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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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Jackie Bridges

J is for Jammy

by Jacqueline Bridges

 

 

To My Beautiful Wife, my lover,

This is not a suicide letter.

I am not planning to kill myself, you, or my neighbor (my contempt for Mr. Sherry’s lavish spending is of no consequence in this matter).

The opportunity to read this letter should arise after my untimely death, but should not coincide with my funeral. This should be addressed afterward.

I know how these things go.

Modest, black garb and white, gaunt faces will crowd around at my wake, and the occasional muffled sob will echo in the foyer at my service. I am not worried about that day, for it will take care of itself. This is about what will soon follow.

As a keen observer, I can predict what will come next: day-to-day life, which can be summed up by a famous cliché, “time heals all wounds.” Eventually, you will move on. At first, you will feel my breath on the back of your neck. The guilt will hover around your shoulders, like my corrective criticism that enabled you to recognize your faults during our arguments. In this case, please turn to another famous cliché, “this too shall pass.” I have other plans for you. Before long, you will return to our favorite independent theater and join the discussions on the use of light to portray cinematic themes.

Those were some of our best times, I think.

I encourage you to remain seated in the theater until all of the credits have scrolled off the screen. It will be difficult to sit alone, without me at your side, but it is the right thing to do. On this we both agree.

It will be like it was before, enjoying a glass of red wine by the fireside of the Bistro that shares a wall with our little theater. I can imagine the long, clear stem snuggling between your fingers as the balloon glass rests upon your delicate palm. Do not let the wait staff intimidate you. If needed, use my tasting notes as a reference guide, and remember two simple rules when ordering: One, always order red wine, and two, if you must order a white, the drier the better. Now I will present my first gift to you, Jammy.

I hope you cherish both syllables. Jam∙my.

I thought you might like to use it when describing your wine. The adjective should not die with me. The word will earn you respect in many circles, albeit, not with your mother or sister, but definitely amongst a more educated crowd. Word of caution—use it sparingly, that’s my trick. I hope you picked up on my foreshadowing when granting you your first gift. Of course you did. Your persistence to increase your observation skills has paid off. You have always been an astute pupil. Yes, there are two other gifts I will be adding to the collection. I was known for my generous spirit in life, and it is something that should be remembered in my passing as well. I would like to bequeath my anthology of first editions to you.

Many of our relatives will insist on owning one, claiming they want a piece of me. Do not listen to them. They are merely scavengers. Only you will honor my love of literature. Anyone else will sell them to the highest bidder at the first sign of financial crisis, but you would never consider it. I trust you will hold them dear to your heart, as they were to mine.

And for my final act, I have some advice you will want to heed. It is obvious that you rely on me for certain things in our marriage. I have no qualms with that. Each person should put their energy to the tasks they perform best. Numbers have always been my strength, but it is something you can develop.

Some people think they are better than others, that finance is an art few individuals have the eye for.

I disagree.

It can be taught, and it can be learned. On my bedside table, you will find the three most influential money management books of the current year. Feel free to read them. I recommend a highlighter and small notebook when scouring the pages. As for my gift, I am leaving you with a sizable nest egg. However, it is important you do not squander it. Grief can be a terrible thing that clouds our judgment. Remember Ms. Pendleton? I should hate to think that some salesman will try to take advantage of a lonely widow like you.

For your protection, I have locked your nest egg into a three-step ladder, high-yield CD. You will learn all about CDs in your new evening reading. I have arranged a small allotment to see to the funeral expenses, but our accountant will release the first of three CDs, 12 months after my passing. This will keep you from splurging on frivolous trips or fancy cars to fill the initial void, but once the year has passed, I will relinquish control because you will be ready to create your own portfolio. I know you can do it.

That is all I have to offer at this time. I wish I had more to give; more time and more love. If we are privileged to marry in our next life, I will choose you. My wish is to make you happy, or at the very least comfortable. If you happen to find true love again, falling twice in this lifetime, I will not keep you from it. In fact, I will be happy for you, but if that is the case, please pay a visit to Harold Andrews. I had him draft a pre-nuptial agreement.

Sincerely,

Your Husband, your lover

 

My thoughts are interrupted, “Lover?” It’s my wife’s voice.

I cover my paper as best I can, trying to exude indifference. It would have worked, had my hands not flailed in the air before coming to rest squarely on the letter.

“Who’s that for?” Her voice raises in anticipation, and I can tell she believes it to be a love letter, for her. She’s about to be disappointed.

“It’s nothing.” My voice cracks.

“Nonsense!” Carly pushes my hand away and reaches for the letter. “Let me read it.”

There’s nothing I can do, but wait, with outstretched arms, ready to dry her tears. At first, Carly smiles. I know my terms of endearment must be the cause. Right after, her smile falls flat. She must be past the first paragraph by now—she’s a speed reader of sorts. I expected this. She’s quiet for the length of the letter. Not a frown, no smiles, no scrunched brow. Finally, she lowers the letter and tilts her head sideways, the same way our lab does when we’re talking to him.

“Who’s this for,” she demands.

I’m quick to jump in, “You, of course.”

“You don’t call me lover.”

“I might,” I defend. When I see that she doesn’t buy it, I shrug, “I might start.”

She returns her attention to the letter, ignoring my last comment. I can see that she’s in shock, so I offer my condolences, “There’s a chance I’ll pass away before you.”

Carly’s smile returns, this one a bit wicked, “A good chance.”

I push past her joke, then ask, “So, what do you think?”

Now her eyebrows scrunch, “It’s cute.”

I jump up, “It’s cute?!” My voice is strained, “It’s my last wishes—you can’t call it cute.”

She purses her lips, and I know she’s holding back.

“What? Is there something on my list you can’t honor?” I place my hand on my heart, “I need to know if you can do the things I ask?”

“Seriously?” she’s practically laughing.

“Seriously!”

“Okay, then.” She traces the lines of my letter, then stops, “First of all, I don’t like that artsy theater. It smells like mold. I go there for you—so I won’t be going there once you’re dead.”

I hold a hand up, “Please, once I pass away.

“What do you care what I call it if you’re dead.”

I wince.

“Fine,” she rolls her eyes. “Once you pass away, I’ll be seeing movies at the new theater in that strip mall of 6th avenue, you know, the one with the reclining seats.”

“Fine.” I look for a pen so I can strike the theater reference in my letter. “Anything else? It’s best to clarify it now.”

“Yeah,” she jumps right in, “I’m not using that word.” She’s pointing at my Jammy reference.

“What?”

“I’m not using it. It sounds ridiculous.” She pauses, “Even when you say it.”

I place my hand on my heart once more, “It’s very descriptive, in a classic way.”

“And what’s this about your first editions?” She turns, holding the paper out for me to see. She’s like a cat, swift, sneaky, and in full attack mode before I’ve even registered her last move. “Do you mean your comic books?” she asks, a furtive brow in place.

“They’re first editions!” I defend.

She purses her lips again, “So it’s safe to say you took a few liberties with this, aye?”

“Aye?” I taunt, “It depends on your circle. For the record, I don’t include Cananda in my circle, nor your sister.”

Mentioning her sister triggers the let’s not go to bed angry glare, but she moves past it sooner than I expect. “Okay.” She says. Her tone is even, lacking the placating tone I’ve come to listen for, “I can go with that—among your friends,” she clears her throat, “and perhaps many other Americans, your collection may be an asset.”

It bothers me that she placed quotations around my collection, but I’ve escaped an argument at this point, so I just nod.

“But in what circle is 5000 dollars a sizable nest egg? American or not.”

I snatch the letter from her hands, “Obviously I’m not going to die for a long time.” I fold the paper up and slip it into an envelope, “Just wait, that nest egg is going to be huge. It’s called compounding interest, but of course you don’t know about that yet.” I lick the envelope and seal it. “I can see you’re not ready for this just yet. I’ll find nice spot for it, someplace safe. Don’t worry,” I add, “When you’re truly ready, you’ll find it.”

She smiles, “I’ll never be ready for Jammy.”

 

 

BIO

Jackie BridgesJacqueline Bridges works as a guidance counselor to junior high students, where she puts her Masters degree to work, and then some. She is new to flash fiction and reads it daily (even in the counseling office). Her students join her weekly for a writing club, where they impress her with stories about fairies, dragons, and golden retrievers. She has three publications to-date, with 365 Tomorrows, Touch Poetry, The Fable Online, and Short Fiction Break. She’s currently working on a young adult, science fiction novel, mostly void of fairies, dragons, and golden retrievers.

 

 

 

0

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.

 

0
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.

 

 

 

 

0

Dylan’s Roost

by Susan Lloy

 

The man burst into the shop like he was running for his life. Causing the bell on the door to jingle erratically as if it had been jolted from a deep slumber. He brushed himself off from the rain that had settled on his jacket and water dropped to the floor like big tears from a sad tale. He proceeded to the fiction section to examine titles.

I recognized him by his photograph, Penvro Davis, a well-known author. He comes in sporadically, but never engages in conversation. I suspect he’s aware that I know who he is. Though, each time he approaches the counter to pay for a book, he silently hands over the money or bankcard without a single word except, ‘thank you’, before exiting.

I like Penvro’s books. They are cerebral and edgy with characters on the brink with unusual habits and uncommon dreams. But, he hasn’t published for some time now. I often think about him while sitting behind this counter surrounded by second hand books. This is my shop. I’ve been here fifteen years. It isn’t a good living, but I only answer to myself and that pretty much seals it for me.

There is a tiny bell that jingles each time the door opens or closes and I can hear it from every crevice in my shop. Sometimes it barely jingles at all. The space is open and square with a large antique leaded glass window all the way to the back and a glass front that faces the street. Bookshelves run along each wall, divided by author. I always wanted to be a writer and have attempted a novel and a short story collection, but have never completed anything. I roll in a constant state of perpetual planning, jotting down notes for this and plots for that. Putting them in my folder under the counter. Beginning a Word document, rendering words that have no conclusions. Eating a sandwich. Waiting for the door to jingle.

Penvro studies sleeves. Finally, he slides over a collection of three plays by Eugene O’Neill. I’m surprised. He hands over a twenty-dollar bill without words or gestures. As I give him back his change, I flirt with the idea of asking him to look at my work. Yet, this doesn’t seem likely. He leaves briskly – like he entered. The door shuts and the bell jangles enthusiastically.

I decide to make tea. It soothes my nerves. I prefer strong, black tea with a bit of milk. Sipping away, encased by books with the smell of paper lingering. It is a cozy space with atmospheric lighting and a few comfortable reading chairs next to the paned window at the back. Folks are welcome to hang about and sample a book. See if the words touch or penetrate, humor or shock. It probably isn’t good for business permitting customers a taste beforehand, nevertheless I think it’s nice and that’s what counts. However, I know the other merchants talk about me.

“I don’t know how that Dylan doesn’t go broke. Mind you now, he’s a good fella and all, but he has no head for making a buck.”

I’m not bothered. Everyone has something to say. But I must admit – it isn’t easy to be a bookseller when so many are reading online. My psychiatrist called today and informed me he must reschedule. An emergency. Doesn’t upset me. Most sessions there isn’t anything exciting to discuss. My life has been rather dull for some time now. In fact, I can’t remember when it wasn’t dull. No, that’s not true. My youth had been fairly wild. There were lots of parties, women and many illicit goings-on. Though, now that middle age has straddled me, these memories seem far away. Perhaps, three incarnations ago.

There’s always books to put away. People often come in to sell books. Most of the time there isn’t anything compelling, but these books waiting to be shelved aren’t too bad. I pick up each book with care, catalogue it and dust the cover before slotting it according to genre and author. I don’t live far away and the rent has been stable. The landlord is an old guy with a good heart. A rare commodity. But, he is getting on and I worry what will happen when he dies and the property is sold. How will I manage? There’s always something to fret about and my thoughts are diverted by the jingle of the door.

The woman nods when I look in her direction. She comes in often, though we never talk. Sometimes when I sit here and the door remains silent, I think about my customers’ lives and secrets. I write notes about them. Inserting them in my folder that sleeps under the counter.

She’s looking in the self-help section. I find that women prefer these type of books. They don’t much interest me. This particular woman’s weight fluctuates. Often she buys a book about dieting or weight loss recipes. Today she has one about getting rid of guilt and accepting the ‘real you’. I wonder what is real about her. She never says anything either. Only a mutter, perhaps a thank you, as I slide her change across the counter. After she leaves the shop I see a folded paper lying on the floor. It must have slipped out of her pocket. I walk over, pick it up and return to my counter to read the words.

It’s a grocery list containing various processed cakes and ready-to-go prepared dishes: macaroni, lasagna, Pad Thai, butter chicken, prunes and a laxative product – Senokot. Normally I’d throw it in the garbage, however, there are several phone numbers at the end and I ponder whether to return the paper if and when she comes again. I put it in another drawer under the counter. I open a Word document. The wind had picked up scattering litter throughout the city streets. Rain began to fall heavy from the sky. I wondered what to do with my afternoon, for I was out of money and without plans….

I heard the door jingle again and it is the same woman who was just here. She scans the floor. Probably for her lost paper.

“Miss, are you looking for this?’

“Yes. I believe so.”

“I found it on the floor after you left.”

“Thank you very much.”

She took the folded paper and put it in her pocket and left immediately. I looked out the window and watched her walking vigorously down the street. Wind lifts her skirt as she walks away. She’ll wonder if I’ve read it. It will play on her. I now know her secret, or at least something more about her.

 

The rain has stopped and the sun edges itself through the front windows. It highlights all the defects on these old wooden hardwood floors. Scratches and wear marks from thousands of shoes that have scuttled about. This shop has had many tenants, first a tailor, followed by an accountant and then a comic bookshop owner. I took it over in 2001. I had just moved back from Amsterdam. Amsterdam had been my home for several years. But, a relationship faltered and my visa became problematic. I had a small amount of money put aside and secured this lease within one month of my return. Not at all convinced of my decision. But I’m still here. And the door jingles.

It’s Lee. He has his own apartment, which his family pays for, but enjoys the streets and comes in frequently. At times he rambles, yet is often lucid. Sometimes I let him rest in one of the reading chairs or let him wash up in the bathroom behind my counter. He stands in front of the cash register and tells me about the aliens and predators that are after him. Today he is far away…

“Dylan. Dylan. How are ya man? There are ships all around us. Those cunts have been tracking me for days. I’ve seen them in the sky, between the clouds and stars. They’re in the sewers. When I’m on the streets I hear their beacons signaling far below the earth. I know they’ve put something in my ear. It buzzes all the time and if it doesn’t stop I’m heading for Chow Mien right after this and jabbing a chopstick in my ear. I know the guy who washes the dishes and feeds the stray cats. One, two, three, many, many man… He’ll give me food and I’ll ask for the sticks. I’ll plan my revolt. But, here I know I’m safe. This shop is a force field and the books are my shields. Hey, got tea? I know your tea short circuits the stray trackers. Fucks their coordinates.”

“You’ll be safe here. Don’t worry, Lee. I’ve got an extra sandwich. Are you hungry?”

“No, No. I just ate with the cats at Pizza Joe’s. Cats know. Yup. Yup. Cats are cleaver, man. Hiss – purr, don’t matter. Yes. Yes. The cats are with me, Dylan. They’re with me.”

I brought him tea and the wrapped sandwich.

“Here, take this for later on.”

He drank the tea and put the sandwich in his pocket.

Lee had fallen asleep. Two hours had passed and the door had barely jingled. But, I’m closing up and must wake him.

“Lee. You got to get going now.”

He opened his eyes widely, as if in the midst of some horrible thought. He blinked several times and stood up like he had just been zapped by a cattle prod.

“No worry. No worry. I’m energized and ready. Ready. Ready. I think the nap fucked their trackers. The buzzing is gone from my ear.”

“That’s great, Lee. Shall we walk out together?”

“OK. OK.”

I gave him five bucks and wished him luck from the creatures beyond the sun. Locked the door.

-2-

I walk towards my flat. The rain has stopped, but the sidewalks remain wet and glisten from the streetlights shining above. It’s about a twenty-minute walk from the shop and the air smells fresh and the sea close. Halifax is surrounded by water. I’ve tried living in other places, but I need to be close to an ocean.

A ferry’s horn drones in the distance. I think about Lee and wonder where he’ll sleep tonight to avoid the damp and cool air that will settle in from the harbor, or if he’ll bunk at home. Sometimes he disappears for a while, but he always comes back and I sort of miss him when he’s gone. My flat is on the top floor of an old building and I can see the lights of the city fuse into each other.

I’m single and have been for years now. That’s one of the reasons I’m seeing a psychiatrist. I can’t seem to initiate anything in my life other than opening the door of my shop and waiting for the bell to jingle. He has me on an antidepressant. Dysrel. It’s an older generation pill and helps me sleep. I pop one after brushing my teeth. Fall into bed. Reach for my groin before falling off.

I wake up to a foggy morning. Make coffee and have a slice of toast with rhubarb jam. I don’t open my shop until ten so I have time to leaf through the pages of the New Yorker to see what I’m missing. Today, I’ll open later because of an appointment with my shrink. The fog hangs making the morning appear Film noir.

His office isn’t too far and I reach it within fifteen minutes. There are a few patients in the waiting room as I pick up a magazine and drink my takeout latte. The psychiatrist’s door opens and I see Penvro exiting. He looks directly at me, but doesn’t smile or nod and leaves rapidly as if late for another appointment. My doctor motions me to come inside his office.

“Hello Dylan.”

“Hi.”

“So? Have you thought anymore about what we discussed at our last session?”

“A little.”

“And?”

“ I just don’t see myself going online to meet a woman. It’s just not me. I know that’s what people do these days. But, like I said, it’s not me.”

“Well, what about joining a group. You enjoy writing. How about a writers’ workshop or a course at one of the universities in creative writing? There’s always the chance of meeting some new people there.”

“Maybe.”

I look around the calm and uncluttered office. Medical degrees hang on the walls with framed photographs of nondescript geographical locations. The furniture has a modern feel. I have another twenty-five minutes to go without anything to say.

“How are you sleeping?”

“Not too bad. You know. Not great every night, but most are OK. Better with the medication.”

“You know, we can always up your dosage. The maximum is three hundred milligrams, however, it may make you groggy in the morning.

“I’m all right with the present prescription. Let’s leave it at that.”

The remaining time passes and I leave feeling that these visits are a complete waste of time. Still, it’s something to do and someone to talk with and that keeps me coming back.

 

Penvro

Whiskey and scotch line the table and smoke washes the room reminiscent of noctilucent clouds at polar twilight. It’s a bright room with windows that face east and west, but they’re covered by drawn blinds that block the sun like great warriors of a past world. His head is heavy and listless, without thoughts or words. Powerless to express or dream. He doesn’t attribute these afflictions to the booze, for this is the reason why he drinks.

This slump has sucked him up like a starved pilgrim refusing to spit him out. His last novel, ‘Treaty of Thought’, was published in 2011. Several new novel drafts were attempted, but his ideas were transient and the characters moved about without accomplishing anything of much interest, unable to stir any emotion. Although, he has published three books to date, the royalties aren’t sufficient to sustain him. He must produce. Therapy was initiated with the hope that it might dislodge his lettered constipation.

 

Arial

Arial kicks open the door of her apartment with a high-heeled shoe, struggling from the burden of grocery bags. She gently drops them on the kitchen floor enjoying the new weightlessness like a freed paratropper.

Her clothes and hair are disheveled from the wind and rain that falls relentlessly. Before removing her jacket, she reaches in her pocket and gently removes the wrinkled paper examining the phone numbers that are smudged, yet, still legible transcribing them in a little red book that she keeps in the kitchen drawer. She doesn’t own a cellphone and is proud of it, something that separates her from the others. Though, others think her odd.

Arial stands before the hallway mirror and lets out a disapproving sigh. Her stomach is extended inhibiting her skirt zipper from completing its course. After changing her wet attire, she checks for telephone messages; “You have no new messages” and returns to the kitchen. She cuts a large section of ice cream Oreo cake. Plunks herself on the sofa, turns on the television and furiously eats the cool desert. Following the cake she chooses lime taco chips and onion cream cheese spread. She turns up the volume on the screen as her crunching is drowning the sound.

 

She stares at her name on the unopened mail. Arial. It’s ethereal, though she is far from light. Eating is merely something to do. Breaking up the monotony of her days and nights. Following the taco chips and spread she swallows two Senekots. This is her ritual.

She sits before the computer and checks for emails. Little red dots are absent from her mail icon. She remembers discussing funny names of places that pepper the Nova Scotian shoreline with a guy from an online dating site.

Shag Harbor, for example, probably some sailors got laid there…. Sober Island, perhaps someone moved there to straighten out…. Bush Island and Beaver Harbor, well what can be said about them?

Arial thought these trivias comical and interesting, but he stopped chatting without reason. Now, her emails were mostly advertisers and the occasional far-away friend. She reopens the drawer and takes out the red book. Examines the phone numbers and closes the book again. Recently she had gone on a speed dating session and asked for a couple of contact numbers.  No man requested hers.

-3-

I open the shop following the appointment with my psychiatrist. The sun has broken through the fog and light scatters throughout, igniting the space with rich warmth. I sit at the counter and wonder whether when Penvro comes again if he will he give me some kind of wink, wink, nudge, nudge, say no more kind of look. I expect the day to pass sluggishly.

The outside mailbox rattles from a drop and I immediately gravitate towards it. There are a few advertisements and a legal-looking envelope squeezed in between. Steward Taylor & Wexler is on the top left hand corner of the envelope in a dark blue font. It is an end of lease notice for this shop, stating that Mr. Riley has died and the property is now the under the proprietorship of his son, Randall. It says that I have six months to vacate. The door jingles. It’s Lee.

“Dylan, my man. Dylan. You’re late today. I’ve been waiting the long, damp night and morning. I hung out with the cats at Pizza Joe’s. Been doing smooth journeys through my starry nights and bright days. It’s been awhile since we took in each other’s eyes. Eyes of brown and blue. Colors of the sky and earth. That’s what they want – our sky and earth. The salt of the seven seas. But, it’s been quiet for days now I must say.”

“That’s good, Lee.”

I put the letter on the counter. Dread boils. I head to the small alcove next to the bathroom and plug in the kettle. Grab two mugs.

“Hey, Lee. Feel for tea?”

“Yup. Yup. Yup. Thanks man.”

Tea won’t help me much today. My fear has bloomed. It always seems if we worry about something enough, it eventually becomes a reality. At least now there is something tangible to discuss with my shrink.

The door jingles and a young woman enters. Her hair is a brassy blond with dark roots. Her clothes are tight fitting and worn.

“I bet her pussy stinks.”

“Shush, Lee. That’s not nice.”

“Sorry, sorry Dylan.”

“Ya know my girl Hazel is as perfect as a girl ever could be.”

“Oh yeah. How come you never bring her around Lee?”

“She’s not social. She’s shy. She’s….”

The girl approaches the counter with a collection of poems by Allen Ginsburg.

“Now that’s a good choice,” I say as she approaches the counter.

She smiles, hands over the money and exits. Lee quietly sips his tea in the corner.

 

Lee has left the shop and I’m filled with fearful thoughts. I have to get a hold of Randall and discuss the possibility of extending the lease. He’ll want more money. But where will I get it? I’m barely managing now. I sit for a long time in the shop. The door doesn’t jingle.

 

Penvro opens a bottle of scotch, pours a drink and stares at the blank page on his screen. He begins with a dialogue between two characters he overheard at the tavern. They discuss buried treasure and possible extraction sites along the Nova Scotian shoreline. After about fifteen minutes he stops. He has maps and costs, equipment and Nova Scotian history wandering his thoughts. Maybe this is something to play with? He recalls Captain Kidd’s words, “After my death, you may find treasure I have buried in a place where two tides meet.” He becomes enthusiastic and pulls the blind up; daylight enters, bathing him in white heat.

 

Arial is at work. She’s an assistant to a lawyer. Let’s say a bit more than a secretary and less of an assistant, but a space between these two worlds. She has more to do than just secretarial tasks. She must arrange dinners and procure tickets, book hotels and sometimes purchase a gift for the wife or children. It makes her feel superior to the other ladies, yet she’s bored and feels stuck.

Arial goes for lunch and has a light salad. She must make more of an effort. Her bowels haven’t been too happy either and her stomach is bloated and full of gas from overeating and purging. She’s finding it difficult today, glued to the chair at her desk. Her belly in revolt. She flirts with the idea of calling one of the men she met at speed dating in her little red book.

Upon arriving home Arial lets out great expulsions of gas. She’s certain there’s enough to take her to Saturn and back. Her behavior towards her body, a temple besieged by famine and plenty, is delinquent and requires scrutiny. She feels shame wash over her. Her agitated belly is swollen and round. She looks at least seven months gone.

She retrieves the little red book from the kitchen drawer. There are two names with contact numbers from her speed-date soirée. Kevin and Eric are written in a careful pen. She remembers their faces – Kevin, kind of rugged with a graying beard and Eric more artsy, tall and thin sporting black attire.

Arial asked for their numbers because they had been curious and seemed to exhibit some degree of concentration when she spilled her precious five minutes sitting opposite them with a cocktail in hand at a bar called ‘The Cranky Duck’.

 

Stretching herself flat on the sofa she picks up the telephone and dials the first number. It rings four times.

“Hello.”

“Kevin?”

“Yes. Kevin here.”

“This is Arial.”

“Who?”

“Arial, we met at speed-dating.”

“Oh, OK. Sorry, but I’m not sure I remember you.”

“I wore a midnight-blue dress. My hair leans a little to the auburn shade. I work for a lawyer. More curvy than thin.”

“Yeah, I think I know who you are.”

“Listen Kevin. I was wondering if you’d like to hookup? Have a drink, or a meal, a movie or whatever?”

“I can’t Arial, sorry. I’ve been seeing someone since that evening. I’m, how can I put it, on lockdown you might say.”

Disappointment spreads like spilt ink.

“OK, then Kevin, well it was nice talking to you. Bye.”

“See ya.”

She puts the phone on the coffee table and rubs her stomach with the palm of her hand.

 

I’ve been ringing Randall all morning, but it continuously goes to voicemail. Maybe he’s avoiding me, even though we’ve never met. I look around my shop envisioning empty shelves and a space where voices echo. A door that opens, yet doesn’t jingle.

I divert my worries by turning the radio to the chamber music channel. A string quartet encircles the room. Penvro enters and comes towards me, which is unusual taking me by surprise.

“Hi.” He says with a clear toned voice. A voice that can send words across auditoriums and digital platforms.

“Listen, I’m not sure how to approach this, but I’d really appreciate it if

you’d keep my psychiatric visits to yourself and away from your customers.   Let’s face it – this is a small town. I don’t want people knowing my business.

“No problem. It’s nobody’s news.”

“What’s your name anyway?”

“Dylan.”

He offered his hand.

“Penvro. Thanks Dylan. And by the way I enjoy your shop.”

He tapped his hand on the counter and left abruptly. The door jangled. I try to reach Randall. I’ve left several messages, but he never returns my call. I search the white pages to see if I can find his father’s address. Perhaps he’s staying there. If the house is in the vicinity I intend to walk there after I close. At the very least, put a note in the mailbox asking him to give me a call. The day passes slowly and I feel swallowed by dread. I make an appointment with my shrink.

 

“I have no solutions for my life if lose the shop. There aren’t any reserves. A little put away, but certainly not enough to start something new. I really don’t know what I’m going to do.”

“Yes. Change is always challenging. Dylan if you didn’t have money issues and you could do anything you wanted, what would that be?”

“That’s just it, I don’t have a clue. I’m in a total rut.”

“Well when we’re under stress, decisions and life changes can seem ominous, but we have to sort out what is possible. Don’t you agree?”

“I suppose so. But, let’s be frank. I initiated these visits because I can’t start anything. What makes you think I’ll be able to accomplish that now?”

“We’re at a junction where these issues must be accelerated. How has your sleep been since you’ve received your lease termination notice?”

“Not great.”

“Shall we up the medication during this transition period? It only adds more anxiety to the pot if we’re sleep deprived.”

“OK. Whatever. I don’t care.”

We continue without any resolve. I take my new prescription and make a new appointment before exiting the empty waiting room.

-4-

I made my journey to the Riley residence. It was in darkness when I rang the bell, leaving my letter in the mailbox with the hope of hearing from Randall soon. Limbo isn’t a great spot to linger.

The next day Lee is waiting for me when I approach the shop.

“Dylan. Dylan, my man. I’ve been waiting for ya.”

“Yes. I can see that Lee. What’s up?”

“Me Dylan. Me. I feel good today. Energized and ready. Ready for whatever comes my way.”

“That’s good, Lee.”

I turn the key and the door jingles. Lee follows me inside.

“Want tea?”

“You bet.”

“You don’t seem yourself, Dylan. I see all things. Anything and everything. See. See. See. Tell me what’s on your troubled mind.”

“Oh Lee, I don’t want to bother you with my troubles.”

The door opens and Arial enters the shop. She doesn’t look in our direction, but heads to the books.

“She’s nice. Maybe I should ask her on a date?”

“Thought you had a girl Lee? Isn’t her name Hazel?”

“Hazel’s no more. No. No. No more.”

“What happened Lee?”

“They got her.”

“Who’s they, Lee?”

“Them.”

He points his finger towards the ceiling.

“She doesn’t contact me anymore.”

“That’s too bad, Lee.”

“Yeah. Too bad. Got to find another girl now.”

And he looks towards Arial.

“Maybe her?”

Arial observes books. Not taking any notice of our discussion and Lee’s sudden interest. She chooses a romantic novel and brings it to the counter.

“That looks good!” proclaims Lee.

“We’ll see.”

Arial continues smiling at him as she slides seven dollars towards me.

“Thanks again.”

She saunters slowly out the shop and down the street. Lee records her direction of walking from the bookstore window and says without a doubt…

“She’s the one.”

Lee’s a handsome dude. He’s tall and thin with dusty, blonde hair loosely haloing his head. He has striking blue eyes and a good nose. Sensual lips. If he didn’t speak there’d be a buzz of ladies around him. I tell him if he’s serious about getting a new girlfriend, then he must adhere to his medication. Otherwise, he’ll scare them off.

“Right, right, right, Dylan my advisor and confidant of all internal workings. I shall heed your wise instruction.”

I sit gloomily looking out the storefront window waiting for the rain to fall. Sometimes it’s good for business when it pours. People come in to escape the weather and look at books while waiting for a break in the downpour.

Lee is hanging around. I don’t mind. I often hijack his fractured thoughts, travelling to other galaxies, forging the unknown. It disrupts the tedium of my day.

Arial takes her book purchase to the office. She puts it in the drawer of her desk with the image of Lee’s face in her head. His beautiful smile and interest in her book or her, perhaps. As the day lingers he becomes fixed in her thoughts, like a favourite sweet or new pasta dish, something that she can’t get enough of.

 

After multiple phone messages and the letter drop-off, Randall finally responds. He left me a message stating it wasn’t merely a question of more rent, but that he intends to sell. Now that his father has gone, he has no intention of maintaining the family home and buildings. He’s selling up. I feel the bottom of my stomach fall to the ground. That’s that. Now what?

Penvro comes into the store and for the first time says,

“Hello Dylan.”

Not another word was uttered. He went to the historical section, grabbed a couple of books and slumped in one of the reading chairs by the paned window. I had bought a bag of clementines on the way here and began to peel one. The aroma of orange laced the air. I saw Penvro’s head look in my direction.

“Want one?”

“Sure. They smell awfully good. You have a long face today. Therapy not working?”

“That too, but I’m going to lose my shop. The landlord is selling.”

“I’m truly sorry. A lot of people will miss this place, including me. Are you going to look for another space?”

“I don’t know.”

I forgot that Lee was still here and he came darting around the corner knocking a book or two off the shelf as he frantically raced to the counter.

“Dylan. Tell me it’s not true. What will we do? This is the center of all things.”

 

I sit before the counter in a daze, my thoughts moving about sluggishly and without intent. The door jingles and Penvro walks in.

“I’ve got an idea that may shift your mood. How about coming with me to scout possible buried treasure sites? I could use an assistant.”

“Oh yeah! Why me?”

“Maybe it’ll cheer you up. There are several sites; I’ve done some research already.

“If you’re referring to Oak Island, there’s been enough said about that.”

“I know, but maybe there’s a twist.”

“Penvro, I’m not even sure that we can access the site.”

“That’s why I need you. To alert me if someone comes. You’ll call me on my cell. So how about it… you in?”

“Sure, I guess. When?”

“As you know I’m flexible. When is your next day off?”

“Sunday, Monday.”

“Well, think about it. Sometimes an adventure is good. Clears the head.”

“OK then, it’s a date.”

“Sunday it is.”

Penvro left and I stood there wondering why he had invited me along. For all one knows he may want to discuss our shrink. That must be it.

 

It’s a small city with streets brushing each other north and south,

east and west. The weather was warm and the Atlantic breeze softly blew throughout, licking the faces of the citizens and twirling weathervanes of sailing ships on building tops. Arial left the office, her stomach growling. She took an outside sidewalk table and ordered lunch. Lee was present in her head. He was something she wanted to sample, finish and enjoy every piece. It had been some years since she’d been with a man and although she wasn’t thrilled by the state of her current physical condition the contemplation of his touch and what appeared enthusiastic gesture, would hopefully prompt her to get it together. Roadblock this gorge and purge act. She went back to work, though her thoughts were not on her afternoon duties, but of Lee and how she might approach him. She envisioned him in motion, dancing before her as if he were a Twirling Dervish, handing over a rose, a piece of jewellery or chocolate with each whirligig.

I stand in front of my shop waiting on Penvro. He arrives on time, pulls in fast, and is hard on the breaks.

“Ready?”

“Well, I’m here right?”

I got in and looked around his vehicle, which was on old Volvo. It was cluttered with papers, empty Styrofoam cups and a full ashtray.

“Don’t mind the mess. I’m not much of a housekeeper.”

He asks me if I want the music on and I tell him I don’t care either way.  Penvro turns on a seventies music station and my thoughts are returned to youth, long hair and reefers. Hallucinogens. Fun times.

“So, what’s your angle gonna be on this story?”

“I don’t know yet. That’s why I want to explore the site. See if it can ignite vision. Are you still going to our shrink?”

“Yeah, for now. But I won’t be able to afford it for much longer. Anyways, I find it a waste of time.”

“I know what you mean. Most of the time I feel the same.”

We take the old road instead of the highway, which sweeps along the coast past little villages, wharfs, boats and fishing gear. The sun burnishes the dark blue ocean and the whitecaps dance tangos.

 

We cross the narrow causeway, which leads to Oak Island. All is still, save for the birds in the sky and the surf that washes against its irregular shores.

There were a couple of buildings facing us when our wheels first touched the island’s soil, but there nary a vehicle in site and the place looked deserted and silent. We take the road that travels the east side of the island and then head west where the road divides the island in half. We drive towards the Money Pit that was first discovered in 1795 where six people have lost their lives and others squandered entire fortunes attempting to locate the suspected treasure that lies deep within, protected by booby traps and flood tunnels.

When we arrive at the pit there isn’t much to see, only a wire fence with a dilapidated shaft in the middle. Penvro asks me to wait at the road. There has been much speculation as to what lies down there: from Captain Kidd’s treasure to Shakespeare’s original works to Naval treasure. Maybe even the Holy Grail or Ark of the Covenant. I wait for a bit then head towards the Pit to join Penvro. Although, after jumping the fence and standing before the opening looking for any hint of something undiscovered, there were only weeds and brush to greet us and the occasional deerfly nipping at our exposed skin.

There is a large sign outside the fence. It chronologically outlines the first discovery in 1795 and the original elevation of thirty-two feet to present at one hundred-seventy feet and where it has since been gridlocked. We take a look around listening for sounds for this is a privately owned island and trespassing will be met with fines or possible prosecution.

-5-

I head to my shop where Lee is waiting for me. His hands are theatrical as he looks up and down left and right

“Lee. What’s up?”

“Dylan. Dylan. Dylan. What are we going to do about this shop?”

“Lee, we aren’t going to anything. There isn’t anything to be done. The owner wants to sell. That’s it. Can’t control that.”

“Control. Control. Control. He’s part of them man. He’s with those cunts that place the trackers in our heads. Mine has been acting up since you’ve told me about the shop. I want to find him. Make him answer to this unforgiving buzzing. And I’ll make him answer. Yup. Yup. Yup.”

“Calm down Lee. Have you been taking your medication? I thought you were interested in finding a new girlfriend? You seemed quite taken with the lady who you were chatting up last week.”

“Who?”

“Substantial. You said she’s the one.”

“Yes. Yes. Yes. I do want to ask her on a date”

“Then you best clam yourself. You’ll have no chance if you’re wound up like this. Have you seen your doctor lately?”

“No. He’s a cunt too.”

It’s lunchtime. A few customers linger about browsing through the titles, reviewing the backs of book covers. Lee has left and I worry about him. He’s seems more off-kilter than is customary for him. I call and cancel my appointment with my shrink.

 

Arial leaves the office for lunch in the park facing the harbor. She spots Lee sitting on a park bench as she makes her way up the steep hill. Her stomach begins to flutter and she feels more alive than is customary. She is undecided whether to say hello, walk by, or maybe drop her purse before his feet. Arial decides to take action and approaches Lee.

“Hello.”

Lee lifts his head in the direction of her voice and looks directly at her.

“Hello too.”

“Have you been to the shop recently?”

“I just left. Neither one of us can go there for much longer. The owner is going to sell the shop. My man Dylan will be no more.”

“Oh, I didn’t know that. I have a fondness for that bookshop myself. In fact, that’s were we met. I’m on my lunch. Do you want to go for a coffee and discuss it?”

“OK. You lead the way. I shall follow. Maybe to the ends of the earth.”

They walk a couple of blocks towards a small restaurant and choose a table with a red-checkered cloth facing the street. A busker plays a guitar and sings on the sidewalk, while blowing a harmonica between lyrics.

“You know, we haven’t formally met. I’m Arial.”

“Lee, who rides with glee. Said, he, he, he.”

She looks at him, thinking his remark was rather odd, but instead takes in all of his beauty. Tossing his words to another hamlet, to a place that won’t be troubled or questioned. She wonders what he makes of her. Does he find her desirable and interesting? She envisions herself as a ripe maid needing to be feasted on without delay. Though, he appears somewhat nervous and his eyes never settle on her entirety.

 

“What do you do Lee?”

“Do? I do everything and anything. Do. Do. Do.”

“What I mean is, what is your line of work?”

“I don’t work. Not in a conventional way at least. I’m the sentinel of the city. Alerting the citizens of predators who lurk below and fly above.”

“I see, sounds like fascinating work.”

“It is, most definitely.”

“Who are these predators you speak of?”

“The ones who place the trackers in our heads. The ones who create the intolerable buzzing. The ones who want our earth. The ones who want us.”

“I must say they sound extremely menacing.”

“Oh, we must be diligent. You bet. You never know when they’ll appear. They’re sneaky and calculating and must be stopped.”

“Lee can I ask you something?”

“Ask away.”

“Do you suffer from a mental illness?”

“Suffer. No. Mental illness, yes. I’m schizophrenic so they tell me. Does this information alarm you?”

“No, not at all. I find you charming and eccentric at best.”

He was quirky, to say the least, yet a lot more engaging than most of those dull lawyers in her office. Overhearing the events of their boring weekends and family holidays. Trying to squeeze by their polished shoes and their beer bellies hidden by three-piece suits. As a result, she chooses to find him unique, rather than ill.

“Lee, would you like to have dinner with me sometime?”

“That sounds good. Good. Good. Good.”

“How about Thursday? We could go out, or I could cook for you. Which do you prefer?”

“Home cooking. Then I know it’s safe. They haven’t gotten to it.”

“Are you always so suspicious?”

“Yes. As should you be, my fair Arial.”

They exchange numbers and part ways. She follows his footsteps as he heads towards the bookshop Dylan’s Roost – where she had initially spotted him.

Lee comes into the shop and tells me about his coffee date with Arial.

“That’s great Lee. But don’t skip on your meds. Don’t want to scare her off. Right?”

“Right. Right.”

 

Penvro enters and walks directly to me.

“Dylan. How are ya?”

“OK. Same old.”

“Did you know that there are three hundred and fifty islands off Mahone Bay and Oak Island? The treasure could be on any one of them.”

“Is that your angle?”

“Not sure yet.”

“Now tell me, why would anyone go to all the trouble of building that pit with its hosts of booby traps and oak castings every ten feet?”

“Perhaps that’s the key. To throw folks off. Keep people busy.”

“I dunno Penvro, sounds stupid to me.”

Penvro looks at me and I think that even though I’m surrounded by books I haven’t read most of them, nearly none of them. I feel like a total fraud. It’s not that I don’t like books. On the contrary I love books, but my concentration level has been disabled for a long time. At least ninety-six full moons, one eclipse, three direct-hit hurricanes and countless sub-tropical storms.

When someone approaches me and inquires about words I usually wing it. I have a visual memory for book covers and can usually recall some hint of content by remembering bits of the back flap pitch. So who am I to question Penvro’s ideas?

“Sorry Penvro. I didn’t mean stupid. What do I know?

“That’s OK, Dylan. I haven’t sorted it out myself yet, but I value your opinion.”

 

Arial thinks about her upcoming date. Should she be wary? Naugh. He seems spirited and sweet. She went for a Brazilian bikini wax; had her hair done and a pedicure, for she wanted to be prepared. And ready she was. She had rehearsed the evening over in her head, first a cocktail, dinner and then Lee for dessert.

In fact, she had thought about him so much she had fallen behind with her work had been questioned by her boss, Mr. Stewart. He had inquired with concern, not malice. Arial had been at this office for thirteen years and she and Mr. Stewart, who was the head partner in the firm and a highly respected criminal defense lawyer, had formed a close working relationship. She was highly efficient, but he felt sorry for her, jammed in her snug attire and never a new story about a man, trip or anything to speak of.

Arial assures Mr. Stewart that all is well, but that she had just received news about an old friend who lived an ocean away and was saddened from the sudden death. She had always been a good fibber and she willed her nose to keep its small, thick position as Mr. Stewart voiced his concern for her. Telling her to take the rest of the week off and sort herself out. She sheds a false tear and thanks him. He rubs Arial’s shoulder like a loving father instructing her not to think about work. She gathers her purse, leaving a desk absent of personal touches. Not one photograph or any indication that she spends most of her hours behind it.

She goes directly home and begins preparing dinner, roast-beef and potatoes, Yorkshire pudding and vegetables. She figures any man would like this standard meal. As Arial checks the slow cooking roast she worries that he may be a vegetarian. She forgot to ask.

Lee was to arrive at seven o’clock. She checks the time and sure enough, five minutes before, the doorbell rings. It is Stella her next-door neighbor wanting to borrow a light bulb.

“Smells awfully good in here Arial.”

“I’m cooking roast.”

“I wish I could muster a dinner like that, but it’s hard to do the all the work just for oneself, as we are. I should take a cue from you.”

Arial brings the light bulb and feels like Stella is waiting for an invitation, or at the very least, a dinner plate sent over when it’s done.

“Sorry Stella, I’ve got a date. Got to get back to the kitchen.”

“Oh lucky you, Arial.”

Just as Stella turns, she comes face to face with Lee.

“Hello.”

“Hello. Hello.”

“Lee, how nice to see you. Come in.”

Stella looks behind trying to get a better glimpse as Arial closes the door behind him. Lee is casually dressed, appears calm and less fixity than she recalls.

“How are you, Lee? Care for a glass of wine? I hope you eat meat. I’ve prepared a roast beef dinner.”

“No for wine. And yes for meat.”

“Can I offer you something else instead? A port perhaps, or a cocktail?”

“Just water, please.”

“Sparkling or uncarbonated?”

“Sparkling, like a clear night sky or a sun-kissed sea, topaz and tears.”

Arial brings the water gesturing Lee to sit, staring into his light blue eyes wanting to know every detail about him.

 

Lee is hungry, wants to eat right away and doesn’t feel like making small talk. He thinks, ‘I won’t stay long’. It’s not that he’s uninterested in Arial, but, there is something of greater importance pending. When Dylan was chatting with Penvro, Lee spotted the eviction letter in Dylan’s drawer and memorized both the address and name of Randall Riley. He plans to visit old Randall and ask him outright, why he wants to take away the place of refuge and ideas, dreams and escapes.

“Your dinner smells delightful, Miss Arial, I must say.”

“Miss? Don’t be so formal.”

“I’m rather famished as I’ve been skulking the beasts all day. Their bastard captain has sicked the sleuthhounds on me.”

“What captain?”

Lee points towards the ceiling light.

“Oh come on Lee, you don’t really believe that do you?”

“Yes. Yes. Yes. I certainly do. Often I see and hear them. One could say we schizophrenics are either cursed or blessed. I choose the second.”

Arial gestures Lee to take a seat at the dining room table. She brings the steaming roast with gravy and side dishes and invites Lee to help himself.

“Can these ‘sleuthhounds’ see us now? What about our privacy?”

“No. No. I ditched them at Dylan’s Roost. That’s the only place they can’t control. And do you know that Dylan will lose his shop? The landlord is selling the building. Lee eagerly eats. All the while saying …“Yum. Yum. Yum. Arial you are a gifted cook.”

-6-

When Dylan arrives at his shop he sees the ‘For Sale’ sign standing erect and determined in front of his store by an established real estate company. His stomach feels nauseous and he is filled with shuddersome thoughts. Thoughts that take him to dark places without exits or armour. He opens the door; the bell jingles and he decides that once this shop is gone, he never wants to hear a bell jingle again. But, the door does jingle and a few customers saunter in listlessly pulling the odd book from its shelf.

He looks at the empty chair in front of the lead-paned window and wonders how Lee’s date went, or if he even showed up. He can’t imagine Lee on a date and Dylan runs scenarios in his head. He sees Lee excited rambling on about predators and preventative measures. He sees Lee looking wide-eyed saying, “You’re the one.” He sees the disenchanted woman exploring his handsome face thinking,

‘Why do you have to be like this?” as Lee repeats his words, solidly cementing them in the ears of his listener.

Lee heads to the Riley residence passing streetlamps dimmed by the incoming fog that hangs low smacking the cool sidewalk with lusty moisture. Arial wasn’t at all pleased when he gulped down his coffee after the last mouthful of tart apple crumble, repeating, “Why so soon? Do you have to go? Can’t this wait?” As he tried to explain the calibre of the situation. Blurting out, “No time to waste. No leniency for Riley. No to invasion. No to control. No to spending the night.” Her sad face trailed his quick footsteps.

 

The Riley house is majestic, standing proudly at the end of a quiet cul-de-sac and set a fair distance from the road by a well-groomed lawn. There are a few lights burning as he begins his approach, not sure what steps his plan should follow.

Lee slowly cases the place peeking in the ground floor windows. The house appears empty and lifeless. He tries the double-hung wooden window frames, then struggles with a set of French doors facing a terrace hosting a swing chair and dining area, which is stuffed with olive-colored cushions and potted ferns of varied growth.

Tonight the sky is bursting with stars and Lee feels panicked swinging in the squeaky chair fully exposed to danger, viruses, beams and radiation, horrible strange creatures, noise and torturers. His head boils with electricity and uncontrollable buzzing. He’s convinced the cunning cunts above and below shall launch their crafts and come not only for him, but others as well.

He runs for cover under a willow tree letting the soft branches dust over him as he becomes highly agitated and frenzied. Lee has a direct view to the house interior and spots a man drying his hair with a bath towel while pouring a drink at the same time. He scurries to the house and peers in, but the figure has his back to him and is unaware of his presence.

Lee begins to knock on the door gesturing the man towards him. Randall takes a swig of whiskey squinting his eyes exerting to see who is the shadow before the glass. He grabs a fireplace poker, finishes his drink with one swift gulp and walks towards the doors and tapping the poker on the highly polished floorboards.

“Yeah. What do you want out there?”

“Are you Mr. Riley?”

“Yes, who’s this?”

“My name is Lee, may I come in?”

“Lee? What do you mean banging on my door at this late hour?”

The knocking becomes harder and hurried.

“Please open!”

Randall lifts the poker while turning the knob of the door. Before he has a chance to question him, Lee rushes through, pushes him aside, locks the door and pulls the blue velvet curtains tightly together.

It’s been several weeks since I’ve seen Penvro, whom I imagine is preoccupied with pirates, treasure, shipwrecks, canons, gangplanks, swords, mutiny, eye patches, taverns, parrots and ship rats, plus the random damsel here and there. But, that isn’t so. Penvro sits in an old sailors’ pub down on the waterfront hearing yarns about sea travels, disasters and triumphs.

Arial hasn’t heard from Lee for several days and strolls the streets hoping to catch a sign of him. But, Randall knocked him on the head with the fire poker and rang for help. Now Lee lies sedated in the Psychiatry ward. She calls his cellphone but he never picks up. She lets several weeks pass before heading to the bookstore unsure of what she’ll do if she runs into him. She climbs the hill to the familiar street, but Dylan’s Roost is vacant, absent of any forwarding address. She looks in the window and examines the cleared-out store void of books or any sign that it was once a haven from wind and rain and comforter of words. She turns away missing a postcard stuck in the doorframe from a foreign land.

“Dearest Dylan,

   Sorry I didn’t stop to say good-bye, I left quite unexpectedly, jumping a freighter to parts unknown. You might say to clear my head…Take care, my friend and guardian of thoughts. Penvro.”

   Dylan sits before his psychiatrist, his head empty of words.

 

 

BIO

Susan LloySusan Lloy has honed her perceptual skills working in diverse environments; from handling nitro and explosives in the Canadian North to slinging drinks in Halifax, she now coordinates a Cardiac Surgery Unit in Montreal. A graduate of the Nova Scotia College of Art & Design, Susan has published twice with Revolution House, Production Gray Editions, Penduline Press, PARAGRAPHITI, Beecher’s, The Prague Revue, The Round Up Writer’s Zine and this September with The Writing Disorder based in Los Angeles and the Amsterdam Quarterly. She will be published again in late October with Blue Crow Magazine out of Australia. She has just finished a short story collection.

 

 

 

0

The Vigil

by Pat Hart

 

My friend Patrick was on a family vacation, the perennial week at the beach, an American rite. His two sons, young teenagers, raced into the surf and then were suddenly screaming, calling to him and his wife as the current dragged them out into the deep ocean. He plunged in after them and into the riptide. A local man, a shore fisherman, dove in and swam to them. The fisherman stayed out of the pulling tide and called to my friend to throw the boys to him. Patrick shoved first one boy and then the next towards fisherman, and they swam like mad into his arms. The fisherman dragged them back to shore, delivered them to their hysterical mother.

And then Patrick slipped beneath water and disappeared.

Sitting in the sand, waiting for a body to roll up onto the beach is a lonely, grim business. I was the single somber note amid the sounds, sights, and smells of a summer’s day at the beach. Radios played, children, lathered in coconut oil, screamed with delight or cried with misery, and a pedestrian parade passed by.

Four young men, probably military, hair shorn, muscled arms tattooed with eagles, snakes, and women, shoved each other and showed off for any girl who might be watching. An older couple with sagging profiles under big hats, strolled slowly just out of reach of the lapping waves. Two moms sat side by side in low chairs, oily and tan, as their small children rolled in the surf. Ten year-olds, boys and girls, tirelessly rode the waves on boogie boards; they were savvy and experienced and not yet bored with gliding in, dolphin-like on the crest of waves, sliding onto the apron of sand.

Patrick and I had been like those 10-year-olds, back when I being a girl and his being a boy didn’t mean anything more than different bathing suits. We nicknamed ourselves Dinny and Patch, Diane and Patrick were just too serious, too school year, too back home in our Pennsylvania steel town for the salty, sunburned, freewheeling beach rats we became for two weeks each July.

Our moms sat in the surf, not worried about us, but watching just the same. We’d ride in and paddle out, exclaiming about good rides, sharing theories about the best, absolute foolproof way to position ourselves for the ultimate, most daring and thrilling rides.

“Feel it, Patch? Feel it?” I yelled, holding my board steady, the suck of the undertow dragging at my legs. “That means the wave’s about to crest.”

“Dinny! Dinny, put your board here,” Patch said, tucking the back edge of the board just below his ribs. “And keep your arms stiff.”

“Yay!” we shouted in triumph after each successful ride.

We’d both lost our fathers; we had that in common. We had in common that moment as other kids said My Dad this and My Dad that, and we’d sit with our throats stopped as the awkward silence fell until some kid would mumble Sorry and we’d have to say gamely like the knight in Monty Python’s Holy Grail looking down on a severed limb; “It’s just a flesh wound.” Between us we made peace with elephant in the room. The elephant that upset the chairs, crushed the coffee table and whose trumpeting at night disturbed our dreams.

Our mothers found each other in their shared, young widowhood, and brought our families together. Patch’s family came for Thanksgiving and we went to their house late in the day on Christmas. And every summer our families spent two weeks at the beach in a rented cottage, two rows back from the ocean. We were best friends, even if only for those two weeks.

He was an easy kid to be with. Always looking for fun, but never for trouble. He was smart; he liked reading books, not just storybooks, but history too, biographies of great men who did great deeds. He was a fount of arcane information, especially about World War II and often recounted details of the bigger battles, the Battle of Britain, the Battle of the Bulge, the Battle of Midway.

His father had been a paratrooper.

Patch showed me a hand drawn map on a piece of parachute silk. His father had been dropped, behind enemy lines, into an obscure region in France. The map’s squiggly India ink lines in black, red, and blue, still crisp on the parachute silk, represented the area’s roads, towns, and rivers. The map was framed, trapped behind a piece of glass and hung in the staircase of their home.

“This is the map they gave him to help find his way,” Patch whispered as we stood gazing up at the map on the gloomy staircase one Christmas day.

We also talked about TV shows, retelling Flip Wilson jokes and re-enacting action scenes from Mission Impossible, anything that required diving to the ground and rolling to the nearest bit of cover. But most often we worked silently, side-by-side on a sandy beach, building, digging, dripping wet sand on our castle, lost in thought about turrets and tunnels. While we worked, the castle seemed magnificent; our progress astounding, the structure a marvel of sandy architecture. I remember once running down to the surf to fetch a bucket of water and returning to the site of our grand creation and stopping short.

Where was it? While I was gone the magic, the delight in our work had seeped away, disappearing like water in the bottom of a sandy hole. Instead of our grand castle, I saw a small, messy pile of sand. The tiny reeds that I had carefully inserted into the front wall were no longer glorious pikes, perfect for posting our enemies’ heads, but crooked little bits of debris. The tall gothic spires were really just dried out lumps of sand with toppling sticks stuck in the top, not soaring turrets, be-flagged with the king’s colors. I knelt down next to the castle while Patch lay flat on his belly, his hand snaking under the outer wall to dig yet another secret passage into the fortress.

“Quick! We need to fill the moat and reinforce the eastern wall,” he said. He took the bucket of water, poured it into the trench, and scooped wet sand up the side of the castle.

When I didn’t move, he stopped and looked up at me.

“What?” he said, squinting with one eye shut against the glaring sun. Freckles were splashed on his face from our long days on the beach, sand clung to his dark hair. He would not be shaken awake; he would not give up the dream.

“We can’t give up!” he said. “Never surrender.”

His earnestness recast the spell and we restored the castle to its former glory. The scales fell back over my eyesI happily descended back into the vaporous cloud of fantasy that drifted around our Camelot.

One summer, as it was getting dark, Patch and I ran out to the beach to check on our castle. We promised our mothers we would not to get in the water, or go near the ocean at all. We swore!

We found the castle on the darkening beach. A few waves had already pulled at the walls and as we stood there a big wave came up, scooted around the outer wall, and flooded the moat. We yelled as a chunk of the front wall cleaved and fell into the moat. We scrambled to fix the damage, without tools, and with just our hands, it was hopeless, but still we tried.

“Never, never, never surrender,” Patch said, standing with his feet wide, a pretend cigar clamped in his fingers. A skinny boy in faded madras shorts, chest puffed out, pretending to be the British Bulldog. I laughed.

“We shall fight them on the beaches, we shall fight them on the landing ground!” I said and together we yelled: “Never, never surrender!”

The water rushed up again, and Patch laid down in the sand, using his body as breaker while I scrambled to dig canals to drain the water away. Another big wave pounded us; the water washed over him and when it receded it rolled him toward the surf. He jumped up and joined me at the castle walls; they were crumbling. When the next big wave hit we were both kneeling in front of the castle and the water rushed up our back and we were waist deep in water. Only the top turrets of the castle remained and then they quickly collapsed.

When the water receded, the castle was reduced to smooth lumps, decoration and embellishments melted away by the briny water; we were soaked.

I looked down at our clothes and remembered our mothers’ admonishments.

“Uh oh,” I said and we both laughed and headed for the beach house.

As we approached the dunes we heard a woman’s voice, singing:

“The Lord’s our Rock, in Him we hide,
A Shelter in the time of storm;

She sat high on the dunes staring out at the ocean, swaying back and forth as she sang. She was a big, black woman dressed in a brightly striped long skirt. Her head was wrapped in red scarf. She paused her song and considered us.

“Hello,” Patch said.

“Hallo, chile,” she said, her accent thick and southern. “May the Lawd protect and keep you awl of your days.”

“Thank you,” he said and we rushed passed her, heads down, arms stiff at our sides. We waited until we were well out of earshot then laughed, repeating “May the Lawd” and calling each other “chile.”

At home we told our mothers about the woman, distracting them from our wet clothes by imitating her accent. But they remained quiet and grew somber.

“She must be one of the vigil people,” my mother said and then explained that a man had drowned, way down where the black people swam. His body wasn’t recovered yet and his family had asked that they be allowed to sit on the white beaches and watch for it, all night if need be. All along the miles of shore, every 300 hundred feet or so, people who loved this man, who loved his family, were stationed, waiting for the ocean to send him back to them.

The next morning the woman was gone, the body had been found.

As I sat on the beach, in the dark, I thought about that woman watching the same ocean but at different beach, in different decade. Was it her son? Her nephew? Her childhood friend? Did she too hope and yet dread that she would see in the shiny, inky, moving blackness of the ocean the body rolling in the waves? Did she play out the scene over and over in her mind, too?

Did she imagine as I did, running towards the surf, calling his name but knowing he’s dead, gone far beyond my calls? I thought about the cold waves crashing against my legs as I try to catch his arm, and falling from the awkward weight of his body, gulping salt water. I would deliver him to the flat, wet sand, and lay next to him exhausted. I’d fret that the ocean would reclaim him as I ran to my car to call from the parking lot where there is at least scant cell phone reception. Then I’d pace back toward the beach, a phone, a thin thread to help, to the living, clenched to my ear, as I waited for someone to answer.

“Come, come,” I’d plead into my phone. “I’ve found him.

Strung out along the beach were twenty or so of Patrick’s friends and family and some strangers, too. Strangers, who were moved by the sad tableau of the weeping mother and two shocked boys, who had volunteered to sit the vigil with us. The coast guard advised us to position ourselves along this particular mile of beach and, based on tide charts, they estimated the body would come to shore around 2:00 am.

We met at the Coast Guard station and were assigned our spots. I was honored to get one. Expecting the body come ashore on the first night was considered overly hopeful, the second night was the most likely, and this night, the third night was probably the last chance before the body went out to sea forever. After passing out bottles of water, the Coast Guard captain raised both his hands and said: “Whatever you do, don’t go into the water. Call us for help. Okay? You all got that?”

The hot day had turned into a cool night, the wind blew a wet mist of ocean spray that settled on my clothes and soaked through my jacket. Shivering in the dark, I ran the numbers on the situation.

Numbers I knew. I worked in finance and though it was, in essence, just a parlor trick, my strength was quick analysis. The formula was simple, like the function boxes from grade school math. I would scan a spreadsheet and pluck the numbers I needed for my ‘function box,’ do a quick calculation and voila! An answer: Yea or Nay. The trick was to plug the right numbers in the right spots.

Here’s how I ran the numbers on Patrick. Say everyone gets eighty years, some get a lot less and some lucky, or depending on how you feel about being truly aged, some unlucky bastards get a lot more. Patrick’s boys were twelve and thirteen, which meant there were 135 years to go in their life banks. The riptide that was pulling them out to sea had all those years in its grasp until Patrick at forty-five traded in his remaining thirty-five years in exchange for theirs. A solid bottom line win, one hundred years, a century.

I sighed at my callousness and wondered if I deserved this spot on the beach. Grieving has a hierarchy and I suspected I’d overstepped the bounds, pushed myself forward.

Back at the shore patrol hut, Patrick’s brother George broke away from a group of men, fellow volunteers for the vigil. Some of them I knew were lawyers from Patrick’s practice in Pittsburgh, one I recognized as a cousin of theirs.

“Diane, thank you for coming,” George said formally and nodded.

I hadn’t seen Patrick in four years.

I hadn’t attended his wedding.

I didn’t really even know his children.

The last time I’d seen him had been at a park. His boys were playing baseball and I saw him standing on the sidelines. A handsome man, with short salt and pepper hair, he had his hands in his pockets and stood with his back to me, but I knew him instantly as my old friend. We talked for a minute and then he said: “Wait, my Mike is up.”

We both watched as a boy, his pants a little too long, went up to the plate. The boy took a lurching swing at the ball.

“Good cut, Mike!” Patrick yelled.

On the next pitch Mike swung and hit a weak grounder down the first baseline and was easily tagged out.

“You see my son has inherited all of my athleticism,” Patrick laughed, and he walked toward the dugout to meet his boy returning to the bench.

He put his hand on his son’s shoulder as they walked together; Patrick stooped a bit to listen to the boy. He glanced up at me and waved goodbye. It was a small distracted wave, just a lift of his right hand.

On the beach, the moon rose and threw a bright white light on the ocean and sand. It was easy to see the breaking surf, like a flouncing white ruff on a black velvet dress.

Two figures, entwined, walked slowly up the deserted beach.

They paused and kissed, then moved on.

A family came along, four little kids, each with a flashlight. The beams, like yellow wands whipped around, on the sand, on the waves, and into the sky. One wand dawdled behind, the light shining on some creature, pinning it down in the bright beam. One of the adults paused and called back, and the kid ran, the light jangling along beside him, a frantic bouncing yellow ball with sudden flashes of a child’s knee, a calf, a foot.

And then it was quiet; the beach was empty for the night. I buried my cold feet in the sand, pulled my knees up to my chest and waited.

I must have dozed because suddenly it was much later, the water had receded, and the surf was very far away. The tide was out.

In the waves I saw a dark mass, a blackness among the churning white.

Sea weed? No, it was solid, floating and rolling in the waves.

I stood up, my left knee buckled and I almost fell. The sand was icy cold; I shivered.

As I walked across the sand, my steps slipped back in the softness. It seemed to take a long time and lot of effort to cross the sand. A strip of dried twigs jabbed sharply at my bare feet but finally I reached the hard packed, smooth apron of wet sand. With the tide out, the steep slope of the very edge of the shore was exposed.

The black mass was drifting up the coast; it was not coming in but staying twenty feet out. I peered at it, it was big, big enough but shapeless. I caught a flash of blue, a shirt?

I waded in, the cold was shocking and I stopped at knee depth and squinted. Making the plunge into the dark, cold sea was harder than I had imagined it would be; I hesitated. I trudged through the water, keeping the object in sight. It was as if I was tethered to it and the current was pulling us both down the beach.

The mass rolled over and I saw his face lit by moonlight. Eyes closed, jaw slack.

I ran to him. I fell as the sea floor dropped away and I was suddenly swimming in the freezing water. I stopped and looked for him, the body had floated further out. I swam hard towards him, head down, ten strong strokes. I stopped, looked around. He was close, just ten10 feet away. Head down, ten more strong strokes. I stopped; still he was ten feet away. Ten more strokes, hard and straight at him. I stopped this time gasping, with the cold and now fatigue. My elbows and knees ached. I looked back to shore, it was a long way off, much farther than I could have swum in so short a time. Then I saw, across the surface of the ocean, the ripples. Tiny waves no bigger than a half inch, uniform ripples driving across the glossy surface away from the shore. Together, the body and I were being pulled out to sea on a riptide.

My back spasmed and I called out in pain. The shore was rapidly receding; it became just a thin gray line between the blackness of the water and the dark dunes. The current dragged me along as though there was a rope around my waist, my arms and legs reached for the shore, and yet I drifted backwards like rag doll.

I could swim out of the riptide, swim parallel to the shore, and make my way back in, leave Patrick’s body to the sea. Or, could I drag him with me, out of the current and back to shore, without becoming exhausted, drowning?

I couldn’t make the numbers work on this, it seemed to be loss upon loss, but I couldn’t swim away either.

“Patch, Patch,” I yelled. “Help me!”

The current pushed his body closer to me and I decided, Never surrender. I reached for his shirt just as the body rolled; he lifted his face out of the water, and opened his eyes. He reached for me.

“Dinny, Dinny.”

My childhood name.

A warm hand grabbed my shoulder and shook.

We were suddenly on the shore. Kneeling beside me was Patch, but not as the man he was but as the boy he’d been. In the dim light he had no color, just the soft grays of a black and white photo. His hair was a long again, deep black, the salt and pepper gray washed away, a thick hank of hair fell over one eye as he leaned toward me. His face was boyish and smooth.

“Patch,” I said, my voice was hoarse, a whisper.

Patch frowned and shook his head sadly.

“No, I’m Mike, Patch’s son,” he said. “It’s over. They found him.”

Mike waited politely as I came fully awake.

“Are you okay?” he asked, he was anxious to be off, to run up the beach and tell the others on the vigil that the wait was over; they could go home.

As Mike ran off, I looked down by the shore. I saw a man with a boy by his side. The man lifted his hand in a wave and turned to walk with the boy up the beach.

Wide-awake logic tells me it was most likely Patrick’s brother and his other son, but I never asked.

I wanted the spell to be recast, for the scales to fall over my eyes, even for just a one more moment and to believe that Patrick the man and Patch the boy, were both alive and walking side by side up the beach.

I slept the rest of the night in my car and in the early morning built a castle on the beach. By mid morning, it was a towering three-foot mound covered in spires made of sandy drips that pointed like gnarled fingers at the blue sky. I could hear the surf coming in, the bubbles in the sea foam popped and crackled as it crept up behind my back.

Three little kids and their mother joined me on the beach. The mother spread a blanket and set up an umbrella and her chair. I could feel the kids eyeing me, and my castle. They were too shy to approach but were drawn to what to them must have seemed a massive citadel.

The sun was growing hot and I was thirsty and tired. I walked out a bit into the ocean, rinsed the sand off my hands and knees in the salty water, and stood for a moment to feel the swirl of the undertow on my ankles. When I returned to shore, I walked past the castle without a glance. At the dunes, I turned to see that the three kids had fallen upon my castle, taken possession, and were scrambling to save it from the incoming tide.

 

 

BIO

Pat HartPat Hart graduated from University of Pittsburgh with a BA in Creative Writing and lives in Pittsburgh where she writes plays, monologues, short stories, novels and a blog. Hart’s playwriting credits include acceptance, production and performance of her one-act play, Book Wench, in the Strawberry One-Act Festival, Summer 2015, New York, New York. The play was selected for the semi-finals and is under consideration for publication in “The Best of the Strawberry One-Act Festival Anthology.” Additionally, Hart’s 10-minute monologue, Murderous was selected by Carlow University’s Drama department and will be performed during “Practice Monologamy” in September 2015.

Hart’s published short stories include New Wife vs. Old Wife, a love story to be published in “Voices in the Attic” (Fall 2015), a literary anthology published by Carlow University and Spider Ball, published May 2015 in Rune, Robert Morris University’s literary magazine. Spider Ball was also selected as one of the pieces from the magazine to be read by the author at the launch party.

In addition to two novels in progress, Paddy, the Yank and Don’t Touch the Dragon Boogers, Hart also writes a weekly blog Calamity Jane, World-Wide Warnings, which is a humorous exploration of warnings signs from around the world (pathartblog.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.

 

 

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Daniel Mueller author

The Embers

by Daniel Mueller

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

“I see,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So I’m told,” she replied.

“And why you’re here?”

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

“That’s right,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

“What is?” I asked.

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

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

“I know,” she said.

“How?”

“The confirmation class, remember?”

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

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

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

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

“None,” Teri replied.

“So it isn’t even half human?”

“Not even half.”

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Dear Lord,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That is what I said.”

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

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

“Go fuck yourself, Leo,” Vance said.

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

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

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

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

“Why, Bruce?” she said. “Why?”

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

“About what?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What options?” she replied.

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

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

“I have to go,” I said.

“You can’t leave,” she said.

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

BIO

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

 

 

 

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Virginia Luck Writer

The Bag

by Virginia Luck

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

BIO

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

 

 

 

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Walter Thompson

The Roofer

by Walter B. Thompson

 

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

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

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

“Stain,” I said.

“Mama Dear,” he said back.

“Don’t call me that,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I didn’t ask you,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

 *  *  *

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, Mama.”

“Good. Keep him where I can see him.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Not him. The storm.”

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

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

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

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

  *  *  *

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

“Mama Dear! Mama Dear!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  *  *  *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It sits awful is how it sits.”

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

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

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

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

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

“That all, Mama Dear?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  *  *  *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What’re you here about?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s not for me,” I said.

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

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

“No, ma’am. I’m a roofer,” he said.

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

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

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

“But you haven’t,” he said.

“I’ve been busy.”

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

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

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

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

“You smoke hams in there?” he asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What do you need him for?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  *  *  *

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

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

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

  *  *  *

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

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

“It’s open,” he called.

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

“That you, Mama dear?” Yawkey shouted.

“I’m right here,” I said.

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

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

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

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

“Just tell me.”

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

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

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

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hey!” I shouted.

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

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

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

“So?” I said when I came outside.

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

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

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

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

  *  *  *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Where did you go?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How did it happen?” he asked.

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

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

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

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

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

  *  *  *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

BIO

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

 

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Platform of Truth:

Transcript of selected interviews from a documentary video

by Anna Boorstin

 

Abigail Levy,
The Candidate

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

 

Nancy Clarkson,
The Candidate’s Friend

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

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

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

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

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

 

Marten Lund,
The Candidate’s Husband

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

 

Margaret Gerraty
Abigail Levy’s Campaign Manager

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

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

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

Yes, especially women.

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

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

Absolutely. You can say I agreed with her politics.

 

Kelsey Kiernan-Sokol,
The Volunteer

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

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

 

 

Nancy Clarkson,
The Candidate’s Friend

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

 

Tobias Levy-Lund,
The Son.

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

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

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

 

Abigail Levy,
The Candidate

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

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

 

Margaret Gerraty
Abigail Levy’s Campaign Manager

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

 

Nancy Clarkson,
The Candidate’s Friend

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

 

Marten Lund,
The Candidate’s Husband

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

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

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

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

 

Tobias Levy-Lund,
The Son.

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

 

Margaret Gerraty
Abigail Levy’s Campaign Manager

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

I think that’s when I lost control.

 

Kelsey Kiernan-Sokol,
The Volunteer

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

I felt like I could tell her anything.

 

Margaret Gerraty
Abigail Levy’s Campaign Manager

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

 

Nancy Clarkson,
The Candidate’s Friend

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

 

Marten Lund,
The Candidate’s Husband

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

 

Abigail Levy,
The Candidate

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

 

Barry Reid,
The Opposition

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

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

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

 

Kelsey Kiernan-Sokol,
The Volunteer

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

 

Abigail Levy,
The Candidate

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

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

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

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

 

Barry Reid,
The Opposition

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

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

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

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

 

Tobias Levy-Lund,
The Son.

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

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

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

 

Kelsey Kiernan-Sokol,
The Volunteer

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

 

Marten Lund,
The Candidate’s Husband

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

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

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

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

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

 

Margaret Gerraty
Abigail Levy’s Campaign Manager

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

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

 

Barry Reid,
The Opposition

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

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

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

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

 

Abigail Levy,
The Candidate

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

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

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

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

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

 

Margaret Gerraty
Abigail Levy’s Campaign Manager

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

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

 

Nancy Clarkson,
The Candidate’s Friend

Yes, I did. I voted for her.

 

Barry Reid,
The Opposition

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

 

Marten Lund,
The Candidate’s Husband

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

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

 

Abigail Levy,
The Candidate

In retrospect?

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

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

 

Tobias Levy-Lund,
The Son

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

 

 

 

BIO

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

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Jon Fried author

A Little Bit Closer to Water

by Jon Fried

 

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Open doors meant empty houses. Not contagious.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

I know you want to hear this, I said.

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

It’s not contagious. Not contagious.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

A lovely walnut entryway. Deep white shag beyond.

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

She got better. We slept together again.

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

Sorry she said.

Then she went again.

Go, she growled.

I went.

 

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

 

That wasn’t it. False alarm.

We went on.

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

 

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

 

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

That was our only run-in with authority.

 

We could take cars but we like to walk.

 

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

 

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

 

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

She rose suddenly and went downstairs to make some coffee.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

I bet she would have laughed.

No, not laughed. Just raised an eyebrow.

 

 

 

BIO

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

 

 

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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Aaron Weiss

In the House

by A.A. Weiss

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 *  *  *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I found the obituaries.

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

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

I howled.

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

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

I wished to speak about the Arthur Boyd.

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

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

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

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

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

“Arthur Boyd,” I said.

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

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

“I love you, Alan,” she said.

“Arthur Boyd,” I said.

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

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

I didn’t get all the words out.

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

 

 

BIO

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

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Veronica

Van Hulse

by Veronica O’Halloran

 

 

The net this morning. Hulse is dead.

 

Immediately:

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

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

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

Auto-erotic asphyxiation? Rough trade too rough?

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

Was he alone?

Who lived with him?

He was unlikely to have had a cat.

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

Hulse made him thinkable.

More realistically:

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

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

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

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

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

Tall, high ceilings. Shadows.

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

He outstayed his welcome.

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

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

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

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

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

Oh, Hulse! Jesus!

 

*  *  *

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The bus crashed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

He did leave, eventually.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

*  *  *

 

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

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

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

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

            Situation, then.

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

The net says the affair was long-running.

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

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

 

*  *  *

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That was the last day of our acquaintance.

 

*  *  *

 

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

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

And then I read the articles.

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

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

Reservations tend to lie within proposed mining leases.

You weren’t like that on the grassy slope.

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

What are you doing dead?

 

*  *  *

 

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

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

 

*  *  *

 

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

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

 

*  *  *

 

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

 

*  *  *

 

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

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

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

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

 

 

BIO

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

 

 

 

0
James Gallant

Andrew the Vihuela-Player

by James Gallant

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

“I fear the worst.”

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

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

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

Hakluyt laughs. “No, why do you ask?”

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

“Well, I look forward to being odorless!”

“So do we all!”

The two men are laughing.

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

“Who goes there?” Sir John calls.

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

“What are you doing, Andrew?”

“Picking raspberries.”

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

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

“Why are you picking raspberries, Andrew?”

“Jayne told me to.”

Sir John winks at Andrew.

“What instrument does Andrew play?”

“The vihuela.”

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

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

“A born musician.”

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

“But he’s a servant?”

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

“Really? How did this come about?”

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

“And you did?”

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

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

“So it seems.”

“Will I get to hear Andrew perform?”

“This very night.”

 

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

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

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

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

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

Andrew tries to imagine wanting a palazzo.

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

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

“So am I!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

General laughter.

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

The guests smile at Andrew.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*   *   *

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

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

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

“A confrontation with the Spanish must be imminent.”

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

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

Smathers laughs. “No, I hadn’t.”

“That would make you and I Spanish subjects.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Indeed.”

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Andrew wonders if it poisoned.

 

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

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

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

Andrew has no idea what the Captain is talking about.

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

“Ah,” Andrew says.

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

“Hmph.”

The Cistercians had struck Smathers as idiots.

*   *   *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Was this late at night?”

Andrew nods.

“I assume he was in his cups?”

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

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

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

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

Andrew wonders who “they” are.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gyldenstjerne’s eyes roll.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Ah.”

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

Groans.

“Good ol’ Kirsten!”

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

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

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

“Why not?”

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

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

A window nearby slams shut.

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

“I’ve always felt a bit supernatural.”

“Cod,” Bente says, “fish.”

Andrew dons the raven’s head.

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

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

*   *   *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bente gives Andrew a look.

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

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

Andrew shrugs. “Her idea, not mine.”

“Be careful, Andrew.”

 

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

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

Jepp gives her the finger.

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

“Save me Mother Earth!” Daphne cries.

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

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

Skit director Lady Gyldenstjerne closes her eyes.

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

The Danish nobility are in stitches.

Queen Sophie stares at the ceiling.

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

 

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

High walls of shrubs border the paths of the labyrinth. Reaching the center proves more challenging than he imagined. At dead ends he must retrace his steps, and while doing so he hears footsteps nearby. Someone else is in the labyrinth. When he finally reaches the center, he starts at the sight of Princess Anne seated on the marble bench. She wears white tights beneath a white tunic, and has her knees drawn up to her chest. A pair of lean hounds at her feet growl at the sight of Andrew. Anne drops her feet to the ground and sits upright. Pleasure and apprehension blend in her face. “Did you follow me here?”

Andrew, torn between a desire to backtrack into the labyrinth and the absurdity of doing so, holds up the vihuela in explanation of his presence.

“You’re going to give me a lesson?” The Princess slides to one side of the bench to make room for him.

Andrew hesitates, wondering who might be viewing what is ostensibly a tête-à-tête from one of Uraniborg’s many windows, but he approaches the bench. He seats himself a comfortable distance from the Princess, and lays the vihuela across his lap. She reaches over and runs an exploratory finger across the strings. “Such a beautiful instrument.”

“I understand you’re to be queen of Scotland.”

“So they tell me. It keeps me awake at night.”

“You’re too excited to sleep?”

“Too depressed.

“You don’t want to be the Queen of Scotland?”

“Would you?”

“Many women would leap at the opportunity.”

“Even if they had to marry James Stuart?”

“What’s wrong with James Stuart?”

“Well, he’s skinny, and bow-legged. They say he wears padded clothing to bed at night–he’s scared of being stabbed.”

“That might be a good idea, in Scotland.”

“He also plays the bagpipes.”

That might be a reason not to want to marry him, Andrew thinks.

“They say when he concentrates, his tongue falls from his mouth.”

“I sometimes drool if I’m very intent on what I’m playing,” Andrew confesses.

“You needn’t have told me that. My father wanted James to marry my sister Elizabeth. She’s prettier than me, but she’s getting kind of old. He probably wants young tail.”

“You’ve met James?”

“No–and he isn’t coming for the wedding.”

“Really?”

“The Scottish ambassador will be the proxy husband. It’s all just politics. You know what? This afternoon I overheard one of the grooms calling me a dog.”

“Off with his head.”

“But it’s true, I’m not beautiful. What’s the good of being a princess if you aren’t beautiful?”

“I would think being a princess would be especially valuable if you weren’t.

“You agree with the groom, then?”

“I didn’t say that.”

“Would you like to fuck me?”

Andrew strums a descending chord progression on the vihuela.

“Are you a spy?”

“Why do you ask?”

“Wouldn’t put it past ‘ol James to put one on me–and you’re English.”

“It’s not the same as being Scottish.”

“Lucky you.”

“I’m no spy.”

“James sent me a girdle of Venus.”

“What’s a girdle of Venus?”

She pulls the neck of her blouse aside to reveal a blue pearl-studded wrap about her chest. “I’m to wear it until he takes it off personally. Isn’t that special?”

Andrew plays a bit of Gaucelm Faidit’s longing-saturated troubadour melody from the twelfth century.

“That’s so lovely. Teach me to play that thing. Please?”

“Here? Now?”

“Yes.”

“It’s not like teaching a dog a trick, you know.”

She punches him on the bicep.

An unfortunate choice of words.

 

Andrew is walking along a corridor of Kronborg Castle from the music studio to his private quarters one day when Princess Anne appears out of nowhere, seizes his hand and draws him through a doorway into a steep, spiraling staircase leading down into the bowels of the castle.

“Bet you haven’t seen our dungeon.”

“I didn’t know there was one.”

“Silly! Every castle has a dungeon!”

A guard or two has accompanied Anne ever time he’s seen her lately. “Won’t they miss you upstairs?”

“Who cares?”

She leads him to the foot of the stairwell, and along dirt paths cut between earthen banks.

The main feature of the he torture chamber is a freestanding stone pillar with inlaid iron rings. “They hang a prisoner from the rings, and poke him with hot irons, or shoot arrows into him,” Anne explains. “Can you imagine?”

Andrew can.

The dungeon is a cell with rocks walls whose width and height diminish at its far end.

“No bars,” Andrew observes.

“They install them when there’s a prisoner. They can locate them all the way to the back so a person can’t even sit down.” She demonstrates, wedging herself into the acute angle where the walls meet. She simulates helplessness, and a blast of sexual radiation from her midriff causes him to start back to the stairs. He has only just returned above when a squabble in the corridor causes him to look over his shoulder. Two tall castle guards, each with a meaty hand under one of the Princess’s elbows, are carrying her off. Her feet are off the ground, thrashing about.

 

Gertrud’s Tavern in Elsinore has become Andrew’s refuge from Kronborg Castle. He would never try to compose music there, but the noisy tavern has the paradoxical effect of heightening concentration as he is editing his compositions. When he enters this afternoon with his vihuela bag on his shoulder, the tavern is unusually quiet. The barmaid Agnete greets him: “Hi Cutie.”

On his way to the back room, he passes seated at a small table the balding Englishman often at the tavern lately. Andrew had been told that he is a member of the English theater company performing repertory in Elsinore.

Today, the Englishman bends over the text of his play that will receive its premier performance at the Elsinore Town Hall next week. The play set in Elsinore has a story drawn from Danish history. It should have immediate local appeal, but something about it is elusive for the playwright. Staging Hamlet in Denmark will hopefully improve his understanding of what he has written, and perhaps inspire revision, before he plays it to the more discriminating audiences of London.

 

William Bull, a stocky, red-faced bit-actor in the English company, storms into Gertrud’s looking for Tom Boltrum, another actor. Bull is enamored of Abigail, the pretty young widow of Elsinore who has just told him to leave her house and never return. Bull thinks he knows why, and he’s going to have it out with Boltrum, who is usually at the tavern when he’s not working. He is absent at the moment, so Bull seats himself near the entrance to wait for him.

Gertrud and Agnete are in the tavern’s side yard roasting meats for the dinner crowd when Boltrum enters.

“OK, why’d you do that?” Bull says.

“Why’d I do what?”

“You told Abigail what I told you in confidence.”

“What you told me in confidence was she loved no one but you. When I told her that, she couldn’t stop laughing.”

“Leave her alone, you whoreson codpiece! She’s a nice girl–and as it is you’re screwin’ every woman in Elsinore under age ninety.”

“I’ve left you a spongy old malkin or two.”

Agnete reenters the tavern as Bull punches Boltrum. Boltrum punches Bull in the nose, knocking him to the floor. Bull picks himself up slowly, bleeding from the mouth, gives Boltrum a hostile look over his shoulder, and exits the tavern.

Boltrum seats himself at the bar, and Agnete places a bowl of ale in front of him. “What was that all about?” Tom’s head is aching, he doesn’t want to talk about it, so Agnete goes into the kitchen to wash dishes.

 

Andrew, in the back room revising of his new work, “Princess Anne’s Gigue,” had been unaware of the struggle out front. So, too, the playwright, his attention riveted by the inadequacies of Hamlet’s soliloquy in act three, scene one:

Here’s a thought: Suppose I kill myself?

                         Ye gods, the problems! And who can say for sure
Whacking away at them with a bare bodkin’s
Nobler than just stabbing oneself in the gut?
Slough the mortal coil! Eternal slumber!
That might be a way to go–although
Sawing it off, we tend to dream, and what
If nightmares dog the suicide?

 

The last line of the soliloquy–“Conscience doth make cowards of us all”—isn’t bad. The rest of it needs work, but the playwright’s creative energies are at low ebb and time for the actors to learn new lines is growing short. He is considering getting drunk and forgetting about the soliloquy when there appears before his imagination a chart of the celestial houses spinning like a top from which a voice issues: “To be or not to be. That is the question”–a superb replacement for the clumsy first line of the soliloquy. The voice continues: “To die: to sleep/ No more, and by a sleep to say we end/ The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks/ That flesh is heir to, ’tis a consummation/ Devoutly to be wish’d.”

The Englishman is writing down lines as fast as they are dictated when Bull comes through the door of the tavern, withdraws a sword from his pant leg, and runs Boltrum through the gut, back to front. The tip of the sword lodges in the front of the bar. Agnete reappears, a dish towel slung over her shoulder, Boltrum is sitting upright on his stool, a carcass on a spit. “Get you another, Tom?” she asks before noticing the lack of animation in his startled face.

She rushes into the side yard. “Oh my god,” Gertrud says, “that’s all we need with the mayor trying to shut us down. Did anyone see it happen?”

“I don’t know.”

As the two women dislodge Boltrum from the bar, Gertrud eyes the Englishman writing feverishly at his table. They manage to get the corpse off the bar stool and into the kitchen. Gertrud opens the door there and glances up and down the alley. They drag Tom Boltrum into a grove of pine trees on the hillock beyond the alley.

When the fit is upon the playwright, lines just keep spilling onto his pages. The slightest event or sensation is assimilable in language Odors of roasting meat are coming into the tavern from the side yard. The playwright scribbles in the margin of his playbook, “Something rotten in the state of Denmark” He will use it somewhere.

A woman’s voice beyond the tavern shrieks, “Poor Tom’s a-cold! Poor Tom’s a-cold!”

The playwright dips his quill in ink.

 

Preparations for the wedding of King James and Princess Anne are furious at the castle. Dress-designers, carpenters, furniture-makers, and carpet weavers throng the halls. Fabric chandlers push about handcarts loaded with of silks, velvets and brocade. The tailors’ assistants stitching away in corners outnumber spiders.

The musical consort for the royal wedding is to include Andrew on the vihuela, two recorder players, the court lutenist Raphael de Angelo, and Axel Bente on the viola da gamba. The consort is rehearsing one day when an officious little German tailor appears in the music studio with a tape measure around his neck and orders Andrew to stand up.

“Why?”

“I measure you.”

“Measure me for what?”

“Your clothes for the coronation at Edinburgh.”

Axel Bente gives Andrew a look.

Andrew learns that he is the only musician from the court to be so honored.

His new clothes include two doublets with short skirts, flies tied with colorful silken bows; a high-crowned, short-brimmed muffin hat with a feather; shirts with standup collars, lace at the neckline and wrists; a long, fur-lined cape; and a collection of cotton stockings in various colors with leather garters.

He is practicing the vihuela in the music studio one morning when a cannonade thundering from the castle ramparts cause him to peer through a narrow window overlooking the Sound. Ships flying Scottish colors are approaching the pier below the castle where Danish dignitaries have gathered. A fanfare from the Danish royal hornsmen answers one from the deck of a Scottish ship. Horns glint in the sunlight, water shines, cannons boom. The Scots come ashore wearing identical cartwheel linen ruffs at their necks, tall black hats, and pointed beards.

Andrew is present with the Elsinore Town Band at an entertainment for the visiting Scots that includes the performance of the skit “Solomon and Sheba” in which King Frederick plays Solomon. Lady Kass (she of the beguiling décolleté) is Sheba. Solomon has been drinking and requires the aid of servants to ascend the riser steps to his throne chair. Sheba, too, is none to steady on her feet, and as she presents the riddles to test Solomon’s wits her speech is slurred. Solomon’s responses, slow in coming, require prompting from Lady Glydenstjerne, but suffice to convince Sheba that the king is indeed God’s elect. She wishes to present personally one of the many gifts her servants have lugged from Arabia in a mule train: a bowl of honey-laced date pudding. She ascends the steps to the throne very carefully with it and has reached the next-to-last step successfully when she trips, spilling pudding and bosom into Solomon’s lap.

“Oh my God, the goo!” exclaims the laughing Solomon as he fondles the slimy Sheba.

Servants come rushing with mops and towels.

The Elsinore Town Band strikes up “Hark, the Dog is in the Pork.”

*   *   *

At the wedding rehearsal, Anne’s lady-in-waiting slips into Andrew’s hand a poem King James has sent the Princess on which she has scribbled a marginal note: “God, he’s a maniac!”

TO MY QUEEN

Whenever I’m oppressed with heavy heart,
I need but take my pen, and recollect
The blessed hour when first my eyes beheld
The image of my Queen, this earthly Juno.
Three Goddesses of equal reputation
Spied the beauty, and nearly came to blows
O’er who should rule her. They Apollo
Asked, who said, “Bless this paragon
By sharing her; and so it came to be
If counsel’s what I need, Athena’s nie;
Chaste Diana mounts to hunt with me;
And if I’m tired, and would to bed repair
I fold in soft embrace my Venus fair.

In the Royal Chapel, the Princess exchanges vows with the freckle-faced, permanently smiling, proxy husband ambassador George Keith. Andrew is with the musical ensemble in the choir loft, and from his vantage, Anne in the white, hooded dress that flows around her and spills onto the floor seems quite overwhelmed by the weight of ceremony and authority– not at all herself.

*   *   *

The flotilla of Danish and Scottish ships leave Elsinore and steer northward in mild early fall weather. George Keith, the proxy husband, his stiletto beard flapping in the breeze, follows Anne around on the Gideon like a faithful dog. Anne shoots exasperated looks across the deck at Andrew.

Anne’s lady-in-waiting hands Andrew another of King James’s literary efforts with another of Anne’s notes: “I’m married to a lunatic!”

 

TO MY QUEEN

The wings of your enchanting fame have reached
Me across the wide and stormy sea.
Your smile will be my antidote against
The melancholy that oppresseth me,
And when a raging wrath within me reigns
Loving looks from you will bring me peace.
Whenever you will see me heavy-hearted
Practice then, sweet doctor, your magic art.

 

Andrew notices Keith gazing at him with squinty eyes.

Winds intensity as the ships enter the Skagerrak. Great waves begin to roll the Gideon from side to side and up and down. From peaks there are dizzying panoramas of churning white waters which disappear as the ship’s prow drops into dark troughs. Gray-faced and vomiting, Andrew retreats to his hammock in the forecastle where he embraces the vihuela, hoping to prevent its destruction. The Gideon springs leaks. All through the night the crew man the pumps.

The winds die abruptly at daybreak, and the cobalt sky and silver sun are innocent-looking. Ships that launched with the Gideon are nowhere to be seen. Admiral Munk orders the Gideon steered to a small harbor visible in the distance which turns out to be at Flekkeroe, an island near the Norwegian coast. The Flekkeroean farmers, learning of the ship’s fate, invite the passengers and crew into their homes, but warn that drought and poor fishing have reduced their food supply to subsistence levels.

Admiral Munk, touched by their hospitality and their plight, orders foods brought from the Gideon to be distributed among the cottagers, but discovers while overseeing this operation that the salt beef and pork in the ship’s hold are moldy. Sea biscuits swarm with brown grub worms, and maggots have infested the dried apples. The victualer in Copenhagen he had thought trustworthy, though Catholic, has obviously stocked the ship with leftovers from other voyages. The beer is sound, however, and he orders a barrel of it delivered to each of the homes entertaining the Gideon’s passengers and crew.

The largest log house on the island is Peder Pedersen’s. A note delivered to the house with the barrel of beer informs Mrs. Pedersen that Princess Anne of Denmark and other nobles will be staying with her and her husband. Mrs. Pedersen picks up her broom and sweeps vigorously the dirt floor around the fire burning on a stone slab at the center of the room. She replenishes the lamps with cod-liver oil, sprinkles fresh sprigs of juniper about, and draws the trestle table and benches from the wall.

Princess Anne requests that Andrew the vihuela-player, though a commoner, be lodged at the Pedersen’s, “because I think we will have serious need of entertainment while the ship is being repaired.” George Keith accedes to this request–having Andrew near to hand will facilitate surveillance. However, he assigns the young man to sleep in Pedersen’s barn with members of the Gideon’s crew, rather than in the house.

Mrs. Pedersen, wearing her festive red bunad with its elaborately embroidered high bodice, long pleated skirt, and white apron, places before each of her noble guests at table a quantity of hemp seeds, thick slices of bread, and a bowl of the ship’s beer.

Peder Pedersen bows his head.

“Lord,” he commences, “we thank you for your bread, and your seeds. People ask which came first, the chicken or the egg. What I would like to know is which came first the plant or the seed. I mean, where would chickens be without grains?… While I am on the subject, why do pea vines watch the sun so carefully all day long? Do they not trust what it is going to do next? Lord, these things are beyond our understanding. As the Good Book says, we look through a dirty window. But we thank you that our guests have come safely through the storm and brought us this first-rate beer. Amen.”

George Keith’s perpetual smile is a plaster replica of itself.

The bread’s consistency is chewy. It has a flavor evocative of pine needles. Peder explains that in hard times the residents of Flekkeroe and neighboring Kristiana bake this bread from fir bark ground into meal.

The beer and hemp nuts are popular.

After downing numerous bowls of beer, Peder leaves the room, and returns dragging behind him the ax six feet long with a worm-eaten handle and an oversized blade that he found buried in his hemp field. He speculates that it belonged either to the primeval giants, or the trolls who delight in baffling humans with curious objects planted about the countryside.

For his next act, Pedersen withdraws a jaw harp from his pocket and twangs a sea-chantey. Mrs. Pedersen is shaking her head back and forth gently as she rises to clear the dishes.

“Where’s the vihuela-player?” Princess Anne wants to know.

 

The vihuela-player is asleep in Pedersen’s barn loft. He sleeps the rest of that day, and all through the night, awaking in the morning to the sight of the smiling George Keith staring at him from an upper rung of the wooden ladder leading to the loft.

Keith informs him that he is to have sole possession of the loft. Members of the Gideon’s crew who were to have shared the space with him have escaped to the mainland. Andrew is instructed to take his meals at the table of the Alfhid family whose farm adjoins Pedersen’s. When Andrew goes there, the widow Alfhid and her three chunky blond daughters, hair braided atop their heads, are pleased to have a male guest at table and smile collectively as he wolfs down his fir-bread and hemp nuts.

Back in Pedersen’s barn, refreshed by long sleep and nourishment, Andrew takes up the vihuela. Resentful of his inattentiveness in recent days, she is cold to his touch, but he knows from experience exercises will correct the situation, and begins playing. Sunlight through narrow cracks in the planks generates a soft, warm light, and the barn has a pleasantly sweetish smell compounded of hay and animal dung. The raw pine siding makes for wonderful acoustics.

*   *   *

News that his bride is on Flekkeroe reaches King James and stirs his remembrance of Leander who swam the Hellespont fearlessly to reach his inamorata Hero, virgin priestess of Aphrodite, and it occurs to him that shipping to Norway personally to rescue the princess would be a wonderful adventure. He broaches the subject with Lord Chancellor Maitland.

“Entirely too risky,” Maitland says. “If something were to happen to you, all hell would break loose here.”

It occurs to James that undertaking this mission without Maitland’s approval would demonstrate his independence of the man many regard as de facto ruler of Scotland. There would no doubt be danger in the excursion, of course, but if he were he to drown history would remember him as one of the world’s great lovers, and he would be spared a reign likely to consist of trying to pacify squabbling Scottish lords and prelates while fearing constantly poisoned whiskey or a knife in the back.

 

At Flekkeroe, word reaches Admiral Munk that ships other than the Gideon which survived the storm have been blown to various points along the Norwegian coast. The flotilla reassembles near Flekkeroe and launches for Scotland, but makes small progress before being blown back to the island again by another gale. A second attempt to sail a few days later meets with similar results. Munk, inclined previously to scoff at rumors of witches casting spells on the mission to Scotland, is no longer sure they can be ignored. In any case, he has had his fill of fir bread and hemp nuts, and the beer is running low. He orders the Danish ships back to Denmark for the winter.

The Scots hope to make further attempts to reach home with Princess Anne before winter, but while waiting the unusually numerous fall storms in the North Sea to subside they elect to relocate to the more comfortable surroundings of Oslo.

Andrew, unaware of the ships’ departures, enjoys meals and sociable palaver with the Alfhids, and takes long walks along the coast with Ingrid Alfhid. To hear him play while she works, Ingrid works in the hemp field nearest the Pedersens’ barn during the harvest. Andrew attracts a various barn audience: a Maltese cat who purrs intensely, cooing pigeons roosting in a corner brace, a trio of field mice all ears atop a bale of hay. One evening a fearless white moth alights on the vibrating soundboard and contemplates Andrew with beady black eyes.

Andrew is experimenting with imitations on the vihuela of mouse chitter, cat purr, donkey bray, and owl hoot.

 

King James, having made covert arrangements for a personal quest of Princess Anne, enters the North Sea with six ships and three hundred sailors–better equipped than Leander had been. Two of the ships go down in storms, and sailors die, but the King reaches Flekkeroe where he learns that Princess Anne is in Oslo. He dispatches his chaplain David Lindsay there to arrange for an appropriate royal welcome and a repetition of the marriage vows, and expresses his desire that while on Flekkeroe he might sleep in the bed that had been Princess Anne’s.

Mrs. Pedersen sighs, puts a fresh loaf of fir-bread in the oven, and picks up her broom.

Lying in bed his first night at the Pedersens, James recalls that King Solomon, to advance his knowledge of the common people, roamed the rural countryside disguised as a peasant, and it occurs to him that while at loose ends on Flekkeroe he has a wonderful opportunity to do the same without the usual encumbrance of guards.

The next morning, in garb supplied by the amused Peder Pedersen out of his personal wardrobe, James hikes gaily from Høyfjellet, through Refsdalen and along Kjærlighetsstien to Bestemorsmed. In the afternoon, he lies beneath a sheltering rock by the sea, lulled asleep by the sound of the surf washing across pebbles.

Awakened by the mournful call of bitterns, and distant tinkling of cowbells, he is returning along a narrow path between the fields of the Alfhids and the Pedersens when he fancies hearing from a Norwegian barn what he cannot possibly be hearing: a work for lute by John Dowland with which he is familiar, and his sense that the place is enchanted is confirmed by the sight of the buxom, blond Ingrid Alfhid asleep in a furrow of the hemp field. His tongue falls from his mouth. He realizes that he is experiencing the Platonic “divine frenzy” of which Marsilio Ficino speaks that blends alienatio and abstractio of Saturnian origin with warm Venusian influences. Solomon, when he first laid eyes on the Rose of Sharon during his rural rambles, had undoubtedly experienced something similar.

*   *   *

When James steps from the carriage in front of the Bishop’s Palace at Oslo he is wearing a black velvet cloak lined with sable. His padded vest swells his torso, and when he removes his puffy high-crowned black hat to shake hands with the Bishop, he looks to Princess Anne standing nearby like a colorful beetle with small head disproportionate to its body.

The Bishop is delivering an ornate Latin blessing, when James spies the gangly, frowning young woman with frizzy yellow hair beside his friend George Keith — Princess Anne, obviously, though she bears small resemblance to the flattering pictures he has seen of her. He walks toward her dutifully in his shambling bow-legged gait, embraces her in a manly fashion, and attempts a kiss from which she turns away at the last moment, and his lips plunge into yellow frizz.

After the wedding vows are repeated, Anne goes to bed complaining of nausea and headache, and James in his private quarters at the Bishop’s Palace writes:

O cruel constellation which conspired
To seal my dismal fate before my birth!
My well-intentioned mother told her midwife,
“Spare no pains in bringing him to life.”
Her hopeful milk I drank a year and more;
And later, I imbibed inspiring waters
Drawn from Pierian spring by gracious Muses–
But lacked the ease to nurture fruits of wonder.
Born to royalty, a Scottish king.
A privileged lad, you say? The truth is rather
Job am I, whose patience Satan sorely smote.

Anne malingers, and as she and her new husband become acquainted while playing card games at bedside. She expresses her longing for music, and speaks of the admirable string player who was with the company on Flekkeroe. She wonders what has become of him. James recalls that Apollo is god both of music and medicine; that Democritus believed music could cure snakebite; and that music restored Odysseus to health after he was gored by a wild boar. He inquires with George Keith concerning the whereabouts of the musician of whom Anne had spoken.

Keith has a little talk with him about Andrew.

 

When the storms in the North Sea do not subside, and winter snows come early, the Scots abandon their plan to reach home before spring, and request permission to winter at Elsinore. King Frederick has been rejoicing in the dispatch of his madcap daughter to the hinterland, and does not relish the prospect of her rapid homecoming, but he dispatches sleds to Norway. In the dim light of a frosty morning, King James swathed in furs stands in a sled sheathed in black velvet and silver bangles and delivers a flowery valediction before a cluster of shivering, Oslo dignitaries.

The sleds depart in a blizzard and press on to Quille, and from Quille to Baahus Fortress on a cliff circled by a river at the Norwegian-Swedish border. Six hundred Swedish horsemen escort the entourage across the frozen Gotha-Elf and the Swedish Landflig, through Varbjerg, and Halmstadt. In the last leg of the trip, small boats convey the Scottish entourage down the Oresund to Elsinore.

Oh god, thinks Anne, I’m going to have to be seen with him in front of people I know.

The Danish royal family, and representatives of the court are milling around in the cold central court at Kronborg Castle as the Scots cross over the castle moat.

James meets for the first time his father-in-law and mother-in-law. “Amazing place you have here,” he says, looking around the court as he shakes the tremulous hand of King Frederick.

“The west wall was completed only last year,” Lady Gyldenstjerne puts in. “As you can imagine it has improved our security greatly. The fountain you see on your left is the work of Adriaen de Vriies symbolizing the Danish preeminence in the North Sea and the Baltic Sea.”

“Where’s Anne?” Queen Sophie inquires.

James looks around. “She was with us a moment ago.”

The Princess knows all the hiding places in the castle.

*   *   *

Fond as Andrew is of the acoustics in Pedersen’s barn, living there in bitter cold weather is impossible, and the Alfids have taken him in at their farmhouse where he is continuing to develop techniques for imitating on the vihuela the sounds of mice, cats, donkeys and owls that he is incorporating in a new solo work for vihuela, The Barn Suite.

 

 

 

 

 

* The vihuela, a precursor of the modern guitar, was played in Spain in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Tuned identically with the Renaissance lute, and close to the modern guitar, it had twelve strings (six pairs double-strung) rather than the modern six single-strung.

*A short dress-like garment with pleated panels.

* A pie made of custard and fruit.

 

 

BIO

James GallantJames Gallant, who lives in Atlanta, contracted the writing disorder at an early age, and has been basically incapable of making an income as a result.  His disorder led to a fortunate marriage to income-producing university professor and Romantics scholar Christine Gallant who as a girl had romanticized the idea of marrying a writer. At times she had said later, “Be careful what you ask for.” Gallant attended graduate school at the University of Minnesota where he concentrated in Renaissance studies, traces of which survive in “Andrew the Vihuela-Player.” This story is one of nine short works involving historical classical guitarists–some (like Andrew) pure inventions, other based loosely on the lives of actual performers. Two of the other guitarist stories have appeared in other journals. The pieces as a group would make a good collection, Gallant believes, if anyone were interested in publishing it. Grace Paley’s Glad Day Books published his The Big Bust at Tyrone’s Rooming House/a Novel of Atlanta in 2004, and his essays and fiction have appeared in a number of magazines, including The Georgia Review, Epoch, Massachusetts Review, Story Quarterly, Mississippi Review, Exquisite Corpse, North American Review, Raritan, and Witness. He has a short novel, Whatever Happened to Debbie and Phil, and a collection of thematically-related related creative non-fiction pieces, Visits in Time and Space, neither of which have publishers at the moment.

 

 

 

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Carmen Firan

The Boiler Man

by Carmen Firan                                                                                  

 

 

In buildings like this, boiler men are indispensable. Especially during winter when the radiators clog, filters need to be changed, and pipes crack just when you need them most, on a frosty weekend. The residents at 89-13 62 Avenue were lucky. The super was also a boiler man, a member of a profession learned and practiced diligently in Eastern Europe where everything’s out of order or out of place.

Maybe the term “plumber” is more precise, but in his native country his specialty had been radiators. Back during the communist era, the boiler man had an ace up his sleeve since rumors had it that the secret police kept track of suspects by planting microphones in the radiators of suspicious tenants. He had to be trusted —not just skilled—to convince people that he didn’t work for the police.

Dick, who had won the green-card lottery, took his wife and daughter by the hand and didn’t stop until they reached Sunnyside, Queens. There, in only two weeks, he found this job as a “super” —the guy who does everything.

“I don’t believe in lotteries and that stuff about luck. I played on a whim to prove to myself that I couldn’t win. Everything I ever got in my life was through hard work. Nothing ever fell into my lap. This time, God knows, the devil stuck his nose into it. I didn’t really want to move to America, but once I got the visa, I figured, why not go and see how they live over there.” That’s what he confessed every chance he could, as he caressed a bushy moustache he thought boosted his sex appeal. “But I don’t like it here. I miss my little house and the vines and fruit trees in the courtyard, I miss my drinking friends and life over there, poor, sure, but happy. I worked, I didn’t work, something came up and I lived well, whatever. If it wasn’t for my wife, who kept bugging me about my daughter’s future and all that stuff, I would never have left everything behind.”

Dick looked like he could lift three buildings at once. He wore large denim overalls without a shirt, an outfit that showed off his muscular arms and hairy chest. His “super’s office” was in the building’s basement, surrounded by boilers, air conditioners, tool sheds, old furniture, torn mattresses, all kinds of useless items, and garbage bags. Basically, Dick ruled an underground empire.

At night, when the garbage was taken out in the well-to-do neighborhoods of Queens, Dick hit the streets in his vintage car, packed it with whatever could be reused, and unloaded his loot in the basement. He managed to stack up a serious collection of TV sets, microwave ovens, tape recorders, chairs, vacuum cleaners, rugs, outdated computers, and whatever else one might need to outfit a brand-new home. Some were in great shape; others he fixed and sold for nothing to newly arrived immigrants who’d ended up in Sunnyside. “I’m doing a good deed,” he’d explain defensively, “this is what I learned at home. Take from the rich, and give to the poor. What I get out of it isn’t important. It’s more of a communal gesture, since everybody here is so into the collective spirit.”

Dick had won over all the residents in the building he administered quite with competently. He carried old ladies’ grocery bags to the elevator, walked dogs, babysat for young families, tended the lawn outside the building, and, of course, replaced pipes and filters, unclogged toilets, and, since this was the country of technology, fixed computers, too. He couldn’t really be called industrious, but he was smart, skilled. He never refused a tip but didn’t rip anyone off, either.

This new world didn’t scare him anymore. He’d found out he could get what he wanted even without speaking the language because Sunnyside was populated by his countrymen. The stores, restaurants, pastry shops, medical offices, churches, and newspapers in his native tongue tempered his longing for the mother country. Occasionally the ghetto bothered him, and he’d snap with superiority:

“You immigrate to get rid of these folks and end up living with them. It’s the same ethnic borsh, only thicker.”

Despite rebuffs, he was capable of shedding tears over a native folk song heard in bodegas where people argued for the democratization of the old country, which some denigrated, some regretted, though none would ever admit that they felt like foreigners in both places. It was an unspoken dilemma they would be buried with.

“Well, they have everything here, except tomatoes like the ones back home,” Dick sighed over a glass of vodka, which was emptied more and more often and earlier and earlier in the day.

Dick was a romantic. A giant with delicate features, he was sensitive to miniatures. He loved small animals; maybe that’s why the mice and bugs that haunted his “super’s office” in the basement didn’t faze him. He didn’t protest the rabbit his daughter brought home, the rabbit which they kept in the bathroom; he loved the flashy fish swimming in an improvised bowl, the jar for pickles that they took out to the balcony in summer. He loved etchings and had even tried to find work as a house painter. With or without his clients’ consent, at the end of a job he painted thin stripes and floral motifs that set off the walls from the ceiling, a delicate water lily around the chandelier or colorful birds above the kitchen window.

“We have to embellish our life,” was his motto, which he practiced how he knew best.

His large hands, accustomed to pipes and hardware, could be gentle and soothing. He caressed animals, tended flowers, and cried during love scenes. Despite the dirt under his nails, and his T-shirts soaked with sweat at the chest and underarms, he wasn’t a repulsive boiler man. You noticed his virility and not his smell, his vigor and not the clothes worn out from crawling underneath sinks and toilets. He loved his wife and adored his daughter, whose every whim he accepted. Provided she was good in school and behaved.

“Life is a simple thing. I don’t believe in chance. Everything fits together, and as long as you act with common sense, there are no great surprises. If you can avoid abuse and excess, life is decent, the way it’s supposed to be. I’m not an intellectual but I feel certain things, I don’t know how. My grandfather was illiterate, but he knew everything. He died in peace one afternoon, after he’d washed and shaved, called grandmother to his side, held her hand, and told her that his time had come. He closed his eyes and a few minutes later he was gone. Light, beautiful, serene. Now people die with violence, death isn’t liberation any more, but a condemnation, a humiliation.”

Dick hadn’t read one book after graduating from vocational school, a two-year program where he learned all about the heating profession. He only watched movies and sometimes leafed through newspapers. Still, nature had given him poise that could pass as wisdom, perhaps inherited from his grandfather. He had some odd habits too, which could make him an interesting drinking partner.

In the evening, a few friends he’d made in the building descended to the basement, where he had improvised a warm, bar-like atmosphere that resembled his home back home. He’d brought in a plastic garden table from the street and a few odd chairs, even a sun umbrella that he stuck proudly through the hole in the center. Next to it he kept a cooler filled with beer and vodka. He and his companions played folk music and debated the state of the world. One neighbor came from his hometown. They’d been neighbors even back then and left the country just a few months’ apart. It’s a small world, but even smaller in Queens.

“Guys, I don’t know why, but since I left the old country, I’ve been plagued by memories. I remember everything, you know, everything! Early childhood, my birth, even before it.”

The boiler man amazed them with his stories, which included some disturbing details, like remembering his own birth.

“No kidding,” Dick would tell them, his eyes blurred by the power of memory. “I witnessed my own birth.”

At first they didn’t take him too seriously, but in time Dick won them over, and then they listened with baited breath. Each time, they asked him to tell them more stories about being born. They emptied one glass after another not fully believing what they heard but were moved by such an odd experience.

“Actually I remember details from before I was born, from the time I swam packed in my mother’s belly. You don’t have much space to move around in there, and your movements are restricted. The last stages of the pregnancy are the worst. Moving gets more and more difficult. You want to turn but can’t, you kick with your feet and hands but nothing happens. I remember that during the last weeks I wanted more than anything to do a somersault. A few times I rebelled out, I’d grown too much, and I think I kicked my mother too hard because I immediately felt her hands grabbing my heels to calm me down. I recognized her palms instinctively. They caressed me even when I hit her with rage.  I wasn’t nervous or restless, I had no reason to be, it’s warm in there and you don’t lack for anything.”

“Didn’t you choke?” Dick heard a puzzled voice.

“How could you choke?! I never breathed with more ease in my life. Everything’s natural and clean, you wish you breathed air like that all the time! The temperature is constant, same with the humidity, everything’s constant, know what I mean? Just the way it has to be, just as much as it should be. Nothing unpredictable or uncomfortable. You’re always satisfied. You’re never hungry or thirsty, and if you need food all you have to do is think about it and you’re immediately fed with delicacies. You want fish, you can be sure that soon your mother will crave just that, and, because a pregnant woman is always granted her wish, she’ll get fish, and you’ll extract its very essence, the reason why you want to eat fish in the first place. And even if she doesn’t eat fish when you crave it, you end up eating the essence of fish, because you extract from her whatever the fish contains. Get it? I’m trying to make everything simple, but I’d like you to understand how it works. You suck in everything you need from her and the poor mother knows it. She loses iron, even calcium. Some even lose their hair or teeth, their nails turn white, their faces have spots and they’re always worn out. Whoever says that a pregnancy invigorates a woman doesn’t know what they’re talking about. It drains her but you couldn’t live better anywhere else. In there I was happy. After I got out, I never felt as protected. It’s a divine harmony that’s hard to define because we never experience it in real life. My friends, we are born happy. Whatever happens afterwards, God knows!”

Sometimes he’d be paged for an emergency. A flood, a pipe, an anxious old woman whose vacuum cleaner wasn’t working. Dick would run there right away, fix whatever needed to be fixed, and come back to the basement where his friends waited for him, enveloped in cigar smoke. He came back with hands even dirtier, sweat dripping down his forehead. He’d curse, gulp a glass of vodka that would ruffle his moustache, knock his fist against the table, and continue his stories.

“What bothered me there, though, was that I had to keep my eyes closed. Strangely enough, I could still see. I don’t know what it feels like to be in other women’s bellies, but in my mother’s womb I saw an extraordinary world. But I never felt any smell or saw any color. Unfortunately I don’t know anybody who can confirm my impressions or exchange opinions. I haven’t met anybody who was aware of his fetal life or who witnessed his birth. I have a memory, some say, ancient, abnormally large and old. It’s possible. And since I moved to Queens it expands every day. Although I believe that memory is infinite. But people don’t try to remember that far back, or maybe they can’t imagine that it’s possible to remember the time before your birth, not to mention the birth itself, which seems so natural, since everyone was present at one’s birth, right? If you remember yourself when you were five, why not remember the five seconds after you came into this world? Isn’t that the same? The same life?”

His drinking friends would nod in agreement. For the moment, the boiler man’s point of view made perfect sense.

“I saw many things in my life, but nothing could top the world in my mother’s belly. Entire cities, archipelagoes made of jelly tubes, galleries of pipes stretching like nerves along fluid walls, a complicated architecture of channels, mazes, tunnels and grottos, abysses, a sky of stars, perfect shapes swimming through a delicate spider web, everything murky, like a half-done drawing, like a miniature map of the universe. I could hear my heart beating in the middle of the universe, and I kept floating like an astronaut caught in those transparent laces enveloping me, and rocked me gently like a mild summer breeze. Even stranger, I recognized all these as if I’d seen them before, I behaved as if I had been in my mother’s belly before, as if I had memories from another pregnancy. I wonder if I was born more than once.”

At this point his audience usually lost patience. Some mumbled in protest that they were being dragged into surreal territory, others looked at Dick with pity, a grown up man, a giant, raving and ranting, but they were all curious to hear the conclusion. Then Dick swallowed another glass of vodka, wiped his moustache with the back of a hand covered with brownish creases, and lowered his voice, while his eyes sparkled conspiratorially.

“There’s no pleasure in being born. First of all, it’s a long, painful, dangerous process. You pass from that perfect harmony to an unimaginable convulsion, you struggle, you push with your head first, you kick your legs, desperate to get out, nobody knows why, because it was so cozy in there! But at some point you’re not allowed to stay inside any longer, you have to leave! The worst is that you feel your own mother straining against you, as if she wanted to get rid of you. At first you lose your balance, you slip, and no matter how much you wrestle, the head drags you down, it suddenly becomes very heavy, as if filled with lead, your ears pop and stress increases. Your head enters a dark tunnel. This is the most difficult and frightening part of the process. The tunnel of darkness.”

“I’ve heard that story about the tunnel before,” one of the neighbors told Dick, “but it happens when you die, not when…” He didn’t dare say more. The word birth had already sent shivers down his spine.

“When you die, it’s a tunnel of light,” another interfered, “and in this one it’s dark.”

“Pitch dark,” Dick confirmed. “The first sensation is terrible. You choke, you drown, your hair gets caught in all kinds of roots, I heard something rumbling like a volcano ready to erupt. I pushed as hard as I could, my neck was stiff, and I thought I’d be trapped inside forever. One of my shoulders was stiff from all that effort. I suffered from pains in my left shoulder until I was 5 because of my passage through that thin, black, cold, damp tunnel. Then I felt the first smells, just as unpleasant as the sounds that were waiting for me once I was pulled outside. Because the truth is that you can’t make it by yourself, eventually you are pulled outside by others. I coughed and I began to sob. They grabbed me, wiped me dry of the lava, and undid the roots wrapped around me, irritating my skin. I was dying of cold and I’d turned green from all the effort and shouting. I opened my eyes but saw nothing. I heard strange, metallic, piercing screams around me. Suddenly, I felt hungry but this time no essence satiated me. I’d be administered hundreds of gallons of milk until I was fed up with it. They wrapped me, covered me, and laid me on a bed. I was alone. In my mother’s belly I’d also been alone, but here, outside, it was a different way of being alone. Dry. Cold. Deafening. I had only known happy loneliness until then. Now a desperate loneliness began, and I think that’s when I was scared for the first time. I understood what it means to be alone. To waver between happiness and despair. To be expelled from the world. To see, to hear, to feel, and not to be understood.”

The neighbors were already sad; they drank out of spite and experienced everything as if they’d just been born themselves.

“Look, I remember the first night of loneliness as if it were now. They put me in a bed face up. From there, through the dark window, I saw the moon for the first time. You will ask me how I knew it was the moon. I knew. I’d seen it before. Here, how? Hell knows! And, all of a sudden…”

Dick’s phone rang violently. Mrs. Simpson from the 9th floor had an emergency. Her toilet was clogged and she had guests in half an hour. The boiler man got up at once, duty came before everything else. He left his audience with the story unfinished, grabbed his toolbox and a few minutes later knocked on Mrs. Simpson’s door. She was waiting for him eagerly.

“Dick, you’re a miracle. What would I do without you?! God sent you to us!”

 

 

BIO

Carmen FiranCarmen Firan, born in Romania, is a poet, a fiction and play writer, and a journalist. She has published fifteen books of poetry, novels, essays and short stories. Her writings appear in translation in many literary magazines and in various anthologies in France, Israel, Sweden, Germany, Ireland, Poland, Canada, UK and the U.S. She lives in New York. Her recent books and publications in the United States of America include: Inferno, novella, (Spuyten Duyvil Press), Rock and Dew, (Sheep Meadow Press), Words and Flesh, (Talisman Publishers), The Second Life (Columbia University Press), The Farce, (Spuyten Duyvil Press), In The Most Beautiful Life, (Umbrage Editions), The First Moment After Death (Writers Club Press). She is a member of PEN American Center and the Poetry Society of America and serves on the editorial boards of the international magazines Lettre Internationale (Paris-Bucharest) and Interpoezia (New York). She is the co-editor of Naming the Nameless (An Anthology of Contemporary American Poetry), Stranger at Home, Poetry with an Accent, Numina Press, and Born in Utopia (An Anthology of Romanian Modern and Contemporary Poetry), Talisman Publishers. www.carmenfiran.com

 

 

 

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mitchell Grabois

Transparency

by Mitchell Grabois

 

Wasps colonized my attic. I had to grab a can of wasp spray from my wife’s hand. She was a farm girl and stronger than me. She grabbed the can back and hit me in the head with it.

Our love was being overwhelmed by our differences. I found the wasps’ buzzing comforting, consoling. I heard messages in the drone, messages designed for me alone, telling me about the true nature of the universe. My wife said that if the droning didn’t stop, she was going to fall off the wagon—was I too stupid to understand?

Yet now that she’d hit me with the can of wasp spray, she couldn’t use it. She had created an inner barrier that she didn’t understand, but was unable to surmount. She went outside without saying anything, got into her old Pontiac, and headed down the road. She was going to the meth house. Whether she was going to do meth or just fuck the meth maker, I didn’t know. But I couldn’t pursue her. I was too engaged in listening to the wasps’ messages.

 

After I’d learned everything I could from the wasps, I went out on the front porch. I sat in my rocker and pretended to speak with my wife:

The world is corrupt, and pain closes us off to each other. We crave injections of transparency. We want to become floating windows, our religion Windex.

I see right thru you, girl, as if I were a psychologic genius. And you see thru me as well.

Crows and robins fling themselves thru the air, but part of what they think is air is us. We are annoyed, they are annoyed. It is significant, one of the downsides of transparency.

 

 

 

 

 

Angels

 

It’s a nice piece of fiction or nonfiction I’ve written—I can’t tell the difference anymore. I’ve hypnotized myself and can’t undo it—this is the creative process. Creativity has confounded reality. It doesn’t matter. Nothing’s at stake. It’s just words on a page.

It’s not my adult son’s maid vacuuming his carpet while crying over what’s happening in the Ukraine, where she’s from, and where her parents and sister still live. She’s thin and has a lot of prominent veins in her arms and shoulders. She has a firm grip from working hard. She can’t find her business card in her purse. She tells me I know a lot about women.

It’s not kidnapped girls in Nigeria, raped and traumatized. The difference between their conscious minds and unconscious minds is also blurring, but not in the service of art.

I want to use my wealth to buy them, all of them. I want to educate them and put them to work in my restaurant, in my factory, in my amusement park. Wherever they want to work, that’s where I want them to work. I will pay them $15/hour, well over minimum wage. I will bring their parents here. I will get them medical treatment for their poor and neglected bodies.

 

But, despite all my good intentions, I ended up getting too close to Heaven. Angels melted my face. It’s not that they lacked compassion or had a cruel streak—they were just following the laws of Physics. Even angels must follow the laws of Physics.

 

 

 

 

 

Rubber Crumbs

 

My father escaped the Nazis, went to NYC to his Uncle’s tenement, looked around and said: Holy fuck! This fucking place is going to kill me sure as Hitler (or whatever the equivalent was in Yiddish). So he went west, stopped in Colorado, got work on a ranch, learned Spanish. He was Rumanian, but easily passed for Mexican.

This morning I wake in my armchair in the living room of the ranch house he built by hand. A book of Yiddish poetry has slipped from my grasp. I pick it up and go wash my face. Today I’m putting down rubber crumb infill in my corral. The granules prevent flyout, splashing, migration of base, and promote traction and drainage. Shock absorption is maximized. The rubber absorbs more impact than sand and reduces the repeated concussions horses sustain from being ridden on hard surfaces. It’s easier on the horses’ joints and the crumbs don’t freeze in winter. And it keeps dust down. I like a dustless arena.

My father never knew anything about this. It wasn’t available while he was alive.

 

I try to focus on rubber crumbs and whatnot, but I have to put some focus on Green Energy, because placed too close to my home, these turbines are black as the soul of the energy company’s greedy CEO, with their noise, shadow flicker, and subsonic vibration.

I might have expected my sensitive wife to develop Turbine Syndrome, but me? I was a Marine, born to fight and conquer. Nothing bothers me, but I’ve also been felled by Turbine Syndrome. After all the armed enemies I’ve faced for my country, it is turbines that have defeated me.

I pray I won’t become a slave to sleeping pills, but I know I need sleep—I need to care for my stock—and this is the only way to get it.

 

 

BIO

mitchell GraboisMitchell Krockmalnik Grabois has had over seven hundred of his poems and fictions appear in literary magazines in the U.S. and abroad. He has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize for work published in 2012, 2013 and 2014. His novel, Two-Headed Dog, based on his work as a clinical psychologist in a state hospital, is available for Kindle and Nook, or as a print edition. He lives in Denver, CO.

 

 

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