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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




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. 







Vanishing Pop-Tarts

By Crystal McQueen



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There was no sound, you try to convince yourself.

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

Your body trembles.

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

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

The scent of whiskey precedes his heavy footfalls.

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

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

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

Please let it be less.

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

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

He didn’t see you. He didn’t see you.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You just want it to be over.

Let it be over.

And, then it is.

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

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

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

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



BIO

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





SOMETHING, SOMEWHERE ELSE

by Margaret E. Helms



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Charlie was her older brother.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“His name is George,” Eleanor declared. 

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

“George sounds like royalty.” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#

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

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

Fearlessly, Eleanor demanded he move.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Pay you?” I intervened. 

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

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

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

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

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

#

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Where’s the bunny?” I asked. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#

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

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

Eleanor leaned over me for proof. Then she gasped. 

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

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

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

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

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

“His name is George,” she yelled.  

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why don’t we just go in his room?” 

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

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

“Make sure you look everywhere,” Eleanor ordered. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What are you doing in my room?” 

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

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

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

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

Now he was looking at me. 

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

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

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

It sounded like funeral music to me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No one.” Charlie turned his face away. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then I laid George back in the freezer.  

#

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That was the first time I pitied Eleanor Trask. 

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

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

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

#

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

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

What a beautiful façade it all was.

How we all wanted to be someone else.



BIO

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








Dr. Rocktopath’s Horror-Style

by Nabho Banerjee


I

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

II

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kelp said, “OK, sure thing.”

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

Everyone clapped.

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

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

“No, I—“

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

“I assure you—“

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

“…No problem,” I said.

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

Ouranos did not seem very surprised to see me. We had never been the closest of corpsebrooders, but we had always gotten along.

“What’s up, Will? Long time no see.”

“Yeah, I’ll say.”

“What brings you over to boring old me?”

I veered from telling him the real reason immediately and said, “Oh, uh, mainly just curious what’s up with you. We haven’t talked since freshman year, can you believe it?”

“Yeah, we were in artcraft, weren’t we? That was such a wormshadow class to have freshman year.”

“…I agree. It was fantastic. And I saw you were talking to Rocktopath just now. You two seem to have quite the relationship.”

“Yeah, it’s one of those mentor-disciple type things, all right. Tomorrow he wants me to give a presentation in senior sensecraft.”

“Oh, no way! I’m in that class! What are you going to present about?”

“It’s going to be about my independent research this past year. I’ve been studying Incursion in depth and I’m going to give your class a sort of primer on its history and what we’ve been able to learn from it. Don’t be too impressed, though, Dr. Rocktopath gave me all the materials I’ll be using and he’s going to be coaching me some more tonight. As I’m sure you’re aware, Incursion is really discussed as more of an artcraft thing at such a basic level, but Dr. Rocktopath says he’s been developing a more integrated approach to his teaching methods that features Incursion at the forefront of both artcraft and sensecraft. He calls it “horror-style.” Not sure what his proofs are yet, but it sounds pretty wormshadow, doesn’t it? He’s fucking brilliant.”

I swelled with anticipation and said, “Now I’m really looking forward to that. That’s exactly the kind of stuff I wish we spent more time on.”

He said, “Yeah, I guess a problem is that so many aspects of this subject area are so abstract that it’s easy for young people to tune out, let alone comfortably process even more fundamental knowledge. It’s a question of educational direction. If we focused more at a young age on how to think abstractly—if there was a field of ‘abstractology’ for example—”

“You mean something like…semiotics?”

“Nah, I mean something a notch more general and directive. That would be a separate didactic effort.”

“How so?”

“Consider PE. The point isn’t to teach you a particular sport or anything. When done right, the point of PE is to get your wormjacket to kind of “know” how to function properly. The specific activities are just used to teach toward that goal. So if, just for example, semiotics is swimming, epistemology is track, and hermeneutics is sprints (and so forth), ‘abstractology’ (there’s an ideal name for this somewhere) would be PE.”

I thought for a few seconds and was impressed at how much his framing helped me understand his point. It was no wonder Ouranos was so good at artcraft, with skills like that.

Then, at that moment, I spotted Mike and Reza on the opposite side of the lunchroom prowling behind one of the few female teachers at the school. They were looking lustfully after her and trying to be wormfashion about it. Joey was trailing them, observing, but also keeping his eyes on some corpsebrooders of That Freaky Vibe.

“Ouranos, sorry to change the subject, but listen. I’m actually here for another reason. Some of the Reapsakes are saying you’ve been considering applying to be the graduation speaker.”

Ouranos looked down and away. He said softly, “Yeah. I knew it was only a matter of time before one of them noticed. What can I say? If I’m ever going to be a public speaker after MaskEx, I need to practice. I’ve got plans! Ambitions! I’m sure you can understand that. Don’t you?”

“Understandable, Ouranos, but as much as it doesn’t bother me personally, that’s not going to fly. You know you’d trounce him. Joey will literally have your head.”

He didn’t respond for a few moments and kept looking at the floor. Then he said, “I know. Believe me, I’ve thought about the consequences of challenging Joey. But for me, even the fantasy of prevailing worth it. When I think about seizing this opportunity, I actually feel happier. As in, that happiness plus the despair of the truth does more psychic good for me than to live with the despair alone. The effort of putting up those mental barriers just hasn’t proved worth it to me and I doubt they will. I fucked up, corpsebrooder. And I know not to be sad about what’s going to happen. Now that you’ve so compassionately let me know my suspicions were true, I’m going to give that presentation tomorrow everything I’ve got. I’m going to make sure Dr. Rocktopath, at least, will never forget me for who or what I really I am.”

I didn’t know what to say next, so I leaned back and stared up while Ouranos gazed blankly into space. My thought processes slowed considerably.

Suddenly, Ouranos’ eyes became fearful, then indignant. He said, “Hey! Come on, leave me alone. I don’t know what you’re talking about, so stop making my life hell.”

Joey, Mike, and Reza slinked to our side from my rear. They looked angry.

Ouranos continued, “Come on Will, I thought we were corpsebrooders. I haven’t done anything against you or your crew.”

I knew what I had to do. I said in a hoarse hiss, “Just be glad you’re not suffering yet. Yeah, in fact, you owe me. If those teachers weren’t over there, I’d—”

Ouranos got up with a look of frenzy over his mask and said, “Spare me, buddy. I know how to make your heart drop. And the only conversation we’ve ever had that I in any way enjoyed was the one during which you offered me your rather farcical explanation for ghosts. I had a good laugh afterwards, it ended up really helping me along with my artcraft.” With that, he walked briskly away.

Mike broke out of a frightful stare at Ouranos’ distancing back and said, “Nice, Will, you did that real wormshadow and wormfashion.”

Reza said, “Indeed. Intimidation is most effective when the subject is made to realize it will result in a consequence that’s inevitable, insurmountable, and unknowable. That worm is going to suffer.”

Joey patted my breast, saying, “I knew all along that sanctioning your recruitment would turn out to be a wise decision. Tomorrow afternoon will be productive.”

I glanced across the checker-floored way to the foyer and saw Dr. Rocktopath speaking with Ouranos with an arm on his shoulder. Ouranos did not appear as if he wanted to talk. They were speaking so quickly, I discerned only the words “wormcrooked” and “desolation” from the lip movements of Dr. Rocktopath before I had to look away. I smiled back at Joey, Mike and Reza, trying hard to project that all was wormshadow, but internally, I felt as though I may as well have never had any crew of corpsebrooders at all.

III

As you may have surmised, members of our community receive new, flawless masks at the end of our time in high school. Our custom has been practiced since time immemorial and is intended to alleviate the turmoil accrued in the minds of the more troubled ones of the youth, like Kelp. Many have attempted breeding the importance of masks out of us, but in our recent history, the more we’ve tried to stray from our present nature through conscious effort, the more our in-born predilections have intensified.

However, if one’s original mask is damaged too greatly before MaskEx, it can be impossible to complete the ceremony and ritual of MaskEx. If not for Ouranos’s action upon seeing the Reapsakes the previous day, someone like me would have been doomed just as gravely as Ouranos was given the severity of an indiscretion such as mine.     

As I sat in sensecraft amongst my corpsebrooders, macerating in this rather unfavorable reflection, Ouranos walked in. He looked ready to deliver one hell of a presentation. I started again to become excited in spite of myself, though hearing the sniggers of Joey and the other Reapsakes behind me still sustained the pit in my stomach.

Dr. Rocktopath helped Ouranos set up the projector and soon he was ready to begin. Ouranos said, “Hello! Today, Dr. Rocktopath has asked me to talk to you in some detail about Incursion. Most of you, no doubt, know what Incursion is on a basic, ‘folk’ level, but today I’m going to tell you what’s important about it for your educational objectives. And if you’re wondering about my own purpose, let’s call this a personal exercise, or something maybe just a bit more than that.

“To give you a brief description of Incursion in case you need a refresher: it is essentially the deployment from a long conjectured but relatively (with regard to our recorded history) recently verified origin (Kaali) of (what you could think of as) predatory pieces of Entertainment. Since it’s utterly useless to speculate about the beings or agencies that create these projectiles, you can say, as such, that our world is a place where Entertainment comes to us as a natural phenomenon. This Entertainment cannot be used and is not intended for mere recreation, however. All Incursive specimens instigate feelings of unbeatable despair within unsuspecting viewers. Depending on the composition of the specimen and on the individual audience member’s biology, there can be stages leading up to the final psychophysical disintegration. Bowdlerizing is not really effective since there are rarely scenes in particular that we can pick out as being pivotally offensive or harmful—we can spend hours on analysis and remove a scene or section we are sure is the ‘culprit’ only to find that the effort has proven futile. Thorough training and mastery of sensecraft is necessary before Incursion can be properly digested. The training requires a rather hardy mindset, however, and most people choose to forego it unless they are pursuing higher levels of directly related study. Things have gotten much safer this past century in any case, so this is understandable.”

All the while, Ouranos flipped through slides showing images of archaeologically groundbreaking examples of Incursive projectiles. Some of it looked even newer than the glimpses of contemporary stuff I had seen.

“So, it may be somewhat confusing that everything we know about how to do artcraft (and, as I hope you’ll see, sensecraft) has been derived from the axioms we’ve been able to establish from studying Incursion. The reason for this, which I’ll return to, is that, because the results of viewing Incursion by regular people are predictable, studying it can lead us to extrapolate general theories and eventually build formal systems.

“I’d now like to go through three examples in detail. Afterwards, I’ll say a few words about how this is relevant to sensecraft, though I’ll let Dr. Rocktopath elaborate more thoroughly on that discussion tomorrow. Of course, since I’m a student just like you all are, I won’t be offended if any of you decide to leave.”

I heard the scrape of two or three chairs directly behind me, but Ouranos didn’t pause. The next slide popped up immediately.

“The first example of Incursion I want to talk about is a film, originally found as a tube-cartridge, called Psychopathic Chump. This film concerns the life of a young man named Liam. We don’t know anything about where the man is from, but, as you can see, his eyes are nightbracket, not any kind of bloodshade. Same with his love interest, Wendy; neither are her eyes any kind of bloodshade. Actually, in most Incursive projectiles, eye color tends to be freshfall, nightbracket, or deadpetal, but oddly, never bloodshade, doubledark, sunpetal, or burnglower. The reason for this specificity is unknown.

“From the onset, Liam sees himself as a thoroughly unlucky person. Most experts agree that he does not have anything exceptionally ‘wrong’ about him, especially to an extent so as to warrant the kind of behavior patterns he displays in the film. But it seems to be the case that wherever Liam is from happens to exert some kind of pressure, either through society as a whole or some particular branch of society, which influences Liam to gradually turn from a troubled but well-liked student into a delusional, privately crazed, and eventually megalomaniacal deviant. After humiliating himself at a college party, he decides the “final straw” has been drawn. Enough is enough, so to speak. He also becomes fixated on the only girl there who didn’t participate in the ensuing mockery, Wendy. He becomes convinced that his future happiness will be forged out of the agglutination of some sickly wormfashion attainment of his ‘professional goals’ (which by now amount to planetary domination—retribution for his perceived negative life experiences) with his success in having a genuine relationship with Wendy. From here to the end, we will come to see that there is something catastrophic about witnessing and falling into empathy with the afflictions of Liam. He ends up rebelling against his parents’ wishes, drops out of college, and starts a cock-fighting operation in an attempt to raise money for an “impactful” trip to his nation’s capital. After a series of increasingly poor business decisions, however, he gets into a fight after being confronted by a childhood enemy-turned-partner, is horribly beaten up in front of Wendy on the night he had planned to ask her to be his one and only beloved, and subsequently falls victim to a spiral of hopelessness that eventually drives him to suicide. At the end of all this, for reasons that aren’t so clear, even to me after hours and hours of study, Wendy becomes insane with sorrow after hearing about Liam’s demise and it is implied that she lives the rest of her life suffering incurable, insoluble misery.      

It may sound like quite a ludicrous reaction, a device you may expect to find in second-rate artcraft, but in this case, the laughter that might be induced in viewers does not tend to last long.

“The best framing to communicate the ensuing feeling I can think of is this: imagine someone slit your throat and pushed you off a cliff. You fall, but somehow, the way you were pushed and the tumid bulge of the rock-face make it so that you catch every single nook and cranny on the way down. And all the while, you’re picking up speed, spraying on the stoneshade. And that’s really what this is. It’s a jagged kind of assault, as if that sort of thing squeezes the most possible negativity and hopelessness out of mental space as one can imagine.”

The screenshots on the slides had been, for the most part, unexceptional, even boring looking. I struggled to determine how this film could be so dangerous as to be classified as Incursion.

“Next, I want to talk about another film called Eclogue of Aldebaran, The Follower. Again, the location of this film is not clear, but it is theorized to take place on a planet either in the solar system of the star Aldebaran or in some vicinity thereof. The characters, as you can see, look much like those from Psychopathic Chump, but the setting is more rural, dim, and antiquated. The main characters are named Ero and Zelmgorsutrix. Besides one spoken line, the film is entirely silent.”

Apart from his eyes and clothing, I thought that Zelmgorsutrix bore a strong resemblance to my own Kelp.

“Anyway, Zelmgorsutrix, a young independent farmer, falls in love with Ero, a beautiful girl from a noble family. To the audience, it is obvious that this love is puerile, unhealthful, and destined to fail. Still, as we’ll see, the trick of the film seems to be to unfold the story in such a way as to deprive the audience of choice in how they hope the film will end. No doubt thinking he’s being brilliantly wormfashion, Zelmgorsutrix bonds himself to Ero’s elder brother, Kin, in a pathetic effort to get closer to Ero herself. This fails immediately, as Kin puts Ero (who has committed some unexplained indiscretion) to work in the castle morgue, spraying corpses with a kind of magical solution that prevents maggots from hatching under their skins. The number of corpses is apparently so absurdly massive that Zelmgorsutrix never has a chance to make himself seen by Ero. Knowing her to be working in such an environment also has a profound effect on Zelmgorsutrix’s creative impulses, as he starts to compose what he calls ‘criminal’s poetry’ as his only leisurely amusement. When he at last gets close to Ero one evening in a hidden, labyrinthine garden, under a naught-bound sickle moon, Kin stumbles upon them and cuts off Zelmgorsutrix’s nose for daring to approach a female in his family. In fact, thanks to a spy, he had known about Zelmgorsutrix’s feelings and intentions all along. He had lied about putting Ero to work in the morgue, and was just waiting for the right moment to deal punishment for Zelmgorsutrix’s impropriety. His words to Zelmgorsutrix as he hobbles away in agony are, ‘Serves you right, you peasant. I’ll have your parents hunted down for giving you that showy name.’ All the while, despite ourselves, we are compelled to root for Zelmgorsutrix, rather than to write him off as the blithering, delusion-driven fool he clearly is.

Instead of satisfying this coerced desire, the film has Zelmgorsutrix hang himself in Ero’s garden with his pockets stuffed with his unpublished manuscripts. As the denouement proceeds, we are shown Ero grown up, with an adopted daughter; but, for no given reason, she is so ridden with anguish over Zelmgorsutrix that the only thing she can do to equal in expression her feelings for him in her fantasies is to read her daughter the things he wrote before he died. In a final montage, we are shown an alternate reality in which Zelmgorsutrix and Ero had successfully run off together to what looks like a deserted region of their planet. There they are depicted to be exceptionally happy.”

There was a break in the slides.

“So now I’ll say a bit about why these two films are important. Both of them engage in an offensive maneuver against our nascent cognitive wiring in a manner such that we often come to sense some underlying mechanism of damnation unfurling against us, but that we are nevertheless ultimately unable to resist or rebuff. Notice, in particular, how the instances of suicide in both films are resolved not with derision, but, rather to the contrary, with glorification and indulgence. And yet, it is naïve, at best, to categorically dismiss the material on critical grounds. From these two examples, we see that the presence of (and integration with) genuinely captivating filmmaking technique—from syntax to dialectical dynamics to aesthetics, and so forth—transforms what we would perhaps otherwise evaluate as crass and amateurish artcraft into fatal poison. National research has confirmed this to be the case for the vast majority of untrained people both pre- and post-MaskEx. In fact, research of that type could only commence once protocols were developed to make sure advanced researchers were not permanently damaged. But since those protocols had to be developed from scratch and need to be updated periodically…well…you all know what that means. And further, to reemphasize an especially important point: because Incursion is reliant upon and emblematic of natural laws that force predictable outcomes, we’ve been able to use it to develop a logic-pointed technical field like artcraft. And as I’ve already alluded to, we eventually got to sensecraft too.

“Now, for my last example of Incursion, I want to talk about an Incursive chapbook titled A Linearization of Nonlinear Space-Time: Reduction to a Vile Creature.” He flipped to a slide showing a triptych of pages with blocks of ordinary-looking text and pulled out some notecards to read off of. “Immediately, you can see that this title attempts to be both jeering and alarmingly all-encompassing.

“Now, I’ll admit that even I’m not overly familiar with the history or extent of this piece, and am considering this specimen for the first time along with the rest of you. But according to Dr. Rocktopath, it’s especially valued among experts for its literal purity. The characters are denoted only as letters and all descriptions are, from what we can tell, universal. As in, given the qualifiers or descriptors used in the text, there’s nothing we can imagine that would be divergent in relatablity between different intelligent interpreters. The only meaningful differences between subjects are (again, from what we can tell) their gender categorizations and name-letters. Seemingly solely through their arrangement and order, the individual fragments of text generate what we call a ‘dramatic progression’ as the output of their integration. In this way, the example demonstrates that it is possible to devise a system of symbolic objects that invokes irreducible ‘feelings’ by drawing from an idea-bank populated only with conceptual constituents subject to quantitative decomposition, like the material precepts of chemistry or the hard logic of digital computing. From a place of pure intuition, this area of investigation may seem paradox-ridden and, for all intents and purposes as far you’re all concerned, it is. As you can see, it can be difficult to imagine how this text could even be compared with the previous examples—you really don’t possess the tools or experience needed to understand what exactly you’re looking at.

“And that’s why there’s no point in trying to summarize this one. I’d have to invent and use a different level of vocabulary in order to describe what’s going on here without you all having dedicated your lives to deep, intensive study. Maybe we can conceive of some true adept managing to do this in a successfully relatable way, but no one has yet unraveled that part of the code of nature that would make such conceptual commutableness possible at a secondary school level. But therein lies the inscrutable beauty we wanted to expose you to with this piece.”

He glanced at the clock readied to make a final statement. “Now, seeing as this is sensecraft, I think I owe you a few additional words before Dr. Rocktopath takes back over tomorrow. It turns out that the formalism we’ve been able to extract from Incursion can, in concert with recognizing and understanding the implications of Kaali’s very existence, be used to develop ways to control our subjective sensory experiences. Since Incursion has demonstrated that Kaali knows our species’ neurosensory processes to perfection, we can deduce that the machinations that empower Incursion can be analyzed and repurposed so that, with thorough education with a well-devised praxis, you will all, should you desire and in case the refreshment of MaskEx fails you, be able to create a world of your own, through the power inherit in your very own biology. Most importantly (perhaps), with enough practice, you’ll have a means of self-rescue should you ever be unwittingly exposed to Incursion.” At this point, something prompted Ouranos to look around the room and he nodded off at a slight angle toward the floor. Then, a look as if he had a sudden realization quickly flashed on his mask.

He quickly recovered his composure and with a bit more haste (and, looking back, perhaps with a hint of reluctance), he went on, “As a last point, I’m not sure if Dr. Rocktopath has mentioned this to you before, but I feel obligated to tell you: if you want to practice sensecraft to its full effect and efficiency, use the thought of Kaali, the source of Incursion, as your starting point—as if you had a sort of psychic connection to the place…because, of course, you do, in a way, at least.”

The bell rang. As gripping for me the period had been, I was still surprised that no one had ended up leaving early, given that it had been a student lecture. When the bell stopped ringing, it was so silent that the room felt almost empty.

Dr. Rocktopath looked winded with satisfaction. His eyes scanned back and forth over the class and he said, “Well there you have it! Now that’s what I call horror-style! Let’s have a round of applause!” Everyone started to oblige well enough.

“Mike? Joey? You two doing all right? Starting to feel a bit— different?”

I turned to Mike and, though he clapped and smiled, the spillshade of his eyes shone diligently, fierce and cold. But I discerned a twitch in his mask as I looked back up to see a wash of pride erupting over Ouranos’ juddering mask.

Then, as I came to grasp the situation at hand, a wave of anguish overcame me and caused me to keel. In hindsight, it was so obvious! After all, unlike the first two examples, there was no indication that the last example had been merely a fragment. And Ouranos’ unflagging exuberance gave his words such sway and momentum, that nobody had come to question him. Furthermore, since Ouranos had had his eyes set on his notecards, it was no wonder why he had remained unaffected.

I craned my neck up and behind me and saw that Joey and the Reapsakes were also on the floor, along with the rest of the students, their masks contorted into unspeakable formations and unable to let out any noise. Joey was trying to keep his eyes trained on Ouranos, but I could tell his will was failing him.

Dr. Rocktopath said, “Don’t worry about your other classes, I have pre-written slips for all of you. You’ll be spending the rest of the day with me. Your parents have been informed as well. I hope that by the end of our time this afternoon and evening, we can all move in a new direction together. You should all be compelled to work for a more constructive state of the youth after MaskEx. Won’t that be nice?”

Though my heart reeled and my mind sizzled, I was thankful more than anything. After all, what an opportunity I now had to get closer to Dr. Rocktopath! Indeed, in the coming days and weeks, and especially into and after MaskEx, I came to truly cherish Ouranos’ lecture and the advent of Dr. Rocktopath’s horror-style.



BIO

N.J. Banerjee resides in the SF Bay Area in California. He holds a BA from UC Berkeley in Molecular and Cell Biology and an MSc from University College London in neuroscience. This is his first published work of fiction.







Orphans of the Savannah

By Adam Matson



I went to Kenya to avoid mating rituals. The year I was twenty-six about half of my friends got married. I went to weddings all summer. Sat at the singles tables, wondering if this was all there was to life. You can only browse so many Williams and Sonoma wedding registries before you start to feel the choke of settled life.

I was living in Boston, working in a marketing firm. I had a tiny apartment. Cubicle in a downtown office. It was the life high school and college had prepared me for, and it left me feeling utterly soulless. I showed up to work every morning and immediately felt tired. The window beside my desk looked directly into another office building. I watched the people sitting in cubicles in the adjacent building, wondering if their lives were any more interesting than mine.

Every Thursday my friends and I gathered at a bar on Beacon Hill to drink and discuss our dynamic and accelerating lives: engagements, internships, jobs, promotions. We called this meeting the Thursday Club. Week after week we toasted and laughed, ordered $16 martinis. I felt like a mouse running on a wheel.

On a Thursday night in October I left work and shuffled up the hill. The group was already a round deep at the bar. Brendan and Mary announced their engagement, and Tyler Dunn knocked over his chair jumping up to buy their next drinks. As we toasted the happy couple, I thought: what crap will I order them from Williams and Sonoma?

Then I made an announcement of my own.

“I’m going to Africa,” I said. “To work with elephants.”

Everyone stared at me. Why? was the primary question. And for how long? And what the hell for?

I was going for three months, volunteering at a wildlife orphanage in Kenya’s Tsavo National Park. Why for so long? Because I didn’t think a two-week vacation would cure my cubicle blues. I knew nothing about elephants, except that they were mercilessly slaughtered by poachers for the ivory in their tusks, sometimes leaving their baby offspring to fend for themselves against predators and the elements. In my mind I pictured an orphaned elephant stumbling across the savannah, lost, hungry, alone, and for some reason I felt a deep kinship with the animal.

None of my friends could believe that I would quit my job. They knew how hard it was to find that good job, that downtown job we’d all dreamed about in college.

“So you’re just leaving everything?” my friend Julie asked. “Everything you’ve worked for?”

I shrugged. Everything what? I had no answer she or any of them would find acceptable. Julie and I had been officially broken up for about six months, though there were still occasional late-night text summons. We would quickly hook up, and watch long hours of insipid television.

“I might be back,” I said to the table. Nobody bought my next drink.

My plan was to arrive in Kenya in November, during the shorter of the two rainy seasons, volunteer with the elephants until February, then spend a week at the beach in Mombasa, before returning home. But as I rode the bus through lush terrain on the road to Tsavo, I started to suspect my stay might be longer than a few months. I had spent four years in Boston, suffocated by traffic and humanity. The grasslands in Southeast Kenya seemed to spread out forever, rolling upward in green hills to the mountains. The pressure in my chest began to loosen.

The Tsavo Elephant Orphanage was owned and operated by a British couple, Alice and Donovan Price. Donovan was a veterinarian from a wealthy family, and had lived in Africa most of his life. Alice had originally wanted to be a painter, attended art school in Paris, then inherited some money and went to Africa seeking adventure. In Kenya she met her future husband while out painting in the bush. At the time Donovan was tracking lions, before he switched his focus to elephants. I was surprised to learn the Prices had no children, and unsurprised later when Alice told me, while sitting in a mud bath with a baby calf, that the elephants were her children. If anyone in the States had said this to me, I might have laughed. But Africa was different. The land was ancient and truthful. It had been around long before humans, and would survive long after we followed the many species we had already crowded out.

For the first few months I slept in a bunkhouse. Employees and volunteers lived, ate, and slept on-site. There were no two-bedroom apartments with a pool and a gym nearby. The nearest large town was Voi, a rambling two-hour drive from the orphanage.

The manager of day-to-day operations was a Kenyan named George Odhiambo. George lived on the grounds in a small, one-story house with his wife and four children. He spent much of his time taking the orphaned elephants out for walks in the park, where they would meet, and hopefully bond with, the wild elephants that lived there. One of my duties was to join George on these walks. We were sort of chaperones, taking the young ones out for day trips, then rounding them up, and bringing them back to the orphanage at night.

            “Are you married, Jeffrey?” was the first question George asked me when we met, followed by: “Do you have children?”

            “No, and no,” I said.

            George introduced me to his family before even taking me to see the elephants, and his wife Sophie fed me lunch. His children roped me into a game of soccer in their dusty yard. From then on George seemed to take a personal interest in my lack of spouse and offspring, coaching me on the importance of perpetuating the life cycle.

            My primary duty at the orphanage, as I had sort of expected it would be, was to clean up shit. Elephants produced biblical quantities of excrement, which I had to scoop out of their living areas. The shit was then packaged up and transported to various locations for use as fertilizer.

            “This will be your best friend in Tsavo,” George said, handing me a shovel.

            “The shit is actually very important to us,” Alice Price explained to me, one day when I was covered with excrement. “It tells us whether the animals are healthy or sick, if they are dehydrated, if the food we give them is providing proper nourishment.” She listed all the ways in which animal excrement could be abnormal, and told me to keep an eye out for aberrations.

By the second month I did develop a keen eye for elephant feces. I sent a long email home to my friends in Boston detailing everything I had learned about excrement, and its animal health implications.

“Sounds like you are full of shit, Jeff,” Tyler Dunn replied.

Julie asked when I was coming home.

            Most volunteers stayed at the orphanage for a week or two, before returning to wherever in the world they kept their real lives. Some just seemed to want to get their picture taken with an elephant. Many arrived assuming that the elephants would take an instant liking to them, that they would make lifelong friends with a majestic, ancient beast. Americans especially were miffed that the elephants could be shy and aloof.

            Elephant babies were like human babies, in that they primarily responded to, and wanted to be around, their mothers. When they were orphaned, they often had to learn to trust humans as surrogate parents. Many of the young elephants suffered from serious emotional trauma, having witnessed their mother being slaughtered by poachers. They were wary of humans. They didn’t want to be petted. Very young babies often did not survive their transition to the orphanage. The first time I saw a baby elephant die I felt a deep emptiness, like a profound personal rejection. Alice told me that the baby died because it did not recognize me as someone it could trust to feed it. So it did not eat. It died because it missed its mother. I cried in my bunk that night, and called home to my own parents the next day.

            “Life is fragile, sweetie,” my mother said. “All babies need to know they have a mother.”

            Then she passed me off to my father, who recommended I send my resume to a consultant, so I could present “this elephant thing” in the most advantageous light.

            In the wild, elephant families were oriented around the females, with the leader of the family group generally being the oldest and wisest cow, the matriarch. Aunts and sisters helped raise the young calves, and together the group traveled and nurtured each other, the mothers teaching the children how to find food and water, how to survive. When a young male reached his teenage years, he usually turned sexually curious and aggressive, like humans. Unlike humans, the teenaged males turned their sexual attention on their sisters and cousins, at which point the mother would expel them from the group, leaving them in the wild to fend for themselves. Males were welcomed back during mating season, but otherwise they were basically encouraged to get lost. Sometimes they formed their own groups, passing the days fighting for status and the right to impregnate the females. Or they became loners, rambling the plains on their own, guided by an inner spirit and agenda.

            After the rainy season the nights turned warm and dry. George and I often roamed the grounds of the orphanage after dark, smoking a joint, checking to see what nocturnal activity might be astir.

            “How many brothers and sisters do you have, Jeffrey?” George asked.

            “One brother, one sister.”

            “Why did your parents give up?”

            “Children are expensive,” I said. “We live in Boston. There are too many people already.”

            “I have thirteen brothers and sisters,” said George. “I don’t even know all their names.” He laughed. “Of course I do. We live in Nairobi. And I always know when they are nearby. It is the same with elephants. They always know who is here.”

            I thought of my own siblings. We were not close. My brother and sister could have worked in the cubicles on either side of me, and I still wouldn’t have seen or heard from them until Christmas.

            George stopped to listen to the breeze. “Wait a minute,” he said.

            I stood perfectly still, thinking I was about to be mauled by a lion. George walked quietly through the darkness toward the facility’s perimeter fence.

            “I hear my old friend,” he said.

            Assuming it was safe to move, I followed George to the fence. I could feel a significant presence, like a large area of warmth, wafting toward us. Normally I would have attributed this feeling to the weed, but after two months, I could easily smell the earthy musk of an elephant. I could even tell it was a male.

            “Do you see him?” George asked.

            “I smell him.”

            “He is ten yards away.” George leaned on the fence. “Kamari. Come to us, my good friend. Kamari!”

            Vibrations rippled through the ground. Against the navy blue glow of the star-dotted horizon a great blackness formed.

            “There is my boy,” George said.

            I knew the elephant stood right in front of us, but I could not see him. Instead I felt the soft thud of his trunk against my face. I froze. The rough skin wormed over me, and then a large blast of air hit me in the face.

            “He is checking you out,” George said.

            “He doesn’t think I’m food, does he?”

            “Jeffrey. They only eat plants.”

            “I know.”

            The elephant huffed, a long, deep exhale. The trunk poked me a couple more times, then vanished back into the darkness. The vibrations rippled again beneath my feet.

            “That is Kamari,” George whispered. “He is like you, Jeffrey, a lone bull. But gentle. His name means moonlight. We call him that because he usually comes at night. Two months since the last time I saw him.”

            “I didn’t even see him,” I said. “He felt big.”

            “He is the biggest elephant you will ever see.”

The end of three months came quickly. Just when I was starting to become a real connoisseur of elephant feces, I found myself pricing tickets for a flight home. I still planned to spend a week at the beach in Mombasa, now that the weather was hot, but I did not look forward to returning to Boston. A few of the orphans were starting to recognize me. One or two would trumpet at me when I took them for their afternoon walks.

            I roamed the grounds of the orphanage, listening to the night sounds of Tsavo. There were no grinding machines, no honking traffic. I could breathe. Thinking about Boston conjured nightmarish visions of cubicles, wet asphalt, crowded subways. I did miss my friends, and I badly wanted a pizza. But I did not want to give up the open spaces.

            A few days before my departure, Alice Price called me into her office.

            “So you’re leaving us?” she asked.

            “I don’t really want to,” I admitted. “I like it here. I feel like I’m just starting to understand things.”

            “You’re good with the elephants, Jeff. You are patient and gentle. They respond to you. Many people think they like animals, but not everyone can connect with them.”

A warm breeze wafted through the open windows of her un-air-conditioned office. Outside I could see two orphans playing with an old tire.

“If you want to stay here,” Alice said. “We can hire you. It would not be a Boston salary, but you could live here at the orphanage, and there are not many expenses.”

I stared out the window, watching the young calves rolling the tire through the orange dirt. I wanted to join them, see if they would let me play.

Alice smiled. “What do you think?”

“What if you get sick?” my mother asked, when I called home with the news.

“I’m surrounded by veterinarians,” I replied.

My father put it more bluntly. “We didn’t put you through college so you could babysit animals, Jeff. Tony and Sharon are working their asses off. What’s your problem?”

After law school my brother had landed a job at Leechman and Cross, a downtown firm, while my sister was quickly ascending the communications ladder with the Boston Bruins.

“Two out of three ain’t bad,” I told my father.

I didn’t make it to the beach at Mombasa either. Alice set me up with a small room in the bunkhouse, where half a dozen of us lived full-time. I began spending nights with the baby orphans, sleeping on a cot next to a new arrival, sometimes for months at a time. The babies required feeding every three hours, even at night, and they needed to know that a warm body was nearby, for comfort. I learned to sleep with my arm dangling off the cot so that a baby could nudge me with its trunk. I even crawled off the cot and slept beside them on cold nights.

            For two years I slept with baby elephants. After a couple of months I no longer noticed their overpowering smell. Nor did it occur to me that I had developed that smell myself. I did not interact with many female humans at the orphanage, especially any close to my own age. So I did not think about my smell. Mostly I thought about the babies, and focused on feeding them milk and Similac, getting them past those crucial early months until they could finally eat grass and tree bark.

Not all of the babies brought to the orphanage survived. Generally the younger the calf, the less likely it was to live. Many came in weak or sick. Others refused to eat. Some had injuries from poachers or predators. One morning I awoke to find my charge had died during the night. We had named her Kala, and she had only been with us for two days. Her eyes in death were gray and filmy. I sat on the floor and leaned against her for a long time. Even though I had only known her briefly, her passing felt like my own child had died in its crib. I often cried when the babies didn’t make it. Alice later told me that she couldn’t sleep the night after losing a baby. George kept a list of all the elephants that passed through the orphanage. He made sure each one had a name, and he could recall each of their stories. I learned to carry the deaths as a compromise, a tradeoff for saving the others.

Every afternoon I walked the orphans in the park. The wild elephants found us easily, lumbering over to greet the orphans with trumpeting or trunk-hugs. George and Alice could recognize many of the elephants in the park by sight, and by many I mean hundreds. Sometimes they could pick out an ex-orphan from a long distance. There goes Lucia, we raised her twenty years ago. There’s Alphonse, he always comes around when his friend Sydney is nearby.

One afternoon George and I were watching an elephant family playing in a mud hole with a few of our orphans, when George spotted a giant on the horizon. It was a bull, and an old bruiser from the looks of him; his tusks were only short nubs. A typical elephant his size would have tusks five feet long.

“There is my old friend!” George cried, and he began walking toward the giant. He cupped his hands to his mouth. “Kamari!”

To my surprise, the elephant started walking toward us. I expected the ground to shake, and puddles to ripple, like when the T-Rex shows up in Jurassic Park. But when the old bull arrived he greeted George by trumpeting and flapping his ears. He draped his trunk over George’s shoulders, and George clapped the rough skin with a dusty hand. Kamari stood almost thirteen feet tall, well over twice my own height. After inspecting George he threw his trunk over me. The tips of his snout gummed my face like a pair of fat fingers.

“He remembers you,” George said.

I was mildly flattered. I had only met him once. In the dark.

“He does not forget. He’s a good man. Aren’t you, my old friend?”

Kamari stood with us for a while, watching the babies in the mud pool. The adult females watched Kamari attentively, but did not seem too concerned about him. Eventually the elephant family moved away, and George and I rounded up the orphans. Kamari waited until the mud hole was empty, then waded in himself.

During my third year in Kenya, there was a terrible drought. The land turned a crispy golden orange. Grasses shriveled and disappeared. Streams and watering holes vanished like dreams upon waking. In the park, and elsewhere, animals died by the thousands. It was boom time at the orphanage.

I started traveling across Kenya with Donovan to retrieve orphaned elephants from various wildlife refuges. While riding the bumpy rural roads Donovan religiously applied sun tan lotion (he was a melanoma survivor), and educated me about the troubling history of human/elephant relations in Africa.

“Droughts force the animals to look for food anywhere they can get it,” he told me. “They raid farms, destroy crops. A single elephant family can consume a farmer’s entire crop in one meal. Understandably, the locals become agitated.”

“So their solution is to shoot them?” I asked.

“It’s their livelihood,” Donovan said. “Would you starve an elephant or your own child?”

“My child, probably.”

He grinned. “This problem will likely never be resolved. Elephants are like jet airplanes, they require lots of fuel, and lots of space to move. The human population grows, and cuts into their natural habitat. We save what we can.”

Tsavo was located in one of Kenya’s more arid regions. We felt the drought harder than many places. Alice spent weeks at a time overseas, fundraising, and contracting with bottled water corporations to import water for the orphans. Still, many of our charges died from dehydration, and every day we found corpses in the park, not just of elephants, but birds and other animals. Donovan told me that the drought was nature’s way of culling the population, but that didn’t lessen the tension at work. We all spent many sleepless nights attending to malnourished orphans. Everyone grew restless, waiting for the rain.

On a scorching afternoon I hiked through the park in search of Barnaby, a five-year-old calf who had wandered off during the previous day’s walk. By now I felt fairly comfortable in the bush, keeping a vigilant eye out for snakes. With the drought many plants and trees had died, and visibility extended for miles. I stopped every few hundred yards to scan the horizon with my binoculars. I could hear George in the distance calling Barnaby’s name. Barnaby had been with us nearly since birth, so we assumed he would not know how to find water in the wild. If we did not recover him within a day or two he would die.

After two hours of searching, I had seen no live animals, just one or two carcasses. Many of the herds had left to look for water. Where they expected to find it was anybody’s guess. Elephant matriarchs could remember the paths to watering holes for years, even decades. The family groups relied on the matriarchs to survive. I relied on my canteen, which was almost empty, and I was three or four miles from the orphanage. I leaned against a tree to catch my breath.

My first indication that something was wrong came as a feeling, like when the pressure drops right before a storm. I was sitting at the edge of a cluster of trees, not far from a dry creek bed. The air suddenly seemed devoid of all life.

I heard a rustling in the tall grass, thought it might be Barnaby, and called his name. Waited. Barnaby would come crashing out of the bushes, anxious to be led home. But the grasses remained still. I could no longer hear George crying out.

“Oh, shit,” I whispered.

The lion stepped out of the grasses, his enormous head and all-seeing eyes turned directly toward me.

I had no weapons, and little strength. I thought about climbing a tree, and if I hadn’t been exhausted I would have probably remembered that climbing trees was no problem for a lion.

This one looked starved and emaciated. I stood up, tried to straighten my posture. Animals needed to know who the alpha was, who was master of the territory. I thought maybe I could bluff the lion.

But looking into his eyes I could see there would be no bluff. A lion’s stare was non-negotiable, his intent uncompromising. This was his yard. I was the intruder. He would go for my throat. I would die under the scorching Tsavo sun.

Then I felt vibrations in the ground. The grass parted, and out stepped an enormous elephant. The lion and I both turned at once.

It was Kamari. I recognized him by his bulk and his lack of tusks. Incredibly, sheltered beneath Kamari was Barnaby, hiding from the sun under the bull’s stomach. Barnaby stumbled and dragged his trunk. He was dehydrated, close to death. But he let out a fearful trumpet when he saw the lion.

The lion growled back. Kamari stamped the dirt with his foot. Slowly he stepped into the clearing beside the creek bed and stood between my tree and the lion. He extended his ears and lowered his head. I whispered his name, my throat parched and dry. The lion backed off toward the grass. He growled over his shoulder at Kamari, before skittering back into the brush, his body lowered to the ground like a scolded housecat.

When the lion was gone Kamari turned to me, lowering his ears. Light-headed with relief, I peeled myself off my tree and approached him. Barnaby trumpeted weakly. Kamari poked my shoulders with his trunk.

“Thank you, Kamari,” I said in a low voice. “Thank you, my friend.”

Kamari nudged Barnaby and they started walking. Sighting the horizon through my binoculars, I saw that he was leading the calf toward the orphanage.

“Think I’ll tag along,” I said, my heart rate down-shifting to normal.

We reached the orphanage around sundown, and I returned Barnaby to his pen. I met George by the fence. Together we watched as Kamari stood off in the distance, staring at us with quiet nobility.

“He saved my life,” I said, after telling George what had happened. “Barnaby’s too. If not for that elephant I’d be dead.”

“He’s a good man,” George agreed.

“Why doesn’t he have any tusks?” I asked. “What happened to him?”

“Poachers. Shot him and cut off his tusks with a chainsaw. Left him for dead. We found him in the savannah, hundreds of miles to the west. Years ago.”

“And he still trusts humans?” I asked. “If I were him I would step on every human I saw.”

It was shockingly easy for an elephant to kill a person. A strong swipe of the trunk would do it.

George shrugged, watching as Kamari ambled back into the park. “Maybe he forgives.”

The drought eventually gave way to a generous rainy season, raising the spirits of everyone at the orphanage, humans and elephants alike. Kamari remained nearby for most of this time period. George said that he probably wanted to be near a reliable water source. This gave me the opportunity to learn a bit about the elephant everyone called “the old man.”

Nobody knew for sure how old Kamari actually was, but Donovan estimated that he was around 40, judging by the progression of his teeth. Despite the fact that Kamari had been viciously shot and maimed by poachers, he seemed relatively at ease around people. He allowed Donovan and Alice to perform periodic wellness checks, inspecting his mouth and trunk and feet. Kamari’s favorite treat was apples and strawberries chopped up and mixed together. Once he had his snack he would let the orphanage staff inspect him.

For weeks I made an effort to ingratiate myself to the gentle bull that had saved my life. I fed him apples, rubbed his trunk, doused him with cold water from a hose. Once or twice I cleared the orphans out of the park’s better mud holes so that Kamari could have a mud bath all to himself. Despite his enormous size, which generally would have given him status, he remained deferential to his peers, allowing other animals to eat, drink and bathe before he took his turn.

“Tell them to get lost, Kamari,” I implored him as he stood patiently watching a trio of calves rolling in the mud. The young ones had more than adequately covered themselves, and now seemed to be playing for fun.

Kamari walked over and nudged me with his trunk, then stood there like a big, dumb dog, sort of wagging his tail.

“Okay, old man. Have it your way.”

It was almost by accident, however, that I discovered Kamari was far from dumb. During my lunch breaks I liked to take a sandwich and a beer out just beyond the camp’s perimeter fence and sit in the shade of an acacia tree. There I would read the many books I ordered online. One afternoon I was reading a collection of humorous essays, and laughing to myself in the shade. I was so engrossed in the book that I did not notice Kamari had snuck up on me, until his hulking mass blocked out the sun.

“What’s up, my friend?” I asked. He was staring at me curiously, his trunk raised up to scent the air. “Listen to this.”

I read him a particularly funny line from the book and, unable to help myself, burst out laughing. Kamari lowered his trunk and made a low groaning sound, like a trombone.

“I don’t have any apples,” I told him. I read him another passage from the book, again laughing to myself. Kamari repeated his trombone call, then stepped forward and wrapped his trunk around my shoulders.

“You have a sense of humor, don’t you?” I said. Every time I laughed Kamari trumpeted at me, which made me laugh even harder, at the absurdity of carrying on with an elephant, like a couple of playground chums.

From then on I continued to order humorous books off the internet, and whenever Kamari came around, I read them to him. I even started to believe that the big bull genuinely liked me, for something other than my apples, or the refreshing blast of the hose. He would listen to me read and laugh, blow his trombone, and poke me with his trunk. Sometimes he stood listening to me read for over an hour.

But Kamari lived on Tsavo time, and as often as he would show up to say hello, he would also vanish, wandering back into the park, sometimes not returning for weeks or months.

The year after the drought I went with Donovan Price to Amboseli National Park, to advise a group of park rangers how best to approach and handle orphaned elephants. We trekked out into the savannah on a breezy afternoon, under a sky so vast we could see many different weather systems. To the east the sky was crystal blue, but on the western horizon the blackish clouds of a storm gathered over Lake Conch. To the south stood the arresting majesty of Mt. Kilimanjaro, crowned with snow, clouds swirling over the purple peak.

The grasslands extended in all directions. A herd of zebras galloped to safety away from us. Across the plains, clusters of elephants lumbered toward water, like diesel trucks grinding along a distant road. We did not encounter any orphans on our expedition, and the elephants we did come upon kept a cautious distance. But as we set off for base camp in the late afternoon, one of the rangers literally stumbled over the carcass of a lion. Everyone gathered around the corpse. It was uncommon to come that close to a lion under any circumstances, and unless the animal was sedated or dead, you didn’t want to.

Immediately we noticed that the lion was female, and that it had not died of natural causes. A bullet hole oozed drying blood at the base of the animal’s skull. Donovan and a senior ranger knelt by the lion and inspected the wound.

“Just shot,” the ranger said to Donovan.

Together we fanned out to search the tall grass. It was illegal to shoot lions in the park, but poachers, and unscrupulous game hunters, did it anyway. It was not long before I heard the hooting signal of one of the rangers. Following the calls, we found two men crouching beneath a cluster of trees. One was a bearded white man holding an enormous rifle, and I recognized a Dallas Cowboys tee-shirt under his camo vest. The other was black, probably a local tribesman, likely the hunter’s guide.

The senior ranger spoke to the local man in Swahili, a heated conversation, culminating with the guide surrendering a weapon of his own.

“Now wait a minute,” said the white man in a thick American drawl. “I paid good money to come out here. And I don’t plan to return without my prize. Maybe there’s some way we can work this out.”

To my surprise, everybody in the group turned to me. The rangers knew I was American, and maybe they figured I could decipher the hunter’s intentions. I shrugged and stepped up to him. He was bigger than me, and older, but my blood was boiling from the sight of the dead lioness, and I was in no mood to negotiate.

“You broke the law,” I said quietly.

He smiled at the sound of my voice. “From what I hear the law is open to interpretation, partner.” He reached into his vest and pulled out a leather wallet, stuffed with American hundreds.

I spat on the ground. The man’s smile vanished. One of the rangers noticed the money. He took the man’s wallet. The cash disappeared into the senior ranger’s uniform, and now a new conversation began, in Swahili, much less hostile than before.

“Looks like there won’t be an arrest,” Donovan muttered behind a swig from his canteen.

Another ranger called out a greeting from the brush, stepping into the clearing to join us. Grinning, he cradled a yawning lion cub in his arms.

“Well, look at that,” the hunter said.

Donovan walked up to the American. “So you killed two lions today,” he said. “Where’s the rest of your money?”

The hunter made no reply. The ranger set the lion cub down, and the senior officer announced in English that it was time for everyone to go. The cub sat shaking on the ground, crying out for its mother. The rangers began walking away through the bush, leading the hunter and his guide back to their kill. Donovan Price frowned at me.

“My country, not my blood,” I said.

He turned and followed the rangers, shaking his head.

I bent down and picked up the lion cub.

I named him Max, short for Maximus, after the fictional Roman gladiator from the Ridley Scott film. It could not have been a less appropriate name. My adopted lion, whose upbringing I had undertaken personally, was not a warrior, a fighter, or even a scrapper. He was a gangly, dim-witted kitten, and I had no doubt that he would grow up to be a big, dumb, tail-chasing lummox- the fool of the animal kingdom, rather than its king.

“What did you bring that home for?” George asked me when Donovan and I returned to the orphanage. “That is not a house kitty. Do you know what he will grow up to be?”

“When he comes of age, I’ll turn him loose,” I said, as George’s children crowded around to fondle a real, live lion cub.

“He’ll kill you first,” George said. “It is sad what happened to his mother, but you should have left him to die. You deprived another animal of a meal.”

“Just be glad your mother didn’t leave you in the bush, George,” I muttered.

George laughed at me. In fact, everyone laughed at me, in between warning me that my new best friend would one day grow up to kill me.

It did not take long before we all came to suspect that something was wrong with Max, besides his unprecedented affection for other creatures. When he initially arrived at the orphanage he was sluggish, listless, and his appetite waxed and waned. He would collapse at, or on, my feet, and lie there for several minutes, eyes pinched shut, mouth wafting open and closed. Donovan took Max to a veterinary clinic in Nairobi. When he returned he informed me that Max had cardiomyopathy, an enlarged heart.

“He won’t live, Jeff,” Donovan told me. “I’m sorry. We saved him from one death, but we cannot prevent the other.”

I took the news with the same feeling of rejection I always felt when one of my elephant babies passed away. Nature was either mercilessly fair, or pitilessly unfair, depending on how you looked at it. One thing we had all come to understand was that death would come when it wanted to. But as I took Max back to my room in the bunkhouse, and laid him down in the used dog bed I had stolen from George, I told myself that Max didn’t know he was sick. He would not understand that he was supposed to die, not like a person would when diagnosed with terminal heart disease, or cancer. He was an animal. He would grow up however I raised him. And so I decided to see him through to his natural end, however soon or distant that might be.

 Nobody at the orphanage wanted to adopt a lion.

“When he grows up, he’ll want to kill the elephants,” Alice Price told me as we discussed the cost and logistics of raising Max. “In the meantime, I’m worried he will stress them out, making their survival in the crucial early months that much more difficult.”

“If we socialize him, the elephants may accept him,” I theorized. “Like they do with rhinos, or George’s dogs.”

“A dog is a domesticated animal, Jeff. Elephants will know what Max is. Many of them have already seen lions in the wild. Some have had family members killed by lions.”

I was under no delusion that I could train Max to be a big, cuddly housecat. Playful though he was, in time he would grow dangerous. His instincts would kick in. He was a predator, not a pet.

“If he wasn’t sick, I might feel differently,” I told Alice. “I know our animals sometimes die. I accept that. But nature seems determined to kill Max. That’s why I want him to live.”

Many at the orphanage were determined to let nature kill Max, including Donovan Price, who was more pragmatic than the rest of us. But I could tell Alice agreed with me on some level, that none of our charges were inherently worth less than any others. None were to be outright abandoned. We had several discussions about Max before reaching an agreement. I agreed to help pay for Max’s housing, feeding, and medical costs out of my own salary. Alice agreed that we could keep Max for as long as he wasn’t a problem. And so, despite the majority view that I was an idiot and my pet should be euthanized, I began the long and tedious process of trying to civilize the young lion cub.

For the first few months of Max’s life I kept him with me at all times. He slept in the dog bed in my room in the bunkhouse. I bought a collar and a leash, and brought him with me wherever I went. I kept him well-fed. Because of his heart condition, he needed medications frequently, and it fell largely to me to provide him with them. In the evenings I talked to him and played with him, and tried to socialize him to the other staff members at the orphanage, most of whom, including George, looked at him like they wished they had a rifle.

My first concern with Max was the safety of the elephants. I was not sleeping with the new arrivals as much anymore, but I volunteered to resume this duty, reasoning that I could take care of two babies at once. Max could spend time with the elephants, and they with him, and hopefully they could grow accustomed to each other. The older orphans at the facility, as Alice had predicted, were wary of Max. Some were terrified of him. I tried to reason with them by showing them that Max could be pet and handled and fed, and that he wouldn’t kill me, but there was only so much I could do to convince an elephant to disregard millions of years of evolution.

For his part, Max seemed to like the elephants. He would rub up against them, and try to convince them to play. I kept him away from the larger animals that I thought might step on him out of fear or anger, but I found that he enjoyed being near the babies. He crawled into their pens and slept beside them, and they seemed grateful to have a warm companion to sleep with. He licked and cleaned their faces, and shared bottles of milk with them. His favorite trick was to lie on his back while a young elephant rubbed his belly with its trunk. The first time I saw him receiving this treatment, I immediately grabbed my camera so I could film it.

“You see?” I said, showing the video to George. “He’s just a big kitty.”

“He’s going to be much bigger soon,” George said.

Max grew up to be a slightly undersized adult lion. His heart condition made him smaller and weaker than he should have been. He often had trouble eating, and he developed asthma, which kept him laid up and sluggish for days, especially during the rainy season. When he reached the age when I became concerned that he would rip off some part of my body while trying to play with me, I took a chunk out of my meager savings and built Max a holding pen near the facility’s bunkhouse. We all decided he should not live near the elephants, as many of them were still (or more) afraid of him. Soon we had a regular schedule of feeding and cleaning him. Donovan took over the more complicated medical duties, giving Max injections of the medications we couldn’t mix into his food. The other staff members grew to not hate Max, and since I spent all of my free time hanging out with him so he would grow accustomed to humans, he even allowed a few of the other staff to pet him or feed him his meals.

But a remarkable bond formed between Max and several of the orphans he had cuddled with as babies. There were about a dozen elephants that grew up thinking Max was one of them. His best friend was a gregarious male named Burton. Sometimes in the afternoons, when I took this particular group for a walk in the park, I brought Max along with them (now walking him on a chain). I made sure he was well-fed and well-medicated. Max would walk alongside Burton with the gentle canter of an aging horse, the two of them nudging each other and stopping to inspect things like bugs and grass. Together we rambled through the park on our walks: a naïve American, a happily-stoned lion, and a cohort of half-tamed elephants, none of us ready for the wild in the strictest sense, but all of us following the path back to our origins.

*

In the summer of my eighth year in Kenya, changes began to take place at the orphanage. Donovan Price’s melanoma returned, and he went to England for several months of treatment and rest. Alice spent about half her time in England with him, and the other half trying to balance all the responsibilities of the orphanage. George took over some of her administrative duties, and I stepped up behind him to take over maintenance. With Alice gone much of the time, fundraising for the orphanage suffered. Max regularly needed costly trips to the veterinarian in Nairobi, and I worried that budget cuts at our facility would ultimately hurt him.

There was another complicating factor that nobody could control.

“Farmers are taking over the elephants’ natural habitat,” George told me, as we received more and more orphaned and refugee animals. “The government, of course, supports the farmers. Sympathy for the elephant is declining.”

Sympathy for the elephant had earned a victory in Kenya in 1989, when many African nations officially admonished the ivory trade. Kenyan President Daniel arap Moi publicly burned thirteen tons of confiscated ivory. Still, poachers continued to hunt and kill elephants, and this problem resurfaced as rapid population growth created more sympathy, as it were, for humans.

Reluctantly, Alice Price cut several staff members from the orphanage, even as we continued to take on more animals. She kept me on, telling me over the phone from England that I was an asset to the elephants, and that my status as a westerner could help with fundraising from the United States. She expanded the volunteer program, and opened the facility to tourists.

“So now we are also a zoo,” George told me.

The orphanage became a regular stop on the safari circuit, especially among wealthy families with children. Children could touch and play with real, live elephants. And for many of these new western visitors, I became the unofficial guide.

Several of our older orphans could be relied upon to play their part for the fundraising effort. Burton, perhaps the friendliest elephant I had yet encountered, even let kids ride him. Marina, a playful seven-year-old female, seemed to relish performing the mud bath routine for camera-happy onlookers. Other elephants earned brownie points simply for touching tourists with their trunks. The interspecies curiosity, it seemed, was mutual.

One old man who did not seem interested in the onrush of strangers was Kamari. He came around the orphanage less and less, usually only during droughts, often arriving at night. I would encounter him out by the fence on random evenings, his hulking warmth a welcome presence. I did not mind performing PR for the good of the company, if it helped raise donations for the cause, and helped keep my job secure. But I had not come to Africa to be surrounded by Americans, with their compulsive need for attention and receipts.

Kamari seemed to sympathize with my feelings. He met me at the fence and clamped his big trunk over my shoulder, releasing epic sighs of breath.

“The times they are a-changin’,” I told him, assuming he would appreciate the wisdom of Bob Dylan. “And we don’t need a weatherman, do we?”

The tourists were naturally drawn to the elephants, but they were also curious about our resident lion. Everyone wanted to see Max, especially children, even though many of them ran from his cage, screaming for their parents. I did not let anyone touch or pet him, for liability reasons. But when a crowd gathered, I would saunter into Max’s pen myself, roll the big doofus onto his back, and rub his belly, while he purred and flicked his tail.

“How do you keep him so docile?” a pretty Australian volunteer asked me, as I was talking her through Max’s feeding routine.

“Heroin,” I said. “Max is a serious junkie. Mostly he just sits around and watches TV.”

My joke got a laugh, and for a moment I remembered what it was like to flirt with someone, but the truth of my comment wasn’t far off. As Max’s heart trouble worsened, his circulation grew poor, and he often staggered around on aching joints. I would find him sitting down early in the morning, licking his elbows and feet. Donovan gave him morphine for the pain, and Max’s demeanor, if not his health, did seem to improve. He drooled a lot, but at least we could approach him.

At some point, amidst the onslaught of tourists, I became fixated on the idea that I could train Max to do tricks, make him perform a sort of circus act, and that this would help lubricate the wallets of park visitors and would-be donors.

“Bad news,” I told Max as I walked into his pen with a bag of his favorite jerky treats. “You have to earn your keep.”

I made sure he’d eaten his breakfast each day before beginning our training, hoping he wouldn’t mistake my hand for a snack. But even though I plugged him full of jerky, and took many time-outs to rub his belly, Max proved a mostly incompetent disciple. Unlike dogs, who responded to verbal cues, and had a natural inclination to please their masters, cats responded only to food, and didn’t have the slightest interest in pleasing anyone. I tried to get Max to do basic tricks, like turn a circle, stand on an elevated platform, and roar on command. But the only “trick” he truly excelled at was lying down so I could tickle his fur.

“He’s too old for tricks,” George told me, repeatedly. “And he’s a wild animal, as you keep forgetting.”

“But he listens to me,” I protested, even as Max lay sprawled in a shady corner of his pen, mouth open as he snapped at imaginary bugs.

“It is you who does not listen,” George said.

So what, I thought. The orphanage was full of doubters. Alice Price came around for my morning training sessions and stood silently outside Max’s pen, arms crossed. Donovan was only slightly more encouraging, admitting that I sure could make Max lie down. But everyone’s skepticism only made me more determined to tame the wild beast. I could not explain why it was so important for me to do this. I just had to make Max obey. Nobody I had ever known had tamed a lion. It was not something they taught you in college.

After months of training, I managed to teach him one new trick. He could sit down, most of the time, if I raised my arm and held a piece of bacon jerky. But once I had given him the jerky he would simply remain seated, sometimes licking his paws, usually just staring out toward the grassy hills of the park.

“Max, you have to do more than just sit there and look stupid,” I told him.

He yawned at me.

“I see you’re making progress,” George said, leaning against the wood frame of the pen.

At the edge of the facility I saw Kamari standing by the fence, flicking his tail and staring at me. George turned and waved at the elephant. Kamari released a deep sigh, and walked back into the park.

“Another critic,” I said.

The rainy season brought fewer tourists, which was all right with me. Tsavo was alive with the scents of healthy flora, and I spent long afternoons taking the orphans for walks in the park. The wild elephant families welcomed the newcomers into their groups. One by one we released our orphans back into the wild. They joined the herds, roaming across their territory, visiting us once in a while, if we were lucky. Occasionally we would get a particularly aggressive cow who would attempt to adopt an orphan as her own, although “kidnap” might be a better word than “adopt.” In these cases George and I would have to approach the group and separate the calf, which usually caused the adult cow much distress, and more than once I worried that I would be stepped on or trunk-swiped.

“You would fight too, if it was your child,” George said.

I nodded. “I’m sure I would.”

“Soon you will have to choose a mate, Jeffrey. Start making babies of your own.”

“Someday, George,” I said, playing out our old joke.

Sometimes I wondered what would happen if I returned to Boston, to the American dating scene, after spending nearly a decade interacting primarily with large, non-verbal mammals. I had not “dated” a woman since leaving the States, and in Tsavo there were very few women around. I had no interest in tourists, and I was often too busy to consider hooking up with a volunteer. I was long out of the game. American women would eat me alive.

But this was exactly the type of concern I had come to Africa to escape. News from back home featured an avalanche of weddings and birth announcements. My nominal salary at the orphanage prevented me from attending any weddings. Every Christmas when I went home it seemed there was a new baby to meet, all identically cute, each making me miss my elephants, while feeling relieved that I personally did not have to take care of any human babies.

Meanwhile babies continued to arrive at the orphanage as well. George and Sophie welcomed their seventh child, a daughter, and we had our own celebration, hosted by Alice and Donovan. George’s younger children rode elephants. His older children came home from school in Nairobi.

It was not uncommon for relatives in Kenya to come for long visits when a baby was born. Among the extended family came George’s youngest sister, Rashida Odhiambo. Rashida was two years older than me, had studied both in the United States and England, and was so beautiful she shocked my dormant longing for The Female back to life. George, once again a happy father, ensured me that Rashida was single, and would enjoy being entertained while she was in Tsavo.

Suddenly I was unable to concentrate. The presence of Rashida wafted around me like a lightning storm on the plains. Desperately I combed the dusty attic of my memory for any salvageable romantic souvenirs. In Tsavo it was not really possible to date in the American sense. There was a village near the orphanage, but dinner and a movie were out of the question. If I wanted to spend time with Rashida, there was really only thing I could do: invite her on my walks with the orphans, and converse with her in the park. So that’s what we did. Every day. Until finally I decided to impress her with Max.

“What’s the closest you have ever been to a lion?” I asked her about a week into her visit.

“I have seen them in the savannah,” she replied. “But not close enough to worry.”

“Well, I have a lion here that’s too dumb to be dangerous.”

She had seen Max a couple of times, of course. He was impossible to miss. But with all the baby celebrations and family time, she had not yet been properly introduced to my own adopted son.

I took her to Max’s pen for his evening feeding. She watched from outside the cage as I fed Max a heap of meat, mixing in his nightly pills. Meanwhile, I explained how we had found Max, and the efforts I had made, largely unsuccessful, to civilize him.

“Mostly he’s like the orphanage mascot,” I said.

“Except instead of waving a flag, he eats you.”

I fed Max another sizable helping of meat. When I was confident that he was adequately stuffed and medicated, I invited Rashida inside the pen.

“Oh, my goodness,” she whispered as she carefully stepped inside.

I closed the gate behind her. She smiled nervously, glancing between Max and me, and I wondered if this was actually a good idea. Normally the only people allowed near Max were staff at the orphanage familiar with his handling procedures. I took Rashida’s hand and led her over to where Max lay, flicking his tail beside his food dish. I pulled a handful of jerky from the bag of treats I always brought into his pen and set them down in front of him. He gobbled the jerky down in one soundless bite, then, as I crouched beside him, flipped over onto his back. I rubbed his sturdy chest. He opened his mouth and purred, a strange habit he had developed, which I thought meant that he was both happy and perhaps having difficulty breathing. Gently I guided Rashida’s hand to his belly.

“Oh, Jeffrey, he is so strong,” she whispered, her fingers dancing across his coat like a breeze tickling grass.

“He’s basically a big pussycat,” I said, as Max nuzzled my hand. “I don’t usually bring people in here. If he had not been raised in captivity, we couldn’t do this.”

That’s when I heard the hiss.

My hand froze, and Rashida froze, and Max’s whole body went stiff. He suddenly flipped over onto his paws. I stood up, stepping in front of Rashida.

“What is it?” she whispered.

I glanced around the pen. It was dusk, and blue pools of shadow covered the ground.

“Easy, Max,” I said.

The hiss came again. There was only one thing in the world that absolutely terrified me, and that was snakes. In all my years in Kenya I had miraculously avoided encountering a serpent, even while out in the bush, a winning streak I attributed to vigilant, maybe even paranoid, attention.

I followed Max’s gaze, and saw the snake coiling against the wall of the pen, not fifteen feet away. Max’s pen was not impenetrable. It was encircled by a three-foot concrete base, and encased in wood framing with steel wiring. He could not escape, but there were many ways for other creatures to sneak in.

“Oh my god,” Rashida said when she saw the snake. It was three or four feet long, and as it uncoiled and raised its head to challenge us, I saw the steely dark scales of the black mamba. Silently I cursed myself. There was no excuse for my stupidity. Now I was locked in a cage with an innocent woman, a poisonous snake, and a lion.

Max lowered into a crouch. All traces of food- or drug-lethargy vanished. His eyes became orbs of deadly truth. I had never seen Max in attack-mode before, had erroneously allowed myself to believe he did not have an attack-mode. Now the wild had taken hold of him.

I backed slowly away from the confrontation, steering Rashida toward the door of the pen. Feeling the latch with my fingers, I tried to open the gate without taking my eyes off Max.

The snake opened its mouth and hissed, then lunged forward. Max pounced, swiping with his paw. The blow sent the snake flying through the air. It clattered on the ground, and Max pounced again, his jaws snapping at the snake’s head.

Rashida buried her face in my shoulder. I turned and threw open the lock on the gate. We both jumped out of the pen. I slammed the door shut behind me, locking it.

“Will the snake’s venom kill him?” Rashida asked. We watched as Max slapped at the snake with his paw.

“Shit, I don’t know,” I said. Another wave of panic swept over me. “Are you all right?”

“Yes,” she said, wiping her brow.

“I’m going to get Donovan,” I said.

Heart pounding, armpits pouring cold sweat, I ran across the facility to Alice and Donovan’s house.

When we returned to the pen, not even two minutes later, Rashida was standing beside the gate, smoking a cigarette, and Max lay calmly by his food dish, flicking his tail.

“Where is it?” Donovan asked, clutching a long pole and a net.

“It was in there,” I said. I looked at Rashida.

“He ate it,” she said.

Around the same time I developed a crush on Rashida, Kamari developed his own crush on a young former-orphan named Nara. When nature informs a bull elephant it is time to mate, he enters a state of testosteronic frenzy called musth. Estrus, the cow’s period of fertility, sometimes only lasts a few days a year, and this tight window of opportunity can turn an otherwise reasonable male into a menace. Bulls will engage each other in vicious, tusk-thrashing combat for the right to chase down a cow, mount her, and deposit his seed, with all the speed and romance of a college freshman. The cow then rejoins her family group, whereupon the matriarch encourages the proud bull, in no uncertain terms, to fuck off, while the females celebrate the hopeful pregnancy with trumpeting and the flapping of ears. Over the years I witnessed the elephant mating ritual many times, and it always made me wonder what would happen if the same dynamic was adopted by humans. Every month when the moon was right all the men in a given area would gather in a pit, or an arena of some kind, and fist-fight each other until one lone bloody survivor was left standing. This champion would then run after the ovulating woman, corner her somewhere, and subject her to a hurried bout of consensual (or non-consensual) sex. Forgoing all the sticky social components of the long human mating process, the happy couple would return to the woman’s family, whereupon her mother would kick the strutting suitor out of the house, then shower her hopefully-pregnant daughter with kisses, cake and mimosas.

Neither the traditional, prolonged human method, nor the blunt, expedient elephant method of courtship and reproduction seemed quite right to me. I could not imagine fighting another man for the right to essentially rape a woman I liked. But the minefield of human social relationships seemed equally daunting. The lonely hours surfing dating websites, the asinine conversations over sushi and wine, the silent inadequacy of knowing you didn’t make enough money- all seemed like proof of a rigged game. I thought of Rashida, a beautiful, intelligent, dynamic woman, and I could easily see myself falling in love with her. But just as easily I saw her feeling unsatisfied by me: an asocial wanderer with no money who felt more comfortable around elephants than people. I almost wanted the simplicity of the elephant mating ritual. I could have sex with a beautiful woman, then her family could tell me to get lost. With no other choice, I could return to the jungle and continue to live quietly among the animals.

            Nara, the object of Kamari’s affection, was a gregarious female who frequently acted as a liaison between younger orphans and the elephant groups in the wild. We first noticed that Kamari was interested in her when her family group approached a popular watering hole, and was soon accosted by a bull in musth. Kamari appeared and stood guard over the watering hole, and the other male eventually backed off, deferring to Kamari’s hulking size. Kamari then assigned himself to bodyguard duty, and continued to watch over Nara whenever she and her family were drinking and bathing.

            “I have never seen him pick a girl before,” George said, as he and I and Rashida watched Kamari lingering off to the side of the watering hole, like a shy boy at a middle school dance.

            “Do you think the old man has a chance?” I asked.

            “I don’t know. He may have to fight for it.”

            “All men are the same,” Rashida scoffed.

            Kamari’s crush came to a head a couple of days later. Another male, younger than him, but armed with a full set of tusks, challenged Kamari near the watering hole. I had seen bulls fighting and play-fighting before, but this was the first time I felt scared by a fight. Kamari’s mangled tusks were only stubs, and though he was bigger than his opponent, he could easily be impaled in combat.

            Nara’s family group watched with what was either mild concern or solemn disinterest as Kamari and the other bull tore up dust. Kamari was indeed a fearsome warrior, his mighty feet shaking the ground when he stomped. But the other bull deflected his lunges, shoving Kamari away, prodding him with his tusks. For a moment I thought I was going to watch one of my best friends in Tsavo die a brutal death. There was nothing I could do to stop the fight. George and I were working hard to corral the frightened orphans, and in any case there was no way a person could break up a grudge match between two bull elephants.

            The fight ended with the other male pinning Kamari’s head and trunk to the ground. Shaking and flailing, Kamari failed to throw his opponent off, and eventually he bowed in submission. From a distance I could see that his body was bleeding from several puncture wounds, but none of the gashes seemed to be pouring blood. The other male stepped back and Kamari stood up and moved off. He lumbered away into the bush without even a backward glance, and this effectively ended his would-be courtship of Nara. The victorious bull approached the awaiting female group and mounted the young cow.

            “It’s not his fault he cannot fight,” George said when we were back at the orphanage. “If he had his tusks he would be like Alexander the Great.”

            “Instead some Chinese trinket shop is selling his ivory,” I said.

            Rashida was more circumspect. “Maybe he can find another girlfriend,” she said. “One who likes a gentle man.”

            “That’s not how it goes in the wild,” I said. “The females always end up mating with the biggest assholes. Boston is the same way.”

            “Nature favors the takers, Jeffrey,” George said. “You see what you want, you take it.”

            “That’s what a bully does.”

            “Shut up, George,” Rashida said. “You asked Sophie to marry you four times before she finally said yes.”

            “But I did not give up,” he said. He gave me a nudge. “It is a good thing a poacher did not take my tusks.”

            Kamari did not return to the orphanage after his defeat by the watering hole. He went off to wherever it was he always went. I often pictured him in some distant corner of the park, living among other elephants, venerated for his age and wisdom. Or perhaps he spent his nights ravaging the crops of local farmers, waging war against humans as vengeance for taking his tusks. Wherever he went, I knew I would never see it. I respected Kamari’s privacy. We should all be allowed a corner of the world where we could disappear.

            Two weeks after the birth of George and Sophie’s baby, the happy couple finally ran out of food to feed their visiting relatives, and most of the relatives left, taking with them the air of celebration. I returned to nursing baby elephants, to shoveling shit, to quietly begging American tourists and visitors for donations to support the orphanage. The usual functions of the job now seemed less important to me, like the air of purpose had been let out of the balloon. I realized that it was not going to be easy for me to go through the routine of my day, thinking about Rashida, but not seeing her. Once my eyes had been opened it was impossible to pinch them shut.

            Rashida remained at the orphanage longer than her relatives. I saw her speaking with Alice Price a few times, and I started to hope that she might join us permanently. She continued to observe me feeding and caring for the young orphans, and watched me interacting with Max.

            “Do you like it here?” I asked her one afternoon as we took the orphans into the park.

            “I do,” she said. “I have been visiting many of the national parks, seeing many animal rescues. I am preparing for my new job.”

            “What’s your new job?”

            “I am going to help run a rescue,” she said. “Not just elephants. All kinds of animals.”

            “At one of the parks in Kenya?”

            “No,” she said, smiling. “South Africa. I leave in a month.”

            I felt the rest of the air squeeze out of the balloon, the familiar combination of rejection and fate, like when one of the elephants died, only deeper- the certainty that the course of nature did not steer itself through me.

            “That is why I came to visit George and his babies,” she said. “I will not see them for a long time. I will miss my family.”

            “I’m sure they’ll miss you,” I said. “It’s been fun having you here. I know I-”

            I stopped, caught myself, thought of how ridiculous I sounded. Then decided to tell her anyway.

            “I don’t meet many women here,” I said. “Mostly elephants. They’re friendly, but it’s not the same.”

            Rashida laughed, touching my arm. “Jeffrey, you can come visit me in South Africa. You know how to save elephants. We would welcome you.”

            I nodded. It was a familiar promise I had heard many times in Boston. Let’s meet up for drinks. Translation: we will not see each other again.

            We walked on under the afternoon sun. Rashida would leave Tsavo, and my life would go on as it had been before she came. Maybe George was right, that life favors those who take what they want, not those who wait around for the rain.

The SUV arrived at the orphanage in the height of the dry season. A black Mercedes, only the tires smeared with orange dirt. Government.

            Alice and Donovan had worked a long time to ingratiate themselves with the government of Kenya. The Tsavo Elephant Orphanage, from a PR standpoint, was good for the powers that be. Wealthy foreigners worked together with native Kenyans to preserve nature’s bounty. Even more convenient, the orphanage largely footed the bill. We received minor subsidies from the government, but the real privilege they granted us was the opportunity to locate our facility in the national park. It was not often that they came around to remind us that we were ultimately their guests.

            George summoned me to Alice’s office after the official had already been in there for about half an hour. Normally I was not privy to the Prices’ interactions with the government. I quickly ran to the bunkhouse and changed into a fresh shirt, washed my face and hands, then joined George in the office. Alice was seated behind her desk, her face a mask of dissatisfaction. Donovan leaned against the wall behind her, staring at the floor.

            The official did not rise from his chair in front of Alice’s desk, but instead flashed me a curt grin. Sweat beaded his forehead. He did not introduce himself by name.

            “Jeff is Max’s primary handler,” Alice told the official. “He oversees feeding, administers medications, and serves as host to tourists who wish to see Max. In this capacity, Jeff has fostered a great deal of good will, both for the orphanage, and for Kenya.”

            “Tourism is important,” the official said. “But you have always been clear about your purpose here, Mrs. Price. You are running a rescue operation. Not a zoo. A zoo is different.”

            Alice sighed minutely. “You are correct, sir. This is not a zoo. Max is merely a guest. An exception, not the rule.”

            “An exception. The lion is a dangerous exception, yes? A lion can kill a man.”

            “An elephant can kill a man,” George said quietly. Alice glanced at him, and he said nothing further.

            “This is a special case,” the official said, smiling at Alice. “You do good work here, Mr. and Mrs. Price, and we would like you to continue to do good work. But for a special animal, there will be a special fee.”

            “What special fee?” I asked.

            The man smiled at me, but did not answer.

            “We run on a shoestring budget, sir,” Alice said. “Perhaps you mistake us for wealthy, but most of our funding comes from fundraising.”

            “We also provide veterinary expertise to many other organizations,” Donovan added. “For which we are not compensated.”

            The official stood and adjusted his suit. “I will return next week to conclude our discussion,” he said.

            He did not shake any hands on his way out the door. Alice, Donovan, George and I stood silently in the office, listening to the SUV rumble away.

            “Another smiling thief,” said George. “My country is full of smiling thieves.”

            “What did he want?” I asked.

            “Thirty thousand,” Alice said.

            “What? Is he out of his mind? That’s two salaries.”

            “It’s more than that, Jeff. It’s many elephants.”

            She looked at me, and I could see that she was not pleased by the situation. I had never considered that any government official would have a problem with Max. He cost a lot of money, yes, but he also raised money, and the good will he extended as an ambassador to Tsavo was immeasurable.

            “What are we going to do?” I asked.

            “Unfortunately we need the government to be friendly,” Alice said. “Without their permission, we do not run an orphanage at all.”

            She leaned back in her chair, but did not look away from me. I saw that this was not a negotiation.

            “You’ve given him a good life, Jeff,” said Donovan Price. “We all have. I never thought he would live this long. You have both impressed me.”

            I looked at George, who was shaking his head. I had begun to sweat again. I wished I had not changed my shirt for that smirking bureaucrat.

            “One thing that is better about the United States,” I said. “There you can choose to bribe someone.”

It was a long, silent drive to Nairobi. I doped up Max more than usual with painkillers for his aching joints, and he snored peacefully in the trailer behind Donovan’s truck.

            When we arrived at the hospital Max was pacing anxiously. He knew about the vet. He’d had many visits over the years, had received many shots. The standard procedure was for a veterinarian to come out to the trailer and give Max a sedative. Only when he was unconscious would they bring him inside the facility for care.

            The doctor shook hands with Donovan, and nodded at me. I kept my arms crossed over my chest. Both Max and I saw that the doctor had a lengthy syringe in his hand. Two medical assistants wheeled a gurney outside, and parked it beside our truck.

            “Is that it?” Donovan asked the doctor, indicating the syringe.

            “This is it,” the doctor said.

            “You’re just going to do it in the parking lot?” I asked. “Like shooting a damn horse behind the barn?”

            The doctor looked at me, but did not say anything.

            “Perhaps we could give a Jeff a minute,” Donovan said. “Max is a special friend to him.”

            “I can bring him inside and sit with him,” I said. “He won’t hurt anyone.”

            The doctor, his assistants, and Donovan spent several minutes in conversation, before reluctantly agreeing to accommodate my request. One of the assistants went inside the hospital, and came out a moment later holding a shotgun. I shook my head, and fed Max several handfuls of his favorite jerky. Then I attached a chain to his collar.

            “Come on, bud,” I said. “Let’s walk.”

            Max stretched his long, slender bulk, and the medical assistants took a precautionary step backwards. I felt strangely validated by their caution, proud that they respected Max’s power. It was safer and more practical to euthanize a lion in his cage, where the situation could be controlled, but it was also cowardly, I thought. You didn’t shoot a king through a set of bars. You granted him his dignity, let him walk to the gallows.

            I led Max through the hospital parking lot. Drivers stopped their cars to stare. Inside, activity came to a standstill. Doctors, technicians, and surprised visitors watched as the lion strode coolly through the corridors. Max glanced around like a kid being brought to a new school. In all his life he never seemed to fully understand his own power, that he could command any creature on earth with a simple stare. Instead he only seemed to want to not disturb anyone.

            We took him into an examination room, and attached his chain to two steel locks on the floor. Max made a cursory sniff of his surroundings, then lay down, looking to me for guidance. I gave him another handful of jerky.

            “That’s it, bud,” I said. “Look at me.”

            I continued to feed him while the veterinarian gave him the shot. Donovan leaned against the wall, shaking his head. “Safe trip, old boy,” he murmured. Max glanced briefly at the prick of the syringe, but turned back to my hand and the jerky.

            “We should leave him now,” the doctor said. “It is safer.”

            “I can stay,” I said.

            No one argued with me. They left me sitting on the cool linoleum floor. I fed Max the rest of the bag of jerky, and he nuzzled my hand with his nose. He tried to flip onto his back, but the chain kept him fixed on his stomach. He rested his head next to my leg.

I thought about the empty pen back at the orphanage, now a useless structure. Five useless years spent trying to save a sick animal, only to have a government conman drive up one day in a fancy car and tell us it was all for nothing.

Max was going to die anyway. I had always known this. I thought about his enlarged heart every time I looked at him. But we were all going to die one day. Given the certainty of death, why not live?

It was October when I returned to Boston. October was my favorite month. Sunny days and cool nights. I went for long walks at night. Glanced into bars, but didn’t enter them. Passed street vendors, and drug dealers, and panhandlers, and crowds of yuppies staring at their phones. All the predators of the urban jungle. I tried to walk off the shame I felt for betraying Max. At the same time I wished I had my lion to walk the streets with me. Boston, a city that parted for no one, would have kept a respectful distance from the king.

Alice and Donovan told me when I left Tsavo that I could return at any time, and my job at the orphanage would be waiting for me. I told them I was going to Boston for at least a month, but the truth was I didn’t know how long I would stay, or what I would do.

My father wasted no time making me an appointment with a job consultant. I visited my brother in his South End apartment, and my sister in her Newton home, and did my best to play uncle to my nieces and nephews. Children were certainly louder than elephants, and I preferred quiet.

The Thursday Club had long since disbanded. I made some effort to track down my old friends. The ones I found were invariably busy. They invited me to meet for drinks at 9:15 on a Wednesday night, but told me they had to leave by 10. Between their jobs and their kids they just didn’t have any time, they all said. It was my obligation to understand this.

I met Julie for lunch at a coffee shop near her office. In the span of ten minutes she threw more words at me than I had heard in any given Tsavo week, pouring forth about her current job, her former job, her marriage, her divorce, her lack of children.

“So you’re back,” she said, taking a deep breath. “I can’t believe you were gone ten years, Jeff. Didn’t it just fly by?”

I told her I didn’t think so actually.

“It’s the next ten I’m worried about,” she said. “My twenties? Fine, I admit it, I did not strategize. I picked the wrong guy, the wrong job. I was young. But now I know what I want. It’s time to get it. You wouldn’t believe the dating scene, Jeff. It’s horrendous. It’s a full-time job.”

“Sounds like no fun,” I said.

“What are you going to do now that you’re back?”

“I don’t know. I don’t know that I am back.”

“You can probably spin the Africa stuff to your advantage. Some employers love that shit. Everybody has the same resume anyway- college, Master’s, internships- it’s like, how do you distinguish yourself?”

“Do you like your job?” I asked. I was having trouble concentrating. A flood of people washed in and out of the café.

“It’s good,” she said. “They give twelve weeks maternity leave. That’s what I’m focusing on now. I’ll be thirty-five in December. I need to be married in a year, first kid nine months after that, second kid within fifteen months after that. Still up in the air about the third kid.”

I noticed her coffee mug was already empty. I was just starting to sip mine.

“It’s time that’s the problem,” she said. “You go to work every day, and then you wake up, and bam: you’re forty. I wasted five years with Scott. Now I know better. I just wish I hadn’t spent so much time learning my lesson, you know?”

I didn’t think she would understand that in Kenya time was more of a theory than a fact, so I didn’t bother saying so. She glanced at her phone, typed a hurried text message.

“My break is almost up,” she said. “I have to go to Neiman Marcus to return a sweater. We should meet again, Jeff. I can do lunch on Thursday. Or dinner next week? Can I let you know?”

“Sure,” I said.

“I can’t believe you don’t have a phone. That’s crazy. I’ll get you one next time I see you. You’ll be back to normal in no time.”

She laughed, and about fifteen seconds later she was gone. I stared down at my coffee. The cup was still half-full, so I decided to stay and finish it. A young couple stared at me the way a lion would stare at a snake. After a moment I realized they wanted my table.

That night at home my mother gave me a lecture on time that was virtually identical to the one Julie had given. There seemed to be this wall that one hit at some point in adulthood, and I was approaching it. Once you hit the wall, everything was too late. The good job, the wife and kids, the IRA- too late.

“You should ask Sharon about online dating,” my mother said, meaning my sister. “That’s how she met Jim, and it’s worked out very well.”

“You really don’t own a single suit, Jeff?” my father asked me, glancing up from his MSNBC.

“Oops,” I said.

“Well, we’re glad you’re home, Jeffrey,” my mother said. “I’m sure you’ll always remember your African adventure.”

*

I flew back to Kenya in November. It was the rainy season, the quiet time, when the land focused on nourishment and life. Alice gave me back my little room in the bunkhouse, and George greeted me with the news that Sophie was pregnant with their eighth child.

Soon I was once again sleeping with the elephants, shoveling out their shit, taking them for long, leisurely walks in the park. Keeping an eye out for snakes. After a month or two, I finally addressed Max’s empty pen. George helped me dismantle it. We sold the materials for scrap.

Time stood still in Kenya. Boston time obviously was a straight line, an express train, and you had to try to leap on to get to where you were going. As I stared at the distant mountains, I felt that my life had become a circle, a floating mass without direction, and while this theory promised a certain sense of freedom, it also lacked purpose. I felt like I had done this all before, and that when I did leave, ultimately, it would be like the passing of another elephant. I was here for a while, and then I would be gone.

In the evenings I walked the perimeter fence with George. We passed a joint back and forth, and I congratulated him on the coming of another child.

“Now we have to focus on you, Jeffrey,” George said. “Soon I will have eight children, and you will have zero.”

“You should just give me one of yours,” I said. “Not this one, obviously, but maybe the ninth or the tenth.”

George laughed. “By the time I have my tenth, it will be twenty years since the first one. That is a lot of life to give to the world.”

“Maybe you should give the next twenty years to your wife. What about her life?”

The stars began to dance on the horizon. A breeze picked up off the grassland.

“Wait a minute,” I said. “I know that smell.”

“Oh my goodness,” George said. He extinguished the joint, peering out into the darkness. “Is it our old friend?”

A hulking black mass shifted among the shadows.

“Kamari,” we both said at once.

I felt the tremors in the soil beneath my feet, and a moment later the giant bull was standing in front of us. He blew us a deep gust of breath.

“I have not seen the old man in months,” George said.

Kamari draped his trunk over my shoulder. I laughed, and Kamari sounded his deep trombone. I patted the thick coil of his trunk. “It’s just us now, old friend,” I told him. “Max is gone.”

He sighed again, and stood with us for a while beside the fence.

“Usually he does not come in the rainy season,” George said, rubbing behind the elephant’s ear. “Maybe he missed you, Jeffrey.”

The breeze picked up, and in the distance we heard the trumpet of an elephant. Kamari cast his all-knowing gaze on the bush. Seeing him again now, meeting an old friend in the loneliest hour of the night, I felt my old sense of purpose start to stir. I decided then that I would take a little more time to think about where I wanted to be. The orphanage in Tsavo was only one place, and there were many places in the world I had not seen. There were elephants in Thailand as well. Or I could visit Rashida in South Africa.

Kamari gave me a final poke with his trunk. Then he turned and lumbered back into the darkness, his husky silhouette shrinking before the stars. He would return eventually, when the voice he followed reminded him of old friends. In the meantime he would roam the savannah, in search of fresh grass or a cool watering hole, not beholden to any clock but his own. Kamari would always be a wanderer, sometimes happy, mostly alone, and I knew that in my own way, so would I.



BIO

Adam Matson’s fiction has appeared internationally in over twenty magazines including The Berkeley Fiction ReviewThe Poydras Review, Crack the Spine, and Terror House Magazine.





THE COLLIER KIDS

by Tetman Callis



            The Steins had a daughter who was friends with the Collier Kids and a son who was older and listened to rock-and-roll on the radio. Jeff Chorus was on his hands and knees in his front yard pulling weeds and heard Back in the U.S.S.R. coming from the Steins’ house next door. He whispered to the weeds, They’re Commies. A few weeks later he began listening to rock-and-roll on the radio and he became a Commie, too. But he was not a Collier Kid. (What is a Collier Kid? Jeff’s mom would say it is a child of between five and fifteen years of age and it lives on the block and its last name is Collier, Beausoleil, Wheeler, or Stein, and it is up to no good.)

                                                                             •

            The Girl in the Green Dress lived in a family that wasn’t on the block for long. If she had another dress no one ever saw it. When it hung out to dry on the clothesline in her back yard in the morning, no one saw her.

            Her mother got drunk one summer evening around sundown and got in a screaming match with the Beausoleils. Jeff’s mom came and got him and his brother John, who was a year older than Jeff.

            Come help me close the windows. Don’t dawdle. Do it right. Now, the two of you wait in John’s room until I tell you to come out.

            Later, the Collier Kids told Jeff what had happened.

            That lady? She was standing there on the curb.

            She had a bottle of booze in her hand.

            She went down in front of the Steins’ house and was standing there screaming across the street at us.

            We don’t know what it was. She wasn’t making any sense.

            We started screaming back.

            Yeah, you don’t scream at us and think you can get away with it.

                                                                             •

            The Stuarts’ father was Major Stuart, United States Army. He went to Vietnam. The mother was Bunny. The Major came back and he and Bunny sat on folding chairs in their carport and burned letters in a coffee can. She was young and he was young, too. They called each other Mom and Dad. She had black hair and white skin and was nervous. He never smiled and rarely spoke and was always somewhere else. He didn’t like kids, not even his own. They were Abel and Baker and were younger than Jeff. They played soldier and scientist and astronaut together.

            The Collier Kids came over.

            Abel and Baker, what stupid names.

            Your mom has a stupid name, too.

            Yeah, and your dad doesn’t even like you. I heard him say so.

            Bunny came out of the house.

            You trash get out of my yard!

            A ragged and dirty pair of panties was in the dirt in the yard. Where was it from? Grant Collier carried a long thin stick. He picked up the panties with it. He held them up, dangling from the end of the stick.

            You call us trash? We don’t leave our dirty underwear out in our front yards. Ooo, they smell bad, too.

            He flipped them at her. They landed on the porch at her feet. She started crying and went back inside.

                                                                             •

            The daughter of the Bridges was Viola and she wasn’t friends with anyone on the block. She went steady with Reggie Cotton when she was in sixth grade and he was in second.

             Someone set fire to the Bridges’ yard and burned one of their bushes. No one knew who did it and everyone knew it was the Collier Kids.

                                                                             •

            The Farmers moved out and moved back in three years later. The Farmer boys were friendly before they moved away. They came back and they were snotty and wouldn’t be friends with anyone.

            The Collier Kids passed by on the sidewalk and Mr. Farmer saw them. He stood behind the screen door.

            If you kids set one foot in my yard, I’ll call the police!

            The Collier Kids stopped. Grant Collier lifted up one of his feet from off the sidewalk and he put it down with the toe touching the Farmers’ yard.

            You mean like this?

            An hour later a police cruiser pulled up in front of the Farmers’ house. Two officers talked with Mr. Farmer.

            There’s not much we can do. Maybe you could put up a fence. Have you tried talking to their parents?

                                                                             •

            The Collier Kids knew what everybody did on the block. Sometimes they snuck into people’s yards at night and spied.

            Mister York drinks.

            So? Everybody drinks.

            No, he drinks booze, stupid.

            Lots of it, too.

            We seen him.

            Have you seen his wife?

            She’s huge!

            She hardly ever comes out.

            She probably can’t get out the door.

            Nunh-uh. I seen her come out. She came out through the door.

            Mrs. York slowly waddled to the car. Mr. York opened the door for her. The Collier Kids said Mr. York was taking her to the hospital.

            What other place could she go?

            The Collier Kids tittered and whispered and watched. Jeff watched and was quiet.

                                                                             •

            Mr. Collier was Sgt. Collier, United States Air Force, and he went to Vietnam. He was in the air force since World War Two. After he came back from Vietnam he retired and drove a long-haul truck. He had a plastic dildo and Penthouse magazines in the cab and sometimes he was gone for weeks. He and his wife had four kids. They all had blue eyes and blonde hair.

            The oldest was Rose. She never lived on the block. She was away at college when the Colliers moved in, then pregnant and married to the most acceptable likely suspect. They stayed married until the accidental baby graduated high school, then it was Splitsville for Rose and she left the country. Her bridal shower was at Jeff’s house. His mom sent him and John out to the front porch to play or read or whatever they wanted to do, just stay out of the way and don’t get in trouble. Rose was the most beautiful girl who had ever set foot on the block. Her beauty and her smile and her confidence stunned Jeff. She smoked long cigarettes and he almost couldn’t look at her.

            Ronny Collier smoked pot and played the drums in a rock band and football on the high school varsity team. He rode a motorcycle and hung out with hippies in the park. He sat on his motorcycle outside his house and talked to Denise Wheeler and Traci Stein and there was Jeff.

            Hey, Jeff, are you a pansy?

            Jeff had heard of reverse psychology and the soft answer that turneth away wrath.

            Yes.

            Ronny and the girls laughed.

            Grant Collier was a year older than Jeff and was the leader of the Collier Kids. He had the same innate confidence his siblings had. Several of the girls were in love with him.

            Simon was the youngest and was a year younger than Jeff. He stood in a little red wagon and wore one of the Wheeler girls’ bikinis. From a string around his neck hung a homemade sign that read Come See Twiggy. Grant Collier and Mary Wheeler pulled the wagon down the sidewalk.

            Yes, ladies and gentlemen, it’s the world-famous model Twiggy! Come see her, only a nickel!

            A transistor radio played and Simon danced.

                                                                             •

            Jeff mowed and edged the lawn and swept the grass and dirt on the driveway into a pile. Bobby Stein and Charles Beausoleil ran through the pile and kicked it around. Jeff yelled at them and swept it up. The boys ran through it and scattered it again. Jeff grabbed them and pushed them. They fell down in the grass.

            He pushed us!

            Ow! That hurt! Mommy!

            The Collier Kids crossed the street from the Beausoleils’ front porch and surrounded Jeff.

            What did you do?

            Those little boys! You just pushed them down!

            You bully! Pick on someone your own size!

            Yeah! How would you like it if someone grabbed you and threw you down?

            Somebody should do that!

            We should teach him a lesson!

            Grant thrashed Jeff and held him down and punched him in the forehead and raised a welt. Jeff lay on the sidewalk and cried after Grant was done. The Collier Kids went back across the street. Jeff got up and went home. Later the doorbell rang. It was Mary Wheeler and Francine Beausoleil. Mary had been his girlfriend the year before, for a few weeks.

            We’re sorry, Jeff.

            Yeah, Grant said he didn’t really mean to hurt you.

            Jeff said, Get the hell out of here! which is what he had heard his mom say to them just the week before when they were playing on the Choruses’ front porch and raising a racket. He closed the door.

            He was eating his lunch and the doorbell rang again. His mom answered. Francine and Grant told Jeff’s mom what he had said. She thanked them and closed the door and beat Jeff. She sprained her wrist. That evening at Kingdom Hall she wore an Ace bandage.

            Oh, I did this spanking Jeff.

            She smiled the way people sometimes do.

                                                                             •

            The Beausoleils had six girls and a boy. The oldest was already married and gone. She had two miscarriages and kept photographs of them on a small altar in her living room. There were also candles and a photograph of Jesus Christ.

            The other five girls and their mother were loud and even when they talked they screamed. The boy was the youngest and stuttered. The father was sick and no one ever saw him. The Collier Kids said he had emphysema and was holed up in the back bedroom, hooked up to an oxygen tank.

            The Beausoleils had two Dobermans and a something else. John Chorus practiced for the cross-country track team. He ran down the sidewalk and the dogs burst out of the Beausoleils’ front door and went for him. He jumped and spun around whooping and sprinted for home. He vaulted over the chainlink fence around his front yard and collapsed on the lawn. The Beausoleils shouted and screamed at the dogs until they came home.

            Before the Beausoleils had three dogs, they had eight. Someone called the police who came and made them give four away. Before this they kept a horse in their back yard. The police came that time too and the Beausoleils got a ticket and had to stable the horse on the edge of town.

                                                                             •

            Jeff’s dog was Dog. Dog’s half sister one litter back was a dog with a real name and that was Calamity. She peed every time she got excited and she got excited a lot. She peed on Jeff when he was holding her on the patio.

            Ooo! Stupid dog!

            He threw her into the back yard. She landed and screamed. Jeff’s mom came out and the neighbor behind them came over.

            Jeff, what happened?

            I don’t know, she was just out in the yard and started yelping.

            Jeff’s mom and the neighbor picked up Calamity and looked her over.

            She must have stepped on a bee.

            Yes, that must be it.

            The neighbor looked at Jeff. Jeff knew he knew.

            Jeff’s mom gave Calamity to the Humane Society a few months later.

            She just wouldn’t stop peeing.

                                                                             •

            Topeka Sally’s family kept the dog that birthed Calamity and Dog.

            Mom, Topeka Sally says they’ve got a fertile bitch.

            Jeffrey, don’t you ever say that word!

            Jeff didn’t know which word and was afraid to ask.

            Topeka Sally had a brother whose name has been forgotten. He and she looked almost exactly alike although they weren’t twins. She was in Jeff’s second grade class and was his first girlfriend on the block. She and her brother and Jeff played Knights of the Round Table and used sticks for swords and round metal trash can lids for shields. Topeka Sally was the fair princess who had to be rescued. They made a hell of a racket with those trash can lids.

            You kids cut that out!

                                                                             •

            Topeka Sally’s family moved out and the Wheelers moved in. Dan Wheeler raced go-carts at the go-cart track and fired rifles at the rifle range and gigged crawdads and frogs at the reservoir. He gigged a racoon and skinned it and tanned its hide and hung the hide on his bedroom wall.

            If Jeff could choose his own big brother, it would be Dan.

            Dan’s sisters were Denise and Janet and Mary, in that order. Denise was the first leader of the kids on the block. She outgrew that and grew into boys and clothes and music, and Grant Collier took over.

            Janet Wheeler was not fat and she was not ugly. She was merely the plainest. Also, she didn’t have a belly button. When she had appendicitis and almost died, she was rushed to the hospital and cut open. When the doctors sewed her back together, her belly button was gone. She showed the other kids.

            See? I’m not really human. I’m an alien from outer space.

            Mary was the prettiest. She and Simon Collier started going steady when they were ten. All the kids knew they would get married when they grew up. None of them knew they would break up as soon as they got to high school, and that Simon would grow up to be more beautiful than any of the Wheeler or Beausoleil girls, a stunner in spiked heels.

                                                                             •

            Jeff’s mom put up a metal garden shed. She made it from a kit to replace one blown away in a dust storm. It was new and empty. Jeff was with the Wheeler girls.

            Jeff, let’s go sit in your shed.

            We can play spin the bottle.

            You’ll win every time.

            Jeff and the Wheeler girls closed the sliding door of the shed. It screeched. Light leaked in. They sat on the cinderblock floor and spun an empty Coke bottle, the glass kind with the shapely waist. The bottle rattled on the floor. Jeff won every time.

            The door screeched open and the light flooded in and there was Jeff’s mom. She was tall.

            You girls need to go home now.

            The girls left. Jeff’s mom took him into the kitchen and held him firmly by his shoulders.

            Look at me. Look at me! You must never, ever, be alone with girls again. Do you understand me?

            Yes, ma’am.

            Jeff was lying. He did not understand her. He never understood her.

                                                                             •

            Dan Wheeler told stories.

            We came from Arkansas. We called it Our Kansas.

            Our grandma used to sit on the front porch with a four-ten twenty-two over-and-under in her lap. There were gopher holes in the front yard and whenever a gopher would pop his head up, she’d blast him.

            One summer all the kids in our neighborhood had a war. We had firecrackers and sticker bombs and we built forts and dug trenches. We even dug tunnels that went up to the enemy lines. Then we put a whole bunch of firecrackers at the end of the tunnel and blew up the enemy trench. And we had a sticker torture chamber as big across as your back yard, Jeff. If you were captured, they made you run back and forth across it until you talked. If you still didn’t talk, then they rolled you around in it.

                                                                             •

            The Angelos were an older couple. They painted their lawn green in the winter. Nobody knew if they had any children. Nobody ever saw anybody visit.

            They had a low rock wall around their front yard and it was topped with a high wrought-iron fence painted white. Sometimes you could see Mrs. Angelo in a big floppy orange straw hat working in her flower beds up by the house. You could call out a hi to her and she would usually hear you and look up for a moment and wave. She wouldn’t come down to the fence to talk. The Collier Kids said Mr. Angelo painted her in the nude.

            You’re kidding!

            Does he really?

            He does not. How do you know that? I’ve never seen him painting anything.

            Me neither.

            We snuck in their back yard and we saw it.

            You did not. How did you get in their back yard?

            Yeah. Their back wall is like twenty feet high.

            No. It’s only twelve.

            It is not. How do you know that?

            Well, it’s not twenty.

            We measured it.

            You did not.

            Yes we did. You weren’t there. You don’t know.

            You saw him painting her and she was naked?

            Was he putting paint on her? Why was he putting paint on her?

            He wasn’t putting paint on her, stupid. He was painting her picture.

            Oh. Well why didn’t you say so?

            I did.

            He said he was painting her. That’s what it means.

            Oh.

            You’re so stupid.

            Shut up, I am not.

            So what did she look like?

            We only saw her back.

            Did you see her butt?

            No, she was sitting down.

            You guys are lying. You didn’t see anything.

            Yes we did. You don’t know. You weren’t there.

                                                                             •

            Every weekday evening at 5:30 Mr. Angelo’s boxy little four-door sedan turned onto the block. He drove slowly, hunched over the steering wheel, peering through his little round glasses and never turning his head either this way or that.

            The first kid to see him called out, Mr. Angelo! Mr. Angelo! The other kids took up the cry and dropped whatever they were doing and ran down the street to the Angelos’ house. The first two kids to arrive opened the gate to the driveway. Mr. Angelo drove in, smiling brightly and squinting through his glasses, looking neither to the left nor the right. The kids closed the gate behind him. He parked and went inside his house and came back a minute later with a bag of hard candy. He walked down the sloping driveway to the gate where the kids waited. He didn’t open the gate. He smiled and through the wrought-iron bars he handed each child a piece of candy.

            One for you. One for you. One for you, and one for you . . .

            Thank you, Mr. Angelo! Thank you, Mr. Angelo!

            When every kid had a piece of candy, Mr. Angelo went back inside. The kids unwrapped their candies and popped them in their mouths.

            Hey! Litterbug!

            We put the wrappers in our pockets!

            Yeah!

            No littering in front of the Angelos’ house!

            Pick that up!

            No one knew how the gate-opening custom had begun. Billy Johnson taught it to Jeff and in those days it was Jeff and Billy and his brother Mark and Topeka Sally and her brother along with Reggie Cotton and the Hausers and a couple of the Goldfarbs. They all moved out except for Jeff and Reggie, who handed the custom down to newcomers. With all the Collier Kids and Choruses and Ganders and Stepps there were sometimes a score of kids running down the street at 5:30, pacing the boxy little sedan and often outrunning it.

            Mr. Angelo! Mr. Angelo!

            There even were times the Collier Kids waited at the open end of the street for the first glimpse of Mr. Angelo’s car.

            Here he comes!

                                                                             •

            Across from the Angelos were the Beys. They had three kids. Marie was the oldest. Jeff thought she was fat and ugly and he did not like her. She thought herself fat and ugly and she did not like anybody. In truth she was not fat, only full-figured, and she was not ugly, but there was no one to tell her that, not even the mirror on her wall when she plucked her eyebrows.

            The youngest Bey was Cass. She was Debbie Gander’s best friend and was skinny and gangly and had a big nose. Often she could be found at church with her mom, religious in a Protestant way.

            The middle Bey was Peter. He was removed from the general student population when he was fourteen for bringing a gun to school. Ten years later he was sent to prison for a stretch for a string of residential burglaries. Thirty years after that, he was killed in a shootout with federal agents who had come to arrest him for smuggling guns to Mexico.

                                                                             •

            The Twins were friends with the Collier Kids but they weren’t Collier Kids. Their dog had puppies and they carried two of them, a black one and a white one, one day to every house on the block and asked, Do you want a puppy?

            The Colliers said, No, we already have two dogs.

            The Beausoleils said, No, we have way too many dogs already.

            Jeff’s mom was in the front yard when the Twins came by.

            Hi, Missus Chorus, do you want a puppy?

            Later that afternoon Jeff’s mom said, They’re such darling little girls, and those puppies are so cute, I couldn’t resist.

            She named the puppies Inky and Spook. They got along with Dog and were never allowed inside. Jeff reflected sunlight from a small mirror and moved the reflection back and forth along the back yard’s rock wall. Inky saw it and chased it. He ran and jumped but couldn’t catch it. Spook never saw it and chased Inky instead.

            The Twins threw a big birthday party and had a live rock-and-roll band in their carport. It knew only one song, the Birthday one by the Beatles, and played it over and over. Everyone on the block went to the party except for Jeff and John, who were Jehovah’s Witnesses and could not have gone even if they had been invited, which they were not, because everybody knew they were Jehovah’s Witnesses and didn’t celebrate anything, so why bother?

                                                                             •

            Nobody knew anything about the Two Guys. An immobile ‘54 Chevy lived on the street by the curb in front of their house. The Collier Kids said the Two Guys lived with their mother.

            I’ve never seen her.

            We’ve seen her.

            She hardly ever comes out.

            They had a fence like the Angelos’ but not as high. They didn’t bother anybody and nobody bothered them. They had two crabapple trees in their parkway. Summertime everybody pulled the crabapples off the trees and threw them at each other in crabapple wars. The hard little crabapples were thrown by their stems and stung when they hit flesh.

            Ow! I’m telling!

            No, you’re not.

            Yeah, don’t be such a big baby.

            After a crabapple war the street and sidewalk were littered with crabapples. The kids stepped on them and smashed them flat.

                                                                             •

            The last house at bottom of the block was often empty. No one knew why.

            It’s haunted!

            Yeah, that’s why no one wants to live there.

            You believe in ghosts?

            Sure! Everybody does.

            Everybody knows there’s ghosts.

            We went there one night and we heard it howling.

            You did not.

            You don’t know. You weren’t there.

            It’s a bad luck house. Ask Jeff. Isn’t it, Jeff? That house? The haunted one? Where you cut your leg that one time? It’s a bad luck house, right?

            I don’t believe in luck. It’s against my religion.

            Gah, I can’t believe that. That’s so stupid.

            Everybody believes in luck. You’re just making that up, Jeff.

                                                                             •

            The bottom of the block was a dead-end cul-de-sac everyone called The Bulge. The kids on the block, the Collier Kids and any of the other kids who wanted, played baseball there. Home plate was always on the south side and nobody knew why. Line drives could break a window at the haunted house or dent the fender of a parked car. Pop flies could end up in Mrs. Angelo’s flower beds or bounce around in traffic on the four-lane street that ran beyond the low wall at the base of the cul-de-sac.

            Go get it!

            Get the ball, Simon!

            No! Gah, I didn’t hit it out there. You go get it.

            Simon, you’re such a chicken.

            You shut your mouth, you bun-hugger! Or I’ll smack it shut.

            Jeff, will you get the ball? Mary, ask Jeff if he’ll get the ball.

            Jeff?

            Yeah, I’ll get it. Wait till these cars go by.

            Hurry, Jeff! It’ll get smashed!

            You guys! Let him wait. Jeff, be carful.

            Did you hear what Francine said? She said, Jeff, be carful.

            Be careful, Jeff!

            Don’t worry, guys, I’ll be careful.

            And so he was, and so he retrieved the ball, and so the game went on, until it was time to go home for dinner, time to start a new school year, time to take a summer job, time to grow up and move away and leave the block behind.

Summer is for Swimming, Shopping, and Stealing

            A loose clot of kids walked along beside the four-lane street. There was no sidewalk. A trail was worn along the shoulder, above the curb. The trail went through desert—pale brown and red sand and dust, small rocks and some gravel, mesquite and creosote and goat’s-heads, nightshade with blue flowers and yellow seedpods, stunted yuccas, tumbleweeds both rooted and free-rolling, and tufts of desert grasses and wildflowers. Across the street was the neighborhood of tract houses where the kids lived. On the side where the kids walked, the desert stretched almost a half-mile to a mobile home park. Four tall radio broadcasting aerials stood in the desert, arranged in a large diamond. Guy wires stretched at taut angles from the towers to industrial screw eyes anchored in concrete blocks on the desert floor.

            The kids wore swimsuits under their t-shirts and shorts, and flip-flops or tennis shoes without socks. They carried beach towels and suntan lotion; one or two carried packs of cigarettes and books of matches. They ranged in build from lanky to slender. The oldest was fourteen and the youngest was ten or eleven. Billie Jean Beausoleil was at that age where she seemed to have shot up like a weed after a summer rainstorm, her arms and legs long and rail thin. She was the youngest of the Beausoleil girls, the only blonde, and would grow into a stunning beauty. Francine Beausoleil was next-oldest and would be starting junior high in the fall. She wore glasses pushed up on her nose and always seemed to be squinting. Cindy Beausoleil was Grant Collier’s age and would come to be deeply in love with him, hoping they would marry, but Grant never married. Janet Wheeler, the girl who’d lost her belly button to emergency surgery, was also Grant’s and Cindy’s age. She would later be a bartending biker-chick riding Harleys in the Colorado Rockies. Mary Wheeler would start junior high with Francine and Simon Collier in the fall. She and Simon had been going steady for almost two years. They were the couple that seemed so natural, it seemed they would marry, but they broke up when they got to high school and, same as his brother, Simon never married. He and Grant carried themselves with an androgynous grace and assurance. They were not effeminate but they were not masculine. The only other boy in the group was Jeff Chorus. His parents were religious and strict. He was neither graceful nor assured.

            The kids’ destination was Crystal Pool, a private spring-fed swimming pool in a small and run-down park that had seen better days, its tall cottonwoods scattered over dried and dying Bermuda grass and a sparse array of battered picnic tables. It was a fifteen-minute walk from their block to the pool. In the summer, at least one and usually most of the kids made the walk at least once and sometimes twice a day, six days a week. The pool was closed on Wednesdays for draining, cleaning, and re-filling.

            Crystal Pool was large and circular. Its deepest point was in the middle and was over fourteen feet down. It was a challenge to reach the bottom and none of the kids ever did, which didn’t stop them from saying that they did. A dock stood in the pool to one side of the deepest point. Two diving boards, one low and one high, were on the dock. The deck around the pool was large and concrete; around that were grassy areas, with mulberry and mimosa trees around the perimeter. There was a raised lifeguard station, a kiddie pool, indoor showers that everyone was supposed to use before swimming and no one did, and an awninged area with ping-pong tables. Admission was by membership only and the number of memberships was limited.

                                                                             •

            Grant and Simon fought in their front yard. Simon was getting the best of it. Grant picked up a loose brick from the garden and tossed it at his brother. Their mother’s voice came through the opened kitchen window.

            Grant! You stop throwing bricks at your brother! And put that back in the garden where you found it! The way I had it!

            Yes, ma’am.

            Jeff walked over from his house across the street. He carried a beach towel.

            Hi, Grant. Hi, Simon. You guys wanna go swimming?

            Sure, Grant said.

            No, Simon said. I’m not going anywhere with Grant. He’s a futt-bucker.

            Their mother’s voice came through the window.

            Simon! Watch your mouth! Hi, Jeff!

            Hello, Missus Collier.

            You boys going swimming?

            Yes, Grant said.

            No, Simon said.

            Let’s go, Grant said to Jeff. I already have my trunks on underneath my pants.

            Me, too.

            I need to get a towel.

            Grant went in and got a beach towel, and he and Jeff walked to the pool. It was still early in the day. They swam for a while, then they stretched on their towels and took the sun. Grant had cigarettes and they each smoked one.

            Ohmagod, look, Grant said. Look—over there. The German Woman.

            Jeff looked. All the kids knew about The German Woman. She always sat in the same place, with a friend or two, on towels in the grass near the perimeter fence and the trees. She had a baby and sometimes she nursed it. Right there! She let down a strap of her bikini top and she did it! Jeff had heard about it but he hadn’t seen it until today.

            Wow! he said quietly.

            Did you see her nipple?

            Yes! It was as big as my thumb!

            It’s the baby that does that.

            Wow!

            On the way home they passed by a garage sale. Two card tables set up on a driveway, peppered with an array of stuff, all of it marked with homemade price tags and none of it worth anything. A woman sat in a folding chair. Grant and Jeff looked at the items on display. Grant asked the woman about a set of salt and pepper shakers and Jeff stole a necklace of fake pearls.

            Easiest job ever, Jeff said after they walked away.

            I didn’t know you were such a little thief.

            Sometimes.

            Have you ever shoplifted?

            Oh yeah. You?

            Yeah. We do it all the time, at Gibson’s and Northgate. Where have you shoplifted?

            I haven’t done it much. I stole a squirt gun from TG&Y right at the end of the school year. I was scared I was gonna get caught, but I didn’t. And before that, when I was little, I stole a little racing car from Sprouse-Reitz. That time I got caught.

            You did? What happened?

            I was only four. I really wanted that car. It was one of those little ones with a friction motor. You could see it through the body. I still remember it had a price tag on it and it was twenty-five cents. I asked my mom to get it for me but she wouldn’t, so when she wasn’t looking, I took it and stuck it in my pocket.

            Did they catch you at the store?

            No. I didn’t get caught till after I got home. It was winter and we were wearing our coats. When we got home, my mom took our coats to hang them up. She always checked our pockets in case me or my brother had picked up a rock or a bottle cap or a dead lizard or something. And she found the car. With the price tag still on it.

            I bet she beat your butt.

            No, she didn’t. I’m surprised she didn’t. But she took me back to the store and she got the manager and told him. He squatted down in front of me and grabbed my shoulders and told me what a bad boy I was and how I should never ever steal anything again. I was crying so hard.

            I guess the lesson wore off.

            Yeah. Have you ever been caught?

            Nah. It’s easy to get away with it, especially if there’s a bunch of us. The people in the store never know who to watch.

            This was true. Should they watch the skinny girl with the long legs? She didn’t seem to be any trouble, at least not yet. Those other two girls, the ones who looked like they could be her sisters—the older one seemed mostly interested in one of those boys. Interested enough to steal for him? Best keep an eye on her. But she’s talking a lot with that other girl who looks about her age. Damn, there’s a lot of kids in this bunch. Where’d the one with the glasses go, the one who was squinting? There, she’s down that aisle, with the other girl who looks like the little sister of that other older girl, and with that boy, one of the tall skinny ones. He looks a little, you know . . . that way. That other one must be his brother. Then that other boy—he doesn’t look like he really belongs with them. But it’s clear they’re all friends. Some little gang of suburban hoodlums. Spoiled rotten. Probably haven’t seen the inside of a church since they were baptized. Assuming they’ve been baptized. Little heathens. What are they doing? Those three are all clumped up there and whispering. And those other two are obviously up to no good. Best just to clear them all out of here, they’re not going to buy anything. You kids. Hey! Hey! You kids—you need to buy something right now, or get out. Don’t make me call the cops.

                                                                             •

            The Store—the term for teen shopping before there was The Mall, before The Internet was more than a dream. It was how they asked permission or flat-out said it—Mom, can I go to The Store? We’re going to The Store, okay? Mom—where is she? Where are you, Mom? Going to The Store! Sometimes their moms might ask, What store? Which store? How long are you going to be gone? Don’t be gone too long, okay? Okay, Mom! and they’d be out the door and down the street, to cross the four-lane and then the desert and descend upon the Gibson’s or the K-Mart or the Sears Roebuck, or the favorite shops at Northgate Center, stopping usually at as many as a half-dozen, buying what they wanted or what they could afford, stealing what they could get away with—and they always got away, until later—and creating the disturbance clots of teens are known for, a ripple or sometimes a rip in the bourgeois continuum.

            Grant Collier and his brother Simon, and Francine Beausoleil and her sister Billie Jean, and Jeff Chorus, the weird one, walked through the desert past the broadcast towers, on their way to The Store. Jeff  decided to start fires.

            It’ll be really cool, guys!

            Gah, Jeff! No, it won’t!

            Jeff had some matches and set three small bushes on fire. The winds were calm and the fires burned out before they could spread.

            Shit! I was hoping for something bigger.

            Jeff, you’re such a pyromaniac.

            You’re going to get us in trouble.

            This is boring. Can we go?

            Let’s go, guys. I wanna get to The Store.

            Grant led the way but Billie Jean held back.

            I’m going home. I don’t feel very good.

            The chili cheese burrito she’d had for breakfast wasn’t setting well, and she didn’t like Jeff. He was creepy. He wasn’t like Grant and Simon. He was always looking. And then writing things down in that stupid little notebook he always carried with that stupid little stubby pencil. And then doing idiotic things like setting bushes on fire in the desert. He was going to get them all in trouble.

            Billie Jean turned and headed back home and the others continued through the desert and into the mobile home park. They discussed the possibility of making easy money through door-to-door seed sales—These old geezers are always planting flowers, they’d buy everything we had to sell, Grant said, and Jeff said, Yeah! I sold seeds door-to-door the summer after second grade and it was great!—but Grant didn’t ask how much money Jeff had made and Jeff didn’t tell that he hadn’t made squat and it wasn’t great, the sun was hot and nobody wanted to buy seeds from some little kid knocking on the door and Jeff’s mom had ended up having to buy all Jeff’s stock, most of which she had no use for even though she gardened, just to pay off the company that had shipped the seeds to an eight-year-old boy and why had she agreed to let him do that, anyway? Sometimes she just didn’t know what she was thinking.

            First stop after the mobile home park was Sears. The Sears outlet was big and it had everything, except pants that would fit Grant and Simon. They looked and Francine told about a fight she’d had with Debbie Gander, and Jeff—what the hell was he doing? He didn’t have any money and his mom bought all his clothes anyway.

            Yeah, I heard that fight. I was in bed already but my window was open and I could hear you guys screaming at each other. What was it about?

            She’s just a scaggy bitch who thinks she’s hot snot on a golden platter, but she’s—Jeff, what the hell are you doing?

            I’m stealing rubber bands offa socks. Look—I’ve got five already. And these two demonstration polarizers off sunglasses. These are really cool.

            And he’s ripping price tags off pants, too.

            Jeff! Gah, you’re so—.

            Words failed Francine and she turned away from Jeff. What she wanted to do was smack him a good one. She had never liked him and she didn’t see how that was going to change. She wandered over to the socks display and picked out a pair.

            They left Sears and headed for K-Mart. On the way there they passed by the Taco Box and along a concrete flood control canal. Two bikes were parked in the desert above the bone-dry canal and two boys were down in it.

            Let’s see what they’re doing, Grant said. He led the way and he and Jeff scrambled down the steep side of the canal, Jeff almost losing his balance and having to run the final few feet and colliding with Grant to check his momentum. The boys in the canal were several years younger than Grant and Jeff.

            What’re you guys doing?

            Nothing. We’re not doing anything.

            It was hard to tell what they were doing. They were skittish. Who were these older boys who had come down and what were they going to do?

            Grant led the way and he and Jeff scrambled back up the side of the canal. Back at the top, Grant turned to Jeff and grinned. He had a subtle grin, his deep violet eyes hard to read.

            Let’s push one of their bikes down.

            He and Jeff grabbed one of the bikes and pushed it down into the ditch.

            Let’s go.

            Grant and Jeff caught up with Simon and Francine, who had continued on toward the K-Mart.

            What were they doing? Francine said.

            Nothing.

            Why did you push their bike down? Simon said. Did they say something to you?

            No. I just wanted to. It was fun. They shouldn’t have left their bikes up there.

            Yeah, that was stupid.

            Boner-heads.

            They walked on and approaching them were two girls crossing a large and open desert lot, coming their way from the direction of the K-Mart. The girls were no one they knew, a couple skinny blonde girls in shorts and simple tops and tennis shoes, passing by off the starboard quarter. Looks were exchanged and then words, in the manner common to groups of young and hormone-inflected bipedal great apes, their thumbs opposed to their fingers and their demeanor opposed to all strangers.

            What’re you looking at?

            I’m looking at you. Wanna make something of it?

            I’m seeing skinny ugly scags.

            Yeah, I’ll make something of it. Whadda you wanna make of it?

            You’re already made but you’re too dumb to know it.

            I’m seeing you and your face looks like the doctor tried to push you back in when he saw you coming out of your mother.

            You guys sure hang out with an ugly bitch.

            It’s the best they can rate.

            Jeff flipped off the girls. Any time, any time, one of them said. Jeff said, Yeah, any time, you whore.

            Same to you.

            You would.

            You whore!

            Like you!

            Fucking bitches! You’re the ugliest pieces of trash I’ve ever seen!

            White trash from the gutter!

            You bastards!

            Jeff continued flipping off the girls.

            Fucking whores!

            Come and say that to my face!

            Grant and Jeff started walking to the girls. One of the girls bent and picked up a rock. Grant and Jeff stooped and picked up rocks without breaking stride, then charged the girls at a run. The girls turned and ran away, not stopping until they had crossed a six-lane street.

            Jeff and Grant dropped their rocks and rejoined Francine and Simon. They continued on their way. Francine was upset.

            Those ugly pieces of cheap trash! Who the fuck do they think they are? We didn’t do a fucking thing to them!

            I know.

            And they walk by like they think they own the whole goddamn world and pick shit with us! Ooo, I wish I could get back at them!

            Simon had turned and was walking backwards.

            You’re gonna get your wish, they’re coming back.

            The four kids stopped, and Grant and Jeff ran through the desert toward the girls. This time the girls held their ground. Grant and Jeff stopped.

            You cheap whores!

            You fucking bastards!

            You can kiss my ass, you scag!

            You’re what your mom pulled out of the toilet after it got clogged!

            Grant and Jeff returned to Simon and Francine. The two girls walked by them, about thirty feet away, also headed in the direction of K-Mart.

            Our big brothers are going to knock the shit out of you!

            What big brothers?

            You liars! I don’t see any brothers, big or little.

            Who would want to be the brother to a scag like you?

            Oh, I’m so scared. Pretend brothers and real whores.

            When they got to the K-Mart, Francine stopped at the Customer Service desk to have her bag from Sears stapled shut. The two blonde girls were with three boys now, and they walked past in single file, boy-girl-boy-girl-boy. You sons of bitches, one of the girls said, and, Way to tell ‘em, one of the boys said.

            I want to look at tennis shoes, Francine said to Grant and Simon. She led the way to the shoe department, with Grant and Simon and Jeff in a loose formation trailing behind through the aisles. She looked at girls’ shoes while Simon and Grant looked at boys’ shoes and Jeff took out his little notebook and stubby pencil and wrote something down. The two blonde girls had followed them. One moved toward Grant as though to confront him. She didn’t see Simon standing at the end of the aisle she was passing by. He stuck a foot out and tripped her, and as she stumbled, Grant gave her ankle a quick, sharp kick.

            Whoops, he said.

            She started crying. The other girl said, You’ll see who you kick next time!

            I’ll kick you, Grant said.

            The three boys who had come in with the two girls approached. Grant said, Let’s go, and he and Simon and Jeff and Francine quickly left the shoe department. We can get out through the garden center, Grant said. They did, and as soon as they were outside, they ran across the K-Mart parking lot to a bank next door, saw they weren’t being followed, and walked the rest of the way across parking lots and a street to Northgate Center, where they stopped at the TG&Y.

            There was a soda counter and they sat on stools. Simon and Francine had money and ordered cokes. Grant had money and chose not to spend it. Jeff had no money. He and Grant ordered water. The woman working the counter said, I don’t give water but there’s a fountain around the corner.

            Grant and Jeff went around the corner to the fountain. They were in aisles stocked with decorative stuffs and started looking at them. There were polystyrene cones for making who-knows-whats. Jeff pinched the rounded pointy top off one of them. Grant frowned.

            Jeff! How would you like it if someone tore the end off and you wanted to buy it?

            Yeah. I guess you’re right.

            Simon and Francine finished their cokes and went to look at some rings in a pair of display cases near the store’s front door. Grant joined them while Jeff stayed in the decorations and used his stubby pencil to poke holes in small packets of glitter. He opened a small packet of six yellow plastic gems and took four. He walked to the greeting cards aisle and looked at cards for a couple minutes, returned to the decorations aisles and took the other two gems, then joined his friends at the rings.

            These ones are really neat, Simon said to Francine.

            Yeah. Look at this one.

            They’re sterling silver, Grant said. He studied one display case. There was a lever on the side. He moved it and it freed the rings to be taken out and tried on. Not all of the spaces in the case had rings.

            Jeff took a ring and tried it on. It was tight. He had trouble removing it. He got it off and put it back, then felt stupid when he could have stolen it. He made up for this mistake by stealing another, although it turned out to be too big. Grant stole one and Jeff didn’t notice. Grant told him about it later and showed it to him.

            It fits my finger perfectly.

            Cool! I didn’t even see you take it. That proves how smooth you are.

            Simon and Francine looked at the rings in the other case.

            Look, Simon. I want to try on one of the littler ones.

            Maybe them’s be the ones. We be see them’s be.

            Simon tried to move the lever on the side of the case. A man in a suit was there by his side.

            What are you kids doing?

            We want to see these rings.

            You should ask for help. Someone would be glad to help you.

            We didn’t see anyone here.

            The man said nothing to this. The floorwalker who was supposed to be working this department was—who knows where? He was going to have to have some words with the GM about her. This was not the first time she had wandered off during her shift without telling anyone where she was going. Bathroom breaks were fine, as long as she didn’t take an unreasonable number of them and she let someone know. And she secured her station before she left. She hadn’t. Those cases were not secured. They didn’t have alarms, but they had locks. And they were left unlocked. He hadn’t counted the number of rings in them before the store opened this morning—that wasn’t his job—but he wouldn’t be surprised if there were fewer there now than had been sold.

            You kids gonna buy anything? If you’re not gonna buy anything, it’s best you leave.

            Gah.

            Come on, guys. Let’s go.

            We don’t want your stupid rings anyway.

            Let’s go to Toys By Roy, Grant said. We need to get Tiffany something.

            Baby Tiffany! It’s going to be her six months’ birthday!

            She’s so cute!

            You guys, it’s so great you’re uncles. What’s it like?

            It’s not like anything, Jeff.

            We’re not any different.

            They spent ten or fifteen minutes in Toys By Roy.

            What do you get a baby? I can’t decide.

            She’s spoiled enough already. Let’s go.

            They stopped by a Hallmark card shop and spent a few minutes. It was a small shop with open views and several employees on duty. The kids quickly determined they would not be able to steal anything.

            Let’s go.

            We need to get some pants.

            They went to J. C. Penney, where Grant and Simon spent a while trying on pants till they could find some they liked and that fit them. They were long-legged and narrow-waisted. And the school dress code had changed. Vive la Revolution!

            I’m so excited! We get to wear blue jeans to school!

            Jeff, are you gonna wear blue jeans this year?

            I dunno. My mom doesn’t want me to.

            She dresses him in outfits.

            Why doesn’t she want you to?

            I dunno. She just doesn’t.

            Well, just do it. What’s she going to do, follow you to school and pull your pants off? I could just see it. Come here, Jeff! Take those off right now!

            The kids laughed. Jeff didn’t know about classes and class differences and class consciousness. He knew it was very important to his mother what other people thought. And not just any other people, but the neighbors.

            What will the neighbors think?

            It looked like the neighbors would all be wearing blue jeans to school come fall. At least the boys would.

            It’s so unfair, Francine said. You guys get to wear pants, and now you’re gonna get to wear blue jeans, but us girls still have to wear dresses.

            It’s because you little darlings look so sweet and innocent in dresses.

            Fuck you, Grant.

            Grant and Simon tried on pants and Francine told them if they looked good or not when they came out of the dressing rooms. Jeff tore price tags off pants.

            Jeff, would you stop that!

            Jeff did. He went off to another part of the Men’s and Boys’ section and stole a Boy Scout pin that he gave to Grant, and he passed through the Women’s and Girls’ section and stole a 14-carat gold-plated bracelet with two cultured pearls on it. Mrs. Collier had given her boys money to buy pants and when they finally found pairs that fit, they bought them and they and Francine and Jeff left and crossed the desert back to their neighborhood.

                                                                             •

            The Colliers had a camper in their driveway, up in front of the carport. It used to be mounted in the bed of Mr. Collier’s old blue Chevy pick-up, when the family were younger and the truck and camper were newer. Now the truck was more useful for hauling other things, and the camper was more useful as a clubhouse for the kids.

            Jeff sat curled on one of the small side bunks and wrote in his notebook. He wrote, I stole this notebook. Simon and Grant and Billie Jean and Mary Wheeler were on the other side bunks and the larger upper bunk. It was late afternoon and the sun shone in through the small windows. The camper door was open.

            You shoulda come with us today, Mary, we had fun.

            Sorry I missed it, Grant.

            Let’s play prostitute, Billie Jean said. You guys wanna play prostitute?

            Mmm . . . I dunno.

            Irtsquay eethey ooshday agbay at-they effjay, Grant said.

            Squirt the douche bag at Jeff? Why?

            He doesn’t know what it is.

            Jeff, do you know what a douche bag is?

            Yes.

            What is it?

            If you don’t know, Simon, I ain’t gonna tell you.

            Oh, you don’t know. He doesn’t know.

            Yes, I do. But I don’t talk about sex.

            Do you understand pig Latin, Jeff?

            No. What is it?

            It’s what I was speaking when I told Mary to squirt the douche bag at you.

            Don’t worry, Jeff, Mary said. We don’t have a douche bag.

            You guys, I don’t wanna play whore, Simon said.

            Then don’t.

            I’ll be a whore with you, Mary, Billie Jean said.

            No, thanks.

            I got a idea, Grant said. Pretend you’re thieves, like the normal life we live.

            There was more and Jeff wrote as fast as he could, but he couldn’t keep up. He was still writing when Janet and Francine came in.

            Jeff, why are you always writing in that notebook? Janet said.

            I want people to know. What it was like.

            What what was like?

            Us. What it was like for us, here.

            You want people to know? Francine said. What people? Who’s ever going to read that? That’s stupid. No one cares about us. We’re just a bunch of white-trash kids.

            A pack of thieving little heathens, Grant said.

            No one could read his handwriting anyways, Simon said. Have you seen it?

            No.

            Let’s see it, Jeff.

            No, Jeff said. He put his notebook and pencil in one pocket and started pulling things out of another pocket.

            Hey, I wanna give you guys this stuff.

            He pulled out the bracelet and the ring and the six yellow plastic gems.

            This ring doesn’t fit me, it’s too big. Whoever it fits can have it.

            The kids tried the ring on and passed it around.

            Hey, it fits me.

            Janet held up her hand and showed it. She had the ring on her thumb.

            Can I keep it?

            Sure. Francine, do you want this bracelet?

            Francine took it and looked at it and put it on.

            Sure, okay.

            She never grew to like Jeff, but she came to find him tolerable. The bracelet helped. It also helped that he thought they were all worth writing about, even if it was stupid and no one would ever read it.

            And here, Mary and Simon, these jewels are for you. Two for you, Simon, since you’re the guy, and four for Mary, since she’s the girl.

            Thank you, Jeff.

            Thank you, Jeff.

            Mmm, wow. Yellow plastic rubies. Don’t I get anything?

            Grant, I already gave you the Boy Scout pin.

            Oh, yeah. That’s right. I forgot.

            There was more, but before Jeff could write it down, he heard his mother calling him from across the street.

            Oop. Gotta go. Grant, you gonna go swimming tomorrow?

            Sure. Probably.

            Okay. I’ll come over and we’ll go.

            Okay. Not too early, though.

            Jeff went home and it was almost dinner time.

            Jeff, I want you to wash up and set the table. Did you have fun today?

            A little. We went to The Store. Grant and Simon got pants, and Francine got a pair of socks.

            Is that all ?

            That’s all.

Making Love

            It was early in the morning and it was quiet until Grant and Billie Jean set off a firecracker by the front door to the elementary school. Jeff and Simon were walking away from the school and the blast echoed down the street. Simon spun around to look.

            Ahmm, they’re gonna get in trouble.

            But they didn’t.

            Later Jeff saw that Grant and Simon and Francine had gone into the camper, so he crossed the street to go into the camper, too. The door was closed and he opened it.

            Ohmygod! God! Shit!

            Grant and Simon and Francine scrambled to put out their cigarettes. Then they saw it was Jeff.

            You scared us to death, Jeff!

            But they didn’t die, not yet. Jeff and Francine smoked three cigarettes apiece, and Grant and Simon two apiece.

            We might go to the store this afternoon.

            I wanna come, but I gotta do some yardwork first.

            Jeff went back home to do the yardwork. His mom set him to edging around one of her flowerbeds with a flat spade hoe she had just bought. He didn’t know how to use it but how hard could it be?

            Hard enough.

            You can’t do anything right! Now tear all that fencing out and go back and do it right! Then when you put it back in, you make sure you set it up straight!

            He tore all the fencing out and took up the flat spade hoe and wondered why he couldn’t use the clippers, he knew how those worked. He thought his mom should go to hell but the Devil probably wouldn’t take her—his very thoughts, without fear of Divine retribution—and he looked across the street and saw the roof vent on the camper going up so he knew the Collier Kids were in there smoking again and one of them, probably Grant, was working the hand-crank to open the vent.

            Jeff finished the edging and set the fence up again and cut his thumb and his mom came out to inspect his work.

            I’m probably going to have to tear all that fence out. You can do it after lunch. And then I want you to do your brother’s chores. And don’t give me that look! You know I already told you about that! The days he has his work at the hospital, you need to help out! He does all the work around here. You need to stop being so lazy and take more responsibility. Now get inside and eat your lunch. Are you listening to me?

            Yes, ma’am.

            Beyond her, across the street, he saw Grant crossing the side yard to go to the Beausoleils’. Jeff hated his mom. Everybody else got to have fun but he had to be his family’s slave. And his brother’s work at the hospital? Ha! His brother was a candy-striper who worked as a projectionist at the hospital theater. He got to sit on his ass and watch movies all afternoon.

            After lunch and after tearing the fence out and doing his brother’s chores, Jeff crossed the street to the Colliers’. Debbie Gander was in her carport and called after him.

            They’re not there.

            Where are they?

            Debbie pointed and it looked to Jeff like she was pointing at the Wheelers’ house. He started to go there and Debbie called after him.

            They’re not there.

            Where are they?

            They left.

            Where to?

            The store.

            Jeff turned around and went home. Those sons of bitches. They went to the store without him. God damn it. He could just imagine all the fun they were having. They’d probably come home with a giant haul. Steal everything they could get their hands on. A dozen silver rings. Gold-plated charm bracelets on every arm. Maybe even pairs of pants and packs of cigarettes. Those asses. Jeff knew they didn’t care about him. Not really. Oh, they pretended. Shitfuckers. They probably didn’t even really want him for a friend.

            He knew what it was. Why they probably didn’t really like him. It was because he cut all his hair off at the start of summer. It had been down to his nose. He had the barber cut it down to the stubble. That was almost two months ago and so it was longer now, but still. They had called him Peach Fuzz when he first did it.

            Hey, Peach Fuzz! Wanna go swimming? Aren’t you scared of sunburn?

            No.

            He was scared of his parents and wasps and horses and talking to Aimee Chambers, the girl he truly loved, and he was scared of getting beat up, but he was not scared of sunburn.

                                                                             •

            It was cool in the living room in the early afternoon. Jeff sat in his dad’s chair and read one of his mom’s Readers Digest Condensed Books. Not as interesting as Ball Four. That was one of his dad’s books. A paperback. Jeff was reading it earlier in the summer when his dad caught him and took it away.

            No, Jeff, you’re too young for that.

            It was good. It’s where he learned the word shitfuck. That was a cool word. Too bad there weren’t more opportunities to use it.

            This Readers Digest book, it was okay. Didn’t have any swear words, though.

            Then it said something about making love. Making love. Wait. The way it said it. They took all their clothes off and made love. Wait. Wait wait wait.

            Oh my god. That’s what making love was. Fucking! Holy shitfuck! It was fucking!

            Was it really? He read it again. It seemed to be that was it. Fucking. Oh my god, and all this time he’s been saying how he wants to make love to his girlfriends. He didn’t mean fuck them. Was that what it meant, really? It was hard to tell from the way it was written in the book. He’d have to ask Grant. Grant would know. Grant knew blow job, jack off, and cunt. He even knew cornhole. He was bound to know making love.

                                                                             •

            They were gone all afternoon, since before lunch. Jeff kept glancing across the street to see if he could see if they had come back without anyone seeing that he kept glancing across the street. But his mother saw. She had super-human X-ray radar vision, just like Jimmy Gander said.

            Have your friends come back yet?

            I don’t think so.

            Why don’t you go check?

            I haven’t seen them.

            No way was Jeff going to go check. Have everyone on the block—which at that point was no one, the street was empty, but you never could tell who might be looking out a window—have them all see him crossing the street like some mangy heartbroken starving lost dog? Or worse yet, like some thirteen-year-old Peach Fuzz whose friends had left him behind?

                                                                             •

            The vent was up. Grant, Simon, Mary, Francine, and Jeff sat in the camper and smoked cigarettes. Grant held up his hand, his fingers splayed.

            Look, I got another ring.

            Cool! I wish I could’ve gone with you guys.

            We missed you, Jeff.

            You did?

            That’s such bullshit, Mary. We did not miss him. We did not miss you, Jeff.

            Gah, Francine, that’s mean.

            What, Simon—it’s true. You guys may have missed him, but I didn’t.

            We missed you, Jeff. We had a good time, anyway.

            Even Francine missed you. She has a secret crush on you.

            Gah, Grant! I do not!

            Yes, she does, Jeff. When you’re not around, all she talks about is you. She wants you to take her in your manly skinny Peach Fuzz arms and make love to her.

            God-damn, Grant, shut the fuck up! Or I’ll smack you!

            Grant, Shmant, smack your pant.

            What? Simon, you’re so weird.

            Hey, Grant?

            Hey, Jeff.

            I was reading in a book today and it said something about making love, and I always thought that making love was like telling someone that you love them and writing poems to them and giving them flowers and rings and stuff, but in this book it made it seem like it was fucking.

            That’s because it is.

            Oh, my God, Jeff—you didn’t know that?

            No, Simon, I didn’t.

            I thought everybody knew that.

            What book were you reading?

            It was one of my mom’s Readers Digest condensed books.

            Things are getting hot at the old Readers Digest. Hey, guys, let’s play Truth or Dare. We won’t do any of that crazy stuff people do with truth or dare. We’ll make it sensible. We’ll play that, let’s see—the truth will be, tell your darkest secret that you don’t want anyone to know, and the dare will be, fuck Mary for twenty-four hours.

            Grant, you’re so full of it.

            You’re just jealous, Francine.

            Um, hey, guys, do I get to have any say in this? I can’t fuck for twenty-four hours. You’ll have to start without me.

            Oh, Mary, you’re no fun.

Hookie

            Jeff got up a half-hour late. His mom did not say good morning.

            Young man, I woke you up on time. You have only yourself to blame if you’re running late.

            Yes, ma’am.

            And I expect you to do your chores before you go to school this morning. Don’t dawdle.

            Yes, ma’am.

                                                                             •

            Grant and Simon and Mary and Francine and David were all waiting in Jeff’s carport when he came out.

            Gah, Jeff, what took you so long?

            Yeah, we’re gonna be late.

            That’s first bell. Did you hear? First bell just rang.

            Let’s ditch.

            Gah, Grant.

            Well, we should. I don’t wanna get there late.

            Me, neither.

            We should go.

            The kids walked.

            That’s second bell. Second bell just rang. We’re gonna be late.

            Yeah, no way we’re gonna get there on time.

            The kids walked.

            That’s final bell. I don’t wanna go in after final bell.

            Me, neither.

            I hate it. If I’m late, my teacher makes a big deal of it in front of everybody.

            Mine, too.

            Let’s ditch First.

            Okay.

            Okay.

            We can miss First, anyway.

            That’s right. They take attendance but it doesn’t count.

            It doesn’t?

            No, not until Second.

            Then why do they take it if it doesn’t count?

            They want all the little boys and girls to do their very best to get to school on time.

            Why doesn’t it count First period?

            They know some kids are gonna be late. It’s Second that counts because that’s the one where they decide how much money the schools get.

            The more kids they have, the more money they get.

            Oh. I didn’t know.

            Did you think they just gave the schools however much money they wanted?

            I thought they just gave as much as the schools needed.

            Jeff, if they did that, we would have new Science books.

            Our Science books don’t even know we’ve been up in space.

            Stupid school.

            The kids wandered streets in the neighborhood between their block and the school. A stray dog saw them and followed them.

            Hey, puppy.

            Are you lost, little dog?

            What a cute little dog.

            He’s got a collar.

            Probably he got out of somebody’s yard.

            The kids reached the northern edge of their neighborhood, where the streets and houses ended and the desert began. The school was a block away. Francine looked in that direction.

            I’m gonna go, guys. I’ll get there before Second, and when the bell for Second rings, I’ll go in.

            David looked at Francine, and then at the others.

            I’m gonna go, too. Are you guys gonna keep ditching?

            Yeah, I think so.

            Mary, do you wanna keep ditching?

            Yeah, I’ll stay with you guys. What about you, Jeff?

            Sure.

            Francine and David headed to school. Grant and Simon and Mary and Jeff headed back down the street they had just come up. The little dog followed them for a while and then it went away.

            Adults were around and were not oblivious. A couple of women in the neighborhood saw the kids.

            Aren’t you kids supposed to be in school?

            It’s eighth-grade ditch day, and we’re ditching. They let us.

            Oh. Okay.

            The women weren’t fooled for a second. One of them called the police.

            I’d like to report some children wandering the neighborhood. Teenagers. I think they’re supposed to be in school. No, I haven’t seen them do anything. They’re just walking down the sidewalk. One of them is a girl wearing a really nice coat. Rabbit-fur, I think. No, they don’t look like hoodlums. They’re just kids, but I think they should be in school. What? Oh, they’re white, I think. They look white. No, you don’t need to send anyone to my house, but if you send someone to patrol the neighborhood, you’ll see the kids. They should be in school. Okay. Thank you.

            The kids stopped at the end of a dead-end and sat on a low rock wall for a few minutes. Grant said, The reason people aren’t suspicious of us is because Mary looks like a sensible young girl in that coat—

            That’s a nice coat, Mary.

            Thank you, guys. I like looking sensible.

            And Jeff, you look like a brain—

            It’s those glasses, and his short hair.

            And I look like a sensible young girl’s boyfriend, and Simon looks like my brother.

            But I’m her boyfriend.

            That doesn’t matter, Simon. She looks sensible enough to pick me.

            Gah, Grant.

            The kids crossed the four-lane highway that bordered their neighborhood there and walked into the desert where the unpaved streets led up to a Minute Market. At the Minute Market they bought candy bars with their lunch money and stole pieces of penny bubble gum. There was a pay phone out front.

            Jeff, you sound an awful lot like your mom. You should call the school and pretend you’re her and make up an excuse for being absent.

            Okay. I’ll tell them I had an asthma attack. Do you know the school’s number?

            No.

            The pay phone had a phone book, but the school was new and the phone book was old. No call was made.

            In the lot next to the Minute Market was a row of four old shacks. They were stuccoed concrete block ruins that had been there as long as the kids could remember. When the kids were younger, the shacks had been haunted. Now they were just dirty and empty and tumble-down. The kids went into one of them and stayed for a while and talked about nothing. They tired of this and Grant said, We had probably better go to school. The others agreed. They left the shack and headed back to their neighborhood. When they neared the school Grant said, Jeff, you go in first, and we’ll follow a few minutes later, so it doesn’t look like we were all ditching together.

            Okay.

            Jeff went in first. It was during class so he had to stop at the office to get a pass.

            Hi. I’m Jeff Chorus. I’m late because I had an asthma attack and had to stay home till it was over.

            The secretary looked at her list.

            Jeff Chorus. We already called your mom, Jeff. She said you left for school this morning on time.

            The secretary gave Jeff a pass. He went to class. It was one David was in, too. They exchanged glances. In a few minutes the announcement came over the school P.A. system.

            David Stepp and Jeff Chorus, report to the Administrative Office. David Stepp and Jeff Chorus, report to the Administrative Office.

            They reported. The secretary was strictly business and did not smile.

            You boys have a seat. Mister Mitchell will be with you shortly.

            David and Jeff sat in two of the tube-frame-and-plastic chairs that infested institutional spaces. Two uniformed police officers came out of Mr. Mitchell’s office and for a second Jeff thought he and David were about to be taken to the D-Home in cuffs. The D-Home. No one knew where it was and everyone knew it existed, knew it was where they put you when you were a kid and they wanted to put you in jail and they couldn’t because you were a kid.

            The officers were smiling and walked by David and Jeff without looking at them.

            Boys.

            Mr. Mitchell stood at the door to his office. He was a slightly overweight middle-aged man with glasses and a small handlebar moustache and he wasn’t smiling.

            Come in. Have a seat.

            He pointed to a red vinyl sofa. The boys sat.

            When did you leave home for school this morning? Why were you late? Where did you go? What were you doing?

            The boys told him. They didn’t say anything about Grant or Simon or Mary or Francine.

            Do you know where Grant and Simon Collier are?

            No, they didn’t know, though they admitted the Collier brothers had ditched with them.

            All right. I’ve talked to both your mothers. They will be here at lunch to pick you up. You can go back to class now. Be sure to be here at the front office when the lunch bell rings.

            Yes, sir.

                                                                             •

            At lunch his mom was waiting at the office when Jeff got there. She took him home in her station wagon.

            Don’t try to lie your way out of this. I don’t need to hear a single thing out of your mouth. David and his mother were at the school when I got there. She took him home. He told us what happened. He tried to talk you all out of it. He only ditched because you did. Wipe that look off your face. You hear me? I knew you kids were going to sneak out and cut school. I heard you talking about it in the carport before you left. You can’t fool me. You’re always up to no good. You’re never going to amount to anything. You can’t even find your way to school. I’m going to walk you to school tomorrow. That way I’ll be sure you don’t get lost. And don’t you dawdle about getting home from school today. I’m going to feed you a sandwich and take you back to school. Your father will talk to you when he gets home from work tonight. I wouldn’t be surprised if he takes his belt to you. You’re not too old for a good whipping.

            They got home and she fed him a sandwich and he didn’t taste it. White bread and mayo and American cheese. She took him back to school. He stayed there until it was time to come home, and he came home.

            Now you stay in your room. And don’t let me catch you doing anything enjoyable tonight.

            Yes, ma’am.

            Jeff stood in his room. He did not sit down. Would that not have been enjoyable? He bit his nails. He stood at his window and looked out at the block. The sky was infected with broken low gray clouds. The lightest patch was oddly bright. Jeff thought that if that had been where the sun was, it would have been on a late morning of a winter’s day in Australia. He didn’t think he’d ever go to Australia. Might as well dream of flying in outer space, captain of a warp-drive Federation starship. Seemed about as likely.

            He saw Grant and Simon and Mary sneaking down the street along the fronts of the houses. They looked like spies in a movie or a TV show. They got to the Colliers’ house and tried to sneak in through Grant and Simon’s bedroom window but it was shut. Mary continued to her own house, walking down the sidewalk now, and Grant and Simon went inside their house via the front door. Jeff looked at his clock. It was an electric clock with a second hand. The time was 4:18:11. Jeff bit his nails.

            Jeff stood in his room for two hours. His dad got home from work and came into Jeff’s room with Jeff’s mom.

            I oughtta tan your hide, boy. I’d beat some sense into you if I thought it would do any good. Your mother and I have decided you’re not getting any dinner tonight. You’re to go straight to bed. Brush your teeth, get ready for bed, then lights out. You hear me?

            Yes, sir.

            And you are not allowed to keep your door closed, Jeffrey, until we give you permission. And there will be no more talk of asthma attacks. Since your excuse for being late to school was that you had an asthma attack, we’ve decided that your asthma is all your imagination. I don’t ever want to hear another word from you about it. Now do as your father told you.

            Yes, ma’am.

            Jeff brushed his teeth and got ready for bed. He didn’t need to turn his light out, it wasn’t on. It would be more than an hour before the sun went down. The sky was still cloudy and gray. He got into his bed and after a few hours of feeling frightened and sorry for himself, and pissed off at David for lying about whose idea it was to ditch, and envious of Grant and Simon and Mary for spending the whole day out, and hungry, he also felt hungry, he drifted off to sleep, his last thoughts being of Mary and Mary is really nice she’s the prettiest girl on the block she has a good sense of humor she is never mean to people i’m glad i got to go steady with her a few years ago that was when was that we were playing on the playground it was friday the thirteenth and i ran into her and we knocked each other down and it was an accident i hate friday the thirteenth she broke up with me i think it was she really wanted to go steady with i can’t remember . . .

                                                                             •

            His mother didn’t walk him to school the next morning. He walked alone. Within a half-block of the school grounds, in front of everyone who was gathered in front of the school, all umpity-hundred of them waiting for the first bell to ring and the school doors to open, Jeff’s mother drove up in her station wagon.

            Jeffrey! You come here!

            Jeff came there.

            You didn’t do your chores this morning!

            She slapped him. The sound of the slap rang out like a shot.

            You didn’t tell me you were leaving for school!

            She slapped him. The sound of the slap echoed off the school building’s front walls.

            You didn’t mop up the water you spilled in the kitchen!

            She slapped him. The sound of the slap resonated in the mountain canyons on the distant horizon, scattering rabbits and birds.

            Jeff’s mother drove away and Jeff crossed the street to the school. He stared straight ahead and did not look at anyone.

A Rude Northern Race Did All the Matchless Monuments Deface*

            Jeff Chorus broke his hand. The sinister one. In a fight in Gym class with a short and stocky seventh-grader.

            Plaster casts for broken bones in those days, even for parts cartilaginous as young teens’ hands. Many kids signed the cast, as was the custom, Grant and Simon being the first.

            The three boys went up to the elementary school of an evening after dinner. Autumn in the desert city, jacket weather. They had nothing better to do—

            this is not true. They had a world of knowledge to learn—physical science, biology, chemistry, history, literature, philosophy, poetry, art, music, algebra, geometry, trigonometry, calculus, any language that was not American English—a world about which they knew almost nothing and their parents sometimes less, though their parents knew enough to be viciously suspicious of any learning too far removed from the Bible or Home Economics. Remember what the Good Book says about philosophers. And all those artists and poets and lazy bums who write novels? Everybody knows they’re drunks and drug addicts, fornicators and faggots and unspeakably worse things, all Hell-bound down the wide Perdition Highway. All boys needed to know was enough to get a job and keep it, and all girls needed to know was enough to get a husband and keep it. Any more than that was just so much stuff peddled by people who didn’t want to do an honest day’s work. Wouldn’t likely know how. Everybody knew this. Didn’t need to go to school to find it out.

            So Jeff and Grant and Simon, two eighth-graders and a seventh-, went a-strolling in the gloaming. The front gate to the school grounds was unlocked. The elementary school had started as a cottage school and the cottages still stood, still used as classrooms for the lower grades. The boys wandered among them.

            Look!

            What.

            What’d you find.

            This window’s open.

            A casement window on one of the cottages was slightly ajar. Jeff and Grant pried it farther open. Cast-handed Jeff bashed in the screen. He took papers, school assignments the kids had done—finger-painting and collaging and filling in blanks—from off the high, broad window sill and dropped them in a shallow mud puddle. Simon and Grant reached in and scattered to the cottage floor whatever books and papers they could reach.

            Instantly, Grant sprinted toward the front gate. Jeff looked after him and toward the main building.

            Janitor! Run!

            Jeff and Simon ran away from the front gate and back around the main building to the back gate beyond the gym, a full city block away. The back gate was locked, the fence chainlink and eight or ten or twelve or twenty or who knows how many feet high, you couldn’t just jump over it. Grant approached, walking up the sidewalk along the street outside.

            You guys, I saw the janitor run into the office.

            Oh my God, he probably called the police.

            I think he did. We should get out of here.

            Simon scrambled over the fence. Cast-handed Jeff tried but couldn’t.

            Shit. Guys. I can’t climb this fence.

            Here. Let me help.

            Grant climbed over the fence and helped Jeff get over, and the three boys walked into the twilight streets heading away from the school, certain a police cruiser was about to pull up at any moment.

            But none did. The vandals returned to their encampment and regaled themselves long into the night with tales of their exploits, of the ten thousand windows shattered at the Palace of the Ventanas, the million volumes scattered from the shelves at the Imperial Library of All Knowledge, of the paintings ripped from the walls and cast into the muddy streets in front of the Temple of Beautiful and Somewhat Obscure Objects, and of the thrones they would someday occupy and the nations they would rule.

*John Dryden, “To Sir Godfrey Kneller,” 1694.



BIO

Tetman Callis is a writer living in Chicago. His stories have appeared in such publications as NOON, Atticus Review, Cloudbank, Four Way Review, Book of Matches, Queen Mob’s Tea House, and best microfiction 2019. His stories “Georgey-Dear” and “Grilled Cheese Sandwich with Pickles and Fries” have appeared in The Writing Disorder. He is the author of the memoir, High Street: Lawyers, Guns & Money in a Stoner’s New Mexico (Outpost 19, 2012), and the children’s book, Franny & Toby (Silky Oak Press, 2015). His website is https://www.tetmancallis.com; he can also be found on Facebook.






The Advantages of Being a Lit Mag Editor

By Lou Gaglia



The best reason for being a lit mag editor is the money, which far outweighs any corny sense of accomplishment that comes from putting out a product with literary merit. In fact, there are so many reasons for being an editor that I couldn’t possibly catalog them strictly, in order of importance, so I’ll start with money and then think up other advantages that come to mind and write them down before I forget them.

The Money

Editors of lit mags quite often receive generous donations from unknown sources and buy coffee shops and send their kids to college on such donations. I personally know an editor of one major mag who quit his day job as a toy store manager.

“Because of this one person’s generous donation,” he told me recently on his yacht, “I’ll never again have to call a lazy employee to aisle three to help a snotty customer.”

Despite the many unsolicited donations that pour in, most editors hang onto their day jobs, but the smart ones realize they don’t need to be working stiffs any more.

“For a while I was making no money, just reading stories and selling fruit on street corners, and I was thankful whenever I could crash with one of my buddies,” said one editor acquaintance to me. “Most of the time, though, I slept in garbage cans and read stories in the early mornings. I even received some submissions right there in my favorite garbage pail because several writers somehow knew where I was. But now, after a series of very generous donations, I run my lit mag from the comfort of my own garage. I can feed the kids and afford roofing caulk, and later I’ll retire to a condo in Hilton Head or the Hamptons when the time comes and I’m old and feeble and don’t know what a comma is anymore.”

“You’re very lucky,” I told him.

“No, I’m smart,” he said, “and you’d be smart to take up editing yourself. Do you know where to place commas at?”

“Sure, I know where to place commas at,” I said. “What do you think I am?”

“I don’t know what you are,” he answered, “but you ought to try it anyway.”

The Acclaim

My grandmother died long ago, but when I was a small child, she gave me some advice and I’ll never forget it. We were sitting in the living room staring at the walls when she turned to me and grabbed the front of my shirt collar and lifted me up to her face.

“When you get older,” she said to me, “you ought to be an editor of your own literary magazine. They make—” (she was struggling to hold me in the air) “—they make oodles of money, and they are patted on the back by some of the most—the most prominent…”

She couldn’t hold me any longer, so she dropped me, and she never did tell me who would pat me on the back.

Still, I never forgot her words of wisdom, and I’d sure like to make oodles of money someday. One of my editor friends recently showed me his gold cuff links and his private golf course.

“Your grandmother was absolutely right,” he said to me on the fifteenth hole. “We editors have it made. And it’s not just the donations that roll in. It’s the praise we get from some of the most—the most prominent—the most—” He urged me to the next hole because an impatient foursome of editors was up our backs, and he never did tell me who would praise me.

Later, while we were hunting our slices in the woods, he said to me, “Do you know, I was on an assembly line when I decided to start my own lit mag. I was picking ice bags off conveyer belts and brown bagging my lunch, and I couldn’t even feed my own family or the parakeet. But last month I was rich enough to tell my floor manager to stick it. And do you know why?”

I was busy hunting for my ball in the weeds and didn’t answer right away, so he lifted me by my shirt collar. “Do you know why?”

I still didn’t answer because I didn’t remember the original question, so he dropped me in the weeds.

Only later did I recall what he’d asked me. I never did find out why he told his floor manager to stick it. His secretary seldom answered the phone after that, and I came to understand that I was no longer part of his Will.

It’s Easy Work

Being an editor is much easier than most other jobs, because a smart editor only needs to put his feet on a desk, grab a red pencil, and read the first paragraphs of five hundred stories, and if he likes a paragraph, he flips it onto the Read This Later pile. He chucks the others into a bin, then copies and pastes rejection slips for the poor chumps.

“The only pain in the neck part about it for me,” said my friend the former toy store manager, “is that I have to change the names on the rejection slips so that they fit the rejected writer. I wish to God they all had the same name.”

“Why not just address it, Dear Writer?” I suggested.

“Too impersonal. I’m not heartless, you know, and one of those writers may very well be an anonymous donor down the road. So no, I make sure to address rejections personally. That’s why in my submission guidelines I ask writers to include their nicknames.”

“Nice.”

“Last week, though, I had to address three different rejection slips to writers nicknamed Cuddles. It was embarrassing.”

“Still, it all sounds like easy work,” I said.

“That’s true, and if writers keep calling themselves Cuddles, I can always copy and paste that name too, so I don’t have to keep typing it.”

We were walking along his garden pathway. He sighed.

“So, it’s all pretty easy for me, I guess. It doesn’t take much effort to chuck a story onto the reject pile, or ask my wife if she thinks a story is okay or if it sucks. But in a way, it can be rough. Writers are sensitive over rejection—too sensitive, if you ask me—and some of them fall into such bouts of depression. That’s all I need—for some writer to take a swan dive off a cliff because of one of my rejections. If the cops find one of my rejection slips in his pocket, I’m sunk. I tell you, it’s tough having such power.”

We stopped for a martini at the edge of his garden, near statues of other prominent editors and proofreaders. He sighed.

“You can’t blame yourself if a writer takes rejection personally,” I told him.

But he wasn’t listening. He was dabbing at his eyes with a tissue. “I sure hope Cuddles is all right.”

A Family Tradition

Admittedly, editors face enormous pressure—especially one powerhouse editor that I tried to interview. She flipped out on me at Starbucks and made a scene in front of the patrons (who didn’t look over anyway) after I politely asked if she’d teach me where commas go. Most editors, though, are pretty even-tempered, which leads me to one last advantage of being a lit mag editor: it can bring families together.

My friend the ex-toy store manager now runs a family-run rag. He is listed as its founding editor, and his momma is editor-in-chief.  The magazine’s headquarters also doubles as a bakery (“so we can pay the online fees” he explained to me when I knit my brows).

“Momma is a huge help to me,” he told me inside the bakery, over coffee and donuts. “Not only does she run this place, but she knows a good story when she reads one. She replies to some writers personally, but she’s really fast with the slush.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, you wouldn’t believe how many submissions we get that are written in crayon. She automatically rejects those and it saves me so much reading time, it’s amazing. And then there are stories about mice. It’s specifically written into our submission guidelines that we don’t like stories about mice, yet writers insist on sending them to us. She does a word search before she even reads a submission, and if mouse or mice show up at all, or even vermin, she sends them form rejections without batting an eye. I’m different, and probably foolish. I read entire pieces. But sometimes I’ll get through almost a whole story, and in the very last paragraph there will be some mouse hurrying across a room, and I’ll roll my eyes and reject it. But Ma, well, she’s amazing. She whips through submission after submission, automatically rejecting stories that end with “The End” or “That’s all, folks.” I don’t even look at an ending until I get to it, so whenever “that’s all folks” shows up at the end, I realize I just wasted my time. I guess I still have a lot to learn.”

He pointed to the bakery counter where a dozen workers took orders and filled boxes with baked goodies.

“See those people? They’re my cousins and aunts and uncles, our proofreaders. They’re some of the richest people in America. And little Sally there…” He pointed to a back room where an older woman sat with a young girl who was drawing circles onto paper with a red crayon. “She’s learning how to get rid of improperly placed commas.”

“Well, isn’t that something,” I said.

“Frankly, buddy, you’d have to be a chump not to be an editor,” he said. “I mean, between the donations, the baked goods, the golf, and the boating, how can you beat it?” He paused. “Well, what do you say, pal?”

I tried to answer but my mouth was stuffed with a bite of cream donut, and I must have had a powder mustache or something, because he looked away with a smirk.



BIO

Lou Gaglia is the author of Poor Advice and Other Stories, and Sure Things & Last Chances. His stories have appeared in Columbia Journal, Eclectica, Blue Lake Review, The Writing Disorder, and elsewhere. He teaches in upstate New York and is a long-time T’ai Chi Ch’uan practitioner. Visit him at lougaglia.com





The Adults

by Paisley Kauffmann

 

It began as it always began. A man was there in the morning calling Joe, buddy or pal. The man would pillage their refrigerator, watch their TV, and shit in their toilet. This man, like the others, was tall and probably considered attractive. He had striking blue eyes with long black eyelashes. This man, like many of the others, bore intricate tattoos detailing the significant detours of his life. This man had a daughter.

On Saturday, Joe woke up early to play video games before his mother would insist on turning the channel to a reality show. He kicked through the clothes on the floor until he found his favorite tee shirt left behind by the last boyfriend and pulled it over his head. Tiptoeing past the shut door of his mother’s bedroom into the small living room, he discovered a small figure covered in a flannel shirt sleeping on the couch. Motionless, he stared at the round cheeks and pink, puckered lips of the intruding, unknown child. With a stab of disappointment, he decided it was a girl. He had wanted a brother. The girl snapped open her lids revealing shimmering blue eyes laced with dark feathery lashes. Joe startled, stepped back, and tripped over a pair of size thirteen leather work boots. The little girl smiled but did not move. Joe held his finger to his lips signaling her to stay quiet. Mimicking him, she held her finger to her lips and then stuck her finger into her nose. Joe rolled his eyes.

He waded through empty cigarette cartons, unpaired shoes, and fast food wrappers to his video game. Jamming the power button in a half dozen times, he shook the black box until it resuscitated. He sat on the floor with his back against the couch and ignored her as she wrapped her fingers around his brown curls. The tickling sensation made him inattentive, and he got decimated by a zombie. He closed his eyes and let her light touch put him into a trance.

“Hey, buddy.” Devon’s voice quaked through the room. “How old are you?”

Joe dropped the controller. “I’m eleven-and-a-half.”

“You ever babysit before?”

“No.”

“Well, then now is a great time to start.” Devon swung the refrigerator door open causing the beer bottles to chime together. “I’ll give you five bucks for the day.”

“Twenty.”

“Twenty!” Devon stopped pilfering the refrigerator. “You just said you ain’t never babysat before and now you want to charge some professional rate.”

Joe remained silent.

“Ten.”

Joe resumed pounding on the red button of the controller blasting away at zombies with his laser beam. He always aimed the crosshairs at their heads because, if he hit them just right, the head exploded into satisfying vivid chunks of skull and brain.

“Jeez, kid. Fine. Fifteen.” Devon stood with his hands on his hips.

Joe nodded slightly without moving his gaze from the screen.

“Great,” Devon said, and stuck his head back into to the refrigerator.

Joe glanced over his shoulder at the girl, but she had cocooned herself under the shirt. Devon pulled out the pizza box, leftovers from dinner, and tossed it on the counter. He grabbed a slice of cold pizza, tore off a bite with his large stained teeth, and wandered back to the bedroom. Joe had planned on eating the pizza for breakfast himself, and he would have eaten it immediately if he had known there was going to be competition. The last man, with the cool tee shirts, never ate breakfast. The last man hardly ate anything, only drank. Joe focused on smashing zombie heads and ignored his growling stomach. Devon, barking obscenities, returned to the kitchen and folded the last two pieces of pizza together. He worked his feet inside his leather boots and held the pizza in his teeth while he tied the laces. Devon strode through the apartment searching, first, for a clean shirt and then his car keys.

“Where the fuck are my keys?” Devon said.

Joe’s mother, succumbing to Devon’s tirade, dragged herself from the bedroom into the living room and said, “Well, where’d you put them?”

“If I knew that, Amber, they wouldn’t be lost, would they now?”

“Joe, sweetie?” Amber asked, pressing her thumb and forefinger into the corners of her eyes. “Have you seen Devon’s keys?”

“No,” Joe said. He knew where they were, but he was disinclined to make Devon’s day any easier.

The two adults stomped around the apartment cursing blame at each other about the mess. They took turns banging around the kitchen and shuffling through the shirts and jackets flung on chairs.

“Get up,” Devon said to the red flannel shirt.

The flannel shirt remained still.

“Get. Up.” Devon snatched the shirt off the girl.

With her body curled into a knot, her face was tucked into her knees.

Devon swung the girl off the couch by her arm, and she landed on the matted carpet with a thump. He jabbed his hands between the cushions around Joe, who had no intention of moving.

“Devon. Calm down,” Amber said.

“What’d you just say to me?”

“Look,” she said, pointing at the sliding glass door. “There they are.”

“Where? Outside?” Devon stopped molesting the couch and stood.

“They’re on the ledge of the railing.”

Joe was disappointed in the rapid resolution of Devon’s frustration. Last night, Joe had watched Devon step outside and set his keys down while he lit his cigarette. After Devon flicked his butt from their third floor balcony, which was against Ridgeview Terrace’s policy and could incur a fine, he came inside—forgetting his keys. Joe considered giving them a little push, but Devon was new and his volatility was still unpredictable. After more hustle punctuated with a few sharp words, Devon stormed out slamming the door behind him. His mother flinched, sighed, and turned to Joe, but he ignored her and focused on killing zombies.

In the kitchen, Amber started the coffeemaker and crushed beer cans. The little girl picked up the red flannel and climbed back onto the couch. Waiting for the coffee to percolate, Amber shuffled into the living room and sat cockeyed on the ottoman with a missing wheel. “So, did you meet Mia?”

“Yep.”

“She’s Devon’s daughter, or one of them. He’s got four all together. Three from his ex-wife and this one here from his last girlfriend, who, like a total idiot, got arrested last night trying to buy dope from an undercover,” she said with perverse satisfaction.

“Sounds like you’re babysitting today,” she added.

“I guess.”

“Thanks, because I got to run some errands.”

Amber poured her coffee and sat on the balcony ledge to have her morning blast of caffeine and nicotine to get things moving.

Joe paused his game and turned to look at Mia. She smiled at him with a toothless grin. He snarled at her and she buried her face in the cushion.

Amber, with her platinum blond hair piled into a mess on the top of her head, shoved her cigarettes and phone in her purse. She applied a thick layer of pink lip gloss, and said, “I’ll be back in a few hours,” Amber scrutinized Mia like she was another stain on the carpet, “Keep her out of the bedrooms, she seems kind of dirty.”

“I’m not giving her a bath,” Joe said.

“I know, just keep her out here.”

Joe nodded.

Hungry, Joe paused his game and went into the kitchen. Mia slid off the couch and followed him. Joe opened the refrigerator and searched through the condiments and beer. He found a half package of bologna. He peeled a round slice from the stack, folded it into fourths, and stuck it in his mouth. Mia watched him cram a second slice in with the first. With both cheeks filled with processed pork, he chewed with his mouth open. Mia’s eyes followed his hand as he pulled a third moist piece from the package. He held it up and, like a hypnotist, swung the slice back and forth. Her eyes remained fixed to it. Joe let go, and it hit the floor with a smack. Lunging after it, Mia shoved the bologna in her mouth with both hands swallowing most of it without chewing. Disgusted and bewildered, Joe held out another piece. She froze, waiting for him to release it. He tossed the meat behind her and, again, she scrambled after it. Joe continued to toss Mia bologna until the package was gone. Opening and slamming cupboards, he searched for something else to feed her to continue this fascinating game but was interrupted by a knock at the door. Mia’s eyes grew wide and she covered her mouth. Behind the door, Joe found his buddy Brock with a black eye and a red scooter.

“What happened?” Joe asked.

“Mateo’s older brother found me in their garage.” Brock gasped for air. “I wasn’t going to take anything, but he punched me any ways.”

“Where’d you get the scooter?”

“From Mateo’s garage, but only after he punched me. I better bring it in before he sees me.”

Joe held the door, and Brock rolled the squeaky scooter into the apartment. There was a socioeconomic distinction created by apartment residents with garages and apartment residents without garages.

“Who’s that?” Brock asked.

Mia, covered in a golden powder, peeked out from the kitchen.

“Mia,” Joe said. “Her mom’s in jail.”

“What’s on her face?”

Joe shrugged and led them into the kitchen.

Mia held a box of yellow cake mix, ripped opened and half spilled on the floor.

“What are you doing?” Joe asked.

Mia raised her brows and sucked in her lips.

“Gross. She’s eating cake mix,” Joe said. “Should I take it away from her?”

“I don’t know. What’s the difference if you eat it that way or cooked?”

The boys watched Mia shove fistfuls of cake mix into her mouth and chew it into batter, nearly choking with each swallow. As Mia, surrounded by a halo of yellow powder, finished the last of the mix, the boys lost interest and turned their attention to the video game. Stuffed with bologna and cake batter, Mia wrapped herself in the red flannel and dozed on the couch.

Amber returned with a twenty-four pack of Bud Light. She struggled to slide the case over the threshold into the apartment.

“Hi, Amber,” Brock said, craning his neck in her direction.

“Boys?” Amber dropped her purse on the floor. “A little help?”

Brock tossed the controller and jumped up. Reluctantly, Joe paused their game and rose from the floor. Each boy took one side of the box and carried it into the kitchen. Brock let go of his side and the beer bottles concussed together.

“Careful, jeez. Hey, what is this powder everywhere?” Amber gestured to the yellow ring on the kitchen floor.

“Cake mix,” Joe said.

“Why is it all over the floor?”

“Ask her.” Joe jutted his chin towards Mia.

With cake batter encrusted around her mouth, Mia watched solemnly as Amber groaned and said, “I was going to make you a cake for your birthday.”

“Like over a year ago.”

“I just bought that.”

“No, you didn’t,” Joe said. “You were going to make it for my tenth birthday and I’m eleven and a half.”

Amber did not argue. She yanked open the sliding glass door, slammed it shut behind her, and lit a cigarette. Joe glanced at Mia, and she stared back without expression. He smiled at Mia, not to comfort her, but because he relished the irritation she caused his mother.

“Let’s go,” Joe said to Brock.

Mia followed the boys as they worked on getting the scooter through the doorway.

“She coming with us?” Brock asked Joe, heading down the hall with Mia jogging to stay on their heels.

“Yep.”

“Watch out for Mateo and his brothers,” Brock said. Peeking around the edge of the trailer, Joe watched flashing vehicles fill the parking lot.

“You can’t hide from them forever. You might as well give it back. It’s a piece of shit any ways.”

“It works fine. It’s just a little wobbly.”

In the elevator, Mia picked at the dried cake mix around her mouth.

“Does she talk?” Brock asked. “My little sister talks all the time. I mean, like, all the time, even when she’s alone in her room all by herself. Why doesn’t she have any teeth?”

“I don’t know. I think there’s something wrong with her.”

“Why is her mom in jail?”

“Drugs.”

“Mateo’s mom is in jail too.” Brock rolled the scooter back and forth. “I wonder if they’ll see each other.”

The elevator doors opened and Brock glanced around cautiously before dragging the scooter out. Brock held the front door of the building open and all three stepped out squinting under the bright sun.

Someone shouted, “Get ‘em.”

Joe and Brock broke out into a run. Mia put her hands over her mouth.

“Come on,” Joe yelled at her. Mia looked behind her at the three boys bolting across the parking lot, dodging around cars, towards them. She started to run. Although struggling against the scooter squeaking in tempo with his speed, Brock raced ahead and around the back of the apartment building. Joe cut around the corner, he found Brock lifting the scooter above his head to drop into the dumpster.

“Help me,” Brock said, over his shoulder.

Joe grabbed the handle bars and shoved, and the scooter disappeared over the edge.

Occupying the bottom of the growth chart for eleven-year-old boys at four-foot-one, Brock said, “Now me, push me over.”

Joe linked his fingers together and lobbed Brock into the dumpster. Mia, with bright and wild eyes, barreled towards him as fast as her short legs would take her.

“Come on,” Joe said. “Brock, help me get her over.”

Joe lifted Mia up to Brock and, ungracefully, the two of them fell into the metal box of garbage. Joe climbed the side and jumped in just as the three brothers cleared the corner. Crouched around trash bags and cardboard boxes, the three kids listened to Mateo and his brothers pound by in a flurry of gasping breaths.

“Maybe those idiots will keep running all the way to Iowa,” Brock said.

“They’re a bunch of inbreeds,” Joe said.

“Kinda like this one here.” Brock raised his brows at Mia.

“No shit.”

“Sh.” Brock held up his hand. “I hear them coming back.”

Mia covered her mouth with both fists. The boys’ sneakers slapped against the asphalt around them.

“Hey,” one of the boys shouted. “Look in there.”

“Shit,” Brock said under his breath.

Mia pulled a pink lighter from the pocket of her denim shorts. With both thumbs on the striker wheel, she ignited the lighter. She held down the fuel lever with her thumb and finger and reached for a paper towel tube.

Joe and Brock watched Mia hold the cardboard over the flame. The dry paper flickered and a thin black line of smoke danced wildly, distorting Mia’s face. She waved her wrist back and forth antagonizing the fire.

Mateo and his brothers clambered up the side of the dumpster and yelled, “Gotcha, motherfuckers.”

Joe and Brock kept their eyes stitched to the little fire-starter. She tossed the burning paper tube into the center of the dumpster. All five boys held their breath as the fire leapt across the top of the rubbish.

“Shit,” Brock yelled, moving to escape the sudden heat.

Mateo’s oldest brother yanked Brock out by an arm and a leg.

“Come on,” the other brother screamed at Joe. “Get outta there.”

Joe grasped Mia’s arm. She allowed them to push and pull her limp body out of the dumpster. The flames grew exponentially, rapidly oxidizing the refuse. Joe threw himself over the lip.

Surrounding the dumpster with the blaze reflecting in their eyes, the six children forgot the red scooter feud. The roar of the fire and crackling of plastic, wood, and paper masked the wailing sirens.

“Run,” one of the boys yelled, breaking the through the moment of catatonia, and the kids scattered.

Joe ran away from the burning dumpster and the screaming fire trucks. Sprinting through a small line of trees into the neighboring trailer park, he zig-zagged between mobile homes jumping over yard gnomes and tipped tricycles. He concealed himself between two homes to catch his breath and swallowed against the burning in the back of his throat. As the beat of his heart slowed, his skin began to throb. He twisted his leg around to examine his calf, it was shiny and pink akin to a severe sunburn. Peeking around the edge of the trailer, flashing vehicles filled the parking lot. A commotion of urgent voices and the powerful spray of the water ringing and hissing against the metal dumpster replaced the rage of the fire.

“Mia?” He called out around the other end of the trailer. Weaving through the rows, he ducked behind a tree as a squad car cruised by. He spotted Mia down the hill, naked and pale, standing at the edge of what was generously referred to as the pond of Ridgeview Terrace. Over time, the parking lot run-off water, trapped by cardboard boxes and discarded furniture clogged sewer, created a permanent body of brown, stagnant water.

Joe held tight, rocking foot to foot, waiting for the cop to make a second pass around the lot. Mia bent her knees, swung her arms, and jumped off the edge of the grass into the dirty water.

“Shit.” He ran for it. He imagined pulling Mia’s gray, lifeless body from under the oily black surface and willed his legs to fly down the hill. Splashing into the water, he dropped to his knees and frantically reached around on the slimy bottom. His hands battered against cans and broken glass before he mercifully connected with a warm, soft extremity. He wrenched Mia through the obstinate, dark resistance. As her face broke the surface, her eyes were open wide and she smiled exposing her toothless gums. Her blond hair was plastered across her brow. She coughed streams of colloid water from her mouth and nostrils.

“Jesus,” he yelled at her. “Jesus!”

She flinched between coughs and gasps.

“Don’t do that,” he yelled, tightening his grip on her soft arm. “What the fuck is wrong with you?”

Clumsily, Joe rose to his feet keeping Mia’s head above the water. Holding her under her arms, he staggered towards the edge. He set her down in the grass, dropped down next to her with his elbows on his knees, and wiped the acrid water out of his eyes. She moved closer to him and began to shiver.

“Here.” He reached over and collected her jean shorts and tee shirt. “Put these back on.”

Mia did as she was told and, between intermittent coughs, she delicately manipulated her shirt until it was right-side-out. A curtain of clouds lifted and the sun exposed rainbow shades of bruising on her back and arms. Faded green bruises ringed with a shades of yellow contrasted against the fierce blue and purple bruises. On her head, dark-pigmented lumps shadowed through her wet hair.

Joe raked his fingers through his wet curls. “Why are you even here?”

Mia pulled a fistful of grass out from around her. She examined the smooth green blades before putting them in her mouth.

“Stop. Don’t eat grass. Come on.” Joe stood and lifted Mia into his arms. She was weightless and soft. Wrapping her legs around his waist, she rested her cheek on his shoulder. Joe climbed up the hill, scanned for squad cars, and crossed the parking lot towards the apartment building. The air was sour with the scent of burning refuse.

“Mom?” Joe said, entering the apartment.

There was no answer.

Joe pried Mia off of him and set her down on the kitchen floor. He poured Lucky Charms into a bowl and handed it to her. Lifting the bowl to her lips, she filled her mouth and spilled toasted oats and rainbow-colored marshmallows around her. She plucked cereal off the floor and pressed them through her rosebud lips adding them to her full cheeks. Joe hopped up on the counter, poured himself a bowl, leaned over to the sink and added water. He had long ago forgotten about milk.

The door opened and slammed shut, and Brock raced into the kitchen. His chin was scuffed red against his brown skin. “Can you believe that?” Brock said. “That fire was huge. The cops are everywhere and, lucky for me, they grabbed Mateo’s brother just as he was dragging me out from under a car by my foot.” He held up his scraped palms. “They think he started the fire since he’s already got a record. Is my chin bleeding? It hurts. Can I have some cereal?”

Joe pushed the box of Lucky Charms across the counter.

“Will you pour her some more?” Joe asked Brock. Mia’s eyes had been boring into him since she finished her last marshmallow.

Brock squatted next to where Mia sat on the floor and refilled her bowl. Mia set the bowl on the floor and sifted through the cereal with her fingers.

Brock selected a bowl and spoon from the pile of dirty dishes in the sink. He shook cereal into the bowl, added water, and crammed three spoonfuls of cereal into his mouth. Spitting out cereal, he said, “I had to hide under that car for like an hour. The cops were all over the place. Did you see the size of that fire? We could have burned to death, like dead-dead. She’s crazy. She’s done that before, I betcha.”

Joe watched Mia organize her yellow stars, pink hearts, and purple horseshoes into discrete piles, and eat the blue moons.

“Why are you guys all wet?” Brock asked.

“She decided to go for a swim in the pond, but she can’t swim,” Joe said.

“Gross.”

“Pretty much.”

“Mateo dared me to take a sip of that water once. I said, hell no, but Jackson did it for a cigarette. He ended in the hospital because of it. Remember that? They took his appendix or something out.”

Amber opened the door and stomped into the kitchen. “Have you seen Devon?” She was crying.

“No,” Joe said.

“Hi, Amber,” Brock said, wiping his mouth and smiling at her with gaped teeth.

She glanced at Brock and Mia and turned her attention back to Joe. “He’s not at work. I just went by the construction site and the guys said some woman picked him up. Really, Devon? Really? He’s nowhere to be found and I’m stuck with her,” Amber said, pointing at Mia. “Seriously, this can’t be happening.”

“Did you try calling him?” Joe asked, tilting his bowl to gather the last few bites of cereal.

“Of course, I’ve tried calling him like a hundred times.” Amber wiped her cheek with her sleeve.

There was a change, like a tectonic shift, and Joe set his bowl in the sink. The scent of the fire was replaced by ripe smell of the clogged sink. He noticed his mother’s pink tracksuit stretching across her hips and her stomach pooching over the top of the elastic waistband. Rhinestones missing from both shoulder embellishments created PacMans from the peace signs. “Sorry, Mom,” Joe said absently, examining the newly chiseled lines across her forehead and etched around her eyes.

She stepped back seemingly conscious of his scrutiny.

Brock shook the last of the cereal into his bowl, and said, “Don’t worry, Amber, he’ll probably show up later. He’d be an idiot to leave someone as pretty as you.”

“Well, that cheating son-of-bitch better not show his face around here and she’s definitely not staying here,” Amber said, grabbing at her over-sized imitation purse and rifling around until she fished out her menthol cigarettes. She stuck one between her glossy lips and searched her purse. “Where’s my lighter?”

Brock choked on his Lucky Charms and Joe shot him a look. Amber rummaged through the drawers until she found matches. Standing on the balcony threshold with the door open, she lit a cigarette, and thought out loud, “We’ll drive her over to her mom’s house.”

“I thought her mom was in jail?” Brock said. “For drugs? Right, Joe?”

“She’s got a few other kids.” Amber flicked her cigarette ash over the edge. “Someone must be there looking after them.”

Amber led the mission to her Buick Sedan followed by Joe, Brock, and Mia. Amber still referred to the Buick as Grandma’s car because it was handed down to her after her grandmother died six years ago. Amber’s parents signed the title over to her believing her lack of transportation was holding her back, when they still had hope for her future, but now Joe reads the disappointment on their faces at every Christmas Eve dinner.

“Joe, will you sit in the back with her and keep her down?” Amber asked, unlocking the door with the key. “I’m not getting a ticket, because of her and that carseat law.”

Brock’s face lit up. “I’ll sit in front with you.”

Joe opened the door, but Mia made no move to get in the back seat .

“Come on,” Joe said, gesturing into the vehicle.

Mia remained still.

Amber turned around from the driver’s seat. “What now?”

“Nothing,” Joe said, and held out his hand to Mia.

Mia placed her hand in Joe’s palm and he guided her into the backseat. He climbed in next to her, and Mia scooted closer to him pressing her entire leg next to his thigh. He wanted to move away, but her warm skin exerted an irresistible gravitational pull. She seemed even smaller and more vulnerable in the expanse of the back seat. Amber, as always, drove while she texted and made calls.

“Call Rebecca,” Amber robotically demanded of her phone. “Mobile.”

Amber bitched to Rebecca about Devon’s lies and his miserable, creepy daughter. The conversation with Rebecca, including details of her intimacies with Devon, enthralled Brock. Brock listened and nodded along sympathetically as if Amber was having an exclusive conversation with only him. Mia strained her neck to look out the back window.

“Keep her down,” Amber said to Joe through the rearview mirror.

Joe amused Mia with illusions of removing his fingers at the knuckle and pulling a quarter he found on the floor out of her ear. Tricks he had acquired over the years from a variety of men instructed to entertain him.

Amber pulled the Buick in front of a tired two-story house with chipped yellow paint, and rebounded off the curb twice before she shifted the vehicle in park. Into her phone, she said, “I gotta go. I’m here.”

“Come on,” she said to Mia. “Out of the car.”

Mia squeezed against Joe.

Amber yanked open the back door. “Come on. Move it.”

Mia made no move to exit, and Amber said, “Joe, can you help me out here?”

Joe lifted Mia onto his lap and maneuvered out of the back seat. Mia wriggled herself around and clung onto him. “I’ll come with,” he said.

Amber and Joe, with Mia wrapped around him, walked up the weed-riddled sidewalk and cement steps. The ripped screen door was open about an inch.

Amber knocked on the wood frame and it banged against the jamb. “Hello?” she yelled into the house with urgency.

A child with a blond afro wearing purple corduroy coveralls appeared in the doorway. He or she carried a sippy cup upside down.

“Is your mama here?” Amber asked.

The blinking child did not move, but the cup steadily dripped onto the floor.

“Hello?” Amber tried again louder. “Anyone home?”

“Coming,” a voice returned. “Hold your horses, I’m coming.”

Mia pulled her face from Joe’s shoulder and turned towards the voice resonating from inside the house. A heavyset black woman with gray hair pulled into a tight bun came to the door. She squinted at Amber, and when she saw Mia, she held her hands up and said, “Oh no. That one is not mine. No way, uh uh.”

“But she—“

“Hi, sweetheart,” the woman addressed Mia before she continued her protests against Amber. “I said, no.”

“But she’s the sister, or at least half-sister, of that one,” Amber said, pointing down at the amber-eyed child smiling at Mia.

“I’m looking after mine, and that one is not mine,” the woman said, nodding and winking at Mia. “I’m sorry, but I gots my hands full with the three boys here.”

“That one is not mine,” Amber said, thumbing at Brock’s brown face watching from the passenger seat of the Buick. “But I’m looking after him.”

“That’s your own business.”

“This one belongs here. This is her mama’s house,” Amber said, and tried to pull Mia off of Joe.

“Girl, if you put that child down, I will open this door and come outside, and you do not want me to open this door and come outside. This here is my house. Her mama is not coming back for a long while this time, and that little girl got her own daddy to look after her.”

Amber stopped yanking on Mia and turned back towards the formidable woman behind the screen. “Well, he’s gone off with somebody else. What am I supposed to do with her?”

“I don’t know, but she is not coming back into this house. I got three grandbabies of my own in here and I am too old to keep up with them as it is.”

Amber rubbed her forehead with the heels of her hands and groaned before marching back towards the car.

The woman smiled sympathetically at Joe and said, “I’m real sorry I can’t help ya’ll.”

Joe shrugged and said, “Have a good day.”

“You too, son.”

Joe followed his mother back to the Buick. From the corner of his eye, he saw Mia waving with her fingers at the woman and child in the house. Joe climbed in the back with Mia while Amber stood outside the car smoking, pacing, and yelling into her phone.

“So?” Brock asked.

“She’s not staying here anymore. I guess this is the wrong grandma,” Joe said.

“Aliyah’s grandma and grandpa don’t like me much either,” Brock offered, referring to his half-sister’s father’s parents. “They spoil her rotten. That’s why she’s such a brat.”

Amber threw her cigarette butt into the woman’s yard. She got into the car, and said, “I have an idea.” She held up her phone as the British-accented automated voice asked how it could help her, and, she answered, “Directions to the nearest daycare.”

The phone instructed her to take a few left turns and then a few right turns until they arrived in front a beige rambler with a homemade sign in the front yard incorrectly spelling out, Lisenced Daycare.

“What’s your plan?” Joe asked. “Just drop her off?”

“Exactly. Let them figure out what to do with her,” Amber said. “Come on.”

“Want me to do anything, Amber?” Brock asked.

“No.” Amber scrambled out of the car. “Stay here.”

Amber jogged up the front sidewalk. Joe followed with Mia wrapped around his neck.

Amber rang the doorbell, a dog barked, and she said, “Follow my lead.”

Only a few seconds passed before Amber rung the bell again.

“Jesus, mom.”

“What?”

The door opened and a woman, surrounded by six children of varying heights, wiping her hands on a dishtowel, asked, “Yeah?”

“Good afternoon,” Amber said over the agitated beagle. “I’m looking for a quality daycare for my daughter.”

“Oh, I can’t. I’m at the maximum right now.”

“The sign in your yard led me to believe that you are available to care for children.”

The woman’s gaze moved past Amber towards the sign as if she was surprised it was still there.

“So, can you take her?”

“I’m sorry,” the woman backed up and started to close the door.

“Wait,” Amber said. “Please, if you could just make an exception for today, I’ll pick her up in a few hours.” Amber started to cry. “It’s just that my mother’s in the hospital and they won’t let children under ten-years-old into the intensive care unit.”

The woman eyed Joe who turned away in humiliation over his mother’s histrionics.

“Listen, I’ve got a family to feed and can’t afford to lose my business. I don’t know what you’re up too, but if you don’t get off my property, I’ll call the police,” the woman said, and herded the children behind her before she closed the door and clicked the chain into place.

“What the fuck?” Amber yelled and kicked the door with her pink sequined flip-flop. “What kind of bullshit place are you operating here? Goddammit, I broke my toe.”

“Come on, mom,” Joe said, and walked back towards the Buick.

Amber, shedding genuine tears, limped across the yard towards the misspelled sign. Pulling the wooden sign from the ground, she curb stomped it into pieces.

“Brock, roll up the windows.” Joe said, climbing into the back seat with Mia. “I hate when she gets like this.”

“I can’t. The car isn’t on,” Brock said.

“Turn it on.”

“I can’t. I don’t have a driver’s license.”

“You don’t need a driver’s license to start the car to roll up the windows.”

“Yes, I think you do.”

“Forget it.”

“Here comes a cop,” Brock said, looking over Joe out the back window.

Joe stuck his head out the window and yelled, “Mom! Cops!”

Amber kicked the remains of the broken sign into the street and hobbled to the car. She jumped in the front seat, pumped the accelerator three times, and cranked the ignition. The old Buick revved to life. Slamming the transmission into drive, she sprayed gravel peeling away from the daycare.

“That was close,” she said, eying her rearview mirror and speedometer. “Keep her down.”

“She’s on the floor,” Joe said.

“Great, keep her there.”

The sun inched towards the horizon and graduated from yellow to orange. Brock lowered the visor to block the sun and inspected his raw chin in the mirror. Amber, winding and unwinding a loose strand of hair around her finger, drove in silence, before she gripped the wheel, pressed down on the accelerator, and said, “Let’s stop at the grocery store.”

They pulled into a parking lot of a large grocery store chain and walked in under the scrutiny of the fluorescent lights. The air conditioned store caused Joe’s skin to goose bump, irritating his burned calves. Amber yanked a cart free from the corral. The kids followed her as she limped up and down the aisles thoughtlessly added items. Mia picked up a four-pack of Jello cups and glanced at Amber for approval. Receiving no acknowledgment, she pressed the package to her chest before placing it back on the shelf. Brock slipped a Hershey’s Chocolate Bar into his waist band. They meandered down an aisle with a small section of dog and cat supplies. A basket filled with plush toys for dogs distracted Mia. Picking through the basket, she hugged a pink fuzzy pig to her chest. She grabbed a squeaky frog, chirped it repeatedly, and held it up for Joe to see. He nodded.

“Pick out your favorite one, honey,” Amber said.

Mia grinned a gummy smile at Amber. She stuck her arms deep into the basket and scooped dog toys onto the epoxy floor. Beginning a system of sorting, Mia assessed one toy at a time before setting it in a pile designated by color. Amber released the cart, stepped back, and whispered, “Okay, let’s go.”

“Mom?” Joe said, holding his palms out helplessly.

“Come on,” Amber said. “These stores have protocols to deal with missing kids.”

Joe choked for air.

Amber took Brock’s hand, walked away from Mia, and looked back over her shoulder at Joe and said, “Come on.”

“Mom? You’re going to dump her here? Alone?” Joe asked, his voice cracking into a higher octave.

Amber turned away and pulled Brock along with her.

Despite his protests, his feet obediently followed his mother down the aisle. Trailing behind her, he scowled at his mother’s frizzy bleached hair and the way she walked on the insides of her cracked heels. He flinched with each slap of her glittery flip flops.

Joe walked out of the grocery store without Mia. For the rest of Joe’s life, he was haunted by the voice of the silent little girl.

 

 

BIO

paisley kauffmannPaisley Kauffmann lives and writes in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Life provides her with millions of bits and pieces to stitch together into stories. Her short stories have been published in The Talking Stick and The Birds We Piled Loosely. She writes with one of two pugs in her lap and receives gracious feedback from her husband. The Loft Literary Center, the Minnesota writing community, and her writing group support and fuel her motivation.

 

 

 

 

 

MP Stien

The Oracle

by
P.M.  Neist

 

 

He was in no position to miss the meeting, or cancel it for that matter. He hadn’t written a thing in months: not a paragraph, not a sentence, not a word. And he had to admit: they’d been nice about it. Yes they had. They had granted him a six-month sabbatical, followed by a two-week creativity retreat in Colorado. When that had failed, they had stepped it up, and he couldn’t blame them: weekly mandatory group therapy, a writer’s boot camp in Nebraska, goal setting, visualization, coaching, hypnosis. Now this.

He had driven bumper-to-bumper for two hours and parked in the last spot on the roof of the garage across the street. It was raining, the hard October wind pushing moisture into his shirt collar. He should have worn a scarf. He should have shaved. He hurried into the stairwell and made his way to the ground floor, bracing himself for the short walk to the Bellevue. He remembered going on a date there, eons ago, with someone’s sister.

He pushed the door open.

The hostess, lumpy and myopic looked vaguely familiar. He handed his coat, finger-combed his hair into some semblance or order, and scanned the dining room.

There she was, the only guest at a square table under the oversized crystal chandelier. She was shorter than he’d imagined, much older, with what looked like a dead animal around her neck, or was that a fur collar?

Peter Knudsen, he said. Pleased to meet you.

She squeezed his fingers, limply he thought.

I have taken the liberty to order. The mussels are excellent here. I hope you don’t mind.

He was allergic to seafood. Surely that would be in his file? But would they have shared this information with her? He wasn’t sure how these things worked.

That’ll be great, he said.

She smiled and motioned for the waiter. The baby blue walls, the fussy gilded dining chairs and the tall windows with their two layers of semi-transparent curtains were as he remembered. The menu was probably be the same as well, and the catatonic-looking waiter pouring the white wine.   She lifted her glass.

Cheers.

They each took a sip, hers considerably deeper than his. He’d barely set down his glass when the waiter came back with two steaming black pots of mussels, and two small plates of French fries balanced on his inner wrists. She made an ambiguous noise. Was that a hint of a mustache on her upper lip? He made an effort to return her gaze.

So, Peter, why don’t you start by telling me about you? Writer in Chief for the Little Sisters of Prayerful Mercies is an impressive position. How did you get there?

This was simple enough. He’d answered an ad for a part-time position his senior year of undergraduate studies in romance languages.   The Sisters had started him with the weekly prayer at the back the their children’s magazine, Papillon, she must have heard of it? (She hadn’t). Within the year, he had progressed to writing the monthly prayer of contrition for Spiritual Teen and by the time he was finishing graduate school, he was in charge of the congregation’s seven annual novenas: for the well-being of expectant mothers, the safe return of the troops, the recovery from cancer, pneumonia, croup and bankruptcy and of course the two semi-annual retreats at the shrine of Our Lady of Infinite Pardon.  One thing led to another.   When the previous Writer in Chief died of a heart attack, a month before his graduation, the Little Sisters offered him a full-time job. That was it. He paused, considering the food.

Married?

Divorced.

Children?

Two dogs.

She gnawed at the foot of an impressively large mussel, juice dripping from her chin. Should he say something? Offer his napkin? She was older than his mother. Certainly his gesture couldn’t be misinterpreted as anything but kindness. Before he could act, she reached for her own napkin and slurped at the sauce in the shell.

Soulful repose?

Pardon me?

Do you write for the deceased?

Rarely. There is another writer who is in charge of funerals. But I do write the annual card for All Saints Day and the Prayer of General Mercy for the Unborn.

He watched her work the food.   He’d not touched his plate yet.

The sisters make quite a bit of money from all those prayers don’t they?

I don’t deal with the business aspects of the congregation.

But he had thought about money. In fact, he had toyed with the idea of going into business on his own, writing a small prayer book perhaps, under a pseudonym, something comforting and light, one of those small formats that sold in the magazine rack of drugstores. But he had never had the stamina of an entrepreneur. In any case, his non-compete agreement prevented him from writing anything spiritual for anyone but The Little Sisters. There were ways around it of course, and the sisters had never refused permission for him to write an occasional heartfelt birthday or sympathy card for friends or family. He just never had the time to explore anything else. That was all.

She burped into her fist.

Excuse me.

She dabbed at her lips, leaving two scarlet crescents on the linen napkin. He picked up a French fry, dipped it in mustard.

Are you a believer Peter?

Of course.

She lifted an eyebrow.

Are you sure?

I have always had faith.

She could fish all she wanted, the old bat. Mass every day, confession once a week, altar guild: he had absolutely nothing to fear in that department. She rested her hunched shoulders against the back of the chair.

Faith is a given, you know, a bit like a piece of family furniture, something that’s being passed on to you by your upbringing. Believing, on the other hand, is an act of will. It takes grits to believe. With believing comes doubts and with doubts come suffering. So I am going to ask again.

She paused for effect, a bloody drama queen.

Are you a believer Peter?

He didn’t even raise his sight from his plate.

With all due respect, I don’t agree with your semantics, though you are perfectly entitled to your opinions.

He hadn’t felt this calm in months.

She looked to the left and must have made eye contact with the waiter because the guy appeared almost immediately, a trained dog answering her call. They remained silent through the next glass of wine. Suddenly, without ceremony and certainly without asking, she switched her near empty pot of mussels for his full one and started eating his food. Seriously? Did she think he was going to fall for this?

You know who I am, don’t you? She asked.

I know what they call you: the Oracle.

Her laugh startled him: deep and pebbly, unsuited to the size of her body.   And what had he said that was so funny? Everybody had heard of the Oracle. There were plenty of stories of people whose lives had been done and undone by her predictions. Happy stories, sure, but plenty of sad ones too. She was nothing to laugh about, and nothing about this meeting seemed remotely pleasant or funny to him. She was quieting down.

What do people call you, Peter? Prayer Man?

He felt the pang of anger rise in his chest. He counted to six, a trick he had learned at one of those annoying day-long workshops the Little Sisters scheduled twice a year: “Managing the range of feelings” ,or something of the kind. At least, this one had proved to be surprisingly memorable and effective. He breathed out, slowly.

To tell you the truth: I have never cared what people call me. I do my job, do it well and leave it at that.

You used to do your job.

He counted again, staring at the framed reproduction on the dining room wall above her right shoulder: “Oldham from Glodwick” by John Howe Carse. He was surprised he could name the painting. The waiter was back, clearing the table.

Dessert? Coffee? She asked, like the good hostess she wasn’t.

Not for me, thank you.

She ordered cherry pie and a triple espresso.

And a cognac, she added.

They sat in silence for a while. She was rummaging through her purse, absorbed in her search for something or other: phone or notes. He disliked her small, ferret-like movements, the way she pursed her lips. At least she was no longer talking and that was a huge relief.   Soon, the waiter would bring the last of the food and drink and they would be done. He would find himself into the safety of the street and later, that of his apartment where he would lie down on the couch and listen to music as he had done almost every day for the past eight months. If the Little Sisters decided to fire him, that would be fine.

But when she finally looked up, her eyes had turned an intense shade of blue that shook him to the core. This was it. He’d read accounts of other people’s meetings with the Oracle, how there was never a way out, how you just knew you had been cornered and would have to learn your fate. His heart was racing like a miniature pony trying to escape from his chest. When her voice finally came out to him, it sounded like one of those old vinyl records, scratchy and smooth at the same time.

Listen Peter, I believe you are a good person, I really do and so do The Little Sisters, which is why we are having this conversation. But I must let you know: your chances at happiness are getting slimmer by the minute. You can keep being tossed about by life and your brand of anxieties or you can start believing – really believing – that your fate has nothing to do with you or what you do. Take me, for example, do you really think I can predict the future?

She didn’t wait for his answer.

Frankly Peter, I have no idea whether or not I can. I show up, say what I think I must say and let others worry about the outcome. You should consider doing the same.

He nodded. Whatever she was saying, he wanted it to end, the sooner the better. She leaned forward and took his wrist, her fingers warm as a ring of fire.

All of this…

She made a vague gesture toward the curtains and the street beyond.

It’s one big motion: a process. That’s all. We do our part, we move on. It’s not really our concern. Do you understand me?

He had no idea what she was saying.

Yes.

Excellent.

She let go. He felt himself go slack. The waiter was back, placing a slice of pie, coffee and drink on the table in front of him.

This is not for me, Peter told him.

But the Oracle was up from her chair, a hand on his shoulder.

Oh, but it is, she said, her hand heavy as an iron chain. Eat it. It will do you a world of good. You’ll see.

She shushed him with a firm pat on the shoulder.

So this was it? All he had to do was eat and drink, and it would be over? He felt relieved, but as he reached for the spoon, she lowered her head, tenderly it seemed, and for a moment he thought she might kiss him.

She bent further, her lips grazed his right ear.

Peter? She whispered.

He didn’t dare look up, or move.

Do us both a favor will you? Get the fuck back to work.

 

 

BIO

MP StienRaised in a French fishing village, P.M. Neist acquired her storytelling skills from a colorful cast of spirited relatives. After moving to the United States, Neist switched to writing in English. Soon after, she started drawing. She is the author and illustrator of Barely Behaving Daughters, an illustrated alphabet of girls who like to do as they please.

 

 

 

 

Jackie Bridges

J is for Jammy

by Jacqueline Bridges

 

 

To My Beautiful Wife, my lover,

This is not a suicide letter.

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

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

I know how these things go.

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

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

Those were some of our best times, I think.

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

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

I hope you cherish both syllables. Jam∙my.

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

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

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

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

I disagree.

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

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

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

Sincerely,

Your Husband, your lover

 

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

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

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

“It’s nothing.” My voice cracks.

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

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

“Who’s this for,” she demands.

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

“You don’t call me lover.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Seriously?” she’s practically laughing.

“Seriously!”

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

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

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

I wince.

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

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

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

“What?”

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

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

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

“They’re first editions!” I defend.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

BIO

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

 

 

 

Space Ex

by Sara Regezi

 

 

Dear Mr. Musk and the Mars Colony Selection Committee:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sincerely,

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

 

 

BIO

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

 

Charles Lowe

Dear Mrs. Wei Wei

by Charles Lowe

 

I am a graduate student in my mid thirties living in the U.S. with a dining common worker from a district shaped like a dumpling in the north of China and have, for some time, been worried – even before she told me her ex wanted an interview with me before the two of us could get married, an announcement greatly troubling as I was unaware that I was both a candidate for marriage and a candidate to marry a woman who was still seeking advice from her ex.

“You afraid to meet?” Mrs. Wei Wei asked.

“Of course not, I’m busy correcting the first batch of papers,” I said, “on the most significant event in a student’s life.”

“Don’t worry,” Mrs. Wei Wei smiled.

“I’m not,” I smiled. “I know who Mrs. Wei Wei is,” which was true. Mrs. Wei Wei was the pen name my possibly soon-to-be wife took when she wrote an advice column for The Tianjin Daily. Her readers also called her the Good or Wise Auntie or the Queen of Dumplings on account of the culinary references spicing up her column.

The first I saw of the Good or Wise Auntie of Tianjin was inside an album Mrs. Wei Wei showed me on our second date. The album was moldy from having been stored beneath a bed she and her sister had shared. It had a bent corner either from its journey from the Machang District to graduate housing in UMASS or from a smaller yet less well insulated travel cross town from campus housing to a sublet, which she shared with a Born Again couple until she moved in with me.

Each plastic envelope held a photo. The first showed Mrs. Wei Wei with her mother next to a Ferris wheel near the Hai River. Mrs. Wei Wei’s mother had broad shoulders and a face touched by sunlight mixed with gravelly soot. An inky swirl overlapped the thin eyelids of the Good or Wise Auntie enough so that I didn’t recognize the Queen of Dumplings until I spotted a smile surfacing on the edges of her lips. The second flap was empty. The third showed Mrs. Wei Wei in a gray factory uniform. A line looking like a thread was stuck to the edge of one sleeve. Mrs. Wei Wei’s roommate at college was in a fourth posing in front of a mirror, but flipping through the other pages I did not find evidence of the man I was to replace, assuming Mrs. Wei Wei’s choice met with the first Mr. Wei Wei’s approval.

Of course, my possible future wife had not always been Mrs. Wei Wei. Her preparation for the role started one Friday evening when at age six she was entrusted with pinching together the ends of the rice dumpling wrappers: a task which afforded her the chance to listen in on the advice ladled out in equal portions to her relatives in Tianjin, Shenzhen, as well as a few in a beach suburb of LA. While slicing the pork and scallions as well as preparing the vinegar and soy sauce, her Auntie espoused on the medical efficacy of ginger to heal a romantic wound. Her mother, sister, and uncle took turns molding the dough from scratch while each furnished a point on the significance of good planning: the principle applied in equal measure to the use of yeast in helping the rice dough rise and to the employment of favors, guanxi, to facilitate a deal with a municipal government official.

But while her mom, sis, and uncle as well as auntie all had a significant impact on her columns, her elder cousin was the most profound influence. The cousin had risen to be the Assistant Loan Office at HSBC, a noted criminal enterprise in the district, and had acquired over a steady climb a well-measured understanding over how to prepare advice that could burn off a tongue. Her favorite piece was THE TALLEST BLADE OF GRASS HAS ONLY ONE DESTINY. The cousin made a slicing motion down her right breast so as to complete the thought before adding extra ginger for mom’s but not uncle’s dipping sauce.

Mrs. Wei Wei recalled the heaps of ginger that scorched her cousin’s sauce when she was biking in late March during the windstorm season when a curtain of soot and dust descended onto Tianjin. Mrs. Wei Wei was a cub reporter and was weaving out of traffic: one hand on the loose handlebar of her used Schwinn. The other hand she used to push aside a curtain blanketing her eyelids when a truck, carrying used tires, hit a motorized cycle to Mrs. Wei Wei’s right, crushing one spoke but leaving the cyclist undamaged. Mrs. Wei Wei considered then asking the chief editor for a post that did not involve chasing down factory managers on a used Schwinn with loosely attached handlebars throughout the Nankai and Machang Districts.  But she remembered the destiny of a tall grass blade and pedaled through a few more storms none so severe as the first. After swerving one time around an accident committed by a cute Lada, Mrs. Wei Wei returned to a washroom where as the sole woman on staff, she felt entitled to a bit of privacy.

The news she heard, while dislodging the mix of soot, dust, and gravel from her right pant leg, was not especially memorable.  The present Mrs. Wei Wei was toasting the chief editor for his generosity in agreeing to let the advice columnist transfer to the business page. The six preceding Mrs. Wei Wei’s had all managed in the course of six months to transition out of the Health & Science page to departments as varied as travel and hygiene. None of these gentlemen wanted to remain a good or wise auntie, apportioning out common or uncommon sense to the teenage and twenty something women who composed Mrs. Wei Wei’s primary audience. “But I am thinking,” Mrs. Wei Wei added in a voice soft enough not to wake her Born Again housemates, “maybe my elder cousin is wrong. I know that sounds ridiculous. A Junior Loan Officer from HSBC wrong, but anyway to be the taller blade may be worth the chance. I am taller than the average girl in the Machang and Nankai Districts and am tired of pedaling through a thick mix of soot and gravel.

“Without much preparation, I rush out the washroom to offer the services of a family of Mrs. Wei Wei’s. The Chief Editor pretends not to see the toilet paper, which I later find clings to my black corduroys, and declares ‘you can be Mrs. Wei Wei for now.’

“Okay, the edges of my dry lips tighten. I am still a reporter. So I still have to drive through a mix of soot and gravel to discover a factory that through its workers’ collective efforts has overtaken a counterpart in Liverpool, England. I clutch onto the handlebars that have loosened again on Race Course Avenue and arrive at mommy’s where I take over the mixing duties while Miss HSBC (my cus’ nickname) offers help on how to inflate travel receipts, the critical attribute of a junior loan officer, so I cannot be Mrs. Wei Wei until 10 when I return to our apartment. The husband isn’t back from the library—and can start the advice. The girl wants a hukou.”

“What’s that?” I asked.

“A residence permit, they’re impossible for a country girl from Henan to get unless she bonds with a fellow with legal status. So that’s what I tell her. Find a legal boy. Better if he’s a blade of grass that’s slightly confused. Fix yourself on him. Don’t let go. After signing off for the first time as Mrs. Wei Wei, I feel reasonably satisfied resting on my first husband’s leathery skin, his breathing as if through blades of evenly sliced grass, when I see I may be Mrs. Wei Wei only for a short time. What I will be after? A letter arrives. The note is on a slender sheaf of rice paper.”

Mrs. Wei Wei showed me the rice paper, which was slight enough to crumple up in my palms.

Dear Mrs. Wei Wei, for the past 6 ms, my husband reads to me the dream of the red mansions until I want to get big just to close his thick lower lip. Still my belly is a wide-open valley. We’re living with his Mom who complains she’s had to give up her bed, no reason. Mom tests the mattress. The blanket does have firm corners. Still I haven’t blown up. Am joyless. Mom claims I’m defective and wants to return me to my real mom, but my real mom claims it’s the dumplings my husband’s elder sis’s fed me and has taken to bringing over stinky tofu until my nose blocks up. I’m dead. Mom wants best bed back. What should do?

                                                Lost and Possibly Less a Bed

Mrs. Wei Wei was beaming at me, the ink from the rice paper bleeding into her fingers. “I’m confused,” I said.

“Simple,” Mrs. Wei Wei kept beaming. “The girl is living with her husband’s parents. They’ve given her their bed and hope she can produce a grandson for them as soon as possible.”

“And,” I added, “despite heavy doses of classical literature and traditional cuisine, Ms. Lost and Possibly Less a Bed hasn’t become pregnant, and her in-laws are blaming her.”

“Exactly,” Mrs. Wei Wei tightened the corners of her lips.

“What solution did the Queen of Dumplings serve up?” I smiled.

“Break the skin,” she said, completing her advice with the same slicing motion as her elder cousin had perfected.

“Really,” I took the letter from Mrs. Wei Wei’s hand.

“She’s not been…you know, penetrated.”

“That can happen?”

“Sure. Chinese boys are idiots. We’re all been married to one. The mom is the true problem. She’s going to require physical evidence.”

Mrs. Wei Wei took the letter from my hand.

Dear Lost and Possibly Less a Bed,

            Do not worry. Your problem calls for a simple recipe. Be sure to have the right grip. Put too much inside the wrapper. The dumpling falls apart. Too little mix. It looks like a dead roach. Here’s what you do. Find the fold of skin. If you need help, ask a local auntie. Gently nudge the fold of skin with the tip of a broom handle. If there’s blood, you know the answer. Here’s the answer. Kindly keep a sample hidden in a folded corner of the sheet on your side. Shut the lights off. Second rule. Men want to believe they are in control. Keep the lights off. Mrs. Wei Wei has learnt that destiny through her many experiences, preparing dumplings and salted river fish. After your Mr. Wei Wei starts on top of you, grip his shoulders like you’re holding onto the blade of a butcher’s knife. Guide him over you. Let him believe he is in control, that you are following him, not the other way around. Never scream. He’ll hear his own screams anyhow. When your Mr. Wei Wei is asleep, pour a few droplets of blood near the bottom corner of the bed. Left or right, doesn’t matter? If your mom’s got a maid, let that small potato remove the sheet. If she doesn’t, you do. Make sure to leave the sheet out. Your mom will see the answer. She’ll let you rest comfortably on the best bed. She may fold the top sheet. Soon you’ll be throwing up in a squat down like any other woman. You will be happy.

                                                Yours Mrs. Wei Wei

Mrs. Wei Wei took out a photo. The baby appeared to be a blurry dumpling except the eyes, which were directed at my stomach. “Lost and Possibly Less a Bed has a beautiful baby,” I said.

“That’s Sunny Smile’s,” Mrs. Wei Wei said. “I get about one snap a week. It seems like every countryside girl with a proper hukou in the Machang and Nankai Districts is applying the end of a broom handle.”

“You’re sure that happened?” I asked.

“Truly,” Mrs. Wei Wei beamed. “When these countryside girls arrive in Tianjin, no aunties or moms are around to give them advice. They only have Mrs. Wei Wei. Some of them can’t read, but there’s always a crowd in front of the bulletin board. I use to watch them huddled up, reading me in the park. I really love it and would’ve stayed Mrs. Wei Wei if my husband hadn’t caught me with the Assistant Editor. That doesn’t end it, but it does start the end.”

“Mrs. Wei Wei had an affair,” I asked.

“Doesn’t matter,” Mrs. Wei Wei shook her head. “My first husband believes I have an affair, and I do let the frog-eyed assistant call me to his office every 3 on Friday afternoon.. His nickname is Frog Eyes, but I’m not a Junior Loan Officer at HSBC! I’m the good or wise auntie and patiently listen to Frog Eyes complain about his wife. She’s from Szechuan and very small in size, so understandably, the short girl floods the skin of a river fish with bits of hot peppercorns while everybody knows you use a little salt, which you can hide with snowflake beer. ‘True enough,’ Frog Eyes says with a high squeak, ‘you want some real Tianjinese fish flavored with a mild dash of ginger.’

“His office lacks an open window, so I go along: what else can a Queen of Dumplings do? He doesn’t order fish. We have fried dumplings: the edges burnt. With green tea, lots of the brown leaves getting caught between my teeth, so I tell him quick. I say, my husband is waiting for me (he’s not). Frog Eyes says he understands and starts following me to my apartment even if our fifth floor faces a post office that is on three concrete columns that are chipped like the wok my mom gave to me as a wedding present.

“Frog Eyes tears up, explaining how his short wife once adds salt instead of spicy peppercorn but way over so even the delightful taste of snowflake can’t hide the grains. I rush up the stairs, two at a time, in the shoes Miss HSBC lends me. They’re one size too small, my feet shaking so that though the guy reaches below my flat chest, he strides ahead of me, slowing down enough to relay the time his mother-in-law visits. His short wife truly burns off the old bitch’s tongue with some vinegar wine when we reach the door of my apartment, which I open a little: figuring to keep Frog Eyes out and me in when Frog Eyes falls against the door, his right shoulder scuffing up the thin wood I have scrubbed that morning—and am surprised then to see my first husband turn partway from a bookcase we keep standing with two slender metal poles.

“My first lets his black-framed glasses slope down the bridge of his nose. He has thin wrinkles which deepen along his brow. His eyes are sunk into his skull, his eyebrows look about to vanish.

“I try explaining the exact circumstances starting with the wrestling match with my immediate superior but stop at the point when my feet shake against the wooden stair. No one’s listening. Frog Eyes I guess decides spicy peppercorns aren’t a bad way to scorch a tongue. My first has also fled towards his mother’s villa on Race Course Avenue, though unlike Frog Eye’s wife, the fish his Red Mom serves is heavily salted.

“In any case, I was thinking his Red Mom must be slicing me up like I was a piece of ginger. His Red Mom, coming from a pure Red family and treats me like I am from the black class: which I am, my great-grandfather growing a li of rice in Suzhou, though that fellow loses the small plot in a mahjong game. Anyways, our family owns property three generations back. Hers doesn’t, so whenever Red Mom speaks to her Black Class Daughter, Red Mom makes the mix like an interview, the questions stiff enough so a black class daughter can dust them in midair.

“I make the half hour travel in five, weaving through a wave of bikes, but my first is already behind Red Mom’s custom made door. It has two iron sheets and a turtle cut into its bronze skin. I try shouting the name of her red son into the turtle’s downturned mouth, Shen! No answer. I say, Red Mom, please forgive. This time I look at the door handle which is shaped like a dislocated thumb. Still no answer, and put my fist through the part of the door just below the turtle’s shell until my fist bleeds into the part between the dislocated thumb and the turtle’s downward smile. No answer again. I try all over, figuring I only have to press some more like I’m peddling down Race Course Avenue: one hand gripping the handlebar, the other pushing through a mix of soot and gravelly dust. No answer, I put my head down on the walkway leading to my Red Mom’s four-floor house. The cobblestones feel cold and smooth—when my black class mom digs her fingernails into her younger daughter’s shoulder.   After, drags that daughter back to the daughter and her husband’s fifth-floor apartment next to the three-legged post office. The first Mr. Wei Wei doesn’t return for another week.”

Dear Mrs. Wei Wei,

I received a note once. The note was signed G.B., the initials of my about-to-become ex. The envelope lacked sufficient postage but was meticulously packed with the collection of letters I posted to G.B. over the five years we were together.

“It’s over,” my now ex-girlfriend put down, the ‘o’ and ‘e’ curved in a precise manner, though the ‘t’ had a ridge squiggling onto the blue lines of the perfumed paper.

I am still hurt even though I’m about to be marry another, assuming I can gain her ex’s approval. But I was starting graduate school, and, as you know, when you’re beginning a new phase, it’s natural to put off painful questions such as why did G.B. affix insufficient postage to an envelope containing all my love letters? Was it a standard passive aggressive maneuver? Or was she careless?

“Are you curious?” a co-worker asked at the beginning of an overnight shift at a group home serving catatonic adults including the staff.

“I have a friend from my home. She’s tall like you,” she added, “and reads books—like you. She’s a writer: only she’s been paid. Are you interested?”

The co-worker looked at me.

I didn’t answer and showed up on time at Bonducci’s, a café facing the Amherst Commons. The first thing I noticed. Your face was tilted at an awkward angle. Your hair was dotted with gray sparks. Please don’t take this wrong, but I didn’t find you attractive. I found you pleasant enough. You had a nice smile, the corners of your lips tightening ever so much, but you didn’t say much. I thought your English wasn’t very good and wondered what we’d have to talk about if we ever were alone.

I went back to work an overnight shift at the group home. I hadn’t been on a date for seven years and was bored and overlooked my fears. I called you. “Do I want jiaozi, fried dumplings?” You asked.

“I’m a vegetarian,” I said.  

“Some Taoist monks in my district have the same problem.”

“You have an understanding nature,” I said and showed up on your doorstep with a bottle of juicy juice.

The door was open. I walked in. You were stir-frying bits of pork in a chipped wok. I put down the orangey tangerine beverage and watched you prepare the pork and the tofu mixes while applying the bottom of your palm to flatten a hunk of rice flour dough. I picked up an Advocate and started skimming the classifieds for a used Schwinn. We were both quiet like we’d been married for some time and had run out of things to say. You put a bowl of dumplings in front of me and told me to go ahead, but we weren’t that married, and I waited for you to finish off the string bean and onion stir-fry before I tried to balance an underfed dumpling on a chopstick. The dumpling fell apart. You asked me if I wanted a spoon. I said I could do without but couldn’t.

You took the chopsticks from my hands, lifting the rice flour wrapper to my lips. My head was tilted forward. My mouth was open. I was hungry. You put the wrapper closer. I swallowed and felt the shreds of tofu catch the back of my throat. The shards of ginger burned my tongue. My eyes filled with tears, but after a while, I did grow used to balancing the mix of ginger and tofu on the tip of my tongue. I didn’t say another word, and when you got up, I followed you down a narrow hallway past the door of your bedroom. On the edge of your night table was a matted photo showing a couple. The man smiled, appearing to offer a hunk of ginger. You put the frame down before turning off the lights and digging your fingernails into my shoulder blade.  

You moved into my apartment a few weeks later and after several months more, I decided to stalk your ex. That seemed the reasonable course. He knew I was a candidate for marriage before I did, so I wanted to know more about him. Besides I was curious, and you did tell me he lived on the 12th floor of the library where the comp lit collection was stored. There was a line of cubicles, but none of them had any windows facing out onto the floor, so he could have been there. I didn’t know and went to the grad lounge where a few students were chatting across the front counter. None matched your description, so I had the time to write down some notes, but when it came to finishing the letter, I realized I didn’t have a penname. All your authors had names, summing up their circumstance in a painful yet amusing manner.

I waited for Mr. Wei Wei to assign me one.

* * *

Mr. Wei Wei did not return from the villa on Race Course until a week after Mrs. Wei Wei tried to put her fist through a custom made door and discovered her fist could bleed. After that, the good or wise auntie stopped coming to The Tianjin Daily. Frog Eyes might have felt a twinge of guilt and had the security guard carry over the sheaves of letters, which Mrs. Wei Wei used for a second tablecloth. Mr. Wei Wei became interested in one piece. It had a charcoal mark obscuring one corner and was from A Daughter Pining for Foreign Schooling. The Daughter had wanted to go to graduate school in the States, but her mom and dad had divorced, and the mom had wanted her only child close to home.

“He told the daughter to grab the opportunity?” I said.

Mrs. Wei Wei took out his note from behind a photo of her ex-roommate sitting in front of a mirror. The rice paper contained finely curved characters, which Mrs. Wei Wei put into enough words so that I could understand.

Dear Daughter Pining for Foreign Schools,

        Mrs. Wei Wei has learnt through hard experience the cost of disobeying your mom. Forget the offer letter.

                                                            Yours truly, M.W.W.

“A few months later he gets a fellowship in the States,” Mrs. Wei Wei added. “I don’t know he’s applied.”

“You could have stayed Mrs. Wei Wei?” I said, unfolding an edge of her blanket.

“I think about it for a few months. He goes over first. I know he doesn’t want me. He pens his notes on the back of postcards. Each note is briefer than the last. Finally, he puts one on the back a snapshot of a night table. The table is cheap like a black class girl I’m thinking, but Miss HSBC is advising me on how a wife can maintain a bookworm husband, so I’m thinking the cheap wood might provide a nice resting place for my album.

“I send a card: Am coming over.

Sure, he writes back, and when I arrive, he does try to make me feel comfortable, taking me to the Park where he gets me real ice cream from Herrell’s. I’m happy for a time, not Mrs. Wei Wei at all, but he goes back to being buried in the library. I start biking. It’s early March, and silly black class girl, I expect a storm to blow up the gravel from a partially paved road, but there is no storm, and I’m crossing the Connecticut River, the sky like a mirror whose glass has been shaven thin. When I get back, he’s stuck a note on the chipped wok. Put half our bank account, including the loose change on top of the album. I don’t put my fist through a bronze door. I’m in America and move out.”

I looked up. Mr. Wei Wei was holding the campus newspaper or at least someone with a remarkable resemblance to Mr. Wei Wei was holding a campus newspaper in front of a still life of a vegetable hanging from a wall of the graduate lounge. He had thin wrinkles creasing his brow. His eyes were sunk into his skull. His eyebrows looked like they were going to vanish. He’s on a cushioned stool next to another grad student who was leaning over a counter while flirting with the cashier.

He ate for five minutes. I kept track on my watch. Five minutes exactly. Then, he disposed of the plastic, downed the drink without burning his tongue. Walked out the front exit and turned towards the library. I might’ve been following the wrong ghost, but in case I was chasing the correct shadow, I decided to leave before he could spot me and took a longer route behind the Campus Center before riding an elevator to the comp lit section and sitting down at a desk on the opposite wall from a line of cubicles. I assumed if Mr. Wei Wei left the elevator Mr. Wei Wei would go straight to his cubicle, which, as I predicted, he did, taking a right perpendicular turn and walking towards a cubicle which by the scraping of his tennis shoelaces, sounded to be the second over; I edged to the next aisle when I heard his door lock. I stared at the slender grains of wood for the next nine hours.

At 11:40, the first bell at the library went off though its sound didn’t disturb Mrs. Wei Wei. He was trying to finish up his last bit of note taking inside his cubicle. At ten of, he emptied the contents of some Tupperware into a garbage pail outside. I left before him, so we’ll leave a mystery as to what he dined on that night, only please note, Mrs. Wei Wei, I forgot to be hungry that night and went to the elevator, figuring it was his turn to follow me. I waited then at the circulation desk behind a line of students waiting to check out their books.

Mr. Wei Wei came down empty handed. My guess was that he used his cubicle to store the unchecked out items, a practice in clear violation of library protocol. I didn’t turn him in. I would’ve had to explain my practice of standing guard over a thin sheet of wood guarding his cubicle for under ten hours to the Head Librarian who wore thick spectacles attached to a rubber band ensnaring the back of his skull. Still, having uncovered the possible violation of library rules and regulations, I felt comfortable trailing Mr. Wei Wei more closely when at last I grew too confident and was only a footstep away. Mr. Wei Wei turned on me then, though more likely he was looking through me at a red searchlight at the top of the library tower, which was flickering far brighter than the nearest street lamp.

Mr. Wei Wei crossed the visitor’s parking lot where a line of graduate housing subsisted behind a steel meshed fence. Mr. Wei Wei shut a chipped wooden door before closing a feathery curtain. I went home.

The interview with Mr. Wei Wei took place one week later.

I arrived fifteen minutes ahead of schedule, hoping to get the drop, but the first Mr. Wei Wei was already perched beneath a yellow and black remake of a Campbell’s Soda Can that, unlike the original, was laminated so the metal lines sloped into the yellow backdrop. Mr. Wei Wei pointed me out to some friends who were arrayed on cushioned bar stools, and who, it occurred to me, might also have been informed of my possible marriage before I was. “Do you want something?” Mr. Wei Wei asked.

Mr. Wei Wei waited.

“Cappuccino,” I added.

He took out a few bucks. “My treat,” he said.

“The next is mine,” I said returning my wallet to my side pocket while Mr. Wei Wei wiped a coffee stain from my lips, “How did you guy meet?”

“Through a friend of hers,” I answered. “The friend did overnights with me at a group home serving catatonic patients and staff.”

“Interesting,” Mr. Wei Wei smiled. His hair was cropped. “Do you mind if I’m direct?”

I didn’t answer. He continued, “Have you dated a Chinese girl before?”

“My other girlfriend was Chinese,” I said. “She was from Malaysia though, not China.”

Mr. Wei Wei sipped on his latte. “You like Chinese,” he said.

“She dumped me,” I answered.

Mr. Wei Wei shrugged his shoulders, “Mrs. Wei Wei is very strong.”

“She is,” I agreed. “I’ve felt her fingernails. That’s why you left?

“If that’s not too personal,” I added.

“You’re marrying my first,” Mr. Wei Wei smiled. “We’re almost old friends.”

He stirred the foam in his coffee mug, “It seemed the only way. We stopped talking to one another. I remember I had begun to sleep on the couch when one day, I realized we weren’t the right mix and took out our savings, placing it on our table: then, left her a note explaining to leave enough for the rent.”

“That was more than fair,” I said, wondering whether it was proper etiquette for a candidate to agree with his potential wife’s ex’s account of their breakup.

“Was there a reason?” I asked.

“For what?”

“Why you stopped talking.”

“We never were good at talking. It became more obvious once we got away from home,” he smiled. “How’s the good or wise auntie’s English?”

“Not perfect but good enough,” I smiled. “I understand her stories.”

“That’s a start.”

“How long have you been in graduate school?”

“Seven years,” I said. “She tells me you’ve finished the Ph.D. in less than two years and have a job lined up in the Midwest.”

“I’m moving there with my new wife.”

“Congratulations.”

He shrugged, “Looks like we both have good luck.”

Mr. Wei Wei waved for his friend at the counter to bring over dessert. The two of us spent the next half hour teasing apart a cheesecake until the slice was in crumbs. I looked up a few times, trying to imagine his slender eyebrows behind a thin curtain while Mrs. Wei Wei was resting her head on the stone steps leading to a four-story villa, her fingers bleeding and her palms very red and dry.

Mr. Wei Wei said he had to prepare for his defense in two weeks and got up, leaving before I could ask him for my new name. It didn’t matter. Mr. Wei Wei must have called in a positive report right away because while stir-frying the pork and scallions that evening, Mrs. Wei Wei started to hash out long distance the plans for our wedding with her elder sis, elder cousin and her mom.

I saw the first Mr. Wei Wei once more a few months later when Mrs. Wei Wei asked if we could visit Pulaski Park. She was serving dumplings with pork and bok choy (no scallions), and NoHo was a half hour away, so I was about to ask if we could postpone the journey when she turned off the stove and put away the flowered apron.

When we reached the Park, it was empty, which wasn’t a surprise on a weekday night. I asked Mrs. Wei Wei what she wanted. Mrs. Wei Wei wanted to wait. “In the cold,” I asked.

She shook her head. We waited. I was fidgeting despite my extensive experience as a stalker in front of windowless cubicles. I wanted to tell her I didn’t care. I knew she hadn’t gotten over her first marriage, but that didn’t matter. Mr. Wei Wei and I were almost old friends, and I would have believed what I said was true, but before I could say it, my predecessor slipped out the old Academy of Music with his new Mrs. Wei Wei, and I got up to greet her. Mrs. Wei Wei dug her fingernails into my shoulder blades.

I stay down.

 

 

BIO

Charles LoweCharles Lowe’s work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and has been published or is forthcoming in Prairie Schooner, Fiction International, Guernica, the Pacific Review, Hanging Loose, and elsewhere. His fiction has also been included in the recently published anthology, Friend. Follow. Text. #storiesFromLivingOnline. He lives with his wife and daughter in Zhuhai, China, He is the Programme Director of the Contemporary English Language and Literature programme and the Director of the Cross-Cultural Studies at United International College. He lives with his wife and daughter in Zhuhai, China.

 

 

 

 

The Vigil

by Pat Hart

 

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

And then Patrick slipped beneath water and disappeared.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

His father had been a paratrooper.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hello,” Patch said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I hadn’t seen Patrick in four years.

I hadn’t attended his wedding.

I didn’t really even know his children.

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

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

“Good cut, Mike!” Patrick yelled.

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

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

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

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

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

They paused and kissed, then moved on.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Patch, Patch,” I yelled. “Help me!”

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

“Dinny, Dinny.”

My childhood name.

A warm hand grabbed my shoulder and shook.

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

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

Patch frowned and shook his head sadly.

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

Mike waited politely as I came fully awake.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

BIO

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

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

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

 

 

 

Franklin Klavon

Darling Weapons

by Franklin Klavon

 

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

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

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

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

“You’re getting better,” I said.

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

“Too chilly,” I said.

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

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

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

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

“All right!” They ran off to play.

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

“How?” I said.

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

“It’s true, I don’t.”

“Do you mind telling me why not?”

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

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

“Fine, I’ll give her the money.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

“I already put one on order.”

“How’s the job hunt going?”

“Slow.”

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

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

“Where have you been looking?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I meant smartest,” he retracted.

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

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

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

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

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

“Okay, thanks. I’ll call.”

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

“We have a leaf vacuum on the mower.”

“I can drive the mower for you.”

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

“I need to ask you a favor, Aaron.”

“What’s that?”

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

I didn’t say anything.

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

I leaned the fishing poles in the corner.

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

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

“Just make it out to me.”

“I’d rather not.”

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

I wrote the check and handed it over.

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Find it!” I hollered.

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

“Mostly sparrows.”

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

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

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

He wrapped his arms around her.

“How was the hunt?” she asked.

“Cold.”

“I hope you didn’t shoot Bambi.”

“Nope. Bambi’s father.”

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

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

“Did you really?”

“Go look.”

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

“How many points is it?” asked Wendell.

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

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

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

“I’d like that.” I nodded.

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

“Sure, do you need clothes?”

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

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

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

I kept my mouth shut.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“A Pharaoh Hound,” said Liza.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I went outside and walked Russ to his truck.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Where’s your mom and dad?” I asked.

“Sleeping.”

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

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

“And the police came,” said Danny.

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

“Watch your mouth, boy,” I said.

“Sorry, Poppa.”

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

“Cruise ship,” corrected Wendell.

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

“And golfing!” said Danny.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Like what?”

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

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

“How was your vacation?” asked Shelly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I remember. That’ll be fun.”

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

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

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

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

Karen and Danny started to cry.

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

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

“Sorry, mom and dad.” She hugged us.

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Danny said, “My bike got stolen too.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sorry,” she said.

“You’re gonna be.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Take it back!”

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Maybe the roads are slippery.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“They’re not coming,” I said.

“What?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

BIO

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

 

 

 

hyena

hyena salvation

by robert paul cesaretti

 

 

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

BIO

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

 

 

Daniel Mueller author

The Embers

by Daniel Mueller

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

“I see,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So I’m told,” she replied.

“And why you’re here?”

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

“That’s right,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

“What is?” I asked.

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

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

“I know,” she said.

“How?”

“The confirmation class, remember?”

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

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

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

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

“None,” Teri replied.

“So it isn’t even half human?”

“Not even half.”

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Dear Lord,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That is what I said.”

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

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

“Go fuck yourself, Leo,” Vance said.

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

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

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

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

“Why, Bruce?” she said. “Why?”

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

“About what?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What options?” she replied.

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

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

“I have to go,” I said.

“You can’t leave,” she said.

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

BIO

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

 

 

 

Virginia Luck Writer

The Bag

by Virginia Luck

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

BIO

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

 

 

 

TELL ME ABOUT YOURSELF

by Dawn-Michelle Baude

 

The following reader survey should be carefully completed with a #2 pencil.

 

Are you a happy person? ___ Curious? ___ Interested in the lives of others? ___ Nosy (you never know what you’re going to find out)? ___ Bored (you knew it all, anyway)? ___ Have you ever wished someone would die? ___ Live again? ___ Do you have an estranged, indifferent, or intimate relationship with nature? ___ How often do you consciously observe the sky? Several times per day ___ Several times per week ___ I never look up ___ Please rate the validity of this statement: “The planets influence our behavior”: Very Valid ___ Middle-of-the-road Valid ___ Somewhat Valid ___ I follow Karl Popper ___ What is your favorite body part? ___ Least favorite body part? ___ Have you ever considered plastic surgery? ___ Reason? ___ Date of last procedure: ___ Do you talk to yourself? ___ In front of others? ___ Favorite public setting ___ Have you ever seen a UFO? ___ Number of orifices probed: ___ Have you ever had an OBE (Out of Body Experience)? ___ An NDE (Near-Death Experience)? ___ Length of the corridor of light: 5 feet? ___ 720 feet? ___ The distance between LA and Las Vegas? ___ What method of STD protection do you use: Medical? ___ Magical? ___ When you were little, what did you want to be when you grew up? ___ Did you do it? ___ Is there still time? ___ Can you touch your toes without bending your knees? ___ Does it hurt? ___ Have you ever dialed a phone number randomly? ___ Who answered? Guru ___ Weird Person ___ Friend ___ How important is truth in your life? Very important ___ Somewhat important ___ Not applicable ___ Do you listen to other’s people’s advice? ___ Do you often give advice? ___ Is your advice taken? ___ When is the last time you pulled the bed away from the wall and vacuumed? (Month/Day/Year) ___ If you need to find an important document, is it readily obtained? ___ How do you prefer your technology? Wearable ___ Pocketable ___ Disguised ___ Implanted ___ When you buy something, is sustainability important? ___ Price? ___ Reliability? ___ Convenience? ___ Brand? ___ Looks? ___ Hormones? ___ Do you judge people by their appearance? Within 3 minutes ___ Less than minute ___ Before I see them ___ Do you consider yourself stylish? ___ Marginal? ___ If called upon to voice your opinion in front of others, would you clear your throat? ___ Pause before speaking? ___ Blurt right out? ___ Who do you most want to overhear talking? ___ Do you have enemies? ___ Recent? ___ Old? ___ Ancient? ___ Antediluvian? ___ Do you play Ping-Pong? ___ Badminton? ___ Sniper Team? ___ Have you ever bought a product because you saw it advertised on TV? ___ Were you disappointed? ___ On a scale of 1 to 10, rate the accuracy of your news feed, with 1 as accurate and 10 as biased: ___ What news section do you read first? International ___ Pornographic ___ If you had to go one direction and one direction only, would you choose north, south, east, or west? ___ What is your favorite word? ___ Least favorite word? ___ List your favorite books and authors: ___ Not applicable ___ Do you have, or have you ever had, a lover with an interest in Feng Shui? ___ What was the first thing you smelled when you got up this morning? ___ Finish this statement: The world is getting: Way worse ___ Much better ___ It depends on my meds ___ Do you pick your nose in your car? ___ Are you virgo intacta? ___ Have you always been? ___ How often do you evaluate your appearance in a mirror: Several times per day ___ Several times per hour ___ What specifically are you looking for? ___ Have you ever lost consciousness in public? ___ What is the last thing you remember before you went blank? ___ Have you ever been Rolfed? ___ Cupped? ___ Visited a psychic? ___ Thickness of ectoplasm: < 1 inch ___ < 2 inches ___ Gooey ___ If you could be anyone other than yourself, who would it be? ___ The whole person, or just particular parts? ___ On which side of your scalp do you part your hair? ___ My hair does not have a sidedness preference ___ Are you easily flattered? ___ Average number of compliments received: ___ /day. Please rate your understanding of events outside your personal sphere: Excellent ___ Good ___ Fair ___ Poor ___ Not applicable ___ Do you like attracting attention? ___ Are you sensual? ___ Erotic? ___ How often do you think about sex? Now ___ Daily ___ Weekly ___ Monthly ___ Yearly ___ Never ___ Date of your last orgasm: ___ Are you most often shy? ___ Arrogant? ___ Resigned? ___ Predictable? ___ Repressed? ___ Liberated? ___ Joyful? ___ Anxious? ___ Combative? ___ Calm? ___ I am mutating constantly and refuse to be pigeonholed ___ Have you ever been assaulted by an archetype? ___ Please describe: ___ Is the past less important than the future? ___ More important? ___ I do not believe in linear time ___ How often do you search for your keys: Daily? ___ Monthly? ___ What keys? ___ What do you regret most about your life? ___ Is your guilt hereditary? ___ Acquired? ___ Viral? ___ Describe the best experience you’ve ever had in a stadium ___ In a park ___ In a bathtub ___. Have you ever been caught in an awkward moment? Please describe: ___ How many hours do you sleep per night? ___ Open-mouthed? ___ Close-mouthed? ___ Is your auditory, visual, tactile, gustatory, olfactory, magnetoceptive, or “Sale’s On” sense more acute? ___ If you were given an apple, orange, walnut, or boiled cabbage to choose from, which would you select? ___ Would you eat it or contemplate it? ___ Please complete this statement: ___ is the reincarnation of ___ Would you say that your speaking voice is an asset? ___ How do you feel about long silences in a conversation? Relaxed, because my interlocutor is considering my comments ___ Paranoid, because my interlocutor is plotting against me ___ Are you encumbered by consumerism? ___ Number of storage units leased ___ Have you ever used dental floss in a public setting? ___ Rate your grooming skill: Above average? ___ Average? ___ Why bother? ___ How many times do you wear the same underwear between washings? ___ Have you ever considered buying the soap powder ERA? ___ What is your favorite charity? ___ Tragedy? ___ Have you ever pondered the nature of meaning? ___ Have you ever been forced to wear a corsage against your will? ___ An electrode? ___ Do you eat the fatty portion of your steak? ___ Do you swallow it or spit it out after the chew? ___ Have you ever drunk milk out of a cardboard container? ___ A plastic container? ___ A breast? ___ What vitamins and minerals would you consider taking on an empty stomach? ___ Please rate your interest in nutrition: Fanatic ___ Moderate ___ It depends on how hungry I am ___ Have you ever walked into a department store and wanted to buy more than you could afford? ___ Did you get an exchange slip? ___ How often do you exceed the speed limit? ___ Park illegally? ___ I am on parole and never break any laws ___ Have you ever ordered something in a restaurant that wasn’t on the menu? ___ Was it really good? ___ When is the last time you went to a drive-in theatre? (Day/month/year) ___ Was it for sex? ___ For the movie? ___ Because you love your car? ___ Is the statement “nothing is permitted to retain its form” by Pythagoras? ___ Attributed to Pythagoras? ___ Falsely attributed to Pythagoras? ___ Consider the situation in which two people hail the same cab simultaneously. Are they fatally attracted? ___ Fatally repelled? ___ Indifferent? ___ Do you feel at home in a cowboy hat? ___ Do you massage your chakras? ___ Do you massage the chakras of others? ___ Do you know where your water comes from? ___ Who do you love? ___ Who have you crossed off your list for good? ___ Who deserves a second chance? ___ Have you ever been afraid alone on a street after dark? ___ Has breaking news ever made you weep? ___ Which artistic lineage would you claim? Objective ___ Subjective ___ Have you ever seen the big picture in any discipline? ___ Please describe: ___ If you had to earn your degree all over, you would study: ___ Please list the drawbacks to this reader profile: 1)___ ; 2)___ ; 3)___ ; 4)___ When did you first encounter beauty? ___ Do you consider yourself: Analytic? ___ Synthetic? ___ What do heliotrope, cerulean, and cochineal have in common? ___ What do you prefer: Complexity? ___ Simplification? ___ Can you rephrase the question? ___ Are you pronouncing this in your head as you read? ___ Who is speaking? ___ Have we met? ___ Consider this sentence: “In a didactic text, the tendency is toward infrastructure.” What is meant by the word “infrastructure”? ___ Where is Herschel’s Garden? ___ The Ampullae of Lorenzini? ___ In 500 words or less, recount the best story you’ve ever heard: ________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

 

Thank you for your participation.

 

 

BIO

Dawn BaudeDawn-Michelle Baude is an international author, educator and Senior Fulbright Scholar. The author of seven volumes of poetry (Finally: A Calendar, Mindmade 2009), two volumes of translations (Vision of the Return by Amin Khan, Post-Apollo 2012), three art catalogues, three communications books, and one children’s book, Baude has written for Condé Nast and Newsweek International, as well as various literary and art sites. Formerly of the American University of Paris, she has lived and taught widely in Europe and the Middle East. She is the art critic at the Las Vegas Weekly.

Forthcoming Poetry: Interim magazine, http://www.interimmag.org

Literary Criticism, “Making Strange” in Please Add to This List: Teaching Bernadette Mayer’s Sonnets & Experiments”: (Tender Buttons, 2014) http://www.tenderbuttonspress.com/products/buttons-al-undone

Literary Translation: Vision of the Return by Amin Khan (Post Apollo Press, 2012): http://www.postapollopress.com/vision-of-the-return/

Contributing Writer (art writing), Las Vegas Weekly: http://www.lasvegasweekly.com/sitesearch/?q=baude

Photo by Shane O’Neal

 

 

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