The air was abuzz, static and anticipation tangling and tangoing in the vents of the motel room. Their dance raised the hair on the arms of the two teenagers renting the space, but they both pretended nonchalance. One, the taller of the two, was standing barefoot with her heels pressed against the baseboard of the bathroom door frame, and the other had in his hands a pencil and a measuring tape, his eyes trained on the marks he was leaving on the wood grain.
“See?” At his prompting, the tall girl stepped forward and turned to look. “5’10, just like I said. Not tall enough for the second-floor window, even if I boost you.”
She rolled her amber eyes and pushed past him to grab her beer off the bathroom counter. “You win, Cash. Back door it is.”
Cassius watched, eyes bloodshot and hungry, as she lifted her hips to sit on the counter, brought the bottle to her lips, pulled a knee to her chest, still as enticed by her effortless grace as he’d ever been. His good mood only went as far as her face, though, which was solemn. Maybe even a little worried. “Could you do me a favor and pretend you’re having fun? You’re not a good time when you act the cynic, Rhea, and you know the role looks better on me anyhow.”
He couldn’t help smiling to himself as her whole body stiffened at his remark. “Me? Not a good time?” She sounded unaffected as she lowered the bottle into her lap, but Cassius knew every lilt in her voice was meticulously crafted.
“Oh, not as good of a time as you used to be,” he snarked, knowing the playful tone would do nothing to soften the words as he leaned against the doorframe, arms crossed. “I bet you couldn’t cheat a hand of blackjack now if you tried. What happened to that girl?
A shaky breath taken behind her curtain of hair. A moment of hesitation. “Maybe she grew up.” Oh, and wasn’t that a raw line? One more push ought to get him what he wanted.
“Well, I wonder why she’d go and do a stupid thing like that.”
Her head snapped up, and he had to bite his lip to keep from grinning at the anger in her eyes, the way she looked at him like she hated him, like she could punch through his rib cage and rip out his beating heart. God, it was orgasmic. “Because—” That first word was barked out with all the fire he could’ve wanted, but by then she’d caught on to his game and knew to withhold his prize. She forced herself back into nonchalance, into a cool and unchallenging posture. She spat out some ineffectual comeback, something she wished would hurt him but knew wouldn’t.
Silence was strung up and hanged like a convict between them as her pleading eyes betrayed her unbothered body. He waited just long enough for her to decide she really wanted his apology before he gave it, crossing the threshold with open arms and a kissing mouth. In the fluorescence of the bathroom light, the scarlet of her outgrown box-dyed hair fell over his cheeks that flushed the same shade, and he whispered to her how important it was to him, too, this job that would set them up for life, this rock they were stealing that would pay for their white picket fence.
The gem in question was known as the Scarville Garnet, named for the sleepy little town in which it resided, the same town that had been the backdrop for the tiresome and tireless parade of miseries Rhea had to look back on as a childhood. But amidst the concrete greys and bruise blues of that time, a scarlet beacon gleamed just the way it had under each year’s July sun when the fat, happy man who owned it had carted it out to the county fair. She remembered vividly the smell of the cotton candy, the popcorn, the sweat of a hundred people packed into the fairgrounds’ assembly hall to see a man in a fancy linen suit with a Cuban cigar hanging from his lip beam over his prized jewel. And years later, when she and Cassius had been passing through the area and heard whispers of a supposedly abandoned mansion and the supposedly cursed gem that had supposedly done unspeakable things to its owner, Rhea couldn’t believe her luck.
The two of them had talked, of course, about getting out of the life, of settling down together somewhere and making for themselves a domestic little idyll, but the words were only ever exchanged between sheets. So Rhea had put together the whole plan herself and presented it to him all in one go, so that all he had to do was say yes. She’d had him sky-high on adrenaline at the mention of the largest garnet in the country, willing to say anything to make the heist happen. Yes, he’d help her paint their mailbox and yes, he’d love it if they got a dog and yes, he’d make an honest woman of her as soon as he could, just as long as he could get his hands on that rock.
Cassius was not much the convincing actor, but Rhea was every bit his captive audience.
Arriving back in town and actually casing the target had revealed a few holes in Rhea’s meticulous plot. For example, she’d had them climbing in through the second-floor window on the north side of the house, so as not to risk agitating a creaky staircase, but they were higher up than she’d recalled.
“How do you know it’s even on the second floor, anyway?” Cassius had asked as they were arguing over it.
“Because you used to be able to see it at night, through the window,” she’d responded, not for the first time that evening. “He never wanted anyone to forget the look of it, his success.”
“Some success he is now,” he’d muttered, growing bored of her vexation.
That first fight on the subject had been days ago now, though they’d continued to squabble over it in bursts, and these spats had culminated with Rhea insisting he measure her exactly so they might reach a conclusion. This was fine by Cassius, of course, since putting a matter to bed usually meant taking Rhea to bed, and today was no exception; what had started on the bathroom counter had continued into the shower and had ended in the motel’s moth-eaten sheets.
Rhea lay there in the dying afternoon light, arms wrapped around Cassius’s broad chest as it rose and fell with sleep. She was sick with desperation that he hold her, but his hands stayed tucked beneath his head, indifferent to her raucous yearning. Things would change soon, though, she thought to herself. He would change once everything else did.
The moon rose on the night of the heist, and as it approached its zenith, Rhea poured two shots of dark rum and passed one to Cassius. “To the end of the line,” she announced triumphantly, holding out her glass.
“To our biggest score yet,” Cassius amended, clinking his glass against hers. Both downed their drinks to chase their malcontent and wished there were time for another round.
The two were thieves by trade, of course, and they’d gone through every motion what felt like a thousand times over. Looking inconspicuous as they approached the house, scaling the fence, picking the lock—it all came easy, and Rhea was damn near bored with the song and dance, but the thrill for Cassius was unlike anything else. There could be no wrong moves, no misplaced steps, no breath taken out of turn. It was his passion, really, doing what he knew to be wrong, and his heart pounded as his nimble fingers played the lock pins for fools.
The house was the belle of the ball as far as Scarville went, but that wasn’t very far. White brick and black trim that looked stately under blue skies were almost ghostly in the silver starlight, but the thing that really chilled Rhea’s blood as she gazed up at it, waiting for the lock to crack, was, sure enough, that crimson glow pouring from that window, exactly as she remembered it. Even when Cassius got the lock figured and tugged her wrist to beckon her inside, she had a hard time tearing her gaze away from the light.
When she stepped over the threshold, she thought she’d looked so long at it that it’d glazed her vision scarlet, but when she rubbed her eyes and came away with the same view as before, she realized the whole inside of the house was awash in the glow of the garnet.
“The hell is going on in here?” Cassius muttered, balled fists rubbing ferociously at his eyes.
Rhea tried not to choke on her laugh as she nudged him with her elbow. “You expected to steal a spooky cursed gemstone from a house that looked perfectly normal? It’s a good thing you aren’t the brains on this one, babe.”
Cassius scowled at her quip and turned to find a way from the room they’d entered, the kitchen, to the stairs. Rhea knew she should be doing the same, but she squinted around, trying to find the source of the light. It seemed to evenly bathe the full kitchen, but—was it her imagination, or did it get stronger out in the hall? Yes, it did, and there it was, getting brighter again around the corner, smearing blood all over the crown molding, and there—
“Cash,” Rhea whispered over her shoulder, hoping he’d hear her. “Cash, the stairs—it’s coming from the stairs.”
He wasn’t far behind, and soon they were creeping up the winding spiral staircase, squinting against the light that was verging on blinding the further up they went. In fact, Rhea was sure the light must’ve been doing something to her eyes, because she could swear the railing was wrapped in veins of dark, throbbing stone, that the light bent, warped, reached for her and for Cassius.
As far as Cassius was concerned, all of this was shaping up to be the heist of his life. His heart hammered as he inhaled and smelled danger mingling with the smell of dust and old mothballs. He could barely feel his own body past the staticky sensation of adrenaline, and he certainly couldn’t feel it as his unnerved lover reached for his hand where it rested on the banister.
The stairs brought them to a hallway, right across from a door, and from the crack between it and the hardwood spilled all this horrible crimson light. Cassius was across the corridor in a stride, but Rhea clamped a hand around his wrist. “Cash—Cassius, this doesn’t feel right. Something’s not—”
“What, you’re gonna sprout a moral compass right here? Right now?” His face, awash in red light and anger, looked like the gargoyle on the roof of the Scarville Chapel. He tore her hand off his and slammed the door open, all thought of subtlety left at the foot of the stairs.
At first, the light was so blinding that Rhea couldn’t see what lay beyond the door, but as her eyes adjusted, she wished they hadn’t. She wished she were Oedipus, eyeless in her agony, for what she saw was too terrible to see.
This had been the fat, happy man’s room, once; that much was made apparent by the luxurious four-poster occupying much of the space. But the man was no longer fat, nor happy, and it appeared this was no longer his room, but the garnet’s.
Emaciated, his face locked in a cry of utter anguish, the man was held to his ruined mattress by the garnet, which stuck out from amongst his splintered ribs like crystalized viscera. It seemed to have grown roots that had slithered into him, following the paths set out by his veins, before bursting through his skin, through his palms and his eye sockets, his feet and his mouth. The roots had continued growing, snaking up the bed’s posters and down onto the floor, embedding themselves in the very foundations of the house. And with all the damned, hellish light, it was impossible to tell what was garnet and what was dried blood. But then, Rhea did not want to know.
She hadn’t realized she was weeping at the sight until Cassius took a step towards the bed and her voice cracked as she tried to yell his name. She swallowed and tried again, louder this time: “Cassius! Please! Please, no, it isn’t worth it!” She was screaming and begging and pleading and crying, praying to a god who clearly couldn’t be real that her love would turn around, scoop her up, and take her away from this nightmare she’d found herself in.
But he didn’t.
Rhea’s throat bled with the force of her scream as Cassius reached out and tried to grab the garnet. Tried and failed because it was the garnet which grabbed him. Sheer panic washed over her as scarlet light spilled out of her lover’s eyes and mouth and bathed the room, as it shredded his skin and seared his bones and lit him up like a neon vacancy sign. His name was on her lips, but it couldn’t fill his ears quite so well as the blood she saw leaking from them, trickling down his neck and pooling in the hollow of his throat.
She could barely see through her tears, but she saw as the roots of the garnet crawled up Cassius’s neck, and she could hear the sickening crack as they turned his head and locked what had been his eyes on her.
And it occurred to her that there was no saving him. There was only saving herself.
Christina Phillips has been fascinated with words since before she could read them. She is a proud hard of hearing woman and, as of the fall of 2022, is a junior studying English literature and creative writing at Texas Christian University. She’s previously been published in Neologism Poetry Journal.
Following the highly publicized disappearance of Elias Peshaman late last year, this unfinished manuscript was found among a small number of cloud files authorities reviewed for possible information related to his whereabouts.
It is a mouth radically different from other human mouths — infused with an eerie otherworldliness. The mouth attracts attention precisely because of its unsettling difference. It seizes the attention of others because, like a catastrophic car accident, we can’t look away. To some, this mouth is hyper-real and in its weird fleshiness, suggests an authenticity, the way a blood-rare steak suggests “real food.”
When at rest, the mouth often does not relax but returns to a puckered, circular kissing shape that suggests it is at once both open and closed, an orifice of both inbound and outbound potential. Let’s be honest, this mouth also has an anal quality to it and is always pantomiming an expulsion of waste. It is always conveying the ejection of impurity, mirroring his promises to eject things and people.
There is also the tongue. Disabled by the neuro-impairments that prevent its full control, the tongue throbs, bends and extrudes in ways that reinforce the expulsion conveyed by the lips.
In its totality, the shape of the mouth as an emblem of disgust and discharge is also connected to his frequent interest in what comes out of human bodies, especially the bodies of women. It enacts his revulsion at excretion, for example, or menstruation or breast feeding.
altogether ill at ease about what is happening with us
The water hyacinth (Eichhornia crassipes) is a large aquatic plant native to the Amazon basin. It is known chiefly for its ability to overwhelm the surface of bodies of water, pushing out native species and depleting its water ecosystem of oxygen, suffocating all fish, water creatures and other plants.
So too, all the things he is — liar, chiseler, malignant degenerate, traitor, deadbeat, daughterfucker wannabe, child rapist — may be viewed as precisely evolved for indifference to the question of what a “pond,” is actually for. The old blackhats (Ratched, Moriarty) are quaint by comparison.
His skin, like the fixtures around him, in the primitive way imaginable, conveys that he cannot escape how gold rushes in upon him, following him like a cloud of gold dust seeking the man who is both its source and its destination. He is Chrysos, Xipe Totec, Midas, Shen Wanshan, Goldfinger, communicating with every image not that “I’m like my people” but rather “I’m radically unlike my people or any people.”
But in its obvious artificiality there is more. With his skin, he is sending us a message deeper than, “I am a golden man.” The message also says, “I am wearing a me-shaped golden suit.” His skin invites you to imagine an inner creature, but simultaneously humiliates you for accepting the invitation.
To some, the skin is an alarm light alerting to a dangerous duplicity — the way the coloration of certain animals alerts other animals not to eat them. To others, the situation is more complex. Via its alchemy, broadly speaking, there can be a gratitude, even a love, engendered by the ways he affirms the fundamental duplicity, and the inevitability of the way things are.
The skin serves both as camouflage (allowing him to blend in with the other perceived liars — like certain poisonous toads blend in with a pile of leaves in the forest) and as a beacon calling attention to itself as camouflage (providing a basis of assurance and trust — as if he might be the one true leaf in a pile of poisonous toads).
read marcus aurelius of each particular thing ask what is it in itself what is its nature what does he do this man you seek
In totality, we know this as “The Uncanny Valley,” a term coined by Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori to describe the phenomenon by which robots become deeply disconcerting to us at the point where they come closest to mimicking human features.
The Uncanny Valley teaches us to think about how we are different (if we are) and how we are the same (if we are). Perhaps it teaches an instinctive revulsion at the not-quite-human — an instinct that may have prevented our early ancestors from breeding with apes. Though perhaps also (if not instead), it teaches us revulsion at ourselves, at what we are capable of. Perhaps it forces us to ask: When face to face with a monster masquerading as your companion, what do you do?
Mirroring the nausea created by our experience, his experience as a sociopath may be one of looking at us across his Uncanny Valley, where he is unable to see or feel the full humanity of any person — to distinguish emotionally between a chair, a car, a bucket, a fish or child. To operate across his Valley, he creates simulacra of human engagement to deal with people because he is unable to generate actual human responses.
Little by little as he deprives our pond of oxygen, he becomes less able to conceal the fact that when he looks at us, no matter who we are, he sees the same lifeless mask we see when we look at him, useful to him or useless, using our own shames and weaknesses and hatreds against us the way serial killer might use the skin of his victim to make a lampshade.
my god my god to be haunted by the end of everything we are and have created together it is like choking finally after all it will be like choking my god they are gouging his eyes with a flagpole i think
Here Peshaman’s manuscript ends, providing scant basis for development of a general synthesis. While pleased to share this important manuscript with specialist and lay audiences, overall, we urge caution in the extrapolation of broad-brush conclusions from what was clearly a work left unfinished and in disarray at the time of his disappearance.
Greg Sendi is a Chicago writer and former fiction editor at Chicago Review. His career has included broadcast and trade journalism as well as poetry and fiction. In the past year, his work has appeared or been accepted for publication in a number of literary magazines and online outlets, including Apricity, Beyond Words Literary Magazine, The Briar Cliff Review, Burningword Literary Journal, Clarion, CONSEQUENCE, Flashes of Brilliance, Great Lakes Review, The Headlight Review, The Masters Review, New American Legends, Plume, Pulp Literature, San Antonio Review, Sparks of Calliope, and upstreet.
“Nathan, where are we?” Julia asks, looking at a purple and orange dangling participle swaying from an unfocussed noun. They are standing at the base of the penultimate paragraph on page thirty-five. They had only recently met on page thirty.
Nathan looks worried. He knows where they are and wants out. “In a novel, I’m afraid.”
“What do you mean?”
“Do you not understand English?” Nathan isn’t normally this abrupt. But his nerves are frayed and he isn’t quite himself. This isn’t his first time, after all, and it seems to him as if he’s been trying to escape from one novel or another most of his thirty-two years.
“Do you always answer a question with a question?” Julia asks. Since moving from Keokuk to New York she has lost some of the wide-eyed affability that marked her early years. She learns quickly that affability is seen as a sign of weakness in Manhattan. Now, at twenty-eight and a five-year resident of the Big Apple, she isn’t taking crap from anyone.
“When appropriate,” Nathan says, but softly, with a smile, somehow glad Julia hasn’t shrunk from his smart-ass answer. He sits down on the last paragraph on the page. “We’re characters in a story.” He puts his elbows on his knees, with his hands covering his face. “Shit,” he adds, more to himself than to Julia. It has happened to him before. “There’s only one way out.”
“The author needs to cut us, edit us out.” As he says this, Nathan notices for the first time how attractive Julia is. She is tall, a couple of inches taller than he, an angular young woman with soft red hair and legs like the stems of spider lilies. He moves close to her, takes her hand. “Explicit sex might work,” he says.
Julia slaps his face. “Not funny, Nathan. We’re here in the middle of some god-forsaken novel and all you can think about is sex?”
“No, no,” he pleads. “I only meant it’s our ticket out of here. He’ll see that his story has taken a wrong turn and cut us.”
“What’s-his-name. The author.”
Julia looks at him hard. “You’re making this up to get in my pants, right?” she says. “Creep.”
Nathan pulls at his hair. “No. I’m telling you this is how we can get out of here. I know a guy? Last year I found myself in one of his short stories. Minor character. Tried everything to get out, but the only thing that worked was explicit, fiery, kinky sex. Trust me.”
“Right,” she says, moving to another paragraph. “I’d rather die.”
“Well, there is that.”
“Dying. It’s the other way of getting out of the story.” Nathan smiles at Julia. “A bit drastic, don’t you think?”
Julia has to admit to herself that she finds Nathan attractive. She was always drawn to swarthy men and Nathan is dark, with thick black, wavy hair, and he is muscular—another plus—if somewhat squat—a minus. His eyes sparkle and his nose moves up and down when he talks. He has a full beard, black, with specks of red. She wonders how it would feel to kiss a man with so much facial hair. “Couldn’t we just date for a couple of chapters and see how it goes?”
“Fine by me,” Nathan says, moving close to Julia’s paragraph. “Dinner tonight?”
“I’m busy tonight,” she says. “He’s got me singing in a bar. How about Friday?”
It’s an out-of-the-way French restaurant. Nathan notices the narrator and a woman named Jocelyn sitting at a table near the back of the room. As soon as the narrator notices Julia and Nathan, he and Jocelyn get up to leave. He nods briefly and solemnly to Nathan as he passes their table.
“Wasn’t that the narrator?” Julia asks after the couple had gone. “And Jocelyn, that whore?”
“Stuck up bastards,” Nathan says. “Forget them. Their scene’s over. Let’s you and me have a good time.”
They have a dry Beaujolais while waiting for their food. Julia finds Nathan charming and funny.
“I didn’t know you were funny,” she says.
“When I want to be.” After dinner Nathan suggests they go back to the first chapter.
“Why the first chapter?” Julia isn’t quite sure she can trust Nathan.
“Neither of us are in it: The author won’t expect to see us there. We won’t be noticed.”
“But no funny business,” Julia warns.
Once in the first chapter, Nathan starts to say he thinks the language there pedestrian, when there is a flash of light.
“What?” gasps Julia, grabbing Nathan’s arm.
“He’s highlighting the paragraph above us. Must be editing. Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea. I don’t want him to see us here. He’ll get suspicious.” Nathan takes Julia’s hand and guids her along the right margin up the page to the header. “We’ll be safe here.”
They watch as the author moves some words and deleted others. After a few minutes, Nathan says, “I think he’s through with this chapter. We can relax.”
Julia leans close to Nathan. “Do you really think the sex can work?”
“It’s worth a try,” he says, trying not to smile. They walk back to the fifth chapter arm in arm. He kisses her on the cheek. “Night,” he says.
“Good night, Nathan.”
Julia doesn’t hear from Nathan for several days and she begins to worry that without him she’ll never get out of the book. But suddenly, there he is sitting beside her.
“You scared me. Don’t you knock first?”
“Get real, Julia. We’re characters in this novel. We bounce around from chapter to chapter. Speaking of chapters, I’ve been to the end.”
“The end? Were you spotted?” She touches his shoulder.
“No, I was careful, but it’s not good news.”
“Tell me, I can take it.”
“We’re minor characters. There is no mention of us after chapter 8. And the plot is to barf for.”
“The bastard,” Julia says, referring to what’s-his-name, the author.
“Minor characters in a Podunk novel. Never thought it would happen to me.” He looks at Julia who is still in her pajamas. “All the more reason we have to get out while the getting is good.”
She notices the copular verb. “You mean sex, don’t you?”
“It’s your call, babe. Either we do it or we languish here: Stuck in a second-rate novel on remainder tables all over America.”
The hotel room is small but comfortable. Julia starts right in with an enthusiasm that surprises and thrills Nathan. After forty-five minutes, Nathan is spent and delightfully dizzy. But Julia wants more.
“This is sure to get cut,” Nathan thinks. “I hope I’m up to it.”
“Bet you’ve never seen this one,” she says, grabbing Nathan before he has a chance to protect himself. Two hours. Three. And finally, they lay there, sweating and exhausted. There are two more nights of this before the blinking cursor alerts them.
“This may be it,” Nathan says, rummaging through the night table for some ointment.
And then, as quickly as it had started, they are sliced from the story and set free.
Nathan finds himself on the C train headed toward Brooklyn, smiling. Julia wakes up—also smiling—in a dorm room at Ohio State. It is 1964 and they are strangers.
After college Julia settles in Chicago where she becomes a popular folk singer. Nathan drifts for a while, ending up working as a bar-back in a posh Gramercy Park tavern.
One summer a couple of years later, Julia gets a gig singing at the tavern where Nathan works. It is a busy night for him but he is able to catch a minute or two of Julia’s set. He feels a stirring. He can’t take his eyes off the young folk singer.
“Who’s the babe?” he asks the bartender.
“Julia somebody. Nice, huh?”
“There’s something familiar about her,” Nathan says. “Like I may have known her years ago. Ever get that feeling? You see someone you couldn’t have met before and yet you feel somehow you have? That you might even have been close friends?”
“No,” says the bartender. “Sounds like the plot of a story I once read. I can use more ice.”
After her set, Julia approaches Nathan. “Noticed you at the bar. Have we met?”
“Do you feel we have?” Nathan asks.
“Do you always answer a question with a question?”
“When appropriate,” Nathan says softly, with a smile.
Robert Sachs’ fiction has appeared in The Louisville Review, the Chicago Quarterly Review, the Free State Review, the Great Ape Journal, and the Delmarva Review among others. He holds an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from Spalding University. His story, “Vondelpark,” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2017. His story, Yo-Yo Man, was a Fiction Finalist in the 2019 Tiferet Writing Contest. His story, Old Times, was the Fiction Winner in the 2021 Tiferet Writing Contest. Read more at www.roberthsachs.com
One spring day, when blossoms first appeared on the cherry tree outside her open latticed window, Clarimonde gave birth to a beautiful baby girl. The aproned midwife gave the newborn a sharp slap on her rear, but the babe did not cry out; she chirped. Clarimonde laughed with delight and named her daughter Ava.
When Ava lay in her cradle, she cooed. When she crawled, she crooned. When she walked, she warbled. The melodies were wordless and mesmerizing.
When other children her age began to say “Mama,” Ava continued to sing. When other children began to say “More!” and “No!,” Ava sang some more. “Talk to me,” Clarimonde begged her daughter. Ava looked at her mother with round gray-blue eyes and changed her tune but did not speak.
Often, Ava’s singing was light and airy, like a piccolo. Other times, it was bright, like a fife. But on occasion the songs sounded to Clarimonde like the low, slow notes of a mournful cello.
With no words, Ava could not tell her mother when she was hungry or thirsty, when her tummy ached or her head burned with fever. She could not say when she was lonesome or sad. Clarimonde tried to guess at Ava’s needs, but was never certain she correctly divined the meaning of her daughter’s music.
Clarimonde tried not to worry. The physician reminded her that children matured at different rates. If Ava did not learn before, he said, she would surely learn in school.
In due course, Clarimonde walked Ava to the one-room schoolhouse and introduced her to the teacher. But when the falling leaves were replaced by falling snow, the schoolmarm sent home a letter. Try as she might, the mistress wrote, she could not induce Ava to recite her tables or read from her primer like the other children. Ava would be allowed to sit in the back row, she continued, whilst the rest of the class did their lessons. If she could not help herself, she could hum quietly from her seat. But the mistress could not promise that Ava would be learning.
The other girls in town completed their after-school chores and then played outside until supper, coasting down hills on their sleighs, skipping rope, or tagging each other with a ball, all the while chattering or chanting rhymes or calling out “Red Rover, Red Rover.” But Ava did not join in their play. In fair weather, she climbed the cherry tree in front of the house and looked down at the other girls. Otherwise, she sat on the window seat, folded her long legs under her, and crooned to her rag doll or organized her growing collection of feathers.
Clarimonde was not sure if Ava’s songs were a bounty or a curse, an aperture or a cage. The music was soulful, often heavenly. But without words, how would Ava learn? How would she make friends with other young ladies? How would she be able to find work as a shopkeeper or a seamstress, or wed and have children of her own?
The following Monday Clarimonde brought Ava back to the physician. He clapped his hands behind her head, observed her startle, and looked in her mouth and throat as she sang. “Your daughter’s hearing and throat are fine,” he said. “And she already makes the ‘ah’ sound when she sings. For the next fourteen days and fourteen nights, give her a cup of hot tea every morning with breakfast and a cup of hot mead every evening with supper. Have her breathe in the steam for ten minutes and then drink it up, every drop. When her throat is warm and wet, have her watch you and feel your mouth and throat as you form the sound of a single consonant: say, the letter B. Form her own lips into the proper shape. In a fortnight’s time, she will be able to make a B sound. You may then proceed to the next consonant.”
For the next fourteen days and fourteen nights, Clarimonde followed the doctor’s instructions to the letter. She was fortunate to have a dutiful child who did what she was asked. Ava drank the tea and the mead her mother served her each morning and evening, down to the last drop. She let her hand rest against her mother’s lips as Clarimonde said “Bah” and “Bah” again. She let Clarimonde her mother gently pinch and release Ava’s lips into the same shape. “Say ‘Bah’ for me,” Clarimonde said. “Bah. Bah. Bah. Can you say ‘Bah’?
Ava remained quiet.
On the last evening, Clarimonde repeated the ritual one more time. Then she looked into her daughter’s eyes.
“The fortnight is over, my dear,” she said. “Will you say ‘Bah’ for me? Please?”
Ava trilled in reply.
The next day was windy. Clarimonde bundled Ava up in her favorite fluffy coat and walked her to the apothecary on the main street. The woman behind the counter looked in Ava’s mouth and clicked her tongue. “Hot beverages and mouth exercises are insufficient for a problem this serious,” she said. “The girl’s throat is clearly diseased.” She handed Clarimonde an amber bottle of patent medicine. “For the next thirty nights,” she said, “you must give your daughter a spoon of this cough syrup at bedtime. In one month’s time, she will be cured.”
That night and for the next twenty-nine nights, Ava swallowed the tonic that Clarimonde spooned into her mouth. Afterwards, she slept long and deep. During the day, she woke slowly. She ate and drank silently, as if in a stupor. Then she returned to bed, pulled the quilt over her shoulders, and fell back into a peaceful slumber. Clarimonde chattered to herself to fill the sadly soundless house.
On the thirty-first morning, when the grandfather clock struck nine, Clarimonde tiptoed to Ava’s bed. She surveyed her daughter’s face from the top of her soft head to the ends of her narrow nose and chin. Finally, she gently kissed her brow. “Good morning, my sweet,” she whispered as Ava opened her eyes.
Ava trilled once again.
Clarimonde’s heart filled with both love and sorrow.
Finally, in desperation, Clarimonde called upon the surgeon. Like the physician and the apothecary, he inspected Ava’s mouth and throat. Afterwards, however, he instructed Ava to remove her apron and open the rear buttons at the top of her frock.
Gently, the surgeon let the bodice of Ava’s sky-blue frock drop from her shoulders. He pushed her feathery hair forward, off the back of her neck. With a magnifying glass, he inspected her shoulders and upper back.
“You are certain you want your daughter to speak?” he asked Clarimonde.
Clarimonde was puzzled. “Naturally,” she said.
The surgeon nodded soberly. He removed from his black bag a pair of tweezers with intricately carved handles of exotic wood. From the crest of Ava’s right shoulder blade, he plucked out something that Clarimonde could not see. He blew it away. He did the same with Ava’s left shoulder. Clarimonde saw Ava flinch, as if she’d just been bitten by a flea. Two tiny dots of blood shone brightly against her ivory skin. The surgeon placed a small bandage on each.
Clarimonde heard a soft whoosh depart her daughter’s mouth. She felt the air stir. She saw the curtains blow outward, toward the garden just outside.
“You may dress now,” the surgeon instructed Ava. She pulled her frock over her bandaged scapulae and shoulders and refastened the buttons. She hung her apron around her neck and tied the strings with a bow.
Clarimonde could barely breathe as she inspected her daughter’s face. “Hello, my dearest one,” she whispered. Her hand trembled as she reached to stroke Ava’s cheek.
“Hello, Mother,” replied Ava, in a voice that sounded halting and hoarse. She took
Clarimonde’s hand in hers and brought it to her lips.
Clarimonde’s eyes filled. Sobbing, she embraced her daughter. The girl’s frock grew wet with her mother’s tears.
That evening, Ava did not sing. But she told her mother she was hungry and asked for boiled potatoes. She said she was thirsty and requested ginger ale. As she continued to speak, her voice lost its raspiness; it sounded like the voices of the other girls. For the first time in as long as she could remember, Clarimonde smiled as she prepared her daughter’s supper.
Clarimonde walked Ava back to the schoolhouse the next morning with a lightened step. That afternoon, when she returned home, Ava told her mother that she had recited her tables and read aloud from her primer. Clarimonde gave her a big hug and a small mince pie. “Go play,” she said. “You have worked hard, and the day is too beautiful for chores.”
Clarimonde peered out her open window. The cherry tree was beginning to bud once more. She watched Ava venture beyond it to the very end of the lane and walk up to the cluster of other girls. She heard Ava join in their laughter. She heard her call out “Red Rover, Red Rover” and chant rhymes as she turned the skipping rope.
Clarimonde hummed a happy tune.
It was a late spring day and the birds were singing when Clarimonde noticed that something was not right. Ava spoke less, and the words were becoming harder for Clarimonde to hear. Her cheeks were pale and her body thin; her head hung from her frail frame. In the middle of supper, she pushed away her plate and limped off to the bedroom.
Clarimonde felt her own supper rise in her throat. “My heart,” she said as she tucked her now-ashen daughter in bed; “whatever is wrong with you?” She felt Ava’s forehead with the back of her hand, but detected no fever.
“I—“ Ava whispered. But Clarimonde could not make out what she said next.
“Once again?” Clarimonde requested. “Please?” She leaned down and placed her ear just over Ava’s mouth. She could see, outside the window, the ground littered with the pink blossoms of the cherry tree.
“Mother, I—” Ava croaked. She let out a long sigh like the last air coming out of a rubber balloon. A single tear rolled down her cheek. “I miss my song.”
Since her retirement from law, New Yorker Dvora Wolff Rabino has published short fiction and personal essays in numerous journals, been nominated for a “Best of the Net” anthology and a Pushcart Prize, and received the Inscape Editors’ Choice award. She is currently working on a novel. For more info and to connect, please visit dvorawolffrabinoauthor.com or https://www.facebook.com/people/100070445074307/.
I discovered chocolate, my lifelong love and drug of choice, as a five-year-old with my best friend, Tilty. We’d descend into our gloomy basement, past its old furnace groaning like a minotaur, into a little room with a 15-watt bulb hanging from the ceiling, armed only with a single spoon. You had to find the switch, which was a sub-game full of drama as we screeched in delighted terror. Once the light was on, the prize, the giant white chest freezer, gleamed its welcome. Gilgamesh, deep diving for the prized watercress, could not have felt more triumph. We struggled to open the heavy lid, and there, among the bricks of frozen hamburger and bags of spinach, was a five- gallon tub of chocolate ice cream.
One of us would suspend, upside down, into the freezer’s tundra, chip out a stingy spoonful of ice cream shavings, and pass it back. We were assiduous in our turn-taking—the next went to the digger. Back and forth, until the digger got too cold and we switched places.
We reveled as much in our bravery as our reward. We could do anything.
Finished, we’d go up to the kitchen, wash our spoon and rinse our faces before repairing to my bedroom to continue our Barbie play. We’d fashion minute bras and sanitary napkin belts for them, which they’d sport under their cute poodle skirts, their faces giving nothing away. Aren’t most children’s games about what we fear? War. Monsters. Doctor. Puberty. We needed that chocolate.
Now I support myself by telling people what to eat. I counsel people whose only fun, only comfort or entertainment is scarfing the poisons that will eventually kill them. There’s a fine line between anodyne and poison.
On the May morning that Darling Morrissette sashayed into my office, all 275 pounds of her, she’d poured her hourglass figure into a sequined dress whose color shimmered between brown and purple, setting off her wine-colored, smoke-shadowed eyes.
Southern Vermont has never been a fashion capital. You cannot buy pumps in my town of 12,000. People wear work boots to weddings. My clients’ attire is upcountry sackcloth. Women shuffle in, wearing their brothers’ stained flannel shirts and drooping sweats, eyes downcast, braced for a scolding.
But Darling was unrepentant, radiant with fury. She’d been diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes; her blood glucose readings were catastrophic.
She actually smiled. “Well, here I am.”
I launched into my spiel, Baby Steps to Better Health, about gradually adjusting one’s diet to contain more fiber, more vegetables, more protein.
“And I cut out sugar, spice, and everything nice?” she interrupted.
“Pretty much,” I admitted.
“What do I do with my malted chocolate cake recipe? It’s my piece de resistance.”
“You can have birthday cake.”
She lifted an elegant eyebrow. “That’s good, because my friends have lots of birthdays.”
“Call me Dar. People hear you being called Darling, and they draw the wrong conclusions. They meant well, my folks, but Jesus: Darling? You need armor.”
“Boundaries,” I agreed, creeping up on one of my favorite fat topics.
I got a skeptical look. “Do any of those initials after your name mean that you’re a shrink?”
“No, I’m a diet counselor, but I used to weigh over 200.”
“I have a few thoughts,” I tried again.
She laughed. “I can see you’re itching to tell me.”
“Why do you think you have a weight problem?”
“Um…I eat too much? I get the math, Honey. I can call you Honey if you’re calling me Darling, right?”
“Do you think you might be a sugar addict?”
She shrugged. “Sure.”
Information is not power. What power have I over the siren song of a Zero bar? That very week I’d read a study that said there was no data proving that nutritionists have actually helped people lose weight.
I confined the rest of my remarks to practicalities, showing her how to read nutrition labels, subtracting grams of fiber from carb counts. I gave her a little notebook to record her readings in, told her to get her test strips at Walmart, one tenth the price of those at the drugstore downtown. We set up another meeting two weeks hence. And with all my heart, I wished her well.
That evening, I went out with my fellow helping professionals. Jake’s, our local dive, offers free popcorn at Happy Hour. We claimed a booth decorated with framed photos of sport fishing trips. Clearly Jake was a menace to every sea creature larger than krill.
Headquarters had just issued an edict that we were to be graded on the performance of our wayward charges, prompting much mirthless laughter and drowning of sorrows. We were only temporarily united: too different and competitive to be friends. But I stayed and laughed at the unfunny jokes, nodded vigorously in feigned agreement while sucking down three beers and enough popcorn to fill a rowboat. Finally, I abandoned the un-popped spinsters and went home, my stomach feeling inflated, as if by a bicycle pump.
Darling’s next appointment was on a Tuesday. This time she arrived in a hot pink tunic, covered with dangly beds, obviously meant for shimmying. I stared at her open mouthed. If she could wear clothes like these, what did she need me for? So what if she wore a size 22? No one looking at her would think about numbers.
But of course it is the numbers. We live by actuarial charts. Your blood is not supposed to be half sugar, but looking at Darling, it was easy to forget why.
Her blood glucose reading had actually come down some and I congratulated her. She waved my praise away.
“This is just dress-up,” she said. “Can I smoke?”
“Officially, no, but yeah, sure.” I opened a window and pulled out the ashtray hidden in my third drawer, hoping for a secondhand whiff.
“My husband and his sister, who lives with us—I don’t know why, so don’t ask—have just put a down payment on a $100,000 Road Master RV. Together we have five kids, our twin teenaged girls, and our ten-year-old son—he still talks to me. Rachelle has two little girls, four and five.”
“I didn’t have a vote, because I don’t work.”
“You’re a stay-at-home mom, right?” I interrupted, consulting her paperwork. “You cook, clean, shop, do laundry, organize school trips, oversee house maintenance … you run the show!”
“Not the way they see it.”
“What would you like to say to them?” It was too obvious to ignore.
“They overwhelm me.” She looked down at her lap.
“How about singly?”
“That’s the thing. It’s like I’m never alone with Kevin. She sleeps in the room next to ours but the walls are like paper. I can hear her fart at night.”
Even as I laughed, my own throat tightened. I wanted to ask if Kevin is married to her or to his sister. But I couldn’t say that.
I had to say, “Here is the food pyramid. You’ll notice that it is mostly grains.”
She scanned it. “Nine servings? You mean I can eat a whole box of Wheat Thins and still be on the diet?”
We looked at each other. “Maybe you should go to a marriage counselor.”
“I need a doctor’s referral. Mine doesn’t believe in them. I doubt I could get Kevin through the door without a rag soaked in chloroform. Anyway, I get one side dish on my plan and it’s you.”
“What do you like to do?”
I glanced at the poster above my desk: Eating is Not a Hobby.
She blew smoke out the window. When she turned back to me, her eyes were brimming. “Lookit, my fifteen-year-olds use me as a backboard to push against. I won’t say they hate my guts, but they’re trying to grow up and they act that way. Naturally, they think my sister-in-law walks on water. Okay. But there’s not much time or space for ‘what I like to do’.” The last phrase was accompanied by air quotes.
“Right.” The frustration inched its way up my throat. “The thing is, Dar, you’re on a collision course. Five more years of this and you could be looking at dialysis.”
“Yeah, I’ve heard that before, the working class, bad-ass-I-can-take-any-punishment-forever bravado. I watched my dad die of it.”
You are not supposed to scold clients. Where were my damn boundaries?
“So, you take mini-vacations with sugar.” I continued. “I’ve done that. You’re sad so you bake a hummingbird cake. Something creative, pretty, homey. Who would argue with that? ‘Bake someone happy,’” I sang the last bit out of tune enough to make her smile. “Sugar works that way. But a slice of hummingbird cake weighs in at 90 net carbs, all by itself. That’s a whole day’s allotment if you’re trying to lose weight.”
Dar’s voice was so small I could barely hear it. “There’s no room for me in my life.” We sat there. What could I say? But that’s never stopped me before.
“Do you know about the study in which overweight people were divided into two groups? One was assigned to a nutritionist and a trainer, with a gym membership, and the other got an organizer and a secretary. The latter group lost more weight.”
“Well! What are we waiting for?” She looked around my office. “So—you’re a packrat, huh?”
I laughed. “Actually, yes. And I eat M&MS regularly, so I’m am probably an addict and certainly a hypocrite.” I opened my desk drawer, pulled out the Sharing Size bag of almond M&Ms, offered it to her, and took some myself.
“So you’re telling me I could do your job,” she concluded through the candy rubble in her mouth.
I didn’t tell her she’d have to drop a hundred pounds first. There’s always a catch.
A week later, I was to meet up with Tilty, her new husband in tow. I’m not sure what I was expecting from the evening … to be set free from adulthood for a couple hours? To retrace my steps and start another path?
We’d managed to lose touch for the better part of five years. The last time I’d seen her was in Boston. She was looking at an art therapy program at Lesley, and I was at BU doing what I’ve come to see as my Nutrition Slog.
Anyway, we laughed our way through two bathtubs of delicious pho in what used to be the Combat Zone. The server liked us so much, she brought us Vietnamese coffees—milkshakes basically—on the house.
“Americans no laugh,” she told us. “You must be Canadian!”
We found this hilarious.
Then, I missed her wedding. Maybe she sent the invite to an old address. Her mother was probably relieved. She didn’t want the only wedding she’d get to plan wrecked by a tipsy bridesmaid in faux reindeer antlers.
When I got to the restaurant, they were already there. The husband, Roger, was abrasively ugly; his butch haircut resembling grey Astroturf. He wore a powder blue plaid three-piece suit, and a paisley tie with matching pocket square. My first reaction, as he crushed my hand, was, Are you kidding? I looked over his shoulder for the real Adonis Tilty should have chosen. A composed public smile stretched across her face like a girdle cinching in my old friend. I began to suspect that the evening would be anything but a glorious recap of good times.
Right away Roger started a fuss over the wine list, the kind of adult pretension we would have mimicked as girls with pants-wetting laughter.
I kept darting looks at Tilty, trying to find the avid comrade who’d gotten me through high school. She was thicker, dressed with drab modesty. Her hair had darkened and was pulled back into a bun. She’d become the dutiful brown female cardinal to his ostentatious male. I wondered if they were members of some sort of cult in which the women wear prairie dresses and do all the work, and the men bed twelve-year olds while pontificating about God.
My date for the evening was my on-again-off-again boyfriend, Clayton, a stoic carpenter behind a full beard whom I’d bribed—with a blackberry pie, come the season—to join me. He smelled like clean wood, didn’t talk much, but could floor me with his wit. That night, when I did look in his direction, which wasn’t often, since I was pretty sure he was enjoying this even less than I, he seemed to be burrowing into his beard.
I cut to the chase. “So, tell me,” I asked Roger, “what do you do?”
He taught American history at a Boston junior college notorious for its parties. Most of his time was spent trying to explain plagiarism to his students. Who in turn explained to him that they were busy people and had paid good money for papers, so those papers belonged to them to use as they saw fit.
“Yikes,” was all I could say, thinking that perhaps being a dietician to non-compliant patients was the better deal.
“Are they curious about history?” I asked.
“Nope.” He and Tilty chuckled.
“Let me show you some card tricks,” he ventured, pulling out a pack.
He fluttered the deck around like a pro, had me pull out a card. Then, without looking at
it, he put it on top of his head, and smacked it, hard. A ping-pong ball jettisoned out of his mouth, bouncing spittily across the table into my lap.
Tilty gave the same girdled laugh she’d been hiding behind all night.
“What a card you are!” she exclaimed.
Bewildered, I retrieved the ping pong ball, wiped it with my napkin and wedged it between the vase of faux carnations and the votive candle beside it. I wanted to put it on top of Roger’s head and tee off. Instead, I turned to Tilty. “You’re an art therapist now, right?”
Roger cut in. “Matilda bakes her own bread. She’s such a homebody.”
Tilty smiled, without discernable irony.
Our dinners arrived. Roger’s was particularly gruesome: his Salisbury Steak was a brown island in a sea of polluted gravy. I made a mental note that if I ever wanted to try aversion therapy with my clients, this would be the place to come.
“You still like baking? Do you remember making jelly rolls every day after school?”
“Oh yes!” Her teeth were clenched in a rictus smile.
“Remember when we baked the jelly right into it? Save some boring waiting around?”
Ha, ha, ha.
“And the jelly sort of exploded out, dripping onto the bottom of the oven and catching fire?” I couldn’t stop. “And then we threw in not only water, but the plastic cups, too? Screaming our heads off?
“From then on, my father referred to Tilty as ‘The Torch,’” I explained to Roger.
He cleared his throat, straight-faced. “Matilda needed reining in. She ran wild as a girl.”
You don’t begin to understand her, I wanted to say.
“Have a biscuit.” Clay proffered the basket. “Sop up some of that gravy.”
Roger did, dripping onto his tie. Exasperated, he snapped his fingers for the server. “Club soda,” he barked.
The next few minutes were taken up with Roger’s spots. I kept peering at Tilty, hoping for a complicit smirk. But she was too busy sponging Roger.
“How did this happen?” I wailed when we finally escaped. I’d regaled Clay with enough Tilty stories that he could appreciate the contrast. “She’s really gone!”
Clay nodded. “That was a pretty good trick, though. Maybe she likes magic.”
“She was magic. And now she’s a nursemaid to that…boor.”
Clay rubbed my back as I sank into mournful silence. Our night together was sweet, if no real consolation.
I saw my life as a mobius strip of trapped confusion. If my work life hadn’t been such a dead end, I wouldn’t be so desperate to find the old Tilty. If the night hadn’t been such a disappointment, perhaps I wouldn’t be bent on blowing my career sky-high.
At Darling’s next appointment, she reported her weight had gone up. She’d learned how to make fondant, which she rolled out and draped over cakes, then consumed. She didn’t report this with her usual bravado. In fact, her whole demeanor has taken on a defeated dowdiness. Had Roger somehow gotten hold of her, too? Gone were the garments blazing with sequins, replaced by slacks and a grey boucle top covered with pills.
“How are you doing, besides the scale?”
She lifted and dropped one shoulder in a half-hearted shrug. “My house is a pit. I can’t even think.” She noticed my glance at her top. “My girls say I should dress my age.”
“Tell them to mind their own beeswax!” I snapped.
She cracked a smile. “What do you think I should do?”
“Find a place that is just for you. Clean their junk out of it and claim it. Then do something you enjoy there.”
She looked interested.
“I’ll come help.” This was a definite no-no. Do not fraternize with clients. They have enough problems maintaining boundaries. But I was in deep and determined.
“You can tell your family I am a friend, or your sponsor from a twelve-step group. That should scare them. Or you could say I’m a personal organizer working gratis to get my certification.” I was surprised at how easily the lies came. “What do you think? Is it a deal?”
I showed up at her house, a modest cape whose lawn could comprise a museum of plastic toys: life-seized doll houses, ride-in plastic cars, lawn mowers that blew bubbles out their play exhaust pipes. Someone was having fun, but it wasn’t Dar.
I rang the bell as I surveyed the flat of withering pansies left beside the stoop. With effort I turned back to the door. I longed to water them, tuck them into the balding dirt beside the stairs: Choose your battles I reminded myself.
The little house rocked with a stampede of small, hard feet. The door was yanked open by two little girls, their faces smeared with something jam-like. They stood their ground, mouths agape, taking in this Unidentified Invading Grownup.
“Anty! Some wady is at da door! She’s dot a big suitcase!” cried the older, gap-toothed one.
Well, of course it wasn’t a suitcase. It was just a shoulder bag, with extra trash bags, markers and labels.
We stood there. “ANTY! She’s still here!”
“Oh, for Christ’s sake. Who is it?” Dar’s voice came from the back of the house. The older girl glared at me.
“I’m a friend of your auntie’s,” I announced as winningly as I could.
“No, you’re not! I don’t even know your name.”
At last Dar was at the door. “Sorry about that,” she muttered, ushering me in.
“No problem,” I replied, adding under my breath, “They’d make great bouncers.”
“They’re cute,” I added weakly.
“No, they’re not. They’re my nieces.”
The living room had seen better days. Uneven Austrian shades in maroon slanted across the picture window, as though the house was a sinking boat, going under. Half-eaten plates of food were scattered around. Burritos seemed to have been on the menu, along with several mini-cereal boxes opened and used as bowls, probably leaking milk. A sleeve of saltines was half crushed into the sofa cushions. Shoes, magazines, toys and a 30-nch flat screen completed the picture. The lighting was grey; the scene reeked of depression.
“Go play, girls.” This was directed at the tots, still dumbstruck by my presence.
“You wanna see my mommy? She’s getting donuts.”
“No, I’m here to see your auntie.”
“I’m helping her clean up.”
“It’s such a mess!” the younger girl crowed, flinging her arms wide, twirling.
I leaned down with feigned benevolence. “Are you going to help clean up like big girls?”
“Nope. It ain’t my house and I ain’t big yet.”
“Is any of it your mess?” I persisted, mistaking it for a teaching moment.
Losing interest, she fell upon her doll, an American Girl brand. She yanked off its expensive clothes.
“Take it into your room, Tiffany. We’re cleaning up,” Dar ordered.
Tiffany sighed, dragging the doll by the foot into the back of the house.
“So! Five kids and three adults here?” I asked.
“Yep. My sister-in-law is ‘job hunting’, which is shorthand for sitting in her friends’ cars, drinking coffee and bitching. She has a degree, so presumably she’s got better job prospects.”
“Okay. Where should we start?” I pushed up my sleeves. “What bugs you the most?”
Dar flopped onto the couch, groaning, her arm over her eyes.
“Right. The living room. I’ll get the dishes. Is there a receptacle for all these toys?” I picked up a Barbie shoe and flicked it, arcing, across the mess. I got the laugh I wanted.
“I love the sound of vacuuming those little suckers up,” she said, heaving herself off the sofa.
I brought the dishes to the sink and soaked them in hot soapy water, then picked up toys so Dar could get at the rug. “Where’s the little girls’ room?
“Upstairs, second on the right.”
The kids’ room was a disaster, but I needed the crate, so I just dumped the stuff on the floor. The girls ignored me, engaged in furious play, jamming dolls and stuffed animals into Barbie’s hot pink sportscar. The sight made my heart leap.
“Cool,” I cried. “You have Barbie’s convertible.”
“Santa was outta campers,” Tiffany replied, not looking up.
I closed the door and briefly considered nailing boards over it. Not an appropriate sentiment. But I was expert at refusing to consider what the hell I was up to, and what would happen when (not if) I was found out.
On the way downstairs I peeked into the other rooms, scouting a suitable space for Dar. The master bedroom had a pile of laundry on the bed that you could repel down. A second room clearly belonged to the teens. The single bed on the far side of the room must have belonged to Dar’s son. The beds were all made, though, and two clothing racks on wheels held their wardrobes in fighting trim.
I stopped for a moment. The clothing made me think of the afternoon Tilty and I went over to Sunny Jerard’s house for a clothes swap, junior year. We dragged garbage bags full of outfits we no longer wore up two flights to the large attic bedroom Sunny had inherited from her college-bound sister. It had two arched windows, an asparagus fern flanked by Art Deco posters. A rose-colored scarf draped over a lamp shade.
Charlene La Fontaine, the black-haired, grey-eyed beauty, was there with two bags, since she’d helped herself to her older sister Donna’s cast-offs as well.
Right off the bat, Sunny tried on a pink flowered sundress from Charlene’s pile, turning in front of the full-length mirror she’d leaned against the wall. “Will Donna kill me if she sees me in this?”
“No way. She makes a dress a week for the Rec Dance. She loses interest fast.” Charlene sat on a trunk, lit a cigarette and exhaled out the open window into the newly unfurled maple leaves, Tilty snagged a teal sweater that Charlene had worn skin tight. Tilty swiveled in front of the mirror, appreciating her newly revealed curves.
“Charlie, why are you getting rid of this?” I held up a pink suede jacket with fringe.
“I’m tired of it,” she shrugged.
“But you look so cute in it,” I protested.
“Cute is overrated.” She stamped her cigarette out in a tuna can ashtray, got up and pulled on a pair of Sunny’s dad’s army fatigues, adding a studded belt.
I slid into the jacket and even though I was on the larger end of a size ten, it fit. “Are you sure?” I asked, not believing my luck.
“Go for it.” She extracted a boxy black sweater I had on permanent loan from my brother. Slipping into it, she became a gorgeous Ninja.
“You look better in it than Tommy ever did.” She met our envious stares with weary defiance: “I’m tired of being treated like a piece of meat.”
I filed that under Unexplained Mysteries and gloated over my haul.
When I wore the jacket to school the following Monday, I got razzed. “Why are you wearing Charlie’s jacket? Are you twins now? You wish.”
To my surprise, Charlene stepped in. “We traded. What’s it to you?”
My interlocuters slunk off. Charlene never talked to me again. I kept that jacket all through college, but rarely dared to wear it.
The last bedroom was an oasis, containing two armchairs, and another flatscreen. Dar opened the door behind me.
“Whose room…?” But I already knew.
Darling did her now familiar shoulder lift and dispirited drop, ashamed. The air hung between us like a mildewed curtain.
“She chips in on the mortgage,” she explained. “When Kevin got laid off, she made it possible for us to stay here.”
I tried shaking off the complicated sense of doom that was settling into my shoulders.
“Let’s get out of here,” I urged. “I’m looking for some space we could clear for you. For a desk, a lamp, whatever. Your space to dream.”
The idea is to try to get people to imagine something different for themselves. I ask questions like, Can you picture yourself without the extra weight? What would your life be like? My clients get a faraway look that often ends in tears.
At the end of the hall was an alcove, filled with suitcases, a lampshade, more toys. And miraculously, an outlet.
“This is it! Whose stuff is this?”
“Into the garage with it!”
A smile dawned on Darling’s face.
I hauled and toted for twenty minutes, at first lugging suitcases, then scrounging for boxes to contain the loose stuff. Dar made a neat pile in a corner of the garage, chuckling. “She’s gonna be so pissed!”
On my fourth trip to the garage, she stood contemplating me, her head cocked. “You know what? I don’t even know your first name!”
“Oh,” I sighed. “Germaine.”
“Holy shit. I thought Darling was bad. Did they call you Germy?”
“Jammy. My second grade teacher called me ‘German’ for a whole year.
“Yavol, mein Furer!”
“Funny. Nobody obeys me. How about that little table for your space?” I asked, eyeing the perfect piece.
“Okay.” Dar returned to her stacking, as I maneuvered the table inside to the alcove. The lamp I found didn’t work, but I suspected the bulb, so went out to the garage for a spare.
“How did you come to be a dietician?” she asked, still bent over boxes.
I was not ready for this, and hesitated. “Interest, I guess. I was fat, and lost weight. It seemed like there was a lot of knowledge out there that would help people.”
“Is part of your program cleaning up?”
“Not officially. But having breathing space might be part of it.”
“So, this is an experiment. Wanna take a break? I can make some fresh coffee.” She headed into the kitchen without waiting for my answer, so I followed her.
I perused the space. It was the most orderly part of the house, the walls white with bright red trim on the cabinets. Tall jars of flours and grains sparkled on the counter. In the corner sat a domed cake stand, gleaming and empty.
Dar made the coffee and withdrew a large orange cake from the fridge. At first I thought someone had laid a freshly picked bouquet across the top, the way you’d put a bunch of flowers on the counter while looking for the right vase. But these flowers were made of different colors of buttercream and fondant: irises, roses, lilies–the stems carefully piped and the veined leaves realistic.
“My God—you made this?”
“Yup.” She put it on the cake stand and brought it to the table. She ran a knife under hot water and cut two enormous slices, putting them on flowered dessert plates.
“This isn’t good for you,” I faltered.
“Do you ever stop being a cop, German? Sit down. Tell me what you think.” She pushed the plate toward me.
“You are so talented. This is gorgeous. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
“Isn’t it? I’ve won contests.” She nodded toward the blue and gold ribbons hanging from the valence, their tails stirring in the gentle summer breeze.
I cleared my throat. “So how are your numbers?”
She grinned. “Still there. I don’t put sugar in my coffee anymore.”
I wanted to broach recklessness, death wishes, other options, but she was enjoying teasing me, a defiant gleam in her eye.
“I’m not very hungry,” hell—what am I going to do?
“What the fuck does hunger have to do with it? I haven’t been hungry in years.”
The edge in her voice closed my throat.
“Worried about bikini season?” she needled, taking another large forkful.
“Your health, Dar. This is serious.”
“You just want everyone under your thumb, German. Then you’ll watch the progress of the disease, lamenting my lack of will power. You’ll collect your data and write a bestselling book and be featured on Dr. Oz.”
“Not even close. I want you to be healthy so we can be friends,” I blurted, shocking myself.
She didn’t miss a beat. “You really wanna be my little friend? Then taste it.”
“That’s the truth!” I cried.
“No. I’m your experiment.” She shook her head in disgust, drew her fork into her slice and put the morsel into her mouth, closing her eyes, leaning back, not even chewing, but humming. A long moment passed as I watched her, paralyzed.
She sat forward, drilled me with a look. “Balzac died at 51. If he’d lived on tofu and herb tea, he’d probably have lived longer.” Her gaze was molten. “Whatever. I’m not claiming to be some big-ass genius like him, but it’s my life, German. My body. I’m not your petri dish. Party’s over. Get out of my house.”
I pushed the plate away and got up without looking at her. I grabbed my bag and sweater and clicked the door closed behind me.
Outside, I sat in my car, shaking.
I wasn’t surprised when she blew off her next two appointments. The first was accompanied by a breathy message on my office machine, going on about some mysterious, exciting opportunity—far more thrilling than any carb-counting trudge I could offer. The second one, she just skipped.
I tried, off and on, to find a silver lining. We did get her house cleaned, though it would get undone in the course of a weekend. Maybe she would claim and use her space. And this one’s a biggie: I was not found out. Audrey was actually nice about Dar’s mutiny. “She wasn’t ready. Don’t take it personally.”
Over the next month I gave up chocolate, then backslid, gave it up again. When I found out thirdhand that Tilty and Roger had moved to Missouri, where he’d taken a position at a military high school, I had to cop to how dreary my life was.
Clothes are aspirational, are they not? But putting on skinny jeans does not make you skinny. On fat people, they are just tight.
Nevertheless, I aspired. I dug out the pink suede jacket. And though it was a little loose and smelled gamey, I wore it to work, as the chorus of naysayers in my head announced that only floozies wear fringe. I silenced them with the Jackson Five.
When I arrived at my office, there was a package on the floor outside my door: a brown paper bag tied with a hot pink ribbon.
I reasoned that it was too soft to be a bomb, but my heart thudded as I opened it. It was the spangly sequined top. I didn’t mistake it for an invitation, but perhaps it was a kind of apology. I doubt I’ll ever wear it, but I might frame it.
Stephanie Greene has had short fiction published in Nostoc Magazine, Green Mountains Review, The New Guard, Flash Fiction Magazine and Sky Island Journal. Her work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and for Best of The Net. She is an organizer of the Brattleboro Literary Festival, and lives in southern Vermont.
“A rose is a rose is a rose.” In this paper, we explore the intricacies of this oft-quoted statement by Gertrude Stein through a discursive textual analysis, of each word in serie, in an attempt to definitize the meaning of each, while realizing its connectivity to metaethics. Having set the paradigmatic table, as it were, we begin.
A: In American education, A refers to the top grade in an ABCDE or ABCDF grading rubric. In some school districts and colleges, A can be modified to A+ or A-, with A+ then becoming the highest possible grade.
However, use of A to signify the highest or best is not universal in the United States. Consider these counterexamples: In minor league baseball, the A leagues fall below the AA and AAA leagues. In high school athletics, schools are often classified by size for competitive purposes, so that a high school with 50 students does not compete against one with 5,000; this is particularly true for football, although state athletic associations frequently use a classification for other interscholastic sports as well.
Similarly, in financial markets, A represents the sixth highest credit rating for a bond in the Standard and Poor’s grading system. AAA, AA+, AA, AA- and A+ bonds are all better than A bonds.
While this level of detail is not required to parse Gertrude Stein’s intent, we can nonetheless safely conclude that “A” represents a grade of some sort. Which classification system she was referencing is a detail to be examined later.
Rosé: A wine with a pinkish color, between that of a red wine and a white wine. This coloration occurs as a result of the red grape skins coming in contact with the juice less than is the case for actual red wines. Few current wine classifications use letter designations. However, the St. Emilion Classification of 1955 notably held 1st 1e Grand Cru Classe A as its highest class, just above 2nd 1e Grand Cru Classe B. As Stein died in 1946, this particular rating schema could not have been her inspiration. Nevertheless, as Stein attended both Radcliffe and Johns Hopkins, and lived in France for many years, it is certainly conceivable that a precursor to the St. Emilion wine grading system is intended.
Is: The singular, first-person, present-tense form of the verb “to be.” Here, Stein cleverly uses one short word to convey several powerful concepts. First, she alludes to singularity, perhaps in the sense of uniqueness, but also, perhaps in the sense of unwedded bliss. Then, she reminds us that a personal experience is being portrayed. This is not a mass event, nor is it second-hand, a vicarious experience belonging to someone else and only shared with the author afterward.
Further, she does not write “a rose are,” which could be second person, or plural, or both. Rather, this is intimately first person. She claims reality for the rose. She also provides a time element. The rose is … now! The immediacy of her writing could not be clearer on this. Finally, Stein provides existential truth. “A rose is.” If she had stopped there, she would have pronounced a truth well worth remembrance. However, she continues, ever more deeply.
A: Singular, indefinite pronoun. Again, Stein emphasizes singularity. Note how easily she combines the singular “is” with the singular “a.” Now, however, she denies uniqueness. A unique, specific item would typically be denoted by “the,” not “a.” She has moved us swiftly from consideration of unity, to a discussion of universality. A rose stands for all roses in this sense. We see Plato’s cave shadows in that any rose is an exemplar of all roses, a standard-bearer for rosedom, as it were. Stein clearly recognizes the inherent tension of living one’s self-interest while living in community, the same tension France experienced during her life there, as communism and capitalism struggled to win French hearts and minds.
Rose: A flower of the genus Rosa. A symbol of romantic love since ancient times, the rose is perhaps the most purchased flower in the world. However, it is unlikely Stein is alluding to purchased love, whether via prostitution, dowry, bride price, or through the Western ritual of dating in which both wine and roses play prominent roles. She appears rather to refer us to the single rosebud, a potent symbol of chaste love, love that has not yet fully blossomed. Elsewhere, Stein wrote, “What is marriage, is marriage protection or religion, is marriage renunciation or abundance, is marriage a stepping-stone or an end. What is marriage.”
The Cherokee rose, Rosa laevigata, a symbol of the state of Georgia, is ironically an invasive species from China. The irony of existentialism finds “full flower” in this selection of a cultivar named after people driven from Georgia by President Andrew Jackson and his minions following passage of the Indian Removal Act of 1830 and originating in an area from which migrants to Georgia were excluded. Stein uses this imagery to demonstrate historic solidarity with those oppressed peoples.
Is: In mathematics and logic, equal or proportionate. One plus one is two. A is to B as B is to C. One should not, however, reduce “a rose is a rose is a rose” to the tautological x = x = x, which would be to trivialize Stein’s profound insights. Further, she does not appear to intend comedic relief, as seen in “sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.”, Egalité in the political sense seems to be intended here.
If Stein is using rose in its symbolic sense to represent romantic love, then she clearly espouses marriage equality. In this, love is seen as a natural state, an innate human need to minimize suffering. As Wilde may have said, “Any love is good love.”
Arose: In Christian theology, the belief that Jesus resurrected from death. Unlike the Phoenix story in Greek mythology, this renewal occurs once. As a singular event, “arose” completes Stein’s theme, initiated with “is” and “a”.
It is not surprising that deconstructionists from weird societies, who have uncovered Christian symbology in works by authors as diverse as de Pisan, Faulkner, Achebe and Carle, find a religious undertone in Stein’s seminal phrase. It would perhaps be more surprising had they not.
As depicted by Stein, the Christ story also contrasts with the Prometheus story in which the nightly rebirth only extends his punishment. If Stein were alluding to Prometheus, then the theme becomes much darker. By giving of himself (figuratively, by providing fire to humans), Prometheus is condemned to give of himself (literally, by having his heart ripped out each day). Whereas having one’s “heart ripped out” is one possible outcome of a spurned romance, we cannot reject the hypothesis that Stein intends her audience to recall such feelings in their own lives; however, we much reject this as the main thrust of her statement.
In a larger sense, Stein avers resurrection and rebirth evoke awakening to a new reality, an elevation to a higher plane. Love and, dare we say, spirits, remind us that “being is becoming.” This enlightenment, this fulfillment, provides the basis of Stein’s notion of Hegelian Aufhebung, with its dual sense of lifting up and self-abnegation.
Note that “arose” in its spiritual sense brings us full circle to the spirit, the rose, at the beginning of her epigrammatic expression. Clearly then, when Stein says, “a rose is a rose is a rose,” she means “Love intoxicates and uplifts my spirit,” and not, as others have supposed, “Mon Dieu, I love this wine.”
 Derrida, “Of Grammatology” (Les Éditions de Minuit, 1967)
 Heidegger, Sein und Zeit (1927)
 Foucault, L’archéologie du savoir (1969)
 Blackburn, Essays in Quasi-Realism (1993)
 Florida, for example, maintains eight classes in football with 1A for the smallest schools and 8A for the largest One oddity, however, is Iowa’s classification system for high school eleven-person football, which has five classes designated A, 1A, 2A, 3A and 4A, so that 1A schools are larger than A schools.
 The competing Moody rating system uses Aaa, Aa1, Aa2, Aa3, A1, A2, A3, so that Moody’s A3 is roughly equivalent to S&P’s A. Both systems use variations on B and C to designate bonds that are riskier than A-level bonds. Note that Moody does not use A by itself as a grade.
 In its commodity grading programs, the US Department of Agriculture uses the letter A. Inexplicably, the USDA has three grades for eggs, which humans eat, and 45 grades for cotton, which they do not.
 In this researcher’s studied opinion, Stein defies convention, as always, by omitting the acute diacritic on this e; other scholars contend omission of this glyph was an editing error. Regardless, getting the é right is essential to understanding Stein.
 Heidegger’s term “dasein” is particularly cogent in this context.
 Plato, Πολιτεία (circa 380 BCE)
 De Meun, Roman de la Rose (1275)
 For an opposing view, see McCartney, Can’t Buy Me Love (1964)
 Kierkegaard, Om Begrebet Ironi med stadigt Hensyn til Socrates (1841)
 No, not those Minions©®™
 US Congress, Greatest Hits, Indian Removal Act (1830)
 US Congress, Greatest Hits, Chinese Exclusion Act (1882 – 1943)
 Euclid, Elements (a long time ago)
 Whitehead and Russell, Principia Mathematica (1910)
 Marx. Every good academic paper must have at least one reference to Marx.
 For a different take on this, see Freud, Der Witz und seine Beziehung zum Unbewußten (1905), often translated as Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious, or Jung’s Wandlungen und Symbole der Libido (1912).
 Recall the French motto, Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité, was supplanted byTravail, Famille, Patrie in Vichy France and that Stein was living in France with Toklas at the time.
 Rousseau, Du Contrat Social, Principes du droit politique. (1762)
 Wilde, “Poems.” While Wilde’s work was condemned as plagiarism during his lifetime, the actual origin of this phrase is lost to history. See also: Overdrive, Bachman-Turner, You Ain’t (sic) Seen Nothin’ (sic) Yet (1974).
 Augustine, Confessions; Jerome, selected works; Origen, De principiis; various other dead white men.
 Diamond, The World Until Yesterday (2012). WEIRD is shorthand for Western, educated, industrial, rich and democratic. Diamond credits this construct to Henrich, Heine and Norenzayan’s 2010 articles in Nature and Behavioral and Brain Sciences, respectively entitled “Most people are not WEIRD” and “The Weirdest people in the world.”
 Joan of Arc (1429), The Bear (1942), Things Fall Apart (1958), and The Very Hungry Caterpillar (1969) respectively.
 Hegel, as explicated by de Beauvoir
 Hegel, Wissenschaft der Logik, 1812
He could not remember the exact words of the good doctor, but he knew their meaning well. “I would advise you to put your affairs in order as quickly as possible.” That was the essence of what the doctor had said.
As soon as the doctor had left the room, he told his wife angrily, “I won’t waste my energy or use what little time I have left on such trivial matters as ‘putting my affairs in order.’”
“But if you don’t do it, it will all be left to me,” she replied.
“Hire a lawyer if you must, but I simply refuse to be bothered with it all. I must get on with my work!”
His wife seemed to understand, although it distressed her to see him so annoyed about fulfilling what she felt was his duty, a duty of compassion towards her if nothing else.
“Shall I bring you your books?” she asked him meekly. “Or shall I get your typewriter?”
He hesitated for a moment in indecision, feeling too weak even to decide. But he simply had to do something! He knew the answer could not be found in books, at least not in any of the books he had read in his lifetime. And he couldn’t bear to while away his last few precious moments simply thinking. He had done enough thinking. Now was the time for action! Now was the time not for beginnings but conclusions, to explain if not to others then to himself what he had found.
“My typewriter please,” he answered sullenly.
His wife obediently disappeared into the hallway. The doctor had just reached the bottom of the stairway and was putting on his coat to leave, but she motioned to him from above to wait for her a moment. Then she went for the familiar portable electric typewriter and returned to the bedroom, cradling it in her arms like a baby. After placing the typewriter carefully on his bedside desk and plugging it in, she reached into the bed and helped him sit up. He tottered a bit, but she supported him with a firm grip. How heavy he was! What a burden he was in her arms!
When at last with her help he had balanced himself on the edge of the bed, she curtsied ever so slightly and left the room in silence.
The doctor was waiting for her at the foot of the stairs. She summoned her courage and walked slowly, step by step, down to meet him. Together they passed out through the front door onto the porch.
“I can’t understand him,” she began to weep. “He was never a particularly affectionate man, but at least he was always kind and respectful.”
“Well, consider what he’s going through,” the doctor replied. “He’s still so young. There’s so much he’ll never able to be accomplish. Bear him up. The time will be short: a moment, a day, a week. I’m not sure. But don’t feel neglected.”
“Even before his illness he told me about everything he wanted to do. We talked about it a lot. We’d stay up late at night in bed. He would talk and I would listen, just thankful to have him lying close to me. I was never really part of his life, but at least he shared his dreams with me.”
Meanwhile he sat alone upstairs with his typewriter. He listened to the whir of the machine for a long time after he had turned it on. The monotonous hum distracted him from his original intentions and plunged him once again into deep thought, something he wished to avoid.
He had always been a thinker, more interested in thinking about life than in living it. His thoughts raced through his mind, one after another, leaving him no time to put them down on paper for others to read. Who cared what he thought anyway? Perhaps he had been altogether too selfish. In his short life he had traversed many avenues of thought, waded through and dispensed with ideas loftier than he had ever heard about from others. And now he was lost in the maze of his own ruminations.
He detested thinking. It had taken him nowhere. It always disappointed him. No one seemed to know the answer to that one riddle which had puzzled him ever since his brain had started to tick. How could he know where to search if he did not know what he was looking for?
Perhaps this would be his message, his one message to anyone who would care to listen, from one who had sacrificed life itself—for what?—to think about life. He had loved the meaning of life more than life itself. Yet the atonement could never be a vicarious one. It was something he needed to do for himself, not by listening to others. Here was the dilemma: those who think soon learn that all is folly, that every idea they ever had is pure nonsense, while those who never think live in a paradise they never strived to attain, a paradise they are not even aware of, a paradise which can be recognized only by someone who thinks. Yes, a thinker! One who is familiar with the outer darkness, yet still attracted to the light of ideas burning brightly before they turn to ash. The thinker can know paradise but never live there. The non-thinker lives in paradise but never knows it. Ignorance is bliss, as the saying goes.
It was not a matter of fame. He knew he had no fame, no legacy, nothing to pass on about what he had thought, not even a drawerful of scattered notes and fragments for some scrupulous scholar to pick over and examine. The philosophers and poets had bequeathed volumes upon volumes to the world and gained for themselves a measure of divinity. Each word was a drop of ambrosia to them. Verily, their cups runneth over. Yet even though everything they wrote was meaningless, they had obtained one thing that was now forever beyond his grasp: immortality.
He surfaced from his thoughts for a moment and began to type:
“All men by nature desire to know…”
Every book, like every life, must have a beginning. Every book, like every life, must also have an ending. What had guided him throughout his own life if not his unquenchable thirst for knowledge, his insatiable desire to know, his passionate quest for Truth with a capital T! Had this not been the impetus for inventing civilization in the first place and also the reason for its demise? Why did Truth bother him so much and Life so little? And when he was dead what would either mean, what would either matter? When the cells of his brain died, all of his thoughts would die with them.
He desired certainty above all else, not mere approximations. He wanted to be sure that his thoughts perfectly mirrored reality. He looked at the sentence he had just typed and then, returning the carriage, struck it out:
All men by nature desire to know…”
He watched the key as it punched out the slashes automatically, confident that he had done right thing. No philosopher worth his salt would dare to begin a book with such a tepid line. He was disappointed to have failed again. He did not know where to begin, not even how to write the first sentence. If he could express his frustration—even that would be something!
He lay back on the bed exhausted. In the short time he had sat in front of the typewriter he had accomplished exactly nothing, yet he had exerted himself well beyond his capacity. The pain was moving closer to his head. Perhaps he would read. That at least he could do. But his books were in his study. He did not have the strength to call out to his wife to get them for him.
“Nothing to do except think again!” he muttered to himself.
The typewriter continued its steady droning. He had not turned it off.
As he lay there looking up at the ceiling, he realized that he had reached the limit of thought, not just the limit of his own thoughts, but the limit of thought itself. He had come to the point where all one could think about was the act of thinking itself.
How could he free himself from the chains of his own thoughts? Where was the serenity that could only come to a person who had emptied his brain of all possible thoughts? An empty mind…. What an interesting idea. What an intriguing thought!
But no, an empty mind is not the mind of a sage, but the mind of a fool.
There was nothing more for him to do except to continue as he was, resting in bed, thinking. His thoughts assembled themselves into phalanxes, preparing for the final conflict. His mind was the Armageddon where the last battle would be fought.
“I must do something!” he screamed aloud.
He struggled to sit up. It was not without a great deal of pain that he finally squirmed his way over again to the edge of the bed and let his feet drop to the floor. He pushed with both hands against the soft downy mattress until at last he was sitting once more at the little bedside desk. His body was covered with sweat. His breathing had become short and spasmodic. Brushing a few strands of damp hair off his forehead, he looked down at the typewriter. The sheet of paper he had been typing on was still in it.
Weeping, he slowly placed his fingers over the keys of the typewriter. What combination of letters and words, he asked himself, would give him the answer to his question? If he sat there long enough—perhaps for millions of years—punching the keys of this typewriter in every possible combination, using reams upon reams of paper, would he ever write anything that satisfied him completely, something that would finally put an end to all of the worthless speculative ideas of humankind, an end to the philosophical enterprise itself?
“What words would ever give us the answer we seek?” he thought.
Perhaps there are no such words. Perhaps life is a question mark with no answers. He let his finger fall on one of the keys, which punched out automatically:
But even this would not do. He could not even formulate the question that he wanted an answer for. He would start over, he thought. He pulled the paper from the typewriter and put in a fresh sheet. He stared at the blank white page, not knowing what to write on it.
Suddenly he heard the blaring of a trumpet between his ears. The armies of thoughts within his mind had begun their final battle. The pain now had become so intense that his whole body was numb with it. Except for the tedious throbbing of his head, he sensed little else. His eyes were misty with tears. Everything he saw looked blurred and hazy. It is thinking which makes our ideas so clear and distinct, thinking which transfigures the ethereal into unequivocal abstractions.
The tension within him continued to build. Thousands upon thousands of little thoughts and ideas crowded his mind like parasites. Soon the thoughts were no longer distinguishable from each other, having dissolved together into one big glob of plaque.
He reached once more for the typewriter. But it was too late. He heard an explosion in the distance. If there are no questions, then neither are there any answers. His head slumped forward onto the typewriter. And then he thought no more.
Richard Evanoff has lived most of his adult life in Japan and been active in literary circles in Tokyo as a writer, editor, and performer. His stories tend towards the fabulist and have appeared in Dream International Quarterly, Mind in Motion, and The Mythic Circle, among other publications.
Reviewed by Risa Denenberg
Claudia Putnam starts her poetry collection, The Land of Stone and River, with an elegy and a prediction. In the three-lined first poem, “Hoard,” she notes a mound of “pennies / packrat-piled beneath the shed,” and declares this is a “Sure sign of the end.” In the second poem, “Elegy for Snow,” a speaker from a future time (maybe closer than we think) tells someone the story of “In the time when winter was winter—.” She continues her poignant narration with,
You know nothing of quilts, either.
Nor can you know of that quiet,
related somehow to cold
and to particular greens of evergreens,
particularly to chickadees
who used to perch there, rotund
with secrets of winter.
Although these two poems are the book’s starting point, the remainder of the poems are bookmarked by them—musings on past things lost and fearful things to come, enveloped within the natural world that is both stunning and terrifying.
There is a set of twenty paintings by Bhavani Krishnan titled, Twenty Mountains and I am guessing this is the reference for the title of first section of poems in the book. In that sense, some of these poems are ekphrastic, or perhaps a more apt term would be meditative. The paintings are mostly muted shades of blue, grey, and sand. And yet there is a touch of pink or yellow in a few of them. In style, they resemble the book’s cover art. In only one of the twenty do we see two distant figures, walking along a path. Similarly, in The Land of Stone and River, people populate the poems like ghosts. Many are ghosts.
In “This Isn’t Really Happening,” Putnam writes, “Each year / the river runs thinner, / fleeing its shrinking glacier.” Warnings of catastrophes abound throughout the book. In this section, the totem animal is a crow, though the warning is for all of us:
Poor lost crow, these are not
the best of times
to be falling asleep.
It is the sixth poem in the book in which we learn of the death of a child called Isaac, “who sprang / fully formed into our lives / and died. In “Unawake,” a commingled homonym, Putnam’s words poignantly and disjointedly display how such a death—an infant—weighs so heavily on the child’s parents yet receives so little support from the rest of the human world.
[…] if it is odd to have a dead kid without a funeral believe it or not that is one thing in America with family thousands of miles away that can fall through the cracks camel a mother’s back and there is no heaven.
The feeling that life was muted in that moment is overpowering. Some time later, healing alone with a broken ankle, Putnam’s thoughts turn to others’ loneliness:
We turn dead eyes
to so many lying solitary. No break
really heals. We try to go on
with our plans.
It always interests me when a poet pays homage to other poets in their work. In this work, Putnam nods to Jane Kenyon, Octavio Paz, Carolyn Forché, Robert Bly, and artist Jayne Wodening, as if to seek their comfort in her grief.
Interesting too, since a crow reappears throughout the book, is her riff on Wallace Steven’s “13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” which is titled, “Ways of the Lion,” referring to the mountain lions of American—cougars, lynxes, and bobcats. Her lynx is not a totem, but an animal to be feared when hiking in its territory. The last two stanzas read:
It doesn’t care if you’re an environmentalist.
For a while she carried mice,
but she didn’t feel
Putnam may or may not call herself an environmentalist, but she has a righteous respect for what the environment consists of: plants, animals, and landforms.
The second section of poems owns the book’s title, The Land of Stone and River, where Putnam’s reverence for these elements runs deep. A multipart poem titled, “As the Wind Comes Among Us,” establishes the project of this book—to move forwards and backwards through origins and extinctions with the widest possible lens, seeking an elusive peace.
In the land of stone and river, godless
known by wind, that is, the continent
we name Gondwana, near the place we call
Equator, the range we term Ancestral
groundwater seeping beneath its flanks mixing—
in this memory—minerals to
iron oxide, turning in Time
to hematite—desire, surely—
rosy on the range we christen
bloody in our Time, still the Time
of the Conquistadores, and
it is dizzying.
Dizzying indeed. Were we all to study the history of earth so deeply, would we find peace? Of course not, though we would be wiser for doing so. But we must move on if we are to keep up with Putnam. So much so far is ballast for what’s to come in the last section of the book, Nervestorm. There is a warning—a quote from Oliver Sachs—in the epigraph of this section:
Migraine and neighboring disorders [epilepsy, manic depression] … are distinct and individual, but nevertheless have borderlands in which they merge into one another.
I’ve read a good bit of Sachs over the years, and I know the connection between migraine and epilepsy, but manic depression? Still, here it makes sense. In a series of poems titled, “Migraine,” “Limbic,” and “Nervestorm,” we find the protagonist weathering a St Elmo’s Fire storm; we travel through the limbic system; and we witness an “[Inner?] child writhing / hands on head / neck turning head snapping […]”. Such unpacking of the electrical system that is the human brain is rare.
This final section also unpacks suicide, conveying how knowledge and insight do not prevent—and probably instill—a deep desire to die. In “Suicide Note,” “the gun whispers from its safe / I am / here for you.” And in “The Battle of Brintellix,” Putnam asserts,
Nothing is more noisome than knowledgeable people
believing themselves to be best at guiding in grief.
Over that awful summer I ordered suicide
instructions from the internet,
favoring bags filled with floaty helium,
though I also thought then, of guns
In “Backcountry,” Putnam speaks to a dead friend,
Your son is dead now, suicided. Exit
bag drawn over his head.
In life / this would have destroyed you.
Speaking later in this poem, she says what is most true about herself: “You were a poet, sensitive, visionary. / You and I, so proud of our poetic // instability. We thought the world so sick.”
If you want to experience the awe I felt while reading The Land of Stones and River, you will have to study this book. You will have to google many unfamiliar terms. It is not an easy book to read and will not bring you peace. That is why you should read it.
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Claudia Putnam lives in western Colorado with her dog, Birdie. The Land of Stone and River, which won the Moon City Press poetry prize, is her debut collection. A short memoir, Double Negative, also published in 2022, won the Split/Lip Press CNF prize. She has also published a poetry chapbook, Wild Thing in Our Known World (Finishing Line Press, 2013); and a novella, Seconds (Neutral Zones Press, 2022). Her poetry and fiction can be found in dozens of literary magazines including Rattle, Spillway, RHINO, Barrow Street, The Fourth River, and Iron Horse. She’s been the recipient of a George Bennett fellowship at Phillips Exeter Academy and a Ragdale Foundation residency, and has taught in the Writing Program at CU-Boulder.
Risa Denenberg lives on the Olympic peninsula in Washington state where she works as a nurse practitioner. She is a co-founder of Headmistress Press; curator at The Poetry Café Online; and Reviews Editor at River Mouth Review. Her most recent publications include the poetry collection, slight faith (MoonPath Press, 2018) and the chapbook, Posthuman, finalist in the Floating Bridge 2020 chapbook competition. A new collection, Rain Dweller is forthcoming from MoonPath Press in 2023.
Today, it is fall. The first freeze means the sidewalks have been drowned in pink salt that slushes into the river when the kids walk by, shuffling their feet and kicking at the piles of it. Sometimes I think about yelling at the municipal workers that dump it everywhere, but I never do. We all have jobs to do.
My mother is coming over. She’ll be late, no doubt, because she refuses to get her car fixed, so it coughs and rumbles until it comes to a start and shakes down the road if it goes above 20. It’s near fifteen years old, and she has the money to replace it, but decides not to. I never understood why.
For her, I put up two of the paintings she’s brought me, the ones with the least cracked frames, least browning varnish. One hangs above my sink in the kitchen, the other next to my TV in the living room. Two still-lives: fruit and trees. Maybe they were vibrant once, but now they’re just dull shades of green and orange and brown.
She shows up with a two boxes of old dishes and a few chairs in her hatchback. I put my shoes on and go to help her bring them up to the house.
“This is a lot of stuff,” I tell her as I’m setting the boxes on the counter. I don’t want this, I would have said a month ago, before therapy, before I’d started to try.
“But it’s all so nice,” she says, and when I look her in her face, she doesn’t meet my eye.
The dishes are cracked, but not broken, and caked with dust from sitting in an attic for so long. The first faux-gold-lined plate is free of any rodent poop, but when I peer into the box it’s all littered in the bottom. The chairs are fine, but I have too many. I used to have an office space, and now I have a room full of chairs, stacked arm to arm, sometimes piled haphazardly depending on how much willpower I have to organize them when I have free time.
We sit down at the couch, my mom crossing her legs and touching as little of it as possible. It’s clean, but the brown knit blanket that covers the back is homemade, and I’ve had it for a long time, careful not to wash it too often or too roughly. I can see every piece of lint and stray hair that hasn’t been cleaned up yet. I know she can see it, too.
I make us tea in a pair of teacups she brought me earlier this year. They have matching saucers that I had to scrub at to get some kind of sticky stain out of. She doesn’t touch the cup. I hold mine delicately, not sure how to grip the tiny handle on it. I sip the mild tea and set the cup and saucer down on coffee table.
For a while, we sit in silence, my mom’s downturned eyes scanning the room. I cross my legs at the knee, squeezing them tightly with both hands as she takes in the painting I put up.
She hums. Looks outside. Says, “The yard looks nice.” But she doesn’t look me in the eyes, looks over my shoulder to the kitchen instead, where the fruit still-life is hanging. I know the yard doesn’t look nice. It’s been flooding all year from the rain, and the skinny tree that’s valiantly stood out there since I moved in two years ago has started to rot.
“Thank you,” I say. When she finally picks her teacup up, I copy her, sip mine once while she just holds hers. “So, Mom, I liked the art you brought me. I’m starting to figure out where it looks best.”
She purses her lips. My mom’s life is full of arguments with underpaid cashiers and overworked waitresses—not for lower prices or comped meals. Principles she says. A place has to live up to her standards: a restaurant with an under par bathroom or a smudge on the tablecloths or menus with frayed edges is enough for her to get a manager. Now she wants something to argue with me about.
“It’s interesting you chose to put the fruit bowl there,” she says, and finally sips her tea.
A few months ago I would have snapped the minute I saw the junk in her car. But I breathe. Sip my tea. “Thank you,” I say, trying to keep any sarcasm out of my voice.
The best thing you can do is take any of her passive aggression sincerely, my therapist told me. It’s difficult to break habits, but do your best not to fall into reacting passive aggressively yourself.
“Have you found a place for the chairs?” she says. She’s looking at me now, making eye contact, and I want to look away.
“Not yet,” I say. “There were a few dining chairs I thought would look nice with the table.”
“That table?” she says. “But the chairs are so nice.”
I smile, feel my throat working around a retort. If they’re so nice why did you get rid of them? “Yes, they are.” I sip the tea again. The light floral taste annoys me as it washes down my throat. I don’t usually drink tea. “Where do you think they would look best?” I ask.
She doesn’t scoff, exactly, but makes a small sound in the back of her throat. “I can’t do everything for you, Melissa.”
“Can’t do—” I cut myself off, bring the teacup up to my mouth to hide my angry flush. If I’m not supposed to act passive aggressively, I don’t think I’m supposed to react aggressively either. She stares at me, and if she weren’t my mother, I wouldn’t see the tension around her eyes, the only part of her flat face that shows she’s waiting for me to snap at her.
“Do you have the chairs, still?” she says. “I don’t see them anywhere.”
I breathe. “Yes. They’re stored in my office.”
“Why don’t you put them out?”
“Well, Mom, there’s a lot of them.”
“If you put them out, you might get more work done,” she says.
I put my teacup down, let it clatter against the table. She flinches, but it’s a second too late for me to believe it—her farce of being delicate. I don’t know what to say that isn’t mean, so I keep my mouth shut. The tree painting lurks next to my TV. It should be stark against the beige walls, but it seems to blend right in. I was only ever allowed to draw in my room, on my desk when I was growing up. Never in the living room, on the plush, bleach white carpet or at the kitchen island with its pristine marble tabletop. The habit rolled over into my adult life, I guess. It’s hard for me to work at the dining table or on the couch, even with my tablet—all I can hear is my mother asking me to go to my room to draw or put it away and help her with supper. Or her hand gripping my wrist as she tore my markers away from me.
I cross my arms over my chest, stare at her. “I’ve been getting work done,” I say.
“Really?” she says. “I saw Marianne yesterday and she said her husband is still waiting for a logo design.”
“If Marianne’s husband has an issue with our contract, he can reach out to me,” I say, my face hot, both from anger and embarrassment of what I just said.
“That is incredibly rude Melissa,” she says.
I take a deep breath, exhale, close my eyes.
If it gets to be too much, you can always ask her to leave. However you need to, my therapist told me.
“Please leave,” I say.
“Excuse me?” she says.
“I don’t want to argue with you. Please leave,” I say again.
“We aren’t arguing, are we?” she says, her voice soft. I open my eyes as she reaches out to me, places the pads of her fingers on my knee. I don’t move away. I stay perfectly still.
“Melissa, please. I’m worried about you, that’s all.”
“I’m sorry, Mom, but I need space.” I pick up my teacup and walk it to the sink. I turn the water on, washing away the mild tea until the water is bubbling out of the cup and into the sink.
“I’m your mother,” she says, her voice the same saccharine taste.
I listen to the water washing down the drain, grip the edge of the counter.
“I. Am. Your. Mother.”
When I turn to face her, she has stood up, her eyebrows scrunched together, her cheeks red like a pulled rubber band.
“And this is my house,” I say.
She takes a step forward, but stops when I flinch. She sighs, grabs her purse and walks toward the door. Before she leaves, she says, “You’ve never appreciated anything I’ve done for you, Melissa. I brought you into this world, I raised you, I loved you. And this is what I get.”
“Thank you for coming,” I say through my teeth.
When I hear her car hit the dip at the bottom of my driveway, I turn back to the sink, turn the water back on so hot the steam makes me cough when I heave a breath. I tried, didn’t I? I put up the pictures, I used the teacups. It wasn’t enough for her.
There is always something I’ve done wrong. My table, my art, my job.
I turn off the water and stomp to the office that I haven’t been able to use in a month. One of the chairs falls down in front of me, and I almost expect it to break into all its little parts, but it doesn’t. The room is stacked with chairs, small chairs and big chairs, wood chairs and metal chairs, chairs shoved into the corners and on top of my empty desk. I pull one out, then jump away when a few more come tumbling down. One of them scratches my hardwood floor.
I’m shaking. She can take everything from me, and yet nothing from me. She is my mother, and yet my worst enemy. When I breathe, I expect it to hurt, but the air slides through my throat like silk. My body is shaking, but my mind is set.
I take out the chair with a torn rush caned seat first, one that has tumbled out of the room. It’s light, the finishing nails rusting, making the wood an orange red. I take it downstairs into the garage and shove it into the backseat of my car. It catches on some already torn fabric in the car, so I push harder until it won’t fall out.
The yellow foam sticks out against the dark fabric of the seat. My therapist says I can’t control my mom’s behavior. She suggested I move away from her—cut her off, essentially, but she didn’t say it like that. I can’t do that. I would have to physically move, but this is my home, even if it is filled of things my mother didn’t want. Instead, my therapist suggested that I take small steps. Don’t react to her passive aggression. Don’t accept gifts from her. I deserve a C, I think.
I go back upstairs, take down the fruit bowl and the tree paintings, stick them under my arm so the frames scrape against the soft skin of my armpit, then grab a few more that I’ve stuffed into my office, ones with cracked frames that threaten to give me long, nasty splinters. I shove them into the car, too, into the trunk. I go back upstairs and dig around for the rest of them, hidden under chairs, in my linen closet, under the stairs that lead to the garage. The trunk crunches shut by the time I get them all in, and the latch only clicks when I put my full weight on it. Sweat slips behind my ears, pools at my neck, clams up my armpits.
More chairs into the car, whatever will fit. And the dishes, those goddamn dishes, the box covered in mouse shit, dust, and grime. I drop the box into the passenger seat, the plates cracking against each other. I buckle them in so it doesn’t fall into the wheel well.
My car coughs to a start.
I back out of the driveway in one motion, cutting off an oncoming car who lays on the horn. I drive too fast down the crumbling rural road, feel every pothole and crack. The trees loom over the road, a kaleidoscope of shadows that makes me squint through them. The chairs rattle and the dishes clank. All of it is breaking more when I take the sharp right to the transfer station.
I want to burn it, but instead I back up to the dumpster and pull everything out, a piece at a time and fling it into the gaping trash bin. Everything hits with an echo. Nobody comes to help me, even though I can see a man in a bright orange vest near one of the backhoes. I must look insane with sweat drenching my back and my chest, and I’m grunting with each throw, the best I can do instead of scream.
I feel insane. I feel manic. I start throwing the art farther and farther into the bin, frisbeeing so it clangs against the other side, then slam the chairs in, and crash each dish individually into the bottom, so I can see the shards decorating the bottom. The last one crashes and I tear up the cardboard boxes, my arms aching as I pull against the grain.
It’s hot out. I’m panting. My plaid shirt is sticking to both sides of me. Two other cars are parked near the recycling. When I make eye contact with one of the drivers, he quickly looks away, adjusts his rearview mirror. I’m standing in shreds of cardboard. I take a deep breath, fresh with the ripe smell of the dump.
I pick up the cardboard and bring it to the recycling.
I want to call my mother. I want to show her all the shit she gave me sitting in a dumpster that smells like last week’s take out and diapers. I don’t. I take my phone out, consider throwing it into the dumpster. I turn it off, the bitten apple glaring up at me.
I drive back home. It’s started to rain again, the stream already rushing with water. I step out of the car and stand in it, letting my hair drip into my face, my eyes become fuzzy with water. My sweat mingles with the rain, until even my bra is soaked, on the verge of itchy against my soft skin. I breathe in the rain.
When I go upstairs, my house is a mess. I didn’t have room for all the chairs, so they sit or lay outside the office, along the hallway. I step through them, over rungs and around backs, dripping water on the hardwood as I go, numb to the way they bump against my shins and toes. I sit down on the couch, still wet, and pull the brown knit blanket around my shoulders. I pull my knees up and stare at the TV, my reflection muddled by the matte finish of it. Peeking out from behind it is the side of a canvas painted red.
I meant to hang it up. It’s one of my paintings, of two hands touching at the index finger, like The Creation of Adam but closer, redder. Why red, my AP art teacher asked in high school. Maybe I said something about violence. About passion. About the intersection of those things. But the truth is it was my favorite color.
Now, my favorite color is green—garish, crossing guard green, neon and bright. My mother would hate it if I painted the house green. If I took every piece of decaying art she gave me and painted it with glowsticks, threw it at her house.
It’s a comforting thought, that I could do something to her.
Instead, I do something for myself. I ignore the chairs and pick up my drawing tablet from the dining room table and go into my office. I force the last chairs out of the room and close the door behind me. I sit down in the office chair I bought for myself and start to work.
Em Platt is studying creative writing and environmental science and hopes to graduate in the spring semester. They have been previously published in the feminist zine, Ripple, and they continue to write all the time when not working. Their writing does not reflect the relationships they have with their parents. For the most part.
NOTE: Presented here are chapters three and four of an eight-part novella — that will continue in the winter issue.
… except that it was wrong, of course, to love my teacher when I should have loved you. But I didn’t have you to love – not since long before I loved her. I have just begun to realize that sex and sentiment have little to do with each other. When I came to you twice last winter and asked you to start over it was because I thought I was becoming seriously involved sentimentally and preparing situations for which I was morally and practically unfitted.
[letter, Zelda to Scott, 1930]
Townsend left the bar, and I turned to Zelda. “I would like you to meet my friends, dear.”
Zelda got up and stood next to me.
“This is Catherine,” I said, gesturing to the girl on my left. “And, of course, you know Cynthia,” turning and nodding to my right. Catherine snapped her head up.
“You know each other?” Catherine asked.
“No, not really,” Zelda replied, “it’s just my husband being his obnoxious self. Ignore him, despite the fact, that he does mean harm.”
“Oh, my mistake,” I said, “From the way you were looking at each other, I assumed… my mistake.”
Catherine smiled, her lips flat and tense, as if restraining any protrusion. It gave the impression that her thoughts lay bursting in her mouth. Her smile faded and then re-emerged as if vacillating with the thrills and uncertainties of an inner, burgeoning story.
Cynthia extended her hand toward Zelda. “I would hate to have to call you Mrs. Fitzgerald all evening.”
“It’s Zelda,” their hands remained together. “… Zelda,” she repeated.
Catherine broke the ensuing silence.
“I have a great idea. Let’s go to my apartment, much more comfortable. It’s not far. We can walk. What do you say, Scott? Maybe you’ll find some new inspiration.”
Cynthia looked in Zelda’s direction, her words fell softly, “Would you like that?”
I gave Zelda a quick look. She was pensive, her focus distant and intense. She remained still and tensed in the manner of a house cat entranced by a strand of dangling twine. I wondered when she should leap. It was the first time I had to compete with a woman. That’s what it was all about, I was sure. It was just another way for a selfish wife to make her husband feel more inadequate.
“Alright, let’s get out of this place,” I said. The girls moved off their stools and headed toward the door. I turned to follow. Hell, I could hardly walk. When we hit the street, I flagged down a cab. Zelda got in first. Catherine gestured for Cynthia to enter next. Catherine got in, and I started to walk toward the front passenger seat.
“Scott, get in,” Catherine said, “there’s plenty of room back here. Cynthia, do you mind pushing over.” Cynthia pressed closer to Zelda.
Catherine turned her body toward me, and I squeezed in next to her. She remained facing me. She smiled, sometimes looking at me and sometimes staring out the side window. The protrusion of her lips now unmistakable.
We stopped in front of a brick building. It was like the kind that have grown plentiful in New York City. Multiple floors sat perched one upon another. The difference in their remoteness from the life below was all that distinguished one from the other. A dozen steps jutted out onto the sidewalk and led to a set of glass doors made nearly opaque by lace curtains. We exited the cab, and Catherine held my arm as we made our way up the stairs. I looked back and saw Cynthia and Zelda walking up side-by-side.
We entered the apartment and found ourselves in a parlor with blatant décor. A red, velvet upholstered couch simmered against one wall. A square glass table sat unnoticed between the couch and two armchairs reminiscent of a time in Europe when comfort succumbed to the desperation for dignity. Cynthia sat on the couch. She partially faced Zelda with one leg bent such that it lay flat with its outer thigh flat against the seat; her other leg draped the couch normally. Zelda sat motionless between them.
Catherine and I sat in the opposing chairs. I felt comfortable sitting upon the aged search for dignity.
Catherine popped out of her chair. “What are we drinking?” She walked toward the small bar against the wall behind us. She returned with a bottle of gin and a glass.
“I know what you want,” she said to me, and put the bottle and glass on the square table. “It’s them two I’m not sure about,” she said, looking at Zelda and Cynthia.
Cynthia had laid her head on the back of the couch and stared at Zelda in a scrutinizing sort of way. Sometimes she righted her head slightly, then tilted it again into the back cushion, as if to reassess the new perspective. Zelda was motionless, unrevealing; her focus consumed by Cynthia.
“Cynthia,” Catherine called, “you know where everything is. If you want something, please dear, just take it.” Catherine looked down at me. “Scott, let’s go on the terrace. You can see most of Manhattan from there.”
I poured myself a half-glass of gin, took the bottle, and followed Catherine through a pair of French doors. She closed them behind us. I walked to the surrounding railing. The night had wrapped itself around Manhattan, and spots of light broke through from the streets below. It looked as if the heavens had been torn from the sky, and the stars and every wish made upon them lay bare in the streets. The world’s hope and reverie, unprotected from the disorder which trampled upon them, twinkled courageously and pitifully. I strained my eyes to find the bright future I had once placed there, but I found only a fading flicker, jumping chaotically. I looked closer and my concern deepened. I realized what had happened. The future no longer fueled the dying flame. I fell limp, stricken by shock and an overwhelming sentimentality. My past now was all that kept the fire alive.
Catherine sat in a rusted iron chair. I stood next to her and watched Zelda through the glass doors. Cynthia raised her head and rested her arm on the back cushion. Zelda looked up and saw me staring. She turned to Cynthia and gave her a smile. I folded my arms and shuffled uneasily. I looked down at Catherine who was silently watching the glowing and fading of Manhattan.
I swallowed the last of the gin in the glass in my hand. I grabbed the bottle and lifted it. Catherine held the bottle steady as we poured me another drink. I sat on the table facing her and continued looking through the glass doors.
Cynthia’s body was now firmly against Zelda’s. Catherine turned and looked at the two women.
“Is this Zelda’s first time?”
“With a woman?” I replied, my gaze steadily fixed on what was going on in the next room.
“No, I meant the first time living in New York?” Catherine smiled. She rubbed the back of her hand against my thigh. “Don’t worry about Cynthia. She’s quite harmless and gentle. Zelda is in good hands.” She moved her chair back. She got up and stood between my legs, which dangled from the table.
“What about you, Scott? Would you like to be in good hands?” My eyes were fixed on Zelda. Her head was leaning slightly. Cynthia bent her head in the other direction and pressed her lips against Zelda’s neck.
Catherine ran her finger along the zipper of my pants. “You like what you see, don’t you, Scott?” I stretched my arms out behind me and put the palms of my hands flat on the table. I leaned back. I did like what I saw. It turned my stomach to imagine Zelda with Townsend, but with Cynthia it was different. My blood raced. I wanted Zelda more. Cynthia left her wanting for only what I could give her. Every kiss she felt was mine.
The pulsing of my body, which had begun so simple and strong, began to recede and left in its wake an unnerving quiver. My gut wrenched. Betrayal had seethed its way in. Zelda was a predictable, self-consumed woman. It was clear she wanted nothing more than to mock the wonder of a frightened and hopeless child. She placed her hands onto Cynthia’s back. Her head weaved softly in thoughtless swirls; each stillness steeped in a dreamy detachment. She glared at me as she nuzzled each kiss which fell on her. The gin had destroyed any rationality which had survived in me. An inner trembling appeared in its wake.
Catherine placed her hands on the fronts of the upper parts of my legs and stroked them gently. I glanced at her and directed my eyes again over her shoulder. I saw Zelda put her lips on Cynthia’s neck. I turned to Catherine. With her eyes penetrating mine, she began, slowly and steadily, to lower my zipper. Her back was facing the doors. Zelda couldn’t see exactly what was happening. I wanted nothing more than to shove her face into the torture she so readily found necessary for me. I let Catherine continue.
Cynthia pushed herself onto Zelda, who fell back against the arm of the couch. Cynthia moved her lips to the front of her lover’s neck. My wife, with a smile that had become a smirk, stared at Catherine and me through the doors.
Catherine stopped and looked up at me. She was silent, and her eyes lingered in the quiet. She bent over. Her head dropped into my lap. The glass doors flew open. They bounced off the walls, nearly closing again, their panes rattling. Zelda rushed past us. Her eyes were blank and undirected. Her focus was distant, penetrating the surrounding blackness. She extended her arms and grabbed onto the terrace rail with both hands. Catherine and I rushed toward her, and we each took one of her arms. We pulled her back. Tears began to run down Zelda’s cheeks. I stood in front of her and put my arms around her, caressing her. Catherine went inside.
“Townsend, now Cynthia. I think it’s enough for one day,” I said, my words slurring. The room was spinning, and I moved my feet to walk and tried to find the floor.
“Let’s go. I want to go home,” she said.
She turned around, breaking my grasp. I began to stumble. I held on to the table. Zelda walked through the doors, and I tried to follow. After a few steps I lost my balance and fell into the open doorway. Catherine helped me to my feet. A small box containing the necklace had fallen out of my inside coat pocket. I saw the box on the floor, and I picked it up. Cynthia was still sitting on the couch. I turned to her and handed her the box. “This is for you,” I said, “I’m sure Zelda would want you to have it.”
Cynthia took the box and opened it. She removed the necklace and let it dangle from her finger. She gave me a puzzled look, and then glanced at Zelda, whose silent attention remained motionless on the gentle sway of the necklace. She looked at me and quickly turned back to Cynthia.
“There’s a matching set of earrings that go with that,” she said, “if you drop by, I’ll give them to you.” She took a pen from her purse and wrote our address on the back of Cynthia’s hand. When she finished, she smiled and said, “My husband will be out next Wednesday.”
Zelda turned and looked at me, her face stern, her eyes unflinching.
“That’s right, isn’t it, Scott? You have another meeting with Ober as I recall.”
I didn’t answer.
She looked over at Catherine, who was standing off against the French doors.
“Maybe my husband can stop by and see you as well next Wednesday. He’ll be in the area.” Zelda began walking toward the door. She smiled at Cynthia, stopped, and turned back to Catherine. “One warning, dear, just don’t bite off more than you can chew.”
… Finally you got well in Luau-les-Puis and a lot of money came in and I made of those mistakes literary men make – I thought I was a man of the world. –[sic] that everybody liked me and adored me for myself but I only liked a few people like Ernest and Charles Mc Arthur [sic] and Gerald and Sara who were my peers. Time goes bye [sic] fast in those moods and nothing is ever done. I thought then that things came easily – I forgot how I’d dragged the great Gatsby out of the pit of my stomach in a time of misery. I woke up in Hollywood no longer my egotistic, certain self but a mixture of Ernest in fine clothes and Gerald with a career – and Charlie Mc Arthur [sic] had a past. Anybody that could nourished [sic] from within make me believe that, like Lois Merau did, was precious to me.
[F. Scott Fitzgerald, 1930]
The color, a pleasing combination of the yellow daisies and purple Lavandula, rolled down the hill and disappeared magically into the waiting sand. It reemerged at the water’s edge and bled unnoticed into the azure beauty of the Mediterranean.
I made my way down the narrow dirt path, which started at the beginning of the flower garden and ended on the beach. Villa America stood behind me at the top of the hill. The Villa, located in Antibes in the South of France, was the summer residence of two friends, Gerald and Sara Murphy. They were the product of old money. Gerald’s only career, as far as I could determine, was to keep the villa’s beach front free of seaweed, which he raked judiciously at the end of each day.
My feet hit the soft, white sand, and I began to plod along, my shoes as ill-equipped as my mood for the strain. I walked toward the sea, watching its pawing waves breaking on the shore. When I reached the point where the advancing water lost its puissance and began to recede into the sea, I heard someone come up behind me. It was Gerald, rake in hand.
“Hey, old sport, how you feeling? “ He said while inspecting the sand. “Glad you decided to get out of bed to see the sun set.”
“If there’s anything anyone remembers about the Great Gatsby, it will be the words ‘old sport’,” I mumbled.
Gerald started to rake at strategically spotted seaweed hiding unsuccessfully beneath thinned layers of sand.
“As long as someone remembers it, what’s the difference?” he replied.
What’s the difference? The difference was all that mattered. Sales were poor, but, as Max would like to remind me: the reviewers liked it. The difference was that not one of them understood it.
“Maybe the twenty-five-cent press can keep Gatsby alive,” I said.
Maybe Gatsby would survive on twenty-five cents a copy, but I know I couldn’t. The magazines were buying my short stories. At $4,000 per story, I was the best paid whore in town. I had told Harold I wouldn’t accept any greater amount. I had started writing my fourth novel.
Gerald stopped raking. A green, twisted ball of weeds remained unyielding.
“Sara told me that Zelda stayed at home to practice her ballet.”
“All she thinks about is ballet. We have ballet for breakfast. She’s destroying herself.”
Gerald began raking again with renewed vigor.
“How was your stay in Hollywood?” he asked.
“We got out of there as soon as we could.”
Gerald pulled on the rake which had bound itself firmly into the mass of seaweed.
“Scott, Zelda told Sara that something happened in Hollywood. She thinks it may have something to do with Zelda’s behavior of late.”
“You mean all the ballet? She does it because she is selfish. She ignores me.”
“Sara said she was seventeen. The actress you met in Hollywood… she was seventeen, right?” Gerald stopped and held on to the rake, supporting himself.
I lit up a cigarette, took a drag and looked at the blue, rippling plane of the sea. I followed its expanse until it reached the sky where it turned upward and continued its journey limitlessly into the heavens. I turned away from the comfort of the tableau and connected with Gerald’s eyes.
“Zelda was beautiful at seventeen,” I said, “and she thought she would be the same at seventy.” The truth was that at twenty-six it all started to fade. “I know what you’re thinking,” I said, “you think Lois is too young for me.” I was in my thirties.
Gerald directed his attention to the seaweed, whacking and pulling on it with the rake. I threw my cigarette into the sand. He continued working, appearing not to want to hear what I had to say. I started walking toward the dirt garden path. I turned around and raised my voice above the soft crash of the blue breaking on the beach. “She’s not too young for me”, I yelled, “I’m too old for her.” That was something Gerald and the world didn’t understand. No one, not even a selfish woman, can steal my dreams from me. I can start over and over again. Dreams are timeless.
When I came to the top of the path, the sun had begun to set, and the blue of the sea had started to fade. An uneasiness overwhelmed me. I needed a drink. I headed toward the yellow lights burning inside the villa. As I came closer, I saw the Joyces and Jean Cocteau sitting on the porch which protruded from the back of the house and extended along its entire width. James was sipping a drink and looking my way. Jean stood up.
“Scott, Sara said you were here somewhere.”
I reached the porch and started walking up the three wooden steps warped by the salty mist of the early morning and start of the evening. I had met Joyce about a month before at a dinner given by his publisher, Sylvia Beach. He was royalty in the literary world in Paris, and his novel, Ulysses, had achieved everything I had ever wanted. I walked up the stairs with Gatsby in tow.
Jean stood up and shook my hand and said, “Have a seat, Scott. Tell us what you’re working on.”
Joyce placed his drink on the small round table standing between him and his wife. I nodded to her, and she nodded back. James, still seated, looked up at me.
“I read your stories in the Saturday Evening Post.”
I remained standing and motionless. The ensuing silence permeated my very core. It all said so much. I had nothing. The best thing I had written lay piled up in a warehouse. Zelda was entangled in her hopeless dream of ballet stardom, drifting farther and farther away.
“Gentlemen, I need a drink,” I said. I walked away, opened the door, and entered the house.
“Come back, Scott, I want to know what you’re working on,” James said. I pretended not to hear.
I entered the dining room where Sara was busily directing a maid who was setting the table.
“Scott,” Sara said, “do you want a drink? gin?” She went over to a sideboard and poured me a drink. I sat at the table. I took the corner seat next to an open window.
It wasn’t long before Joyce and his wife and Jean came in from the porch and took their seats at the table. They were followed by Gerald. Once everyone was seated, the converstion turned to who was doing what in the literary world in Paris.
I finished my drink, stood up, and threw the glass out of the window.
I returned to the table and took my seat.
“Sara,” I asked, “can I get another drink? Mine seems to have gotten away from me.”
Sara brought me another drink and a scowl reserved exclusively for my consumption. The conversation turned to Ernest’s latest work, The Sun Also Rises.
“It’s in its third or fourth printing as I understand it,” James said.
“The first printing sold out in two months. Scribner published it.” Jean said. “You had something to do with that, didn’t you, Scott?”
I raised my hand, grasping my glass. “To Ernest,” I said, lifting my hand higher.
I finished my drink and tossed the glass out of the window again, this time never leaving the table. It crashed on the front sidewalk. Everyone looked up and gave me quick glances. Mrs. Joyce redirected her attention back to her empty plate, keeping her eyes glued to nothing. Jean cast his eyes down and shook his head. What balls he had!
I stared through the yellow of the cottony, dull light which engulfed the room. Before Jean raised his eyes, I threw what I knew in his face.
“Do you prefer I use the pipe?”
James put his hands on the table. He braced himself and snapped, ”Scott.”
Jean picked up his glass of wine, and turned his head in a slow, controlled manner toward James.
“No, no,” Jean said, “it’s quite alright.”
He took a savory sip and placed his glass carefully back on the table. He pressed his lips together, drawing out the last bit of merlot that may have remained. I stared at James as I took a good swallow of my gin. I felt Jean’s eyes on me.
“I’m weaning myself off,” Jean said, “Opium is more addictive than alcohol.”
I placed my glass on the table and rocked it back-and-forth. The room was quiet except for the muffled tap of each teeter of my glass landing on the cloth covered table. I kept my eyes on the pitching of the glass and listened to the ticking of my patience. I broke the silence.
“That’s not what Ernest and Pablo told me. They saw you and the rest of those fairies toking it up at Le Boeuf.”
“Scott, your drunk,” James interjected, his tone terse and large.
“Thank god for that,” I replied.
Jean brought his head down slightly and looked at me through his lashes.
“James,” he said, “please let our friend speak.”
Jean, so sure of himself. The better man. I wanted nothing more than to reach out from the dizziness and pull him into my unruly world. I would hit him where it would hurt the most.
“Jean,” I said, “I saw your play, Parade. It was quite a fantasy. A bit difficult to follow, but I’m sure there must be truth somewhere in there.” His attention centered on me. He paused and leaned forward, resting his arms on the table.
“It was all rooted in sober reality,” he retorted. “Something, I would guess, that often eludes you.”
Jean hotly opposed the burgeoning avant-garde movement. After his play, Parade, opened in Paris, it became clear, at least to everyone but Jean, that the work was an obscure presentation. In fact, the production brought a new word into the French language, a description of a genre, surréalisme, of which Jean was, to his greatest shame and dismay, a self-disavowing purveyor. Jean hated the appellation. He wanted to be known simply as a poet. I raised my head, directed my eyes on him, stiffened my closed lips, and blurted out like an arrow to the heart, “You, sir, are a surrealist.”
Jean shot out of his chair, threw his napkin on the table, and began shouting in French. He was spouting words so quickly I didn’t understand what he was saying. James got up and put his hand on Jean’s shoulder, trying to calm him, but to no avail.
I walked to the window, put my legs through and sat on the sill. With one good push I launched myself onto the sidewalk a few feet below.
The night’s darkness had taken grip. I tried to free myself from it, running along the sidewalk and turning toward the beach. Bright yellow light streamed from the villa’s windows lighting the way. I reached the back and headed for the dirt garden path. The villa’s light shrank to a faint glow. The color I had seen earlier at the top of the hill had faded into blackness. I found the path and stepped quickly, fumbling and tripping my way down toward the beach. When I felt the sand beneath my feet, I looked at the sea and strained to discern the azure which I had seen only hours ago. The Mediterranean was black and dark.
From the top of the hill, I heard Lois calling,” Scott, come back, come back.” I looked up and realized it was Sara. “Scott, what are you doing down there. Come back inside.”
She was right. I needed to go back. I needed to see the color of the flowers and the blue of the sea. I lay down on the sand, stretched out, and waited for it all to come back.
Don Donato received a Masters of Liberal Arts in Creative Writing and Literature from Harvard University, College of Extended studies, in 2019. His graduate interest was studying the writing of the Lost Generation living in Paris in the 1920’s. In addition to short stories published in various journals, Don has written a novella, In the Faded Blue Light, in the voice and style of F. Scott Fitzgerald in the form of “memoir.”
Don Donato: Dod401@Alumni.Harvard.edu
The troubles I have suffered in my life are not great ones; in fact, they are more often absurd. I offer a current example: my wife has persisted for years in addressing me as “Snookums,” though she knows I dislike the very word. Now, I understand that it is spoken as a sign of affection—as she has explained, her mother addressed her father thus, and it comes naturally to her, especially as it reminds her of the better days of her childhood. But I am a product of my own age and class, and I have my vanities. Said vanities spur me to buck against the burden of such a moniker, which I consider undignified. That is pretentious of me, I know; it implies a consciousness of my dignity that is without doubt too concentrated, but I too must live with the habits of my childhood, which were deeply and often structurally ingrained in me by my exacting parents. I was to be a “man” of a certain type, one who would give them occasion to feel pride in having given the world the gift of me.
Whether I am really a “gift” in any functional sense is something I have been pondering for years. If I rebuff, even in the silence of my mind, my wife’s favored expression of attachment, simply to satisfy what any reasonable if typical person would judge an affectation, can I be so much of a benefit to the chaotic and inescapably casual society we live in? I am sure that many would consider me to be, as it was often put in the vernacular of my younger days, a “stuffed shirt.” Is there a genuine social value in that? Am I really the model to young men that my parents devoted their lives to making of me? Or am I just a consumer of others’ labor who can return nothing to them (outside of monetary recompense, of course) but a vague sense of shame, or perhaps just irritation? This is a matter to which I have been applying what intellectual capabilities I can boast of, though boasting is not indulged in by men like me, at least not directly.
In this regard, I have, however, come to realize that my very attitude—not just my construct of self-regard but the carriage and clothing I affect, the cut of my hair and professorial beard—all that constitutes a form of braggadocio.
I am not sure I find that to be a disagreeable confession. I am, after all, actually a professor, leading seminars in a well-known university, and offering my services as a consultant to what are these days referred to as “knowledge-based businesses,” those that facilitate access to information. I am fully aware that oftentimes, perhaps most of the time, the access they offer to unlock for a fee is limited by those selfsame companies in order to create a profitable business, but I do not consider that to be greatly different from the relatively venerable practices of copyright and patent. I too have information, insights, what have you, that I do not give away, but parcel out to those companies, and to my students, in bits and pieces. My stock in trade is not displayed free of charge on some glossy website open to all; my website—mine by virtue of myself being the underwriter of its modest costs—sells only me, whom you must contract with to learn what I know. Braggadocio, image, attitude, albeit elegantly expressed, are what keep me in my august state of wool suits, a large garden (complete with weekly gardener), and a house suitable for entertaining other equally pretentious souls.
There is no room in my world for a moniker such as “Snookums.” Perhaps my wife’s persistence in applying that term to me is a form of subtle and jocular rebellion, or perhaps it is the natural result of being burdened with seeing me in my underwear at least twice a day, and hearing me complain of my ills when I have them, which is fortunately so far not often. We sit at table and eat together, pushing bits of plants and animals into holes in our faces and mashing them with those fragments of exposed skeleton we call “teeth.” She is not likely to address me as “Professor.”
I must say that my wife, despite her regrettable (by me) attachment to sentimentality, is a remarkable person, far more capable in life than I am. I do not speak here only of the practical matters she excels in—such praises are often used, at least by men of my generation, to “damn with faint praise,” or, if not precisely to “damn,” certainly to belittle, the women they live with. Render them in the guise of a moderately elevated servant, clever in a Jeevesian way but still subordinate. No: I frankly admit that my wife is a genius, and I stress that that is not an opinion held by myself alone. She is more in demand as a consultant than I am, and if our economy were not predicated in part on a supposedly lower status of the female majority, she would probably earn more than I do. Although I hold a more advanced degree in my field than she does in hers, she expresses by far the more brilliant insights. I do not begrudge her this. I do mention it not (or so I hope) as another form of braggadocio, but simply to draw a contrast between her public perception (the slim and sharp-eyed analyst presented on her website, complete with testimonials from Famous Persons) and the seemingly incongruous category of femininity she exhibits at home, where she innocently persists in referring to my own modestly august self as “Snookums.”
I have pondered whether her persistence is underlain by a desire to wear down my stiffness, and I have gone so far as to query her directly on the matter—we are remarkably free with each other—but she denies any unconscious motivations beyond the sentimental one already explicated above. So I am in a quandary. I do not wish to negotiate her away from a cherished practice—not that I am likely to be able to do so—but I am at a loss as to how to accommodate myself to it.
One might suggest that I engage the services of an analyst of a more intimate sort, to assist me in mapping my way out of this minor conundrum, as I help others map their way to profitability without avoidable exploitation of employees, suppliers, and clients. The fact is, however, that I have met perhaps a dozen times with an incisive female psychologist who is one of the resources my wife calls upon occasionally in her own professional endeavors. Unfortunately, her advice has not been of significant utility to myself, for the low potentiality of harm involved in the “case,” and of course the triviality of the complaint, seemed not to spur the good doctor to plumb the depths of her impressive experience in search of a workable protocol for me to exercise, whether internally or externally. In short, she told me not to be such a stuffed shirt (she is of my generation), but she failed to supply me with techniques that might bring about the unstuffing of said shirt, if I may attempt a bit of jocularity. I was not particularly dismayed by this, because I am not sure I wish to plunge myself into a morass of indignity, when it is my dignity—whether real or superficial—that rewards me with both cash and admiration. So, the good doctor and I parted professional ways, both unsatisfied with the lack of progress achieved, but neither one in any way dismayed with what must be described as a failure, albeit one as trivial as the complaint. I continued on, straw leaking out between the buttons of my metaphorical shirt, head held high, and so forth, earning a living, helping commerce behave in a perhaps slightly less predatory manner, and drinking (in moderation, of course) wines of an elevated but not extravagant price range. And continuing to wince when addressed as “Snookums” by my wife, even in private.
Finally I decided an attempt at bargaining might be acceptable. I asked my wife to sit for an interview with me, wherein I asked her what might be the habits, characteristics, or practices with which I might be afflicting her, that she found annoying or, perhaps, even loathesome. I suggested as possibilities my excessive formality, which I confess to engaging in even at home, except under certain liberating influences such as romantic excitation; or perhaps, I hinted, my self-regard was off-putting. I do not believe myself to be excessively burdened with self-regard, being in fact probably as insecure as any other fellow with some modest accumulation of semi-public admiration; however, I am well aware that one’s self-image rarely accords with the image others may construct of one, regardless of one’s private sensations. My plan in asking her this was simply then to offer an amelioration of said characteristic or activity in exchange for her abandonment of the term “Snookums.”
Let me stress to the outsider that this form of bargaining was an activity we occasionally engaged in as a sort of amusement, but that we at the same time freighted it with serious intent. We have always indulged in our own way of combining amusement with accomplishment, which generally involves substantive but good-natured self-mockery—of ourselves as individuals, and of ourselves as a not quite standard-issue couple. So she did not attend to my proposal with the profound seriousness I had hoped for, choosing to highlight extremely trivial matters that I was well aware would not truly distress her in any way, superficial or profound. Certainly I could not expect her to trade her practice of employing that ridiculous moniker simply for my discarding my habit of combing my hair left-handed, although I am right-handed—something I do because the natural part of my hair falls on the right side of my head, and I have found it more comfortable to pull the comb with my left hand rather than push it with my right. This is a matter of no importance to anyone, including my wife, though I was rather surprised to learn that she had even noticed. I am not certain that I did until she mentioned it.
In the end she offered a professional-grade insight when she pointed out that I might find a complete inversion of my proposal to be of greater utility in achieving my goal, which she tentatively defined as a sense of what she called “admirability” in our household relationship. I was not sure that “admirability” was a term admitted to the Oxford English Dictionary, my standard reference in lexicological matters, and challenged her on it, but a quick digression into the online edition proved her, as usual, correct. My challenge, I must stress, did not irritate her in any way, as we both consider a high level of (in fact) admirability to inhere in the verification of disputed terms. So we returned to the matter at hand, whether in truth the term “Snookums” was worthy of application to a full-grown and moderately high-status member of the professional classes, even in the privacy of the home. It was one of those benevolent fatalities that occasionally attend one in literate discourse that the Oxford was still glowing with potentiality on the computer screen, and I bent and typed the word “snookums” into the search box. We were both pleasantly surprised when a definition was in fact returned by the silent workings of electrons in a distant processor (the processor itself a miracle wrought from a byproduct of ordinary sand…). We huddled side by side and read the definition, with perhaps some dismay, at least on my part: “A trivial term of endearment, usually applied to children or lap-dogs.” The earliest citation credited a Ladies’ Home Journal article from 1919. After a moment of silence, we both laughed.
I harrumphed with what I hoped was mock sententiousness: “I am neither a child nor a dog,” I said. I believe I even hooked my thumbs into my suspenders for greater comic effect. (I wear suspenders not because of any antipathy towards belts as a class, but precisely because they allow me to hook my thumbs in them for a bit of theatrical enhancement when lecturing.)
“Indisputably true,” my wife said. “However, it may be that my use of the term indicates that I feel certain protective sensations towards you, as one would to a child or small friendly animal. And is it not the incongruity of such a sentiment applied to a large and successful man the very basis of our domestic relationship? An indication that you are safe at home and suffer no compulsion to expend nervous energy in maintaining your professional image? In short, an invitation to relax?” She smiled, and placed her hand on my arm. “You have been working very hard lately…Snookums.”
I confess that I felt a great sense of comfort at that moment, one that I am certain she engineered. I did not mind that, for (assuming I was correct) she did so out of affection, rather in quest of a more nefarious influence over my actions.
What she suggested, in the end, was that I settle upon an equivalent term to apply to her, something more poetic than my usual choice of “darling,” which she in fact felt to be a rather vapid term with no real meaning, tossed about, as she put, the way victorious soldiers hand out candy to the battered citizens of a country they themselves have devastated, thus making the vaquished receptive to their modest bribes. Clearly that would not do, and clearly my addressing her as “darling” did not arouse in her the comforts I had intended should result from my application of the venerable term to her person. She had, in short, a point, one she had expressed to me the way I would have expressed it myself, had I thought of it.
Once again, we bent towards the glowing monitor, in wordless simultaneity, and found that “darling” derived from “dear,” whose original and now obsolete definition connoted “glorious, noble, honourable, worthy,” but which had diverged into various lesser meanings, such as “expensive” in certain usages (primarily in the United Kingdom), expressing “affection or regard,” or simply as a generic form of address in written communications. While many of its current and obsolete usages did in fact express the feelings my wife inspires in me, I agreed with her that, as a term of affection, it had become rather diluted from overuse. “Snookums,” she pointed out, while it may have suffered a vogue a few decades before, during her parents’ time, was now no longer in favor, and so had, by scarcity, become more precious a term, and one worthy of applying to a close and intricate relationship such as ours. I was forced to agree, feeling somewhat as a judge must feel who is required to set aside personal inclinations in order to conform a disputed situation to the body of law, or even to the Constitution (if practicing in the United States). I accepted her argument, and conceded: I would accept and enjoy her employment of the term “Snookums” in regard to myself.
The other part of the settlement, that of finding a more accurate and more personal term that I should apply to her in ordinary discourse, remained to be negotiated. It was, of course, my wife who guided us to a resolution, albeit indirectly. “Did not your parents ever use terms of affection amongst themselves?” she asked.
I shook my head and emitted a rather constructed sigh. “You know how they were,” I answered. “Worse than myself, I assure you. I have not remained entirely untouched by modern trends. But I never heard them refer to each other by any terms other than Mr. and Mrs. My friends found it quite comical, but then, I didn’t have many friends.” A dim memory suddenly brightened. “However,” I said, “my mother’s sister, my aunt Trudy, was generally addressed as, well, as ‘Tootsie’ by her husband. That is, in fact, the name I remember her by.”
Once again we bent towards the bluish glow of the screen. “Tootsie” was, of course, acknowledged by the Oxford; it is a term meaning “A woman, a girl; a sweetheart.” The earliest citation was from 1895, which meant that, at least as far as the Oxford’s contributors knew, its currency in the language predated that of “snookums.” Although the citations originated generally in detective novels larded with lower-class slang, authors as august as E. M. Forster and D. H. Lawrence had employed it. My wife said, “If famous writers who are known primarily by their initials, as you are in your field, are able to employ it comfortably, certainly you can. Let us essay the term; I am comfortable being addressed thus in the intimacy of our domicile.” She said this in a tone of exaggerated formality, then relaxed and added: “In other words, you okay with that…Snookums?”
I looked at her and said, “Yeah, I guess I’m okay with that—Tootsie.” The word stumbled slightly coming out of my mouth, but I did speak it. I added, “It’s quite the proverbial slippery slope, is it not? Who knows but that in a year I may be dancing on tables….”
She said, “If you are, Snookums, ensure that it be a large table, for I shall definitely join you!”
We both laughed, and rushed off to celebrate another successful negotiation, leaving the Oxford to glimmer in solitude on the desk.
Richard Risemberg was born into a Jewish-Italian household in Argentina, and brought to Los Angeles to escape the fascist regime. He has lived there since, except for a digression to Paris in the turbulent Eighties. He attended Pepperdine University on a scholarship won in a writing competition, but left in his last year to work in jobs from gritty to glitzy, starting at a motorcycle shop and progressing through offices, retail, an independent design and manufacturing business, and most recently a stint managing an adult literacy program at a library branch in one of the poorest neighborhoods of the city. All has become source material for his writing.
He has pursued journalism, photography, and editorial writing, which, combined with his years in motorcycle culture, introduced him to the darker side of the dream. His fiction concentrates on working-class life, homelessness, and cultures of violence, and the indifference of the Dominant Paradigm to it all.
Mr. Risemberg has published stories, poems, essays, editorials, and articles in numerous edited publications; you may view the current list at http://crowtreebooks.com/richard-risemberg-publications/.
What’s buzzin’ cousin? Lemme clue ya’ to what Derek’s been up to these most recent dims n’ brights. He’s makin’ art like … no-tomorrow-style. This cat’s got a way long history of scratchin’ out art for lots of king-sized bigwigs like Marvel Comics and Cartoon Network. But nowadays he strictly digs the gigs that let him beat his own bongos.
He gets a large charge creatin’ art for a whole heap of way-out events such as the Tiki Oasis, Las Vegas Rockabilly Weekend, Tales of the Cocktail and even Spain’s Wild Weekend! He’s also laid out art for several righteous rags like Barracuda, Atomic, and Tiki Magazine. And like, most recently he’s been interviewed and featured in some nutty overseas mags … Playboy Brazil, Cover Magazine in Venezuela and the French art mag HEY! Now if that don’t send you into orbit, you’re runnin’ on the wrong kinda fuel!
But what really flips his switches like … too much, is makin’ with the Van Gogh routine. Derek’s had his paint splatters well-hung in galleries all over the world. MondoPop in Italy, Outré in Australia, Vertigo in Mexico and La Fiambrera in Spain to namedrop just a fewsville.
Derek has also been commissioned to create art for such hi-falootin’ fat cats as Shag, Elvira, The Brian Setzer Orchestra and Pixar director Lee Unkrich! Crazy, man!
Like … Derek would rather juggle chainsaws than be a nine to five pencil-pusher so you know these days he’s diggin’ a one-way ticket to Flipsville! See ya soon, baboon!
The middle-aged man’s hands would not stop moving—tamping down and slicking back his thin cinnamon hair, wiping the oak plywood, tickling the air—and after ten minutes he feared the worst. His eyes, agleam with anticipation, followed every contour, absorbed each color.
He looked down. The light blue polo shirt and crisp khakis provided inoffensive cover for a mild “life gut.” The white towel with thin red and white stripes running down the center had many brothers.
And he was at the head of the family.
Howie’s House. A neighborhood spot, cozy and friendly. Sitting kitty-corner from a convenience store, directly next to a laundromat, one block south of the smallest pizza joint per square foot in the whole state. A nice enough place to depressurize and re-humanize.
The bar represented one tier of a multi-tiered dream. A friend of a friend owned the space, previously leased to a seafood joint that lasted less than a year. All three men were partners in the bar—HTC, LLC—but Howie had the dream.
He glanced back at the shelves, solutions in neat rows, some clear, others murky, each neat and ready.
The door opened. Howie released a breath he was entirely aware that he’d been holding.
“See the time. 5:42 Eastern. And we’re just now getting our first customer.”
“It is an honor, a privilege but above all, a thrill. Let’s celebrate with a shot of Mark and a pint of whatever beer. Bartender’s choice. Anyway. Glad we’re not out West or I’d really feel like a sad drunk. Best seat in the house here. Right smack dab in the center. Guess that’s good form. Who cares if it’s not. It’s a free country, right.”
“One of many.”
The grimace on Old Guy Oscar’s face had little on the one that appeared when the shot hit his throat.
“Like the layout, kid. Solid selection.”
“Why not fifty?”
“I ordered what I felt necessary.”
“Huh. Smart. I suppose. One thing–that bottle of Wild Turkey? You won’t crack the top on that son-bitch opening week. Unless you open it up outta spite.”
Howie shrugged and removed the shot glass.
“Nice set-up, I mean that.”
“Just the standard luxuries.”
“‘The standard luxuries,’ huh. What a funny phrase. Funny-sounding, anyway. What do you have besides Budweiser?”
“Heinekin, Miller, Michelob.”
“Look, don’t misunderstand me, kid. We want this place to succeed. We want you to have a reason to reorder Wild Turkey.”
Howie’s face brightened with the sound and sight of a swinging door, grateful for any reason to tear his attentions from the sallow-faced fogey hunched over his drink.
“Broke any glasses yet or what.”
“Well, day ain’t over. What about food?”
“Yeah, ya doof. Food.”
“Why should I serve meals?”
“Did I say ‘meals’? I meant more along the lines of sandwiches and soups and desserts. Comfort food. Simple.”
“Right. Don’t be greedy, Howie. Word’ll get out.”
Howie rapped the knuckles of his dominant hand against the top of the bar. “Suggestions duly noted, gentlemen. Need another, Oscar?”
“I hate beer. But it kills the headaches. My wife says”–Howie held out a hand, waiting for the older man to finish his final pull–“take aspirin, they won’t damage your liver!’ Yeah, right, but they can and will damage your stomach lining. Happened to a guy I know. Can’t have aspirin anymore. Or wine.”
“Big day champ! Gimme a gin and tonic and quick. I gotta wash dinner out of my mouth. My friend at work drove me by Taco Bell on the way home. I normally avoid that place but he swore I’d love the chicken burrito.”
“Gin and tonic, ya poor gullible bastard.”
After three hours, Howie’s House had welcomed a dozen guests, including seven he didn’t even know.
“Can we get a free drink for considerably bringing down the median age of your average customer or what.”
“Worth a shot, worth a shot. Wait, how about a free shot?”
“Another one, Sammy?”
“Nah, I’m done for the night.”
“Just two? What, one for each tit?”
“I preach personal responsibility and I practice it as well. So shut your shot-hole.”
“You live a two-minute drive from here, Saint.”
“A lot can happen in 120 seconds.”
After the last man at the door had bellowed his farewell, Howie finally unclenched. Good day. Good customers. He couldn’t wait to see if they’d become regulars.
“Pretty sure the main reason this show’s so popular is people wanna see the poor bastard die.”
The bartender’s peppermint breath hit Marty’s face like a stranger’s kiss. The television screen showed a robust man seated at a diner table, stuffing his face with ludicrous amounts of red meat and white bread as a carefully gathered crowd of well-wishers gaped and hooted.
“I used to want to do that,” Marty admitted. “Well not that, exactly. Competitive eating. Yeah. Wanted to do that.”
“No lie. Don’t mean like those maniacs who eat all the hot dogs up in Coney every July 4th. I just wanted to be a local legend. Found a guy in my neighborhood who used to compete at some fairs and hell, he mentored me.”
“When was all this?”
“Long time ago. I was in my mid-30s.”
“Not that long ago.”
“Feels like it. Anyway. This was in January when I had the bright idea, and my mentor decides I should aim for the pie-eating contest at the fair in Frederick that August. So I start training. An eating contest is just like a race. Gotta get in shape. Not to mention, there’s rules. They bind your hands, for instance. You gotta eat those pies just like a pig. Apple filling up your nose, all over your face. So I ate two pies a day, hands tied, while he timed me. For seven months.”
“How much weight did you put on?”
“None, fella. I started a vigorous exercise routine and drank nothing but water. I was the healthiest pie-eating son of a bitch in the whole western side of the state. So, time comes. The contest is, whoever eats five apple pies the quickest wins two hundred bucks. Big money then, fella.”
“Still is for some of us.”
“Hmm. Day of, all I ate was a carrot. That was what my mentor suggested. A carrot, or celery, something you wouldn’t touch otherwise. I got up on stage. There were four other contestants, three judges, one of ’em my pastor, ’bout a hundred people waiting. I myself drove up there with my sister and her little kids.”
Marty took another drink and winced.
“All the pies were made by women who went to St. John’s Methodist. None of that store-bought nonsense. So I’m standing there, looking for my sister and her kids in the crowd, thinking how I done all I done, how I stretched my stomach, how I never wanted to see another apple after all this, and then I see…them.”
“By the side of the stage. Just standing there. Paramedics. In case of an emergency. That did it. I blew before the whistle did,” Marty groaned.
“Oh no. But wait, that was before the competition started, right? You still–“
“They already had a pie in front of us. I upchucked on mine and there was…collateral damage.”
Marty’s description of infamy deferred exhausted not only him, but every other patron at the bar. The next thirty minutes passed uneventfully, with a few of the men, expressions dulled, watching the TV and others staring balefully into their beverage.
“Cold in here.”
“It ain’t cold. For the fourth time.”
“To me it’s cold.”
“Start wearing layers.”
Marty’s retort died in his throat when he felt a body occupy the stool to his left. He turned his head to see a crestfallen man, young enough to be his son, eyeglasses accentuating his sorrow.
“Barkeep’ll be back in a second. Young fella you look like you’re about to ask for some poison.”
“Broken engagement. Not my call either.”
“Aw hell. Tough luck, fella.”
“Just…you think you know somebody.”
“Understand,” Marty drawled. “Really.”
“Just between us, though. I don’t want a pity party.”
“I won’t let it slip. It’s twixt us twain. Promise.” Marty winked to seal the deal. Aw hell. Here comes Eddie. That tall sour-faced bastard’s like a real-life Lenny. Never know if he’s about to hug ya or murder ya. Come have a seat here, Eddie. I want people to think I have two bodyguards. Teddy, put your phone down for two seconds and tell Eddie how good it is. Stop subjecting your eleven followers to bar food porn.”
“These photos aren’t food porn. I have been in a meaningful relationship with each and every thing I’ve eaten. Want this last bite, Ollie?”
“No thanks. I scrounged together something before I left the house.”
“Fast bachelor dinner, huh. Beats fast bachelor bath.”
“Jukebox arrives tomorrow, fellas.”
“No karaoke machine I take it.”
“No. No singing, no dancing. Just enjoy what you spent your money on.”
“Well, I don’t break dance, but I break things when I dance!”
Marty gradually pushed himself off of the stool and performed a combination electric slide-hokey pokey.
“Marty, do us a favor. Get back on that stool and never come off it again.”
Marty was the first to notice her. In an hour, the woman–allegedly named “Patsy,” although Marty wouldn’t have bet dollars to donuts–had flirted with nearly every man in the joint. Staring down the barrel of beer three, he wondered, with an exhilarating admixture of dread and elation, if he would be her very last option.
She used too much lipstick and not enough eyeliner. The curls on her head had seen better days, but even those had been mediocre ones.
“Into a good time?”
Her breath smacked Marty’s face like a done-wrong lover. “Not particularly. I have a good woman already.”
Marty couldn’t help the short-lived leer as he watched Patsy’s leather-covered caboose shimmy over to a booth on the other end of the room.
“No great romance then.”
“She’s moved on. It is Hump Day.”
Marty turned and grinned.
“A real aginner, that one. Don’t hurt yourself on that. We need you, fella. You’re the most valuable one of all of us.”
The heartbroken guy to his left was now nursing a third screwdriver after slamming back the first two. (Patsy hadn’t even tried.)
“Are they hitting it off?”
“Seems so. Either one thing is really funny or a lot of little things are funny. Marty, you don’t have a woman good or otherwise. How dare you lie to a fine lady like that.”
The older man winked and turned to his right.
“You got a lady?”
“Any little ones?”
“No, no kids. We want our marriage to last.”
Marty nearly choked on the suds. “The secret is you being you and her being her. Whatever the hell that happens to be. The whole point is two individuals who know when to form the single entity. That’s how you get past all the crap.”
“So just be honest then.”
“Honesty is the best policy. That’s what they say.”
“We don’t have time for questions like that right now.”
The jukebox, stocked with country and classic rock, had been a boon to business, but it wasn’t until the first NFL game that Howie’s House qualified as “packed.”
(Howie was quick to point out, “This is not a sports bar. It is a bar with a television that can and does show sporting events. So anybody expecting buffalo wings or drink specials is outta luck. There’s enough of them joints around here.”)
A bar packed sick with fans of American football, ready to gorge on the Game of the Week, meant not much reason to break out the shaker and the strainer, but much use of the hand towel he kept flung over one shoulder.
“My tongue feels like soggy grits,” Ollie told the well-lit man to his left.
“A Jack and Coke will solidify it. Lemme grab us a couple.”
Ollie sat at the far end of the bar nearest the TV, practically underneath it, and while he followed the sport, he would have much preferred to be at home alone. But he wasn’t the type to tell a best buddy “no.”
Every once in awhile he turned his head to survey the scene. Mostly men, mostly young or pretty young, all from “round here,” most acquaintances at the least, patrons sick and tired of their own walls, patrons for whom the drive to The Greene Turtle was too risky.
“Here we go. Cheers and shit. What’s up, man.”
“Lot of anxiety, man. Can’t explain it.”
Ollie actually could have. But what to say about feeling alone in the metaphorical middle of a lively suds shack? He pretended to listen to his friends patter, unable to filter out the people he didn’t know.
Goddamn, nothing made him feel less useful than people.
Some looked as though they hadn’t slept in days. Some looked as though they’d slept the entire day. Some were no doubt spending the last of their unemployment check. Some stunk of a day spent in the great outdoors. They wore heavy coats over shirts with no breathing room. Some were young, dumb and beyond that–Ollie happily remained ignorant. The ones who entered the establishment wild-haired and bleary-eyed were the ones to watch.
Ollie turned his full attention to the weak-kneed dentist who fancied himself a raconteur most days, a sports expert on this day.
“Defense wins championships. Then, the run game. Third, the quarterback. Very rarely does the quarterback–“
“Scoreboard, baby! Scoreboard!”
“It ain’t over till the fat fella farts!”
“I’ll be right back.” Ollie walked nearly the length of the room to reach Howie, careful to not look down at any of the six men circling a table made for four.
“Full moon tonight,” the barkeep sighed.
“That one in the cap is Chuck Berg. Kind of a live wire. I know he’s been in a few scuffles in a few joints. Loudmouth, real disrespectful type.”
“I know the name. He tries to take a piss in my bar, I’ll stick my dick in his drink. And if anyone sees, I’ll explain whose drink it is, and they’ll say, ‘Oh wait, let me stick my dick in there too.'”
“We’re the Three Musketeers!”
“Name them! Name all three Musketeers!”
“Some guy, some other guy, and another guy. Who cares.”
Ollie frowned. “I ought go over there and smack that blond one off his chair.”
“Repress that impulse,” Howie warned, voice flatter than his hands atop the bar.
“I could be your muscle, Howie,” Ollie suggested. “I’ve been told I cut an imposing figure. Somebody even once told me I look like the guy who plays Wolverine in the movies!”
With the game out of hand by the beginning of quarter number four, Chuck Berg and the Bergettes headed out the door.
“Crisis averted,” Ollie noted, sounding for all the world like a man who lost his job, wife and drivers license in the same day. “That Doug Martin’s some kinda runner huh?”
“He ain’t better than Herschel Walker.”
“Didn’t say he was. Different game anyway.” Ollie coughed and pushed himself onto his feet. “Better in some ways, worse in other ways.”
“It’s raining like a bitch out there!”
“Huh. Never seen a bitch rain.”
Sammy’s laughter meshed with the lugubrious country and western wafting from the silver box. “Never seen a bitch rain. Ollie, you’re a funny cat. Seriously funny. Another Scotch here, barkeep.”
Sammy, generally, wouldn’t shut up. Howie had, in the first few days, let concerns simmer and stew, remembering an episode of The Twilight Zone that featured a motormouth pest who drove away a bar’s patrons with his insistence on actively existing. At the first sign of dissent and desertion, Howie’d bring down the hammer, but so far the others were willing to accept Sammy as a sort of background noise.
“I hate birds!”
“Hey Teddy. Take a load off. Take a couple.”
“I was attacked by a blue jay in my own backyard today.”
Sammy, at last, shut up.
“I was out mowing my lawn. And I can’t tell you how many times I’ve mowed a lawn in my life. You know, you do something for so long, you just do it automatically. Your mind isn’t even really all the way there. So I don’t notice that there’s a nest near the fence. Must have fallen from a tree. But there’s a nest there, with eggs, and just as I’m about to plow over it–SWOOSH! Mama bird comes right for my head! I had to take the mower and haul ass back to the shed. Took me an hour before I went back out to finish the job. Goddamn birds.”
“Blue jays are bastards. They attack other birds.”
“To kill a mockingbird is a sin. A blue jay, though, take out all of them you can!”
“Take ’em all out. The path to heaven is paved with dead birds.”
Sammy gave his chin a break and scratched at his sideburns. “Thinking of growing a beard,” he informed the bartender.
“Think hard,” came the reply.
“Jealous. How can somebody make it to their forties without having shaved their face at least once, tell that.”
“Would you guys eat chips if I offered ’em here or what. Pretzels, peanuts–“
“Just say no,” Howie tutted.
“Just joshing. I’ve never touched the hard stuff in my life. Well, I did used to snort pills when I was in college. Vicodins. Just crushed ’em and snorted ’em.”
“Did I. Gets into the bloodstream faster that way. Those days are behind me, though.”
“See, I don’t know if I believe that. I believe a person’s past tells a person’s future and therefore can never truly be behind you. History tells itself. See, I believe the people of this planet are on the eve of a spiritual reawakening–“
“Howie, next one’s a double.”
“Pay attention to the world. The climate. The lawlessness. The violence, the injustice. The end of an era is upon us. Maybe we’ll all be eradicated, maybe we’ll–“
“Oh I do not come here to hear this crap.”
“Shut up, Teddy. I’m not old, I’m just right.”
“Yeah, right out of your fiber pills.”
“Suck my fat old weenie.”
“Only if you iron it out first.”
“You gonna step in, boss?” Sammy whispered, trembling a bit.
“Man is a combative animal,” Howie shrugged.
“Some animals need to be put to sleep,” Sammy reminded the barkeep, warily eyeing the bickering men from his perch.
Whoever the woman was, she was not Patsy. Fifteen years younger, smaller in build (but not petite), a modern woman who didn’t take fashion advice from a buck-toothed stripper/mother of three, a light jacket over a low-cut shirt, moving stealthily in flats, hair parted and tickling her shoulders. She took a seat away from the group of guys, who preferred to monopolize the stools nearest the entrance.
As Howie moved to determine the nature of her poison, the men exchanged words.
“There’s a seat here.”
“Maybe we’re not good enough.”
“She could do worse than me.”
“Yeah but not much worse.”
Sammy thought her one of the loneliest-looking things he’d yet seen, under any light.
“Wonder if she’s been stood up.”
“Who in hell would make a date in this place.”
“Oh jeez, look at this.”
Sammy took a careful sip from his highball glass, passing along silent thanks to the uncle who introduced him to bourbon. He’d barely finished the thought that surely no other kid in his fourth grade class had received a better birthday present that year when he noticed Teddy’s return, his gait deliberate and expression hangdog.
“Hang in there, kid. You’ll win her heart yet.”
“Heart. I already have one of those.”
“She thinks hers don’t stink. I could have her no problem. If I even wanted her.”
“Which you don’t.”
“Which I don’t, you smirky prick. Women are more trouble than they’re worth.”
“No, Ollie, they’re worth all the trouble. That’s the problem.”
It turned out to be a mouth other than Sammy’s that almost incited the first brawl at Howie’s House.
“So Marty, how’s your brother been. Still having the heart stuff?”
“Turns out it’s not heart stuff. It’s panic disorder.”
“Panic? Well that’s not so bad then.”
“Yeah, it’s good in a way, not so good in another way, y’know?”
“Not particularly, tell that.”
“A heart problem would be scarier and more intense to deal with, but it’s easy to treat, relatively. There’s a variety of medications, well-trained doctors, procedures a person can have done. With something like my brother has, where the problem doesn’t originate from an organ in the body, it’s a ‘patient treat thyself’ thing. And that involves lots of trial and error. He has to learn breathing exercises, and avoid certain foods, and get more of other foods, and man I’m glad it’s not me. He’s gung-ho, y’know, but me, wow, I’d be like fuck it. If you can’t just give me a pill to take care of it, what’s the point of trying anything else.”
The staccato chuckles stuck in the throat of the patron two seats away from the conversation caused everyone but Sammy and Marty to lift their drinks to their lips.
“Something you want to say, Ollie?”
“All that stuff’s mental. Sounds to me like your brother has a weak mind.”
Marty’s sudden silence honed Sammy’s edge. He grew restive, eyes darting–Howie to Marty and Ollie, back, back again–fingers pulling on each other–thumb to index, back, back again–and when Marty began to speak, Sammy ceased to breathe.
The words at the beginning and end of each sentence exited Marty’s mouth like the bullets from a hitman’s handgun. He did not once deign to face the target of his ire, focusing instead on a bottle of Southern Comfort on the second shelf.
“You know what you are, Ollie. You are the program guy at the baseball game. People going into the stadium to enjoy the game walk right by you, zoom. They hear you, but they don’t listen. They never buy what you’re selling.”
Sammy leapt to his feet, approaching Ollie while never taking his gaze away from Marty. He figured no one would shake at the sight of a slightly-built fellow trying to establish a physical presence, but only a world-class hole in the ass would pummel one for attempting to play peacekeeper.
“Maybe we should head outside with this, guys.”
“Maybe we should. A nice swift kick in the ass can do a guy good.”
“A nice swift bottle to the face can do a guy good too.”
“No weapons!” warned the barkeep.
Sammy watched Marty’s fingertips as they chipped away at the damp label on his Bud bottle, rolling four little logs. His attempts to engage Teddy and Howie in yak failed. The spat had altered the room temperature, and no doddering old man could goad the barkeep into setting it right once more.
After twenty minutes, the woman had abandoned a stool for a booth underneath a Budweiser neon sign left behind by the proprietors of the seafood joint. Another two minutes would pass before Sammy rose and walked to the far end of the bar, where Teddy sat and Howie stood, arms folded, watching an obese woman in a Tweety Bird t-shirt harangue the father of her child.
“Shouldn’t mix, Sammy.”
“Not for me.”
The bartender, being quite good at his job, said nothing further.
Sammy took an audible exhale and delivered pep pats against his shoulders and elbows. Nearby, Teddy shook his head.
“Good luck, Sam. I told her I could make a chick orgasm without even touching her between the legs and got nothin’.”
Can in one hand, highball glass in the other, Sammy made his casual way over. He nodded down at Eddie, busy carving something into the table with a penknife.
Sammy slid into the seat across from the woman at the same time he placed the can down on the table. He greeted her, quick and low, noting the rigidness of her shoulders. He regarded her round face in its entirety, finding the lips and nose too thin, before deciding it a poor way to gauge a person’s receptivity.
She looked even more pathetic than his thoughts of her.
“Hope you don’t mind the company,” he said at last, feeling coals in his throat. “Hey, whoever he was, he’s not worth a hangover.”
Had Sammy not raised his antennae on the trip over, her smile would have gone undetected.
“How’d you guess? And you’re wrong. He’s the only one I ever thought could be the one.”
Sammy attempted sympathy. “Hard word to say. ‘Goodbye.’ Real hard to say.”
He took a sip of his J & C, lowering his head so she wouldn’t spy his smirk.
“Waste of time, miss. Feeling sorry for yourself, wondering why or why not. You know something else. A bar’s an okay place to start talking. But if you want to keep talking, there’s better places.”
“That’s what we’re doing, isn’t it. We can go somewhere else and get a bite as well. I don’t cook, but I press buttons like a champ.”
“Corn dogs. Although I wouldn’t be surprised if they start selling Corn Dog Hot Pockets one day. My friends say I talk too much. I need to learn to be a better listener.”
“Your friends say you talk too much? What do people who don’t like you say?”
She wouldn’t stop looking at him. “Thanks, by the way. For the drink.”
“No problem. Another one?”
“No. Four’s my limit.”
“Smart.” He’d almost added the word “girl,” before the vision of her face, creased in a rictus of repulsion, stopped him.
“I needed to get out, get away, but I didn’t feel like enjoying myself. From the outside this place seemed miserable enough.”
“We have a saying in my family: Don’t hate a person based on superficialities. Get to know them, and they’ll give you real reasons to hate them. Same applies to buildings and cities.”
Her uneven teeth glistened. Sammy wondered if the redness diffused across her cheeks and the bridge of her nose was attributable to rosacea or consumption.
For a time, the two talked hypothetical Hot Pocket fillings (some ideal, some repulsive) and Sammy imagined they were sitting across from one another on a floe in the Arctic Ocean, a ready-made bottle of Jack and Coke in his hands, one large blanket doing a better job holding them in place than of staving off hypothermia. They were killing several things, time the most valuable, waiting for the Coast Guard (or an altruistic pack of hero penguins, ready to create a bridge leading to shore), hoping for the best outcome while convincing themselves anything less was not absolutely undesirable.
She pushed the can away, ending the reverie.
“Okay. Let’s go. Corn dogs or bust.”
Sammy wondered at the likelihood of both as he followed her past the late-night detritus, steeling himself for the glances from men under the mistaken belief he’d pounced on the poor girl.
He did not know what precisely he felt, only that he felt. He couldn’t deny how superb her ass looked. (Or, how superb the skirt made it look.) He held the door open, smiling as she mouthed appreciation. He watched her reacclimatize to the world outside, the brackish air, the silent roads, the buzzing yellow and orange, and he didn’t even feel the concrete smash against his face.
The stocky man hadn’t ventured outside his half-a-home in nearly a week, the same amount of time since he’d lain prone with the intention of not rising for several hours, and he reeked of the effort to remain upright.
Who could sleep with a dwelling hell-surrounded? He could envision the flames surrounding the wooden structure, even though he could not feel them, and they were either eternal or ephemeral, with both states relative.
He tugged at the short sleeves of his light blue polo shirt with trembling hands and tried to determine the intensity of his thirst. After a day spent in a near-constant sprint, his sock-covered feet now moved across the floor seemingly covered in honey.
Bottles on the cabinet, below the sink. A place for everything, everything in its place.
Somehow, the white hand towel stayed stuck in place on his left shoulder.
Bottles on the island that belonged atop the microwave oven, which had heated his late dinner–French bread pizza, which had also been last night’s even later dinner–and it was this thought that sent his heart racing, on the hunt for a proverbial blue shell.
The knock on the door didn’t help.
He froze, save for a comically heaving chest. Visitors were rarer than a hybrid eclipse. He gulped, wiped the sweat of his face with the sweat of his palms, and addressed the door with the friendliest yell he could muster.
“Come in! Join us!”
The surprise guest entered the kitchen, eking out greetings while the other man replaced trash bags.
“Hey Teddy. Long time no talk.”
“I tried the front door, but nobody answered, so I decided to follow the light.”
“Follow the light, huh. Good advice.”
“Who else is here?”
“Just me and my shadow and my arrow.”
The stocky man stayed on the other side of the humble island, nearest the entryway to the living area, rocking on the balls of his feet, staring pridefully at the clutter between he and the unexpected visitor. The smile on his face grew incrementally as the other man peered down into a narrow sink, spying a pair of pint glasses turned upside down atop a pair of saucers.
“You look as if you’ve been bobbing for razor apples in a tub of flour.”
“I feel better than that,” he shrugged, thin cinnamon-colored hair shining from negligence. “Take a seat, Ted.”
“I’m serious, Howie. You look like you stepped in front of someone who threw the best punch of his life.”
“I’d say sorry for the mess of the place, but it’s not really my fault.”
“You had the sloppiest workplace of any of us,” Teddy chuckled.
Again the gradual grin as Teddy’s gaze dropped to the island, its wood as cheap and dark as the liquid in the bottles that beckoned.
“Liquor doesn’t go flat, does it?”
Howie emitted a muted belch. “With some liquor I’m not sure anyone would notice.”
In dead center sat one messy highball glass, a once-vital cube of ice shrunken to the size of a pebble. Six pristine cans of Budweiser sat off to the right, along with open bottles of Southern Comfort and Jim Beam, their caps removed. Off to the left, sealed bottles of Seconal and Valium, next to an empty bowl, plastic and light green. Between the Valium and the highball glass rested a single sheet of lined paper marked in blue slanted cursive.
COCKTAIL OLIVES (1, 32 OZ)
ICE (5, 8 LBS)
SUGAR (1, 4 LBS)
TOOTHPICKS (2, 100)
NAPKINS (1, 500)
“What’s that?” Teddy asked, jabbing a thumb in the direction of the paper.
“I…don’t know. Seriously. I do not recognize this.” He let the sheet of paper fall to the floor.
“Are you thirsty or what.” Howie crossed his arms, ankles and eyes.
“Um, well, maybe some water.”
“Knock yourself out. Fridge is full of that stuff. Take one, take two, hell take six for the road. I really don’t mind.” He re-capped the bottle of Southern Comfort. “See, now I’m paranoid,” he insisted, voice suggesting otherwise.
The hollow-eyed man spun the bottle around by its cap, ignoring the man sitting mere inches away, separated from him by shoddy and sordid things.
“Howie…what happened to your arm?”
“My arm. Ah, hmm. Accident I suppose.” He brought the appendage up to within an inch of his face, regarding the four inch long cuts in the same manner another person might a two-headed cat, or a three-legged ostrich. “Not bleeding,” he shrugged, snatching the towel from his shoulder and sending it over the few small patches of bare wood before returning it with a deliberate delicacy to his left shoulder.
You know that song ‘Piano Man’ Billy Joel? It has the line…’They sit at the bar and put bread in my jar.’ When I was a little boy, I used to think he meant, uh, actual bread. Like a slice or a stick. And I had the visual of it in a glass jar. And then I thought, why doesn’t my mom ever put bread in a jar like she does with peppers and tomatoes? Do you want something to drink, Howie?”
“Not anything that’s here, no.”
“How long has it been since you’ve had a good sleep?”
Howie contorted back a sneeze.
“Oh, wow. Two days, at least. When was the last Skins game? I had a nap before that one…been up since then.”
“Maybe you should see a doctor.”
“Did that already,” Howie snapped, snatching the Jim Beam bottle. “You’re the only one who’s come to check on me. Shows who the stand-up guys are, doesn’t it now.”
“Well, some people are busier than others.”
“I’m aware. Did I say they should stop everything just to see me? I just would appreciate some acknowledgement. A call. A text. My number’s still the same.” He sneezed, and damn did it piss him off.
“Do you want me to mention that I saw you?”
Howie lowered his head, and began bouncing his chin off his chest. He raised it back up in concert with his hands, joining them together as if prepared to fall to his knees.
“No. You tell them you talked to me. That’s how you put it. Don’t make this any more than it is.”
“I’m not even sure what it is.”
“A guy who’s hit a…odd patch. A guy who’s looking for a thrill. I’m into thrills,” the pale man stated, absent pride or shame. “Some cheap, some costly. No one’s getting hurt. They took my license. Okay. So there’s one less place for me to be a danger. You finished with the prying now, Mom?”
“How’s Kelly been doing?”
“She’s on a mission of self-discovery. And I’m not being a wise-ass. Kelly is actually on a week-long yoga retreat up in southern PA. Transform your body and your mind and your soul. Live in the present and determine your destiny. Which isn’t how that works, but, not my life, is it.”
“Week-long? Sounds pricey.”
“Might be. She’s the one paying. I’d rather not know all the gory details. With no one around to make me speak to the neighbors, the days are going by pretty smoothly. Good for her, though. She showed me the place online, looks super nice. There’s counselors, yoga teachers, chefs, people from all over the country. Everyone convenes in one place to…make things better. They encourage people to re-imagine their lives.”
“What if she re-imagines her life and you’re no longer part of it?”
“Cynical, man. You are a cynical man. Kelly loves us. She’ll be back and better than ever, and so will we. She’s a good woman. A good woman is…man’s best friend. I mean his real best friend. Forget dogs. I’ve been with some real loony chicks in my day, but none of them ever took a crap on my carpet.”
Howie’s abruptly-flushed face fixed into a constipated frown.
“Thanks for stopping by, Teddy, but rules are rules. This ain’t an all-night spot. There’s one across the street, if that’s what you’re looking for.”
Howie walked the half-circle to the seated man with grand purpose, stopping when barely an inch separated their bodies. He folded his arms and raise himself to full height, grimacing at the dark, tamed waves covering Teddy’s head.
The primitive pleadings from the abyss rose, steam-like, obscuring any further attempts at communication. Howie unlocked his arms, letting them fall limply at his sides. Without deigning to admit emotion, he reached behind Teddy and grabbed the bottle of Jim Beam, baptizing Teddy’s follicular abundance with its contents.
Teddy’s hands shot up in instinctive defense, a gesture that did nothing to block the bottle itself. The blow landed in a sweet spot by the standards of an attacker who sought to render mere temporary oblivion: just above the temple.
Some shards wound up embedded in skin, some caught in hair, and some landed on the tile floor, Teddy’s body soon following.
Howie began hyperventilating, the blood smell pinching at his skin, leaving traces of red and pink. What was left of the bottle fell from his hand, just missing a socked foot. He knocked his fists against his thighs, seeking nerve and succor from the buoyancy of flesh and bone.
As his gasps died down, Howie backed onto the same stool Teddy had occupied prior to being brained, the best of the few seats in the house. He could not tear his gaze from the floor; the rise and fall of the injured man’s chest left him rapt.
He felt his lungs expand and contract along with Teddy’s.
He clenched close to all over from the euphoria.
He held his breath.
His fingers tightened around the vinyl.
After half a minute, the experiment ended, the amateur scientist gaping and gleeful. He wiped the evidence of his ecstasy with the front of his shirt. (The closest it had come to being washed in several days.)
Throbbing, chilled fingers bottle reached for the bottle of Southern Comfort. He shakily unscrewed the cap and doused himself with the remaining liquid.
With chilled, throbbing fingers pressing against his temples, Howie let loose a succession of coughs closer in texture to death rattles. He cracked open a beer and chugged it down, tossing the empty can one-handed behind his head, coming closer to the trash can then he’d imagined.
He leaned back against the rounded edge of the island and plucked a phone from his jeans pocket. He dialed with the deliberation and dispassion of an EOD officer.
Howie listened to the trills and vowed he would present no great challenge.
“My friend’s been attacked. Someone with a bottle. He’s in bad shape. Hard hit to the head. Blood. A good amount.”
Several more sentences established that the man on the floor bleeding from the head was unconscious yet alive. Howie provided a name, an address, and a well-wish for the patient woman.
He waited. He chuckled, to start, at the sight of such blood in the water, then they grew in intensity, in length, in depth, until the man nearly toppled, Humpty Dumpty style, from his circular perch.
“Didn’t even have the decency to finish him off. Still with us.” Howie rubbed his hands.
“Lucky not to get his neck.”
“That’s where one of the major arteries is. Remember the Redskins player got shot in the leg by a robber and bled to death?”
“Okay, guys, fun’s done. Closing time.”
“Can I grab some glass as a souvenir?”
Jennifer Benningfield’s stories have appeared in several publications, including Black Dandy, Sonder Review, Vagabonds, and Fiction On the Web. A lifelong Marylander who has been in the (mostly) benevolent thrall of words since receiving “Green Eggs and Ham” as a birthday present, her writings can be found online at www.trapperjennmd.blogspot.com.