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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





Janice E Rodriguez

Ground Control

by
Janice E. Rodríguez

 

 

I blame the International Astronomical Union for my mother’s departure from rational thought. Their announcement of Pluto’s demotion from planet to planet-like object left schoolteachers racking their brains for a my-very-excellent-mother-just-served-us-nine-pizzas replacement, museum curators wondering whether to snap the last orb from their orreries, and my mother, always sensitive to minor shifts that no one else felt, floating away from reality, converted into a mother-like object.

“I’ve sold the house,” she said on an October morning.

Our waitress circled the diner with coffee pot in hand, lingering a second too long by our table, sniffing the air for resentment and gossip. I waved her off.

“Mother, it’s too soon after Dad. You should wait a while before you make a big decision like that. Give it until Christmas.”

Mother wiped her mouth on a paper napkin and counted out her half of the bill plus a tip, stacking the coins into neat piles.

“The papers are signed. ’Tis done,” she said, affecting a vaguely Scottish accent. “You two should come over and see if you want anything. It won’t all fit in my apartment at the retirement community. I can’t keep the telescope, and I’d like someone to have it. Of course, that supposes that David will deign to set foot in my place.”

I kept my face bland and soft, refusing to rise to the bait. She stood and headed for the door.

Irrational. On a whim and probably at a marked-down price, she’d signed away the house whose threshold she had crossed as a bride, my childhood home, the single fragment of our family existence my father was able to recognize when his other memories had fled.

“She hates retirement communities,” I said. “So did Dad.”

The waitress looked at the bill and money and then at me, and I scrabbled in my wallet for my half.

“That your mom?” she asked. “You’re like two peas in a pod.”

“Not really.”

Since I escaped to college, Mother had maintained an untidy orbit on the far reaches of my existence. Six visits a year were plenty—three melodramatic and disastrous holidays, her birthday, and two random days marked in black on my calendar. David always stayed away, which gave Mother an opening line: “Is he at home, or did you finally kick the pompous ass out of your house?” This she alternated with, “Did you wise up and move out yet?”

We scheduled all six visits for neutral ground, like two wary souls on a blind date or two weary spouses navigating a divorce. She had never been abusive; she wasn’t evil; we were just too unalike to get along.

And now, three years after the IAU sent those unexpected vibrations rippling across the solar system and through Mother’s body and soul, she’s gone, a clot shaken loose from a leg or an arm to lodge in her brain. Her pastor and a hospital social worker assure me that she went in an instant.

I stand at the door to her apartment, empty boxes next to me on the floor, her purse tucked under my arm, her key in my hand. The keychain, a battered souvenir of the 1964 World’s Fair, swings heavily, and I hope for a second that its weight will pull me away from the door. I look at the fob, a heavy disk depicting the Unisphere, one of my only memories of that vacation. Mother and Dad hated traveling. The mother-like object that entered my life three years ago visited Cape Cod and the Jersey shore four seasons out of the year and sent tacky postcards with enigmatic messages.

I insert the key in the lock and am pushing open the door when my cell rings.

“Hey,” my husband says.

I juggle the two purses and the phone. “Hi.”

“Your Aunt Betty called. She said nice funeral and she wants your father’s burial flag and his Army medals.”

I stare in horror at Mother’s apartment, decorated in Dad’s least favorite color, blue.

“Are you there?”

“Yeah, David,” I say. Navy wall-to-wall carpeting. “I’m here.”

“She says that the widow has first priority but then after that, that stuff should pass to the nearest living male relative.”

“To cousin Rob.” Blue willow china in the corner cupboard. Toile cobalt children and farm animals scampering across the sofa.

“I gave her your cell number.”

“What? No, David. I have too much to do today.”

“So do I,” he says. “She can’t keep calling me here. I have a business to run.”

I yank the key from the lock and let the door fall closed behind me.

“Did you pick up my dry cleaning?” David asks. He sounds like a cliché.

“It’s on my list. I’ll see you tonight.”

The counselor would be proud of us. It’s the most civil conversation we’ve had without her supervision in six months.

I walk to the kitchen and dump the phone and purses on the table. As I dig for my to-do list, I notice that the kitchen is awash in a sea of blue, too, with some sunny Provençal yellows to keep it company. I pencil the word cleaners where it belongs, between the post office, where I need to find out how cancel Mother’s mail, and the liquor store, where I need to buy a bottle of anesthetic to get me through this week.

On the bookshelf, a gaudy ceramic rooster and chicken stand in front of a jagged skyline of cookbooks. Mother preferred her cookbooks in alphabetical order by author, blind to the untidy look that created.

The rooster and chicken were table decorations at Aunt Betty’s reception the second time she married, the first and last country hoe-down theme wedding I ever attended, and my twelve-year-old self never expected a bride in a patchwork prairie skirt or a groom with a bolo tie, especially when the bride was from Philadelphia and the groom from Secaucus.

Grandmom Parker and Great Aunt Irene sat at a gingham-covered picnic table with us that day. There were ribs and fried chicken, applesauce, potato salad, and a brownie wedding cake. Grandmom ate nothing but applesauce. Great Aunt Irene explained that their hotel was too close to the railroad tracks and Grandmom had ground her teeth—her gums, really, because her full upper and lower dentures had been in a jar on the nightstand—the whole of the sleepless night, and her mouth was too sore to put the dentures back in.

“Isn’t that a shame?” Aunt Irene asked. “Her own daughter’s wedding, and she can’t say or eat hardly anything.”

Grandmom glared at her.

“Of course, there could be a third wedding. With Betty you can’t tell,” Aunt Irene said.

“Harry’s a good man,” Dad said. “He and Betty have known each other for a long time.”

Aunt Irene helped herself to a second drumstick. “Know each other? Well, you know what I always say.”

Grandmom’s eyes narrowed at her in warning.

“I always say that you never really know a man until you’ve seen him naked.”

Our table and the two beside us went quiet in response. Another round of scratchy, bouncy fiddle music started up a few tense moments later.

“Isn’t that right?” Aunt Irene asked Grandmom.

“Let’s dance!” Mother said to Dad, smiling, eyes shining.

“When have you ever known me to dance?” Dad said.

I avoided the withering look he gave her by knocking my fork to the floor and spending more time than necessary recovering it. Under the table, Mother’s feet kept merry time with the music.

I move the ceramic rooster and chicken and begin to pull the books down, unsure of whether to box them up or to reshelve them by height. The doorbell rings and helps me avoid a decision for a little while.

Three elderly women stand in Mother’s doorway, sad smiles on their faces.

“We’re the Transitions Committee,” the first woman tells me.

The second hands me a business card. Happy Meadows—There’s No Place Like Home. Transitions Committee.

The third pats my arm and says, “We’re so sorry to hear of your loss.”

They have matching perms, tight curls blown dry into soft helmets, a blue rinse.

“You look just like your mother, dear,” the first woman says. She hands me a brochure.

They bustle into Mother’s apartment in unison, a single officious body with three heads and six legs.

I remember them now. They were at Mother’s funeral. David and I had been seated in the front pew, with Aunt Betty, Husband #3, and my cousins behind us, their kids behind them. I saw the three-headed, six-legged beast in the back pew on my way to the ladies’ room.

“TB, the family disease,” Mother would have said. “Tiny bladder. Give us Miller women an important occasion, and we just have to go and go.”

I paused on my return from the ladies’ room and listened to the three women.

“The son-in-law is an architect,” said the first.

“I understand they don’t have children,” the arm-patter said.

“That’s a shame,” said the card-carrier. “Is that the son in the second row with all those kids behind?”

 

“No,” said the first. “It must be some other relative. She only had the daughter and no grandchildren at all, poor thing.”

The card-carrier pointed to the left and said, “Is that the organist’s husband?”

“He’s gotten awfully heavy,” said the first.

The arm-patter shook her head sadly, “I never would have recognized him.”

The first woman opens the brochure, which is in my hand, and begins to speak while her two companions eye Mother’s blue living room. “Some families, when they have finished dividing a loved one’s possessions, find that there are usable goods left over. It can be difficult at times like these to find worthy charities to accept the goods. The Transitions Committee has assembled a list of places in the community where your loved one’s memory will live on in the form of donations.”

The arm-patter points to an address. “This food bank will accept perishable foods, within their expiration date, of course, and will even come here to make a pickup. We suggest that you tackle the refrigerator first, even if you don’t want to call the food bank. Otherwise, it becomes an unpleasant job.”

The other two concur with delicate shudders, and their shudders turn to startled jumps as my cell rings. It’s Aunt Betty’s area code.

“Thank you so much, ladies,” I say, closing the door on their surprised faces. “I’ve got to take this call. You’ve been so much help, really. Thanks. Thanks again.”

I put the chain across the door and toss the phone onto Mother’s blue recliner on my way back to the kitchen.

There are only two cookbooks that I remember, a Betty Crocker and a Fannie Farmer, and I put them in a box with a yellow sticky note—yellow for you is how I’ll remember—before loading the rest into a second box. I slap a green sticky note on the box; green for Goodwill. The bottom shelf holds Mother’s collection of astronomy books. I box them and affix a green sticky note.

The kitchen cabinets are next, the cans and jars alphabetized, for heaven’s sake, with no thought to the fact that lentil soup is tall enough to obscure the sliced button mushrooms. There are three boxes with blue sticky notes marked Food Bank when I finish. I search in vain for Mother’s good china. The everyday dishes—more blue and yellow Provençal—go into a box with a green sticky note.

Mother was a gifted and adventurous cook. In the back of the large bottom cabinet are the tagine, the fondue set, the madeleine pan, the springerle board, the wok, the bamboo steamer, and the little metal cornets on which she rolled delicate cookies into cornucopias. Dish after dish of exotica she would set before us when I was growing up, relentlessly innovative even with my favorite, macaroni and cheese, and Dad would patiently eat most of it, only occasionally delivering words that set her lips into a tight, thin line: “Well, we don’t have to have that again.”

I keep the madeleine pan. The rest goes in a box that I carry to the living room before tagging it a green sticky note.

The Transitions Committee be damned; I’m not going to save perishables. I put aside some bread, peanut butter, and juice for breakfast and send the remaining contents of the refrigerator sluicing down the garbage disposal, sad vegetables, fruit that’s seen better days, sour milk and memories. The frozen food goes in the trash.

It’s nearly five, and there’s not enough time to make it home and get dinner on the table before seven. I pick up the phone and dial into David’s voice mail; the counselor would tell me I’m avoiding authentic communication, but she’s never seen how he gets when his routine is disrupted.

“It’s me. There’s a lot more here than I thought, so I’ll stay the night. I left dinner in the fridge. Just reheat it. The dry cleaners will give you your suit if you give them your phone number, well, my cell phone number.”

Mother used to say that husbands have to be treated like colicky newborns—kept on a strict schedule. I remind myself that even the most distant planets align from time to time.

I pull Mother’s phone book out of the recycling bin and dial a pizza parlor, smiling and thinking that when the cat’s away, the mice order out.

Awaiting dinner, I put pink sticky notes on the living room and kitchen furniture—pink for the poor—all of it destined for pickup by the Fourth Street Shelter, all of it new, the furniture from my childhood home apparently jettisoned with the rest of our family memories.

There’s a bottle of wine in the corner cupboard in the living room, a little too sweet and effervescent for my taste and far too pedestrian for David’s, but it goes great with the pizza.

The combined effects of wine, packing, and memories leave me feeling sleepy. I choose Mother’s guest bedroom—her own room would be far too strange—which is mauve. I search the closet for a guest bathrobe.

No bathrobe, but a box marked china. I slide a thin blue photo album from on top and toss it onto the bed for later inspection. I peer inside the box; Mother and Dad’s wedding china is there. I smile and put a yellow sticky note on it. In a box below it, I find her wedding dress, draped over a busty form beneath a plastic window, preserved in its acid-free box, awaiting the day when her daughter or granddaughter might wear it. I disappointed her twice on that one.

There’s no guest robe in the bathroom either, so I go into her bedroom. Everything inside her closet smells like flowers and summer hay, and I shut the scent of her away, unexpected tears burning my eyes.

I open the bottom drawer of her dresser. It’s a new dresser destined to be marked with a pink sticky tomorrow, but I know Mother. Her bottom dresser drawer always contained clothing she never wore but felt guilty giving or throwing away. Front and center is the tee shirt David and I bought her on our trip to Hawaii ten years ago. Beneath that is the fifteen-year-old one from Paris.

I pour myself another glass of dreadful wine and crawl into the guest bed, wearing the Paris shirt and steeling myself to look through the photo album. Before I open it, I make a trip to Mother’s room to retrieve a box of tissues.

Mother and Dad in their twenties, at a picnic with friends, everyone’s arms linked, everyone’s face contorted against the sunshine. Mother and Dad at a meeting of the church group for young couples, The Twosomes, Dad out of focus. Dad bowling, Mother looking off camera. Mother and Dad at Niagara Falls, Mother’s eyes closed and Dad’s popped open in surprise.

Me on Dad’s lap, Mother standing behind us, one hand on Dad’s shoulder and the other on mine, smiling through clenched teeth. Mother and Dad at one of Aunt Betty’s weddings, sitting apart, the air tense between them.

Anniversary pictures, posed and stiff. Me graduating college, arms thrown around both my parents’ waists, leaning into Dad, away from Mother. Candid photos, with one or the other smiling, but never both.

I swallow wine. Leave it to Mother to compile a record of the unhappiest moments of her forty-six years of married life. There is another, thicker photo album on the nightstand, and I fortify myself with another glass of wine before opening it.

The first pages are blank, and I turn the album upside down. But then the photographs are upside down. I right the album and begin at the back. Mother and Dad in their twenties, seated on a picnic table, their knees, heads, and shoulders together. Mother and Dad as secretary and president of The Twosomes.

Mother has arranged this album in reverse chronological order, and every photo shines with happiness and family pride. Then, as I page backward through the album and forward in time, Mother with new friends, people I don’t know.

Mother at Mount Rushmore. Mother with another woman and two men by Lake Louise. Mother and her friends in front of the Eiffel Tower. Mother in London. Mother in a store in Scotland, holding a kilt in front of her waist. Mother dressed as an elderly Christmas elf serving dinner at a homeless shelter. Mother and a white-haired man at a Western-themed Halloween party. Blank pages, and I sleep.

***

Thin-crusted, cardboard-boxed pizza undergoes a magical maturation process overnight in the refrigerator, and it makes a delightful breakfast, one I usually enjoy only when David’s out of town, so I give it the full treatment—serving the slices on a paper towel instead of a plate, crooking one knee and resting my foot on my chair, watching the television and reading a magazine while I eat.

The pizza keeps my morale high as I strip Mother’s bed and put pink sticky notes on the furniture. I’m prepared this time—windows open to draw her perfume away, the television keeping me company, and it works until I open her closet door. Headless, handless, empty clothes sag on hangers, looking like her and not like her. Front and center is an outfit that crowds the others, one I recognize from the fatter of the two photo albums, a pink top with a ruffle under the scoop neck, ruffles under the puffed short sleeves, a pink and green plaid skirt that flares out, and underneath that, about a mile of stiff petticoat. I shake my head.

Except for the green and pink costume, the clothes are organized by color, and I pull them out, sort them into piles by season, bag them, and put green stickers on them. Shoes go into a box. Underwear I throw out, mechanically, purposely avoiding thought. The detritus and whimsies of life grow when they’re released from the confines of their storage spaces and pose impossible questions: Why did you buy me? What do I say about you? Why wear that to a Halloween party?

Cooking magazines and romance novels form an irregular tower by the bed. I throw them into a heavy-duty garbage bag, sweep a parade of tiny perfume bottles from the nightstand after them, and pull the plastic drawstrings closed.

Curled around the base of the lamp is one of Dad’s watches. He bought and lost a half-dozen a year, cheap ones, even before the Alzheimer’s, the kind you used to be able to buy in a corner drugstore. My eyes sting. I can’t believe Mother saved one of them. I find the box with the good china, wrap the watch in tissues, and tuck it inside,

The bedroom takes up the rest of the morning, with a brief interruption for the pickup by the food bank. Only the bathroom remains, where I suspect that I’ll throw out everything, and the closet by the front door. My cell rings. Aunt Betty. I ignore her.

I haven’t found Dad’s service flag or the medals. Aunt Betty will declare this a perfect opportunity for a melodramatic scene. To the closet, then, to find a way to shut Aunt Betty up.

I hear a knock as I go, and I’ve got the front door open before the man outside has withdrawn his lightly closed fist. He stands there, hand raised, one knuckle extended beyond the rest, face frozen like a mask, eyes shifting away so I can’t read them.

“I, uh … hadn’t heard. She never … The ladies told me when I got back this morning.” He jerks his head to the right, and I see three blue-haired heads disappear around the corner of the hall in unison.

I pull him inside and close the door.

He smiles and pats my hand. “So you take in strays, too, just like her. I’m John Bailey.”

I can’t figure out whether to pull back my hand to shake his or to put the other one on top, so I settle for stepping back and offering him a glass of water.

His throat catches. “You sound just like her, too.”

When I return, he’s blinking back tears as he surveys the stacks of boxes and piles of bags.

“Would you like a few minutes alone, Mr. Bailey?” I ask, and I retreat to the bathroom before he can answer. I wonder out loud if the Fourth Street Shelter can use opened toiletries.

I hear sniffling and shuffling, and he appears at the bathroom door.

“The tissues aren’t in the bedroom,” he says.

“Guest bedroom, Mr. Bailey.”

“John,” he says.

“John.”

He returns with the box, blowing his nose loudly. “I was visiting my kids in Michigan. No one called me.”

“I’m sorry. I didn’t know.”

“I brought her this.” He extends a blue folder.

I usher him back to the living room, and we sit so I can read the certificate inside.

Belles and Bucks Modern Western Square Dance
Mrs. Doris Parker & Mr. John Bailey
First Prize
Division 3—Senior Beginners

“May I buy you lunch?” he asks.

I’m not sure why I accept. Perhaps it’s the way he holds his grief back, under the surface, wrapped in a thin and fragile skin. Perhaps I think the skin will be less likely to burst if we’re in public. Soon I find myself in the retirement home’s café, fiddling with a menu, ordering a cheeseburger.

John leans forward confidentially. “So have you thrown that no-good husband of yours out of the house yet?”

I cough iced tea up my nose.

“Sorry. It’s what your mother would have asked you.”

“And it’s just about exactly the way she’d ask, too.” I let several minutes pass in silence to show my disapproval before asking about the square dancing.

John talks between bites of sandwich. “Your mother was a terrific dancer, God rest her. If she had started sooner in life, she could have been a professional.”

“There are professional square dancers?” I ask.

He stares out the window. “I can’t believe she’s gone.”

I repeat the comforting words of the pastor and social worker—no pain, gone in an instant—hoping they’re true.

Being in public is no proof against John’s grief, and he begins to cry in the way of those who rarely permit themselves to do so, a few fat tears smeared away with the balls of the hands, then wracking, painful sobs.

I walk him back to Mother’s apartment, people giving me angry and suspicious glances as we go. I cannot carry or assuage the grief of this man I do not know, so I settle him in Mother’s blue toile armchair, fetch him tissues, and begin sorting through the last closet.

A cardboard box with Mother’s bank statements and bills, yellow sticky note. Coats and jackets for all seasons, green sticky note. Boots, green sticky note. Umbrellas … trash?

“You’re very efficient, very contained,” John says. “I can see why Doris would have thought that seemed cold sometimes.”

I’m glad my back is turned. I find a box the on the top shelf of the closet. Dad’s flag and medals.

John is standing behind me now, looking at Dad’s things.

“She was proud of you,” he says. “Proud of your work. You know, there was no such thing as art therapy when I was your age. I wonder if it would have helped the boys who came back from Korea.”

“I work with children, not adults.”

The doorbell rings, and the workers from the Fourth Street Shelter are here for the boxes and bags with pink sticky notes. The Goodwill people are next. I hand them the estate donation forms, and they carry out everything marked with a green sticky note.

“I should go,” John says. “You keep this for her.”

He presses the certificate into my hand. I have no way of explaining to him that the thought of Mother square dancing is completely alien to me.

He’s halfway out the door when he asks, “Did you find a watch? It’s nothing fancy. Brown leather band. I left it here last time.”

“No.” So long as that watch is in the box with the good china and a yellow sticky note, it’s mine. It’s Dad’s.

“I’ll give you my address in case you find it.” John writes it down, draws a little map. “I guess you’re going soon.”

“Tonight.”

His eyebrows quirk, his lips twitch, words forming and unforming and failing to emerge from his mouth. He gulps and nods and pats me on the shoulder.

“Wonderful woman, your mother.”

When he leaves, I consolidate my boxes and bags and begin to haul them to the car. I open the fatter of the photo albums and flip through to the picture of what I supposed to be a Halloween party. I scan the background—azaleas in bloom, green grass, the women dressed in ruffled tops and flared, tiered skirts with petticoats, the men wearing matching fabric on the yokes of their Western shirts or on their ties. Next to Mother, arm behind her back, is John Bailey. There are tiny indentations at her side where his fingers must surely be clasping her to him. His tie matches the green and pink get-up she wears; his broad smile mirrors hers.

I slip the certificate that John has brought into a blank page in the album and close Dad’s—John’s—watch between the cover and first page. On my way out of town, I stop at his place and put the album on his doorstep. I ring the doorbell and walk away, but he hails me before I get to the car and does an old man’s half-jog over to me.

He points down the street. “Half a mile from here is the turnpike. Past the grocery store. Two more lights. You’ll see the sign on your right when you get to the gas station. There’s a whole universe out there. You’d be happier without him, you know.”

I thank him and nod and head the way he pointed, toward infinite possibilities and alternate worlds. When I’m out of sight of his place, I double back and drive home.

 

 

BIO

Janice E RodriguezJanice E. Rodríguez inhabits two realities—the rolling hills and broad valleys of her native eastern Pennsylvania, and the high, arid plains of her adopted land of Castilla-León in Spain. She currently teaches Spanish at Albright College in Reading, Pennsylvania. When she’s not teaching, writing, or gardening, she’s in the kitchen working her way through a stack of cookbooks. She can be found online at janiceerodriguez.com.

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.

 

 

 

 

My Grandfather is a Pilot

by Tommy Dean

 

He only flies on the weekends and since my girlfriend left me, my grandfather and I have been flying around the world. He always calls me on Thursday, and asks me, “Are you ready for your lesson?” to which I usually reply, “Just until I find something better to do.” He laughs and I can usually hear the tinkling sound of ice against his glass as he stirs another Bloody Mary. Chelsea didn’t break up with me to go out with a football player, because I used to be that guy. No, she broke up with me to start dating the trombone player. A senior, with a promising career and a scholarship to Notre Dame. Whenever I say Chelsea’s name around my grandfather he takes a long drink of his Bloody Mary and says, “Women,” as if that’s all there is to say about the subject. Both of his wives died, he reminds me, so he’s never felt that kind of heartache. Then he smacks his lips and winks. The pictures, both black and white and color in dusty frames tell me otherwise. I spot them all over the small house: the back of the toilet, the end table next to the recliner reserved for guests, and several next to the computer.

Saturday night, I pull into my grandfather’s driveway. My parents’ only let me drive in a forty mile radius and I have to call or text them when I get to my destination. I’m here, I type, close the app, and then open it back up to add a smiley face. I don’t feel all that happy, but it’s part of the illusion I’ve quietly agreed to continue with my family. I could sit here and listen to the engine settle and cool, but my grandfather gets anxious when cars pull in and no one gets out in like the first five minutes. Once, I sat there fighting with Chelsea on the phone and he came out with a pistol in his hand. When he confirmed it was me, he put it in the waistband of his jeans and waited for me to get out of the car.

“Jesus, Gramps.”

“I was just confirming it was you,” he said, a wrinkled smile breaking across his face.

“What if it wasn’t me?”

“Depends on who it was.”

There was more to his life, moments in his youth he never talked about, though I never asked either. Over the years, I’d heard mention, from the distracted and broken off conversations of my parents, of pool halls and bars. My father, an accountant, who had no sense of adventure, even in movies, shook his head when I told him about the gun. “That man’s always been a fighter. You get a chance, Joel, take a look at his knuckles.” “Oh, and don’t tell your mother.”

It feels like there is a lot we’re not telling my mother right now. My father thinks it’ll be easier if she finds out later. “When the dirt settles?” I ask more and more. All he can do is nod and grip my shoulder.

I walk up the sidewalk, concentrating on each step, willing my feet to do as they’re told, marveling at the condition of the concrete. The house was built in the late 40s, but you wouldn’t know it from all of the maintenance my grandfather does every year. The porch light is on, and though it’s a summer night the wind through the breezeway is cold and if I had any hair left, I’d surely have been wiping it out of my face. They say it won’t grow back this time.

I knock and wait for him to answer. From inside, the floorboards creak under his weight and there is the rustle of locks being undone. Light spills from the kitchen around the broad shape of my grandfather as he peers through the screen in the storm door.

“I guess the raccoons have learned how to knock.”

“You’d probably treat them better than your grandkids,” I say.

“Hell, it’d be a lot easier. Throw them a few scraps and they’d be on their way. I suppose you want to come in?”

The house is small; a three bedroom with less than twelve hundred square feet. How my father lived here with three other siblings I’ll never know. Except somehow they all survived the closeness that small houses bring. The kind of closeness that develops into fights and the sharing of colds and accusations, the kind of hurts that bond a family together though they never tend to see each other except for the holidays.

The linoleum in the kitchen has yellowed and is peeling underneath the table, which in a larger house would have fit nicely in a dining room. Here it sags underneath the weight of mail and old Coca-Cola bottles that my grandfather collects. When he’s not flying the plane, he sits at the table and rubs away the dust and grime that comes from years of neglect. I often wonder if we all couldn’t use a gentle twist or flap of a rag, something to shine us up before we go out into the world. Though I’m sure some of us wouldn’t prefer it. Our bodies chipped and stained, the ugliness of light reflected through glass, vulnerable to another crack when we’ve been mishandled or thrown against the pavement.

My grandpa leads us through the kitchen into a short open space offset between the kitchen and the living room. He walks slower than normal, his hands, usually in his pockets, are out at his sides poised to catch himself should he suddenly lose his balance. His hair too, seems to have thinned since I’ve last seen him. He falls more than sits in the desk chair.

“Getting old isn’t for sissies,” he says.

I stand there looking down at him. His hands gripping the armrests as though he’s afraid he’ll fall right through the seat.

“What the hell are you looking at?” he asks, his voice weak at first, but filled with piss and vinegar at the end. A phrase he taught me when I was four, at a Fourth of July parade. I remember the look of horror on my mom’s face while I ran around in circles, shouting “piss and vinegar, piss and vinegar.”

“You need a hat. A pilot’s with the wings stitched into the middle.”

“What for?”

“You know, to make it official.”

“Nah, that’d make it too real. Then I’d feel bad flying with one of these.” He picked up the sweating highball (another word he taught me) and took a swallow of the red juice. The vodka concealed by the color, but no one that knew my grandfather was ever fooled.

I take a seat in the creaky, wooden dining room chair that sits to the left of the office chair. When we first started our routine, I carry the chair back at the end of each visit, but now I’m too weak to protest, so it sits there every weekday night waiting for my return. I’m sure it bothers him to snake around the damn thing every night when goes to check his email, but he’s never said a word.

My grandpa pecks at the keyboard and images of his first wife vanish from the screen. Other pictures take her place, and I’m surprised by the chronology: second wife (my grandmother crocheting prior to the MS), their children (my dad with long hair and buck teeth), and then shots of my two sisters and I aging from infants to teenagers and all of the awkwardness in between. His life flashes onto and off the screen in seconds. The computer fan whirs and a life that’s just about out of gas passes away back into a binary plasma until they’re called back to the screen again.

Against the wall, next to the computer is an old roll-top desk covered in picture frames. I had attributed these remnants of the past to my grandmother’s sense of decorating, but she’s been gone for several years and still the frames remain. They make the house feel smaller as if it’s full of life, while my parents home seems devoid of pictures as if they would take up too much space. I’ve overheard my mother comment to my father that she likes clean, sharp lines.

I grab one of the frames and wipe my finger around the corners. When I look at my finger I expect to see a smudge of dust, but there’s nothing there but the whorls of my fingerprint. It reminds me of a time when I was younger when I was active in Cub Scouts and our group leader took us down to the local police station to have all of us fingerprinted. It satisfied the requirements of one of the badges, though I no longer had the stoll they were collected on. The cop was fat with smelly breath that leaked out of a mouth covered by the wisps of a half-grown mustache. His face was so round, his hair buzzed tight to his scalp, it could have used the extra hair to give his features some kind of definition. His head looked like a watermelon perched atop human shoulders. I wondered if he got punched a lot. A face like that was just asking to be pummeled. He took my wrist roughly and pushed my thumb into the ink pad, rolling it right and left as if I didn’t have any motor control, as if I were a doll, a thing he could fling around as he chose. He made a big deal about telling us, six boys under the age of thirteen, that the fingerprints would help the police find us if we were ever taken. Alive? I wanted to ask, but didn’t because I didn’t want him to remember me. I kept thinking about the record they now had of my prints, how they’d now be a part of the national database, where if I should ever commit a crime they’d be able to link me to the crime scene. Now I didn’t plan on committing any crimes not then, and not now, but I didn’t like the thought of them having everything they needed. And I’d given it to them willingly.

My grandpa sighs as he repositions himself in the leather office chair. He tabs at the keyboard and the flight simulator comes onto the screen. The rattle of a large engine blares from the speakers that sit next to the bulky rear-projection monitor.

“I know it’s your turn to pick the destination, but I’d like to have another turn. You don’t mind, do you?” he asks, his eyebrows raised, as if this is an honest question, when we both know that I don’t care where we go. Even when I do pick a place, it’s only to make him happy and through his gentle suggestions.

“Like Hell,” I say, because that’s how we talk to each other. A couple of old men, who should have seen better days, but they never really materialized.

“”Good, because there’s a flight I’ve always wanted to pilot and I think today is the day.”

“Just tell me that we’re not going to Europe again, because that took forever. And you were definitely over your limit that night.

“That’s why I’ve got my copilot.” he squeezes my neck, but the pressure seems weaker than usual.

“My captain, my captain, where are we headed?”

“Boston to California, my good lad.”

“And our mood tonight? Cherished memory or shameful regret?”

He takes a long drink of his Bloody Mary–his father’s drink. “Oh a little of both, I’m afraid. It’s the measure of life.”

“Just as long as we can land the thing this time. That airport in Fiji was unreal. Who plops an airport down between the ocean and a mountain? I can’t believe people really fly there.”

“I don’t think we’ll have to worry about the landing this time.”

“Fine. Then move over old man and pass me that keyboard. I’ll take her up to cruising altitude.”

He rocked his chair to the right and slid the keyboard closer toward my waiting hands. I moved my fingers expectantly like a Jazz pianist. Tap, Tap. The keys responded to my poking and the plane on the screen rattled to life. The pilot avatar, with only his hands showing, since the camera in the game was slotted for first person point of view, pushed the speed lever forward and the camera switched to the outside of the plane where it taxied faster down the runway. The number on the tail of the plane was 73. I tapped a key and the camera focused back on the cockpit. The simulator was actually pretty easy to play in that it only took a few taps of the keys to get the plane up into the air and cruising along. Like most kids my age, I enjoyed more complex and violent games, but the one time that I tried one of these games with my grandfather he almost broke my controller by throwing it at the ground. He had stomped out of the room and refused to return until I had got the goddamn thing off the screen.

I pivot the camera from cockpit, to the engines, to the tail, and then to the interior where usually there were pixelated people stretched out across the seats. In this flight, there were two lone avatars sitting in the front close to the cockpit door. The graphics aren’t up-to-date, so the two figures look too much like cartoons compared to the newer games that were made for the latest gaming consoles. I flip through row after row until I get to the front and I notice that the figures match our likenesses. A few months back, as a joke, we had made ourselves using the limited character building options. I looked more like a kindergartener than a sophomore in high school and my Grandfather had really large biceps, which he assured me he used to have in his own youth. I didn’t remember ever actually adding them to the passenger list before tonight though.

“Where’s the rest of the passengers?”

“Check the Flight List, Co-pilot.”

A few clicks of the mouse takes me away from the interior of the plane and to a screen with a list of the passengers. My grandfather and I are the only names on the list.

“Where are all the other fake people? Donny, the accountant with the drinking problem, and Celeste, who is thinking about running away from her family?” Sometimes we make up fake backstories for the other avatar passengers. It’s our way of living different lives I guess, though sometimes I wonder if I’ve lived enough of my own to know that someone’s else’s life might be better. I’m just starting, I want to tell God or the universe, whoever is control.

“We’re flying solo, bud. I didn’t want anyone else on this flight.”

Why, I almost ask him, but there’s something in his voice that stops me from asking. Even when I was a child, it wasn’t a question he ever liked to answer. Ask your mom, he’d tell me over and over.

“I guess we’d better get this over with,” he says, as if he’s suddenly exhausted. “Would you get me another one of these while I get us back on track?” He hands me his glass, the smell of tomato and vodka drifts between us and I can’t tell if it’s coming only from the cup or if he’s getting closer to that moment where the smell of his body is more vodka and tomato than his normal smell of cigarettes and western aftershave.

In the kitchen, I rinse out the red residue from the bottom of the glass. He hides the vodka in the cabinet next to the sink. He told me once that a man shouldn’t be ashamed of the things in his home, but he didn’t need to invite gossip either, so the vodka stayed hidden and guests were offered Pepsi. The bottle is large, with a round bottom and a long neck. There isn’t much in there, maybe enough for two or three drinks so I pour about half into the glass. I don’t have much experience in this, so I don’t know if it would be considered the normal amount or not, but I’ll have to warn him that’s he’s almost out. I grab the tomato juice from the ancient and yellowing fridge. It’s so old that the seal in the door doesn’t work all that well and the door opens easier than a swinging gate. As I pour the juice, I try to imagine again what it tastes like and why it’s so appealing to my grandfather. How could he stand to drink one or six every night? My mother had outlawed alcohol in our home except for the rare bottle of wine around the holidays. It’s not something my father or her ever talked about with us, but I’d never seen either of them drunk. It wasn’t how they dealt with the minor dramas of their lives. My mother, especially, attacked everything head on and she relied on her ability to be ever present if a problem should arise. Alcohol would have diminished her ability to concentrate on the solution, a solution she might suffer over for weeks.

“Ty, why don’t you make yourself one too,” my Grandfather shouted.

I walked into the next room carrying the glass, my legs already stiffening up from standing long enough to make the drink. I wish I could tell him about the pain, how I know that it might be coming back.

“You sure?” I ask, handing him the cup. “I don’t want anyone to get in trouble.”

“Go, go.” He shoos me away with his free hand. “We won’t tell your mother. Besides what good is flying first class if you can’t enjoy the free drinks?” He smiles over the brim of his glass, takes a long drink, and motions for me to hurry up.

Though it feels like I’m dragging my left leg, I hurry into the kitchen. I open the cabinet with the cups and I hesitate. At home, we only use plastic cups, but that seems so childish when I’m going to have my first drink, so I grab a glass like my grandfather’s and I go to work making another drink.

My mother didn’t like these visits. Not because of my grandfather’s language or references about the seedier things he had done in his life, though these things were usually included in her arguments with my father; arguments that I wasn’t supposed to hear, but inevitably heard, because my mother’s vehemence didn’t allow her to whisper. No her real problem with the way that I spent my Saturday nights was that she thought that I was wasting my time. Time that had become even more precious as I got older and the chances of remission twindled. She’d casually mention dances or movies, things I could do with my friends. Normal things, she never said, but her eyes often pleaded in those few minutes we spent passing each other in the darkened hallway outside of my bedroom before I went off to bed. My friend options had narrowed through the years as my cancer became normal, boring, and a thing they could avoid without much guilt. It was no longer cool to hang out with the kid with cancer. And I too had realized that it was no longer worth trying to fit in. I never would. So I helped my grandfather fly his simulation missions and waited. This, I wanted to tell my mother, is when I owned time.

When I sit back down I notice two things: the first is that my grandfather’s drink is about gone already and that there is something wrong with the plane. The plane takes a wide arc and the engine starts to whine with the increase in speed. We’re traveling at 500 miles per hour and the pixelated clouds look like marching marshmallows as they glide over the windshield. A bell dings warning us that we’ve drifted well off of our original course. Another warning sounds goes off, reminding us that we may run out of gas or stall at these speeds. My grandfather hits the spacebar twice and the alarms are silenced leaving only the synthetic sound of rushing wind outside the simulated cockpit. We’ve never went off course before, nor have we ever cranked the plane up to these speeds. The game, with its weak graphics and lousy processor hitches and threatens to crash.

“Are you trying to give your fake self a heart-attack?”

“I wish it were that easy, Ty.” He shakes his head and holds up his glass. “Let’s drink, son.”

He gestures at my glass and I hold mine up like his as if we’re about to toast.

“Normally, for a first drink I’d tell you to take it slow, but tonight’s a little different and we don’t have the time for all of that namby-pamby stuff. We’ll drink together, alright? Don’t stop until I do. Can you do that for me, Ty?”

The tone of his voice–sad, angry, a bit hostile–makes me look him in the eye and I can see why my dad is so scared of him, but also why he loves him so much. I’m surprised that he’s not crying, but finally I nod and put the glass up to my lips. The smell of tomato is strong and the glass is cold against my lips. We tip our glasses and at first it tastes only like soup, but then as the liquid slides down my throat I think of eating hot food, campfires, and the time I had bronchitis. I tip the glass until it feels as though I’m drowning. I catch, from the corner of my eye, my grandfather lowering his glass and finally I take the cup away and suck in air.

“Jesus, How do you drink that stuff?” I wipe my mouth the back of my hand.

“It’s an acquired taste,” he says, laughing. I laugh too and I think of that scene in Beauty and the Beast where Gaston sings about his triumphs. I don’t mention this thought, because it’s another reminder of just how young I must seem to him.

“Grandpa, why are we doing all of this?” I wave my hands and arms around as if I’m a conductor who is fed up with his orchestra, indicating God knows what, because my head feels as though it’s trying to float away from my neck. The edges of my vision have gone a bit sparkly as the liquid settles in my stomach.

“Just watch the screen. A few more minutes and we’ll have our answer.”

“Answer? What? What are we doing?”

Tap, tap at the keys and my grandfather drops the plane several thousand feet. The camera tilts and I know that we’re nosing down toward the ground. The Earth comes into focus and I’m amazed again at how it looks like a patchwork quilt with it’s tidy squares of farmland and suburbs.

“Ty, We don’t have much time.”

“Time for what? This is getting a bit creepy Grandpa. Even for you.” Nervous, I take another sip of the drink.

“I wanted to see what it felt like. You know, to make those calls.”

“What calls? Look, the plane is going to crash,” I said, pointing at the screen. I killed thousands of soldiers in my own games, but I didn’t want this plane to crash.

I reached for the keyboard and he smacked my hand. It didn’t hurt at first, just stung like I was a child, the one I’d been trying to hide all night.

“What the hell was that for?” I sat back in my chair, a little afraid of where this was all going.

“You remember the movie we watched a couple of weeks ago? The one about Flight 73?”

“9/11? That was over ten years ago. What does that have to do with anything?”

“What doesn’t it have to do with? I’ve got some news. Bad news, actually. And I wanted to tell you when we were watching that movie, but I saw you crying…” I start to protest, and he waves me down. “I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with it, but I thought we had heard enough about death that night, so I’ve been trying to figure how to tell you ever since.”

The bells and alarms are back, forcing their way out of the speakers. I glance at the screen and the plane looks as though it’s been flung like an arrow toward the earth. A field comes closer, the individual details coming into focus. The field is surrounded by several small groups of trees, their branches fanned out like a huddle of school children waiting for the bus in winter.

“We’ve got to pretend here like I’m on that flight. I know I’m headed for a crash that you don’t walk away from. They’ve got these phones on the plane, you see, that can call anywhere in the world from the air. I’m up there with those other people, and I’m crying, and praying and cussing and I’m only thinking about you, Ty. You’ve been dealt a shitty hand. Christ. At your age, but I call you, son, because I know that you’ll understand. You might not remember it, but you’ve stared down that coward Death before and I need your strength, because he’s coming for me now. My plane is going down and I thought I was ready, but I’m not so sure now. So I thought I’d see what it was like to die. And I’ve been thinking about it for weeks, and this is the only thing I could think of and I’m sorry you have to come along, but I need a co-pilot for this last flight.”

He looks at me and the anger is gone, replaced by the same emotion I often find in my own eyes when I look in the mirror: fear.

I pull my chair closer and I take his hand. If I ignore the calluses and the gnarled knuckles, the skin is clammy and weightless, his grip loose, as if he’s waiting me for me to lead the way. We brace ourselves for the impact, holding onto each other, knowing full well that neither can really save the other, but in this simulated moment of panic, we take solace in knowing that somebody else is there. It won’t protect our bodies, as the plane hurtles toward the Earth, but for these last seconds, we free-fall into the place where our bodies, finally, cannot harm us.

No one died that day, at least not anybody real. We never flew again. We had, finally, one less mystery. Death, we agreed, could wait.

 

 

BIO

Tommy DeanTommy Dean is the author of a flash fiction chapbook entitled Special Like the People on TV from Redbird Chapbooks. A graduate of the Queens University of Charlotte MFA program, he has been previously published in the Watershed Review, Wilderness House Literary Review, r.kv.r.y, Boston Literary Magazine, Foliate Oak, and Gravel. Find him @TommyDeanWriter on Twitter.

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

Dylan’s Roost

by Susan Lloy

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Miss, are you looking for this?’

“Yes. I believe so.”

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

“Thank you very much.”

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

I brought him tea and the wrapped sandwich.

“Here, take this for later on.”

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

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

“Lee. You got to get going now.”

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

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

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

“OK. OK.”

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

-2-

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

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

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

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

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

“Hello Dylan.”

“Hi.”

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

“A little.”

“And?”

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

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

“Maybe.”

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

“How are you sleeping?”

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

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

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

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

 

Penvro

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

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

 

Arial

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

-3-

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

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

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

“That’s good, Lee.”

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

“Hey, Lee. Feel for tea?”

“Yup. Yup. Yup. Thanks man.”

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

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

“I bet her pussy stinks.”

“Shush, Lee. That’s not nice.”

“Sorry, sorry Dylan.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

“Hello.”

“Kevin?”

“Yes. Kevin here.”

“This is Arial.”

“Who?”

“Arial, we met at speed-dating.”

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

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

“Yeah, I think I know who you are.”

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

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

Disappointment spreads like spilt ink.

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

“See ya.”

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

“No problem. It’s nobody’s news.”

“What’s your name anyway?”

“Dylan.”

He offered his hand.

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Not great.”

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

“OK. Whatever. I don’t care.”

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

-4-

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

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

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

“Yes. I can see that Lee. What’s up?”

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

“That’s good, Lee.”

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

“Want tea?”

“You bet.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Hazel’s no more. No. No. No more.”

“What happened Lee?”

“They got her.”

“Who’s they, Lee?”

“Them.”

He points his finger towards the ceiling.

“She doesn’t contact me anymore.”

“That’s too bad, Lee.”

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

And he looks towards Arial.

“Maybe her?”

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

“That looks good!” proclaims Lee.

“We’ll see.”

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

“Thanks again.”

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

“She’s the one.”

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

“Hello Dylan.”

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

“Want one?”

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

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

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

“I don’t know.”

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

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

 

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

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

“Oh yeah! Why me?”

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

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

“I know, but maybe there’s a twist.”

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

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

“Sure, I guess. When?”

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

“Sunday, Monday.”

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

“OK then, it’s a date.”

“Sunday it is.”

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

 

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

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

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

“Ready?”

“Well, I’m here right?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

-5-

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

“Lee. What’s up?”

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

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

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

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

“Who?”

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

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

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

“No. He’s a cunt too.”

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

 

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

“Hello.”

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

“Hello too.”

“Have you been to the shop recently?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

“What do you do Lee?”

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

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

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

“I see, sounds like fascinating work.”

“It is, most definitely.”

“Who are these predators you speak of?”

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

“I must say they sound extremely menacing.”

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

“Lee can I ask you something?”

“Ask away.”

“Do you suffer from a mental illness?”

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

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

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

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

“That sounds good. Good. Good. Good.”

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

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

“Are you always so suspicious?”

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

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

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

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

“Right. Right.”

 

Penvro enters and walks directly to me.

“Dylan. How are ya?”

“OK. Same old.”

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

“Is that your angle?”

“Not sure yet.”

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

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

“I dunno Penvro, sounds stupid to me.”

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

“Smells awfully good in here Arial.”

“I’m cooking roast.”

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

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

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

“Oh lucky you, Arial.”

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

“Hello.”

“Hello. Hello.”

“Lee, how nice to see you. Come in.”

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

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

“No for wine. And yes for meat.”

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

“Just water, please.”

“Sparkling or uncarbonated?”

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

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

 

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

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

“Miss? Don’t be so formal.”

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

“What captain?”

Lee points towards the ceiling light.

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

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

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

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

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

-6-

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah. What do you want out there?”

“Are you Mr. Riley?”

“Yes, who’s this?”

“My name is Lee, may I come in?”

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

The knocking becomes harder and hurried.

“Please open!”

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

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

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

“Dearest Dylan,

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

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

 

 

BIO

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

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

Joseph De Quattro Writer

Rubric for Getting Up in the Morning

by Joseph De Quattro

 

for Jen Schneider

 

1. PAYPHONES

 

In the end Colliver hadn’t put up much of a fight about seeing Dr. Gover, but when the nurse offered him a cup of water he declined it with naked hostility, swallowed the pill dry, then made a mocking face when transformation didn’t happen immediately.

“Still me,” Colliver said.

Dr. Gover stifled a small laugh. “It’s powerful,” he said, “but of course it’ll take some time to appear in your system.” Gover had been Vera’s idea shortly after everything had come out. As psychiatrists went he was in demand, but someone at her agency who knew him had called in a favor.

“Will it say hello when it appears,” Colliver asked snidely.

Dr. Gover looked at him. “Oh, you better believe it,” he said, playing along. “Like Beethoven on Eddie Van Halen.”

On the way out the female receptionist caught Colliver’s eye and smiled at him. He didn’t smile back, only stepped hurriedly into the glare of the afternoon trying to ignore her teeth, her cleavage, the fact that the sun was shining with the sort of seaside brightness that created haloed mottled discs beneath the eyelids. At Fifty-Second Street he found a working payphone, snatched up the receiver and dialed rapidly.

“Hello,” a woman on the line said a moment later.

“It’s ten six,” Colliver said. It was late March, past the formal start of spring but still cold, and now his breath in short, desirous rhythms came in ghostly white bursts. “I changed my mind.”

The woman, who was unable to contain a small sigh of impatience, said, “so you want to now, then?”

“Yes,” Colliver said. “Very soon. Same thing.”

“Yes, yes,” the woman said, “always the same with you. I know.”

Despite saying “soon” he didn’t in fact want to go over right away. Or, at least, he wanted to fight the urge, see if Dr. Gover was wrong, if the Xinaprien would in fact be some miraculous quick fix. Shut it all down inside him and make him head home.

For several minutes he milled about the mid-day crush along Third Avenue before turning down Fiftieth Street where he accessed the foyer of a nondescript brick walk-up, pressed a button and was buzzed in. On the stairs, and again despite what Gover had told him (or was it to spite him)?, Colliver noted that he felt exactly the same as he always did in such moments: as if he were drowning though not unpleasantly in his own blood, or, more accurately, adrenaline. Supremely alive and not the least bit hungry. Never hungry.

“Fresh,” he heard the woman saying. As usual the door to her apartment, 3C, was ajar and, pushing in after two quick taps, he found her shaking out a blanket, bed sheets.

“You see?” she said jovially in greeting but without really taking much notice of him. “Fresh.” She was small, French, older than Colliver, with pale well-scrubbed skin and a fading beauty.

“Always keep fresh,” she said again.

Colliver didn’t say anything, only undressed where he stood, put money on the bureau, then fell to the mattress and closed his eyes. As it went, he found himself thinking about payphones. About how they were a necessary tool, as if merely by lifting a receiver he gained instant access to this subterranean continent where until recently, shameful as it was to admit, he’d felt most at home, most himself, most alive. He had never once used his cell phone, not for browsing ads or making calls simply because, as he saw it, the sorted out, digital, modern world had no place here. He wondered how many payphones were left in the city, in America itself, and how much money he’d spent utilizing them since this started back before there was such a thing as a cell phone. All those quarters fished from his pocket then let slip from his fingers into the silver, vertical smiling mouth, while a tawdry colored back page advertisement sat balanced on the metal shelf before him. Stacked, how high would that tower of quarters have reached?

“Fresh,” the French woman was saying brightly. It was over now and once more she was shaking out the sheets while Colliver dressed silently. She didn’t accompany him to the door. He’d seen her enough times that she knew this was unnecessary.

Outside, before heading home, he spent a few moments contemplating the bright sun and that peculiar oxygenated heartbreaking clarity he always experienced immediately afterward.

 

2. BLINDNESS

 

That night Vera’s clothes, her hair and skin, reeked of Ethiopian food. She worked in Early Childhood Intervention and was in and out of houses all day. Mostly in Brooklyn.

“The twins again,” she said distantly while leaning against the counter and eating from a bag of dried apricots.

Colliver took one of the folding chairs leaning against the wall, opened it and sat down at the table. When he did so, it was as if he’d only just then appeared before Vera’s eyes, at which point she remembered the appointment with Dr. Gover.

“Was he nice?”

“A real comedian.”

“You should be happy that he made time to see you.”

“Ecstatic,” Colliver said. “I’m an ecstatic guinea pig.”

Vera made a face. “You know it’s not experimental.”

“Trying to give up a way of life is pretty experimental if you ask me.”

“Sex on an installment plan,” which was how Vera, as a way perhaps to ameliorate for herself the unseemly activity, had come to refer to it, “isn’t a way of life. It’s a problem. Laziness.”

“Laziness?”

“Supreme laziness. Easy way out.” Her voice was void of contempt but she was right. It had been the thing he’d turned to always when life got tough or tedious. “So where is it?”

Colliver put the orange prescription bottle on the table.

“And what exactly does it do again?”

“Makes you blind.”

“Don’t say that.”

“But basically that is what it does,” Colliver said. “Everything small, small, small, until nothing. Blind.” He was most concerned about losing the sun, so much so that in discussing his triggers with Dr. Gover he hadn’t mentioned it. He also hadn’t mentioned teeth, cleavage, or payphones.

“It won’t do anything of the sort,” Vera the caretaker, the fixer, driven by human cause, said sympathetically. Colliver looked at her. They were not now nor ever had been lovers. They’d become friends more than fifteen years earlier in college in Maine, lost each other a year later for another five, then reconnected platonically in New York. That spring when they’d first met Colliver was finishing his undergraduate degree while Vera, who would take another six years or so to finish hers, had dropped out and was working in food service on campus.

“We met during one of my existential crises,” Vera, with no self-consciousness, often told people who invariably came around to wondering about their situation. That was Vera. If she couldn’t express herself, no matter how private, then she’d rather be dead. “I was involved with an Israeli boy whom I loved but was very distant. It didn’t help my mental state. Everything around me shrunk but then one day passing through the food line there was Martin, very clear and close, catching cheese in his mouth like a dog. I’d thrown the cheese. He’d urged me to do so. Right from behind the counter where I worked. It was like nothing I’d ever done before. I flung the cheese like a Frisbee, a big piece of Swiss he caught with his mouth. There was something beautiful about him that needed—finishing, I guess is the best way to put it. That was the feeling. Like we had unfinished business even though we’d just met. But not sexual or romantic. I felt I needed to take care of him.”

Reunited in New York, they decided to room together in a small one bedroom apartment on the Upper West Side not far from Riverside Park, both of them surprised after several months by the serenity of the arrangement and the absence of hidden agendas. Vera’s job weighed heavily on her and so as the years passed it became easier to come home on a Friday night after a week of eight hour days administering tests to toddlers and spend the weekend with Colliver, whose own romantic ventures had become more and more limited, albeit clandestinely, to the pay as you go plan, something which would eventually put a strain on his finances, not to mention his soul.

“It doesn’t make you blind,” Vera said softly, “it changes how you—“

“What,” Colliver said. “How I what?”

“Observe. Take things in. Respond to your environment.”

“That’s just a sophisticated way of saying makes you blind.”

Vera ignored this but eyed him carefully. “You came right home? From the appointment?”

“Sure,” Colliver said. “Right home.” He didn’t tell her about the French woman.

 

3. ROOMS

 

Rooms were always the same, but somehow different too. Hotel rooms were dark, some too dark, lights down to aid deception. TV on. In the bathrooms of these hotels, which Colliver always made a point of investigating first, he invariably found used hotel issued soap. Little bars the color of taffy or white like chalk. Perhaps because the act that brought him to such rooms was so polar opposite, the sight of these soaps often made him think of his childhood, of the trips he’d taken with his parents and two sisters to places like Orlando or San Francisco. The soap in those hotel rooms was wrapped in waxy white paper upon which, in fancy script, the name of the hotel was printed. Here in these bathroom hotels throughout the city the soap was normally unwrapped, out loose on a wet vanity, and almost always grimy. Dirty bubbles on the surface as if just used. Traces of the previous man’s hands, no doubt.

Apartments were dark, too, but these often had hand soap in the bathroom sitting near the faucet. The pump kind, frequently diluted with water.

 

4. ADJUNCTIVITIS

 

Although Colliver and Vera more or less split their bills down the middle, excuses for his continued financial decline were generally believable and given a pass. As an adjunct professor he sometimes went a month, even three during summer, with no pay. Often when he saw the word adjunct on his contract, or on the door to the windowless office where all the adjuncts were housed tightly like a group of monosyllabic, pink-eyed ogres with empty desk drawers, the entire notion of adjuncting struck him as a condition, an infection of some sort, rather than a job. A cycle, a vicious one that offered satisfaction sometimes for a moment or two in the classroom, but always left him wanting: money, health insurance, a feeling of indispensability.

Because of this and due to their rather steep rent, Colliver and Vera lived without certain conveniences, namely comfortable furniture, allowed in part, and an unspoken part, because they weren’t actually lovers. If they’d been lovers the squalor would surely have been unacceptable and lead to depression, stony silence, or explosive fighting. Vera slept on a futon on the floor, Colliver on a ratty couch; they had no real stuffed furniture, only a couple of folding chairs, a table they’d picked up on the street along with a pair of bookshelves, and an eighty dollar splurge black lacquer café table from Target with padded benches that went together improperly so that they wobbled.

Before he’d revealed everything to Vera (finding himself one afternoon utterly exhausted by and unable to keep up with the shifting financial landscape of his lying), agreed to see Dr. Gover and go on Xinaprien, Colliver had never thought of the absence of something so basic like furniture as his fault. But the truth of the matter was that the money he’d spent in his many sexual liaisons the last few years could have easily gone toward furnishing the apartment. And handsomely so, too. Now he understood in a small but certainly horrible way how this unstoppable, driving force had literally impacted his daily life. His and Vera’s. Hour by hour. Minute by minute.

 

5. XINAPRIEN

 

The Xinaprien said hello formally one Saturday afternoon in mid-April shortly before the end of the spring semester. Side effects included bouts of conscience, self-reflection, apathy. It was big, Colliver noticed, on apathy. Additionally, it came with a rustling sound as of leaves. Vera was taking a shower when Colliver first noticed the sound. He thought it was the water. The sun was bright. He listened, looking out the window at the sun, then heard the squeak of the faucet. Silence. Then a moment or two later the rustling sound as of leaves returned, remained. This was how the Xinaprien appeared, announced itself, said hello. There was no Beethoven, no Eddie Van Halen. Only this sound which seemed to have no end.

 

6. ORGANICS

 

One night shortly after Colliver had come clean Vera decided to try and find out where it all began.

“What about your father?”

“I don’t think my dad did this type of thing.”

“No,” Vera said. “What about him as a root?”

“He’s dead,” Colliver said. “I’m sure by now he is a root.”

“Your mother, then. She smothered you, right?”

Colliver didn’t really know how or why it began. He had admitted both to Vera and to Dr. Gover that women’s feet had long been a factor. Sometimes he thought that if he’d lived in another American era when flesh was less a public focal point, the early 20th century for example, the deviant impulse might never have begun to grow. Now feet were big business: in commercials, magazine covers and ads, book jackets, the internet, the street. Feet became a gateway, a suggestive lead-in to something else. Not all, but some. And while this was nothing he liked admitting, made him feel strange in the extreme, he was told that the admission was in fact a necessary part of his recovery.

“Maybe I should take a break from teaching then,” Colliver suggested to Dr. Gover during a quick follow-up visit shortly after the Xinaprien had made its formal appearance. “I see feet everywhere.”

“Absolutely not,” Dr. Gover said. “It’ll be a good part of the process to fail.”

“Good to fail?”

“Allow the Xinaprien to work organically. What occurs in your system at the point of engagement is no different really than if you were shooting heroin. The physiological effects can be the same. In time the Xinaprien will be a little like manually switching off a bunch of lights, unnecessary lights, until those lights cease coming on altogether.”

“Isn’t that a bad thing, though,” Colliver said, “turning off lights?”

“I said unnecessary lights. You’re still operating under the impression that because you’re not ingesting a foreign substance, the feeling—the high—you get from this behavior isn’t physically detrimental to your system. You have to try to begin to see beyond the ethical or moral. The physiological concerns are real, too.”

“And the rustling sound?”

“Is it constant?”

“Almost always,” Colliver said.

“We can alter the dosage if you pre—“

“No,” Colliver said abruptly, concerned about losing the sun. “Leave it.” He felt he could live with the rustling sound so long as the sun didn’t go on him, which, to date, it hadn’t.

So he’d left the office that day thinking that feet, once part of the impulse, were now, under the Xinaprien, part of the control. Dr. Gover wanted him to see—no, that was wrong. He wanted him to look, but not see, allow the blindness to embrace him. Of course, these were not the doctor’s words. At least not specifically.

 

7. THE LAST ONE

 

Colliver often liked to think of the last one just as much he lived in a state of anticipation over the next one. The last one was known, etched in memory, the dark rooms, the images of himself and the other, the lamps, the bathrooms, the soaps, the smells. There were many smells: Chinese food, incense, desperation, semen, perfume, cigarettes. The next one was a fire of anticipation, a potential moment to coagulate hope, like what he imagined, if it could be recorded, what a fetus must experience moments before birth, or someone about to enter into death. Horrible but unable to deny a rising wave of unearthly release. This is how he’d described it. How he’d heard himself describing it to Dr. Gover and, since coming clean, to Vera.

 

8. COLLIVER’S FATHER

 

Very small, very far.

 

9. COLLIVER’S MOTHER

 

With fangs.

 

10. SANDALS

 

By the end of April he was doing what he could to avoid his usual triggers, accomplished to some degree by staying home a good deal, although this proved difficult with spring in full bloom at the window and pulling at him like two hands around his mid-section. Pulling and pulling.

“Make it through one day,” Vera had told him the morning of his last class of the semester, “then the next. You know how it is. Focus on now, not later, or then.”

But in class that final Friday it took all his strength not to take the sight of painted toes on display in wedges, flip flops, gladiator sandals, dress sandals, etc., and run ravingly mad to the nearest payphone, the one which held countless layers of Colliver’s fingerprints, and dial any of the numbers he knew by heart. In fact, though it was evident that the Xinaprien was becoming righteously established in his system, his desire of late had felt that much more acute.

Between classes he left the campus building where he taught Ethics of Writing and ran to the payphone on the corner of Sixty-Eighth and Lexington.

“Ten six,” Colliver said in a flat monotone, though he noticed for the first time that at these code words, the numbers of his birth date, he began to choke.

“Who it is?” the woman said. She was Latina. There were, it seemed, many Latinas.

“Ten six. Are you available? How’s one o’clock?”

“No one o’clock,” the woman said. “I do two. Okay?”

“No,” Colliver said. “One.” His next class was over at 12:50 and the thought of killing an hour, feeling as he did right then—sick, choking, but like someone had gutted him with a knife and his insides were pouring out (normally he felt they were filling up), drowning everything around him, filling the change receptacle at the bottom of the payphone, swamping the parked cars, bashing out the store front windows and the plastic domes covering the streetlights, knocking women’s shoes right off their feet as they passed by—all of this absolutely terrified him. It seemed he was losing or had lost the cold, calculated language necessary to navigate these channels properly, and thus the window that he could crawl through toward this feeling then back out like it hadn’t happened was beginning to close. Normally what was key was walling it all together, the feeling, the calling, the anticipation, the act, the slipping through the window then back out, as if to suffocate the down time of his life with it. That’s how it had to be. How it worked, what made it important. How he felt truly alive. Without that, without it he…

“One o’clock,” Colliver said again. He didn’t recognize his voice. In these moments everything around him in this public space usually went mute, but now it all simultaneously came into rapid, clearer cymbal crashing focus: the sound of heels and tires on pavement, the blaring of horns and chewing of food, the hairstyles and the color of the clothes, the scent of perfume or cologne, the way a briefcase was swung.

“Hello,” Colliver said loudly, choking. But the woman had hung up.

 

11. LANDSLIDE

 

He didn’t raise the concern with either Dr. Gover or Vera, but little by little Colliver arrived at the conclusion that a primary component of the Xinaprien had to be a kind of torturous element whereby it didn’t stop one from participating in whatever illicit behavior they or their loved ones were trying to get them to give up (the appetite raged on in him which is why he kept quiet) but made the act utterly void of any feeling altogether. It used to be why he got up in the morning, but now, unable to stop, it felt like self-imposed torture. Like a place in between one’s conscience, a cold objective place where the subject was forced to watch itself go on through the muck without registering a feeling or sensation one way or the other.

 

12. GOING ON

 

Colliver went on.

 

13. THE GIRL FROM CALIFORNIA

 

He saw the girl from California a total of five times, deep into summer, before the incident at the Marriott Hotel. Actually, he only really saw her twice: blowjob the first time which Colliver felt was conducted far too theatrically; second time it was a handjob which he insisted on when she took out a condom. Both times he failed to achieve orgasm. In thinking about it much later, he realized that he had never once checked the bathroom. Did not look for soap. Fallout, he assumed, from the Xinaprien.

The girl from California with the 415 area code was terribly pretty, had a reasonable rate ($100 for a short stay), dark, shiny hair, and dead black eyes that betrayed everything when she smiled with her perfect white teeth. She was tan. During the first two times Colliver had seen her, when he’d more or less gone through with it—sex was extra and he didn’t have enough for that—she didn’t take off her yoga pants but did let him see her breasts. She chatted casually throughout. The TV was always on and normally he could ignore it, but now he couldn’t help watching for a minute or two. Judge Judy. Another time it was Maury.

After this Colliver made two more appointments with her, each one ending in his not being able to commit either way: he had the money out, but couldn’t put it down, wouldn’t put it down. At the same time he gave no indication that he wanted to leave. Perhaps, he thought, this really was the Xinaprien’s torturous process. He felt he was outside, above himself, watching, unable to go forward or back. He had the feeling, the driving force, but he couldn’t put the money down on the bureau, undress and then fall, fall, fall to the mattress.

The third time this happened the girl from California was clearly annoyed, but she said she understood and let him leave without hassle. The fourth time, though, she found it hard to control herself.

“You have to pay me or you can’t leave,” she said. “Half at least.” Dark, small, strong, without waiting for a response she gnashed her teeth dramatically and kept her body flung up against the door so that Colliver had to physically move her out of the way in order to make his escape.

The fifth time he made an appointment with her was when the incident occurred. Colliver, increasingly sunk in a murky state by the Xinaprien, had thought little of the fact that over the phone the girl from California had agreed so pleasantly to see him, for she had made it quite clear the last time, the fourth, that he shouldn’t even think about dialing her number again.

But he had, and now he was on his back, on the bed, fully dressed, relaxed for the most part but saying he wanted to cancel, saying it as if to no one in particular. The girl from California came and stood over him, then with her lithe body climbed upon him like he were some kind of apparatus, one knee on his mid-section, a forearm across his chest, and repeated the word like she’d never heard it before.

“Cancel,” she said with her white teeth and dark mouth. “Cancel?”

Colliver, sensing a vibrato that scared him, lifted his head and looked around suddenly as if he’d fallen asleep. For a few moments they struggled gruntingly, wordlessly, in a rubbery maneuvering of palm-clasped outstretched arms. Colliver could not see the girl from California’s teeth now. They were hidden behind her pressed, whitened lips. He was surprised at her strength, or perhaps his weakness, but soon he managed to get up, moving her abruptly off him and onto the mattress so that she bounced, shiny black hair fanning out over her face. Colliver, dazed a bit by the exertion, got his bearings and turned for the door at which point the girl from California screamed “now!” at the top of her lungs and another girl, just as small and dark and beautiful, in a fuchsia mini-dress and white heels, bounded out of the bathroom (which once again Colliver hadn’t checked first as he normally did) and leapt onto his back.

Cancel?!” she screamed. Apparently she too was taken with the word. Colliver spun wildly around the room with this girl on his back. Her rage was savage, and now she violently scratched and pulled at his neck with her long fingernails like she was intent on getting down to bone and cartilage, until in one quick motion he turned and flung her to the bed.

The two girls from California (at some point amidst the chaos Colliver had decided that the second one was from California as well) gathered themselves and looked as if they were going to join forces and rush him. But they didn’t. In fact for a time no one moved. The three of them only stood and stared at one another in their heavy breathing silence, in the embarrassing ashes of this particularly horrible human moment, until Colliver, clutching his bleeding neck, backed out of the room and eventually exited the hotel.

 

14. A RUSTLING SOUND AS OF LEAVES

 

Almost constantly.

 

15. FLUNG ABOUT THE CRAVING FOR A FELLOW

 

Some time after the incident with the girl from California, two, maybe three weeks, Colliver went to a payphone and dialed her number by heart, the one with the 415 area code. He listened to an automated voice indicating that the number was not in service, hung up, then slipped the quarter back into the silver mouth of the payphone and dialed again. Once more he heard the same recording. Since the quarter kept coming back he kept using it, slipping it in, punching the numbers, knowing he was dialing right, always getting the same recording and yet trying again.

Eventually he must have gone home, left the payphone on Sixth Avenue and Fifty-Fourth, but it felt to Colliver as though he’d remained there for many days, inserting the same quarter, dialing the number, hearing the recording. The dialing, the action of his fingers, was like digging. Deeper and deeper digging into something that simply wasn’t there.

 

16. TASTE

 

It was some time in early September when he lost the ability to taste. Desire was more like it, for it wasn’t so much a literal loss as it was a steady revulsion at the thought of tasting, all people tasting, so that something switched off in his mind and it became difficult to eat. He dropped weight. The steady decline of his triggers, feet, cleavage, teeth, payphones, and the great sun, continued daily, becoming smaller and smaller. The urge, however, the desire, remained the same.

 

17. TELEVISION

 

Never off.

 

18. DAYS

 

“It’s like having my eyes propped open with toothpicks. What was that from? A cartoon? A Clockwork Orange?” It didn’t matter. This is how it felt to Colliver now, always feeling the urge, rushing to a payphone, choking through an arrangement, sometimes getting himself into a room, everything dim, dim, dim, but not out. Never out. Not fully blind. He’d been wrong. Seeing himself work through the motions for days (forty-six, ninety-six), but never once going through with it.

“Cancel?” he heard on more than one occasion. “What do you mean, cancel?”

Door after door smashing his backside on the way out. Apartment doors were bad, but hotel room doors were downright dangerous. Once, he returned home to find a split and bleeding welt on the back of his head. The anger, the screaming, the scratching, all there for him to hear, see, feel, watch. Without end. “I’m no longer alive,” he often thought. “If so, I’d be able to stop.” He thought this as he watched himself going through the motions, unable to stop. Everything else, all other considerations, escaped him.

 

19. AN AUTUMN, AN EVENING

 

Colliver could tell from the colors of the trees, the depth of the sky at mid-afternoon, that it was autumn but how many summers, falls, winters or springs had come and gone in order to arrive at this point he didn’t know. It felt like several cycles of seasons had come and gone. There was with him now the feeling that something was not fully arriving in his life, and a constant sense that it was evening, despite the sun shining clearly in the bluest sky. A feeling that it was late. Vera was there, but often for long periods she wasn’t there, too.

“I was silly to think I could finish you,” he heard her say once.

“Finish me,” Colliver said. “You mean kill me?”

“No,” Vera the caretaker, the fixer, said. “Complete something. Should I go?”

“For a time or for good?”

“I’ve made it too convenient, probably. There wasn’t enough at stake.”

She was right, Colliver thought, for there had to be a structure for a life, a pattern, rules, something by which one could eventually find their way into an upright, standing position. It had never been beautiful, he saw that fully now. In fact he saw that it was the very opposite of beauty. Still, it used to be why he got up in the morning, shameful as that was to admit. Even if he hadn’t planned on a call on any given particular day, even if he didn’t make a call for weeks, it had once been the thing that got him up in the morning, stood him up, put energy into him to get from one point to the next. Go on upright, aware of life’s grand possibilities.

Steadily though, on into whatever autumn it happened to be, these feelings had left him, been bled away, choked. A putting out, a switching off of lights. Unnecessary lights. So he was told.

 

 

 

BIO

Joseph De QuattroJoseph De Quattro has new fiction forthcoming this summer in Pennsylvania Literary Journal, and has had short stories published in The Carolina Quarterly, Turnrow, Carve, Zahir, The Washington Review, and Oyster Boy Review.  His fiction has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, and he is currently working on a new novel.

 

 

 

SYNCRETISM

by Ron Yates

 

 

Uncle Bart was my mother’s only brother. Growing up, I’d seen him maybe once a year at family get-togethers, and I had noticed that he seemed to be aging faster than my other seldom-seen relatives, who remained sleek and fat between reunions. I had the opportunity during the last holiday season to spend some time with him while he was up from Florida visiting my mother, ostensibly on business although I never knew the specifics. I was getting ready for my final semester at the university and trying to think about the future. By this time Bart had become wizened and unkempt, full of irony, anger, and malicious humor, like Nick Nolte in his role as Father in Hulk.

My dad had died from a heart attack the year before and my sister had married and moved away to Birmingham, so Bart’s presence in the house was not as inconvenient as it might have been. He was there for a week. I kept an apartment near campus, but during the break, I was in and out a lot, enjoying time spent relaxing in my childhood home and helping Mom get through the holidays.

 

Having this other male presence in the house was strange at first, sleeping in my sister’s old room, shuffling through the kitchen in the mornings in pajamas and slippers, watching TV in the den with us, and taking his meals at the kitchen table. I soon realized that I hardly knew my uncle Bart and was surprised to find a sense of humor and gentlemanly demeanor underneath his gruff sarcasm. After a few days, Mom and I both were enjoying having him around.

The three of us talked about politics, the economy, and the Middle East, but he didn’t talk about himself much. Mom and I knew, although it was never stated, that he had no one to spend Christmas with. He had divorced four wives without producing any children, and the divorces weren’t amicable. The most recent had occurred just this year, contributing significantly to his overall contemptuousness.

“Melba was a goal-oriented person,” he commented one morning as we were finishing up breakfast. “That’s what attracted me to her initially. Problem was, her goal shifted from accruing personal wealth to my ruination. Damn near succeeded too.” He took a drag off his Doral light, leaned in over his coffee mug, tapped his cigarette fingers to his gray temple. “I’m not as gullible as she thought, though. I had some holdings in Tampa and PC that she didn’t know about. I landed on my feet, as I’ve managed to do over the years. But, enough of that. Tell me about your plans for the future, what you hope to do with an English degree.”

Of course, I wanted to be a writer, like most everyone who majors in English. I hated telling people that, though, especially adult men who’d made lots of money. I didn’t like their patronizing looks of mild amusement or their admonishments of, “Well, yes, but you’ll need a back-up plan,” so I usually said that I planned to teach or get into advertising or public relations. Bart’s reaction, though, was not what I expected. In a sincere voice he added before I could answer, “Naturally, you’ll want to write.”

From the counter where she was rinsing plates and putting them in the dishwasher, Mom said, “Yes, but he needs a back-up plan. I’ve been telling him he should get his teaching certificate. He could get on at a high school close by and maybe even coach baseball. I don’t know if you remember, Bart, but that boy used to love baseball.”

He looked across the table at me and winked. Yes, he remembered, and I did too, the warm Thanksgiving afternoon we’d spent in my maw-maw’s backyard playing catch while my great-uncles, aunts, and cousins sat around eating desserts and watching TV. He had sensed my boredom and initiated the conversation, which led to an intense session of glove-smacking burnout. “I hear you’re a pretty good pitcher,” he had said from a front porch rocker. You’ll have to show me what you got someday. I used to pitch myself, might could teach you a few of my old tricks.”

I was twelve and shy, but my boredom and his seemingly genuine interest prompted an adventurous reply: “I’ve got a couple of gloves and a ball in the car.”

He hopped up out of the rocker, and we ignored the grown-ups for the rest of the afternoon as he devoted his considerable energies to throwing and catching with me. Then it was time to go, and when I saw him again I was a teenager and everything was different. Things were really different now, in the kitchen with Mom, Bart looking too decrepit to even play catch anymore. He took another drag on his cigarette then suffered a minor coughing spell. “I’m gonna quit these damn things one of these days,” he said as the spasm subsided.

He got up and shuffled to the counter to pour more coffee. “Of course, Ann,” he said to Mom, “he’ll need a steady income, insurance, retirement, and so forth, but if he’s got that writer thing in him, he’ll need to get it out somehow. I think he should throw some energy into it now while he’s young. Who knows, it just might lead to something. With talent, good material, and a little luck, a person can still make it writing and publishing.” He sat back at the table and looked at me. “I’d like to see some of your work. I was an English major too, you know.”

I didn’t know and, mildly surprised, told him so. “Oh yes,” he said, shaking another Doral from the pack. “I read all the classics, got especially interested in the American greats, from the Naturalists through the Modernists: Crane, London, Sinclair Lewis, Sherwood Anderson, and of course Hemingway. He was my hero. I wanted to follow in his footsteps.”

“So what did you do with yours? English degree, I mean.”

“Oh, I never finished. I only needed a couple of quarters—we were on a quarter system back then—when I decided to take a break. Went down to Florida, got involved in some business ventures, and one thing led to another. Never made it back to school. Kept reading, though, and thinking about it—for a long time.” His voice trailed off into despairing reflection.

I said, “Well, it’s never too late. I’ve had classes with lots of people your age. They’re called ‘non-traditional’ students—”

“Believe me, kid. It is too late for me. It’s your turn now, to shine, to make your mark in the world. We’ll talk about it more later, after I read some of your stuff.”

My part-time employer, Java Chop, a coffee house and deli near campus, had called me in to work that day, so I decided to swing by the apartment when I got off to print out a copy of my latest story. The working title was “Eb and Flo, a Love Story about Nothing.” It was an account of two androgynous characters who lead nondescript lonely lives, caring for their pets and following set routines until their chance meeting in a coffee shop. They each begin to organize their lives differently, to facilitate more “chance” meetings. They are slowly drawn into each other’s world, and through their coffee-shop dialogue, the reader follows them on their journey to completeness. I was pretty proud of it and eager to show it to someone. Although I had doubts about Uncle Bart’s critical skills and ability to appreciate what I was trying to accomplish, I hoped he would like it.

When I handed him the manuscript after supper he appeared confused for a moment. As the recollection of our morning’s conversation dawned, he said, “Oh, yes. Well now, this really looks like something. I can’t wait to read it.” He set the pages on the end table as he settled into an evening in front of the TV with Mom, watching their favorite investigative crime dramas. The next morning I noticed that the manuscript had been moved, but Bart made no mention of it during breakfast. It was the first weekday after the New Year holiday, and Mom had errands to run, gift returns mainly and an appointment for a pedicure. She seemed eager to get out of the house; instead of our usual bacon and eggs with grits, biscuits, and a full array of jellies, syrups and jams, we had Eggo waffles and microwaveable sausage patties. As we ate and chatted about the weather and how bad the traffic was likely to be, I sensed Bart’s eyes on me. I felt sure he had read the story and was examining me for structural flaws, signs of weakness that he was preparing to reveal.

I began to dread the moment of Mom’s leaving, of being left alone with him, and I tried to think of an excuse to leave with her. As she was putting on her coat and checking her purse to be sure she had the receipts, Bart looked at me. “So, it seems we have some time on our hands, alone, like old bachelors. An opportunity to . . . discuss things.” He raised an eyebrow diabolically, like an evil professor, then grinned. “I enjoyed the story. I’m impressed with your talent.”

Mom said, going out the door, “Bye fellows. You two try to behave while I’m gone. I’ll be back late this afternoon.”

When I answered, “Bye, Mom,” a small spasm of apprehension passed out of my body. He had said he liked the story, that I had talent. I surprised myself with how much this mattered, and I worked—at that moment and at times throughout the morning—to not let my need for his approval show.

He pressed the door closed behind Mom. “C’mon, let me pour you another cup of coffee before we get started.” As he shuffled across the floor in his slippers and baggy pajamas, I noticed his grizzled whiskers, his gossamer hair charged with static and standing off his head, but I also saw a light in his blue eyes I hadn’t seen before, a disconcerting impishness. “Let’s sit in the den,” he said, “where we’ll be comfortable.”

He disappeared for a second as I tried to relax in my usual chair. When he returned he was holding the “Eb and Flo” manuscript. He tossed it onto the coffee table and sat across from me on the sofa. “You’ve got some pretty good chops. On a sentence by sentence level this is right up there. It’s musical, lyrical, metaphorical, and all that. Your transitions transition and you’re able to do what all writers struggle with: move people in and out of rooms. But . . . the story is still lacking. In spite of your good writing, it’s a flop.”

I exhaled heated air from my burst bubble. “Well, thanks, I guess. For being honest—”

“But don’t despair. I’ve got what you and all writers need, material. I’m giving you a gift today, the gift of narrative thrust. Conflict, action, suspense, tension, drama—that’s what it’s all about.” He eased back into the cushions, reached for his cigarettes and lighter. “You might want to take notes.”

* * *

Back in the seventies Uncle Bart had been a student at the same college I attended. Aaron-Maslow had a wild reputation then, the number one party school in the state. He had begun as a serious student, a lover of literature with writing skills he hoped to develop. He attended on a full-ride scholarship—baseball and academics; he was full of promise and optimism in spite of the toxic political climate of that era and the increasing scope of domestic and international disasters. But after three years of college life—the stress of playing ball, staying in shape, and keeping up his grades in a cornucopia of sex, drugs, and rock and roll—he found himself on academic probation, no longer on the baseball team, and broke.

He was tall and good-looking with thick blonde hair to his collar and a mustache. He had managed to stay away from the heavy drinking, pot, and other drugs throughout his freshman year, but with lots of pretty girls and a party somewhere every night, the temptation became too much for a young man who had previously led a sheltered life. His hair grew, his manner of dress changed, and he formed new friendships with people who weren’t so hung up about grades and sports.

Bart had seen Davis around campus and had even had classes with him but didn’t get to know him until one night in May when he found himself at a party where the lithe and swarthy hippie was the center of attention. Upwards of 100 people—an assortment of freaks including students, faculty, and dropouts—had gathered at an old farm house a few miles outside of town. People were drinking and laughing on the porch, in the yard, and in clusters throughout the rambling structure. The main hive of activity, though, seemed to be back in the kitchen. Groups kept moving in and out of there in huddled discussion over loud strains of Led Zeppelin. Bart guessed the reason for the activity, and his theory was confirmed after he edged his way into the room to get another beer out of an ice-filled tub. Davis was leaning over the high Formica-covered counter, his straight black hair pulled back in a pony tail. He was flanked by a seriously interested group that seemed a bit younger than the rest, probably freshmen, two girls and a chubby guy with pink cheeks. Davis was holding forth, laughing, cutting his eyes from one to another, and showing them something on the counter. He was providing reassurance; then Bart saw them make the exchange: money passed into Davis’s hands, then swiftly into his jeans. The chubby guy said, “Thanks, man.” Davis responded by wrapping his arms around all three. “You guys are beautiful,” he said. “Enjoy, and let me know when you need more.”

Bart, hanging around the beer tub, became interested in watching this guy work. They exchanged glances once or twice as Davis displayed his charm through a steady stream of customers in groups and pairs, some excited and some apprehensive. There were lots of girls at the party and most of them at some point made their way to either Davis and his place at the counter or the beer tub. Bart, maintaining his vantage point, soon found himself in conversation with a hippie girl, breathtaking in her beauty.

She had reached into the tub, pulled up a dripping longneck, then tossed her head to settle her shag haircut back into place. In response to Bart’s stare, she smiled, flashing her big hazel eyes at his. “Hi. You keeping watch over the beer?”

“Oh. Yeah, I guess. This is an interesting place to stand. All the cool people end up in this room at some point. Here. Let me open that for you.”

He reached toward her bottle with an opener. She met him halfway and held the bottle firmly while he popped the top. Moving closer brought a slight misalignment in his mind. Her appearance suggested an herbal, organic smell, but her fragrance was more like expensive Parisienne parfum.

“Thanks,” she said with another slight head toss. He noticed the silver hoop earrings shaking against her fair skin. Thickly layered strands of hair the color of polished white ash swooped over her ears then followed her slender neck down between her shoulders. She smiled and let her eyes linger on his face for a moment. “So, when you say ‘cool people’ are you including that long-haired dude over there at the counter?”

“Sure, why not? I mean, he’s been the most popular guy at the party ever since I’ve been here.”

“Hmm . . . that’s interesting. Any idea what his secret is?”

“Not sure, but I’d guess he has something other people want.”

“Hmmph!” She knitted her brows in mock seriousness. “You don’t suppose he’s selling drugs over there do you?”

“Well, since his jeans pockets are stuffed with cash, that seems a definite possibility.”

She sidled a step closer and lowered her voice to a whisper. “What do you think he’s selling?”

“No idea. Something twisted up in tiny little plastic bags.”

Someone in the other room put on a new album and they became aware of the beginnings of a much gentler tune, quiet acoustic guitar and lilting vocals, then the chorus: “Skating away-ay, skating away-ay, on the thin ice of a new day-ay-yay . . .”

“Far-out!” she said, “Tull.” She sucked in her lower lip, half-closed her eyes, and moved her head to the flowing rhythm. “Ian Anderson’s a genius,” opening her eyes to his. “What do you think?”

“Great, I love Tull!” As soon as he had spoken he felt that he had let too much excitement show over their having such a small thing in common.

She nodded and smiled, glanced back to Davis, who was relaxing between customers at the counter. “I think I’ll mozy over and see what this guy’s up to.” She turned and he watched her walk away in her cut-off jeans and clog sandals.

A couple of guys he knew came into the kitchen with bags of ice and another case of beer to replenish the tub. Bart exchanged pleasantries and helped with the task. When he stood up and looked over at Davis and the girl, he saw that she was leaning into him, his arm around the small of her back, lifting her short denim jacket and exposing a pair of dimples just above the top of her hip-hugger shorts. With a hand against his chest she pushed herself away and turned, smiling, to look at Bart. With one arm around Davis’s waist, she motioned with the other for Bart to come over. Making the few steps across the room, Bart noticed that Davis was also smiling at him, as if they were complicit in some scheme that was just beginning to hatch.

The girl said, “You were right. This character has been up to no good. I interrogated him and he confessed.”

“Guilty as charged, your honor,” Davis said. “Question is, what are you gonna do to me.”

She grinned. “Help you spend the money, of course.” She nodded toward Bart. “He had you pegged all along. He’s an undercover investigator, you know.”

“Undercover . . . that explains it, why I’ve seen him hanging around the student center in the afternoons, and carrying books in and out of the library.” He smiled warmly, looked at Bart with eyes the color of dark chocolate. “Now that you’ve nailed me, I guess you should know my name.” He reached out his hand. “I’m Davis.”

Bart took the hand in the accepted thumb-locking hippie grasp. “Bart. Pleased to meet you.”

He looked at the girl. “I don’t know your name.”

She tilted her head causing one hoop earring to dangle, the other to lie against her neck. “Mary. Simple and easy to remember.”

They drank and chatted in the crowded kitchen, mainly about the assorted characters who continued to come and go. Mary was animated, doing most of the talking. Several times when partygoers approached Davis with furtive glances and veiled questions, he shrugged his shoulders, smiled, and held up empty hands. Mary asked, “Are you all sold out?”

“Almost,” he answered, with an implication in his eyes.

She said, “Uh-huh,” then turned to Bart. “So, what did you say you were majoring in?”

“I didn’t. Haven’t had a chance yet.”

“Let me guess. I’d say you’re of a practical turn of mind. And you have a sadness in your eyes for all that’s been lost. And your body—” she eyed him up and down—“suggests physical robustness. I think you’re someone who climbs around on mountainsides and in valleys digging up rocks, looking for fossils. You, my new friend Bart, are a geology major.”

Bart chuckled. “That’s a very interesting guess. Your insightfulness is staggering. But, unfortunately, you’re not even close.”

“She does that all the time,” Davis said. “She guessed somebody right last year at a party and hasn’t been able to stop since. She is a great judge of human nature. Now, if she could only match the natures up with the right humans . . .”

She laughed and pressed against Davis. “I figured you out pretty quick, though, didn’t I? I guess that’s what really matters.”

“Well, you’re right about me being what matters most, but I’m not as transparent as you think. There are some nooks and crannies in my psyche that you haven’t peered into yet.”

“There he goes, talking about his psyche. Davis is a psychology major, as you might have guessed.”

Bart said, “I would have never known. I’d have placed him in the business department. He seems to have mastered the laws of supply and demand.”

As they laughed, drank, and smoked their cigarettes, Bart noticed the mood of the party changing. Movement and noise subsided, replaced by a subdued camaraderie. Pink Floyd oozed from the speakers. Mellow. Joints were circulating everywhere in the smoky house, and people seemed content in their various groupings, engaged in deep conversation. “Our work here is done,” Davis said. “Why don’t we split, get out under the stars and enjoy the great outdoors.” He looked at Bart. “Come on, Man. I’ve got some things to show you.”

 

It was indeed a beautiful night, even when viewed from the inside of Davis’s old pickup. The three of them rode together through scenic rural areas Bart had never seen before. The truck, a Dodge from the 1950’s, was battered and noisy but seemed eager for the changing terrain, the washed-out curvy blacktops and steep hills. They turned onto a dirt road that after a few miles became barely passable. Picking their way over harsh bumps and ruts, they approached a wooden bridge that spanned an energetic rocky creek. Davis eased the truck over the planks, water gurgling beneath them, then pulled over and killed the engine and lights. The trees on either side were black and looming under the full moon. The road was mottled black with shadows, lumpy with rocks and potholes.

They had just finished smoking a very potent joint, and Bart was suddenly struck with a wave of paranoia. What the hell were they doing? Who were these people? Were they going to kill him and leave his body out here? Perform some weird ritual? These thoughts flurried through his guts, producing body tremors he could scarcely conceal. They sat quietly in the truck for a few moments before Davis began rummaging around under the seat. Finally he said, “Here it is,” bringing up something in his hand.

Mary said, “Cool. I’m glad you brought that. Lemme have it.” She snatched the roll of toilet paper from him and nudged Bart with her knee and elbow. “Open the door, dude. I gotta pee.”

He exhaled, almost laughed, and pressed down on the Vise-Grip pliers that served as a door handle. Davis opened his door and got out also. Mary stepped gingerly over the ditch and disappeared into some bushes. Davis came around to Bart’s side and handed him a beer. The air was filled with the sound of running water, crickets, frogs, owls, and other night creatures. They each lit a cigarette and listened for a moment. Davis said, “Snake creek. Cool, huh?”

“Far-out . . . literally.”

Davis slapped Bart on the shoulder. “I’m glad you like my back yard.”

From Davis’s smile Bart couldn’t tell if he was serious or not; then he heard Mary approaching. She handed Davis the toilet paper.

He said, “Why don’t you roll us another joint while I fix up a little something else for us.”

Mary said, “Sure,” and got back inside the truck.

Davis turned his back to Bart and, bending over the Dodge fender, began to make preparations. When Bart stepped in closer, he could see three individual sheets of toilet paper placed side by side. Davis removed his large black wallet, attached to his belt with a chain, and dug deep into one of the compartments. “When I saw how sales were going back there, I decided to stash a little for personal use, enough to divide up three ways, a good number—Biblical, you know.” He placed the small twist-tied package, made from the cut-off corner of a sandwich bag, on the fender. It was mashed flat from being in his wallet.

“What is that, anyway,” Bart asked. “I don’t mess with hard drugs.”

Davis grinned in the moonlight, his teeth flashing white. “It’s not heroin, if that’s what you’re thinking. It’s the love drug, MDA, kind of a combination of acid and speed. It’s great, really mellow. Makes everything all better.”

“But I’m short of funds tonight—”

“Don’t worry about it. This one’s on me. It’s not that expensive anyway.”

“But we don’t really know each other . . . why did you pick me—”

Again the flash of white. “I trust Mary’s instincts. She’s a great judge of human nature, remember?”

Davis’s hands were busy. “Here,” he said. “Hold this lighter up so I can see.” He used the blade of his pocketknife to measure equal portions of the white powder into the center of each toilet paper sheet. He wet his fingers and made three little balls, wrapping the tissue around the drug. The passenger door hinges creaked as Mary climbed out with a freshly rolled joint.

Davis said, “Cool, baby. Go ahead and light that thing up. We’re gonna find God tonight.” He handed Bart and Mary each a little drug ball and kept one for himself. Holding it up just prior to popping it into his mouth, he said, “Shall we?”

Bart glanced at Mary. She winked, swallowed down her drug with a big gulp of beer. He did the same.

 

He had never seen anything as beautiful as fire, Bart thought later, except for Mary’s face as she laughed and talked inside Davis’s teepee. His was one of five spread out along the grassy banks beside the creek, a little community not far from the bridge where he had stopped the truck. As they had topped the last rise in the old Dodge, bringing the teepees into view, Bart had expressed his surprise: “What the—”

“My front yard,” Davis had said.

“You mean you live here?”

“Yep. Great views, cool neighbors, and really cheap rent.”

Davis and Mary explained, as they parked the Dodge at the edge of the meadow, that Dr. Ostrakan of the psychology department owned the land and had agreed to the teepee settlement as kind of an experiment, a “simple living” collective. The professor didn’t care what they did as long as they didn’t erect permanent structures and took care of their garbage.

“It’s amazing,” Bart said. “That you can live this way. I’d have never thought—”

“It does have its downside. It was great last summer when we built everything, but over the winter things got kinda rough. Some nights we stayed in town at Mary’s place.”

Bart registered surprise. Mary answered, “Yeah, my parents don’t know about any of this. They still pay for my apartment and expenses, thinking I’m the model college girl. If they knew I flunked out this term, they’d shit bricks. I won’t be able to keep it a secret forever, though.”

“Let’s don’t worry about that stuff,” Davis said. “Tonight . . . ,” he made an expansive gesture, “the sky, the creek, us. This is what matters now.”

As the drug dissolved and found its way into his bloodstream and brain, Bart felt a dawning realization that Davis was right, that this—the here and now—was what mattered most. With childlike excitement he helped Davis build the fire, bringing in sticks of wood from the stack outside. Then he watched Davis’s expert hands as he prepared the kindling and laid the sticks just so in the rock-lined pit.

As the fire crackled and popped, the smoke, heavy and slow at first, began to find its way out the top. Mary’s face with the firelight reflected in her eyes, the music of her voice, and Davis’s reassuring smile had combined to produce a feeling of contentment unlike anything Bart had ever known. Now, with the fire burning clean, flames dancing over a bed of glowing embers, the contentment was still there, radiating out to blend with the heat of the fire and the warm souls of his new friends he had met only a few hours before. Amazing. Love, that’s what it was. Bart was experiencing true love—he was sure—for the first time in his life.

The fire melted all reserve between them and for a long time, they shared stories from their lives, their childhoods, hopes, and fears. Mary was the first member of her family to attend college. She had a little brother with Down Syndrome and other developmental problems. Mary had stuttered and been shy as a child but had miraculously blossomed through the loving encouragement of her fifth-grade teacher. Davis was a surviving identical twin. The brother had died in a car wreck when they were toddlers, cracking his head on the metal dashboard. Davis, standing next to his mother in the front seat, had been saved by her partially restraining arm, thrown out just before impact, an arm that had not been strong enough to hold both boys back from death. Davis himself had been cut and broken; he pulled up his tee shirt to show a star-shaped pattern of white scars on his chest and ribcage.

Bart felt that he didn’t have much to share from his sheltered life. He had stayed clean, made good grades, played ball, went to church a lot. Never suffered anything, really, other than the scrapes and bruises of a childhood that seemed too normal. But he wanted to share; he wanted to give them something of himself, so he told about his dream of becoming a writer, how he felt that he was born to do something important, to leave part of himself behind after he was gone. He sometimes imagined books he had authored on library shelves waiting to be discovered by new readers generations from now, and he sometimes dreamed books, but so far he had not been able to capture them upon waking, only bits and pieces he had used to construct stories. He had written several stories he was proud of. He told Mary and Davis they could read them some time, that he would be honored.

They listened. Mary leaned forward, smiling, big eyes looking over the impish flames at Bart. “So now I’ve got it. Your physical robustness is for living and experiencing all life has to offer, to get it into books; the sadness in your eyes is for the human condition and your need to make sense of it. You, my friend, must be an English major!”

They laughed. Davis said, “My God, Mary, you’re clairvoyant! Our very souls laid bare beneath your gaze!”

As the chuckles subsided Mary said, “That’s really cool. English is my minor, majoring in art. Did I say that yet? Was, I mean. Was majoring in art before I flunked out. Anyway, I love to read, and I write poems sometimes. I’m surprised I never saw you in the humanities building.”

“Probably because my classes are always early in the morning. We have to get our classes over so we can spend the afternoons practicing.”

“Practicing?”

“Yeah, I’m on the baseball team. Was, I mean.”

“Wow, a real jock! But I guess that must be tough. All the responsibility, people counting on you.”

Bart didn’t know what to say.

Davis said, “So, dude, that is cool. I read a lot myself. Who are your favorite authors?”

That got the words flowing again. Bart told about Hemingway and his quest for one true sentence; about Flannery O’Conner and her Jesus-twisted characters; Tom Robbins, his far-flung metaphors and social insight. Each time he mentioned a book or author Davis and Mary nodded their enthusiastic agreement and exclaimed, “Cool!” or “Far-out!” They were readers too, loved Vonnegut and Brautigan as much as he did. The discovery of their common interests was a wave that carried comfort like soft caramel throughout his body, and the night passed, slowly and wonderfully, inside the teepee.

The floor, constructed from planks salvaged from warehouse pallets, was strewn with old quilts, sleeping bags, and pillows; there was a chair, a mirror, and several shelves, one of which held a softly glowing kerosene lamp, another a wash basin. Plenty of fresh, gurgling water running just outside; warmth inside. Cold beer in the cooler, fine Columbian weed in Mary’s batik bag—what else could anyone need?

The sky, visible through the smoke hole, slowly changed from deep purple to gray, and the stars faded. The sedative effect of the beer was beginning to hold sway over the diminishing effects of the MDA, and, after eating roasted wieners and a big pan of popcorn popped on the fire, the three were nearly talked out. Davis turned out the lamp, then began to snuggle with Mary in what seemed to be their usual sleeping area. Bart reclined a couple of feet away, resting his head on a rolled-up blanket.

The fire had burned down to mostly coals now, three charred sticks producing a flickering medley of blue and orange. Bart closed his eyes, but inside his skull there was still much activity. The drug and the night’s revelations allowed only a measure of relaxation; sleep remained outside, a foreigner patiently awaiting entry. He listened to the soft popping and hissing of the dying fire, and from Davis and Mary’s blankets he heard murmurs and whispers that blended with the gurgling of the creek just beyond the canvas wall. From out there he heard frogs croaking as the night slipped away, along with owls, whippoorwills, barking foxes, and an occasional splash in the creek, but these animal sounds were slowly displaced by the sounds of Davis and Mary cooing and caressing under their blankets.

The murmurs became moans of pleasure, then pants and grunts as the couple made love beside him. He was outside their zone of passion, yet he felt a part of it. His pulse was synchronized with their rhythm, and he imagined the sensations of their mounting pleasure. He did not feel shame, embarrassment, or the need to turn away, but rather contentment, lying there with his eyes closed, wrapped in the warmth of the fire, blankets, and love.

As the tempo beside him increased, so did the volume and pitch of Mary’s panting. Their movement became strained, a struggle for release, and Mary yelped with pleasure. Bart felt something stir beside him, then pressure against his arm. Mary’s fingers were pressing, making circles on his wrist. Then her hand found his and squeezed tightly as she stepped over the edge into a free-fall of pleasure. As the grunting and panting subsided, the sounds outside became audible again. Bart drifted off to sleep, holding Mary’s warm, relaxed hand.

Before a week had passed the three of them were on their way to Florida. Davis suggested the move in a way that seemed natural, considering their current academic standing and future prospects. They loaded their most necessary and cherished possessions—amp, turntable, speakers, albums, Native American artifacts, a few pieces of handmade pottery, baseball gloves, camping gear, jeans, tees, and several boxes of Mary’s clothes—under a makeshift camper on the back of the old Dodge and headed south to Panama City. The general idea was to be bums, to sleep on the beach until they could find jobs and a cheap place. They’d be getting there between spring break and the summer vacation rush, the ideal time to seek out opportunities. Davis was persuasive, Mary seemed excited, and Bart was unable to resist.

* * *

Time passed and my Uncle Bart ended up staying in Florida, until the last month of his life, living out his days with sea gulls, the sound of the surf, and beach music in the background. He spent the years getting married and divorced and pursuing a variety of business ventures including night clubs, car lots, and liquor stores from the western end of the panhandle down to Tampa. He did drugs, drank, and smoke until a few weeks after he critiqued my story in Mom’s den, when he was diagnosed with lung cancer, already in the advanced stages. This would be the first spring break in many years that he would not spend on the Gulf.

After an obligatory round of chemo did nothing but make his hair fall out and leave him sicker, Mom contacted the hospice agency. A bed was set up—in my old room this time as it allowed easier access—and Bart was moved in as the dogwoods reached full bloom. He didn’t put up much of a struggle, letting the nurses, Mom, and the morphine have their way. During those last days he seemed to enjoy, more than anything, my company. At first I sought reasons to stay away from the house, a place that was taking on the smell of death in spite of Mom’s opening the windows to the spring breezes, and to immerse myself in work during my last schedule of classes before graduation; but after a week or so of trying to avoid the inevitable, I gave in, clearing my calendar of obligations for several afternoons.

Mom left us alone as much as possible, and we talked about literature and writing, the mysteries of life, and the amorphous webbing that binds us together with everything else in the universe. He laughed and was in good cheer most of the time, but he occasionally drifted off into staring, silent reflection. He was sharing deeply from the well of his collected musings, but he seemed to be struggling to go deeper.

When we had gone down to his beach-front bungalow at the end of the Perdido Key strip, just east of Gulf Shores, to bring him back to Georgia, we left most of his possessions for later and shut up the little house. But he had insisted on bringing a few personal items. There was a thick cardboard storage box, the kind made for holding files and records. It was battered and taped at the corners and the lid was sealed with layers of clear tape. As Mom was packing his slippers, toiletries, and necessary items, he elbowed me and pointed to the box sitting on the floor at the foot of his unmade bed. “That’s coming too. Me and that box have got to leave here together. Go ahead and put it in the trunk.”

I lifted the heavy box as he asked, without thinking much about its contents, and it rode with us back to Georgia. Bart’s final weeks slipped by, and I didn’t think of the box again until the afternoon when he told me to drag it out of the closet and open it up. I pulled out my knife and started to cut through the tape.

“Everything you’ll need is in there,” he said, breathing deeply from the oxygen tube at his nostrils as I pulled off the lid. “The stuff of life.”

The box was filled with notebooks.

“I took notes, kept journals,” Bart said weakly from his bed. “I always planned to sift through it, sort it out into stories and maybe a novel, but . . . I ran out of time. That’s all that’s left of me now. Not much to show for a life, is it?”

I groped for words. “You were a businessman. You provided goods and services. You helped other people to be happy and live their lives. That counts.”

“Goods and services. I guess that’s what it boils down to after all.”

I ran my hand along the spiral backs and cardboard covers, pulling one out into the light. The notebook was labeled in black magic marker on the cover. Neat block letters spelled out the word, “Environment.” The next one in the stack was labeled, “Lust.” I pulled out several more notebooks, each cover printed with a one-word title. Before I stopped and put the lid back on I saw these words: Crime, Jealousy, Punishment, Resistance, Revenge, Deceit, Murder . . . . There were lots of notebooks in there, but that was enough for now. “Wow,” I said, “interesting titles.”

Bart’s eyelids sagged over irises that had grown dull. “Yes. At least I had that. An interesting life. I was never bored, until now. This dying business is starting to get old.” He drifted off into a deep sleep from which he never fully awoke. A few days later he was gone.

After the sparsely attended funeral I carried the box to my apartment and parked it within reach of my futon. When I pulled off the lid, my hand went straight to the last title I had seen: Murder. I had to know if Uncle Bart had been a bad man. I suspected that he had, but, oddly—and I struggled with admitting this to myself—I didn’t love him any less for it. The notebook paper was yellowing around the edges, each page filled with Bart’s legible yet sloppy cursive. I read the first page carefully, skimmed ahead, then went back and read slowly. The notebook was indeed a first-person account of a murder that had been committed in the winter of 1976.

The victim was a sick old reprobate, proprietor of Ray Ballard’s Beachside Motel. He had provided Davis, Mary, and Bart a place to stay in exchange for their help in operating the establishment. The old man had other business interests and a trophy wife in her forties whose needs were not being met and with whom Bart found favor. Davis managed to charm his way into the old man’s confidence: Ballard, after an evening of drunken camaraderie with Davis, showed him a special stash in the maintenance shed that nobody, not even the wife, knew about. The scheme, according to the narrative, was Davis’s idea, but its enactment required Bart’s participation. He kept the wife occupied while Davis got the old man drunk then smothered him in his sleep. The wife was satisfied, upon discovering her husband dead the next morning, that he had died from natural causes. He had been in poor health for some time, and now she could collect the insurance. After waiting a respectable few days after the funeral, the young trio left the widow to her fortune, themselves making off with considerable loot, including boxes of war relics: Confederate belt buckles, bullets, canteens; gas masks from WWI; German Iron Cross and Swastika medals; a Samurai sword; Japanese Nambu and German Luger pistols; and various helmets, patches, uniforms, emblems, and flags. They also got away with a gallon jar filled with silver dollars. No investigation was ever launched.

What Davis, Mary, and Bart did afterward is another story, or maybe several. I’ll have to spend some time sorting it out. I’ll have the opportunity to do that now since Bart’s will named Mom and me as his only beneficiaries. He left her enough to allow for a comfortable early retirement, and she plans to move to Birmingham to be near my sister and the grandbaby that will be here in time for the holidays. Bart left me the beach house and $100,000. I look forward to moving down there after graduation and getting some writing done.

 

 

BIO

Ron YatesRon Yates received his MFA from Queens University of Charlotte, where he worked with many fine writers and teachers and completed a novel entitled BEN STEMPTON’S BOY, set in the rural south of the early 1970’s. Yates has recently completed a short fiction collection, MAKE IT RIGHT AND OTHER STORIES, a work driven by two key components of his aesthetic: a desire to create crisp, character-driven prose and to evoke place in a way that furnishes and textures the fictional dream.

Yates’s work has appeared in The Oddville Press, Still: The Journal, Bartleby Snopes, Clapboard House, The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature, Rose & Thorn Journal, and Prime Number Magazine.

He lives in a remote area of east Alabama on the shores of a large hydroelectric impoundment and has taught high school literature, creative writing, and journalism for many years.

When not writing, Yates enjoys hiking, taking pictures, tinkering around with old cars and motorcycles, and playing on the lake.

 

 

 

 

Tim Boiteau

Fugue

by Tim Boiteau

 

1

 

Dawn at O’Hare, foggy autumn morning, waiting for my connection. Spent the night on a bench with my jacket pillowing my head, tie pulled loose, tossing the platinum wedding ring into the air, trying to catch it on the tip of my finger.

Eventually it caught.

Coffee and bagel for breakfast. Pull out my tablet and stare at the photo of us in Thailand, the sea and sky contending blue. Make it my new wallpaper. A superficial gesture.

The woman on the bench beside me eyes the picture for some time before finally saying, “She is so adorable,” and then looking at me: “Looks just like you.” The woman is dark-haired, thin, but with all the wrong facial features, as if there had been some glitch in replicating my wife.

“Thank you.” The noncommittal response ends the conversation.

We look out over the tarmac at the fragile jet, its nose poking out of the rolling mist, written in the stars to deliver us to our destination.

She holds in her hand a tablet as well but after having pulled it out had merely paused forgetfully, her finger hovering over the surface. There is a picture there on display for me to see, obscured by the desktop icons: her, a man with a cleft chin, two sons, neither with cleft chins, all precariously set on the edge of the Grand Canyon, a gust of wind threatening to disperse them like spores over an impregnable land.

I look back up at the jet vanishing into the mist, appearing safer now with its frailty cloaked.

 

2

 

Four thousand feet, en route to Detroit Metropolitan, by coincidence she is still beside me, her tablet out, awaiting my response.

“Good-looking kids.” I offer, thinking I should add something to that delayed reciprocity. But maybe it’s enough. She’s smiling anyway.

“How many is this for you?” I say, turning, engaging her.

She purses her lips, sighs, her tongue feeling around the teeth. “The big 2-0.”

I nod. “A seasoned pro.”

“Weird during this in between time, a little nerve-wracking, invigorating, then . . . you adjust.”

“Sure . . . then comes 21.”

“What about you?”

I pause. “Lost count.”

At times I feel like I exist at the junction of hundreds of conflicting memory lines, a disconcerting feeling, an inappropriate topic for light, get-to-know-you conversation.

Probably she feels the same way.

“Come on. Don’t be shy,” she says, her hand flirting with the fabric of my jacket.

“Let’s just say I’m getting up there.”

“That’s either charming or pathetic. Not sure which.”

The flight attendant comes by.

“She’ll have a screwdriver, I’ll do a greyhound, both light on the juice.”

“That’s a bit presumptuous of you.”

“What? I’m buying you a drink. If you’d like it can be the toast to the end of our brief relationship. You do like screwdrivers, don’t you?”

“Sure.”

“Thought so.”

The flight attendant hands us our drinks.

“I gotta ask you something—”

“Let me guess: did we ever . . . ?”

“You look so damn familiar,” I say, snapping my fingers.

“To be honest, I don’t know. I thought the same thing about you.”

“If I really focus, close my eyes, I can see your face, I can see our daughter, Jenny, seven, wearing a white dress for her first communion, her knees are scabbed, you pull up these—uh—these little white stockings to cover the scabs, put these small, white shoes on her feet, she kisses you on the cheek . . .”

I open my eyes and find her smiling, shaking her head. “I’ve never had a daughter.”

I look into her Eye. “Maybe you just haven’t closed your eyes long enough. Cheers.”

“Cheers.”

 

3

 

McNamara Tunnel, Detroit Metropolitan, leaning against the moving walkway rail, massaging my eyes against the rainbow light art.

Twenty feet ahead of me is the woman, hand resting on the handle of her carryon, not turning back to acknowledge me. What did I say exactly? The memory of our conversation had already faded into uncertainty. Whatever may have happened, she has ignored me ever since I woke at landing. No matter: she’s already fading out of focus, the words that passed between us cooled air.

A relaxing pulse throbs out of the tunnel walls. Shut my eyes and envision my family. How long has it been?

A scrambling force knocks me over onto the tread, shocking me out of the trance.

My eyes flash open, stare into one large blood-red Eye, prodding me with urgency. After having satisfied itself with me, it removes a distance, and I can see the whole head of the man, disheveled, scraggly bald, the other eye static, diminished and gray with the sagging atrophy of neglect.

“Where’s my family?” he mumbles as I push him off and then, as an afterthought, help him up. “Have you seen them? Flew all night here to see them.”

“Christ, buddy. Don’t know if I can help you there. What do they look like?”

He stares at me for a moment and then says, clawing at my jacket to reach my full height, “I’ll remember when I see them.”

Then he veers away, knocking into the woman first, and then, it seems, by turns into everyone else in the tunnel, as if whatever kind of attack had done that to his Eye had rendered him blind as well.

When she has recovered, the woman turns toward me, and then—something in the way she looks at me in her moment of recovery: a buried memory—I know it for sure.

 

4

 

Four feet, the desolate city rolls past: crumbling graffitied walls, urban prairies, abandoned skyscrapers, boarded up groceries, iridescent black clouds of grackle swirling above, splintered roads rendered lunar by neglect and merciless winters, wind pounding against the car.

“Headed home, man?” the cabbie asks.

“Yeah.”

As I look out at the remains of the city, I superimpose images of my family over them. Tech doc advice: first few weeks, cycle through as many images of them as possible, play and replay recordings of their voices, vacation videos, every chance you get, until the word vacation is a beach in Thailand, home an abandoned city you’ve never cared for, wife a long-haired woman you’ve never touched.

“You use an Eye?” I ask after some time.

“No, don’t believe in that kind of thing.”

“Good man.”

“Tell that to my wife,” he laughs.

 

5

 

Late Sunday morning, my car, a Ford Taurus, gleaming red in the early light, my lawn neatly trimmed, surrounded by a tall wrought-iron fence, my house, an immense three-story sprawl, well-maintained, several Japanese maples spaced around it, their leaves reddening with the weather.

Next door, a black-fried mutant spider of where the neighbors used to live, wind gusting through the remains into our yard—cold—the grainy odor of carbon.

Across the street, the windows smashed, the place looted, maybe thirty dead dogs strewn across the overgrown lawn, the corpses in various states of decay, but the weeds alive with other things—oily rats, skittish bugs, unapologetic birds—feeding on the reeking piles.

I walk up the brick path to my home and present my Eye to the peephole.

The door opens.

“Welcome home,” the house intones.

I lay my suitcase at my feet and wait for a minute in the foyer, listening for the sounds of family. My daughter does not scramble to greet me. My wife does not bear a bottle of cold beer to me. The place looks as I remembered: clean, polished wood; minimally decorated; bathed in sunlight. The layout, however, is off: doors in doorless walls, halls for rooms. How is it that these sorts of things slip by? Smells different as well, but then odor is such a difficult thing to pin down and maintain, a more ancient system than sound and vision, like some druidic cult shrouded in myth and rumor inaccurately catalogued in history texts.

Experiencing this house and comparing, reconciling it with the memory house is one of those moments surreal in the junction, but then, as the woman from the plane had said, “you adjust.”

“Where’s my family?”

“In the living room,” the house replies.

“What a homecoming,” I mutter under my breath, turning vaguely towards where I remember the living room to be.

The hallways in this house interminable, after passing under several staircases and making a number of wrong turns, I eventually find the living room and spot the back of their heads, separated by a great distance on the long couch, Daphne with crow black hair, Chloe blonde.

“Hi guys.”

“Hi,” they say out of turn, their heads still directed towards the far wall.

I shrug my shoulders, dropping my luggage. “What’s up?”

“Homework.”

“Catching up on news.”

“All right.” I pause, expecting something more. “Well, I guess if you need me I’ll be in the study doing some work.”

“Okay.”

 

6

 

I roam around the house for an hour or so, finding several kitchens, guest rooms, libraries, before I finally find the study just as I remember it: a long wooden desk by the window; a bird’s-eye view of the course at The Dunes Golf & Beach Club hanging on the wall behind the leather couch; an eye-brain schematic on the other; a giant torch cactus planted in the corner; a few odds and ends strewn about the desk.

I sit down and for several hours code and analyze Eye data, replaying memories from the trip and categorizing them according to valence, arousal, and a number of cognitive dimensions. The episode with the woman I rate as highly arousing but neither positive nor negative, highly thought-provoking as well, but with only a small number of memory associations. The incident with the man I spend several minutes pondering over, and in the end mark it neutral, sensing I could deliberate over it for the rest of my life without ever coming to a firm conclusion. With the image of the man now paused in my field of view, I can zoom in in great detail until the near-transparent circuitry of the Eye lens is apparent, yet there is nothing telling in the appearance of the network, and certainly no analyst would be able to decipher problems so superficially. The man’s problem must be originating from some source higher up in the system. I send a short message to the Eye troubleshooting department.

Next I examine the scene of my homecoming. Upon entering the living room and spotting the back of their heads, the pupil responded by dilating several fractions of a millimeter, triggering a series of autonomic interactions eventually leading to a nearly undetectable increase in heart rate and skin conductance, and following this an over-compensatory constriction of the pupil and subsequent slowing of the heart rate to below baseline, the entire physiological event recalled as being the subjective experience of familial intimacy.

Nevertheless, I rate the scene as unpleasant, though certainly rich in memory associations.

“Honey?” a voice calls out from behind me.

“Yes?” I respond, staring into the computer monitor, at the reflection of my wife’s silhouette, my breath catching: a reaction that will have to be analyzed later.

Daphne, my wife, a flood of bittersweet images and sounds.

“Just wanted to let you know Chloe and I are doing a girls’ night out tonight.”

I spin around in the chair and regard her. “Girls’ night out?”

Tall and delicate, her eyes bright gray, just as I remember her, she leans into the doorway. My first reaction is to stand, walk forward, and slide a hand around her waist. Instead, I remain seated, staring at her.

“She’s going through something right now. I think we need some one-on-one time.”

“Fine. I guess I can rummage up something around here.”

 

7

 

After an evening of wine and cheese and reading in the cool air of the back porch, I finally call it a night and wander around the house until I find the bedroom with my wife in it. She is wearing a white silk robe I bought for her years ago while on a business trip in Japan. Everything else from that trip has now faded from memory—business contacts, hotels, food, temples, prostitutes—but I remember clearly the robe and the market where I purchased it, a touristy, lantern-lit street sunken into the crevasse between obelisk skyscrapers. I remember the pink cherry blossoms stitched into the back. She is simultaneously reading—a kind of unnatural green sparkling in the Eye—and watching me as I unpack.

“How was dinner?” I ask her.

“Excellent. Italian.”

“Chloe likes Italian,” I mumble to myself.

“I’m worried about her.”

“Hold on,” I say, entering the bathroom and turning on the shower. Thirty minutes later I re-emerge clean, fresh-shaved, naked, and climb into bed.

Daphne is asleep, her back turned to me. I pull up close and wrap my arms around her, feeling beneath the silk her soft body against mine, her scent exciting, long hair stimulating my skin and nose.

“Can we not?” she murmurs.

“Honey . . . I just got home. I missed you.”

“I need some time to adjust,” she says, her voice more limpid.

“What?”

“I have a very sensitive nose. You just don’t smell right. I’m sorry, but not yet. I know me, it’s not going to happen. For me this kind of thing takes time.”

“I used the soap you like,” I say into her neck.

She turns toward me, her face a crescent moon of streetlight and shadow. “You know what I mean.”

I pull away from her and let the cool air cleanse me. In one final attempt my hand reaches out to touch the back of her neck, but she recoils from the touch.

My eyes, dry and red, crave to be shut.

Eye clicking with overuse, my mind fades fast with sudden jetlag blackout.

 

8

 

When I wake I update my Eye, lying still for several minutes in complete blackness, which begins to fill with those nebulous submemories and primordial hallucinations, images and sounds by turns disturbing, peaceful and cathartic, some flies flitting in and out barely discerned, others lumbering behemoths unfathomable in scale.

When I come to I find the bed empty.

Two in the afternoon.

“Christ.”

I brush my teeth, standing naked in front of the window, watching the wind tear across the crumbling, verdant flyovers looping in and out of the city. Somewhere in the distance there are fires: the horizon underlined in brown.

Downstairs I find a kitchen and make some eggs and coffee.

Daphne appears wearing a sports bra and pants.

“Busy day?” she says.

“Where were you?”

“The gym. Must have lost track of time,” she says grabbing a bottle of water out of the refrigerator.

“Listen, I feel kind of bad about last night. It was really, uh, insensitive of me.”

“You were fine.”

“Well, even so—”

“Forget it.”

“Have you?”

“Buried deep in the dark,” she says.

“Great. I was thinking we should, I don’t know, do something together.”

“What do you mean?”

“Go out somewhere, maybe see a movie or something.”

“What’s the point?”

“What do you mean, ‘What’s the point?’”

She leans back against the counter, guzzles the water, and shrugs her shoulders. When I don’t respond, she decides to help me out.

“With us, at the beginning, it’s like this,” she says, struggling to find the right words, “and then just when I feel our time is the most ripe, there’s no fruit, there’s nothing.” She shakes her head and takes a sip. Finally she says, “I’m making dinner tonight. Any preferences?”

“Well, I’m allergic to shellfish, so maybe steer clear of that, huh?”

“No shellfish. Good to know.”

 

9

 

Chicken and sesame noodles for dinner. My two girls stare at their plates as they eat, only occasionally glancing in my direction.

“So, Chloe, how’s school?”

She shrugs her shoulders. “Last week a new girl joined our class.”

“Oh yeah. Where’s she from?”

“From here. Sort of. It’s complicated. I don’t really want to talk about her.”

“Suit yourself,” I say, rolling my eyes, and turning towards Daphne. “Great dinner, honey.”

She licks her lips. “What do you think, Chloe?”

“I decided today I’m going to be a vegetarian.”

“I’ll use tofu next time,” she smiles, looking at her.

“Okay, guys, what’s going on? Fill me in here.”

“Chloe, do you want to tell your father something?”

Chloe looks up from her plate and turns towards me. “Dad, are you going to leave us?”

“What?” I pause mid-chew. “What are you talking about?”

“I don’t want you or Mom to leave anymore.”

I turn to Daphne. “Did you two already discuss this?”

Daphne nods slowly, her eyes still on Chloe. “We had a little talk at dinner last night, just us girls.” She reaches out and squeezes Chloe’s hand.

“Come on, guys. Lighten up a bit. Honey, have you been doing your updates?”

“I never forget to update. Mom, I’m not hungry anymore. Can I be excused?”

“Sure. Go finish your homework.”

After she leaves, her footsteps faded up the stairs, I say, “What the hell’s going on?”

“She’s tired. Her mind is scattered. I don’t think she knows what she wants, and how could she?” She prods a piece of chicken with her chopsticks, then sips her wine. “Haven’t you noticed that after a while, not everything takes? Little pieces slip through. First a lamp disappears, then a rug, then one day there’s a new door in the hall, opening up into some wing you’ve never stepped into. People are trickier in some ways, but in the end it’s just like finding new doors in your house.” She looks up at me. “Sometimes I feel . . . like a jellyfish, like a jellyfish with impossibly long tentacles, dropping down so far into the abyss you can’t be sure whether or not they have any relation with each other down there in the past, only that you know they connect in the present up above because you can feel them tugging on the bell, but maybe they’re joined in a web if you travel down far enough into the dark, meeting at the vanishing point, or maybe they taper off into nothing without ever connecting.”

Junctions, I think, realizing what she is requesting is help, but all I can do is chuckle, “Honey, a little weird—”

“You don’t sense it? Almost like we are living with multiple memory realities where we aren’t whom we say we are, and our family aren’t whom they pretend to be. But then at the same time, we must be, we can’t be anything else than what we say. Otherwise, what else is there? What else can I be? I can’t be connected to so many inconsistent memories, so I have to pretend the others don’t exist. Can you imagine what it’s like for her? What are we doing to her?”

“She’s updating. It’ll be fine—”

“She’s too young,” she protests. “Her mind is growing too fast, maybe faster than she can update. What would that mean? Waking up and having outpaced the update? How would that feel? We need to do what’s right for her, for all of us.”

 

10

 

Later that evening I am sitting on the back porch in the cool autumn air, drinking a beer and reading a paperback thriller from one of the libraries: a vintage amusement. As I read, snippets of what Daphne said suddenly burst out of the darkness like fireworks, and, though I flinch at first, they fade just as fast, ignored by my undeterred mind.

“Dad? Can I talk to you?”

I look over my shoulder and find Chloe standing in the doorway, wearing a sweater and jeans. Small for her age, her skin a little too pale, faint bags under her eyes. I’ve never seen her so clearly before as I do now in the dim light.

“Hmm? What’s up, honey?”

She approaches, sits down on the wicker chair beside me, and gazes out at the backyard.

“Dad, I want to go on a Fugue.”

I choke on my beer and put it down on the side table.

“What?”

“A Fugue. I want to do it.”

“Where did you hear about that?”

“You know the new girl at school I mentioned?”

“How could I forget?”

“She told me. She remembers all of us from before. She says she was a cheerleader here last year. She won second place in the science fair with a tsunami model. I remember Sam did a tsunami model last year, and she got second place for it.”

“Was Sam a cheerleader too?”

She nods.

“Did she tell you what it means to go?” I proceed cautiously.

She nods. “She says it’s exciting. Everything’s new, but at the same time you remember everything, except it’s not like really remembering. It’s like remembering anew or like a memory from so long ago it feels new. And then when the new becomes old, you move again. That’s what I want.”

“Honey—”

“She says she was finally reunited with her parents.”

“She sounds a bit melodramatic.”

“What does that mean?”

“Overly dramatic.”

“Oh. She’s popular, even though no one believes what she says. Boys like her.”

“Well, they like her because—”

“She’s new.”

“Honey, forget what she told you about Fugues. Just at dinner you were saying you don’t want us to leave anymore, and now you want to do a Fugue? This is something for grown-ups. One day, maybe after college, you might decide to try it out, and that’ll be fine. If at that time you want to give it a try, I promise you I’ll pay for it.”

“Except it won’t be you, will it?”

“What?”

“It won’t be you when I’m in college.”

“Well, who else would it be?” I laugh, hearing and denying the falter in my voice.

She shakes her head, confused. “Someone else, but someone like you. I don’t know.”

“Hey, don’t talk about your Dad that way,” I say, running my hands through her long blond hair. “You know he loves you. He’ll always be here for you.”

“I’m not happy here with you and Mom,” she cries, burying her head in her hands.

I sigh and take a sip of the beer.

 

11

 

In the morning I update.

Afterwards I discover Daphne’s spot on the bed empty, still warm. I go down to the kitchen and have eggs and coffee, sitting in the breakfast nook with the paper, looking out over the front yard. More dead dogs across the street today. Even from inside you can start to smell the rot in the air when the wind blows right.

As I clean the dishes, I notice a post-it from Daphne on the counter: “Took Chloe to get a makeover. Don’t wait up.” Why she would write a note and not just send one is beyond me.

I proceed to the study and spend several hours working, when my Eye becomes irritated and I feel I must nap before it projects hallucinated memories or other unwanted oddities into my mind.

I dream my Eye has swollen to the size of an apple, pushing its way oblong out of the socket. I am afraid to touch it for fear of making the obtrusion a reality. Inside, interfacing with my brain like some parasite feeding off its host, is an infected network, wherein live my wives and kids, hundreds of them, maybe thousands, all altered by degrees from several prototypes, the real ones perhaps, the originals, sources so ancient, so far removed in time from the present, they seem more like the Eves, Cains and Abels of human genetic memory, and somewhere deeper still in the untested extremes of consciousness they fuse together into something both incoherent and unpleasant in its unattainability .

The Eye balloons outward even more, and I clench the bed sheets in pain, calling out for Daphne, but she does not respond, pulling away from me and receding to the door where she and Chloe whisper together, their faces growing into blank swaths of flesh. Then long hair sprouts out of the blankness, their chests flatten, their arms and hands, legs and feet invert, till their fronts are their backs, and that is all I can see of them.

Finally, when the Eye pops in a hot rain of blood and aqueous humor, and the fibrous peels of sclera lash against my face, I scream out once again, except it is no longer Daphne’s name I am calling out for, but some ancient word from a dead language.

 

12

 

It is dusk when I wake.

Time for an update. For the first moment in years, I stare at the light blinking in my periphery without immediately reacting, wondering what would happen if I waited and then just continued to wait.

After a time a lanky, dark silhouette appears in the doorway of my office. My peripheral vision recognizes it as Daphne, but as I turn and as the voice calls out, that perception is shattered.

“Dad, Mom said dinner will be ready in fifteen minutes,” the boy says in a voice cracking with adolescence.

I update.

 

 

BIO

Tim BoiteauTim W. Boiteau has published stories in a number of journals, including Every Day Fiction, Write Room, Kasma Magazine, and LampLight. He was a finalist in Glimmer Train’s 2013 Fiction Open contest. He is currently finishing a PhD in Experimental Psychology at the University of South Carolina.

 

 

 

Michael Davis writer

Cruel Stars

by Michael Davis

 

I saw my cousin, Teresa, in a shiny blue one-piece, sitting at the bar at Swan’s in downtown Fresno, highlights in her hair and a gold ring on every finger. It was the day of my grandmother’s funeral and Teresa hadn’t attended. Men were buying her drinks and hovering, men she seemed to know and not know, men she might have known and forgotten. She was a prostitute. We never spoke.

Saturday night and the old place was packed. I moved through the crowd and sat in one of the circular leather booths, which meant I was there to eat instead of trying to get stupid right off the bat. The waiter walked up and gave me an ancient, laminated menu. I ordered a salad and a bottle of the house wine they made in the back, even though it had formaldehyde in it and you could taste it. Then Rick Fuller saw me and came over to the table.

“Hey Mikey, how you doin’ man? How was the funeral?”

I shook his hand and nodded. “It was very nice.”

He was half Italian on his mother’s side and basically a good guy. Rick had a tight closed-mouth smile. He always noticed too much about you and added it up. When you ran into him again, you could see it in his eyes. He’d thought about you and figured another part of you out. I didn’t want to tell him I’d just left the wake and feared that before the night was over I might break a bottle on the bar or push somebody down some stairs or drive out to the vineyards and wreck my car in the dark.

 

The waiter brought the bottle and two glasses. Rick slid into the booth, leaned across the table, and said in a low voice, “Hey how’s the law stuff? Not so good if you’re drinking that, huh?”

I shrugged. “I’m a paralegal, Rick. My business is filing and making sure the checks get cashed. That’s it.”

He winked and clapped me on the shoulder. “Yeah, yeah, just admit you’re a lawyer, Mikey. Be proud. It’s a great achievement.”

“Like finishing this wine.”

Rick laughed but he also did the x-ray thing with his eyes, trying to look through my chest to see what was wrapped around my heart. He must have found what he was looking for because he got out of the booth with a hard smile. “That’s my wife waiting by the door. You know Francine, right?”

I nodded. I told him to have a good night and to give Francine my love.

“Right,” he said. “I’ll do that.”

He went over and put his arm around her waist. She looked back and waved. I waved, too, but she didn’t see because Rick pulled her out the front door. Francine Norton had been my high school girlfriend. Nineteen years later and Rick still hadn’t fully come to terms with that fact. Sometimes I talked to Francine on nights she went to Swan’s by herself and got dead drunk at the end of the bar. She never mentioned Rick.

But that’s how it went. People raised right know not to ask about family problems. At least, Rick knew enough not to ask about mine. After my grandmother’s service at the church, there’d been a shouting match in the parking lot before my family got in their cars to do the procession to the cemetery. It had concerned my grandmother’s fortune. There were different wills. Someone was lying. Accusations. Old grudges. Fingers pointed. They say you’re not supposed to talk about money right after church, but that’s all my family ever talked about.

The waiter brought a wilted salad that was covered in thin oil with a cherry tomato on the side. I poured a glass and said a prayer for Grandma. I couldn’t pray during the service. All I could do was cry like a man.

Why had I come to Swan’s again, especially that night? I could have gone anywhere. I ate slowly, wondering, trying not to look at anyone. I went to the stinking graffiti’d men’s room and splashed water on my face. And after I went back to the table, I stared daggers at my cousin in spite of myself, imagining going up and knocking her off her stool. Ghosts want revenge for what you did to them in life. Grandma believed that. So why wouldn’t Grandma be here, whispering over my shoulder, reminding me that the worst thing you could do besides cursing the birth of a child was refusing to pay respects to the dead?

I thought of the tire iron in my trunk. And although I wasn’t especially violent by nature, violence was part of Swan’s and part of Fresno and part of me. Tonight I could feel it. At one point, Fresno held the distinction of being the murder capital of the country. Swan’s was where the famous Sicilian gangster, Giacomo Portofino killed 27 people in a shootout with the FBI in 1963. People were still impressed by that. Swan’s kept a big happy picture of him drinking a glass of wine framed behind the bar.

Teresa’s laugh rose up over every other sound. She slipped off her bar stool, but the waiter was passing by at that moment and caught her. Everybody laughed and she blew him a kiss. She’d become a person who could laugh like a little bell on the day her grandmother went into the ground. It was a high fake laugh and the guy sitting at the bar next to her laughed too. Then he lit her cigarette. His name was Bruno Frazetti and I knew him from the old days when Teresa and me and a few other cousins of mine lived with Grandma over on Abby Street. That was when everybody was broke—before they laid the freeway in Madera and Grandma sold her empty acres to the Indians so they could put up a casino.

Bruno drove a BMW and thought he was a player. But everything he had was because his father built a box factory in Lemoore and worked himself dead for his family. Bruno had been after Teresa since dirt was dirty. Whenever I laid eyes on him, I thought he was pathetic. But I never truly disliked him until I sat in the booth that night at Swan’s, just close enough to listen, and watch them carry on like fools.

Tonight, he wore a long-sleeved red shirt with the cuffs buttoned, a gold Rolex, and designer jeans that barely fit his fat ass. The only thing bigger than Bruno’s clothes budget was his cocaine budget. But that had never been my business.

They didn’t notice me because they were sitting facing the bar. Teresa had a halo of cigarette smoke over her head. And even in the gloom of that stinking place, I could see the glittery material of her blue dress was the same color as her lipstick. I looked around and recognized a few more faces. It was a large circular building and had probably been something special back in the 1950s when it opened. There was a bar on one side, booths around the circumference of the floor, and a big dance area in the middle where people stood with their drinks and didn’t dance. Instead, they moved around, from one booth to another, into the crowd, back to the bar.

There were regulars and college kids from Fresno State who thought it was a cool dive. And then there were the drug dealers, who never used to be there a generation before. And every other girl was working. Still, it might have had character if it hadn’t smelled like old rot and rancid crotch and a hundred stale beers. The smell stayed with you even after you showered. I hated Swan’s, but I always wound up there.

“Isn’t he funny? He’s funny!” My cousin slapped Bruno on the back and the tall geeky-looking blond guy hovering around behind her tried to cut in said yeah he’s funny. Bruno was laughing the hardest, which meant he’d probably told a joke. His jokes were vulgar and not very complicated. After a few hours in his presence, you felt like your IQ was getting the same way.

“Hey, but that’s the truth. That’s real,” Bruno said.

“Seriously,” said the blond guy, who seemed familiar to me; though, I was sure we’d never met. “It’s just an urban legend. A myth.”

“Myth? Get the fuck out, man. No myth.” Bruno tipped back his beer and glared while he did it. He was fat, yes, but he was fast. He could snake his fist up under the blond guy’s chin before he knew what hit him. I’d never get near Bruno in a fight. I’d stand back and maybe hit him with a chair like Sam Trevino did once when we were ten and he caught Bruno stealing pomelos out the back of his mom’s yard. Sam picked up a patio chair and swung before Bruno saw him coming because Sam knew. But the blonde guy didn’t know his ass from a turnip.

Teresa turned around on her stool, winked at blondie, then patted his arm. “Yeah, why don’t you buy me another drink? That would be mythical.” Everybody laughed, even the blonde guy; though his eyes darted between Bruno and Teresa before he called over to the bartender, whose name was David. I knew him, too.

Fresno had 480,000 people but, in many ways, it was still a small town. In certain places, everybody knew everybody. And at Swan’s, on any given night, minus some of the newer drug dealers, some of the hookers, and the fraternity knuckleheads, you could probably find no more than three or four degrees of separation between anybody there. When we were kids, there was nothing to do but go to the movies or have a ditch party out in the vineyards. And then, when we got a little older, there was Swan’s. But I didn’t have one happy memory connected to it. I drank there maybe four or five nights a month and regretted it as much as anyone else.

I was sipping a second glass of wine that tasted like it had enough formaldehyde in it to preserve my internal organs in the pyramids, when Pia Burke and her drug dealer boyfriend, Vincent, sat down across from me.

“Hey, Mikey,” she said. “You mind if we share your booth?”

Pia had kinky hair teased into ringlets around her pretty heart-shaped face. I’d always thought she was a nice girl, but she had lousy taste in men. For example, Vincent. I’d seen him in Swan’s for about a year. He was in his early twenties, which meant he was probably ten or more years younger than Pia, who was around my age. She’d been dating one of Bruno’s friends before she met Vincent. Now she seemed stoned all the time. And Vincent was clearly an idiot.

“Sup esse.” He nodded to me when he sat down, then tilted his head back and squinted his eyes. He dressed like a Cholo with his hair slicked back, flannel shirt buttoned at the top, and greasy black jeans. But Vincent was a white guy. His first name wasn’t really Vincent. His last name was “Holland” or “Boland” or something like that.

“How’s work?” Vincent asked.

“Work’s work.”

He nodded, still squinting. “How’s life, though?

“It’s taking forever.”

“Huh. No shit.”

Sometimes I saw people at Swan’s I’d known in high school. Now that we were all in our thirties, I didn’t see them as often. I worked about an hour north in a town called Oakhurst for a divorce lawyer who had a drug problem and was cheating on her husband. People I knew saw me in Swan’s and asked how my law practice was because they didn’t know what a paralegal actually did. I’d always say business was business. They’d ask how life was. I’d say it’s taking forever. And I’d tell myself that one day I’d meet a nice girl and move out of the detached maid’s quarters behind Grandma’s house in the Tower District. But then I’d look around Swan’s and see the same old faces with the same old lusts doing the same old bullshit.

Pia had a beer, which she turned in place on the table with both hands as if she were tuning into a special frequency that only Budweiser could receive. “Hey Mikey, isn’t that your cousin, Teresa, over there?” She raised her eyebrows, then glanced at Vincent.

I looked over at Teresa for a long moment like I was trying to determine if it was really her. “Could be,” I said. “Looks a lot like her.”

Vincent nodded: the sage Cholo grandfather. Pia looked at me for a moment, then grinned. Her eyes were bloodshot. She had a smoker’s cough. “Ah, you see that, Vin. Mikey’s cooler than a cucumber. He sees Teresa up there with them dirty boys and he’s like, no problem, I’m cool. See that?”

“Dunno,” Vincent said. “Looks fucked up to me.”

I nodded. “Very fucked up, Vincent.”

Pia shook her head in the slow, dreamy way of those who’ve smoked one bowl more than usual. “I know you. I know your game. See, Vin, I know what he’s about. He’s waiting for all them to get drunk as fuck. Then he’s going to grab his cousin before they can do those nasty things to her. Am I right?”

“How’d you know?”

Pia grinned at her beer and turned it. “Because I know. See what I’m saying, Vin? Mikey’s cool.”

Vincent nodded. “Cool.” And then: “Hey, esse, you smoke?”

“I’m trying to quit.”

“No. Do you smoke?”

I shook my head. “The most I do these days is drink this shitty wine.”

“You got that right,” Pia said. “That wine tastes like hospital ass.”

“Sure does,” I poured myself a third glass.

They both got up. “We love you, Mikey. Don’t we, Vin?”

Vincent squinted at me. “He’s alright.”

They made their way to the bar. People had shifted around, blocking my view of Teresa. Suddenly, it seemed as if everything had been partially muted, like I was in a glass bubble while the world flowed around it. I tried to determine whether I was really going to say something to my cousin. This was getting set to be the worst day of my life, a day so bad it didn’t seem real.

The crowd was migrating around the bar more feverishly than usual. It might have been the full moon or the fact that payday had just happened. But the drinkers seemed agitated. A prostitute named Linda was in the booth next to mine, rubbing up against three college guys in sweatshirts and baseball caps. They looked like inbred triplets—agriculture science majors at State with just enough genetic diversity to let them know which lever to pull on the tractor. Linda was smiling and chewing on a strand of her blue-black hair while she listened to one of them explain something fascinating. She was cheerful because she knew she was going to rob them blind.

Things had shifted in my cousin’s situation. Now blondie was sitting on the barstool and she was in his lap, her arm around his shoulders. She held a Cosmo in that hand and leaned in close by his lips every time she took a drink. Bruno stood off to the side, ranting into his cellphone over the noise of the crowd. He wasn’t happy, but really, who was?

When they’d lowered Grandma’s coffin into the grave is when things started to seem unreal. I’d begun to feel like I wasn’t really there. I never knew my dad and my mother had died from cancer when I was six. I had no memory of her funeral. But I knew Grandma’s service would be etched into my mind for the rest of my life. And now I was at Swan’s as if nothing had happened. And Teresa was here, caging drinks off potential johns and working them up to a lather where they wanted a piece so bad they wouldn’t mind paying for it.

Lost in my thoughts, I didn’t notice Bruno, Teresa, and blondie until they were standing at the table, looking down at me.

“Well, well,” Bruno said. “He lives.”

“Pia said you were over here. But I thought she must be full of bullshit if my own cousin was here and he didn’t come up to say hi.”

“Hi Teresa. Bruno.” I nodded to the blond guy, who nodded back.

“This is Mikey. Mikey meet Darren.”

Then I realized why Darren had seemed oddly familiar to me when I’d first saw him. “You’re the weather report guy. On YouTube.”

Darren turned pink up to his hairline. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Sure you do. The guy on YouTube who always says, ‘This is what they said the weather would be. This is what it is’ with that bike horn. And you’re up on some roof in San Francisco and you show the sky and make jokes.”

He looked down at me and pressed his lips together. “You got the wrong guy, bud.”

“For real?” Bruno said. “Here, Mikey, find it.” He sneered at Darren and handed me his phone. The little browser was already loading YouTube.

“Lemme sit,” Teresa said. “I need to talk with my cousin. Family shit. Guys, go get us some drinks.”

Bruno and Darren both scowled at her. Then they went to opposite ends of the bar and eyed each other over the crowd.

“He really is the guy,” I said.

Teresa sighed and put her face in her hands. “Why are you here?”

“I come here, too.”

“I haven’t seen you around in like four weeks.”

“I haven’t seen you around at all.” I felt ready to burst. I felt like I might come across the table and grab her by the hair if she asked me where I’d been one more time. I wanted to tell her about Grandma and slap her face. I thought I should. I thought it might be the right thing to do. But seeing her in Swan’s hustling morons, after what happened today, I felt like I had a stone in my throat. I just looked at her. And she looked at me. And I knew she didn’t even know Grandma had died.

A few more people recognized me and came over to say their condolences. Teresa glared at them all.

“Who died?” she asked.

I just looked at her.

Part of me wanted to tell her that I’d made the right arrangements, that everything had gone the way Grandma would have wanted it. But another part of me felt that Teresa didn’t deserve to know. I saw to it that Grandma had a full Italian Catholic funeral with the auto procession and the roses on the casket and the Latin mass. It was very expensive. I paid for the whole thing. And the fucking priest was a real prick about the service, especially considering all the donations Grandma had made after she got rich. Probably thirty or forty people showed up for the service. When my grandfather died about seven years ago, maybe twelve people were there including me and Grandma. She got him a cheap aluminum casket and a wreath came from the Knights of Columbus. Then again, he was my grandmother’s second husband and wasn’t Italian. So he’d never really been accepted as a member of the family, even by Grandma. I had hoped my family would have acted better with each other just for one day. But I always forget who they really are inside.

Teresa was no different. She’d been putting away drinks like a machine. It was so awful, it was almost funny. I’d never heard of someone hooking on the day of their grandmother’s funeral. Teresa turned twenty-five in a couple of weeks. She was supposed to be in Florida still going to college. But now she’d turn twenty-five in Fresno, knowing she’d hooked instead and missed the funeral of the woman who’d mostly raised her.

“This is freaking me out,” she said. “Who dropped dead?”

“Who do you think dropped dead?”

“Shit, I dunno, Mikey. That’s why I’m asking. It was Uncle Jeff’s wife, wasn’t it? That fucking Lena. Anorexic bitch. Probably forgot to eat for a month.”

The truth was right in front of her. But Teresa would have believed that aliens had come down and abducted half the family before facing the fact that Grandma was gone.

When she was nineteen, Teresa moved to Miami to live with her stepfather who worked in a bank. Her mother, my aunt Cecilia, had moved out of grandma’s house and was getting high every day at that point and didn’t care. So Teresa just left without telling anybody. I didn’t see her for years. But then she was back. Just like that. All grown up. And her being in town was supposed to be a big secret. She didn’t tell anybody, not even me. I had to run into her down at the Fulton Mall one day outside a pawn shop.

“Mikey,” she’d said, “not a fucking word to my mom that I’m back.”

“I haven’t seen her. I’m taking care of Grandma now.”

“Yeah? Good.” She gave me her card. It said she was a massage therapist.

I asked her where she worked and all she said was “Outcall only.”

Back then, I was naïve enough to think she must be doing alright and to wonder what her grim look meant. When I mentioned it to Grandma, she just shook her head and said, “That little putanalia won’t get a dime out of me.” That’s when I knew Teresa must have gone down the wrong road and that her frown had probably meant something along those lines. Grandma was never wrong about things like that. What would Grandma say about this situation, I wondered.

“Mikey,” Teresa said, “Whatever. Let’s not talk about dead bitches. Since you’re here I need a favor.”

We both glanced over at Bruno, who was saying something to the bartender. I typed “crazy weather guy San Francisco” into YouTube. A black dot at the top of the browser blinked along with SEARCHING. I couldn’t see Darren because of all the people getting in the way.

Teresa waved her hand in front of my face and craned her neck like I should have been paying attention. “Hello?”

“You’ve got to be kidding me, Teresa. You want me to do you a favor.”

She shrugged and nodded. “Fucking-A. This is important. It’s money.”

“So, what, you want me to start giving massages?”

She slammed her fist on the table and the heavily tattooed couple now making out in the next booth paused and stared.

“Listen.” Teresa looked over at Bruno again. She lowered her voice. “Darren wants to buy some shit and Bruno’s gonna sell it to him.”

“Drugs? Drug shit? You want me to help you with drug shit, Teresa? Since when is Bruno a drug dealer?”

“Keep your voice down,” she said. “I need the money, Mikey. I can’t even begin to tell you how bad.”

“I don’t know who you are anymore. You’re not my cousin.”

“Look, just fuckin’ shut up, okay? Back me up. That’s all I need you to do. Just this once. For fuck’s sake.”

Bruno came back with a grin and a tray of glasses. “It’s two-for-one vodka tonics.” He set the tray on the table. Then he slid into the booth and looked from my cousin to me. “I interrupt something?”

“Bruno, honey, how long have you known me? You know I don’t drink vodka.”

“Well fuck, Teresa, you told me to go buy drinks. It’s two for fucking one.”

I put the phone on the table in front of Bruno. “It’s him alright.”

When he looked at the phone, he immediately forgot he was irritated and his grin returned. He held it close to his nose. “Well I’ll be damned. He’s a faggot.”

“He’s not a faggot,” Teresa said, drinking a whole vodka tonic and putting the empty glass back on the tray. She wrinkled up her nose. “Oh, I hate that shit.”

“Yep. Faggot,” Bruno said. “Hey Mikey, look at this.” Bruno held the phone close to my face so I could hear the audio. Darren was on the roof of a building in downtown San Francisco. He was wearing an oversized brown sport coat and his hair was dyed green. He was talking in a Kermit the Frog voice about how the weather man was an idiot. He had a bicycle horn that he used as punctuation: “Partly cloudy with a 60% chance of rain? Jim, Jim, Jim. Why do you lie to us, Jim? Look at this blue sky!” Then he honked the horn. When the wind picked up he said, “Whoa!” and honked the horn twice over his head.

“What’s up?” said Darren as he came over to the table. On the video, he looked like a bad cable access comedian. Here Darren was tall and thin in a nice polo shirt and jeans. But it was him. He looked pale and wary now, his mouth was set in a hard frown like he’d been in the bathroom thinking things over. He’d also taken advantage of the two-for-one vodka tonics and had bought a tray. Between us, we now had eleven mixed drinks.

“Nothing.” Teresa took the phone away from Bruno and clicked it off.

“Oh shit, guys, sorry. If I’d have known you’d already bought all that, you know.” Because the booth was shaped like a big horseshoe, there was just enough room for Darren to edge in. Bruno didn’t want to scoot over, but Teresa glared at him and so he shook his head and moved a foot in my direction. Then he turned his head towards me and mouthed, faggot.

I should have stopped with the wine, but I started drinking vodka tonics. A person should never do this. It will make you sick and bring you bad luck. And for me it was even more terrible than that because whenever I drank hard liquor in any quantity, I eventually blacked out.

I’d wake up the next day without my keys or my wallet, wads of receipts in my pockets, and weird things strewn around my living room, things I’d taken out of people’s front yards. I once found a racing bike balanced upside down on my kitchen table. Another time, three potted ferns sitting in my bathtub, all watered. I was afraid that if I kept drinking like that, one day I’d wake up covered in somebody’s blood. But I felt terrible already. The drinks tasted terrible, too.

“Well, I got these ones for me and Mikey. Teresa don’t drink vodka. So that means those are for you,” Bruno said.

Darren nodded and looked away. In jail, he’d be the one who got sold for a pack of smokes. The way he peeked at Bruno, I could see he was afraid of the fat bastard, ready to jump up, keeping the corner of his eye on him at all times. I could see a lot of things—like maybe Darren had wanted to get some outcall from my cousin and maybe she’d talked him into some drug shit in the process. Or maybe Bruno thought that by being Mr. Drug Dealer with the Big Balls he was finally going to get her in bed for nothing and at least be able to close that chapter of his stupid unfulfilled past.

What I couldn’t see was the right thing to do for Grandma in this situation. I’d taken care of her for so long but now, at the most critical moment—when she wasn’t here to give me advice or even pat my arm, like she did toward the end, to thank me for feeding her some soup—I was failing her miserably. Grandma wouldn’t be sitting at Swan’s with these idiots. She’d call Teresa a putanalia and go on home and that would be the end of it.

We are the custodians of our loved ones. We carry their memories like precious cargo in our hearts, the priest had said. It might have been the only good thing he’d said in his whole funeral sermon. It stayed with me, though I didn’t think those lines were worth the seven grand I’d paid the diocese the week before. They should have had a fucking string section for that much. Woodwinds. Kids with incense burners on long chains and old guys holding up statues of the Blessed Virgin. Instead, everyone drove their cars in the procession to Lady of Victory. The priest was just a kid. His last name was McLeary. He had red hair and freckles and he looked about twenty-eight.

“We shouldn’t get too fucked up,” Teresa said. “There’s that thing.”

Bruno took a sip. “Yeah, that thing.” He looked at me. “You know about that thing, Mikey?”

I nodded.

“About that. I don’t know if—“

“Shut up, weathervane. Drink your shit.”

Darren shut up and drank. Teresa looked between them, her brow furrowed. She nudged me with her foot under the table. “I want Mikey to come along.”

“Oh yeah?” Bruno put his arm around me. He smelled like old sweat and too much Polo. “You want to come along, Mikey Mike?”

“It’s good,” she said, “’cause he’s a lawyer.”

Bruno nodded, took his arm back, and lit a cigarette. “That’s good. That’s what we need. Right, weathervane?” He blew smoke in Darren’s face. “I forgot that about you, Mikey. How’s business?”

“Business is business,” I said.

“Goddamn. That’s just what a lawyer would say.”

So we drank. I stopped at three, when my vision started clouding. Bruno and my cousin polished off the first tray and saw to it that Darren drank all the drinks off the second. He vomited once beside the booth. Nobody noticed but me. When we went out to the parking lot, it took Bruno a long time to find his 750i. He fell a couple times. Darren sat on the ground and put his head between his knees.

By the time Bruno’s headlights went on at the back of the lot that Swan’s shared with five other businesses, I had Yellow Cab on the line. But Teresa was getting her second wind. She grabbed my phone out of my hands and put it in her pocket.

“No you don’t,” she said. “You’re always backing out on me, Mikey. Not tonight. I need you on this.”

“I won’t be any good to you messed up.”

“Bruno likes you. Just make sure he doesn’t do something stupid and everybody gets paid.”

“But I don’t get paid. And I think there’s something important I need you to know, Teresa.”

“You owe me,” she said.

My mouth was dry. I had an upset stomach and the ground was tilting to the left. “No, really. I’m gonna call a Yellow Cab and then I’m gonna tell you something I need to tell you.”

“I don’t think so. And don’t act drunk. Somebody needs to be sober besides me.”

Bruno pulled the car over and we got in—me in the front, Teresa holding Darren up in the back. Then we swerved onto Belmont Avenue.

“Don’t drive fast,” I said.

Bruno punched down on the horn and held his fist there for two blocks. Then he yawned as if nothing had happened. “It’s my fuckin’ car, Mikey.”

Nobody said anything after that. We drove down Belmont, made a left on Blackstone and a left on Clinton. In the process, we passed the old place on Abby. I turned around in my seat to say something about it, but my cousin was busy making out with Darren, who may or may not have known what he was doing. I turned back around. Bruno hadn’t noticed. He had his head resting against the glass of the driver’s side window.

When we made a right on Maroa, I couldn’t take it anymore. I had to ask: “Where exactly is the drug shit located?”

I imagined low-riders, deserted parking structures, crack houses with tatted-up Cholos sitting on porches. But we were now in one of the nicer areas of Fresno—Fig Garden. The streets were heavily treed and there were big old houses there from the thirties and forties that people still took care of. During the day, you saw golden retrievers and kids on bikes.

“My mom’s house.” Bruno burped.

And that’s exactly where we went. I hadn’t been there in twenty years, but the same pair of enormous plaster lions were still on either side of the red brick walk. The wide lawn that sloped up to the front door was precisely detailed just as it had always been. And the columns in the Colonial façade were pure white, clean like cleash, as Grandma used to say. She’d never liked any of Bruno’s family except his dad. And even then, she’d only approved of him because he’d worked himself to death at fifty-three—something she thought was an admirable thing all men should try to do. I might have been the only male on the planet that my grandmother had ever truly liked. Then again, she hadn’t liked most women, either.

Bruno parked at the curb and we filed silently up the front walk—four vodka-laced ghosts looking for dope at midnight in Fresno, California. He lurched left and right while he tried to fish his house key out of his pants. I came next. Then Teresa and Darren, who was holding onto her arm with both hands. There were lights set in the lawn every few feet and, as we passed through them, I had a sense that something awful was about to happen, something shameful.

I wasn’t a superstitious person. If you’d asked me, I would have said I supported science and antibiotics and things like that. But I still believed in god. And between the four of us, I felt we might have each committed sins of Old Testament magnitude in our short lives. My cousin alone surely rated her own plague of locusts.

I felt tired and worried and not right in the head. So I said a prayer to Grandma’s spirit: Dear Grandma, help me out like you always did when you were alive. I know I’ve failed you and Teresa is a putanalia, but we know not what we do. So please help if you can. I don’t want to get arrested tonight or die caught up in some drug shit. Amen.

The house had a security alarm. Bruno forgot the code and had to put in ten different combinations before he got it right, cussing and bitching the whole time. My cousin and Darren were standing on the bottom steps of the porch, hugging each other and making out like kids in the back of a high school dance. Darren seemed about to collapse at any moment. I couldn’t see what was motivating my cousin to keep on with him. Was he some kind of long-term project? Some kind of secret billionaire?

Sometimes, I wondered how it all worked. My cousin met them all at Swan’s and went from man to man, took referrals. She once said she had regulars who paid her bills and took her out to dinner. She said they were all clean and nice and the worst thing you could say about them was that they were all married to ugly hateful bitches.

Teresa told me these things on the night she called me in tears from the Greyhound Bus station in Baltimore. She wouldn’t say how she got way out there, but she asked could I please wire her some money for a ride back to California? I bought her a flight instead. First class. And I wired her some money for new clothes so she wouldn’t look run down when she got on the plane. I thought it might have been a new beginning for her. But she just said thanks Mikey and told me that one of her regulars would get her at the airport. And all I could think of was Grandma’s old Italian slang. Putanalia. Putanalia momps. Big prostitute.

After Bruno got the alarm turned off, he had to undo the five door locks and wait in the doorway for his mother’s Chihuahua, Little, to come up and sniff his hand. Then we were in and Bruno shut the door softly behind us. He told Teresa to sit on the marble bench by the door and she guided Darren to it. Then Bruno grabbed my arm. “Let’s go quiet,” he whispered.

We crept up the grand staircase to the second floor balustrade, past the big chandelier that hung halfway from the ceiling, gleaming and flickering in the dark like a crystal explosion. Bruno led me down a hallway carpeted with a Persian runner and six-foot high Chinese vases that sprouted afros of dried brown reeds. The house was nice, but it smelled like dust, mildew, cleanser, like a bad scene getting worse. If you’d overflowed the toilets and smoked a few cartons of cigarettes, the place would have smelled just like Swan’s at bar time.

When I’d last been to the house, I hadn’t seen the extent of the whole place. I’d only stood in the entryway for a few minutes waiting for Bruno to come down. He’d been a lot thinner back then when we were kids and spent extra time on his appearance. While I waited, his mom had given me a glass of lemonade and a cookie. She listened to a lot of opera. I remember it piped through the house on a sound system, like the whole house was singing La Traviata.

“Where are we going?” I whispered, but Bruno just shushed me and motioned for me to follow. We turned down another hallway identical to the previous one, stopping at the end. The door had a gold knob and it squeaked when Bruno opened it. He held his finger to his lips. Inside, his mom was in bed, hooked up to a respirator. When she inhaled, the rubber bellows on the machine compressed with a soft hiss. There were other machines—a full row on either side of the bed. Everything had tiny winking lights and digital displays. Cables crisscrossed the floor like vines. I was afraid to move in case I accidentally ripped out some cord and Bruno’s mother, Josephina, died in screaming convulsions.

Bruno also stepped very carefully. I got the impression he’d done this before. He picked his way around the medical machinery towards the cart of medications against the far wall. He’d spent his whole life tiptoeing around this enormous house. And he was still doing it. Only now, at age thirty-two, instead of stealing money out of his mother’s purse he was taking her dope. Bruno got a large Tupperware container from below the medication cart and pulled up the lid on one end. Inside were what looked like several hundred blister trays of pills. He grinned at me and put a few handfuls in his pockets.

His mother didn’t stir. All she did was breathe through her machine. I wondered if she went far from her bed these days or if she ever left the house. How could she exist hooked up to all that shit? Would Bruno invite me to her funeral along with Teresa? Would I go? Would my worthless cousin wear a modest black dress and a veil, put a bouquet of lilies on Josephina Frazetti’s coffin, and say the Ave Marias and the Acts of Contrition like she should have done today with her own family?

On our way out, Bruno barked his shin on a TV table by the door that had his mother’s cosmetics on it arranged like a museum display. It rattled and a couple of lipsticks fell over. He gasped. His eyes got big and he looked over his shoulder at his mother, whose breathing hiss in the machine had sped up. He pushed me into the hallway ahead of him. Then we paused and listened.

There was a storm of coughing and the sound of her hacking up phlegm. “Bruno? Bruno, it’s dark. Is that you? Bruno?” Josephina Frazetti’s voice was thin and hoarse, nothing like the way I remembered her—a tall Italian lady with big hair, always laughing with a Pall Mall between her fingers and something wonderful simmering in the kitchen. Now her voice had the grave in it. It was like the old folks used to say, La morte e la sorte stanno dietro la porta. Death and fate are always waiting behind the door. And behind that door: a ghost from the past with only machines and pill boxes for company. No wonder she was dying. Bruno put one hand against the door to steady himself and covered his face with the other.

There were many moments in my life of which I had not been very proud. But I thought that stealing hydrocodone from a sick old lady who used to give me lemonade and cookies when I was ten years old might have qualified me as a bastard among bastards. When we got to the bottom of the stairs, I put my hand on Bruno’s shoulder.

“Hey, man, you sure about this? Why is she sick, anyway? Was it the smoking?”

He straightened his shirt, retucking it under his belly and mopped his face with his hand one more time. Then he looked at me for a moment and his mouth twisted into a sneer. “What are you, Madam Butterfly?”

“Where do you get this shit, Bruno? That’s a musical.”

“See, Mikey, only you would know that. She ain’t gonna miss it.” Bruno pulled out a blister tray and handed it to me. “They bring it by the box load. If she took all the shit they bring her, she’d be up there with Jimi Hendrix and the angels.”

I looked back at the chandelier and thought of spiders that die in their webs. I’d seen that once when I was a kid. A hairy garden spider built a big web in the top corner of my bedroom window. Then one day it must have gotten sick because it slumped. A few hours later, it was hanging inverted by a single strand, its legs open like fingers from an upturned palm. It stayed there, perfectly still, for days.

“I remember her from when we were kids. It just doesn’t feel right, you know? ”

“That’s cause you’re a herd animal, Mikey. You baa with the sheep. You gotta think outside the box.” Bruno took a cigarette out and held it to his lips. But then he remembered where he was and put it behind his ear.

“You don’t need the money,” I said.

“Nothing’s ever about money.” We went outside and he began locking all five deadbolts quietly behind us. “It’s about power. Doing whatever the fuck you want to do. But that’s fine, Mikey. Not everyone can be an alpha.”

We found Teresa and Darren down on the street, leaning against Bruno’s car. They were holding hands and they both looked relatively sober. When Darren saw us, he gritted his teeth like he’d swallowed a live eel and it was trying to find its way out.

“Here you go, Meteor Man.” Bruno took the blister trays out of his pockets and handed them to Darren. Then he squinted like Vincent the fake Cholo and crossed his arms. I wondered if Vincent and Bruno watched the same movies.

“So pay up.”

Darren nodded and fished a wad of bills out of his pocket. He wobbled a little, but Teresa held him steady.

“No,” Bruno said. “Give it to her.”

Like a robot, Darren obeyed.

“That’s $500,” Teresa said. “Don’t you want any?”

Bruno frowned, took the cigarette from behind his ear and lit up. “Come on Teresa. You know you need it.”

She hugged him. He hugged her back with one arm, holding his cigarette out to the side. Bruno’s expression glazed and he seemed for a moment like that smirking moonfaced kid who’d get in a fight with you one day and come by the next to show you his pet frog.

“Thank you,” Teresa said.

He cleared his throat and puffed on his cigarette. “Don’t mention it. You could have asked in the first place and I’d have given you the money.”

When my cousin hugged him a second time, he added, “But this makes sense, right? Haley’s Comet over here needs his drugs.”

“Look,” Darren said, holding his hands up. “I’ve been taking a lot of shit from you all night.”

“Grew a pair, huh?”

Teresa stepped between them. “Get in the car, Darren.”

“Yeah, Star Chart, get in the fuckin’ car. Or don’t. I don’t give a shit.”

After a moment of staring, Darren went along.

“See that, Mikey? I could tell him, go fuck that lamp post and he’d probably do it.”

I nodded, thinking about what I’d seen pass between Bruno and my cousin, wondering what I felt. He hugged me with one arm and Teresa with the other.

“Back to Swan’s!” he said.

“Back to Swan’s!” Teresa clenched her fist in the air, her other hand clutching the tiny inner pocket in the side of her dress where she’d slipped the money.

There was an hour left until bar time, but the same crowd was still there, the funk of body odor and cheap cologne, the lot packed with cars. Darren wobbled to his Jetta as soon as we got out. He wanted Teresa to come with him, but she said she had some things to take care of and she’d call him tomorrow.

“Good riddance, pissant,” Bruno called at his back. I guess Darren had had a difficult night—difficult enough that he no longer felt up to fisticuffs. He went over to the Jetta, got in, and swerved out of the lot without making eye contact. I didn’t think we’d see more of Darren the YouTube weather man. He didn’t live in town and he was already blackballed. Bruno would keep calling him names until complete strangers started asking him if he was that kid named Star Chart. And no woman would want to be seen with a guy named Star Chart unless he was paying her. And even then.

We got a table and more drinks until Teresa found one of her regulars and said she was leaving with him. I felt a sense of panic when she said it, thinking that the last chance to tell her about Grandma was passing by. But I didn’t know what was going on inside me, what new thing had coiled up where my anger had been. I felt a tear roll down my cheek, but my cousin didn’t see it and I wiped it away. She was busy tying her hair back, telling me I could call her next week and we could talk about whatever was so damn important.

I said okay, that I would, knowing I wouldn’t. Then it was just me and Bruno, who proceeded to drink as much as humanly possible in the remaining forty minutes before bar time. At one point, he forgot that Teresa had left and he walked all around Swan’s yelling her name. He even stumbled into the ladies’ room and sent a few angry girls in CSU Fresno sweatshirts running out, complaining to David the bartender that Bruno was kicking the stalls in calling for some chick. He sat across the booth from me and wept. He told me he loved me. He said he was going to buy a big house in Alaska where we could all live together like a family and get drunk whenever we wanted. He asked me if I thought Darren hated him.

“You know,” I said, “I can’t tell anymore.”

Bruno nodded. “Who can?”

At bar time, Swan’s kicked everyone out—a ragtag group of freaks like extras in a late-night movie about zombies from Mars. Their cars lurched out of the lot in all directions. Bruno went to sleep in his BMW.

I wandered the black streets of downtown Fresno, unsure of where I was or where I had to go, my only memory of what I did for the rest of that night being the moment I looked up at the sky. It was late enough that I could see the tiny pale stars winking like the lights in Josephina Frazetti’s bedroom. And like Mrs. Frazetti, I might have called out to those lights in a feeble sick voice, hoping someone would answer.

 

 

BIO

Michael DavisMichael Davis’ short fiction has appeared in Descant, The San Joaquin Review, The Jabberwock Review, The Black Mountain Review, Eclipse, Cottonwood, The Mid-American Review, Full Circle, Hayden’s Ferry Review, The Georgia Review, Storyglossia, The Chicago Quarterly Review, Willow Springs, The Normal School, Arcana, The Superstition Review, The New Ohio Review, The Painted Bride Quarterly, The Atticus Review, Isthmus, the Earlyworks Press Short Story Anthology, Redline, and Small Print Magazine. His collection of stories, Gravity, was published by Carnegie Mellon UP in 2009. He has an MFA in fiction writing from the University of Montana and a PhD in English from Western Michigan University. He lives in Bangkok where he is a lecturer in English at Stamford International University.

 

 

 

 

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