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The Jeweler

by Isabelle Stillman



When I was in high school, my mother started to tell us about the jeweler. He was a small man with a little grey cap and he had a store in the strip mall next to Ocean Life Hot Massage.

“But it wasn’t a strip mall kind of place,” our mother would say in the kitchen at breakfast. “It was a very luxurious, very beautiful place.” She’d pause, looking without seeing at Sally on the couch and me at the table. “Very luxurious place.” Leaning forward, as if the jeweler’s image appeared before her like a deity: “His little grey cap –” she’d tap her head in demonstration, her face dreamy – “he had his little grey cap.”

My mother was a therapist. She’d spent years working in a pastel green office in downtown Syracuse with a white noise machine at the foot of her door that was meant to keep patients’ voices from drifting into the waiting room. Years before she left her practice, the machine broke so that every few minutes the soft mush of noise turned into a string of stunted clicks, like a wind-up toy hitting a wall, after which followed a moment of silence. From the waiting room you could hear, “I’m alone” click-click-click-click “sad” click-click-click-click – my mother then – “When do you feel less alone?” Click-click-click-click. The clicking like a clock counting down her decline.

My sister Sally and I spent many afternoons in that waiting room growing up. We attended school down the street, Sally in elementary then, and I, four years but only three grades above, in middle school. When school was out, we’d walk to our mother’s office and wait for her to take us home. I always liked those afternoons: the pastel green chairs, palm fronds painted soothingly across the white walls. Stacks of magazines with white-teethed, relaxed-looking people on the covers. Sally would sit next to me, wriggling in her chair, while I tried to hear my mother’s patients through the broken machine, to piece together their stories from the flecks of voice I could catch. “I’m alone” click-click-click-click. Was it a lost love? A dead father? A spiritual crisis? Sally fidgeted while I listened for clues.

It was in that office, I realize now, that it all began. As Sally swung her legs around the chair monkey-like or put a magazine spine-up on her head to play Witch Hat, I tuned her out, stilling her limbs with an older-brotherly hand, so I could collect the facts of life that rolled like precious marbles, one by one, from under our mother’s door.

It was in that office, too, I would see later, that it all ended.

“It was too much,” our father would say of the hours Sally and I spent in that waiting room, those pastel chairs, those painted palms, when we could have been at soccer practice or studying in the comfort of our rooms. “It was too much for you. It was too much for her. It was good for your mother to step back.”

Our father was a necktied, world-certain money man, who spoke as if from notecards, carefully pre-planned, and he was as assured as he’d ever been of anything that, when I began high school and Sally neared the end of elementary, our mother should stop working.

“Too much for you. Too much for her.”

I didn’t realize then that the broken noise machine must have factored into his thinking. That our father must have noticed that our mother’s mind was going, even then.

But it wasn’t just the machine. It was also the jeweler.

“His wife was my client,” our mother would say of the jeweler in the years after she left work, leaning against the counter at breakfast. “Saadia – isn’t that a beautiful name? Saadia.”

I’d nod from across the table. By the time I was a senior and Sally was a freshmen, we’d heard the story dozens of times: Bart the jeweler had inherited Bart’s Jewelers from his father, Bart, who had passed years ago. The current Bart owned the shop, but it was run day-to-day by his wife Saadia, who was not from our town – Syracuse. She was a small crouched woman with dark skin and a tiny bun on top of her head and the rest of her long dark hair falling like a veil down her back. A nervous woman, standing behind the jewelry counter stiff and wide-eyed as if expecting a robbery.

“A soft self inside that woman needed love,” our mother would explain, and then, so as not to be perceived as violating any confidentiality clauses, “A soft self inside every woman needs love.”

Saadia saw my mother every Tuesday at noon, and every Tuesday at one, Bart came to pick her up. Each time, he carried with him, as a form of payment, a piece of jewelry.

“Paid in jewels! All those hours! Would you believe that!” our mother would say, lurching forward from the counter in awe, her gaze soaring loosely over the couch, the table, us. “I mean – the most delicate silver chain, perfect gold studs, big, bright bangles – everything – ” She’d gesture flappily as she spoke, until she lost her train of thought.

Sally, fourteen by then, delighted in the story each time, jiggling a crossed leg on the old brown couch cushions as she listened, half-eaten Pop-Tart in her hand. She was smarter than her age, but when it came to my mother, it seemed she lost all sense. She behaved every time like she’d never heard the story, took in my mother’s performance as if she were front-row at a pop star concert. “Everything!” she’d echo, and her excitement seemed to increase that of my mother.

“He had the most wonderful things,” she’d continue, arms going wild again.

Our father, at the table next to me, focused on his newspaper as long as he could.

“The most wonderful things,” and around this time, I’d stand and reach for the coffee cup in her hand. While Sally urged her on and my father tried to ignore it, I stayed in tune with what our mother needed: I was good with clues, with knowing before it happened that, lost in the story as she was, the coffee cup would soon drop. “Anything you can imagine –” I’d carve the cup from her palm – “there’d he’d come, walking into my office to find his wife –” place it far back on the counter – “little man with his little grey cap –” sit back down – “with a shining gold necklace or a magnificent pair of –”

And invariably, then: “Valeria, please.” My father would speak quietly, jaw set, eyes calm.

She’d look at him, and her face would shut. “Oh, Bill,” she’d say, turning to grab the coffee cup and slam it into the sink. “You don’t know anything.”

Our father would look back at his newspaper. From the unwavering nature of his demeanor, I picked up that he actually did know something: that he knew Bart wasn’t innocent, and, perhaps, that our mother wasn’t either. Though I didn’t have enough clues to deduce it on my own, my father’s assuredness was clue enough, and so, through high school and after, I believed him – about our mother’s illness, her possible affair – and I copied his behavior: a restrained presence, a diverted attention.

When he told us she wasn’t going to work anymore, I didn’t ask questions.

Home seemed a better place for our mother anyway: afternoons in the backyard instead of the office, with Sally instead of patients. The two of them finger-painted or strung leaves from the large oak tree with fishing wire to weave into their hair, a boom box tossed in the grass nearby. They’d dance around the yard like the founding members of a two-person free-to-be commune, until my mother, hit by a force from within her own body, would suddenly stop. She’d sit on the grass, her face stiff, a fuse blown in her mind. Sally would sit beside her, petting her hair, humming.

Sometimes I’d overhear them through my upstairs window. As I filled in college applications or finished calculus homework, their laughter would come ruffling through the branches of the tree, and then, in the space of a moment, evaporate into a hole of silence: something in my mother’s mind was broken as the white noise machine. Occasionally, in her moments of blankness, my mother would speak: “Saadia,” I’d hear through the window. “Such a soft self inside.”

She showed it to us once – the jewelry. Sally came bounding into my room one evening at the end of my senior year, fishing wire spiraled about her legs and arms, like an unlit Christmas tree, yelling, “Charlie! Come see it! Come see!”

Our mother took us into her closet and opened a large cabinet. Inside was the door of a safe. I remember, as my mother’s fingers smoothly spun the lock to each exact number, wondering what exactly her sickness entailed. And then she opened it.

Inside, rings pooled in a cluster like some ocean-floor moss next to stacks of necklaces sliced away in thick velvet boxes. Bracelets tangled together like they weren’t worth hundreds of dollars. As I stared, a surprising anger rose inside me. Her fingers tinkled softly over the pieces as if they were piano keys she didn’t want to sound, and as I watched, I began to feel the shamelessness of this gesture, the shamelessness of her repetition of the story, of her very being. The jewelry laid plain seemed to confirm my father’s theories: the diamonds as blatant as a naked body, amulets as enigmatic as dementia.

I blurted: “But what about us?” What I meant, I think now, was What do I do with this information?

But my mother only laughed. “It’s all for you,” she said as if what I’d said were a joke we were all in on.

Sally had been peering into the safe, nose to a blue-gemmed cuff, but at this she stood back and looked at our mother. “It’s for us?” she said.

Our mother seemed delighted at our lack of understanding. She took Sally’s young face in her hands. “I’m saving it,” she said as if bestowing a blessing. “For you.” She looked over at me then. “For both of you.”

“Why?” I said.

And her bright face darkened again. “In case!” she said, her hands gripping hard on Sally’s face, her arms rattling in emphasis. “In case you lose everything!”

#

They say sons fall for women like their mothers. But years of my father’s example had taught me to keep a quiet distance from unpredictability, from hints of the unstable.

Emily was nothing like my mother. She was of generational Boston stock, born and bred in a loud-talking middle class family who prided themselves on their what-you-see-is-what-you-get way of being. Her father was a callused-hands man with a loud voice and a louder laugh, and the only person Emily respected more than him was her mother.

“She lets you know exactly who she is,” she said on our first date in a run-down bar near our small New Hampshire college. “And never lets you forget it.” I remember the pride in her eyes: it was that sense of selfhood, that unapologetic strength, that I wanted.

I met Emily’s parents, Jimmy and Josie, several times – Parents Weekend our sophomore year, just after we’d gotten together, again the next year, and again at graduation. Each time I saw them, I became more certain that Emily was the person I wanted to be with and that her family was the one I wanted to join: they were brash, boisterous, secret-less. With everything on the table, there were things I could join in on, be part of. It was a great relief after years of listening through the machine or through the window.

There is a picture of the four of us from graduation, Emily and I packed snuggly between Jimmy and Josie in our blue-black robes, Josie holding a cigarette at the hip of her Marshalls jeans, Jimmy’s hand firm on my shoulder. Their smiles big and unyielding. Emily’s long brown hair fluttering across my chest. And there is a picture in my memory of the other side of the camera: my father standing stiff, his tie neat. My mother at his elbow, her eyes not on us, but the sun in the trees above our heads, her face long. Sally holding the point-and-shoot between our two families, telling everyone to smile.

Sally remained that connector. When I left for college, still uncertain of what to do with the information the jewelry had exposed, I didn’t know how to talk to my father or my mother. My father was so practiced, so prepared – it made you nervous just to stand before him; it made you nervous to have any questions, any holes, when he was so answered, so cohered. And my mother – she had so many holes you didn’t know which one to address first: so many holes that I feared, I think now, they might have been contagious. So I kept away. I wondered silently. Of him – What are you doing? Of her – what did you do?

But Sally was untroubled by it all. Where I remembered the waiting room as the before time – before, when our mother was fine – Sally remembered it as a friendly after-school activity. Where I remembered the kitchen counter and the story of the jeweler as a conflict – my mother burning in her own sick world, my father scorched against her – Sally remembered it as amusing family lore. To her, she and our mother in the yard was how it had always been. The jewels, the broken machine, the leaf dancing, our mother’s lost moments: these were the facts of her childhood, rather than the shocking changes in it. And with this definition of home in her mind, she could never understand why I left.

“Is that really the right place for you, so far away?” she said to me over the phone three weeks before my college graduation. Emily and I were planning to move to Los Angeles: she wanted to make it in the movie industry, and I wanted to be wherever she was. We’d found an apartment online and leased it without seeing, planning to pack up whatever we could fit in Emily’s parents’ old Taurus and drive cross-country the day after graduation. “Is it really the right thing for you and Emily?” Sally’s voice broke with the staticky cell reception in our kitchen at home.

“Yes, Sally,” I said. “You know Emily and you know me. This is right.”

It was – I was sure. Emily was the right person, and I’d known as much since our first date – we both had. The day before she’d affirmed it again. I’d asked her over dinner if she was nervous. “Not at all,” she’d said, pulling back her dark hair before leaning into a plate of spaghetti. “It’s gonna be a great adventure!”

 “You don’t need to worry about me,” I told Sally. “I’m sure this is the right choice.”

She sounded defeated, grumbling. “Well I’m not worried about you,” she said.

“Mom is gonna be okay,” I said. Sally had just finished her freshman year at Syracuse University, which wasn’t more than ten minutes from our house. She’d stayed close to home so she could take care of mom, going home most weekends and driving her to doctor’s appointments when our father was at work. In 2nd grade, Sally got a perfect score on a state-wide examine that enabled her to skip 3rd grade: she’d always been a bit older than she was supposed to be. “She’s on all the right meds, right? You and Dad take good care of her,” I said. “And I know she would want me to pursue life with someone I really love and trust.”

“Charlie ­– ” Sally started. But I didn’t want to talk about it. I knew what she was going to say – that I hadn’t always been there – and it was true. It was fair for her to want me to stay closer to home. But I was twenty-two years old. I had career ambitions in investigative work, and relationship ambitions with Emily.

So I interrupted my sister – my smart-beyond-her-years sister. My sister who had been there all along. “Sally – trust me,” I said. “I know what I’m doing.”

#

By the next summer, Emily and I were settled in downtown LA. Our first year together had been perfect. We woke up early and went to our respective workplaces, saw friends on the weekends, and didn’t get sick of each other, even in our 300 square-foot apartment. We fit a double bed in the corner with enough space to open the door to the bathroom and the door to Emily’s closet. I kept my clothes in bins under the bed. We had a second-hand futon that served as a couch and a guest bed, and a little bistro table where we ate meals and chopped ingredients when the counter was crowded with drying dishes. The picture from graduation sat on the small window sill above the narrow kitchen counter, my makeshift family of four filling the hole my mother and her threatening coffee cup left empty.

We were tight on money, as most young couples in LA are. I’d found work interning at a small private investigation company, and Emily was job-to-job on any set that would take her, but we were still scrimping. It was the type of situation – jerry-rigged clotheslines, poster corners peeling off the walls – that we’d look back on in twenty years and think of as romantic: how little privacy, how much love. But I knew this kind of living couldn’t last long. Emily worked hard, but her industry was tough: it could take her years of entry level work to make real money. I knew she wouldn’t want to wait that long to have a bigger place, nicer things – a wedding, a child. My company had possibilities for promotion, but if I wanted to make enough for two, I’d need something else. I know I shouldn’t have, but in the back of my mind, like the shameful story itself, I kept the thought of the jewelry. In case.

Sally came to visit us at the beginning of June. Her school year was over and she had a week before she started a summer job at a company in downtown Syracuse – something with facts and figures in the non-profit world.

When she first saw our apartment she said, “Isn’t this spacious.” She looked at me sarcastically. “And more expensive than, I don’t know, Syracuse.”

“The things we do for love,” I teased.  

Emily smiled.

We took her to our favorite places that week – the taco stand down the street and the free outdoor movie night in Echo Park. She went to work with Emily several times, joining in the mob of people on the set of a cheap daytime TV show. They came home recounting all the stories Sally told to get behind the ropes – that she was shadowing with a film class and professor was right over there or that she was bringing lunch for that cameraman, no that one, see? Sometimes Josie played the role of a fake higher-up over the phone, hamming it up to a security guard confronting Sally. They’d recount the stories to each other over dinner, laughing harder each time – “Josie in that accent to Bilman in the PCR!” – their two-person language ringing around our apartment, the sound of a real family.

Sally couldn’t come to my workplace – it wasn’t like she could watch as I filed cases of insurance fraud or helped track down a new client’s suspected-of-cheating husband. Only once did my job come up and when it did, Sally shut it down quickly. “You certainly know a lot about these strangers,” she’d said, the implication of my filial abandonment clear.

But it was fine with me – honestly, I thought it was better that way. Sally and Emily needed a chance to get to know each other. They’d met before, but only on occasions with crowds – a college football game or Sally’s high school graduation. During Sally’s graduation party, Emily had spilled ketchup on her shirt and Sally had taken her to her room to borrow a clean one. I remember watching them walk down the hall to Sally’s room from the kitchen, hoping they’d take their time coming back, get to know each other a bit: I wanted Sally on our side of the photograph. And now, that was happening.

One night, we sat on the unfinished roof of our building drinking cheap wine from plastic cups we’d gotten free from college events. Emily told a story about Josie and a stranger who had parked his car in their driveway. Her family had just celebrated Emily’s tenth birthday with a Luau themed party, and Josie, frugal Bostonian that she was, had saved the fake grass skirts, the flower leis, the crepe paper pineapple streamers. When she saw the foreign car in their drive, she’d run fuming into her storage room, pulled out the decoration boxes, and, screaming obscenities for the neighborhood to hear, attacked the car with Hawaiian décor. She knotted the wipers with deflated flamingo bodies, threw handfuls of powdered fruit punch across the windshield, stuffed pink and yellow leis in the tailpipe. Covered the roof of the car with the skirts of sheer plastic green grass.

When the driver came back, she was standing beside her masterpiece, smoking.

Emily doubled over recounting it, her dark brown hair hiding her face. “So she looks at the guy and she says, ‘We didn’t expect you at the party, but we got you some favors anyway.’ And he can’t speak he’s so stunned! He just gets in and drives his little party car down the street.”

Sally laughed, her crisscrossed legs bouncing with joy, like a child playing butterfly at circle time. “Josie is amazing,” she said, and then added, looking knowingly at Emily: “Moms – their own little worlds.”

“Tell me about it,” Emily said, taking a sip from a Spring Fling 2006 cup. “That’ll be us one day.”

“We’re well on our way,” Sally said and clinked her cup in response.

Sally and I talked about Mom only once during that week she was visiting. It wasn’t that the topic was off-limits, but I was nervous that if I brought it up, we’d only revisit the same unproductive tension about my leaving home. One day, Emily had a pre-dawn call, so Sally and I had breakfast, the two of us, she on the futon, legs fidgeting, me at the sink, pouring mugs of coffee.

“Does Emily know about mom?” Sally asked. Sally wore a faded Syracuse Orangemen t-shirt and had her legs tucked under a fleece Red Sox blanket Josie had given us when we left – her form of a blessing. I found this perfectly right – an element from each of my lives merged into one story.

“Yeah,” I said. “Of course.”

“Like – everything?” she said.

I took a sip from a mug and looked at her. “Everything,” I said. I shrugged to show her there was nothing loaded in this – what was mine was Emily’s. We didn’t have secrets.

Sally face was focused, pondering. I could see the 2nd grader, her neat scratch paper, her accurate bubble-filling.

She adjusted herself on the futon, took a careful breath and said, “Do you ever wonder if you know everything about Emily?”

She had stilled under the blanket. If there’s one thing you learn in investigative work, it’s to study body language: Sally’s stillness was a clue. Sally was never still.

I waited for a moment, then I said, “No. Why would you say that?” My voice was calm but purposeful. I thought of my father at the kitchen table, his newspaper, his proverbial notecards.

Sally’s stillness broke. She wove her fingers through her hair as she looked over our apartment: the alarm clock on the floor, the laundry bag hung over the closed door of Emily’s closet. She reached for her phone and spun it in circles against the surface of the futon. Her voice came out nervously.

“Well you know what mom would say,” she said. “Every woman has a soft self inside.” She smiled nostalgically, as if we were sharing a happy memory together. The mug felt suddenly familiar in my hands. “Emily. . . ” Sally trailed off like our mother, eyes floating around the apartment, and, as I set the mug down on the counter so I wouldn’t drop it in shock, I realized the scene of our adolescence was replaying. The soft self, the kitchen counter. Except one character had changed.

“Emily isn’t Saadia,” I said, and at the same time, Sally finished her thought: “She’s no different,” she said.

We looked at each other for a moment. Then Sally cleared her throat. One of her legs began to jiggle.

I reached for the mug again, my hand still shaking. “Emily,” I repeated. “Isn’t Saadia.” I was still trying to grasp what my sister was saying. Did she know something about Emily that I didn’t? Sure, they’d spent time together this week, but Emily had been mine for years. Emily wasn’t Saadia, wasn’t some fearful woman with a secret inner self: that’s what I’d always loved about her. Besides, we shared 300 square-feet of space – there wasn’t any room for secrets. She and Sally might have begun to make their “own little world,” but it couldn’t be anything like the world Emily and I had.

And then the clues hit me: Sally was looking at her phone, away from me. She was nervous: she was bluffing. There was nothing I didn’t know about Emily, but I did know that Sally resented my apartment, my job, my leaving her and our mother at home. She didn’t know any secrets, but she wanted me to believe they existed. To doubt Emily. To drive a wedge and get me back home.

I took a calm breath in and out. “Sally,” I said, and when I spoke it was my father’s voice. “I know you’ve always been against my moving here. I know you want me to be home with you and mom and dad. But it’s not fair for you to make things up to get what you want.” I looked at her square, feeling his necktie encircle me, challenging Sally to question, to find a hole.

When she looked up at me, she was smiling. Her old entertained self. Her battle attempted and lost, she could be my little sister again. She laughed. “Okay, Charlie,” she said. Her leg shook.

#

I’d learned in the waiting room of my mother’s office how to listen. How to get the deeper story from the surface-level clues, how to see behavior as information rather that grounds for judgment. I used these skills in my work every day, and, now I used them on my sister.

I had no grudge against Sally. I understood that she was lonely at home, that she was tired from years of managing our mother’s sickness. In all that time, she hadn’t had a significant other, a partner, even many friends. She wasn’t malicious – she just wanted her older brother to come home.

Even so, I felt strange after she left. Emily talked on and on about how much fun they’d had, and I couldn’t bring myself to tell her what Sally had done behind her back, how my sister had besmirched her new friend, wielded her like a shiny new weapon in a years-long family fight.

“I’m glad you two became so close,” I said after Emily played a new song over our little speaker, telling me that Sally had shown her the artist.  

I was working on a case at the time – a new one that had our whole office, a small firm with little reputation, involved. Some Hollywood CEO claimed he’d been conned by a mail-order bride company, that he’d sent money overseas and the woman who arrived wasn’t what he’d ordered – she neither resembled the pictures nor behaved as he expected. He’d hired investigators to try to prove that she’d scammed him, and chosen our firm specifically because the whole thing – ordering a wife, getting what he called a “dud” in return – wasn’t a good look for him, and he didn’t want anyone to catch wind that one of the big firms was working for him.

I found the whole thing fascinating – the twisted concept of marriage that some people have, the idea that you can buy a relationship – and I was surprised and honored when my boss asked me to take shifts tailing the CEO. Our best people were on the wife, but we were suspicious of this guy – the fact that he’d come to our company was red flag enough. And I have to say, I had that feeling too: the feeling that he was the culprit. That he realized he’d made a mistake in his marriage and wanted us to fall for his story and get him his money back.

I thought the case would be a good entry – a way to reset between Sally and me what hadn’t been the sweetest parting.

I called her from my car as I sat outside the CEO’s office. It was noon and the street was mostly quiet. There were palm trees and sunshine and it smelled alternately of flowers and germy air. Women walked past in shiny high heels with matching purses and I thought of Emily’s closet at home: muted colors, worn jeans. I was overwhelmed with gratitude daily for everything she was.

“Hi, Charlie,” Sally said when she picked up. She sounded normal. “How are you?” Something clattered in the background and I heard our mother’s voice. “Hang on.”

It was a Tuesday, in the middle of the afternoon, and Sally was home.

“You’re not working?” I asked when she came back on the phone. I hadn’t thought before I spoke and my voice came out sharply, accusing – what was she doing there?

“Yeah, I just took today off,” she said. She seemed not to have heard any kind of tone in my voice and instead lowered hers. “Dad said she wasn’t doing well and wants her on some new medication,” she said, and I could hear her eye roll. “So I guess I’m taking her to another appointment.” She said appointment like I knew what she meant.

“Okay. Well. Keep me posted,” I said. I didn’t understand what Sally thought her role was. Our mother needed a doctor, not a soon-to-be-unemployed daughter. Maybe I’d missed the last years, but I was there when it all started: I knew enough. “And listen to Dad.”

“Okay, Charlie,” she said flatly. She turned to say something to mom in the background again. If there hadn’t been tension when she picked up, there was now. I took a breath as she dealt with whatever our mother was doing. Muffled voices, the swishing of a blanket or towel. Sally’s laughter, sweet and clear. I didn’t want to be mad at my sister. I resolved not to push it any further: I’d go back to my original plan.

When she came back on the phone, I told her the work story. The CEO, the mysterious wife. No names, no specific facts, just the broad strokes. That I had a hunch it was him.

“Wow,” Sally said, her voice easy again. “Sounds familiar.” She laughed.

For a moment, I thought she was making another dig at Emily and me. “It does?” I said, ready to stay measured this time.

But my sister surprised me. “Reminds you of Bart, doesn’t it,” she said.

The image of the jeweler came back to me: the little grey cap, the waiting room of the office. Something shining from his hand. It occurred to me that, though I’d never seen him in that waiting room, I could picture him there clear as memory. “I never thought of it like that.”

“Like what?” Sally laughed as if I’d meant to be funny.

“I guess I – ” I started to say.

“Charlie,” she said teasingly scolding, then paused, waiting for me to take it back, to say that I’d known whatever it was. “Saadia was a mail-order bride,” she said gently, as if breaking bad news to a child. “Bart wasn’t ‘happy’ with her. That’s why she was so sad. That’s why she went to mom.”

Someone came out of the office building then. I sat up in the driver’s seat to see and realized as I shifted in my shirt that I’d been sweating.

“Of course,” Sally said, her logical self again, “he barely knew her at all.”

People were pouring out of the office now. It must have been lunch time, or else I hadn’t noticed them before.

It seemed now that I may not have noticed anything at all.

“I’ve gotta go, Sal,” I said. “My guy is coming.”

“Good luck!” she said. “And tell Emily I say hi and hope she’s doing well with everything, okay?”

“Sure,” I said. I was now in a full sweat. The sidewalk seemed suddenly to overflow with blurry faces. The CEO must have come out, and I must have missed him, even though I’d been watching the whole time. Where could he have gone?

And what was ‘everything’?

“Love you,” Sally said.  

“You too,” I said.

I drove around the block, trying to spot him among the faces I’d missed. Nowhere. He could have left the office hours ago, I realized, and I wouldn’t have known. I pulled over again and took out my phone to call Sally. Maybe she knew where he was, if she knew so much. If she knew everything.

But I couldn’t call. I couldn’t admit to her that she might be right – that she might know something I didn’t.

Instead, after a few minutes, I pulled away from the curb. Emily was working on a shoot at a studio nearby, and I thought maybe I’d bring her lunch and surprise her. But as I drove in her direction, I realized I wasn’t stopping for lunch. I wasn’t looking around for cafes or taco trucks. I was just going to her office, pulling in the parking lot, and circling to find her car. Wondering what she was doing inside. Wondering if she was there at all.

#

“She’s wearing it,” Sally said over the phone a week later. “She’s taken it all out of her closet and is wearing it all at once.”

She was laughing, that tone of amusement that her voice, I was beginning to notice, often had. Had she always been so entertained by the world? So unconcerned?

“What?” I said. I was in my car again, outside a restaurant this time. It was a fancy Italian place with a patio shaded by an ivy-covered trellis. The patrons had shiny hair and sat in groups of two and three, and above them little white lights dripped from sprawls of ivy like tiny stars. It was lunchtime. Garlic and tomato wafted through my cracked window.

“The jewelry,” Sally said emphatically.

“What?” I said again.

“She’s having so much fun, you should see her. She’s taken it all out of the safe and is dancing around in it.” There was music in the background, something with a xylophone and a low smooth voice. “Yeah, mom!” Sally said. I could picture them in the backyard, boom box on its back in the grass, oak leaves on wire woven in their hair, and jewelry, hundreds of dollars of jewelry, flung onto paint palettes, lost in a leaf pile.

“Sally, are you serious? That stuff is – valuable.” I had stopped myself from saying what I meant – ours. That stuff is ours. In the past months, the jewelry had been on my mind more and more. Emily was working so hard and making so little. In the mornings, she left for work without saying anything, too tired to talk. At night, she stress-cleaned, organizing and re-organizing kitchen cabinets, bathroom shelves, her closet, shifting our tiny table six inches to the right, six inches back to the left. She called Josie frequently, saying hello in a sweetly quiet voice, stepping outside to talk. I could tell she was tired of our tiny space, tired of entry-level work, and I needed to relieve her stress, to make her happy. I needed to provide. “Where’s Dad?” I said.

“She’s so happy!” Sally laughed again, but I didn’t understand what was so funny. Was this her way of trying to get me home again? Was this carelessness with valuable things another manipulation? She cheered for our mom again. “So, how’s the case?”

“Is the medicine not working?” I said. I couldn’t get the image out of my mind – my mother, tangled in leaves, dancing with her eyes closed, dropping a pendant necklace, my future with Emily, stepping on it. Our in case crushed.

In the background our mother said, “Who is that?”

“It’s Charlie, Mom,” Sally said. “I told him you’re dancing.”

“What does Charlie know about dancing!” Her voice had drifted away, back across the yard. I wondered which pieces she was wearing. Maybe it wasn’t all of them. Maybe only the cheap ones.

“Sally,” I said, “the medicine. It’s not working?”  

“What?” Sally said. She’d called to our mother again, drowning out my words. Then she said, “I wish you guys could see her. She was playing Witch Hat earlier. Emily would love this.”

The music got louder then and Sally seemed to forget about me. I thought again about the circumstances of her calling – the type of situation she’d wanted me to see, the reality of our mother’s illness laid out, again attempting to pull me home. But then, the joy in her voice. She sounded like Mom describing the jewels at the kitchen counter: overtaken by her own dreaminess.

“I’m sure she would,” I said. Sally didn’t need to know that I had no handle on what Emily would love anymore. “I’m sure she would.”

I looked out my car window. A waiter in a crisp white button-down walked across the restaurant’s patio, four bowls of pasta cradled in his arms. He presented them to a table of bright-blonde girls.

Sally laughed again, and I scanned the patio. Blonde, old, male.

Emily must have been seated inside.

#

I shouldn’t have kept following her but I did. To studios where she worked and to lunch and dinner breaks. She went to restaurants for most meals, I learned, and I wondered what she ate and how she paid. If she stuck to small appetizers to save money, if she was hungry after the meal. I snuck protein bars into her purse in the mornings and found them there still wrapped the next day. In early July, I followed her to the beach on a Friday afternoon. She was meant to work all night, which wasn’t unusual. The project, she’d said, was big and exciting – it might be her ‘break,’ she said, and I wondered, because I had started to wonder at everything about her, if people in the real movie business actually said that – if they actually referred to their ‘break.’ Or if, perhaps, her work, her industry, were all a lie. When she talked to Sally, did she call it that? When she talked to Sally, did she talk about her job at all? About me? About mom?

That Friday, she sat at the beach in her car, alone. She never got out and she only rolled the windows down a crack. The waves crashed rhythmically, a white noise machine, unbroken, unclicking. If she was waiting for someone, I didn’t know. If she came because she liked to see the ocean, to watch the waves through her windshield, I didn’t know.

Once I’d seen the jeweler at the grocery store in our town. He was guiding a six-pack down the conveyor belt, unsmiling. The grey cap was pushed up his head and a red line from its elastic bisected his forehead. I could picture my mother’s hand miming on her own head – “his little grey cap.” I was leaving the store when I saw him, and when I got out to the parking lot, I saw Saadia, sitting alone in a turned-off car, waiting.

At home, Emily was stressed. In between organizing and re-organizing, she consumed herself in emails and job postings, cross-legged and bent-backed on our bed. She’d sigh heavily as she lifted her clothes off the rack yet again, then laugh at herself, shrugging off her anxious behavior as she began to rearrange her clothes by color instead of occasion. She called Josie often, checking in, clearly homesick. I tried to suggest plans outside of the house – tacos or movies or a cheap bottle of wine – tried to remind her that everything we were doing, even the hard parts, were part of the “great adventure” she had envisioned. She’d smile and nod and go back to her clothes, worrying over them as if tasked with packing for a month-long vacation. I didn’t ask her if going to the beach would help her unwind, didn’t say we could even stay in our cars and just watch. I ran out of things to say at all. I longed for my father’s notecards, for his advice. But I didn’t know how to ask him for help, didn’t want to show him the holes that had formed in my plans.

On the phone one night, Sally said our mother had started writing postcards. I didn’t ask about the jewelry: I didn’t want to sound worried. I was at the tiny table, the phone on speaker while I chopped an onion.

Emily sat on our bed, bent over her screen. “Oh, write me one!” she said into the phone.

“Of course,” Sally said. “You’re on the list. We’re collaging them so we’ll put some movie stars on yours.”

“You know me well,” Emily said. “Josie too?”

“Yes, of course,” Sally said, her voice softer. “Baseball for her.”

Emily sighed. “Thanks,” she said.

I looked up to meet Emily’s eyes. I wanted to say since when are you all on postcard terms? I wanted to say how can I make you stop sighing? But she didn’t look back. Instead I asked Sally, “Who else is she writing?”

“Oh, you know, all the gals. Here, she can tell you.”

And then the phone was on speaker and my mother’s voice came through. It was wiry and high, taut with joy, and I realized how long it had been since I’d heard it. Months. Many of them.

“Hi, Ma,” I said. “How are you? You’re making postcards?”

“Charlie!” she said, loudly, in a way that I could tell she was in motion, reaching for glue or a magazine and scissors. “We’re making postcards.”

My knife stilled. My mother on the phone – she sounded happy and young, like a child. “Who are you writing, Ma?” I asked.

“Sally and Emily and Josie,” she said. And then, she paused, and I could see her in my memory slumping down to the backyard grass. Her voice came small but lovingly. “Saadia.”

The conversation paused.

Then Sally said, “All the gals,” and clicked the phone off speaker and before I knew it the call was over.

I hadn’t gotten to ask. To say, Saadia? I hadn’t gotten a moment to realize before Sally hung up that, in her illness, my mother’s fixation on the jeweler and the jeweler’s wife must not only have persisted, but evidently deepened. It was one thing to repeat the story of a woman whose husband you’d slept with, but to write her a letter? To make her a collage? I wanted to say, Sally: the meds, the treatment – where? The onion stung. I told Emily I was going outside to clear my eyes.

I stepped onto the landing outside our door. The air was gummy, the stars distant. Inside, I heard Emily shift on the bed, heard her computer slam closed and her closet door open. I thought about the postcards. I thought about Emily and wondered what kind of adventure she thought we were on. I thought about the case – the man I’d been tailing, the one we’d thought had made up the story of his wife. We’d found instead that his actions were exactly as he’d described. He proceeded through his days normally – home to office to meeting to home – while his wife flitted across the city to places he’d never imagined, places far worse than the ones in the story in his head. While he carried on, oblivious, ignorant, she rewrote every script we had given her, changed every line, scene, and role, until the movie was her own.

#

Josie died in late September.

She’d been sick for years, since I’d known her, but I guess I never knew the gravity. When Emily told me Jimmy had called to tell her it was time to come say goodbye, I’d said, “Really?”

She’d looked back at me, curious but unsurprised.

I knew I’d messed up. I knew I’d missed the clues that Josie’s lung cancer wasn’t getting any better. I’d overlooked all of Emily’s calls home, all her sighing. I hadn’t asked. In my obsession with figuring out how to Emily happy, I had missed the evidence that told me the reality.

But I thought I could fix it. I thought I could promise her more, do better. I thought she’d want that too.

We went back East the day after Jimmy’s call. I told my boss I needed a week off, and Emily quit the job she was working on. On the plane, she was stiff, a thin sliver of limbs staring blankly out the window. There was a chill in the air in Boston and the leaves had begun to turn. Emily’s dark hair against the orange foliage made such a pretty picture I began to feel guilty I’d ever let her leave the East Coast.

Jimmy and Josie’s house was decorated. Inflated baseballs bats lay on the windowsill next to Josie’s bed and a string of pennants hung between the four-posters. Red Sox balloons grazed the ceiling.

“She wanted to make it through another World Series,” Jimmy said. “So I put out her old decorations.”

In her own home, in the role of caretaker, Emily became someone I didn’t know. She moved silently and swiftly from bedside to kitchen to grocery list to file folders. She completed tasks efficiently and without stopping, and I thought of the row of hangers in the closet, of her gazing through her windshield at the ocean, silent, alone. Seeing her here, in a home, with a family, with her father’s credit card, versus in our tiny studio with her unreliable paycheck, affirmed the decision I’d been weighing for the past months: Emily needed a real life, a real home, a real family.

I was going to propose. And then, I was going to provide.  

I had planned to leave one night after Emily was sleeping, drive up to Syracuse, retrieve a ring and the rest of what we’d need to move to a bigger place from the jewelry safe, and be back before she woke up. But when I saw her so focused, so intent, I thought she didn’t need me now, she needed me after this. I didn’t ask her, then or ever, what she needed.

I just left.

I took the rental car up to Syracuse that night, letting Emily know via text that I’d be just a four-hour drive away if anything happened.

I hadn’t been home in eighteen months, since before graduation, when I’d come to say goodbye before we drove out to LA. Sally had come home for dinner that night so we could be together before I left, and I remember her eyes were circled darkly, her face pale, and our father had said proudly, “Your sister is working hard. It’s good for her.”

This time, I arrived while they were sleeping. A light glowed on the porch, but the house was dark. It smelled from the outside like a freshly baked bread loaf, wheaty and sweet, and there was a new car in the driveway – something my father must have bought recently.

The door was open, and I remember wondering, as I pushed it open, how my father could have forgotten to lock it, but I stopped wondering as soon as I stepped inside.

The house looked like an abandoned art class. The kitchen table blossomed with colored construction paper and magazines. A pair of scissors lay open on the floor beneath a chair, and glue sticks lolled in the center of the table like plastic kindling for a fake fire. Dishes sat in the sink, piled high above the counter, and the coffee pot was still full. But the mess was only part.

The old brown couch, where Sally used to sit, wriggling while our mother told about the jeweler, had been covered in a soft pastel green, the color of the chairs in the waiting room. The walls, lit by the moon, were painted with large, soothing palm fronds.

In the middle of the table sat a card covered with glossy-papered baseballs and jerseys. “We love you, Josie,” the back side said. “We are here in case. Love, Sally and Valeria.” The last line like a known, familial sign-off.

I don’t know how long I sat taking it in but at some point I walked down the hall to Sally’s room. I tapped lightly on the door and then opened it, and a figure sat up in bed. The lump of another body lay on the other side.

Sally stood and walked softly to the door. She was rubbing her eyes and pushing her hair out of her face.

“Charlie,” she said. “What are you doing here?”

“Whose car is that?” I said.

“What?” She blinked and wrapped her arms around her body. “What are you talking about?”

“Whose car is that in the driveway?”

“Mine,” she said.

“Where’s Dad?”

Sally’s legs were jogging in place as if she were going to run away. Her face bent in discomfort. She looked up at me. “Charlie,” she said.

#

Over the next few days, I learned what had been going on in our house – the last eighteen months and the last twenty-three years. Sally had moved home a year ago, was taking classes online, had dropped out of Syracuse. School hadn’t been good for her, she said, and when Dad started to see the same things in her that he saw in Mom, he let her transfer. Dad was building a new branch of his company in Long Island, spending at first two nights a week there, now, more and more – a distance Sally said felt both right and unsurprising. She and Mom were happy: the only two members of their same old commune.

“And her medicine?” I said. We were sitting on the back porch the morning after my arrival. Sally had made coffee and was toasting Pop-Tarts. Our mother had hugged me that morning when she woke up and was now digging in the backyard at some rows of herbs.

Sally sighed. “Charlie,” she said. “Look around you.” I did: the leaves beginning to fall and pile under the old oak tree. The hem of our mother’s dress dusted with dirt and the refuse of a fall garden. Xylophonic music in the background since we’d woken up, like jovial white noise. “Mom was never on medication. I never took to her those doctors. She’s not crazy.” Sally watched as our mother knelt over a tomato plant. “She just needed. . . ” She gestured to the coffee cup she’d poured for our mother that sat on the table between us. “To hold her own coffee cup,” she said. “To have her soft self loved.” She looked up at me. “As we all do.”

I was beginning to understand who we were. The postcards, the texts. It was all of them. My mother dug the dirt at the base of the plant with care, precision. What had seemed like a lost mind now stood perfectly stable in front of me: all the inner lives I have never known – my mother’s, Sally’s, Saadia’s. Emily and Josie’s. All of the leaves and collages.

“I thought she was –” I started. The word demented seemed now too cruel to say allowed.

“I know,” Sally said.

If Sally was patient with my misjudgement of our mother’s wellness, she was hysterical at my judgement of her relationship with Bart.

“Bart?” she said, choking on the hilarity of the idea. It was the third night of my stay and I’d finally gotten the courage to ask. We were sitting at the kitchen table. The papers had been shoved to one side, and Sally nearly knocked them off gesticulating in shock at my question. “Are you serious? With ‘his little grey cap?’” Her hand perfectly imitated mom’s, and she lost herself in a fit of laugher. “What in the world would make you think she would be attracted to him? You and Dad – my God. A woman talks about a man and you guys,” she trailed off, covering her face in amused disappointment. Then she looked up in realization. “Mom loved Saadia! She would never do that to her!”

From the way she said it now, I could see the hilarity in it too. All those years thinking that story – our mother against the kitchen counter, her eyes flitting through the air, her arms winging with description – was more than it was. I could have been ashamed, indignant. But what I felt was a kind of relief. I’d been fighting some silent, uncertain battle for years – Dad and I versus Sally and Mom – and I didn’t need to fight it anymore. Dad had given it up, gone away. Sally and Mom didn’t need to be contested or controlled anymore.

And then Sally said: “We sent Saadia a package the other day.” She was scrolling through her phone. “Look,” she said, holding up a picture.

It was my mother, standing on a curb. My mother, whom I’d come to learn in the past days was a happy woman who hummed often and listened closely and spoke kindly and clearly. Her voice the same as it had been through the cracks in the noise machine. There she stood on a curb, a hand on her hip, a small smile on her face. I thought of her behind the camera at my graduation, her eyes adrift. Here, she looked straight at the camera. At her feet was a small cardboard box. Above her, the logo of a storefront that came back to me slowly. Ocean Life Hot Massage.

“The jewelry store isn’t there anymore, but we left a box in case Saadia ever goes back,” Sally said.

I felt my relief turn to sudden rage. “A box of jewelry?” I said.

“Yeah,” Sally said, happy, satisfied, as if telling me about a successful prank. “We’ve been giving it away.”

“You’re kidding,” I said. I was leaning toward her in anger, the table pressed into my chest. “That was mine. I needed that. We needed that.”

Sally looked up from the picture, unphased. “Charlie,” she said. “You don’t need anything. We sent it to people who actually might.”

I wanted to ask who. But I realized that I didn’t need to.

So I only said, “How much is left?”

And then, our mother came around the corner from the hallway. She was carrying a vase full of leaves. Her hair was long and loose like a veil down her back.

“The jewelry is gone,” she said.

“No,” I said. “No, it can’t be gone, it’s not gone, please – ”

But my mother interrupted. “Oh, Charlie,” she said. “You don’t know anything.”

#

I can still feel the curve of my mother’s coffee cup in my hand. Smooth and certain, the key to a story I’d built, written on my notecard, repeated and repeated. My mother heard what was behind the machine; I had gathered only the clues that presented themselves to me through the gaps in the noise. I had spent my life watching through the window of a parked car; she’d spent hers asking questions and listening to the answers.  

When I returned to Los Angeles, I did so alone. I did so with new knowledge and the relief and heartache brought. Sally and my mother were right: I didn’t know them and I didn’t know Emily. If my ignorance about Josie’s sickness hadn’t been enough, my leaving Boston in the middle of the night without a word certainly was. Emily was done with me and should have been. When I returned to LA, I did so alone, and I did so to leave. I’d go back home, at long last. I’d understand what had really happened, who my mother and my sister really were. I’d ask.

Josie had died on my fourth day in Syracuse. I’d spoken to Emily and given her my condolences and my love – which was real, the love. Real, if just an outline. She was staying in Boston indefinitely, helping her father with arrangements, with Josie’s frugal Bostonian belongings.

And I suspect that somewhere among those belongings, somewhere in the back of one of Josie’s closets, behind the baseball and luau decorations, was a small cardboard box. I suspect that inside was a small selection of jewelry. A bracelet, a pair or two of earrings. I suspected there was a note that came with it, folded inside one of the velvet boxes, written on a piece of red construction paper or a pretty magazine cover. I suspected as much, and when I returned to LA, my suspicion was confirmed.

In our 300-square-foot studio apartment, I packed my things. My clothes from the bins, the picture of Sally and me from the windowsill. I left the picture from our graduation behind: it wasn’t mine anymore. And before I left, I took a look in the back of Emily’s closet. On a shelf behind all the hangers sat a small carboard box. It was collaged, glistening with cartoon film reels and cutout actors. Inside sat a shining diamond necklace, a thin gold bracelet, a large black and green amulet. And folded underneath the jewels was a small handwritten note: “To Emily. In case you lose everything.”



BIO

Isabelle Stillman is a Los Angeles-based writer, teacher, and musician. Her fiction has appeared in The Voices Project and The Dillydoun Review. She is the Prose Editor for december magazine and a high school English teacher. You can listen to her music on any streaming service and follow along with her work on Instagram at @isabellestillman.



Putting the Laughter in Slaughterhouse

by Sara Watkins



There’s a dinky beige bookcase in my room. It sits directly next to the window, it’s flat top level with the sill. It makes a perfect end table for the wooden end table next to my bed. At this point, it’s basically just a mismatched table with shelves, completely filled and overflowing. I’ve always had too many books to shelve let alone count, so when I moved in I made up an order for the books; the top shelf is nonfiction, bottom shelf is fiction, and the weird extra space where the bookcase doesn’t quite meet the ground is oversized. Then, I put all the books in a big pile and sat in the middle of them for a while, because sometimes I get halfway through doing things and then I don’t feel like doing them anymore, especially cleaning. I started looking through all the books.

I collect books like most people collect pocket lint: I never know how much I have until I pull it all out to look at it. Books are way cooler than pocket lint though, especially mine. Most books have a story, that’s kinda the point of a book, but my books are special; they have two stories– the one inside, and the one I create while reading. My copy of my book is instantly more awesome than your copy of that same book because it’s mine. The notes inside it, the memories and sensations, are invaluable to me.

In an act of supreme procrastination, I decided to split the books into favorites based on my new system of of shelve-genres. “The best ones go in the front,” I said to my cat, who was supervising the entire adventure from my bed.

It was tough. Every book I own is a great book, even if I don’t particularly like it. It’s literally the brainchild of some weary author-parent, and I try not judge people’s babies: it’s bad form. That said, some books are more special to me than others because they resonate beyond their stories. I have been fortunate enough to find books that give me goosebumps just to remember. Books whose messages, stories, character, and tone all aligned so perfectly that I, miles apart and years later, thought to myself, “This is important to me.” It’s incredibly gratifying to identify a piece of yourself within someone else’s work.

So, I was sitting there holding a giant scan of Kurt Cobain’s diary when I decided this. Reading his personal journal had left absolutely no impact on my life, so I put it on the bottom of the oversized shelf, face up, directly on the floor. Feeling productive, I put all the books I’d be least likely to reread anytime soon in size order, and then pushed them all the way back to fit the others. The dinky bookcase doesn’t have a back and doesn’t sit quite right under the wall, so when all the books are pushed back, others can be slid in on top of them horizontally. All of the leftover books went in that slot, according to shelf-genre, of course.

Since then, the careful order has descended into chaos. Books are constantly pulled, marked, dog-earred and discarded in passion or in boredom. I knew things were bad when I started reaching for the books in the back, Getting them out was always a huge issue because I had to peek behind the ones in the front to see what was there. Every time, I ended up cross-legged on the carpet in the center of a pile of books. It started happening so often that my cat stopped coming to watch. One particularly bad night, I pulled out the oversized books. I don’t usually read these because they’re super niche: the giant red book copy of Kurt Cobain’s Diary, a large book of concept art for a Japanese manga that reads from right to left, and the hardback edition of a favorite comic arc. In frustration, I thrust my hand back into the shelf and stretched. There, against the wall, a small book that had fallen through the back of the shelf. I pulled it out. It was pocket-sized and red, with a yellow skull on the front. Slaughterhouse Five.

Sweet relief! From the very first time I read the very first page of Slaughterhouse Five in high school, I knew that I was in love. It was and always will be my most favorite book. My boyfriend, a grade above me, had to read it first and I’ll confess, I stole his copy. He kept it in his room, right on his wooden dresser, a red spot in the chlorine-pool blue room. It sat there, bright and bold against his black binder and his gray textbooks. At school, our English classes were in the same room, so every day I’d walk in and see rows of Slaughterhouse Five sitting in the metal cages that extended from the bottom of the blue chairs. I asked the teacher to borrow a copy but there weren’t enough to go around. Even the school library was out of copies. It was like the world was tempting me with an unreadable book, and that only made me more curious.

“Well, how is it?” I asked my boyfriend on the train home one day.

“I haven’t started reading it yet,” he said.

It went on like this for weeks! I’d see it still just sitting there, and I’d ask about it, and he’d answer nonchalantly and change the subject. Finally one day I said, “Are you guys still reading that book in class?”

He laughed but kind of strangled, like this wasn’t the first time today somebody had brought that up, and said, “We were actually supposed to give it back but I keep forgetting .”

“Just give it to me.”

He did! What a present! My goodness, the book did not disappoint. WWII, time travel, and aliens are just the start. What really gets me about Slaughterhouse every time I read it is the narrator. The first and last chapters of the book are told with the Vonnegut as the main character, because this book is semi-autobiographical, meaning it’s mostly true– minus the time travel and aliens, and fictional events. He really was a soldier in WWII, he really was captured by the Germans, he really was held as a POW in a slaughterhouse and he actually was rescued after the bombing of Dresden.

Stylistically speaking, Vonnegut makes a lot of interesting choices that stood out to me immediately; his tone is conversational, his story is discombobulated and out of order, and he uses apostrophes as quotations. It was unlike anything I’d ever seen. He describes every scene like an omnipresent ghost. Most of the book is harrowing and strange, which I think is one of the larger points of it, but, some of it is downright hilarious.

I mostly read while sitting on the train, with the little red book bent backwards in my hand, a highlighter or a pencil in the other. I’d sit and scribble notes and reactions as stops and times passed unnoticed. One of my favorite, and most marked passages, is when the narrator is describing the main character’s drunken adventure home:

                                    The main thing now was to find the steering wheel. At first, Billy                                     windmilled his arms, hoping to find it by luck. When that didn’t work, he                                     became methodical, working in such a way that the wheel could not                                     possibly escape him. He placed himself hard against the left-hand door,                                     searched every square inch of the area before him. When he failed to find                                     the wheel, he moved over six inches, and searched again. Amazingly, he                                     was eventually hard against the right-hand door, without having found                                     the wheel. He concluded that somebody had stolen it. This angered him                                     as he passed out.

 He was in the back seat of his car, which was why he couldn’t find the steering wheel.

“He’s an absolute madman!” I said to my teacher, my boyfriend, my cat, anyone who would listen. “I love it!” Every page offered some new delightful turn of phrase, apropos description, or thought provoking comment. I read it, and reread it, and even did a presentation on it. I vowed to hold onto my copy, filled with my reactions and notes. It was an oath I took seriously. I could be like Billy Pilgrim, depositing myself into random moments of time.

I don’t know if you’ve ever fallen in love with a book, but it can be disastrous. Like a lot of relationships, it’s great until it’s over. When it is, all that’s left is the memory of the anticipation, and of the understanding. You can reread it but you can never get to know the characters quite the same way as the first time. You want more but often, that’s not an option. Slaughterhouse never hurt me like that and it’s probably why I kept it around. Each page was like a long night talking, each chapter was a date. By the time I finished the book, I felt satisfied like good sex and a cigarette. But nothing lasts forever. I guess what happened between us was my fault, because I asked my boyfriend if he wanted to share.

He had a long, boring day of work ahead of him; the kind where there’s no more work to do but no one is allowed to leave, so you sit there and shake your leg like that’ll make the time pass faster.

“I will let you borrow my copy of Slaughterhouse if you want,” I offered so generously.

But my altruistic nature proved to be our downfall: that’s when things fell apart with Slaughterhouse and I. It makes sense, I’ve heard that introducing a third party to a relationship can often cause problems, but I didn’t expect that from them. They stayed together for months.

I’d call my boyfriend, who never stayed in one state for too long, and say, “you’re gonna bring him home to me right?”

“Of course, Sara,” he’d say patiently.

“Do you like it?”

“Yes, Sara,” he’d say less patiently.

“You’re not finished with him yet, are you?” I’d ask, jealous and hopeful.

When I went out visit him in whichever city it was that time, we got a hotel room situated far from the downtown area. I hadn’t been expecting that, so I hadn’t brought any books. We hoisted our suitcases onto the big bed with the wallpaper-design sheets and started emptying them out. My boyfriend slid Slaughterhouse from his suitcase and situated it perfectly on the corner of his squat end table, directly under the light.

“You brought it!” I yelled, nearly jumping onto the suitcases to reach for it.

“I did,” he said, “but I was thinking that I’d just hang on to it over here on my side for a while.”

I put my hand to my heart. “Why would you do that?”

“Well… I didn’t finish it.”

“You didn’t…finish…it?” Images of me laying curled up late at night, clutching the red book and my blanket, disappeared as the neurotransmitters in my brain popped and died in disbelief.

He burst out laughing and handed me the book. “I’m just messing with you. That reaction was priceless. Slaughterhouse was great.”

We talked about it for a while, and the whole situation got me so excited that I ended up reading the entire book again that night after he went to bed. I read it later on the plane home, too. It seemed a happy to resolution to my short breakup with Vonnegut. We continued on as if things were the same; my pencil marks still etched the pages, and my highlighted sections still shone, but I noticed the differences too; the extra tear on his back, the fading of his spine, the extra creases in his pages. He was worn and used.

When I got home from that trip, I decided to broaden my options. I collected every book I could find in my house into a giant pile and sorted through all of them. To this day, Slaughterhouse cannot be found. I’ve checked all his hiding places, travel bags and end tables, shelves and crannies. I’ve looked for him often, I’ve looked for him recently, but he does not seem to want to be found. I’ve read other copies of Slaughterhouse, I own an ebook now so this once can’t escape, but it’s not the same. I’m hopeful that one day my copy will turn up, so I can travel through time with Billy Pilgrim again.



BIO

Sara Watkins (she/her) is an editor, author, UCTD-haver, and EIC of Spoonie Press, a literary magazine for chronically ill, disabled, and neurodivergent creators. She is also a big fan of deviating from the norm for her own comfortability and entertainment. Her writing explores themes of disability and autonomy using wry surrealism and general weirdness to champion the idea that, despite our differences, we are not alone. Recent publications include work in Wordgathering: A Journal of DisabilityMASKS Literary MagazineVast Chasm, Bitchin’ Kitsch, and Unlikely Stories. Sara can be reached via www.sarawatkins.net or @saranadebooks on Twitter and Instagram.






Sliding

By Jane Frances Gilles

Monica stepped onto the boulevard, the border between the neighborhood and the park. Cool grass brushed her feet between her sandal straps. It had been mowed today, she could tell, and she worried that her sandals might get stained. Concentrating, she placed each foot straight up and straight down. For the first time ever, Mother had allowed Monica to go alone to the park. All the way there, she had imagined playing on the playground without Mother watching, cautioning.

Entering the park, Monica looked up. There were so many kids on the playground. The Smith girls were here, one Sis’s age, one her own age, and one in between. They lived five blocks away in a fancy white house with green shutters. On the monkey bars their bodies wriggled and swung as they reached for one bar, then the next. Each wore a pair of culottes, which Monica had been unsuccessful in convincing Mother to buy for her. As usual, Monica wore hand-me-downs from Sis. Watching the Smith girls, Monica put her hands in the pockets of her faded pink shorts. In the left pocket she felt a piece of penny candy she had bought with her allowance. She told herself she would eat it on the way home.

So fast as to create a blur, the roundabout spun, four children riding it, the biggest of them kicking the ground to keep it moving. After a moment Monica realized it was Ned Wood who was spinning the roundabout, his jet-black hair appearing almost blue from a distance. During the school year, Ned walked to school alone. He ate lunch alone, his dark eyes watchful. Whenever Mrs. Dahl allowed it, he studied alone while the rest of the class worked in groups. If Sis were here, she’d have a theory about why Ned Wood was spinning the roundabout for a bunch of little kids.

Monica looked to the slide, her favorite. There were two slides, actually, a small one that went straight down, and a big curving one made of hills and valleys. A set of stairs led to a platform supporting a tin roof painted yellow. From this platform, the small slide was reached. Next, a ladder led up and up to another platform, covered by another yellow roof, this one embellished with orange stripes. Here was the entrance to the big slide. Monica had graduated to the big slide last year, an achievement that brought her pride. Sometimes in bed at night, she thought of the long, twisting slide. She felt her bangs blowing off her face, felt her body lean inward and slightly back against the shiny metal, riding the curves, seeking freedom, forgetting all else.

Monica saw five children at the slide – three boys from her class and two girls from Mrs. Johnson’s class. They raced up the stairs, then the ladder, careened down the big slide, shouted to one another, and laughed in such a way that she felt excluded, even though she had just arrived, even though she knew they had not seen her at the edge of the playground, hoping to slide. Monica faced again the freshly mown grass, raised and lowered each foot with care, and followed the sidewalk home, where Mother would be waiting.

§

“How was your time at the park?” Mother’s polka-dot house dress flared as she turned from her work in the kitchen. “You certainly weren’t gone long.”

“Okay.”

“Okay? Just okay? What does that mean?”

Monica took a halting breath before explaining, “There were too many kids there.” Her eyes dropped, her mind swirling like the pattern of the kitchen flooring before her.

“Too many kids? How can there possibly be too many kids at a park?” Mother turned to the kitchen counter. “You should see each of those children as an opportunity for friendship.”

“I’m sorry,” Monica said to Mother’s back.

Busy preparing apples for pie, Mother continued, “Your sister would find joy in a park full of children. Happiness! I only wish you’d have half her spunk.” Sliced apples made a gentle plopping sound as Mother dropped them into the water in the big yellow mixing bowl. “Did you take off your sandals? I don’t want dirt traipsed through the house.”

“Yes.”

Monica backed out of the kitchen, waiting to see if Mother had more to say. When Mother began humming to herself – no recognizable tune, just pitches strung together in her lilting soprano voice – Monica felt safe exiting the room.

Sheltered within the walls of the bedroom, door ajar as Mother expected, Monica sat on her bed, one of two twin beds in the small room. She glanced over at Sis’s school notebooks stacked haphazardly next to her bed and thought about the day when she would be old enough to have a separate notebook for each subject. She lay back, sinking into the chenille bedspread – hers white with a design of yellow tulips at the center, Sis’s similar but featuring a bouquet of violets. Monica thought about the park. She had wanted the big slide to herself today, no one looking at her, no questions. Maybe another day, soon. As her eyes slipped closed, Monica reminded herself that she must straighten the bedspread as soon as she got up.

§

“Dear? Dear?”

Mother’s voice brought Monica from a dream: Sis on the slide ahead of Monica, gripping her ankles. Both laughing. Momentum carrying them fast around the curves. Sis yelling, “Hang onto me.”

“It’s time to set the table for dinner,” Mother said as she opened the bedroom door. “Wash your hands first. Don’t dilly dally.” She twirled on her heels, humming again, and was down the hallway in a flash.

Monica straightened the bedspread, making certain the flower pattern was centered in the middle of the bed. She paused to look at Sis’s bed, her flowers slightly askew as always. 

Monica blinked her eyes awake in the bright kitchen. The turquoise walls were brilliant in the light streaming in from the western sky. Careful to place each piece of silverware close to its neighbor without touching, Monica set the table as formally as she knew how. She folded the white paper napkins, hearing in her mind Mother’s frequent proclamation, “We may not have all the money in the world, but that’s no reason to set aside high standards.” As was the custom for the past three months, Monica set four places at the table, even though there would be only three for dinner.

“Dinner smells great! What are we having, honey?” Father strode through the back door, kicking off his shoes and hanging his hat in the hallway. “Is it pork? Smells like pork.” Like he did every day, Father greeted Monica with a ruffle of her hair and a pinch of her cheek.

“No, we’re having hamburger hotdish with an Italian twist – a new recipe from Charlene. She says it’s a winner!” Busy at the sink, Mother added, “Go wash your hands, Burton, and join us when you’re ready.”

Half seated at this point, Father stood again, winked at Monica, and headed to the bathroom. Mother put dinner on the table – the hotdish, a bowl of boiled peas from the garden, and four baked potatoes. There would be warm apple pie for dessert. During dinner, Monica and Father were quiet while Mother recounted her day.

After helping Mother with the dishes, Monica descended the basement stairs. Even though she would soon be a fourth grader and knew she should be brave by now, Monica was still afraid of the basement. She hated how dark it was, even when daylight shown through the narrow windows. Last week she had been startled by a spider crossing her path when she retrieved pickles from the pantry. This evening she walked toward the light spilling out of Father’s workshop onto the concrete floor. As she approached, she heard a hetch-hetch-hetching sound.

Monica stood in the doorway, not wanting to startle Father. She knew about the dangers to be found in a workshop. She looked over to Father’s reading chair in the corner. The seams on the seat cushion were split in a few places, and even from the doorway she could smell its musty odor. Sometimes Father let Monica sit in the chair while he worked. She would look at Father’s book – there was always one novel from the library setting on an upended cardboard box next to the chair. Monica liked paging through those novels and puzzling over big words she hadn’t yet learned in school.

The hetching sound stopped as Father took a moment to wipe his brow. Monica cleared her throat to announce her presence.

Father turned, a broad smile on his face. “Hello, sweetheart! He removed his safety glasses and walked toward her, placing a hand on her shoulder. “I’m using the plane to smooth some wood for that bench I told you about.”

“Can I watch?”

Father smiled. “May I,” he said with a wink.

“May I?”

“Sure thing. Put on these safety glasses and stand over here.” He led her to a spot on the floor at the far end of the long workbench. Wood shavings flew up and to the side, each of them catching the light from Father’s task lamp before dropping. The smell of the wood reminded Monica of new pencils at the start of a school year. Hoping to see better, she moved closer. She felt a tingle run through her, a feeling of excitement at watching Father work. Father turned his back to her, blocking the curled shavings from flying in her direction.

Finally, he turned to Monica. “Sweetheart, don’t you have some chores to do? Or maybe a good book to read?”

As she climbed the stairs, the smell of the wood and the sounds of the plane faded to nothing.

§

Coo-OO-oo-oo. Coo-OO-oo-oo-oo. Mourning doves outside her open window woke Monica the next morning. Then she heard sounds of the railyard two blocks away where Father was already at work: the chugging of idling trucks waiting to unload; a squeal of brakes, a deep rattle, and a defining clank as two railway cars coupled; and, barely perceptible, the shouts of workers above the din. Monica found the noises of the railyard comforting, a regular reminder of Father.

Mother was working at the stove when Monica dragged into the kitchen – teeth brushed, hair combed, face and hands washed to please Mother – yet not fully awake.

“Good morning, dear. There are scrambled eggs ready for you – I’ve kept them warm in the oven. Make yourself a piece of toast.”

Monica gazed out the kitchen window as she ate, watching the neighbor Tillie and her little dog Pixie. A dachshund mix, Pixie was always at Tillie’s side, following along while she trimmed bushes, tended her garden, or watered her many pots of flowers. Monica wanted a dog. She pined for a little pup who might follow her throughout her own day. Secretly, she planned to wish for a dog when she blew out the candles on her birthday cake in September.

“As soon as I have this apple sauce ready to cool, we’ll get to work. You will weed the vegetable garden today.”

First thing most mornings, Monica and Mother worked in the yard. Monica’s favorite job was watering the moss roses that rimmed the driveway. She loved tending to these many-colored blooms, each boasting a joyful yellow pom at the center. Weeding the garden was Monica’s second favorite task. She liked seeing her progress as she worked between each row, and she felt a sense of accomplishment when she finished.

Squatting to pull the weeds that had sprouted between the peas and carrots, Monica felt the prickling heat of the sun through her summer blouse.

“Remember, don’t grab at the top. Get the root! If you learn to pull weeds like your sister, you’ll be an expert gardener.”

Last summer, Sis taught Monica to weed: “Mother doesn’t like to get her fingers dirty,” Sis said that bright June day, “but it’s the only way to do it right. Take off your garden gloves, and grab the weed low, like this.” Sis’s forefinger and thumb followed the weed’s stem down and down, met the surface of the soil, then dipped slightly below, pinching the weed and pulling it straight up, root attached. “Tah-dah! That’s exactly what you want. All the whole root. Just look at the dirt under my nails – that is how you get the root. Now you try it.”  As the bright sun ducked behind a cloud, Monica moved to the next weed and squatted as low as possible, mimicking Sis. Up came the weed with the root intact. “You did it! Great job, Moo.” Proud of her small accomplishment, and happy to hear Sis use the pet name she had given her as a baby, Monica beamed.

Now Monica heard Tillie calling to Mother across the yard. “Good morning, neighbor!” Monica looked up from her weeding.

For the first time in weeks, Mother didn’t make an excuse; she joined Tillie on the driveway for a morning chat. Little Pixie sat at Tillie’s feet, seemingly transfixed by the conversation, his head snapping back and forth between the women as though he were watching a tennis match high above him. Focused on her weeding, Monica didn’t hear much of what was said. She hummed the melody of the piece she had been practicing for tomorrow’s piano lesson. Then she heard Tillie mention Sis. Monica turned her head to listen.

“Oh, we’re doing fine,” was Mother’s reply. “Just fine!”

“Well, hun, I worry,” Tillie said,” and I’m here to help in any which way I can. You and Burt have always done so much for me.”

Mother shook her head. “Oh, don’t be silly.”

“I’m not being silly at all. For crying out loud, I lost track of how many wonderful meals you made for me after my surgery last year.” Tillie reached for Mother’s hand. “Let me know what I can do for you, please. I’m an old lady, but, like a lame mare, I can still be of good use now and then.”

“You are most certainly not an old lady. Why, your beautiful flowers are the best on the block. And my goodness, just think of all you do at church.” Mother charged on: “Say, I’ve been meaning to ask about your needlepoint project. How’s that coming?” Mother had succeeded in changing the subject.

Monica went back to her weeding.

§

“Keep your fingers curved. Try to touch the keys gently,” said Mrs. Halek. Monica was playing her scales at the start of her piano lesson, her first since school was out. Decorated in shades of green, Mrs. Halek’s living room was a tranquil refuge for Monica. Of course, Mrs. Halek herself had a lot to do with that. Her warm, easy way with children made her a popular piano teacher, and Monica had the sense that Mrs. Halek actually liked her.

“Wonderful, Monica. You have been practicing your scales this summer, I can tell. You should feel good about that.” In a quiet aside, Mrs. Halek added, “Many children skip their scales. I am proud of you – scales are fundamental.”

Monica blushed.

“Now, before I hear the piece you have been practicing, I would like to know how you are doing. It has been so long since your last lesson.” Mrs. Halek turned to face Monica.

“Fine. I – I’m just fine.” Monica repeated the words she had heard Mother say so many times in the last few months.

“I want you to know it is alright to be sad.” Mrs. Halek bent to bring her face even with Monica’s. “And if you feel like crying, well, that is alright, too.”

For a tiny moment, Monica felt emotion well up. She squelched it with a slight shake of her head.

“If you ever need to talk, you can come to me.” Mrs. Halek paused, watching Monica.

Feeling Mrs. Halek’s eyes on her, Monica tried to focus on the piano keys, admiring how they sparkled in the yellow light from the lamp that sat behind the music rack, illuminating both the music and the keyboard.

Mrs. Halek waited. Monica remained silent. “Well, sweetie, you decide if or when you are ready to talk, alright?”

Monica issued a slight nod. Her thoughts went to the piece she had prepared. She had worked hard on it, practicing even more hours than Mother required, and she had the feeling it was nearly perfect.

“Shall we take out your piece?”

Monica opened her piano book to “Summer Clouds,” her first piece in the Key of D. At the start, the piece flowed beautifully. Monica remembered to sit up straight, keep her fingers curved, and hold her wrists up. She remained conscious of the key signature and the need to play F-sharp and C-sharp, not F and C. Mrs. Halek encouraged Monica with words like “Nice” and “Lovely.”

Suddenly, Monica thought of Sis. While Monica played, Sis sang along in her mind, “La, fa-la – doo, doot-doo.” Jaunty and playful, Sis’s notes didn’t match the beat of Mrs. Halek’s metronome. Monica thought about Sis’s favorite saying: “Rules are made to be broken.” Monica’s fingers stumbled at the keyboard. Her shoulders drooped. She was only halfway through the piece, and she was losing her way. Without intending to, Monica began to sing, following her sister’s lead.

“Keep going. You can do this.” Mrs. Halek’s words sounded muffled, a dim background behind Sis’s beautiful voice. Monica’s fingers sought unsuccessfully for the right keys.

Abruptly, Sis’s singing stopped. Monica stopped playing. There were four measures left in the piece. Monica’s hands fell to her lap, and she felt Mrs. Halek’s arm around her shoulder.

As Monica left Mrs. Halek’s green living room, heading for the waiting car and Mother behind the wheel, a single tear fell.

“Hop in dear. How was your piano lesson?” Mother put the car in reverse and looked through the rear window of the Ford Galaxie as she backed out of the driveway. Her question was met with silence. Mother tried again: “How did you do at your piano lesson? Was Mrs. Halek pleased?”

“I want to go to the park.” Monica’s voice was nearly a whisper.

Mother paused. She waited. Finally, she dove in again: “Did something happen?” Again, silence. “This is a busy day for me, Monica. I can’t interrupt everything to rush off to the park. Perhaps we can go another day.”

“You let me go alone before. You can drop me off.” Monica’s tone was firm, yet she was speaking so quietly, Mother could barely hear her.

They drove on, and Mother began humming – high notes, a happy melody. At a stop sign, Mother started, “I just don’t think it’s a good idea, dear. You didn’t –” Then she looked hard at Monica. Shoulders hunched, hair falling across her face, hands fidgeting, Monica was the picture of dejection. “I suppose the park might lift your spirits. But are you sure you want to go alone? You were so unhappy the last time, you went straight to bed when you got home.”

“I want to go to the park.”

Mother’s eyes widened at the decisiveness in Monica’s voice. Without saying anything more, Mother drove to the park.

Monica closed the car door harder than she should. She knew Mother did not like to hear any door slammed. She surveyed the playground. Although several young children occupied the small slide, no one was playing on the big slide. Paying no attention to the wet grass at the edge of the park, the spilled sand around the sandbox, the bare ground near the roundabout – all of which could dirty her sandals – Monica walked straight to the slide.

She climbed the ladder to the first platform. There, a little boy with black hair approached Monica. She recognized him as one of the children Ned Wood had spun on the roundabout.

“Are you sad?” He studied her face. “You look sad.”

Monica stared at the boy. His t-shirt, too small for him, was frayed at the neckline. His sneakers were stained and well worn. Monica kept staring.

The boy moved a step closer. “Ned said your sister died. Is that why you’re sad?” Monica took a sharp breath. She stepped back from the boy. His dark eyes followed her. “I was sad when our daddy died.”

Monica stumbled down the steps. She ran, arms and legs swinging wildly. For the second time that day, sounds became muffled around her, and she heard Sis singing, this time their own version of a song they had sung together years before: “Sis and Moo went up a hill to fetch a pail of water, Sis fell down and broke her crown and Moo came tumbling after. Lah, la-la-la, la-la-lah . . .”

§

Tillie’s car rounds the curve on the street adjacent to the park. Little Pixie is on her lap, tongue hanging out and tail wagging. The windows are cracked open, and a gentle breeze floats around Tillie and Pixie, keeping them cool. On the radio, Tillie’s favorite afternoon host, Joyce Lamont, is reading her “Best Buy Recipe of the Day,” Never Fail Popovers.

“Pixie, I’m going to make those popovers when we get home, Tillie says. “I’ll give you a little bite.” She giggles.

Pixie shows his appreciation with a quick lick of Tillie’s chin.

“Stay still, Pixie,” Tillie says. “No more licking when I’m driving. Those popovers will be – Oh no! Monica, no!”

Running faster than she ever has, away from the little boy and out of the park, Monica doesn’t hear Tillie’s car coming. Instead, she hears only Sis’s singing. Tillie swerves to avoid hitting Monica. There is a squeal of brakes and a crunch of metal. Monica stops, frozen in the street, not noticing Tillie’s car lodged against a light pole. Unhurt, Tillie and Pixie peer out over the steering wheel at Monica who stares straight ahead, eyes blank. Sis’s singing continues, “Lah, la-la-la, la-la-lah. Lah, la-la-la, lah-lah.”

Neighbors flock to the scene. One by one they take in the spectacle, then check on Tillie. Some of them reach into the car to pet little Pixie, who is now shaking with fear. They watch Monica, forming a circle around the scene. Approaching police sirens interrupt Sis’s voice, and Monica recalls the wail of the ambulance siren the night of Sis’s last trip to the hospital, the echo of footsteps running down hospital hallways, Sis’s moans, the beeping of a machine next to Sis’s bed, Father’s voice telling Monica everything will be alright.

Now Mother is on her knees, holding onto Monica, her face wet with tears. Even at Sis’s funeral, Mother didn’t cry, telling everyone over and over, “I’m just fine.” Monica remembers overhearing Aunt Kate’s reply to Mother: “No you’re not fine. You need to let go.” Here in the street, Mother is unraveling. But Monica feels nothing. She is lost in the heartache of having a sister who is gone and yet so present. Every minute of every day.

Monica pulls herself from Mother’s grasp, turning to enter the park once again. Mother’s sobs rise above the distant clanging of the railyard. With neighbors watching, themselves now frozen in the street, Monica walks into the park, her gaze focused on the yellow and orange roof at the top of the slide. Monica climbs up and up. She steps onto the surface of the big slide, shimmering in the sun. She sits, waits a moment, takes a deep breath, then gives herself a push. The wind whips her bangs, and Monica leans back, riding the hills and valleys, hugging the curves.



BIO

Jane Frances Gilles is a writer and former educator living in Minnesota. She holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in English education and a Ph.D. in education policy. “Sliding” is Jane’s first published work of fiction.









Stumbling Over Imaginary Chairs

By M. A. Schaffner


Every old car dies with new parts
and every one of us
looks in the mirror and sees seventeen
then, with our spectacles, a stranger.

There’s time not lost to recollection
but simply disappeared
into dimensions we forget to dream about.

One looks back from the era and asks
Have I done this before?

There it’s Twenty-Seven/Fifteen
everything sleek and streamlined as death
yet mentally cluttered in ways
that make refrigerator doors seem clean.

Now it’s winter again and one worries
about spring and having to wake up
to another day as a subordinate
in someone else’s dream, waiting for life.



Seasonal Affect


It feels like another country,
not one I’ve gone to but one where the dogs
still bother to mark all the boundaries.

It’s past football season here,
still undecided on the number of players,
or where to imprison them till fall.

Meanwhile trees have begun to plan leaves,
considering all the colors that might work
before compromising again to avoid arguments.

In the distance cars go back to work
and the planet returns to sighing.
A heavy burden of newsprint settles in.

Everything I fear has still not happened,
but I know I won’t reach the end of the book
or manage to again hear the LPs
before the turntable falls into the sun.



Seasonal Affect, Part II


Spring returns with all its obligations,
its early sun and ever shrinking night.
I can’t tell now when peace will book a stay
but I guess we’ll save some money on lights.

While making this morning’s halting run up Taylor,
I crested Seventeenth and saw two blocks ahead
a white-tailed fawn flitting across Nineteenth.
One runs to keep their vices, the other to not be dead.

It was nice to look at winter as a time
to finish what I’d left undone last year,
It’s nice to do without the sure reminder;
I’ll want the same when winters disappear.

And there’s the joke, I guess, of all ambition;
not goals achieved, but hopeful repetition.



Generation Ghost


With this morning already yesterday
and the day before but vaguely seen
through the lens of the sixteenth century
we wander in between
strange rooms on stranger missions.

Pug fur on the staircase
clouding our ascension to the loft,
a hole in the carpet revealing
six layers of fractured stains –
why would one ever want to clean that off?

Pets reigned like pashas
unbothered by books.
The mice and the wasps and fans ran free.
Drooping cobwebs graced a private history
curled in every thought.





BIO

M. A. Schaffner lives with spouse and pugs in a house built cheaply 110 years ago in Arlington, Virginia. Their work has recently appeared in The MacGuffin, Illuminations, and the anthology Written in Arlington. Earlier appearances included Poetry Wales, Poetry Ireland, and The Tulane Review. When not avoiding home repairs through poetry, M. A. wades through the archival records of the Second United States Colored Infantry (1863-66) with a view toward compiling a regimental history.








What’s In a Name?

by Graeme Hunter



1.  Graeme…

My parents had the foresight to pick out a name for me before I was born.  Unfortunately the name they chose was Lorna, which became a bit of a problem when I showed up with outdoor plumbing.  Maybe Mum and Dad were a bit hazy about the law of averages and thought that, already having two sons (David and John) and one daughter (Alison), they were guaranteed another girl.

But what’s the chances of me ending up married to someone who had also been prenatally misgendered?  Sue’s parents were anticipating a boy, and it wasn’t a boy named Sue – it was a boy named Roy.  In that case, it’s a bit more understandable, as Mr. and Mrs. Colquhoun already had three male children. 

So I was supposed to be Lorna, and Sue was supposed to be Roy.  I’d love to sign our Christmas cards that way, but I’m pretty sure that nobody would get the joke.  “Honey!  Do we know a Lorna and Roy?”

In giving me the name “Graeme” rather than its more common homonym “Graham”, my parents ensured that I would have to spell it out for the rest of my life.  Here’s how that works.

Person behind a counter:     “Name?”
Me:                                          “Graeme Hunter.” 
Person:                                   “How do you spell that?”
Me:                                          “Graeme?  It’s G-R-A-E-M-E.”
Person:                                   “G-R-A…” 
Me:                                          “…E-M-E.” 
Person:                                   “And what’s your last name again?”

Whenever I complained to my mum about this unnecessary complication, she told me that Graeme was the standard spelling in the south-west of Scotland, where she grew up.  And that seems to be true.  I remember being in a gift shop in Newton Stewart and seeing personalized mugs with the name Graeme, but none with its variant.  Take that, “Grey Ham”! 

In the end, it didn’t really matter which way my name was spelled, because most people called me Gordon.  In the Scotland of my childhood, that was a much more common name than Graeme (or Graham), so you can see why people defaulted to it.  When I moved to Canada, nobody called me Gordon anymore.  They called me Greg. 

Then Starbucks became a thing. 
Me:                  “A grande latte, please.”
Barista:           “Can I have your name for the cup?” 
Me:                  “Graeme.” 
Barista:           “How do you spell that?” 
Me:                  “I don’t care how you spell it!  It’s a disposable cup!” 

No, I didn’t say that.  I went through the usual spelling-Graeme routine.  When I got fed up with that, I tried using the name Greg.  But then the barista would write C-R-A-I-G.  It seemed that I couldn’t win.  Until the day a guy in front of me at Starbucks gave his name as Dave.  I had an epiphany.  Dave is the perfect disposable-cup name!  You can’t mishear Dave.  You can’t misspell Dave.  And as far as the Starbucks Corporation is concerned, I’ve been Dave ever since.

People who hear my first name can’t spell it; people who see it can’t pronounce it.  It’s not uncommon for people to phone me and ask to talk to “Grah-EEM” or “Grimy”.  Other people elect to give me a pet name.  One day my girlfriend called me at work.  The female co-worker who answered the phone yelled “Graemey!”  When I got on the line, the first thing Francine said was: “Who was that woman?  And why did she call you ‘Graemey’?”

My mother was almost ninety when she died, and to the end remained mentally sharp.  At some point, however, she lost the ability to distinguish between her three sons.  Sometimes she called me Graeme, but she was equally likely to call me David or John.  Or else she would scroll through a list of possible names, and call me Joh-Da-Graeme or Da-Joh-Graeme.  I didn’t take this personally.  I answered to David, I answered to John, I answered to Joh-Da-Graeme or Da-Joh-Graeme.  The only thing I asked was that Mum didn’t call me Lorna.   

2.         …Kenneth…

It’s a funny thing that my siblings and I all got “English” first names (Graeme is not as English as Graham, but it’s certainly not a traditional Scottish boys’ name).  Perhaps in compensation, we all got Scottish middle names (Ian, Margaret, Andrew, Kenneth).  Ian is the Gaelic version of John.  Scotland has had many famous Margarets, including Queen Margaret, who was canonized, and Mons Meg, which is a cannon.  Andrew is, of course, the patron saint of Scotland.  The name Kenneth also has an honored place in Scottish history.  According to legend, Kenneth MacAlpin was the first king of Alba, the land subsequently known as Scotland.

King Kenneth (Coinneach, in the Gaelic) was born in 810 C.E. on the Hebridean island of Iona, where Christianity had arrived in Scotland two and a half centuries earlier.  After uniting the western kingdom of Dal Riata with the eastern kingdom of Pictland, he established his capital at Scone (pronounced “skoon”), in central Scotland.  He brought with him a red-sandstone block of mysterious origins that became known as the Stone of Destiny.  Scottish kings were crowned sitting on it until 1296, when it was seized by King Edward I of England.  The “Hammer of the Scots” put the Stone of Destiny in Westminster Abbey, where it became part of the coronation chair.  Seven hundred years later, it was finally returned to Scotland and placed in Edinburgh Castle, where Mons Meg should deter any marauding English monarchs.

When I started to publish scientific papers, I used the name ‘Graeme K. Hunter’.  I included a middle initial to distinguish myself, for indexing purposes, from other Graeme Hunters.  One day a female colleague asked me: “What’s your middle name?”

I said:  “If I told you that Kenneth means ‘handsome’, what would you guess my middle name is?”

“Hmm … Kevin?”

But Kenneth does mean ‘handsome’.  Is that nominative determinism, or what?

3.         …Wyness…

Unlike my siblings, I got a second middle name.  My mum explained that Wyness was her maiden name.  But her full name was “May Baxter Hunter”, so wasn’t Baxter her maiden name?  Or what about Welsh, which was the surname of my maternal grandparents?  On the other hand, why did everyone call Mum “Winnie”?  Was that short for Wyness? 

I still hate being asked the security question “What is your mother’s maiden name?”  Whatever.  Pick a number.

It took a long time for me to learn the whole story.  My mother was born to a single mother, Ella Wyness, and named May.  When she was fostered by a family named Baxter, she was given their surname.  During the Second World War, May Baxter worked in a munitions factory.  There she made friends with Doreen Welsh, whose mum and dad became surrogate parents to my future mother.  May never had the surname Welsh, but I was brought up to believe that Doreen’s parents were my grandparents, so you can see how the confusion arose.

I don’t know why Mum decided to give me Wyness as an extra middle name.  Although it must have been obvious to her that, at age 36, this was probably her last kick of the can.  Unfortunately, I didn’t like the name Wyness.  I could claim that I already had enough problems, having to spell out Graeme all the time, and apparently not being handsome enough for a Kenneth.  But the fact is I just didn’t like the sound of Wyness (wino? whiniest?), and was uncomfortable being the only person I knew who had two middle names.  So at some point I just stopped using it.  As noted above, my moniker in the world of professional science was Graeme K. Hunter. 

The last vestige of Wyness in my life was my U.K. passport.  Three years ago I had to renew that document, and decided to ditch the dubya, which required convincing the Passport Office that I hadn’t actually used the name Wyness for a number of years.  That was fairly easy to do, since I’d gone W-less on my Canadian passport for a long time.  Now the Government of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, like the Government of Canada, the Province of Ontario and the City of London, all know me as Graeme Kenneth Hunter.

And my mother didn’t live long enough to see the day when I finally dropped her (real) maiden name.

4.         …Hunter

Hunter isn’t as quintessentially Scottish a name as Macdonald or Stewart or Campbell (I included Stewart because, if you put a Macdonald and a Campbell together, they’ll get into a fight).  But there is a tartan.  Quite a nice one, too; I have a Hunter tartan tie that I wear on formal occasions. 

If there’s a tartan, there must be a clan.  The Hunters didn’t play a big part in Scottish history; they weren’t bold seafarers like the Macleods, fierce Highlanders like the Gordons or border reivers like the Douglases.  The name Hunter doesn’t even appear on many clan maps of Scotland.  But there is a place in Ayrshire called Hunterston, and that is indeed the ancestral seat of Clan Hunter.  There’s even a castle.

In August of 2009, David and I were driving to the seaside town of Largs to scatter the ashes of our late mother, May “Winnie” Wyness Baxter Hunter.  David remarked that he’d been hiking in this area and had come across signs for Hunterston Castle.  Since Mum wasn’t in a hurry, we decided to take a detour.  After a few false turns, we came across two stone pillars bearing the words ‘Hunterston Castle’.  We drove down the roadway marked by the pillars until we encountered a sign that said: “Strictly no admittance.  Clan Hunter business only.” 

OK, bit of a mixed message there.  On the one hand, “strictly no admittance” seemed clear.  On the other, were we there on “Clan Hunter business”?  Do you automatically become a member of the clan by virtue of having the last name Hunter, or do you have to join and pay a fee?  We decided to go on.  What’s the worst that could happen? 

The road ended at a large manor house.  No-one was around, so the obvious next move was to knock on the imposing oak door.  David pulled birth order and made me do that.  As he sat in the car, I took a deep breath, grasped the ancient cast-iron ring and knocked it three times against the ancient strike-plate. 

I expected the door to be opened by an ancient, wizened retainer dressed in a black Victorian frock-coat.  In fact it was a youngish man in casual clothing.

“Hi!” I said brightly.  “My brother and I were hoping to see the castle.”

“I’m afraid it’s not a good time, old chap” he replied in an English accent.  He’s the head of Clan Hunter and he’s English?  “Bit of a flap on at the moment.”

“We’re Hunters,” I added helpfully.

This seemed to do the trick.  “Look, I’ll give you the key,” the laird said.  “Just let yourselves in.” 

He disappeared inside, came back with a giant cast-iron key, and directed us to the castle.  We’d actually passed it on the way in, but it was hidden by trees – a square Norman tower, in good shape considering that it dates from the fourteenth century.  David and I unlocked the door and start wandering around our ancestral home.  Unable to figure out how to turn on the lights, we were dependent upon what little sunlight filtered through the narrow windows, but that only added to the atmosphere.  There were suits of armor, racks of medieval weapons, hunting trophies, a dining table and chairs with the Clan Hunter crest.  For half an hour, David and I were the lairds of Hunterston Castle.  (Well, he was, being older than me).

I’ve always liked the name Hunter; it has a rugged, outdoorsy connotation.  In her 2020 novel ‘The Mirror and the Light’, Hilary Mantel wrote: “Hunters, it is said, live longer than other men; they sweat hard and stay lean; when they fall into bed at night they are tired beyond all temptation; and when they die, they go to Heaven.”

Picture the scene: I show up at the Pearly Gates and there’s St. Peter.  He’s holding the naughty-and-nice list.

St. Peter:         “Name?”
Me:                  “Graeme Hunter.”
St. Peter:         “How do you spell that?”



BIO

Graeme Hunter is the author of ‘Vital Forces’ (Academic Press) and ‘Light Is a Messenger’ (Oxford University Press).  His personal and hybrid essays have appeared in Riddle Fence, Queen’s Quarterly and Talking Soup.  He publishes the blog Opera Through the Looking Glass.  For further information, see www.graemehunter.ca.





The Adverb Factory

by Steve Levandoski



“Quickly!” said renowned author Ida Rosenbalm as she helped Dedris Bêcheur, her editor since 1963, lover since 1965, and legal wife since 2015, duck under the automatic garage door to the Adverb Factory.

Decked out in black sweatsuits and skull caps, the ladies pulled Ida’s walker underneath the door just before it closed. They were inside!

“Carefully!” said Dedris, as they navigated past boxes and boxes of –ly’s.

The tennis balls on the feet of the walker made a muted thump as the two shuffled their way to the security office. They prayed that it would be empty, having phoned the night guard away using a made-up family emergency.

“Completely!” said Ida as she double checked the last camera monitor.

They were alone. Dedris needed to take a break on a big black pleather chair for a couple minutes. Her final dose of chemo had done her in.

“Almost!” said Dedris after they made their way to the boiler room that converted liquid Abverberon™ into words that describe the actions of verbs. Idris rustled through her NPR tote bag and pulled out a small thermos that they had bought on their vacation to Dollywood. That’s where they had met the nice survivalist couple who loved to talk guns, bombs, and libertarianism. She smeared its contents onto the boiler.

“Generously!” said Dedris as she snatched the container of C4 explosives from her partner’s hands, just like she did manuscripts.

Ida didn’t put up a fight today. Instead she pulled out a necklace, placed it around her partner’s neck. Then she set the timer that was fashioned out of an old alarm clock for two minutes.

Dedris held up the necklace, put it around Ida’s neck, and read aloud the inscription on the pendant. “Always!”

 Tears streamed down both of their faces as they held hands and looked into each other’s eyes. Then, giggling, each produced an airline size bottle of champagne from their pockets, poured it into regulation sized flutes, drained them, and smashed the empty glasses against the wall. The clock ticked down. “5-4-3-2 . . .”

“Finally!” they both screamed.

The blast took down the whole factory with them inside. They completed their mission and the world was without adverbs, Dedris, Ida, or her necklace.



BIO

Steve Levandoski has written for The Antihumanist and The Oddville Press and runs Next In Line Magazine. He lives in Philadelphia with his wife, Lisa, and their pug, Phil Collins. Steve likes most dogs more than he likes most people, which suits most dogs and most people just fine. If you find him roaming the streets off-leash, please do not chase.



In the Faded Blue Light

By Don Donato

 

Dedication
for Zelda and Nathalie
— Souvenez-vous de Paris

NOTE: Presented here are the first two chapters of an eight-part novella — continuing in the fall issue.

Chapter I.

 No personality as strong as Zelda’s could go without getting criticisms and as you say she is not above approach [sic]. I’ve always known that. Any girl who gets stewed in public, who frankly enjoys and tells shocking stories, who smokes constantly and makes the remark that she has ‘kissed thousands of men and intends to kiss thousands more,’ cannot be considered beyond reproach even if above it. But Isabelle I fell in love with her courage, her sincerity and her flaming self respect and its [sic] these things I’d believe in even if the whole world indulged in wild suspicions that she wasn’t all that she should be.

But of course the real reason, Isabelle, is that I love her and that’s the beginning and the end of everything. You’re still a Catholic but Zelda’s the only God I have left now.

[F. Scott Fitzgerald, 1920]

 

Note: All excerpts from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s letters appear as they were written. Many of the errors are not annotated with [sic].

It was late in the morning when I needed to change trains in California on my way to a wayward piece of Los Angeles. I was bound for an appreciating tract of unreal estate known as Hollywood, a shining lure for believers in far-flung dreams, a district of hope for talentless “would be” actors and washed-up novelists. It always seemed fitting that a place of such tenuous promise should be situated in California, a strip of land teetering on a faulty line between gaiety and annihilation. A place where, for nearly a century, the wide-eyed have brought their fantasies and well-concealed desperation. 

I had taken a seat on a hard-wooden bench situated under the station’s eves, successfully hidden from the boorish California sun. A weedy man with a swarthy complexion covering tight, leathery skin, sitting close-by, looked up and caught my indolent stare.

“You must be from the East,” he said. “You’re from the East, right? I can tell by the lack of color in your face.”

He proceeded to introduce himself, and I feared he was about to try and sell me one of those parched, sand covered lots somewhere far from civilization for the purpose of bringing vitality to the city bound. I pretended he was speaking to someone else and reached for my newspaper. He walked toward me and took the adjacent seat. I held the paper in both hands to discourage any intention he might have had of shaking my hand.

“Paul Paulson’s the name. You new in these parts?”

It wasn’t my first trip to Hollywood. Ten years ago, I had accepted an offer from a producer to take up residence in a studio cottage to write about the “Jazz Age.”  Zelda, my wife, and I left Paris, and I attempted, as commissioned, to create a “flapper comedy.” I was, indeed, a product of the Jazz Age, perhaps, as some have said, in gauche praise or hardened accusation, that I created it. Even so, I don’t think I could have attempted to recapture such a time without Zelda. She was a flapper to her very depth.

“Yes,” I lied to the prune of a man sitting next to me. “I’m en route to a plot of desert land I purchased a while ago for the purpose of improving my faded appearance and overall health.”

“You missed it you know,” he replied.

I looked at him blankly.

“The train, you missed it.”

I pulled my watch from my vest pocket.

“It’s only 2:25. I’m waiting for the 2:40.” I put the timepiece to my ear.

“There’s nothing wrong with your watch.  You missed it.”

My watch was ticking. That brown stick of a man was right. I missed it. Not all the hope the world has ever known would bring it back. He sat as close to me now as the painted les femmes who had strolled passed me on the Boulevard du Montparnasse. Their bodies glowing proper and their desire spilling out through closed-lip smiles. In the soft blue light of a new Paris evening I had sat at a table set outside the café Le Select. Gatsby, my latest character, recently had left me. He was about to make his way in the world. I waited to hear what others would think of him. I have always envied him. His life relived each and every time someone finds him on a dusty, bookseller’s shelf. Certainly, each time his life would end in tragedy. No matter. He would try again and again. 

“Is there another train?” I shouted at the man.

“There’s always another train, but the one you’re waiting for is gone. It came early.”

I thought I heard the train coming. I rushed to the precipice of the platform and looked back down the track as far as I could.  Nothing was there. I could have sworn I heard it. The man yelled to me,” It doesn’t come from that direction.” When I turned toward the pedantic son of a bitch to tell him to mind his own business, I found him engrossed in my newspaper. I resolved to remain standing at the platform’s edge, waiting, looking back down the tracks.

After a while, the tracks began to rattle, and the 3:10, coming from the other direction, started to come into view. It approached the station, slowly but steadily. Its slowing wheels squealed against the metal rails like an overweight hog. The engine blasted air from its undercarriage, and my suit jacket blew open. An older woman held her hat down and shielded her face. The wind burst again. I bent my head down to keep the blown dust out of my eyes. There was an enigmatic clang, and the beast lumbered to a stop.

I feigned tying my shoe and watched the would-be land salesman board. I entered a car several away from him with my spirit lagging pitifully behind. It was in Hollywood where I hoped to turn things around. The money was good, 1,000 dollars a week for creating screenplays, a form of writing similar to the novel minus meaning, feeling, and thought.  Nevertheless, it afforded enough to keep Zelda in Asheville Psychiatric Hospital, and, allowed me to devote time to writing seriously again. I had an idea for a new novel. But, in spite of all this, each day my mood turned grayer and darker. Zelda weighed heavily on me. At the end of each day, the light fading slowly and sweetly with invitation, Zelda’s voice jingled again in the streets of Paris.

“Scott, Scott, let’s have a drink here. We’ve never been. Come on. Maybe someone will recognize us. Come on. We’ll drive them all crazy. We’ll kiss and carry on like they have never seen, not even in Paris. Come on, it’ll be fun.” It was hard to refuse Zelda. Her voice thrilled with an excitement which promised so much.

“Inside or out?” I replied. 

Her eyes widened, and I felt her spirit leap. I abandoned any notion of sinking into a few drinks, into a placid place, waiting and wondering if my telegram reached Max soon enough.  I wanted to change the proposed title for my new novel, which, at that moment, sat perilously at the edge of a no-nonsense printing press. I was crazy about my new title, Under the Red, White, and Blue. Max was satisfied with calling it The Great Gatsby. It never made any sense to me. There’s no emphasis, even ironically, on Gatsby’s greatness or lack of it. My new title told the story. That’s what it’s about: lost dreams in the midst of such hopeless hope. Zelda grabbed my hand and pulled me toward the entrance of the café.

“Outside, of course,” she answered, “much more scandalous. Maybe we’ll make the US papers, and Max’ll send you another letter.”

“Max has my, our, best interest, always,” I blurted out as we rushed off the street into the gathering of tables.

“Oh, he never has any fun, so he doesn’t want anyone to have any. Who cares what people think of us. What you write sells books, not who you are. Right? Right?”

“People want to believe what they read. Who can believe a drunk with an out-of-control wife?”

“Out of control? Who’s out of control?” She whipped her head toward me, and without pause, quickly redirected it to the waiter watching us from beneath the awning.

“Monsieur,” she said, her voice rose a tone. Monsieur.”  The waiter stepped out onto the street into the full dimness and warmth of the early Paris evening. A few patrons turned their heads. Some faces struck still. A woman, dressed fine and rich, turned to the gentleman sitting next to her, and whispered in his ear. He looked up, and he caught my stare.

Monsieur.” Zelda’s words now shrill. “Monsieur, a table for two. Mr. Fitzgerald and I prefer the outside. S’il vous plait.”

The waiter nodded. We followed him. The gaiety of the City’s faded blue light, promising a never-ending life of playful glances and soft laughter, peeked in as we made our way under the awning, passing among the circle-shaped tabletops. A man with a white walking cane dangling from his table, jerked his head up. His expression was tight. He looked down, adjusting the balance of his cane as he stared at its imaginary teeter. He held his head in a strict focus away from my direction. He waved to the waiter, who promptly brought his check.   

Zelda paid no attention to the uneasiness which had begun to ripple around us.

“I’ m sorry, I never, I just never…,” Zelda repeated over and over, her Alabama drawl driving and twisting each word as we bumped and ricocheted our way through the narrow table passages. Embarrassment on empathetic faces brought my eyes down. We gathered momentum as we passed between tables. With a sudden stop, Zelda landed in a chair, bounced up, and settled down with her body slightly quivering.

“I don’t care. Let’s have a few drinks and make love in public,” she said, her aging face locked stolidly before my eyes. At seventeen her beauty caused contriving, young men to meet her “unexpectedly” wherever they expected her to be. Their only wish was to share a hopeful word or two with her. She rarely touched a door or moved a chair.  She rewarded her would-be suitors with a sweet smile, followed by a glance from long-lashed eyes which she quickly hid behind a fan of Southern charm.

I stepped quicker and began to stumble. With a reckless and defeated heave, I fell into a seat next to everything that kept a fire burning somewhere inside me. I hadn’t yet regained my balance, when Zelda grabbed the lapel of my coat. “Kiss me wildly,” she said. I pulled her closer and put my hand on her knee. She lay her hand on mine and moved it inward and higher. The eyes of two courtly women darted back and forth from each other to the unfolding scandal with a syncopated rhythm of the Jazz Age. Others shrank into open-mouthed children while they pretended not to notice.

 I grasped her face, holding it motionless. The evening light fell silent to the ambient hum of increasing conversation. For a moment, beneath the titillation, beyond the boundaries of  propriety imposed by self-protective righteousness, we were what the world wanted most: the excitement of the forbidden; a glimpse of hope in the mundane; perhaps a morsel of a lost memory; and, in all its non-yielding desperation, the reality of fantasy.

 I took a seat by a window, settled in, and the train began to crawl away from the platform. The speed picked up and I watched through the window the occasional houses, made miniature by acres of buffering California farmland, pass-by at ever increasing speed. A vineyard came into sight, then quickly receded, dragging my eyes along until it disappeared. The snarled vines remained in my mind and reached so deep that my body tingled and my eyes filled. I wanted to jump out and run back and follow those vines back to where I first saw them on the train going to Lyon from Paris.

On that day I had travelled to Lyon, I was to be accompanied by a fellow whom I had met a few days before in a bar in Paris. He was a writer, but he hadn’t published much at that time. I had read a few of his stories which appeared in some European magazines, and I could see he had great talent. He was a well-built man, rather tall with a sturdy body and flaring ears. His unbuttoned vest matched his woolen sports-jacket and his white button-down shirt was wrinkled and its collar splayed open revealing chest hair.

He spoke to everyone in a low tone while scrutinizing their faces. I always wondered what he was looking for. His eyes exuded a confidence bordering on conceit that promised that whatever he found was assuredly an unspoken object of criticism. 

He insisted I call him Ernest. He hated Ernie. In all truth I hated it as well. It had a way of grinding him into the top layer of the earth’s soil where the masses spent their lives — lost and unaware.  For reasons still unknown to me, save the interpersonal tightness induced by the better part of a bottle of Beaune, Ernest consented to come with me to Lyon to pick up my car. It had broken down when Zelda, I and Scotty, our daughter, had attempted to drive to Paris from Antibes. We continued our trip to Paris by train and had to leave the car in Lyon for repairs.

After drinking the better part of the night away, Ernest and I had agreed to meet at the station a few days later and take the early train to Lyon. Through no fault of my own, I missed that train. Ernest went to Lyon, as planned. I arrived on a later train. He had called my apartment several times while waiting for me at the station. He had spoken to my housekeeper. I had told her to tell him I wasn’t at home.

When I reached Lyon, I went directly to the hotel bar to settle what was left of my nerves. Ernest walked in.

“Where the hell you been? I checked every hotel bar in Lyon,” he said.

“I must apologize. The time got away from me, and I missed the train. I was going to come looking for you, but I wanted a drink first.”

Ernest stood next to me at the bar. “And second, and third, and… which one is this?”

“Barkeep, un pour mon ami.” I turned to Ernest. “Bourbon or are you drinking the hard stuff?”

“I never touch absinth outside of Paris. Can’t trust it anywhere else.”

“Okay, bourbon it is.” The bartender brought a bottle and filled the shot to the brim.

“Scott, what happened? Were you tight and fell asleep somewhere?”

“Sleep. I wish I could sleep once in a while.” I pulled a vial from my coat pocket. “I need this stuff to maybe get some sleep.”

Ernest brought the glass carefully to his lips.

“I was working,” I said, “a deadline for a story.” 

Ernest lowered the empty glass to the bar, his fingers still wrapped around it. He barked at the bartender, “Another bourbon.”

He looked at me. “Are you a reporter now?”

He didn’t believe my story, and it was just that, a story, fiction, the stuff which lives in my head like so many orphans. This wayward child wound up in Ernest’s incredibility. I couldn’t bring myself to tell him the truth. I couldn’t tell him that it was Zelda, who was unraveling like an overwound clock. She wouldn’t settle down. She kept throwing things, whining, crying, screaming. 

A few months prior, in the south of France, she had some screaming episodes when she was drunk, but I thought it came from her insatiable need for attention. I was writing day and night then. Some sober talk eventually calmed her, but this time she wouldn’t listen to me. I grabbed her. She broke free and tried to run out. I caught up with her at the door.  I couldn’t trust to leave her alone with the housekeeper. I called this doctor I had met in Le Select a few nights before. He said if I ever needed anything…. He gave Zelda an injection of morphine. It put her to sleep. That was the first time she needed the morphine to bring her back. It soon became a regular affair.

Ernest had not yet met Zelda, and I hadn’t spoken much about her. He struck me as a serious writer. I knew his work, and it was the real thing. I wanted to know him better before explaining the terrible strain my marriage had become. Zelda was restless. She missed the constant swirl of party-filled nights we spent in New York. Like all flappers she lived in a world which danced the Charleston perpetually.

At that time, when I first met Ernest, Zelda and I were living in Paris, an extraordinary timeless place where characters lingered on every corner, and night-lit cafés offered a home for the light-hearted while giving refuge to the lifeless.  It was a time when Zelda’s words still sparkled, and her voice vibrated with thrilling alarm created by the flame burning inside her. She lived life as a fairytale, a series of frivolous adventures in a world which allowed her to romp like a child in an amusement park, her beauty, her only ticket of admission. At seventeen she was the most beautiful woman I had ever known, but time had taken hold. What was once her carte blanche to life, at age twenty-six had begun to wane. Her reality beginning to trail listlessly behind.

 We found each other at an early age when I was a young Army officer stationed in Montgomery, Alabama. She was the last of a type known as the Southern belle: a rich, young beauty who manipulated the whims and fantasies of infatuated young men. I was no exception.

 The boys at Camp Sheridan were invited to a country club dance in Montgomery. The War was in full swing in Europe and we waited for our orders to come through. We knew where we were going. There were rumors about the Argonne Forest in France.

One officer, who had returned from the front, spent some time on the base before he could hitch a ride back to one of those farm states, Iowa or Idaho. He wanted to spend the rest of his life there on a small farm his father had left him. He had lost his right arm and several fingers from his left. In some deep part of me, I knew why he wanted to go back to that farm.  What he had lost in France was no matter. He wanted to find the parts of himself he had left in the rows of plowed soil and in the air that smelled of freshly turned earth.  He wanted only again to loosen familiar ground and find the dreams buried by a young boy. He took mess with the enlisted men. He had lost his taste for privilege.  As we walked together one day, he told a bunch of us, “When men die, they all die equally.”

We reached the entrance of the mess hall, and the group followed the wounded man in. I trailed behind and watched them disappear into the building. I walked a little closer and stopped a fair distance from the door. My orders were sitting on some General’s desk waiting for his signature to send me into, perhaps, the last days of my life. I began to sweat, and my hands trembled. I pushed and pulled on my damp shirt. I took a step back and then another and another. I saw the door open and someone was waving to me to come. I turned away. It wasn’t death I feared. It was the idea that all men die equally which haunted me. I had to re-write my novel and get it published. I headed to the officers’ dining club.

During my free time on the weekends I had written enough pages of some disjointed ramblings to convince myself I had a novel. I called it the Romantic Egoist and sent it to Scribner Publishing. I had made the contact through a friend who knew the editor, Max Perkins. He liked the idea, but he had objections and suggestions that needed to be made if I ever had any chance of publication. I had written for the Tiger and the Nassau Review at Princeton, but Perkins wanted something different. He wanted it all to make some deeper sense. The story was inspired by my life as a student at Princeton. How much sense could I make of that?

The War ended, and I was discharged. I wanted nothing more than to have what I had written, what I thought was a novel, published. I went back to Minnesota to try to find out what Perkins was talking about. Something was different there in the Mid-west. It was something the East had discarded or, perhaps ignored, and through no fault of its own, died of neglect.

St. Paul hadn’t changed much. The same barber shop I went to as a young boy was still in operation, and I suspected some of my locks could be found stuck in a floor crack. On the edge of town stood the wheat fields, golden and swaying in the wind, still waiting for harvest since the time I last had seen them as a much younger man.

 At Princeton I had belonged to the Cottage Club, a college fraternity of sorts. The only thing we ever grew was ambition. I associated with a group on campus known as the writers, the literary set. Edmund Wilson had the most promise. We called him “Bunny.”

“You still working on that play for the Triangle Club, Scott? Bunny said one day as we walked up Nassau street on our way to the Yankee Doodle Tap Room.

“Yep. What are you working on these days, the Great American Novel? You got the best shot you know.”

“Always with your head in the clouds, Scott. Maybe someday you’ll write that novel. It will catapult your name to the lips of every literature professor in every University in America, even Princeton. On second thought, maybe you should wait until Professor Gauss is dead. He might remember you.”

Secretly, I dreamed of nothing less. I knew I was a good writer back then, not as good as Bunny, but good, and I got better. It’s like I told Zelda many years later, “I’m a professional writer. You are not. Writers like me are one in ten million.” However, neither I nor Bunny ever wrote that Great American Novel. Maybe Bunny was right, I should keep my head out of the clouds, but I never could. It was there in the haze of the seemingly unreachable I wrote four novels and married the belle of my dreams.

 It was in Minnesota, while working on my first novel, in the frozen ground I felt unyielding beneath my feet, I became aware of what I had learned at Princeton. Success in America had become the compromise of ideals, rather than its progeny. I had come to realize that my generation had entered a time in which wealth supplanted the self, and righteousness had given way to opportunism. No character suffered more from this realization, five years later, than Jay Gatsby. By that time, hope had become the pre-occupation of the misinformed, and dreams the fertile ground for the cynical.

 I re-wrote my novel. The title changed to This Side of Paradise, and Scribner published it. It was in the time when excitement exuded from my overwhelming dreams, when disjointed feelings crashed brutishly onto blank pages. It was the time when my rarified reality, honed and nurtured in the sweet field of my homegrown truths, started to take root.   

  I had never been to a country club and the sound of it held me captive. The thick crop of its influential harvest held a sway that lifted me into the warm, close air puffed from half-lit, dollar cigars. I had written to a friend at Princeton who had lived in Alabama in the cushion of soft money. He had given me the names of a few of the “fastest” debutantes in Montgomery. As is often the case with young college men, the purported looseness of female prospects is surely more the imaginary and misguided information of virgin liars. As a consequence, my mind and fantasies remained opened.

 It was that night that I first saw Zelda. She was walking across the dance floor arm-in-arm with two female partners, who by all indications, provided more than moral support. She was the most beautiful girl of whitish-pink skin. Her auburn hair was bobbed with enough audacity to send it into large curls, bouncing recklessly. Every eye was on her. The men moved in anticipation to where she was going, and the women fanned themselves with quick flutters and bustled aimlessly. 

She had my full attention. A young sergeant I had known on the post nudged me. He had poked around the town on a few weekends, and he had heard a few things, especially about who was who in Montgomery. I dropped my stare to just catch him in the corner of my eye.

“She’s the brass ring around here, they tell me”, he said. “Every guy in Montgomery wants to marry her. She’s old Alabama money. She even lives on a street named for her family. You’re out of your league here Lieutenant.”

“Out of my league?” I heard myself repeating the words rushing from inside me. My eyes never left her.

“Lieutenant, forget it… unless you got some money that I don’t know about. If you do, then you still owe me two bucks from that card game you should have stayed out of last week.”

My eyes never moved. Her curls bounced like words which no one could ever write. Each loose winding of hair jumped to tell a story propelled by boundless energy and full of endless promises.

“What else do you know about her?” I said to the Sergeant.

“Not much, but there’s s girl I met here before who probably can tell you more. Her last name is Bankhead. I can’t remember her first name. It sounds like Matilda or something… Tallulah, that’s it.” The Sergeant glanced around the room, “There she is.”

He raised his head in her direction. “Tallulah, Tallulah,” he said in a voice loud enough to carry above the discordant chatter in the room. He waved her over.

A young woman with wavy brown hair extending to her shoulders appeared at his side.

“Well, hello, again Sergeant,” I heard from a husky voice. She spoke and moved with the subtle swing of the country club type. Her words had a sureness which came from a perpetual source of gratuitous wealth. 

“You seem to be a man with something on his mind,” she said, scrutinizing the Sergeant. “I like that kind of man. What can I do for you? … Careful, I’ve heard it all before… and tried most of it.”

My eyes were still locked on the tipsy, curled-hair debutante.

“The Lieutenant here wants to know more about her,” the Sergeant said to Tallulah, giving a quick nod toward the girl of my focus.

I felt Tallulah’s eyes fall on me. I never turned my head.

“Nice to meet you,” I murmured, “I’m Scott. I, I just…..”

“Oh her,” Tallulah said, “Booze, cigarettes and boys. And not necessarily in that order.”

Zelda still wandered about flanked by her supporters. She was returning smiles to passing men, some of whom I presumed to be suitors and others whose time had come and gone. Tallulah, her face falling motionless, paused and again directed her eyes to Zelda. Her voice fell almost to a whisper, “she’s always talking about making it big somewhere. She’s a dancer you know.”

“Lieutenant, I’m going to cruise around. I’ll catch you later,” the Sergeant said.

I turned to Tallulah. She was quite attractive. She glowed with a polish afforded only to those who commit themselves to the never-ending care demanded by social standing and made possible by the servitude of purposeless money. I directed my eyes back to Zelda.

“What’s her name?” I asked.

Of all the questions I wished to ask, this was the only one which reached my lips. The others I answered for myself in the way children create reality from far-flung fantasy.

“Why don’t you ask her yourself, Lieutenant?”

Tallulah strolled slowly toward the three women. When she reached the trio, a neat, lanky fellow with gray shoes with white wingtips approached the tipsy, pinkish debutante. His suit was a checkered affair. I was sure I had seen one just like it in one of those men magazines I was forced to read while waiting to get my hair cut. His trousers sported creases with the sharpness of a pretension matched only by his good manners. He took Zelda’s hand, kissed it. He then bowed slightly, acknowledging the flanking ladies-in-waiting. Zelda grazed his cheek with the back of her hand without a word. He uttered something. She shook her head and smiled and turned toward Tallulah, whose back was toward me. She pointed at me over her shoulder. Zelda lifted her eyes in my direction. I stared down at the floor. When I looked up, my mind fumbled. What had seemed so distant, came nearer.  Unassisted, she floated toward me, her path unwavering, her momentum unstoppable. She washed over me like a moonlit tide making its way farther and farther ashore. Her curls chattered without pause as she moved, and, as she came closer, I was struck by the lack of flaws in her skin, unblemished and undisturbed by ordinary life. Her face was composed of a calm beauty, an extraordinary simplicity and concert found in art born from subtle genius.

  She rested within a breath’s warmth of me. I wanted to speak, but my words hardened in my mouth. Without hesitation the great Lieutenant Scott Fitzgerald moved me aside and stepped forward. The smell of the leather of his boots, the secure cinch of the belt from his waist coat, and the proud protrusion of the brim of his peaked cap gave him all the confidence I envied. His words fell from my mouth.

“Scott Fitzgerald. Lieutenant Scott Fitzgerald. The pleasure is all mine.”

His smile continued speaking. It had all the invitation of a million words. His riveted eyes glistened. They were eyes which said you excite me like someone I have treasured from the time I first had met you. I wanted to take her in and show her how much he could offer her. The young belle’s eyes danced around the room with all the pretense of searching for better prospects. She abruptly turned in my direction, paused, and her voice rose, unnaturally, as if startled by an unexpected burst from an awakened star. Clearly, simply and forever, she said, “I’m Zelda.”

Not a muscle in my body stirred. I observed her every movement, looking for any hint of what she was thinking. I stood more erect. Her nearness shot through me. I rose higher and higher. The well-healed men and the polished women, scattered about the room, blended with each other, sweeping me into the mix. I knew for the first time how it felt to be a man of the world. The air grew still around me, and nothing moved but time.  It wound itself back. The house in which I had grown up in Minnesota crumbled into a ghastly phantasm. My parents no longer had claim to me. The man made of golden images and flawless manners, the man who had lived in the mind of a young boy, broke out with unprecedented vigor. In that moment I was certain that the truths of my promises had so materialized that they existed outside of me. The girl with pink skin and audacious hair, who now stood so close, became forever part of the rock formed from igneous dreams.

 I fumbled to keep her engaged.

“I heard you want to be a dancer,” I said.

She gave me a look. She appeared puzzled.

“I am a dancer,” she replied.

“I just meant a very successful one, on the stage as a big star someday.”

“New York, first,” she said. It knocked me back. It was the way she said it. It was familiar and unmistakable. It came from someone too large for the world which contained her. 

“The Russian ballet, of course, is the best, but New York and Europe will let me show my talent.”    

I had loved a socialite once before. She was a woman of my station, but she saw only a blurry-eyed Princeton student. Her rank and money had numbed her to the reality of belief. “Rich girls don’t marry poor boys,” she had told me.

I have come to realize that in fields of plenty, hope withers. The rich have no need for what might be… but, the girl who stumbled, whose hair curled in search of something beyond her reach, stepped upon fairy wings to find her footing. With each uncertain step she took, she hammered squarely the truth in a way which I had discovered so innocently many years ago hiding in the dust of a genie’s lamp.   

The band began to play a waltz. It was late, and I suspected this was perhaps the last waltz.

“Would you like to dance,” I said.

“My card is exceptionally full this evening. I’m sorry, but I’m promised to others.”

“Think of it as a contribution to the war effort,” I interjected. I struggled to keep my smile, which threatened to break in to a thousand pieces.  “I’m going overseas soon,” I added.

She looked at me a for a moment and a smile escaped to her lips.

“Never let it be said that I didn’t do my part to defeat the Kaiser,” she replied.

She opened her arms, and we touched. She was softer than I remembered women to be. Her body moved to the rhythm of the music, but, somewhere beneath that, in those moments of stillness, she held on tightly like a little girl. It was in those moments, I pressed her closer and held her in a way, I was sure, she had never known.  

The music stopped.

“I want to see you again,” I said

“I’ll be here next Saturday afternoon. I like to swim. Come back then, you will be my guest,” she said.

“It’s a date, next Saturday.”

She started to walk away, stopped, and put her hand near her mouth to shield her words.

“Bring some gin,” she added.

I watched her walk away.

“Lieutenant,” I heard someone say. It was the Sergeant approaching quickly from my flank. “Do you think it would be okay if I took a look at that list you got?”

 I had forgotten about it. Every guy in camp wanted a peek at it. I kept it hidden. It was a perquisite meant for those for whom untoward behavior could compensate for stunted dreams. The thought of going to the War, unfortunately, had made everyone a candidate, so I kept the sought-after list secure on my person at all times.

 I took the list from my breast pocket and handed it to the Sergeant. My eyes never left Zelda as she walked toward the door. The Sergeant turned to see what occupied my attention. He looked down sharply and perused the list.

“Lieutenant, she ain’t on it.”

“Who,” I said, turning my head just slightly in his direction.

The Sergeant lifted his eyebrows in Zelda’s direction.

“I know that,” I said.

“Are you going to see her again?”

There was never anything again that I was ever so sure of.  It no longer mattered that I was going to war. Perhaps it would all come to an end in the mud of France with nothing more ahead but the hazy fog of the Argonne Forest, but, on that night, in the dry breezes of the unassuming South, my past had begun in the way I had always known it would.   

“I think this one girl, Amanda Greggs, is here,” Sarge said, smiling a little. “You’re not going to pull rank on me, are you, Lieutenant? “

“No, no old man, she’s all yours.” The Sergeant started to walk away. He turned and looked back at me.

“I would hate to see a good list like this go to waste,” he said.

“Waste? No. It told me everything I needed to know.” What I didn’t know was that it told me only what I had hoped.

A few years later, in the days in Paris, when Zelda practiced her ballet relentlessly, I couldn’t help but think of that day in Montgomery when she floated to me. In Paris, alone in her room and at Mdm. Egorova’s studio, she twisted and strained, drifting farther from me, deeper and deeper into herself. She had new loves: ballet, Madame Egorova, and a prima ballerina, whom, at first, I knew only as “a dancer from the studio.” Later I learned her name was Lucienne. She had become Zelda’s new friend, frequenting cafés together afterhours.

I spent my nights at the Ritz bar, talking to persons I hardly knew. Some of them had heard of me, and some I had to inform. The gin gave me the courage to look them in the eyes and tell them with all the conviction of carnival barker that I was a writer, a real one, a novelist. “I wrote This Side of Paradise,” I would say. “I’m sure you’ve heard of it. Did you read it? Well, you must. I finished my third a few years ago. It’s called The Great Gatsby.  Now if you have read that one, I’ll buy you a drink.” 

I hardly ever had to buy that drink. Maybe Max was right. Maybe I should have developed Gatsby’s character more. No one knew who he was, but I knew who he was. In all truth, he really wasn’t anyone, not anyone at all.  He was a guy who bought drinks for people he didn’t even know.

On one of those lonely nights, a couple, dressed American, pushed up against the bar to my right. They wore jewelry, too much of it. His cuff links had initials. Her pearls dangled below her breasts as a testament to a string of martyred oysters. It was a time of seemingly forever, burgeoning wealth in America.

The gentleman stood back away from his bill lying on the bar. He cocked his head, tensed his face, and held his lips in a frown, as if protesting, with the upmost constraint, the sheer banality and personal intrusion of having to sign his name.  She sipped her coffee, legs crossed, her upper body straight and stiff. Their every movement had the theatrics of poorly scripted gentility and all the telltale crispness of new money. They were the new America. They stood for nothing, and they asked for everything. I moved closer and stood next to them.

It was a rare evening. The prolific Ernest Hemingway graced our presence with Gerald Murphy trailing behind him. Gerald was a man with no career, and he had everything to show for it. His fortune grew like wheat in the old lush fields of family businesses and was cultivated by personal indifference to it.

Ernest, dressed like a beggar, no jacket, no tie, his shirt sleeves rolled to his forearms, put his hand on my shoulder. I turned around. I took a step toward Gerald, and Hemingway’s hand lifted off me. There was enough talk about us. I loved the man, but not in that way. For some reason, a rumor started that Ernest and I were fairies. This firestorm of conjecture was started by McAlmon, a fag himself. Rumors, as rumors go, are usually at least half true. 

Gerald stood next to me at the bar.

“Hello, old man, how’s it going? It’s been a while,” Gerald said. “You and Zelda are in the papers quite a bit these days.”

“Don’t believe everything you read,” I said.

Ernest, now standing on the other side of me, leaned forward, like I was some object of inconsequence, and looked at Gerald.

“That’s true, my friend, good advice. Have you read his latest, The Great Gatsby?”

“It was really quite good, Scott,” Gerald said, his voice oscillating in frequencies and short pauses like a mother looking at her child’s penciled drawings.

“Leave him out of this,” I said, staring straight ahead at the bottles behind the bar.

“Who?” Gerald said.

“Gatsby,” I replied.

There was a momentary silence that rumbled through. I took down the glass of gin, sitting in front of me. The room was quiet. Ernest and Gerald faded away. The gin had done its job, and I felt numb to what the world wanted me to be – nothing, nothing at all.

Ernest broke the silence. “Scott, I heard you were looking for me. What did you want to see me about?”

“Barkeep,” I said, “another glass of gin.”

“Mr. Fitzgerald, another glass, sir?”

Gerald spoke up, getting the bartender’s attention. “He doesn’t need another glass.”  

The young man behind the bar looked at me with a wide-eyed stare.

“The man’s right,” I said to the young barkeep. His eyes relaxed, but for only a moment. “Bring me the god damn bottle.”

 “Very generous of you, old sport,” Ernest said. “Did I get that right? I liked the way Gatsby called his friend and enemies ‘old sport.’”

I turned to Ernest, dropped my eyes. My stare penetrated through my eyebrows. “I told you, leave him out of this.”

“Sorry about that old sp…man.”

Gerald ordered a beer. The bartender brought a glass for Ernest, and he put the bottle of gin between us. I poured myself a drink, grabbed the bottle, and put it on the other side of me.

“So, what do you want to see me about?” Ernest asked.

“Just to have a drink together. I can’t seem to write much these days. Some magazine stuff, that’s about it. And there’s another thing. No one I have asked knows where you live. Even Gerald doesn’t know where your new apartment is.” I turned and looked at Gerald. He lifted his beer and took a long, small sip, and then rested the glass back on the bar, never facing me. I made a half-turn toward Ernest and leaned against the bar. I held the gin in my hand.

“Bartender,” Ernest said. The young man turned his head. Ernest waved him over.

“Do you have any absinth?” he whispered.

“No sir, we aren’t allowed to serve it here in the Hotel. Management doesn’t want that bunch coming in here.”

“Son, they’re already here. Why don’t you ask who ever runs this joint if they might have a little private stock of it somewhere for a couple of special guests.”

“Yes, Mr. Hemingway. I’ll ask, sir.”

Ernest stepped back and grasped the edge of the bar with both hands.

“Scott, Hadley and I want to keep this place we’re in. You come around at all hours, tight, and people start to complain, and…

I faced the bar and poured the gin down my throat.

Chapter II.

Dear Scott:

… you say that you have been thinking of the past… so have I.

There was:

The strangeness and excitement of New York, of reporters and furry smothered hotel lobbies, the brightness of the sun on the window panes and the prickly dust of late spring: the impressiveness of the Fowlers and much tea-dancing and my eccentric behavior at Princeton. There were Townsend’s blue eyes and Ludlow’s rubbers and a trunk that exuded sachet and the marshmallow odor of the Biltmore. There were always Lud[l]ow and Townsend and Alex and Bill Mackey and you and me. We did not like women and we were happy. There was Georges apartment and his absinth cock-tails [sic] and Ruth Findleys [sic] gold hair in his comb, and visits to the ‘Smart Set’ and ‘Vanity Fair’ – a colligate [sic] literary world puffed into wide proportions by the New York papers. There were flowers and night clubs … and went to John Williams parties where there were actresses who spoke French when they were drunk… I was romanticly [sic] attached to Townsend and he went to Tahatii [sic] – there were your episodes of Gene Bankhead and Miriam…

[Zelda Fitzgerald, 1930]

Zelda and I lived in New York City for a while after we were married. It was a constant swirl: carefree guys I had known at Princeton, women whose intentions were poured into sleek dresses, uptown bars soaked with money from burgeoning post-war careers, and parties given by anyone who wanted to dress up his social standing by inviting a known author and his unpredictable wife. My first novel was selling, and the “slicks” bought a few of my stories. The money came in and lay in my pocket, the inside one of my sport-coat, like the calling card of a gentleman.

Harold Ober, my agent, had called me to a meeting at his office. He had great news. The Saturday Evening Post wanted more of my stories.

“Scott, have a seat. You’re going to love this. They want three more stories at double their last rate.”

Harold was looking at me hard in the eyes. It was the money that dragged a smile out of the pit of my stomach.

“Start writing more of the kind of stuff they’re looking for. The easy read, short stories. That’s what I can sell. It doesn’t matter how long it is, but no novel stuff, something that can be serialized in a few issues.”

The room was pale. The walls a wan blue. Harold sat behind a wooden desk covered with manuscripts from never-to-be heard of writers and a white porcelain coffee cup with a brown stain circling inside near the rim. A waist high radiator, sitting against a wall in the corner, shooshed steam from a tiny appendage. Harold had a habit of leaning back, tilting his chair with his hands grasped together behind his head. His eyes pierced through my silent stare.

“You working on that novel? What is it called?” he asked.

“The Beautiful and Damned, so far, anyway. I want to finish it, Harold, but I need the money. I’ll start on the Post’s stories.”

The radiator hissed, and I took a drag on the cigarette I held between my fingers. Harold sprung forward, launched by the tension of the twisted chair springs. He spoke as he flew back into his reality.

“Great, Scott. How’s Zelda?”

“Restless.”

“In New York?”

I glanced at the blank walls, no pictures, just some peeling paint above the radiator. The lower half of the solitary window to my left was obscured by the water running in narrow, helpless rivers down onto the sill. I crossed my legs, leaned forward, and put my cigarette out in the ashtray on the desk.

“The Beautiful and Damned, what do you think of the title, Harold? Will it sell?”

“I don’t know. What does Max think?”

“What do you think, Harold? Do you think the beautiful can ever be damned?”

“I’m not following you, Scott.”

“We all live in an endless eddy, Harold, forever swirling downward. We reach out from the dizzying whirl, and grasp nothing. Where once stood our imagination, there exists only its mangled images. The beautiful turns wretched, and we watch helplessly with the eyes of the damned.”

“We live in a what? I could have sworn you were sober when you walked in here. If this is some kind of writing thing, ask Max”

“Don’t you realize we are headed for a dreadful disorder of what was to be. What started on firm rock, now wobbles and teeters. It can’t last, Harold. She tries to destroy me, I try to destroy her, but all we will ever destroy is us. The beautiful are always damned.”  

“Look, Scott, you’ve been working pretty hard lately. Maybe you just need to give her some attention. That’s all.”

“Harold, I got to go.” I started to walk toward the door.

“Scott, can you have one of those stories by next month?”

I turned toward him and raised my hand as I left his office. I walked down the hall. The light from the door’s transom was nearly gone. I began to descend the stairs. The wood creaked with each step I took. I stepped lighter, but the tired wood continued its complaining. The sound was inescapable, a plaint for every time I bore my weight upon its vulnerable weak back. When I reached the bottom of the staircase, I rushed for the door, and I stepped out onto the street. New York flowed around me without favor or blame, like warm air in the heat of the summer. Cars chugged by haltingly in the traffic and preoccupied people pushed past each other in an endless flow of anonymity.

An indifference gripped me. I needed a drink. I couldn’t shake the darkness of the hallway. The faint echo of the creaking played over and over. It had the tenacity of crushing heartache born from sudden infidelity. A hopeless sadness burrowed itself firmly into all that still struggled to live within me. My chest and gut began to tremble.

 There was a bar within walking distance which was popular with the Princeton set. I headed in that direction. I wanted to stop on my way and buy Zelda something, anything, a gold necklace. I loved buying Zelda things. She loved surprises. That’s what she called them. “Scott, bring me home a surprise. Anything, anything at all,” she would say. There was a small jewelry shop on the corner of 34th and 5th. She had bought some earrings there. They were of the kind that dangled from the ears of New York women stumbling across living rooms at cocktail parties while they spilled champagne from thin-stemmed glasses. I entered the shop and laid three one hundred-dollar bills on the counter. I walked out with a necklace the jeweler said would match the earrings Zelda had bought.

“Scott, Scott,” I heard a man calling me. He was with a woman about a block or so ahead. It was Townsend Martin, an old friend from my Princeton days. He was living in New York, trying his hand at writing some plays. But it was the woman, her arm wrapped around his, who captured my attention. The shaking in my middle increased and it flowed into my upper arms. The falling night had brought a darkness which stood stark and still and bold. A ghastly image appeared and pierced me deeply, seizing my thoughts and narrowing my senses. Terror poured from my imagination. I stood frozen in the dank and coarse New York night. The woman was Zelda.  

“Zelda said that you went to see Ober,” Townsend said. “We thought you’d be at the that bar on 34th Street.” Townsend was bubbling with enthusiasm. His party spirit lay like vomit on me, and I wanted to wipe it from my body and give it to the one who deserved it most. She snuggled his arm.

“Scott, you look lost, dear. Did Harold give you some bad news?” Her words flowed slowly with the intended cold rhythm of triumphant. Her brow wrinkled. Her intent, with a calculated precision, swarmed to extinguish the dwindling spark struggling for life within me. I didn’t want to share her, not even in the least of ways, and, at times, I hated her for it. Her flirtations and secrets cut at the very heart of me. Ernest, in our days in Paris, often said I should divorce her. He didn’t understand. The dreams forged from the once formless musings of the infinitely hopeful become hardened, never to be assailed lest they fall from the heavens. No other man must ever touch her.

“Scott, what do you want from me?” She would say when I asked too many questions about what she had done with the men who had come and gone in her life. “What does it matter?” she would say. My imagination had twisted itself into bizarre shapes of her body wrapped around another. My torment tore at the fabric of my dreams,  slipping from my grasp. I wanted them back as whole and pure as I had created them. Zelda never had wanted anyone but me. Her every indiscretion was a mistake, a simple lapse of judgment of haphazard youth. I insisted she tell me about each sexual encounter, and together we would go back and recreate the truth. 

She never has told me about any of them. She uses them as the most delicate of instruments, wounding so gently but effectively, over and over. She is a selfish woman. She has taken for her own despicable use the dreams I had shared with her in those early days in the shimmering waves of the Alabama heat.

“I guess we should get that drink,” I said.

Zelda linked my arm, but never released his.  The three of us walked together. My trembling, by the sheer crescendo of its magnitude, burst from my middle. It left in its wake a vacuum where once existed all that mattered. My body lapsed into a reckless state. The desperate person inside of me, incarnated from hope and vision, retched from pain.

Arm-in -arm we walked up the five concrete steps to the barroom. Townsend pulled the door open, and Zelda entered. He and I followed. It wasn’t quite five o’clock and the place was quiet. Only two young girls, somewhere in their twenties, sat next to each other at the mid-section of the bar. I drew up a stool next to them. Zelda sat to my left and Townsend next to her.

“What’ll it be?” the bartender said.

One of the young girls whispered into the ear of the other, and they giggled. They wore hats that fitted close to their heads and the design reminded me of the helmets worn by the German army during the War. Some hair escaped from the fronts and wound itself into loose, solitary curls. They wore dresses with belts which tied at their hips. The purposeful inattention of the girls to hems, which rested high above their knees, gave the impression that the impropriety was a result of innocence and naivete. They sat with their legs crossed, creating two slender cascades. The two women nearly faced each other, resembling bookends most appropriately found on the shelf in a bordello.

“A bottle of gin,” I said to the bartender. I looked at Zelda and Townsend and turned back to the bartender. “I’m not sure what they’re having.”

Zelda turned toward me and a gave me a look. Her lips were in a tight straight line. She turned her body toward Townsend. I shot a half glass of gin down my throat. How in the hell did he meet up with Zelda? What were they doing together? She could have told me anything, and I wouldn’t have believed her. Why did she hang on to him like that?

“Townsend,” I said in a tone of casualness not seen since the Kaiser asked how the War was going. “Why did you want to see me?” I could have cared less why, but I had hoped to unearth the circumstances of his meeting Zelda. My imagination by this time had invaded my gut.

“I wanted to tell you the good news,” he said. “One of my plays has been picked up by an off-Broadway company, and they’re actually paying me. I went to your apartment, and Zelda told me you had gone to see Ober. She said it would be fun to look for you.”

“I hope my thoughtful wife offered you a drink.”

Zelda turned to me. “Of course, my dear, we both had a drink, or was it two? I can’t really remember. Yes, it was two, one in the living room and one in the bedroom.”

Townsend was silent. His face fell sullen. He lifted his drink and sipped it staring into the mirror behind the bar.

“Is there anything else you would like to know, dear, or is that enough fiction for today. Fiction is what you are about? Right?”

I poured another half glass of gin. My trembling dissipated and rushed to my face as a hot blush. I turned to the girl sitting next to me. Her back was to me. I got up and stood between and behind the giggling pair of promised promiscuity.

“Scott Fitzgerald,” I said, wavering slightly as I spoke. The glass of gin was in my hand. I took a gulp.  “I’m a writer and I was struck by your whispering and laughing. I’m always in search of characters. What are you drinking? Another?”

“I don’t see why not,” said the one on my left. She looked at her near mirror image. They giggled in acquiescence. The bartender brought two martinis.

Zelda turned on her stool completely toward Townsend and held her head in her hand, supported by her arm resting on the bar.

The two tittering girls sat like two birds perfectly perched. 

The girl on my right said, “I’m not sure I want to be a character. I mean I just don’t know how I feel about that.”

“What do you write, Scott?” The other one said.

This Side of Paradise, have you read it?  And some stuff for the Saturday Evening Post.”

“No, I haven’t read it.”

The other chirped, “I have. You’re F. Scott Fitzgerald, right? I’ve read some of your Post stories. Quite good I thought. How do you think of all that stuff?”

“Townsend, you missed our wedding. I just can’t forgive you for that.” Zelda said, grasping his forearm. I continued to feed the birds with the ramblings of a man of accomplishment.

“I didn’t get your names. I’m sorry.”

“I’m Cynthia,” said the one on the right.

“Catherine,” said the one on the left.

I moved closer to them and gripped the back of their stools.

“You want to know how I think up all that stuff?”

Catherine shifted her body in my direction. Her hem rose higher by virtue of her movement, and, I was sure, by her intention. She sat complacent, addressing me with her eyes. She exposed an inch more of her leg, and her invitation soared a mile in my mind. I stood taller. My face no longer burned from the current humiliation Zelda served as a sauce to the distasteful dish she so often forced down my throat. My threatened dreams hid in a shallow refuge formed by the circle which I formed with the two stray fowl.

“You owe me kisses, you know, wedding kisses,” Zelda said to Townsend. I saw in the periphery of my vision, her head, still resting in her hand, move more to a tilt. Townsend, standing, shifted nervously.

 I turned my attention to Catherine.

“All that stuff… I don’t think it up,” I said, directing my eyes on the soft, moist intensity in her face. “It comes to me, like a visitor bringing a message.” I reached around her and grabbed the bottle of gin sitting on the bar. I poured myself another glass. I raised the bottle, shook it side to side between the girls. Catherine raised her glass. I poured generously. Cynthia sipped her Martini. “Like you two,” I said. “You’re characters waiting to be discovered.”  I took a large swallow of the gin.

Zelda sprang off her stool. “Townsend, dance with me.”

“There isn’t any music,” he answered. He remained facing the bar.

“There’s always music somewhere.” Zelda replied.

Townsend bent his head down and turned in my direction. “Scott, do you mind?” I pretended not to hear.

“Scott, do you mind if I dance with your wife?”

The thought of another man touching her cut to my core. The pleasure she would give him sickened me. It could never be undone.

“What do you want from me?” Zelda had asked me countless times over the last two years. The answer was simple. Many years later, when her life was limited by the confines of Asheville Psychiatric Hospital, when nothing remained of us except the ghost of my hope, I finally told her the answer.

 “I want you to obey me,” I said.  It was then that I understood for the first time how she never realized the purity and power of the vibration that rang out from the stars on that night we had met. She was a selfish woman. She ignored the life I set in motion for us. She had travelled alone and arrived nowhere.   

Townsend took Zelda’s hand into his and put his other hand on her back. I finished the gin in my glass and forced a smile at the girls.

“Townsend,” I heard in clear tones, “I do want those wedding kisses.” I glanced quickly at Zelda. Her back was to me.

 “No wedding kisses,” Townsend replied, “no more to drink.”

It didn’t matter what she was about to do. She had already done it.

The intensity on Catherine’s face faded into a playful look. Her cheeks relaxed into supple, rosy beds. Her face resembled that of a child, smiling about nothing. Cynthia sipped her Martini which she held continuously near her lips. She bent her head down slightly and peered through her lashes at Catherine.

“Who am I?” Catherine said, looking at me, her eyes still and directed. Her mouth broke into a strange smile. Her lips protruded, tight and wicked.

I can’t tell you who you are. I am a writer. I can show you.” I stepped back. Zelda and Townsend came into my field of vision. She had her arms wrapped around his neck. Her body hung from him.

I looked at Catherine. “Your character is a beautiful woman sitting in a bar located deep in the loneliness of the City. A successful man sees you sitting unaccompanied. He is captivated by you. He buys you a drink, tells you his sorrowful story, and you long for him.” Cynthia giggled. Her eyes widened and looked squarely at Catherine.

“That is quite a good bit of fiction, Scott,“ Catherine said.

Cynthia giggled again. She reached out and touched Catherine’s face. She took Cynthia’s hand into hers and began stroking her arm. Zelda let go of Townsend, turned around and stared down along the bar, but she never looked at me. She sat frozen, no triumphant look, no smirk of ridicule. The chagrin of misspent revenge blushed my face. Zelda’s eyes were riveted to the girls. Her face was frozen, like a flesh mask fashioned by a sculptor who caught his subject in the depths of a fantasy, disarmed and consumed.

Maybe it was time to leave, I thought.

Catherine turned her gaze from Cynthia and looked in my direction.

“What do I do now?” she asked.

I looked at her blankly. 

“What does my character do now?”

“She gets up and walks into a different novel,” I said.

I leaned in to grab the bottle of gin, which sat on the bar between the girls. When my ear passed Catherine’s lips, she spoke softly and slowly, “We do like men.”

“Scott,” Townsend said. He walked toward me. Zelda sat at the bar; a drink was in her right hand. Her left arm was draped across her stomach and it held firmly onto her waist. Her back was tense and straight. She directed her eyes forward away from the girls. On occasion, with her lips on the wide rim of her glass, she glanced at Cynthia. With increasing frequency, Cynthia’s eyes landed in Zelda’s.

Townsend stood next to me, behind the two girls.

“Got to go,” he said, “I’m a working writer now, you know.”

“So am I,” I replied, “and that’s the reason I’m staying.”

“I don’t know how you do it, my friend, out all night, sleeping it off all morning…”

“I don’t do it. It does it to me.”

Townsend looked at me. He cocked his head and his eyes squinted slightly.

“It sits right here.” I pointed to a spot between my chest and stomach. “I try to put it on the page, to get rid of it, but it never goes away. It lays in a twisted lump.”

 It was in those times when I tried to unwind this draining convolution into words, a dark cloud would move over me.  Each time I ran, frantically and futilely, from the suffocating sadness, raining down. Hopelessness would puddled around me. It was then, in those times, when I fell back on the dreams which I planted many years ago and drank the gin which made them all believable.

It was that night in the haze of that drunken New York barroom, while I pointed to the struggle in my twisted gut, in the midst of the chaos that had become my life, two opposing characters appeared and grew in my soul. One lived with intoxicated hope; the other existed in a sober hopelessness. Four years later Jay Gatsby met Nick Carraway.

“Scott, you’ve had enough, Townsend said. “Why don’t you and Zelda go home?”

“No, not ready to go yet.” I looked in Zelda’s direction. “How about you, dear?”

“I’m with you,” she replied.

“Glad to hear that’s settled,” I said. Zelda turned her head and gave me a delighted stare. She seemed to savor the last bit of my jealousy.

“Alright,” Townsend said, “I’m leaving. Go slow, Scott.”

He began to walk toward the door. Zelda called to him, “I still want those wedding kisses.”

You bitch.


References

Chapter I.
Introduction
4  “All good books are alike….”
Ernest Hemingway. “Old Newsman Writes: a letter from Cuba.”  Esquire Magazine December 1, 1934: 26.

Chapter II.
5  “No personality as strong as Zelda’s … but Zelda’s the only God I have left now.” :
Broccoli, Mathew J., Fitzgerald, F. Scott, et al., Correspondence of F. Scott Fitzgerald. New York: Random House, 1980. P. 53
17 I’m a professional … me are one in ten million.”
Stenographic Report of Conversation Between Mr. & Mrs. F. Scott Fitzgerald and Dr. Thomas A. C. Rennie,” LaPaix, Rodgers Forge, Towson, Maryland, TMs (carbon), May 28, 1933, 114 pp., with note by Thomas A. C. Rennie to Dr. Slocum; Craig House Medical Records on Zelda Fitzgerald, C0745, Box 1, Manuscripts Division, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Princeton University Library.

Coming in the Fall Issue: Chapter 3 & 4

BIO

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



My Private Interstellar

by Ali Asadollahi



1.


O, dim sparkles
Late stars
Light intervals
-between our eyes
and what befalls-
O, Millions and millions and millions
Distance in distance in distances,

‌‌This endless line
Will be bent
And the death
Adjoins                       
Two                                           ends.

2.

The mirror…
My black hole, it was.

There was gravity and gravity
And whatever passed by it
Fell in the midst of it.

The death;
Before me, it was:
.I fell               in               to I.

3.

Silence:
The singularity, indeed.

Billions of billions of galaxies of words
In a willing-to-bang throat

The silence of mountains
The silence of skies
The silence of the man -who knows, is gonna die-

– Tell me what you did.

Silence.
[The singularity, you read.]



BIO

Born in 1987, Ali Asadollahi is the composer of six poetry books and the winner of some distinguished domestic poetry awards, such as Iran’s Journalist Society Award (2010). He is a permanent member of the Iranian Writers’ Association and currently studying for an M.A. degree in Persian language and literature at Tehran University. So far, some of his poems have appeared in Hayden’s Ferry Review, Roanoke Review, Palaver Journal, Alchemy Journal, and The Persian Literature Review.



Monte is Summoned to Building One

by Ed Peaco



Monte Thompson was trying to walk quickly from the parking lot to the heavy doors of Building One. He was hoping to stay ahead of the big boss, who Monte felt closing in on him. Derick Blockmenn, the Principal Partner and CEO of DataProbing Network, was someone to avoid. However, Monte had to be careful on his titanium hip, installed six months ago, and which had been causing as much pain as the human hip that had seemed to slowly disintegrate. In recent years, he hiked Mount Washington with three buddies, ran a half-marathon, and slogged through a mud-obstacle course. A year ago, he hit 55, and AARP ratcheted up its barrage of mail and pressure to enroll, but what was worse in that year was a boatload of torture in the left part of the pelvis. Complaining to himself, he denigrated the surgery as an old-man’s thing, but it had to be done. Rehab had been extended with physical therapy sessions, three per week. But there was more than just the physical pain. He had been taking off numerous half-days to visit neuro specialists and to take a battery of tests and an MRI to determine what was making his thinking so sluggish.

Today was one of those days when he had to slip away for a follow-up appointment at the big hospital downtown. The neurologist wanted to show Monte the findings of the MRI from a few weeks ago. Monte hoped he could dodge Blockmenn.

Entering DataProbing’s front lobby, Monte heard some banging behind him. It was Blockmenn, shoving the hydraulic mechanism of the front door, barging through the entryway, shouldering the door as if he were a linebacker, causing a metal-on-metal screech, muttering obscenities down the main hall. Monte ducked into the men’s room, hoping that hanging out there for a few minutes would be sufficient to shake the boss. Monte came to Building One rarely, to check if any of his mail was lingering at the front desk, and for the occasional staff meeting. This morning, looking this way and that, he thought the coast was clear, but he was wrong. Gangly and clumsy, with long, springy hair, graying and unruly—a twisted Einstein—Blockmenn almost knocked down Monte at the men’s room door.

“Hang on a minute,” Blockmenn said.

Then, while urinating, Blockmenn told Monte, “Get with Buster about the Natural Deep pitch. We need audio, video, text, today!” Monte wondered what Natural Deep was. Blockmenn told Monte to call Buster King, Monte’s supervisor, the hefty put-upon Managing Partner, and have him provide details. Blockmenn’s request threw Monte; he paused to gather his words. Buster was a prickly manager who tried to conceal his girth with billowy shirts. Standing by the sink, Monte phoned Buster, but the call went to voicemail, which made Blockmenn stomp away, fuming.

The DPN campus was composed of three small buildings, spread apart along a spacious greenway, with a wooded area beyond. Building One contained administration. Building Two quartered the specialists and investigators. The communication services were housed, including Monte’s team, in Building Three. “Blockhead,” as the staff called Blockmenn behind his back, could blow at any moment, for any reason. Longstanding employees said he had trouble with anger, pharmaceuticals, and substances, precipitating meltdowns and blowups, including one featuring fisticuffs with Buster and another with an investigator. A visit to Blockmenn’s office could be frightful, with swords and firearms mounted on the walls. From time to time, Monte thought about how he’d avoid those outbursts, or worse, an assault. He often cringed at the mismatch between the helping function of the organization and its dreadful creator. Like a terrible jingle that he couldn’t get out of his mind, Monte couldn’t stand the pretentious phrases of the mission statement, the fatuous boilerplate. What a load of crap!

DataProbing Network: a platform for those who need investigative solutions for casualties of catastrophic events, fraud, crime, and corruption. When government and law enforcement can’t or won’t help, DPN can perform functions tailored for the client, including investigators, litigators, scientists and communications experts, providing data-visualization tools, research resources, and voiceover video.

Eventually, Monte tracked down Buster in a meeting in which Blockmenn was ripping Buster a new one over the latest disaster. Monte listened briefly in the doorway. He learned a few things: Natural Deep was a natural gas producer. One of its offshore platforms in the North Sea had recently exploded. Blockmenn was livid about an investigator’s blunders that could lose the Natural Deep account.

“We have to be the first to know about shit like this, and know everything about it,” Blockmenn said. “Get off your lard-ass, Buster. If something blows up or somebody gets screwed, we need to be on it immediately!”

And Blockmenn to Monte: “Crap out all the appropriate proposals by the end of the day. Show them what we can do before somebody else does. Don’t waste time!”

Monte understood that this would not be a good day for slipping away for a doctor’s appointment. He shuffled back to Building Three and set aside the typical office morning chat, except for one dumb-ass Blockhead story: “I had a standing meeting in the men’s room with Blockhead!” Everybody had a good laugh, then Monte described the heap of work that had been dumped in their laps: the Natural Deep account. It was a setback for everyone and meant long hours ahead.

Monte took a moment to think about his own personal setbacks. His declining health and mental issues had recently caused the loss of a sweetie who had soured on him—one in a short list of sweeties following his divorce, including the dazzling Natalie, with whom he fumbled as she gave up on him. More important, he had trouble communicating at work: increasing forgetfulness, slow on the uptake, not finding the right words, all of which required co-workers to repeat discussions. Physically, his hip was flaring up with spiky shoots of pain, which required another visit to the physical therapist and the surgeon’s physician assistant. There would be no more running or hiking for a while, and not much walking, either. Just a mess all around.

He tried to recall when his mental fog started. It might have been with the hip replacement, or even before. Long after the anesthesia should have lifted, his head was still muddled. He went to a rehab place for ten days, then spent two weeks rehabbing and working from home, with the help of his nephew, Cable, who had plenty of time to help his uncle, as he’d been laid off from his job when the bar where he worked closed. Cable welcomed the cash Monte gave him to help with chores around the house, although Monte sensed Cable, who lived in a nearby remodeled barn, wasn’t really up to playing full-time nurse. Then again, Cable was the one who insisted Monte get a referral for a full neurological work-up, including an MRI for cognitive impairment.

—   —   —

Monte had arranged the time of the doctor’s appointment closer to lunch in hopes that his absence might not be noticed. He and Cable met the neurologist in her office to discuss the findings from the MRI. During a few minutes of pleasantries and questioning, the neurologist was looking at her screen. Then Cable piped up. “Sometimes when he talks, he sounds loopy, but not from those pills, because he won’t use them.”

“Loopy?” Monte asked.

“And a couple of times, he didn’t know where he was,” Cable said.

Grinding his teeth, Monte told Cable, “Hey, could you stop talking?”

She shot a glance toward Monte. “So, the report,” she said. “There’s no stroke, no tumor; but the scan detected mild atrophy of the brain.”

“That doesn’t sound good,” Monte said.

“Well, few very small foci of increased T2 signal in the bilateral subcortical white matter. …”

“What?” Monte lost her; nothing made sense, even after two attempts.

“You have mild cognitive impairment,” she said. “You might have early-onset dementia. The anesthesia from the hip replacement surgery some months ago may have accelerated cognitive decline. Tests show word loss and halted speech suggesting a progressive trajectory.”

“Meaning it gets worse, right?”

“Yes, you may eventually lose speech entirely.”

“Oh, that sucks!”

“There are many kinds of dementia, and there is no cure. Sorry to say.”

“Sorry to what?” Monte asked.

“I’ll set you up for a PET scan. It’ll show more about what your brain is doing.”

Cable tried to calm him down, but Monte got worked up when he heard sorry to say.  Then he stood up and walked out, reeling from the doctor’s words.

—   —   —

Back at DPN and eating lunch at his desk, Monte took a moment to calm down and count his blessings, such as they were. At least he worked in Building Three, as far from Blockmenn as possible. His team was talented and energetic. The three people in the media studio were versed in writing, editing, and producing. Each had a specialty: Michael (words), Charity (visuals), and Monte (audio) including voiceover for video. He was known for his gentle vocal tone, even when describing the worst explosions, natural disasters, and massacres around the world. Ironic that his diagnosis would affect his speech.

He and his team thought of the people in Building One as super-conservative and themselves as embracing a lefty fellowship. If anybody needed anything, Tori, the sharp-witted courier, would provide it. Tall and thin, she often speed-walked from building to building, pulling a red wagon filled with everything from printer cartridges to Earl Grey green tea. The best perk was the bucolic feel of Building Three, ensconced near trees and bathed in green space. Monte had always enjoyed walking around the grounds and into the woods on his lunch hour. A few years back, he hooked rope ladders over a weighty branch of a big oak and climbed just for fun. That was before the hip problems arose.

Michael, back from lunch, stopped at Monte’s desk. “I heard about fireworks at Building One today. Could it spread here?”

“You mean Blockhead might come to Building Three with a flamethrower? Not likely,” Monte said. “Blockhead likes to push around the sycophants in Building One.”

“I’ve been thinking about—this might seem silly—but, what about an escape plan?” Charity said. “Do we have one?”

“Like a secret passageway, a false wall?” Michael said as he chuckled.

The concerns of his co-workers, in lieu of that morning’s eruption, seemed to make sense. “Maybe we should think about that,” Monte said.

Tori interrupted this conversation with her daily visit to Building Three. She stopped, as usual, at Monte’s desk to tease him about his work. “Here you are: The Michael Bublé of Bloodbaths, The Pavarotti of Panic, The Sinatra of Sorrow.”

“Thank you very much. Just trying to make terrible events a little bit more pleasant,” he said with a little bow, while trying to get back to work.

Reflecting on the appointment with the neurologist, Monte knew he’d been lethargic and forgetful since coming back from his hip replacement surgery. He spent much more time in the sound booth than he would have before the surgery. Colleagues had to address him more than once to get his attention. He had trouble pulling words out of his mouth. Moreover, he noticed that people were seeing him speaking off a script, and when the discussion went beyond the script, he went silent as he worked through a speech block. It was scary. What was happening? Dementia, more goddamn dementia! What were his co-workers thinking? He worked through dinner and into the night, eventually collapsing for a few hours of sleep on a couch in the studio. Still he wasn’t done.

The next morning, seeking coffee, he already felt fried. Buster tromped into the studio, elbows out, standing over the three co-workers. With a loud sigh, he said, “We lost the Natural Deep project. You guys were too slow yesterday. The big guy is not happy.”

The threesome looked at each other, making grave faces. Buster conveyed again how disappointed Mr. Blockmenn was and described other work coming up.

Then Buster pulled Monte aside to ask him about his health and questioned the quality of his work. This was the first time anything like that had happened to Monte—ever. Both men remained silent for a short time.

“So, you’re the leader in Building Three. We need you, but, what’s up?” Buster asked.

“I’ve had some pain with the hip, and I don’t get enough sleep.”

“What can we do to get you back into the swing of things?”

“It’s up to me.”

“Yeah, but think about what’s going on with you. I don’t know what it is, but it might be more than just sleep. I’ve heard stuff about you, like, you’re not all there. We need you to be on top of things, all the time. Do you grasp what I’m saying?”

“Give me a little time to get myself into shape.”

“I’ll be checking in from time to time.”

No way was Monte going to use the word dementia, or mention his visit to the neurologist. How long could he fake being fully functional? Occasionally, he looked at a word and couldn’t pronounce it, or it made no sense unless he focused on it for a while. His work pace had been slowing down, and he knew that Buster and Blockmenn had become aware of it.

—   —   —

A few weeks later, Blockmenn summoned Monte to his office in Building One on a Monday morning. Monte arrived early. Blockmenn was not in his office. His longstanding admin, Victoria Deutsch, with ash-blonde helmet hair and extensive makeup, extended a hand toward a chair for Monte. “Feel at home, this is an amicable settlement,” she said.

“What settlement?”

“Didn’t he say?”

Suddenly, Blockmenn surged into the office and dropped loudly into his chair.

Victoria gave Blockmenn a stern-mother stare. “Be civil,” she told him. “Apparently, we have to start from the beginning.”

“Make it quick,” Blockmenn said.

Monte sat across from the Principal Partner, who began pushing papers into a single pile. Victoria presented a packet of termination and compensation documents.

She said, “Mr. Thompson, we know about the issues you’re confronting—”

What she said made Monte flinch. He wanted to eke out a few months more. Stuff gets around. Who blabbed? Who cares? Nobody had to tell anybody. The issues showed up every time he opened his mouth.

“—and we want to help you in any way we can,” Victoria said. “We will extend to you twenty-six weeks of severance compensation and health insurance.”

Monte felt like he was wandering in a thick fog. There was a lot of talking from Victoria that he seemed to hear from a distance. He wasn’t surprised, but he felt a little queasy. Victoria proceeded with the exit protocol. She described each document and showed the stickers pointing where Monte was to sign. The process became lengthy as Victoria recited various paragraphs that she seemed to think important.

“Thanks for the generous payout, Derick,” Monte said. “Could be worse!”

“Whaddaya mean? You want more?”

“I meant to say—”

“I don’t want to know what you meant,” Blockmenn said, fidgeting with pens and a stapler. He opened a drawer and brought out three handguns, fondling each, one by one, somewhat like he was strangely washing up with a big bar of soap. Then he placed the guns across his leather desk pad. “Which gun would you want to have?” Blockmenn asked.

“Now Mr. Blockmenn, not that,” Victoria said, with a withering gaze, as if she’d seen this routine before.

Monte recoiled. “What the hell?”

“Oh, Monte will like it.”

Monte certainly never had anything to say to Blockmenn, even on a good day, which was almost never. What a ridiculous exit interview!

So Monte responded first with a smirk, then pointed to the more compact piece. “If I must, this one, but—”

“The Smith & Wesson Governor,” Blockmenn said. “Excellent choice.” He picked up the Governor in both hands and raised it a few inches as if it were a large piece of gold.

“This one looks like the gun that Dick Tracy used from comic books and funny pages I read as a kid,” Monte said, then he snorted, which escalated to a nervous cackle. Monte was surprised with his outburst; he was scared and boiling mad. If only he could find Blockmenn without firearms, I would beat him to a pulp. Monte listened to the thumping of his charging heart, like it might explode at any moment.

“What’s so funny?” Blockmenn lurched up from his desk. “Do you think this is silly? It’s a matter of death or life.”

“Come on, Derick. What would I do with a gun? This is weird!”

In a spark of rage, Blockmenn swiped the weapon off the desk and to the floor, where it crashed with a sharp smack, spinning like a top on the ceramic tile. Seething, Blockmenn threw his head back petulantly. The gun lay spinning on the floor. Victoria sat there like nothing had happened.

Bug-eyed, mouth agape, Monte shot out of his chair, which fell back to the floor. “What’s this all about? Butterfingers! Screw you!” The gun spun slowly to a halt. Monte looked down and found that the barrel was pointed at his feet.

Victoria stooped to collect it. “Be careful, Mr. Blockmenn.”

“I’m fine,” said the CEO. “Take care of these papers. Show me where I sign. Be sure he signs the non-disclosure.” Blockmenn grabbed some documents from the desk and others from the floor, and stalked out.

Victoria leaned to Monte, close to his ear, whispering. “You deserve a reason for Mr. Blockmenn’s demeanor. He is a gifted leader, but he has challenges. He sees things. He hears things. He has treatment, but he doesn’t take heed. Today, he went off his meds, and he has upped his vodka intake. Don’t worry. Everything will be all right in the end.”

—   —   —

Blockmenn had designated Buster to escort Monte off the premises, but Buster was pulled away to deal with the current Blockhead tantrum, allowing Monte to hobble back across the green space to Building Three. He was eager to tell everybody about the disturbance that Blockmenn fomented.

 “I was summoned to Building One today, and the place was totally toxic. More bizarre behavior from Blockhead—he’s barking up and down through the corridors, he’s pulling a full-blown roid rage. He pulled out three handguns for me to examine. When he left his office, I saw he had another piece in a shoulder holster. He is absolutely unhinged!”

“Creepy, but we all know that he experiments with all kinds of alcohol, drugs, and pills. He’ll make mush of his brain if he keeps going this way,” Tori said.

“Oh, and so why was I summoned to Blockhead’s office? He fired me. This is my last day at DPN.”

Hubbub broke out as people wanted to know when, how and why; it went on for a while, requiring Monte to provide answers: Any feelers yet? Where ya looking? Try the local broadcast outlets? Great voice for radio. You’ve got connections.

“You guys know why I’m leaving, right?”

“You’re lucky,” Tori said. “You’re getting out of here.”

“Not exactly lucky,” he said, after which he looked for some way to get away from the crowd. He thought Buster would have already kicked him off the premises, but he wasn’t around. Monte went to the basement to find his plastic storage tub. He scrounged about in the tub, finding a few obsolete devices, old manuals, and binders, the rope ladders that he had stopped using, and a full set of clothes for back when he used to bike to work. He lugged all of it upstairs, where he unloaded the printed material into the recycling bin, and dumped the rest in a trash can. He kept the clothing.

He steered Tori into an empty hall. “So, I want to tell you, but you probably had some notion,” he said. “It may be early-onset dementia. Brain power just gets less and less.”

“Some of us were thinking—”

“If I’m lucky, the disease will go slow,” Monte said.

“—I wanted to say something.”

“Dementia comes gift-wrapped in many ways. Google it,” Monte said.

She briefly covered her mouth. She said, “Sorry.”

“You can tell anybody,” he said. “Tell them I said you could. I don’t want to talk about it. Maybe later.”

He spent a few minutes with Michael and Charity showing them around the soundproof booth used for making audio tracks, extolling the quality of the end result, better than your own voice. In the bottom drawer of his desk he found a dusty Doctors Without Borders tote bag, and he stuffed it with the clothes and a few books. As he packed, the idea of leaving felt better and better.

A squawk from the intercom startled the people of Building Three. The intercom was ancient and hardly ever used. The sound was loud and distorted. It was Buster. He was blurting hysterically. “Blockmenn’s on a rampage. This is real. He’s going after Monte. Active shooter alert! Active shooter alert! I couldn’t stop him. Go, go, go right now!”

Monte yelled through the halls of Building Three, “Let’s get out of here! Run to the woods!” He limped as rapidly as he could toward the trash can to retrieve the rope ladders. “Don’t go to your cars. The parking lot is next to Building One. Toward Blocker. I mean Blockhead. Who wants to run for the fence? I’m going now.” He pocketed his phone, gathered his rope ladders, hollered, “Last chance!” Then he went toward the trees. Five co-workers—Tori, Michael, Charity, and two others whose names he couldn’t remember—followed Monte’s limp-shuffle adrenaline-fueled gait across the green space into the brush. Some of the group were frantically texting and calling 911. He trudged through the prickers, the saplings, the big sycamores, and the downed-and-rotting trunks. Now he was hurting. He kept looking behind to make sure the others knew where he was. The escapees sped up when they heard a short spattering of gunshots. Monte stumbled upon two homeless men camped out with blue tarps and sleeping bags. He invited them to come along to avoid the crazy guy with guns, but they were only startled, and waved Monte away.

At last, the fence came into view. Monte hooked the first ladder over the top of the fence on the DPN side, then awkwardly climbed half way up, feeling something like a butcher knife jabbing into his thigh. He paused, then took it slow, placing the second ladder on the other side, and went over to check that the ladder was properly placed. Oh, throbbing pain! He waited for the pain to subside a bit, and he found a way to pull himself up mostly by his arms. He went back over to the DPN side to help those who needed it. Tori had trouble trudging in her sandals, and she was apprehensive about the ladders, but she managed to get over. One of the guys whose name Monte couldn’t remember, a hefty fellow, decided not to attempt the ropes. Michael said he had something like these ladders on his bunk bed growing up, and he hastened up, over and down. Charity, looking jittery, threw her pumps over the fence, and took the steps quickly. Monte followed.

“We made it!” Monte said. “So far, anyway.” He collected the rope ladders and carried them under each arm.

Charity looked around at the scrub trees and high grass lining the road, then she declared, “Whoa, we’re in the boonies. I’ve never been on this edge of town.”

“Me, neither,” Monte said. “When you enter DPN, you’re still in the city. But over the fence, we’re really out there.”

“I’ve been beamed up to another planet,” she said.

Wincing with every other step, Monte led the crew down a gravel road toward what he hoped was a main road.

“Hey, we have to keep moving,” Monte said. “We need to get far enough away so we can’t be seen.”

“Why are you toting those ladders?” Michael asked Monte.

“They’re souvenirs.”

“For crying out loud. I’ll carry them,” Michael said.

Monte fell back from the group, and they went around a bend. He slowed down, looked back where they had walked, then looked ahead. He didn’t see anybody. Panic set in.

—   —   —

Well, shit, let them go wherever they’re going, but I’m gonna sit here and feel each throb. Too loud to think. Am I thinking?

Can’t process. Getting canned: that calls for an up yours! Psycho Baby playing with guns, shit for brains. Those gunshots: that demands a full-throttle mother fucker!

Spent my best years in pig slop—that boilerplate, the pretentious crap that I wrote!

Blockhead, why didn’t you fire me long ago?

Early on: Got divorced. Then there was Natalie. Wow Natalie! Posted to Dublin. Could have followed her out of bumfuck DPN. What a sledge head I was!

Im the blockhead!

No more hikes, no more races.

Gimmy a wheelchair and fuck yourself.

Surgery stupor, now dementia, what’s next?

Aphasia, my sweetie till death?

Won’t see the guys anymore. No trails. No mountains.

No woman would mess with this mess of me.

Losing everything!

Oh, what’s this? Something’s wrong. What’s happening?

Where am I?

—   —   —

As the first one to notice Monte was nowhere in sight, Michael back tracked and found Monte on the shoulder of the road, panting, howling in a gutteral basso profundo.

“What’s wrong?” Michael asked.

“I’m kinda messed up,” Monte said. “Really lost. Scary.”

Michael pulled him up to sit and put an arm around Monte. “You OK?” Michael asked.

Monte looked around and saw the ladders. He said, “Oh, ladders. Yeah, yeah, ladders.” He didn’t want to stand up yet. Something had hit him like that wigged-out feeling from that anesthetic. “When I saw the ladders, I knew everything again—weird.”

Tori held his hand. “How do you feel? What do you need? You can’t help it, right? It’s that dementia, right? Sorry. I gotta shut up.”

“I think it was that I didn’t see you guys,” Monte said. “I was nowhere. Not sure where I was.”

“I don’t know either,” Charity said. She gave her water bottle to Monte.

“It’s a different not-knowing,” he said. “It’s not, it’s different—I can’t find the word. Sorry.”

“Hell, no. Don’t be sorry. You saved us from that madman,” Michael said. “You’re our hero!”

As Michael and Tori helped Monte get on his feet, Charity went ahead to a Smarty-Mart store. The others arrived in a few minutes. She bought bottled water for everybody. They sat on plastic chairs and called family and friends to say they were OK.

“Oh, my brain let me have that word. No, it went away. No, yes, I got it: embarrassing. A different kind of not-knowing.”

—   —   —

Monte wanted Cable to stay with him that night. Next morning, Monte’s phone was crammed with calls and texts with concerns for his wellbeing and news of what happened at DataProbing Network. Buster’s voice message: Blockhead went just-a-stumblin’, the Governor in one hand, bottle of Grey Goose in the other. I called the cops. They came in five minutes. When Blockhead heard the sirens, that was when he tried to blow his fuckin’ head off, but he botched the job. Nobody else got hurt.

—   —   —

Two days later, Tori came to Monte’s house and sat outside with iced coffee.

“I’m not going back,” Tori said.

“We’re still alive!”

“Another thing. I have a business proposition for you,” Tori said.

“Oh, really? I have no money to invest.”

Tori laughed. “Just saying, I’m gonna be a personal shopper—woo-hoo!”

“Cable gets my groceries.”

 “You’ll need more help than that. Come on, you could be my first client.”

“Not sure I’m ready for that,” Monte said.

“You can function almost all the time, except for when you can’t.”

“I’m going back to the neuro doc to have a PET scan,” he said. “That’s supposed to be the be-all, end-all for the diagnosis.”

“Then what?”

“Just carry on until I can’t, whenever that is.”



BIO

Ed Peaco is enamored with the short story. Many of his stories involve love (or like), blundering and redemption. He held editing posts at a newspaper for 27 years. In the next decade and continuing, as a freelancer, he’s writing about local music; and editing books, magazines and articles. The villain in this story, “Monte is Summoned to Building One,” is modeled on an eruptive boss. Peaco quit quickly, but Monte kept working too long. Peaco lives in Springfield, MO.





Sports of Sorts

by Thomas Backer



            After reading Pogo, Katzenjammer Kids and a few other comic strips in the newspaper, I turned to the sports page to check on the number of hits by Richie Ashburn and the new won/loss record of the Phillies pitcher.  They won the National League Championship in 1950 and my support at age eleven.  I could care less about anything else in the paper and neither did most of the adults and other kids in our small town.     

            The following summer mom and dad took brother Joe and me on vacation for the fifteen hour drive to Washington D.C. and a side trip to Philadelphia for a double header with Robin Roberts and Curt Simmons, their aces, pitching.  The immaculate field and the cavernous stadium put me in Oz.  The largest crowds I had seen up to that time were those that attended our annual church picnic for the turtle soup and taking chances on a quilt.  The roar and foot stomping of these baseball fans intimidated me at first but I soon started yelling and jumping up and down, losing some of my salted peanuts.  

            Dad pulled on my shoulder to sit me down.  “It’s only a baseball game, son.”

            I looked up.  “Oh dad, it’s much more than that.  It’s my best dream come true.”

            Other events of my childhood fade away but not that one.

            A couple of years after that game, Curt Simmons, a lefty, slipped and fell using his power mower, a newfangled machine he had recently purchased, severing several toes on his left foot.  He tried to pitch again but he couldn’t forcefully push off the mound with his injured left foot so he gave it up and the Phillies got off on the wrong foot too.  Brother Joe got my goat by gloating over the success of Jackie Robinson, Pee Wee Reese and the rest of his Dodgers.  

            We played softball at recess and practiced fielding grounders and pitching baseball in our spare time, including “burn out,” where we threw the ball as hard as we could until one of us quit with a sore paw, but the first organized school sport we played was basketball.

*

            Our small town of Ferdinand did not have a high school or gym so we played against teams from other small towns at a gym belonging to a nearby Benedictine monastery.  Father Edwin, bland looking and speaking just above a whisper, coached our sixth grade team.  We called him Sleepy Jesus because he often fell asleep during the silent reading portion of our religion class.   We played roughhouse basketball like in games after school: fouling the other team, pushing to get a rebound, always grabbing for the ball.  During our first game against another school, Father Edwin called us into a huddle.  Leaning over, hands held together in prayer, he had us do the same and pleaded, “For the love of the Lord, behave yourselves.  The object of this game is to put the ball in the basket.”  Well, to make a basket you have to first get the ball and the only way to do that was to fight for it.

            The following year our crew cut, athletically looking seventh grade coach appropriately called Crapper, had us always walk on the balls of our feet.  He overheard some of us having an animated conversation in his Volkswagen van on the way home from a game.  At a stop sign, he turned to ask, “You boys talking about girls?”

            I said, “Yeah, I think Peggy Brockman is the best looking girl in our class.” 

            Another player snorted.  “Whoop de doo, Bonnie Schaefer has her beat six ways from Sunday.  Blue eyes, curly hair, what more could you want?”

            Crapper smiled a wicked smile.  “They all look the same underneath.”  He turned to continue driving.  

            Did he mean that looks don’t matter?  Wholesomeness counts more than looks?  Or did he mean girls with no clothes on?  Seemed like a sin to even think about that but scuttlebutt had it that sin didn’t seem to be a subject that Crapper concerned himself with.   Our pastor, Father David, his round florid face looking stern, called each of us boys one by one to his office at the rectory before our seventh grade Confirmation.  He supposedly tried to explain sex but in such vague terms that he seemed to mainly say that I should consider the priesthood.  If Crapper, full of it as usual, had commented on sex in his naughty way, Father David’s discombobulated discourse ranked as only the second time any adult had ever said anything about the subject.  We had begun noticing girls but not in terms of sex, which became this tantalizing but never talked about topic except by older boys who made it clear that we didn’t know our ass from a hole in the ground.

            Ferdinand finally got a high school in 1950, with me still in seventh grade.  They enrolled only freshmen and sophomores to start with but our basketball team played against varsity teams from other small towns in the area.   

            The Frank Heidet Machine Shop distributed a calendar for that year listing our town‘s population as 2000.  They must have included cats and dogs because the official census said 1,252.  Our population still outnumbered the residents of the towns we played but their juniors and seniors stomped on our young team without mercy.  Selvin lost its post office earlier that year of 1950 but their Netters defeated us 80 to 24.  The U.S. census did not list a population for Otwell until 2010 and that as 434, declining to 396 in 2020, but their Millers beat us 68 to 29.   The Bluebirds of Birdseye, which even today has only one intersection and trailers vastly outnumbering houses in the area, won the final game of the season 70 to 20. 

            Our guys did, however, come close to winning against the Folsomville Fearless.  

            On the school bus going with other students to the game, I joined in yelling “Goodnight Irene Goodnight,” “Peg o’ My Heart “ and “Ninety-nine Bottles of Beer on the Wall.”  At bottle number forty-seven, the bus driver pulled over, stood and turned to face us with murder in his eyes.  “If y’all can’t keep a lid on I’m goin to turn this damned thing around and you can forget about me drivin you to any more games and not nobody else is dumb enough do it neither.”  

            Since he resembled the old time comedian, I said during the hush, “Okay, Fatty Arbuckle, drive on, take away anything you want but not our basketball games.”  He gave me an index finger and a piercing look but turned and held down on the horn as he got back on the road.  He eventually pulled into a lane with a farmhouse and large barn.  That seemed odd but we entered the barn to see a basketball court only a little more than half the size of a normal one.  Eight rows of seats lined the one side of the “gym” with a pot-bellied stove that smelled like puke beneath the visitor’s section.  Probably one of the Fearless did that deliberately earlier in the day.

            Our star player, Leon Wenholt, used a one handed pump shortly after crossing the center line but it hit the ceiling, twenty-five feet above the floor, each time.  A referee called it out of bounds and gave the ball to the other team.  We yelled, “What!  How much are they paying you?” and similar appropriate remarks but the referee gave us a threatening look, as if he might call a technical foul on us, so we kept our cussing quiet for the time being.

            Our three girl cheerleaders ran onto the playing field during the first break in the action, wearing saddle oxford shoes, bobby socks and pleated short skirts as they jumped about, shaking their blue and gold pompoms and yelling out their theme song:

                        We are the Crusade girls

                        You’ll like our hair in curls.

                        We wear our dungarees 

                        Away above our knees

             The playing field ended two feet from the wall at the side of the gym opposite the bleachers.  At the start of the game, a student brought out a stepladder and the scorekeeper mounted it to sit on a small ledge ten feet above the floor.  He then marked the score with chalk and an eraser on a small blackboard.  At halftime the student brought the ladder for him and he got down to get a bag of popcorn he brought to the game.  He got back up on the ledge when play resumed but an errant ball headed his way, causing him to throw up his hands, along with the chalk, eraser and his popcorn.  The custodian tossed him the chalk and erasure, swept up the popcorn and headed for the trashcan.  The scorekeeper yelled, “Give that back!  The floor’s clean.”  The custodian turned to glare at him and, arms akimbo while holding the dustpan, gave him a I-may-look-like-a–fool-but-you’re-a-worse-one and tossed the popcorn in the trashcan.  The irate scorekeeper called for the ladder, got down and stomped off, thumbing his nose at the custodian.  They coaxed a younger kid to take his place and he seemed to mount the ladder with a certain amount of trepidation. 

            All of the fans, and especially ours, filled the small space with a deafening roar, constantly booing the referees with insinuating epitaphs such as, “You’re so crooked they’re going to have to use a corkscrew to get you into your grave!”

            The sports writer for the Ferdinand News described the rough and tumble of the game.  “Nearly all foul ball plays ended up on the floor and the game was not unlike a football meet.  The players couldn’t get out of each other’s way and, before the game was over, the referees called a total of 47 fouls, sending five players to the showers.”  The referees always called the foul on the defensive player, never charging on the offense, except when there occurred an oddity that has probably never happened elsewhere.  The sports writer continued, “Near the end of the game, one referee finally caught a boy charging but the other referee called it a foul on the boy in his way, so each was given a free throw and each charged with a personal foul.” 

            The sports writer summarized the game as a “heartbreaker” since Folsomville squeaked by with a score of 39 to 37, the only game our Crusaders lost by less than twenty points. 

            They offered no concessions but a hand printed sign said, “Stop at Mr. Leslie’s Grocery Store after the game for a cracker and slice of baloney sandwich for five cents and a Coke for ten cents.  Look for the U. S. Post Office sign as it is located in the back of the store.”  People in the area called Folsomville “Lick Skillet.”  At least we didn’t have to do that to get a snack. 

            Ferdinand got a gym two years later and I sat on the bench as a freshman but had high hopes that, with practice, I could gain a starting position.  Too cold to play outside, my fellow benchwarmers and I wanted access to the gym and thought that the janitor or somebody would let us in.  We banged on the doors and windows without success but then I noticed an unlocked window just under the roof near a downspout so I climbed the twenty feet to push the window open and squeezed inside to then let the others in at a front door.  

            Father David, the pastor who found out about everything, called home the next day to tell mom of my reckless behavior.  Mom put her hands to her sides and gave me a discouraged look.  “Father said breaking and entering is a felony but for my sake he isn’t going to press charges.  Why would you do something like that?  Basketball isn’t the most important thing in the world.”

            “It isn’t?”

*

            I didn’t try out for the basketball team the next year and turned my attention to baseball.  I served as batboy for our hometown Cardinals, who played teams from the area.  We especially wanted them to beat Jasper, a much larger town whose fans called us the Ferdinand Twinkies.  We hated their guts.  Having pitched ten scoreless innings, Nig Schriener, called that because of his dark complexion, knelt on one knee in the on-deck circle.  In his mid-forties and his last season, he looked plum tuckered as he leaned on the upright bat.  He spit tobacco juice in the direction of their pitcher.  “I’m tired of looking at that ugly bastard.”  He pointed his bat to center field and hit a home run to win the game.  Babe Ruth had nothing on this guy.

            Making the baseball team during my junior year in high school I sat on the bench but did get to play the day after the prom.  Most of us junior guys from town, a few country jacks and a bunch of seniors had an after the prom party at the St. Meinrad Conservation Club, just an open concrete building with a roof.  Two seniors had asked older brothers to get us three cases of beer and four guys agreed to drink only three each so they could get the rest of us home.  A few girls showed up but left early.  

            Several guys who had starting positions on the baseball team called in sick the next morning so the rest of us had to fill in at those positions for our game against the Cannelton Bulldogs.  Blurry eyed and weaving a bit, we looked forward to the last out that would end our misery.  We had only eight players so Dickie Lee, the water boy, had to play right field.  He had to borrow a glove from the other team and let one through his legs but managed to not fall down as he ran after it. 

            The next morning, Sister Therese, our homeroom teacher, stood to the side of the room, looking down, arms folded in front of her and not saying a word.   Sister Frederica, the principal, burst into the room and slammed her hand on the teacher’s desk.  “This is a Catholic school you ingrates.  No senior prom for you.  I don’t like to punish the girls as well as the boys but I know that some of you girls attended this disgraceful and disgusting affair and the innocent will have to suffer along with the guilty.”  She pointed her right index finger across the lot of us.  “Father Bede will hear confessions at the end of the day and all of you miscreants will admit your degree of guilt in this sordid sin.”  She slammed the door as she left.

            So what, I thought.  She can flush her prom down the toilet for all we cared.  Just don’t take away baseball. 

            In our senior year I started at third base.  During that year I sometimes got on base due to walks as I scrunched my small size over the plate to shrink the strike zone and the other team made errors but I got only one hit.  Joe Todrank pitched for the Holland Dutchmen.  At the end of an inning, as I walked to the dugout, he strolled to the mound, cocky as ever, and said, “You’re Larry’s brother, aren’t you?”  I gave him a quizzical look but nodded.  “You’re up.  Take the first pitch.  It’ll be a nice one.”  Right down the middle at medium speed, I hit it into shallow center field.  Felt pretty good standing on first base as my teammates cheered in amazement.  I didn’t advance to second base and none of the rest of us even got to first as Todrank could smoke em and even threw a nasty curve.

            In another game, the Dale Golden Aces had an exceptionally good player named Reinhardt, hard as nails.  During one at bat Reinhardt blasted a screaming line drive at me.  As I walked in at the end of the inning and coach LaGrange jauntily strolled to his position as third base coach, he smiled and winked. “ You’re not supposed to duck when they hit a ball at you.”   Yeah, sure, stand still and get a big hole in my head.

*

            A classmate told me that when he went on his honeymoon he took his bride to eleven major league games in ten days, traveling from city to city in the Midwest and along the East Coast.  Perhaps she took knitting with her, but when they got back home, she said, “I will never go to another Major League game the rest of my married life, which may not last very long at the rate we’re going.  Baseball isn’t the most important thing in the world.”

            He said, “It isn’t?”  



BIO

Tom Backer had fun growing up in the small town of Ferdinand, Indiana.  After obtaining a PhD in History at the University of Cincinnati, he taught that subject for 43 years, mainly at a college prep high school but including two years at the International School of Kenya.  Upon retirement he took classes in Creative Writing at Northern Kentucky University and, with encouragement from Blaise Weller, he began submitting.  The Barker’s Voice published a poem called Cheezee, describing a horseshoe game and a theft of cheese.  Two fiction stories appeared:  “Goodwill” in aaduna describes an unsuccessful attempt to help two homeless people and openarstsforum listed “A Small Town” where hijinks in a bar led to an accusation of witchcraft.  Creative Nonfiction stories include two in aaduna: “Fear,” about a carjacking in Los Angeles, and “Slick,” describing teenagers on the loose.  Wilderness House Literary Review also presented two: “The Elephant Trap,” where his brother and he played a trick on Grandpa and got punished, and “Carly: a Christmas Carol,” describing the loss of his local boyhood hero.  Sortes Magazine published “The Circus,” where he and other kids put on a circus in his backyard.



I Dream About My Dead Dogs

By Glen Vecchione


I don’t see them.
They wrap themselves around my head
in a kind of turban, their balls dropping
down over my ears in satchels of parfum de chien.

My dogs: four or five of them—none
of whom have ever met the others.

I know they’re excited to see me
because I’m scoured by a swooshing of tails.
It’s like I’ve stuck my head in a car wash,
my face scrubbed by the rotary brushes.

What a comedy, this dream: invisible dogs.
And yet I feel sad when I awaken
and have to record my thoughts about life
on my smartphone.

I never dream about cats, although I owned one.
It took a nap under the hood of my car
because the engine was warm.
That was that for that cat.
Why dream of cats, anyway? They never show up.

After lunch, I check the notes to myself
and have a revelation: the dogs are my helmet.
They protect my head. My thoughts. My hurts.
Although they loll about, they’re alert and ready

to attack, to warn whatever else is out there
Leave him alone.
They are my personal Fu dogs, even though
I flunked Asian Studies at U.C.L.A.

or maybe my wardens, set there by Sigmund
to lock the chaos in my head and not let it
loose upon the world.
That means I’m stuck with it, with them

and it’s too late for therapy.
That means it’s too late for therapy.



Trinkzeit am Abend

(Evening Drink Time)


Here in Basel, the evening swans
nibble the ears of Rhine bathers
and the beaconed derricks
                                    swing their cargos.

A tram hums beneath its catenary.
The moon shreds, nicked by a tower.

Three penciled women in the bar. One
takes the cap from my head and reads the stitch.
San Francisco, she says, Was ist mit Amerika los?
Big question, I reply.

Tips her cigarette towards my groin.
I can supply pleasures behind your belt, says she.
I could be your grandfather, say I.
Ja, she says, blowing sideways. We do it draußen.

I wonder if she’ll wear my cap when we do it draußen,
but once outside, turns her back and grabs her E-bike.
The trouble with America is that you are all thieves!
she says, tipping her trophy from across the street.

In Basel, people cycle to work humming ditties
but never yield the street to foreigners.
In a neighborhood where hanging laundry is verboten
I pass a worker with a flashlight scrubbing bricks.

In the window above, a shirtless man screams in Italian
and from what I can make of it, says,
Stop me before I break the law!




Brain Scan


I’m apprised by the neurologist
of a frayed connection between what’s there
and what arrives, so many shorts possible
along the circuitry. Still, the jumping letters,
clown-colored, wriggle across the newspaper
and that unrecognized thing suddenly becomes
a daffodil; the word for it too, once rooted,
now unmoored and prone to slip away

until I snare it back.
You’ve seen this before, doc, holding
my scan to the fluorescent. Now
how do I drop anchor to keep this skiff from drifting,
the lights flickering On more than Off;
or is this the true way home—the stars
confounding, compass wonked, the sea breaking
the moon’s soiled plate into shards, teeth,
a black maw that shreds before it swallows?




Wal-Mart


because there are glaciers here
                  striations of merchandise
cataracts of cardboard amphorae with crushed corners
                  in a crazed ascension to fluorescent nirvana
because it is pure-plumbed
                  has aisles with vanishing points

and the people   or the men mostly
                  they move with their broods about them
like a boat in an oil slick
                  the hull pushing through here and there

where the sound is that of some underground place
                  without the dripping   a squeak and
clatter of split rubber bearings
                  swathe-cut wiggly through the crushed

spangles and cacophony of fabrics
                  because it resembles an airplane hangar    contains a city
of appliance boulevards   the clacking and swishing
                  of strapped feet and greasy billfolds   everywhere
the plenary stink of America.



BIO

Glen Vecchione is the author and illustrator of 28 science books for young adults as well as a fiction writer and poet. His science titles have been translated into seven languages and are distributed worldwide. His poetry has appeared in Missouri Review, ZYZZYZA, Comstock Review, Southern Poetry Review, Adirondack Review, Indiana University Press, and Tar River Poetry. His short story “The Rose Light” appears in The Main Street Rag. Glen also composes music for television, film, and theatre. He currently divides his time between Palm Desert, California and New York City.





Along the Lines of Improv

by Cecilia Kennedy


Pythons move in straight lines forward. They stiffen their ribs and lift their ventricle scales on their bellies to keep pushing ahead. A straight line extends infinitely in either direction, without curving, but in a realm of infinite possibilities, where straight lines may intersect, any number of them could determine the path a python takes, and where it ends up.

#

Plagued by what she calls “brain bumps,” Peggy vows to make creativity flow on the job by taking an improv class. At work, her mind clogs with thoughts, pelted by self-doubt, so she travels twenty minutes to the theater at the edge of the Millerstown Strip Mall to take Saturday-morning classes, but here’s what she doesn’t understand: Why does all improv have to be funny? Peggy dreams of moving an audience to silence with admiration—a story so powerful that a rush of emotions builds, and people leap to their feet to applaud when she’s done.

But so far, the skits and exercises inevitably lead to bathroom jokes or characters she doesn’t understand, but she keeps going, hoping to learn something. There’s a mirror in the classroom space, which also doubles as a dance studio. In the mirror, they can practice making faces—or see other’s reactions.

Today, Bob is playing his chain-smoking character who wants to teach his student (Peggy) to play the blues, which of course requires her to sing—horribly—and she doesn’t want to do it.

“Push the note like you’re grunting one out,” he says, in his fake, raspy voice, but she doesn’t want to. Such a thing is so ugly and crass. She’d strain her neck, and her face would transform into something hideous with lines and wrinkles.

“I’m actually here to buy a guitar,” Peggy says, trying to change the scene—to avoid having to make a fool of herself, but Bob insists, and she feels cornered. She catches her face in the mirror—all red and scrunched up. She also sees the faces of the other students in the class, reflecting looks of cringe and pity. The instructor steps in, stops the exercise, moves to the next person. A hissing sound expels from the radiator-heater in the back, as Peggy follows the lines of the floorboards towards the exit, reaching her car at the edge of the wooded area behind the theater. The stream is alive with sound and movement—splashes, jumps, and sun light, but she’s headed straight home.

#

During rehearsal, right before the matinee improv production, the instructor reminds the students to listen to one another, to respond with open hearts, to let the story unfold in any way it might. Peggy tries to quiet her bubbling and fizzing brain, so overloaded with a toxic mixture of ideas and doubt, that she can hear banging on the pipes overhead, the creak of a door, a slither-sound of the wind as it rushes through the tiny holes of daylight dotted into the roof and frame of the building.

When rehearsal starts, Stan assumes a stubborn character who is waiting for a bus. Peggy tries to get him to do something other than stand there and smile and repeat the same two lines, but he won’t budge. The more he resists, the more her gestures become desperate. She jumps up and down, screaming that they’re wasting their lives, just waiting for a bus. With her entire soul, she yearns for a transformative moment on stage, a breakthrough, but at the end of the class, everyone decides that Stan stole the show.

#

Hours before the performance, Peggy reads news headlines on her phone, but they keep getting interrupted with alerts from a neighborhood website she signed up for, where frantic neighbors post warnings about car prowlers. Apparently, a neighbor has discovered that the area behind the Millerstown strip mall is overrun with unusually large pythons, and when the wildlife team and sheriff’s department split one open, they find missing people’s bones. A strong discomfort in Peggy’s stomach overtakes her, but it’s quickly erased by thoughts of the performance ahead.

#

A small audience has gathered in the theater, mostly friends and family of the other actors, but Peggy is determined to elevate the form of improv. Improv has a pure soul, and so does Peggy.

The first scene is a bank, and they’re supposed to count imaginary money and develop the story from there. Peggy’s legs feel weak and wobbly, but she stands up tall and moves forward.

“Money isn’t the most important thing in life,” she says, and when she’s said those words, she hears the doors creak open in the lobby, and she takes the sound as a sign that she’s on the right path. She’s really listening now, opening herself up to the moment. She must continue, right along the line she’s started.

“Like hell, it is,” Bob replies, and the audience erupts in laughter. But Peggy will not be shaken. Behind her, from down the hall, she hears a smooth sound, almost imperceptible, and she faces the audience head on.

“It’s the ruin of souls,” Peggy says. “We stand at its mercy, and it divides us.”

“Here, divide this and stack it,” Bob says, but Peggy persists. The smooth sound is in the wings now, and she knows this moment is pure and true.

“I’ve loved with all my heart, and I’ve earned nothing in return. All of this is nothing.”

She feels a stillness in the air, and when she looks out at the audience, and into their faces, all eyes are on her. She feels a rush of warm air surrounding her, on all sides, from behind, and opens her arms to take a bow. When she turns around to leave, the unhinged jaws of the biggest constrictor anyone has ever seen, are gaping wide, its patterned scales breaking the straight line around its lower half, coiling tightly around her.



BIO

Cecilia Kennedy taught English and Spanish courses in Ohio before moving to Washington state and publishing short stories in various magazines and anthologies. The Places We Haunt is her first short story collection. You can find her DIY humor blog and other adventures/achievements here: (https://fixinleaksnleeksdiy.blog/



I was never taught how to use a lawnmower because my parents didn’t want me to lose a foot.

By Christine Horner

If you could see how clumsy I am, you would understand.
When God churned me into this world in his heavenly cauldron, he forgot
the pinch of hand-eye coordination and he left out
the tablespoon of social grace, but he added
a few heaping pounds of childhood obesity
as well as a handful of major depressive disorder—just for good measure.
I was formed into a messy, buttery compound and thrust
into this world to be spread on burnt toast, then dropped on the floor face-down.



Leaving Home

Leaving home is not like “flying the nest”—
            it is like diving head-first into a shallow public pool,
            chlorinated water flooding your sinuses
            as your skull thumps the slick concrete at the bottom.
            You float to the surface, blood spilling
            out of your nostrils, staining the water red.
            Bubbles rise from the bottom half of your bathing suit
            as you struggle to reach the ladder, eyes shut tight
            from your head pain and the bright sunlight
            that litters your face with freckles
            and dyes your skin hot pink. You had hoped
            that the pool would cool your burn, but
            the pool was heated, and it stung
            almost as much as your crush’s laughter
            at you, at your pain, at your embarrassment.
            He looks like a younger Orlando Bloom,
            raising his finger to point at you,
            finally getting out of the pool
            only to trip over a plastic chair.
            Tears cloud your round, blushing face
            and bloody snot oozes from your nose into your mouth
            while you cry for your mother to take you home.



I Will Age like Whiskey

I have heard that I’m supposed to buy
creams
and cleansers
and serums
to prevent premature wrinkles
and that I should stay out of direct sunlight
lest I look like a seventy-five-year-old woman
when I’m a seventy-five-year-old woman.

Raisined knuckles turn people off
as do the happy little lines on my forehead—
indents from delicious laughter.

“Like a fine wine,” they say.

But what if I’m not a fine wine?
What if I’m whiskey, hearty and direct
with a profound finish?
I don’t desire to age like a fine wine
left in a cold cellar to collect dust with bitter cabernets.
Barrel me in a cozy wooded cabin and
leave me to ferment there.
I’ll mature in my own time.





BIO

Christine Horner (she/her) is a poet who recently received her AFA in Creative Writing from Normandale Community College and is seeking a BFA in English from Augsburg University in Minneapolis. She is previously unpublished and enjoys knitting, cooking, and reading when she is not writing, working, or going to classes.



Mailable Motorcycle Art:
Two-Wheeled Postcards from Around the World

Story & Photos by Paul Garson

Redlands, California 1900

Postcards were utilized as means of advertising more than a hundred years ago as demonstrated by his example printed by a California shop offering both bicycles and motorcycles.

Before there was Twitter and text messaging there were postcards. Tons of them. In fact, many millions have been posted from almost every country in the world, the appearance of postcards stretching back more than 150 years. While there’s no special term for collecting motorcycles, postcard collecting and their research has one… Deltiology. And at last count it happens to be the third largest collecting hobby in the world, next to coin and stamp collecting.

Naturally when you have postcards you have the postal stamp. The first, known as the Penny Black, was printed by England in 1840 while privately produced postcards that included images first appeared in Austria in 1869 and the die was cast, the phenomena of illustrated postcard skyrocketing in popularity around the world. The first colored postcard was introduced in 1889 while images of the newly erected Eiffel Tower helped to greatly expand interest in postcards. The first cards showing real photographs began appearing in 1900.

In 1906 postcards benefited from another boost with the appearance of the Eastman Kodak foldable camera, amateur photographing booming and the resulting images transferable to postcards. In 1908 the U.S. population was listed at 88,700,000. In that same year, some 678,000,000 postcards were mailed within and from America. The era was called the Golden Age of postcards, but that all faded  a bit with the advent and spread of the telephone as a means of rapid communication, but then the introduction of color postcards bumped it back up. The advent of the Internet and today’s electronic cards have had an impact, but postcards, recognized as an art form unto itself, still remain popular, especially with collectors who have nearly 150 years of postcards to choose from and a bunch of them motorcycle related including the following.

As a motorcyclist of some 40 years, I focused on postcards with images that spoke (or bespoked) to me over the years, some of which follow…no stamps needed.

1908Embossed Postcard – Made in Germany – Mailed in the U.S.

This special embossed color postcard was postmarked from Cuba, Missouri at 5:00 PM Sept. 7, 1908 by a person who signed her name Jannine to a Miss Edith Barker of Millers Falls, Massachusetts. The depiction of a wicker sidecar is accurate as many similar “chairs” were built to carry family and cargo. As for the “P F” on the gas tank, no reference could be found to link it to a real motorcycle made in Germany or the U.S. and its may the initials of the artist. The card itself was apparently printed in several different languages and sold internationally.

1910 – 86, 414 British bike riders have registered their machines. By this year 31 U.S. motorcycle companies are in still in production, although several have fallen by the wayside

1913 – Bike registrations in England have jumped to 180,000, nearly a 100,000 added in the previous three years.

 1914 – WWI French Postcard – “Missed!”

The caption in both French and English relates to a motorcycle courier outrunning

German sentry’s rifle shots as he speeds on his mission through enemy lines. The artist’s name is listed…de Carrey apparently excerpted from another work titled “The Mirror.”     

France is rich with its own motorcycle history with literally hundreds of manufacturers, most of whom have come and gone, but many leaving exceptional machines.  One famous mark was the Gnome et Rhône originally known for their aircraft engines. During WWI, some 100,00 of their 9-cylinder Delta and Le Rhône 110 hp rotary designs powering the majority of all aircraft in the early years of the war.  Even larger engines powered WWII aircraft. In 1920 they introduced their first motorcycle, the Gnome et Rhône 500 cc while various other models were produced up to the early 1950s,

World War One French Postcard – On Leave a Soldier delivers flowers to his ladyfriend via his Rene Gillet. Tank on rear may be extra fuel or gas for the headlamp.  The R G’s first appeared 1897, V-twins by 1904, eventually the side-valve 750 and 1000cc machines popular with the French army.   

1915 – WWI U.S. Army Motorcycle Sidecar Mounted Machinegun Trooper

While the iconic Harley-Davidson first appeared in 1903, the company began supplying the U.S. military in 1915, it solo mount and sidecar machines gaining experience during 1916 when some 20,000 U.S. troops under the command of  General John “Black Jack” Pershing were granted permission by the Mexican government to enter their country in pursuit of the bandit/revolutionary Pancho Villa. While they never caught up with him, even with their Harley and Indian motorcycles that could go where heavier vehicles could not, the American army learned valuable lessons including those concerning the new “Motor Mobile Infantry” and “Mounted Infantry.” Oddly enough their quarry, Pancho Villa, was an avid motorcyclist himself, preferring the Indian.

1915 – U.S. motorcycle registrations had skyrocket to an estimated 180,000. But by the 1932, of over 300 total original builders, only two will have survived: Indian and Harley-Davidson.

1917 – “Motor Cycle Scouts in Action”

The colorized postcard dated Dec. 6, 1917 was sent from Greenville, South Carolina, site of a U.S. military training camp. While the driver of the sidecar rig ducks for cover, the rifleman aims his Springfield carbine at some imaginary enemy for this posed photo.

***

When the U.S. finally entered the war in 1917, Indian gave its entire production to the military, almost bankrupting itself, selling them at cost and leaving civilian showrooms bare. Harley took a different strategy, providing 50% of its production, the rest going to the public. The Harleys, powered by 1000cc v-twin engines produced 15hp. The factory prospered, many bikes also going to the Dutch and Russian military including gun and stretcher carrying models.  Harley-Davidson supplied about one third of the 70,000 machines ordered by the U.S. military, the remaining two-thirds divided between Indian and Cleveland.  Of the 26,486 Harleys bought by the U.S., some 7,000 going to England and France where they served as convoy escorts, dispatch, scouting and reconnaissance vehicles.

Henderson Four Goes Hill-Climbing – Original Photo Postcard – Apparently a Model F circa 1913-17

Three Up on a 1927 Böhmerland Attire – Original Czech Postcard

Various models of the Böhmerland were built from 1934 until 1939 in Czechoslovakia. So where did it get its “styling” cues? Well, literally out of thin Czech air. Seems the builder, one Albin Hugo Leibisch started with a clean sheet to draw up his vision of the ultimate road bike, one that could carry up to four passengers. Rear “rockets” actually house the fuel. The 37 cubic inch engine specs include bore and stroke of 78 mm × 120 mm (3.1 in × 4.7 in.), good enough to pump out 16-20 HP.

While our side of Iron Curtain called it the Böhmerlander (Böhme related to the name of Bohemia, part of then Czechoslovakia), back in its home country it was known as the Cechie. The factory was located in the Czech city of Krasna Lipa aka known as Schonlinde since it was in German speaking area of the country “absorbed” in October 1938 by Germany. Some 3,000 bikes were built, however few surviving to the present.

1940 – Finland – Love at First Bike

A rider appears well-attired for motorcycling complete with goggles, gloves and helmet although his passenger sits in a less secure side-saddle position minus any protective gear.  The colorized postcard was dated June 7, 1940 and sent from the city of Turku, the oldest settlement in Finland, and located in southwest coast of country at the mouth of the Aura River. In 1996 Turku was declared the official Christmas City of Finland, then designated the European Capital of Culture for 2011.

Only a couple motorcycle references to Finnish motorcycles could be found and one happened to be made in none other than Turku, the company being Tunturi, its history beginning in 1922 and leading to successful bicycle production. In the 1950s the Tunturi led the Finnish domestic market leader in mopeds. They are best known in foreign markets for their range of physical fitness equipment development including stationary bicycles now sold in 40 countries.

The other Finnish manufacturer was Helkama Oy best known for its bicycles (Helkama Velox), and also for umbrellas, cables for ships and communications, household appliances and some car parts. During the 1970s and 1980s a Helkama trial bike won several trial races. The company also made several mopeds that were very popular in Sweden until production ceased in the 1990s.

***

1941 – U.S. – Harley-Davidson and Thompson .45 Machinegun

As early as 1937 the U.S. military visited the Harley-Davidson factory intent on finding a suitable motorcycle for the war they saw as inevitable. Toward that end the Milwaukee company sent the head of its factory service school on a cross country tour of every Army camp east of the Mississippi, logging 200,000 miles on his Harley EL “Knucklehead.”

By 1939, the Army had compared various Harleys and Indians as well as a BMW clone produced by the Delco Corporation. It chose Harley-Davidson, but required that it could reach 65 mph, be able to ford streams 16 inches deep and not overheat at slow speeds slogging through muddy fields.

***

1953 – England – Triumph Thunderbird 650cc – “The Best Motorcycle in the World” An illustration from the Triumph factory’s 1953 catalog appears on a commercial postcard.

The previous 500cc vertical twin Triumph powerplant was bored out to 650cc to appeal to the power hungry American market. Designated as the 6T Thunderbird, the name conjured up the Triumph’s stellar engineer Edward Turner during a visit to the U.S.  The new model was debuted in Paris at the Monthery racecourse where three factory riders average 92mph over 500 miles after the riders had ridden from the factory in England to the track and then back again, providing some high profile press for the new machines which was further enhanced when Marlon Brando rode a 1950 Thunderbird in the “The Wild One” in 1953, although the conservative owners of Triumph officially objected to their machine appearing in a rowdy biker movie. However they did not complain about the big jump in Triumph sales that followed the release of the film. The last Thunderbirds were made for English consumption in 1966 by which time the even more famous Bonneville had taken center stage.

1961 – England – Norton Manxman – Mayfair Cards of London – Courtesy of Norton Motors, Ltd.

The caption on the reverse of the card reads: “Every feature of the 1961 Norton was a direct development of Grand Prix racing. It was the know-how gained from winning races all over the world which gives a Norton bike race-bred performance which is second to none. By 1961 the Norton had won 32 T.T. races.”

The Manxman derived its name from the famous Isle of Mann race course, the island also home to the famous tail-less Manx cat. Norton also built the famous Manx single cylinder racers that earned the company so many victories. On November 7, 1960 the first new 650cc Norton Manxman with the vaunted Featherbed frame was launched for the American market only. It was later followed by the larger displacement 750cc Norton Atlas in April 1962 because of the American market demand for more power. However the Atlas proved too expensive to build, profits meager and the cause of growing financial problems for the company. Fortunately in 1968 the new Commando appeared to save the day, at least temporarily.

1970s – U.S. – “The Coke Machine”

An example of a limited production privately produced postcard shows the creation of Angela Johnston and David Cargill of Des Moines, Iowa. The 1948 Harley-Davidson Panhead’s 74 cu. in. motor was pumped up to run the quarter mile in 12.09 seconds at 120 mph. The caption on the reverse reads, “A metal sculpture. A kinetic array of Coca-Cola nostalgia. A collage of advertising. Certainly, things go better aboard a customized Harley.”

                                  ***

BIO

Paul Garson is an American writer and photographer who lives and writes in Los Angeles in a small apartment with an old rug and a loyal cat. He has written nonfiction articles—many with his own photography—for over 70 US and international publications as well as written a dozen nonfiction books. He has high hopes of being a space tourist or at least getting to Iceland before it turns into Hawaii.




ARREST

by RE DRUM cadre



Embarrassment
of riches
& yet we still
wrap ourselves
in cellophane.
To escape just
to be caught again.
Bad synesthesia
keeps us up.
Practice spitting bitch
in the dark.
They said:
“Put your hands up
for the bubbles.”
They said:
“Put your hands up
where I can see them.”
And the summer
was orange.
And the summer
was over.

·

Running always
a cramp,
body
question-
can I run/
should I run—
Rub the calf.
To the feet?
Already a light above.
Should I run:
“Should I run?!”

·

As if he lived
exclusively
in darkness,
surfaced
only at night.
As if some
nocturnal thing.
The sequence
hard events
to parse
beyond
the triggering kiss
we know comes first.
Next, the soldiers
rush from right—
iron-black arm
claws for throat
beneath
the traitor’s furrow—
conscience—
drive the ensemble
left, into
the Evangelist:
stumbling, scrambling,
beseeching blind—
upturned eyes ablaze,
his cape
a crimson halo
betokening
the martyr’s fate,
framing his only-open face.
Here, he abandons
his lord.
Behind it all,
the artist, absorbed,
holds a lamp
to see—to show—
obscure—seizure.
Flesh & metal—
the surfaces
he most illuminates
with brutal moonlight;
the taking of Christ.

·

Turn on the TV.
Turn off the TV.
Try to take
a walk before
the mayor takes
your walks from you.
Turn on the TV.
Turn off the TV.
Try to listen
to only the people
marching:
Their breath.
Their breath.
Their Breath.

·

Whether rich
with weathering
or shackled
with flight
soft pad
before dark
along goes
an observer.
It is on, this
along of them,
for retroactive
or foresight,
shaded and
graded, gray
boons skyward.
Belief intangible,
consequential,
a quotation,
and engraved.



BIO

RE DRUM cadre is a Seattle-based poetry collective with a partially rotating cast of contributors that makes work for both print & performance. For the “cadre” project, core members Alex Bleecker, Willie James, and Jeremy Springsteed were joined by Greg Bem and Justine Chan.





Girl With Empty Cup

Hands

Shades of Blue

Portrait in the Early Hours

Broken Blinds

Portrait with Garage

Nine A.M.

Brick and Mortar

The Writer





BIO

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

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

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

ABOUT PAUL’S PHOTOGRAPHS

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

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

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

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

TO LEARN MORE ABOUT PAUL’S ART:

https://www.paulrabinowitz.com/

THE WILD CHILD, An essay

by Catherine Filloux



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

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

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

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

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

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

Yes, I do feel they are my children.  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I don’t remember what they said.  

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

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

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

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

“Salad will make your thighs rosier.”

“You have the hips to make great children.”

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

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

Honestly, that was just “normal” to me. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(A beat.)

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

And the coming up short. 

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

(A beat.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

                                                                        JEAN

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

                                                                        EDWARD

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

And:

                                                                        JEAN

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

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

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

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

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

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

There is no “drama” in living life.

Barry Lopez died on Christmas Day, 2020.

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

(A beat.)

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

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



BIO

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

www.catherinefilloux.com







The Third Floor

by Nancy Machlis Rechtman



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

“Who you here to see? he asked.

“A doctor,” Diana said.

“Who sent you here?”

“My doctor, Dr. Smith…”

“That your car?” he interrupted.

She nodded yes.

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

She nodded again.

“What are you doing here then?”

“My insurance is here.”

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

“I suppose so.”

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

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

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

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

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

“What did you say?” she asked timidly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Third floor.”

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

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

“What floor is this?” Diana asked.

“You see the sign?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Done what?” Diana asked, hazily.

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

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

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

Diana cringed, suddenly recognizing the bathrobe lady.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I told you…” Diana began.

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

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

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

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

“Third floor,” said Nurse Linebacker.

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

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

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

“Only six steps!” she exclaimed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Name?”

“Diana Johnston.”

“Age?”

“Thirty-two.”

“Problem?”

“I’ve got this terrible pain…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Rated me?” Diana repeated.

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

“Lie down!” shouted a voice behind her.

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

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

“Who are you?” Diana demanded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Well, it’s centered around my gut…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Diana stared at him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Water,” Diana whispered.

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

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

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

“Two days!” Diana shrieked.

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

“Where’s Dr. Smith?”

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

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

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

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

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

“What do you mean?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Would you please untie me?”

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

“So I can leave, of course.”

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

“What’s a fifteen?” Diana asked.

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

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

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

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

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

“Why not? I don’t belong here.”

“Because you haven’t been cured.”

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

“Oh dear!” cried Nurse Parakeet.

“What now?”

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

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

“That’s right – it’s worse.”

“What do you mean?”

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

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

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

“Why not?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No, not yet. Just some tests.”

“Ha!” Althea exclaimed.

“What is the treatment anyway?” Diana asked.

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

“Have you had the treatment, Althea?”

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

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

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

“Attention!” Althea yelled.

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

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

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

“Where to?” Diana asked hopefully.

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

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

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

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

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

“If only I could… Oh, never mind.”

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

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

“What kind?” Althea’s eyes glistened.

“Milky Ways.”

“No one’s allowed outside. Rules!”

“Creamy, chewy chocolate and caramel.”

“Rules!” Althea trembled.

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

“Rules!” Althea gasped.

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

“To the car!” Althea commanded.

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

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

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

“Ready!” Althea yelled. “Set!”

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

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

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

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

“Let me go,” she pleaded.

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

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

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

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

“A train.” Diana said.

“Wrong!” he yelled.

Diana screamed as the electric shocks raced through her body.

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

“A cow?” she guessed.

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

“I don’t know,” Diana whispered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“One,” Diana said.

“Imbecile!” he shrieked.

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

“Try again!” he shouted.

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

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

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

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

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

“Let me go, please,” Diana implored.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But I’m fine!” Diana cried.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Someone.”

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

“I supposed,” Althea agreed.

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

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

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

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

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



BIO

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

at https://nancywriteon.wordpress.com




Nothing Happens

by Vandana Kumar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Be Our Guest


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

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

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

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



Killing the Good Bacteria


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




BIO

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

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



Forged for Strength

By Jean McDonough



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

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

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

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

Nobody cares about chickens.

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

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

Someone once asked me a strange question.

How do you know that you have a heart?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mothers always want their children.

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

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

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

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

I wonder where this heart is now.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Balance is important in a knife.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I tell myself it was only ever a memory.

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

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

Sometimes not even that is enough.



Bibliography

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

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

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

Davies, Hywel. Fleeing Franco: How Wales Gave Shelter to Refugee Children from the Basque Country During the Spanish Civil War. University of Wales Press, Cardiff, Wales, 2011. Print.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Picasso, Pablo. Guernica. 1937, Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid.

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BIO

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





THE SECRET AGENT

By Robert Collings



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I dunno, he seems harmless enough.”

“Harmless like a thief.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What, you talk to his mother?”

“I asked her about him, sure.”

“So what did she tell you?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She nodded warily.  “Yes…”

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

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

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

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

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

“He’s not here.”

“Do you know where he is?”

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

“What game is that?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Maybe,” he replied, calmly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I like being a secret agent.”

“Do you like hiding from your enemies?”

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

“Am I your enemy?”

“Probably.”

“Do you have lots of enemies?”

“My share.”

“But no friends, I take it?”

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

“You read my thoughts, do you?”

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

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

“Maybe I come down here to find out.”

“Have you found the other person yet?”

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

“Can you read my thoughts?”

“You’d be surprised.”

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

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

“You know this, do you?”

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

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

“Well, I don’t think so.”

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

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

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

“Yeah, sometimes.”

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

“Same difference.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m not sure what I told him.”

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

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

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

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

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

“You mean Gray Whipple?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



BIO

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

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







Stairs

by Hoyt Rogers

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


Room


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


Boat


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

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



BIO

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



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