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The Writing Disorder is a quarterly literary journal. We publish exceptional new works of fiction, poetry, nonfiction and art. We also feature interviews with writers and artists, as well as reviews.

Girl With Empty Cup

Hands

Shades of Blue

Portrait in the Early Hours

Broken Blinds

Portrait with Garage

Nine A.M.

Brick and Mortar

The Writer





BIO

Paul Rabinowitz is an author, photographer and founder of ARTS By The People, a non-profit arts organization based in New Jersey. Through all mediums of art Paul aims to capture real people, flaws and all. He focuses on details that reveal the true essence of a subject, whether they be an artist he’s photographing or a fictional character he’s bringing to life on the page. 

Paul’s photography, short fiction and poetry have appeared in many magazines and journals including New World Writing, Waxwing Literary Journal, Pif Magazine, Courtship of Winds, Burningword, Evening Street Press, The Sun Magazine, Grub Street Literary Journal, The Montreal Review, The Metaworker, Adirondack Review, Bangalore Review, Grey Sparrow Journal, The Oddville Press and others. Paul was a featured artist in Nailed Magazine in 2020 and Mud Season Review in 2022. Paul was nominated for Best of the Net in 2021 for his Limited Light photo series and also nominated for the Maria Mazziotti Gillan Literary Service Award. Paul is the author of Limited Light, a book of prose and portrait photography, and a novella, The Clay Urn. Paul is working on a multimedia novel called Confluence, and has completed a poetry collection called truth, love and the lines in between. His poems and fiction, Little Gem Magnolia, Villa Dei Misteri, Confessional and The Lines In Between are the inspiration for 4 short films. Villa Dei Misteri and Little Gem Magnolia won best Experimental Films at the RevolutionMe and Oregon Short Film Festivals.

Paul has produced mixed media performances and poetry films that have appeared on stages and in theaters in New York City, New Jersey, Tel Aviv and Paris. Paul is a written word performer and founder of The Platform, a monthly literary series in New Jersey, and Platform Review, a journal of voices and visual art from around the world. Paul’s videos, photography and poems appeared in his first solo exhibit called Retrospective With Reading Glasses at CCM Gallery in New Jersey. He is currently at work co-writing a television series with author Erin Jones called Bungalow.

ABOUT PAUL’S PHOTOGRAPHS

This selection of photos comes from Paul’s ongoing photography series, Limited Light. The series was born from a desire to photograph artists in a way that captured the essence and emotion of their art, rather than focusing solely on their physical appearance. Because of Limited Light’s unique aim, the portraits often grew to become a collaboration between Paul and the artists–the final product coming out of a mutual trust and a shared understanding of the ultimate goal. The process of taking these photographs has adapted over time, but each photo featured here was taken in a sixty-minute session. Purposefully, Paul had never seen most of the artists before meeting them to take their portraits–he’d only witnessed their art. 

The artists Paul has worked with for this project range from poets to dancers to painters. There is no manipulation of the photographs, so what you see is what Paul saw when he took the photo. The name–Limited Light–comes from the fact that the only equipment Paul uses is camera; therefore, he has to rely on natural lighting and embrace how the subject is transformed by the changing light. This project, he says, has taught him how to accept uncertainty and see beauty in the variables he can’t control. 

Paul’s photographs have been published in Escapism Literary Magazine, The Sun Magazine, Courtship of Winds, Burningword Quarterly Journal, The Montreal Review, The Metaworker, Open Arts Forum, Grub Street Literary Journal, Waxwing Literary Journal and was the featured artist in Nailed Magazine in October, 2020 and Mud Season Review in 2022. Paul was nominated for The Best of the Net in 2021 by Burningword Magazine for his Limited Light photo series.

Several of the photos below are featured in his first book, Limited Light where he mixes his portraits with narrative prose. and also appeared in his solo show at CCM Gallery in New Jersey called, Retrospective with Reading Glasses.

TO LEARN MORE ABOUT PAUL’S ART:

https://www.paulrabinowitz.com/

THE WILD CHILD, An essay

by Catherine Filloux



July 2017. The flight from JFK was marked by the initial thrill of taking the A train subway from 145th Street in Harlem to the Rockaways for $2.75, and then for an additional five dollars cash mounting the Air Train to Terminal 5.  I cut straight to the bottom of the island of Manhattan, the subway crossed underwater into Brooklyn, through Queens, destined for the beautiful Rockaways. 

A week before I had gone to the Rockaways by ferry from Wall Street for $5.50, sailing South into the Bay past the Statue of Liberty, turning East along the Brooklyn coast of Coney Island and docking at the Rockaway peninsula to discover a beautiful and strange beach I’d never known. 

“…[N]o more than a detour on the long, featureless road of my loneliness.”  

This sentence would help inform what the novel I was reading was about, or what the heroine of the novel was about.  I had started to read the novel on the A train to JFK, and I read that sentence just as the plane was preparing to take off to San Diego.  What did the author Rachel Cusk mean?

This dilemma was just one of many dilemmas I was coming up against as I put down the book to begin writing this play, this monologue for which, honestly, I did not have a map nor course plotted; could not captain the ship—not that I sail.  My father had sailed a catamaran from France across the Atlantic with a crew of five and a dog, entering the same Bay past the Statue of Liberty.  I, however, had no operating principle for how to proceed with this text and no sense of belief that there were any guiding principles at all.  Had the world exploded?

Writing for me had been, up to now, tied to how I existed as human.  I wrote plays and by excavating subjects, I built creations that lived and breathed.  And these creations became similar to children–though I have none, so how can I say for sure?  

Yes, I do feel they are my children.  

And yet plays are not children.  Your average person, I think, would say plays are not children.  And those who have given birth to children, to other human beings, might find my feeling naïve, even insulting.

Another dilemma thrown nearly into my lap on the airplane from JFK was the young woman sitting next to me.  She was perfectly made-up, and groomed to appear as if a beautiful, sleek doll.  Her eyebrows appeared finely threaded, she wore a diamond in each ear and on her wedding finger.  She wiped down her seat and the area around her seat with a sanitary wipe.  It seemed her next step would be to start to wipe me down as well.  She then called the person on her phone screen which said “Daddy,” and then her mother.  I could not see if the screen said, “Mommy.”  She began to take photos of herself with her phone, altering her face with certain effects, large, round black-framed eyeglasses, and then devil horns.  She merged herself and her husband sitting next to her in more photos, with dual devil horns. Then I could hear her make a video of them saying together, “Going to San Diego.”  She started to play what appeared to be a vegetable version of Candy Crush, while simultaneously watching “The Zookeeper’s Wife” on the TV screen in front of her.   I barely know Candy Crush and do not know if I was right about the vegetables.  She had a third screen on her lap, a tablet, where she watched make-up tutorials that played in kind of stop-and-go slow motion.  

All this distracted me, momentarily, from the sentence about loneliness I had just read in the novel.  When I looked back at it, I thought I certainly wouldn’t describe “the road of my loneliness” as featureless.  

One of the over-arching dilemmas in the sea of them was that all these screens scared me, but I was beholden and bonded to the one I was now trying to write on, and the other one I received my messages on.  These screens were the equipment of a career, a life.  But it was inevitable that the man—whose blonde, previously orange hair was ever-present—always showed up in a kind of grand guignol effect on these screens, come what may.  A kind of supernatural shock of:  when would the next shoe drop in the dreaded Trump show?

I lived in a 300 square foot room in Harlem with no access to light from any windows, which looked out on brick, and on what seemed to me to be an abandoned scaffolding. Perhaps, yes, this was in fact after all “featureless loneliness.”  

Directly across the hall, our doors practically touching, lived an extended family, also in a similar-sized room, however with a large supply of furniture and electronic equipment.  They cooked meals in large proportions whose odors wafted plentifully into the hall, and people of all ages came and went at all hours, in a disciplined round-the-clock schedule of work, school and life.  It made me happy to see this bang-for-its-buck living situation and it appeared at least from the other side of the door that these were people with a place on this island. 

The memoir, the autobiographical, exposes one’s own personal cast of characters.  And so, as one gives birth this time—so to speak—to this, I ask the question, if this is even a decent thing to do?

When I arrived in San Diego, my sister kindly left the cell phone lot to pick me up in her red Fit with the Thule roof-rack still atop of her car as she approached, having arrived weeks earlier from Montana.  She wore a turquoise and black dress, which accented her beautiful tan, and flat black sandals which accentuated her turquoise toe polish.  Her short dark hair fell in ringlets.  She said that my mother had talked of coming with her to pick me up, but instead, in the front seat of the car was my father, 92, wearing shorts, which I had not seen him wear in maybe four decades.  He wore new and attractive sports shoes, if worn with socks that my sister had suggested he fold over.  

His hair, which has always been beautiful and thick, was white, wild, extending in wisps in all directions.  He spoke so quietly from the front seat I could not hear him, after I hugged him.  He was hard of hearing, and, in the past years had started to speak more and more softly.  My sister said that it was not a great use of my mother’s physical energy to come to the airport, with her walker.  

My parents’ house looked quite the same.  It had been nearly my first home, where they’d moved soon after I was born—a 1960s tract home my parents had paid more than they could afford, to have a view of cows on a hill in the distance.  Cows on a hill were as unlikely now as reaching any sanity on the repealing of Obamacare, which was our topic of discussion in the car from the airport.  

Unfortunately, my father could not hear what my sister was saying, and she implied to me that a fight with him had ensued recently about some aspect of this topic.  This was hard to believe because we were in my family all absolutely and unanimously on the same side, Anti-the-grand-guignol with orange hair.  But my sister implied through muted whispers and facial expressions in the rearview mirror—not that my father could hear or would notice—that the fight had to do with a fierce stubbornness on his part to be understood precisely on a sub-topic surrounding the repealing of Obamacare that was obscure and relevant to him, but not clear to us.  My father is a scientist.  

It was very late by then and my mother was asleep.  This was the first time in my life she was not there to greet me.  I took the narrow single bed in what we called the Obama Room.  This room had long ago been my younger brother’s room.  It shared a wall with my parents’ room.  

It had become an office with a computer, and also a kind of sub-room for my mother, who hung some of her clothes there.  It also was crowded with a huge, striking dark wooden armoire from my father’s rural France.  As everywhere in the house there was an overwhelming number of books on shelves that had been created to accommodate more and more. 

On the bed was a colorful bedspread with an enormous image of Obama’s face and lettering saying: “From Slavery to the White House.”  The comfort of sleeping under the Obama blanket, while flanking the wall with my elderly parents, who slept as well as they could despite their illnesses and age, was on some level exquisite.  

It was almost as if from this vantage point, in the Obama Room, under the Obama blanket that enveloped me, with my parents flanking me, I could expunge the grand guignol clown, Trump, at least momentarily.  

I started reading from my book again when my father knocked on the door.  I said, “Come in,” and he entered with a large yellow flashlight, which looked brand new, and said, what I already knew, that he liked everyone in the family to have their own, separate, flashlight, in case there was a problem in the night.  I nodded and took the flashlight, which I tried to find a place for on the tiny night-table already full to the brim.  

He asked that I make sure it worked.  I turned it on.  He then looked at me and said that it would also be necessary to turn it off.  We share the same sense of–all be it–elliptical humor.  I turned it off and thanked him.  I kissed him goodnight and said, “Bon Siar,” which was a pet phrase we used to say goodnight.  He started to leave and then turned back and came to hug me and kiss me.  He said, “I am so happy you are here,” as he left, “and it is I who thanks you.”

This would be I thought to myself the opposite of featureless loneliness, and, also, something that I had not seen or heard my father do before.  It was innocent, sweet.  Then he closed the door.  

As a little girl, when plagued with wild dreams I would go to my mother’s side of the bed and say: “J’ai fait un mauvais rêve.”

The next morning the ant infestation in the kitchen that had been acknowledged the night before had become worse.  My sister identified the crack in the grout from where the ants were emerging—an “all systems go!” signal having been sent out to their armies, it seemed.  She skillfully unleashed blue tape from a bulky roll and stuck it along the grout to halt their passage.  

After breakfast, my sister suggested that we go to town to see an exhibit of murals at the Historical Society.  Her daughter, my niece, was taking a photography class in the adjoining building.  The challenge of my mother’s 2:40pm appointment with a doctor called King was thoroughly discussed.  The clinic where we would take my mother had once been identified by a piece of famous artwork, a gigantic bronze sculpture, that had been erected at the clinic’s front door.  The sculpture had the appearance of, how else to say it, a large piece of shit–and had been razed.  And so, my mother, without judgment, identified the clinic for us as the one with “la crotte” in front of it.  This immediately made sense to us and my sister and I decided we had plenty of time to see the murals at the Historical Society and still make it to the doctor’s in time.  

My sister was sure that my father could not be readied for the trip at hand and suggested that I go out and talk to him about getting dressed.  I searched for him in a variety of places in the house, and garden.  

He had the tendency to move around quite stealthily, so that people would say they had just seen him in a spot, but when you went there, he was gone.  I found him on the side of the driveway inspecting some plants.  I explained that we were going into town to see some murals.  He was not wearing his hearing aid and asked me to explain who was going on the journey, where we were going, when we would leave, and then asked me to repeat the details again.  I explained that the goal would be to get dressed and be ready to go by 10:30. He nodded vaguely as he continued to inspect the plants.  I insisted on the details once more and left him.  I told my sister of my success and she said there was zero chance he would be ready.  

She went back out to the driveway where he still was and explained the rigor of our plan.  As I went to shower, I heard her calling to him as she re-entered the house, “You need to focus.”  It struck me as extraordinary that my little sister, who had always been advised and ordered around by the patriarchy—though perhaps that is a reductive way to put it–was now blatantly telling my father to focus, in perhaps the exact tone he might once have told her to.  

When take-off time had passed, we helped my father to get dressed, to locate certain items such as his wallet; place glasses in his clean shirt pocket, and make sure that he had witnessed the secure locking of the windows and front door of the house.  He had fallen recently and bloodied his face, leaving a scar, and we urged him to take his cane, which he flatly refused, putting it back where we found it.  After some psychological ministrations he took the cane, which he used with remarkable ease.  

After parking and helping my mother out of the car, unfolding the walker, and setting her on her path, with my father, we went to a small chapel my mother wanted to revisit. There we lit a candle and I read a sort of prayer that was written above the candle area.  We all meditated, and I believe my mother said Amen.  We were in an Episcopalian church and my mother is Catholic.  It seemed to me at this point that we and the candle were encompassed in a universal religion, that of a miracle.  We were all, as it were, standing—to a certain degree—on our two feet, that is: not on all fours, with no apparent falls, no fights, relatively on schedule, and at peace under the tutelage of the candle flame and the candle directives.  “Protect us and remember us.”  

At the Historical Society were the drafts of a mural created for the federal government by WPA Belle Goldschlager Baranceanu, in 1940.  By chance, “The Seven Arts” mural was above the stage of my high school where at 16 I played the Fortune Teller in The Skin of Our Teeth.  My hair streaked with gray, I was asked by my director, Mr. Stewart, to sit on the lip of the stage for my monologue.  “I tell the future…” The next word of my monologue was “Keck.” This was not a stage direction.  French being my first language, I always wondered if I was missing something I should already know.  Keck was a laugh?  A cackle?  I’m not exactly sure what I did for that.  “Everybody’s future is in their face…Your youth, —where did it go?…Next year the watchsprings inside you will crumple up.  Death by regret,—Type Y.  You’ll decide that you should have lived for pleasure, but that you missed it…”  In the school paper, my name and performance were singled out–information I happened upon by complete surprise.  

I don’t remember what they said.  

“You know as well as I do what’s coming…But first you’ll see shameful things.  Some of you will be saying: ‘Let him drown.  He’s not worth saving…’ Again, there’ll be the narrow escape.  The survival of a handful.  From destruction,–total destruction.” 

As a girl, I loved dirt; the taste in my mouth.  The smell of grass, mud.  To find a fort in the canyon above our house, where I could hide—and live.  Scanning the countryside on a camping trip–Baja, Mexico, the desert—for places to go.  Taught by Maman and Papa to live in a car, a tent, in the dirt, with one bag of possessions.  

I was 16, the Fortune Teller was old, and she didn’t give a shit about what anyone thought.  

As I grew up my body was always up for scrutiny.

“Salad will make your thighs rosier.”

“You have the hips to make great children.”

“Sorry that your kids will have no breast milk.” (i.e., considering the [small] size of your breasts.)

“Don’t wear shorts that show those [same] thighs, and if you do, that’s your fault for getting pinched on the behind or on the nipple as you walk down the street.”  That’s what my mother said to me.  And that’s what the men had told my mother when she was a girl.   

Honestly, that was just “normal” to me. 

After the Historical Society, we hurried forth to the building with the former piece of shit- sculpture.  Despite my mother’s handicapped placard to park, we could not locate a legitimate spot—though I saw from the corner of my eye that a “valet” option was open to all.  I paused slightly to comprehend “valet” parking from anthropological and sociological perspectives but had no time before unfolding the walker, accessing the nearly denied cane, unfolding limbs from car seats, setting bodies upright, organizing a march into the luxurious, sprawling clinic, as my sister solemnly promised to park where she could, and find us.  

The hospital affiliate was an industry of appointment counters, sub-stations, hand sanitizing machines, coffee gazebos/shops, wings with prominent lettering to show donors—so that a certain name was attributed to a certain body part, or illness. My parents and I began our ascent to the Mr. and Mrs. So and So Parkinson’s Center on the third floor, my mother walking very fast, listing forward on her walker and my father walking very slowly because of the cane. When he had fallen and badly bloodied his face, my sister had fainted, and he had also injured his finger.  As she was fainting, my sister promised my mother that she would soon be back on the scene to help.  Nonetheless my father had remarkable stamina to heal, and his facial scar was nearly gone.  

My parents were soon whisked in to see the doctor and my sister joined me in the waiting room.  She fell into a well-deserved light nap, and I seized the moment to make a phone call to see if I could find a larger space for a reading of a musical, we were doing in a bit more than a month.  The answer was a definite no, which was fortunate because just at that moment our names rang out in an unexpected announcement on the PA system. I couldn’t tell at first if it was heralding an honor or a problem.  My sister and I were directed through a coded security door and found my parents with the doctor, who told us that he was in love with our mother.  We nodded in hearty agreement and laughed when he continued looking at my father saying, “that she was already taken.”  The doctor made a quaint and somewhat pantomime of a hand turning pages indicating that my mother was doing too much reading, and not enough moving.  

A frustrating or vindicating—not sure—realignment of medication was prescribed, along with the suggestion that our mother join a special boxing gym tailored for Parkinson’s.  The doctor left us in a kind of elliptical abandonment, and we remained unsure if the visit had ended, though my mother assured us that he would return.  The four of us sat huddled in the small cubicle, and my mother began tallying the new dosages of medication and new times during the day that they needed to be taken, a process aided at home by a specific talking alarm to remind her. 

Ultimately, the doctor visit was pretty much over though he did return to call his own mother-inlaw to ask her where she herself boxed at her special gym.  By the time we got back into the car a lethargy—and a deep desire I’m sure for my mother to settle down to turn more pages when she got mercifully home–had been established.  The traffic was very bad, and we inched home in what could be named for myself only as a dark and numb defeat.  I donned my bathing suit and running shorts and my sister, my niece and I re-entered the car and were at the beach very soon. 

The weather had grown foggy, sunny, gray, and then bright, a kind of ever-shifting humid swirl.  I ran as far as I could to the North, along the shore until the rocks stopped me because I was barefoot.  Then I ran as far as I could south into the flocks of beachgoers at the hotels with their designated seating; past the kayak clubs, and finally the lone father-and-son snorkelers.  I ran fast and hard, as if I had suddenly become a long-distance runner, with a new career.  I could feel myself becoming a dedicated runner who would run forever, I thought, away from everything, gaining a great perspective from the running, that of more than anything having escaped.  My body felt like a well-oiled machine, fit for a very grand exit.  I then plunged myself into the Pacific which was so frothy with salt that I felt I was in a saline bubble bath of the California me, and the water warm, warm, warm, warmer than it had ever been in the half century I’d known it.  

“The ants come marching one by one, hurrah, hurrah…” was a tune I had not attributed much weight to, nor even thought I really remembered.  And yet they maintained their presence despite the blue tape my sister continued to lay atop the holes in the grout that she continued to find.  In the night, a relatively small trail emerged from the bathroom ceiling to the tiled floor, almost a hallucination since they were gone in the morning.  But they had been pushed from the kitchen, so they were re-routed.  Another morning there appeared another small trail, returned to the kitchen—seemingly delighted to have found an empty wooden cutting board with the remnants of cheese.  

(A beat.)

What is the wild child?  This discovery perhaps in the morning upon waking, of failure?  That solid, clear-eyed attempts at reasoning will outweigh chaos, that for oneself, the so-called captain of one’s ship—not that I sail—will manage to change her trajectory towards peace and progress.  

And the coming up short. 

My mother shuffles, I can hear her coming from far away.  When she is near, she keeps hold on the walker, but teeters.  

(A beat.)

I remember I’d just had two wisdom teeth pulled on the spur of the moment.  I called to tell my meditation teacher I could not come to class.  There was a pause. “It’s best you come,” he said.  

Those around you, those who love you, who know you, know your “sins.”  They saw them happen.  They already know what happened.  Do you have to write them down?  

The patriarchy rips apart the feminine?  Bad behavior, yelling, abuse, intolerable situations children are subjected to.  I was that child turning on the fan in the bathroom and even the water sometimes so as not to hear.  

And on this trip to San Diego, I did it again, though was different.  I was no longer destroyed by these two people my parents, despite my father’s new kind of 92-year-old rage.  

I had only love for them, and yet the fan was a nice way to be alone, and not distracted by voices for a spell.  

I now enjoyed the familial company, the constant hairpin turns based on what was needed at any given second for those who were merely trying to stand on their own two legs; to manage the days, punctuated by the medication alarm voicing its feminine confirmation, “Alarm acknowledged, the next alarm will be…”  

When I returned to New York from San Diego, I learned from two writers that a homeless woman was in the community writing room where I wrote.  

And then as I got up from writing this, to go the restroom there was a man in the hallway who asked if I could provide him with a key to the men’s room.  The writing room was suddenly on the map.  On the phone, my mother tells me that at 9:15 am, the doorbell rang, and her friend offered her and Papa a boudin blanc, then dashed off.  White blood sausage.  Then Maman asks if I have ever eaten a horse.  I’m not sure how the subject so swiftly switched, but answer: “No.”  Her father believed horse was good for anemia.  During the war, they ate what they could, she says.  My father, on the speakerphone, if barely audible, says that, yes, he has also eaten horse. 

“Avec leurs fers—horseshoe and all.”  As I hang up, I think I hear my father call out my name, so I call back.  My mother says no.  My mother also tells me she would have preferred black blood sausage.  

In their fireplace, which they no longer use to make fires, my parents have an effigy of Donald Trump.  On Sunday, the day I was leaving San Diego my mother sat in her usual armchair.  My father had just sat on the hassock next to her.  She had beckoned him to come sit there so that they could read the goodbye card I wrote for them.  After my father read it, he called our attention to the words: “fille aînée.”  Oldest daughter, which is how I signed.  If you change the “n” to “m,” it is “fille aîmée, beloved, he said. 

My father grew up in landlocked France, a place called La Creuse. He read an ad, joined a crew to sail a catamaran, with red Chinese sails, across the Atlantic.  He wrote a book about his crossing La croisière du Copula published by Julliard and translated into English.  I postponed reading the book for a long time.  He wrote of his joy–a word, I did not recognize.  This is after he entered New York Harbor.

Then he met a Frenchman who made the perfume Arpège, who also had a plastics business.  My father dreamed of designing a fiber glass sailboat, made a handshake deal and built the 50-foot sailboat himself.  The perfume man then seized this boat from him and broke his heart.  He stopped sailing and became an oceanographer in San Diego. His wild heart converted to measuring.  He made instruments to measure tides.

She would not come to the airport.  With her Parkinson’s, the walker and her imbalance it was too difficult.  

California.  New York.  But even before I moved East over thirty years ago there had been this seismic, cosmic question.  How to go away?

My father did come to the airport.  She remained in the chair. 

I love you.  How I would hope that my voice or my eyes or my lips against your cheeks would let you know for good.   I think of you all the time and this is not loneliness.  

The day after I left my parents, my father threw a box of Fiber All at my mother because we said he was no longer allowed to drive.  

When my mother’s family repatriated from Algeria, they were given a wooden crate.  Her parents’ simple wooden bed set was put in that crate and sailed to Toulon, France.  In Toulon, France, in my last year of high school I passed my Baccalaureate in Philosophy, to try to become the French me.  The bed sent from Algeria later made its way to San Diego.  My mother said the morning I left, “What does it even mean now, that I am ill, and I need a new bed?  It will all go away.  It has no value.”  But she also meant that it had no monetary value but something else.   

Once I was no longer a child, crying was alarming to my parents.  

Back in New York I can feel tears under my eyelids, the drops like birds when you hear a big group of them in a thick tree but can’t see them.  And in my heart, in my chest, is a welling up, an explosion waiting to happen. 

There are two parent doves outside my parents’ window.  When Papa is alone, he goes out to the patio and walks towards their nest and whistles to them.  I wish I could show you how he whistles but only he knows how to do that.  

The following spring, in Harlem on my birthday, I walked in a big blizzard to the subway.  The flakes were large and puffy.  Along the way I saw an expansive film crew setting up a shoot.  I heard a crew member saying they’d be shooting all night.  This, in a building with an abandoned jazz club, which was a historical landmark and had the vestiges of a red sign outside.  In the weeks before I had seen people doing some fixing up of the sign and the dilapidated interior.  I assumed from this repair work that the club was going to re-open.  The next night, while Ed Norris in the director’s chair shot his film starring Alec Baldwin and Bruce Willis, the building burst into flames and a firefighter lost his life.  The next morning the whole area was a closed-off investigation.  

Four days later I went in a Lyft, with my husband, to get our taxes done at our accountant near Grand Central.  The traffic crawled as all the roads were blocked.  A procession and a funeral for the firefighter were being held at St. Patrick’s.  Firefighters poured down the streets.  

Then that afternoon I took the MegaBus to Washington D.C.  My friend’s mother had gone to Cornell University with Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.  The next morning, we walked to the Supreme Court, went through many forms of security, relinquished all our belongings, and sat in Justice Ginsburg’s box.  When the first lawyer began his argument about partisan gerrymandering, Justice Ginsburg immediately interrupted him and asked him a question.  Later we met Ruth in her quarters, and she showed my friend a book of photos from Malta, where she had traveled and where my friend was going. She showed us the boxes where she stored her research materials for each case.  And a photo of her great grandchild.  She wore a beautiful textured jacket, with distinctive buttons, brown pants, and brown heels.  Her eyes looked out penetratingly from her eyeglasses.  She was so kind. 

On the MegaBus back to New York, an Asian woman got very sick, vomiting in the bathroom.  Her male partner administered acupuncture to her.  A girl child who was the only one in her party who spoke English said we should call 911.  The bus driver decided to take the woman and her family to Baltimore.  At the bus shelter we called her a cab and arranged for her to go to a motel.  By the time we got back to New York City it was very late.  The remains of the now burnt-out building with the abandoned jazz club were being placed in dumpsters to be carried away.  The fire trucks and fire men were there as if in a vigil for what they could no longer do.  

The next year in late summer I was invited to Hawaii for a writers’ fellowship by Barry Lopez and one of my publishers Manoa to honor my work in social justice.  Barry had recently written a new book called HORIZON: “What we say we know for sure changes every day, but no one can miss now the alarm in the air.”

In Maui, as you descend from the Kihului airport on the Hana Highway past Hana Town you reach Mile Marker 41, in Kipahulu, on the mountain side.  From the porch of the guest house where I was staying at Marker 41, you could see a thin steel tower rising above the coconut trees, the plumeria, the avocado trees and the orange trees, as the birds sing.  The tower is from the remnants of the sugar cane industry.  

If you continue past Mile Marker 41, you reach an unpaved road that climbs and descends before becoming paved again and going inland past Haleakala, one of the world’s largest volcanic craters.  And then back towards the Pacific Ocean to return to Kihului airport.   

Descending on the Hana Highway there are tall silvery eucalyptus trees that have blueish veins of translucence when I look back at them.  The Rainbow Eucalyptus trunk peels away to a green layer which eventually fades to blue and to other colors, before returning to brown and starting the process again.  

In San Diego, California, I grew up with green-leaved eucalyptus trees with ash colored bark in the median along La Jolla Scenic Drive, on our way to the right turn to our house on Sugarman Drive.  Sometimes the trees were shrouded in fog and sometimes the trees were ashen.  You could smell the trees, and my mother made paintings with eucalyptus bark.  We carried home swaths of eucalyptus bark that had fallen on the ground, which was an orange brown, with small orange-rust colored pebbles.  My mother made pebble mosaics framed in wood.  We also glued beach glass and shells, into the image of the Pacific Ocean and a sailboat, which was placed into a wooden frame outside on the patio.  My father made the frames.  At the Bishop Museum in Honolulu, you can see a hanging of eucalyptus bark which looks like the white fur of a sheep.  

Off the Hana Highway near Hana Town, the Pacific has white sand at Hamoa Beach; black sand at Waianapanapa State Park; and red sand at Kōkī Beach.  From Kōkī Beach you can see the small island of ‘Ālau.  

In Honolulu the kind host at the hotel who directs us to the coffee apologizes for the humidity not usual for the island, he says, due to climate change.  We thank him and say: please, you don’t need to apologize for the weather.  

In HORIZON Barry Lopez writes:  “I felt I wanted to look again at nearly everything I had seen.”  

In France, in Guéret, in the department La Creuse, my father’s father Emile shared the garden behind his house with us, the garden where he grew lettuce, potatoes, tomatoes and more.  There was a cherry tree, and he had beehives to make honey.  Granite is present in La Creuse and also in California.  I think of my ancestors when I see granite. 

At the farm stand shortly past Mile Marker 41 in Kipahulu there is tender lettuce for sale and taro.  Right before this farm stand is the grave of Charles Lindbergh.  A German man we meet at the grave, which is minutes from the guesthouse where we were staying, volunteers that Charles must be “lonely.”  We walk to the edge of the cemetery/field on the ocean side and see the lookout to the Pacific.  Our airport in San Diego on the Pacific is named Lindbergh Field, and there is a large mural of Charles Lindbergh in a pilot’s uniform. 

Hunter who lives across the road from the guesthouse is building a type of art gallery directly on the side of the road in a circular tin hut, with a sculpted door of faded turquoise.  The hut is surrounded by sculptures, hangings of found objects, boasts a deck, some chairs and a wooden whale with a rock for its eye.  Because Hunter is often working along the side of the road many tourists ask him for directions to places including the Lindbergh grave.  He hears a lot of different remarks about Lindbergh, which he says he lets pass.  

When I traveled to Oran, Algeria, I went to see my mother’s homeland.  I went to the top of Santa Cruz and looked down at the Mediterranean.  There were pine trees.  There is bougainvillea in Hawaii, La Jolla and Oran.  My father made a wooden trellis above our patio in La Jolla, where the bougainvillea took hold and covered the area between the house and the sky, sometimes the sun could barely break through.  And with time the vines that had taken hold of the trellis would winnow away, but then later spring back.  

Come to think of it there was also bougainvillea in Toulon, France, where my mother’s parents and her sister lived after they were repatriated from Algeria.  

Hawaii, La Jolla, Oran and Toulon are sun-filled lands.  The bougainvillea has pink, purple, orange, white and fuchsia flowers, depending where you are.  

In Hana Town we go to the Catholic Mass in the white church, St. Mary, at 9am and go across the street to the Wananalua Congregational church at 10am to hear the service mostly in Hawaiian.  We had visited the Catholic church a few days before and met a woman arranging flowers, as well as the priest.  The priest says that he will be giving a mass at the tiny church across from the guesthouse where we are staying in Kipahulu at 11am, where generally only two people attend.  He will then go on to another even more remote church down the road.  We visit that church when we go around the other side of the island to get back to Kihului.  There are old, sacred graves marked with black lava rock.  The church door is locked, and all is silent but for the waves.  

At the Catholic Mass in Hana there is a little girl in a pretty dress standing with her grandmother who plays the ukulele and sings.  The little girl is only happy when she is in possession of a gourd so she can drum along with the songs.  When other children have the gourd, she acts as if she is in violation of her holy rights and makes tragic faces and cries.  She taps her grandmother to get her attention and the grandmother continues to sing, sometimes giving her a comforting touch. 

As a girl I went to the white Catholic church in La Jolla called Mary Star of the Sea.  Once a eucalyptus tree fell onto the church.  There was a mosaic of the Virgin Mary with a blue cape, above the altar:  broken pieces of ceramic, which fit together with interstices.  The blue cape blended with the blue of the sea in the mosaic.  I looked up to her from my pew, holding my mother’s hand.  

As children growing up, my best friend across the street and I embarked on many projects.  We learned Batik from a family friend and in my backyard, we were able to boil the wax, which we would trace onto the lined designs we made on white sheet scraps.  We would crinkle the sheets into a ball, to make cracks in the wax.  Then we would dye the fabrics different colors.  We would hang up the fabric to dry in the sun and after it dried, we would boil out the wax, then iron our designed fabrics.  My friend and I were industrious and enthusiastic, and I remember at the end, we would throw the water into the gutter my father had designed behind our house.  

There was a large steep hill behind our house, and the earth went from very dry to sometimes receiving serious rainfall.  Drainage of water was a complicated issue for my father.  When he first arrived in California, he planted the whole hill with a variety of ice plant, which flowered in purple, yellow and pink, as well as aloe vera plants and other cacti.  

I have always loved cacti.  In the California desert such as Borrego, where we would hike and camp, there were ocotillo, which flowered in red in the Spring.   My mother always pointed them out.  My parents loved plants.  And she loved purple thistles, which were found in the mountains.  She would ask my father to stop the car so she could pick some.  I also love thistles.  They are delicate, wispy and prickly and stand out for me as my mother’s gift.  

At the place where I write in New York City, The Writers Room, there is a woman I have come to know, who has written about women in solitary confinement in the U.S. prison system and is now writing about climate change.  Her husband is an active protestor and is put in jail on a regular basis.  He asked me to read a one-person play he wrote about his experiences, which have sometimes been dangerous.  He went to trial and won his case.  He writes to me, when I am in Hawaii, ending his email with: “off to get arrested again tomorrow morning…”  Soon after he sends me another email: “Just back from jail,” with a picture captioned: “Shutting down 59th Street outside the Plaza Hotel at the beginning of today’s Bloomberg Global Business Forum.” 

The protestors are holding a banner that reads: “Unite Behind the Science.”  

The public school in Hana has Hawaiian murals on many of its schoolroom walls.  The indoor classroom and the outdoor world meld in Hana.  The world in Hawaii is often not divided between outside and inside.  The rain in the night can be so fierce and yet when I say the Hana Highway will be very slippery, I am not necessarily right.  Some signs along the way that say “Yield” or “Slow Down” are covered with mud, or dust, or stains from vegetation.  

Barry writes: “He was never able to determine what he meant by his life.”

In the Bishop Museum I see a model of Hawai’iloa, the wa’a kaulua, a Polynesian double hulled canoe.  

La Creuse where my father grew up is inland in the center of France.  When he sailed that catamaran across the Atlantic to the Bay of New York, he entered past the Statue of Liberty.  Then in Havre de Grace, Maryland, he built one of the first fiber glass sailboats.  For me there is great beauty in his sailing across the ocean to the place where I was born.  In that beauty is this phrase: “I have never been able to determine what I meant by my life.”  You would have to know Guéret, in France, its rural, peasant, natural beauty to know how strangely beautiful it would be to take a boat across an ocean, born from a landlocked village.  You would have to know that his father Emile fought in both World War 1 and World War 11.  That his brother was in the Resistance.  

And when my mother looked down from Mount Soledad, Solitude, to our town La Jolla, The Jewel, and the Pacific she saw her own country Algeria, as she did from Santa Cruz, in Oran.  It is impossible to determine the meaning, but only to say it all exists and is real.  

“To create a narrative that would engage a reader intent on discovering a trajectory in her or his own life, a coherent and meaningful story, at a time in our cultural and biological history when it has become an attractive option to lose faith in the meaning of our lives,” Barry says. 

Growing up, I had a fierce personal wish to prove my bilingual Franco-American nature.  I decided to graduate a year early from high school in San Diego to get my French Baccalaureate in Toulon, France the following year.  I chose the focus of Philosophy, doubled up on the French Literature obligation, and succeeded.  Before, in those two years of high school I took an elective typing class in the early morning, which I remember as one of the sweetest classes of all.  I made my way through all the Philosophy studies in French, trying to understand as well an 18-year-old could.  Hard work has always had a core meaning in my family.  As well as dissecting the meaning of words.  Both held crucial importance. “Va chercher le dictionnaire,” was a common directive.  We were a family that laughed at our mantras and still do.  I came back to California after the Baccalaureate.  Then I went to New York City, to that harbor where my father passed the Lady Liberty.  I likewise traveled all over the globe and across the United States to try to understand what might be my responsibility in this world, which my parents couldn’t help but open for me.  What is my obligation as an artist?  I talk about the word “complicity” because I am myself complicit.  

I have often dwelt in darkness and for this piece I thought I would write in the direction of what I have titled as beauty.  Barry writes, “Beauty refers to a high level of coherence existing everlastingly in the world.  Pay attention to small things I tell myself.  Look closely at what are clearly not the answers to some of your questions.  Do not presume that later you’ll be able to read about something you’ve witnessed today.” 

The love of my family is not a question.  The deserts, the beaches, the mountains of California, and those in Mexico where we drove on what for me was “the perpetual camping trip.”  We four siblings would eke out our small territories in the car, in our one bag of clothes, in our tent, in our food supplies.  And the way our parents delighted in the avocado, the mango; and the shrimp in San Felipe, Baja California.  When I traveled to work on a motobike in Cambodia, I consolidated my supplies in the same way.  The love of my artistic collaborations points to discoveries that feel like landing in new territories and exploring them, then finally coming to the edge of a beautiful new sighting.  When on the way back to Kihului, the silence; the end of the land as when the cavern came upon us on the back road and my sister said, “Come a little further down the path,” and she smiled at me, and I went. 

“Mystery is the real condition in which we live, not certainty,” Barry wrote. 

When I was working on a passage in a new play, I tried to unlock a mystery.  It is interesting how long it takes sitting at your desk to try:

                                                                        JEAN

                        Is the real problem that we humans are unable to change?

                                                                        EDWARD

                        That might be one of the favorite questions of white privilege.
                        I have seen plenty of humans have to change.  And those
                        humans are asked to do so again and again.

And:

                                                                        JEAN

                        So, this current feeling of moral exhaustion is also white privilege.   

And at my writing space, when I go to get a glass of water in the kitchen, I watch the other writers who come in to also get water or make a cup of tea.  We often exchange a simple joke, or comment, or just stare at one another.  Sometimes it feels we are staring at each other through that mystery, trying to place words on a page, in our uncertainty. 

The airplane is flying toward JFK, New York City.  Before, the other airplane flew from Honolulu to San Francisco.  Hours were skipped and light changed.  

“How to live a moral and compassionate existence when one is fully aware of the blood, the horror inherent in all life, when one finds darkness not only in one’s own culture but within oneself,” writes Barry Lopez. 

For a long time, I have written plays about genocide.  The central characters:  Raphael Lemkin, Thida San, Sarah Holtzman, Pol Pot, Luz, Alexandra, Jasmina, Joseph, Eve, Doug and the Prime Minister were some of my guides.  There was bloodshed and horror and the complicity of the United States and of my own self–always seeing how I had not seen.  Selfishness roars up in front of you, when you have convinced yourself it wasn’t there, or was even the opposite.  Those central characters: Lemkin etc. are awareness and they have felt real because I have loved them.  At the San Francisco airport hotel on C-Span last night, I watched news about the impeachment proceedings, and the defense by the grand guignol of what he called a “perfect” phone call to the Ukraine.  I watched and I knew that the unreal was being taken as real.  And then I turned off the light to go to sleep.  The hotel bed shook a bit throughout the night.  When I mentioned it to the man at the hotel desk as I was leaving, he said, “An earthquake?”  I said, “No, it went on all through the night.”  He said he’d make a note of my room number.  And yet a note might not provide an answer.  It appeared to be an older building on the side of a large freeway, on the second floor, which was the top floor.  Did the room sway the way San Francisco buildings are said to be engineered to withstand tremors?  

There is a banyan tree, past the mango tree U-turn in Kipahulu, that is enormous with a cosmos of branches and tiers.  You pass it on the way to the ocean and the remnants of a landing where boats unloaded their sugar cane haul during the 1800s.  I own a glass inkwell that says: “Cartier 1897,” purchased for five dollars from the neighbor Hunter across the street from Mile Marker 41.  The land behind his house was a dump for the people who worked in the sugar cane industry, and he collects them, by which one can inscribe things in ink. 

There is no “drama” in living life.

Barry Lopez died on Christmas Day, 2020.

My mother died 4 days later.  As a little girl, when plagued with wild dreams I would go to her side of the bed and say: “J’ai fait un mauvais rêve.”
And she would tell me something, a directive
That would send me back to sleep.
To translate, J’ai fait un mauvais rêve,  
is to experience the difficulty of our language.
“I had a bad dream.”
And so is our life together,
Our in-between life
which exists between language.
She who taught me to love it, to write it
I can remember writing the words with her
Her enthusiasm, passion, practicality with language
Langue
Tongue
Was beyond contagious, it was infectious palpable, breathable.
She is in my every breath
And has given me this mixed
language, which I will continue to disentangle,          
fathom…
Oh, Maman!
The in-between Cat Stevens song, 
she would sing the refrain with us with such delight
“Oh, baby, baby, it’s a Wild World”.
It was, is.
To contain this is to contain Infinity.
To start is, not to end.

(A beat.)

What is the wild child?  That solid, clear-eyed attempts at reasoning will outweigh chaos, that for oneself, the so-called captain of one’s ship, will manage to change the trajectory towards peace and progress.   

August 2021.  I am walking through the door.  And there is Papa.  



BIO

CATHERINE FILLOUX is an award-winning playwright who has been writing about human rights and social justice for over twenty-five years.  Her plays have been produced around the U.S. and internationally.  Catherine has been honored with the 2019 Barry Lopez Visiting Writer in Ethics and Community Fellowship; the 2017 Otto René Castillo Award for Political Theatre; and the 2015 Planet Activist Award.  Filloux is the librettist for four operas, produced nationally and internationally; her most recent Orlando is the winner of the 2022 Grawemeyer award.  Recent plays include: White Savior at Pygmalion Productions in Salt Lake City, Utah; her web drama about deportation and children, “turning your body into a compass” livestreamed by CultureHub, and “whatdoesfreemean?” produced in New York City by Nora’s Playhouse.  Filloux’s plays have been widely published and anthologized.  Her new musical Welcome to the Big Dipper is a 2018 National Alliance for Musical Theatre finalist.  She received her M.F.A. at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts’ Dramatic Writing Program and her French Baccalaureate in Philosophy, with Honors, in Toulon, France.  She is a co-founder of Theatre Without Borders, as well as an alumna of New Dramatists. 

www.catherinefilloux.com







The Third Floor

by Nancy Machlis Rechtman



The battered red Volkswagen pulled up to the entrance of the grey, forbidding building. A well-dressed young woman with almost-blonde hair got out and entered through the main doors which slammed shut behind her. There was a surly-looking man in a white uniform standing by the entrance and he looked her up and down.

“Who you here to see? he asked.

“A doctor,” Diana said.

“Who sent you here?”

“My doctor, Dr. Smith…”

“That your car?” he interrupted.

She nodded yes.

“Plates are out of state. You from out of state?”

She nodded again.

“What are you doing here then?”

“My insurance is here.”

“Never mind,” he said brusquely. “Explain It to them at Admissions. You going to sign yourself in?

“I suppose so.”

“Well, I’ll let them handle it at Admissions.” He turned and started to walk away.

“Wait a minute. Where am I supposed to go?” Diana asked.

The man glared at her like she didn’t have a brain in her head. “I toldyou. Admissions.”

“Would you mind telling me where that is? I’m in a lot of pain…”

He started to walk away again, muttering under his breath.

“What did you say?” she asked timidly.

He didn’t turn around but spoke loud enough for her to hear. “Third floor.” Then he disappeared down the hall before she could ask any further questions.

Diana tried to find an elevator which proved to be almost as difficult as getting an answer out of the man in the white uniform. The halls had been laid out in a random, chaotic manner and she felt like a rat in a maze, trying to find her way to the cheese. Instead of an elevator, she found a staircase and decided that it might be her best course of action. The burning sensation in her gut was getting worse and she didn’t want to waste any more time trying to find the goddamn elevator. She opened the door to the staircase and walked over to the stairs. The door slammed shut behind her with a thud. That seemed about par for the course in this place.

Diana began to climb the stairs and after a few minutes, it seemed as if she had climbed forever. But there were no outlets, so she just kept climbing. She had to stop and catch her breath several times and considered turning back, but she was sure that eventually there had to be a way out. Finally, she reached a landing where there was a door. She reached for the handle and her heart dropped down to the pit of her stomach. It was locked. She began to pound and yell, hoping to attract someone’s attention. Finally, the knob turned and she was face to face with a pitted old lady wearing a moth-eaten terry robe and matching shower cap. The woman stared at her, then walked away. Diana looked around the drab, green hall, hoping to find someone in authority, but there didn’t seem to be much chance of that.

“Excuse me!” she called out to the bathrobe lady.

The woman turned around belligerently. “What the hell do you want?”

Diana was taken aback but found her voice once more. “Could you please tell me where Admissions is?”

The bathrobe lady stared at her in disbelief. “You’re in already, aren’t you? Why the hell do you need Admissions if you’re already in?”

“Well, I’m in, but not really in, you see…”

“Third floor.”

“I know that,” Diana said starting to lose her patience. “I just can’t seem to find the third floor.”

“You lost a floor? No one around here’s ever done that before.”

“What floor is this?” Diana asked.

“You see the sign?”

“No. No, I don’t,” Diana said wearily.

“There’s always a sign. Just keep looking.” With that, the bathrobe lady turned and shuffled off.

Diana looked around in despair. She heard strange sounds coming from behind the closed doors of one of the rooms, like an animal might make when it’s caught in a trap.

Diana felt the iron knot tightening in her stomach and realized she needed to sit down somewhere. She reached a large room with an open door. There were no chairs, only a broken-down cot. She collapsed onto it as she felt the pain get more intense, spreading throughout her entire body. She didn’t realize that she had fallen asleep until she awoke to find herself surrounded by five pairs of curious eyes. She stared back, uncomprehending at first, then bolted upright, clutching tightly at her purse.

“What have they done to you?” asked a faded old man kneeling by her elbow.

“They haven’t done it yet, can’t you tell?” insisted a young man close to her toes.

“Done what?” Diana asked, hazily.

The five pairs of eyes exchanged glances, then looked down at the floor.

“Please,” Diana said. “I’ve been trying to find my way to the third floor. Would one of you be kind enough…”

“What’s the matter with you, couldn’t you find the goddamn sign?” came a familiar and not very welcome voice.

Diana cringed, suddenly recognizing the bathrobe lady.

“What do you want the third floor for?” asked the young man in a hushed voice.

“Don’t be rude,” admonished a wispy young girl who was chewing daintily on a candy bar.

“Well, what floor are we on now?” Diana asked.

The old man giggled. “Can’t you read?”

“Seems to me she don’t know much of nothing,” pronounced the bathrobe lady.

Diana fought back her mounting frustration along with the pain that had taken over her body. “Perhaps if one of you would be kind enough to show me the sign, I could be on my way. I really am in a bit of a hurry, you see.”

“Then what were you doing sleeping like that in the middle of the day?” asked a man who seemed to be composed entirely of butter.

“Come with me – I’ll show you the sign,” said the wispy young girl, almost halfway through with her candy bar.

“Ain’t no one goin’ nowhere!” boomed a deep voice from the doorway. Diana looked up, startled, while the others simultaneously dropped to the floor and crawled under – or partially under – the cot. There stood the biggest, meanest-looking linebacker of a nurse ever seen on the face of this earth.

“Excuse me,” Diana said meekly. “Perhaps you can help me. You do work here, don’t you?”

Nurse Linebacker snickered. “I ain’t seen you around here before. You better learn now – I’m the one who asks the questions around here and you better learn that quick. So why don’t you tell me – who are you?”

“Well, my name is Diana Johnston and I’ve been trying to find the…”

“QUIET!” bellowed Nurse Linebacker. “I don’t want your whole life story – you can tell that to the headshrinker!”

“Headshrinker?” Diana repeated. Upon getting no response, she plunged on. “Well, you asked who I was.”

“Your number, you dope!” shouted the bathrobe lady.

“But I don’t have a number!” Diana exclaimed.

“Impossible!” insisted the butter man. “Everyone has a number.”

“In his case, two numbers!” the bathrobe lady cackled.

“ENOUGH!” shouted Nurse Linebacker. “Now, don’t give me no problems, or else.” She looked down and noticed the candy bar in the wispy young girl’s hand, sticking out from under the cot. In one swift motion, she grabbed it out of the girl’s hand and shoved it into her own mouth, spitting out the wrapper and swallowing the candy bar in one gulp. She then returned her attention to Diana, who had watched the feat with the candy bar in utter amazement. “So, what’s your number?”

“I told you…” Diana began.

“No, I’m tellin’ you!” Nurse Linebacker boomed. “You tell me your number or I’ll personally drag you by your ears down to Admissions and have them check your file!”

“Fine!” Diana shrieked. “I’ve been trying to get to Admissions all morning!”

“What on earth for?” asked the old man. “You’re already in.”

Diana counted to ten in her head to steady her breathing. “I need to see a doctor. So I would be very grateful if you would show me to Admissions so that I can check myself in.”

“Third floor,” said Nurse Linebacker.

Diana took a deep breath. “Could you take me there?”

Nurse Linebacker looked at her with disdain. “You can’t find a floor? All right, come on. You’re in worse shape than most.”

With that, the hulking figure gave one last furious glare to the five figures huddled on the floor, then grabbed Diana’s shoulder, whirled around, and propelled her down the hall towards a door at the end. She opened it, shoving Diana ahead of her. It was another staircase, lacking any sort of illumination. Diana stumbled, then groped her way down the stairs, Nurse Linebacker’s palm still firmly attached to Diana’s shoulder. After walking down six steps, they reached a landing. Nurse Linebacker swung the door open and pushed Diana out into the light. There was a large, block-letter sign directly across from them which spelled out “ADMISSIONS.” Diana gasped.

“Only six steps!” she exclaimed.

Nurse Linebacker gave her another withering look. “Well, you’re here. Better get a number fast. Or else.”

Another nurse approached and started clucking when she saw Nurse Linebacker.

“Althea, what are you doing in those clothes?” asked the tiny nurse.

Diana glanced at Nurse Linebacker and was stunned as she watched the previously imposing figure shrink back and cower in the doorway.

“Nothing, Ma’am,” Nurse Linebacker whispered.

“Then put back that uniform wherever you found it and get back to your room right now. And I mean right now or there won’t be any TV privileges for you for the rest of the week!”

“Yes, Ma’am. Right away, Ma’am.” With that, Nurse Linebacker – aka Althea – raced out of sight as Diana tried to contain her astonishment.

“Oh, hello, dear,” said the new nurse who resembled a parakeet with her yellow hair, darting eyes, and curious way of clicking her mouth when she talked. “Don’t mind Althea. She always manages somehow to get a hold of one of our uniforms and scares the hell out of the other patients, don’t you know.  She’s basically harmless, though. And who might you be, dear? I don’t believe I know you. Why aren’t you in your room?”

Diana looked at Nurse Parakeet gratefully. Finally, a rational being! “Well, I’ve been looking for Admissions, you see…”

Nurse Parakeet suddenly became the epitome of efficiency. “Oh, my dear, well, we can’t have that! You just come with me and we’ll fill out all the forms. Self-admitting, I suppose.”

Diana nodded her head. “Yes, and I hope you can get me to Dr. Smith soon. He said he’d try to meet me here…” She hurried to follow the twittering nurse into the Admissions office and sat down across from her.

“Name?”

“Diana Johnston.”

“Age?”

“Thirty-two.”

“Problem?”

“I’ve got this terrible pain…”

“Yes, yes. Life can be filled with pain, you know. In fact, that’s my motto. You see, I even stitched a sampler with those very words, as a daily reminder,” Nurse Parakeet said, indicating a sampler over her shoulder. Diana looked closely and sure enough, there were those exact words done in very neat little stitches: Life Can Be Filled With Pain, You Know.

Nurse Parakeet pulled some more forms from the printer and gave them to Diana. “You can write, can’t you, dear?”

Diana looked at her. “Oh, I’m in pain, but it’s not so bad that I can’t write.”

Nurse Parakeet beamed. “That’s the spirit! There may be hope for you yet. But of course, we’ll let the doctor decide. Come along with me – he’s very busy, you know.”

Diana rose slowly since the pain was becoming unbearable, and followed Nurse Parakeet back into the hall, through several corridors, and was aware of almost inhuman sounds coming from behind the doors of some of the rooms, just like those she had heard earlier. She wondered exactly what went on in this hospital, but her thoughts were suddenly cut off when Nurse Parakeet stopped short and indicated a door to her right.

“The doctor’s in there, dear. When you’ve finished, come back to Admissions so you can finish filling out your paperwork and I can assign you a room – once the doctor’s rated you.”

“Rated me?” Diana repeated.

But Nurse Parakeet was already off, fluttering back down the hall. Diana knocked lightly on the door and entered. There wasn’t anyone there and she looked around slowly. It was the strangest examining room she had ever seen. There was a long leather couch, a large over-stuffed chair, and that was it.

“Lie down!” shouted a voice behind her.

Diana whirled around. There was a short, grey-haired man with a pointed beard, round spectacles, nearly-invisible slits hiding behind the lenses which she realized were his eyes, and a nervous tic that pulled the right side of his face towards his right ear and then released it like shooting a rubber band across the room at a random target.

“Gotcha!” he cackled, rubbing his hands together gleefully.

“Who are you?” Diana demanded.

“I’m Dr. Sputz, of course. And you must be number 117053, if I’m not mistaken.”

“I don’t have a number. My name is Diana Johnston.”

“Everyone here has a number. It’s mandatory. But if you want to deny having one, we can delve into that another time.”

“I’m not denying anything! Can we please just get on with the examination? I feel like I’m on fire.”

Dr. Sputz grabbed his notebook excitedly and began writing furiously, mumbling, “Patient has severe burning symptoms, the Heaven and Hell Syndrome, perhaps.”

“Doctor, can you please hurry? It’s getting worse.”

“Of course it is! Lie down now and let’s talk about this pain.”

“Well, it’s centered around my gut…”

Dr. Sputz jumped up and down. “Wonderful! Wonderful! The pain is in the gut! Of course, if it was in the heart, it would be even better. Then we could talk about unrequited love. But the gut will do just fine for now. Lie down.”

Diana sat on the couch and noticed straps hanging down from the side. But Dr. Sputz didn’t give her the time to comment.

“I suppose I should ask anyway – are you in love?” he asked.

“Am I what? Look, I don’t think we’re getting anywhere. Do you think you can have Dr. Robert Smith paged – he told me to meet him here.”

“Aha!” whooped Dr. Sputz. “I was right! A romantic rendez-vous with your doctor. And now he hasn’t shown up. No wonder you’re in pain!”

“What the hell are you talking about? Dr, Smith was going to give me some tests to see if I need an operation.”

“Tests! Even better! I can give you tests. And then we can operate. Oh, young lady, you’ve made my day!” Dr. Sputz grabbed Diana’s hand and kissed it fervently. “Now lie down and I’ll strap you in.”

Diana looked at him nervously. “You know, I think I’m feeling better now. Maybe I’ll just go home. I’ve got to make dinner for my husband and kids anyway.” She started to get up.

“Sit!” barked Dr. Sputz.. Diana automatically obeyed. “Lie down! Roll over! Play dead!”

Diana stared at him.

“No wonder you’re in pain. Not only are you in love with your doctor, but you’re a married woman! Involved in a secret love affair! Or maybe I was right and it is unrequited love – perhaps your doctor has been using you as his plaything, a sexual object! Well, which is it?” He stopped and looked at her questioningly, his pen hovering over his notebook.

“I’m leaving,” Diana declared. As she rose, Dr. Sputz lunged forward and tackled her, throwing her onto the couch. He grabbed the straps and tied her down so she couldn’t move, then he stood up.

“They didn’t tell me you were violent!” he exclaimed, straightening his clothing. ”I will excuse it this time – the torment of psychic pain can bring us to do many strange things.”

“Psychic pain! You’re crazy. I told you, my gut’s on fire!” Diana cried.

“That’s right, of course it is after all you’ve been through. I’ll get the nurse to give you a sedative. Then, when you’ve calmed down, we’ll begin with the tests. We’ll start with something easy, ink blots perhaps.”

“Ink blots!” Diana screamed. “Let me out of here! I’ll sue you, I swear, if you don’t untie me and I mean now!”

But Dr. Sputz bounded over to the phone and spoke urgently into the receiver. “Yes, yes, a large dose – the largest you’ve got – she’s getting quite hysterical.”

A moment later, Nurse Parakeet flew into the room with a tremendous hypodermic needle, almost as long as her arm. She looked at Dr. Sputz who nodded towards Diana. Nurse Parakeet plunged the needle into Diana’s arm. The room started to spin almost immediately and the last thing Diana heard was Dr. Sputz whispering to Nurse Parakeet, “She threatened to sue.”

The next thing Diana was aware of was that she was lying on a cot in a small, drab room, and her arms were tied down. She was very thirsty and could barely swallow. The door soon opened and Nurse Parakeet entered.

“Well, what a sleepy-head you are,” she twittered. “You were a very naughty girl, you know. But we’ve decided to forgive you this time and give you another chance.”

“Water,” Diana whispered.

Nurse Parakeet handed her a paper cup. “Here, drink this all down like a good girl, that’s a dear.”

“How many hours have I been asleep?” Diana asked.

“Let’s see…you came in on Wednesday …about two days, I think.”

“Two days!” Diana shrieked.

“Now, don’t get yourself excited or, well, let’s not get into that right now.”

“Where’s Dr. Smith?”

“Dr. Smith?” Nurse Parakeet frowned. “Oh, you mean your lover. He never showed up. But it’s really better that way, don’t you think? Especially for the children, you know.”

“Dr. Smith isn’t my….” Diana stopped. What was the point? “What about my husband? I left him a voicemail to meet me here – did he show up?”

Nurse Parakeet looked at Diana pityingly. “No, dear. I suppose that’s why you’ve been in such pain. It must be hard to accept the fact that nobody cares.”

“I don’t understand. I left him a message to meet me at County General.”

“Now why would you do a silly thing like that?”

“What do you mean?”

“Why, County General’s about two miles down the road. Why would he drive there to meet you here? I suppose you were afraid he’d catch you red-handed with your doctor lover so you sent him on a wild goose chase, didn’t you?”

Diana felt the knot tightening in her stomach. “Where am I?” she asked hoarsely.

“My dear, don’t you remember anything? You’re at County Mental Health Institute.”

Diana stared at Nurse Parakeet in shock, then started to laugh. “I’m in a loony bin! My insides are on fire and I’m tied up in a goddamn insane asylum!”

“We prefer to think of it in more constructive terms, dear. We like to refer to our facility as a recreational center for healing of the mind and spirit.”

“Would you please untie me?”

“I don’t think that’s allowed, dear,” Nurse Parakeet said firmly. “Why?”

“So I can leave, of course.”

“Oh, no, my dear, we can’t have that. We haven’t even begun the tests.  And then the treatment. You’ve been rated a fifteen, you know. Oh, dear, I don’t know if I was supposed to tell you that.”

“What’s a fifteen?” Diana asked.

“Well, anything over a ten is dangerous. Fifteen is the worst.”

“You don’t understand,” Diana said, fighting to remain calm. “This is all a mistake. I’m supposed to be at County General. I’m from out of state, my GPS stopped working just before I got here. I guess I made a wrong turn.”

“Yes, well, we all take the wrong road at some point in our lives. But what on earth would you have gone to County General for? They can’t treat your problems there, my dear. You’re deep in the grip of a painful psychosis and we’ve got quite a battle ahead of us to return you to good mental health,” Nurse Parakeet chirped.

“I’m fine, believe me,” Diana insisted. “Now just untie me please so I can get my things and leave.”

“I’m afraid I can’t do that,” Nurse Parakeet said.

“Why not? I don’t belong here.”

“Because you haven’t been cured.”

“Take my word for it. I’m a new woman.” Diana tried to sound upbeat.

“Oh dear!” cried Nurse Parakeet.

“What now?”

“A new woman? I’ll have to inform the doctor that you’re exhibiting signs of schizophrenia!”

“It’s an expression!” Diana shouted. “Anyway, you have to let me go. I checked myself in – it’s not like I was committed or anything.”

“That’s right – it’s worse.”

“What do you mean?”

“I’ve got papers that you signed, admitting you were in need of help and giving us free rein in treating you until we’re sure you’re one hundred percent cured.”

Diana stared at her. “I don’t believe this! Look, at least let me call my husband to let him know I’m here. He must be worried sick. And I’m sure he can straighten this out.”

“No calls are allowed to the outside,” declared Nurse Parakeet.

“Why not?”

“Rules, my dear. We’ve got to follow the rules. Now, you just calm down and we’ll give you some tests to see exactly how far gone you are.”

“What if the tests show I’m normal? That I’ve been cured? Then can I go?”

Nurse Parakeet twittered. “You really are on another plane of reality, aren’t you, dear? Just relax and the doctor will be in soon to begin the testing.” With that, Nurse Parakeet turned and flitted out of the room.

Diana was in despair. How could she convince these people that they had made a horrible mistake? And what about Sam and the kids – they must think she had been kidnapped or even killed at this point. Actually, being kidnapped didn’t seem entirely inappropriate in describing her situation. She certainly was being held against her will. And what was this business about no phone calls? Her cell phone was in her purse which had been confiscated and it had no charge left anyway, but maybe she could use a phone at the nurse’s station. Or Admissions. She had to get out of here, she would have to escape. But there was nothing she could do while she was strapped down like this, and she was starting to get so sleepy again.

“Attention!” boomed a familiar voice, startling Diana out of her torpor. She looked up and there was Nurse Linebacker, or rather, Althea, standing in the doorway in a nurse’s uniform about two sizes too small for her, the buttons straining against the buttonholes, like a can of Pillsbury biscuits ready to pop.

“Althea, I’m so glad to see you,” Diana said weakly.

“Speak up!” Althea roared. “You don’t whisper to a superior. And how dare you lie down while I’m addressing you. Get up!”

“I can’t get up,” Diana said, nodding toward the straps.

“Aha!” Althea cried. “Time for the treatment to begin.”

“No, not yet. Just some tests.”

“Ha!” Althea exclaimed.

“What is the treatment anyway?” Diana asked.

Althea blanched, then glared at Diana. “Classified information. Top secret.”

“Have you had the treatment, Althea?”

“No questions allowed! Especially while you’re still lying down after I gave you a direct order! We may have to throw you in the stockade!”

“Listen, I’d like to show respect towards you, I really would,” Diana assured her. “But I’ve got to remain disrespectful as long as I’m tied down like this.”

“I won’t stand for it!” Althea bellowed as she bounded over to the cot. With one swift motion, she had ripped the straps from Diana’s arms, freeing her. Diana tentatively stretched her arms and began rubbing them gingerly.

“Attention!” Althea yelled.

Diana stood up as quickly as she could, but her knees buckled and she had to support herself against the wall. She realized that Nurse Parakeet had slipped something into the water she had given her. Her mind was foggy and she could barely stand. She knew that Althea was her only hope for escape.

“I’d like to make a suggestion,” Diana said. “I think a march might be in order to get me back in shape.”

“Quiet!” roared Althea. “Just for that, you’re coming with me.”

“Where to?” Diana asked hopefully.

“On a march. Hup, two three four, now we’re going out the door…”

Diana tried to regain control of her brain as they marched up and down the halls, Althea prodding her along. She was dimly aware that the pain in her gut had lessened considerably. Maybe she wouldn’t need an operation after all. Now, if only she could maneuver Althea towards the exit, or rather, have Althea maneuver her.

“You’re out of step!” Althea yelled. “Shape up!”

“I’m hungry,” Diana said. “I haven’t eaten in days.”

“Don’t be a jellyfish! We all have to do without. Hunger is good for you, builds character.”

“If only I could… Oh, never mind.”

Althea looked at her suspiciously. “If only you could what?”

“Well, it’s just that I had a whole bag of candy in the back of my car and if I could only get to my car…”

“What kind?” Althea’s eyes glistened.

“Milky Ways.”

“No one’s allowed outside. Rules!”

“Creamy, chewy chocolate and caramel.”

“Rules!” Althea trembled.

“I’d just run out real quick and then come back. I’d only take one for myself – the rest of the bag would be for you.”

“Rules!” Althea gasped.

“You could watch me from inside and then we could run into one of the rooms and stuff those ooey gooey chocolatey delights…”

“To the car!” Althea commanded.

Diana tried to keep up with Althea who was practically galloping down the hall. They turned a corner and there was the exit, those wonderful clanging doors directly in front of them. Diana glanced around, but no one else was nearby.

“OK,” Althea said. “No funny business.”

She stood to the side as Diana walked past her to the doors, her heart pounding. She didn’t have an actual plan since she didn’t have her purse with her car keys or her uncharged phone. All she knew was that she was going to have to make a run for it.

“Ready!” Althea yelled. “Set!”

Diana paused, waiting to hear ‘Go!’  But when ‘Go!’ never came, she turned around and there was no Althea. Instead, Dr. Sputz was standing several feet away, arms folded, with two gorilla-type guards by his side.

“You’re not leaving so soon, are you, my dear?” Dr. Sputz demanded.

Diana bolted for the door, but the guards’ cretinous looks belied their swiftness. They lunged forward and grabbed her arms, then dragged her down the hall with Dr. Sputz following, his cackle echoing behind him.

They took the elevator back to the third floor, then Diana was shoved into a bright yellow room with a cot in the middle and all sorts electrical gadgets surrounding it. She looked around fearfully.

“Let me go,” she pleaded.

“My dear, no one leaves here until they are cured. And to be cured, we must get rid of the pain.”

“The pain’s gone, I swear. It’s gone,” Diana insisted.

“Liar!” Dr. Sputz shouted. “You haven’t had the treatment yet, you’re still in terrible pain! But if you’ll behave yourself, the cure will be much easier.” Dr. Sputz nodded for the two gorillas to strap Diana down to the cot. She had little strength to resist.

“OK, we will now begin the tests,” Dr. Sputz said with forced calm. He pulled some papers from a folder and the two gorillas attached several wires to Diana’s head and arms. “What’s this?” he asked, flashing an ink blot at her.

“A train.” Diana said.

“Wrong!” he yelled.

Diana screamed as the electric shocks raced through her body.

“Aha!” Dr. Sputz exclaimed. “I see I was right! You are still in pain. No, I ask you again, what is this?”

“A cow?” she guessed.

“No, no, no!” he roared, once again motioning for the electric current to sear the nerves of her body. “Again!” he demanded. “What is this?”

“I don’t know,” Diana whispered.

“Fine, fine, that’s right,” he said, patting her on the head. “Now I will give you sixty seconds to put this puzzle together.”

“But I can’t move my hands,” Diana protested.

“No excuses!” he yelled, stamping his foot. He grabbed a stopwatch. “Start now!”

Diana frantically tried to move her hands, but she was tied too tightly. “Can’t you at least loosen the straps?” she pleaded.

“Thirty seconds!” Dr. Sputz whooped, running back and forth across the room. Diana struggled against the straps even harder. Dr. Sputz jumped up and down, looking at the stopwatch. “Ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three, two…” He glared at Diana. “Nothing! You weren’t even able to put two pieces together! We’ll have to intensify.” He nodded and now double the voltage wracked her body. Diana screamed again, then sobbed.

“Oh, don’t be such a wimp!” Dr. Sputz ordered. “We’ve got to give you some backbone – that’s the only way you’ll learn to withstand the pain of the world. Now how many fingers do I have up?” he demanded, holding up one finger.

“One,” Diana said.

“Imbecile!” he shrieked.

ZAP went the charge through Diana’s body. She felt that she was going out of her mind from the pain.

“Try again!” he shouted.

“I don’t know, I don’t know,” she moaned, hoping this was once again the right answer.

ZAP! ZAP! The jolts tore through her body which was now twitching uncontrollably.

“A person has ten fingers, count them – ten!” Dr. Sputz yelled, waving his hands in front of her face.

“But you only had one up, you asked how many fingers you had up!” she said through her tears.

“Up, down, it’s all relative. But always, one has ten fingers. This is very basic, my dear. If you can’t even remember the basics, how do you expect us to help you?”

“Let me go, please,” Diana implored.

“You’re not cooperating,” Dr. Sputz warned.

“At least let them know I’m here,” she sobbed.

“The outside world is the source of your pain, don’t you see? It’s forbidden for you to have any outside contact until you’re completely cured.”

“You’re the one causing the pain!” Diana shouted.

Dr. Sputz turned scarlet. “How dare you!” he sputtered. “I’m a doctor, I cure pain.”

“I’m fine!” Diana yelled. “You’re the one who’s all screwed up. I came here with a physical problem, not psychic pain! It was a mistake! I drove here by mistake! My GPS stopped working because I needed to charge my phone and I forgot my charger. But I didn’t mean to come here, it was a mistake! And you’ve kept me here against my will, drugged me, abused me…”

Dr. Sputz jumped up and down in a frenzy. “We don’t make mistakes! Everything we do is for a reason. And there are no mistakes in life. You meant to come here. How can you deny your psychic torment? You drove here purposely whether you realize it or not!”

“I’m going to sue you!” Diana screamed. “My husband is a lawyer! I’m going to sue you and your nurses, your patients, your cots, your goddamn machines…”

“She’s hysterical! She’s out of control! Get her ready for surgery immediately!” Dr. Sputz cried as he dashed out of the room.

Diana struggled to free herself, but it was no use. A few moments later, Dr. Sputz raced back into the room, pulling Nurse Parakeet along with him. Nurse Parakeet looked at Diana pityingly.

“My dear, I thought you understood,” Nurse Parakeet sighed. “If only you had cooperated. We haven’t any options left.”

“What are you going to do?” Diana demanded, as her mind filled with dread.

“We’re going to cure you, of course,” Nurse Parakeet said.

“But I’m fine!” Diana cried.

But instead of responding, Nurse Parakeet plunged another monstrous hypodermic needle into Diana’s arm. The last thing Diana saw were the drab green walls spinning by as she was wheeled down the hall.

The six o’clock news was winding down. A pale, mousy woman stared uncomprehendingly at the TV screen. She was wearing a tattered blue bathrobe and had a scarf tied around her head which didn’t quite hide the multitude of jagged stitches that started at her forehead. Nurse Parakeet fluttered over.

“Come, dear, don’t you think it’s time you went back to your room? You really do need your rest.”

The mousy woman didn’t seem to hear Nurse Parakeet. She just stared at the TV. Althea charged over wearing old, stained yellow bedclothes. She ignored Nurse Parakeet and the mousy woman, and stared at the TV. The commentator was wrapping up the newscast.

“And once again, we ask you if you have seen this woman, please call the police immediately.” A picture flashed on the screen and the mousy woman reacted for an imperceptible moment, then sank back into her stupor. The commentator continued. “The woman’s name is Diana Johnston, she’s thirty-two years old, five foot six and approximately one hundred twenty pounds. She’s been missing for almost two weeks now and the police still haven’t got any leads. The only clue is that she left her husband a voicemail that she was on her way to the hospital – but she never arrived.” The commentator paused, whipped off his glasses, and looked gravely into the camera. “If you’ve seen anything that you feel might help, call the police at the number you see on your screen. Her husband, attorney Samuel Johnston, is offering a reward for any information that helps solve this case. Well, that’s the news for tonight…”

Althea glanced curiously at Nurse Parakeet and the mousy woman at her side, then back at the TV. “It seems to me. I used to know…”

Nurse Parakeet gave Althea a sharp look. “Used to know what, Althea?” she asked in a razor-sharp voice.

“Someone.”

“Well, we all used to know someone, now, didn’t we, Althea?”

“I supposed,” Althea agreed.

“Was this someone anyone in particular?” Nurse Parakeet asked casually.

Althea looked again at the TV screen, then at the mousy woman. “I never knew no one in particular,” Althea declared as she shuffled out to the hall.

Nurse Parakeet watched Althea, then turned to the mousy woman. “Come, dear, let’s go back to your room now, like a good girl. We’ll work on learning your number. Now, say it after me. One, one, seven…”

Nurse Parakeet put her hand on the woman’s shoulder and slowly walked with her down the hall. The woman remained silent, allowing Nurse Parakeet to guide her.

“You seem so much better, dear. No more pain. We can cure anyone here, you know.”



BIO

Nancy Machlis Rechtman has had poetry and short stories published in Literary Yard, Paper Dragon, Page & Spine, The Thieving Magpie, Quail Bell, Anti-Heroin Chic, Blue Lake Review, Goat’s Milk, and more. She wrote freelance Lifestyle stories for a local newspaper, and she was the copy editor for another local paper. She currently writes a blog called Inanities

at https://nancywriteon.wordpress.com




Nothing Happens

by Vandana Kumar

Nothing happens really in this city
Where everything has already transpired
It is night
Nobody is up
Asking questions
Or staring at the moon

The generation that argued
Wanted freedom
Did not fight enough
Suddenly packed bags instead

The little kids in the neighborhood
Are a little too little
Their noises are too basic
The kind that
Children make
Demanding
Crying for food
Or for sleep

The noise of defiance
And angst
Has left the place
The nights are moist
With boredom
And yet it doesn’t rain

No smell of first love
No awkward teenagers asking
Each other out
Talking of movies first
Then plays
Then genres of books
Asking names of favorites
All the while wondering
How and when
To touch each other

The city has only the silence
Of status quo
We know our daily visitors
And our weekend guests
Even though
We ask them to sign in
Each time
At the entrance gate

This isn’t a place anymore
Where rebellion grows under the nails
Like a garden
Where a new strange bird
Sits on a windowsill
Every now and them
One that you keep admiring
As you figure out its name

This isn’t the sort of place
Where magic happens
Where
Fireflies dance
Where the month of July
Could happen at any time of the year
Where it isn’t about its natural progression
Into the month of August

And in the quiet of the night
Love isn’t enough a force here
To overwhelm
The city has its center
And its suburbs
And I can’t tell one from the other



Be Our Guest


How strange that I see
What I now see
So differently!
Once ice cubes melted in whiskey glasses
By the warm glances we exchanged
Across crowded rooms

How odd that I now see our home
As mere house
In perfect array
No longer strands of hair
To tell the tales
Duvets in place
Have deftly replaced
Those crumpled sheets
That made both –
The novice and veteran blush

Gone are the days
When visitors shifted toes
So long was their wait
For us to make it to the door

Beware of my house
Where only
Fine porcelain smiles at you
And the cutlery gets counted twice
Once before you arrive –
Once after you are gone



Killing the Good Bacteria


The weekend would be inconvenienced
We told the children
About the impending pest control
About termite treatment and fumigators

The elder one had no complaints
In that direction
How much more legitimate could a reason get
To abstain from the daily homework drudgery

Much younger than the daughter
The son is at an age when
You can’t, but help question
The status quo

He wanted to know who had given eviction orders
Who gave us authority? He asked
To drive away rodents, ants, cockroaches
To hunt out strange rain insects
Perched on bright lights
On the neighbor’s balcony

We took over forest inspection
Then we crushed every anthill
After precise identification

I tried to reason with him
How termites infested the magic in our story books
How the ‘Encyclopædia Britannica’ hard bound special edition
Turned to dust
In my much coveted book shelf
‘A necessary attack on imperialism” he quipped

I showed red bumps and insect bites
Dengue claimed lives
In our sub-tropical regions
Son was not to be convinced
Just self-defense he said
We sold gated community apartments
At a premium
These creatures all need asylum

He had the last word
It went thus …
Isn’t being different from us
After all
Punishment enough




BIO

Vandana Kumar is a Middle School French teacher in New Delhi, India. An educator with over 20 years of experience, she is also a French translator and recruitment consultant. Her poems have been published in various national and international journals and websites like Mad Swirl; Toronto based Scarlet Leaf Review; Philadelphia based North of Oxford; UK based Destiny Poets, Lothlorien Poetry Journal; Saint Paul, Minnesota based Grey Sparrow Journal; California (U.S.A.) based The Piker Press, Dissent Voices; Canada based Halcyon Days, Founder’s Favourites, W-Poesis; Singapore based Borderless Journal, Madras Courier etc. She has featured in anthologies like Houston, Texas based – Harbinger Asylum, US based Kali Project of Indie Blu(e) Publishing etc. The Kali Project anthology is now in the North Carolina Regional Library and it was a Finalist for the 15th Annual National Indie Excellence® Awards. In November 2021, a poem of hers featured again in the Indie Blu(e) Publishing anthology titled – But You Don’t Look Sick. One of her poems on women was shortlisted in a competition organized by the Woman Inc. – TWIBB Sakhi Annual Poetry Awards 2019 (results of which were declared in March 11, 2020).

She has been published in two volumes of the World literature series on Post-modern voices and critical thought. She also writes articles on cinema that have appeared on websites and journals like Just-Cinema, Daily Eye, The Free Press Journal, Boloji.com and The Artamour. She was one of the judges for an “All India Poetry Competition” organized last year. She also co-edited the print Anthology that resulted from this competition.



Forged for Strength

By Jean McDonough



I take knives seriously. My collection is crafted by a German manufacturer that has forged blades since the early 1800’s. I know how to identify a high-quality knife, as well its specific function—carving, chopping, slicing, peeling, cleaving, cutting, or deboning—based on the size and shape of the blade. Good knives are crafted in a complex forging process where a metal alloy—ideally both carbon steel for ease of sharpening and stainless steel for durability—are melted and poured into forms. Forged knives are far superior in strength and durability than knives stamped out of thin sheets of metal.

I like the feel of a forged knife. It follows the contours of my hand and is smooth in my grip. Quality forged knives have a bolster—a band of metal in the center of the blade—where my thumb can rest above and my knuckles behind it. A bolster in the center of a knife not only offers the blade better balance, it also protects me from injuring myself when I am cutting apart the legs, wings, and breasts of a chicken for roasting.

In the dark background of Pablo Picasso’s Guernica, the masterpiece that memorializes Basques killed during the Spanish Civil War bombing of Gernika, there is a bird. It stands awkwardly on a wooden table between the defiant bull and a wounded horse. While birds usually symbolize freedom, this particular bird—what most critics claim is a dove of peace or even the Holy Spirit rising above a war-torn field—is trapped. It raises its head in anguish and one of its wings, likely broken, hangs down at an odd angle. I also want to see a dove. I want to believe that peace will someday overcome my own dark hours of self-hatred, but to me the bird in Guernica seems like nothing more than a lowly form of poultry, perhaps a chicken produced for mass consumption despite no comb on the top of its head or fleshy wattles hanging under its neck. There are several differences between the bird in Guernica and a dove. Both the neck and the crudely drawn legs of the bird are longer and more pronounced than those of a dove. Dove tails also tend to have tapered points while the bird’s tail in Guernica has a small plume of feathers similar to that of chicken.

What is even more convincing that the bird is a chicken, however, is the context in which it appears in Picasso’s painting; the bird—it is certainly very ugly and unrefined—stands on a table, its beak stretched toward heaven as it waits to be slaughtered. There is a searing white line—what looks like a sharp knife—that cuts across the base of the bird’s neck. The bird is about to die and no one seems to care. Like some primitive petroglyph on a cave wall, the bird recedes into the dark background of history and is forgotten, while the horse writhing in the dust and the soldier staring up at heaven are seared into the memory of those who witness Guernica. The women of the painting who are also immortalized, one fallen out the window of a burning building and the other fleeing her bombed city moments before she is struck in the back by bullets. Then, of course, there is the unmistakable agony of the weeping mother holding her dead child. Who can forget her breasts twisted into missiles or her mouth ripped into a scream? The weeping woman will be forever remembered as the pietà, the mother of God with her sacrificed Christ child, while the terror-stricken bird in the background of Picasso’s Guernica will be left to die alone.

Nobody cares about chickens.

Sometimes my thoughts are elsewhere when I am using a knife to cut off the legs, wings, and breasts of a bird I am preparing for a meal. Sometimes at the end of a long day, I concentrate more on what I have always struggled to keep alive, something so ephemeral as an endless blue expanse of possibility deep inside me. Emily Dickenson once referred to it in a different way when she said, “Hope is the thing with feathers / That perches in the soul.” Perhaps Dickenson’s definition of hope is too sentimental and naive—worn to a cliché by the modern tendency toward cynicism—but when I am cutting off the wings of a bird, I sometimes look for this small, feathery thing inside me. Usually, though, I am too caught up in the dark things of my “chillest land” and “strangest sea,” those aspects of myself that limit my endless blue expanse: anger and sadness, an alienating sense of otherness, self-judgment, and then—most shameful—an inability to truly love. How have I hated others? How have I hated myself? My knife slips on the wet, rubbery skin of the dead bird that I am handling, and—despite the forged strength of the metal, the weight of my full tang blade, and the centuries-old reputation of my German manufacturer—

I cut myself. When this happens, I usually slice open the tip of my thumb. There is always that searing shock—a bright white silence before pain—and then blood lets out from under the pale flap of my skin.

Someone once asked me a strange question.

How do you know that you have a heart?

Because I never have actually seen my heart, I was unsure how to respond. Even though my heart is a bodily organ that supposedly keeps me alive, beating 4,800 times an hour and pumping 2,000 gallons of blood every single day, the only way I can actually verify that I have a heart is because I have been told this by experts in the field of medicine. These same experts claim that my heart is the size of my fist and that it can actually break, caused not only by disease—as one might suspect—but stress. It is true, though, that I do have anecdotal evidence my heart really does exist. Sometimes I feel like I have a heart when I cut myself and the blood lets out. Sometimes I feel like I have a heart when I am startled awake in the middle of the night and something with wings beats hard and fast inside of me. Something in the middle of the night pounds in my chest. It will not let me sleep and I am unable to set it free from my body. Without actually seeing my heart, though, I suppose there is always a small possibility that what I believe is not actually true. Maybe I don’t really have a heart after all.

Certainly there are many types of internal struggle that are sometimes expressed in unusual ways such as midnight panic attacks, obsessions and fixations, dissociations or feelings that the world is not real, and even self-mutilation as a coping tool to release unbearable tension. Those of us who have endured any sort of high school literature class can probably identify a long list of internal conflicts that might result in such symptoms. Some are moral in nature, others are sexual, existential, interpersonal, religious, or political in origin. While civil war is not normally considered an internal conflict, at least not in the context of literature, it is still a conflict that takes place in a particular body—the country in which one lives—with all its systems and structures that are similar to a living organism.

There is an ancient metaphor of political thought called body politic where the state is conceived as a biological—usually human—body, though the use of it has declined since the Middle Ages when the authority of both the monarchies and the church were challenged. One of the earliest and best known examples of the body politic metaphor appears in the fable The Belly and the Members, attributed to the ancient Greek writer Aesop. In this fable, the other members of the body revolt against the belly which they think is doing none of the work while getting all the food. The hands, mouth, teeth and legs initiate a strike, but then when they grow weak from hunger, they realize that cooperation with all the body members is vital for a healthy existence. In the fourth century BCE, Plato further articulated this political metaphor in the Republic and Laws, emphasizing fitness and well-being over the illness that occurs when different parts of a political body fail to perform the functions that are expected of them.

It is not without reason, then—if one is to follow the logic of Aesop’s comparison—for the country in which one lives and breathes to be considered a living organism. Civil war might also be understood, through extension, to be the internal struggle of a body set on destroying itself until there is a reconciliation of conflicting desires. There is perhaps no better example of this type of struggle than the bombing of Gernika during the Spanish Civil War, the event that inspired Pablo Picasso to create Guernica. During a three-hour German aerial attack that was sanctioned by the soon-to-be dictator General Francisco Franco, Gernika was leveled to the ground with anywhere between thirty-one and forty-six tons of incendiary bombs. The bombing was later internationally condemned as one of the first aerial attacks against innocent civilians. Approximately 270 or 85% of all the buildings in Gernika were destroyed. Fires from the incendiary bombs were not extinguished until two day later and the scope of the destruction of the city was so massive that it is still unclear how many people died. George Steer, a British journalist who witnessed the bombing, estimated that at least eight hundred people had been killed, though this amount does not consider those who were either buried in debris or incinerated in the bomb blasts. The estimate also does not take into account those victims who were visiting on market day nor those who later died of their injuries. Further complicating an accurate assessment of those who died as a result of the bombing, General Francisco Franco and the Nationalists, publicly downplayed the number of casualties, even suggesting that Basques had set their own city on fire, an outrageous claim of collective suicide.

Suicide—the attack and killing of one’s own body—might also be considered a variation of civil war if the body politic metaphor can be considered reciprocal and then reversed; if a political state can be considered a living body, then perhaps a living body can be understood in terms normally associated with a political state. In 1963, the American poet Sylvia Plath—overcome by her husband abandoning her for another woman, sickened with the flu, and filled with despair during a dark London winter—jammed towels and rags under the door of her kitchen to protect her small children who slept in another room, turned on the gas in her oven, laid her head inside, and killed herself with carbon monoxide poisoning.

Months earlier, Sylvia Plath had written a poem titled Cut that describes a time she injured herself with a knife while slicing an onion. Initially awakened by the cut—“What a thrill”—Plath later parallels the pain of her injury with images related to historical periods of American war and conflict. Her psychological turmoil is reflected in European and Native Americans conflicts, as well as the phrase “A million soldiers run, / Redcoats every one,” referring to the red uniforms of British soldiers during the American Revolutionary War. She also admonishes the Ku Klux Klan for their hate killings that result in a bloody “stain on your gauze,” perhaps the common principle of equality that weaves together a range of diverse people in the United States of America. Plath then goes on to confront her own “Redcoat” blood cells that have seemingly fled her body: “Whose side are they on?” she demands. While these phrases suggest an internal struggle, a kind of civil war within herself reflected in the United States’ continual fight for freedom and equality within its own borders, Plath’s mind has become so emotionally detached, so cut off from her own physical body, that she can only view it as an enemy.

Plath’s internal conflict parallels the conflict between countries during that particular time in history. Her poem Cut was written during the Cuban Missile Crisis in October, 1962, when for nearly two weeks during the John F. Kennedy administration, the world seemed on the brink of nuclear war after an American U-2 spy plane discovered that the Soviet Union was building nuclear bombs in Cuba. The self-inflicted cut on Plath’s finger seems to allude to a world grown progressively more violent. It may also reflect the turmoil of her own internal landscape.

Cutting up a bird with a forged knife should be a pleasure. High-quality knives are crafted to glide through flesh with both ease and precision. Before I can even begin cutting up a chicken or turkey with my knife, however, the animal must first be raised, slaughtered, and then delivered to a butcher shop, or—in our era of modern convenience that is so disassociated with death—a grocery store chain with bright refrigerated display cases of shrink-wrapped animal parts. Much has been said about the slaughtering of poultry for mass consumption and none of it is pleasant. While there have been efforts in recent years to more humanely grow and slaughter an estimated nine billion chickens every year in the United States, they are often raised in darkness and small cages. The birds are forced to gain weight so quickly that their growing hearts and skeletal systems cannot keep up with the accelerating size of their bodies, often resulting in congestive heart failure and physical deformities at only six or seven weeks of age. When their excretions are not removed from their cages, they sometimes go blind from the ammonia fumes that burn their eyes. Under these extreme and stressful conditions, the birds are often debeaked so that they cannot peck each other to death.

Once the birds reach their desired slaughter weight, they are taken off food and water in order to empty their digestive tracts and reduce the potential for contamination. In the middle of the night they are captured, loaded onto trucks and sent to processing facilities where it is common for eight thousand to fourteen thousand birds to be killed per hour with a high degree of automation. The live birds are transferred to a track of continuously moving shackles where they are hung upside down by their legs. They are then sent through an electrified water bath that stuns them before they are slaughtered, either by hand or by a mechanical rotary knife that cuts the jugular vein and the carotid arteries in the neck. If one of the birds manages to escape death in this automated process, a facility worker quickly kills it by hand with a knife. The birds are allowed to bleed out for approximately ninety seconds, depending on the size and species. Then they are sent through a scalding bath that removes their feathers.

One of the final steps of poultry processing is evisceration where all internal organs and entrails are removed from inside the bird. In order to do this, the preen gland at the base of the tail must first be cut out of the body. This procedure opens up a slit in the bird that is used to pull out organs such as the heart. The removal of internal organs can be done by hand, but is usually performed by automated devices that can cut out the organs of about seventy birds per minute. Internal organs and entrails are inspected and separated. The edible organs—also known as offal—include the bloody heart, kidney, gizzard, and liver. They are removed from all the other inedible organs. Stomachs are sliced open and their contents, along with the yellow lining, are removed. The lungs of the bird are separated from other visceral organs with a vacuum pipe. When the internal edible organs pass inspection, they are often packaged and reinserted back into the cavities of large birds sold for consumption.

Before placing a bird in the oven for roasting, I wash and dry it in order to avoid bacterial contamination. Then I remove the neck and giblets from inside the cavity of the bird. Giblets are all the edible organs. They include the heart, liver, gizzard, and sometimes the kidneys. Most people do not know that a gizzard is an organ that aids digestion. Poultry swallow a large amount of small stones and grit when they graze. These stones remain in the gizzard, grinding against each other to help birds digest their food.

The neck and giblets of large poultry are usually shrink-wrapped together for easy removal. In the particular bird that I am preparing, though, the neck is separate from the packaged giblets, so this is what I reach for first inside the hollow carcass. The neck seems strangely displaced, as if the entire bird had been turned inside out. When I pull it out of the body and hold it in my hand, I pause for a moment. It is long, muscular, and slightly curved. This peculiar neck, with its thin, bluish-pink skin still firm to my touch, is a faintly familiar appendage—oddly sexual—like something I once enjoyed long ago, but now struggle to even identify. Because I have no use for it now—neither a comforting stock nor sensual jus to flavor—I toss the severed piece in the trash.

While the gizzard of the bird seems so foreign and I am uncomfortable with the neck in my hand—it both titilates and embarasseses me—the heart is what I really want to see. When I pull it out of the vacuum-packed plastic storage bag tucked deep inside the cavity, I realize it is what I would expect of my own heart: small and muscular, deep red in color and slightly narrow on one end. It fits neatly in the palm of my hand and I am light-headed; there is a strong metallic smell that I recognize from my own dried blood. The heart, though, might not even be from this particular bird; in poultry processing facilities, the body parts get mixed up during slaughtering.

There is a story of King Soloman who ruled over a conflict between two women living together in one household. They both claimed that the same baby was their own flesh and blood. In order to determine the real mother, Solomon asked for a sword and ordered that the infant be cut in half so that each woman could have part of him. One of the women, who was not the real mother of the child, agreed to the judgment of the king. If she could not have the child, she did not want anyone else to have him, either. In a great act of selfless love, the second woman begged Solomon not to kill the infant. Instead, she asked that the king give him to the first woman. In this way, Solomon determined that the real mother was the second woman, the one willing to sacrifice her life with her child in order to save him from certain death. The king then ordered that the sword be removed and the baby returned to his real mother who was filled with joy. There is no story in the Bible, though, of a mother not wanting her own child.

Mothers always want their children.

During the violence of the Spanish Civil War, thousands of desperate mothers in Bilbao—their husbands sent off to fight during the conflict—entrusted their children to the care of strangers in a foreign country. Bilbao, a port city on the northeastern coast of Spain in the Basque Country, bustled with steel mills, shipbuilding, and maritime trade. Because it exported large quantities of goods and natural resources to other parts of Spain, one might have even referred to Bilbao as the belly in Aesop’s fable. In the spring of 1937, only a few weeks after the destruction of Gernika, Basques continued to endure aerial bombing and machine gun strafing by German and Italian air forces that were sanctioned by General Francisco Franco, who had led the Nationalist’s revolt against the legitimate democratic government. In addition to aerial attacks, the Nationalists set up a naval blockade of Bilbao, restricting ships from entering the port. With the added pressure of infantry steadily advancing from the south to push back the Iron Ring, a defense network of Republican fortifications surrounding Bilbao, food deliveries were unable to reach the city by either sea or land. Franco’s goal was to starve Bilbao into submission.

On May 23, 1937, this desperate situation convinced Basque mothers that the only way to save their children from death was to send them away—tearing their very hearts from their bodies—to live with strangers in a foreign country, the United Kingdom, despite the fact that the British government had signed a non-intervention agreement and the care of these children was solely the result of the generosity of the British public. In total, four thousand Basque children were sent to live in England and Wales with not much more than hexagonal tags pinned to their clothing that stated an identification number and the words Expedición a Inglaterra. The children, not knowing if they would ever see their parents again, departed Bilbao on the SS Habana for Southampton in crowded conditions on a dilapidated ship that was intended to accommodate only eight hundred passengers. Some of the children—crying, tired, and terrified—were so young that they did not understand why their parents were sending them away. When they arrived in Southampton, they were inspected by doctors for lice, disease, and malnutrition. They were given vaccinations, sorted into groups, and sent to different facilities across England and Wales. While some of the Basque children were never reunited with their parents who were either killed during the war or never found, and some older children simply chose not to return to Spain—the country that had brought them so much pain—it is a testimony to the selfless love of these mothers that every one of their children’s lives was saved.

Sylvia Plath did everything she could to save the lives of her children. On that dark winter day in London, she waited until her children were asleep in their beds to turn on the gas in her oven. With a considerable amount of forethought and love—before she laid her head down to die—Plath stuffed socks and rags under the door to her kitchen so that her children, Nicholas and Frieda, would not risk inhaling the poisonous gas that she so desired for herself. In the end, though, all her effort was not enough. On March 16, 1984, Sylvia Plath’s forty-seven-year-old son, Nicholas Hughes—who had been only one year old when his mother died—hung himself in a house thousands of miles away from that dark London apartment. While it is unclear why Hughes committed suicide, the causes of mental illness are often too difficult to sort through—they get mixed up with all the other abandoned remains—it is likely that his mother’s death still haunted him. More poetically stated, the writer Barbara Kingsolver once said, “Memories do not always soften with time; some grow edges like knives.”

If internal organs can get mixed up during slaughtering and lives can get mixed up during war, I wonder if there is ever a bird—one of those cold and hollow carcasses—that accidentally ends up with two hearts. It must be possible, I would think, despite the precise automation of modern processing facilities. I ask this because I once found myself with two hearts, one slow and one fast. The fast heart was too small for me to even feel in my body. I did not know it was there until someone told me. This other heart—the small and fast one inside me—was not really my heart and I did not want it there. The heart must have known that I did not want it because one day it stopped beating—all on its own—and I had to have it cut out of my body with a knife. I never held it in my hand. I never measured it against the weight of my own heart. When I was offered the remains of everything cut out from inside of me—when I was offered the remains to put in a grave—I turned my head away and said that I did not want them. When I said that I did not want the heart, it was thrown in the trash with all the other remains that no one wanted.

I wonder where this heart is now.

I wonder if there is ever a dead bird that ends up with no heart at all.

During the Spanish Civil War, those who opposed the fascist uprising were often executed and thrown in mass graves. When archeologists unearth these lost souls, it is often hard to separate the bones. Sometimes bones are missing. Sometimes the remains are all mixed up. In 2020, Spanish archeologists in the small village of Uncastillo—located in the northeastern province of Aragon—uncovered one such mass grave. It contained the remains of ten women whose bones were set free. They were mothers, daughters, and wives who were killed on August 31, 1936, during the early days of the war. While the exact total of those who died during the civil war will never be known, most historians estimate that at least 500,000 people were killed between 1936-1939, and that at least 100,000 bodies still remain missing in unmarked mass graves.

Historical research of the Spanish Civil War has largely left untold the story of war atrocities toward women. Until recently, Spain did little to recognize any war crimes—male or female—after the death of Franco in 1975. Instead, the government politically arranged “The Pact of Forgetting,” with the goal of ensuring a peaceful transition back to democracy after years of Franco’s iron-rule dictatorship. Parties on both the left and right of Spain’s political spectrum agreed to not pursue investigations or persecutions related to the civil war. Essentially they wanted the past to stay buried in the past. This is not what happened, though. Families of those who had been brutally killed by Franco’s uprising and subsequent dictatorship—some executed and thrown into mass graves—would not forget. Eventually in 2020, the Spanish leftist coalition government agreed to finance the exhumation of mass graves in an attempt to “restore democratic memory.”

On that fateful day in Uncastillo, the ten women—whose bones have recently been unearthed—were dragged from their homes and shot by a firing squad. Their bodies were dumped in a shallow pit in the neighboring town of Farasdués. The mass excavation revealed one particular skeleton of interest, a woman with one arm outstretched under the neck of another woman buried next to her in the pit. To someone not normally experienced with the haphazard positioning of bodies tossed into a mass grave, the woman’s gesture might appear to express solidarity, even in death.

While it is unclear why this particular woman was shot—some were targeted because of their political leanings, activism, or as substitutes for a male relative—there is no mistaking the horrifying angle of her skull. Tipped back against the dry earth—jaws spread wide in an eternal scream—the head is that of the woman cradling her dead child in Picasso’s Guernica. The likeness is unmistakable. This woman, though—the one shot by a firing squad and later buried in a shallow pit—has a bullet hole through her skull. There are also a few remnants of the dress that she wore when she was killed: seven white buttons that are oddly recognizable when taken out of context. They trace a winding path up the woman’s spine.

The artistic technique of collage, where different materials, such as paper, fabric or wood are taken out of context and applied to a surface with glue or paint, was frequently used by Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque in the early twentieth century. Both artists are, of course, well known for developing the style of art called Cubism. One of the characteristics of Cubism is that it is emotionally detached from the subject it portrays, focusing more on physical qualities than internal conflict. Eventually, however, Picasso and Braque realized that the expression of Cubism had become too analytical and lacked emotional depth. In 1912, they began applying collage to their drawings and paintings in order to add additional layers of meaning. They used scissors to snip, trim, and clip pieces of modern life: newspapers, journals, wallpaper, and sheet music. They used utility knives to cut up pieces of cardboard and linoleum. Picasso and Braque then took these cut pieces of life from the places they frequented—cafes, hardware stores, newsstands—and pasted them directly on the canvas. Sometimes they even painted or drew over them with charcoal, pencil, and watercolor. These collage pieces were what Braque called certitudes, recognizable images from modern life.

In 2011, Spanish archaeologists excavating an old cemetery in Palencia, found a surprisingly recognizable object in the dry and dusty grave of a young mother, Catalina Muñoz Arranz, who had been shot by a firing squad on September 22, 1936 during the Spanish Civil War. Next to her skeleton—where most likely there had been the pocket of her dress—was a small baby rattle. Brightly colored and shaped like a flower, it contrasted with the dry Spanish soil and Catalina’s dull gray bones. The toy rattle had been for her youngest son, Martín de la Torre Muñoz, who was just eight months old at the time of his mother’s death. A witness to the execution remembers that Catalina held Martín in her arms when she was chased by local members of the Falange who were sympathetic to Francisco Franco. When Catalina, who had been accused of attending leftist demonstrations, fell while fleeing her pursuers, she handed Martín to her neighbors who saved the child’s life. Catalina was arrested and killed by a firing squad, the bullets shattering her skull. Martín, who is in his eighties with no memory of that day, now has the baby rattle that was intended for him as a child. When asked about Catalina, he said with tears in his eyes, “If my mother were here, I would tell her that I love her and that she made me very happy.”

Almudena García-Rubio, an anthropologist with the Aranzadi Science Society who excavated Catalina’s baby rattle, affirms that it was a remarkable discovery; no other similar object has been unearthed from the Spanish Civil War. García-Rubio also acknowledges the emotional significance of the baby rattle when she says, “It is a very symbolic object, the lively colors next to the earth-colored bones is a reminder of a motherhood that was cut short, which to a degree, represents everything that happened in the war.”

When Picasso cut paper collage pieces from typical forms that are universally identifiable—the way a baby rattle is always a rattle, for example—and then applied them to a new context, he achieved multiple layers of meaning. There is always the original meaning of the object—a rattle is still a rattle—but the image of the rattle in a grave alongside the skeleton of the baby’s mother creates a new context that is both dark and disturbing. Picasso synthesized images of many familiar objects—guitars, bottles, and human bodies—with snippets from newspaper columns, true crime novels, and literary essays. This superimposition of meaning and material, when effectively balanced, creates an uncomfortable discord of competing interpretations.

Balance is important in a knife.

Quality knives have approximately the same amount of weight in both the handle and the blade. If a knife is properly weighted, when I place my extended index finger under the knife at the hilt and hold it horizontally with the cutting edge down—essentially resting the knife on the top of my finger—the knife should remain balanced and suspended in mid-air, neither falling forward nor backward when, with the other hand, I remove my grip on the handle. A balanced knife is important for repetitive movements of force when my hand—and perhaps my soul—tires from the work of cutting up something that was once alive.

Picasso experimented with collage when painting Guernica, but only with the women in the painting, each one emotionally overcome by the brutal and relentless attack on their city. The artist applied floral wallpaper to the body of the woman fleeing a burning building, transforming the cut paper into a head scarf that hung from her shoulder and covered an exposed breast. He also applied wallpaper to the torsos of the weeping mother and the woman trapped in the burning building. It is unclear, though, why Picasso only applied collage to the women characters in Guernica. It is possible that these pieces of wallpaper were meant to represent the destruction of everyday things in their lives, such as tables, chairs, and clothes—or even children—-that were torn apart by bombs. Whatever the case, these cut papers that Picasso applied to the women did not survive his creative process. He later tore the pieces from their bodies like clothing in a violent attack. The women of Guernica are forever exposed—running, mourning, and wailing—in all their vulnurability.

In order to determine if a knife is sharp, I hold up a sheet of paper and—from top to bottom—cut cleanly through it. While this test may seem like nothing more than a clever parlor trick, if the knife fails to slice cleanly through the paper—if there is any resistance such as torn or ragged edges that might reveal internal conflict—I know my blade needs to be honed with a sharpening steel. Honing my knife makes difficult jobs much easier, but it also requires a good deal of skill. When I hone my knife before cutting up a bird, I hold the sharpening steel at a vertical angle with the handle at the top. I then place the edge of the knife blade at a fifteen-degree angle to the steel. This precise angle is important for proper honing in order to maintain a sharp edge. Once I have the correct angle, I slide the blade down the steel with a sweeping motion. With years of practice, I have learned to do this quickly and efficiently. A total of four or five passes on either side of the blade is usually enough to realign and straighten the edge until I have a razor-sharp knife that will easily cut through resistant cartilage or flexible tissue that connects and articulates the joints of animals.

For particularly labor-intensive tasks that require additional force—such as severing limbs—I prefer a blade where the metal extends through the entire length of the knife and is seamlessly bolted between the handle on either side. This characteristic of a high-quality knife is called full tang, as opposed to partial tang where the blade either ends at the hilt or only slightly deeper into the center of the handle. Full tang knives have better balance and are stronger than knives that have only partial tang. They are also better able to overcome the resistance of bone and those memories that do not always soften with time.

Sometimes when I am cutting up the wings and legs and breasts of a bird, the joints refuse to separate despite the sharpness of my knife and the weight of my body pushing down on the flesh and bone. Sometimes the bird refuses to yield to me. I feel a lightheadedness when the watery blood pools on the cutting board, a kind of queasiness and sudden awareness that a child once inside me—not some vulnurable animal slashed at the neck and left to bleed out, not some small feathery thing or broken-winged bird rendered with oil on canvas—a child, long dead and receded into the dark background of my past, still has the will to live. It still has a heart.

I am unable to see the heart of the bird in Guernica.

The bird must have a heart, though—even if I cannot see it—because it cries up to heaven, knowing that it is about to die. I see that its eyes are painfully twisted and one of its wings is already broken, but because I cannot see its heart, I am not sure that it is there. I can only see that blinding white reflection where there should be a heart, where there should be an endless blue expanse deep inside me. This blinding white reflection is my own knife—full tang and forged for strength—slicing the neck of the bird.

I tell myself it was only ever a memory.

Because my knife is forged for strength, when I extend one of the legs of the bird, I am able to easily cut through the skin. I cut through the skin just enough so that when I pull the leg away from the carcass, the ball joint pops from the socket. This helps me to determine where exactly I need to cut. When I have correctly positioned my knife, I completely slice the leg from the body as close as possible to the backbone, repeating the same steps on the other side of the bird. Then I separate the thighs from the lower legs by slicing through a line of fat that marks the joint between them. Once I have removed the thighs, I place the slaughtered bird breast-side up and remove the wings. I do this by pulling them away from the body and using my fingers to feel for the joints that I cut right through. Finally, I turn the carcass on its side—in its own pool of blood—and look for a line of fat that runs from top to bottom. This is where I place my knife to cut through the rib cage, separating the breast from the backbone. I repeat this process and remove the other breast. There is nothing really left of the bird now and I have grown tired from all the effort. I never did find its heart.

With this living thing that was once a bird, then a child, then a memory—or perhaps it was first a child and then a memory and then a bird—all the pieces get so mixed up that not even a high-quality knife—forged for strength and forgetting—is enough to do the job. There are days when I am startled awake in the middle of the night with the frantic flapping of wings, my own heart that will not slow its beating. There are days when I see a bird. There are days when I see a child. When this happens—when I see a child—I abandon my knife and resort to using my bare hands to loosen and pull the bones free.

Sometimes not even that is enough.



Bibliography

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Armentrout, Jennifer. “How to Cut a Whole Chicken into Pieces.” Fine Cooking. https://www.finecooking.com/article/how-to-cut-a-whole-chicken-into-pieces. Uploaded 14 October 2021

Chiasson, Dan. “Sylvia Plath’s Joy.” The New Yorker. 12 February 2013. https://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/sylvia-plaths-joy. Accessed 23 October 2021.

“Cuban Missile Crisis.” John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum. https://www.jfklibrary.org/about-us/about-the-jfk-library. Accessed 23 October 2021.

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Dickenson, Emily. “Hope is the Thing With Feathers.” Emily Dickenson: The Collected Poems. 1924. Barnes & Noble Publishing, Inc., 1993. Print.

Domínguez, Nuño. “The Rattle that United a Mother Shot in the Spanish Civil War and Her 83-Year-Old Son.” El País. 24 June 2019. https://english.elpais.com/elpais/2019/06/24/inenglish/1561378371_010230.html. Accessed 14 November 2021.

Farago, Jason. “An Art Revolution Made, Made With Scissors and Glue.” The New York Times. 9 January 2021. https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2021/01/29/arts/design/juan-gris-cubism-collage.html. Accessed 4 November 2021.

Irujo, Xabier. The Bombing of Gernika. Center for Basque Studies. University of Nevada, 2018. Print. 

Irujo, Xabier. The Bombing of Gernika. Ekin. Buenos Aires, Argentina, 2021. Print.

Katz, Brigit. “Archaeologists Open One of Many Mass Graves From the Spanish Civil War.” Smithsonian Magazine. 30 August 2018. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/archaeologists-open-one-mass-graves-spanish-civil-war-180970175/. Accessed 13 November 2021.

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McMechan, Ian. “‘Cut’ by Sylvia Plath: Ian McMechan Discovers not Just an Ironic Personal Summary but a Concise History of America in this Short, Neglected Poem.” The English Review. Vol. 16, no. 1, Sept. 2005, pp. 21+. Gale Literature Resource Center, link.gale.com/apps/doc/A136339231/LitRC?u=anon~93010af1&sid=googleScholar&xid=d44370ca. Accessed 23 Oct. 2021.

Mead, G.C., Editor. Poultry Meat Processing and Quality. Woodhead Publishing Limited. Cambridge, England, 2004. Print.

Medina, Juan. “Women’s Mass Grave Sheds Light on Female Victims of the Spanish Civil War.” Reuters. 17 December 2020. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-spain-mass-graves-women/womens-mass-grave-sheds-light-on-female-victims-of-spanish-civil-war-idUSKBN28R14W. Accessed 14 November 2021.

Murray, Lorraine. “Factory-Farmed Chickens: Their Difficult Lives and Deaths.” Encyclopaedia Britannica: Saving Earth. Encyclopedia Britannica. 2021. https://www.britannica.com/explore/savingearth/the-difficult-lives-and-deaths-of-factory-farmed-chickens. Accessed 14 October 2021.

The New American Bible. Stephen J. Hartdegen, O.F.M., S.S.L. and Christian P. Ceroke, O. Carm., S.T.D., Nihil Obstat. Saint Joseph Personal Size Edition of the New American Bible. Catholic Book Publishing Corp., 1970. Print.

O’Connor, Anahad. “Nicholas Hughes, 47, Sylvia Plath’s Son, Dies.” The New York Times. 24 March 2009. https://www.nytimes.com/2009/03/24/books/24hughes.html. Accessed 15 November 2021.

Palmer, Alex W. “The Battle Over the Memory of the Spanish Civil War.” Smithsonian Magazine. July 2018. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/battle-memory-spanish-civil-war-180969338. Accessed 13 November 2021.

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BIO

Jean McDonough has a bachelor’s degree in Fine Art Photography from the Cleveland Institute of Art and a Master of Fine Arts degree in Poetry Writing from the University of Michigan. She has taught creative writing at the University of Michigan and Eastern Michigan University, as well as middle school art and language arts. Currently she works as an elementary school librarian and lives in Woodstock, Illinois. Jean is working on a collection of essays inspired by Pablo Picasso’s Guernica.





THE SECRET AGENT

By Robert Collings



There is a celebrated short story called “The Rocking Horse Winner” by D. H. Lawrence.  The story is so revered by scholars that you will find it on the required reading list for every English literature course in the English speaking world, and there are more translations than you can count.  It tells the tale of a disturbed kid who enters a fantasy world and rides his rocking horse so he can pick the winner of real-life races and bring money into his dysfunctional household.  The kid dies in the end after a particularly harrowing ride, and I could never figure out if he ended up picking another winner in that last ride, or whether the horses and the money didn’t really exist at all and were just symbols for something else.  “All great literature has a speculative element,” my English professor would tell us.  “Just like the boy in the story, that’s how you pick a winner.”

I’ve often wondered over the years about the speculative elements in our own lives.  For all of our bluster and our yearning, I wonder if we’re all riding some rocking horse that’s taking us nowhere.

Years ago, my wife and I lived in a condominium complex that had a large underground parking lot.  We had been assigned two stalls in the lot, and to reach the stalls from the entrance we had to drive down a long corridor to the very back of the building, and then take a hard left and go all the way to the corner where the two stalls were located.  This parking lot spanned the entire base of the building, and it had a hundred identical concrete pillars arranged in long rows in order to organize the parking spaces and keep everything propped up.  I have always had a vivid imagination, and I’m a fatalist by nature, and I’d often wondered what the devastation might look like if one of those pillars ever gave way and every unit in the complex came squashing down on my head.  I had made the daily journey through this sprawling concrete bunker for a good three years without a scratch, and that was surely a good sign.

I was on my way to work one morning and I was still in the underground.  Just after I made the turn to head down the long driveway towards the gate, I noticed a figure out of the corner of my eye behind one of the cement pillars to my right.  It looked like someone was hiding behind the pillar, deliberately trying to remain unseen.  I pretended not to notice, but after I had passed the pillar I looked in my rear view mirror and saw a young boy run from behind that pillar to the pillar on the opposite side of the driveway, and then hide again, as if he was being chased and was trying to stay hidden.  I didn’t get a close look at his face, but by his stature and his cat-quick movements I guessed he was in his early teens.  I had to stop my car until the big gate lifted up, and when I looked back in my rear view mirror I was unable to see anything.  No one seemed to be hiding anywhere, and the parking lot was empty.  I thought this was curious but I didn’t dwell upon it, and I had forgotten all about the shadowy figure by the time I got home that evening.

A few days passed without incident.  Then, on another morning when I was backing out of my parking stall, I noticed the same ghostly apparition at the far end of the lot.  I stopped the car and squeezed closer towards the window to get a better look.  The mysterious shadow was much further away than it had been before, but it had to be the same kid.  This time, he was ducking behind one pillar, hiding for a few seconds, then dashing to the next pillar, hiding there for a few seconds, then jumping over to the next pillar, hiding, and repeating the sequence until he reached the main driveway.  He had moved out of sight, but when I rounded the turn at the far side and headed towards the exit gate, I saw him suddenly dash out from the pillar beside me and run behind the car to the other side of the driveway.  He had been so close that he almost brushed against the bumper.  In a flash, he reached the next pillar and ducked behind it, like some stealth fugitive on the run.  When I stopped for the gate I was close enough to him to see the tips of his sneakers sticking out from behind the narrow end of the pillar.

I cracked open my door and twisted my head back and shouted out, “Hey there!  Hey!  You there! What the hell are you doing there?”

I saw him pull his feet back, but there was no other movement.  My voice echoed through all the concrete, followed by eerie silence.  The metal gate creaked open, and I headed out. 

The building had not come crashing down on my head, but I still thought about the incident in the parking lot all day.  Perhaps this shadow-kid was a homeless person in need of food and shelter.  Or a harmless demented kid from some institution who got lost and didn’t know where he was.  I worried that I had not said the right thing to him as he hid behind the pillar.  He had to know that I had seen him, so he must have been waiting for my reaction.  I kept going over the words that I had used, and comparing those words to the words that a more sensible, mature person might have used to fit the situation.  I worried that I shouldn’t have used a crude word like “hell”, which made me sound like our gruff building manager.  I was not a gruff person.  And I had repeated the word “there”, which made me sound like a frightened person grasping for words, and I was not that, either.  Perhaps I should have said, “Hello, can I help you?”  Or, “Son, do you need a lift?”  I was ashamed of myself for not using more appropriate language to draw the mysterious kid out into the open and prove to him that I was not intimidated by strange figures in concrete parking lots.   

I drove back through the parking lot that night with the eyes of a hawk, but I saw nothing.

“Do you know there’s someone down in the underground, sneaking around like a thief?” I asked my wife when I got home.

“Oh yeah, I see him all the time,” she replied

This surprised me.  “You see him all the time?  Why didn’t you tell me?”

“I dunno, he seems harmless enough.”

“Harmless like a thief.”

My wife laughed.  “You worry too much about everything.  No wonder your mother called you a worrywart.”

“That’s because there’s lots to worry about,” I said, only half-joking.  “Haven’t I told you this before?”

“I know teenage boys because I teach them,” she said.  “They’re all a little whacko.”

This may have been the sort of simple explanation we all look for, but there was something about the mysterious shadow-kid that I found unsettling.  I had been appointed to the condominium council the year before, and I’d been assigned the job of keeping an eye on the building to help keep things in order and see if anyone was violating the by-laws.  My title was “Bylaw Officer” if anyone asked.  I thought this was a good excuse to speak to Joe the building manager and bring up the general topic of shadowy stick-figures loitering in the underground at all hours of the day and night.

“It’s not all night,” Joe muttered.  He was fixing something in the boiler room because the fixit guy hadn’t shown up, and he didn’t want to be bothered.  “Just all day.  His name is Gray.  He thinks he’s a secret agent.”

I’m rarely at a loss for words, but this stopped me cold.  “He’s what?  What are you talking about?”

“His mother says he never sleeps.  He reads all night, and by day he’s a secret agent.  So far, he hasn’t stolen anything or killed anyone, as far as I know.”

“What, you talk to his mother?”

“I asked her about him, sure.”

“So what did she tell you?”

“She’s crazy, too.  They live up in 308.”

“Besides telling you she was crazy, did she tell you anything about her son?”

Joe kept working.  “She didn’t go so far as to call him a nut case, if that’s what you mean.”

“What does he do?  Doesn’t he go to school?”

“Kids do whatever they want these days.  He goes to school, he doesn’t go to school.  Who the hell knows?”

I was losing patience with Joe’s indifference, but I stayed calm.  “Joe, I just want to know what that kid is doing in the underground.”

Joe smiled, but kept working.  “You just called me ‘Joe’ so you must be pissed about something.”

This was true, and I was irritated that Joe had read my thoughts.  “For God’s sake, all I want to know – “

“You’re in charge of the bylaws, aren’t  you?” Joe interrupted, still smiling.  “He thinks he’s a secret agent.  There’s trouble ahead if you don’t do something.  We have a bylaw against loitering, so do your job.  His mother didn’t call him a nut case, but I will.  Gray Whipple.  Ever notice how all these nut cases always have funny last names?  Whipple, Gripple, Schmipple…it’s a strange world. ”

I thought about the strange world we live in.  “There’s a bylaw against loitering,” I mused.  “But I don’t know if it applies to someone who lives in the building.”

“Doesn’t matter,” Joe said.  “One little spark can cause a fire that burns the building down.  Then the whole city follows after that, and then who knows?  You gotta nip these things in the bud.”

I couldn’t help following Joe’s reasoning to its logical conclusion, and I did not relish the thought of being the condominium bylaw officer responsible for putting an end to civilization as we know it.

Joe seemed pleased that I was not arguing with him.  He nodded towards his toolbox and said politely, “My last name is Smith and I’m happy with it.  Can you hand me that goddammed wrench?”

Unit 308 was directly above the boiler room.  I’m not sure what compulsion drove me upstairs because no one had ever complained about the secret agent kid, and I certainly didn’t want to be accused of letting the power of my office go to my head.  Still, my curiosity pulled me into the elevator and a few seconds later I was at the door of unit 308.  Maybe Joe had a point.  There might be big trouble ahead if I didn’t put an immediate stop to this nonsense, and I’d even been warned in advance by no less an authority than the building manager.  I gave a few gentle knocks and listened for the sounds of movement inside.  I heard very faint footsteps, followed by the click of a bolt lock.  Then the door opened just enough for a nose and mouth to poke through.

“Yes?” came a wary female voice from the narrow crack in the door.

I tried to sound as cheerful as I could.  “I live in the building, ma’am.  I’m on council, and I’m in charge of the bylaws.”

“Oh, dear,” said the voice, and the door opened up to reveal a pale, tiny woman in a housecoat.  She wore no make-up and her hair was tightly pulled back in a bun, with long, wiry strands shooting out everywhere as if the static around her head was overwhelming.   

“Ma’am, there’s nothing to be worried about,” I assured her.  “Don’t be concerned.  Are you Mrs. Whipple?”

She nodded warily.  “Yes…”

“Do you and, um, Mr. Whipple live here with your son?”

“Mr. Whipple does not live at this address.  His address is now in Heaven with the angels.”

This startled me, and I was not sure how to respond.  I collected myself and said, “Is it just you then, and your son?”

“Is this about Gray?” she whispered.  “Oh dear, oh no – ”

I again tried to reassure her.  “I told you not to worry.  I don’t want you to be upset.  I just want to speak with your son.”

“He’s not here.”

“Do you know where he is?”

“He’d down in the parkade playing his game.”

“What game is that?”

“The secret agent game.  He’s hiding from his enemies.”

“Ma’am, can you tell your son that he shouldn’t be loitering about?”

“Oh, I tell him, I tell him,” she assured me.

“His behavior is an infraction of the bylaws, and he’s frightening some of the tenants,” I lied.

“Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear…” she kept repeating.  

Before I could say anything more, tears began to spill out of this tiny woman’s eyes and roll down her cheeks.  “Oh dear…I’m so sorry.  I don’t want any trouble.”

I now felt guilty for making her cry.  “Mrs. Whipple, please – “

“He was always a strange boy,” she interrupted through her tears.  “When he was little he would always tell me that he was standing outside of himself and looking at his own thoughts.  He said his thoughts told him to put his pajama top on backwards and forwards, backwards and forwards, over and over and over again before he’d go to bed.  Oh, it worried my husband so, and it all gave him a heart attack and sent him to Heaven with the angels.  I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I don’t want us to have to move.  Please, please, please…”

She broke down sobbing and I knew the conversation was at an end.

“Don’t worry,” I assured her.  “Ma’am, I’m sorry, too, for bothering you.  Nothing’s going to happen, I promise.”

There is no trick to getting the upper hand on a secret agent if you’re the only one with the keys to the secret doors.  I took the elevator back down to the basement and unlocked the door to the surveillance room, and within seconds of stepping inside I spotted Gray Whipple’s blurry image on one of the screens that showed the far wall of the parkade.  I then went outside, hustled around the south side of the building, and quietly entered the parkade through the emergency door.  Access to this door from the walkway also required a key that no secret agent could ever possess.  My stealth maneuvers brought me immediately into the west end of the underground, where I was now only a few feet away from the elusive shadow-figure.  He had his back to me and he was crouching behind the pillar next to the wall so no one from the adjacent driveway could see him.  He was startled when I slammed the door and he immediately snapped his head around and sprang to his feet.  He made a rather half-hearted attempt to run past me to the next pillar, but I stepped deftly in front of him and blocked his path.  I was now face to face with the mysterious secret agent and I looked squarely into his eyes for the first time.

Secret agents may look handsome in the movies, but all I saw in front of me was an emaciated, sallow-faced schoolboy with sad eyes and a quirky, half-open mouth that gave him a frozen look of bewilderment.  He had a pile of bed-hair slanting off in one direction that needed a good plastering down.  But it was the expression in his eyes that almost knocked me over, and I was immediately reminded of someone I knew as a child and who I hadn’t thought about in years. 

There was a park near where we lived, and in the summer there was this guy at the park who sold ice-cream to the kids.  This guy was severely handicapped, and I remember how he was strapped into the seat of his little refrigerator cart with a big leather belt.  He would drool and you couldn’t understand what he was saying, and the only part of his body that he could move were his fingertips.  He would furiously tap-tap-tap his fingertips on the side of his cart, but no one ever understood what he meant, and no one paid any attention to him anyway.  We would drop our money into his cup and take our ice-cream, and the poor guy was never cheated out of anything as far as I knew.  I remember how my friend had never been to the park before, and how he reacted when he saw the ice-cream man for the first time.  I remember the look in my friend’s eyes as he stared down upon the drooling man, paralyzed into silence, and tap-tap-tapping a message that no one ever heard.

The uncomprehending sadness that I saw in my friend’s eyes all those years ago was the same look that I now saw in Gray Whipple’s eyes, as if he had suddenly come upon me all strapped down and bent at the spine.

“Goodness,” I smiled.  “Does the look of me shock you that much?”

“Nope,” he said.  “I see you down here.  You don’t see me, but I see you.”

Despite the nervous look in his eyes, I was surprised at how self-assured his voice was and how calmly his words were spoken.

“Ah, but you’re wrong there,” I smiled.  “I do see you and that’s why I’m here.”

He did not respond, and I suspected he was waiting for me to give up and wander away.

“I had a little chat with your mother just now, and she told me a bit about you.”

“My parents gave up on me a long time ago.  I love my mother, she doesn’t bother me.”

I kept my voice even and just quiet enough for him to hear.  “Are you a real secret agent?” I asked.

“Maybe,” he replied, calmly.

“I used to have a little secret of my own, and you might be interested.”

I thought this might change the look in his eyes, but he didn’t waver and he didn’t answer.

I said, “When I was a kid, younger than you, I had this bizarre fear that I’d get run over by a car, or hit by lightening, or whatever.  Ever had that fear?”

The boy didn’t miss a beat.  “It’s not a fear,” he said calmly.  “I look forward to it.”

I was not going to be deterred by such an obnoxious remark.  I continued, “One night I put my pajama top on backwards by mistake, and I didn’t die the next day.  To me, this was a sign of good luck.  So every night I put the top on backwards before I put it on the right way.  Then I got to thinking, well, ten signs of good luck were better than one, so I started to put the top on backwards ten times, so I would have ten times the protection from certain death the next day.  It all made sense to me at the time.”

I waited for Gray Whipple to display some sense of neurotic kinship over this disclosure, but he seemed oddly unmoved.

I smiled, and then added, “Funny thing is, it seemed to work.  I grew out of it.”

“Your parents should have had you locked up,” he said, impassive and unsmiling.  “My mother tells everyone that story.  She thinks somebody out there will give her the answer she wants.”

“I just gave you the answer, didn’t I?”

He looked away momentarily, then turned to me again.  I knew there was little chance of any bonding with this kid.  He said, “If you’re happy with yourself, that’s up to you.”

“I asked you if you were a real secret agent.  Are you?”

“I like being a secret agent.”

“Do you like hiding from your enemies?”

 “I hide from them, and then I get them in the end.”

“Am I your enemy?”

“Probably.”

“Do you have lots of enemies?”

“My share.”

“But no friends, I take it?”

“You don’t have any friends either. Don’t try to fool me, and don’t think you’re better than me. I know what you’re thinking.”

“You read my thoughts, do you?”

“I’m an observer of my own thoughts.  Your thoughts are your own business, but yes, I can read them.”

“How do you observe your own thoughts?  Is there another person inside of you?”

“Maybe I come down here to find out.”

“Have you found the other person yet?”

He considered this.  “People think they can hide their thoughts,” he finally said.  “They think their own thoughts are their sacred property.  But the truth is, their thoughts are just as public as any walk through the park.”

“Can you read my thoughts?”

“You’d be surprised.”

“Would you be surprised to learn that I have plenty of friends, and you’re wrong?”

“You have social acquaintances, and that’s all you have.”

“You know this, do you?”

“When you read the obituaries every day, do you weep for every name you see?”

“I weep for my friends, I don’t weep for strangers.  You’re spouting a trite philosophy, and it’s not even a proper comparison.”

“Well, I don’t think so.”

I was determined to make my point.  “We all die,” I continued.  “But if we’ve formed a bond in life with another person, call it love, call it friendship, call it whatever you want, then their death hits us harder than the death of a stranger.  It’s a perfectly normal way to think, so don’t pat yourself on the back for being so clever.”

The secret agent was unimpressed.  He said, “Just ask yourself, what’s gonna upset your so-called friends the most, your death or the loss of their property?”

“I hear you read all night and don’t sleep.”

“Yeah, sometimes.”

“Well, I read too, and I can tell you that you’ve just mangled a quote from Machiavelli.  The proper quote deals with the loss of your father and the loss of your inheritance, and which one drives you to despair.”

“Same difference.”

I shook my head.  “No, it is not the same.  Everyone loses their parents, but not everyone loses their inheritance, so don’t go around making up trite comparisons to impress your friends.”

“You’re not my friend, and l don’t have any friends if that makes you feel any better.”

It occurred to me in that moment that I’d been drawn into an annoying conversation by a kid I had known for all of five minutes.  I’d had enough, and it was time for the lecture.  “My feelings don’t matter here,” I said firmly.  “I’m a resident of the building, I’ve been elected to Council, and I’ve been appointed to enforce the bylaws.  I didn’t come down here to engage in idle philosophies with a boy who lives in a fantasy world.  You’re loitering down here.  I’m here to tell you to stop it.  Will you stop it, or do I go back upstairs to your mother?” 

“I told you, my parents gave up on me years ago.”

“Your parents didn’t give up on you,” I shot back.  I leaned closer to him to make sure he couldn’t slip away.  “They were unable to handle you.  Everyone gets to the point where they can’t handle something, and instead of running from it, which some people can’t do, they just leave it alone.  They leave it alone in order to preserve their own sanity, and if your mother has left you alone then she has a dammed good reason for it.”

The kid seemed intrigued by this reference to his mother, and he didn’t move.  I said, “Now I’m done with this discussion and I’m done with you, except for one thing…”  I was now carefully slicing each word off my tongue.  “One tiny, last little challenge.  You say you can read my thoughts.  You say my thoughts are as public as a walk in the park.  Okay, then I challenge you to read those thoughts.  I’m going to think of something and I defy you to guess what it is.  I have a picture in my mind.  I absolutely point-blank defy you to guess what that picture is.  And when you make the wrong guess, as you most certainly will, I’m going to tell you again to take your secret agent act out of the parking lot and go observe your own thoughts somewhere else and quit making your mother cry herself to sleep.  Do you understand me?  I’m thinking of something.  I have a picture.  Tell me what I’m thinking.”

The boy looked at me as a hunting dog might look at a squirrel.

“You have a picture in your mind of three oranges on a red tablecloth,” he said.

We stared at each other for the longest time and Gray Whipple never changed expression.  He still had the same look of sadness in his eyes that had struck me from the moment we began our strange discourse.  Even now, when he knew that he had been correct and had guessed exactly what I had been thinking, his expression gave up no hint of satisfaction.  If anything, his sad eyes seemed more deeply set into his skull and they looked sadder than ever before.

“That kid’s a mind reader,” I told my wife later that evening.  “For the life of me, I don’t know how the hell he did it.”

“Did you tell him not to loiter in the parkade?”

“I’m not sure what I told him.”

“I keep telling you, you need a holiday.”

I had assumed that Gray Whipple would be back playing his secret agent game the next day.  But I didn’t notice him in the underground after that, although he may have been more careful to hide behind the pillars and only dash out when I wasn’t around.  My wife hadn’t noticed him either, but I knew that all the remonstrations in the world from the bylaw officer could never intimidate this kid, or deter him from whatever secret mission his private demons had forced him to undertake.  Still, I didn’t see any more of him and I decided to leave well enough alone, which was a bit of a minor victory as far as I was concerned.

About a month after our little chat in the underground, I was driving by the high school and I spotted Gray Whipple on the sidewalk.  There was a group of kids marching ahead of him who were all involved in some sort of animated, frenzied discussion.  There was about ten of them pressed together in a tight pack.  They were flailing their arms and laughing and shouting furiously over each other as they hurried along, spilling onto the roadway, oblivious to traffic and anything else that was not a part of their exclusive little world.  Gray was not a part of their world either, but he was following close enough behind to give an onlooker the impression that he was a buddy trying to catch up.  A stranger would assume that he, too, would soon become one of the laughing kids without ever suspecting that he never intended to take those last few steps.  He was wearing a black hoodie-type jacket and he had the hood pulled tight over his head as if he did not want anyone to recognize him.  I slowed my car and I watched him walk along, hunched over with his hands in his pockets and his head down, staring blankly at the sidewalk, always keeping a few deliberate steps back from the raucous mob in front of him.  A part of me wanted to call out to him and ask him to read my thoughts, but I thought the better of it and kept driving.

Not long after that, I ran into Joe the building manager.

“You hear about that kid?” he said casually.

“You mean Gray Whipple?”

“Yeah, the secret agent kid.  Police came around here, told me the kid made his way over to Highway 17 and then walked right into traffic.  Tragic thing.”

At that moment, I had a vision of poor Mrs. Whipple in her hallway and all that static hair.  “Is his mother okay?”

“She doesn’t come out,” Joe said.  “Nothing much she can do.”

When I told my wife the news, she was saddened but not surprised.  There was a pause as we thought about the most appropriate thing we should say to each other.  Then she said, “He wouldn’t have had a happy moment, ever.”

“You’re a D.H. Lawrence scholar, aren’t you?”

She seemed baffled by my question.  “Well, give me your quote and we’ll see.”

“Do you think it’s best to go out of a life where you have to ride a rocking horse to find a winner?”

“You could get a PhD in Lawrence and you still wouldn’t know what it all means.  The highbrows say they know, but they’re full of it.  It’s cynical, and that’s all they know.”

I thought about this.  I said, “We don’t really know if both kids ever found what they were looking for, the kid on the horse and the kid in the parkade.”

“Maybe they did find what they were looking for, and they couldn’t deal with it.”

I thought abut this, too.  “You know how Paul and Peggy fuss about that cat of theirs?”

“That cat has nothing to do with D.H. Lawrence, and you desperately need a holiday.”

“Humor me.  I’m talking about our best friends who we’ve known for over thirty years.”

My wife nodded.  “Yes, yes, they’re our best friends.”

“You talk about the highbrows being cynical, but how cynical are you?”

“When you stop speaking in riddles I might answer you.”

I hesitated, and then popped the question.  “When you die on the same day as their beloved pet, who garners the most grief – you or the cat?”

My wife was never slow to miss the point, and she did not hesitate.  “The cat, and there’s nothing you can do about it.”

I lay awake that night thinking about Gray Whipple.  I don’t believe he ever did find what he was looking for before he decided to step out into traffic and put an end to his own thoughts.  If he was indeed capable of observing those thoughts, all he would ever find was more sadness – exactly like the kid on the rocking horse.

We are all born into sadness, burdened by challenges known only to God, and tied together by secrets so deep that even a secret agent can’t find them.



BIO

Robert Collings is a retired lawyer living and writing in Pitt Meadows, B.C. The Secret Agent is Robert’s second appearance in Writing Disorder.  The Tears of the Gardener is archived in the Spring 2021 edition.  Robert has also published online in Euonia Review (eunoiareview.wordpress.com), Scars Publications (scars.tv), and Mobius magazine (mobiusmagazine.com).  His stories appear in print in cc&d magazine and Conceit magazine, and all are found in Robert’s collection called Life in the First Person

Robert has not won many awards in his lifetime, although he’s proud of a “Participation Certificate” he received for coming dead last in the 50-yard dash in the third grade. 







Stairs

by Hoyt Rogers

I unlock a side-door,
step into a waterless
well. Blind, I wait
until my cat’s-eyes
brighten in the dark.
Warily, I climb a hundred
stairs: they angle off
like branches, creaking
in a funnel of wind.
I pause; pause again.
I frame pictures
engraved on air.


Room


A cramped landing
before a convex door.
I turn the tarnished key.
A cylindrical room,
a ring of portholes,
scattering yellowed
disks along the floor.
I seem to be in a tower;
I look out, safe at last.
The sea is taut, a ribbon
of navy-blue foil.
A quarter-moon
skims the horizon,
its prow and stern
on an even keel:
a shiny boat,
a primitive toy.
I reach out
and pick it up
with one hand.


Boat


I hold a toy boat,
but I am inside it,
the only one who knows:
we’re adrift, lost at sea,
and will never come back.
The passengers and crew
still believe in a port.
They talk in their sleep:
their babbling coma
keeps me awake.

My only refuge
is the captain’s deck.
No one remembers the day
when he fell overboard.
I lie in his hammock
and stare at the sunset.
The sky tilts
from red to gold,
aquamarine to blue,
violet to indigo,
sinks at last
into limitless black—
and then reignites,
a cinder-cloud of stars.



BIO

Hoyt Rogers is a writer and translator. He translates from the French, German, Italian, and Spanish. He has published many books; he has contributed poetry, fiction, essays, and translations to a wide variety of periodicals. His edition of Yves Bonnefoy’s Rome, 1630 received the 2021 Translation Prize from the French-American Foundation. His translation of Marco Simonelli’s Will: 24 Sonnets appeared in February 2022 at Mudlark Editions online. His forthcoming works include a poetry collection, Thresholds (MadHat Press), the novel Sailing to Noon (book one of The Caribbean Trilogy), and a translation of Bonnefoy’s The Wandering Life (Seagull Books). For more information, please visit his website, hoytrogers.com.



Vanishing Pop-Tarts

By Crystal McQueen



If you just ignore the hunger pangs, you can return to your dream. Your body feels sluggish as your brain tumbles out of sleep. You mentally argue with yourself. If you just ignore the cramping, it will go away. Your body takes no stock in such arguments and images of cinnamon rolls and tripled stacked pancakes and double-sized blueberry muffins roll through your mind. You flip onto your stomach with the hope that the pressure will suppress the gnawing pangs, but daylight creeps behind your eyelids, drawing you further out of sleep. But you don’t want to wake up. Not yet. You still feel so heavy, so sleepy.

Then, Pop-Tarts. Fresh from the toaster. The strawberry kind with icing, melted butter sliding off a browned edge. Your stomach turns, and you almost groan aloud. Last time, you slept too late, and all of the Pop-Tarts were gone by the time you made your bleary-eyed way out of bed.

You begged and pleaded with your mother to buy more on her next grocery run, but she insisted they were too expensive for breakfast and were gone in a day. A box of Lucky Charms cost less than one box of Pop-Tarts and would last three times as long. But what is money to you? You, whose life savings consists of $18.28, ten of which you found in the gutter as you walked home from the bus stop. So, you whined and complained that it wasn’t fair your sisters got some when you didn’t. It took most of the morning, but you convinced your mother to buy Pop-Tarts one last time.

So, you waited. You reminded. And you relished the moment your mother would come home from the grocery store. Two weeks of food for seven people filled her battered Cadillac to the brim and didn’t always last until the next grocery run. Four gallons of milk, half a dozen boxes of cereal, egg noodles, and mac & cheese pulled at the thin plastic as you heaved as many parcels as you can carry onto your bony arms, the handles digging sharply into your tender flesh. Your eyes roamed each sack, seizing your precious Pop-Tarts the moment you found them. But your mother forced you to wait until morning.

Now, the light insists you are wiling the daylight hours away. Still, you refuse, your bottom lip sticking out petulantly against your warm pillow. Reluctantly, you push yourself up, eyes resolutely closed, and feel your way down the metal ladder of your bunkbed. If you wanted the good stuff, you have to be quick. You can’t waste time sleeping when the sun is up.

You hold out a sluggish hand in front of you as toys bite at the soles of your bare feet like gnats. You stumble as you make your way to the door, the pale light highlighting the veins in your eyelids as you pass into the hallway.

Your hands trace the corduroy wallpaper on either side of you, some of the pastel strings loosening from the paper due to this very practice. But you like the way the texture massages your fingertips. Your mom says the hall is too narrow to carry anything straight, but you love it, the walls hugging you.

It’s darker in the hall, colder. The air conditioning raises gooseflesh on your bare limbs where your worn-out Beastie Boys t-shirt doesn’t cover. Its soft fabric is coming apart at the arm pits and fraying about your knees, but you love it anyway. Where it came from, you do not know. It’s yours now.

Slowly, you lay your head against the wall as you walk, your hair emitting a soft shush, your bare feet soundless vessels across the maroon carpet. The house is quiet. So quiet, you believe you must be the only one awake.

But, a creak of the recliner stirs in your ears, and you freeze. Your eyes fly open, a sliver of moon through the skylight exposes your folly, and your heart pounds. You wait.

The hum of the air conditioner vibrates through the silence. You hold your breath. Your skin tingles. You pray you misheard.

There was no sound, you try to convince yourself.

The recliner footrest slams into place, and a cough like ground up gravel echoes through the hall.

Your body trembles.

This is a mistake. A terrible mistake. You thought it was morning, but he won’t care. You’re out of bed. That’s all that matters. You want to run back to your room before he catches you, but it is as though the carpet has a hold on your feet.

You’ll say you were sleep walking. Or maybe you’ll say you had to pee. But, why hope? He won’t listen to your excuses.

The scent of whiskey precedes his heavy footfalls.

You close your eyes, regressing to that childish belief that if you don’t see him, he can’t see you. You swallow a whimper as he takes the corner too wide and thumps into the wall. You cling to your nightshirt, the fabric a crumpled mess in your sweaty hands.

You wait for him to jerk you out of the shadows. You can feel the ache in your shoulder as though it has already happened. His hand clenched on the back of your neck. The bone-rattling shake. You promise yourself you won’t cry this time. But you know will.

You want your mother, but even if she were here, it wouldn’t prevent the beating. But it would be less.

Please let it be less.

You hear the flip of a light switch, and you flinch, your eyes clenching tighter as blood pumps through your racing heart.

The bathroom door slams, and your eyes fly open. You stare in disbelief at that beam of light under the door. Your mind races, celebrating, screaming in relief.

He didn’t see you. He didn’t see you.

You hear his pee hits the toilet water and on the floor tile where he misses. You back away from the light, your fists still clenched in your shirt.

You don’t look away from that gleam until you slip into your room.

You are careful to avoid toys on the floor, the streetlight – your false sun – illuminating teddy bears, and building blocks, and half-filled notebooks that litter your floor. Any other time, finding a spot of carpet to step on would be a great game. Any time but now. You have to get back in bed before he finishes in the bathroom. Before he checks on you.

Your two younger sisters sleep peacefully in the bottom bunk, curled together like tiny dolls, blissfully unaware, and you envy them.

You step on the first rung and ease your body up, your mind screaming at you to both go faster and not to let the bed creak.

Again, you hear him cough, and you race up the last steps, flopping on your mattress. The bed, like the streetlamp, betrays you, jiggling long after his coughing fit stops.

You hold your breath, not daring to move. You wish you could climb under the covers, but you can’t move. Your muscles ache, your stomach twisted in knots as your breath comes in shallow spurts.

You wait. You wait and you hope, holding your little body as still as you possibly can.

Footsteps in the hall. Are they coming toward you or back to the living room? You can’t tell. He coughs again, a hacking cough, a cough you’d know anywhere. Closer than before. You wish you can turn away from the door. You try to relax your face, but spiders with their icy legs crawl across your skin.

Your chest hurts. It screams for air, but still, you don’t breathe.

You just want it to be over.

Let it be over.

And, then it is.

A familiar metal clanks from the recliner footrest, and your whole body relaxes. Your breath comes in and out in haggard gasps.

Still, you do not crawl under the covers. Still, you wait as your heartbeat struggles to right itself. Only when you hear the resounding snores do you allow yourself to draw your knees to your chest as one hand flings your wolf blanket over you and the other draws the pillow more evenly under your head. You promise yourself you won’t open your eyes again until morning.

Sleep eludes you. So, you sink into daydreams. Dreams where you slay dragons. Dreams where you are brave. In your dreams, you’re never afraid. You’re never a coward.

You lose yourself in these fantasies because anywhere is better than here.



BIO

Crystal McQueen lives in the suburbs of Northern Kentucky with her husband and two children. She attends classes at EKU’s Blue Grass Writer’s Studio, pursuing a MFA in Creative Writing. She finds inspiration for her writing through her passion for adventure – whether it be backpacking through nature, exploring the secrets of the city, or traveling to far off lands. For more information, please visit crystalmcqueen.com





What It Means To Escort Her

by Jason Visconti

To soften the body at its creases,
a deranged animal in a zoo of kisses.


If I Were A Father

I would come into this world as well,
Just mark me in your inventory,

I would bait the sunrise to a newsreel,
If that’s my child’s story,

The disclaimer to love is so very small.


If Nature Were Natural


The flower of the grand ode should bloom,
Tree stalks airbrush into their journals,

The sun keeps west as landscape for a poem,
The true moon is rolled like a marble,

The night sky fills with hungry phantoms.


Imagination


He is bending the scene from the lake shore of his crib,
for the swans of his mind have joined in a circle,

the sun is color coded upon the cloth of his bib,
the space between the bars means something whimsical,

he kicks up his feet with a modest stab.



BIO

Jason Visconti has attended both group and private poetry workshops. His work has appeared in various journals, including Literary Yard, California Quarterly, Valley Voices, Allegro Magazine and The American Journal of Poetry. He especially enjoys the poetry of Pablo Neruda and Billy Collins.





SOMETHING, SOMEWHERE ELSE

by Margaret E. Helms



Eleanor Trask clung to the notion that one day she would become somebody. Now, somebody was standing in the frozen foods aisle of Lucky’s Supermarket wearing an army green coat with a hood of matted fur. She recognized me before I did her. 

“Goodness gracious me, is that you Terry?” Eleanor aggressively shook my shoulders and drew me into a nonconsensual hug. “You’ve developed such a pretty face.”

“It’s been so long,” I began, “and thank you?” 

The only things in her cart were bananas and cough syrup. Eleanor had dyed her hair the color of lukewarm beer in a red solo cup. It was still cut short, like it had been our whole childhood, but it had turned brittle and stringy. By the brand-name rainboots and her designer purse, I could tell she had gotten a sliver of the life she had wanted. Eleanor had modified herself. Her breast implants looked like two hot air balloons, but she had dark circles the size of golf balls under her eye sockets. Not even Botox could save Eleanor from Lucky’s LED lights. In her hands was a bag of frozen carrots. 

We talked about her husband, Bill, and how they were coming up on their fourteenth anniversary. There was much to brag about, like Billy Jr. being almost five feet tall. 

“Where’s Charlie at these days? Is he doing well?” 

My questions must have overwhelmed her because she squinted at her bag of frozen carrots and bit her bottom lip morosely. “Charlie?” Eleanor hesitated.

Charlie was her older brother.

“God only knows where Charlie is. Last I heard, he was in Atlanta. Did you know Atlanta is the next Hollywood?” Eleanor began to beat the bag of carrots against her shopping cart. “You know, a production company wanted me to audition for a tooth whitening commercial, be the after in a before-and-after, but I just told them I was way too overcommitted.” She continued to smack the frozen carrots against her cart. An older woman at the end of the aisle looked at us with a concerned expression. “But enough about me,” Eleanor raised her voice. “Bill says that him and you are both in the Christian book club together?”  

“Me?” I rubbed the back of my neck. The only version of her husband I’ve ever known was the one from their biennial Christmas card.

“These carrots!” Eleanor cried. “They clump together into one gigantic frozen chunk, and you have to break them up yourself. Every bag is like this. It’s exhausting.” 

Mustering up all the empathy I could, I began to do the same with a bag of diced hash browns. It dawned on me that Eleanor Trask was no longer Eleanor Trask. Now she was Eleanor Trask Smith. The realization was disappointing. In fourth grade, she tried to change her name to Gwendolyn. She was sick of our male classmates waving their small boney fingers in her face and croaking, “E.T. phone home.” Eleanor didn’t realize that changing her name to Gwendolyn wouldn’t stop the teasing. She would still be the shortest kid in class. She still wore pink converse, and thick headbands and had a cheetah print backpack. Every cooties-fearing boy dreamed about teasing her. At the top of every “fill in your name” blank, she wrote in pink ink, XOXO Eleanor Elaine Trask, a.k.a. Gwendolyn.  

“It’s funny. I can’t remember much about our childhood,” Eleanor lied. The carrots sounding like a maraca as she dropped them into her cart. “Not the little things or the big things. I wish I did, but I don’t.” She looked past me, her eyes far-off, amid the galaxies and supernovas. “And for Charlie,” her penciled in eyebrows pulled together. “I’ve loved him seventy-seven times, but seventy-eight times was just too much. Some days, I wake up and wonder if he’s all alone with no one who loves him even just a little.” 

“I’m sure that’s not the case,” I looked down at my feet. 

“Well, if it was, I wouldn’t mind. He deserves whatever he gets. I’ve known that for a long time now. You’ve known it too. Wouldn’t you like to be proved right?” 

My silence was validation enough. For years, I had wondered what all Eleanor remembered, but she was a master in self-deception. She always knew more than what she told herself and others. Surfacing her delusions required psychological warfare, but it was too late in the afternoon, too cold and rainy, to battle with Eleanor. 

#

The summer before our seventh-grade year, Eleanor and I stole the bunny from Courtney Billingsley’s front yard. Our bodies were slippery from sweat and river-water. The smell of sunscreen and my mother’s banana scented tanning oil trailed behind us as we soared home on our bicycles. Eleanor’s bike was pink and blue, with a basket and a bell.

The heat index was over a hundred degrees, and Courtney Billingsley was reclined in a striped lawn chair, looking dehydrated. The girl was a year younger than us and had the loudest walk in Alabama, according to Eleanor. Instead of a lemonade stand, Courtney had a cardboard box with the phrase “Dutch Rabbits for sale” painted on the side. The green paint was runny, so Courtney overcorrected by adding a dozen dollar signs like some type of diversion. As we peddled by her house, she bobbed her head at us as if to prove that she was conscious. 

“How much you think they are?” Eleanor’s bike made a screeching bark as it came to a halt. She put her hands on her hips. “You know there’s a law against that?” 

“What?” I was a few feet ahead—always faster. 

“You gotta name the price. Everyone knows that.” Throwing her index finger to the sky, she swung one leg over her bike and marched towards Courtney Billingsley. The backs of her thighs were blood splotched from her seat. Her bulky blonde hair bounced as she pranced through the yard, her pink Soffe Shorts swaying side-to-side. For a second, I watched her, then I followed. 

By the time I reached them, Eleanor had seized a bunny, holding it in her sunburnt arms. The bunny had a blackish-blue stripe on its back, but the rest was white. One of its ears dropped while the other shot up like it had just heard something outrageous.

“How shillyshally,” Eleanor exclaimed. She thought words like shillyshally made her sound smart. “Look at its floppy ears. Little thing must be a mutt. Oh Terry, I think I’m in love.” 

“The others have stripes too,” Courtney tried to strike a conversation. 

Eleanor acted like she did not hear, “What should we name him?”

“Name him? You gotta buy him first,” the girl protested. 

Everything about Eleanor was childlike. Her wrist was jam-packed with Silly Bandz, and her short blonde curls were pinned back by butterfly clips. Yet, her poised lips and milk-white teeth teased maturity. With a smile like that she could convince anyone of anything. One devilish grin was all the insight I needed. The idea was mutual. The performance was sporadic. Together we darted off like a pair of madcap mice. Out of her chair flew a Courtney Billingsley, puking up her lunch mid-scream. The bunny’s feet wobbled in the air. It had no say in the matter. Eleanor threw its limp body into her basket, and I swear, at that moment, that bunny and I made eye-contact. 

It must have been the adrenaline that had me imagining sirens, but I kept looking over my shoulder, expecting a patrol of cop cars in hot pursuit. Houses morphed together, and the street names twirled as we peddled farther and farther away from the scene of the crime. 

Once we reached our street, we stopped to check on our new friend. Eleanor was already embellishing the story. Apparently, the Billingsley girl had barfed Cheetos all over her favorite pair of shorts. The bunny squirmed as I held it in the air, trying to identify its gender. 

“His name is George,” Eleanor declared. 

“George? That’s a stupid name for a rabbit.” My criticism fizzled under Eleanor’s confident glare. “I guess he sort of looks like a George.” 

“George sounds like royalty.” 

“Well, George needs a home because he ain’t staying with me.” I had nothing against the bunny, except that it wasn’t a dog. If I went home with a stolen bunny, my parents would never let me get a dog. George would always feel lesser under the shadow of my almost-to-be dog. “I got to be home for dinner in like thirty minutes. You take the bunny.”

“George,” Eleanor corrected me. “And the survival rate at the Trask household is under five percent. If you care anything about George, you’ll take him.” 

“If he goes home with me, he’ll just die of boredom,” I rebutted. 

“If he goes home with me, he’ll die of neglect and starvation. So, try to top that, Terry.” The way she flicked her tongue when saying my name and tilted her chin with a smile made me uneasy. It was if my name was a joke that everyone else understood except for me.

The Trask household lay ensnared by thickets at the end of the street. The grey-wood shack was balanced on a hill and had a basement, which I had always envied. There was nothing desirable about the basement. It was full of cobwebs and aged hunting gear, humid from flooding. There was an old cistern that was both arousing and petrifying. My favorite thing in the basement was a freezer stocked with an endless supply of ice pops. The bulk packs could fuel us through any summer activity. 

Sometimes, I’d fantasize the basement was my own. The walls would be painted dusty red. There would be a pool table and an expensive leather sectional. While Eleanor would sing into her hairbrush, I would circle luxury bath towels from home décor magazines.  We often pretended we were something, somewhere else.

As we approached the house, I could see her brother’s Mango Hellcat parked in the gravel driveway. How he got the money for a barely used sports car at seventeen was a mystery to me. However, this kind of unexplained materialism was a Trask Family trademark. Each of them lived out their separate indulgences, but Eleanor’s were by far the most glamorous. Every year, her first day of school was treated as a grand entrance into society. Her phobia of being late to a trend left her with a closet full of Webkinz.  One Christmas, it was Ugg Boots, then a year later it was the Nintendo. She was dissatisfied with everything but the moon.  

#

We walked our bikes around the side of the house. The Trask’s backyard consisted of a shed cloaked in kudzu and a spoiled hammock. There was no guard dog since Mr. Trask hated noise. The house reeked of something burning all-year-round. 

The mission was to shelter the bunny in her basement, but we were blocked by Charlie, who was basking on the concrete steps. 

Fearlessly, Eleanor demanded he move.

“Where’d you get the bunny?” Charlie took a sip from his Styrofoam cup. Charlie was always sipping on the same purple drink. 

“His name is George,” Eleanor huffed. Unable to get past him, she began to throw elbows. I wondered if she had just realized how stupid the name George sounded. 

 As a baby, Charlie had a split in the roof of his mouth. Despite being fixed in one surgery, his upper lip had a slight but permanent hook to it. There was something alluring about the Trask boy. It was the same kind of allure one gets while driving past a car wreck. Once, he took Eleanor and me on top of the high school so we could watch him set off his car alarm as people walked by. “Always keep the simpletons on their toes,” he would say. A week after getting his driver’s license, he ran over our neighbor’s mailbox and made one of his girlfriends pay for it.

My parents would talk about Charlie, thinking I wouldn’t know who they were talking about. “He’s a reckless insubordinate thug with no future,” they’d say.  

To the world, he was the scum of society. To me, he was Eleanor’s older brother. Sometimes before school, he’d braid her hair so that her short blonde hair would look like dingy shoelaces in his double French braids.  

“Just give me the bunny,” Charlie spoke warmly. 

“What are you going to do with him?” Eleanor yanked the bunny away from his reach. 

“Put him in a box or something. I haven’t thought that far ahead. Listen, keeping a bunny is a lot of upkeep. You’ve got to feed it, and entrain it, and clean out its poop. If you pay me…” 

“Pay you?” I intervened. 

“I’ll take care of it, and you can see it during visiting hours,” Charlie said. 

“We don’t want no visiting hours.” I shook my head.  

“But Charlie…” Eleanor squeezed the bunny and looked up at him with pouty lips. “I don’t have any money.” When Judy Stern sold her world’s finest fundraising chocolate at lunch, Eleanor was never short of money. 

“You can pay me back later,” Charlie said. 

It was almost time for dinner. Eleanor held the bunny tightly to her chest. The bunny’s eyes caught my attention. They looked like two smooth marbles, perfectly round. Eleanor and I used to compete to see who could draw the roundest circle. One of us would always win, but neither of us were ever perfect. George, however, had won effortlessly—with his two perfect eyes. His little bunny nose began to twitch in anticipation. With a sigh of defeat, Eleanor handed the bunny to Charlie, who promised to take good care of him. 

#

At dinner, I ate quickly, anxiously awaiting a call from Mrs. Billingsley. It was just me, my mother, and two bowls of beef stroganoff. Of course, my mother had no idea of my misconduct, but she would once Mrs. Billingsley called. Then she would throw a fit. My father would march me over to their house and make me apologize. I always thought he was too conventional. When I tried to quit basketball, he forced me to play until the end of the season. Eleanor never had to do things like that. 

Our mothers were friends, but our fathers hated each other. My father would say that Mr. Trask treats children like dogs. So, logically, Eleanor would be an inside dog, and Charlie would be an outside dog.

A carousel of scenarios was turning inside my head. Images of transforming my father’s tool shed into a bunny crib spun into mental plans. I’d paint the walls blue and hang up an informational poster about bunnies. I began to theorize over why George had one good ear and one floppy ear. If Mrs. Billingsley called, I’d have to return him. 

When it had seemed that I had dodged the inevitable, the home phone rang. 

 Avoiding my mother’s eye-contact, guilt began bubbling inside of me. My mother called my name. It was Eleanor. She wanted to know if we could have a sleepover. 

“Please Mom, I promise I won’t ever ask for anything again,” I yelled from the kitchen table. Bounding out of my chair, I found my mother’s arm and begged to go. 

My mother agreed, so I mounted my bike and fled back to the Trask home. By the time I reached her house, the sky had just begun to fill with orange and pink clouds; the sun hung just above the tree-line. Charlie’s Mango Hellcat was gone, and Eleanor sat at the street’s dead-end with a box of chalk. On the asphalt was something red and yellow. As I approached her, the blob took shape. She was drawing Saturn with all of its eight rings. 

“Where’s the bunny?” I asked. 

“You mean George? He’s with Charlie.” She began to shade the edges of the planet with purple chalk. “Him and Daddy got in a fight, so he left.” 

Their fights often occurred at the end of every month and always on Christmas. Charlie was always getting into it with his mother, though. Often, he provoked her. Once I witnessed her chucking all his dirty laundry in the front yard. Another time, she slung a cutting board at him, so he had to get one single stitch above his right eyebrow. Mrs. Trask was a small woman, but she had a fierce throw. 

“What if we spent the night in the hammock?” Eleanor began filing the chalk box to match the colors of the rainbow. “That way, we catch him when he comes home.” 

“Sure. I wonder what he’s doing. George the bunny, I mean.” I looped my finger in my braid. “Not Charlie. Who knows what Charlie is doing.” 

“I do.” Eleanor raised her head with a face of disgust. “He’s with Sandra,” she murmured. Last week it was Elise. 

It wasn’t our first night spent in the hammock. There was a thin navy blanket designated just for these special summer nights. Anything thicker would be too hot. We’d wrestle over it, trying to protect our legs from the mosquitos. “Next time, we’ll use bug spray,” we’d always say.

That night Eleanor told me that Venus was almost 200 million miles away from earth and that Jupiter was a beautiful tornado that no one could approach. We drew animals from the stars: elephants, jellyfish, and dragons. To her, the galaxies were expanding like a balloon, but in my world, there were only crickets and an obnoxious toad. 

For an hour, we twisted and coiled until the wind finally rocked us to sleep. I was always jealous of how Eleanor could remember her dreams. They were so outlandish while mine were plotless. I’m sure that night was no different—no flying or falling. Instead, I thought about the things I read of. Toxic algae in Botswana, angry Sea Turtles, and the Cheng Han Dynasty. Alone, I floated throughout the oceans of Europa— a shell of ice above me and bottomless waters below.   

#

It must’ve been 2 a.m. when headlights peered around the corner of the house. I woke in a cold sweat. It took a few nudges to knock Eleanor out of whatever comical dream she was having. I remembered our poor George, probably in the trunk of his car suffocating in a duffle bag. 

“Wake up. Charlie is home,” I whispered. 

Eleanor leaned over me for proof. Then she gasped. 

There was a girl pressed up against the hood of his car. Eleanor ducked behind me as if she had got caught doing something wrong, but I watched. Something inside of me detested her, but at the same time, I was her.  My heart was racing and torn and fearfully excited, just like hers. With quiet giggles, the couple began to shift towards us. As they stumbled down the hill, I realized that their destination wasn’t his room. They were walking in our direction. A more awful realization then came to me. This was Charlie’s sex hammock. Chill bumps crawled up my body as the beef stroganoff cycled round in my stomach making me nauseous.

“Oh, please no,” I shrieked. Then in one compulsive motion, I flipped out of the hammock, bringing Eleanor with me. We hit the red dirt with a thud.  

The girl squealed, and Charlie stopped eating her face. With catlike movements, Eleanor sprung to her feet. Charlie began swearing at us while the girl gripped his arm awkwardly. The whole time I sat on the ground uselessly. 

“We want George back,” Eleanor crossed her arms.

“The bunny?” It seemed as if he had forgotten. “Grow up, Els. I swear you’re such a pest. You’re really going to ruin my night over a rabbit?” 

“His name is George,” she yelled.  

“Shut up. You’re gonna wake Mom and Dad.” With a finger over his lips, Charlie looked over his shoulder nervously. The house was silent. “Look. Let me take Sandra home. Ight? Just wait in your room till I’m back, and then I’ll show you the bunny. Just don’t go in my room.” 

Inside the house, Mr. Trask was passed out on the recliner. ESPN was running its Games of the Century. Once inside her room, we leaped into her bed and were back asleep within seconds. While sleeping, I scratched one of my misquote bites until it bled. We would’ve never admitted it, but we were glad to be back inside. 

The best part about summer was sleeping late into the morning. This time when I awoke, Eleanor was propped up on her elbow, staring at me. 

“I think George is in his room,” she alleged.

“Is he not home yet?” I sat up in bed. My hair was a bird’s nest.  

Eleanor nodded her head towards the window and said, “His car’s not here. I bet he stayed the night with Miss What’s-Her-Face.” 

“Why don’t we just go in his room?” 

At first, the question was preposterous. Over the past year, Charlie’s room had grown increasingly guarded.  At the end of all his sentences was, “Just don’t go into my room.” Eleanor was highly aware of this, yet her reluctance to the idea softened. We talked about George. We planned to feed him carrots in the mornings and celery at night. Eleanor would buy a cage, and I’d buy a water feeder. Our plans were simple. George was one of us now. Eventually, we gathered up enough courage to get out of bed and go to Charlie’s room. 

One might have thought we were entering Chernobyl. With precaution, we gently pushed the door open and tiptoed in. The smell of AXE deodorant and dirty cleats was intoxicating, so I held my breath. Above his bed was a poster of Muhammad Ali beating his chest over a fallen Sonny Liston. Under the window was a dusty keyboard. 

“Make sure you look everywhere,” Eleanor ordered. 

Scavenging through his room, I found Rambo and The Sandlot on videotape. Under his bed, I discovered a hoard of dollar store love roses. The glass tubes were stacked neatly while the paper roses were discarded in a pile. Inside his Algebra textbook, I also found a creased envelope addressed to Tampa, Florida. 

George was nowhere to be found, and I could tell that Eleanor was upset. Her cheeks started getting pink, and she began to pace around the room.

“I don’t get it. Where could he be?” She sounded exasperated. 

To know everything was a goal of hers. That’s why she wanted to go to space one day. Yet, Charlie was always out of her reach, and that drained her. With slumped shoulders, Eleanor walked to the keyboard. Blue sunlight bounced off the creamy keys. 

“You know Charlie taught me to play a few years ago,” Eleanor said. She poked at the power button. “But I was little, so I don’t remember much.” Then she pressed down on a key. The note was sharp and low. “He tried to teach me how to play ‘Don’t Stop Believing,’ but I was so bad he gave up. He’s really good, you know. You wouldn’t think it, but he is.” 

She was trying to find the right notes, for the right tune, to bring back some ancient memory of her and her brother. I watched her fiddle through bad chords and hand slips. 

“What are you doing in my room?” 

Leaned up against the door frame was Charlie, twirling his car keys. 

“I’m fed up, Charlie,” she shook her fist. “I want to see George. I know you have him. Where is he? Is he at Sandra’s? She can’t even dress herself, let alone take care of a…” 

“Why are y’all in my room?” Charlie scowled. 

“We want our bunny,” I yelled. “We stole him, okay? I didn’t want to, but it happened, and we got to take care of him. All your sister wants is to see him. That’s all. If you didn’t want to take care of him, then you shouldn’t have taken him in the first place.” 

Now he was looking at me. 

“Next time ask before going into my room,” he said. 

“We’re sorry,” Eleanor looked at her feet. 

The two stood across from each other. Eleanor’s back was to the piano, and her hands were behind her back. Uncomfortable from the silence, I began to rock on my heels. Then Charlie asked her what she was playing. After admitting she had forgotten how to play, he offered to reteach her. Together, Eleanor and I peeked over his shoulder. We watched his hands hop across the board effortlessly. While his fingers danced, Eleanor laid her left hand on his back tenderly. With a soft grin, he started the song over from the beginning. 

It sounded like funeral music to me.

“No, no, no,” I lunged over the keyboard, ripping the cord from the outlet. “Stop it. Just stop. You can’t just keep on not telling us where George is. I want to know where George is.” 

Eleanor backed away. This time she was sore at me. 

“You really wanna know, then fine. You asked for it—just remember that. I gave it away. I gave your stupid rabbit away. There was no way y’all would be able to take care of it. You know that. It’s better off where it is now.” 

There was nothing more chilling than an Eleanor Trask tantrum. It was the kind of wailing that involved fingernails, runny noses, and the gnashing of incisors. Trembling, she told him that she’d never forgive him—as long as he lived. We then watched her scurry out of the room, howling the name George down the hallway. 

“How could you be so cold?” I asked him.

“What’s it to you? It’s just a bunny.” In an effort to stay assertive, Charlie tossed his hair back, but I could tell by the hot tears in his eyes that he was miserable. 

“Who did you give the bunny to?” I asked. 

“No one.” Charlie turned his face away. 

“Do they go to school with you?” I pressed on.

“Leave it, kid. Just leave it alone, alright.” His ears were turning red. 

“Do I know them? Is that why you’re not saying anything? I’ll find out. You can’t hide it from me. Me and George have a connection.” 

“I lied, okay,” Charlie flapped his hands forcefully. “I lied. You caught me red-handed. I didn’t give your precious bunny away. You happy?” 

“Well, where is he?” I twisted my lips. 

“You really want to know?” He waited for me to respond before he repeated himself. 

“Yes,” I replied quickly. Of course, I wanted to know. 

With a quick gulp, his face twisted, and his dark eyes caved like a sinkhole. Someone once told me that confidence was being detached from one’s fears. For the cold-blooded boys like Charlie, the rules were flipped, and it was fear that bred their confidence. I followed him out of the room. The house was lifeless, and the screen door swayed from the breeze. Walking behind Charlie, I realized how small I was. We went outside to the concrete stairs—the only way to the basement. The sun was directly above our heads. 

The basement was soured by mildew so that when I inhaled its dense aroma, my nose and throat turned cold. One beam of light entered from the dimmed window—clashing with the floor. Under its spotlight, Charlie stood in the center of the room with his hands in his pockets. There was no cardboard box, no iron cage, no sound of breathing. With a tight chest, I looked at the well and then Charlie. Biting the inside of his cheek, he denied my speechless accusation.

Dragging my feet, I walked towards the freezer in a daze. There was no distinction between my heartbeat and breathing. There was only the echo of my steps. It was only a bunny, and it was ours for one fleeting moment. The freezer lid popped as I thrust it open. As the white mist began to clear away, all my chaotic thoughts were silenced. 

The bunny’s round eyes were frozen. Its arms were overextended, but its legs were curled into its prickly chest. When Charlie lifted the bunny from the freezer, its body went limp. I was too shocked to cry.  

“He’s all yours now,” Charlie scoffed. With a frown, he shoved the frozen bunny into my chest and walked away. I pleaded for him to take the bunny, but Charlie was already up the stairs. My body began to revolt. The bunny was stiff. Appalled, I began to gag. It was so cold—so dead. A fraction of me wanted to toss it down the well, but I couldn’t. This was my first-time holding George. Staring down at the lifeless creature, I pictured a dozen Dutch Rabbits skipping through the snow with little rabbit tracks tracing behind. “So long George,” I shuddered. Something odd possessed me, and I kissed the rabbit’s pea-sized head. 

Then I laid George back in the freezer.  

#

With her knees drawn to her chest, Eleanor sat on the curb by her fading Saturn. Her face was puffy, and her nostrils were rosy. Still stupefied, I sat down beside her. 

“This is all your fault you know,” she sniffled. 

There was no way to respond to this. My hands were still cold. 

“I said that he should have stayed with you, but you didn’t listen,” Eleanor started. “I knew that something like this would happen, but no. He went with me and now he’s gone. Now he’s happy with some other family that’s not us. They’re going to give him a new name, and we’re never going to see him again. George is lost forever, and it’s all your fought.” 

A peculiar image of George sipping tea with my mother and my father popped into my head and made me chuckle. He wore a red suit like The White Rabbit from Alice in Wonderland. My parents were both teachers. Back home, my father was probably trying to fix the drainage problem, and perhaps my mother was folding clothes while listening to talk radio. In the summers, we would stay up late and play cards. In the mornings, my father would scramble eggs for my mother and me. 

“What are you laughing about?” Eleanor got defensive. 

“You know my parents think you’re a bad influence on me,” I lied. As soon as the words slipped my mouth, I regretted it. It wasn’t true, but Eleanor believed it in her fragile state. 

“It’s not safe,” Eleanor sobbed. “It’s not safe here. And Charlie. I hate his guts—I really do. I hate him so much. You’re lucky you know that, Terry? You have people that love you. What I would give just to have one person who loves me back.”  

That was the first time I pitied Eleanor Trask. 

I should have said that I loved her, but I didn’t. When she tried to bury her tears, I should’ve put my arm around her. Instead, I thought about George. 

Could a rabbit love, I wondered? Craning my neck backwards, I looked up to the sky. An omniscient Charlie was looking down on me with a smile. As the freezer door began to close, I had no thoughts. The four walls that trapped me were replaced with blackness so that there was nothing to observe but darkness. It wasn’t the cold that killed me. I died from suffocation. 

The bunny was never spoken of again, so I knew that she knew. I wondered how long it took for her to find out. She must’ve been reaching for an ice pop one afternoon only to feel an ice-block of fur. What had transpired in the basement was a mystery to her. At first, I felt guilty for all our silent lies, but over time it became another one of our games. We were too stubborn for honesty and too deep in our pride. As time elapsed, the memory became another one of our forgotten dreams. We were Pangea, two continents drifting farther and farther apart. 

#

It was sleeting when I left Lucky’s Supermarket. It was the middle of the afternoon, but the sun was already setting. Little pellets of ice beat against the rows of cars. Water trickled off the hood of my jacket and onto my face. It took three forceful twists to crank the ignition. I rubbed my palms together until the air vents spat out warm air. On my windshield, small snowflakes were swept away by small steams of rainwater.

Maybe, somewhere in Atlanta, the Trask boy is playing Journey on a grand piano. After the show, he’ll call his younger sister Gwendolyn. They’ll talk about secret clubs with elevated platforms and truffle butter—vaunt the life they now live. Gwendolyn will tell Charlie about a supermassive black hole caught on a telescope. She is an astrophysicist with Hollywood hair. They’ll reminisce over their childhood crimes, curse all their exes, then promise to call next week. Two hundred miles away, I am renovating their basement. The concrete floor is stained. Upstairs, my paintings are framed on freshly painted walls. My name is monogrammed on their kitchen towels. On the doormat are my pink bunny slippers.

What a beautiful façade it all was.

How we all wanted to be someone else.



BIO

Margaret Helms was born in Texas but grew up in Decatur, Alabama, where she draws inspiration for many of her stories. She is currently working towards her undergraduate degree in Journalism while studying creative writing at Murray State University. When she is not writing, Margaret baristas at a local coffee shop where she spends the bulk of her free time reading. This is her first publication. 








Writing as Recovery: Melissa Febos’ Body Work

By Kate Brandt


In the January 10, 2022 issue of the New Yorker, an article by Parul Seghal appeared called “The Key to Me,” and advertised as The case against the trauma plot.  I dropped what I was doing and read it instantly.  As a writer who draws mainly upon the struggles of my own life for material (my ex-husband joked that I should call my unpublished novel “The Things That Hurt Me”), I wanted to know precisely what I was being accused of. 

As I read, my fears were confirmed. Seghal laments the proliferation of what she calls “the trauma plot” in contemporary storytelling, listing many examples and complaining that their creators cannot “bring characters to life without portentous flashbacks to formative torments….the trauma plot,” writes Seghal, “flattens, distorts, reduces character to symptom.”

What a magnificent counterargument can be found in the essays that make up Melissa Febos’ new craft book, Body Work.  Although Febos’ essays focus on memoir rather than fiction, they very much take up the argument.  Each piece focusses on a different aspect of memoir writing, but Febos’ embrace of trauma as material for writing would make Segal shudder—indeed, Seghal mentions Febos’ words on trauma as an example of how oppressive “trauma narratives” have become.  The elegance and depth of Febos’ writing in this collection are the best comeback.

Melissa Febos, photo by Beowulf Sheehan

In “In Defense of Navel-Gazing,” Febos’ justification for writing the self is three-pointed.  One of these points is political.  She writes:

That these topics of the body, the emotional interior, the domestic, the sexual, the relational are all undervalued in intellectual literary terms, and are all associated with the female spheres of being, is not a coincidence.   This bias against personal writing is often a sexist mechanism.    

Citing works like Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Diary of a Young Girl, and Night, she points out that “Social justice has always depended upon the testimonies of the oppressed.”

A second point of her defense: Personal writing is art.  Just because we write about ourselves, this “does not excuse you from the extravagantly hard work of making good art, which is to say art that succeeds by its own terms.” 

Her third point: It heals.  Febos cites a study done by James W. Pennebaker in the 1980s, in which people were instructed to write about a past trauma.  The results:

Monitoring over the subsequent year revealed that those participants made significantly fewer visits to physicians. Pennebaker’s research has since been replicated numerous times, and his results supported.  Expressive writing about trauma strengthens the immune system, decreases obsessive thinking, and contributes to the overall health of the writers.

Later essays in Body Work focus on writing sex scenes, writing about others in memoir, and writing as recovery.  In the last essay, Return, Febos dives deeply into the connections between healing, art, and the divine.  This is where Febos leans most on trauma and is also the point at which I was most drawn in.  Rather than expressing embarrassment about the confessional nature of memoir writing, Febos celebrates it.

In Return, Febos recalls a longing she felt, even as a child, for a certain transcendence.  This longing found an outlet in writing, a need and obsession that never left her. As a child, Febos tell us, she wrote with “religious enthusiasm.” 

As a mature writer, writing sometimes afforded her a chance at that longed for transcendent state.  Febos describes herself at a residency, writing the story of an obsessive relationship in her life.  As she wrote, in

a kind of trance, characterized by total self-forgetting…inside an intelligence…loyal only to the work to which it is applied…I had the lucid and entirely certain realization that there was only one correct ending to my story: my narrator would leave her lover.

In the act of writing, she had unearthed truths about why she was in the relationship that she had hidden even from herself, and which she subsequently acted on—life follows art.   Febos here uses the word “recovery” in both senses—a healing from illness, but also retrieval of some aspect of the self that had been lost to the writer—and shows that these two meanings are intimately connected. 

My own novel, coming out next year, is autobiographical.  If I had to say what it was “about,” I would list these themes: passion, the Buddhist concept of emptiness, illusion, and depression. 

Depression is difficult to capture on the page.  So heavy, so paralyzing, so…wordless.  While writing countless drafts, that was probably where I got stuck the most—how to show what that kind of despair is like.

I spent roughly thirty years of my life in and out of therapy with a diagnosis of major depression.  A fact that, as one friend put it, was ridiculous.   It was.  I was white, middle class, heterosexual, educated, healthy, gainfully employed, and at that age, good-looking.  I had no right to feel the way I did.

But there it was—chronic insomnia; daily crying fits, drinking myself to numbness nearly every night. 

How many times during my depression was I told by friends and family to “get over it?”  When depressed, that is exactly the problem.  Intellectually, I knew: yes, I should get over this.  But I didn’t. 

In Return, Febos mentions an attitude of toughness she took to her own sexual trauma at a certain point in her life.  “Embedded in that choice,” she writes, “was my abiding belief in the fantasy of toughness.”  This attitude covered a deeper sense of shame she felt.  In her first attempt at nonfiction, she tells us, she wrote about the experience of being a sexual submissive for pay.  She was not ashamed of what she had done, but rather “I was more ashamed of my unknowing than of my actions…for me, at twenty-five, a lack of self-knowledge was a cause for shame.” 

I recognized both states of mind.  When I began to write, I, too, hoped writing could be a tool that would help me resolve unanswered questions and the shame I felt about my depression.  My friends were right of course—I had plenty of privilege, a lot “going for me.”  How to explain myself?  What was wrong with me, after all? 

I also had ambivalence about writing my own story.  I had, at that point, been studying Buddhism for a few years, and my teacher made a point of urging his students not to get mired in our own self-pity.  A key tenet of Buddhism is the idea of “no-self,”—that we manufacture an idea of self through the combination of sensations that coalesce in our brains.   If we are to cultivate awareness of this truth, focusing on a narrative we create about ourselves would be counterproductive.  This teacher ridiculed students who wanted to pour their hearts out to him.  I remember once trying to speak to him about things that troubled me.  He smiled gently.  “Soap opera,” he said.

I wrote about myself anyway.  I had to.  Like Febos, I wrote to free myself from the shame of own lack of self-knowledge.  In the long process of trying to know myself more deeply through writing, I found that writing changed me. 

Story has its own demands.  There must be verisimilitude.   There must be a shape.  In the struggle to bring these elements to my personal story, an interesting alchemical process took place.  Slowly, draft after draft after draft, I began to get some distance from my pain.  The hold that my story had on me, especially the despairing, self-pitying part, began to loosen.  I came to see the “things that hurt me,” as my ex so mockingly put it, were actually, in a sense, accidents. It wasn’t personal. 

In Return, Febos writes that “memoirs begin as conversations with the self…Our first confessions must be to this internal witness.”  Through this process, both textual and spiritual, we begin to see ourselves clearly, and, more importantly, forgive ourselves.  When she writes, Febos tells us, she is two selves—the one who has experienced the past, and the one who observes, processes, and sees through what she thought was there.   “By my own higher power, by the self that is capable of holding the most pitiful part of her past and loving her clean” Febos is able to clearly see a former self, and have compassion.     

I had a similar experience writing my own life.  At a certain point, I realized that while much of what my Buddhist teacher had instilled in me was valuable, contempt for myself and my own story, my own version of myself, was not.  It came to me that if Buddhism was a religion based on compassion, there was no reason not to have compassion for myself as well, and that this compassion, paradoxically, made me more emotionally available to others.  What I’m trying to say, I suppose, is that in Body Work, I believe Febos unearths valuable truths.   

I write, but my main occupation is teaching adult literacy.  I’ve done this work since 1990, working with adults who dropped out of high school for various reasons such as pregnancy or the need to care for a family member, as well as immigrants who received various levels of education in their own countries. 

Few groups are more in need of writing their stories.  Most of my students have suffered, and continue to suffer, multiple traumatic experiences—the traumas of racism and/or immigration; the shame of being less well-educated; the ongoing hardship and humiliation of poverty.  Teaching adults has shown me that, regardless of literacy level, the wish to be heard is universal.  When I ask my students to write; when I repeat to them the adage that my own writing teacher shared with me—tell the story only you can tell—there is often a moment of hushed surprise.  Me?  A story?  And then, permission granted, they begin. 

“The final phase of trauma recovery,” writes Febos in Return, is often described as grounded in a reconnection and restored engagement with social life.”  This reconnection with the community is another spiritual aspect of confession as Febos conceives of it in the essay, and it is something my students understand instinctively.  The stories can be heartbreaking—multiple foster homes, addiction, losing one’s own children.  When one student reads, the rest of us listen respectfully and for as long as it takes for the storyteller to finish.  At other times in class—when reviewing comma use, or the parts of a cell—I may be divided from my students by our different backgrounds, but when we read our personal narratives, we are always a community as sacred as church. 

Seghal complains that the “trauma plot,” as she calls it, “reduces character…can make us myopic to the suffering of others…disregards what we know.”  Febos is more generous. 

“Listen to me,” she writes.  “It is not gauche to write about trauma…bring me your books about girlhood, about queer families and sex workers, your trans bildungsromans. I will read them all.”

Febos dedicated her book to her students, but this book will touch many of us—all of us who have questioned our right to speak—who have not thought ourselves worthy of being heard. It’s one thing to be censored, spoken over, silenced by others—quite another to do it to yourself.  In Body Work, Febos has freed us from that self-censure, and I am grateful.



BIO

Kate Brandt’s work has appeared in various publications, including Tricycle: The Buddhist Review, Talking Writing, Literary Mama and Redivider. Her novel Hope for the Worst will be published by Vine Leaves Press in 2023. She works as an adult literacy instructor in New York City. 

Visit her website at Katebrandt.net

Photo by Christine Petrella




Diluted

by John Maurer

Another year has slithered past me
Left me in knots that can’t be untied
Like being pinned between a car hood
and a tree; they are all that holds my organs in

The deceit of sheepskin I pull over my own eyes
So I won’t have to recognize that I’m the wolf
the one left behind due to injury but who refused to die
Too brutal for the masses, too gentle for my own kind

I’ve grafted my own skin to replace itself
Like eleven eggs split across two baskets
I either have six in one or a half dozen in the other
Neither both, what is given must be taken, life’s a balancing act

I’m lying on the ground with half my bones broken



Sophomore Year



I’ve got a pill box on a necklace
A cigarette behind one ear and a pencil behind the other
A regret I continue to commit in my hand

Drafting this poem with a tattoo gun on my forehead in a mirror
Like it’s the best idea I’ve ever had
Cut off the bloodline like honestly, where was it leading?

I have whiskey on my breath; she says I remind her of her dad
She says my cigarette smoke reminds me of her mother
I don’t say anything at all, I drink, I smoke, I try to smile



BIO

John Maurer is a 26-year-old writer from Pittsburgh that writes fiction, poetry, and everything in-between, but their work always strives to portray that what is true is beautiful. They have been previously published in Claudius Speaks, The Bitchin’ Kitsch, Thought Catalog, and more than eighty others. @JohnPMaurer (johnpmaurer.com)  




Dr. Rocktopath’s Horror-Style

by Nabho Banerjee


I

With graduation and MaskEx just a few weeks away, there was little else in those days that I had on my mind besides entering the good graces of Dr. Rocktopath. I’d made it through school more comfortably than most thanks to my alignment with a major crew, and soon, I’d be able to leave most of my more uninteresting responsibilities behind. And as I had always presented myself as quiet and diligent in front of Dr. Rocktopath, I couldn’t have been more optimistic about my chances given the past few years. So, while I didn’t allow it to show on my mask, it was quite jarring to hear my corpsebrooder Mike start talking to me about Ouranos.

He said, as I walked into sensecraft class still empty but for him, “Hey, corpsebrooder, you notice Ouranos has been looking at the poster for the graduation speech lately?”

I replied, “What do you mean? Like as if he wanted to apply?”

“Yeah man, I’m sick of it. He thinks he’s being real wormfashion about it, but I wasn’t born yesterday. And he has the gall to harbor a look of sorrow in those penshade eyes.” Mike’s spillshade eyes twinkled with anger as he said this. My stomach sank.

“So what do you think? Is it serious enough to tell Joey? To be honest with you, I don’t think Ouranos will be too much of a problem. Keeps his head down well enough. I think telling might even end up being a bit wormcrooked and may not be worth the trouble.”

“Trouble? You’re a Reapsake, aren’t you? ‘Trouble’ sounds like something those worms in That Freaky Vibe would say. Well I’m going to tell him. I’d rather claim the recognition than see an opportunity go to waste. You can understand that, can’t you?”

Though disturbed, I nodded and turned forward. Class was filling up and from what I had heard, today Dr. Rocktopath planned to give a lecture about history relevant to sensecraft, some of which I had heard before in his freshman artcraft class. This was one of my favorite things to hear spoken about; the topic exhilarates my intellectual curiosity like nothing else, so to speak, and since now it would be in my favorite class, I was all the more eager.

Immediately after Joey and the other Reapsakes arrived and sat down, Dr. Rocktopath walked into the classroom handsomely disheveled and slouching as usual. His swordshade eyes were cast down, as if shrouded in a veil of nightish mist. I had seen him quite late in the evening before and his mask had a much sprier disposition then. I assumed he was up late pretty often.

Dr. Rocktopath said, “Today’s topic may not end up being all that accessible for many of you. That’s ok. This is the beginning of a new direction I’ll be taking this class and since you’ll all be graduating soon, you’ll be perfect for allowing me to experiment for next year’s seniors.”

He turned on the projector and, while narrating, he started to flip through many familiar graphs, diagrams, and lists of axioms children are exposed to at very early phase of their schooling. They are rarely ever deeply understood by the youth at large—memorization is the focus—but, from my own research, it seems that higher authorities consider this facet of instruction essential for promoting the assimilation of foundational concepts encountered in formal artcraft and sensecraft studies.  The class sat bored until he reached a slide titled “Kaali.” A murmur buzzed through the room. Most of the students looked up.

“Kaali—most of you have heard about this before. But, also for most you, this is the first time you’ve heard it mentioned in school or in any sort of academic context. I’ve decided to introduce you to this now, rather than let you get to it for the first time in college. I don’t know why more educators don’t do it like this, but I’m positive that you’ll be incentivized to go much farther and faster with your sensecraft in the long run this way. MaskEx will also be far more enriching for you all.”

I had a good idea of why. Dr. Rocktopath is no ordinary teacher, though he is certainly an extraordinary person. I have no way of knowing the way he looked before MaskEx, but now, at least, he has a pulse to his eyes and an asperity about his mien that I find quite compelling. He is a man of intellectual qualification far above the likes of Springside Prep—rumor has it that he is really a National agent working on a secret project and furthermore, that he enjoys special research privileges (though I had never seen any having been used at the time). There were other rumors, but none quite as wormshadow, and I cheerfully installed this rumor’s essence as part of my private image of him. He is a brilliant mathematician and is reputed to be a fine engineer, but he is truly gifted—as much as any savant—at artcraft and sensecraft. Some of his personal presentations of artcraft he had shown us in class freshman year had pretty severely put to shame industry standards—I had never before felt the pain of laughter in such abundance. But beyond these details, I don’t know too much else for certain, as, truth be told, I’ve always been rather intimidated by him. Nevertheless, I knew that if I could acquire Dr. Rocktopath’s tutelage after graduation, nothing could ever make me happier.

He went on, “There are two theories about the origin of our word ‘Kaali.’ One is that ‘Kaali’ comes from a linguistic heritage that implies the thesis, ‘the land that causes sacrifice.’ Interesting, eh? The other is that the meaning (usually taken to be at the same peg of the conceptual hierarchy) is more accurately, ‘star brain.’ Maybe you think that we would have settled upon one of these theories by now, but you’d be surprised at how genuinely bimodal the space of ‘expert’ opinion still is.

“Personally, I think there is likely no way to resolve this particular issue and that it is not necessarily important. Cause? Effect? Does that really matter to us? Looking at things on a bigger scale, in fact, can reveal the differences between these theses to be meaningless in a functional sense—and they are certainly not antithetical—convergence!

“But it’s still important to keep in mind, this is another triumph of the development of Language studies through past generations and into the modern world. The discourse about the theory-level nomenclature has honed in on the most interesting aspects of cause and effect: the physical source of the outcome and the physical outcome itself. Of course, discussion about the source in this case is more abstract. We can talk about numbers all day, but knowing a distance to a place is not enough to know or predict qualitative details. All we really have to go off of is Incursion!

“At any rate, don’t get too bogged down in all of this background. What you need to remember is that, when we practice sensecraft, we are able to do so only because we have knowledge that Kaali exists. The principles to which we are thus given access allow us to control our experiences in ways that may be quite difficult to realize under not-so-different circumstances. Unfortunately, according to my analysis, understanding of these principles have done nothing constructive for the state of our youth up to the point of MaskEx.”

A bolt of hysteria flashed from his eyes and briefly quivered upon his mask. This was likely lost on most, but certainly not on me.

“OK, now we’re going to practice spectrum inversion, which we’ve done many times before, but now we’re going to think about it with Kaali in mind. Take out your screen-sheets, everybody.”

Screen-sheets are panels of clear plastic, each a different plain, pure color.

“We’ll be using nightbracket and sunpetal. We’re going to do the usual. Nightbracket to sunpetal, sunpetal to nightbracket. But now (and I admit this is still relatively hand-wavy, but bear with me, it works), we’re going to think about Kaali. The ‘folk’-level impressions you likely have currently will be sufficient to begin. Think about that place and what it could really ‘mean’ as far as the existence of your life and your mind are concerned. Then shrink that area of relevance to your cognition and senses. Again, we’re not really embarking on anything new in principle; but now use Kaali as your starting point—as if you had a sort of psychic connection to the place…because, of course, you do, in a way, at least.”

I forced my mind to set aside what Mike had said earlier and did as Dr. Rocktopath instructed. I achieved the inversion with unprecedented ease, which both unsettled and delighted me. I looked over at Mike and saw that he was still struggling. As a corpsebrooder, I was obliged to offer assistance, though I was careful to be particularly wormfashion about it in the presence of Dr. Rocktopath.

II

As I recount the events that preceded my class’ pivotal MaskEx, it’s occurred to me that, you, the reader of my thoughts, may very well inhabit a region of existence that’s, in some ways at least, “different” from mine. But what does “different” mean on a fundamental level? I’d be a liar if I said I understood the answer, but I think know the answer, and it is this: things may not actually be so different in a material sense—what I’m getting at has to do with the cardinality of our abstract ideals. In other words, while our corresponding stations in nature may obey the same transcendentals bound to counting, resulting in mutual decodabilty of thought and language, our lived experiences may still differ in terms of barest meaning—matters concerning sense of proportion, direction, fundamental attribution—these sorts of things.

Of course, a possible consequence is that our school lives might differ. At Springside Preparatory Academy for Boys, we study mathematics, physics, chemistry, artcraft, music, sensecraft, Language, and physical education; each student has his own schedule of classes. But besides academic subjects, the most important lesson children learn from a young age is that to err in front of adults is fine, for the most part—it’s among other young people that standards of behavior must be strict. Therefore, by teenage years, before adulthood and MaskEx, a set of crews fills out a copious and rigid social structure. Defiance of this structure is dealt with swiftly and mercilessly. So too is solicitude.

Now, to my dismay, Ouranos apparently dared to oppose these strictures. I’d met Ouranos in freshman artcraft class. The guy was absolutely brilliant at it and his enthusiasm was infectious. I don’t know how he did in his other classes, but he was so talented at artcraft that Dr. Rocktopath took a personal, vested interest in Ouranos’ education. I admit I was slightly jealous of him for that, but I could sense Dr. Rocktopath saw a bit of himself in Ouranos, and I liked Dr. Rocktopath enough to be happy for him for that. I even worked it into my internal narrative that Dr. Rocktopath had looked somewhat like Ouranos before MaskEx.

It wasn’t too bad of a look: ellipsoid mask, long hair, just a trace of pudginess in the lower wormjacket. But besides a rather arresting voice, he had nothing that quite turned heads. His eyes were common penshade and his mask was not defined in the least. There was even a faint air of meekness about him, somewhat like a puppy that gets bigger in size, but is incapable of fully maturing. Lastly, he had a sort of jolty fidget about his manner that often confused me because it seemed so subtle, yet so striking at the same time—I was never completely sure whether or not anyone else had ever noticed, as I had never heard anyone comment about it—and, if that was because it was, in fact, so obvious, I would have felt silly in having brought it up. But all in all, he did not experience too many problems in his daily life. A new mask would certainly put him in a fantastic placement in society post-MaskEx, I was positive.

But now, all sorts of complications arose. If Mike was right that Ouranos was gunning for the graduation speech, it was only a matter of time before he was in serious trouble with the Reapsakes. And as it would surely displease Dr. Rocktopath to see Ouranos come to harm, that bothered me greatly.

***

In the evening, under a darkening sky strewn with stars seeming as flecks of bone, we gathered at our usual meeting place behind the school. The stiff smell of pine perfused from the blackness beyond encircling bushes.

Joey, leader of the Reapsakes, began, “OK corpsebrooders, Mike says he saw that worm Ouranos looking at the poster for the graduation speech. That’s not going to fly. I didn’t spend a week torturing Kelp over there for those dollfashion lines for nothing. And I don’t need people getting the wrong idea now that I’m about to experience the apogee of my time at this fine institution, especially just because that trash is about to be rescued by MaskEx.

“So I think it’s important we don’t waste this opportunity. This has got to be used to send a message. We’re going set an example for any other Inferior who thinks he could ever experience the position of a Superior. I want the adults hearing about it too.”

Joey’s best corpsebrooder, Reza, said, “Yeah, that sounds wormshadow. Ouranos is unaligned, which means we don’t even have to be too wormfashion about how we do it.”

All the Reapsakes nodded eagerly, their eyes sparkling in many hues of bloodshade. I tried to look the same way as my peers, but I felt my mask tremble as I thought about what was going to happen to Ouranos. And as I was a known corpsebrooder of the Reapsakes, Dr. Rocktopath would surely hold me just as culpable as any of the others.

“Kelp!” Joey barked, “I want your serpent and I want you to steal your mother’s tube-cartridge maker and lighter fluid again. We’ll also need something for scraping. Besides the serpent, I mean.”

Kelp said, “OK, sure thing.”

“Yeah, it had better be a sure thing. You know, it makes my blood boil when people act this way. Ouranos appears a touch too fain to view his life as part of some kind of adventure—as if his existence is seasoned by some ‘special’ sort of contingency. Or some such nonsense. Well, I’m going to make sure no one will forget who’s who or what’s what around here again.”

Everyone clapped.

“Oh, and one more thing. Will…” Everyone’s eyes turned on me.

“I’ve received word that you may have some differing views about this.”

“No, I—“

“Now, I really hope you haven’t been a spy from those worms in That Freaky Vibe all this time…or could it be that your corpsebrooders with Ouranos?”

“I assure you—“

“Enough. Hey, don’t worry, I for one trust you. So guess what? You’re going to be the chief Executor during the session. And everyone’s going to know about it. Even that blowhard Dr. Rocktopath.”

“…No problem,” I said.

***

After reflecting for some time after the meeting, I decided to find Ouranos to at least give him whatever warning I could. Cutting off Ouranos’ ambitions at the source would be risky, but most efficient.

But it was not long after I began my search for him the next day during our daily break time that Joey entered my mind.  Joey was a natural-born Superior. That’s not to say I think there can be any other kind of Superior. But Joey’s mask was especially lean and fierce-looking and he often wore outside of school a wormshadow outfit comprised of denim shorts, sunpetal sneakers, and a large doubledark t-shirt.

My own relationship with Joey and the Reapsakes had started a year and a half ago through my brother. Spotting me walking home with him one bracing, cloud-painted day in the spring, a senior Reapsake had caught up to us and said to me, “Don’t tell me you’re Kelp’s brother or something. Not just dragging him around like the trash he is? He’s ours you know…no one enthralls him without our authorization.” He knocked the pear on which Kelp was munching out of his hand.

“Indeed I am. Don’t ask how I got such a wormshadow draw of the—”

“I guess it happens. Hey. So we have an opening in the Reapsakes and you look like you could be a pretty wormshadow corpsebrooder.”

I didn’t think long before I agreed to join.  I’d spent enough of my life unaligned to find a good measure of satisfaction in that immediate moment of Acceptance.

But I soon found that my responsibilities to the crew took a bigger toll on my life than I’d imagined. Time I could have spent developing my natural aptitude at sensecraft and building a bond with Dr. Rocktopath went instead into meetings and strategy sessions. That I was so close to escaping the responsibilities of my position in youth and finally being able to approach Dr. Rocktopath had been shedding light on an ever-wilting outlook on life. But now, if I crossed Joey and my other corpsebrooders, I shuddered to think of how even MaskEx could save me from the memories of the consequences.

***

Though my thoughts continued to trouble me, I persisted in my search. I simply couldn’t let Dr. Rocktopath come to think ill of me. Too many are blinded by his light, but not I! I had to make him know that one day.

I finally spotted Ouranos in the lunchroom. There was considerable bustle and cheer about the place, which wasn’t surprising given the time of the year. I walked past congratulatory banners and through festive paper streamers of black, white, and freshfall to reach him at a table in the far corner of the room.

 Dr. Rocktopath was just getting up from talking with him and I saw that his eyes looked easier than usual, as if a major tension had been released from some internal wire from which they hung. He gave me a small nod as I passed him to join Ouranos.

Ouranos did not seem very surprised to see me. We had never been the closest of corpsebrooders, but we had always gotten along.

“What’s up, Will? Long time no see.”

“Yeah, I’ll say.”

“What brings you over to boring old me?”

I veered from telling him the real reason immediately and said, “Oh, uh, mainly just curious what’s up with you. We haven’t talked since freshman year, can you believe it?”

“Yeah, we were in artcraft, weren’t we? That was such a wormshadow class to have freshman year.”

“…I agree. It was fantastic. And I saw you were talking to Rocktopath just now. You two seem to have quite the relationship.”

“Yeah, it’s one of those mentor-disciple type things, all right. Tomorrow he wants me to give a presentation in senior sensecraft.”

“Oh, no way! I’m in that class! What are you going to present about?”

“It’s going to be about my independent research this past year. I’ve been studying Incursion in depth and I’m going to give your class a sort of primer on its history and what we’ve been able to learn from it. Don’t be too impressed, though, Dr. Rocktopath gave me all the materials I’ll be using and he’s going to be coaching me some more tonight. As I’m sure you’re aware, Incursion is really discussed as more of an artcraft thing at such a basic level, but Dr. Rocktopath says he’s been developing a more integrated approach to his teaching methods that features Incursion at the forefront of both artcraft and sensecraft. He calls it “horror-style.” Not sure what his proofs are yet, but it sounds pretty wormshadow, doesn’t it? He’s fucking brilliant.”

I swelled with anticipation and said, “Now I’m really looking forward to that. That’s exactly the kind of stuff I wish we spent more time on.”

He said, “Yeah, I guess a problem is that so many aspects of this subject area are so abstract that it’s easy for young people to tune out, let alone comfortably process even more fundamental knowledge. It’s a question of educational direction. If we focused more at a young age on how to think abstractly—if there was a field of ‘abstractology’ for example—”

“You mean something like…semiotics?”

“Nah, I mean something a notch more general and directive. That would be a separate didactic effort.”

“How so?”

“Consider PE. The point isn’t to teach you a particular sport or anything. When done right, the point of PE is to get your wormjacket to kind of “know” how to function properly. The specific activities are just used to teach toward that goal. So if, just for example, semiotics is swimming, epistemology is track, and hermeneutics is sprints (and so forth), ‘abstractology’ (there’s an ideal name for this somewhere) would be PE.”

I thought for a few seconds and was impressed at how much his framing helped me understand his point. It was no wonder Ouranos was so good at artcraft, with skills like that.

Then, at that moment, I spotted Mike and Reza on the opposite side of the lunchroom prowling behind one of the few female teachers at the school. They were looking lustfully after her and trying to be wormfashion about it. Joey was trailing them, observing, but also keeping his eyes on some corpsebrooders of That Freaky Vibe.

“Ouranos, sorry to change the subject, but listen. I’m actually here for another reason. Some of the Reapsakes are saying you’ve been considering applying to be the graduation speaker.”

Ouranos looked down and away. He said softly, “Yeah. I knew it was only a matter of time before one of them noticed. What can I say? If I’m ever going to be a public speaker after MaskEx, I need to practice. I’ve got plans! Ambitions! I’m sure you can understand that. Don’t you?”

“Understandable, Ouranos, but as much as it doesn’t bother me personally, that’s not going to fly. You know you’d trounce him. Joey will literally have your head.”

He didn’t respond for a few moments and kept looking at the floor. Then he said, “I know. Believe me, I’ve thought about the consequences of challenging Joey. But for me, even the fantasy of prevailing worth it. When I think about seizing this opportunity, I actually feel happier. As in, that happiness plus the despair of the truth does more psychic good for me than to live with the despair alone. The effort of putting up those mental barriers just hasn’t proved worth it to me and I doubt they will. I fucked up, corpsebrooder. And I know not to be sad about what’s going to happen. Now that you’ve so compassionately let me know my suspicions were true, I’m going to give that presentation tomorrow everything I’ve got. I’m going to make sure Dr. Rocktopath, at least, will never forget me for who or what I really I am.”

I didn’t know what to say next, so I leaned back and stared up while Ouranos gazed blankly into space. My thought processes slowed considerably.

Suddenly, Ouranos’ eyes became fearful, then indignant. He said, “Hey! Come on, leave me alone. I don’t know what you’re talking about, so stop making my life hell.”

Joey, Mike, and Reza slinked to our side from my rear. They looked angry.

Ouranos continued, “Come on Will, I thought we were corpsebrooders. I haven’t done anything against you or your crew.”

I knew what I had to do. I said in a hoarse hiss, “Just be glad you’re not suffering yet. Yeah, in fact, you owe me. If those teachers weren’t over there, I’d—”

Ouranos got up with a look of frenzy over his mask and said, “Spare me, buddy. I know how to make your heart drop. And the only conversation we’ve ever had that I in any way enjoyed was the one during which you offered me your rather farcical explanation for ghosts. I had a good laugh afterwards, it ended up really helping me along with my artcraft.” With that, he walked briskly away.

Mike broke out of a frightful stare at Ouranos’ distancing back and said, “Nice, Will, you did that real wormshadow and wormfashion.”

Reza said, “Indeed. Intimidation is most effective when the subject is made to realize it will result in a consequence that’s inevitable, insurmountable, and unknowable. That worm is going to suffer.”

Joey patted my breast, saying, “I knew all along that sanctioning your recruitment would turn out to be a wise decision. Tomorrow afternoon will be productive.”

I glanced across the checker-floored way to the foyer and saw Dr. Rocktopath speaking with Ouranos with an arm on his shoulder. Ouranos did not appear as if he wanted to talk. They were speaking so quickly, I discerned only the words “wormcrooked” and “desolation” from the lip movements of Dr. Rocktopath before I had to look away. I smiled back at Joey, Mike and Reza, trying hard to project that all was wormshadow, but internally, I felt as though I may as well have never had any crew of corpsebrooders at all.

III

As you may have surmised, members of our community receive new, flawless masks at the end of our time in high school. Our custom has been practiced since time immemorial and is intended to alleviate the turmoil accrued in the minds of the more troubled ones of the youth, like Kelp. Many have attempted breeding the importance of masks out of us, but in our recent history, the more we’ve tried to stray from our present nature through conscious effort, the more our in-born predilections have intensified.

However, if one’s original mask is damaged too greatly before MaskEx, it can be impossible to complete the ceremony and ritual of MaskEx. If not for Ouranos’s action upon seeing the Reapsakes the previous day, someone like me would have been doomed just as gravely as Ouranos was given the severity of an indiscretion such as mine.     

As I sat in sensecraft amongst my corpsebrooders, macerating in this rather unfavorable reflection, Ouranos walked in. He looked ready to deliver one hell of a presentation. I started again to become excited in spite of myself, though hearing the sniggers of Joey and the other Reapsakes behind me still sustained the pit in my stomach.

Dr. Rocktopath helped Ouranos set up the projector and soon he was ready to begin. Ouranos said, “Hello! Today, Dr. Rocktopath has asked me to talk to you in some detail about Incursion. Most of you, no doubt, know what Incursion is on a basic, ‘folk’ level, but today I’m going to tell you what’s important about it for your educational objectives. And if you’re wondering about my own purpose, let’s call this a personal exercise, or something maybe just a bit more than that.

“To give you a brief description of Incursion in case you need a refresher: it is essentially the deployment from a long conjectured but relatively (with regard to our recorded history) recently verified origin (Kaali) of (what you could think of as) predatory pieces of Entertainment. Since it’s utterly useless to speculate about the beings or agencies that create these projectiles, you can say, as such, that our world is a place where Entertainment comes to us as a natural phenomenon. This Entertainment cannot be used and is not intended for mere recreation, however. All Incursive specimens instigate feelings of unbeatable despair within unsuspecting viewers. Depending on the composition of the specimen and on the individual audience member’s biology, there can be stages leading up to the final psychophysical disintegration. Bowdlerizing is not really effective since there are rarely scenes in particular that we can pick out as being pivotally offensive or harmful—we can spend hours on analysis and remove a scene or section we are sure is the ‘culprit’ only to find that the effort has proven futile. Thorough training and mastery of sensecraft is necessary before Incursion can be properly digested. The training requires a rather hardy mindset, however, and most people choose to forego it unless they are pursuing higher levels of directly related study. Things have gotten much safer this past century in any case, so this is understandable.”

All the while, Ouranos flipped through slides showing images of archaeologically groundbreaking examples of Incursive projectiles. Some of it looked even newer than the glimpses of contemporary stuff I had seen.

“So, it may be somewhat confusing that everything we know about how to do artcraft (and, as I hope you’ll see, sensecraft) has been derived from the axioms we’ve been able to establish from studying Incursion. The reason for this, which I’ll return to, is that, because the results of viewing Incursion by regular people are predictable, studying it can lead us to extrapolate general theories and eventually build formal systems.

“I’d now like to go through three examples in detail. Afterwards, I’ll say a few words about how this is relevant to sensecraft, though I’ll let Dr. Rocktopath elaborate more thoroughly on that discussion tomorrow. Of course, since I’m a student just like you all are, I won’t be offended if any of you decide to leave.”

I heard the scrape of two or three chairs directly behind me, but Ouranos didn’t pause. The next slide popped up immediately.

“The first example of Incursion I want to talk about is a film, originally found as a tube-cartridge, called Psychopathic Chump. This film concerns the life of a young man named Liam. We don’t know anything about where the man is from, but, as you can see, his eyes are nightbracket, not any kind of bloodshade. Same with his love interest, Wendy; neither are her eyes any kind of bloodshade. Actually, in most Incursive projectiles, eye color tends to be freshfall, nightbracket, or deadpetal, but oddly, never bloodshade, doubledark, sunpetal, or burnglower. The reason for this specificity is unknown.

“From the onset, Liam sees himself as a thoroughly unlucky person. Most experts agree that he does not have anything exceptionally ‘wrong’ about him, especially to an extent so as to warrant the kind of behavior patterns he displays in the film. But it seems to be the case that wherever Liam is from happens to exert some kind of pressure, either through society as a whole or some particular branch of society, which influences Liam to gradually turn from a troubled but well-liked student into a delusional, privately crazed, and eventually megalomaniacal deviant. After humiliating himself at a college party, he decides the “final straw” has been drawn. Enough is enough, so to speak. He also becomes fixated on the only girl there who didn’t participate in the ensuing mockery, Wendy. He becomes convinced that his future happiness will be forged out of the agglutination of some sickly wormfashion attainment of his ‘professional goals’ (which by now amount to planetary domination—retribution for his perceived negative life experiences) with his success in having a genuine relationship with Wendy. From here to the end, we will come to see that there is something catastrophic about witnessing and falling into empathy with the afflictions of Liam. He ends up rebelling against his parents’ wishes, drops out of college, and starts a cock-fighting operation in an attempt to raise money for an “impactful” trip to his nation’s capital. After a series of increasingly poor business decisions, however, he gets into a fight after being confronted by a childhood enemy-turned-partner, is horribly beaten up in front of Wendy on the night he had planned to ask her to be his one and only beloved, and subsequently falls victim to a spiral of hopelessness that eventually drives him to suicide. At the end of all this, for reasons that aren’t so clear, even to me after hours and hours of study, Wendy becomes insane with sorrow after hearing about Liam’s demise and it is implied that she lives the rest of her life suffering incurable, insoluble misery.      

It may sound like quite a ludicrous reaction, a device you may expect to find in second-rate artcraft, but in this case, the laughter that might be induced in viewers does not tend to last long.

“The best framing to communicate the ensuing feeling I can think of is this: imagine someone slit your throat and pushed you off a cliff. You fall, but somehow, the way you were pushed and the tumid bulge of the rock-face make it so that you catch every single nook and cranny on the way down. And all the while, you’re picking up speed, spraying on the stoneshade. And that’s really what this is. It’s a jagged kind of assault, as if that sort of thing squeezes the most possible negativity and hopelessness out of mental space as one can imagine.”

The screenshots on the slides had been, for the most part, unexceptional, even boring looking. I struggled to determine how this film could be so dangerous as to be classified as Incursion.

“Next, I want to talk about another film called Eclogue of Aldebaran, The Follower. Again, the location of this film is not clear, but it is theorized to take place on a planet either in the solar system of the star Aldebaran or in some vicinity thereof. The characters, as you can see, look much like those from Psychopathic Chump, but the setting is more rural, dim, and antiquated. The main characters are named Ero and Zelmgorsutrix. Besides one spoken line, the film is entirely silent.”

Apart from his eyes and clothing, I thought that Zelmgorsutrix bore a strong resemblance to my own Kelp.

“Anyway, Zelmgorsutrix, a young independent farmer, falls in love with Ero, a beautiful girl from a noble family. To the audience, it is obvious that this love is puerile, unhealthful, and destined to fail. Still, as we’ll see, the trick of the film seems to be to unfold the story in such a way as to deprive the audience of choice in how they hope the film will end. No doubt thinking he’s being brilliantly wormfashion, Zelmgorsutrix bonds himself to Ero’s elder brother, Kin, in a pathetic effort to get closer to Ero herself. This fails immediately, as Kin puts Ero (who has committed some unexplained indiscretion) to work in the castle morgue, spraying corpses with a kind of magical solution that prevents maggots from hatching under their skins. The number of corpses is apparently so absurdly massive that Zelmgorsutrix never has a chance to make himself seen by Ero. Knowing her to be working in such an environment also has a profound effect on Zelmgorsutrix’s creative impulses, as he starts to compose what he calls ‘criminal’s poetry’ as his only leisurely amusement. When he at last gets close to Ero one evening in a hidden, labyrinthine garden, under a naught-bound sickle moon, Kin stumbles upon them and cuts off Zelmgorsutrix’s nose for daring to approach a female in his family. In fact, thanks to a spy, he had known about Zelmgorsutrix’s feelings and intentions all along. He had lied about putting Ero to work in the morgue, and was just waiting for the right moment to deal punishment for Zelmgorsutrix’s impropriety. His words to Zelmgorsutrix as he hobbles away in agony are, ‘Serves you right, you peasant. I’ll have your parents hunted down for giving you that showy name.’ All the while, despite ourselves, we are compelled to root for Zelmgorsutrix, rather than to write him off as the blithering, delusion-driven fool he clearly is.

Instead of satisfying this coerced desire, the film has Zelmgorsutrix hang himself in Ero’s garden with his pockets stuffed with his unpublished manuscripts. As the denouement proceeds, we are shown Ero grown up, with an adopted daughter; but, for no given reason, she is so ridden with anguish over Zelmgorsutrix that the only thing she can do to equal in expression her feelings for him in her fantasies is to read her daughter the things he wrote before he died. In a final montage, we are shown an alternate reality in which Zelmgorsutrix and Ero had successfully run off together to what looks like a deserted region of their planet. There they are depicted to be exceptionally happy.”

There was a break in the slides.

“So now I’ll say a bit about why these two films are important. Both of them engage in an offensive maneuver against our nascent cognitive wiring in a manner such that we often come to sense some underlying mechanism of damnation unfurling against us, but that we are nevertheless ultimately unable to resist or rebuff. Notice, in particular, how the instances of suicide in both films are resolved not with derision, but, rather to the contrary, with glorification and indulgence. And yet, it is naïve, at best, to categorically dismiss the material on critical grounds. From these two examples, we see that the presence of (and integration with) genuinely captivating filmmaking technique—from syntax to dialectical dynamics to aesthetics, and so forth—transforms what we would perhaps otherwise evaluate as crass and amateurish artcraft into fatal poison. National research has confirmed this to be the case for the vast majority of untrained people both pre- and post-MaskEx. In fact, research of that type could only commence once protocols were developed to make sure advanced researchers were not permanently damaged. But since those protocols had to be developed from scratch and need to be updated periodically…well…you all know what that means. And further, to reemphasize an especially important point: because Incursion is reliant upon and emblematic of natural laws that force predictable outcomes, we’ve been able to use it to develop a logic-pointed technical field like artcraft. And as I’ve already alluded to, we eventually got to sensecraft too.

“Now, for my last example of Incursion, I want to talk about an Incursive chapbook titled A Linearization of Nonlinear Space-Time: Reduction to a Vile Creature.” He flipped to a slide showing a triptych of pages with blocks of ordinary-looking text and pulled out some notecards to read off of. “Immediately, you can see that this title attempts to be both jeering and alarmingly all-encompassing.

“Now, I’ll admit that even I’m not overly familiar with the history or extent of this piece, and am considering this specimen for the first time along with the rest of you. But according to Dr. Rocktopath, it’s especially valued among experts for its literal purity. The characters are denoted only as letters and all descriptions are, from what we can tell, universal. As in, given the qualifiers or descriptors used in the text, there’s nothing we can imagine that would be divergent in relatablity between different intelligent interpreters. The only meaningful differences between subjects are (again, from what we can tell) their gender categorizations and name-letters. Seemingly solely through their arrangement and order, the individual fragments of text generate what we call a ‘dramatic progression’ as the output of their integration. In this way, the example demonstrates that it is possible to devise a system of symbolic objects that invokes irreducible ‘feelings’ by drawing from an idea-bank populated only with conceptual constituents subject to quantitative decomposition, like the material precepts of chemistry or the hard logic of digital computing. From a place of pure intuition, this area of investigation may seem paradox-ridden and, for all intents and purposes as far you’re all concerned, it is. As you can see, it can be difficult to imagine how this text could even be compared with the previous examples—you really don’t possess the tools or experience needed to understand what exactly you’re looking at.

“And that’s why there’s no point in trying to summarize this one. I’d have to invent and use a different level of vocabulary in order to describe what’s going on here without you all having dedicated your lives to deep, intensive study. Maybe we can conceive of some true adept managing to do this in a successfully relatable way, but no one has yet unraveled that part of the code of nature that would make such conceptual commutableness possible at a secondary school level. But therein lies the inscrutable beauty we wanted to expose you to with this piece.”

He glanced at the clock readied to make a final statement. “Now, seeing as this is sensecraft, I think I owe you a few additional words before Dr. Rocktopath takes back over tomorrow. It turns out that the formalism we’ve been able to extract from Incursion can, in concert with recognizing and understanding the implications of Kaali’s very existence, be used to develop ways to control our subjective sensory experiences. Since Incursion has demonstrated that Kaali knows our species’ neurosensory processes to perfection, we can deduce that the machinations that empower Incursion can be analyzed and repurposed so that, with thorough education with a well-devised praxis, you will all, should you desire and in case the refreshment of MaskEx fails you, be able to create a world of your own, through the power inherit in your very own biology. Most importantly (perhaps), with enough practice, you’ll have a means of self-rescue should you ever be unwittingly exposed to Incursion.” At this point, something prompted Ouranos to look around the room and he nodded off at a slight angle toward the floor. Then, a look as if he had a sudden realization quickly flashed on his mask.

He quickly recovered his composure and with a bit more haste (and, looking back, perhaps with a hint of reluctance), he went on, “As a last point, I’m not sure if Dr. Rocktopath has mentioned this to you before, but I feel obligated to tell you: if you want to practice sensecraft to its full effect and efficiency, use the thought of Kaali, the source of Incursion, as your starting point—as if you had a sort of psychic connection to the place…because, of course, you do, in a way, at least.”

The bell rang. As gripping for me the period had been, I was still surprised that no one had ended up leaving early, given that it had been a student lecture. When the bell stopped ringing, it was so silent that the room felt almost empty.

Dr. Rocktopath looked winded with satisfaction. His eyes scanned back and forth over the class and he said, “Well there you have it! Now that’s what I call horror-style! Let’s have a round of applause!” Everyone started to oblige well enough.

“Mike? Joey? You two doing all right? Starting to feel a bit— different?”

I turned to Mike and, though he clapped and smiled, the spillshade of his eyes shone diligently, fierce and cold. But I discerned a twitch in his mask as I looked back up to see a wash of pride erupting over Ouranos’ juddering mask.

Then, as I came to grasp the situation at hand, a wave of anguish overcame me and caused me to keel. In hindsight, it was so obvious! After all, unlike the first two examples, there was no indication that the last example had been merely a fragment. And Ouranos’ unflagging exuberance gave his words such sway and momentum, that nobody had come to question him. Furthermore, since Ouranos had had his eyes set on his notecards, it was no wonder why he had remained unaffected.

I craned my neck up and behind me and saw that Joey and the Reapsakes were also on the floor, along with the rest of the students, their masks contorted into unspeakable formations and unable to let out any noise. Joey was trying to keep his eyes trained on Ouranos, but I could tell his will was failing him.

Dr. Rocktopath said, “Don’t worry about your other classes, I have pre-written slips for all of you. You’ll be spending the rest of the day with me. Your parents have been informed as well. I hope that by the end of our time this afternoon and evening, we can all move in a new direction together. You should all be compelled to work for a more constructive state of the youth after MaskEx. Won’t that be nice?”

Though my heart reeled and my mind sizzled, I was thankful more than anything. After all, what an opportunity I now had to get closer to Dr. Rocktopath! Indeed, in the coming days and weeks, and especially into and after MaskEx, I came to truly cherish Ouranos’ lecture and the advent of Dr. Rocktopath’s horror-style.



BIO

N.J. Banerjee resides in the SF Bay Area in California. He holds a BA from UC Berkeley in Molecular and Cell Biology and an MSc from University College London in neuroscience. This is his first published work of fiction.







Orphans of the Savannah

By Adam Matson



I went to Kenya to avoid mating rituals. The year I was twenty-six about half of my friends got married. I went to weddings all summer. Sat at the singles tables, wondering if this was all there was to life. You can only browse so many Williams and Sonoma wedding registries before you start to feel the choke of settled life.

I was living in Boston, working in a marketing firm. I had a tiny apartment. Cubicle in a downtown office. It was the life high school and college had prepared me for, and it left me feeling utterly soulless. I showed up to work every morning and immediately felt tired. The window beside my desk looked directly into another office building. I watched the people sitting in cubicles in the adjacent building, wondering if their lives were any more interesting than mine.

Every Thursday my friends and I gathered at a bar on Beacon Hill to drink and discuss our dynamic and accelerating lives: engagements, internships, jobs, promotions. We called this meeting the Thursday Club. Week after week we toasted and laughed, ordered $16 martinis. I felt like a mouse running on a wheel.

On a Thursday night in October I left work and shuffled up the hill. The group was already a round deep at the bar. Brendan and Mary announced their engagement, and Tyler Dunn knocked over his chair jumping up to buy their next drinks. As we toasted the happy couple, I thought: what crap will I order them from Williams and Sonoma?

Then I made an announcement of my own.

“I’m going to Africa,” I said. “To work with elephants.”

Everyone stared at me. Why? was the primary question. And for how long? And what the hell for?

I was going for three months, volunteering at a wildlife orphanage in Kenya’s Tsavo National Park. Why for so long? Because I didn’t think a two-week vacation would cure my cubicle blues. I knew nothing about elephants, except that they were mercilessly slaughtered by poachers for the ivory in their tusks, sometimes leaving their baby offspring to fend for themselves against predators and the elements. In my mind I pictured an orphaned elephant stumbling across the savannah, lost, hungry, alone, and for some reason I felt a deep kinship with the animal.

None of my friends could believe that I would quit my job. They knew how hard it was to find that good job, that downtown job we’d all dreamed about in college.

“So you’re just leaving everything?” my friend Julie asked. “Everything you’ve worked for?”

I shrugged. Everything what? I had no answer she or any of them would find acceptable. Julie and I had been officially broken up for about six months, though there were still occasional late-night text summons. We would quickly hook up, and watch long hours of insipid television.

“I might be back,” I said to the table. Nobody bought my next drink.

My plan was to arrive in Kenya in November, during the shorter of the two rainy seasons, volunteer with the elephants until February, then spend a week at the beach in Mombasa, before returning home. But as I rode the bus through lush terrain on the road to Tsavo, I started to suspect my stay might be longer than a few months. I had spent four years in Boston, suffocated by traffic and humanity. The grasslands in Southeast Kenya seemed to spread out forever, rolling upward in green hills to the mountains. The pressure in my chest began to loosen.

The Tsavo Elephant Orphanage was owned and operated by a British couple, Alice and Donovan Price. Donovan was a veterinarian from a wealthy family, and had lived in Africa most of his life. Alice had originally wanted to be a painter, attended art school in Paris, then inherited some money and went to Africa seeking adventure. In Kenya she met her future husband while out painting in the bush. At the time Donovan was tracking lions, before he switched his focus to elephants. I was surprised to learn the Prices had no children, and unsurprised later when Alice told me, while sitting in a mud bath with a baby calf, that the elephants were her children. If anyone in the States had said this to me, I might have laughed. But Africa was different. The land was ancient and truthful. It had been around long before humans, and would survive long after we followed the many species we had already crowded out.

For the first few months I slept in a bunkhouse. Employees and volunteers lived, ate, and slept on-site. There were no two-bedroom apartments with a pool and a gym nearby. The nearest large town was Voi, a rambling two-hour drive from the orphanage.

The manager of day-to-day operations was a Kenyan named George Odhiambo. George lived on the grounds in a small, one-story house with his wife and four children. He spent much of his time taking the orphaned elephants out for walks in the park, where they would meet, and hopefully bond with, the wild elephants that lived there. One of my duties was to join George on these walks. We were sort of chaperones, taking the young ones out for day trips, then rounding them up, and bringing them back to the orphanage at night.

            “Are you married, Jeffrey?” was the first question George asked me when we met, followed by: “Do you have children?”

            “No, and no,” I said.

            George introduced me to his family before even taking me to see the elephants, and his wife Sophie fed me lunch. His children roped me into a game of soccer in their dusty yard. From then on George seemed to take a personal interest in my lack of spouse and offspring, coaching me on the importance of perpetuating the life cycle.

            My primary duty at the orphanage, as I had sort of expected it would be, was to clean up shit. Elephants produced biblical quantities of excrement, which I had to scoop out of their living areas. The shit was then packaged up and transported to various locations for use as fertilizer.

            “This will be your best friend in Tsavo,” George said, handing me a shovel.

            “The shit is actually very important to us,” Alice Price explained to me, one day when I was covered with excrement. “It tells us whether the animals are healthy or sick, if they are dehydrated, if the food we give them is providing proper nourishment.” She listed all the ways in which animal excrement could be abnormal, and told me to keep an eye out for aberrations.

By the second month I did develop a keen eye for elephant feces. I sent a long email home to my friends in Boston detailing everything I had learned about excrement, and its animal health implications.

“Sounds like you are full of shit, Jeff,” Tyler Dunn replied.

Julie asked when I was coming home.

            Most volunteers stayed at the orphanage for a week or two, before returning to wherever in the world they kept their real lives. Some just seemed to want to get their picture taken with an elephant. Many arrived assuming that the elephants would take an instant liking to them, that they would make lifelong friends with a majestic, ancient beast. Americans especially were miffed that the elephants could be shy and aloof.

            Elephant babies were like human babies, in that they primarily responded to, and wanted to be around, their mothers. When they were orphaned, they often had to learn to trust humans as surrogate parents. Many of the young elephants suffered from serious emotional trauma, having witnessed their mother being slaughtered by poachers. They were wary of humans. They didn’t want to be petted. Very young babies often did not survive their transition to the orphanage. The first time I saw a baby elephant die I felt a deep emptiness, like a profound personal rejection. Alice told me that the baby died because it did not recognize me as someone it could trust to feed it. So it did not eat. It died because it missed its mother. I cried in my bunk that night, and called home to my own parents the next day.

            “Life is fragile, sweetie,” my mother said. “All babies need to know they have a mother.”

            Then she passed me off to my father, who recommended I send my resume to a consultant, so I could present “this elephant thing” in the most advantageous light.

            In the wild, elephant families were oriented around the females, with the leader of the family group generally being the oldest and wisest cow, the matriarch. Aunts and sisters helped raise the young calves, and together the group traveled and nurtured each other, the mothers teaching the children how to find food and water, how to survive. When a young male reached his teenage years, he usually turned sexually curious and aggressive, like humans. Unlike humans, the teenaged males turned their sexual attention on their sisters and cousins, at which point the mother would expel them from the group, leaving them in the wild to fend for themselves. Males were welcomed back during mating season, but otherwise they were basically encouraged to get lost. Sometimes they formed their own groups, passing the days fighting for status and the right to impregnate the females. Or they became loners, rambling the plains on their own, guided by an inner spirit and agenda.

            After the rainy season the nights turned warm and dry. George and I often roamed the grounds of the orphanage after dark, smoking a joint, checking to see what nocturnal activity might be astir.

            “How many brothers and sisters do you have, Jeffrey?” George asked.

            “One brother, one sister.”

            “Why did your parents give up?”

            “Children are expensive,” I said. “We live in Boston. There are too many people already.”

            “I have thirteen brothers and sisters,” said George. “I don’t even know all their names.” He laughed. “Of course I do. We live in Nairobi. And I always know when they are nearby. It is the same with elephants. They always know who is here.”

            I thought of my own siblings. We were not close. My brother and sister could have worked in the cubicles on either side of me, and I still wouldn’t have seen or heard from them until Christmas.

            George stopped to listen to the breeze. “Wait a minute,” he said.

            I stood perfectly still, thinking I was about to be mauled by a lion. George walked quietly through the darkness toward the facility’s perimeter fence.

            “I hear my old friend,” he said.

            Assuming it was safe to move, I followed George to the fence. I could feel a significant presence, like a large area of warmth, wafting toward us. Normally I would have attributed this feeling to the weed, but after two months, I could easily smell the earthy musk of an elephant. I could even tell it was a male.

            “Do you see him?” George asked.

            “I smell him.”

            “He is ten yards away.” George leaned on the fence. “Kamari. Come to us, my good friend. Kamari!”

            Vibrations rippled through the ground. Against the navy blue glow of the star-dotted horizon a great blackness formed.

            “There is my boy,” George said.

            I knew the elephant stood right in front of us, but I could not see him. Instead I felt the soft thud of his trunk against my face. I froze. The rough skin wormed over me, and then a large blast of air hit me in the face.

            “He is checking you out,” George said.

            “He doesn’t think I’m food, does he?”

            “Jeffrey. They only eat plants.”

            “I know.”

            The elephant huffed, a long, deep exhale. The trunk poked me a couple more times, then vanished back into the darkness. The vibrations rippled again beneath my feet.

            “That is Kamari,” George whispered. “He is like you, Jeffrey, a lone bull. But gentle. His name means moonlight. We call him that because he usually comes at night. Two months since the last time I saw him.”

            “I didn’t even see him,” I said. “He felt big.”

            “He is the biggest elephant you will ever see.”

The end of three months came quickly. Just when I was starting to become a real connoisseur of elephant feces, I found myself pricing tickets for a flight home. I still planned to spend a week at the beach in Mombasa, now that the weather was hot, but I did not look forward to returning to Boston. A few of the orphans were starting to recognize me. One or two would trumpet at me when I took them for their afternoon walks.

            I roamed the grounds of the orphanage, listening to the night sounds of Tsavo. There were no grinding machines, no honking traffic. I could breathe. Thinking about Boston conjured nightmarish visions of cubicles, wet asphalt, crowded subways. I did miss my friends, and I badly wanted a pizza. But I did not want to give up the open spaces.

            A few days before my departure, Alice Price called me into her office.

            “So you’re leaving us?” she asked.

            “I don’t really want to,” I admitted. “I like it here. I feel like I’m just starting to understand things.”

            “You’re good with the elephants, Jeff. You are patient and gentle. They respond to you. Many people think they like animals, but not everyone can connect with them.”

A warm breeze wafted through the open windows of her un-air-conditioned office. Outside I could see two orphans playing with an old tire.

“If you want to stay here,” Alice said. “We can hire you. It would not be a Boston salary, but you could live here at the orphanage, and there are not many expenses.”

I stared out the window, watching the young calves rolling the tire through the orange dirt. I wanted to join them, see if they would let me play.

Alice smiled. “What do you think?”

“What if you get sick?” my mother asked, when I called home with the news.

“I’m surrounded by veterinarians,” I replied.

My father put it more bluntly. “We didn’t put you through college so you could babysit animals, Jeff. Tony and Sharon are working their asses off. What’s your problem?”

After law school my brother had landed a job at Leechman and Cross, a downtown firm, while my sister was quickly ascending the communications ladder with the Boston Bruins.

“Two out of three ain’t bad,” I told my father.

I didn’t make it to the beach at Mombasa either. Alice set me up with a small room in the bunkhouse, where half a dozen of us lived full-time. I began spending nights with the baby orphans, sleeping on a cot next to a new arrival, sometimes for months at a time. The babies required feeding every three hours, even at night, and they needed to know that a warm body was nearby, for comfort. I learned to sleep with my arm dangling off the cot so that a baby could nudge me with its trunk. I even crawled off the cot and slept beside them on cold nights.

            For two years I slept with baby elephants. After a couple of months I no longer noticed their overpowering smell. Nor did it occur to me that I had developed that smell myself. I did not interact with many female humans at the orphanage, especially any close to my own age. So I did not think about my smell. Mostly I thought about the babies, and focused on feeding them milk and Similac, getting them past those crucial early months until they could finally eat grass and tree bark.

Not all of the babies brought to the orphanage survived. Generally the younger the calf, the less likely it was to live. Many came in weak or sick. Others refused to eat. Some had injuries from poachers or predators. One morning I awoke to find my charge had died during the night. We had named her Kala, and she had only been with us for two days. Her eyes in death were gray and filmy. I sat on the floor and leaned against her for a long time. Even though I had only known her briefly, her passing felt like my own child had died in its crib. I often cried when the babies didn’t make it. Alice later told me that she couldn’t sleep the night after losing a baby. George kept a list of all the elephants that passed through the orphanage. He made sure each one had a name, and he could recall each of their stories. I learned to carry the deaths as a compromise, a tradeoff for saving the others.

Every afternoon I walked the orphans in the park. The wild elephants found us easily, lumbering over to greet the orphans with trumpeting or trunk-hugs. George and Alice could recognize many of the elephants in the park by sight, and by many I mean hundreds. Sometimes they could pick out an ex-orphan from a long distance. There goes Lucia, we raised her twenty years ago. There’s Alphonse, he always comes around when his friend Sydney is nearby.

One afternoon George and I were watching an elephant family playing in a mud hole with a few of our orphans, when George spotted a giant on the horizon. It was a bull, and an old bruiser from the looks of him; his tusks were only short nubs. A typical elephant his size would have tusks five feet long.

“There is my old friend!” George cried, and he began walking toward the giant. He cupped his hands to his mouth. “Kamari!”

To my surprise, the elephant started walking toward us. I expected the ground to shake, and puddles to ripple, like when the T-Rex shows up in Jurassic Park. But when the old bull arrived he greeted George by trumpeting and flapping his ears. He draped his trunk over George’s shoulders, and George clapped the rough skin with a dusty hand. Kamari stood almost thirteen feet tall, well over twice my own height. After inspecting George he threw his trunk over me. The tips of his snout gummed my face like a pair of fat fingers.

“He remembers you,” George said.

I was mildly flattered. I had only met him once. In the dark.

“He does not forget. He’s a good man. Aren’t you, my old friend?”

Kamari stood with us for a while, watching the babies in the mud pool. The adult females watched Kamari attentively, but did not seem too concerned about him. Eventually the elephant family moved away, and George and I rounded up the orphans. Kamari waited until the mud hole was empty, then waded in himself.

During my third year in Kenya, there was a terrible drought. The land turned a crispy golden orange. Grasses shriveled and disappeared. Streams and watering holes vanished like dreams upon waking. In the park, and elsewhere, animals died by the thousands. It was boom time at the orphanage.

I started traveling across Kenya with Donovan to retrieve orphaned elephants from various wildlife refuges. While riding the bumpy rural roads Donovan religiously applied sun tan lotion (he was a melanoma survivor), and educated me about the troubling history of human/elephant relations in Africa.

“Droughts force the animals to look for food anywhere they can get it,” he told me. “They raid farms, destroy crops. A single elephant family can consume a farmer’s entire crop in one meal. Understandably, the locals become agitated.”

“So their solution is to shoot them?” I asked.

“It’s their livelihood,” Donovan said. “Would you starve an elephant or your own child?”

“My child, probably.”

He grinned. “This problem will likely never be resolved. Elephants are like jet airplanes, they require lots of fuel, and lots of space to move. The human population grows, and cuts into their natural habitat. We save what we can.”

Tsavo was located in one of Kenya’s more arid regions. We felt the drought harder than many places. Alice spent weeks at a time overseas, fundraising, and contracting with bottled water corporations to import water for the orphans. Still, many of our charges died from dehydration, and every day we found corpses in the park, not just of elephants, but birds and other animals. Donovan told me that the drought was nature’s way of culling the population, but that didn’t lessen the tension at work. We all spent many sleepless nights attending to malnourished orphans. Everyone grew restless, waiting for the rain.

On a scorching afternoon I hiked through the park in search of Barnaby, a five-year-old calf who had wandered off during the previous day’s walk. By now I felt fairly comfortable in the bush, keeping a vigilant eye out for snakes. With the drought many plants and trees had died, and visibility extended for miles. I stopped every few hundred yards to scan the horizon with my binoculars. I could hear George in the distance calling Barnaby’s name. Barnaby had been with us nearly since birth, so we assumed he would not know how to find water in the wild. If we did not recover him within a day or two he would die.

After two hours of searching, I had seen no live animals, just one or two carcasses. Many of the herds had left to look for water. Where they expected to find it was anybody’s guess. Elephant matriarchs could remember the paths to watering holes for years, even decades. The family groups relied on the matriarchs to survive. I relied on my canteen, which was almost empty, and I was three or four miles from the orphanage. I leaned against a tree to catch my breath.

My first indication that something was wrong came as a feeling, like when the pressure drops right before a storm. I was sitting at the edge of a cluster of trees, not far from a dry creek bed. The air suddenly seemed devoid of all life.

I heard a rustling in the tall grass, thought it might be Barnaby, and called his name. Waited. Barnaby would come crashing out of the bushes, anxious to be led home. But the grasses remained still. I could no longer hear George crying out.

“Oh, shit,” I whispered.

The lion stepped out of the grasses, his enormous head and all-seeing eyes turned directly toward me.

I had no weapons, and little strength. I thought about climbing a tree, and if I hadn’t been exhausted I would have probably remembered that climbing trees was no problem for a lion.

This one looked starved and emaciated. I stood up, tried to straighten my posture. Animals needed to know who the alpha was, who was master of the territory. I thought maybe I could bluff the lion.

But looking into his eyes I could see there would be no bluff. A lion’s stare was non-negotiable, his intent uncompromising. This was his yard. I was the intruder. He would go for my throat. I would die under the scorching Tsavo sun.

Then I felt vibrations in the ground. The grass parted, and out stepped an enormous elephant. The lion and I both turned at once.

It was Kamari. I recognized him by his bulk and his lack of tusks. Incredibly, sheltered beneath Kamari was Barnaby, hiding from the sun under the bull’s stomach. Barnaby stumbled and dragged his trunk. He was dehydrated, close to death. But he let out a fearful trumpet when he saw the lion.

The lion growled back. Kamari stamped the dirt with his foot. Slowly he stepped into the clearing beside the creek bed and stood between my tree and the lion. He extended his ears and lowered his head. I whispered his name, my throat parched and dry. The lion backed off toward the grass. He growled over his shoulder at Kamari, before skittering back into the brush, his body lowered to the ground like a scolded housecat.

When the lion was gone Kamari turned to me, lowering his ears. Light-headed with relief, I peeled myself off my tree and approached him. Barnaby trumpeted weakly. Kamari poked my shoulders with his trunk.

“Thank you, Kamari,” I said in a low voice. “Thank you, my friend.”

Kamari nudged Barnaby and they started walking. Sighting the horizon through my binoculars, I saw that he was leading the calf toward the orphanage.

“Think I’ll tag along,” I said, my heart rate down-shifting to normal.

We reached the orphanage around sundown, and I returned Barnaby to his pen. I met George by the fence. Together we watched as Kamari stood off in the distance, staring at us with quiet nobility.

“He saved my life,” I said, after telling George what had happened. “Barnaby’s too. If not for that elephant I’d be dead.”

“He’s a good man,” George agreed.

“Why doesn’t he have any tusks?” I asked. “What happened to him?”

“Poachers. Shot him and cut off his tusks with a chainsaw. Left him for dead. We found him in the savannah, hundreds of miles to the west. Years ago.”

“And he still trusts humans?” I asked. “If I were him I would step on every human I saw.”

It was shockingly easy for an elephant to kill a person. A strong swipe of the trunk would do it.

George shrugged, watching as Kamari ambled back into the park. “Maybe he forgives.”

The drought eventually gave way to a generous rainy season, raising the spirits of everyone at the orphanage, humans and elephants alike. Kamari remained nearby for most of this time period. George said that he probably wanted to be near a reliable water source. This gave me the opportunity to learn a bit about the elephant everyone called “the old man.”

Nobody knew for sure how old Kamari actually was, but Donovan estimated that he was around 40, judging by the progression of his teeth. Despite the fact that Kamari had been viciously shot and maimed by poachers, he seemed relatively at ease around people. He allowed Donovan and Alice to perform periodic wellness checks, inspecting his mouth and trunk and feet. Kamari’s favorite treat was apples and strawberries chopped up and mixed together. Once he had his snack he would let the orphanage staff inspect him.

For weeks I made an effort to ingratiate myself to the gentle bull that had saved my life. I fed him apples, rubbed his trunk, doused him with cold water from a hose. Once or twice I cleared the orphans out of the park’s better mud holes so that Kamari could have a mud bath all to himself. Despite his enormous size, which generally would have given him status, he remained deferential to his peers, allowing other animals to eat, drink and bathe before he took his turn.

“Tell them to get lost, Kamari,” I implored him as he stood patiently watching a trio of calves rolling in the mud. The young ones had more than adequately covered themselves, and now seemed to be playing for fun.

Kamari walked over and nudged me with his trunk, then stood there like a big, dumb dog, sort of wagging his tail.

“Okay, old man. Have it your way.”

It was almost by accident, however, that I discovered Kamari was far from dumb. During my lunch breaks I liked to take a sandwich and a beer out just beyond the camp’s perimeter fence and sit in the shade of an acacia tree. There I would read the many books I ordered online. One afternoon I was reading a collection of humorous essays, and laughing to myself in the shade. I was so engrossed in the book that I did not notice Kamari had snuck up on me, until his hulking mass blocked out the sun.

“What’s up, my friend?” I asked. He was staring at me curiously, his trunk raised up to scent the air. “Listen to this.”

I read him a particularly funny line from the book and, unable to help myself, burst out laughing. Kamari lowered his trunk and made a low groaning sound, like a trombone.

“I don’t have any apples,” I told him. I read him another passage from the book, again laughing to myself. Kamari repeated his trombone call, then stepped forward and wrapped his trunk around my shoulders.

“You have a sense of humor, don’t you?” I said. Every time I laughed Kamari trumpeted at me, which made me laugh even harder, at the absurdity of carrying on with an elephant, like a couple of playground chums.

From then on I continued to order humorous books off the internet, and whenever Kamari came around, I read them to him. I even started to believe that the big bull genuinely liked me, for something other than my apples, or the refreshing blast of the hose. He would listen to me read and laugh, blow his trombone, and poke me with his trunk. Sometimes he stood listening to me read for over an hour.

But Kamari lived on Tsavo time, and as often as he would show up to say hello, he would also vanish, wandering back into the park, sometimes not returning for weeks or months.

The year after the drought I went with Donovan Price to Amboseli National Park, to advise a group of park rangers how best to approach and handle orphaned elephants. We trekked out into the savannah on a breezy afternoon, under a sky so vast we could see many different weather systems. To the east the sky was crystal blue, but on the western horizon the blackish clouds of a storm gathered over Lake Conch. To the south stood the arresting majesty of Mt. Kilimanjaro, crowned with snow, clouds swirling over the purple peak.

The grasslands extended in all directions. A herd of zebras galloped to safety away from us. Across the plains, clusters of elephants lumbered toward water, like diesel trucks grinding along a distant road. We did not encounter any orphans on our expedition, and the elephants we did come upon kept a cautious distance. But as we set off for base camp in the late afternoon, one of the rangers literally stumbled over the carcass of a lion. Everyone gathered around the corpse. It was uncommon to come that close to a lion under any circumstances, and unless the animal was sedated or dead, you didn’t want to.

Immediately we noticed that the lion was female, and that it had not died of natural causes. A bullet hole oozed drying blood at the base of the animal’s skull. Donovan and a senior ranger knelt by the lion and inspected the wound.

“Just shot,” the ranger said to Donovan.

Together we fanned out to search the tall grass. It was illegal to shoot lions in the park, but poachers, and unscrupulous game hunters, did it anyway. It was not long before I heard the hooting signal of one of the rangers. Following the calls, we found two men crouching beneath a cluster of trees. One was a bearded white man holding an enormous rifle, and I recognized a Dallas Cowboys tee-shirt under his camo vest. The other was black, probably a local tribesman, likely the hunter’s guide.

The senior ranger spoke to the local man in Swahili, a heated conversation, culminating with the guide surrendering a weapon of his own.

“Now wait a minute,” said the white man in a thick American drawl. “I paid good money to come out here. And I don’t plan to return without my prize. Maybe there’s some way we can work this out.”

To my surprise, everybody in the group turned to me. The rangers knew I was American, and maybe they figured I could decipher the hunter’s intentions. I shrugged and stepped up to him. He was bigger than me, and older, but my blood was boiling from the sight of the dead lioness, and I was in no mood to negotiate.

“You broke the law,” I said quietly.

He smiled at the sound of my voice. “From what I hear the law is open to interpretation, partner.” He reached into his vest and pulled out a leather wallet, stuffed with American hundreds.

I spat on the ground. The man’s smile vanished. One of the rangers noticed the money. He took the man’s wallet. The cash disappeared into the senior ranger’s uniform, and now a new conversation began, in Swahili, much less hostile than before.

“Looks like there won’t be an arrest,” Donovan muttered behind a swig from his canteen.

Another ranger called out a greeting from the brush, stepping into the clearing to join us. Grinning, he cradled a yawning lion cub in his arms.

“Well, look at that,” the hunter said.

Donovan walked up to the American. “So you killed two lions today,” he said. “Where’s the rest of your money?”

The hunter made no reply. The ranger set the lion cub down, and the senior officer announced in English that it was time for everyone to go. The cub sat shaking on the ground, crying out for its mother. The rangers began walking away through the bush, leading the hunter and his guide back to their kill. Donovan Price frowned at me.

“My country, not my blood,” I said.

He turned and followed the rangers, shaking his head.

I bent down and picked up the lion cub.

I named him Max, short for Maximus, after the fictional Roman gladiator from the Ridley Scott film. It could not have been a less appropriate name. My adopted lion, whose upbringing I had undertaken personally, was not a warrior, a fighter, or even a scrapper. He was a gangly, dim-witted kitten, and I had no doubt that he would grow up to be a big, dumb, tail-chasing lummox- the fool of the animal kingdom, rather than its king.

“What did you bring that home for?” George asked me when Donovan and I returned to the orphanage. “That is not a house kitty. Do you know what he will grow up to be?”

“When he comes of age, I’ll turn him loose,” I said, as George’s children crowded around to fondle a real, live lion cub.

“He’ll kill you first,” George said. “It is sad what happened to his mother, but you should have left him to die. You deprived another animal of a meal.”

“Just be glad your mother didn’t leave you in the bush, George,” I muttered.

George laughed at me. In fact, everyone laughed at me, in between warning me that my new best friend would one day grow up to kill me.

It did not take long before we all came to suspect that something was wrong with Max, besides his unprecedented affection for other creatures. When he initially arrived at the orphanage he was sluggish, listless, and his appetite waxed and waned. He would collapse at, or on, my feet, and lie there for several minutes, eyes pinched shut, mouth wafting open and closed. Donovan took Max to a veterinary clinic in Nairobi. When he returned he informed me that Max had cardiomyopathy, an enlarged heart.

“He won’t live, Jeff,” Donovan told me. “I’m sorry. We saved him from one death, but we cannot prevent the other.”

I took the news with the same feeling of rejection I always felt when one of my elephant babies passed away. Nature was either mercilessly fair, or pitilessly unfair, depending on how you looked at it. One thing we had all come to understand was that death would come when it wanted to. But as I took Max back to my room in the bunkhouse, and laid him down in the used dog bed I had stolen from George, I told myself that Max didn’t know he was sick. He would not understand that he was supposed to die, not like a person would when diagnosed with terminal heart disease, or cancer. He was an animal. He would grow up however I raised him. And so I decided to see him through to his natural end, however soon or distant that might be.

 Nobody at the orphanage wanted to adopt a lion.

“When he grows up, he’ll want to kill the elephants,” Alice Price told me as we discussed the cost and logistics of raising Max. “In the meantime, I’m worried he will stress them out, making their survival in the crucial early months that much more difficult.”

“If we socialize him, the elephants may accept him,” I theorized. “Like they do with rhinos, or George’s dogs.”

“A dog is a domesticated animal, Jeff. Elephants will know what Max is. Many of them have already seen lions in the wild. Some have had family members killed by lions.”

I was under no delusion that I could train Max to be a big, cuddly housecat. Playful though he was, in time he would grow dangerous. His instincts would kick in. He was a predator, not a pet.

“If he wasn’t sick, I might feel differently,” I told Alice. “I know our animals sometimes die. I accept that. But nature seems determined to kill Max. That’s why I want him to live.”

Many at the orphanage were determined to let nature kill Max, including Donovan Price, who was more pragmatic than the rest of us. But I could tell Alice agreed with me on some level, that none of our charges were inherently worth less than any others. None were to be outright abandoned. We had several discussions about Max before reaching an agreement. I agreed to help pay for Max’s housing, feeding, and medical costs out of my own salary. Alice agreed that we could keep Max for as long as he wasn’t a problem. And so, despite the majority view that I was an idiot and my pet should be euthanized, I began the long and tedious process of trying to civilize the young lion cub.

For the first few months of Max’s life I kept him with me at all times. He slept in the dog bed in my room in the bunkhouse. I bought a collar and a leash, and brought him with me wherever I went. I kept him well-fed. Because of his heart condition, he needed medications frequently, and it fell largely to me to provide him with them. In the evenings I talked to him and played with him, and tried to socialize him to the other staff members at the orphanage, most of whom, including George, looked at him like they wished they had a rifle.

My first concern with Max was the safety of the elephants. I was not sleeping with the new arrivals as much anymore, but I volunteered to resume this duty, reasoning that I could take care of two babies at once. Max could spend time with the elephants, and they with him, and hopefully they could grow accustomed to each other. The older orphans at the facility, as Alice had predicted, were wary of Max. Some were terrified of him. I tried to reason with them by showing them that Max could be pet and handled and fed, and that he wouldn’t kill me, but there was only so much I could do to convince an elephant to disregard millions of years of evolution.

For his part, Max seemed to like the elephants. He would rub up against them, and try to convince them to play. I kept him away from the larger animals that I thought might step on him out of fear or anger, but I found that he enjoyed being near the babies. He crawled into their pens and slept beside them, and they seemed grateful to have a warm companion to sleep with. He licked and cleaned their faces, and shared bottles of milk with them. His favorite trick was to lie on his back while a young elephant rubbed his belly with its trunk. The first time I saw him receiving this treatment, I immediately grabbed my camera so I could film it.

“You see?” I said, showing the video to George. “He’s just a big kitty.”

“He’s going to be much bigger soon,” George said.

Max grew up to be a slightly undersized adult lion. His heart condition made him smaller and weaker than he should have been. He often had trouble eating, and he developed asthma, which kept him laid up and sluggish for days, especially during the rainy season. When he reached the age when I became concerned that he would rip off some part of my body while trying to play with me, I took a chunk out of my meager savings and built Max a holding pen near the facility’s bunkhouse. We all decided he should not live near the elephants, as many of them were still (or more) afraid of him. Soon we had a regular schedule of feeding and cleaning him. Donovan took over the more complicated medical duties, giving Max injections of the medications we couldn’t mix into his food. The other staff members grew to not hate Max, and since I spent all of my free time hanging out with him so he would grow accustomed to humans, he even allowed a few of the other staff to pet him or feed him his meals.

But a remarkable bond formed between Max and several of the orphans he had cuddled with as babies. There were about a dozen elephants that grew up thinking Max was one of them. His best friend was a gregarious male named Burton. Sometimes in the afternoons, when I took this particular group for a walk in the park, I brought Max along with them (now walking him on a chain). I made sure he was well-fed and well-medicated. Max would walk alongside Burton with the gentle canter of an aging horse, the two of them nudging each other and stopping to inspect things like bugs and grass. Together we rambled through the park on our walks: a naïve American, a happily-stoned lion, and a cohort of half-tamed elephants, none of us ready for the wild in the strictest sense, but all of us following the path back to our origins.

*

In the summer of my eighth year in Kenya, changes began to take place at the orphanage. Donovan Price’s melanoma returned, and he went to England for several months of treatment and rest. Alice spent about half her time in England with him, and the other half trying to balance all the responsibilities of the orphanage. George took over some of her administrative duties, and I stepped up behind him to take over maintenance. With Alice gone much of the time, fundraising for the orphanage suffered. Max regularly needed costly trips to the veterinarian in Nairobi, and I worried that budget cuts at our facility would ultimately hurt him.

There was another complicating factor that nobody could control.

“Farmers are taking over the elephants’ natural habitat,” George told me, as we received more and more orphaned and refugee animals. “The government, of course, supports the farmers. Sympathy for the elephant is declining.”

Sympathy for the elephant had earned a victory in Kenya in 1989, when many African nations officially admonished the ivory trade. Kenyan President Daniel arap Moi publicly burned thirteen tons of confiscated ivory. Still, poachers continued to hunt and kill elephants, and this problem resurfaced as rapid population growth created more sympathy, as it were, for humans.

Reluctantly, Alice Price cut several staff members from the orphanage, even as we continued to take on more animals. She kept me on, telling me over the phone from England that I was an asset to the elephants, and that my status as a westerner could help with fundraising from the United States. She expanded the volunteer program, and opened the facility to tourists.

“So now we are also a zoo,” George told me.

The orphanage became a regular stop on the safari circuit, especially among wealthy families with children. Children could touch and play with real, live elephants. And for many of these new western visitors, I became the unofficial guide.

Several of our older orphans could be relied upon to play their part for the fundraising effort. Burton, perhaps the friendliest elephant I had yet encountered, even let kids ride him. Marina, a playful seven-year-old female, seemed to relish performing the mud bath routine for camera-happy onlookers. Other elephants earned brownie points simply for touching tourists with their trunks. The interspecies curiosity, it seemed, was mutual.

One old man who did not seem interested in the onrush of strangers was Kamari. He came around the orphanage less and less, usually only during droughts, often arriving at night. I would encounter him out by the fence on random evenings, his hulking warmth a welcome presence. I did not mind performing PR for the good of the company, if it helped raise donations for the cause, and helped keep my job secure. But I had not come to Africa to be surrounded by Americans, with their compulsive need for attention and receipts.

Kamari seemed to sympathize with my feelings. He met me at the fence and clamped his big trunk over my shoulder, releasing epic sighs of breath.

“The times they are a-changin’,” I told him, assuming he would appreciate the wisdom of Bob Dylan. “And we don’t need a weatherman, do we?”

The tourists were naturally drawn to the elephants, but they were also curious about our resident lion. Everyone wanted to see Max, especially children, even though many of them ran from his cage, screaming for their parents. I did not let anyone touch or pet him, for liability reasons. But when a crowd gathered, I would saunter into Max’s pen myself, roll the big doofus onto his back, and rub his belly, while he purred and flicked his tail.

“How do you keep him so docile?” a pretty Australian volunteer asked me, as I was talking her through Max’s feeding routine.

“Heroin,” I said. “Max is a serious junkie. Mostly he just sits around and watches TV.”

My joke got a laugh, and for a moment I remembered what it was like to flirt with someone, but the truth of my comment wasn’t far off. As Max’s heart trouble worsened, his circulation grew poor, and he often staggered around on aching joints. I would find him sitting down early in the morning, licking his elbows and feet. Donovan gave him morphine for the pain, and Max’s demeanor, if not his health, did seem to improve. He drooled a lot, but at least we could approach him.

At some point, amidst the onslaught of tourists, I became fixated on the idea that I could train Max to do tricks, make him perform a sort of circus act, and that this would help lubricate the wallets of park visitors and would-be donors.

“Bad news,” I told Max as I walked into his pen with a bag of his favorite jerky treats. “You have to earn your keep.”

I made sure he’d eaten his breakfast each day before beginning our training, hoping he wouldn’t mistake my hand for a snack. But even though I plugged him full of jerky, and took many time-outs to rub his belly, Max proved a mostly incompetent disciple. Unlike dogs, who responded to verbal cues, and had a natural inclination to please their masters, cats responded only to food, and didn’t have the slightest interest in pleasing anyone. I tried to get Max to do basic tricks, like turn a circle, stand on an elevated platform, and roar on command. But the only “trick” he truly excelled at was lying down so I could tickle his fur.

“He’s too old for tricks,” George told me, repeatedly. “And he’s a wild animal, as you keep forgetting.”

“But he listens to me,” I protested, even as Max lay sprawled in a shady corner of his pen, mouth open as he snapped at imaginary bugs.

“It is you who does not listen,” George said.

So what, I thought. The orphanage was full of doubters. Alice Price came around for my morning training sessions and stood silently outside Max’s pen, arms crossed. Donovan was only slightly more encouraging, admitting that I sure could make Max lie down. But everyone’s skepticism only made me more determined to tame the wild beast. I could not explain why it was so important for me to do this. I just had to make Max obey. Nobody I had ever known had tamed a lion. It was not something they taught you in college.

After months of training, I managed to teach him one new trick. He could sit down, most of the time, if I raised my arm and held a piece of bacon jerky. But once I had given him the jerky he would simply remain seated, sometimes licking his paws, usually just staring out toward the grassy hills of the park.

“Max, you have to do more than just sit there and look stupid,” I told him.

He yawned at me.

“I see you’re making progress,” George said, leaning against the wood frame of the pen.

At the edge of the facility I saw Kamari standing by the fence, flicking his tail and staring at me. George turned and waved at the elephant. Kamari released a deep sigh, and walked back into the park.

“Another critic,” I said.

The rainy season brought fewer tourists, which was all right with me. Tsavo was alive with the scents of healthy flora, and I spent long afternoons taking the orphans for walks in the park. The wild elephant families welcomed the newcomers into their groups. One by one we released our orphans back into the wild. They joined the herds, roaming across their territory, visiting us once in a while, if we were lucky. Occasionally we would get a particularly aggressive cow who would attempt to adopt an orphan as her own, although “kidnap” might be a better word than “adopt.” In these cases George and I would have to approach the group and separate the calf, which usually caused the adult cow much distress, and more than once I worried that I would be stepped on or trunk-swiped.

“You would fight too, if it was your child,” George said.

I nodded. “I’m sure I would.”

“Soon you will have to choose a mate, Jeffrey. Start making babies of your own.”

“Someday, George,” I said, playing out our old joke.

Sometimes I wondered what would happen if I returned to Boston, to the American dating scene, after spending nearly a decade interacting primarily with large, non-verbal mammals. I had not “dated” a woman since leaving the States, and in Tsavo there were very few women around. I had no interest in tourists, and I was often too busy to consider hooking up with a volunteer. I was long out of the game. American women would eat me alive.

But this was exactly the type of concern I had come to Africa to escape. News from back home featured an avalanche of weddings and birth announcements. My nominal salary at the orphanage prevented me from attending any weddings. Every Christmas when I went home it seemed there was a new baby to meet, all identically cute, each making me miss my elephants, while feeling relieved that I personally did not have to take care of any human babies.

Meanwhile babies continued to arrive at the orphanage as well. George and Sophie welcomed their seventh child, a daughter, and we had our own celebration, hosted by Alice and Donovan. George’s younger children rode elephants. His older children came home from school in Nairobi.

It was not uncommon for relatives in Kenya to come for long visits when a baby was born. Among the extended family came George’s youngest sister, Rashida Odhiambo. Rashida was two years older than me, had studied both in the United States and England, and was so beautiful she shocked my dormant longing for The Female back to life. George, once again a happy father, ensured me that Rashida was single, and would enjoy being entertained while she was in Tsavo.

Suddenly I was unable to concentrate. The presence of Rashida wafted around me like a lightning storm on the plains. Desperately I combed the dusty attic of my memory for any salvageable romantic souvenirs. In Tsavo it was not really possible to date in the American sense. There was a village near the orphanage, but dinner and a movie were out of the question. If I wanted to spend time with Rashida, there was really only thing I could do: invite her on my walks with the orphans, and converse with her in the park. So that’s what we did. Every day. Until finally I decided to impress her with Max.

“What’s the closest you have ever been to a lion?” I asked her about a week into her visit.

“I have seen them in the savannah,” she replied. “But not close enough to worry.”

“Well, I have a lion here that’s too dumb to be dangerous.”

She had seen Max a couple of times, of course. He was impossible to miss. But with all the baby celebrations and family time, she had not yet been properly introduced to my own adopted son.

I took her to Max’s pen for his evening feeding. She watched from outside the cage as I fed Max a heap of meat, mixing in his nightly pills. Meanwhile, I explained how we had found Max, and the efforts I had made, largely unsuccessful, to civilize him.

“Mostly he’s like the orphanage mascot,” I said.

“Except instead of waving a flag, he eats you.”

I fed Max another sizable helping of meat. When I was confident that he was adequately stuffed and medicated, I invited Rashida inside the pen.

“Oh, my goodness,” she whispered as she carefully stepped inside.

I closed the gate behind her. She smiled nervously, glancing between Max and me, and I wondered if this was actually a good idea. Normally the only people allowed near Max were staff at the orphanage familiar with his handling procedures. I took Rashida’s hand and led her over to where Max lay, flicking his tail beside his food dish. I pulled a handful of jerky from the bag of treats I always brought into his pen and set them down in front of him. He gobbled the jerky down in one soundless bite, then, as I crouched beside him, flipped over onto his back. I rubbed his sturdy chest. He opened his mouth and purred, a strange habit he had developed, which I thought meant that he was both happy and perhaps having difficulty breathing. Gently I guided Rashida’s hand to his belly.

“Oh, Jeffrey, he is so strong,” she whispered, her fingers dancing across his coat like a breeze tickling grass.

“He’s basically a big pussycat,” I said, as Max nuzzled my hand. “I don’t usually bring people in here. If he had not been raised in captivity, we couldn’t do this.”

That’s when I heard the hiss.

My hand froze, and Rashida froze, and Max’s whole body went stiff. He suddenly flipped over onto his paws. I stood up, stepping in front of Rashida.

“What is it?” she whispered.

I glanced around the pen. It was dusk, and blue pools of shadow covered the ground.

“Easy, Max,” I said.

The hiss came again. There was only one thing in the world that absolutely terrified me, and that was snakes. In all my years in Kenya I had miraculously avoided encountering a serpent, even while out in the bush, a winning streak I attributed to vigilant, maybe even paranoid, attention.

I followed Max’s gaze, and saw the snake coiling against the wall of the pen, not fifteen feet away. Max’s pen was not impenetrable. It was encircled by a three-foot concrete base, and encased in wood framing with steel wiring. He could not escape, but there were many ways for other creatures to sneak in.

“Oh my god,” Rashida said when she saw the snake. It was three or four feet long, and as it uncoiled and raised its head to challenge us, I saw the steely dark scales of the black mamba. Silently I cursed myself. There was no excuse for my stupidity. Now I was locked in a cage with an innocent woman, a poisonous snake, and a lion.

Max lowered into a crouch. All traces of food- or drug-lethargy vanished. His eyes became orbs of deadly truth. I had never seen Max in attack-mode before, had erroneously allowed myself to believe he did not have an attack-mode. Now the wild had taken hold of him.

I backed slowly away from the confrontation, steering Rashida toward the door of the pen. Feeling the latch with my fingers, I tried to open the gate without taking my eyes off Max.

The snake opened its mouth and hissed, then lunged forward. Max pounced, swiping with his paw. The blow sent the snake flying through the air. It clattered on the ground, and Max pounced again, his jaws snapping at the snake’s head.

Rashida buried her face in my shoulder. I turned and threw open the lock on the gate. We both jumped out of the pen. I slammed the door shut behind me, locking it.

“Will the snake’s venom kill him?” Rashida asked. We watched as Max slapped at the snake with his paw.

“Shit, I don’t know,” I said. Another wave of panic swept over me. “Are you all right?”

“Yes,” she said, wiping her brow.

“I’m going to get Donovan,” I said.

Heart pounding, armpits pouring cold sweat, I ran across the facility to Alice and Donovan’s house.

When we returned to the pen, not even two minutes later, Rashida was standing beside the gate, smoking a cigarette, and Max lay calmly by his food dish, flicking his tail.

“Where is it?” Donovan asked, clutching a long pole and a net.

“It was in there,” I said. I looked at Rashida.

“He ate it,” she said.

Around the same time I developed a crush on Rashida, Kamari developed his own crush on a young former-orphan named Nara. When nature informs a bull elephant it is time to mate, he enters a state of testosteronic frenzy called musth. Estrus, the cow’s period of fertility, sometimes only lasts a few days a year, and this tight window of opportunity can turn an otherwise reasonable male into a menace. Bulls will engage each other in vicious, tusk-thrashing combat for the right to chase down a cow, mount her, and deposit his seed, with all the speed and romance of a college freshman. The cow then rejoins her family group, whereupon the matriarch encourages the proud bull, in no uncertain terms, to fuck off, while the females celebrate the hopeful pregnancy with trumpeting and the flapping of ears. Over the years I witnessed the elephant mating ritual many times, and it always made me wonder what would happen if the same dynamic was adopted by humans. Every month when the moon was right all the men in a given area would gather in a pit, or an arena of some kind, and fist-fight each other until one lone bloody survivor was left standing. This champion would then run after the ovulating woman, corner her somewhere, and subject her to a hurried bout of consensual (or non-consensual) sex. Forgoing all the sticky social components of the long human mating process, the happy couple would return to the woman’s family, whereupon her mother would kick the strutting suitor out of the house, then shower her hopefully-pregnant daughter with kisses, cake and mimosas.

Neither the traditional, prolonged human method, nor the blunt, expedient elephant method of courtship and reproduction seemed quite right to me. I could not imagine fighting another man for the right to essentially rape a woman I liked. But the minefield of human social relationships seemed equally daunting. The lonely hours surfing dating websites, the asinine conversations over sushi and wine, the silent inadequacy of knowing you didn’t make enough money- all seemed like proof of a rigged game. I thought of Rashida, a beautiful, intelligent, dynamic woman, and I could easily see myself falling in love with her. But just as easily I saw her feeling unsatisfied by me: an asocial wanderer with no money who felt more comfortable around elephants than people. I almost wanted the simplicity of the elephant mating ritual. I could have sex with a beautiful woman, then her family could tell me to get lost. With no other choice, I could return to the jungle and continue to live quietly among the animals.

            Nara, the object of Kamari’s affection, was a gregarious female who frequently acted as a liaison between younger orphans and the elephant groups in the wild. We first noticed that Kamari was interested in her when her family group approached a popular watering hole, and was soon accosted by a bull in musth. Kamari appeared and stood guard over the watering hole, and the other male eventually backed off, deferring to Kamari’s hulking size. Kamari then assigned himself to bodyguard duty, and continued to watch over Nara whenever she and her family were drinking and bathing.

            “I have never seen him pick a girl before,” George said, as he and I and Rashida watched Kamari lingering off to the side of the watering hole, like a shy boy at a middle school dance.

            “Do you think the old man has a chance?” I asked.

            “I don’t know. He may have to fight for it.”

            “All men are the same,” Rashida scoffed.

            Kamari’s crush came to a head a couple of days later. Another male, younger than him, but armed with a full set of tusks, challenged Kamari near the watering hole. I had seen bulls fighting and play-fighting before, but this was the first time I felt scared by a fight. Kamari’s mangled tusks were only stubs, and though he was bigger than his opponent, he could easily be impaled in combat.

            Nara’s family group watched with what was either mild concern or solemn disinterest as Kamari and the other bull tore up dust. Kamari was indeed a fearsome warrior, his mighty feet shaking the ground when he stomped. But the other bull deflected his lunges, shoving Kamari away, prodding him with his tusks. For a moment I thought I was going to watch one of my best friends in Tsavo die a brutal death. There was nothing I could do to stop the fight. George and I were working hard to corral the frightened orphans, and in any case there was no way a person could break up a grudge match between two bull elephants.

            The fight ended with the other male pinning Kamari’s head and trunk to the ground. Shaking and flailing, Kamari failed to throw his opponent off, and eventually he bowed in submission. From a distance I could see that his body was bleeding from several puncture wounds, but none of the gashes seemed to be pouring blood. The other male stepped back and Kamari stood up and moved off. He lumbered away into the bush without even a backward glance, and this effectively ended his would-be courtship of Nara. The victorious bull approached the awaiting female group and mounted the young cow.

            “It’s not his fault he cannot fight,” George said when we were back at the orphanage. “If he had his tusks he would be like Alexander the Great.”

            “Instead some Chinese trinket shop is selling his ivory,” I said.

            Rashida was more circumspect. “Maybe he can find another girlfriend,” she said. “One who likes a gentle man.”

            “That’s not how it goes in the wild,” I said. “The females always end up mating with the biggest assholes. Boston is the same way.”

            “Nature favors the takers, Jeffrey,” George said. “You see what you want, you take it.”

            “That’s what a bully does.”

            “Shut up, George,” Rashida said. “You asked Sophie to marry you four times before she finally said yes.”

            “But I did not give up,” he said. He gave me a nudge. “It is a good thing a poacher did not take my tusks.”

            Kamari did not return to the orphanage after his defeat by the watering hole. He went off to wherever it was he always went. I often pictured him in some distant corner of the park, living among other elephants, venerated for his age and wisdom. Or perhaps he spent his nights ravaging the crops of local farmers, waging war against humans as vengeance for taking his tusks. Wherever he went, I knew I would never see it. I respected Kamari’s privacy. We should all be allowed a corner of the world where we could disappear.

            Two weeks after the birth of George and Sophie’s baby, the happy couple finally ran out of food to feed their visiting relatives, and most of the relatives left, taking with them the air of celebration. I returned to nursing baby elephants, to shoveling shit, to quietly begging American tourists and visitors for donations to support the orphanage. The usual functions of the job now seemed less important to me, like the air of purpose had been let out of the balloon. I realized that it was not going to be easy for me to go through the routine of my day, thinking about Rashida, but not seeing her. Once my eyes had been opened it was impossible to pinch them shut.

            Rashida remained at the orphanage longer than her relatives. I saw her speaking with Alice Price a few times, and I started to hope that she might join us permanently. She continued to observe me feeding and caring for the young orphans, and watched me interacting with Max.

            “Do you like it here?” I asked her one afternoon as we took the orphans into the park.

            “I do,” she said. “I have been visiting many of the national parks, seeing many animal rescues. I am preparing for my new job.”

            “What’s your new job?”

            “I am going to help run a rescue,” she said. “Not just elephants. All kinds of animals.”

            “At one of the parks in Kenya?”

            “No,” she said, smiling. “South Africa. I leave in a month.”

            I felt the rest of the air squeeze out of the balloon, the familiar combination of rejection and fate, like when one of the elephants died, only deeper- the certainty that the course of nature did not steer itself through me.

            “That is why I came to visit George and his babies,” she said. “I will not see them for a long time. I will miss my family.”

            “I’m sure they’ll miss you,” I said. “It’s been fun having you here. I know I-”

            I stopped, caught myself, thought of how ridiculous I sounded. Then decided to tell her anyway.

            “I don’t meet many women here,” I said. “Mostly elephants. They’re friendly, but it’s not the same.”

            Rashida laughed, touching my arm. “Jeffrey, you can come visit me in South Africa. You know how to save elephants. We would welcome you.”

            I nodded. It was a familiar promise I had heard many times in Boston. Let’s meet up for drinks. Translation: we will not see each other again.

            We walked on under the afternoon sun. Rashida would leave Tsavo, and my life would go on as it had been before she came. Maybe George was right, that life favors those who take what they want, not those who wait around for the rain.

The SUV arrived at the orphanage in the height of the dry season. A black Mercedes, only the tires smeared with orange dirt. Government.

            Alice and Donovan had worked a long time to ingratiate themselves with the government of Kenya. The Tsavo Elephant Orphanage, from a PR standpoint, was good for the powers that be. Wealthy foreigners worked together with native Kenyans to preserve nature’s bounty. Even more convenient, the orphanage largely footed the bill. We received minor subsidies from the government, but the real privilege they granted us was the opportunity to locate our facility in the national park. It was not often that they came around to remind us that we were ultimately their guests.

            George summoned me to Alice’s office after the official had already been in there for about half an hour. Normally I was not privy to the Prices’ interactions with the government. I quickly ran to the bunkhouse and changed into a fresh shirt, washed my face and hands, then joined George in the office. Alice was seated behind her desk, her face a mask of dissatisfaction. Donovan leaned against the wall behind her, staring at the floor.

            The official did not rise from his chair in front of Alice’s desk, but instead flashed me a curt grin. Sweat beaded his forehead. He did not introduce himself by name.

            “Jeff is Max’s primary handler,” Alice told the official. “He oversees feeding, administers medications, and serves as host to tourists who wish to see Max. In this capacity, Jeff has fostered a great deal of good will, both for the orphanage, and for Kenya.”

            “Tourism is important,” the official said. “But you have always been clear about your purpose here, Mrs. Price. You are running a rescue operation. Not a zoo. A zoo is different.”

            Alice sighed minutely. “You are correct, sir. This is not a zoo. Max is merely a guest. An exception, not the rule.”

            “An exception. The lion is a dangerous exception, yes? A lion can kill a man.”

            “An elephant can kill a man,” George said quietly. Alice glanced at him, and he said nothing further.

            “This is a special case,” the official said, smiling at Alice. “You do good work here, Mr. and Mrs. Price, and we would like you to continue to do good work. But for a special animal, there will be a special fee.”

            “What special fee?” I asked.

            The man smiled at me, but did not answer.

            “We run on a shoestring budget, sir,” Alice said. “Perhaps you mistake us for wealthy, but most of our funding comes from fundraising.”

            “We also provide veterinary expertise to many other organizations,” Donovan added. “For which we are not compensated.”

            The official stood and adjusted his suit. “I will return next week to conclude our discussion,” he said.

            He did not shake any hands on his way out the door. Alice, Donovan, George and I stood silently in the office, listening to the SUV rumble away.

            “Another smiling thief,” said George. “My country is full of smiling thieves.”

            “What did he want?” I asked.

            “Thirty thousand,” Alice said.

            “What? Is he out of his mind? That’s two salaries.”

            “It’s more than that, Jeff. It’s many elephants.”

            She looked at me, and I could see that she was not pleased by the situation. I had never considered that any government official would have a problem with Max. He cost a lot of money, yes, but he also raised money, and the good will he extended as an ambassador to Tsavo was immeasurable.

            “What are we going to do?” I asked.

            “Unfortunately we need the government to be friendly,” Alice said. “Without their permission, we do not run an orphanage at all.”

            She leaned back in her chair, but did not look away from me. I saw that this was not a negotiation.

            “You’ve given him a good life, Jeff,” said Donovan Price. “We all have. I never thought he would live this long. You have both impressed me.”

            I looked at George, who was shaking his head. I had begun to sweat again. I wished I had not changed my shirt for that smirking bureaucrat.

            “One thing that is better about the United States,” I said. “There you can choose to bribe someone.”

It was a long, silent drive to Nairobi. I doped up Max more than usual with painkillers for his aching joints, and he snored peacefully in the trailer behind Donovan’s truck.

            When we arrived at the hospital Max was pacing anxiously. He knew about the vet. He’d had many visits over the years, had received many shots. The standard procedure was for a veterinarian to come out to the trailer and give Max a sedative. Only when he was unconscious would they bring him inside the facility for care.

            The doctor shook hands with Donovan, and nodded at me. I kept my arms crossed over my chest. Both Max and I saw that the doctor had a lengthy syringe in his hand. Two medical assistants wheeled a gurney outside, and parked it beside our truck.

            “Is that it?” Donovan asked the doctor, indicating the syringe.

            “This is it,” the doctor said.

            “You’re just going to do it in the parking lot?” I asked. “Like shooting a damn horse behind the barn?”

            The doctor looked at me, but did not say anything.

            “Perhaps we could give a Jeff a minute,” Donovan said. “Max is a special friend to him.”

            “I can bring him inside and sit with him,” I said. “He won’t hurt anyone.”

            The doctor, his assistants, and Donovan spent several minutes in conversation, before reluctantly agreeing to accommodate my request. One of the assistants went inside the hospital, and came out a moment later holding a shotgun. I shook my head, and fed Max several handfuls of his favorite jerky. Then I attached a chain to his collar.

            “Come on, bud,” I said. “Let’s walk.”

            Max stretched his long, slender bulk, and the medical assistants took a precautionary step backwards. I felt strangely validated by their caution, proud that they respected Max’s power. It was safer and more practical to euthanize a lion in his cage, where the situation could be controlled, but it was also cowardly, I thought. You didn’t shoot a king through a set of bars. You granted him his dignity, let him walk to the gallows.

            I led Max through the hospital parking lot. Drivers stopped their cars to stare. Inside, activity came to a standstill. Doctors, technicians, and surprised visitors watched as the lion strode coolly through the corridors. Max glanced around like a kid being brought to a new school. In all his life he never seemed to fully understand his own power, that he could command any creature on earth with a simple stare. Instead he only seemed to want to not disturb anyone.

            We took him into an examination room, and attached his chain to two steel locks on the floor. Max made a cursory sniff of his surroundings, then lay down, looking to me for guidance. I gave him another handful of jerky.

            “That’s it, bud,” I said. “Look at me.”

            I continued to feed him while the veterinarian gave him the shot. Donovan leaned against the wall, shaking his head. “Safe trip, old boy,” he murmured. Max glanced briefly at the prick of the syringe, but turned back to my hand and the jerky.

            “We should leave him now,” the doctor said. “It is safer.”

            “I can stay,” I said.

            No one argued with me. They left me sitting on the cool linoleum floor. I fed Max the rest of the bag of jerky, and he nuzzled my hand with his nose. He tried to flip onto his back, but the chain kept him fixed on his stomach. He rested his head next to my leg.

I thought about the empty pen back at the orphanage, now a useless structure. Five useless years spent trying to save a sick animal, only to have a government conman drive up one day in a fancy car and tell us it was all for nothing.

Max was going to die anyway. I had always known this. I thought about his enlarged heart every time I looked at him. But we were all going to die one day. Given the certainty of death, why not live?

It was October when I returned to Boston. October was my favorite month. Sunny days and cool nights. I went for long walks at night. Glanced into bars, but didn’t enter them. Passed street vendors, and drug dealers, and panhandlers, and crowds of yuppies staring at their phones. All the predators of the urban jungle. I tried to walk off the shame I felt for betraying Max. At the same time I wished I had my lion to walk the streets with me. Boston, a city that parted for no one, would have kept a respectful distance from the king.

Alice and Donovan told me when I left Tsavo that I could return at any time, and my job at the orphanage would be waiting for me. I told them I was going to Boston for at least a month, but the truth was I didn’t know how long I would stay, or what I would do.

My father wasted no time making me an appointment with a job consultant. I visited my brother in his South End apartment, and my sister in her Newton home, and did my best to play uncle to my nieces and nephews. Children were certainly louder than elephants, and I preferred quiet.

The Thursday Club had long since disbanded. I made some effort to track down my old friends. The ones I found were invariably busy. They invited me to meet for drinks at 9:15 on a Wednesday night, but told me they had to leave by 10. Between their jobs and their kids they just didn’t have any time, they all said. It was my obligation to understand this.

I met Julie for lunch at a coffee shop near her office. In the span of ten minutes she threw more words at me than I had heard in any given Tsavo week, pouring forth about her current job, her former job, her marriage, her divorce, her lack of children.

“So you’re back,” she said, taking a deep breath. “I can’t believe you were gone ten years, Jeff. Didn’t it just fly by?”

I told her I didn’t think so actually.

“It’s the next ten I’m worried about,” she said. “My twenties? Fine, I admit it, I did not strategize. I picked the wrong guy, the wrong job. I was young. But now I know what I want. It’s time to get it. You wouldn’t believe the dating scene, Jeff. It’s horrendous. It’s a full-time job.”

“Sounds like no fun,” I said.

“What are you going to do now that you’re back?”

“I don’t know. I don’t know that I am back.”

“You can probably spin the Africa stuff to your advantage. Some employers love that shit. Everybody has the same resume anyway- college, Master’s, internships- it’s like, how do you distinguish yourself?”

“Do you like your job?” I asked. I was having trouble concentrating. A flood of people washed in and out of the café.

“It’s good,” she said. “They give twelve weeks maternity leave. That’s what I’m focusing on now. I’ll be thirty-five in December. I need to be married in a year, first kid nine months after that, second kid within fifteen months after that. Still up in the air about the third kid.”

I noticed her coffee mug was already empty. I was just starting to sip mine.

“It’s time that’s the problem,” she said. “You go to work every day, and then you wake up, and bam: you’re forty. I wasted five years with Scott. Now I know better. I just wish I hadn’t spent so much time learning my lesson, you know?”

I didn’t think she would understand that in Kenya time was more of a theory than a fact, so I didn’t bother saying so. She glanced at her phone, typed a hurried text message.

“My break is almost up,” she said. “I have to go to Neiman Marcus to return a sweater. We should meet again, Jeff. I can do lunch on Thursday. Or dinner next week? Can I let you know?”

“Sure,” I said.

“I can’t believe you don’t have a phone. That’s crazy. I’ll get you one next time I see you. You’ll be back to normal in no time.”

She laughed, and about fifteen seconds later she was gone. I stared down at my coffee. The cup was still half-full, so I decided to stay and finish it. A young couple stared at me the way a lion would stare at a snake. After a moment I realized they wanted my table.

That night at home my mother gave me a lecture on time that was virtually identical to the one Julie had given. There seemed to be this wall that one hit at some point in adulthood, and I was approaching it. Once you hit the wall, everything was too late. The good job, the wife and kids, the IRA- too late.

“You should ask Sharon about online dating,” my mother said, meaning my sister. “That’s how she met Jim, and it’s worked out very well.”

“You really don’t own a single suit, Jeff?” my father asked me, glancing up from his MSNBC.

“Oops,” I said.

“Well, we’re glad you’re home, Jeffrey,” my mother said. “I’m sure you’ll always remember your African adventure.”

*

I flew back to Kenya in November. It was the rainy season, the quiet time, when the land focused on nourishment and life. Alice gave me back my little room in the bunkhouse, and George greeted me with the news that Sophie was pregnant with their eighth child.

Soon I was once again sleeping with the elephants, shoveling out their shit, taking them for long, leisurely walks in the park. Keeping an eye out for snakes. After a month or two, I finally addressed Max’s empty pen. George helped me dismantle it. We sold the materials for scrap.

Time stood still in Kenya. Boston time obviously was a straight line, an express train, and you had to try to leap on to get to where you were going. As I stared at the distant mountains, I felt that my life had become a circle, a floating mass without direction, and while this theory promised a certain sense of freedom, it also lacked purpose. I felt like I had done this all before, and that when I did leave, ultimately, it would be like the passing of another elephant. I was here for a while, and then I would be gone.

In the evenings I walked the perimeter fence with George. We passed a joint back and forth, and I congratulated him on the coming of another child.

“Now we have to focus on you, Jeffrey,” George said. “Soon I will have eight children, and you will have zero.”

“You should just give me one of yours,” I said. “Not this one, obviously, but maybe the ninth or the tenth.”

George laughed. “By the time I have my tenth, it will be twenty years since the first one. That is a lot of life to give to the world.”

“Maybe you should give the next twenty years to your wife. What about her life?”

The stars began to dance on the horizon. A breeze picked up off the grassland.

“Wait a minute,” I said. “I know that smell.”

“Oh my goodness,” George said. He extinguished the joint, peering out into the darkness. “Is it our old friend?”

A hulking black mass shifted among the shadows.

“Kamari,” we both said at once.

I felt the tremors in the soil beneath my feet, and a moment later the giant bull was standing in front of us. He blew us a deep gust of breath.

“I have not seen the old man in months,” George said.

Kamari draped his trunk over my shoulder. I laughed, and Kamari sounded his deep trombone. I patted the thick coil of his trunk. “It’s just us now, old friend,” I told him. “Max is gone.”

He sighed again, and stood with us for a while beside the fence.

“Usually he does not come in the rainy season,” George said, rubbing behind the elephant’s ear. “Maybe he missed you, Jeffrey.”

The breeze picked up, and in the distance we heard the trumpet of an elephant. Kamari cast his all-knowing gaze on the bush. Seeing him again now, meeting an old friend in the loneliest hour of the night, I felt my old sense of purpose start to stir. I decided then that I would take a little more time to think about where I wanted to be. The orphanage in Tsavo was only one place, and there were many places in the world I had not seen. There were elephants in Thailand as well. Or I could visit Rashida in South Africa.

Kamari gave me a final poke with his trunk. Then he turned and lumbered back into the darkness, his husky silhouette shrinking before the stars. He would return eventually, when the voice he followed reminded him of old friends. In the meantime he would roam the savannah, in search of fresh grass or a cool watering hole, not beholden to any clock but his own. Kamari would always be a wanderer, sometimes happy, mostly alone, and I knew that in my own way, so would I.



BIO

Adam Matson’s fiction has appeared internationally in over twenty magazines including The Berkeley Fiction ReviewThe Poydras Review, Crack the Spine, and Terror House Magazine.





JUST GO AWAY

by Juanita Rey

Sorry.
I refuse to be hit on
in a laundromat.

I sit on this bench,
expressionless,
senses shut down,
as if I’m in a coma.
So don’t speak to me.
I am not a person.
I am not here.

And you’ve mistaken
the intent of that green dress.
the message in
that strapless black bra.

You misread the situation.
My clothes did not
put you up to this.


MY NEIGHBORS

Sounds pass between
these adjoining apartments
but bodies do not.
My neighbors dine
at their small kitchen table.
I pick on leftovers at mine.
I hear their shower
but I don’t rinse under it.
We each have our own water,
our own bodies to scour.

I say hello when I see them
in the corridor.
And they return my greeting.
But we each go in our own doors.
There’s no comingling.

My neighbors are a middle-aged couple.
I am a young single woman.
If years and situations
were a wall,
they’d be the ones I hang my paintings on.


THE GOOD NEWS WON’T LAST


I am learning,
for the first time in so long,
that all my tests are normal.

The doctor advises:
more calcium in my diet,
exercise regularly.

She still prescribes something.
It’s in her nature.

She knows
wellness is the first step
toward sickness.
In the meantime,
have a cure.



BIO

Juanita Rey is a Dominican poet who has been in this country five years. Her work has been published in Pennsylvania English, Opiate Journal, Petrichor Machine and Porter Gulch Review.



THE COLLIER KIDS

by Tetman Callis



            The Steins had a daughter who was friends with the Collier Kids and a son who was older and listened to rock-and-roll on the radio. Jeff Chorus was on his hands and knees in his front yard pulling weeds and heard Back in the U.S.S.R. coming from the Steins’ house next door. He whispered to the weeds, They’re Commies. A few weeks later he began listening to rock-and-roll on the radio and he became a Commie, too. But he was not a Collier Kid. (What is a Collier Kid? Jeff’s mom would say it is a child of between five and fifteen years of age and it lives on the block and its last name is Collier, Beausoleil, Wheeler, or Stein, and it is up to no good.)

                                                                             •

            The Girl in the Green Dress lived in a family that wasn’t on the block for long. If she had another dress no one ever saw it. When it hung out to dry on the clothesline in her back yard in the morning, no one saw her.

            Her mother got drunk one summer evening around sundown and got in a screaming match with the Beausoleils. Jeff’s mom came and got him and his brother John, who was a year older than Jeff.

            Come help me close the windows. Don’t dawdle. Do it right. Now, the two of you wait in John’s room until I tell you to come out.

            Later, the Collier Kids told Jeff what had happened.

            That lady? She was standing there on the curb.

            She had a bottle of booze in her hand.

            She went down in front of the Steins’ house and was standing there screaming across the street at us.

            We don’t know what it was. She wasn’t making any sense.

            We started screaming back.

            Yeah, you don’t scream at us and think you can get away with it.

                                                                             •

            The Stuarts’ father was Major Stuart, United States Army. He went to Vietnam. The mother was Bunny. The Major came back and he and Bunny sat on folding chairs in their carport and burned letters in a coffee can. She was young and he was young, too. They called each other Mom and Dad. She had black hair and white skin and was nervous. He never smiled and rarely spoke and was always somewhere else. He didn’t like kids, not even his own. They were Abel and Baker and were younger than Jeff. They played soldier and scientist and astronaut together.

            The Collier Kids came over.

            Abel and Baker, what stupid names.

            Your mom has a stupid name, too.

            Yeah, and your dad doesn’t even like you. I heard him say so.

            Bunny came out of the house.

            You trash get out of my yard!

            A ragged and dirty pair of panties was in the dirt in the yard. Where was it from? Grant Collier carried a long thin stick. He picked up the panties with it. He held them up, dangling from the end of the stick.

            You call us trash? We don’t leave our dirty underwear out in our front yards. Ooo, they smell bad, too.

            He flipped them at her. They landed on the porch at her feet. She started crying and went back inside.

                                                                             •

            The daughter of the Bridges was Viola and she wasn’t friends with anyone on the block. She went steady with Reggie Cotton when she was in sixth grade and he was in second.

             Someone set fire to the Bridges’ yard and burned one of their bushes. No one knew who did it and everyone knew it was the Collier Kids.

                                                                             •

            The Farmers moved out and moved back in three years later. The Farmer boys were friendly before they moved away. They came back and they were snotty and wouldn’t be friends with anyone.

            The Collier Kids passed by on the sidewalk and Mr. Farmer saw them. He stood behind the screen door.

            If you kids set one foot in my yard, I’ll call the police!

            The Collier Kids stopped. Grant Collier lifted up one of his feet from off the sidewalk and he put it down with the toe touching the Farmers’ yard.

            You mean like this?

            An hour later a police cruiser pulled up in front of the Farmers’ house. Two officers talked with Mr. Farmer.

            There’s not much we can do. Maybe you could put up a fence. Have you tried talking to their parents?

                                                                             •

            The Collier Kids knew what everybody did on the block. Sometimes they snuck into people’s yards at night and spied.

            Mister York drinks.

            So? Everybody drinks.

            No, he drinks booze, stupid.

            Lots of it, too.

            We seen him.

            Have you seen his wife?

            She’s huge!

            She hardly ever comes out.

            She probably can’t get out the door.

            Nunh-uh. I seen her come out. She came out through the door.

            Mrs. York slowly waddled to the car. Mr. York opened the door for her. The Collier Kids said Mr. York was taking her to the hospital.

            What other place could she go?

            The Collier Kids tittered and whispered and watched. Jeff watched and was quiet.

                                                                             •

            Mr. Collier was Sgt. Collier, United States Air Force, and he went to Vietnam. He was in the air force since World War Two. After he came back from Vietnam he retired and drove a long-haul truck. He had a plastic dildo and Penthouse magazines in the cab and sometimes he was gone for weeks. He and his wife had four kids. They all had blue eyes and blonde hair.

            The oldest was Rose. She never lived on the block. She was away at college when the Colliers moved in, then pregnant and married to the most acceptable likely suspect. They stayed married until the accidental baby graduated high school, then it was Splitsville for Rose and she left the country. Her bridal shower was at Jeff’s house. His mom sent him and John out to the front porch to play or read or whatever they wanted to do, just stay out of the way and don’t get in trouble. Rose was the most beautiful girl who had ever set foot on the block. Her beauty and her smile and her confidence stunned Jeff. She smoked long cigarettes and he almost couldn’t look at her.

            Ronny Collier smoked pot and played the drums in a rock band and football on the high school varsity team. He rode a motorcycle and hung out with hippies in the park. He sat on his motorcycle outside his house and talked to Denise Wheeler and Traci Stein and there was Jeff.

            Hey, Jeff, are you a pansy?

            Jeff had heard of reverse psychology and the soft answer that turneth away wrath.

            Yes.

            Ronny and the girls laughed.

            Grant Collier was a year older than Jeff and was the leader of the Collier Kids. He had the same innate confidence his siblings had. Several of the girls were in love with him.

            Simon was the youngest and was a year younger than Jeff. He stood in a little red wagon and wore one of the Wheeler girls’ bikinis. From a string around his neck hung a homemade sign that read Come See Twiggy. Grant Collier and Mary Wheeler pulled the wagon down the sidewalk.

            Yes, ladies and gentlemen, it’s the world-famous model Twiggy! Come see her, only a nickel!

            A transistor radio played and Simon danced.

                                                                             •

            Jeff mowed and edged the lawn and swept the grass and dirt on the driveway into a pile. Bobby Stein and Charles Beausoleil ran through the pile and kicked it around. Jeff yelled at them and swept it up. The boys ran through it and scattered it again. Jeff grabbed them and pushed them. They fell down in the grass.

            He pushed us!

            Ow! That hurt! Mommy!

            The Collier Kids crossed the street from the Beausoleils’ front porch and surrounded Jeff.

            What did you do?

            Those little boys! You just pushed them down!

            You bully! Pick on someone your own size!

            Yeah! How would you like it if someone grabbed you and threw you down?

            Somebody should do that!

            We should teach him a lesson!

            Grant thrashed Jeff and held him down and punched him in the forehead and raised a welt. Jeff lay on the sidewalk and cried after Grant was done. The Collier Kids went back across the street. Jeff got up and went home. Later the doorbell rang. It was Mary Wheeler and Francine Beausoleil. Mary had been his girlfriend the year before, for a few weeks.

            We’re sorry, Jeff.

            Yeah, Grant said he didn’t really mean to hurt you.

            Jeff said, Get the hell out of here! which is what he had heard his mom say to them just the week before when they were playing on the Choruses’ front porch and raising a racket. He closed the door.

            He was eating his lunch and the doorbell rang again. His mom answered. Francine and Grant told Jeff’s mom what he had said. She thanked them and closed the door and beat Jeff. She sprained her wrist. That evening at Kingdom Hall she wore an Ace bandage.

            Oh, I did this spanking Jeff.

            She smiled the way people sometimes do.

                                                                             •

            The Beausoleils had six girls and a boy. The oldest was already married and gone. She had two miscarriages and kept photographs of them on a small altar in her living room. There were also candles and a photograph of Jesus Christ.

            The other five girls and their mother were loud and even when they talked they screamed. The boy was the youngest and stuttered. The father was sick and no one ever saw him. The Collier Kids said he had emphysema and was holed up in the back bedroom, hooked up to an oxygen tank.

            The Beausoleils had two Dobermans and a something else. John Chorus practiced for the cross-country track team. He ran down the sidewalk and the dogs burst out of the Beausoleils’ front door and went for him. He jumped and spun around whooping and sprinted for home. He vaulted over the chainlink fence around his front yard and collapsed on the lawn. The Beausoleils shouted and screamed at the dogs until they came home.

            Before the Beausoleils had three dogs, they had eight. Someone called the police who came and made them give four away. Before this they kept a horse in their back yard. The police came that time too and the Beausoleils got a ticket and had to stable the horse on the edge of town.

                                                                             •

            Jeff’s dog was Dog. Dog’s half sister one litter back was a dog with a real name and that was Calamity. She peed every time she got excited and she got excited a lot. She peed on Jeff when he was holding her on the patio.

            Ooo! Stupid dog!

            He threw her into the back yard. She landed and screamed. Jeff’s mom came out and the neighbor behind them came over.

            Jeff, what happened?

            I don’t know, she was just out in the yard and started yelping.

            Jeff’s mom and the neighbor picked up Calamity and looked her over.

            She must have stepped on a bee.

            Yes, that must be it.

            The neighbor looked at Jeff. Jeff knew he knew.

            Jeff’s mom gave Calamity to the Humane Society a few months later.

            She just wouldn’t stop peeing.

                                                                             •

            Topeka Sally’s family kept the dog that birthed Calamity and Dog.

            Mom, Topeka Sally says they’ve got a fertile bitch.

            Jeffrey, don’t you ever say that word!

            Jeff didn’t know which word and was afraid to ask.

            Topeka Sally had a brother whose name has been forgotten. He and she looked almost exactly alike although they weren’t twins. She was in Jeff’s second grade class and was his first girlfriend on the block. She and her brother and Jeff played Knights of the Round Table and used sticks for swords and round metal trash can lids for shields. Topeka Sally was the fair princess who had to be rescued. They made a hell of a racket with those trash can lids.

            You kids cut that out!

                                                                             •

            Topeka Sally’s family moved out and the Wheelers moved in. Dan Wheeler raced go-carts at the go-cart track and fired rifles at the rifle range and gigged crawdads and frogs at the reservoir. He gigged a racoon and skinned it and tanned its hide and hung the hide on his bedroom wall.

            If Jeff could choose his own big brother, it would be Dan.

            Dan’s sisters were Denise and Janet and Mary, in that order. Denise was the first leader of the kids on the block. She outgrew that and grew into boys and clothes and music, and Grant Collier took over.

            Janet Wheeler was not fat and she was not ugly. She was merely the plainest. Also, she didn’t have a belly button. When she had appendicitis and almost died, she was rushed to the hospital and cut open. When the doctors sewed her back together, her belly button was gone. She showed the other kids.

            See? I’m not really human. I’m an alien from outer space.

            Mary was the prettiest. She and Simon Collier started going steady when they were ten. All the kids knew they would get married when they grew up. None of them knew they would break up as soon as they got to high school, and that Simon would grow up to be more beautiful than any of the Wheeler or Beausoleil girls, a stunner in spiked heels.

                                                                             •

            Jeff’s mom put up a metal garden shed. She made it from a kit to replace one blown away in a dust storm. It was new and empty. Jeff was with the Wheeler girls.

            Jeff, let’s go sit in your shed.

            We can play spin the bottle.

            You’ll win every time.

            Jeff and the Wheeler girls closed the sliding door of the shed. It screeched. Light leaked in. They sat on the cinderblock floor and spun an empty Coke bottle, the glass kind with the shapely waist. The bottle rattled on the floor. Jeff won every time.

            The door screeched open and the light flooded in and there was Jeff’s mom. She was tall.

            You girls need to go home now.

            The girls left. Jeff’s mom took him into the kitchen and held him firmly by his shoulders.

            Look at me. Look at me! You must never, ever, be alone with girls again. Do you understand me?

            Yes, ma’am.

            Jeff was lying. He did not understand her. He never understood her.

                                                                             •

            Dan Wheeler told stories.

            We came from Arkansas. We called it Our Kansas.

            Our grandma used to sit on the front porch with a four-ten twenty-two over-and-under in her lap. There were gopher holes in the front yard and whenever a gopher would pop his head up, she’d blast him.

            One summer all the kids in our neighborhood had a war. We had firecrackers and sticker bombs and we built forts and dug trenches. We even dug tunnels that went up to the enemy lines. Then we put a whole bunch of firecrackers at the end of the tunnel and blew up the enemy trench. And we had a sticker torture chamber as big across as your back yard, Jeff. If you were captured, they made you run back and forth across it until you talked. If you still didn’t talk, then they rolled you around in it.

                                                                             •

            The Angelos were an older couple. They painted their lawn green in the winter. Nobody knew if they had any children. Nobody ever saw anybody visit.

            They had a low rock wall around their front yard and it was topped with a high wrought-iron fence painted white. Sometimes you could see Mrs. Angelo in a big floppy orange straw hat working in her flower beds up by the house. You could call out a hi to her and she would usually hear you and look up for a moment and wave. She wouldn’t come down to the fence to talk. The Collier Kids said Mr. Angelo painted her in the nude.

            You’re kidding!

            Does he really?

            He does not. How do you know that? I’ve never seen him painting anything.

            Me neither.

            We snuck in their back yard and we saw it.

            You did not. How did you get in their back yard?

            Yeah. Their back wall is like twenty feet high.

            No. It’s only twelve.

            It is not. How do you know that?

            Well, it’s not twenty.

            We measured it.

            You did not.

            Yes we did. You weren’t there. You don’t know.

            You saw him painting her and she was naked?

            Was he putting paint on her? Why was he putting paint on her?

            He wasn’t putting paint on her, stupid. He was painting her picture.

            Oh. Well why didn’t you say so?

            I did.

            He said he was painting her. That’s what it means.

            Oh.

            You’re so stupid.

            Shut up, I am not.

            So what did she look like?

            We only saw her back.

            Did you see her butt?

            No, she was sitting down.

            You guys are lying. You didn’t see anything.

            Yes we did. You don’t know. You weren’t there.

                                                                             •

            Every weekday evening at 5:30 Mr. Angelo’s boxy little four-door sedan turned onto the block. He drove slowly, hunched over the steering wheel, peering through his little round glasses and never turning his head either this way or that.

            The first kid to see him called out, Mr. Angelo! Mr. Angelo! The other kids took up the cry and dropped whatever they were doing and ran down the street to the Angelos’ house. The first two kids to arrive opened the gate to the driveway. Mr. Angelo drove in, smiling brightly and squinting through his glasses, looking neither to the left nor the right. The kids closed the gate behind him. He parked and went inside his house and came back a minute later with a bag of hard candy. He walked down the sloping driveway to the gate where the kids waited. He didn’t open the gate. He smiled and through the wrought-iron bars he handed each child a piece of candy.

            One for you. One for you. One for you, and one for you . . .

            Thank you, Mr. Angelo! Thank you, Mr. Angelo!

            When every kid had a piece of candy, Mr. Angelo went back inside. The kids unwrapped their candies and popped them in their mouths.

            Hey! Litterbug!

            We put the wrappers in our pockets!

            Yeah!

            No littering in front of the Angelos’ house!

            Pick that up!

            No one knew how the gate-opening custom had begun. Billy Johnson taught it to Jeff and in those days it was Jeff and Billy and his brother Mark and Topeka Sally and her brother along with Reggie Cotton and the Hausers and a couple of the Goldfarbs. They all moved out except for Jeff and Reggie, who handed the custom down to newcomers. With all the Collier Kids and Choruses and Ganders and Stepps there were sometimes a score of kids running down the street at 5:30, pacing the boxy little sedan and often outrunning it.

            Mr. Angelo! Mr. Angelo!

            There even were times the Collier Kids waited at the open end of the street for the first glimpse of Mr. Angelo’s car.

            Here he comes!

                                                                             •

            Across from the Angelos were the Beys. They had three kids. Marie was the oldest. Jeff thought she was fat and ugly and he did not like her. She thought herself fat and ugly and she did not like anybody. In truth she was not fat, only full-figured, and she was not ugly, but there was no one to tell her that, not even the mirror on her wall when she plucked her eyebrows.

            The youngest Bey was Cass. She was Debbie Gander’s best friend and was skinny and gangly and had a big nose. Often she could be found at church with her mom, religious in a Protestant way.

            The middle Bey was Peter. He was removed from the general student population when he was fourteen for bringing a gun to school. Ten years later he was sent to prison for a stretch for a string of residential burglaries. Thirty years after that, he was killed in a shootout with federal agents who had come to arrest him for smuggling guns to Mexico.

                                                                             •

            The Twins were friends with the Collier Kids but they weren’t Collier Kids. Their dog had puppies and they carried two of them, a black one and a white one, one day to every house on the block and asked, Do you want a puppy?

            The Colliers said, No, we already have two dogs.

            The Beausoleils said, No, we have way too many dogs already.

            Jeff’s mom was in the front yard when the Twins came by.

            Hi, Missus Chorus, do you want a puppy?

            Later that afternoon Jeff’s mom said, They’re such darling little girls, and those puppies are so cute, I couldn’t resist.

            She named the puppies Inky and Spook. They got along with Dog and were never allowed inside. Jeff reflected sunlight from a small mirror and moved the reflection back and forth along the back yard’s rock wall. Inky saw it and chased it. He ran and jumped but couldn’t catch it. Spook never saw it and chased Inky instead.

            The Twins threw a big birthday party and had a live rock-and-roll band in their carport. It knew only one song, the Birthday one by the Beatles, and played it over and over. Everyone on the block went to the party except for Jeff and John, who were Jehovah’s Witnesses and could not have gone even if they had been invited, which they were not, because everybody knew they were Jehovah’s Witnesses and didn’t celebrate anything, so why bother?

                                                                             •

            Nobody knew anything about the Two Guys. An immobile ‘54 Chevy lived on the street by the curb in front of their house. The Collier Kids said the Two Guys lived with their mother.

            I’ve never seen her.

            We’ve seen her.

            She hardly ever comes out.

            They had a fence like the Angelos’ but not as high. They didn’t bother anybody and nobody bothered them. They had two crabapple trees in their parkway. Summertime everybody pulled the crabapples off the trees and threw them at each other in crabapple wars. The hard little crabapples were thrown by their stems and stung when they hit flesh.

            Ow! I’m telling!

            No, you’re not.

            Yeah, don’t be such a big baby.

            After a crabapple war the street and sidewalk were littered with crabapples. The kids stepped on them and smashed them flat.

                                                                             •

            The last house at bottom of the block was often empty. No one knew why.

            It’s haunted!

            Yeah, that’s why no one wants to live there.

            You believe in ghosts?

            Sure! Everybody does.

            Everybody knows there’s ghosts.

            We went there one night and we heard it howling.

            You did not.

            You don’t know. You weren’t there.

            It’s a bad luck house. Ask Jeff. Isn’t it, Jeff? That house? The haunted one? Where you cut your leg that one time? It’s a bad luck house, right?

            I don’t believe in luck. It’s against my religion.

            Gah, I can’t believe that. That’s so stupid.

            Everybody believes in luck. You’re just making that up, Jeff.

                                                                             •

            The bottom of the block was a dead-end cul-de-sac everyone called The Bulge. The kids on the block, the Collier Kids and any of the other kids who wanted, played baseball there. Home plate was always on the south side and nobody knew why. Line drives could break a window at the haunted house or dent the fender of a parked car. Pop flies could end up in Mrs. Angelo’s flower beds or bounce around in traffic on the four-lane street that ran beyond the low wall at the base of the cul-de-sac.

            Go get it!

            Get the ball, Simon!

            No! Gah, I didn’t hit it out there. You go get it.

            Simon, you’re such a chicken.

            You shut your mouth, you bun-hugger! Or I’ll smack it shut.

            Jeff, will you get the ball? Mary, ask Jeff if he’ll get the ball.

            Jeff?

            Yeah, I’ll get it. Wait till these cars go by.

            Hurry, Jeff! It’ll get smashed!

            You guys! Let him wait. Jeff, be carful.

            Did you hear what Francine said? She said, Jeff, be carful.

            Be careful, Jeff!

            Don’t worry, guys, I’ll be careful.

            And so he was, and so he retrieved the ball, and so the game went on, until it was time to go home for dinner, time to start a new school year, time to take a summer job, time to grow up and move away and leave the block behind.

Summer is for Swimming, Shopping, and Stealing

            A loose clot of kids walked along beside the four-lane street. There was no sidewalk. A trail was worn along the shoulder, above the curb. The trail went through desert—pale brown and red sand and dust, small rocks and some gravel, mesquite and creosote and goat’s-heads, nightshade with blue flowers and yellow seedpods, stunted yuccas, tumbleweeds both rooted and free-rolling, and tufts of desert grasses and wildflowers. Across the street was the neighborhood of tract houses where the kids lived. On the side where the kids walked, the desert stretched almost a half-mile to a mobile home park. Four tall radio broadcasting aerials stood in the desert, arranged in a large diamond. Guy wires stretched at taut angles from the towers to industrial screw eyes anchored in concrete blocks on the desert floor.

            The kids wore swimsuits under their t-shirts and shorts, and flip-flops or tennis shoes without socks. They carried beach towels and suntan lotion; one or two carried packs of cigarettes and books of matches. They ranged in build from lanky to slender. The oldest was fourteen and the youngest was ten or eleven. Billie Jean Beausoleil was at that age where she seemed to have shot up like a weed after a summer rainstorm, her arms and legs long and rail thin. She was the youngest of the Beausoleil girls, the only blonde, and would grow into a stunning beauty. Francine Beausoleil was next-oldest and would be starting junior high in the fall. She wore glasses pushed up on her nose and always seemed to be squinting. Cindy Beausoleil was Grant Collier’s age and would come to be deeply in love with him, hoping they would marry, but Grant never married. Janet Wheeler, the girl who’d lost her belly button to emergency surgery, was also Grant’s and Cindy’s age. She would later be a bartending biker-chick riding Harleys in the Colorado Rockies. Mary Wheeler would start junior high with Francine and Simon Collier in the fall. She and Simon had been going steady for almost two years. They were the couple that seemed so natural, it seemed they would marry, but they broke up when they got to high school and, same as his brother, Simon never married. He and Grant carried themselves with an androgynous grace and assurance. They were not effeminate but they were not masculine. The only other boy in the group was Jeff Chorus. His parents were religious and strict. He was neither graceful nor assured.

            The kids’ destination was Crystal Pool, a private spring-fed swimming pool in a small and run-down park that had seen better days, its tall cottonwoods scattered over dried and dying Bermuda grass and a sparse array of battered picnic tables. It was a fifteen-minute walk from their block to the pool. In the summer, at least one and usually most of the kids made the walk at least once and sometimes twice a day, six days a week. The pool was closed on Wednesdays for draining, cleaning, and re-filling.

            Crystal Pool was large and circular. Its deepest point was in the middle and was over fourteen feet down. It was a challenge to reach the bottom and none of the kids ever did, which didn’t stop them from saying that they did. A dock stood in the pool to one side of the deepest point. Two diving boards, one low and one high, were on the dock. The deck around the pool was large and concrete; around that were grassy areas, with mulberry and mimosa trees around the perimeter. There was a raised lifeguard station, a kiddie pool, indoor showers that everyone was supposed to use before swimming and no one did, and an awninged area with ping-pong tables. Admission was by membership only and the number of memberships was limited.

                                                                             •

            Grant and Simon fought in their front yard. Simon was getting the best of it. Grant picked up a loose brick from the garden and tossed it at his brother. Their mother’s voice came through the opened kitchen window.

            Grant! You stop throwing bricks at your brother! And put that back in the garden where you found it! The way I had it!

            Yes, ma’am.

            Jeff walked over from his house across the street. He carried a beach towel.

            Hi, Grant. Hi, Simon. You guys wanna go swimming?

            Sure, Grant said.

            No, Simon said. I’m not going anywhere with Grant. He’s a futt-bucker.

            Their mother’s voice came through the window.

            Simon! Watch your mouth! Hi, Jeff!

            Hello, Missus Collier.

            You boys going swimming?

            Yes, Grant said.

            No, Simon said.

            Let’s go, Grant said to Jeff. I already have my trunks on underneath my pants.

            Me, too.

            I need to get a towel.

            Grant went in and got a beach towel, and he and Jeff walked to the pool. It was still early in the day. They swam for a while, then they stretched on their towels and took the sun. Grant had cigarettes and they each smoked one.

            Ohmagod, look, Grant said. Look—over there. The German Woman.

            Jeff looked. All the kids knew about The German Woman. She always sat in the same place, with a friend or two, on towels in the grass near the perimeter fence and the trees. She had a baby and sometimes she nursed it. Right there! She let down a strap of her bikini top and she did it! Jeff had heard about it but he hadn’t seen it until today.

            Wow! he said quietly.

            Did you see her nipple?

            Yes! It was as big as my thumb!

            It’s the baby that does that.

            Wow!

            On the way home they passed by a garage sale. Two card tables set up on a driveway, peppered with an array of stuff, all of it marked with homemade price tags and none of it worth anything. A woman sat in a folding chair. Grant and Jeff looked at the items on display. Grant asked the woman about a set of salt and pepper shakers and Jeff stole a necklace of fake pearls.

            Easiest job ever, Jeff said after they walked away.

            I didn’t know you were such a little thief.

            Sometimes.

            Have you ever shoplifted?

            Oh yeah. You?

            Yeah. We do it all the time, at Gibson’s and Northgate. Where have you shoplifted?

            I haven’t done it much. I stole a squirt gun from TG&Y right at the end of the school year. I was scared I was gonna get caught, but I didn’t. And before that, when I was little, I stole a little racing car from Sprouse-Reitz. That time I got caught.

            You did? What happened?

            I was only four. I really wanted that car. It was one of those little ones with a friction motor. You could see it through the body. I still remember it had a price tag on it and it was twenty-five cents. I asked my mom to get it for me but she wouldn’t, so when she wasn’t looking, I took it and stuck it in my pocket.

            Did they catch you at the store?

            No. I didn’t get caught till after I got home. It was winter and we were wearing our coats. When we got home, my mom took our coats to hang them up. She always checked our pockets in case me or my brother had picked up a rock or a bottle cap or a dead lizard or something. And she found the car. With the price tag still on it.

            I bet she beat your butt.

            No, she didn’t. I’m surprised she didn’t. But she took me back to the store and she got the manager and told him. He squatted down in front of me and grabbed my shoulders and told me what a bad boy I was and how I should never ever steal anything again. I was crying so hard.

            I guess the lesson wore off.

            Yeah. Have you ever been caught?

            Nah. It’s easy to get away with it, especially if there’s a bunch of us. The people in the store never know who to watch.

            This was true. Should they watch the skinny girl with the long legs? She didn’t seem to be any trouble, at least not yet. Those other two girls, the ones who looked like they could be her sisters—the older one seemed mostly interested in one of those boys. Interested enough to steal for him? Best keep an eye on her. But she’s talking a lot with that other girl who looks about her age. Damn, there’s a lot of kids in this bunch. Where’d the one with the glasses go, the one who was squinting? There, she’s down that aisle, with the other girl who looks like the little sister of that other older girl, and with that boy, one of the tall skinny ones. He looks a little, you know . . . that way. That other one must be his brother. Then that other boy—he doesn’t look like he really belongs with them. But it’s clear they’re all friends. Some little gang of suburban hoodlums. Spoiled rotten. Probably haven’t seen the inside of a church since they were baptized. Assuming they’ve been baptized. Little heathens. What are they doing? Those three are all clumped up there and whispering. And those other two are obviously up to no good. Best just to clear them all out of here, they’re not going to buy anything. You kids. Hey! Hey! You kids—you need to buy something right now, or get out. Don’t make me call the cops.

                                                                             •

            The Store—the term for teen shopping before there was The Mall, before The Internet was more than a dream. It was how they asked permission or flat-out said it—Mom, can I go to The Store? We’re going to The Store, okay? Mom—where is she? Where are you, Mom? Going to The Store! Sometimes their moms might ask, What store? Which store? How long are you going to be gone? Don’t be gone too long, okay? Okay, Mom! and they’d be out the door and down the street, to cross the four-lane and then the desert and descend upon the Gibson’s or the K-Mart or the Sears Roebuck, or the favorite shops at Northgate Center, stopping usually at as many as a half-dozen, buying what they wanted or what they could afford, stealing what they could get away with—and they always got away, until later—and creating the disturbance clots of teens are known for, a ripple or sometimes a rip in the bourgeois continuum.

            Grant Collier and his brother Simon, and Francine Beausoleil and her sister Billie Jean, and Jeff Chorus, the weird one, walked through the desert past the broadcast towers, on their way to The Store. Jeff  decided to start fires.

            It’ll be really cool, guys!

            Gah, Jeff! No, it won’t!

            Jeff had some matches and set three small bushes on fire. The winds were calm and the fires burned out before they could spread.

            Shit! I was hoping for something bigger.

            Jeff, you’re such a pyromaniac.

            You’re going to get us in trouble.

            This is boring. Can we go?

            Let’s go, guys. I wanna get to The Store.

            Grant led the way but Billie Jean held back.

            I’m going home. I don’t feel very good.

            The chili cheese burrito she’d had for breakfast wasn’t setting well, and she didn’t like Jeff. He was creepy. He wasn’t like Grant and Simon. He was always looking. And then writing things down in that stupid little notebook he always carried with that stupid little stubby pencil. And then doing idiotic things like setting bushes on fire in the desert. He was going to get them all in trouble.

            Billie Jean turned and headed back home and the others continued through the desert and into the mobile home park. They discussed the possibility of making easy money through door-to-door seed sales—These old geezers are always planting flowers, they’d buy everything we had to sell, Grant said, and Jeff said, Yeah! I sold seeds door-to-door the summer after second grade and it was great!—but Grant didn’t ask how much money Jeff had made and Jeff didn’t tell that he hadn’t made squat and it wasn’t great, the sun was hot and nobody wanted to buy seeds from some little kid knocking on the door and Jeff’s mom had ended up having to buy all Jeff’s stock, most of which she had no use for even though she gardened, just to pay off the company that had shipped the seeds to an eight-year-old boy and why had she agreed to let him do that, anyway? Sometimes she just didn’t know what she was thinking.

            First stop after the mobile home park was Sears. The Sears outlet was big and it had everything, except pants that would fit Grant and Simon. They looked and Francine told about a fight she’d had with Debbie Gander, and Jeff—what the hell was he doing? He didn’t have any money and his mom bought all his clothes anyway.

            Yeah, I heard that fight. I was in bed already but my window was open and I could hear you guys screaming at each other. What was it about?

            She’s just a scaggy bitch who thinks she’s hot snot on a golden platter, but she’s—Jeff, what the hell are you doing?

            I’m stealing rubber bands offa socks. Look—I’ve got five already. And these two demonstration polarizers off sunglasses. These are really cool.

            And he’s ripping price tags off pants, too.

            Jeff! Gah, you’re so—.

            Words failed Francine and she turned away from Jeff. What she wanted to do was smack him a good one. She had never liked him and she didn’t see how that was going to change. She wandered over to the socks display and picked out a pair.

            They left Sears and headed for K-Mart. On the way there they passed by the Taco Box and along a concrete flood control canal. Two bikes were parked in the desert above the bone-dry canal and two boys were down in it.

            Let’s see what they’re doing, Grant said. He led the way and he and Jeff scrambled down the steep side of the canal, Jeff almost losing his balance and having to run the final few feet and colliding with Grant to check his momentum. The boys in the canal were several years younger than Grant and Jeff.

            What’re you guys doing?

            Nothing. We’re not doing anything.

            It was hard to tell what they were doing. They were skittish. Who were these older boys who had come down and what were they going to do?

            Grant led the way and he and Jeff scrambled back up the side of the canal. Back at the top, Grant turned to Jeff and grinned. He had a subtle grin, his deep violet eyes hard to read.

            Let’s push one of their bikes down.

            He and Jeff grabbed one of the bikes and pushed it down into the ditch.

            Let’s go.

            Grant and Jeff caught up with Simon and Francine, who had continued on toward the K-Mart.

            What were they doing? Francine said.

            Nothing.

            Why did you push their bike down? Simon said. Did they say something to you?

            No. I just wanted to. It was fun. They shouldn’t have left their bikes up there.

            Yeah, that was stupid.

            Boner-heads.

            They walked on and approaching them were two girls crossing a large and open desert lot, coming their way from the direction of the K-Mart. The girls were no one they knew, a couple skinny blonde girls in shorts and simple tops and tennis shoes, passing by off the starboard quarter. Looks were exchanged and then words, in the manner common to groups of young and hormone-inflected bipedal great apes, their thumbs opposed to their fingers and their demeanor opposed to all strangers.

            What’re you looking at?

            I’m looking at you. Wanna make something of it?

            I’m seeing skinny ugly scags.

            Yeah, I’ll make something of it. Whadda you wanna make of it?

            You’re already made but you’re too dumb to know it.

            I’m seeing you and your face looks like the doctor tried to push you back in when he saw you coming out of your mother.

            You guys sure hang out with an ugly bitch.

            It’s the best they can rate.

            Jeff flipped off the girls. Any time, any time, one of them said. Jeff said, Yeah, any time, you whore.

            Same to you.

            You would.

            You whore!

            Like you!

            Fucking bitches! You’re the ugliest pieces of trash I’ve ever seen!

            White trash from the gutter!

            You bastards!

            Jeff continued flipping off the girls.

            Fucking whores!

            Come and say that to my face!

            Grant and Jeff started walking to the girls. One of the girls bent and picked up a rock. Grant and Jeff stooped and picked up rocks without breaking stride, then charged the girls at a run. The girls turned and ran away, not stopping until they had crossed a six-lane street.

            Jeff and Grant dropped their rocks and rejoined Francine and Simon. They continued on their way. Francine was upset.

            Those ugly pieces of cheap trash! Who the fuck do they think they are? We didn’t do a fucking thing to them!

            I know.

            And they walk by like they think they own the whole goddamn world and pick shit with us! Ooo, I wish I could get back at them!

            Simon had turned and was walking backwards.

            You’re gonna get your wish, they’re coming back.

            The four kids stopped, and Grant and Jeff ran through the desert toward the girls. This time the girls held their ground. Grant and Jeff stopped.

            You cheap whores!

            You fucking bastards!

            You can kiss my ass, you scag!

            You’re what your mom pulled out of the toilet after it got clogged!

            Grant and Jeff returned to Simon and Francine. The two girls walked by them, about thirty feet away, also headed in the direction of K-Mart.

            Our big brothers are going to knock the shit out of you!

            What big brothers?

            You liars! I don’t see any brothers, big or little.

            Who would want to be the brother to a scag like you?

            Oh, I’m so scared. Pretend brothers and real whores.

            When they got to the K-Mart, Francine stopped at the Customer Service desk to have her bag from Sears stapled shut. The two blonde girls were with three boys now, and they walked past in single file, boy-girl-boy-girl-boy. You sons of bitches, one of the girls said, and, Way to tell ‘em, one of the boys said.

            I want to look at tennis shoes, Francine said to Grant and Simon. She led the way to the shoe department, with Grant and Simon and Jeff in a loose formation trailing behind through the aisles. She looked at girls’ shoes while Simon and Grant looked at boys’ shoes and Jeff took out his little notebook and stubby pencil and wrote something down. The two blonde girls had followed them. One moved toward Grant as though to confront him. She didn’t see Simon standing at the end of the aisle she was passing by. He stuck a foot out and tripped her, and as she stumbled, Grant gave her ankle a quick, sharp kick.

            Whoops, he said.

            She started crying. The other girl said, You’ll see who you kick next time!

            I’ll kick you, Grant said.

            The three boys who had come in with the two girls approached. Grant said, Let’s go, and he and Simon and Jeff and Francine quickly left the shoe department. We can get out through the garden center, Grant said. They did, and as soon as they were outside, they ran across the K-Mart parking lot to a bank next door, saw they weren’t being followed, and walked the rest of the way across parking lots and a street to Northgate Center, where they stopped at the TG&Y.

            There was a soda counter and they sat on stools. Simon and Francine had money and ordered cokes. Grant had money and chose not to spend it. Jeff had no money. He and Grant ordered water. The woman working the counter said, I don’t give water but there’s a fountain around the corner.

            Grant and Jeff went around the corner to the fountain. They were in aisles stocked with decorative stuffs and started looking at them. There were polystyrene cones for making who-knows-whats. Jeff pinched the rounded pointy top off one of them. Grant frowned.

            Jeff! How would you like it if someone tore the end off and you wanted to buy it?

            Yeah. I guess you’re right.

            Simon and Francine finished their cokes and went to look at some rings in a pair of display cases near the store’s front door. Grant joined them while Jeff stayed in the decorations and used his stubby pencil to poke holes in small packets of glitter. He opened a small packet of six yellow plastic gems and took four. He walked to the greeting cards aisle and looked at cards for a couple minutes, returned to the decorations aisles and took the other two gems, then joined his friends at the rings.

            These ones are really neat, Simon said to Francine.

            Yeah. Look at this one.

            They’re sterling silver, Grant said. He studied one display case. There was a lever on the side. He moved it and it freed the rings to be taken out and tried on. Not all of the spaces in the case had rings.

            Jeff took a ring and tried it on. It was tight. He had trouble removing it. He got it off and put it back, then felt stupid when he could have stolen it. He made up for this mistake by stealing another, although it turned out to be too big. Grant stole one and Jeff didn’t notice. Grant told him about it later and showed it to him.

            It fits my finger perfectly.

            Cool! I didn’t even see you take it. That proves how smooth you are.

            Simon and Francine looked at the rings in the other case.

            Look, Simon. I want to try on one of the littler ones.

            Maybe them’s be the ones. We be see them’s be.

            Simon tried to move the lever on the side of the case. A man in a suit was there by his side.

            What are you kids doing?

            We want to see these rings.

            You should ask for help. Someone would be glad to help you.

            We didn’t see anyone here.

            The man said nothing to this. The floorwalker who was supposed to be working this department was—who knows where? He was going to have to have some words with the GM about her. This was not the first time she had wandered off during her shift without telling anyone where she was going. Bathroom breaks were fine, as long as she didn’t take an unreasonable number of them and she let someone know. And she secured her station before she left. She hadn’t. Those cases were not secured. They didn’t have alarms, but they had locks. And they were left unlocked. He hadn’t counted the number of rings in them before the store opened this morning—that wasn’t his job—but he wouldn’t be surprised if there were fewer there now than had been sold.

            You kids gonna buy anything? If you’re not gonna buy anything, it’s best you leave.

            Gah.

            Come on, guys. Let’s go.

            We don’t want your stupid rings anyway.

            Let’s go to Toys By Roy, Grant said. We need to get Tiffany something.

            Baby Tiffany! It’s going to be her six months’ birthday!

            She’s so cute!

            You guys, it’s so great you’re uncles. What’s it like?

            It’s not like anything, Jeff.

            We’re not any different.

            They spent ten or fifteen minutes in Toys By Roy.

            What do you get a baby? I can’t decide.

            She’s spoiled enough already. Let’s go.

            They stopped by a Hallmark card shop and spent a few minutes. It was a small shop with open views and several employees on duty. The kids quickly determined they would not be able to steal anything.

            Let’s go.

            We need to get some pants.

            They went to J. C. Penney, where Grant and Simon spent a while trying on pants till they could find some they liked and that fit them. They were long-legged and narrow-waisted. And the school dress code had changed. Vive la Revolution!

            I’m so excited! We get to wear blue jeans to school!

            Jeff, are you gonna wear blue jeans this year?

            I dunno. My mom doesn’t want me to.

            She dresses him in outfits.

            Why doesn’t she want you to?

            I dunno. She just doesn’t.

            Well, just do it. What’s she going to do, follow you to school and pull your pants off? I could just see it. Come here, Jeff! Take those off right now!

            The kids laughed. Jeff didn’t know about classes and class differences and class consciousness. He knew it was very important to his mother what other people thought. And not just any other people, but the neighbors.

            What will the neighbors think?

            It looked like the neighbors would all be wearing blue jeans to school come fall. At least the boys would.

            It’s so unfair, Francine said. You guys get to wear pants, and now you’re gonna get to wear blue jeans, but us girls still have to wear dresses.

            It’s because you little darlings look so sweet and innocent in dresses.

            Fuck you, Grant.

            Grant and Simon tried on pants and Francine told them if they looked good or not when they came out of the dressing rooms. Jeff tore price tags off pants.

            Jeff, would you stop that!

            Jeff did. He went off to another part of the Men’s and Boys’ section and stole a Boy Scout pin that he gave to Grant, and he passed through the Women’s and Girls’ section and stole a 14-carat gold-plated bracelet with two cultured pearls on it. Mrs. Collier had given her boys money to buy pants and when they finally found pairs that fit, they bought them and they and Francine and Jeff left and crossed the desert back to their neighborhood.

                                                                             •

            The Colliers had a camper in their driveway, up in front of the carport. It used to be mounted in the bed of Mr. Collier’s old blue Chevy pick-up, when the family were younger and the truck and camper were newer. Now the truck was more useful for hauling other things, and the camper was more useful as a clubhouse for the kids.

            Jeff sat curled on one of the small side bunks and wrote in his notebook. He wrote, I stole this notebook. Simon and Grant and Billie Jean and Mary Wheeler were on the other side bunks and the larger upper bunk. It was late afternoon and the sun shone in through the small windows. The camper door was open.

            You shoulda come with us today, Mary, we had fun.

            Sorry I missed it, Grant.

            Let’s play prostitute, Billie Jean said. You guys wanna play prostitute?

            Mmm . . . I dunno.

            Irtsquay eethey ooshday agbay at-they effjay, Grant said.

            Squirt the douche bag at Jeff? Why?

            He doesn’t know what it is.

            Jeff, do you know what a douche bag is?

            Yes.

            What is it?

            If you don’t know, Simon, I ain’t gonna tell you.

            Oh, you don’t know. He doesn’t know.

            Yes, I do. But I don’t talk about sex.

            Do you understand pig Latin, Jeff?

            No. What is it?

            It’s what I was speaking when I told Mary to squirt the douche bag at you.

            Don’t worry, Jeff, Mary said. We don’t have a douche bag.

            You guys, I don’t wanna play whore, Simon said.

            Then don’t.

            I’ll be a whore with you, Mary, Billie Jean said.

            No, thanks.

            I got a idea, Grant said. Pretend you’re thieves, like the normal life we live.

            There was more and Jeff wrote as fast as he could, but he couldn’t keep up. He was still writing when Janet and Francine came in.

            Jeff, why are you always writing in that notebook? Janet said.

            I want people to know. What it was like.

            What what was like?

            Us. What it was like for us, here.

            You want people to know? Francine said. What people? Who’s ever going to read that? That’s stupid. No one cares about us. We’re just a bunch of white-trash kids.

            A pack of thieving little heathens, Grant said.

            No one could read his handwriting anyways, Simon said. Have you seen it?

            No.

            Let’s see it, Jeff.

            No, Jeff said. He put his notebook and pencil in one pocket and started pulling things out of another pocket.

            Hey, I wanna give you guys this stuff.

            He pulled out the bracelet and the ring and the six yellow plastic gems.

            This ring doesn’t fit me, it’s too big. Whoever it fits can have it.

            The kids tried the ring on and passed it around.

            Hey, it fits me.

            Janet held up her hand and showed it. She had the ring on her thumb.

            Can I keep it?

            Sure. Francine, do you want this bracelet?

            Francine took it and looked at it and put it on.

            Sure, okay.

            She never grew to like Jeff, but she came to find him tolerable. The bracelet helped. It also helped that he thought they were all worth writing about, even if it was stupid and no one would ever read it.

            And here, Mary and Simon, these jewels are for you. Two for you, Simon, since you’re the guy, and four for Mary, since she’s the girl.

            Thank you, Jeff.

            Thank you, Jeff.

            Mmm, wow. Yellow plastic rubies. Don’t I get anything?

            Grant, I already gave you the Boy Scout pin.

            Oh, yeah. That’s right. I forgot.

            There was more, but before Jeff could write it down, he heard his mother calling him from across the street.

            Oop. Gotta go. Grant, you gonna go swimming tomorrow?

            Sure. Probably.

            Okay. I’ll come over and we’ll go.

            Okay. Not too early, though.

            Jeff went home and it was almost dinner time.

            Jeff, I want you to wash up and set the table. Did you have fun today?

            A little. We went to The Store. Grant and Simon got pants, and Francine got a pair of socks.

            Is that all ?

            That’s all.

Making Love

            It was early in the morning and it was quiet until Grant and Billie Jean set off a firecracker by the front door to the elementary school. Jeff and Simon were walking away from the school and the blast echoed down the street. Simon spun around to look.

            Ahmm, they’re gonna get in trouble.

            But they didn’t.

            Later Jeff saw that Grant and Simon and Francine had gone into the camper, so he crossed the street to go into the camper, too. The door was closed and he opened it.

            Ohmygod! God! Shit!

            Grant and Simon and Francine scrambled to put out their cigarettes. Then they saw it was Jeff.

            You scared us to death, Jeff!

            But they didn’t die, not yet. Jeff and Francine smoked three cigarettes apiece, and Grant and Simon two apiece.

            We might go to the store this afternoon.

            I wanna come, but I gotta do some yardwork first.

            Jeff went back home to do the yardwork. His mom set him to edging around one of her flowerbeds with a flat spade hoe she had just bought. He didn’t know how to use it but how hard could it be?

            Hard enough.

            You can’t do anything right! Now tear all that fencing out and go back and do it right! Then when you put it back in, you make sure you set it up straight!

            He tore all the fencing out and took up the flat spade hoe and wondered why he couldn’t use the clippers, he knew how those worked. He thought his mom should go to hell but the Devil probably wouldn’t take her—his very thoughts, without fear of Divine retribution—and he looked across the street and saw the roof vent on the camper going up so he knew the Collier Kids were in there smoking again and one of them, probably Grant, was working the hand-crank to open the vent.

            Jeff finished the edging and set the fence up again and cut his thumb and his mom came out to inspect his work.

            I’m probably going to have to tear all that fence out. You can do it after lunch. And then I want you to do your brother’s chores. And don’t give me that look! You know I already told you about that! The days he has his work at the hospital, you need to help out! He does all the work around here. You need to stop being so lazy and take more responsibility. Now get inside and eat your lunch. Are you listening to me?

            Yes, ma’am.

            Beyond her, across the street, he saw Grant crossing the side yard to go to the Beausoleils’. Jeff hated his mom. Everybody else got to have fun but he had to be his family’s slave. And his brother’s work at the hospital? Ha! His brother was a candy-striper who worked as a projectionist at the hospital theater. He got to sit on his ass and watch movies all afternoon.

            After lunch and after tearing the fence out and doing his brother’s chores, Jeff crossed the street to the Colliers’. Debbie Gander was in her carport and called after him.

            They’re not there.

            Where are they?

            Debbie pointed and it looked to Jeff like she was pointing at the Wheelers’ house. He started to go there and Debbie called after him.

            They’re not there.

            Where are they?

            They left.

            Where to?

            The store.

            Jeff turned around and went home. Those sons of bitches. They went to the store without him. God damn it. He could just imagine all the fun they were having. They’d probably come home with a giant haul. Steal everything they could get their hands on. A dozen silver rings. Gold-plated charm bracelets on every arm. Maybe even pairs of pants and packs of cigarettes. Those asses. Jeff knew they didn’t care about him. Not really. Oh, they pretended. Shitfuckers. They probably didn’t even really want him for a friend.

            He knew what it was. Why they probably didn’t really like him. It was because he cut all his hair off at the start of summer. It had been down to his nose. He had the barber cut it down to the stubble. That was almost two months ago and so it was longer now, but still. They had called him Peach Fuzz when he first did it.

            Hey, Peach Fuzz! Wanna go swimming? Aren’t you scared of sunburn?

            No.

            He was scared of his parents and wasps and horses and talking to Aimee Chambers, the girl he truly loved, and he was scared of getting beat up, but he was not scared of sunburn.

                                                                             •

            It was cool in the living room in the early afternoon. Jeff sat in his dad’s chair and read one of his mom’s Readers Digest Condensed Books. Not as interesting as Ball Four. That was one of his dad’s books. A paperback. Jeff was reading it earlier in the summer when his dad caught him and took it away.

            No, Jeff, you’re too young for that.

            It was good. It’s where he learned the word shitfuck. That was a cool word. Too bad there weren’t more opportunities to use it.

            This Readers Digest book, it was okay. Didn’t have any swear words, though.

            Then it said something about making love. Making love. Wait. The way it said it. They took all their clothes off and made love. Wait. Wait wait wait.

            Oh my god. That’s what making love was. Fucking! Holy shitfuck! It was fucking!

            Was it really? He read it again. It seemed to be that was it. Fucking. Oh my god, and all this time he’s been saying how he wants to make love to his girlfriends. He didn’t mean fuck them. Was that what it meant, really? It was hard to tell from the way it was written in the book. He’d have to ask Grant. Grant would know. Grant knew blow job, jack off, and cunt. He even knew cornhole. He was bound to know making love.

                                                                             •

            They were gone all afternoon, since before lunch. Jeff kept glancing across the street to see if he could see if they had come back without anyone seeing that he kept glancing across the street. But his mother saw. She had super-human X-ray radar vision, just like Jimmy Gander said.

            Have your friends come back yet?

            I don’t think so.

            Why don’t you go check?

            I haven’t seen them.

            No way was Jeff going to go check. Have everyone on the block—which at that point was no one, the street was empty, but you never could tell who might be looking out a window—have them all see him crossing the street like some mangy heartbroken starving lost dog? Or worse yet, like some thirteen-year-old Peach Fuzz whose friends had left him behind?

                                                                             •

            The vent was up. Grant, Simon, Mary, Francine, and Jeff sat in the camper and smoked cigarettes. Grant held up his hand, his fingers splayed.

            Look, I got another ring.

            Cool! I wish I could’ve gone with you guys.

            We missed you, Jeff.

            You did?

            That’s such bullshit, Mary. We did not miss him. We did not miss you, Jeff.

            Gah, Francine, that’s mean.

            What, Simon—it’s true. You guys may have missed him, but I didn’t.

            We missed you, Jeff. We had a good time, anyway.

            Even Francine missed you. She has a secret crush on you.

            Gah, Grant! I do not!

            Yes, she does, Jeff. When you’re not around, all she talks about is you. She wants you to take her in your manly skinny Peach Fuzz arms and make love to her.

            God-damn, Grant, shut the fuck up! Or I’ll smack you!

            Grant, Shmant, smack your pant.

            What? Simon, you’re so weird.

            Hey, Grant?

            Hey, Jeff.

            I was reading in a book today and it said something about making love, and I always thought that making love was like telling someone that you love them and writing poems to them and giving them flowers and rings and stuff, but in this book it made it seem like it was fucking.

            That’s because it is.

            Oh, my God, Jeff—you didn’t know that?

            No, Simon, I didn’t.

            I thought everybody knew that.

            What book were you reading?

            It was one of my mom’s Readers Digest condensed books.

            Things are getting hot at the old Readers Digest. Hey, guys, let’s play Truth or Dare. We won’t do any of that crazy stuff people do with truth or dare. We’ll make it sensible. We’ll play that, let’s see—the truth will be, tell your darkest secret that you don’t want anyone to know, and the dare will be, fuck Mary for twenty-four hours.

            Grant, you’re so full of it.

            You’re just jealous, Francine.

            Um, hey, guys, do I get to have any say in this? I can’t fuck for twenty-four hours. You’ll have to start without me.

            Oh, Mary, you’re no fun.

Hookie

            Jeff got up a half-hour late. His mom did not say good morning.

            Young man, I woke you up on time. You have only yourself to blame if you’re running late.

            Yes, ma’am.

            And I expect you to do your chores before you go to school this morning. Don’t dawdle.

            Yes, ma’am.

                                                                             •

            Grant and Simon and Mary and Francine and David were all waiting in Jeff’s carport when he came out.

            Gah, Jeff, what took you so long?

            Yeah, we’re gonna be late.

            That’s first bell. Did you hear? First bell just rang.

            Let’s ditch.

            Gah, Grant.

            Well, we should. I don’t wanna get there late.

            Me, neither.

            We should go.

            The kids walked.

            That’s second bell. Second bell just rang. We’re gonna be late.

            Yeah, no way we’re gonna get there on time.

            The kids walked.

            That’s final bell. I don’t wanna go in after final bell.

            Me, neither.

            I hate it. If I’m late, my teacher makes a big deal of it in front of everybody.

            Mine, too.

            Let’s ditch First.

            Okay.

            Okay.

            We can miss First, anyway.

            That’s right. They take attendance but it doesn’t count.

            It doesn’t?

            No, not until Second.

            Then why do they take it if it doesn’t count?

            They want all the little boys and girls to do their very best to get to school on time.

            Why doesn’t it count First period?

            They know some kids are gonna be late. It’s Second that counts because that’s the one where they decide how much money the schools get.

            The more kids they have, the more money they get.

            Oh. I didn’t know.

            Did you think they just gave the schools however much money they wanted?

            I thought they just gave as much as the schools needed.

            Jeff, if they did that, we would have new Science books.

            Our Science books don’t even know we’ve been up in space.

            Stupid school.

            The kids wandered streets in the neighborhood between their block and the school. A stray dog saw them and followed them.

            Hey, puppy.

            Are you lost, little dog?

            What a cute little dog.

            He’s got a collar.

            Probably he got out of somebody’s yard.

            The kids reached the northern edge of their neighborhood, where the streets and houses ended and the desert began. The school was a block away. Francine looked in that direction.

            I’m gonna go, guys. I’ll get there before Second, and when the bell for Second rings, I’ll go in.

            David looked at Francine, and then at the others.

            I’m gonna go, too. Are you guys gonna keep ditching?

            Yeah, I think so.

            Mary, do you wanna keep ditching?

            Yeah, I’ll stay with you guys. What about you, Jeff?

            Sure.

            Francine and David headed to school. Grant and Simon and Mary and Jeff headed back down the street they had just come up. The little dog followed them for a while and then it went away.

            Adults were around and were not oblivious. A couple of women in the neighborhood saw the kids.

            Aren’t you kids supposed to be in school?

            It’s eighth-grade ditch day, and we’re ditching. They let us.

            Oh. Okay.

            The women weren’t fooled for a second. One of them called the police.

            I’d like to report some children wandering the neighborhood. Teenagers. I think they’re supposed to be in school. No, I haven’t seen them do anything. They’re just walking down the sidewalk. One of them is a girl wearing a really nice coat. Rabbit-fur, I think. No, they don’t look like hoodlums. They’re just kids, but I think they should be in school. What? Oh, they’re white, I think. They look white. No, you don’t need to send anyone to my house, but if you send someone to patrol the neighborhood, you’ll see the kids. They should be in school. Okay. Thank you.

            The kids stopped at the end of a dead-end and sat on a low rock wall for a few minutes. Grant said, The reason people aren’t suspicious of us is because Mary looks like a sensible young girl in that coat—

            That’s a nice coat, Mary.

            Thank you, guys. I like looking sensible.

            And Jeff, you look like a brain—

            It’s those glasses, and his short hair.

            And I look like a sensible young girl’s boyfriend, and Simon looks like my brother.

            But I’m her boyfriend.

            That doesn’t matter, Simon. She looks sensible enough to pick me.

            Gah, Grant.

            The kids crossed the four-lane highway that bordered their neighborhood there and walked into the desert where the unpaved streets led up to a Minute Market. At the Minute Market they bought candy bars with their lunch money and stole pieces of penny bubble gum. There was a pay phone out front.

            Jeff, you sound an awful lot like your mom. You should call the school and pretend you’re her and make up an excuse for being absent.

            Okay. I’ll tell them I had an asthma attack. Do you know the school’s number?

            No.

            The pay phone had a phone book, but the school was new and the phone book was old. No call was made.

            In the lot next to the Minute Market was a row of four old shacks. They were stuccoed concrete block ruins that had been there as long as the kids could remember. When the kids were younger, the shacks had been haunted. Now they were just dirty and empty and tumble-down. The kids went into one of them and stayed for a while and talked about nothing. They tired of this and Grant said, We had probably better go to school. The others agreed. They left the shack and headed back to their neighborhood. When they neared the school Grant said, Jeff, you go in first, and we’ll follow a few minutes later, so it doesn’t look like we were all ditching together.

            Okay.

            Jeff went in first. It was during class so he had to stop at the office to get a pass.

            Hi. I’m Jeff Chorus. I’m late because I had an asthma attack and had to stay home till it was over.

            The secretary looked at her list.

            Jeff Chorus. We already called your mom, Jeff. She said you left for school this morning on time.

            The secretary gave Jeff a pass. He went to class. It was one David was in, too. They exchanged glances. In a few minutes the announcement came over the school P.A. system.

            David Stepp and Jeff Chorus, report to the Administrative Office. David Stepp and Jeff Chorus, report to the Administrative Office.

            They reported. The secretary was strictly business and did not smile.

            You boys have a seat. Mister Mitchell will be with you shortly.

            David and Jeff sat in two of the tube-frame-and-plastic chairs that infested institutional spaces. Two uniformed police officers came out of Mr. Mitchell’s office and for a second Jeff thought he and David were about to be taken to the D-Home in cuffs. The D-Home. No one knew where it was and everyone knew it existed, knew it was where they put you when you were a kid and they wanted to put you in jail and they couldn’t because you were a kid.

            The officers were smiling and walked by David and Jeff without looking at them.

            Boys.

            Mr. Mitchell stood at the door to his office. He was a slightly overweight middle-aged man with glasses and a small handlebar moustache and he wasn’t smiling.

            Come in. Have a seat.

            He pointed to a red vinyl sofa. The boys sat.

            When did you leave home for school this morning? Why were you late? Where did you go? What were you doing?

            The boys told him. They didn’t say anything about Grant or Simon or Mary or Francine.

            Do you know where Grant and Simon Collier are?

            No, they didn’t know, though they admitted the Collier brothers had ditched with them.

            All right. I’ve talked to both your mothers. They will be here at lunch to pick you up. You can go back to class now. Be sure to be here at the front office when the lunch bell rings.

            Yes, sir.

                                                                             •

            At lunch his mom was waiting at the office when Jeff got there. She took him home in her station wagon.

            Don’t try to lie your way out of this. I don’t need to hear a single thing out of your mouth. David and his mother were at the school when I got there. She took him home. He told us what happened. He tried to talk you all out of it. He only ditched because you did. Wipe that look off your face. You hear me? I knew you kids were going to sneak out and cut school. I heard you talking about it in the carport before you left. You can’t fool me. You’re always up to no good. You’re never going to amount to anything. You can’t even find your way to school. I’m going to walk you to school tomorrow. That way I’ll be sure you don’t get lost. And don’t you dawdle about getting home from school today. I’m going to feed you a sandwich and take you back to school. Your father will talk to you when he gets home from work tonight. I wouldn’t be surprised if he takes his belt to you. You’re not too old for a good whipping.

            They got home and she fed him a sandwich and he didn’t taste it. White bread and mayo and American cheese. She took him back to school. He stayed there until it was time to come home, and he came home.

            Now you stay in your room. And don’t let me catch you doing anything enjoyable tonight.

            Yes, ma’am.

            Jeff stood in his room. He did not sit down. Would that not have been enjoyable? He bit his nails. He stood at his window and looked out at the block. The sky was infected with broken low gray clouds. The lightest patch was oddly bright. Jeff thought that if that had been where the sun was, it would have been on a late morning of a winter’s day in Australia. He didn’t think he’d ever go to Australia. Might as well dream of flying in outer space, captain of a warp-drive Federation starship. Seemed about as likely.

            He saw Grant and Simon and Mary sneaking down the street along the fronts of the houses. They looked like spies in a movie or a TV show. They got to the Colliers’ house and tried to sneak in through Grant and Simon’s bedroom window but it was shut. Mary continued to her own house, walking down the sidewalk now, and Grant and Simon went inside their house via the front door. Jeff looked at his clock. It was an electric clock with a second hand. The time was 4:18:11. Jeff bit his nails.

            Jeff stood in his room for two hours. His dad got home from work and came into Jeff’s room with Jeff’s mom.

            I oughtta tan your hide, boy. I’d beat some sense into you if I thought it would do any good. Your mother and I have decided you’re not getting any dinner tonight. You’re to go straight to bed. Brush your teeth, get ready for bed, then lights out. You hear me?

            Yes, sir.

            And you are not allowed to keep your door closed, Jeffrey, until we give you permission. And there will be no more talk of asthma attacks. Since your excuse for being late to school was that you had an asthma attack, we’ve decided that your asthma is all your imagination. I don’t ever want to hear another word from you about it. Now do as your father told you.

            Yes, ma’am.

            Jeff brushed his teeth and got ready for bed. He didn’t need to turn his light out, it wasn’t on. It would be more than an hour before the sun went down. The sky was still cloudy and gray. He got into his bed and after a few hours of feeling frightened and sorry for himself, and pissed off at David for lying about whose idea it was to ditch, and envious of Grant and Simon and Mary for spending the whole day out, and hungry, he also felt hungry, he drifted off to sleep, his last thoughts being of Mary and Mary is really nice she’s the prettiest girl on the block she has a good sense of humor she is never mean to people i’m glad i got to go steady with her a few years ago that was when was that we were playing on the playground it was friday the thirteenth and i ran into her and we knocked each other down and it was an accident i hate friday the thirteenth she broke up with me i think it was she really wanted to go steady with i can’t remember . . .

                                                                             •

            His mother didn’t walk him to school the next morning. He walked alone. Within a half-block of the school grounds, in front of everyone who was gathered in front of the school, all umpity-hundred of them waiting for the first bell to ring and the school doors to open, Jeff’s mother drove up in her station wagon.

            Jeffrey! You come here!

            Jeff came there.

            You didn’t do your chores this morning!

            She slapped him. The sound of the slap rang out like a shot.

            You didn’t tell me you were leaving for school!

            She slapped him. The sound of the slap echoed off the school building’s front walls.

            You didn’t mop up the water you spilled in the kitchen!

            She slapped him. The sound of the slap resonated in the mountain canyons on the distant horizon, scattering rabbits and birds.

            Jeff’s mother drove away and Jeff crossed the street to the school. He stared straight ahead and did not look at anyone.

A Rude Northern Race Did All the Matchless Monuments Deface*

            Jeff Chorus broke his hand. The sinister one. In a fight in Gym class with a short and stocky seventh-grader.

            Plaster casts for broken bones in those days, even for parts cartilaginous as young teens’ hands. Many kids signed the cast, as was the custom, Grant and Simon being the first.

            The three boys went up to the elementary school of an evening after dinner. Autumn in the desert city, jacket weather. They had nothing better to do—

            this is not true. They had a world of knowledge to learn—physical science, biology, chemistry, history, literature, philosophy, poetry, art, music, algebra, geometry, trigonometry, calculus, any language that was not American English—a world about which they knew almost nothing and their parents sometimes less, though their parents knew enough to be viciously suspicious of any learning too far removed from the Bible or Home Economics. Remember what the Good Book says about philosophers. And all those artists and poets and lazy bums who write novels? Everybody knows they’re drunks and drug addicts, fornicators and faggots and unspeakably worse things, all Hell-bound down the wide Perdition Highway. All boys needed to know was enough to get a job and keep it, and all girls needed to know was enough to get a husband and keep it. Any more than that was just so much stuff peddled by people who didn’t want to do an honest day’s work. Wouldn’t likely know how. Everybody knew this. Didn’t need to go to school to find it out.

            So Jeff and Grant and Simon, two eighth-graders and a seventh-, went a-strolling in the gloaming. The front gate to the school grounds was unlocked. The elementary school had started as a cottage school and the cottages still stood, still used as classrooms for the lower grades. The boys wandered among them.

            Look!

            What.

            What’d you find.

            This window’s open.

            A casement window on one of the cottages was slightly ajar. Jeff and Grant pried it farther open. Cast-handed Jeff bashed in the screen. He took papers, school assignments the kids had done—finger-painting and collaging and filling in blanks—from off the high, broad window sill and dropped them in a shallow mud puddle. Simon and Grant reached in and scattered to the cottage floor whatever books and papers they could reach.

            Instantly, Grant sprinted toward the front gate. Jeff looked after him and toward the main building.

            Janitor! Run!

            Jeff and Simon ran away from the front gate and back around the main building to the back gate beyond the gym, a full city block away. The back gate was locked, the fence chainlink and eight or ten or twelve or twenty or who knows how many feet high, you couldn’t just jump over it. Grant approached, walking up the sidewalk along the street outside.

            You guys, I saw the janitor run into the office.

            Oh my God, he probably called the police.

            I think he did. We should get out of here.

            Simon scrambled over the fence. Cast-handed Jeff tried but couldn’t.

            Shit. Guys. I can’t climb this fence.

            Here. Let me help.

            Grant climbed over the fence and helped Jeff get over, and the three boys walked into the twilight streets heading away from the school, certain a police cruiser was about to pull up at any moment.

            But none did. The vandals returned to their encampment and regaled themselves long into the night with tales of their exploits, of the ten thousand windows shattered at the Palace of the Ventanas, the million volumes scattered from the shelves at the Imperial Library of All Knowledge, of the paintings ripped from the walls and cast into the muddy streets in front of the Temple of Beautiful and Somewhat Obscure Objects, and of the thrones they would someday occupy and the nations they would rule.

*John Dryden, “To Sir Godfrey Kneller,” 1694.



BIO

Tetman Callis is a writer living in Chicago. His stories have appeared in such publications as NOON, Atticus Review, Cloudbank, Four Way Review, Book of Matches, Queen Mob’s Tea House, and best microfiction 2019. His stories “Georgey-Dear” and “Grilled Cheese Sandwich with Pickles and Fries” have appeared in The Writing Disorder. He is the author of the memoir, High Street: Lawyers, Guns & Money in a Stoner’s New Mexico (Outpost 19, 2012), and the children’s book, Franny & Toby (Silky Oak Press, 2015). His website is https://www.tetmancallis.com; he can also be found on Facebook.






Beautiful Things

By William T. Vandegrift, Jr.



It is said that the average American moves every five to ten years. In my lifetime, some fifty-plus years, I have dwelled in four homes. I’ve lived in my present house for the longest period, nearly three decades.

The longer a person remains in a home, the more things they are likely to have accumulated. When they move, they may face having to relinquish much of their possessions, especially if downsizing into a smaller home. This purging can be challenging, but surrendering things can also be liberating, a cleansing of sorts. I went through this process twice. And not by choice. I was forced to purge after being displaced by catastrophic events. Not only was I faced with rebuilding my home, but I also had to surrender things that I held dear.

In 2009, my house was devastated in a fire. My partner, Drew, and I were on our way home from a weekend down the shore. The pet-sitters had stopped by in the morning, and shortly after they left, lightning struck the house. Neighbors heard the thunderous bolt but at first, they didn’t realize our house was hit.

The fire started on the lower level. It simmered, burning slowly in the laundry room for hours. A dresser in which I kept acrylic paints for art and craft projects caught afire. The paints ignited and accelerated the fire to the point where it quickly spread upward to the ceiling and along the rafters. It became what the Fire Marshall called a rolling fire.

The whole structure did not burn down as one might imagine, but the smoke extensively damaged the house. Since it was late summer, the house was air-conditioned, and the windows were shut. The house became filled with smoke, and the smoke finally seeped outside through the windows. Neighbors at first marveled at the unusual mist forming along the creek before they realized it was smoke and that it was coming from our house. They panicked and many called 911. The fire trucks came swiftly, and when we arrived shortly thereafter, the firemen had already broken down the front door with a hatchet and were inside the house. I could see them through the doorway, dragging furniture around, searching the fire’s angry ascent throughout the insides of the walls. Fallen things were scattered everywhere, but the firemen’s work was not about our items of importance and value. Whatever was in the way was thrown aside. Saving the house was their priority.

In the ensuing months after the fire, we saw the house gutted to the studs. Everything was removed, even the toilets and bathtubs. All that was left was a shell of the house, and we rebuilt it from within. It was a long ongoing, project that lasted nearly two years.

Just over a decade later, in September 2021, during Hurricane Ida, our house was flooded by the tiny creek that runs along the back of the property. The creek became overwhelmed in a deluge of rainfall, and it came up to the back of the houses of our neighborhood. It was quick and sudden. Many neighbors, including us, were flooded out.

Earlier in the evening, before the flood, we had retreated downstairs due to tornado warnings. We watched the news on television, and when the warnings passed, we went back upstairs. The phone rang. It was a neighbor, asking if we had a wet-vac that they could borrow. This should have been the first sign for us, but it didn’t register until my partner went outside on the deck, and he heard the roar of the creek. We shone a flashlight to see how high the creek was. We couldn’t see much, only that the ground seemed to be moving. That’s the creek, I said to my partner, stunned with disbelief. We are being flooded.

We raced downstairs to the garage to move the cars. When we opened the garage door, the creek roared inside, and the entire downstairs became flooded. The cars started to float, and one of them got dinged up as we backed it out. We were able to get both cars up to the top of our driveway.

Shortly afterwards, the police showed up and ordered us to evacuate. We left with our two dogs and found out later that we were lucky, as a neighbor had to be rescued by boat and others had to jump out of their windows to escape the rising creek. Our cats were left behind, unable to be found, but hiding on the second floor, which wasn’t being flooded. Fortunately, they survived by remaining upstairs beneath perhaps the beds or a dresser.


Both events, the fire and the flood, were of biblical proportions. What’s next, but locusts as a friend pointed out. (Instead of locusts, in the subsequent months we were consumed with an invasion of stink bugs and centipedes.) Creatures ranging from raccoons, rats, and opossums roamed through and around our house. Deer stalked the perimeter as if to claim the house as their own. Nature claimed our lives.

However, as the fire was devastatingly slow; the flood was swift. After the fire, we stayed in a local hotel for nearly a week and then rented a condo for the duration of the rebuild that took nearly two years. After the flood, we spent most of the night at a firehouse where an emergency shelter was set up and we returned early the following morning despite the evacuation order still being in place.

In both instances, we were forced to go through and clean out what was left of our house and determine what could be saved and what was deemed to be destroyed. I had to evaluate everything that I possessed. I cherished the many items that I had collected over the years and those that had been passed down to me through generations. Every object represented something to me, whether it was a link to my childhood, a connection to a relative who was no longer with us, or a significant moment of my life. I grieved over the loss of the upright piano that was passed through my family, made by my great-great-grandfather’s piano manufactory company during the early decades of the last century. I mourned for the elaborate pair of three-foot-tall porcelain statues of French courtiers: a man and a woman dressed in eighteenth-century clothing and posing as if watching people dancing around a ballroom floor at Versailles. During my childhood, my grandmother had them poised on a round end table in her living room. We’d always said it was King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, and from my grandmother, I learned all about the tragic history of the French Revolution.

I have an accumulation of dishes. My grandmother collected Lenox china. As a child, I was very inquisitive, and I shared my grandmother’s interest in fine china. To her chagrin, when we would go to dinner at someone’s house, I would lift a plate and look at the bottom while asking if the dishes were Lenox or Noritake. My relatives were delighted by my interest, so unusual for a little boy. My grandmother always told me afterwards not to do that. It was rude, she said. I have and hold on dear pieces of her fine china that survived both the fire and the flood.

An aunt gave me a favorite piece before she passed, a deviled eggs platter. I treasured it even though I rarely made deviled eggs. This dish survived the fire, but it did not survive the flood. It disappeared, perhaps washed off a shelf in the garage by the raging water and shattering against the cinder-block wall. This is most likely what happened as later I found a large fragment of the dish’s scalloped edge in the driveway, probably having been carried out there as the water receded. I was heartbroken, not because I liked the dish so much, but because it was a lasting connection to my Aunt Violet.

Fires have always frightened me. I’ve read about the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire where workers, in an attempt to escape, leaped to their deaths. My grandmother told me a story that has haunted me to this day. When she was in her early teens, a house, allegedly of ill repute, exploded down the street from her home. This was during Prohibition. There was a distillery in the basement, and it had blown up.

Neighbors rushed outside and watched people running out of the house that had exploded, many in flames and screaming as they shed their fiery clothing. My grandmother said the smell of burning flesh was ungodly. People died right there on the spot.

Before my house fire, I once worked delivering newspapers. A house on my route had caught fire and was reduced to mere shell of charred remains. The neighboring houses on both sides were impacted as well, and they had melted siding. This was during the holidays, and I speculated that the fire was caused by Christmas tree lights. Ever since, I have always been wary about using them in my own home. And I always wondered what it would be like to lose your home in such a manner. What it would be like to watch your house in flames, knowing everything that meant something to you was inside.

Everyone from the Fire Marshall to the restoration crew said that our house fire was a strange one. It was deemed as suspicious at first because the inferno was centered in one specific place from where it accelerated centrally due to the poorly placed jars of paints by the furnace. Also, many objects survived, while others were destroyed. In some closets, metal melted, yet candles on another shelf remained intact. Everything in the house was covered with soot. It seeped into drawers and even inside the refrigerator and stove. Most things made of fabric, such as clothing, mattresses, pillows, and stuffed animals, absorbed the smell of the smoke and were ruined. The things that could be saved had to be cleaned professionally. We had to decide what was worth saving and faced having to pay to restore these items.

All four of our pets died in the fire. Two dogs and two cats. The carbon monoxide got to them, and they had no idea what hit them. At least that’s what the firemen said. They just went to sleep. I always wondered: Isn’t this what is always said? He never knew what hit him or It was so fast they didn’t realize what was happening. The dogs were found huddled together in the bathroom. A cat was found wedged beneath the sofa as if to secure the last few gasps of oxygen. There was the imprint on a smoke-covered duvet in the guest bedroom where the other cat eventually collapsed and died. I do not believe they didn’t suffer. To me, they did not appear to have simply fallen asleep, but and seemed have experienced some level of terror during the last moments of their lives. A neighbor told me a dog was still alive when the firemen arrived, but I did not press her for further details. I know I am unable to handle knowing if this is true.

When we were evacuated the second time, after the flood, I reexperienced the trauma I went through after the fire. I feared for the cats we left behind. I felt I couldn’t go through the loss again, but I came to realize that I had no control over the situation. I had to let go of my fears and remain strong.

In both events, I lost nearly all my books. My office survived the fire for the most part because I, by chance, left the door closed, and that prevented much of the smoke from entering the room. But the pages absorbed the smell of smoke. Due to the generosity of the faculty and my peers in graduate school, many donated titles to replenish my library. Over the years I collected even more books, but the office was then destroyed in the flood. My books on the lower shelves were soaked. The one on the higher shelves absorbed the dampness, and the pages became bloated, crinkled, and curled. It broke my heart to see my books once again being thrown by the restoration crew’s workmen into oversized garbage bags and then tossed inside an oversized dumpster at the base of our driveway.

It’s time to use a Kindle, Drew tells me. I prefer having the actual book in my hands, and not a gadget. But this way, Drew explained, I can have all my books in one place, no piles of books everywhere, and in the event of a tragedy such as a fire or a flood, I won’t lose them. Does this mean we are expecting another catastrophic event? I asked him. He simply shrugged. Having experienced two such events in a decade surpassed all the odds. You should be playing the lottery, friends have told me.

Now it is the same house that we bought thirty years earlier, yet it is different as we have made changes. We redesigned the layout after the fire. Then, after the flood, we kept the lower level as is, but redesigned how we would utilize the rooms. For example, in the drawings, I created reading space for myself in Drew’s man cave so I can sit there with him and read while he watches a sporting event or a movie. It is a simpler arrangement that involves a pair of recliners. No more oversized sectional sofas with a humongous ottoman in the center. This means that our aging German shepherd we got after the fire will no longer has a spot on a sofa to sleep, and she will have to adjust to sleeping on the floor. I promised Drew we can get her a dog-bed.

Because the fire destroyed the entire house, we lost a lot of things. The flood, however, only impacted the lower level. Fortunately, our main quarters are upstairs and weren’t flooded. Downstairs, anything porous had to be thrown away. I was filled with sorrow to find that nearly all my Christmas decorations were destroyed. I was able to salvage several small porcelain figurines of elves, pixies, cherubs, and Christmas carolers that belonged to various grandparents, along with the many mementos that were stored on shelves above the waterline.

Yes, I have a lot of stuff. Some friends tease that I am a hoarder, yet they marvel at my collections, from the DeGrazia artwork to religious icons, old books, antique family photographs, Native American jewelry, and the many bee-themed dishes and pieces of silverware that I have accumulated over the years.

I do not believe that I am a hoarder; I am a collector. I have heard horror stories about people who hoard and cannot move from room to room with ease, or who drop dead and are not found for days, buried beneath piles of newspapers or bags of old clothing. This is not me. My clutter is organized and provides me with a connection to the world. My past, present, and future are all represented within every significant object. Each beautiful piece means something and has a story behind it.

We treasure these items that we still have after the destruction of the fire and the flood. I treasure them even more than I did before. Beautiful things. I may have lost a lot in both events, and on some level, it was liberating, a purge of sorts, but I have come to realize it is no longer about what I have lost. Not anymore. It is about what I have now, what I still possess. These are the things that matter most to me. I hold on to these precious items as I never know if they will one day become lost possessions too. These pieces are lasting survivors as I am.



BIO

William Vandegrift is a freelance writer. He’s written author interviews and restaurant reviews. He’s also have published short stories. William graduated from Bennington College with an MFA in writing and literature. His work has appeared in various journals including Agni, Quarterly West, The Writer’s Chronicle, and US 1 newspaper.  







Indigo and Half Moon

by Paul Rabinowitz


11:46 a.m.

A woman wearing a down jacket with silver duct tape clutches the hand of a young child. She throws a half empty coffee cup into the bin under the counter, walks past a full length mirror and glances at her reflection. Twisting her torso to fit into the frame she piles her hair atop her head and notices a gentleman in the back of the cafe gazing at her. She turns towards the exit then cranes her neck to check storm clouds gathering over a playground at the intersection of Pitt and Grand Street. She hoists the child and steps out. Moments later they return. She hushes the crying child that clutches her soaked jacket. The gentleman in the corner of the crowded cafe signals to them to take a seat at the table where he sits. She glances at me sketching the scene then releases her wet hair. I watch as it falls around her shoulders. She sets the child down as the gentleman rises, waving to get her attention. The woman saunters across the floor like a prima donna on stage. He reaches into his worn travel bag and gives the mother a bright blue bird. She rubs her hand over the soft fabric. The child grabs the stuffed animal and runs to the mirror. Glancing at her reflection, she sways back and forth with two hands clutching the wings. She catches my gaze and freezes. The mother turns away from her daughter’s reflection, pushes a candle jar to the edge and leans across the table close to the gentleman. She remains focused on the movement of his lips. The child stomps her feet, puts the bird under her jacket then disappears among the crowds gathering on Grand Street


2:53 p.m.

If I use
a phrase
like
bird enthusiast
with
blue eyes
gentle
voice

in the
first stanza
of my poem

will I need
anything
else
for the middle
or end

to explain
why you
grab

star chart
and dream catcher
earrings

and meet
a bird watcher

to view
a male
bunting

perched
atop
a cactus
singing
to stake
its claim

plumage
brilliant
and shiny
illuminated
under
indigo
sky

waiting
patiently
for nightfall
star patterns
to appear

for clues

to navigate
a vast
intoxicating
desert

while
half moon
in the distance
rises

4:43 p.m.

In a state
of hypnotic
hyper-focused
confusion
a moth
hovers
near a chosen
candle

thinking
the flame
is the moon
glowing

the nocturnal
creature
rises
then falls
unable to
break
its evolutionary
navigational
system

as when you
limp
past the mirror
check
storm clouds
eyes glazed
like a boxer
hit on the jaw

neck snaps
light dims
while falling
to the ground
wishing
someone
laid a pillow
on the canvas

and in a state
of hypnotic
hyper-focused
confusion
you twist
your head
glance at me
sketching
the scene

throwing fresh
words
on my paper
like a painter
under night sky
full moon
igniting
desert
landscapes

as you rise

order coffee
extra cream
and sugar
find a cushioned
chair
to rest upon
until storm clouds
break

as I slide
my poem
across the table
revealing
colorful phrases like

new places
we’ll travel to

sand soaked
in orange light

eternal summers
with no past

break the chain
around your neck

like Jackson Pollock
day after day
I’ll splash
new words
against adobe
walls
indigo dripping
over
raw sienna

so when your offspring
returns
finds us
burning
from both ends
we’ll watch
as she throws
the animal
into the air

and wait
to see
which direction
the dry wind
blows

where
the bird
lands





BIO

Paul Rabinowitz is an author, photographer and founder of ARTS By The People, a non-profit arts organization based in New Jersey. Through all mediums of art Paul aims to capture real people, flaws and all. He focuses on details that reveal the true essence of a subject, whether they be an artist he’s photographing or a fictional character he’s bringing to life on the page.

Paul’s photography, short fiction and poetry have appeared in many magazines and journals including New World Writing, Waxwing Literary Journal, Pif Magazine, Courtship of Winds, Burningword, Evening Street Press, The Sun Magazine, Grub Street Literary Journal, The Montreal Review, The Metaworker, Adirondack Review, Bangalore Review, Grey Sparrow Journal, The Oddville Press and others. Paul was a featured artist in Nailed Magazine in 2020 and Mud Season Review in 2022. Paul was nominated for Best of the Net in 2021 for his Limited Light photo series and also nominated for the Maria Mazziotti Gillan Literary Service Award. Paul is the author of Limited Light, a book of prose and portrait photography, and a novella, The Clay Urn. Paul is working on a multimedia novel called Confluence, and has completed a poetry collection called truth, love and the lines in between. His poems and fiction, Little Gem Magnolia, Villa Dei Misteri, Confessional and The Lines In Between are the inspiration for 4 short films. Villa Dei Misteri and Little Gem Magnolia won best Experimental Films at the RevolutionMe and Oregon Short Film Festivals. 

Paul has produced mixed media performances and poetry films that have appeared on stages and in theaters in New York City, New Jersey, Tel Aviv and Paris. Paul is a written word performer and founder of The Platform, a monthly literary series in New Jersey, and Platform Review, a journal of voices and visual art from around the world. Paul’s videos, photography and poems appeared in his first solo exhibit called Retrospective With Reading Glasses at CCM Gallery in New Jersey. He is currently at work co-writing a television series with author Erin Jones called Bungalow.

https://www.paulrabinowitz.com/

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