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My Grandfather is a Pilot

by Tommy Dean

 

He only flies on the weekends and since my girlfriend left me, my grandfather and I have been flying around the world. He always calls me on Thursday, and asks me, “Are you ready for your lesson?” to which I usually reply, “Just until I find something better to do.” He laughs and I can usually hear the tinkling sound of ice against his glass as he stirs another Bloody Mary. Chelsea didn’t break up with me to go out with a football player, because I used to be that guy. No, she broke up with me to start dating the trombone player. A senior, with a promising career and a scholarship to Notre Dame. Whenever I say Chelsea’s name around my grandfather he takes a long drink of his Bloody Mary and says, “Women,” as if that’s all there is to say about the subject. Both of his wives died, he reminds me, so he’s never felt that kind of heartache. Then he smacks his lips and winks. The pictures, both black and white and color in dusty frames tell me otherwise. I spot them all over the small house: the back of the toilet, the end table next to the recliner reserved for guests, and several next to the computer.

Saturday night, I pull into my grandfather’s driveway. My parents’ only let me drive in a forty mile radius and I have to call or text them when I get to my destination. I’m here, I type, close the app, and then open it back up to add a smiley face. I don’t feel all that happy, but it’s part of the illusion I’ve quietly agreed to continue with my family. I could sit here and listen to the engine settle and cool, but my grandfather gets anxious when cars pull in and no one gets out in like the first five minutes. Once, I sat there fighting with Chelsea on the phone and he came out with a pistol in his hand. When he confirmed it was me, he put it in the waistband of his jeans and waited for me to get out of the car.

“Jesus, Gramps.”

“I was just confirming it was you,” he said, a wrinkled smile breaking across his face.

“What if it wasn’t me?”

“Depends on who it was.”

There was more to his life, moments in his youth he never talked about, though I never asked either. Over the years, I’d heard mention, from the distracted and broken off conversations of my parents, of pool halls and bars. My father, an accountant, who had no sense of adventure, even in movies, shook his head when I told him about the gun. “That man’s always been a fighter. You get a chance, Joel, take a look at his knuckles.” “Oh, and don’t tell your mother.”

It feels like there is a lot we’re not telling my mother right now. My father thinks it’ll be easier if she finds out later. “When the dirt settles?” I ask more and more. All he can do is nod and grip my shoulder.

I walk up the sidewalk, concentrating on each step, willing my feet to do as they’re told, marveling at the condition of the concrete. The house was built in the late 40s, but you wouldn’t know it from all of the maintenance my grandfather does every year. The porch light is on, and though it’s a summer night the wind through the breezeway is cold and if I had any hair left, I’d surely have been wiping it out of my face. They say it won’t grow back this time.

I knock and wait for him to answer. From inside, the floorboards creak under his weight and there is the rustle of locks being undone. Light spills from the kitchen around the broad shape of my grandfather as he peers through the screen in the storm door.

“I guess the raccoons have learned how to knock.”

“You’d probably treat them better than your grandkids,” I say.

“Hell, it’d be a lot easier. Throw them a few scraps and they’d be on their way. I suppose you want to come in?”

The house is small; a three bedroom with less than twelve hundred square feet. How my father lived here with three other siblings I’ll never know. Except somehow they all survived the closeness that small houses bring. The kind of closeness that develops into fights and the sharing of colds and accusations, the kind of hurts that bond a family together though they never tend to see each other except for the holidays.

The linoleum in the kitchen has yellowed and is peeling underneath the table, which in a larger house would have fit nicely in a dining room. Here it sags underneath the weight of mail and old Coca-Cola bottles that my grandfather collects. When he’s not flying the plane, he sits at the table and rubs away the dust and grime that comes from years of neglect. I often wonder if we all couldn’t use a gentle twist or flap of a rag, something to shine us up before we go out into the world. Though I’m sure some of us wouldn’t prefer it. Our bodies chipped and stained, the ugliness of light reflected through glass, vulnerable to another crack when we’ve been mishandled or thrown against the pavement.

My grandpa leads us through the kitchen into a short open space offset between the kitchen and the living room. He walks slower than normal, his hands, usually in his pockets, are out at his sides poised to catch himself should he suddenly lose his balance. His hair too, seems to have thinned since I’ve last seen him. He falls more than sits in the desk chair.

“Getting old isn’t for sissies,” he says.

I stand there looking down at him. His hands gripping the armrests as though he’s afraid he’ll fall right through the seat.

“What the hell are you looking at?” he asks, his voice weak at first, but filled with piss and vinegar at the end. A phrase he taught me when I was four, at a Fourth of July parade. I remember the look of horror on my mom’s face while I ran around in circles, shouting “piss and vinegar, piss and vinegar.”

“You need a hat. A pilot’s with the wings stitched into the middle.”

“What for?”

“You know, to make it official.”

“Nah, that’d make it too real. Then I’d feel bad flying with one of these.” He picked up the sweating highball (another word he taught me) and took a swallow of the red juice. The vodka concealed by the color, but no one that knew my grandfather was ever fooled.

I take a seat in the creaky, wooden dining room chair that sits to the left of the office chair. When we first started our routine, I carry the chair back at the end of each visit, but now I’m too weak to protest, so it sits there every weekday night waiting for my return. I’m sure it bothers him to snake around the damn thing every night when goes to check his email, but he’s never said a word.

My grandpa pecks at the keyboard and images of his first wife vanish from the screen. Other pictures take her place, and I’m surprised by the chronology: second wife (my grandmother crocheting prior to the MS), their children (my dad with long hair and buck teeth), and then shots of my two sisters and I aging from infants to teenagers and all of the awkwardness in between. His life flashes onto and off the screen in seconds. The computer fan whirs and a life that’s just about out of gas passes away back into a binary plasma until they’re called back to the screen again.

Against the wall, next to the computer is an old roll-top desk covered in picture frames. I had attributed these remnants of the past to my grandmother’s sense of decorating, but she’s been gone for several years and still the frames remain. They make the house feel smaller as if it’s full of life, while my parents home seems devoid of pictures as if they would take up too much space. I’ve overheard my mother comment to my father that she likes clean, sharp lines.

I grab one of the frames and wipe my finger around the corners. When I look at my finger I expect to see a smudge of dust, but there’s nothing there but the whorls of my fingerprint. It reminds me of a time when I was younger when I was active in Cub Scouts and our group leader took us down to the local police station to have all of us fingerprinted. It satisfied the requirements of one of the badges, though I no longer had the stoll they were collected on. The cop was fat with smelly breath that leaked out of a mouth covered by the wisps of a half-grown mustache. His face was so round, his hair buzzed tight to his scalp, it could have used the extra hair to give his features some kind of definition. His head looked like a watermelon perched atop human shoulders. I wondered if he got punched a lot. A face like that was just asking to be pummeled. He took my wrist roughly and pushed my thumb into the ink pad, rolling it right and left as if I didn’t have any motor control, as if I were a doll, a thing he could fling around as he chose. He made a big deal about telling us, six boys under the age of thirteen, that the fingerprints would help the police find us if we were ever taken. Alive? I wanted to ask, but didn’t because I didn’t want him to remember me. I kept thinking about the record they now had of my prints, how they’d now be a part of the national database, where if I should ever commit a crime they’d be able to link me to the crime scene. Now I didn’t plan on committing any crimes not then, and not now, but I didn’t like the thought of them having everything they needed. And I’d given it to them willingly.

My grandpa sighs as he repositions himself in the leather office chair. He tabs at the keyboard and the flight simulator comes onto the screen. The rattle of a large engine blares from the speakers that sit next to the bulky rear-projection monitor.

“I know it’s your turn to pick the destination, but I’d like to have another turn. You don’t mind, do you?” he asks, his eyebrows raised, as if this is an honest question, when we both know that I don’t care where we go. Even when I do pick a place, it’s only to make him happy and through his gentle suggestions.

“Like Hell,” I say, because that’s how we talk to each other. A couple of old men, who should have seen better days, but they never really materialized.

“”Good, because there’s a flight I’ve always wanted to pilot and I think today is the day.”

“Just tell me that we’re not going to Europe again, because that took forever. And you were definitely over your limit that night.

“That’s why I’ve got my copilot.” he squeezes my neck, but the pressure seems weaker than usual.

“My captain, my captain, where are we headed?”

“Boston to California, my good lad.”

“And our mood tonight? Cherished memory or shameful regret?”

He takes a long drink of his Bloody Mary–his father’s drink. “Oh a little of both, I’m afraid. It’s the measure of life.”

“Just as long as we can land the thing this time. That airport in Fiji was unreal. Who plops an airport down between the ocean and a mountain? I can’t believe people really fly there.”

“I don’t think we’ll have to worry about the landing this time.”

“Fine. Then move over old man and pass me that keyboard. I’ll take her up to cruising altitude.”

He rocked his chair to the right and slid the keyboard closer toward my waiting hands. I moved my fingers expectantly like a Jazz pianist. Tap, Tap. The keys responded to my poking and the plane on the screen rattled to life. The pilot avatar, with only his hands showing, since the camera in the game was slotted for first person point of view, pushed the speed lever forward and the camera switched to the outside of the plane where it taxied faster down the runway. The number on the tail of the plane was 73. I tapped a key and the camera focused back on the cockpit. The simulator was actually pretty easy to play in that it only took a few taps of the keys to get the plane up into the air and cruising along. Like most kids my age, I enjoyed more complex and violent games, but the one time that I tried one of these games with my grandfather he almost broke my controller by throwing it at the ground. He had stomped out of the room and refused to return until I had got the goddamn thing off the screen.

I pivot the camera from cockpit, to the engines, to the tail, and then to the interior where usually there were pixelated people stretched out across the seats. In this flight, there were two lone avatars sitting in the front close to the cockpit door. The graphics aren’t up-to-date, so the two figures look too much like cartoons compared to the newer games that were made for the latest gaming consoles. I flip through row after row until I get to the front and I notice that the figures match our likenesses. A few months back, as a joke, we had made ourselves using the limited character building options. I looked more like a kindergartener than a sophomore in high school and my Grandfather had really large biceps, which he assured me he used to have in his own youth. I didn’t remember ever actually adding them to the passenger list before tonight though.

“Where’s the rest of the passengers?”

“Check the Flight List, Co-pilot.”

A few clicks of the mouse takes me away from the interior of the plane and to a screen with a list of the passengers. My grandfather and I are the only names on the list.

“Where are all the other fake people? Donny, the accountant with the drinking problem, and Celeste, who is thinking about running away from her family?” Sometimes we make up fake backstories for the other avatar passengers. It’s our way of living different lives I guess, though sometimes I wonder if I’ve lived enough of my own to know that someone’s else’s life might be better. I’m just starting, I want to tell God or the universe, whoever is control.

“We’re flying solo, bud. I didn’t want anyone else on this flight.”

Why, I almost ask him, but there’s something in his voice that stops me from asking. Even when I was a child, it wasn’t a question he ever liked to answer. Ask your mom, he’d tell me over and over.

“I guess we’d better get this over with,” he says, as if he’s suddenly exhausted. “Would you get me another one of these while I get us back on track?” He hands me his glass, the smell of tomato and vodka drifts between us and I can’t tell if it’s coming only from the cup or if he’s getting closer to that moment where the smell of his body is more vodka and tomato than his normal smell of cigarettes and western aftershave.

In the kitchen, I rinse out the red residue from the bottom of the glass. He hides the vodka in the cabinet next to the sink. He told me once that a man shouldn’t be ashamed of the things in his home, but he didn’t need to invite gossip either, so the vodka stayed hidden and guests were offered Pepsi. The bottle is large, with a round bottom and a long neck. There isn’t much in there, maybe enough for two or three drinks so I pour about half into the glass. I don’t have much experience in this, so I don’t know if it would be considered the normal amount or not, but I’ll have to warn him that’s he’s almost out. I grab the tomato juice from the ancient and yellowing fridge. It’s so old that the seal in the door doesn’t work all that well and the door opens easier than a swinging gate. As I pour the juice, I try to imagine again what it tastes like and why it’s so appealing to my grandfather. How could he stand to drink one or six every night? My mother had outlawed alcohol in our home except for the rare bottle of wine around the holidays. It’s not something my father or her ever talked about with us, but I’d never seen either of them drunk. It wasn’t how they dealt with the minor dramas of their lives. My mother, especially, attacked everything head on and she relied on her ability to be ever present if a problem should arise. Alcohol would have diminished her ability to concentrate on the solution, a solution she might suffer over for weeks.

“Ty, why don’t you make yourself one too,” my Grandfather shouted.

I walked into the next room carrying the glass, my legs already stiffening up from standing long enough to make the drink. I wish I could tell him about the pain, how I know that it might be coming back.

“You sure?” I ask, handing him the cup. “I don’t want anyone to get in trouble.”

“Go, go.” He shoos me away with his free hand. “We won’t tell your mother. Besides what good is flying first class if you can’t enjoy the free drinks?” He smiles over the brim of his glass, takes a long drink, and motions for me to hurry up.

Though it feels like I’m dragging my left leg, I hurry into the kitchen. I open the cabinet with the cups and I hesitate. At home, we only use plastic cups, but that seems so childish when I’m going to have my first drink, so I grab a glass like my grandfather’s and I go to work making another drink.

My mother didn’t like these visits. Not because of my grandfather’s language or references about the seedier things he had done in his life, though these things were usually included in her arguments with my father; arguments that I wasn’t supposed to hear, but inevitably heard, because my mother’s vehemence didn’t allow her to whisper. No her real problem with the way that I spent my Saturday nights was that she thought that I was wasting my time. Time that had become even more precious as I got older and the chances of remission twindled. She’d casually mention dances or movies, things I could do with my friends. Normal things, she never said, but her eyes often pleaded in those few minutes we spent passing each other in the darkened hallway outside of my bedroom before I went off to bed. My friend options had narrowed through the years as my cancer became normal, boring, and a thing they could avoid without much guilt. It was no longer cool to hang out with the kid with cancer. And I too had realized that it was no longer worth trying to fit in. I never would. So I helped my grandfather fly his simulation missions and waited. This, I wanted to tell my mother, is when I owned time.

When I sit back down I notice two things: the first is that my grandfather’s drink is about gone already and that there is something wrong with the plane. The plane takes a wide arc and the engine starts to whine with the increase in speed. We’re traveling at 500 miles per hour and the pixelated clouds look like marching marshmallows as they glide over the windshield. A bell dings warning us that we’ve drifted well off of our original course. Another warning sounds goes off, reminding us that we may run out of gas or stall at these speeds. My grandfather hits the spacebar twice and the alarms are silenced leaving only the synthetic sound of rushing wind outside the simulated cockpit. We’ve never went off course before, nor have we ever cranked the plane up to these speeds. The game, with its weak graphics and lousy processor hitches and threatens to crash.

“Are you trying to give your fake self a heart-attack?”

“I wish it were that easy, Ty.” He shakes his head and holds up his glass. “Let’s drink, son.”

He gestures at my glass and I hold mine up like his as if we’re about to toast.

“Normally, for a first drink I’d tell you to take it slow, but tonight’s a little different and we don’t have the time for all of that namby-pamby stuff. We’ll drink together, alright? Don’t stop until I do. Can you do that for me, Ty?”

The tone of his voice–sad, angry, a bit hostile–makes me look him in the eye and I can see why my dad is so scared of him, but also why he loves him so much. I’m surprised that he’s not crying, but finally I nod and put the glass up to my lips. The smell of tomato is strong and the glass is cold against my lips. We tip our glasses and at first it tastes only like soup, but then as the liquid slides down my throat I think of eating hot food, campfires, and the time I had bronchitis. I tip the glass until it feels as though I’m drowning. I catch, from the corner of my eye, my grandfather lowering his glass and finally I take the cup away and suck in air.

“Jesus, How do you drink that stuff?” I wipe my mouth the back of my hand.

“It’s an acquired taste,” he says, laughing. I laugh too and I think of that scene in Beauty and the Beast where Gaston sings about his triumphs. I don’t mention this thought, because it’s another reminder of just how young I must seem to him.

“Grandpa, why are we doing all of this?” I wave my hands and arms around as if I’m a conductor who is fed up with his orchestra, indicating God knows what, because my head feels as though it’s trying to float away from my neck. The edges of my vision have gone a bit sparkly as the liquid settles in my stomach.

“Just watch the screen. A few more minutes and we’ll have our answer.”

“Answer? What? What are we doing?”

Tap, tap at the keys and my grandfather drops the plane several thousand feet. The camera tilts and I know that we’re nosing down toward the ground. The Earth comes into focus and I’m amazed again at how it looks like a patchwork quilt with it’s tidy squares of farmland and suburbs.

“Ty, We don’t have much time.”

“Time for what? This is getting a bit creepy Grandpa. Even for you.” Nervous, I take another sip of the drink.

“I wanted to see what it felt like. You know, to make those calls.”

“What calls? Look, the plane is going to crash,” I said, pointing at the screen. I killed thousands of soldiers in my own games, but I didn’t want this plane to crash.

I reached for the keyboard and he smacked my hand. It didn’t hurt at first, just stung like I was a child, the one I’d been trying to hide all night.

“What the hell was that for?” I sat back in my chair, a little afraid of where this was all going.

“You remember the movie we watched a couple of weeks ago? The one about Flight 73?”

“9/11? That was over ten years ago. What does that have to do with anything?”

“What doesn’t it have to do with? I’ve got some news. Bad news, actually. And I wanted to tell you when we were watching that movie, but I saw you crying…” I start to protest, and he waves me down. “I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with it, but I thought we had heard enough about death that night, so I’ve been trying to figure how to tell you ever since.”

The bells and alarms are back, forcing their way out of the speakers. I glance at the screen and the plane looks as though it’s been flung like an arrow toward the earth. A field comes closer, the individual details coming into focus. The field is surrounded by several small groups of trees, their branches fanned out like a huddle of school children waiting for the bus in winter.

“We’ve got to pretend here like I’m on that flight. I know I’m headed for a crash that you don’t walk away from. They’ve got these phones on the plane, you see, that can call anywhere in the world from the air. I’m up there with those other people, and I’m crying, and praying and cussing and I’m only thinking about you, Ty. You’ve been dealt a shitty hand. Christ. At your age, but I call you, son, because I know that you’ll understand. You might not remember it, but you’ve stared down that coward Death before and I need your strength, because he’s coming for me now. My plane is going down and I thought I was ready, but I’m not so sure now. So I thought I’d see what it was like to die. And I’ve been thinking about it for weeks, and this is the only thing I could think of and I’m sorry you have to come along, but I need a co-pilot for this last flight.”

He looks at me and the anger is gone, replaced by the same emotion I often find in my own eyes when I look in the mirror: fear.

I pull my chair closer and I take his hand. If I ignore the calluses and the gnarled knuckles, the skin is clammy and weightless, his grip loose, as if he’s waiting me for me to lead the way. We brace ourselves for the impact, holding onto each other, knowing full well that neither can really save the other, but in this simulated moment of panic, we take solace in knowing that somebody else is there. It won’t protect our bodies, as the plane hurtles toward the Earth, but for these last seconds, we free-fall into the place where our bodies, finally, cannot harm us.

No one died that day, at least not anybody real. We never flew again. We had, finally, one less mystery. Death, we agreed, could wait.

 

 

BIO

Tommy DeanTommy Dean is the author of a flash fiction chapbook entitled Special Like the People on TV from Redbird Chapbooks. A graduate of the Queens University of Charlotte MFA program, he has been previously published in the Watershed Review, Wilderness House Literary Review, r.kv.r.y, Boston Literary Magazine, Foliate Oak, and Gravel. Find him @TommyDeanWriter on Twitter.

 

 

 

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Space Ex

by Sara Regezi

 

 

Dear Mr. Musk and the Mars Colony Selection Committee:

My name is Trudy McCormick, and I am ready to be a Martian. I eagerly read your announcement regarding your proposed colonization of Mars and now, just moments later, I have retrieved this stationery and am writing to you forthwith of my qualifications for Martian space travel.

I know you will seek a broad swath of sturdy Earthlings for the journey and I’d like to count myself among those brave souls. I have worked as a homemaker, and formerly as a Girl Scout leader in these United States, for more than 20 years. I know you will have plenty of engineers and scientists among your chosen crew, but can any of them create a satisfying casserole from last night’s picked-over meatloaf?

My husband Frank will attest to my creativity in the kitchen, as referenced above, as well as my overall innovative mind. He will, in fact, tell you that I should be put in a padded room for some of my ideas, but I ask you, Mr. Musk, as a true futurist, isn’t that the attitude that innovators have so often faced?

I just re-read the above paragraph: let me be clear, this letter is in support of my Martian mission, not my husband’s. Yes, he is somewhat handy on Earth, but he would only muck up the works on the Red Planet. Frank does not dream like you or I, Mr. Musk. His two feet are firmly planted in the U S of A. When they’re not elevated in the La-Z-Boy, that is. Frank took early retirement at our local GM parts factory two years ago and he is, frankly (pardon the pun, his name is Frank), driving me nuts. I believe that my becoming a Martian colonist would help our relationship, in that he might actually learn some survival skills on this third planet from the Sun, while I’m busy colonizing the fourth.

Anyway, in addition to creativity, your chosen few will also need the ability to withstand incredible hardship during the difficult journey just to get to Mars. When I think back on our 1989 trip from Grand Rapids, Michigan, where we live, to Ft. Lauderdale in a mini-van (this is me, Frank, and FOUR children), I believe that a nine-month trip in a spaceship with actual grown-ups would be a relative picnic. Now, as then, I can easily entertain a pod-full of people with song and story, while also breaking up arguments that arise—though this time I promise not to reach back and pull anyone’s hair!

And once we land on Mars, the hardship will have only begun, I realize. As I read on your website, Mars is currently not a terribly hospitable place, but I believe I can help make it welcoming to humans. You see, having raised four children from scratch, I understand the challenge of sustaining life, at least on Earth. The job is never finished.

In fact, our oldest, April, now 33, has just moved back in with Frank and me, along with her three kids, Lonnie, Lori and Lynn, 12, 8, and 5 respectively. April has “checked out” and prefers to spend her evenings at the Red Lamp Tavern rather than with her children, so I am in the unique position lately of entertaining three of my nine grandchildren on a nightly basis. Lonnie’s homework he proclaims “total B.S.” and stomps off to play with his phone most evenings. Lori, the eight-year-old, is disturbingly enamored of rap music, reciting the most foul lyrics you can imagine at the top of her lungs. Poor Lynn has taken to carrying around one of my pink slippers in her arms, calling it her “lost little lamb.” Meanwhile, Frank just turns up the volume on ESPN.

But I digress. In summary, Mr. Musk and honorable Selection Committee, I believe I have the qualifications for life on Mars, given my ample Life Experience on Earth. In fact, I believe my talents are desperately in need of a new interplanetary outlet, rather than being wasted within the ever-shrinking confines of our house here on East Hazel Street.

One question I have for you: what is the time frame for your mission? Please note: I am ready as soon as the ship is space-worthy. I eagerly await your orders.

Sincerely,

Trudy McCormick,
Grand Rapids, MI
(Future Proud Martian)

 

 

BIO

Sara RegeziSara Regezi is a former copywriter, former comic, former musician, and current nurse practitioner in Silver Spring, Maryland. She wants to marry Jess Walter except that she’s already married (and so is he, probably). Her previous work has appeared on girlcomic.net and live onstage with Monalog Cabin. She is thrilled to be published in Writing Disorder.

 

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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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Franklin Klavon

Darling Weapons

by Franklin Klavon

 

Labor Day weekend, the air was cool, boat traffic busy. “Classes start Tuesday, and I was wondering if I can borrow two hundred dollars for the kid’s school clothes?” asked Liza. “Money’s tight since Russell lost his job.”

I looked across the picnic table beyond Liza’s yellow hair at the sparkling water of the lake. A pontoon boat motored past. Ducks descend to a reedy cove. I saw a crow picking at a dead fish on the shoreline, but couldn’t look at my own daughter and reply to her question. Her mother broke the uncomfortable silence.

“Of course we can lend you the money,” said Shelly. “Aaron, tell Liza we don’t mind.”

But we do mind, I thought. We mind very much. I got up from the table and went to the sandy shore, where my granddaughter played in the lake. “Poppa, watch me swim.” She splashed on top of the water, kicking and paddling, but made no forward progress. She stood waist deep in the cloudy waves, wiped water from her face, and smiled.

“You’re getting better,” I said.

The two grandsons came toward me, their feet covered with wet sand. They both held toy shovels and pails. “You gonna swim with us, Pop?”

“Too chilly,” I said.

They pulled off their shirts (their ribs rippled on their skinny bodies), waded into the lake, and dove under. The boys had dug holes in the beach sand and filled them with murky water. A gull hovered overhead, expecting a handout. Tied to the dock, our pontoon boat bobbed up and down with the waves.

I looked back toward the picnic table, where Shelly and Liza drank iced tea mixed with lemonade. Liza was smoking a cigarette. She always had cigarettes but couldn’t afford school clothes for her children.

Later, I grilled bratwurst in the driveway. The boys’ teeth chattered as they lingered in the garage looking at my fishing poles. “Pop, you should take us fishing,” said Wendell.

“Too many boats on the water. Maybe after a while.”

“All right!” They ran off to play.

Shelly came up to me as I tended the grill. “You hurt Liza’s feelings.”

“How?” I said.

“She can tell you don’t want to loan her the money.”

“It’s true, I don’t.”

“Do you mind telling me why not?”

“When are her and Russell ever going to pay back those thousands of dollars they borrow from us every year?”

She shook her head. “It’s not for them. It’s for our grandchildren.” We both looked toward the dock, where the kids sat on the edge, their feet overhanging the water. Liza was talking on her cell phone in the yard, twirling her hair with her finger. Russell, Liza’s husband, the kids’ dad, had gone out of town that morning with a buddy to pick up a car Russell had inherited from his recently departed father: a 1969 Mustang.

“Fine, I’ll give her the money.”

Shelly kissed me. “You’re a good man.”

After dinner, I baited the fishing rods with night crawlers, and the kids caught bluegills off the dock. Shelly took their pictures holding the fish. Danny’s fish was the size of my thumb. Liza sat on the docked pontoon boat sending text messages. “Mom, look at my fish,” Danny called out.

She barely glanced up from the cell phone. “Uh-huh.”

Mosquitos buzzed in the air, attacking our arms and legs. We went inside and had peach pie with ice cream for dessert. I wrote out a two hundred dollar check to Liza, and in the ledger I noted that the money was for school clothes.

“Thank you, dad,” she said. “Russ and I will put it to good use.”

“You’re welcome. Tell Russ to drive safe in that hotrod you guys are getting. I don’t want to hear that he wrapped it around a tree.”

“Oh, he’ll drive safe, or I’ll kill him.”

At dusk, Liza and the kids took off for home, waving and shouting goodbye out the car windows. Shelly and I stood in the driveway holding hands. We gathered up the beach toys and cleared the picnic table. I put the fishing poles away and rolled the gas grill into the garage. It looked like rain.

* * *

September 30th, Russell, Liza, and the grandchildren, stopped by unexpectedly and stayed for dinner. We ate largemouth bass I had caught off the dock. Russell had long hair and gaged ears, his arms covered with tattoos. Liza had died her hair auburn red. They drove Russ’s father’s black Mach-I, and Russ happily popped the hood and showed me the Cobra Jet engine. “Four hundred and twenty eight cubic inches,” he said. “Three hundred and fifty horsepower. My father loved this car.”

“Lotsa chrome.” I inspected the busy engine compartment.

“I’m thinking about getting headers and new mags, and I want to buy a house with a garage, so I can store it in the winter time.”

“You might want to get a canvas car cover, for now,” I suggested.

“I already put one on order.”

“How’s the job hunt going?”

“Slow.”

“Any chance of getting back in at Imperial Forge?”

“None whatsoever. I walked out on my shift after the foreman got in my face. He was being a dick. I should’ve punched him.”

“Where have you been looking?”

“Haven’t yet. I’m enjoying the time off. Things will pick up after the holidays.”

“Poppa, let’s fish,” said Wendell, running up from the shoreline.

“Son, you have a one track mind.” I ruffled his hair.

We went to the dock, and I rigged the kids’ fishing poles. Wendell caught a catfish ten inches long, and it swallowed the hook. I cut the line and threw the fish back into the lake. The water was choppy. A flock of Canadian geese flew overhead, and Karen squinted, looking toward the sky. Shelly asked her, “Where’s your glasses, honey?”

Karen swiped her long bangs away from her eyes. “They’re broken. Our mom says I’m going to get new ones next month. I didn’t get them this month, so she could get her hair colored.”

“She broke them on the first day of school at the playground,” Liza explained. “Clumsy kid. Now look at her. She’s so blind I hope she don’t walk out in traffic.”

“Guess what, Grandma,” said Wendell. “I’m the tallest boy in fourth grade, and Danny’s the tallest in second.”

“And Karen’s the fattest in third,” Russ teased.

“Hey, that wasn’t very nice.” Liza smacked Russ’s shoulder.

“I meant smartest,” he retracted.

Karen started crying. She dropped her fishing pole and ran off the dock. We tried to coax her back, but she disappeared into the house.

After dinner, I took the family out on the pontoon boat. We circled the perimeter of Loon Lake and viewed the lakefront houses and hilly forests beyond. The maple trees were blazing red, the oaks dull brown. Karen squinted, but couldn’t make out the scenery. Everybody wore jackets in the chilly weather.

When we got back to the dock, the women and children went into the house, and Russell stayed outside with me and helped moor the boat. “When are you planning on taking this raft out of the water and pulling the dock out for winter?” he asked.

“Couple weeks, I guess. I usually keep her handy for when the fall colors peak.”

“Well, I’d like to come out and give you a hand, Aaron, so give me a call.”

“Okay, thanks. I’ll call.”

“What about raking leaves in the yard this fall?” he said. “I’d like to help with that too.”

“We have a leaf vacuum on the mower.”

“I can drive the mower for you.”

“That won’t be necessary, thanks anyway.” We finished tying up the boat, and Russ helped carry the fishing tackle from the dock up to the garage.

“I need to ask you a favor, Aaron.”

“What’s that?”

“Tomorrow’s the first of the month, and I need to borrow two hundred and twenty dollars for the last two-and-a-half months’ power bill.”

I didn’t say anything.

“I’m good for it. I’ve been hanging sheet rock with my brother on the side and he’s got a big job lined up for the middle of the month. It’s a sure thing.” Russ showed me the cutoff notice from the power company.

I leaned the fishing poles in the corner.

“I know I still owe you for the brake job on Liza’s car, and I haven’t forgot you, buddy.”

Inside, I took Russ to the den and broke out the check book. “What’s your account number at the power company?”

“Just make it out to me.”

“I’d rather not.”

“Okay.” He showed me the bill with the account number.

I wrote the check and handed it over.

“Thanks a lot, Aaron. I might be able to pay you back in a few weeks if my brother lands that sheet rock job.”

In the kitchen, we ate lemon cake with chocolate frosting for dessert. Shelly poured glasses of milk for everybody, and Danny accidently elbowed his glass off the table. Liza sopped up the mess with paper towels. “I swear I have the clumsiest kids in town.”

“Tell grandma and grandpa you’re sorry.” Russell held Danny on his lap.

“I’m sorry,” Danny said barely above a whisper. Tears streamed down his cheeks.

“All is forgiven, son.” Russell hugged the boy. “All is forgiven.”

* * *

Halloween, Liza and the kids came over for trick-or-treats, and Shelly and I tagged along. Wendell was dressed up as a cowboy, Karen a bumblebee, and Danny as Superman. Liza wore Russell’s high school football jersey over her shirt with a helmet Russ had no doubt permanently borrowed from the athletic department. We followed along Lake Drive on the east shore, where the houses are close together, then returned on the opposite side of the street. Adults shined flashlights up and down the crowded sidewalks, and kids in costumes carried candy in bags and plastic pumpkins.

Back at our house, the kids dumped their candy onto the kitchen counter, and we inspected the haul. Wendell ate too many sweets, and he got sick in the bathroom. I helped him out of his costume and washed his face. “Poppa, you can have the rest of my candy corn,” he said. “I don’t want it anymore.”

At the table, we drank apple cider and had donuts. Liza pulled a receipt out of her purse. “Here’s the sales slip for the kid’s Halloween costumes, mom. You owe me sixty nine dollars.” Shelly looked at the slip.

“Also, can I borrow your debit card? I need to put gas in the car, so I can make it back home.”

“Of course, honey.” Shelly went into the den and came back with her debit card and the checkbook. She wrote a check for the kid’s costumes and gave Liza the debit.

“Tell grandma and grandpa thank you for your costumes,” Liza told the kids.

“Thank you, grandma and grandpa,” they all spoke up.

“I’m going to run up to the corner and get gas. I’ll be back in a minute.” Liza carried the football helmet out the door.

I played cards with the kids and ate Wendell’s candy corn. Wendell held his head up with his elbow on the table, chomping on licorice sticks. Karen’s mouth had turned blue from a jaw breaker, and Danny was eating a Moon Pie. “Poppa, look at my tongue,” said Karen, sticking her blue tongue out at me.

“I think you kids have had enough candy,” said Shelly.

When Liza returned, she washed off the eye-black smudges from under her eyes and took off the football jersey. Her shirt came up while pulling the jersey over her head, revealing a tattoo of a rose trellis covering her back.

Shelly looked surprised. “Since when do you have a tattoo?”

“Since a few weeks ago.” She lifted the back of her shirt to show us. “You like it, mom?”

“It’s nice, but it must’ve been quite expensive.”

“Only six hundred. A friend of Russell’s did it.” Liza put her shirt back down. “We need to take off, kids. Tomorrow’s a school day.”

Wendell and Karen moaned as Liza gathered up the candy from the counter. Danny had fallen asleep in my lap. We helped her put the kids in the car, and she quickly backed out the driveway.

“Oh, wait!” Shelly called out. “You forgot to give back my debit card.”

Liza locked the brakes, pulled the car back up the drive, and turned on the dome light. She made a big show of digging through her purse. “I can’t find it. It’s too dark, and I need to get these kids in bed.”

“Well, come in the house where it’s light and look for it.” I held open her door.

“You people!” she huffed, shaking her head. She climbed out and followed me inside, while Shelly stayed with the kids. Liza dumped her purse out on the kitchen counter. She had cosmetics, chewing gum, a cell phone, a bag of marijuana, and five brand new packs of cigarettes. She quickly stuffed the marijuana and cigarettes back into the purse. “It’s not in here.”

“Find it!” I hollered.

She pulled the card out of her back pocket and slammed it on the counter. “Here! Choke on it.”

Anger swelled up inside me. I grabbed her arm. “Don’t get cute with me, girly. We bought costumes for the kids, filled your tank with gas, and now you try to steal your mother’s bank card.”

“You’re the one who wanted the kids here for Halloween,” she shot back. “It’s forty miles round trip, and I needed gas. And I don’t make enough money waiting tables to afford Halloween costumes!”

“But you always have a bag of weed, don’t you.”

She pulled her arm free, scraped the contents back into her purse, and hurried out the door. “Bye, mom.” She gave a cursory wave to Shelly, slammed the car door, and screeched rubber down the street.

* * *

Thanksgiving, Liza and the kids arrived midmorning for late breakfast. After ham and eggs, the boys and I went outside and gathered sticks in the yard which had fallen from the trees. The wind blew in gusts, and the lake was wavy with whitecaps. The boys wore spring jackets, their hands and cheeks red. We could see our breath. We piled up the sticks and lit a fire in the fire pit. The girls stayed inside and prepared Thanksgiving dinner.

Russell drove up in his red pickup truck about noon time. He’d been deer hunting. He joined us by the fire, still wearing his orange hat and camouflage hunting pants. Mud caked his boots. “Hi, daddy,” Wendell and Danny greeted their father.

Russ kissed the boys, wiped Danny’s nose, and held him in his arms. “How you doing, Aaron?”

“Happy to be with the kids,” I said. “What’d you see hunting?”

“Mostly sparrows.”

“Did you catch a deer?” Wendell asked his father.

Shoot a deer,” Russell corrected the boy. “You don’t catch deer, you shoot them.” He put Danny down and said, “You’re getting too heavy, boy.” Danny picked up a stick and poked the fire. The wind kept shifting, and we frequently moved to avoid the smoke. Shelly came out with Liza and Karen.

Liza shivered, her arms folded across her breasts. She kissed Russell. “Keep me warm, honey.”

He wrapped his arms around her.

“How was the hunt?” she asked.

“Cold.”

“I hope you didn’t shoot Bambi.”

“Nope. Bambi’s father.”

“You did not!” Liza pulled away, a tinge of excitement in her voice.

“Go take a look.” Russ put a cigarette in his mouth.

“Did you really?”

“Go look.”

Liza went across the yard and looked in the pickup truck. “You got a buck!” she shrieked. We all ran to the truck. Russell came over, dropped the tailgate, and pulled the deer halfway out so the kids could see.

“How many points is it?” asked Wendell.

“Eight.” Russell held up eight fingers, his nails stained blood red. Dry blood and deer hair covered the bed of the truck. The deer’s tongue was poking out of its mouth. I grabbed an antler, turned the animal’s head, and gazed into the empty, brown eyes. Russ opened a warm beer from under the front seat, slugged it, belched, and gave us the play by play. He pulled out a camera from the cab, and everybody posed with the buck.

“What’re you going to do with it?” Shelly asked Russ about the deer.

“This evening after dinner I’m taking it to Bob Finch’s, and we’re going to skin it and cut it up in his barn.” Russ sipped his beer. “I’ll save some steaks for you guys.”

“I’d like that.” I nodded.

“Is it okay if I take a hot shower in the house, Aaron?” I need to get cleaned up. Plus, I got a touch of hypothermia.” Russ glanced across the yard as if longing for the warmth in the fire pit.

“Sure, do you need clothes?”

Russ looked at Liza, and she said to me, “I brought his clothes.”

Inside, we watched football on television, and I played cards on the floor with the kids. But Karen couldn’t see the cards, and she got frustrated and quit. The Lions lost the football game. “When are you going to get this girl glasses?” I asked Liza when she came into the living room.

“I’m not made of money,” she shot back. “Are you offering to pay?”

I kept my mouth shut.

At dinner time, we gathered in the dining room and prayed. We had turkey, mashed potatoes, acorn squash, cranberries, green beans, and stuffing. We drank red wine. Liza sent text messages as we ate.

“Put the phone away at the table,” I told her, but she ignored me.

“Liza! Did you hear your father?” said Shelly. Liza put the phone in her lap, looked down, and kept tapping the keypad.

“Daddy’s buying a puppy,” Wendell told Shelly and me. Excited, Liza and the kids gave us more details.

“We’re getting a boy dog,” said Karen.

“Well, not just yet.” Russell spoke with a mouth full of dinner role. “We’ll have to wait until I sell the car.”

“What kind of dog is it?” asked Shelly.

“A Pharaoh Hound,” said Liza.

Russ filled his wine glass. “The bass player in the band I’m jamming with, his brother-in-law breeds them for dog shows. But he said most litters only have one or two show-quality pups and the rest are sold for pets. The show dogs are two grand. The pets are twelve-hundred.”

“They allow dogs at your apartment?” I asked.

“Yeah, but it costs a hundred more for rent. But it’s worth it. Kip, that’s my bass player, he said they’re great dogs. Good with kids. I got the Mach-I up for sale. Hell, you can’t drive a muscle car in wintertime anyway. And I’ll pay back some of the money we owe you guys.”

“Also,” said Liza, “if he sells the Mustang, we’re taking a vacation with the kids on a cruise liner.” She looked into Russell’s eyes, and they kissed.

“That’s exciting,” said Shelly. “When would that be?”

“As soon as he sells it. They have good ticket deals before the holidays.”

I said, “You wouldn’t take the kids out of school, I hope.”

“They can make it up after new years,” said Liza. “And I’m quitting cigarettes.”

“Well good for you,” Shelly and I told her.

“Every time you want to smoke,” I said, “eat a red licorice stick instead. That’s how I quit.”

“I know, Dad, you’ve told me a hundred times.”

After dinner, we watched more football as the kids played on the floor. Danny fell asleep on Liza’s lap, and I dozed on the recliner. The Cowboys lost a close game, and Russell got up to leave. “I need to go cut up that deer.”

Liza stood and hugged him. “Sorry about the game, honey.”

“Aren’t you going to stay for pumpkin pie?” asked Shelly.

“Not after that football game,” he said. “I lost my appetite.”

I went outside and walked Russ to his truck.

“Thanks for having us, Aaron.” Russ shook my hand. He slammed the truck door and drove away. The scent of smoldering wood from the fire pit wisped in the wind.

Inside, we had pie and coffee, and the kids had cupcakes. I drenched my pie with whipped cream. Liza said, “Mom, I need money to buy winter coats, hats, and mittens for the kids.”

“I didn’t forget, honey.” Shelly went to the den for the checkbook. Liza pulled a fresh pack of cigarettes from her purse, tamped the end on the table, and tore off the cellophane.

“Why don’t you and Russell buy the kids coats?” I said.

She put an unlit cigarette in her mouth. “Mom always gives me money for coats this time of year.”

Shelly came back, wrote a check for two hundred dollars, and gave it to Liza. Liza looked at the check and said, “Can I have fifty more for boots?”

Shelly glanced at me and opened the checkbook again, but I stopped her. “Liza, I think you can buy boots for your own kids. We’re not made of money.”

“Oh, but you sure had enough money to put in a new boat dock this summer,” she quickly pointed out. “You have two boats, you dine at Steak & Pub every Friday, and you vacation in Florida every winter.” Liza pulled a cigarette lighter from her purse. “When are you getting your Christmas bonus at work, mom? You can give me some of that money for boots.”

“When’s Russell getting a job?” I raised my voice.

“None of your damn business. Russell’s got a job playing in the band.”

“Then make him buy the boots.” I slammed my fist on the table.

“He can’t afford boots. He just lost a hundred on that lousy football game.” She lit the cigarette. “What kind of people are you? Won’t even buy snow boots for your own grandchildren.”

“Go outside and smoke that!” I stood and towered over her. “I thought you were quitting.”

“This is my last pack, if it’s all right with you.” Liza pushed her chair back and headed for the door. She turned toward us and screamed, “Sorry, kids, your feet will be froze all fucking winter.” The kids ate cupcakes, drank chocolate milk, and didn’t breathe a word.

* * *

Eight days before Christmas, we stopped by Liza’s apartment on our way to the Christmas tree farm. The sun shined deceptively bright on a cold Saturday morning. Russ’s pickup and Liza’s car were parked at the curb, and the kid’s bicycles lay in the yard. “It doesn’t look like anybody’s out of bed yet.” Shelly looked toward the balcony of their second floor apartment.

I glanced at my wristwatch. It was almost nine o’clock. “Then we’ll wake them up.”

We climbed the outer steps and knocked. Inside we could hear the kids scamper across the floor. The door swung open, and Shelly stepped into the foyer and hugged the kids.

“Hi, grandma. Hi, grandpa,” they greeted us.

I hoisted Danny. “Poppa, that’s our new dog.” He pointed at the dog. The excited brown puppy with big ears and long legs jumped around at our feet.

“His name is Devil,” said Karen. Devil hopped up on my leg, and I petted his head.

“Poppa, we’re watching cartoons.” Wendell led us into the living room. The kids wanted us to sit down and watch the big screen television, but Shelly and I were too horrorstruck by the condition of the apartment.

Liquor bottles, pizza boxes, empty beers lay everywhere. The ashtrays overflowed. You couldn’t see daylight on the tables and counter tops. Pretzels and popcorn covered the furniture. The dog had pooped on the carpet, and a puddle of pee glistened on the kitchen linoleum. A torn open garbage bag emitted a foul stink. And a pair of red panties dangled on a Christmas tree branch.

“Where’s your mom and dad?” I asked.

“Sleeping.”

“Does your mom always keep the house this clean?” Shelly picked a lamp up off the floor.

Wendell and Karen laughed. “We had a Christmas party last night.”

“And the police came,” said Danny.

“Yeah, the fuckin’ cops shut us down.” Wendell threw the dog off the couch.

“Watch your mouth, boy,” I said.

“Sorry, Poppa.”

“Grandma, guess what,” said Karen, “we went on two airplanes and rode a big boat on the ocean for a week. And we didn’t have to go to school.”

“Cruise ship,” corrected Wendell.

“Yeah, and they had a swimming pool and a water slide.” Karen mimed swimming, stroking her arms.

“And golfing!” said Danny.

“And a exercise room,” said Wendell. “And daddy lost five hundred dollars playing black jack.”

“See,” said Danny, showing us his baseball hat with a cruise ship emblem on the front. Just then, gunfire erupted on the television, and the kids turned to watch the cartoon.

“We’re going to a farm to chop down a Christmas tree,” I said. “We thought you kids might want to go.”

“All right!” shouted Wendell. They hopped off the couch.

“First you need to ask your mom and dad,” I told them.

All three ran down the hallway and peeked into the master bedroom. I could hear hushed tones as the kids talked to Liza. The kids came back, excited. “Mom said we can go, but she needs to ask our dad, and he’s still sleeping,” said Karen.

“You kids need to eat breakfast first,” said Shelly.

“Okay.” Wendell hurried to the kitchen and came back with a big bag of caramel corn. They all dipped in and took handfuls.

Shelly frowned. “Let me find something better than that for you to eat.” Her and I went into the kitchen. An empty box of Captain Crunch lay on the counter, and the refrigerator was nearly full of long neck beers. Venison packed the freezer.

I looked through the mostly bare cupboards. “We’ll take the kids out for breakfast.”

Liza came out of the bedroom, wearing a flannel nightgown. “Hi.” She scratched her head. “Sorry about the mess. We had a few people over last night.”

“Do you mind if we take the kids for a couple hours to the Christmas tree farm?” I asked.

“It’s fine with me, but I need to ask Russell.” Liza picked up the dog. “Did you meet Devil?” She rubbed his ears. “Russ wants to have him professionally trained to compete in dog shows. First prize at the big shows is fifty thousand dollars.”

“Well, if you’re going to put him in competition, you might want to give him a better name,” I suggested.

“Like what?”

“Hell, I don’t know, Clifford, Skip, Rudy.”

“Russell wanted to call him Ozzie, but everybody voted on Devil.”

“How was your vacation?” asked Shelly.

Liza yawned. “It was nice.” She looked over at the kids eating caramel corn and watching television. “Turn that TV down, and put that popcorn away! I need to make you kids breakfast.” She lit a cigarette then pulled a box of pancake mix from the cupboard.

I went into the living room to where Russell’s black Les Paul leaned in the corner. At least he didn’t sell his guitar for a puppy, I thought, taking up the instrument. I sat cross-legged on the floor, fingered a D-chord, and strummed the strings with the back of my index finger. As a young man, I always carried a guitar pick in my wallet, I remembered. I also recalled selling my own Les Paul in college to pay overdue tuition. That was a sad day at the pawn shop, but a tough choice had to be made.

After the kids had pancakes and orange juice (Liza tasted the juice to make sure it wasn’t spiked with alcohol before serving it), the women took them to the bedrooms to get dressed. The deer horns from Russell’s eight point lay on the floor as Devil chewed on a tine. I sat on the couch, and the dog tried climbing up on my lap. I cupped my hand over his nose, and he chuffed and turned away, and then we played tug of war with a sock I picked up off the floor.

The kids came out of the bedroom, and Liza pulled their new coats and hats from a closet by the front entrance. She knelt down and helped Danny with his zipper. She put mittens on his hands and said to Shelly, “I’m sure it’s okay, mom, but I better ask Russell if the kids can go.”

“I’ll go tell daddy.” Wendell ran off to the back bedroom.

Shelly and I took our coats from the coat tree and bundled up. “We’ll only be gone a couple hours,” I told Liza. “We’ll ride on the horse drawn wagon back to where the trees are planted, find a nice one, and cut it down just like when you were a little girl.”

“I remember. That’ll be fun.”

The bedroom door opened and closed. Wendell clomped into the living room, crying. “Daddy won’t let us go because we don’t…”

“What, honey?” Liza knelt down and hugged the boy. “I can’t understand what you’re saying.”

“Daddy won’t let us go because we don’t have b-boots.”

“Oh—” Liza kissed Wendell’s forehead. “I’m so sorry.”

Karen and Danny started to cry.

“But, honey,” Shelly said to Wendell, “there’s no snow on the ground. You don’t need boots.”

I took Shelly’s hand. “Let’s go.” We hugged the kids, and Liza followed us to the front door.

“Sorry, mom and dad.” She hugged us.

“Don’t worry about it,” I said. “We should’ve called first.”

Shelly agreed. “But we’ll see you Christmas day, right?”

“Uh-huh.” Liza sniffed and wiped tears with the back of her hand. We went outside into the frozen morning.

* * *

December 21st, I hung the bicycles in the garage on hooks suspended from the ceiling. I wanted to clear out floor space for a canoe I’d bought at the boatyard for Shelly’s Christmas present. Russell, Liza, and the kids drove up the driveway, unexpected, in Liza’s white Impala. I greeted them at the car.

“Just dropping off that venison I promised,” said Russell. Liza went into the house. Russ opened the trunk and pulled out a grocery sack, nearly full of frozen steaks, chops, and a roast.

I put the meat into the freezer chest in the garage. “Thanks, Russ. I’ll ask Shelly to make that roast for Christmas dinner.”

“Why are you hanging the bikes on hooks?” asked Wendell.

“I bought grandma a canoe for Christmas, and I’m going to store it in the garage.”

“Poppa, our bikes got stolen,” said Karen.

“Well, you kids need to take better care of your belongings.” I put my arm around her. “I saw that you’d left your bike in the yard by the street the other day.”

Danny said, “My bike got stolen too.”

I said to Russell, “You didn’t need to make a special trip out here just to bring the meat. You could’ve brought it Christmas morning.”

“Oh, no problem,” he said. “Glad to do it.”

“What’s your plan for the rest of the evening? Have you had supper?”

“We can’t stay. I got band practice with those guys I’ve been jamming with. We’re starting to sound pretty good, too. It’ll be fun to get back on stage.”

We went down the sloped yard to the lake. The water had frozen over, and the kids ran and slid on the ice in their shoes. Me and Russ walked around on the smooth surface as the wind blew gusts of powdered snow. I slipped then caught myself. “We’ll have to get you guys out here ice skating pretty soon.”

“I know it,” said Russ. “Wendell’s been begging to go.”

“Too bad he didn’t bring his skates. This ice is like glass.”

Shelly came out of the house and called down to the lake, “Aaron, will you come inside for a minute.”

“I’ll be back, Russ.” I trudged up the slope to the house. My glasses steamed up as I opened the door.

Shelly stood waiting. “Liza has something she wants to ask you.”

In the kitchen, Liza sat at the table with a plate of cookies and a glass of milk. I had a flashback of her as a little girl. “What is it, honey?” I asked, taking my hat off. Shelly sat down next to her.

Liza spoke barely above a whisper. “Dad, Russell and I have fallen two months behind on our rent. If we don’t give the landlord eleven hundred and eighty dollars tomorrow, he said he’s going to throw all our stuff in the yard and change the locks.” She slid an eviction notice across the table.

I sat down and scanned the document. “Can’t you pay part of it now and the balance next month?”

“We tried, but he wants us out.” She struggled not to cry.

I pushed my chair back. “You should’ve thought of that before you went on vacation and bought that dog.”

“Sorry,” she said.

“You’re gonna be.”

Shelly went to the den, came back, and sat down with the checkbook.

Liza said, “Can you make it out for twelve hundred, so I have money for the kids’ lunches?”

I looked at Liza our little girl, almost thirty, a nice looking woman like her mother. A suede leather coat with fur collar and cuffs was hanging on the back of her chair. She wore a braided gold necklace, her brown hair in a long bob. Her pearl earrings no doubt cost more than a pair of eyeglasses would for Karen.

Through the window, I could see the sun setting across the lake. Red and yellow highlights streaked through the clouds above the barren tree line. Soon it would be nightfall, and Liza and her family would be driving home, in turmoil. “Nope, we’re not paying for it,” I said abruptly. I grabbed the checkbook from under Shelly’s pen. Shelly looked surprised as did Liza. “We’re not paying any of it.” I glared at the two flabbergasted women.

Shelly protested, “Aaron, it’s almost Christmas, and we can’t have homeless grand—”

“Never again!” I stood and slammed my open hand on the table. “Let them figure it out.”

Liza narrowed her eyes. “It’s because of Russell, isn’t it? You’ve never liked him from day one.”

“Not true.” I paced the floor. “I liked him well enough until you two dropped out of high school and ran away from home.”

“Liza grabbed her coat and headed across the kitchen. She turned and screamed at me, “We gave you deer meat!”

“Take it back!”

She stomped her high heels, and slammed the door. Outside, Russell and the kids waited in the running car. She climbed in, and they backed out the driveway, snow flurries in the headlights. We watched out the window as they disappeared over the hill.

* * *

Christmas morning, a light snow had fallen overnight and blanketed the pines in the yard. Rabbit tracks circled the birdfeeder, where the cardinals had dropped seed to the ground. Shelly and I ate cinnamon rolls and drank coffee by the wood stove. I stood and stretched. “I need to bring in more firewood before the kids get here.”

Shelly kissed me and took my empty cup. “I’m going to get the family breakfast started.”

I put on my boots and coat as she dug potatoes from a bin below the kitchen counter. Outside, a frigid wind blew across the lake, and I covered my ears with a stocking hat and pulled on a pair of gloves from my pocket. Deer tracks crossed the yard to the weeping crabapple tree by the wood pile. The Christmas tree in the house sparkled through the picture window.

I hope Russell remembers ice skates, I thought, and I debated clearing a skating rink on the lake with a snow shovel. But the stiff wind made me think it was too cold. Maybe the sun would come out in the afternoon, and if not, Russ and I could go ice fishing toward evening.

I picked an armload of wood and hauled it into the garage. Snow squeaked beneath my boots. Shelley’s canoe, a red fiberglass sixteen-footer, sat on the floor. I was looking forward to paddling into reedy coves and slaying largemouth bass in the lily pads next summer. After several armloads of wood, I took the bundles inside and filled the log rack. The kitchen smelled like fried potatoes. In the living room, gifts waited to be opened beneath the Christmas tree.

Shelly checked the kitchen clock. “I wonder what’s keeping Liza and Russell?”

“You’re sure they’re coming?” I took off my coat and hung it on a hook.

“I talked to Liza yesterday. She said they’d be here for breakfast. They plan on spending the whole day.”

“Maybe the roads are slippery.”

She turned the gas down on the stove and let the potatoes simmer.

“Did they get everything settled with their landlord?” I asked.

“I haven’t heard. I was afraid to bring it up.”

I poured a glass of eggnog from the fridge and ate a peppermint pinwheel from a platter of sweets (starting new years I was panning on losing fifty pounds). I made another pot of coffee and watched the snow fall out the picture window. Shelly pulled a baking sheet from the oven and transferred sugar cookies to a wire rack. Liza’s Impala turned up the driveway. “Russ and Liza are here,” I announced.

“Oh good.” Shelly came out of the kitchen, wiping her hands on her apron.

I put on my coat and went through the garage to the driveway. But when the car drove up, Russell was all alone. He climbed out, avoiding my eyes, the engine running. I extended my hand. “Merry Christmas, Russ. Where’s Liza and the kids?”

Russ kept his hands in his coat. “Sorry, Aaron, it’s not happening this year. I just came to get the kids’ Christmas gifts.”

Silence, like I’d been shot with an arrow. “What’s the matter?”

He didn’t answer, turning his back on me. He opened the trunk of the car. “The kids are home waiting for their presents, grandpa. Don’t fuck up their Christmas.”

More arrows. I hesitated then walked slowly through the garage past the red canoe.

Shelly waited eagerly inside. “Are you okay, Aaron? You look ill.”

“They’re not coming,” I said.

“What?”

“They’re not coming. It’s only Russ. He came to pick up the kids’ gifts.”

“What!” She turned quickly toward the door. “I’m going to give him an earful.”

“No, you’re not.” I grabbed her arm. “This family will not fight on Christmas. Now pull the kid’s gifts out from under the tree.”

At first she didn’t budge, her eyes red with anger and hurt.

I hauled the presents outside, while she cried on the floor, sorting through the giftwrapped boxes. I put them in the trunk of Liza’s car. Russell watched by the wood pile, smoking a cigarette. The last gift barely fit. “That’s all we got.” I closed the trunk lid.

Russ flicked his smoke in the snow, came to the car, and opened the door.

I offered to shake hands. “Tell everybody Merry Christmas.”

Russ hedged, then grasped my hand. “Merry Christmas, Aaron.” He climbed in and backed out the driveway. I quaked to the depth of my bones as the white car disappeared over the hill.

 

 

BIO

Franklin KlavonFranklin Klavon has written a novel, Bubba Grey Action Figure, and a collection of short stories, Lemon Wine. His fiction has appeared in Brain, Child Magazine, at storychord.com, verdadmagazine.org, schlock.co.uk, and aphelion-webzine.com. In a previous life he played lead guitar for Bubba Grey and has produced five alternative rock compact discs. Mr. Klavon is an avid chess player and has a Master’s Degree in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Michigan. For more, visit franklinklavon.com.

 

 

 

0
hyena

hyena salvation

by robert paul cesaretti

 

 

the hyena looked up at him from the small, bare condominium yard. it always sat next to the rusted bar-b-cue grill, his little altar perhaps. the hyena was ugly, not beautiful in the least but he loved it just the same. he was dying and as he was dying he was coming to believe the hyena understood death, his death in particular. this was mysterious.

he had stolen the hyena from the zoo where he had once worked, when it was very small, when it was cute. they figured an owl probably got it, which is what he had suggested. then he retired from the zoo. he thought it a good idea to have the hyena as a reminder of his good times at the zoo, which he had enjoyed very much. they used to play cards amongst the elephants, him and the guys he worked with, and dash through the lion pit on a dare. what fun it was. the camaraderie of it all. and he had a girlfriend at the hotdog stand. the time of his life.

he had come to like africa very much while he was there, at the zoo, because of the animals that had come from there, from africa. feeding them and cleaning them so well like he did. he would imagine the great beauty of africa while he did so. zebras, ostriches, gorillas. he thought of africa as a sort of place where life poured itself out. and now he had let to go of the things he had done in his life, work play love, as he was facing his death, as it was coming his way. work play love, those things were working themselves out ok, but his thieving, not so much so. the many things he had stolen, from the many people he had stolen them from. precious things. thieving had been so very close to his heart, he had come to cherish it. this was bothering him now because death was showing itself as a thief, they had come to know each other it could be said. but he did not want death to have a hold on him, he wanted to go right on through to heaven. that would be best.

he would take the hyena to africa he decided, where there would be a life for it to live with other hyenas and where it could eat animals and fight lions like a hyena should. and when he set the hyena free he would let go of his death, into the heart of africa, freeing himself up for more life to come. he went down to face his hyena with a steak and he bar-b-cued the steak. they ate it together. and then he held the hyena gently and spoke softly to it, speaking to it of the savannahs and jungles and deserts they would see in africa. the innocence that carries us away.

 

 

 

BIO

Robert CesarettiRobert Paul Cesaretti has published in Plain Brown Wrapper, The Atherton Review, Gambling the Aisle, SN Review, Dark Matter Magazine, Mad Hatters‘ Review, Commonline Journal,  Avatar Review, The Zodiac Review. He is the founding editor of Ginosko Literary Journal, http://GinoskoLiteraryJournal.com and a native of the San Francisco Bay Area.

 

 

0
Joseph De Quattro Writer

Rubric for Getting Up in the Morning

by Joseph De Quattro

 

for Jen Schneider

 

1. PAYPHONES

 

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

“Still me,” Colliver said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Always keep fresh,” she said again.

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

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

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

 

2. BLINDNESS

 

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

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

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

“Was he nice?”

“A real comedian.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Laziness?”

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

Colliver put the orange prescription bottle on the table.

“And what exactly does it do again?”

“Makes you blind.”

“Don’t say that.”

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

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

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

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

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

“What,” Colliver said. “How I what?”

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

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

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

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

 

3. ROOMS

 

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

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

 

4. ADJUNCTIVITIS

 

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

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

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

 

5. XINAPRIEN

 

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

 

6. ORGANICS

 

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

“What about your father?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Good to fail?”

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

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

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

“And the rustling sound?”

“Is it constant?”

“Almost always,” Colliver said.

“We can alter the dosage if you pre—“

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

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

 

7. THE LAST ONE

 

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

 

8. COLLIVER’S FATHER

 

Very small, very far.

 

9. COLLIVER’S MOTHER

 

With fangs.

 

10. SANDALS

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

11. LANDSLIDE

 

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

 

12. GOING ON

 

Colliver went on.

 

13. THE GIRL FROM CALIFORNIA

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

14. A RUSTLING SOUND AS OF LEAVES

 

Almost constantly.

 

15. FLUNG ABOUT THE CRAVING FOR A FELLOW

 

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

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

 

16. TASTE

 

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

 

17. TELEVISION

 

Never off.

 

18. DAYS

 

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

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

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

 

19. AN AUTUMN, AN EVENING

 

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

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

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

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

“For a time or for good?”

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

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

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

 

 

 

BIO

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

 

 

 

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Jon Fried author

A Little Bit Closer to Water

by Jon Fried

 

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Open doors meant empty houses. Not contagious.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

I know you want to hear this, I said.

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

It’s not contagious. Not contagious.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

A lovely walnut entryway. Deep white shag beyond.

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

She got better. We slept together again.

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

Sorry she said.

Then she went again.

Go, she growled.

I went.

 

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

 

That wasn’t it. False alarm.

We went on.

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

 

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

 

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

That was our only run-in with authority.

 

We could take cars but we like to walk.

 

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

 

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

 

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

She rose suddenly and went downstairs to make some coffee.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

I bet she would have laughed.

No, not laughed. Just raised an eyebrow.

 

 

 

BIO

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

 

 

0

Adult Jeans

by Evelyn Levine

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

“Last week when we went to get groceries—”

“At Ditmart, yeah–”

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

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

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

“And all of the ice cream went everywhere!”

“Glass, chocolate fudge sauce…”

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

“He was so confused.”

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Ja,” he replied blandly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

“Wow,” the first would say.

“Yeah,” the other would say.

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

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

* * *

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

Christmas Shopping List

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

 

* * *

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

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

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

* * *

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

* * *

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

* * *

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

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

 

 

BIO

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

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James Gallant

Andrew the Vihuela-Player

by James Gallant

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Absent sun,
Stay beneath the dark sea.
Lest he sail, I be undone.

Drowned star,
If you should leave your watery tomb,
Then what is dear to me is far.

Fair moon,
Cease movement, save my life
Weave a spell, forfend the noon.

Eternity,
Deface the heartless calendar.
Rest in peace, my surety!

 

Footsteps in the grass beyond the raspberry trellis, and voices: Andrew’s surrogate parent and benefactor Sir John Cobb and (Andrew assumes) Richard Hakluyt, who was to have arrived today from Paris with his fiancée Duglesse Cavendish.

“Spain is selling wool from America more cheaply than we can ours. English dominance in the market will end.”

“What will become of our sheepmen?” Sir John asks.

“I fear the worst.”

“King Philip’s been very quiet since Drake embarrassed him at Cadiz. What do you suppose he’s up to?”

“I have no idea, But the Pope called him a coward for letting Elizabeth and a pirate tweak his nose, and he’s a very proud fellow.”

“Been to our stool room since you arrived, Richard?”

Hakluyt laughs. “No, why do you ask?”

“Harrington’s installed for us one of his new odorless flushing commodes.”

“Well, I look forward to being odorless!”

“So do we all!”

The two men are laughing.

Andrew’s knife slips from his hand and lands in the grass.

“Who goes there?” Sir John calls.

Andrew peers around the edge of the raspberry trellis and smiles at the two older men.

“What are you doing, Andrew?”

“Picking raspberries.”

“I’ll have you know, Richard, that lad is one of the finest instrumentalists in England….Andrew, this is Reverend Hakluyt, the author of Diverse Voyages Touching the Discovery of America.

“Might I ask why one of the finest instrumentalists in England is picking raspberries?”

“Why are you picking raspberries, Andrew?”

“Jayne told me to.”

Sir John winks at Andrew.

“What instrument does Andrew play?”

“The vihuela.”

“I’d no doubt be impressed no doubt if I knew what a vihuela was.”

“An old Spanish instrument resembling our lute. My father brought us one from Aragon years ago. I once showed it to Andrew when he was a boy and I have never seen it since except in his arms.”

“A born musician.”

“So it seemed. John Dowland arranged for him to play recently for the Queen.”

“But he’s a servant?”

“His parents were servants of ours. They died in a fire here some years ago, and Andrew became our charge. Soon he’ll be going to Denmark as a musician at King Frederick’s court.”

“Really? How did this come about?”

“Frederick and my wife are cousins, you know. He paid us a visit after doing business in Edinburgh earlier this year. When he heard Andrew play he wouldn’t leave until we agreed to part with him.”

“And you did?”

“It was either that or have him stay longer and consume all my best wine!”

“The stories we hear of Danish tippling are true?”

“So it seems.”

“Will I get to hear Andrew perform?”

“This very night.”

 

A pleasant mid-summer evening. The Cobbs, Hakluyt, and couples from neighboring estates, dine on tables arranged amid flower beds in the walled garden.

Andrew does not ordinarily wait tables, but a scullion is ill, and Lady Cobb has asked him to help out. The meals Andrew takes with other retainers do not include meats except at Christmas and Easter. Never having acquired a taste for them, he finds the stench of flesh in the oven room faintly nauseating. He delivers a plate of roasted blackbirds to the garden, and takes up a position to one side of the diners to await commands.

“You wouldn’t believe the number of fine palazzos being built in Paris,” Hakluyt remarks. “Every Tom, Dick, and Harry must have one, it seems.”

“But how does every Tom, Dick, and Harry afford one?”

“There’s an Italian usurer on every street corner offering loans at some incredible rate of interest.”

Andrew tries to imagine wanting a palazzo.

“I was recently at a house whose larder was bare. The owner had so much money tied up in house payments, he could barely afford to eat.”

“I’m much too fond of my roast beef to fall into that trap!”

“So am I!”

Desserts having been served, Lady Cobb whispers, “Andrew, put on your livery.”

To Andrew’s way of thinking, performing in the nude would be symbolism more apt than the garish livery, but since he’s going into the great world as a performer he may as well get used to looking like a juggler. He dons the red-and-gold striped doublet with pansid slops,* gartered gold Venetian silk hose that ascend to the lower hems of the doublet, and a red slouch hat with a golden feather. Vihuela in hand, hoping not to be seen in this getup by other servants, he makes his way back toward the garden.

Jayne smirks at him as he passes the open doorway to the oven room.

Twilight is deepening. Candles have been lit on the tables in the garden. Andrew seats himself in a corner some distance from the diners to pluck the strings softly as he tunes them.

“Duglesse, is your cousin Thomas still drinking tobacco?”

“He’s never without his pipe since coming from Virginia. I was with him in London last week when a Puritan preacher approached us. He informed Thomas that a person who breathes fire and smoke belongs in the bottomless pit and will soon be going there.”

“I hear that a servant saw smoke coming from Raleigh and thought he was on fire. She poured a bucket of water over his head.”

General laughter.

“This is all very interesting,” Lady Cobb says, “but I believe I heard the enchanting sounds of the vihuela.”

The guests smile at Andrew.

“Isn’t he splendid in his new livery?”

“The raspberry and blackbird man has become a Bird of Paradise!” Hakluyt exclaims.

As Andrew draws his stool nearer the guests, Lady Cobb describes his “wonderful opportunity” in Denmark. He does a bit more fine tuning, plays a series of swift runs, and then composes his thoughts a moment before playing a fantasia from Luis de Milan’s pieces for vihuela, followed by his transcription of a lute gigue by Valentin Bakfark, and then his own lengthy, demanding fantasia.

His playing has engendered awed silence in his audience and altered the ambiance of the gathering. At last a woman murmurs, “I didn’t want that to end.”

“I feel I have been to heaven and back,” says another.

The guests rise from their seats, stroll pensively in the moonlit pathways of the garden, or, wanting to be alone with their thoughts, make their way to their quarters in the castle for the night.

Andrew is on the verge of sleep when the door opens tentatively between his room and Jayne’s. He simulates the hoarse breathing of a sleeping person, and the door closes with a bang.

*   *   *

There is a forest of masts tilting back and forth gently in the harbor at Plymouth Sound. Rowboats large and small ferry passengers and baggage to ships on either side of the stream. Dock workers and carpet bag-toting sailors swarm among oxen and drays, kegs of gunpowder, tall piled coils of thick hemp rope, cannon ball pyramids, tar tubs, barrels of salt beef and salt pork and beer. The sounds of vendors ringing hand bells to advertise their wares reach the cliff above the harbor where Sir John Cobb and Lady Cobb stand with Captain Smathers of the ship Wanderer.

“What an amazing sight!” Sir John exclaims. “How long has the Royal Navy been in port?”

“All month, locals tell me,” Smathers replies.

“A confrontation with the Spanish must be imminent.”

“That’s possible,” Smathers agrees. “The sun and moon were bloody over Plymouth three times this past week.”

“You’ve no doubt heard the Pope declared Philip King of England?”

Smathers laughs. “No, I hadn’t.”

“That would make you and I Spanish subjects.”

“Best of luck to the Pope and King Philip!”

Smathers points a finger. “See those the two men examining demi-cannons? Lord Admiral Howard and Francis Drake.”

“I shall remember this sight as long as I live.”

“It’s been wonderful seeing you again Peter,” Lady Cobb remarks. “How soon will your ship depart?”

“As soon as they’ve loaded the Cornwall tin–within the hour.”

Lady Cobb touches her husband’s arm. “John, we should say our farewells to Andrew

“Indeed.”

The three make their way down stone steps connecting the cliff to the harbor.

 

The sea chest Lady Cobb has had prepared for Andrew’s voyage to Denmark consumes most of the floor space of his small cabin. Andrew assumes he will be asked to perform soon after arriving at Elsinore, so it will be important to stay in practice while en route. But he cannot seat himself properly to play with the chest consuming floor space. Once the ship is underway he will ask Captain Smathers if the chest might be relocated. Meanwhile, seated in his bunk, he studies in the dim light cast by a spirit-lamp his transcription for vihuela of John Dowland’s lute piece, “Fancy #3.” He can hear the piece in his mind’s-ear as he makes small changes in it.

The little bells dinging somewhere nearby are a distraction. He wishes they would stop.

 

With the sea chest in the middle of the floor there is room enough only for Lady Cobb. Sir John remains in the open doorway.

Lady Cobb extracts from the sea chest a bottle and says to Andrew, “This contains cider. You will find it very refreshing after the salted meat served aboard ship.”

The pervasive melancholy cast of Dowland’s music might be explained, Andrew supposes, by the fact that he has never found preferment at the English court. On the other hand, temperamental melancholy might explain his never having found preferment, since, as Andrew knows from personal experience, Elizabeth favors lively gigues and saltarellos.

“Before biting into a sea- biscuit,” Lady Cobb advises, “examine it to see if rodents have been there before you.”

“You may lose a tooth biting into one,” Sir John adds.

Lady Cobb removes from the chest a small rectangular metal container open on one end. She holds it up for Andrew to see. “If you place this little oven near a fire, it will soften your biscuits.”

“Where is he going to find a fire aboard ship?” Sir John asks.

Andrew is proud of his transcription of “Fancy No. 3,” although to play it well will require a great deal of practice. He should probably exclude it from his performance repertoire for the time being.

Lady Cobb extracts a jar from the chest. “You can also use the oven to heat this soup Jayne has prepared for you.”

Andrew wonders if it poisoned.

 

The Wanderer makes its way out of Plymouth Sound into the English Channel and sets a course for the North Sea. Captain Smathers is at the window of his cabin in the poop deck, hands clasped behind his back, when he sees something that makes him reach for his spyglass: a multitude of ships’ masts frail as toothpicks coming up over the southwestern horizon.

As a favor to his friends the Cobbs the Captain invites his young passenger to dine with him that evening. As they sit at the captain’s table awaiting the cook’s delivery of their meal, Andrew is reflecting on the inferiority of Dowland’s polyphonic works for vocal consorts to his lute solos. The trouble with words is that they come into music bearing the dross of the human ordinary; they lack the enchanting otherness of sounds generated by sheep guts and wood.

Smathers has been contemplating the absent expression on the young man’s face when he breaks the silence: “I think we may have narrowly avoided an encounter with the Spanish Armada this afternoon. We would no doubt have heard cannon fire, had there been a battle. But one can only wonder what the morrow will bring.”

Andrew has no idea what the Captain is talking about.

“Hard to say what the outcome would be. The light swift carracks of the English are superior to Spanish galleons from the standpoint of maneuverability.”

Smathers’ eyes narrow at the young man’s smile which seems a curious response to his remarks. (Andrew has heard him to say that the English have “light, swift carrots.”)

“On the other hand,” Smathers continues, “the Spanish have a great many galleons. They might lose a number of them without losing a battle to the carrots.”

Smathers has gathered from the Cobbs that their young man is exceptional in some respect, but his smile is that of an idiot. Smathers’ extensive experience of idiocy over the years while managing crews has sensitized him to its symptoms, and generated a theoretical interest in the subject. He has gathered from his reading a little nosegay of quotations on the subject. Erasmus in Praise of Folly alludes to Pythagoras who after many transmigrations–his soul had been embodied at one time or another in “a philosopher, a man, a woman, a fish, a horse, a frog, and, I believe, a sponge”— concluded no creature was happier than “that type of men we commonly call fools, idiots, lack-wits, and dolts.”

The cook enters the cabin and places before the two men plates of salt beef and suet pudding. The Captain digs in. His passenger nudges the beef to one side of the plate with his fork, downs a spoonful of the pudding, and winces.

 

Smathers honors Andrew’s request to relocate the sea chest. A music stand now occupies the middle of the cabin floor. Andrew, seated before it struggling with the devilishly difficult left hand fingering in his transcription of “Fancy No. 3.” is thinking, “I have brought this on myself”–when the North Sea generates one of its sudden howling squalls. The ship begins to heave dramatically, its timbers creak. Andrew is aware of the disturbance, but he has trained himself to ignore the distractions that abound in the world and perseveres. By the time the ship’s jostling ceases, he has mastered, for the time being, the fingering for “Fancy #3.” Savoring the pleasurable aftermath of self- and world-overcoming, he ventures from his cabin up to the deck.

The sun on the Western horizon is a luminous orange perched on the edge of a grey table. The crew are firing blunderbusses into the air, celebrating an escape from pirates who had been gaining fast on the Wanderer before the storm overturned their hoy.

Captain Smathers, aloof from the hilarity on deck, greets Andrew, and informs him that the ship lies off Schiermonnikoog.

“Ah,” Andrew says.

Schier is grey–the island of the grey monks. A storm once drove me aground onto Schiermonnikoog. I stayed for a time with the Cistercians. They wear grey habits.”

“Hmph.”

The Cistercians had struck Smathers as idiots.

*   *   *

Ordinarily, musicians and painters at Kronborg Castle, Elsinore, eat simple fare from bread trenchers with other servants. Today, though, at Queen Sophie’s Arts Appreciation Banquet they dine on pastries filled with beef marrow, roasted swan and cranes and pheasant, eels in a puree, and bream. The wine is flowing.

Andrew’s life at Elsinore has been strangely uneventful so far. He had assumed he would be asked to perform soon after arriving, but a month has passed, and nothing has been asked of him. He has enjoyed ample free time in which to maintain his skills as a player, and to work on his compositions, but he has felt at times like a ghost haunting the castle. Is the King even aware of his presence? When Andrew had mentioned his not having once seen Frederick to the English pastry cook whose arrival in Denmark had been almost simultaneous with his, the cook replied that the King had sought him out three times to request specific pies.

“You eat like a bird, Andrew,” remarks Lady Gyldenstjerne at his side. Gyldenstjerne, drama coach and arts coordinator at Kronborg, is a tall, big-boned Dane with wide-set eyes. She devours birds with gusto.

Axel Bente, the music-master, seated on Andrew’s other side, says, “The Scottish ambassador told me the North Sea winds did more damage to the Spanish Armada than the English warships. Protestant winds, he called them.”

“King Frederick’s sensitivity to music must be very great,” Andrew remarks.

Bente cocks an eyebrow. “What gave you that impression?”

“When I played Dowland’s Lachrimae for him in England, he wept.”

“Was this late at night?”

Andrew nods.

“I assume he was in his cups?”

Frederick, when his eyes filled with tears, had been gazing at Andrew over the rim of a tall flagon.

“Not to disparage your considerable talent, Andrew, but if Frederick’s had his nightly quota nearly anything will make him blubber.”

“I understood he was to be at the banquet today.”

“He’s in negotiations with the Scottish ambassador. By the way, they want you to perform with the Elsinore Town Band on Hven next weekend.” Bente’s grimace expresses personal abhorrence of this obligation.

Andrew wonders who “they” are.

“Be at my place in town this afternoon at four to rehearse.”

“The band makes such a merry sound!” Gyldenstjerne gushes.

The English pastry cook wheels into the Great Hall a cart bearing a gigantic Lombard pie* that brings a susurration of wonder from the banqueters.

Bente leans close to Andrew. “See that girl with the straw-colored hair by the Queen? That’s Princess Anne. She’s been making eyes at you. I’d not respond to that overture, if I were you. Frederick’s trying to marry her off to James the Sixth of Scotland.”

“She doesn’t look much like a queen,” Andrew observes.

“What woman does before the makeup artists and dress-designers go to work? I mean, strip your Queen Elizabeth of corset, farthingale, and ruff, you’d be looking at a plucked chicken.”

Gyldenstjerne’s eyes roll.

With Lombard pie under their belts, the guests are burping and sighing. The banquet seems to be winding down, and Andrew senses his liberation is at hand when Lady Glydenstjerne offers him her personal guided tour of Kronborg Castle. It does not seem politic to decline her offer, so he follows the rustling skirts that overlay her substantial posterior along a narrow corridor out into the deeply shadowed central courtyard of Kronborg Castle where she discourses on the significance of the Neptune Fountain, and the sculpted figures of Moses, Solomon, and David (Frederick’s predecessors in the administration of Justice) in niches by the Royal Chapel entrance.

“You’re going to love the royal tapestries,” she says as they enter the Hall of Knights. “They portray the kings of Denmark from the beginning to the present.”

The tapestries remind Andrew of Boethius’s remark that in things that do not move there is no music.

“Axel said the town band is to play at Hven. What is Hven?”

The question stops Gyldenstjerne in her tracks. Judging from her look, his question has betrayed abysmal ignorance.

“Why, Hven is Tycho Brahe’s island where he will entertain the royal family and the nobles this weekend.”

Andrew does not think it wise to inquire who Tycho Brahe might be, but Gyldenstjerne seems to have guessed his ignorance: “Mr. Brahe is the first man to have observed a new star in the heavens.”

“Ah.”

“It proved that the superlunary heavens are not immutable, as commonly supposed. And his observations have confirmed Copernicus’s belief that the planets rotate around the sun. Of course, he is not of those who believe the earth does.” Glydenstjerne shakes her head at the preposterousness of such a notion.

It escapes Andrew why people would want to know which heavenly bodies circle which. Do they imagine clarity in the matter would enable control of these movements? If not, what difference can it possibly make?

Escaped at last from Gyldenstjerne, he is in his private quarters embracing the vihuela, which warms to his touch, when someone knocks at the door. Vihuela in hand, he opens to a page who hands him a copy of Emil Fritjok’s Latin Life of Tycho Brahe, “with Lady Gyldenstjerne’s compliments.” The vihuela pops a gut that flies from the soundboard and lashes the hand of the astonished page. Andrew thanks the page, shuts the door, throws the book in a corner, ties a new string on the vihuela, and enjoys two hours of blessed communion with his music before he must go to town.

When he opens his door to leave for the rehearsal of the Elsinore Town Band, girly-gangly Princess Anne, her straw-colored hair in a bouffant, is in the corridor. “That was so lovely! What is your instrument?”

He tells her. She places a hand on his arm and looks up at him pleadingly: “Teach me to play!”

 

Axel Bente’s flat in Elsinore is above the fishmonger’s shop.

Bente leads Andrew to the back of the apartment into a staircase with a window overlooking Elsinore backyards: board fences in various states of repair, chickens picking at grain, a goose, a pig pen, a mulch pile, an overturned driftwood-grey wheelbarrow with its wheels in the air.

Members of the Elsinore Town Band sit on short logs set upright in the yard. A cornetist toots, a crumhorn whines, a sackbut blares flatulently, a tabor-player drums a taut skin. Three neighborhood mongrels side-by-side on their haunches, throats elevated, howl supportively.

Bente shoos the dogs, and introduces Andrew to the band.

“I don’t know how to tell you guys this, but Brahe’s wife wants us to dress as animals when we perform on Hven.”

Groans.

“Good ol’ Kirsten!”

“People laugh at her,” Jaeger the cornettist says, “but if you ask me that’s one fine piece of ass.”

“Yeah, and the beauty is,” Hans adds, “there’s enough of it to go around.”

Bente opens a chest which stands along the back wall of the house. “Question is, can we perform in these getups?” He extracts a furry one piece costume. “Hans–bear?”

“Why not?”

“Obviously our cornettist should be the cock–Jaeger?”

“Better cock than cuckold,” said Jaeger. He inserts the mouthpiece of his instrument through the short beak, and sounds a cockle-doodle-dooooooo.

A window nearby slams shut.

“Peder–you be the wolf….Skraeder, cod?”

“I’ve always felt a bit supernatural.”

“Cod,” Bente says, “fish.”

Andrew dons the raven’s head.

“Who but an ass would lead this group?” Bente says, pulling a papier-mâché donkey head over his. He brays hollowly from within. “First Up, ‘Rufty Tufty.’” He raises a director’s hand, and sets the band in motion.

Andrew has no idea what he’s supposed to be doing, but strums a rhythmic background. The donkey gives him thumbs up. The string Andrew had just tied on the vihuela breaks. He continues strumming with it flying about.

*   *   *

Below looming, grey, Kronborg Castle with its high walls and onion-minarets, parallel rows of spear-bearing guards form a corridor reaching from a pier to the gangplank of a barge docked in the Oresund.

The royal bloodhounds and riding horses, and their keepers, and the members of the Elsinore Town Band, await boarding for the short trip to Hven. The summer sun is intense. Andrew shares the shade of an umbrella with Axel Bente who is ruminating on the political implications of the just-signed marriage contract that will unite Princess Anne with King James of Scotland: “James is the son of Mary Queen of Scots, and grandson of Henry VIII, so he’s heir-apparent to the English throne. He marries a Protestant princess– that reassures Elizabeth he hasn’t the Catholic leanings of his mother. For Frederick, the marriage settles the longstanding issue over ownership of the Shetlands and the Orkneys– and it makes the rascally Princess someone else’s problem.”

Andrew nods as if he were following this line of reasoning, and remains silent for a time so as not to change the subject too suddenly. “You know, I haven’t once been asked to perform solo since I arrived in Denmark. I’m wondering why Frederick wanted me to come here.”

Bente looks at him blankly for a moment as he adjusts to the change of subject. “Frederick collects virtuosos—not that he gives a rat’s ass about music–or astronomy or philosophy. He wants people to regard Elsinore as the northern Florence.”

Eight heralds in purple tights, white tunics, and caps with big plumes dyed violet descend the walk to the pier, halt, level their horns, and sound a brassy tarum-tarum-tarahhhhhhhhh.

“You’ll find the Danes are very big on fanfares,” Bente says. “It’s all Frederick can do to get one of his sluts through the back door of the castle without those boys tooting.”

The King and Queen, accompanied by Princess Anne, the boy Prince Christian, and servants, descend the walk to the pier. Frederick’s long, ruddy, deeply- lined face floats atop a large white ruff. His bloodshot eyes meet Andrew’s briefly, without recognition. Following the royal family are an assortment of Danish nobles and the Scottish ambassador George Keith, a red-haired, freckled-faced, buck-toothed fellow with a permanent smile. Princess Anne breaks through the corridor of castle guards to brush against Andrew and whisper, “When do my lessons begin?”

Bente gives Andrew a look.

The King and Queen seat themselves beneath a canopy in the barge. A pair of servants begin waving long-handled fans. A third hands the king a tankard. The gangplank is drawn up, and deckhands equipped with long poles shunt the boat into the stream. Oxen tow to the edge of the pier a second barge which the royal hounds and horses, their keepers, and members of the Elsinore Town Band board.

“What’s this about lessons for the Princess?” Bente asks.

Andrew shrugs. “Her idea, not mine.”

“Be careful, Andrew.”

 

The voyage to Hven is brief. As the royal barges approach the island, peasants on shore toss their hats in the air and make loud huzza-huzza. Barrel-chested, sandy-haired Tycho Brahe, with the dwarf Jepp at his side, greets his guests in front of his red brick castle Uraniborg* with its peaked roofs, dome, and balconies.

“Hello, dear little Jepp,” Queen Sophie says.

Jepp gives her the finger.

Brahe leads his guests to the entrance of his observatory Stjärneborg and pauses to let them savor the inscription in gold letters on porphyry:

`Consecrated to the all-good great God and Posterity. Tycho Brahe, Son of Otto, who realized that Astronomy, the oldest and most distinguished of all sciences, though studied at length, still had not obtained sufficient firmness, or been purified of errors, and in order to reform it and raise it to perfection invented with incredible labor, industry, and expenditure exact instruments suitable for all kinds of observations of the celestial bodies.

 

“I can only imagine it must have been like to observe the birth of a star,” says the admiring Lord Kaas.

“Yes, I perceived its implications for affairs in Russia, Finland, Sweden, and Norway,” Brahe acknowledges. “I informed King Frederick of these and he rewarded me with the professorship of astronomy at Copenhagen.”

After dinner, the Elsinore Town Band performs “Begone, Begone my Jug,” and “Haloo, Fair Birdie,” and there is a skit in which Tycho Brahe’s sister plays Urania, muse of astronomy. Brahe shouldering lightly a large globe impersonates the Titan Atlas who declaims, “It is I who have taught astronomers from the time of Hercules and Hipparchus to trust not other men’s observations of the night skies, but attend to them patiently with their own eyes, using well-constructed instruments.”

In a second skit, Princess Anne dressed in green tights portrays Daphne. Apollo is the Negro son of a cook and a wardrobe manager at Kronborg. He wears golden tights and a spiky gold sun mask as he chases Daphne around a screen depicting a leafy rural scene.

“Save me Mother Earth!” Daphne cries.

“Tarry,” Apollo pleads. “I am no lion or a tiger, I am Phoebus Apollo. I hunger only for thy lips.”

“Which pair?” Daphne ad-libs over her shoulder, cracking up the sun god who trips over the edge of the screen and falls to the floor.

Skit director Lady Gyldenstjerne closes her eyes.

Princess Anne plants a foot on the back of the fallen god and addresses the audience. “The moral is, if you can make a god laugh, he might not fuck with you.”

The Danish nobility are in stitches.

Queen Sophie stares at the ceiling.

Scottish ambassador Keith is reconsidering the marriage agreement he just signed on King James’ behalf.

 

The dormitory on the second floor of the castle sleeps the dog-trainers, the grooms, and the Elsinore Town Band. The day’s heat lingers there. Andrew finds sleep impossible in the large assemblage of snorers, and rises from his pallet toward midnight to look out a window into the labyrinth below. At its center is a white marble bench bathed in moonlight. Sitting there and playing something simple and sweet on the vihuela would be pleasant, he thinks. He dresses again, picks up his vihuela, and leaves the castle.

High walls of shrubs border the paths of the labyrinth. Reaching the center proves more challenging than he imagined. At dead ends he must retrace his steps, and while doing so he hears footsteps nearby. Someone else is in the labyrinth. When he finally reaches the center, he starts at the sight of Princess Anne seated on the marble bench. She wears white tights beneath a white tunic, and has her knees drawn up to her chest. A pair of lean hounds at her feet growl at the sight of Andrew. Anne drops her feet to the ground and sits upright. Pleasure and apprehension blend in her face. “Did you follow me here?”

Andrew, torn between a desire to backtrack into the labyrinth and the absurdity of doing so, holds up the vihuela in explanation of his presence.

“You’re going to give me a lesson?” The Princess slides to one side of the bench to make room for him.

Andrew hesitates, wondering who might be viewing what is ostensibly a tête-à-tête from one of Uraniborg’s many windows, but he approaches the bench. He seats himself a comfortable distance from the Princess, and lays the vihuela across his lap. She reaches over and runs an exploratory finger across the strings. “Such a beautiful instrument.”

“I understand you’re to be queen of Scotland.”

“So they tell me. It keeps me awake at night.”

“You’re too excited to sleep?”

“Too depressed.

“You don’t want to be the Queen of Scotland?”

“Would you?”

“Many women would leap at the opportunity.”

“Even if they had to marry James Stuart?”

“What’s wrong with James Stuart?”

“Well, he’s skinny, and bow-legged. They say he wears padded clothing to bed at night–he’s scared of being stabbed.”

“That might be a good idea, in Scotland.”

“He also plays the bagpipes.”

That might be a reason not to want to marry him, Andrew thinks.

“They say when he concentrates, his tongue falls from his mouth.”

“I sometimes drool if I’m very intent on what I’m playing,” Andrew confesses.

“You needn’t have told me that. My father wanted James to marry my sister Elizabeth. She’s prettier than me, but she’s getting kind of old. He probably wants young tail.”

“You’ve met James?”

“No–and he isn’t coming for the wedding.”

“Really?”

“The Scottish ambassador will be the proxy husband. It’s all just politics. You know what? This afternoon I overheard one of the grooms calling me a dog.”

“Off with his head.”

“But it’s true, I’m not beautiful. What’s the good of being a princess if you aren’t beautiful?”

“I would think being a princess would be especially valuable if you weren’t.

“You agree with the groom, then?”

“I didn’t say that.”

“Would you like to fuck me?”

Andrew strums a descending chord progression on the vihuela.

“Are you a spy?”

“Why do you ask?”

“Wouldn’t put it past ‘ol James to put one on me–and you’re English.”

“It’s not the same as being Scottish.”

“Lucky you.”

“I’m no spy.”

“James sent me a girdle of Venus.”

“What’s a girdle of Venus?”

She pulls the neck of her blouse aside to reveal a blue pearl-studded wrap about her chest. “I’m to wear it until he takes it off personally. Isn’t that special?”

Andrew plays a bit of Gaucelm Faidit’s longing-saturated troubadour melody from the twelfth century.

“That’s so lovely. Teach me to play that thing. Please?”

“Here? Now?”

“Yes.”

“It’s not like teaching a dog a trick, you know.”

She punches him on the bicep.

An unfortunate choice of words.

 

Andrew is walking along a corridor of Kronborg Castle from the music studio to his private quarters one day when Princess Anne appears out of nowhere, seizes his hand and draws him through a doorway into a steep, spiraling staircase leading down into the bowels of the castle.

“Bet you haven’t seen our dungeon.”

“I didn’t know there was one.”

“Silly! Every castle has a dungeon!”

A guard or two has accompanied Anne ever time he’s seen her lately. “Won’t they miss you upstairs?”

“Who cares?”

She leads him to the foot of the stairwell, and along dirt paths cut between earthen banks.

The main feature of the he torture chamber is a freestanding stone pillar with inlaid iron rings. “They hang a prisoner from the rings, and poke him with hot irons, or shoot arrows into him,” Anne explains. “Can you imagine?”

Andrew can.

The dungeon is a cell with rocks walls whose width and height diminish at its far end.

“No bars,” Andrew observes.

“They install them when there’s a prisoner. They can locate them all the way to the back so a person can’t even sit down.” She demonstrates, wedging herself into the acute angle where the walls meet. She simulates helplessness, and a blast of sexual radiation from her midriff causes him to start back to the stairs. He has only just returned above when a squabble in the corridor causes him to look over his shoulder. Two tall castle guards, each with a meaty hand under one of the Princess’s elbows, are carrying her off. Her feet are off the ground, thrashing about.

 

Gertrud’s Tavern in Elsinore has become Andrew’s refuge from Kronborg Castle. He would never try to compose music there, but the noisy tavern has the paradoxical effect of heightening concentration as he is editing his compositions. When he enters this afternoon with his vihuela bag on his shoulder, the tavern is unusually quiet. The barmaid Agnete greets him: “Hi Cutie.”

On his way to the back room, he passes seated at a small table the balding Englishman often at the tavern lately. Andrew had been told that he is a member of the English theater company performing repertory in Elsinore.

Today, the Englishman bends over the text of his play that will receive its premier performance at the Elsinore Town Hall next week. The play set in Elsinore has a story drawn from Danish history. It should have immediate local appeal, but something about it is elusive for the playwright. Staging Hamlet in Denmark will hopefully improve his understanding of what he has written, and perhaps inspire revision, before he plays it to the more discriminating audiences of London.

 

William Bull, a stocky, red-faced bit-actor in the English company, storms into Gertrud’s looking for Tom Boltrum, another actor. Bull is enamored of Abigail, the pretty young widow of Elsinore who has just told him to leave her house and never return. Bull thinks he knows why, and he’s going to have it out with Boltrum, who is usually at the tavern when he’s not working. He is absent at the moment, so Bull seats himself near the entrance to wait for him.

Gertrud and Agnete are in the tavern’s side yard roasting meats for the dinner crowd when Boltrum enters.

“OK, why’d you do that?” Bull says.

“Why’d I do what?”

“You told Abigail what I told you in confidence.”

“What you told me in confidence was she loved no one but you. When I told her that, she couldn’t stop laughing.”

“Leave her alone, you whoreson codpiece! She’s a nice girl–and as it is you’re screwin’ every woman in Elsinore under age ninety.”

“I’ve left you a spongy old malkin or two.”

Agnete reenters the tavern as Bull punches Boltrum. Boltrum punches Bull in the nose, knocking him to the floor. Bull picks himself up slowly, bleeding from the mouth, gives Boltrum a hostile look over his shoulder, and exits the tavern.

Boltrum seats himself at the bar, and Agnete places a bowl of ale in front of him. “What was that all about?” Tom’s head is aching, he doesn’t want to talk about it, so Agnete goes into the kitchen to wash dishes.

 

Andrew, in the back room revising of his new work, “Princess Anne’s Gigue,” had been unaware of the struggle out front. So, too, the playwright, his attention riveted by the inadequacies of Hamlet’s soliloquy in act three, scene one:

Here’s a thought: Suppose I kill myself?

                         Ye gods, the problems! And who can say for sure
Whacking away at them with a bare bodkin’s
Nobler than just stabbing oneself in the gut?
Slough the mortal coil! Eternal slumber!
That might be a way to go–although
Sawing it off, we tend to dream, and what
If nightmares dog the suicide?

 

The last line of the soliloquy–“Conscience doth make cowards of us all”—isn’t bad. The rest of it needs work, but the playwright’s creative energies are at low ebb and time for the actors to learn new lines is growing short. He is considering getting drunk and forgetting about the soliloquy when there appears before his imagination a chart of the celestial houses spinning like a top from which a voice issues: “To be or not to be. That is the question”–a superb replacement for the clumsy first line of the soliloquy. The voice continues: “To die: to sleep/ No more, and by a sleep to say we end/ The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks/ That flesh is heir to, ’tis a consummation/ Devoutly to be wish’d.”

The Englishman is writing down lines as fast as they are dictated when Bull comes through the door of the tavern, withdraws a sword from his pant leg, and runs Boltrum through the gut, back to front. The tip of the sword lodges in the front of the bar. Agnete reappears, a dish towel slung over her shoulder, Boltrum is sitting upright on his stool, a carcass on a spit. “Get you another, Tom?” she asks before noticing the lack of animation in his startled face.

She rushes into the side yard. “Oh my god,” Gertrud says, “that’s all we need with the mayor trying to shut us down. Did anyone see it happen?”

“I don’t know.”

As the two women dislodge Boltrum from the bar, Gertrud eyes the Englishman writing feverishly at his table. They manage to get the corpse off the bar stool and into the kitchen. Gertrud opens the door there and glances up and down the alley. They drag Tom Boltrum into a grove of pine trees on the hillock beyond the alley.

When the fit is upon the playwright, lines just keep spilling onto his pages. The slightest event or sensation is assimilable in language Odors of roasting meat are coming into the tavern from the side yard. The playwright scribbles in the margin of his playbook, “Something rotten in the state of Denmark” He will use it somewhere.

A woman’s voice beyond the tavern shrieks, “Poor Tom’s a-cold! Poor Tom’s a-cold!”

The playwright dips his quill in ink.

 

Preparations for the wedding of King James and Princess Anne are furious at the castle. Dress-designers, carpenters, furniture-makers, and carpet weavers throng the halls. Fabric chandlers push about handcarts loaded with of silks, velvets and brocade. The tailors’ assistants stitching away in corners outnumber spiders.

The musical consort for the royal wedding is to include Andrew on the vihuela, two recorder players, the court lutenist Raphael de Angelo, and Axel Bente on the viola da gamba. The consort is rehearsing one day when an officious little German tailor appears in the music studio with a tape measure around his neck and orders Andrew to stand up.

“Why?”

“I measure you.”

“Measure me for what?”

“Your clothes for the coronation at Edinburgh.”

Axel Bente gives Andrew a look.

Andrew learns that he is the only musician from the court to be so honored.

His new clothes include two doublets with short skirts, flies tied with colorful silken bows; a high-crowned, short-brimmed muffin hat with a feather; shirts with standup collars, lace at the neckline and wrists; a long, fur-lined cape; and a collection of cotton stockings in various colors with leather garters.

He is practicing the vihuela in the music studio one morning when a cannonade thundering from the castle ramparts cause him to peer through a narrow window overlooking the Sound. Ships flying Scottish colors are approaching the pier below the castle where Danish dignitaries have gathered. A fanfare from the Danish royal hornsmen answers one from the deck of a Scottish ship. Horns glint in the sunlight, water shines, cannons boom. The Scots come ashore wearing identical cartwheel linen ruffs at their necks, tall black hats, and pointed beards.

Andrew is present with the Elsinore Town Band at an entertainment for the visiting Scots that includes the performance of the skit “Solomon and Sheba” in which King Frederick plays Solomon. Lady Kass (she of the beguiling décolleté) is Sheba. Solomon has been drinking and requires the aid of servants to ascend the riser steps to his throne chair. Sheba, too, is none to steady on her feet, and as she presents the riddles to test Solomon’s wits her speech is slurred. Solomon’s responses, slow in coming, require prompting from Lady Glydenstjerne, but suffice to convince Sheba that the king is indeed God’s elect. She wishes to present personally one of the many gifts her servants have lugged from Arabia in a mule train: a bowl of honey-laced date pudding. She ascends the steps to the throne very carefully with it and has reached the next-to-last step successfully when she trips, spilling pudding and bosom into Solomon’s lap.

“Oh my God, the goo!” exclaims the laughing Solomon as he fondles the slimy Sheba.

Servants come rushing with mops and towels.

The Elsinore Town Band strikes up “Hark, the Dog is in the Pork.”

*   *   *

At the wedding rehearsal, Anne’s lady-in-waiting slips into Andrew’s hand a poem King James has sent the Princess on which she has scribbled a marginal note: “God, he’s a maniac!”

TO MY QUEEN

Whenever I’m oppressed with heavy heart,
I need but take my pen, and recollect
The blessed hour when first my eyes beheld
The image of my Queen, this earthly Juno.
Three Goddesses of equal reputation
Spied the beauty, and nearly came to blows
O’er who should rule her. They Apollo
Asked, who said, “Bless this paragon
By sharing her; and so it came to be
If counsel’s what I need, Athena’s nie;
Chaste Diana mounts to hunt with me;
And if I’m tired, and would to bed repair
I fold in soft embrace my Venus fair.

In the Royal Chapel, the Princess exchanges vows with the freckle-faced, permanently smiling, proxy husband ambassador George Keith. Andrew is with the musical ensemble in the choir loft, and from his vantage, Anne in the white, hooded dress that flows around her and spills onto the floor seems quite overwhelmed by the weight of ceremony and authority– not at all herself.

*   *   *

The flotilla of Danish and Scottish ships leave Elsinore and steer northward in mild early fall weather. George Keith, the proxy husband, his stiletto beard flapping in the breeze, follows Anne around on the Gideon like a faithful dog. Anne shoots exasperated looks across the deck at Andrew.

Anne’s lady-in-waiting hands Andrew another of King James’s literary efforts with another of Anne’s notes: “I’m married to a lunatic!”

 

TO MY QUEEN

The wings of your enchanting fame have reached
Me across the wide and stormy sea.
Your smile will be my antidote against
The melancholy that oppresseth me,
And when a raging wrath within me reigns
Loving looks from you will bring me peace.
Whenever you will see me heavy-hearted
Practice then, sweet doctor, your magic art.

 

Andrew notices Keith gazing at him with squinty eyes.

Winds intensity as the ships enter the Skagerrak. Great waves begin to roll the Gideon from side to side and up and down. From peaks there are dizzying panoramas of churning white waters which disappear as the ship’s prow drops into dark troughs. Gray-faced and vomiting, Andrew retreats to his hammock in the forecastle where he embraces the vihuela, hoping to prevent its destruction. The Gideon springs leaks. All through the night the crew man the pumps.

The winds die abruptly at daybreak, and the cobalt sky and silver sun are innocent-looking. Ships that launched with the Gideon are nowhere to be seen. Admiral Munk orders the Gideon steered to a small harbor visible in the distance which turns out to be at Flekkeroe, an island near the Norwegian coast. The Flekkeroean farmers, learning of the ship’s fate, invite the passengers and crew into their homes, but warn that drought and poor fishing have reduced their food supply to subsistence levels.

Admiral Munk, touched by their hospitality and their plight, orders foods brought from the Gideon to be distributed among the cottagers, but discovers while overseeing this operation that the salt beef and pork in the ship’s hold are moldy. Sea biscuits swarm with brown grub worms, and maggots have infested the dried apples. The victualer in Copenhagen he had thought trustworthy, though Catholic, has obviously stocked the ship with leftovers from other voyages. The beer is sound, however, and he orders a barrel of it delivered to each of the homes entertaining the Gideon’s passengers and crew.

The largest log house on the island is Peder Pedersen’s. A note delivered to the house with the barrel of beer informs Mrs. Pedersen that Princess Anne of Denmark and other nobles will be staying with her and her husband. Mrs. Pedersen picks up her broom and sweeps vigorously the dirt floor around the fire burning on a stone slab at the center of the room. She replenishes the lamps with cod-liver oil, sprinkles fresh sprigs of juniper about, and draws the trestle table and benches from the wall.

Princess Anne requests that Andrew the vihuela-player, though a commoner, be lodged at the Pedersen’s, “because I think we will have serious need of entertainment while the ship is being repaired.” George Keith accedes to this request–having Andrew near to hand will facilitate surveillance. However, he assigns the young man to sleep in Pedersen’s barn with members of the Gideon’s crew, rather than in the house.

Mrs. Pedersen, wearing her festive red bunad with its elaborately embroidered high bodice, long pleated skirt, and white apron, places before each of her noble guests at table a quantity of hemp seeds, thick slices of bread, and a bowl of the ship’s beer.

Peder Pedersen bows his head.

“Lord,” he commences, “we thank you for your bread, and your seeds. People ask which came first, the chicken or the egg. What I would like to know is which came first the plant or the seed. I mean, where would chickens be without grains?… While I am on the subject, why do pea vines watch the sun so carefully all day long? Do they not trust what it is going to do next? Lord, these things are beyond our understanding. As the Good Book says, we look through a dirty window. But we thank you that our guests have come safely through the storm and brought us this first-rate beer. Amen.”

George Keith’s perpetual smile is a plaster replica of itself.

The bread’s consistency is chewy. It has a flavor evocative of pine needles. Peder explains that in hard times the residents of Flekkeroe and neighboring Kristiana bake this bread from fir bark ground into meal.

The beer and hemp nuts are popular.

After downing numerous bowls of beer, Peder leaves the room, and returns dragging behind him the ax six feet long with a worm-eaten handle and an oversized blade that he found buried in his hemp field. He speculates that it belonged either to the primeval giants, or the trolls who delight in baffling humans with curious objects planted about the countryside.

For his next act, Pedersen withdraws a jaw harp from his pocket and twangs a sea-chantey. Mrs. Pedersen is shaking her head back and forth gently as she rises to clear the dishes.

“Where’s the vihuela-player?” Princess Anne wants to know.

 

The vihuela-player is asleep in Pedersen’s barn loft. He sleeps the rest of that day, and all through the night, awaking in the morning to the sight of the smiling George Keith staring at him from an upper rung of the wooden ladder leading to the loft.

Keith informs him that he is to have sole possession of the loft. Members of the Gideon’s crew who were to have shared the space with him have escaped to the mainland. Andrew is instructed to take his meals at the table of the Alfhid family whose farm adjoins Pedersen’s. When Andrew goes there, the widow Alfhid and her three chunky blond daughters, hair braided atop their heads, are pleased to have a male guest at table and smile collectively as he wolfs down his fir-bread and hemp nuts.

Back in Pedersen’s barn, refreshed by long sleep and nourishment, Andrew takes up the vihuela. Resentful of his inattentiveness in recent days, she is cold to his touch, but he knows from experience exercises will correct the situation, and begins playing. Sunlight through narrow cracks in the planks generates a soft, warm light, and the barn has a pleasantly sweetish smell compounded of hay and animal dung. The raw pine siding makes for wonderful acoustics.

*   *   *

News that his bride is on Flekkeroe reaches King James and stirs his remembrance of Leander who swam the Hellespont fearlessly to reach his inamorata Hero, virgin priestess of Aphrodite, and it occurs to him that shipping to Norway personally to rescue the princess would be a wonderful adventure. He broaches the subject with Lord Chancellor Maitland.

“Entirely too risky,” Maitland says. “If something were to happen to you, all hell would break loose here.”

It occurs to James that undertaking this mission without Maitland’s approval would demonstrate his independence of the man many regard as de facto ruler of Scotland. There would no doubt be danger in the excursion, of course, but if he were he to drown history would remember him as one of the world’s great lovers, and he would be spared a reign likely to consist of trying to pacify squabbling Scottish lords and prelates while fearing constantly poisoned whiskey or a knife in the back.

 

At Flekkeroe, word reaches Admiral Munk that ships other than the Gideon which survived the storm have been blown to various points along the Norwegian coast. The flotilla reassembles near Flekkeroe and launches for Scotland, but makes small progress before being blown back to the island again by another gale. A second attempt to sail a few days later meets with similar results. Munk, inclined previously to scoff at rumors of witches casting spells on the mission to Scotland, is no longer sure they can be ignored. In any case, he has had his fill of fir bread and hemp nuts, and the beer is running low. He orders the Danish ships back to Denmark for the winter.

The Scots hope to make further attempts to reach home with Princess Anne before winter, but while waiting the unusually numerous fall storms in the North Sea to subside they elect to relocate to the more comfortable surroundings of Oslo.

Andrew, unaware of the ships’ departures, enjoys meals and sociable palaver with the Alfhids, and takes long walks along the coast with Ingrid Alfhid. To hear him play while she works, Ingrid works in the hemp field nearest the Pedersens’ barn during the harvest. Andrew attracts a various barn audience: a Maltese cat who purrs intensely, cooing pigeons roosting in a corner brace, a trio of field mice all ears atop a bale of hay. One evening a fearless white moth alights on the vibrating soundboard and contemplates Andrew with beady black eyes.

Andrew is experimenting with imitations on the vihuela of mouse chitter, cat purr, donkey bray, and owl hoot.

 

King James, having made covert arrangements for a personal quest of Princess Anne, enters the North Sea with six ships and three hundred sailors–better equipped than Leander had been. Two of the ships go down in storms, and sailors die, but the King reaches Flekkeroe where he learns that Princess Anne is in Oslo. He dispatches his chaplain David Lindsay there to arrange for an appropriate royal welcome and a repetition of the marriage vows, and expresses his desire that while on Flekkeroe he might sleep in the bed that had been Princess Anne’s.

Mrs. Pedersen sighs, puts a fresh loaf of fir-bread in the oven, and picks up her broom.

Lying in bed his first night at the Pedersens, James recalls that King Solomon, to advance his knowledge of the common people, roamed the rural countryside disguised as a peasant, and it occurs to him that while at loose ends on Flekkeroe he has a wonderful opportunity to do the same without the usual encumbrance of guards.

The next morning, in garb supplied by the amused Peder Pedersen out of his personal wardrobe, James hikes gaily from Høyfjellet, through Refsdalen and along Kjærlighetsstien to Bestemorsmed. In the afternoon, he lies beneath a sheltering rock by the sea, lulled asleep by the sound of the surf washing across pebbles.

Awakened by the mournful call of bitterns, and distant tinkling of cowbells, he is returning along a narrow path between the fields of the Alfhids and the Pedersens when he fancies hearing from a Norwegian barn what he cannot possibly be hearing: a work for lute by John Dowland with which he is familiar, and his sense that the place is enchanted is confirmed by the sight of the buxom, blond Ingrid Alfhid asleep in a furrow of the hemp field. His tongue falls from his mouth. He realizes that he is experiencing the Platonic “divine frenzy” of which Marsilio Ficino speaks that blends alienatio and abstractio of Saturnian origin with warm Venusian influences. Solomon, when he first laid eyes on the Rose of Sharon during his rural rambles, had undoubtedly experienced something similar.

*   *   *

When James steps from the carriage in front of the Bishop’s Palace at Oslo he is wearing a black velvet cloak lined with sable. His padded vest swells his torso, and when he removes his puffy high-crowned black hat to shake hands with the Bishop, he looks to Princess Anne standing nearby like a colorful beetle with small head disproportionate to its body.

The Bishop is delivering an ornate Latin blessing, when James spies the gangly, frowning young woman with frizzy yellow hair beside his friend George Keith — Princess Anne, obviously, though she bears small resemblance to the flattering pictures he has seen of her. He walks toward her dutifully in his shambling bow-legged gait, embraces her in a manly fashion, and attempts a kiss from which she turns away at the last moment, and his lips plunge into yellow frizz.

After the wedding vows are repeated, Anne goes to bed complaining of nausea and headache, and James in his private quarters at the Bishop’s Palace writes:

O cruel constellation which conspired
To seal my dismal fate before my birth!
My well-intentioned mother told her midwife,
“Spare no pains in bringing him to life.”
Her hopeful milk I drank a year and more;
And later, I imbibed inspiring waters
Drawn from Pierian spring by gracious Muses–
But lacked the ease to nurture fruits of wonder.
Born to royalty, a Scottish king.
A privileged lad, you say? The truth is rather
Job am I, whose patience Satan sorely smote.

Anne malingers, and as she and her new husband become acquainted while playing card games at bedside. She expresses her longing for music, and speaks of the admirable string player who was with the company on Flekkeroe. She wonders what has become of him. James recalls that Apollo is god both of music and medicine; that Democritus believed music could cure snakebite; and that music restored Odysseus to health after he was gored by a wild boar. He inquires with George Keith concerning the whereabouts of the musician of whom Anne had spoken.

Keith has a little talk with him about Andrew.

 

When the storms in the North Sea do not subside, and winter snows come early, the Scots abandon their plan to reach home before spring, and request permission to winter at Elsinore. King Frederick has been rejoicing in the dispatch of his madcap daughter to the hinterland, and does not relish the prospect of her rapid homecoming, but he dispatches sleds to Norway. In the dim light of a frosty morning, King James swathed in furs stands in a sled sheathed in black velvet and silver bangles and delivers a flowery valediction before a cluster of shivering, Oslo dignitaries.

The sleds depart in a blizzard and press on to Quille, and from Quille to Baahus Fortress on a cliff circled by a river at the Norwegian-Swedish border. Six hundred Swedish horsemen escort the entourage across the frozen Gotha-Elf and the Swedish Landflig, through Varbjerg, and Halmstadt. In the last leg of the trip, small boats convey the Scottish entourage down the Oresund to Elsinore.

Oh god, thinks Anne, I’m going to have to be seen with him in front of people I know.

The Danish royal family, and representatives of the court are milling around in the cold central court at Kronborg Castle as the Scots cross over the castle moat.

James meets for the first time his father-in-law and mother-in-law. “Amazing place you have here,” he says, looking around the court as he shakes the tremulous hand of King Frederick.

“The west wall was completed only last year,” Lady Gyldenstjerne puts in. “As you can imagine it has improved our security greatly. The fountain you see on your left is the work of Adriaen de Vriies symbolizing the Danish preeminence in the North Sea and the Baltic Sea.”

“Where’s Anne?” Queen Sophie inquires.

James looks around. “She was with us a moment ago.”

The Princess knows all the hiding places in the castle.

*   *   *

Fond as Andrew is of the acoustics in Pedersen’s barn, living there in bitter cold weather is impossible, and the Alfids have taken him in at their farmhouse where he is continuing to develop techniques for imitating on the vihuela the sounds of mice, cats, donkeys and owls that he is incorporating in a new solo work for vihuela, The Barn Suite.

 

 

 

 

 

* The vihuela, a precursor of the modern guitar, was played in Spain in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Tuned identically with the Renaissance lute, and close to the modern guitar, it had twelve strings (six pairs double-strung) rather than the modern six single-strung.

*A short dress-like garment with pleated panels.

* A pie made of custard and fruit.

 

 

BIO

James GallantJames Gallant, who lives in Atlanta, contracted the writing disorder at an early age, and has been basically incapable of making an income as a result.  His disorder led to a fortunate marriage to income-producing university professor and Romantics scholar Christine Gallant who as a girl had romanticized the idea of marrying a writer. At times she had said later, “Be careful what you ask for.” Gallant attended graduate school at the University of Minnesota where he concentrated in Renaissance studies, traces of which survive in “Andrew the Vihuela-Player.” This story is one of nine short works involving historical classical guitarists–some (like Andrew) pure inventions, other based loosely on the lives of actual performers. Two of the other guitarist stories have appeared in other journals. The pieces as a group would make a good collection, Gallant believes, if anyone were interested in publishing it. Grace Paley’s Glad Day Books published his The Big Bust at Tyrone’s Rooming House/a Novel of Atlanta in 2004, and his essays and fiction have appeared in a number of magazines, including The Georgia Review, Epoch, Massachusetts Review, Story Quarterly, Mississippi Review, Exquisite Corpse, North American Review, Raritan, and Witness. He has a short novel, Whatever Happened to Debbie and Phil, and a collection of thematically-related related creative non-fiction pieces, Visits in Time and Space, neither of which have publishers at the moment.

 

 

 

0
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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Ninon Schubert author

Day Three is the Hardest

by Ninon Schubert

 

 

Stay away from triggers

Barb turned off the alarm. The lingering smell of beer, frying fat and sweat took her breath away. The craving was back instantly – just arrived at work and already on the verge of cracking.

She left all the doors wide open, hoping there‘d be enough wind and sun to flush out the grime. But the wind was no more than a trickle and any natural light was swallowed up by the plush carpet and the nervous flicker of colours from the poker machines in the gaming room.

She would feel empty and restless, the leaflet had warned, today was day three and day three was the hardest. Barb dug into her pocket and got out her bad-effects list:
– dried up and shrivelled in the mornings
– headaches all the time
– clothes stink
– money down the drain
No relief.

It didn’t help that she’d had a dream about Sergei. In the dream his features were pulverized to gravel and blasted into her eyes, nose, mouth and lungs. Barb had woken up with a violent fit of coughing and spent the next few hours trying to resist the urge to light a cigarette. She got up, prowled around the house and emptied the fridge waiting for Sergei to move out of her head and the craving to subside. But the moment refused to pass. Around her the darkness ground to a complete halt, leaving her stranded in the middle of the night, blaming herself for everything.

Keep yourself busy and breathe deeply, the leaflet said. As the cleaners arrived and started vacuuming, Barb walked around gathering the dirty glasses that had been left by the evening staff. She checked the gaming area, her movements weaving and folding into the liquid gloom and the flashes of green, yellow and red from the poker machines – her routine creating a thin, protective membrane that shielded her from the outside world.

“Hi, how’s it going?” a woman’s voice called. It was Mandy popping in on her way to work. “I got you some of that nicotine gum.”

Barb turned and was suddenly unable to say anything at all; her eyes filled with tears, her hands shook.

“You okay?” Mandy came up to her holding the gum.

“Knowing me I’ll get addicted to that, too.” Barb took the packet.

“Go easy on yourself,” Mandy said, “just take things an hour at a time and buy that inhaler if it gets really bad – that even worked for me.”

“D’you think it’ll get rid of Sergei as well?”

Mandy laughed, “You never know – try putting him in the mouthpiece and burning him.”

“I’d have to burn him out of my head first.”

They walked back to the entrance and stepped out into the glare of the Melbourne summer. It was still morning and already the bitumen was wilting in the sun. The outside world curled and broke in a massive wave over Barb’s head. She could feel its eddies and flows and treacherous currents mingling with the weight of a sleepless night: heat, light, cars and voices all crashing down on her.

On the other side of the street people were going about their business. One woman stopped and looked at something in a shop window. It was Olivia. The wave churned and foamed around Barb’s legs, dragging her down into its undertow.

Mandy grimaced. “She’s my first customer today.”

Barb stared at her.

“God knows what she wants,” Many added.

A tram came hurtling down the road, cutting through Barb’s field of vision and wiping the street clean in its wake: when it passed, Olivia was gone.

Mandy stepped out on the road and turned back briefly. “Don’t forget to use that nicotine gum!” She waited for the next tram, dodged the oncoming traffic to the other side and hurried up the road. Before she disappeared around the corner, she waved.

Go easy on yourself, Mandy had said. Stay away from triggers, the leaflet recommended. What a joke – the whole day was turning into one big trigger-happy trigger.

 

Learn to chew the gum

Just as Barb was about to go back inside, she saw old Theo coming out of the supermarket with his shopping. He shuffled up the road, leaning and creaking like a derelict shed, two plastic bags flapping at his sides.

“Where do you think you’re going?” she shouted.

Theo turned, swaying slightly. Barb beckoned to him. His face lit up as he shuffled towards her.

“Ferguson won’t be in today – he never comes two days in a row,” Barb said as Theo drew level.

Theo hesitated, then grinned like a little kid, “I’ll just drop these bags off at home then,” turned and creaked back up the street.

The minute Barb went inside, the artificial light and the smells wrapped themselves around, calming her down. No chance of Olivia materializing in here. As Barb walked past the entrance to the gaming room something caught her eye. There was a dark shadow near one of the poker machines – the one where Sergei always used to play. Someone was hunched over peering into the corner. She broke out in a sweat.

“Hello?” She stepped into the room and paused, waiting for her eyes to adjust to the dimness. The lights of the machines threw blotches of colour onto her skin.

“Sergei?”

What was he doing?

When she finally worked up the courage to go over, there was no sign of Sergei or anyone else. It was just the plastic tree, half hidden in its corner. Time to have some of that gum. She tore open the packet and read the instructions:
– chew on gum gently for approx. 1 minute
– park gum in cheek to let lining of mouth absorb nicotine
– chew gum again when taste fades
Chew and get a grip.

What an arsehole Ferguson was. People had complained about Theo hanging around the machines. One woman had accused him of harassing her and someone else had claimed Theo was trying to interfere with his game. All he did was talk to people. Barb stuffed another piece of gum in her mouth. Ferguson had frog-marched the old man out with everyone watching. Who would do that to an eighty-two-year-old? And yesterday had been her second day. The day that nicotine withdrawal symptoms peak, the leaflet warned. She’d have murdered for a smoke. Instead, she screamed at Ferguson and almost lost her job. In the end he’d been content to take her into his office and taunt her by lighting up a cigar and puffing the smoke in her face as he gave her a lecture on how patient he was.

She spat out the gum and started rifling the back of the bar for a packet of cigarettes. Just one drag and everything’d be okay. The evening staff always kept a packet stashed away somewhere. She imagined herself outside, leaning against the wall, inhaling deeply, feeling the sun on her skin and the rush of smoke in her lungs.

Theo arrived just in time to save her with a packet of biscuits. She ripped it open and demolished one after another in quick succession.

“Plenty more where that came from,” Theo said, beaming at her.

 

Understand your habit

A couple of hours later a few people were dotted around the poker machines but none of them were regulars. The rest of the day staff had arrived and the smell of food drifted in from the kitchen. Theo was perched on a stool at the bar trying to peer into all corners of the gaming area.

“Forget it,” Barb told him.

He put on his innocent face.

“You‘re not going in there. If anyone complains to Ferguson we’re both done for. Wait for Jack or Christos.”

A plate of chops and mash was brought in from the kitchen and she put it down in front of him. “My shout.”

Barb ate the last of the biscuits while Theo tucked into his chops. He’d started hanging around when his wife died, but he never played, never drank and never smoked. He was drawn to the flickering lights like an insect to a bed of flowers, fluttering from machine to machine to strike up conversations, telling people the most personal things completely out of the blue. Like how his son Nick had just taken off one day to spite his mum, and if Theo hadn’t tracked him down in Western Australia when she was dying of cancer, she’d never have seen him again.

As Barb brushed away the biscuit crumbs she realized her craving for a cigarette had waned slightly. You should keep a smoking diary for at least a week before you quit, the leaflet said, you should understand your habit. Barb hadn’t bothered – she knew that smoking boosted her self-confidence and helped her relax. With Sergei, her intake had doubled.

Jack, the laundry owner from up the road, sauntered in and, as usual, surveyed the place for women. Apart from Barb there was only one other woman in there, although she must have been at least thirty-five, well over Jack’s usual cut-off point. No matter. At the sight of women he went into automatic. Like a poker machine: throw coins in the slot and it starts whirring, flashing and making funny noises. Barb had seen through him the minute she clapped eyes on him. Unfortunately, she’d fallen for Sergei instead. Mandy, who’d almost lost her beauty salon paying off her husband’s debts, had warned Barb over and over, stay away from him, he’s bad news. But Sergei gave Barb one of his paintings and she loved it so much he promised to paint a whole series for her. He told her no one had ever appreciated his paintings the way she did; no one inspired him more.

 

Build your resolve

The door opened. Christos, who owned the wedding shop next to Jack’s laundry, took one last drag of his cigarette and stubbed it out before coming in. He walked up to Barb and blew the smoke straight at her. It skimmed her cheeks and set her skin tingling. For a moment it felt like Sergei running his fingertips down the side of her face, lightly touching her lips, her chin, her neck.

Christos was looking at her. “Sorry, did you want one?”

“No thanks.”

“Sure? You’re allowed to have a break, aren’t you?”

“I said, no thanks.”

“What’s wrong?”

“You know bloody well I’m trying to quit.”

Christos put on an air of being hurt. “Just offering.”

“Yeah, right,” Barb pushed his beer across the counter.

Suddenly he grinned.

“What’s so funny?” Barb asked.

“Why are you in such a bad mood? No wonder you’re always being dumped by your boyfriends.”

“Since when have you been sober for long enough to keep track of my boyfriends?”

Christos looked as if she’d just punched him in the face. Theo tugged at his sleeve and pushed him towards the gaming room.

Christos downed his beer, slammed the glass down on the counter and the two men moved over to the poker machines. They greeted Jack, who by this stage was teaching the woman how to press the buttons rhythmically for maximum effect.

“I’ve got a bit of celebrating to do,” Barb heard Christos say.

“Good news?” Theo asked.

“We won that court case – my lucky socks won the day,” he pulled up his trousers to reveal a mass of blue and white stripes.

Theo gave him the thumbs up.

Christos seemed to remember something, turned around and called to Barb. “I saw Olivia on the way here. She was having a laugh with your mate Mandy outside her beauty parlour – I didn’t know they were so pally.” He grinned.

Jack, who now had his arms around the woman as he stood behind her and operated the machine, winked over at him.

Bastards, Barb thought, but her craving was back with a vengeance. What was it the leaflet recommended? Set your quit day and make sure you tell your family and friends so they can support you. It conveniently failed to mention what to do about the Christoses of the world. Or the Sergeis.

Why had things gone so wrong?

She had meant that evening to be a celebration but Sergei never came.

Everything had been fine up till then. They’d even set the date for him to move in – the spare room would be his studio. Instead, Barb found herself leaving endless messages on his voicemail, trying desperately not to sound desperate. She’d never found out where he lived – he was in between places, he said – so she wandered around hoping to see him turn a corner, leave a front door, step out of a car, go into a shop or just hesitate somewhere for one brief moment long enough for her to re-enter his life.

Weeks later she came home to find a message from him saying that something had come up and to stop ringing – he’d get in touch with her. Famous last words.

 

Reward yourself

In the afternoon, when Theo had gone and Jack had generously offered to accompany the woman back to his place, Bernie came in.

Fat, squat Bernie who threw money into three or four machines and then ran around in a frenzy trying to work them all simultaneously. He got into such a sweat that his permed hair stuck to his forehead and the dark patches under his arms grew till they joined up on his back. When he came to the bar to get a drink his body odour was so pungent it made Barb shudder, but she developed the knack of leaning away to scan the room as they spoke. She got to know him better when his wife kicked him out. He told Barb he’d come home one day to find his things strewn all over the veranda and the front door fastened by a sparkling new lock. His wife had worked long hours at one of the local supermarkets and Bernie had promised to take her on a world tour – they would stay at all the best hotels. But she got tired of waiting and lending him money. After they separated, Bernie put in even longer hours at the machines, scrambling around, never far from total meltdown. It was healthier than drowning his sorrows, he claimed. At least it kept him fit. He reckoned he ran about five miles a day and that it was a great way of losing weight. He told Barb about a system he’d worked out that involved complicated sequences when pressing the buttons. It was guaranteed to turn him into a millionaire and win his wife back. As it happened, she’d met someone else and wanted a divorce.

“How’s it going?” he asked Barb.

“I keep thinking I see Sergei.”

“I used to come home at night and I’d think Liz was lying in bed,” Bernie paused, “it looked like her head was on the pillow.” For a while he was lost in thought. “You’re too hard on yourself, you should try playing, that always works.”

“I don’t know, Bernie.”

The leaflet recommended trying out new activities when you quit smoking – give yourself the feeling that you’re gaining a whole new life. Somehow she didn’t think that included gambling.

Bernie started his usual routine of throwing money into various machines. Christos went outside for a cigarette. Barb watched him leaning against the wall, smoke curling upwards, twisting and turning, developing a life of its own, beckoning and full of promise.

A group of men came in and headed straight for the gaming room. One of them started an argument with Bernie for hogging so many machines. Barb was too busy trying to overcome her craving to pay much attention. She breathed deeply. The craving didn’t go away. She went over her bad-effects list. Still no change. Then she tried to think of all the rewards that came with quitting:
– grumpy
– unhappy
– getting fatter
It was useless.

 

The new you

Late afternoon and who waltzed in? Barb felt a sudden silence descend around her and looked up. Bernie was staring at something near the door and Christos was grinning.

It took Barb a moment to realize what was happening. By that time, Olivia’s smile was hovering somewhere between the entrance and the bar, floating through the room completely disconnected from her person and making its way over to Barb. When it got there, it hung in mid-air and broadened.

“I had a wonderful facial at Mandy’s, she’s very good, and I was thinking – she could do with a bit of publicity so I offered to help with some brochures. Sergei’s doing the artwork.”

Barb’s mind scrambled to connect the smile to Olivia’s voice and face.

“I just wanted to let you know that we’re expecting a baby.”

Barb felt a rush of air and a door slamming shut with a soundless bang.

“I wasn’t sure if Sergei would tell you but I thought you’d like to share the good news with us,” and with that Olivia turned and walked out, still smiling.

From the kitchen came the sound of shattering glass.

Some more blokes came in wanting drinks and change for the machines. When things had calmed down, Barb was dying for a cigarette and this time she knew she’d crack. She’d kept it up by telling herself, just one more hour, just till lunchtime, till Theo leaves, till the next customer arrives, the next plate of food, the next beer, the next coin in a slot. Now there was nothing left to keep her from hitting rock bottom.

How could she have been so stupid?

All that talk of feeling hemmed in and wanting to leave Olivia to focus on painting. Barb had gladly offered to fill the void – she’d given him money for exhibition space, a vernissage, invitations and ads in all the right magazines. She’d refused to believe Bernie when he told her that Sergei had used her savings to pay off a money lender who’d lent him money to pay off gambling debts.

“Barb … Barb!” Mandy‘s voice interrupted her train of thought.

Barb looked up.

“Are you okay?” Mandy asked.

“I need a smoke.”

“Go get yourself that inhaler. I’ll hold the fort here.”

Barb hesitated.

“Go on,” Mandy insisted. “I’ll wait.”

The sun beat down as Barb waited for a gap in the traffic. Mandy was right. She shouldn’t be caving in now.

By the time she got to the other side of the road, Barb knew what to do. She’d have Mandy over for dinner, she’d apologize for how cranky she’d been lately and together they’d make a list of new things to do:
– dancing lessons
– cookery classes
– finding the right man
A whole new chapter. You’ll be gaining a new, healthier life, the leaflet said. That was it, Barb thought. They would make plans.

When she came out of the chemist’s with the inhaler, there was a tram at the top of the hill slowly making its way down. Barb crossed the road and hesitated, catching a few moments of sun before plunging back into the gloom and the fluorescent lights. She didn’t know what made her turn around. On the other side of the street people were going in and out of the shops: a woman with a pram losing her patience over a dawdling kid, a man in a business suit, and another man hurrying away. All Barb saw was the back of his head but she knew immediately who it was.

“Sergei!” she shouted.

Instead of turning around he walked away even faster. Or was that just her imagination? She hardly knew what she was doing. She bolted back across the road. A car screeched to a halt. The driver blew his horn furiously. Barb kept running. It wasn’t till she heard the loud clanging of the tram, saw it looming above her and the horrified face of the driver as it shuddered to a halt, that she realized what she was doing. She jumped out the way. More cars slammed on their brakes on the other side of the tram. Shaken, Barb made her way to the kerb. People were staring at her.

When she looked around, Sergei had gone.

 

 

 

BIO

Ninon SchubertNinon Schubert is from Melbourne, Australia, but currently spends most of her time in Germany and Ireland. She has been writing screenplays for films and TV for a number of years. In 2010/2011 she wrote and co-produced the feature Sleeping Dogs which screened at international festivals and received a number of awards and nominations. One of her short stories, An Hour to Kill, was shortlisted for the Writers’ Forum (UK) short story prize. Day Three is the Hardest is her first short story publication.

 

 

 

 

0

We Don’t Sweep At Night

by Suzanne Ushie

 

When I first saw the slender girl in Dad’s Passat, I asked Mum if she was our new housegirl. But Mum said, “No. That’s your cousin, Agwukiwhun,” in a low and grave tone, as if I’d said something unforgivable. In truth, Agwukiwhun wasn’t my cousin. Our late grandfathers were best friends. They’d fought together with the Nigerian troops during the Second World War. If Mum was telling the story they were stationed in Kenya, and if it was Dad they were stationed in Burma, and if Mum corrected Dad, he said the story involved his father not hers so he was right.

I didn’t know what to make of Agwukiwhun. When we were introduced on the veranda she said, “How are you? I’m happy to meet you,” without mixing up her tenses. She looked me right in the eye. Her fair skin had an uneven tone, darker on her face than her body, suggesting frequent sunlight. She had a brittle jheri curl and wore an ill-fitting dress. After I put away the sack of corn her parents sent to thank us for taking her in, Dad told me to show her around. She said little in the kitchen while I explained that the fridge prevented food from going bad. In the living room, where I turned on the television with the remote control, she said they had a black and white TV back home. I felt silly, yet grudgingly impressed. Our red brick house, with its chintz sofas and high ceilings, didn’t seem to awe her. She didn’t stare at the King Louis XV-style desk in the hallway. She was nothing like the other village girls who had come from our hometown Bedia to live with us in Calabar.

In the past, those village girls, essentially housegirls, slept in the room beside the garage. Sometimes, just before Mum left for work at the Ministry of Agriculture, she carried out raids and found cubes of Maggi and packets of salt they’d stolen. Afterward she gave a long lecture, solemn-faced, that often ended with the housegirl weeping. Sometimes Mum wept too. “They steal because they have so little,” she often said. Her ideals were marred when our last housegirl drained half her Chanel No. 5 with a syringe. “Common thief! You’re leaving this house today,” she’d said as she smacked her. That was months before Agwukiwhun came and flung her frayed green wrapper over my closet door. I didn’t like sharing my territory with her. The wrapper weighed on my mind and one day, while she showered, I slipped it under her pillow.

When Agwukiwhun returned I watched her search the closet, fling open the drawers, fiddle with the paper garland draped over the dresser as if her wrapper could possibly be there. She picked up the notebook where I had doodled Udoka’s name. I quickly said in Bette, “It’s under your pillow,” not wanting her to know I had a crush.

“You should have told me to keep it somewhere else if it was disturbing you,” she replied in English.

I wanted to slap her. What stopped me was the fear that she would slap me back and my brain would turn to mousse. Something about her toned arms convinced me. Besides, she was sixteen, two years older than me, though it was hard to tell since I was taller than her. None of this mattered to Mum. She didn’t want me to be a spoiled only child so I cleaned and cooked with Agwukiwhun. On humid afternoons I chopped fresh green ugu, lumpy carrot sticks, dry fingers of okro for ushaw soup.

“Those slices are too big,” Mum would say to me.

Agwukiwhun knew exactly how to curve the knife, to cut the okro into jagged pieces. I tried to mimic her motions but mine lacked the effortlessness of hers. By the afternoon she wrote the poem, my slices were almost perfect. I had just stepped back into the kitchen after lunch when I heard Mum sobbing. She stood by the granite-topped counter, a sheet of lined paper in her hands, Agwukiwhun’s body pressed against hers in a haphazard embrace. The poem itself was rather banal: stanza after stanza of praise for my parents, a sun and a star in every other sentence, Thank you spelled as Thenk you. I hoped—prayed—it didn’t mean Agwukiwhun would attend Canaan Model School with me. It would have been a travesty for my parents’ charity to stretch that far.

“Oh my God! She has so much potential,” Mum said to Dad, breathless with discovery, when he returned from a conference in Benin. He told her everyone had an innate potential so that word itself, potential, was meaningless. Sometimes when Dad shared one of his numerous self-made theories, I was certain he would have been better off being a philosopher instead of an engineer. To my relief, he wasn’t moved by Agwukiwhun’s affection-winning tactics. Still, he enrolled her in Holy Child, the all-girls secondary school on Marian Hill, altering the order of her destiny. She was spared from the commercial academy with its broken louvres and bumpy floors.

All Holy Child students wore their hair short and natural. As Mum chopped off Agwukiwhun’s jheri curls, I subdued the urge to shred the dark tufts and fling them far away.

* * *

I was sitting in the backyard when Mum called me from her bedroom. I pretended not to hear. I knew she wanted me to clasp her bracelet, or do up her zip—another mundane task to help prepare her for the usual evening outing with Dad. I glared at Agwukiwhun when she leaned out of the kitchen to say Mum was calling me. Surely Agwukiwhun knew I had ears.

Mum looked chic in a floral print dress. I fastened her necklace and she did a mock twirl in the middle of the room, smelling of Shalimar, coaxing Dad to change out of his tweed blazer into something more cheery. I had dinner after they left. A tumbler slid out of my hand while I did the dishes, the foam-covered splinters splashing across the terrazzo floor.

Agwukiwhun walked in as I picked up a broom. “Our people don’t sweep at night,” she said, her voice laughingly ominous. “It’s against our culture.”

I rolled my eyes and began to sweep. She pried the broom from my hands, tossed the splinters into the bin. I disliked the way she was looking at me. Mum had given me the same unflinching look during our last trip to Bedia. “Don’t embrace anyone apart from your grandmother,” she’d said with no further explanation. The holiday morphed into one of avoiding strangers and sidestepping relatives. When an effusive aunt succeeded in embracing me, I tottered on the cusp of despair. I went into the bedroom, took off my clothes, and examined my whole body. Because I didn’t find anything strange, I didn’t tell Mum. But this was different. I had knowingly defied a warning, probably brought on some cultural curse.

The next day, I waited until Agwukiwhun had left for the market before going in

search of Mum, plotting the best way to share my unease without sounding crazy. Mum was reading Homes and Gardens in the living room. When she saw me in the doorway, she straightened herself and removed her feet from the leather ottoman. “Aha! I was just going to call you. Please get me a Fanta from the fridge.”

I placed the frosted bottle on the side stool and left. I should have known she was the wrong person to talk to anyway, especially when she was planning to plant another vicious shrub on the lawn.

I found Dad unscrewing a lamp holder on the porch. I asked him if it was true that we don’t sweep at night.

“What do you mean by we? Our family?”

“Not just our family. All Obudu people.”

“I see. And where did you hear this?” He didn’t wait for my response, for which I was thankful. “Well, some of our people believe that when you sweep at night, you sweep away your family’s wealth. Absurd, of course.”

“What if it isn’t?”

He turned to me, his serious face in place. I knew he was about to say something interesting and mystifying. He removed his glasses and smeared a lens with his fingers. He told me to wear them and I did. He asked me to tell him what I saw. I could barely see anything. It was like looking out of a window on an early harmattan morning. I told him I could see the bougainvillea on the fence through the lens he hadn’t touched, and through the other, a cluster of blurry shapes.

“We can either decide to view the world clearly or decide to complicate it for ourselves,” Dad said. “People usually choose one over the other because that’s all they’ve been taught to do.”

Did he mean Agwukiwhun was right? Wrong? That I shouldn’t be frightened? I didn’t get it. I was just pleased he thought me high-thinking enough for one of his little nuggets of intellectualism. I memorized those words and waited for an opportunity to show them off.

Days later, Mum and I were watching Quiz Time. The presenter was wearing a tight white shirt and bright red shorts. Mum said he resembled a capsule in that outfit and what was he thinking when he got dressed? I repeated Dad’s words. Mum laughed and laughed, and when her mirth quietened to soft pants, she said I must have been spending too much time with Dad.

* * *

At the end of the term, Agwukiwhun’s report card arrived, cluttered with As and Bs. Mum stopped hovering around the kitchen. Her conviction that Agwukiwhun was different, that she wouldn’t mix pepper into chin-chin dough or pour salad cream into groundnut soup was sealed.

The first time we took Agwukiwhun to Akpe, the monthly get-together of Obudu people, Mum showed her off to the other women in identical bouffant blouses.

“This is our new girl,” she began, beaming.

As always, one of the women commented on how big my breasts were while Mum smiled a small, victorious smile, as though she were responsible for their growth.

Agwukiwhun and I sat under the awning with the other children. A group of them were playing musical chairs to a Remedies song on the stereo. Someone asked me to join in and I mumbled something about being tired. I had outgrown the phase where I could dance around white plastic chairs without looking dim-witted.

A surly-looking girl laughed. “Don’t mind her. She has no brother or sister yet she feels she’s bigger than all of us.”

In spite of the music and the laughter, the mood turned grim. I should have told her she had mosquito legs but I couldn’t bring myself to speak.

Agwukiwhun got up and pulled the girl’s ears in a swift, experienced motion.

“You better say sorry now or I’ll deal with you.”

“Sorry oh. I’m very sorry,” the girl said, sounding as stunned as I was. I had never really had anyone fight for me, with me, and it brought on a new lightness.

Agwukiwhun and I were silent on the drive home. Even Dad noticed. He glanced in the rearview mirror and asked if we were still in the car. I thanked Agwukiwhun later, not only because I felt that by defending me she created a bond, but also because I owed it to her. She shrugged and said, “That girl is stupid,” and continued unpegging her clothes from the worn twine by the water tank.

We didn’t speak until the next week when Dad and Mum travelled to Eket for a wedding. I sat before the mirror and redid my plaits. Agwukiwhun said I wasn’t doing it properly. She collected the comb, parted my hair, and made a neat cornrow.

“Hey!” I pulled the unbraided section of my hair together. “Doesn’t it look like a big bunny bum?”

Agwukiwhun said nothing. I realized then that she couldn’t possibly know what a bunny bum was. When we watched Friends that evening, it became clear that she waited for me to laugh before laughing.

I told her about Udoka. My exact words were this: I think a boy in my class likes me. He sat two rows away from me, good looking in a non-threatening way. The kind of boy who could be your best friend or your boyfriend. Every so often I pictured his long arms wrapped around me—of course I never told Agwukiwhun this silly part. She gave me her forthright look. “How do you know he likes you when he has never spoken to you?” she asked, chuckling in a way that made me long to prove her wrong.

She was right, though, about one thing: menstrual periods were a nuisance. She would rush out of the bathroom, a forgotten blob of foam at the back of her neck, water from her body dripping onto the Berber carpet, just in time to wear a sanitary pad. I wondered how it felt to do that.

“Show me your pad,” I said after watching for the fortieth time.

Agwukiwhun stopped. “What?”

“Show me. I want to see what colour the blood is.”

“Your head is not correct. You better enjoy yourself now.”

I had no idea what she meant. Until the day I felt my intestines constrict. In the toilet I found a map of blood, the weak red of ground tomatoes, spreading across my panties. Mum embraced me as if I had come first in my class and said I should behave myself since I was now a woman. My stomach hurt so much I could hardly focus.

“I told you to enjoy yourself,” Agwukiwhun said when I moaned about the pain.

* * *

Late one night, in the deep yellow flicker of a candle flame, Agwukiwhun taught me the Lord’s Prayer in Bette. Soon I was singing the mournful, stirring lyrics along with her.

Mum peered into our room, a hard white mask applied to her face. “Your Bette

is improving,” she said admiringly to me. But by the third straight night, her tone grew blunted by irritation. “If I hear a single sound from this room again I’ll knock common sense into both of you.”

Agwukiwhun didn’t laugh along with me after Mum left. I thought it a bit too respectful.

“Come on, laugh,” I teased. “Mum doesn’t really mean it.”

“I don’t feel like making noise,” Agwukiwhun said.

“Weren’t you singing just now?”

It was then that she told me about the woman she had lived with in Port Harcourt. She kept her voice low at first, gaining momentum as she went along, stumbling over English words when it would have been easier to tell the story in Bette.

Her parents were reluctant to let her go. But the woman was her mother’s second cousin, recently widowed, and needed help with her three-year-old twin sons. The woman told Agwukiwhun to call her Mummy. And Agwukiwhun did, even with the contrivance in the woman’s easy acceptance, in the unassuming way the woman sent her to the community school and gave her torn novels to read. The twins ate only if Agwukiwhun fed them, sulked if she scolded them. The woman regarded their closeness with an exaggerated fondness. “Go and share this with your big sister,” she told the twins whenever she brought home oily packets of boli and fried fish.

On the day the younger twin called Agwukiwhun Mummy, the woman was disturbingly silent. When it happened again, she said she would show Agwukiwhun who the real Mummy was. She emptied a pot of beans, filled it with water, and ordered Agwukiwhun to drink up. After Agwukiwhun retched, the woman regarded the mess and said, “Now see what you’ve done.” I could just hear it. Her tone would have been pained.

“Did you go back home?” I asked.

“No. I stayed with her,” Agwukiwhun said. “I kept on calling her Mummy even after she started beating me. Then I went home for Christmas. I was annoyed when my parents started touching the Hollandis wrappers she sent to them. They said God will bless her. I didn’t go back to Port Harcourt. How can I live with somebody who disgraces my parents like that?”

“How about the twins? Do you miss them?”

“Small.”

I mulled over her story long after. It seemed to me that something in my head had dislodged and no matter how hard I tried, I wouldn’t fix it back in place.

The next time I saw one of her poems on the dresser, I read the melodramatic lines about the sun and the stars without laughing once, and then put it away.

 * * *

At first, when Udoka dropped a note in my locker, I didn’t tell Agwukiwhun. It never occurred to me that the universe could do as I bid. On languid afternoons, after all, I had lain behind the sofa and played FLAME with his name and mine. Despite all my scheming it had always ended on the E: Enemies. So when I read the slanted writing that declared his affection, I tried to ignore the pause in my breath. But he caught up with me right after assembly.

“Did you get my note?”

I said yes, suddenly shy, aware of alien sensations taking anchor inside me. He gave me a jumbo pack of Mars bars the next day. A trinket box that purred as it slid open the following day. I returned them all. I just want to get to know you better, he wrote in another note. I smirked at his unoriginality, and then he stopped sending me gifts, leaving me strangely flattened by loss.

I showed Agwukiwhun the notes at home. She said I should be glad he had given up. “Boys will say anything just to touch that thing between our legs,” she added.

I evaded her eyes.

“So you like him.”

I didn’t deny it.

“Well, you can kiss him if you like. But if he touches your lap…” She switched to Bette for effect. “You’re finished!”

“How do you know?” I asked. “Has anyone touched your own lap?”

“Yes, of course.”

Was that a way of saying she had had sex? I couldn’t believe how casual she sounded. Anyway, who knew what else people did in those murky village streams apart from bathing and urinating and fetching water? I wished for some of her clear-eyed confidence. I wished I could say ‘yes’ but not ‘of course’ if Udoka asked me out. But a week went by. An uneventful week of nursing a tension headache that intensified each time I saw him.

“Stop thinking about your chewing gum boyfriend,” Agwukiwhun would say whenever I didn’t answer a question immediately.

Boyfriend. In it I heard the sound of a beginning. In it I saw a sign that me and Udoka were united. And when Dad said “some stammering chap named Udoka” had phoned while I was at the salon, I found out I could still walk and talk when I wasn’t breathing normally. I hadn’t given Udoka my number; he must have looked it up in the phone book or got it from someone. The implications of this thrilled me: he would not have bothered if he didn’t care. As I made to leave, Dad gestured at the diary in the alcove. Udoka had left a message. I nearly laughed. Dad had written the name of the caller and the time of the call and the purpose of the call: to seek clarification on a class assignment. At least it had been Dad who answered the phone, not Mum. She had begun to stare at my breasts, a tentative smile in place of the victorious smile, perhaps in fear they would grow bigger with her approval.

I practised what I would say to Udoka. I would tell him I knew he really hadn’t called because of an assignment. I would reach out and caress the soft fuzz above his lip while the tiny space between us crackled with our own kind of magic. Only when we were finally alone, in an empty classroom after a physics lesson, all I said was a limp, “I heard you called.”

He stood by the desk next to mine, his pale blue school uniform crease-free, his voice a little too shaky. “Yes,” he said. “I wanted to ask you something.”

He gazed at the floor. I glanced away for a minute or two. Then I felt, on my cheek and neck, the sudden heat of his mint-edged breath. I turned. He was moving closer with his eyes half-closed. My nerves lurched. My courage dissolved. Not once did I look back as I fled. I smoothed my hair in the girls’ bathroom, leaned against the sink to steady my heartbeat. An odd tightness filled my chest.

I wouldn’t have told Agwukiwhun if she hadn’t brought up his name on Saturday afternoon. We were playing Ludo in our bedroom. I threw the dice, another wasted attempt, and Agwukiwhun said some people couldn’t focus because of their chewing gum boyfriends. I told her to leave me alone. It must have stunned her, the acrimony with which I spoke, because she said I should have known that she was just joking. She asked me if I had quarrelled with Udoka. I told her everything. Well, almost everything. I left out the girls’ bathroom bit.

“It’s just like a film,” she said, pronouncing ‘film’ as ‘feem’.

“You’re not serious.”

“It’s good that you didn’t kiss him. All that saliva.” She grimaced. “Don’t worry, you hear? Your chewing gum boyfriend will talk to you on Monday.”

“I don’t care.”

“Liar.”

“Is kissing that bad?”

She said, “I don’t know oh,” in a sing-songish tone, and I wondered if indeed she had kissed anyone before.

“You’re the liar,” I said. “You know.”

Agwukiwhun didn’t reply.

“Show me how to do it. Or is it against our culture too?”

“You’re talking nonsense again.”

“Dare me,” I said, illogically bold.

“Shut up.”

I leaned forward and pressed my lips against hers. She moved sideways, giggling, toppling everything from the Ludo board to the multi-coloured tokens. I’m not sure who shifted closer first. What I’m sure of is that I gulped when we felt the slippery warmth of each other’s mouths, because her saliva tasted very much like mine. I glanced at the doorway—nothing else to look at, after all—and there was Mum, her mouth opening and closing with no sound. This went on for another moment or two. And then she walked towards Agwukiwhun, who had already crouched, a hand raised above her head. A hard slap, a harder knock. A punch. A kick. At some point Agwukiwhun pulled Mum’s sleeve, enraging her more.

I got up and stood between them. “Mum, please stop.”

Mum narrowed her eyes as she struck me. My head grew so hot, so heavy the sounds that had finally begun to come out of her mouth were indistinguishable. Foolish g…Thwack. Idio…Thwack Thwack.

“Aunty, please forgive,” Agwukiwhun said. Mum paused. I ran into Dad’s study and locked the door. I didn’t come out until Dad returned from work. He examined the welts, pinkish-brown like earthworms, streaked across my arm.

“Good grief. They were just curious,” he said to Mum. “It’s normal for girls their age.”

“Normal?” She lifted an eyebrow. “Oh. Is that what they call sin these days?”

Dad sighed in a way that said, “Let it go.”

Again, Mum lifted an eyebrow.

“It’s my fault, Mum,” I said. “I kissed her first.”

Mum winced at the mention of ‘kiss’.

I nudged Agwukiwhun who had been silent and sullen throughout. “Tell her.” I could hear the desperation salting my voice.

Agwukiwhun looked away, sublime in defiance.

The palpable presence of an ending settled in the room. Mum threw Agwukiwhun’s clothes into a blue Ghana Must Go bag. Dad stood by and went on and on about the importance of mercy. Not that it worked. The next morning, Agwukiwhun left for the motor park, waving off my feeble sorrys. They were trite, I know, but I couldn’t think of anything else suitable for the situation. The moment was too surreal for a proper goodbye. When I said I would visit, her smile was hesitant, somewhat mocking, as though she knew, even then, that we would never see each other again.

 

 

 

BIO

Suzanne UshieSuzanne Ushie grew up in Calabar, Nigeria. Her short stories have appeared in several publications including Fiction Fix, Overtime, Open Wide Magazine, Conte Online and Gambit: Newer African Writing. She has an MA in Creative Writing from the University of East Anglia, England where she received the African Bursary for Creative Writing and made a Distinction. She lives in Lagos, Nigeria.

 

 

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Jacqueline berkman author

The Amino Algorithm

by Jacqueline Berkman

 

Drop Cap The cameraman counted down from 5, the lights went up, but it was only after the host crooned “You’re watching Dr. Morgan” and the Caribbean music was cued that Jordan Bickwell’s lower back really began to sweat.

He had not felt like this on the ride over. On the contrary, his confidence had inflated like a balloon with each skyscraper that blurred past, and by the time he arrived curbside in front of the studio he was bloated in his assurance that he had figured this whole mess out. He was nothing but show tunes and smiles in line for his VIP badge, and after receiving the message that Josephine was in hair and makeup, he strode over to the green room with adrenaline-fueled purpose and a head full of vague sports metaphors: he was the coach and she was his star athlete, stakes were high but they had prepared extensively, and all there was left to do before the show went live was to have one final “go get ‘em” talk and a recap of everything they had worked so hard to prepare.

But as soon as one of the distressed hairstylists let him in he could see that Josephine, hopped up on caffeine and gesturing excessively at no one in particular, was in no mood to rehearse. In fact, she didn’t seem in the right mind to be out in public, let alone on live television. And so he left the green room and made way his way to his assigned seat third row from the front with the sinking feeling that the only thing gained from the impromptu meeting was a behind the scenes look at his author at her truest and basest self: hysterical and doused in layers of hairspray.

It was for a few anxious moments that he sat like this until that damn Caribbean music was cued and Dr. Morgan, hands behind his back, leisurely made his way across the stage amongst the uproar of applause. Once he arrived at a spot deemed suitable, he stopped and stared into the camera, in a way that could only be described as soulfully. “Hello, everyone,” he said, the wave of his voice rising up against the cacophonous amount of applause. His timing down to an art, he waited until it died down to resume speaking again. “Hello, and thank you for joining us today. In today’s episode, we are exploring an industry that we encounter regularly; yet neglect to truly reflect on. The self-help industry: how helpful is it? The launching point for this discussion will be the newly released self-help title The Amino Algorithm by nutritionist Josephine Williams, which makes the controversial argument that much of the obesity and weight issues in this country are the result of cravings which can be curbed by amino acid supplements.”

Jordan took a deep breath, the buzz of an incoming text jolting him. The message said, only, “Let’s hope Dr. Morgan doesn’t mispronounce the names of any of the supplements.” Gritting his teeth, Jordan put his phone back in his pocket. As if he didn’t have enough to deal with, he now carried the additional burden of knowing full well that among the thousands of viewers tuning in to catch the full story behind The Amino Algorithm, a book he had once been proud to call himself the editor of, his father, Dr. Richard Bickwell, was among them. The main difference was that unlike the rest of the viewership, who in Jordan’s mind remained faceless entities solely representing TV ratings, his father was a visceral presence, without a doubt reclining on his leather couch in his monogrammed pajamas, invigorated by spite and reveling in the chaos that was about to unfurl. And also unlike the rest of the viewers, Jordan had to take the train up to the suburbs directly following the show and face his father at his 75th birthday party.

“As many of you have likely already heard” Dr. Morgan said, cutting into Jordan’s reverie, “The Amino Algorithm was brought to national attention by Stuart Jimenez from Allentown, Pennsylvania, whose qualms with the medical advice herein has gone viral. With a twitter page that surpasses 100,000 followers and a blog drawing nearly 300,000 unique visitors just this past month, Stuart has proven that he’s a force to be reckoned with.”

Jordan shifted in his seat. The rehashing of the statistics and the mention of Stuart’s name prompted another wave of panic. He took a deep breath and tried to reassure himself, once again, that he and Josephine were more than prepared for this. But the self-soothing that had been so effective during the cab ride no longer worked under the harsh glare of the studio lights, because the fact of the matter, no matter which way you sliced it, was that Stuart Jimenez was a profoundly unsettling creature. A self-employed electrician by day and a savvy social media strategist by night, Stuart’s qualms with The Amino Algorithm had originated with a negative Amazon review less than two months before and, in the handful of weeks that followed, catapulted into a full on anti-self help social media campaign, throttling Jordan’s life in a way he had been wholly unprepared for.

“Without further adieu,” Dr. Morgan said, “Let’s bring Stuart on stage to tell his side of the story. “Stuart?”

The applause rose again, and in Jordan’s flustered state it took him longer than it normally would to register the physical presence of Stuart himself. Immortalized through his fiery tweets and blog posts, Stuart in person was, quite simply, a disappointment to the imagination. 5’6 was a protruding stomach, receding hairline and wire-framed glasses, Stuart did not look like the media titan that he was, and when he waved at the crowd with a gentle flip of the hand Jordan tried to reassure himself, momentarily, that the man’s physical mediocrity surely diminished his online potency. It had to. People were visual, if nothing else.

“Welcome, Stuart,” Dr. Morgan said, gesturing to an empty chair on his left. “Have a seat.”

Stuart settled into his plush leather seat and waved once again at the crowd, a wide grin plastered across his face.

“So,” Dr. Morgan said, settling into his standard repose, leg crossed at the knee and right hand scratching his clean-shaven chin. “How’s it going?”

“Doin’ alright,” Stuart said, his voice booming with a self-righteous gravitas. And Jordan was struck once again by the randomness of it all, thinking of all of the books he had worked on that had seemed far more viable candidates for the Dr. Morgan show than this. Well, really one in particular. Sensible Slimdowns.

Sensible Slimdowns had gone on sale only eight months before, and had gnawed at Jordan in a way that, given all of the current drama rocking his world, could only be seen as a kind of foreshadowing. A cookbook written by former supermodel turned new age foodie Moonflower Jardine, Sensible Slimdowns had received a noted amount of flak from a Galaxy Post columnist who made the claim that having a supermodel pen a cookbook “only continued to perpetuate the female psyche’s troubled relationship to food.” The comment, pretentiously academic and lacking in sources, had ignited a debate in quite a few feminist blogs, and the whole experience had thoroughly gotten under Jordan’s skin, as it was the first time he had dealt with the wildfire of the internet and its potential to burn him.

Though perhaps what stung even more was the subsequently spectacular argument he had with his father about it. The two, out to dinner at a sushi restaurant in Soho, were always contentious on topics of work anyway, as his father repeatedly insinuated that he didn’t approve of the “new age hogwash” Jordan brought into the world, and Jordan, though he never said it aloud, constantly found his father, with his clinical asides and constant gripes about insurance companies infringing on his personal space, to be out of touch and condescending. Why they ever even got together in the first place was unclear except to say that, in those gaps between conflicts there could sometimes be a shared joke, a common reminiscence, something resembling closeness between them. But it managed to get obscured and tossed aside easily, as there were so many catalysts that could spark discord again. And Sensible Slimdowns was certainly a catalyst.

Jordan recalled their dispute clearly: after describing what the Galaxy Post columnist wrote and the negative coverage picked up by the feminist blogs, his father guffawed between sips of sake and said “This is what you spend your time thinking about? For Christ’s sake, there are actual problems out there,” before going on to say that he sided with the writer, supermodels had no business writing cookbooks, and what was his son doing publishing this crap anyway. “Is this the value of a Yale English degree?” he finally said, and the comment, though not entirely surprising, threw Jordan off balance, and in a reactive outburst of spite he threw a wad of cash on the table and left without saying goodbye. He hadn’t spoken to his father for at least a month after that, waiting for his anger to diffuse in much the same way he waited for the snarky comments surrounding Sensible Slimdowns to dissipate.

It had been a trying time, and who could have possibly known that it wouldn’t even compare to the tidal wave of problems that would plague him when he moved forward with the The Amino Algorithm?

Back up on stage, Dr. Morgan got down to business. “Stuart, let’s begin by mentioning your latest YouTube video, ‘Amino Acid Supplements and Other Dieting Failures,’ which has reached nearly one million views. Can you tell the American public, some of whom haven’t been following the saga, about your rising status as thought leader?”

“Sure,” Stuart said, clearing his throat as he segued into his presentation. “Look, let me just begin by saying that I’m not perfect,” he said, with the confidence of someone who had recently graduated from a media coaching program. “I like Jack in the Box, and some nights I can get through three beers easy. Which was all good and fine until my wife started complaining about my gut, telling me I needed to get in shape. So I started jogging and dieting but it wasn’t really doing much, if you want to know the truth, and it’s hard to keep that up if you’re not even noticing any results to begin with. So anyway, that’s kind of how things were going until a couple months ago, when I heard Josephine Williams being interviewed on the radio about The Amino Algorithm. When she described how people would benefit from her program, and how all of the supplements she advocated for were totally natural, something clicked in my head, like, wait, maybe this could actually help me.” Stuart paused for a beat and took a breath, looking earnestly into the camera, before continuing. “So I went out and bought the book and started talking one of the recommended supplements and within just a couple days I start feeling sick.”

Jordan’s phone beeped again with an incoming text. His father. Well, what was the poor guy expecting, to get better? Jordan sighed.

Following their month long separation after the Sensible Slimdowns blow up, tensions between Jordan and his father subsided as his father’s critical focus turned away from Jordan’s line of work and more towards bemoaning the state of healthcare as a whole. As the majority of his colleagues switched from private practice to take jobs in hospitals, he spent many a dinner conversation ranting about how, as the insurance companies came crawling in like so many soul sucking tax collectors, all of the autonomy of private practice was growing obsolete, how thank God he’d get to retire before he’d have to call himself anyone’s employee. And while it had been a welcome relief to no longer occupy his father’s number one grudge with all that was wrong in the medical world, the chasm between the two of them had noticeably widened again in the last couple of weeks leading up to the Dr. Morgan taping, his father’s clipped asides about his son’s foolishness aligning himself with a half-brained pseudo doctor appearing by the dozen in passive aggressive text messages and emails. Jordan could only wonder what the live show would provoke in his father, and how he would likely be the brunt of it as soon as he came over for the birthday party.

Back on stage, Dr. Morgan’s eyebrows arched in response to the not-new news that Stuart had become sick as a result of taking these supplements. “Stuart,” he said, “tell the audience what some of your symptoms were after you started feeling sick.”

“I just felt like garbage,” Stuart said. “I was getting dizzy spells, feeling super lightheaded. And I got painful cold sores on both sides of my mouth.”

“That sounds terrible,” Dr. Morgan said.

“It was terrible,” Stuart said. “Once I finally was able to get in to see a doctor, which, let me tell you, was no easy feat, he told me that I had had a herpes outbreak induced by the amino acid supplements.” The audience gasped. Stuart, undoubtedly versed in the importance of timing, gave it a few beats before he pressed on. “Apparently, the supplements so heartily endorsed in The Amino Algorithm can speed up or worsen viral outbreaks.”

“And there was no mention of that in the book?” Dr. Morgan said, glossing over the potentially awkward backstory of Stuart’s longstanding struggle with herpes.

“No,” Stuart said. “I mean, there was a general medical disclaimer, but nothing about these side effects.”

Dr. Morgan nodded vigorously. “So,” he said, “Would you say that’s when you started reaching out to express your opinions via social media channels?”

“Yes,” Stuart said. “I mean, I was mad that Ms. Williams could leave out so many important details, that the entire marketing team promoting the book could leave out so many important details. As a customer looking to lose weight and without much knowledge into the world of diet supplements, I felt that I had been manipulated, and that using social media was the only way I could really get my two cents in.”

With that, the audience burst into a hearty applause. Jordan craned his neck on both sides in an attempt to identify the source, but it was futile, because it came from everywhere and all at once.

“You present a compelling case, Stuart,” Dr. Morgan said. “But in order to gain a well-rounded perspective on the issue let’s bring Josephine Williams, author of The Amino Algorithm, up on the stage. Josephine?”

The transitory Caribbean elevator music was cued up once more and Josephine walked onstage, her frizzy hair coiffed with hairspray and her body turned away from the cameras as if they were unwanted paparazzi. There was a much lighter level of applause upon Josephine’s entrance, and, to Jordan’s mortification, several boos. Jordan thought back to all of their conversations, to her nervous state in the green room, and he held his breath and desperately hoped that she would not crack.

“Welcome, Josephine, and thank you for joining us,” Dr. Morgan said.

“Thank you for having me,” Josephine said as she took the seat on Dr. Morgan’s right side, her teeth clenched into a small, hard smile.

“Now, Josephine, I’m assuming you’ve been hearing the discussion that has been raised out here, in which Mr. Jimenez recapped his unfortunate side effects after consuming amino acid supplements endorsed in your book, as well as his frustration about the larger implications of the book itself. Do you have anything to say in response to all of this?”

Although she looked composed enough, Jordan saw Josephine intake a massive gulp of air and could practically feel her knuckles turn white as she gripped onto the arms of her chair. Seeing her like this, every effort to remain placid despite signs of bursting like a rattling tea kettle, made Jordan think back longingly to the year before, when the book had only been a question mark of a proposal, still ephemeral enough to dismiss. Why had he insisted on it? Why had he proclaimed to the editorial team that Josephine Williams was a genius, that The Amino Algorithm was the next big diet revolution? Why did anyone actually listen to him?

“To answer your question, Dr. Morgan, I have a lot to say in response to Stuart’s qualms,” Josephine said, her back ramrod straight as she rotated between looking at Dr. Morgan and the camera. “First, I want to thank Stuart here for purchasing my book, and I apologize sincerely for any unfortunate side effects that he experienced. But I can assure you that all of the claims made in my book have been extensively researched, fact checked, and meticulously edited, thanks in large part to my editor sitting right over there, Jordan Bickwell.”

Jordan had not expected that. The spotlight beamed down on him, aggravating his back sweat once again as he silently fumed at the thought that his face was now on thousands of television screens all over the country, not the least of which his father’s. In that moment, Josephine was not his hapless author but Lady Macbeth, a dreadful, conniving bitch determined to sink him down to tragic Shakespearian depths along with her. As soon as the lights swung away from him back onto the main stage, he drooped into his chair, bitterly recalling the half brained epiphany he had way back in high school when he decided he wanted to be a book editor in the first place.

He had been fourteen, on summer break before tenth grade, sitting in the beige waiting room of his father’s medical office, of all places. He had begun going there during the long, blank stretches of his summer days because he enjoyed the lunch breaks when his dad took him out for cheesesteaks or gnocchi and the car rides home when they listened to Presidential biographies on books on tape, those rare windows of time when his father didn’t have more pressing matters to attend to. And it had initially given him a flush of admiration to sit in that waiting room and observe the people sitting around him, reading outdated copies of Golfers Digest and biting their nails, all united in their quest for his father’s advice. But like the gentle shift of a changing season, his admiration began to give way as he noticed that many of the patients seemed as agitated leaving their appointments as they had walking in, their hands clutching prescription requests and their eyes on the carpet, as if tracking the pattern for the answer to an unresolved question. This was only confirmed one afternoon returning from the bathroom when he overheard a woman on the phone in the hallway saying, “Dr. Bickwell just gave me another round of antibiotics,” before chuckling and adding “well, let’s hope he knows what he’s doing this time.”

The comment, though undeniably tinged with annoyance, seemed innocuous enough, and yet when Jordan returned to the office he felt that things had somehow changed. That the waiting room, once a beacon for legitimacy and answers, had transformed into just another place where people bided their time and accumulated more questions. Any thoughts he had entertained of pursuing medicine began to dismantle as he unconsciously drifted towards a professional path that was low risk, and concrete, with results he could instantly and indisputably see. Which was right around the time that he discovered medical pamphlets.

Up on stage, Josephine, eyes still squinting against the harshness of the studio lights, cleared her throat. “Anyway, before I fully delve into Stuart Jimenez’s concerns, I want to emphasize a point which I believe to be very important,” she said. “I want to reiterate the importance of medical disclaimers.”

Dr. Morgan nodded tentatively. “Medical disclaimers,” he said.

“Yes, medical disclaimers,” Josephine said. “Every book that promotes any kind of medical advice has to have one. If you look at the copyright page in my book, you’ll find it. It reads as follows: ‘this book contains advice and information relating to health care. It is not intended to replace medical advice and should be used supplement rather than replace regular care by your healthcare provider. It is recommended that you seek your healthcare provider’s advice before embarking on any medical program or treatment.’” Josephine looked up at the camera, her face rosy with a defiant flush. “What I’m trying to say is this: my book is based on extensive research, but whenever you propose some kind of medical solution, someone will inevitably have an adverse reaction, and I can’t assume responsibility for every individual experience. I never intended for my book to replace the advice of a medical professional.”

Jordan took a deep breath. This comment was the hook, the baseline for the rest of the rhetoric that he and Josephine had worked to cultivate. They had prepared for this, and all they could do now was see how, on live television, people would react to the stream of logic that followed next.

Though his attention was divided, because even though he knew this moment was crucial, he found himself preoccupied by his memory of first discovering medical pamphlets. He had been sitting in his father’s medical office on another afternoon when he saw them, squashed in between outdated copies of The New Yorker and Good Housekeeping. They were gray and drab with a bold Helvetica typeface on the front that read: “5 Smart Ways to Avoid the Flu During the Winter Season.” Inside, the pamphlets contained practical if not slightly rudimentary tips, such as “Wash Your Hands” and “Get Enough Sleep,” and, after reading them, Jordan felt his stomach churn with acidity and his hands begin to tremble. What bothered him, what irked his fourteen year old heart, inflamed by the possibilities of honors English and George Orwell, was his profound belief that the pamphlets’ idiotic title and depressing presentation was preventing anyone from picking them up and reading them. Back then, nothing could have possibly seemed more preventable.

Suddenly invigorated, he left his father’s waiting room and ran to the drugstore across the street and bought a composition notebook, returning to the medical building once again only to jot down ideas for alternative titles, including ”5 Essential Flu-Fighting Tips for the Winter Season,” “The New and Improved Flu-Fighters Guide,” and “10 Surefire Flu-Fighting Immune Boosters.” He started carrying the notebook around everywhere as if it were an appendage to his arm, jotting down ideas whenever inspiration struck him. He began to cultivate the stance that words were powerful, something he would continue to hold onto as a staff writer for his high school newspaper, while pursuing his English degree at Yale, and throughout his fifteen year career thus far as an executive editor at Birch Tree Publishers. It was a career that, despite the disapproval of his parents, had proved quiet and largely comforting, the conflicts largely contained to the insular world of editorial board rooms, books churning through a predictable nine month cycle only to be released from the womb of their imprint to the increasingly indifferent outside world. It didn’t call for much self-reflection, and Jordan liked it that way.

But all of that changed, of course, when Stuart Jimenez came along.

Under the harsh glare of the studio lights, Dr. Morgan was intent on keeping the conversation on track. “Stuart, I’m curious as to what you think about Josephine’s point regarding medical disclaimers,” he said, turning his head to a precise 90-degree angle to face his guest on the left.

Stuart shrugged. “Honestly, I think it’s crap. Pardon my French,” he said, above the dim laughter of some of the audience members. “I mean, it just seems like something you say on the spot when you’re in a bind.” He furtively looked over at Josephine before continuing. “All I know is, when I was sitting in my car that morning, listening to the promotional interview about the book, the supplements were really positioned as an ‘all natural’ solution for weight management that you could handle on your own. That was the whole appeal for me, that I could manage this on my own without the hassle of seeing a doctor. But, as you know, I did have to go see a doctor. And it was a huge hassle. So that pissed me off.”

This sparked a hooting applause from the crowd. One person yelled ‘hell yeah’ and another yelled ‘I feel your pain, Stuart!” Jordan turned next to him and saw a woman cram a bonbon into her mouth, her face contorting with brain freeze as she licked the remaining pieces of chocolate off her fingers.

Dr. Morgan raised his hand to quiet the thundering applause on the set, and Josephine, straightening her Ann Taylor blazer, cleared her throat once the riotous applause died down. “Look,” Josephine said, her voice muffled by lingering applause, “Look,” she finally said again, her voice firmer. “I’m not a therapist, but after listening to Stuart’s complaints and hearing the vehement response from the crowd, I can’t help but wonder if the real source of everyone’s frustration is not the advice in my book but the state of healthcare in this country.”

With that, as Jordan had predicted, there was a perceptible shift in the air. He leaned forward in his seat, wondering how the crowd would react, how his father, sitting at home, would react. He looked at his phone as if it was a guiding compass, but there were no messages. He dropped it in his pocket, cradled his hands in his chin, and looked intently at Josephine.

Dr. Morgan cocked his head, surveying Josephine as if she were a very engaging pet. “That’s a very interesting claim you make, Josephine,” he said. “Would you care to elaborate?”

“Certainty,” Josephine said, adjusting in her seat so as to get comfortable before her epic diatribe. “When I read Stuart’s original Amazon review covering his grievances with my book, I couldn’t help but notice how it took a couple weeks for him to be seen by a doctor after his symptoms began. And after following him closely on his blog, I was equally disheartened to read about his actual experience seeing a doctor.” Josephine picked up a piece of paper. “I’m quoting Stuart’s blog describing his experience with his doctor at the local medical clinic. He writes, ‘the kid, basically straight out of medical school, just smirked at [me] like [I] was some sort of sucker.’” Josephine turned to Dr. Morgan. “Now, this statement is troublesome for a few reasons. One, it took too long for Stuart to be seen, two, the doctor he saw was young and inexperienced, and three, he was treated with a lack of respect. Now, I would probably attribute this lack of respect to being rushed. In light of our current healthcare system, doctors are increasingly strapped for time as they are pressured to tend to more and more patients, which probably accounts for this young doctor’s brusque manner.” Josephine turned back to Dr. Morgan. “I can’t help but feel that the reason Stuart’s sentiments are resonating so much with the crowd is because many people feel like Stuart, that going to the doctor has become a confusing, bureaucratic hassle, and are therefore shifting their medical needs away from doctors and towards self-help books, like mine. But I have to emphasize once again that no book can replace the advice of a medical healthcare professional. If anything, I hope our discussion today reminds us it is imperative that we as a nation keep checking in about how all of the recent healthcare changes are working, or not working, as a whole.”

At that, a moment of silence washed over the crowd. Even Dr. Morgan, known for his composure and camera-ready retorts, looked caught off guard. And what began as a slow clap from one audience member slowly ricocheted into full blown applause, and Stuart, before secure and composed, likely growing into the idea that he was a beloved media figure, seemed to grow invariably tense as he realized that his moment of glory was slipping away from him. Dr. Morgan cleared his throat, turning his back on Stuart as he faced Josephine. “Well,” he said, his voice raised several octaves, “this conversation has certainty taken a very interesting turn. It’s time for a commercial break, but when we get back, we will continue the discussion, examining self-help within the larger context of healthcare as a whole, and then we’ll take a Q and A from the audience. Stick around. You’re watching Dr. Morgan.”

The Caribbean music queued up again, and Jordan sprang up as soon as he had the chance, simultaneously elated at what was most definitely a strategic victory and infuriated at his author for calling him out on live television. And it while he was en route to the green room for a check-in with Josephine that he nearly collided into Stuart, who looked very agitated, a line of sweat etched across his foundation-pancaked forehead. A moment of eye contact passed between them, and in that moment a flicker of recognition seemed to cross Stuart’s face, though his expression was burdened and unreadable. And Jordan, expecting a relieved pride to wash over him, instead felt his stomach cave in with nausea as he checked his phone, waiting in vain for feedback.

 * * *

After the show, there were hours of celebratory drinks, time blurring by in an Irish bar while Jordan and Josephine knocked back gin and tonics and blurrily monitored Amazon for The Amino Algorithm’s massive upswing in sales. Jordan’s boss dropped by for a round, sloppily promising Jordan a raise despite the questionable profit margin of Birch Tree Publishers during the last fiscal year, and when Jordan finally excused himself to catch his train at Penn Station he collapsed in his seat with a drunken relief that had lasted all of 30 minutes before giving way to the familiar dread of the suburbs.

Upon arriving at his parent’s stop, he dropped by the only local grocery store that had not yet closed and bought a lemon meringue pie because he couldn’t remember anybody stating a blatant aversion to it. Dessert in hand and a vibrant headache throbbing in his temples, he walked three extra blocks and up the snaking driveway of his parent’s home and rang the doorbell, surprised to see his father open the door in a neck brace.

“Well what do you know, it’s the man of the hour,” his father said. “I wasn’t expecting you. I thought you’d be celebrating your victory in the city.”

“Mom told me about your party weeks ago,” Jordan said. “I wasn’t going to miss it. What happened to your neck?”

“I sprained it a few weeks ago reaching in the back of the pantry for wheat thins.”

“You’re kidding.”

“I wish,” he said. “But that’s what happens when you get older. The little things become more consequential. Until you can’t even reach for a box of wheat thins without paying some sort of price.”

“Christ.”

His father shrugged. “It’s not that bad. Come in, won’t you? Your pie can join all of the others.”

With a sheepish grin Jordan walked in and hugged his mother, waving to the rest of the small group, including the Rubenstein’s, the Anderson’s, and the nosy widow Doris Bukowski, who filled in the gaps of her loneliness with useless information about everyone else.

“Ooo, the local celebrity has arrived,” Doris said when she saw him. “Straight off the heels of the Dr. Morgan show. How does it feel?”

Jordan shrugged. “I think it’s only a matter of time before I’ll be fending off paparazzi,” he said, humoring Doris, who in turn laughed too heartily, her full-throated chuckle revealing several missing teeth.

“Well, for what it’s worth, I think you very well hit the nail on the head with what’s going on out there,” Mrs. Rubenstein said. “Michael here is going to start working at a hospital soon because the insurance companies have made his private practice too unaffordable to maintain. They’re driving all the doctors out, and it’s a big confusing mess for them and the patients alike. And then you’ve got all of these HMO plans trying to maximize patients seen per hour, treating doctors and patients like cattle in the process. No wonder everyone is trying to turn to self-help for answers.” Mr. Rubenstein, a long time colleague of Jordan’s father, acknowledged his wife’s grievances with a humorless nod, his face stuffed with apple pie.

Jordan’s father yawned. “We live in troubled times,” he said, “and this is all great fun but I’m about to fade.” He looked directly at Jordan. “Why don’t you come have a chat with your old man before he hits the hay?”

 * * *

They made their way to his parents’ room, with its musty smell and floral comforter and medical plaques and awards propped up on the walls. His father, waddling like a confined chicken, peeled off his sheets and climbed slowly into bed so as not to provoke any sudden movements in his neck.

“Comfortable?” Jordan said.

“Enough,” his father said, sighing against his pillows as he looked at Jordan, his expression unclear.

“I can’t believe you didn’t tell me you hurt your neck,” Jordan said.

He shrugged. “Why burden you with unnecessary information?”

“So you can email and text me nonstop about how I’m always making dumb career choices, but you can’t tell me you hurt yourself?”

“I only tell you what you need to hear,” his father said, a grin spreading across his face. He coughed. “Anyway, I have to hand it to you. How you and Josephine handled that today. You took all of the weight off the book in a way that made perfect sense. It was…” His voice trailed off, lost in thought. “Well, Christ, Jordan, it was brilliant. There’s no other way to say it. The way you turned things around out there today was god damn brilliant. You could have made a great lawyer.” He shrugged, laughing to himself.

“What?” Jordan said.

“Just, watching the show. Hearing about all of this social media stuff. Twitter followers, blog posts going viral. It’s a different world. Makes me feel old.”

“Well, you did strain your neck getting wheat thins, so maybe that’s not totally off the mark,” Jordan said.

His father laughed “Touché.” He said. “Can’t argue with that.” He sighed, looking straight ahead, his expression unclear. To his side, Jordan noticed a tall, opaque purple bottle perched on his nightstand.

“What is that?” Jordan said.
“What’s what?”

“That bottle on your nightstand.”

“Oh.” His father tentatively turned his neck to look over. “It’s an Agave Nectar Protein shake. From that health food pharmacy a few blocks away.”

Jordan laughed. “No kidding,” he said. “You, drinking an Agave Nectar Protein shake.”

“Of course I’m not going to drink it,” he said. “But it’s got a lot of antioxidants, which your mother is very concerned about these days. She’s convinced that if I drink it I’ll live longer. I keep it on the nightstand to make her feel like I’m listening.”

Jordan nodded, smiling at his father with his puffy neck brace and resolute expression and accepting, in that moment, that this all made perfect sense. “Sounds like a win-win situation,” he said.

 

 

BIO:

Jacqueline berkmanJacqueline Berkman is a writer living in Los Angeles with a background in publishing and public relations. Her short fiction has also appeared in The East Bay Review. 

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john oliver hodges author

Ethel’s Mountain

by John Oliver Hodges

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Outside?”

“I can dig you a hole,” I said.

“Are you serious?”

“Wouldn’t you rather do it outside?”

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

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

“That doesn’t sound right.”

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

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

“How’s my liver? Nice and healthy?”

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

“I’m a woman of the new world.”

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

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

“Funny?”

“Don’t listen to me,” I said.

“Are you condescending to me, Nix?”

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

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

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

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

“They bit you?” Ethel said.

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

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

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

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

“It hurts,” I said.

“I know.”

“They attacked me. I was just—”

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

“Careful,” I said.

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

“I remember Uncle Stanley.”

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

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

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

“I don’t mind.”

“Yes, but I do. I mind.”

“I’m sorry,” I said.

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

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

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

“What?” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Can’t say.”

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

“Is that Rumi?”

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

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

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

“Nix?”

“Yes?”

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

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

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

“Race cars in the Daytona Five Hundred.”

“You’re just like your mother.”

“No, really,” I said.

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

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

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

“She wants to be a queen,” I said.

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

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

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

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

“What?”

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

“That’s okay,” I said.

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

“I’m sorry,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

“No, no, nothing like that.”

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

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

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

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

“There you are,” Ethel said.

“The one and only.”

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

“Sleep sounds good.”

“Wait a second,” Ethel said.

“What, what is it?”

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

“No, uh uh.”

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

“I’m sorry,” I said.

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

“I said I was sorry!” I shouted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’d like to give you money.”

I thought about it.

“To talk,” he clarified.

“I see.”

“You look dead broke,” he said.

“You wanna talk about what?”

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

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

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

“Ouch,” I said.

He sighed. He looked at me dreamily.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Pain,” Abby said.

I sat up. “What?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Sure,” I said.

“Promise.”

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

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

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

“Do you know what a scumbag is?”

Please don’t do this, I thought.

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

BIO

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

 

 

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Venus Awaits

Venus Awaits!

by Charlie Brown

 

When I heard the news that Gerhard de Shannon had died, it threw me into a time warp. News being a medium of the now, as opposed to history as a medium of the then, imparts feelings ranging along the whole spectrum of available time. That report made the seventeen-year-old inside of me ready to cry.

But let me back up, for you probably don’t know who de Shannon was. You aren’t alone, because very few people knew his name.

He was a science fiction writer, author of many novels. I can’t put an exact number on it because De Shannon’s name graced no hardcovers. His purpose in the literary scene was to be the hand crank on the pulp machine. It didn’t matter what subject he chose, his publishers would plunge into his work to feel up the curvy breast of the least common denominator. His rumination on humanity’s isolation “One Stands Still In Time” came out as “She-Pirate of the Nazi Space Cruiser,” the cover featuring a leather bikini clad woman who did not appear in the book. And since Black Out Press’ main distribution point was pornography shops, it didn’t matter.

Hopefully, few of the self-love aficionados were driven to existential despair when they actually read the book.

 

Now, in 2010, my favorite childhood author is as anonymous as the person who coined the phrase that’s the point of this story: “The golden age of science fiction is 13.”

 

But now I’m not telling the whole truth. Yes, he was my favorite writer, but I didn’t find him first. That would be Joey Greenbaum.

Joey found a collection of de Shannon’s novels at the bottom of his father’s underwear drawer, each missing the cover. So he actually read them and was inspired by the prose. The books’ illustrations were later found between his parents’ mattress and box spring. They didn’t excite him as much.

But that was true for most things. Joey only had two passions in life: sci-fi and computers. Back in Cleveland in 1976, when we met de Shannon, you would have said they were the same thing.

Joey would become one of the first programmers at Atari, working on those blocky video games that, when we saw them in the 1980s, felt like an “Amazing Stories” cover come to life. He’s a millionaire many times over, but whenever I see him, he wears a clip-on tie, insisting the common hand knot “does not compute.” And, yes, he says things like that.

 

But in the year of the United States’ Bicentennial, people like Joey didn’t have regular access to programming terminals. So, when he had to leave the high school computer lab for home, he spent his free time breaking the spines of paperbacks.

His eyesight teetered on blindness, so he had to get extra close to make out the words on those pulpy pages. This didn’t diminish the speed of his reading, usually passing along the book in under three days.

Joey and I, as well as our small group of friends, read the classics first. Asimov, Bradbury, Heinlein and Clarke hooked us, but soon any book with a robot or spaceship on the cover sang its siren song, the 75 cent price tag falling within our allowance’s borders.

 

I was the only one not in the computer club. I was in the band. Being the geek within the geek group led to loneliness, especially when your best friends would sometimes only speak FORTRAN (Jesus, Esperanto would have been easier for me), but it worked out alright.

I would go on to be a drummer in one of those New York post-punk groups who’ve come back into fashion. We were never big, as we crammed too much jazz into our guitar-drum duo, but I got to see some of the greatest music ever made while few people were watching.

Once Joey told me he was disappointed I wasn’t Devo’s drummer. I said I would have rather been in Pere Ubu. He said he didn’t know what that meant.

 

But back to de Shannon and why he was in Cleveland. Because we read so much sci-fi, Joey decided we should also create it. After all, with a few weird ideas, some faster-than-light travel and a couple of laser gun battles, the story would just write itself.

We incorporated the Shaker Heights Galactic Writers’ Group, the meeting hall Joey’s basement. It was incumbent upon each of the members to help decorate, so I went to the used record store and bought Yes albums strictly for their covers. Tony Maselli, who ushered at a grindhouse downtown, had some old horror movie posters. And, after Joey worked out the design grid on graph paper, Dave Pulaski glued them to the wall, then painted a space scene around the paper. We weren’t cool enough to splash out for a black light.

 

It occurs to me that you may not know who Pere Ubu is. Just listen to “Songs of the Bailing Man.” You’ll either love it or hate it. It makes no difference to me.

 

Three months after forming the club and two months after the basement’s nerd psychedelia was finished, Joey found the de Shannon books. They didn’t just excite us; they ripped open the fabric of time and space, revealing a hidden universe way cooler than anything we envisioned.

All of the issues kept to the side in the Golden Age, like sex and drugs, came front and center in de Shannon’s work. But beyond that, there was an overarching darkness, the main theme being an inevitable, doomed future for the human race because of interstellar forces beyond our control. Pure ambrosia to the high school sophomore who can’t get laid.

Each of the back covers featured this endorsement: “From the author of ‘Venus Awaits!’” But when we asked for it at the Walden Books in Russel Park Mall, we got blank stares. Asking them to order it, we found it was out of print.

As spring turned to summer and the heat of the coming Bicentennial celebration ratcheted up to simmer, Pulaski provided the breakthrough. Dave wanted to go to art school, convincing his father to take him to New York to scope out campuses. He knew he didn’t have a prayer of attending, as five minutes in the city would have his union-dues dad screaming about animals free in the streets, but he wanted a shot at seeing the city and some of the museums.

 

Pulaski never came to visit me the whole time I lived in New York. He settled into a job illustrating ads for local newspaper and TV. He told me one Christmas when I visited one trip was more than enough.

“Christ, how can you live with those freaks? They’re just being weird for weird’s sake.” I told him most of those cats were my friends because they liked the music I played. He told me he started listening to Yes because of those albums I bought and he preferred Styx and Kansas to my band. The blue collar never fades.

 

Pulaski came to the Galactic Writers’ Club giggling after his Manhattan run. When we asked him about the big city, he said nothing, unfolding a wispy paper. Greater New York City phonebook, Desplas to Devigne. There, misspelled with a capital D, was Gerhard de Shannon and his Lower East Side address.

I thought we should call him, but that seemed too immediate to Joey. As club president, he decided upon a plan: a writing workshop lead by de Shannon. We would pay for his train fare, plus an honorarium. A phone call to Amtrak priced the ticket at 50 bucks. We would offer him another $150 for his time, also requesting one copy of “Venus Awaits!” It took another three weeks, but he sent a letter of acceptance.

He would come in mid-June for a weekend and stay in the meeting hall, because Joey’s basement was the only one that could house a guest.

 

I don’t have to imagine what went through de Shannon’s head when he got the letter. When I moved to NYC, I looked him up at the old address. He had been committed to Bellevue and, after a few days of working up the nerve, I went to visit him. He recognized me right away and we talked once a month for a few years, until I started touring and didn’t have the time anymore. When I got back from one road haul, he had checked out of the hospital, but hadn’t returned to his apartment. I never saw him again.

When I first visited, I asked him about that weekend and his amber teeth spread into a smile. Here’s the thing about young writers: de Shannon hated them. Obviously, you’re thinking his lack of success made him frustrated at the boundless energy and high self-delusion of the initiate scribe. But you’d be wrong.

Yes, writers bothered him. The company of his peers left him breathless as they consumed all the oxygen in a room. The hard blowing wind of self-importance made him seasick.

But it was the young part that bothered him most. While true that de Shannon could barely tolerate a room populated by more than five people, twenty bottles and a jazz-filled jukebox, the under-25 set triggered the rusty fishhooks of regret stuck in his back. Youth was wasted; it was his only real philosophy.

But the money we offered would cover the rent, assuring him one month free from hustling the netherworlds of the publishing industry. And he had never been to Cleveland.

 

He obviously meant the last part as a joke. When I tell people where I’m from, they always say some version of “that’s too bad.” I mean, how can you explain the inside joke of the USA was actually a great place to live? It wasn’t, but I have to defend the city. I need to pretend I’m making my parents proud.

 

The initial rush of a guaranteed paycheck was replaced by fear of not being able to locate “Venus Awaits!” He called the used book places, The Strand and all that, to see if there was a copy floating about. He gave them the alternative titles: “The Raft to Pleasure,” “Of Alien Bondage,” even “Venus’ Hairy Delta.” Nothing.

That meant a trip to Times Square, the old 1970s “Taxi Driver” Square before Rudy Giuliani washed his cultural bleach over the streets and stores. He decided to go during the day, mostly so solicitation from prostitutes and pimps would be a trickle, not a spurting hose. The bustling hub wrapped its sleazy neon in the red, white and blue bunting of patriotism, vendors hawking cheap polyester flags next to spank mags and dildos. Some of these silicon johnsons were star spangled for the holiday.

“Made me goddamn proud to be an American,” de Shannon told me between puffs of a cig.

He crapped out on the first two stores, but Friendly’s, one of the back alley joints, proved to be a virtual archive of Gerhard de Shannon’s oeuvre. But he had to keep within the budget, so the 35-cent copy with the cover title “The Voyage Between Her Legs” (a translation of the German title) would come to Cleveland.

 

In Bellevue, he reminisced about that edition of the book. He had sold it to Black Out as a value-added reprint so they would also publish “Ozone Nights.” They would retitle the new book “Steamy Moon Stories.”

He remembered what Black Out’s publisher, Martin Blandiss, who de Shannon described as a thin, balding man who always wore a vest but never a jacket, told him that day. “Gerhard, if you could write a sex scene, I’d triple your pay.”

“I responded, ‘Martin, I’m touched. I didn’t know you actually read my books.’ We laughed for years over that one.”

 

De Shannon pulled the novel down, noting the address of the store in case he ever needed more of his work. But, as he started towards the counter, his inner voice started yelling at him, wanting him out of that shop pronto.

Tucking the book into the back pocket of his jeans, de Shannon sprinted out the front door. The guy behind the counter, a piggy 23-year-old with stringy blonde hair, chased de Shannon to the street, running full-on into a vice squad phalanx about to raid the place. The cops didn’t stop de Shannon and the author had his prize for the Shaker Heights boys.

 

The voice in his head is not a metaphor. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

**

Joey went with his father to the train station to pick up de Shannon. I look back now and can only imagine what this man saw when he descended into the basement that Saturday. It may be hard for you to remember, but the teenager feels grown up, that adults should treat him with the respect of a peer, when all the elders see is a bubble of youthful gas.

So this man who had lived a half-century walked into a room with nine kids sitting on the floor. Fashions of the time meant we were wearing ringed t-shirts with blocky letters, candy-striped jeans belled at the bottom and thick, black plastic glasses. Yes, each and every one of us had the same frames. Only the prescription varied. Worst of all, seven of ten had hair cascading over our foreheads.

When I asked de Shannon how he saw us, the writer’s instinct took over: “I looked upon da Vinci’s ‘Last Supper’ and it smelled like Clearasil.”

 

Maybe there is something to biology determining our lot in life. How many self-described nerds fall into that visual? I don’t understand the haircut thing, but I was blessed with back-flowing locks. I could have had the perfect feathered middle-part cut when the ‘80s turned, but by then I was too punk for that.

But the glasses? In the Middle Ages, Joey would have been considered blind and would have had to beg for food. But his eyesight, which prevented any sports acumen, led to his intense studies. Remove Michael Jordan’s eyesight and he could’ve been a prize-winning scientist.

But what amazes me is the people who look like this now made it cool. When my old band mate and I went on a reunion tour, we saw all sorts of women sporting this look who, bodily, were more attractive than our original fans. I preferred the first set, as both them and me were pleased as hell someone actually found the other desirable.

 

When de Shannon joined us in the basement, I immediately felt his presence. His hair was ghostly silver and hung to his collar, sideburns and goatee still flecked with black. He wore a patterned polyester long-sleeved shirt despite the season and his bell-bottomed jeans covered thin, Italian leather zip-up boots. Whatever he was, he was different from our parents and I wanted to be him.

I saw my friends felt the same awe. Except Joey. He had the whole car ride for the aura of hip to envelope him. He stood in the doorway, arms crossed and head bobbing, a stance that hip-hoppers would eventually make iconic. Joey told me in the ‘90s “it was the coolest I ever felt.” And he knew Steve Jobs.

The only seat was a hot pink beanbag chair which was offered to the guest of honor. De Shannon sank into it, assuming a half-lotus position. He held out his hands, open-palmed. “What’s on the agenda, cats?”

We delved into our writings. It was rough going for most of the guys. I had no delusions what I was writing approached readable, much less would soon be featured behind a four-color cover on a dime store rack, but the rest of the guys thought they were creating decent prose. De Shannon destroyed these thoughts.

But he said it in an encouraging way. He used a red pen to scratch out wide swaths of unnecessary exposition, tired dialogue and bad ideas. But a few of us got hand-drawn five-pointed stars indicating de Shannon liked a phrase or idea.

Morty Sherrod got three such stars and, when de Shannon handed him back his typed pages, he cried with joy. De Shannon told us, “Don’t think you’re all doing badly. I threw away five novels before I sent one out. You just have to learn at what point you stop being mediocre and begin actually writing.”

 

Morty was the only one of us who went on to be a writer. He went to the University of Southern California, studying screenwriting. Coming out of college, he got hired by Roger Corman to write and direct sci-fi and fantasy exploitation films. He once told me that de Shannon’s words kept him going when he was looking for work. “I knew eventually I would begin writing, just like Gerhard said. I guess Roger didn’t care if I was mediocre.”

When I saw him in 1987, he looked like an extra from “Miami Vice,” wearing a white sport coat and mirrored sunglasses, although he still had a pudgy waistline. He summed up his life this way: “I still have all those perverted thoughts of a fifteen-year-old geek. I just get to turn them into movies.”

He would marry three C-list actresses, dumping each wife when they turned thirty.

 

When the carnage of the workshop ended, de Shannon looked drained. It was closing in on seven o’clock and he rubbed his face with both hands, then shook out his arms and fingers. “Let’s get a beer.”

Teenaged heads darted from side to side. Nine sets of eyes eventually landed on me, as I once went to a bar to see The Ramones. I cleared my throat as de Shannon stared me down.

“There’s a liquor store close by. My dad always goes there.” I had no idea if my dad went there or not, but I did to buy Utz’s chips.

“Perfect. Who’s driving?”

The heads swiveled to Joey, who had to drive his kid sister to ballet. He slunk upstairs, returning with keys to the Chevelle station wagon, chin tucked in his neck. “We also have to pick up the pizza?” He ended on that questioning note soon to be how every young girl would speak.

De Shannon opened his arms. “Groovy. It shall be a feast.”

The pizza place and the liquor store were within a block of each other, so we split into two groups. Joey flew solo to grab the three pies and I brought de Shannon into The Cork’N’Crate for the liquid portion.

This was long before Americans cared about the quality of their booze, so the store was four aisles of bottles and a buzzing fridge unit. The best wine was Gallo. Beef jerky on a clip rack by the register was probably the best-tasting thing in the whole store

De Shannon went straight to the refrigerator, stopping in front of the Genesee. I saw him counting on his fingers, then he turned to me.

“Guess we’ll need a case.” He grabbed the suitcase of beer by the cardboard handle and walked up to the counter. The pudgy counterman, close to sixty and grey flat top standing at attention, swiveled his head to look at me.

“You ain’t buying this for him, are you?” He had that scratchy, high-pitched whine of the Ohio native. “Cause we got plenty of pop is he’s thirsty.”

“No, sir. My nephew’s just giving me a ride down the road. Got a card game in a few and needed something to lubricate the night, if you get my drift?” Here, de Shannon put his arm around my shoulder. I felt this weird pride, as if we were actually related. “He’s a good kid. You ain’t gotta worry about him.” De Shannon mimicked the counterman’s voice, but the guy didn’t notice.

“Okay, then.” He accepted a ten dollar bill from de Shannon and watched us walk out the door.

Joey sat in the driver’s seat as de Shannon slipped into shotgun. I rode next to three cardboard cartons wafting tomato- and pepperoni-scented air.   Joey’s eyes narrowed behind his thick glasses. “That’s a lot of beer.”

In five minutes, we were back in Joey’s driveway. Mr. Greenbaum was watering the lawn and the stream of water ceased as he released the metal pistol grip screwed to the top of the hose.

“What is that, now?” Joey tried to block the case of beer from his dad’s sight, but Mr. Greenbaum cut us off from the front door. “That’s a whole lot of beer, son.”

Joey looked like a flower trying to close its petals, while de Shannon maintained a blasé demeanor. I looked at Mr. Greenbaum staring down his nose through his own thick glasses. It took a few seconds, but de Shannon broke the stalemate.

“Well, there are ten of us, Eugene.” De Shannon lifted his eyebrows. Mr. Greenbaum’s face erupted with a toothy grin.

“Aw, hell, Joey. I didn’t know you even liked beer.”

“I don’t!” Joey’s head popped out of his collar now.

“Now I know why the six pack doesn’t seem to go as far as it used to.”

“Dad, I don’t know what you’re talking about!”

Mr. Greenbaum elbowed de Shannon in the ribs. “When I was their age, jeez. We would do anything to get our hands on some of these. The hard part was finding an opener. With these pop tops, it’s just too easy, right?”

“Better get these in fridge, boys. Also, let’s eat before the pizza cools off.” De Shannon walked through the front door and Mr. Greenbaum went back to the hose. Joey grabbed my arm as we walked inside.

“You know I don’t drink beer. I don’t want to get in trouble.”

“Joey, jeez, cool it. It’s okay.” I opened the door to the basement. “Your dad wants you to drink.”

Joey shook his head, but he accepted it as we set up for dinner.

 

I had never drank beer before either. There was no reason behind it. We just didn’t think about it. I know the teenage years are supposed to be a rebellious time, but I didn’t feel that way until I got to New York. There I pulled a 180 and tried everything put in front of me. I’m not proud, but it’s true.

I laughed in Ian MacKaye’s face when he told me about his whole straight edge punk thing. I said, “No sex, no drugs, no booze, huh? I did that at fifteen, just not by choice.”

I like Minor Threat’s music, but come on. Most punks were nerds anyway. Let them have some fun.

 

After the pizza was gone, de Shannon loosened up. He had drunk three beers, telling us about meeting Isaac Asimov. De Shannon introduced himself at the Hugo Awards and Asimov refused to shake his hand.

“He told me, ‘You cheapen our art, Mr. de Shannon.’ I told him ‘Nightfall’ was the worst story ever written and he responded that it had been reprinted many time. ‘Now who’s cheap?’ I said and walked away.”

“But I love ‘Nightfall,’” Pulaski said.

“In five years, you’ll see it for the hack work it is.” He finished his fourth beer in a big gulp and laid out that old chestnut. “Remember, guys, the golden age of science fiction is 13.”

“Wait, you mean the stuff we’re reading is bad?” Joey looked angry because he hated wasting time. He thought he was investing in something by reading so many books and now one of his heroes had told him otherwise. But de Shannon softened.

“Not all of it. The thing is those older sci-fi guys have great ideas, but they don’t write very well. They see their stories as a way to get across a vision of the future, not as an exercise in literary excellence.” He popped the top on a fifth can. “When you get older, you’ll want to read something at a higher level. Maybe it will be the New Wave guys like Ballard or Morcock. Hopefully, you might read some Joyce or Faulkner. Or Hemingway. Whatever. It doesn’t matter. But you will outgrow the boom-pow stuff, because it’s for kids.”

“Are we wasting our time reading your books?” Joey’s face was boiling red.

“I don’t know.” He pulled on the beer, receding into the bean bag. The room quieted for a whole minute and some of the guys looked ready to leave. I opened a second beer, facing de Shannon directly.

“You said sci-fi guys have great ideas. Where do they come from?” This focused all my friends. Even Joey looked curious again. We had been struggling with finding stories to tell and now, maybe, this guy could give us some insight.

 

Of course I know this is a standard question to any writer and one no professional wants to answer. I have been asked a million times how to write a song. I usually say put words on paper and your hands on an instrument and see how they go together. Nobody ever likes this.

 

But this hoary question caused a metamorphosis in de Shannon. His lips slumped into a frown and his eyes bagged. Maybe it was the beer, but he was upset.

“How many times I’ve wanted to answer that question. They always ask it and I never say anything. Well, fuck it. Right here and now, I’m telling you the truth.” He went to the wall where Pulaski had drawn our solar system and de Shannon pointed to Venus. “After World War II, I was stationed at Okinawa. In the middle of nighttime guard duty, a great light blinded me and I awoke in an alien spaceship.

“They said they were from Venus and I was chosen to be their herald. In 2010, they would take over Earth and I was to prepare the human race for their eventual slavery. They implanted something in my brain, I think it must be like one of those computer tapes, and I should transcribe their messages for broadcast.

“From that night on, I heard the voice in my head prompting me to write. It also looks out for me, like when I was buying this.” He went to his overnight bag and handed me the book he stole from Times Square.

“What’s it saying now?” Joey sounded afraid. De Shannon turned and faced the corner like a misbehaving fourth grader.

“To kill all of you because you know too much.” His voice caught on his words and he sobbed.

The meeting ended quickly after that. De Shannon slumped in the corner weeping was too much raw emotion for kids who fought to keep theirs tamped down. I was the last to leave, as Mr. Greenbaum came to take de Shannon to the train station. Joey said later he was too scared to have that crazy person staying in his house overnight.

The writer looked at me, his face like an off-kilter Comedy mask as Mr. Greenbaum pointed him upstairs.

“Kid, it’s a good thing those Venus guys are terrible writers. Nobody could believe the shit I wrote. And, most importantly, nobody wants to read it.” He yelled out, “Venus awaits!” He laughed finally, but it was cold and froze my insides.

 

When I saw de Shannon in Bellevue, the first thing he told me was the voice was gone.

“I don’t know if the tape broke or if they gave up. But the messages have stopped and I don’t have to write them down anymore.”

“Then why are you still in here?”

“You think that was the only thing wrong with me?” His smile made me laugh and I promised to sneak in some beer. I could never get it past the front desk.

**

What bothers me is that de Shannon’s death came in the year the Venusians said they would cause the end of Earth. My brain knows this is a coincidence, but my heart wants to scan the sky. Should I look for the bright lights? Or should I just go on living without worrying about impending doom?

I re-read that tattered old pulp book he gave me about once a year. Now, I’ll have to look at it again and search through it carefully, just in case Venus awaits us all.

 

 

BIO

Charles BrownCharlie Brown is a writer and filmmaker from New Orleans. He currently lives in Los Angeles, recently receiving his Masters in Professional Writing from the University of Southern California, where he runs Lucky Mojo Press and Mojotooth Productions.  He has made two feature films: “Angels Die Slowly” (to be released by Ytinifni Films in June 2015) and “Never A Dull Moment: 20 Years of the Rebirth Brass Band.” His fiction has appeared in Jersey Devil Press, The Menacing Hedge, Aethlon, and what?? Magazine as well as the anthology “The Portal In My Kitchen,” due in 2015.  He teaches journalism and composition at various community colleges.

 

 

0

The Waiting Game

by Lou Gaglia

 

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

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

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

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

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

“I hate bees,” Tommy said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Uh…‘Don’t’.”

“I coulda guessed that.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“He can’t throw us out. We paid.”

“Oh, yes he can. They got rules.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Maybe bring that girl, that girl Karen.”

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

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

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

“Friendship over,” I said.

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

“Wow,” I said.

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

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

“I don’t want to bet that,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

BIO

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

 

 

 

 

 

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