriage before I did, so I wanted to know more about him. Besides I was curious, and you did tell me he lived on the 12th floor of the library where the comp lit collection was stored. There was a line of cubicles, but none of them had any windows facing out onto the floor, so he could have been there. I didn’t know and went to the grad lounge where a few students were chatting across the front counter. None matched your description, so I had the time to write down some notes, but when it came to finishing the letter, I realized I didn’t have a penname. All your authors had names, summing up their circumstance in a painful yet amusing manner.

I waited for Mr. Wei Wei to assign me one.

* * *

Mr. Wei Wei did not return from the villa on Race Course until a week after Mrs. Wei Wei tried to put her fist through a custom made door and discovered her fist could bleed. After that, the good or wise auntie stopped coming to The Tianjin Daily. Frog Eyes might have felt a twinge of guilt and had the security guard carry over the sheaves of letters, which Mrs. Wei Wei used for a second tablecloth. Mr. Wei Wei became interested in one piece. It had a charcoal mark obscuring one corner and was from A Daughter Pining for Foreign Schooling. The Daughter had wanted to go to graduate school in the States, but her mom and dad had divorced, and the mom had wanted her only child close to home.

“He told the daughter to grab the opportunity?” I said.

Mrs. Wei Wei took out his note from behind a photo of her ex-roommate sitting in front of a mirror. The rice paper contained finely curved characters, which Mrs. Wei Wei put into enough words so that I could understand.

Dear Daughter Pining for Foreign Schools,

        Mrs. Wei Wei has learnt through hard experience the cost of disobeying your mom. Forget the offer letter.

                                                            Yours truly, M.W.W.

“A few months later he gets a fellowship in the States,” Mrs. Wei Wei added. “I don’t know he’s applied.”

“You could have stayed Mrs. Wei Wei?” I said, unfolding an edge of her blanket.

“I think about it for a few months. He goes over first. I know he doesn’t want me. He pens his notes on the back of postcards. Each note is briefer than the last. Finally, he puts one on the back a snapshot of a night table. The table is cheap like a black class girl I’m thinking, but Miss HSBC is advising me on how a wife can maintain a bookworm husband, so I’m thinking the cheap wood might provide a nice resting place for my album.

“I send a card: Am coming over.

Sure, he writes back, and when I arrive, he does try to make me feel comfortable, taking me to the Park where he gets me real ice cream from Herrell’s. I’m happy for a time, not Mrs. Wei Wei at all, but he goes back to being buried in the library. I start biking. It’s early March, and silly black class girl, I expect a storm to blow up the gravel from a partially paved road, but there is no storm, and I’m crossing the Connecticut River, the sky like a mirror whose glass has been shaven thin. When I get back, he’s stuck a note on the chipped wok. Put half our bank account, including the loose change on top of the album. I don’t put my fist through a bronze door. I’m in America and move out.”

I looked up. Mr. Wei Wei was holding the campus newspaper or at least someone with a remarkable resemblance to Mr. Wei Wei was holding a campus newspaper in front of a still life of a vegetable hanging from a wall of the graduate lounge. He had thin wrinkles creasing his brow. His eyes were sunk into his skull. His eyebrows looked like they were going to vanish. He’s on a cushioned stool next to another grad student who was leaning over a counter while flirting with the cashier.

He ate for five minutes. I kept track on my watch. Five minutes exactly. Then, he disposed of the plastic, downed the drink without burning his tongue. Walked out the front exit and turned towards the library. I might’ve been following the wrong ghost, but in case I was chasing the correct shadow, I decided to leave before he could spot me and took a longer route behind the Campus Center before riding an elevator to the comp lit section and sitting down at a desk on the opposite wall from a line of cubicles. I assumed if Mr. Wei Wei left the elevator Mr. Wei Wei would go straight to his cubicle, which, as I predicted, he did, taking a right perpendicular turn and walking towards a cubicle which by the scraping of his tennis shoelaces, sounded to be the second over; I edged to the next aisle when I heard his door lock. I stared at the slender grains of wood for the next nine hours.

At 11:40, the first bell at the library went off though its sound didn’t disturb Mrs. Wei Wei. He was trying to finish up his last bit of note taking inside his cubicle. At ten of, he emptied the contents of some Tupperware into a garbage pail outside. I left before him, so we’ll leave a mystery as to what he dined on that night, only please note, Mrs. Wei Wei, I forgot to be hungry that night and went to the elevator, figuring it was his turn to follow me. I waited then at the circulation desk behind a line of students waiting to check out their books.

Mr. Wei Wei came down empty handed. My guess was that he used his cubicle to store the unchecked out items, a practice in clear violation of library protocol. I didn’t turn him in. I would’ve had to explain my practice of standing guard over a thin sheet of wood guarding his cubicle for under ten hours to the Head Librarian who wore thick spectacles attached to a rubber band ensnaring the back of his skull. Still, having uncovered the possible violation of library rules and regulations, I felt comfortable trailing Mr. Wei Wei more closely when at last I grew too confident and was only a footstep away. Mr. Wei Wei turned on me then, though more likely he was looking through me at a red searchlight at the top of the library tower, which was flickering far brighter than the nearest street lamp.

Mr. Wei Wei crossed the visitor’s parking lot where a line of graduate housing subsisted behind a steel meshed fence. Mr. Wei Wei shut a chipped wooden door before closing a feathery curtain. I went home.

The interview with Mr. Wei Wei took place one week later.

I arrived fifteen minutes ahead of schedule, hoping to get the drop, but the first Mr. Wei Wei was already perched beneath a yellow and black remake of a Campbell’s Soda Can that, unlike the original, was laminated so the metal lines sloped into the yellow backdrop. Mr. Wei Wei pointed me out to some friends who were arrayed on cushioned bar stools, and who, it occurred to me, might also have been informed of my possible marriage before I was. “Do you want something?” Mr. Wei Wei asked.

Mr. Wei Wei waited.

“Cappuccino,” I added.

He took out a few bucks. “My treat,” he said.

“The next is mine,” I said returning my wallet to my side pocket while Mr. Wei Wei wiped a coffee stain from my lips, “How did you guy meet?”

“Through a friend of hers,” I answered. “The friend did overnights with me at a group home serving catatonic patients and staff.”

“Interesting,” Mr. Wei Wei smiled. His hair was cropped. “Do you mind if I’m direct?”

I didn’t answer. He continued, “Have you dated a Chinese girl before?”

“My other girlfriend was Chinese,” I said. “She was from Malaysia though, not China.”

Mr. Wei Wei sipped on his latte. “You like Chinese,” he said.

“She dumped me,” I answered.

Mr. Wei Wei shrugged his shoulders, “Mrs. Wei Wei is very strong.”

“She is,” I agreed. “I’ve felt her fingernails. That’s why you left?

“If that’s not too personal,” I added.

“You’re marrying my first,” Mr. Wei Wei smiled. “We’re almost old friends.”

He stirred the foam in his coffee mug, “It seemed the only way. We stopped talking to one another. I remember I had begun to sleep on the couch when one day, I realized we weren’t the right mix and took out our savings, placing it on our table: then, left her a note explaining to leave enough for the rent.”

“That was more than fair,” I said, wondering whether it was proper etiquette for a candidate to agree with his potential wife’s ex’s account of their breakup.

“Was there a reason?” I asked.

“For what?”

“Why you stopped talking.”

“We never were good at talking. It became more obvious once we got away from home,” he smiled. “How’s the good or wise auntie’s English?”

“Not perfect but good enough,” I smiled. “I understand her stories.”

“That’s a start.”

“How long have you been in graduate school?”

“Seven years,” I said. “She tells me you’ve finished the Ph.D. in less than two years and have a job lined up in the Midwest.”

“I’m moving there with my new wife.”

“Congratulations.”

He shrugged, “Looks like we both have good luck.”

Mr. Wei Wei waved for his friend at the counter to bring over dessert. The two of us spent the next half hour teasing apart a cheesecake until the slice was in crumbs. I looked up a few times, trying to imagine his slender eyebrows behind a thin curtain while Mrs. Wei Wei was resting her head on the stone steps leading to a four-story villa, her fingers bleeding and her palms very red and dry.

Mr. Wei Wei said he had to prepare for his defense in two weeks and got up, leaving before I could ask him for my new name. It didn’t matter. Mr. Wei Wei must have called in a positive report right away because while stir-frying the pork and scallions that evening, Mrs. Wei Wei started to hash out long distance the plans for our wedding with her elder sis, elder cousin and her mom.

I saw the first Mr. Wei Wei once more a few months later when Mrs. Wei Wei asked if we could visit Pulaski Park. She was serving dumplings with pork and bok choy (no scallions), and NoHo was a half hour away, so I was about to ask if we could postpone the journey when she turned off the stove and put away the flowered apron.

When we reached the Park, it was empty, which wasn’t a surprise on a weekday night. I asked Mrs. Wei Wei what she wanted. Mrs. Wei Wei wanted to wait. “In the cold,” I asked.

She shook her head. We waited. I was fidgeting despite my extensive experience as a stalker in front of windowless cubicles. I wanted to tell her I didn’t care. I knew she hadn’t gotten over her first marriage, but that didn’t matter. Mr. Wei Wei and I were almost old friends, and I would have believed what I said was true, but before I could say it, my predecessor slipped out the old Academy of Music with his new Mrs. Wei Wei, and I got up to greet her. Mrs. Wei Wei dug her fingernails into my shoulder blades.

I stay down.

 

 

BIO

Charles LoweCharles Lowe’s work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and has been published or is forthcoming in Prairie Schooner, Fiction International, Guernica, the Pacific Review, Hanging Loose, and elsewhere. His fiction has also been included in the recently published anthology, Friend. Follow. Text. #storiesFromLivingOnline. He lives with his wife and daughter in Zhuhai, China, He is the Programme Director of the Contemporary English Language and Literature programme and the Director of the Cross-Cultural Studies at United International College. He lives with his wife and daughter in Zhuhai, China.

 

 

 

 

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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.

 

 

 

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Platform of Truth:

Transcript of selected interviews from a documentary video

by Anna Boorstin

 

Abigail Levy,
The Candidate

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

 

Nancy Clarkson,
The Candidate’s Friend

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

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

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

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

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

 

Marten Lund,
The Candidate’s Husband

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

 

Margaret Gerraty
Abigail Levy’s Campaign Manager

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

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

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

Yes, especially women.

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

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

Absolutely. You can say I agreed with her politics.

 

Kelsey Kiernan-Sokol,
The Volunteer

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

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

 

 

Nancy Clarkson,
The Candidate’s Friend

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

 

Tobias Levy-Lund,
The Son.

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

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

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

 

Abigail Levy,
The Candidate

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

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

 

Margaret Gerraty
Abigail Levy’s Campaign Manager

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

 

Nancy Clarkson,
The Candidate’s Friend

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

 

Marten Lund,
The Candidate’s Husband

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

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

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

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

 

Tobias Levy-Lund,
The Son.

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

 

Margaret Gerraty
Abigail Levy’s Campaign Manager

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

I think that’s when I lost control.

 

Kelsey Kiernan-Sokol,
The Volunteer

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

I felt like I could tell her anything.

 

Margaret Gerraty
Abigail Levy’s Campaign Manager

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

 

Nancy Clarkson,
The Candidate’s Friend

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

 

Marten Lund,
The Candidate’s Husband

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

 

Abigail Levy,
The Candidate

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

 

Barry Reid,
The Opposition

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

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

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

 

Kelsey Kiernan-Sokol,
The Volunteer

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

 

Abigail Levy,
The Candidate

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

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

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

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

 

Barry Reid,
The Opposition

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

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

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

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

 

Tobias Levy-Lund,
The Son.

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

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

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

 

Kelsey Kiernan-Sokol,
The Volunteer

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

 

Marten Lund,
The Candidate’s Husband

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

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

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

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

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

 

Margaret Gerraty
Abigail Levy’s Campaign Manager

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

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

 

Barry Reid,
The Opposition

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

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

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

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

 

Abigail Levy,
The Candidate

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

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

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

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

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

 

Margaret Gerraty
Abigail Levy’s Campaign Manager

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

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

 

Nancy Clarkson,
The Candidate’s Friend

Yes, I did. I voted for her.

 

Barry Reid,
The Opposition

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

 

Marten Lund,
The Candidate’s Husband

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

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

 

Abigail Levy,
The Candidate

In retrospect?

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

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

 

Tobias Levy-Lund,
The Son

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

 

 

 

BIO

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

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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.

 

 

 

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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

 

 

 

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John Tavares

Skinny Sister

by John Tavares

 

Maria grew excited at the prospect of travel in Winnipeg, as she chatted over the telephone with her Uncle Manuel, who invited her to visit his house. Her mother had given her permission to travel to the Winnipeg and stay at her uncle’s place in the suburbs over the March break holidays. These days Maria received the impression everybody was treating her special. She felt exhilarated: her life and circumstances were finally starting to get better, to improve, since she had lost weight. Now she was skinnier than she could ever remember. Earlier that evening her brother Andre had taken her cruising around the streets of Sioux Lookout in his Corvette and had even offered to allow her to drive his precious sports car, but she had refused. Although she was old enough, she didn’t hold a driver’s license and getting a driver’s license was not a priority with her. Besides, she didn’t feel confident and skilled enough to drive a motor vehicle. Definitely, she didn’t want to smash her brother’s Corvette in an accident; he loved his sports car more than his former girlfriends. Andre had also taken her to a sparsely attended movie, which she considered sophomoric, but she had enjoyed the experience since she hadn’t visited the local theatre in a few years. She liked the ambience of the big screen, even though the carpets were worn and threadbare and the seats were torn. During the movie, she chatted with Andre, who was, surprisingly, nice. During a particularly boring section of movie billed as hilarious, Meatballs, which seemed to alternate between the perverse and juvenile, she bought a medium-sized box of buttered popcorn at the takeout counter, took the saltshaker, and shook salt over the puffy kernels. She kept sprinkling salt on the popcorn and couldn’t saturate the puffed kernels with enough sodium crystals. Scrunched up in his leather bomber jacket in his driver’s seat, her considerably bulkier brother was relieved to see his skinny sister receiving nutrition, eating some form of food. After all, she was his only sister—his only sibling, in fact. He didn’t mind having her around and could easily imagine the hysteria, blame, and mutual recrimination that would occur if she died.

After she slipped into bed at home, as Maria tried to sleep, she could feel her heart beating irregularly. Her heart felt intensely irritated. As she continued to feel excited by the prospect of visiting her uncle, an abrupt pain hammered against her chest. It felt as if her heart had blown up like a balloon and then burst. The fear that she was suffering a heart attack and that she would die paralyzed her momentarily. She felt the urge to scream to her mother to call for an ambulance, but she realized it was probably best if she stayed calm. Bringing up her knees to her bony chest, against her pointy breasts, she sat up in bed. She tried to cope with the pressing pain and gauge its strength and significance. Perspiration breaking in beads on her brow, she slumped and breathed hard. Assuring herself she would not die, she lay her head on the pillow and eventually fell asleep.

The following morning, she felt as if somebody as bulky as her brother was kneeling on her chest. Since she needed a break from school and usually seized any opportunity to skip class, she decided she better visit a doctor and called the clinic. The doctor who examined her was new to the town of Sioux Lookout: he was dark, handsome, and had a big butt. He looked like a stereotypical cop, which was how Maria would have preferred the appearance of any potential husband. The doctor methodically went through the physical examination, listening to her heart and lung sounds through her stethoscope, but she was so hyper his manner seemed abrupt.

“How much coffee have you been consuming?”

She shifted uncomfortably as she lied. “I just drink a few cups a day.” In reality, she drank about a gallon a day.

His brow knitted, he wrote some notes on ruled paper, pharmaceutical company stationary. “Now I’m interested specifically in these chest pains. How did it or does it feel? Is it intense, oppressive, severe, brief, or prolonged?”

The questions confused her since she was distracted by his movie star looks. Her mind had been racing recently and she gave a clumsy, rambling response. Doctor Whitney handed her documents and forms and gave her instructions to visit the hospital for blood tests and an electrocardiogram. Later, as she walked across town to the hospital, and reviewed the appointment in her mind, she realized she was a walking contradiction. She thought she may have had a heart attack, yet she was walking from the medical clinic to the hospital, with a pain in her jaw, arm, and chest, yet she was walking across town like nothing had happened to her. After she stopped by Lee’s Cafe for a few cups of coffee, she walked to the hospital. In the outpatient laboratory, a grey-haired woman in a lab coat took two vials of blood from a vein in her lean, muscular arm. Then a nurse brought her to the medical laboratory technician, who happened to be the father of a classmate with whom Maria argued and fought in the schoolyard. But she felt euphoric, despite the persistent pain in her chest. After the electrocardiogram, she felt relieved she had no time to return to school. She headed to work at her part-time job as a grocery clerk.

At Valencia’s Supermarket, while she was changing the price tags—which, she had complained to her mother, was illegal, at least according to her economics teacher—on endless stacks of canned tuna fish, her boss with his large bald head fringed with white hair approached. He told her she had gotten an urgent telephone call he wanted her to take in his office and she went to answer the telephone in the manager’s office. While she looked around the piles of invoices and order forms and payroll slips on the manager’s desk, a nurse, a local who shopped at the store, whose voice she recognized, said she should report to the clinic immediately to see the pediatrician.

After she was ushered into the doctor’s office, she instantly recognized the pediatrician, who practiced mainly in Winnipeg, since she had recently seen him on a local television news documentary. He was chief of a surgical team transplanting a donated organ, a healthy liver, into a critically ill indigenous child. Doctor Jansen asked her questions about how much she ate and how her parents treated her. He wanted her to travel to the Health Sciences Centre in Winnipeg for treatment.

“I need to speak with my mother first.”

“I’ve already spoken with your mother, and she gave me permission to treat you and understood the gravity of your illness.”

She swallowed and gasped. “Illness?”

“Based upon laboratory analysis of your blood you’re malnourished and undernourished and at risk of sudden cardiac death.”

“Sudden cardiac death?”

He impatiently tapped the medical chart with the tip of his pen. “Sudden cardiac death.”

After the appointment, Maria walked to the bank. Since the bank was already closed and the westbound Via Rail train would be leaving for Winnipeg that evening, she had to call the manager from a pay phone. She withdrew a few hundred dollars from her savings account, money she saved from earnings at her part-time job. After meeting her mother at Lee’s Cafe for coffee, they both walked to the travel agency and bought a train ticket to Winnipeg. Although as soon as she had turned sixteen she had written the test to obtain a beginners drivers’ license, she had never taken the practical road tests and had never obtained her driver’s license. Her mother couldn’t drive her to Winnipeg in the pickup truck or the Cadillac because she had been charged and convicted of impaired driving for the second time. Her brother Andre couldn’t drive her to Winnipeg in his Corvette because her mother would not permit him. He would drive on Highway 72 and the Trans-Canada highway with the urgency and speed of a paramedic heading to the scene of an airline crash. Besides, her mother didn’t want him to miss his grade twelve classes when he was already a year late in graduating. And, since he was still making payments on his Corvette, he probably didn’t want to miss a shift of work at Ralph Curtis Motors where he was an apprentice mechanic.

By the time she arrived at the Health Sciences Centre in Winnipeg early the following morning she was riding a roller coaster of emotions—euphoric one minute, gloomy the next. At the Health Sciences Centre in Winnipeg, Maria took an almost instant disliking to the head nurse, who kept insisting she gain weight. Nurse Carlton reminded her she had to gain an average of four kilograms per week or she would lose her visiting privileges and wouldn’t be allowed to leave the ward. Her intransigence would force her into bed rest. Nurse Carlton set down a long list of rules that Maria supposedly had to follow as a patient, including never having guests beyond visiting hours. What did Maria care anyway? She was only expecting the occasional visit from Uncle Manuel.

Every morning, Maria faced a battery of medical diagnostic tests. She travelled through a vast network of tunnels underneath the hospital complex, en route to a CAT scan in the neuroscience wing, an EEG in an epilepsy clinic, intelligence quotient tests in the faculty of psychology building beside the power plant. Every morning a young male nurse, recently graduated from Red River College, would meet her, and offer her a fresh strawberry milkshake with a smile and a warm touch. He would chat with her and ask her how she was doing. Was she gaining weight? Why or why not? She considered the male nurse good looking and she liked him, but he aroused Maria’s suspicions. Were the doctors and nurses trying to set her up, make her feel good, brainwash her into thinking this guy had something going for her? In her hospital room, which she shared with six patients, Maria watched with fascination as a young diabetic, two beds down from her, injected herself with insulin. She felt some sympathy for the girl with leukemia, who lived on a farm, and left the tub they all shared lined with grime and dirt.

Her Uncle Manuel visited her occasionally at night. He would bring her upstairs in the hospital complex to the cafeteria. Knowing her fetish for ice cream, he would bring her a one-litre container of gourmet ice cream in an exotic flavor such as chocolate chip cookie dough, or pineapple coconut. But he was depressed over the pregnancy of his daughter, who wasn’t married, and would soon start weeping. Eventually Maria was introduced to a psychiatrist, a thin, frail-looking woman with a pitted, wrinkled face.

“She wears these, like, expensive pant suits and looks as if she was way past retirement age,” she commented during a visit to her Uncle Manuel, who was starting to wonder why she simply couldn’t eat and become healthier.

The psychiatrist told her about her luxurious lifestyle, the television satellite dish at her family cottage on Lake Winnipeg. Then she started asking Maria about her parents, her family, her relationship with her brother, and her career aspirations, and she broke down. Maria went hysterical and paced around the room. She insisted she wasn’t the person who had starved herself. She wasn’t the young woman who limped because she had broken her leg after falling from the Queen Elizabeth District high school roof one August night while looking for a peaceful dark place to make out with a girlfriend. She wasn’t the girl who hadn’t had her period in seven months or who no longer had a sexual interest in guys.

Later, the ward nurses told her she could go downstairs to the refrigerator in the staff kitchen below and eat whatever she wanted whenever she desired. After meeting her uncle or arriving home from an outing downtown at about nine or ten p.m., she hurried downstairs and helped herself to the cuplets of ice cream in the freezer compartment. First, she would plunge her finger into the vanilla or chocolate ice cream to test it, to ensure it was the proper texture and creaminess. The ice cream couldn’t be too hard or too soft. Having peeled the lid off the paper cuplet, she would stick her finger into the ice cream and taste it. If it was the correct creaminess, texture, and hardness, she would grab a plastic spoon and eat it on the spot; if not, she would set the lid back in place and put the cuplet back into the freezer box with the indentation her finger made in the ice cream. Occasionally she tested more than ten cuplets of ice cream before she found one that satisfied her. When she found no ice cream that suited her taste, she became bitter and angry. One afternoon Nurse Carlton confronted her about the cuplets of ice cream.

“What a waste.”

“The nurses on the floor said I could have ice cream whenever I wanted,” Maria protested. After she started sobbing Carlton pursed her lips in consternation and left her alone.

Allowed to leave the ward after undergoing all her morning tests and examinations and meeting all her doctors, Maria would skip lunch and not even bother with the hospital cafeteria. She would grab her Sony Walkman, which contained her Tattoo You cassette, the narrow black tape nearly worn out since she had listened to it straight through at least three hundred times. She rode the city transit bus to Portage Avenue, where she’d eat a piece of pizza or a submarine sandwich before wandering around the stores and shopping malls downtown. Bounding downtown with her seemingly limitless energy, she liked the narrow elongated shadow her thin body made on the sidewalk and the way the pressed cloth and sharp cuffs of her snug jeans hugged her body, wrapping neatly and tightly around her legs and ankles. During her trips downtown she started shoplifting, stealing fashion accessories, lipstick, eyeliner, and eye shadow from the cosmetics sections of the department stores downtown, Hudson’s Bay and Eatons, and slipping them inside her coat pockets. She tried to be casual and cool about her petty thefts. Traipsing from music stores and bookstores in the Eatons Place shopping mall, she also stole a few Rolling Stones cassette tapes and magazines and paperback novels. If anybody apprehended her, caught her, or called the police, she decided she’d pretend she was disabled, deaf and dumb, and gesticulate wildly and excitedly, making grunting and guttural noises. If necessary, she’d try to communicate through non-verbal messages she was a patient at a hospital and hurry off.

Towards the end of her second week as a patient at the Health Sciences Centre, she rapidly strode down the hallway to leave the ward on her afternoon outing. Her long thin legs marched steadily forward and her headphones acted as a comb for her unruly, untamed hair. But Nurse Carlton blocked her path, with her tall wide figure overshadowing Maria’s skinny stature.

“This time you’re not going anywhere. Your treatment regimen has been changed to behavioural modification. That means bed rest. You won’t be allowed to leave the ward until you’ve gained ten pounds and even then only after you’ve gained an additional five pounds a week.” Carlton gestured back towards the room, but Maria stood motionless. So she grabbed Maria’s arm and pushed her back to the room. “You can’t be doing whatever you want anymore.”

“I don’t do whatever I want. I’m confined to a hospital.”

“Everybody is being such a soft touch with you, letting you do whatever you want.”

“That’s not true.”

“You’re a spoiled brat. It’s that simple.”

“You don’t know what kind of life I live. You can’t pass judgement on me.”

“You’re undisciplined and unruly. At least you’re not a slut, although that might come later. You need discipline, rules, routines, regulations.”
“You’re just being bossy. You love power.”

“Somebody has to look after what’s in your best interest. Otherwise, you’ll never be well.”

Clenching her Walkman in hand and against her side, Maria tried to leave the ward. When she managed to slip past her room door, which held six hospital beds but now contained only her as a patient, Nurse Carlton dragged her back inside. The old woman was strong, Maria thought, but she decided she would assert her independence. “Nobody is going to violate my constitutional and legal rights!” she shouted as Nurse Carlton restrained her by the arm.

The nurse and Maria became entangled in a pushing and shoving match. When Maria tried to bolt from the hospital room again, the nurse clenched her wrist and ripped the Walkman out of her hand. The portable stereo crashed to the floor. When Maria retrieved it she saw that the plastic lid that covered the cassette player had broken off. The starched white hat that normally rested on Nurse Carlton’s august head had also fallen in the struggle, so Maria quickly ran over to the headgear, stomped on the top with her running shoes, and kicked the crumpled piece across the polished waxed floor.

“Get the hell out of here. You’ve broken my cassette player. Now what am I going to do? Listen to nurses crabbing all day long?”

Whimpering, Maria abandoned any hopes of leaving just then. Cheeks quivering, wide-eyed, trembling, Nurse Carlton tried to maintain her dignified composure and erect bearing, although she felt aghast and shocked by this outburst, this affront, this unruly behaviour. She picked up her crumpled, dirtied hat and, seeing this rude, undisciplined patient was finally subdued, trooped her bulky mass back to the nursing station.

Although the cover case for the portable cassette player was broken, Maria still tried using the Sony Walkman. When she tried to play The Rolling Stones’ Tattoo You cassette tape she discovered the knitting needle-like rotors wouldn’t turn so she couldn’t hear the music through the headphones. She dropped back on her bed and started reading a magazine, Cosmopolitan, she had shoplifted. When Carlton finished her shift at four p.m., she sneaked to the telephone in the ward lounge and made a long distance call to her mother at the insurance office in Sioux Lookout where she worked as a broker. The staff at the Health Sciences pediatric ward weren’t allowing her to leave the ward and one nurse had broken her Walkman, Maria protested. Although her mother told her things would get better and promised her a new Walkman, Maria continued to cry into the telephone.

“I don’t belong in a pediatric ward. I’m too old.”

“You’re still in the right age group.”

“I had to drink a milkshake with radioactive dye. Then doctors scoped my intestines and checked my insides. They stuck a little camera connected to cables up my ass.”

“Oh, Maria, do you have to talk that way over the phone?”

“Well, it’s true, and I could even see my guts on a television monitor. They told me not to eat anything the day before, but I had some late night snacks. So they had a mess on their hands, but I didn’t care—they deserved it, and I laughed afterwards. I wasn’t going to deprive myself of ice cream for some medical test.”

On the verge of weeping at her insurance brokerage desk, her mother sighed. “Before you weren’t eating, and now you’re eating nothing but ice cream. Maria, you have to consume a balanced diet.”

“And the pain in my chest is getting worse.” Maria grew quiet and weepy. “I bet I had a heart attack.”

“Maria, the doctor said there’s nothing wrong with your heart. They said your electrocardiogram was OK.”

“They said there were anomalies and changes in the tracings they couldn’t explain.”

“But the doctor said you shouldn’t worry about the electrocardiogram.”

“Well, they didn’t feel the pain I felt. And I still have chest pain, but at least it’s not as bad.”

“Maria, the doctors said your electrocardiogram is not a concern.”

“And, Mom, the nurse got into a fight with me. She made me break my Walkman, and I think she did it deliberately.”

“You were fighting with a nurse? Oh, my God. We can’t have you arguing with hospital staff. I’ll have to talk with the head nurse.”

“She was the head nurse.”

“You were fighting with the head nurse? Oh, my God, what are we going to do about you? Well, I’ll just have to speak with the doctor about your conduct. But you do whatever the doctors and nurses order.”

“I’m not into bed rest, mom. The pediatrician never said anything about bed rest. And what about my Walkman?”

“Don’t worry about your music. We’ll get the player fixed—sooner or later.”

“Mom, I want out.”

“No, you’re not ready. You need to get better so you can return to school.”

“I don’t care about school anymore.”

“You’re going to back to high school and then university whether you like it or not. But we’ll discuss education later. You just follow doctors’ orders and remember to eat. Now I have to return to work. Just enjoy your spring break. Appreciate the rest while you still can.”

Muttering absently, Maria set down the receiver after her mother hung up the telephone. Her mother didn’t want her to gain weight; she wanted her daughter thin and lithe, svelte and fashionable. She had always reminded her of the importance of maintaining a slim figure and had always bought her diet soft drinks, artificial sweeteners, low-calorie salad dressing, low-fat peanut butter, fat free yoghurt. Her father, who had a potbelly, couldn’t care less and said he would die with a full stomach. He accurately predicted his own demise: he died, of a massive myocardial infarction, two years ago, with a full stomach, after dinner of tenderloin steak on Sunday evening, with a telecast of The Wonderful World of Disney in the background.

After returning to her room, Maria tried to listen to The Rolling Stones’ Tattoo You cassette tape again. When the Walkman still wouldn’t work, she decided that she had enough. Although she wasn’t certain what she would do, she decided she wouldn’t tolerate being bullied by the head nurse. She had enough of being imprisoned in the hospital ward. Perhaps she would call her Uncle Manuel and ask her father’s brother if she could stay at his house in Transcona. Depending on how expensive the nightly room rates, possibly she would stay at a motel downtown, even if it was seedy. For the first night at least she could stay in all night cafes.

She picked up her broken Walkman and placed it in her backpack. Then she decided she’d carry the cassette player in her hand while she walked and tried to fix the device. She shoved the rest of her most valued belongings in her backpack, although she tried to make it look as if she was still occupying her room by leaving certain of her rumpled clothes lying on unmade bed. Then she looked out the window. It had suddenly gotten cold and was probably around minus ten degrees, not including the wind chill. She checked the Yellow Pages for a listing of electronics retailers and appliance repair shops, preferably downtown, where she could have her Walkman fixed. She tore two yellow pages out of the Winnipeg telephone directory, folded them, and stuffed them in the tight pocket of her jeans. She walked past the nursing station without turning her head. She just pressed straight ahead and nobody challenged her. Relieved to be free, she moved down the back stairs and outside of the hospital. She hiked on the street in the cold, the smoking rising in curls from the pipes and smokestacks for the furnaces and power plants.

As she headed down the icy street she realized she had forgotten to withdraw money yesterday. She had left her bank card inside her wallet, which she had left inside the bedside table drawer in her hospital room. She didn’t even have a Winnipeg bus ticket, only a small amount of cash in her pocket. “Eff it,” she muttered, startling a passerby, a mother in a quilted down-filled ski jacket pushing a baby in a stroller. She would figure something out. Shivering from the chill of an unseasonably cold spring in Winnipeg, she continued to walk through the Health Sciences Centre, a vast complex of brick and concrete buildings, old and new, heading in a direction that she knew would bring her downtown. She continued walking along Sherbrook, striding quickly. A thin, reedy, diminutive man, with a shaved head, crossed the street, along which only an occasional motor vehicle passed, and strode alongside her. He was actually short, nearly a midget. Why did she attract the trolls?

“Do you want some speed?”

“I don’t do drugs.”

“Wow. A goody-two-shoes. I like them. But most goody-two-shoes never let on because they want to act cool. I’m not a narc.”

“You don’t look like a narc.”

His smile faded and his expression turned blank, as, seemingly disappointed, he looked down. “You sure you don’t want some weed?”

She glared at him.

“Do you want to mess around?”

“No.” Her expression grew alarmed, her voice trembled, and her cheek and eyelid twitched when she saw the intensity in his masculine gaze. He pulled out a knife and pressed the blade flat against her collarbone. “Now do you want to fool around?”

“I’m having my period.”

“Nice excuse. We can do it through the back door. I prefer it that way because you don’t have to worry about babies.”

He pushed her down on her hands and knees against the dumpster. She thought she needed to distract him, as she clenched the Sony Walkman against her bony thigh. Her grip tightened on the portable cassette player and her muscles tensed. She clenched her jaw and the tendons and gristles tightened and twitched across her lean cheekbones. She said she needed to stand to take off her top. As she revealed her slim waist and gripped her Walkman with the other, she asked, “Are you, like, a drug dealer or a pimp?”

A chance existed she might have offended him and angered him, but she saw that he looked flattered. She had distracted him and might have just asked him if he was a brain surgeon. She quickly brought up her arm and smashed the Sony Walkman against his face. She whacked the walkabout tape player over his head until she was breathing hard and he was stunned. As she brought down the Walkman on his head, she remembered the pediatrician’s words, “Sudden cardiac death.” She couldn’t believe the damage her manic burst of energy had inflicted, his head bruised and face smashed to a pulp and streaked with blood. She had knocked him unconscious, and his body form was sprawled along the sidewalk. After the rush of energy, she stared at his prostate form, which was breathing regularly, and started to feel afraid again. Lost, she ran along the Sherbrook Street sidewalk, towards what she hoped was the broad street and lights and traffic that was Portage Avenue. She needed a bite to eat, just a bite, and a pay telephone.

The encounter somehow put her in the mood for fast food. She walked furiously, with long bounding strides, until she reached Portage Street downtown and found a twenty-four sandwich shop open. She ordered a foot-long submarine sandwich, all dressed, with shredded lettuce, olives, sliced onions, diced peppers, gobs of mayonnaise, chopped mushrooms, sliced tomatoes, and every variety of cold cuts, sliced ham, pastrami, salami, and mozzarella and cheddar cheese. Then she raced to a MacDonalds fast food restaurant and ordered a large super thick chocolate milk, a bacon double cheeseburger, a large serving of French Fries, and a coffee. She sat alone at a table near the window overlooking Portage Avenue and watched the elderly, bar and nightclub patrons, street people, police officers, bus drivers, and pedestrians, the lost and lonely, walking past to their apartments, houses, sleeping bags in a doorway, or benches in a park. As the night stretched, she had a few more refills of coffee and bought a few more vanilla soft ice cream cones for dessert, sneaking in yet another ice cream cone before they turned it off for the daily cleaning. By the end of her meals and snacks, she felt sick, nauseous, bloated, disgusted with herself. She locked herself in the women’s washroom in the fast food restaurant and vomited just about everything she had eaten that evening. She scrubbed, washed, and rinsed herself at the sink. Looking in the mirror at her reddened eyes, she realized she had nowhere to go but back to the Health Sciences hospital.

 

 

BIO

John TavaresBorn and raised in Sioux Lookout, in northwestern Ontario, John Tavares is the son of Portuguese immigrants from Sao Miguel, Azores. He graduated from social sciences at Humber College and journalism studies at Centennial College. His previous publications include Blood & Aphorisms, Plowman Press, Green’s Magazine, Filling Station, Whetstone (Canada), Broken Pencil, Tessera, Windsor Review, Paperplates, The Write Place at the Write Time, The Maple Tree Literary Supplement, Gertrude, Turk’s Head Review, Outside In Literary & Travel Magazine, Bareback Magazine, Rampike, and The Writing Disorder. Moreover, he had about a dozen short stories as well as creative nonfiction published in The Siren, a college newspaper. He has had articles published in East York Observer, East York Times, Beaches Town Crier, The East Toronto Advocate, Our Toronto as well as community and trade publications such as York University’s Excalibur and Hospital News, where he interned as an editorial assistant. He broadcast a set of his short stories as a community radio broadcaster for CBLS in Sioux Lookout one summer. He has recently written a novel and is an avid photographer. Having acquired an Honours BA, Specialized, in English at York University, he has returned to his hometown of Sioux Lookout.

 

 

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john oliver hodges author

Ethel’s Mountain

by John Oliver Hodges

 

Ethel taught me guitar when I was like nine. I wrote one on trying to kill Maria, my mother, with rat poison. Woman wouldn’t die so I dropped a brick in her face. Nowadays I’m a forgiver. Don’t obsess over stupid shit. I look around, sure, and say see, I’m not the only sad tit with a slit. That’s quoting a boy I knew. A prince! A creative genius! There’s tons of them out there. I was hit by rocks—that’s what made me strong. Only when Ethel picked me up from Malaprops, this cool bookstore in downtown Asheville, I hoped she wouldn’t know me. On my bench I wanted to be nobody, a eyeball in the air, but my posture, Ethel said, told it. I felt my strength trickle out my ears. If that wasn’t injurious enough, Ethel said, “You look like Maria.”

Ethel stopped at a roadside market for tofu and cauliflower. Her treat, she said, but for future meals we’d split shit fifty-fifty. I bought McIntosh apples special for me, plus a bag of salted peanuts, roasted, in their shells.

Ethel drove, turned in at a dirt road that steepened ridiculously. Those ridiculous hills what like I see featured in my dreams, nightmares more like. In those dreams my life is like held together by a hair. Snap, that’s it. I had broken up with another asswipe. Another creative genius. A prince! The thought of living with Maria horrified me so bad. I emailed Ethel. Ethel said live with me in Asheville.

Before I say another word, gotta say: once upon a time Ethel was to receive her doctorate in psychology. From Harvard. During those last weeks of school she quit the deal and traveled to Africa’s Ivory Coast with a religious group called The Brotherhood of Light. For two years Ethel lived in a grass hut on the beach and made love to two hundred black guys. She had a monkey that she loved very much. It slept on her mat with her and screamed like a baby. In Africa Ethel played cello on the beach. She “breathed light,” purifying herself so that she could positively influence others when she returned to the United States, where she picked up as a “Creative Consultant” and suffered from insomnia that she fought by counting, instead of sheep, the faces of her black lovers. I know this detail from overhearing Maria, or, “my mother” gossiping with a friend about Ethel. But also, it was right after Ethel returned from Africa that she babysat me for the eight months that Maria and my dad toured Europe. My dad is a history professor. He was writing a book on the architectural consequences of ancient Rome—that’s why they went there, to gather clues overlooked by writers of the same topic. While they were gone, Ethel spoke often of her monkey, and of the “negroes” that she considered family. She spent a lot of time in our backyard, naked, playing cello.

Ethel pulled into her place on the side of the mountain, a half acre carved from the rock, her trailer laid out under the sun like a Wonder Bread loaf. Fucking loaf sat lonely in the center of a rectangular field of high weeds and grass. Somebody threw it out, looked to me like. Whoever would’ve thought the thing was hollow, that a woman or two could live in it?

In Ethel’s living room an upside down machine greeted me, and a bunch of ad hoc musical instruments. Ethel shelved the groceries, then escorted me down the hall to the room where she kept her books and unsold artwork, a gazillion swirly colorful paintings of moons and stars and angels and clovers and shit. The colors were just like major fucking colors with little variation—she had a psychedelic theme going on. Some of Ethel’s paintings looked like botched tie-dye shirts. Together we carted the stuff down to the backmost room, what had been Ethel’s painting studio before she switched over to doing collages in Adobe Photoshop. Back in the room I was to sleep in, Ethel pulled a blow-up mattress from the accordion closet, and brought out her vacuum cleaner which had a blowing function. Halfway through blowing up the mattress, using her hand to form a tunnel for the air to pass through, she realized it wasn’t the best way to inflate a mattress. I took over. I blew with my mouth. I blew and was blowing up the fucking mattress, really blowing up a sweat with my mouth, but Ethel said, “You probably shouldn’t do that, Nix. I used the vacuum cleaner on the wasps and roaches.” The white dust issuing from the valve between blows, what I had been sucking deep into my lungs, I realized, was boric acid. The black specks in there were dried ant bits and wasp legs and stuff.

I did not stop blowing. I just blew the mother up and capped her. The mattress took up eighty percent of the room.

Then Ethel said, “Let me show you how I do things, Nix.” I followed her to the bathroom where, forgive me but, uhm, it smelled really bad. I wanted to split. Turds wallowed in the commode like bloated tadpoles! “This is how I flush,” Ethel said. She lifted a bucket from the floor, poured the water into the basin where the stored-up turds broke apart in the bubbling turmoil before zooming through the pipes. In my mind I was like GET ME OUTTA HERE, so you can imagine my happiness when Ethel took me outside to see the barrel that collected rain water off the roof. This water I was to flush with. After “dropping a load” as the princes say, I was to go outside, fill the bucket with rain, return, then flush unless I wanted to “maximize flushes,” in which case I should save the turds for later. “Why don’t you just do it outside?” I asked.

“Outside?”

“I can dig you a hole,” I said.

“Are you serious?”

“Wouldn’t you rather do it outside?”

“I don’t want you shitting in my yard, Nix.”

“I would never do that in your yard, Ethel,” I said. “I’ll make you a compost toilet, it’s one of the more useful things I’ve learned in life.”

“That doesn’t sound right.”

“I can walk up high on the mountain,” I said.

Ethel eyed me, not just eyed-me-eyed-me, but busted straight through my eyes with her eyes. She scanned me head to foot, eyes lingering on my unshaved shins and sockless ankles. My shoes were like ratty pink Converse with duct tape wrapped around one. Ethel brought her eyes back to my face. She said, “You really do look so much like your mother, Nix.” She’d found my weak spot, was trying to exploit it, jab me, push my buttons, make me scream. To her ugly-ass comment I made zilch-o expression-o. “The blue hair is a cute distraction,” she said, “but it’s no smokescreen. I see straight through you.”

“How’s my liver? Nice and healthy?”

“Why did you change your name? Sarah’s a lovely name. I don’t know why you changed it.”

“I’m a woman of the new world.”

“The world is neither old nor new,” Ethel said, us the arguers. After thirteen years you’d think we’d be peachy, but Ethel was bitter. When she picked me up from the bookstore she went on about how Asheville was a spiritual wasteland, Ethel an expert on spirituality. Hadn’t she spent two years on the Ivory Fucking Coast living in a grass hut while making love to black guys? She was proud of her spiritual knowledge, took comfort in the poems of Rumi. Her bumper sticker read ONE WORLD, but as she drove she boiled over the guy behind us. She’d look in the rearview, go, “Slow down you creep!” and jam the brake pedal then let go, looking back and forth from the mirror to the road, sweat dripping all down her forehead. She’s big, Ethel, you’d have to call her fat. Not fat but huge. All over the place. The word is obese.

“The world is a pain in my ass,” I said. I said, “I see no problem with a hole in the ground way out here in the middle of nowhere. I never liked sitting on a thing like that, doing it like that, but that’s what they teach you when you’re little, right? If you think about it it’s a little funny.”

“Funny?”

“Don’t listen to me,” I said.

“Are you condescending to me, Nix?”

“What? No. I’m just saying that nothing I ever say is worth a shit.”

“That’s no way to talk about yourself,” Ethel said. We were quiet then. It was weird. We had all this time ahead of us. It was like three in the afternoon, only, so I asked Ethel could I mow her yard. Her yard was a mess of really tall weeds and grass.

The shed was behind the trailer. Ethel walked around with me. An enormous wasp nest hung above the entrance. I amazed Ethel by crawling up there and using the key to unlock the thing. On my knees I slid open the doors, yanked the mower out and pulled it into the yard. I amazed Ethel again by crawling back into the shed to retrieve the gas can. I filled the tank, primed the engine, yanked the cord a half dozen times until the engine kicked to life. The grass was way too high for a normal mow. I had to always be like fucking starting the mower again each time it died. The only way to mow really was to lift the front end of the mower, doing wheelies, and then let the mower blade down slow. Lift it, let it down, like a Pac Man mouth, lift, let it down, chomp chomp chomp. I chomped along all beautifully, knocking down the homes of lady bugs and really destroying that miniature ecosystem unique to Ethel’s trailerside terrain. I loved the smell and the sound the mower made. I was in motion. I was a powerful, happy, active entity of the world, only brushing up against the trailer a wasp dropped down from a nest concealed below the rain gutter. It fell upon my nose like a shred of leaf and curled up and stung. I felt another sting my neck. Then my belly. A wasp flew up my skirt. All over I was getting it, so ran, slapping myself as I took the steps on into the trailer. I shot down the hall and burst into Ethel’s room. When I saw her on the bed, I screamed.

It was like this huge white body down there that shifted, its network of dangly fat pockets jiggling all over. The large body raised its head, peeling its gaze from the TV where Coleman Barks did Rumi.

“They bit you?” Ethel said.

I crouched, trying to hold back the pain, but it kept needling into me. I whimpered and slapped my side, further squashing a wasp that I had already killed. I pulled my shirt away from my skin and Ethel and I watched the gross thing plop dead into her rug, its legs still twitching.

“You are all physical desire and greed,” Ethel said. “You have an imbalance. You feed your body but not your soul.”

The massive body seeped from the bed and pressed against me and sort of folded around me, the milkyness drooping over my arm.

“No,” I said. I pulled away and fell backwards, kicking. “Don’t!” I cried, and Ethel stood, her extremities taking up so much space in the world, in many ways beautiful. If I was a pair of eyeballs perched like flies in some corner of the room, I would have been impressed, and would have held Ethel in high regard, my second cousin so very very fat, a woman whose pride fed itself on the flakes of skin raining down from the Great World Spirit.

“It hurts,” I said.

“I know.”

“They attacked me. I was just—”

“You invaded their world.” Ethel helped me back into the crouched position, the smell of her sweat all gushing around me in bitter waves. Ethel put her hand on my spine.

“Careful,” I said.

“The sting of a wasp is a minor catastrophe, Nix, that’s what Uncle Stanley always said about the hole in his tongue.”

“I remember Uncle Stanley.”

“Uncle Stanley would pull his tongue out for me to see the hole in it that was shot out by the Nazis.”

“He didn’t show me that,” I said. It hurt to talk, Jesus.

“I know it hurts, Nix, but you really shouldn’t barge in on me. I like to be naked.”

“I don’t mind.”

“Yes, but I do. I mind.”

“I’m sorry,” I said.

“You should be ashamed,” Ethel said, and was looking down at me with her furrowed brow. I felt as if I needed to be punished. Ethel said, “Get undressed. I will be back in a minute but it may take a while to find the calamine lotion. I don’t normally have these little emergencies.”

Ethel left the room in a huff. I stayed crouched, holding the pain to myself as Coleman Barks continued to read Rumi on the TV. His face was all bearded and sly with horned eyebrows and a huge enraptured forehead. He was filled to the brim with himself, the fucking asswipe. “The worried wife reaches the door and opens it,” he said, and I really wanted to cry. I was remembering how, back in the old days when Ethel was my babysitter, she often made me act like her monkey.

Ethel returned with a pink bottle. She wore a purple dress now. She looked mad.

“What?” I said.

“I told you to undress. I don’t understand it, Nix. Here I am taking time out of my day to help you and all you seem able to do is fight me.”

“Oh gosh, Ethel, it’s not that bad. Give me the lotion. I can do it myself.”

“Don’t be stupid,” Ethel said, “you can’t get your back,” and she leaned over, grabbed the hem of my top and pulled it. The material scraped over my stings. I wanted to scream. “Goddamnit Nix, lift your arms!”

I should have knocked. I wasn’t thinking is all. I was real sorry about it now. It was easiest not to fight her. She threw my top onto her mattress and told me to stand so I stood and she applied Calamine lotion to my stings. There were two on my back. One of my breasts had been stung down low on the side. She was very gentle with her administrations, but then she said I had lovely breasts, “symmetrical” she called them. I was supposed to say thank you, which I did say even though it made me feel like the stupidest asshole. I just wanted to get this over with. “Your nipples have grown out nice and long,” Ethel continued. “That will be good for when you have children. They’re unusually dark in color. That means you are smarter than the average woman.”

I was not going to stand here having a conversation about my nipples, but when I didn’t say anything, Ethel sighed, clearly disgruntled. “Thank you,” I said. Ethel smiled, eyeing me enviously, or so it looked to me like. What I was beginning to fear, that she would now ask me to remove my skirt and underwear, didn’t happen. She shoved the bottle into my hand and said she guessed I could do the rest. She left the room to cook dinner, closing the door behind her so as not to let out the cool air issuing from her dumbass wall unit.

Ethel prepared our plates and we sat cross-legged on her living room shag, her upside down machine hovering over us like a black ironing board used as a torture device. The ankle straps really bugged me, but across the ironing board, in pink cursive, was the cheerful slogan: Get Your Life In Shape. Ethel promised to show me how the thing worked once I was nice and settled in, a demonstration I looked real forward to, as you can imagine.

Our dinner was steamed cauliflower, tofu and rice, very white, which we pointed out to each other with some amusement. What kind of diet was that? Not a good one, you could be sure. Ethel tried asking a few questions about my mother, but I evaded the topic. I simply had had it with Maria. I thought of her as that woman. She was all taken up with her image of herself as a matronly do-gooder sort, a woman of infinite longsuffering patience and understanding. She drove around Atlanta in her expensive hybrid automobile, stopping in at the lower-class elementary schools where she had implemented programs for kids to learn how to play music. When I was little, she played the guitar, but was it her who taught me to play? It was Ethel during those eight months that she and my dad romped Europe, checking out the cathedrals and public stadiums and castles and chalets. When that woman returned with her fattened ego and heard the song I wrote about her, the one where I drop a brick on her face while she lays out by the pool, trying to get a tan, she slapped me, even as I sang, and snatched away the guitar Ethel gave me. I don’t know what she did with my guitar. I asked Dad for a new one. He said if I wanted to express intense emotions I should learn ballet and offered to buy me lessons. I should have done it but I wasn’t feeling very creatively inclined at that point. Looking back, I see what a stupid little pouting bitch I was. Did I mention that I’m a forgiver these days?

Ethel and I talked music throughout dinner. Ethel hoped we would play tons of great stuff together, and said I would fall in love with her Dobrograph, this instrument she designed and was seeking a patent for. The Dobrograph was a regular dobra rigged up with a few extra low-end guitar strings to give it a bassy sound. The main special feature of the Dobrograph, Ethel said, was that you could plug it into the computer. When you played the instrument, a digital painting was made. You could control the color settings to match your artistic vision, and Ethel was working on other settings, too. A friend helped her with the software and technicalities, she admitted, but the concept was all hers. She would show me her Dobrographic images later, but what she really wanted to know, right this minute, was how I saw myself in five years.

“Can’t say.”

“You have to imagine yourself surrounded by the circumstances you want to create.”

“Is that Rumi?”

Ethel laughed heartily. “No dear, it’s not Rumi, it’s Wayne Dyer, probably the greatest philosopher of the twentieth century.”

“Okay,” I said. I said, “I want circumstances where everybody doesn’t want to be liked by everybody. That makes them unlikeable. I want circumstances where everybody wants to be hated.”

Ethel didn’t like my answer, so I elaborated. I said, “I don’t like that everybody wants to be kings and queens.”

“Nix?”

“Yes?”

“Why don’t you try telling the truth for a change? What kind of woman do you want to be in five years? I think that’s a pretty simple question. Will you please try to answer it? I don’t ask questions for no reason, I mean, wouldn’t you like to be a famous musician like Jewel? I’m telling you that I can help you achieve your goals.”

“I hate my voice,” I said. “I gave up singing when I was nine.”

“So what would you like to do with your life?”

“Race cars in the Daytona Five Hundred.”

“You’re just like your mother.”

“No, really,” I said.

“The spitting image,” she said. “Ever since you arrived you’ve kept me at a distance. You’ve condescended to me, and acted like art is a thing that people who can’t live a normal life do as a second choice.”

“I don’t want to talk about her,” I said.

“When I visited her last year, I met her new husband. He was all right, I guess, but I had been thinking that we would bond and that I could help her achieve her goals, but she let me know, through her behavior, that I was crowding her style. I had to pick up and leave a week early. She wasn’t like that at all when we were little. I don’t know what happened to her.”

“She wants to be a queen,” I said.

“You’re just like her,” Ethel said. “You contradict everything I say.”

The stings were beginning to itch. I hadn’t smoked since Ethel picked me up outside of the bookstore earlier. I wanted to go out and be alone in the new night under the stars. Ethel just talked on and on about her art projects. I sort of interrupted her to see if she wanted me to wash the dishes, thinking that would get her to shutup. She surprised me by saying, “Why yes, Nix, I’d love it if you washed the dishes.”

We took the dishes into the bathroom where it still smelled like consolidated shit, and she pulled aside the shower curtain to reveal a bucket filled with dark water. She told me to throw the forks into the bucket, and then instructed me on the exact method she used to wash her dishes. I just wanted a fucking smoke, you know, but I knew it would break her heart if I told her I wanted to be alone. She was saying that in the morning we would do toning together. “What’s toning?” I asked, and she smiled in the same sort of Coleman Barksian way where you felt like a heap of raw crap was being splashed in your face. She gave me a long explanation, and said that she wanted to make my Personality Wheel on the computer. I said, “Can we do it another time? I really am tired, Ethel.”

“Well, okay, but there’s something pressing I need to tell you. You know, you ought to know better than to leave peanuts out.”

“What?”

“Those peanuts. I ate them while you were out there mowing the yard.”

“That’s okay,” I said.

“No, I don’t think it is. You really shouldn’t do that.”

“I’m sorry,” I said.

“You should be,” Ethel said, and I felt as if she wanted to slap me.

What a bitch I’d been. I’d gone and messed up Ethel’s system. Sometimes all I’m ever good for is messing shit up for people.

“Forget it,” Ethel said, and I tried to picture myself living here another day. The weird toilet and the wasps and the roiling folds of white flesh sort of hovered all around me, giving me a sticky cramped feeling. Ethel had the same bulging-out cheeks that my mother had, and the Jewish curve to the nose. I didn’t like it, or the eyes pushed down into the sockets, Jewish brown, you’re so full of shit that your eyes are brown, that was us. Ethel wanted me to be a staple in her weird-ass mess of a place where to release your bodily fluids you had to enter a room of atrocious odor.

I said, “Do you mind if I go outside, Ethel?”

“You’re not planning to shit in my yard, are you?”

“No, no, nothing like that.”

“Well, I guess so, but don’t be long.”

Finally! Once outside I lit up and stepped barefoot through the freshly mowed grass. I sat on a cinderblock discarded near where the driveway met with the steep mountain road. When we’d first arrived, Ethel, in her usual complaining way, pointed out how the culvert below her driveway was clogged with bone dry orange dirt. Ethel was afraid that if it didn’t get cleaned out soon, the pipe and a good part of her driveway would wash down the mountain like what happened to a neighbor. She’d asked would I dig the ditch out and clear the pipe. I said sure. I love doing work to help a place out, but I pictured myself tomorrow chopping the dirt with a shovel, sweating away at the whole thing and maybe Ethel coming down from the trailer with a glass of lemonade. I pictured myself hanging upside down in her upside down machine, which was a thing I would also surely have to do tomorrow, and eating more meals with her. This fresh breath of freedom entered my lungs like a warning. I did not want to go back inside, but still it was far better than living with Maria.

My mother was in the clouds, so corroded by arrogance and vanity that if you ever tried to reach her, to make any kind of contact with her on a down-to-earth human level, her only response could be to change the subject, feign ignorance, or bury over your sincerity with new news about some great thing she had done. She’d donated money to some Chinese girl trying to get a degree in chemistry; she’d helped produce a CD by some under-recognized “African-American” musician. She played violin pretty good in a quartet, Maria, but she could not improvise to save the world. Bitch needed a book to read from—that was a sign of higher breeding. She would die believing that all she’d done in life was make the world a better place. The last time I tried to forgive her, because I think I would feel better all around if I forgave her, even if I can’t have a decent relationship with her, she started in on the German artist staying at her house, how he’d recently lost his mother, boo hoo hoo, and hint hint. She didn’t want to be forgiven for anything. The last thing she wanted was to be acquainted with her own daughter. She knew absolutely nothing about me, had absolutely zero interest in the troubles of my brain, or what happened to me while she toured Europe with my dad. Eight months is a long time when you’re little. A lot can happen to your child in eight months. It has always been this way. I wasn’t cruel about it, but she would not listen.

As I sat out there smoking, twice Ethel opened her door and peered out. She felt antsy about me being outside by myself, I could tell, so I headed back towards the Wonder Loaf. I needed to take a dump. I knew that this was breaking the rules of Ethel’s mountain, but I cut into the patch of chest-tall weeds that I hadn’t yet mowed, found a good spot and lifted my skirt and squatted. I wiped my ass with grass and dirt and cleaned my hand on the dry earth and weeds and returned to the trailer.

“There you are,” Ethel said.

“The one and only.”

“Will you be going to sleep now, Nix?”

“Sleep sounds good.”

“Wait a second,” Ethel said.

“What, what is it?”

“I didn’t realize that you smoked, but that’s not what I’m talking about. What’s that other smell? Did you shit in my yard, Nix?”

“No, uh uh.”

Ethel grabbed my hand and smelled my fingers. “You did!” she cried, looking at me aghast, her mouth hanging wide open and red and trembling wet with spittle. “And then you lied to me about it!”

“I’m sorry,” I said.

Ethel slapped me. It did not feel strange. I was not horrified. I felt that I deserved it, but in my mind I knew I should say something and that I should not stand for this ever from anybody. It was not no teensie slap neither. It was a solid clap across the face. I like to think I would have said something had I more time to react, but Ethel was quick to the draw—she said, “Why why why, that’s all I want to know. Why is it that the nicer I am to people the crueler they are to me? It never stops, I get it from everybody, so why, Nix, why did you make me do that?”

“I said I was sorry!” I shouted.

“Stop that, stop it, stop crying, look at you! Didn’t I ask you please to stop this? We’re supposed to make each other feel good, not bad like you keep doing. I can’t believe you would lie to me, straight to my face, Nix. It’s against everything about us, who we are! I think we should go into my bedroom right this minute and listen to the poems of Rumi on the TV.”

“No,” I cried, and my jacked-up crackling voice disgusted me. I wished Ethel would slap me again, I just felt so awful, and like such a horrible piece of shit. I had backed myself against the faux cedar panel wall. I was trying to smear my tears away with my palms, careful to avoid rubbing the wasp sting that had caused my nose to swell up. Apparently Ethel didn’t like this either. She grabbed my wrist and yanked me down the hall to my room and shoved me onto the blow-up mattress. She said, “You’re gonna have to do a lot more than change your name if you want to become a decent person. It’s coming back to me now, what a thankless unruly child you were.”

I was afraid. I did not want to hurt Ethel’s feelings anymore. She might retaliate if I gave her lip, but hadn’t I promised myself that I would be courageous from now on? No more princes! I had told myself, and this thing about Ethel should have been just as true. She was so huge. She loomed over me all dangerous-looking in her sinister red headscarf, her pale jowls fractured with delicate aquamarine veins shaped like family trees. She looked like she might fall on me if I said the wrong thing, and I remembered myself as her monkey back then, how I screamed out howlingly for her and scratched myself and rolled in the grass and ate bananas. I was too old for that sort of thing, I mean I was fucking nine, but she wouldn’t stop, and then she’d get angry when I didn’t wanna play. One time she even pushed me into the swimming pool. “Don’t think I don’t remember, either,” I said. “You sure you want to go there, Ethel?”

I was looking her dead on. She knew I wasn’t bluffing. I don’t remember a quieter moment. Some seconds passed. Ethel smiled. She said, “We’ve both been through a lot of stress today, seeing each other again after all these years. What matters is I’m so glad you’ve come. You’re still the little girl from before. My monkey,” she said, and winked, and she said, “It’s wonderful how we are everything we have been, how nothing we have been can ever be erased. You are the same as you were, full of music and filled with light, but very stubborn if I do say so myself.”

“That’s quite the romantic revision of history,” I said, and watched the hopefulness that had started to suffuse her face drain. “No, no, forget I said that,” I said. “I’m happy to be here. I’m sorry I was a bitch to you.”

“Oh really?” Ethel said, her face coming back to life.

“Yes, I’m really sorry,” I said, and I was. I should have said this before, but somebody ate Ethel’s monkey. Ethel had loved that thing more than anything. It was her baby, but one of the villagers came and got it while she was at prayer. That’s when she began to distance herself from the Brotherhood of Light. If not for the monkey incident Ethel might still be in Africa.

Ethel sat down beside me. We hugged and made up. Then she stood up. She was going to lock me in for the night, she said, and went to the kitchen and returned with a glass of water and clay casserole bowl. She said, “In case your bladder cries out for mercy,” and giggled. She stooped and set the items on the floor between the mattress and accordion closet. I thanked her, but didn’t mean it, which made me an asshole and a liar, but fuck it. I was just like remembering some extra stuff here and everything, like how she’d wanted me to wear a makeshift diaper to be more like the monkey she’d lost. She said, “I’m here for you, Sarah. In the morning I’ll get you up for our toning session. We can eat breakfast. It’ll be like old times.”

Ethel locked me in. I heard the padlock click to. I heard Ethel walk the hall and close her door. I waited, then fucking unlatched the window and slid the lower panel up to check the screen. It was tight. When I pushed on it, the screen along with its frame didn’t pop off like I’d hoped, so I cut through it with my Swiss Army Knife. I wasn’t thinking. I’m a dumbass. I fucking spilled from the slit without first throwing out my knapsack. Plus I was barefoot. Tough titty, bitch! I went out to the road and walked down the mountain and made it to the paved country road that would lead me, if I walked all night, to downtown Asheville.

But like, what kind of person would leave without word? Talk of cowardly! That’s not the picture I wanted of myself, but a car driving along stopped—it was a fancy, shiny black Saab—and I climbed in. The guy taught Experimental Narrative Theory at Warren Wilson College, he said. “Cool,” I said, and he said, “The night’s clear and full of stars and promise.” I was like, is he a poet in his free time? Another creative genius? I was going to ask but he said, “I’m very shy. Normally I would not ask this. . . ”

“Yes, ask what? Go ahead and ask me. I don’t care.”

“I’d like to give you money.”

I thought about it.

“To talk,” he clarified.

“I see.”

“You look dead broke,” he said.

“You wanna talk about what?”

“I just need voices in my life is all.”

“My voice is ugly and cruel,” I said, but he told me his name. He was Abner Gibson Grierson. His friends called him Abby. He went on as if trying to convince me that he was respectable. He said he was mildly famous in his field of study. He said his father had been personal friends with John F. Kennedy, and that his mother’s paintings were currently on display at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.

By my eye he was handsome. Thin, looked about forty. His hair was the color of dark tobacco, about shoulder-length and parted neatly to the side. His face was the type that might be described in an old book as gaunt or febrile. I liked the dark circles under his eyes. His button-up shirt was crisp around his neck, and tucked in. I felt that if his style of dress varied, it was to the smallest degree. It was sweet of him to break through his shyness to make his offer. I felt sorry for him, especially when like out of nowhere he told me his wife dumped him for a champion long distance bicyclist.

“Ouch,” I said.

He sighed. He looked at me dreamily.

“I’ll check us into a hotel,” he said. “We can talk all night.” When I didn’t say anything after that, he said, “I want to hear your story, Nix. I want to hear what’s missing from your life,” and he started in on what he called “erasures,” saying that what appeared to be missing from a thing was what interested him most. He went into detail about it and I began to see that maybe that’s why his wife left. He probably needled her to death. “You have problems,” Abner said to me, “I can tell,” and he said, “I want to know every little detail about you. That’s where the mystery is. Together we can work things out for the both of us. The trick is to begin to start sharing and see where it takes us.”

Abner was vulnerable, an open bucket into which I could spew my bile. I had gotten his hopes up, which was shameful, but that’s what happens when you’re a stupid fucking bitch like me.

“For all we know,” Abner said, “the beautiful stars have conspired in our favor. Do you believe in the stars, Nix? For all we know we have been chosen by the stars. Do you like to drink?”

“I like you, Abby,” I said, and was flattered, he was so clean. I knew I smelled bad, and was a eyesore with my swollen nose. I wondered if he’d prefer that I showered first, once we got to the motel. How long would it take before we started touching? Would Abner, or Abby as his friends called him, shower me with kisses? I saw us talking, getting heart-to-heart on the bed. I saw the clothes coming off, saw him banging me as the TV light flashed against our bodies. I would be doing some good in the world. Abby would be left feeling wanted and renewed in the morning, but the whole thing would’ve been a patch is all. I was old and wise enough to at least know that.

I told Abby I wasn’t going to any motel with him, but if he wanted I would blow him in the car because I felt bad about his situation. Abby looked at me then as if I’d broken our unspoken contract. Because I’m such a stupid selfish bitch, I’m often confused when it comes to unspoken contracts, that’s how I am, I don’t seem able to help it. Abby’s look made me panic. I grabbed his forearm. I said, “Please. I can make you feel real good.”

Abby sorta snorted and shook his head but he pulled into the Big Star parking lot. He parked and I leaned over so nobody could see, and tugged his shirttails out, did his buttons and made for myself a decent playing field. I’ve been told by princes that I’m good at this. Most women are cocksucker-cripples they say. Abby wasn’t circumcised. That was new for me, and he was extremely sensitive. Thirty seconds in he said, “Oh my God!” and squeezed my shoulders. I froze, didn’t move, but he started coming. It was only a little, like they sometimes do, a small release, I guess, what the last creative genius I was with called a halfgam, a really attractive word. I had sort of thrown myself on Abby. But then I started back up and his hand reached in through my shirt. I said, “Abby, not that one,” and felt bad for not telling him why. It was ungraceful to speak. Abby took up with the other and it turned him on, but he kept saying, “No, stop it!” and he’d squeeze and we’d freeze. Each time he released me, that was my queue to start back. We went on like this until he couldn’t stand it. His stuff tasted like watery melted Philadelphia Cream Cheese mixed with habanera jelly.

“Pain,” Abby said.

I sat up. “What?”

Abby put it away quickly. “Pain,” he said, not looking at me, and I heard him say, almost in a whisper, “You are such a wonderful sex bunny.”

“For a minute I wasn’t sure you even liked any of this,” I said. “I mean, I know you did, but you made sounds.”

“Look at you,” he said, and was looking at me.

“You know you don’t believe that,” I said. I didn’t like where this seemed to be going. That stuff he’d told me before, about wanting to know everything about me, was garbage apparently. I held out my hand. I said, “Nice meeting you, thanks for the ride.”

Abby grabbed my wrist. He wrote some numbers on the inside of my forearm. “I want you to call me,” he said. “Will you call me? Say you will.”

“Sure,” I said.

“Promise.”

“I’ll call,” I said, and heard in my voice that I’d sounded annoyed. I hadn’t meant it that way, so when Abby released me I felt really horrible, as if I’d insulted him. I deserved to be smashed in the face is what I was thinking. “I promise,” I said.

Abby just looked at me. He thought I was lying, I could tell, but I was free to go. I was going to go, but Abby said, “Nix?”

“Yeah, hey?” I said, tossing my head back glamorously and free and easy. Wasn’t I a rough and tumble chick, a carefree tumbleweed blowing through the cities of our awesome country?

“Do you know what a scumbag is?”

Please don’t do this, I thought.

“A lot of people think it’s a vile person, but that’s not true. A scumbag is a used condom, which I mention because you didn’t have to swallow.”

“Oh,” I said, relieved, and almost said, “Thanks for reminding me,” but that would have sounded horribly sarcastic, which went against my quest to become a better person.

Abby smiled. He had a nice smile. I opened the door and stepped into an oily puddle.

The walk back to Ethel’s was like seven miles, and the whole way I’m like feeling like a complete shithead. Abby was going through rough times. He’d talked confidently, sure, but it wasn’t a smokescreen. I saw through him. He might’ve been suicidal. That was the vibe I got a little bit here and there, but I dissed him. I just hated the fuck out of me. Walking along the old highway I felt hunched over and drippy. By the time I arrived at Ethel’s mountain my feet were pretty raw.

My first business was to destroy the evidence of my selfish nature. In the moonlight I found my stupid excrement. I carried it down the mountain and threw it into the woods where nobody would find it. I scraped my hands back and forth over the orange dirt road, then smelled them. I smelled cream cheese. I went back to the trailer, propped a cinderblock up longwise beside my window. The maneuver was tricky, but I got up there and jumped, sort of dived through the split screen so that my upper half was in my room, my lower half dangling outside in the moonlight. As I hung there, the sill cut into a wasp sting. I wanted to cry out so bad, but if I woke Ethel she would stomp down the hallway. In my mind I saw my face lift to see her squeeze naked through the doorway. As I imagined it, so it happened. She grabbed my head with both hands and yanked, and my legs disappeared from the night.

 

 

BIO

john oliver hodgesJohn Oliver Hodges has published two books of fiction: The Love Box and War of the Crazies. He lives in Brooklyn, and teaches writing at Montclair State University in New Jersey. “Ethel’s Mountain” is his second story to appear in The Writing Disorder.

 

 

0

The Waiting Game

by Lou Gaglia

 

We had trouble at the golf course right away because Tommy didn’t wear a collar shirt. The tee-time man behind the desk gave him a look and pointed in the direction of shirts for sale, but Tommy said from the rack, “Twenty bucks? For a shirt?” My dad frowned to himself and eased over to the racks and picked out two shirts. He held the maroon one up against Tommy’s chest and said, “This looks pretty sharp.” Tommy dug into his pocket but Dad held him off and bought both shirts. “First beers are on you,” he said while Tommy gave a sour look to the miniature man hitting a golf ball on his shirt pocket.

Jesse already had a collar shirt on, and so did Dad and me, because we knew the subtleties of golf etiquette, but Tommy didn’t know a thing about golf customs and changed right there in front of the tee-time guy, who gave Tommy a from-under stare. When he stopped minding Tommy’s business, he filled in his oversized tee-time book with our names, and then we were free to walk sideways out of the wee office door where our clubs waited. Dad had lent Tommy his old set and Jesse had borrowed his father’s, and we strapped them to our rented hand carts and hoofed it up the long hill to the first tee.

Two days before, after I had met Tommy’s friend Jesse, Tommy explained to me that Jesse was really quiet, and not to take personally that his only two words to me on first meeting had both been, “Okay”—first after I told him I was going to ask Tommy to play golf, and then after I asked him if he wanted to come along. The next day, when Jesse passed me in front of my building, he muttered, “Tomorrow will be my second golf game in the history of my life.” He continued down the block without breaking his stride, and left it at that.

While waiting in front of Jesse’s building in the morning, Tommy warned me offhand that Jesse was a shy guy and to just leave him alone about the talking thing, that Jesse talked when he felt like talking and no more. He had been traumatized at an early age at a ventriloquist show or something, Tommy said, and if Jesse spoke two words in one day it meant he liked you, and if he said three words then he wanted to marry you. “I think I’m in trouble, then,” I said, and we laughed, but Tommy added that even when Jesse wasn’t talking at all he was still a fun guy to be around. He could sing exactly like Elvis or Bing Crosby whenever he wanted—he chose one voice or the other, depending on his mood—and he sang at some strange times, too. He was super shy, though, especially around women, and hardly ever talked—let alone sang—if there was a woman in sight. I told Tommy I could relate to that one, since I was already pushing thirty—at a whopping twenty-seven and a half years old—and that my happiness clock was ticking away, so to speak. Tommy told me he didn’t even have a happiness clock and that he was already thirty and to stop reminding him how much life stank.

At the top of the hill Dad warmed up by swinging his driver over and over again. He was trying to swing without accidentally dragging his back foot around to join the front one, but he had a hard time of it. Jesse stood there leaning against his driver like a pro and looking off at the field while four guys in front of us were busy teeing off. Tommy had an iron of some kind, maybe a three, and he was off to the side whacking at the clover. My father asked him what the hell he was doing.

“I hate bees,” Tommy said.

“You’re gonna piss them off,” said Dad.

The starter sat in his cart looking holier than thou, all official-like, with his little pad and pencil and his watch. He held up his palms to us, like the Pope, after the last of the foursome had finally teed off and walked toward their beloved balls, which were all scattered everywhere on both sides of the rough. His holy palms indicated that we had to stand off to the side, not on the tee box, and wait. Tommy rolled his eyes at me. “This is already bullshit,” he mumbled. “Too many of these Long Island rules…”

Dad came over and said to Tommy out of the side of his mouth, “You got to wait for them to take their second shot before you tee off. Otherwise you’re going to plunk them in the head.”

“I’m already teed off,” said Tommy. “This is a hell of a lot of waiting.”

“This game’s all about waiting,” Dad philosophized, and Tommy smirked. He edged his way onto the tee box as the last holdout from the group ahead of us set up his fairway shot by swiveling his hips and then backing off his ball and then going near it again to swivel his hips some more. The starter eagle-eyed Tommy who had gotten too close to the tee area, and then, out of the blue, Jesse began singing, sounding almost exactly like Elvis.

“Hey, don’t, don’t do that,” the starter warned Jesse.

“What’s the name of that song, Jess?” said Tommy with a laugh.

“Uh…‘Don’t’.”

“I coulda guessed that.”

“Well, why’d you ask, then,” my father put in from behind and then turned to the starter. “Isn’t this guy ever going to hit? He looks like he’s going to take a shit out there.”

The starter looked down at his little book and then at the group coming up behind us in fancy riding carts. It was a foursome of two men and two ladies, maybe in their forties. The ladies wore white shorts and white sneakers or golf shoes. The men were all decked out in golf shirts that they hadn’t bought from the office. They gave me and Tommy a look as if to wonder what was holding us up.

“Some fun, Frank,” Tommy said to me but loud enough for everyone else to hear. “One guy’s wiggling his ass at us out there, and these four are on the pro tour.”

I almost kept myself from laughing, and the wiggler had finally hit his ball about fifteen feet to the right, so it was time for us to tee off. Tommy stepped up first, about to hit his first golf ball, but he acted like it was going to be no big deal.

On the train he’d told me that maybe golf would be a good way for him to get his mind off that Karen woman. He was crazy about her, he told me—no, he loved her, he corrected himself—and it was all so much like riding a roller coaster because he couldn’t control what was going to happen or not happen, that he just had to wait. I didn’t tell him my own story, partly because my story was short—that I had no one at all—and partly because Jesse sat across from us reading the newspaper. He’d given no hint that he heard or cared about anything Tommy had told me, or maybe he’d heard it all before, but I didn’t want to talk in front of him, and probably couldn’t have talked to Tommy about it anyway. Tommy was crazy for Karen, but I was crazy on a roller coaster for different reasons, the main one being that I couldn’t talk in the first place, which sank in at the end of my Jeannette era during our last ditch disaster of a pizza lunch. I’d given her up for real, for good and all, and I was free of her at last and pretty happy about it when I got back to Brooklyn that night. I slept like a baby (waking up crying every few hours), and for the next day and the next week I missed her like mad, even though I couldn’t stand her. Then, to chase her out of my mind, I made the mistake of deciding to ask out every woman I liked and some that I saw on sight, just to force myself to talk.

First, I marched into the library and asked Kelly out for a simple coffee, but she smiled and said no thank you like she was doing me the biggest favor of my life to tell me to take a hike. I knew I shouldn’t have started with her again, because I’d already written to her and was embarrassed enough. I felt like a schlep—whatever that is—even worse than when I’d read the letter back from her that asked God to bless and keep me. But after her no, I couldn’t stop. I asked out the girl at the nail place, but spotted the ring on her finger too late. Then I took off work, over the heated objections of Rob, and went out to the Thursday afternoon Mets game, just to watch baseball and look for strange women to ask out, figuring it might be easier to ask them if I knew I didn’t have to face them again around my neighborhood. I had a book of Rilke poems with me, and glanced between innings at the poems and the women, but every nice-seeming woman in the seats around me was occupied with a boyfriend or a husband or whatever they were. I was pretty down after the game, walking among hundreds of women up the stairs on the way to the El train. Ready to forget my stupid idea, I held the pole and tried to read Rilke. But in between lines, I caught sight of a woman alone, reading a book too. She sat on a seat closest to one of the doors, reading Dostoyevski, and she looked up at me for just a second, so I went over to her, and amongst the crowd of other Mets fans frowning their way home, I said, “Dostoevski’s pretty good,” but she didn’t say a word, just kept her eyes on the book, and I wound up turning around and holding onto the pole, my face burning up. Some of the riders standing around me and sitting next to her glanced at me. And at the next stop she got off, raced ahead along the platform, and went into the next car.

In the morning on the way to work, I usually stopped on Market Street for breakfast after crossing the bridge, and talked a little with this girl Tracy, who was maybe a few years younger than me. She was nice, but was probably just being friendly because it was her job to sell coffee and buns to slobs like me who were on their way to stack books all day. Anyway, her mother owned the place, and she looked like a neighborhood toughie, like nothing scared her, and Tracy acted the same way, but only when she talked to her mother and some of the regular neighborhood customers. I tried not to look at her much, unless she was walking away with her back to me completely and no one else was looking. My asking days were over, I brooded.

So all of that—from God’s pipeline, Kelly, to the nail girl, to the train woman, to Tracy and her tough mother, to being twenty-seven and a half, to not being able to talk about any of it to Tommy—left me in a sour mood, on top of which I still had to testify at that trial not long after my rejection spree. In the waiting area outside the courtroom, I got a nose bleed right before I was called in. I had a tissue up one nostril while I answered questions, and then I had to get up and point my shaky finger at a diagram board of East Broadway and show everyone where I was and where the shooter was. There were two Chinese guys sitting at the defense table, and I glanced over once. They looked like lost little kids in their brown suits, and I couldn’t tell which one was the guy who shot the little girl because his back had been to me. Then when their defending lawyer, from the back of the room, asked me questions, she wondered why I’d told the police the shooter was five foot eleven when he was only five foot seven. “Well…” I said, “a guy with a gun looks pretty big to me.” Everyone got a laugh out of that, even the judge, and I took the opportunity to unplug the tissue from my nose.

Anyway, after I was all done, I had to leave the room without knowing what happened, guilty or innocent, and I headed straight out and into the street. I cut through Columbus Park but didn’t stick around, because every teenage kid or guy in his twenties looked like gang members to me. At home I expected to be shot every time I left my building, kind of wincing as I came out. I felt better off on Chinatown streets, because there were so many people around that I could be anonymous, like a speck, and I always walked different routes to work, and sometimes took the bus. It helped to pretend I was Richard Kimble, turning my face away from those who looked my way. Tracy’s coffee shop was the one regular place I went to besides work and home, and I got to talk a little bit to Tracy, even though it was only about how much butter I wanted on my toast or ask where the cream was. I liked to sit there and sip coffee and take half-second-glances at her shoulders when she went by and her mother was occupied or talking tough with some customer. It felt like the only place in the world where no one could shoot me.

But Tommy didn’t know any of that either. When he hooked his tee shot along the ground all the way to the fence through the woods, Dad told him he’d just killed some more bees. Tommy smirked and motioned for me to go next but I motioned to Dad and stepped behind Jesse. I wanted to wait and go last.

Our balls were spread all over the course for our second shots, so we walked in pairs on either side and then branched off for the ball hunt. Alone, I had a chance to wonder about the future possibilities that had been racing through my mind since my last pizza meeting with Jeannette. One after another, images of my future raced by. I tried and failed to slow them down and think about each one, starting with my working for Uncle Eddie at the race track as a hot walker or as a groom. I’d be around horses and horse men and sniff manure all day, so I didn’t like that idea. Then I pictured myself sitting in a classroom at the community college, doodling in the back while a professor type droned on from his notes. I saw myself living back on Long Island and married to Jeannette, my face in my hands and shaking my head over having forgotten her two-timing ways. Then I imagined staying in Brooklyn after all, saying no thank you to Jeannette for good, and then coming out of some Chinese take-out place and being shot by a thousand bullets and eventually going down in a dying heap near some garbage bags. Finally, I dreamed of forgetting all of that and escaping back to Italy and staying there this time, where I’d meet some nice Italian girl and bake bread all day or lay bricks or have my own pizza and ice cream stand. I’d write poems, my precious poems, on the side. The baker or brick layer or pizza vendor job would be enough for me, because I’d be living with her big family of uncles and cousins and parents, and eventually I’d learn to speak some Italian. I’d play with our seven or eight kids and otherwise roam the countryside with my notebook in hand.

A whining cart rolled up beside me. It was the golf course Pope. “Come on, come on,” he said. “You have to play faster.”

“Oh.” I looked at him. “Okay, thanks.”

He turned around in his cart and peeled out just as I smacked the ball in a hurry, slicing it wildly and just missing the back of his head. My heart jumped and I covered my eyes, but luckily he was too busy hurrying off in a huff to notice that he’d just escaped being killed.

Later we were all on the green together. The foursome behind us waited in the middle of the fairway while we putted our balls everywhere but near the hole. I was still thinking of my future, but even though I smiled at Tommy’s comments and at Dad’s jokes and laughed when Jesse sang something, each foggy future that stretched out in front of me was a lonely one, because none of those guys would be there. That moment—of laughing on the green together—would be gone, and so it felt lonely there too because my thoughts were inside myself.

On the second hole, Dad stuck his tee into the ground just as Jesse sang again, this time from Bing Crosby’s “My Buddy”. I swore he was Bing himself for a second.

At that point Dad hit a perfect shot dead center of the fairway. He picked up his tee and laughed. “Keep singing there, Jesse.”

Tommy stepped up. “Sing for me too, Jess,” he said, but Jesse got shy about it and clammed up.

The starter rolled up in his cart just after Tommy teed off into the woods. The people behind us, he said, complained (he counted on his fingers) about our slowness and our singing. “Who’s singing?” he wanted to know.

“What is this, Catholic school?” Tommy burst out. “Can’t a guy sing?”

Dad shushed Tommy, but Tommy and the starter still scowled at each other for a while. “You have to keep things moving along here,” the starter said, slowly, like maybe Tommy couldn’t understand. Tommy smirked at him and Jesse winced and said he was sorry and it wouldn’t happen again. The starter still glared at Tommy and then raced off like a bat out of hell.

“Jesse,” Tommy said, as I stepped up to the tee box, “you keep singing, whenever you want.”

“No,” Dad said. “Just play. We’re gonna get tossed if we keep this up.”

“He can’t throw us out. We paid.”

“Oh, yes he can. They got rules.”

“Too many,” Tommy said, looking steamed, and I stuck my tee into the ground.

Meanwhile the group behind us had caught all the way up and parked their driving carts right alongside our walking carts. They were waiting to tee off already, and I hadn’t even gone yet, or Jesse either.

Along the fairway I watched Dad help Tommy search for his ball, then talk to him while waiting for Jesse and me to find ours on the fairway. Pretty soon Dad had Tommy doing all the listening. Whatever he was saying wasn’t about golf, because they both leaned on their clubs and didn’t move while waiting for Jesse and me to swing. The people behind us were right up our backs waiting to try their own fairway shots, having already teed off. One of the balls rolled right near my feet, so I kicked it a little. Another landed near Tommy and Dad, and Tommy tossed it backwards. Then one of the men in the group must have said something because Tommy turned all the way around, but Dad held Tommy back and stepped in front of him. He talked to the guy himself and then waved for me and Jesse to move off to the side and then wildly to the group to go on ahead. After they all took a whack each, we gathered together, and Dad told us we had to let them play through. “Fair is fair,” he said. “The heck with it.”

There was another group farther behind us, but they were still finishing the first hole.

“Look, they got a kid with them,” Dad said, “so now we can play without people up our asses…at our own leisure,” he added.

At around the fifth or sixth hole, Tommy walked with me because our balls had both landed out of bounds in the same area, and he told me I was lucky to have a dad like my dad.

“He’s a gentleman,” Tommy said. “I wish I could be like him.”

We searched in the high grass for Tommy’s ball first. “My dad,” he said, “he didn’t play golf with me, but he hit me with a golf club once, right in the back of my legs.”

I stopped chopping through the high grass with my club and looked up. “What for?”

“I didn’t move fast enough, something like that. Anyway, your dad is all right. My dad, I love the guy, you know, because—out of respect, I don’t know—but he hated me. Maybe he doesn’t now. My mother keeps calling me lately. Our old dog died, so…” Tommy found his ball and threw it out onto the fairway, and we started looking for mine.

“Your dog died, huh?” I said, to keep the conversation going.

“More than one dog. Another one when I was a kid. Anyway, he’s all broken up, I guess, so I’m supposed to go see him.”

“Maybe bring that girl, that girl Karen.”

“Not a chance. Not in a million years.”

“Maybe later then,” I laughed, and found my ball and threw it onto the fairway too.

“Maybe never. Anyway, me and her, we’re just friends, just friends. I don’t even want to think what’s going on. I told you that on the train, it’s like riding a roller coaster, so I’m just waiting. Anyway…” He took a hard swing at his ball but it went straight up and down about fifty feet away. “Anyway, you know, she’s a nice girl, and she thinks I’m good, for some reason. But after one meeting with my father…geez, forget it.”

“Friendship over,” I said.

“Right, gone. And he’s prejudiced against the Chinese. You think I’m letting her near him? Every word out of his mouth is about the blacks and the Chinese and whoever else. When I was a kid—go ahead and hit your ball first. That kid and his parents are catching up to us.” I hit my ball and he went on. “When I was a kid, I saw my father and his friends beat the crap out of this guy outside an apartment building. I don’t even know where. I was pretty young. Anyway, they kicked the crap out of him and threw all his stuff out of his apartment window—a mattress, a bunch of clothes, a table, everything. He was a black guy. I don’t know if that had anything to do with it, but I just sat in my father’s car watching the whole thing. They were kicking him in the back.”

“Wow,” I said.

“I’m not letting him near her. I don’t know, Frank. I want to be different, and she’s the first nice thing—” Tommy caught himself and stopped talking. “All right,” he said, “let’s catch up.” We were quiet while we hit our balls and then walked after them. When we got within sight of Jesse and my father, we heard Jesse singing like Bing Crosby and saw my dad twirling his club with a smirk on his face.

“There he is, your dad,” said Tommy. “He’s a wise guy but he’s a good guy. I’ll bet you a hundred bucks he makes some wise-ass remark when we get to him.”

“I don’t want to bet that,” I said.

“What are you two trying to do, let the little kid play through too?” Dad said when we reached him, and me and Tommy just smiled to ourselves.

The starter came around on the 7th hole because he said someone complained about Jesse singing again. “Yes, sir, sorry sir,” said Tommy, and after the starter left, Jesse sang from, “Don’t Be Cruel,” but not too loud, while Dad smiled and Tommy cracked up, hands on knees.

I watched Jesse. He played quiet, and walked quiet, and looked out at the field quiet and hunted for his ball quiet. He was quiet and shy, just like Tommy said, and just like me, except at least he could sing and get people to laugh. I was feeling down just being around him, and even though he was a good guy, I began to hate him, especially when we reached the 8th hole next to four women who were teeing off on the 5th, and without seeing them yet, Jesse sang the first half of Elvis’ “I Want You, I Need You, I Love You…” The girls looked back at him and laughed and Jesse got all red. I stood off to the side, quiet and mad, while Dad and Tommy and the girls laughed at the red-faced Jesse, who immediately clammed up. Not one of those women looked or smiled back at me once during the entire hole, only at shy Elvis.

On the 9th and last hole for us, I popped my tee shot into the air toward the woods and it hit a lady on the head or shoulder, I don’t know which. Her husband took up the ball and whipped it underhanded at me along the ground before I could explain that I didn’t have time to yell fore. I fielded the ball, though, and with all my madness and aloneness and quietness steaming inside me, I threw it overhand right back at him. It sailed over his head. “Don’t you throw the ball at me!”

I fumed my way along the fairway, and didn’t even play the rest of the hole, just watched Jesse and Dad and Tommy play it out. Tommy looked over at me sideways a few times.

After the last putt was sunk, Dad sidled over to me. “Let’s see,” he observed, “you hit a guy’s wife, and then you throw the ball at her husband.” I didn’t say anything.

Near the clubhouse, the guy himself appeared, right in front of me, and he said sorry and held his hand out. “I didn’t mean to throw the ball at you, I’m really sorry,” he said. I shook his hand back.

“No, no, it was all my fault,” I told him, and when he’d gone, before we headed inside for our beers—Tommy’s treat—Dad added, “And then the guy apologizes…”

Tommy laughed and swatted my shoulder with the back of his hand. “What a tough guy you are,” he said in a low voice, and I winced without a word.

 

 

BIO

Lou GagliaLou Gaglia’s work has appeared in The Cortland Review, The Oklahoma Review, The Brooklyner, Prick of the Spindle, Waccamaw, Eclectica, Amsterdam Quarterly, The Hawai’i Review, and elsewhere. His collection of short stories, Poor Advice, will be available from Aqueous Books in 2015, and his story, “Hands” was runner-up for storySouth’s 2013 Million Writers Award. He teaches in upstate New York after many years as a teacher in New York City.

 

 

 

 

 

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