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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.

 

 

 

 

Walter Thompson

The Roofer

by Walter B. Thompson

 

My daughter’s ex-whatever, the father of her boy, had gone by the nickname Coal Oil back in his teen years. Don’t ask me what it means. I would hear about his exploits when I brought my ham into town for the farmer’s fair on Saturdays. This was when I wasn’t a crazy hag to all them, before I fucked up my right eye and started causing a fright. “Did you hear about Coal Oil, wrecking his Pontiac with Mary Bender in the front seat?” said the men selling their watermelons and their soybeans and their little wooden sculptures of nothing. Coal Oil was always doing something wild and catastrophic with a girl. But the next week, he and his Pontiac would have made off without a scratch, and a new belle would have taken the previous one’s place. His real name was Marvin Fortenberry, but to me, he would always be the Stain.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I came in with the dogs late one summer evening in 1977, and found Marvin Coal Oil Fortenberry, Stain on me and my life, lying across our little futon in the living room of the farmhouse, his eyes shut and his shirt open, a full ten years after he’d left Canterbury and Jenny and our little Hal. I stood there for a few minutes to let my shock subside. I was not, had never been, a woman easily surprised by men and their little magic acts. But even I could admit that his sudden reappearance was an event beyond normal comprehension, a sort of shitty miracle. I’d named him the Stain on account of his tendency to ruin beautiful things, but until then I hadn’t realized how his obstinacy, his refusal to disappear, was what made the name truly fit.

He looked old and tired, which was good. His hair was still long and blond, but greasy too, and he’d ditched his styled goatee for a patchy beard. Across his protruding gut—another new and welcome feature—stretched a fat, pink scar. His new chubbiness in the middle made his legs look spindly and weak, two little straws in black jeans. I still had my shotgun under my right arm. I always brought it with me when I took the dogs out on the property in case I encountered a turkey. Marvin was breathing like a pig, loud and hard. I raised the barrel up and poked it into his fat pincushion belly. He woke up right away with a small shout.

“Stain,” I said.

“Mama Dear,” he said back.

“Don’t call me that,” I said.

“I know now I must be back home, since you’ve got a gun on me.” His voice, once trumpeting and fluid, had sharpened into a scrattle.

“Don’t you think for one second I won’t kill you,” I said.

“Wouldn’t be of any use, Mama Dear, seeing as I’m already lined up to die,” he said, and smiled. The face that had looked so worn and unfamiliar suddenly became itself. Marvin Fortenberry’s smile was like crackling fucking lightning. You could hear it as well as see it, and even I had appreciated that smile in spite of the man who wore it.

I still had the tip of the shotgun barrel pushing into his stomach when Jenny and Hal walked in from the kitchen. “Mama,” my daughter said softly.

“When did he get here, honey, and why’s he on the couch?” I asked, keeping my eyes on the Stain.

“You may be surprised, my dear,” he said, still smiling, “that I don’t have much in the way of strength. I need to nap just about every hour these days.”

“I didn’t ask you,” I said.

“He came into town this morning,” said Jenny. “We ran into each other at the drugstore, and…”

“Jenny invited me to come here,” he said.

“Shut up,” I said. I turned my head around to look at my daughter. She was scared, just like before. The same resignation on her face.

“Granny,” said Hal, who stood next to his mother like a little soldier. “This man has got some stomach cancer.” His blonde hair hung off his forehead in feathery streams. I looked back at Marvin and couldn’t escape the damn resemblance.

“Hal and I had ice cream,” the Stain said, grinning at my grandson.

 *  *  *

Later, the wind came thundering in from the north. I stood out beyond the front porch and smoked five cigarettes in a row and waited for Jenny. It was June, but so far the summer had felt unnaturally dry. The northerly wind meant a summer shower, since they always traveled by way of Kentucky. I watched Poncho, one of the pit bulls, as he dug around the shadows of a gingko tree near the fishpond. Poncho was an ornery bastard, and a storm would upset him. I knew I had to force him into the basement soon. Every little chore, all the things that kept me sane and walking upright with each long day, seemed broken and useless now that the Stain had come back to my daughter. He’ll be dead soon, I reminded myself with each new cigarette.

“I’m sorry, Mama,” was the first thing Jenny said.

“Oh, sweet Jesus. You don’t have to apologize.”

“He was just…there. Picking up a prescription. He looked the same. I didn’t know what to do.”

“I thought he looked like shit,” I said. “Did you put him on the sofa in my room like I asked?”

“Yes, Mama.”

“Good. Keep him where I can see him.”

I could feel Jenny looking at me. I offered the pack of cigarettes to her. She pulled one out with a shaky pinch of her fingers.

“You do not, under any circumstances, let him act like a father to that boy.”

She didn’t say anything back. Just stared, like me, at Poncho, who kept circling the same hole he’d been working on for forty minutes. I knew she wouldn’t obey me. It was too much to ask. Hal spent most of his days in the summer wandering the woods near the quarry, at the back edge of my property. He looked for turtles and frogs. I had tried to take him out on turkey hunts, but he hated getting up early and got sick of lifting a gun. Even I, with my crazy bedraggled hair and my ruined eye and my loud, ugly boots, was nothing compared to the monsters he’d invented to keep him company.

“I’m worried for the garden,” Jenny said.

“What’s he going to do to your garden?” I asked.

“Not him. The storm.”

“If you want,” I said, “I can get a few boards and try to set up a gully to divert the flood.”

“I shouldn’t have built it at the bottom of the hill like that,” she said. Her vegetables had been thriving despite the drought, and I liked to tell her it was because she had been happy.

“Sooner or later, the whole damn house is going to be washed away,” I said.

I stubbed out my cigarette in the dry grass and walked towards Poncho, clapping my hands and whistling. He tensed up and looked at me, then barked. “Leave it alone, Poncho,” I said. “It’s just the coming storm fucking with your head.”

  *  *  *

That night I got no kind of sleep. The storm was worse than I would have thought: great metallic bangs and cracks, the wind screaming, Poncho howling from deep under the house. Plus, I had to keep my good eye on Stain, lying in my sofa chair and breathing in that weird little pig way. At a little after two, when the lighting was exploding in a constant blue throb beyond the window shade, I heard him call out in pain. At first it didn’t sound like words, then I realized he was asking for me.

“Mama Dear! Mama Dear!”

I threw the quilt off me and sat on the edge of my bed. His face was moving back and forth, and his eyes couldn’t quite find me. “What’s gotten into you now?” I said.

Finally his fit stopped and he looked at me. “I need a bowl or a bucket,” he said.

“Aw, go on and fuck off,” I said, lying back down.

“Or you’d rather I just puked on myself?” he said.

When I came back from the kitchen and threw the bucket on his lap, I saw that a dark puddle had collected on the white sheet not three inches from where I had been sleeping. My first wild thought was that I had peed myself out of worry, but there was no smell, and I was not such an old lady yet. In between Marvin’s chokes and sputters, I heard a pattering. Then I looked at the ceiling and saw the leak.

I didn’t know Jenny was in the room until she spoke. “That ain’t the only place,” she said. “There’s a bigger one in me and Hal’s room.” She was looking at Stain, who had his face buried in the black plastic bucket.

I walked with Jenny through the hallway that spanned the house, back to front. My grandfather, who’d built the place with his bare hands, had believed that a person shouldn’t have to walk around something when a straight path can be made right through it. Now, his home was beginning to break down. Over the last several years, I had begun to notice the first signs of a house entering its old age: at times when no one else was listening, I heard cracks and sighs in the wood behind the walls. “Did he tell you how long he’s got left?” I asked Jenny. “What kind of medicine he takes? Who his doctor is, for chrissakes?”

“Mama,” she said, and turned around. She had a fury in her face; I could see her wide brown eyes when the lightning flashed. “He’s staying here because it’s the only safe place for him.”

When my daughter got like that, I knew better than anyone, provocation would only set her towards hurting herself. She walked back into her bedroom and I noticed another puddle on the floor of the hallway.

“Mama Dear.” The Stain was standing behind me, holding his bucket up like he was posing for a picture with a newly caught fish. “You ever install a bathroom in this joint, or are you still old fashioned?”

“The outhouse can be found in the same place it’s always been,” I said. “I won’t help you walk, and bring that bucket back so we can use it for the ceiling.”

He nodded. Watching him walk away, I noticed how he had lost his proud country swagger. His belly pulled him towards the earth; his back was hunched. Marvin Coal Oil Fortenberry had traveled back and forth across the country, broken how many hearts and laws, and all he’d become was an old man. When he reached the hill, a few meters into the backyard, I saw him slip and fall on his ass in the mud. I opened the screen door and walked out to him. The wind and rain struck me like a hot, sweaty breath. “Don’t trouble yourself, Mama Dear,” he called. He tried to sit up in the mud and fell down right away without a sound. I pulled the bucket away from his hands and tossed it into the blackness behind me. He’ll be dead soon, I told myself as I lifted him out of the muck. He’ll be dead soon.

  *  *  *

What did Marvin Fortenberry do, you might ask, aside from making my girl believe in things that couldn’t be true, knocking her up and fleeing the state? He stole cars. He broke them down and sold the parts to men who lived in trailers near the Cumberland River. I’d been down to see these men before, once to buy a bitch from a litter of pit bulls and again to threaten a man who’d been stealing hams from my smokehouse. Now I heard the place had become a little hippie refugee camp, with a bunch of lost kids setting up tents and peace flags and skinny-dipping until they shriveled. Still, the rednecks wouldn’t have been forced out. I wondered how they all got along.

The day after the storm, I parked my truck at the bottom of the road that skirted the Canterbury bend of the Cumberland and found out how things worked. The men still had their trailers and the little dirt paths that snuck between the bushes to hide all the stolen vehicles. The hippies were too stoned to know where they were or that they were living in proximity to dangerous people. A young man approached me wearing a little cardboard Indian headdress, shirtless and covered in red river mud. “I knew it!” he kept shouting, following me at a pace of a few meters. I tried to ignore him, but he kept it up too long, so I picked up a stick and threw it at his head.

He cowered and it hit his neck. “Ain’t you got somewhere you can be besides here?” I asked him.

“Mr. Yawkey wants me to watch the path to his trailer in case I see someone…someone tall…a tall man. I’m supposed to yell and scream bloody murder if I see a tall man coming down the path with an intent to do harm.” His accent was strange, probably Midwestern.

“So why are you screaming bloody murder, if I ain’t a tall man?” I said.

“I thought you were the lady who sold dope.”

I shook my head and kept going. Yawkey was the person I was here to see. I could imagine how he’d gotten the hippies to do his bidding—offered them drugs, most likely, or a place to hide in case they had dodged the draft and the government was still after them. He and the Stain had done business back in the day, but something had gone wrong between them, and now they hated each other. Among other reasons, I was there to see if the Stain’s old enemies knew he was back in Canterbury.

Through a crappy plastic window, I saw Yawkey asleep on the shag carpet before I even knocked on his trailer door. He was a fiddle-thin old man with long legs and thick ugly glasses. When he saw who had come calling, he sat up and frowned.

“So you heard too,” he said when I walked inside. The trailer smelled awful, like unwashed clothes and bad coffee and weed. “Coal Oil. That bastard.” So, word had spread.

“I heard, yeah. Did you see him in town?” I asked.

“From what I could tell, he even talked to Jenny at the pharmacy. How’s that sit with you, Mama Dear?”

“It sits awful is how it sits.”

“So, let’s hear it.” Yawkey stretched his arms towards his toes.   He was into yoga and other weird stuff. “Your theories, your hypotheses. Why did Coal Oil Fortenberry come back?”

“Actually, I ain’t got none of that. Don’t want to think about that Stain a second more.”

“I’m sure the government’s on him too. I heard his number had come up for ‘Nam five years back, but can you imagine that asshole—”

“I came to ask,” I said, “if you could point me to some morphine. I’ve got a friend at the old folk’s home outside town. She’s an ex-junkie, so they won’t let her ease her pain.”

Yawkey’s eyes grew small under his glasses. He knew me pretty well, enough to tell when things didn’t fit. Since I had fucked up my eye, it had been harder to tell lies. I guessed that I squinted, and when I did that the scar tissue struck my tear ducts and I started to look upset. Or maybe people simply regarded me as more untrustworthy now, in general.

“That all, Mama Dear?”

“When the fuck,” I said, stepping towards Yawkey as threateningly as I could, “are you idiots going to stop calling me that?”

He smiled, showing me teeth that had grown maroon from abuse of chewing tobacco and God knows what else. “That all, ma’am? I mean, morphine should be a fucking snap. Just a quick jog down to the pharmacy, a few cents in the register.”

“You know I’m good for the money, Yawkey.”

“Aw, hell. With these damn kids around, maybe I can find some right quick,” he said.

“It has to be real stuff. Used in hospitals and all,” I said.

Yawkey sighed again to show he understood and he was sick of looking at me.

The hippie kid was still there when I came out of the trailer. “You sure you’re not here with any dope?” he asked me. I shook my head at him and the strange world that had swallowed him up.

  *  *  *

The Stain spent the next two days sleeping and barfing. The rain came back on the second night and opened the holes in the roof even wider. I refused to let Jenny spend any time tending to Stain. Instead I emptied his bucket and walked him to the outhouse every hour. He couldn’t make it seven yards without slipping in the wet grass.

I took a couple trips into town to see exactly how much people were talking about him. I sat in the back of The Bend, an old dive joint near the train station, and listened to the men’s conversations around the pool tables. There wasn’t much about Stain. A few old stories of his youth: the time he’d thrown a bottle at the retarded mailman. The time he’d slashed his own uncle’s tires. The time he’d knocked up Jenny. But most of the talk was tame. The consensus seemed to be that Marvin Fortenberry had stopped into town briefly then moved on. Canterbury had grown quiet in the Stain’s absence, and nobody wanted to believe that the noise had returned.

In a previous life, as a girl with two good eyes and decent looks and hair that wasn’t rumpled and dirty at all times, I’d cruised around Canterbury every now and again. It was cleaner then: easy, hand-painted shop fronts and men in little suits. Lots of small ugly features crackling under the surface, though, and these things were what had excited me. It had been years since I’d come into The Bend for a drink. It was where I had met my husband, Jenny’s father, but since he’d turned out to be such an unholy bastard, I’d stopped coming back. Now all of the men at the pool tables stared at my eye, of course. But some of them were brave enough to ask me how I was doing.

“Can’t complain, except my roof’s leaking,” I said.

I almost wanted to tell them about the Stain right then and there. “Can’t complain, except the sonafabitch who broke my daughter’s heart is holed up in my house, and if any of you fellas want to come around and tear him to pieces, seeing as he probably did each of you some wrong back in the day, be my guest.” But I held off, thinking of Hal. At his age, if he found out that his father was such a bastard, it would be worse than not knowing his father at all. That was my mission: spare Hal anything worse than a stranger dying of a bad disease.

I wondered what had become of the Stain’s seductive side until I found him sitting next to Jenny on the picnic table outside the back door. He was telling her a story, pushing his hair, greasy and unkempt as it was, across his forehead. The same old play, acting the nervous teenager. When she laughed, I felt sick and left to go tend to my pigs.

I kept them in a pen about fifty yards away from the house. The smokehouse nearby had been on the farm since my grandfather’s time, but no one had used it for anything but storage until I came to run things. It was a sad building, not twenty square feet wide, painted a yellow-white that turned to grey once the sun got low. I had torn down the walls to install a cinder block foundation seven years earlier, but had kept the same 1890’s wood. Lately, I had been noticing the padlock on the smokehouse door had been scraped and tampered with. Today, I saw that the door was wide open.

I heard Hal’s voice before I stepped inside. He was singing. “Lizard little lizard…where did you run? Lizard little lizard…I’ve got a gun.” I paused in the doorway and waited until he noticed I was there and stopped.

“Sorry, Granny,” he said. The sliver of light from the outside shone on half of his face. He crouched underneath two large hams, the only two in the smokehouse. They hung from the same hooks that my grandfather had used, years and years earlier, to hang deer and bear meat in the backyard. The air was unbearable inside, thick with haze and reeking of dead pig. I hadn’t lit the fire pit in weeks since the drought had done so much drying on its own. Besides, I was running out of hams.

“What have I told you about coming in here without me, Hal?” I said. “What have I told you about messing with that lock?”

“I saw a newt. It ran in here and I thought I’d catch it,” he said.

From outside, I heard someone whistling. The sound was deep and crisp, and didn’t seem to belong here with my grandson crouching on the dirty floor. I turned to look outside and saw an old, slim man in a black fedora and a denim jacket leaning over the railing of the pigpen. He was reaching his hand out to one of the sows, trying to attract her with his whistling.

“Granny,” Hal said. “Mr. Fortenberry bought something for me.”

“What’s that?” I asked, keeping my eyes on the man in the hat. He stared down at the pigs, but I could tell that he knew I was looking at him.

“A pair of roller skates. Ordered out of a catalog,” Hal said.

Obviously, the Stain had been talking to Hal while I had been in town. He’d found out that Hal and Jenny liked to watch the roller derbies on Friday nights. An image popped into my mind: the three of them watching television together, Stain with his arm around my daughter, drinking a beer, the satisfied husband.

“How long were you in there?” I asked Hal. He walked up next to me and I placed my arm across his shoulder almost without thinking about it. I could feel the sweat through his shirt.

“Not too long,” he said quietly. Hal had seen the man as well, and was nervous. I told him to run back to the house, and he did so, keeping his head to the ground to avoid looking at the stranger. The man, for his part, didn’t look up until I called out.

He was lean in the face as well as the body, older than me, probably, but clearly in command of himself. He smiled gently, and it made little pockets under his eyes. I walked towards him, tracing my hand along the top of the pigpen fence as I went. By the time I was a few feet away, he had already wished me a good afternoon.

“What’re you here about?” I asked.

“I met Yawkey last night at the Roamer Hotel, and I’ve got that thing you asked him for.” He tipped his hat at me when he was finished speaking. I tried not to laugh at him, but it was impossible to resist. He only smiled back when I did.

“The Roamer Hotel. That’s high living for a drug dealer. You must be doing well for yourself.”

He laughed at me like I’d told a joke, and leaned into the fence with his back arched like he was doing a callisthenic.

“I’ve only been here for a spell,” he said. “You know, odd jobs.” He removed something from an outside pocket of his jean jacket. Yawkey had wrapped the morphine in several paper grocery bags. I felt the heft and shape of a bottle as the man put it in my hands.

I told him thanks, and he did it again: the slow, simple tip of his cap. “To use it safely,” he said without a change of expression, “there’s a little dipper that’s in the bottle cap. Just a couple of drops every six hours.”

“What if I don’t want to use it safely?” I asked.

He dropped his gaze to the ground. “You trying to kill yourself?”

“It’s not for me,” I said.

“Right. Yawkey told me. A friend, right?”

He might have been making a joke, trying to keep the weird conversation going. He might have been harmless. But if I knew Yawkey, I knew that he’d heard about the Stain’s stomach cancer and had put two and two together. “What do you know about morphine?” I asked. “You supposed to be some kind of doctor?”

“No, ma’am. I’m a roofer,” he said.

“What’s Yawkey got you delivering drugs for?”

“Roofing work has been hard in this town. Living at the hotel is a drain on my pocket. Like I said, odd jobs.” He held up his hands and shrugged. “Yawkey has me making a few deliveries, and I heard up in town that your roof was leaking. I took it upon myself to kill two birds with one stone. If that’s all right with you, of course.” Again, he tipped his hat. I would have been irritated, but he seemed genuine, or at least stupid. And it had been a while since a man had shown me such forceful manners.

“You want to fix my roof?” I said. “Hell, I can do that myself.”

“But you haven’t,” he said.

“I’ve been busy.”

“That’s why you should hire me,” he said. “In town, they call you a hell-raiser. Now why take time away from raising hell to fix some stupid old roof?”

I laughed, and he laughed back, looking right in my eyes, like it had been me that had made the joke.

“Fine, fix my roof. I’ll give you a hundred dollars. As long as you can do it in a couple days.”

He smiled and nodded at my offer, then stared at me for too damn long. I looked down at the sow. She was pressing her snout against my leg, in the space between the hem of my skirt and the top of my boot. I suddenly felt odd that I was wearing a skirt in front of this man. Normally I’d have been in pants, but Jenny had been trying to put me in skirts lately, and I had to admit that sometimes it felt good in the heat.

“You smoke hams in there?” he asked.

“And turkeys, or whatever else I can shoot and eat.”

“Been years since I saw an old smokehouse like that.” His accent wasn’t Tennessee. It was more deeply Southern, muddy and squishy. “Your son go hunting with you?”

“He’s my grandson. No, he just likes going in there cause it’s creepy. Like a haunted house.”

The roofer nodded, then looked at his feet. I wondered why he was still trying to make conversation.

“You need ladders? Anything?” I asked him.

“I got a truck, and a Mexican boy to help me. They’re waiting up front.”

“Well,” I said, “you best get started on it, then.”

He smiled and started to walk away, and I immediately saw that he had a pronounced limp. Something was seriously wrong with his left leg.

“Hey,” I called. “What’s the matter with that leg?”

He laughed, this time turning his head up at the sky. “Oh, nothing, except it doesn’t exist,” he said, and pulled up his left pant leg to reveal a long shaft of wood. It ended with a brown boot, which made me notice that his other boot was black. The roofer bent down, knocked on the peg leg with his knuckles, and laughed again.

“Doesn’t that present a bit of problem for a roofer?” I asked. “Getting up and down a ladder?”

“Well, if you don’t believe it, just come and watch,” he said.

I followed him back around to the front of the house. As he passed one of the windows on my bedroom’s side, I saw him take a glance into the dark room. We reached the front, where a Mexican boy who couldn’t be older than fifteen was sitting on the hood of a blue Chevy pickup. There were ladders, paint cans and shingles stashed in the bed. In broken Spanish, the roofer instructed the boy to unload the truck and lean the ladder up next to the front porch. Poncho, who had been watching from under a bush, charged at the boy when he set the ladder up. The boy half-screamed and swung a paint can at Poncho, but didn’t hit. I clapped my hands. “Poncho, shut the fuck up,” I said. The boy cursed under his breath and ascended the ladder with his arms full of equipment, and Poncho wandered away.

“Sorry. The boy scares easily, I guess,” the roofer said.

“What do you need him for?”

“Just watch.” The roofer limped up to the edge of the ladder and called out, “Hey! Garcia!” The boy leaned over the edge of the roof and tossed down a heavy rope. Without any pretext, the roofer started climbing, using just his arms and ignoring the ladder. He was stronger than I might have thought given how skinny he was. The Mexican boy was strong too: he held the rope with a bored expression on his face until the roofer had hefted himself to the top.

“You do that every time, huh?” I asked from the front yard.

“No ma’am. Sometimes the wind just carries me up, like the breath of God.”

A thought jumped into my mind. It told me: this man is as much a roofer as you’re a nun. But the way the roofer laughed at his own joke made me brush the thought away. He was an old cripple—harmless, or at least a man that I could handle if any shit went down.

I headed back inside. Stain lay on the futon in the living room now. He was angry, refusing to speak. I had broken up the conversation at the picnic table. Above us, the roofer and his boy hammered quickly, and in the kitchen, Jenny was making a racket with the pots and pans. Hal was off somewhere, looking for newts or playing with the dogs.

“Stick out your tongue,” I said. I let two drops fall before closing up the bottle and shuffling it back into the paper bags. His head fell back slowly. I saw his eyes close with deep satisfaction.

After a few minutes of him lying still and me sitting close on the edge of the futon, my butt up against his belly, he spoke. “I ain’t here to make trouble now. Just here to die. That doesn’t mean she can’t talk to me if she wants to.”

I wondered what he had seen in his ten years of exile. Maybe he had been to Vietnam and back. Maybe he’d been running the whole time. “You’re in my house,” I said. “You’ll die the way I want you to.”

He shook his head slowly and fluttered his eyes at me.

“Don’t know what you’re trying to do,” I said, and stood up. “Ordering my grandson those roller skates. The boy lives on a farm, Stain. Where’s he supposed to go skating?”

He smiled. The morphine was working—I saw the muscles in his face relax and settle like water. I stood for a while and listened: Stain’s heavy breaths, the hammering and shouting from above, Jenny running the tap. The room turned dark as a cloud passed. I walked to the bedroom and settled on the sofa chair. Quaker, another pit bull, sat on the throw rug and whined at me a few times before resting her head between her front paws.

I fell asleep to the soft thuds coming from the roof. I could tell when the roofer was walking around—there would be a soft pat then a loud thud as his heavy wooden leg took a step. Jenny woke me hours later and said dinner was ready and the roofer had left for the day. I realized I had been thinking about him in my sleep—not dreaming exactly, but drifting upwards to the sound of his footfalls.

  *  *  *

That night I found Jenny curled up on the futon with her arms around the Stain. I hadn’t slept; instead I had been pacing in the backyard and smoking like a teenager. Seeing Jenny lying with a man—this man, worst of all—filled me up with sadness. I just hadn’t been expecting it, and I’d thought my mind was in a place where I could expect anything. The shotgun was in one of the closets in my room. I carried it into the living room and watched the Stain’s face in the moonlight. I imagined lifting the barrel, pointing it to his nose, and pulling the trigger. I imagined how Jenny would scream when I blew off his face. There would be blood on the futon, and Hal running in from his bedroom. It would be a nightmare. “He never loved you, baby girl,” I said in the silence. They kept holding each other close and breathing deeply. I walked outside.

I followed a path in the backyard that eventually led to the woods and the quarry. I didn’t go that far. Instead I stopped at a magnolia tree whose roots pushed up the ground in knuckly welts. The night was hot and calm, and the moon was near full, making the trees and grass in the woods glow almost blue.

I shouted. At first, I screamed to high heaven like the crazy old woman that I was. Just nasty guttural noises from my throat. Then it turned into a word: “Fuckers!” I was only a few feet away from the magnolia. I lifted the shotgun and fired it into the trunk. Bark sprayed everywhere. I felt it on my face, on the scar around my eye. “Fuckers!” I screamed, again and again. It didn’t do much good.

  *  *  *

The next morning, the sun rose hot and angry, as if the end of the drought had offended it in some way. I gave Stain morphine and left him there to struggle with his breathing. Jenny was quiet. She must have sensed that I had seen her on the couch with him. She knew I was leaving for somewhere, but didn’t ask any questions and volunteered to take Hal and the dogs for a walk.

There were many more hippies in the woods this time. I recognized the boy from the other day as he chased a bare-breasted blonde girl down the bed of a creek that tumbled towards the river. As I headed to Yawkey’s, more kids stumbled through the bushes to get a look at me. All of them were so young and so tan. They stared at me like cats ready to pounce. “I’m not your weed lady,” I yelled at them. They kept their distance but stared and stared and stared. I was happy to reach Yawkey’s cinder block steps and rap on his door.

“It’s open,” he called.

The smell was worse on account of the heat. Yawkey sat oddly upright on his couch with his eyes closed. A naked hippie girl was curled up on the shag carpet with her back to me. She stiffened when I opened the door but didn’t raise her head.

“That you, Mama dear?” Yawkey shouted.

“I’m right here,” I said.

He opened his eyes and took off his horrible glasses. I knew he couldn’t see me any better, but he smiled. “I was about to make a margarita,” he said. “Boy if things ain’t getting crazy around here in the heat.”

He rose and walked into his kitchen area, where an unidentifiable brown mess lay strewn all over the counter among a pile of dishes. Yawkey picked up a tequila bottle and took a swig.

“The man you sent to me,” I said. “How’d you find him?”

Yawkey laughed. “You mean Long John Silver? Ain’t it crazy the types that turn up in this town sometimes?”

“Just tell me.”

“You remember Mary Bender? She’s the one who gives these kids their dope. She’d met him through selling drugs at the hotel. Or he fixed her deck, or something. Anyways, he came to me. Heard you’d asked me for morphine, and volunteered to deliver it.” As he walked to a powder blue icebox in the corner of the tiny kitchen, opened it, and pulled out a tray of ice for his margarita.

“So you don’t know why he’s here, in town?” I asked.

Yawkey looked at me and made a show of blinking his eyes innocently, like a maiden from a fairy tale. “You suspicious of him?”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“What I’m asking, Mama Dear, is if you have something to hide.” Yawkey smiled in his sickly way. I felt like kicking him in the kneecap, but I just stood still, like a statue of a moron. He began loading his ice and tequila into a blender. It appeared that these would be the only ingredients in the margarita. “It’s so strange to me,” he continued. “You went through years and years swearing revenge on that dumb Stain that broke Jenny’s heart, and now, all of a sudden—”

“He’s dying,” I said. I blurted it out. “He’s already dead. Just let me make sure it happens how I want it to.”

Yawkey held up his hands in mock innocence. “That sounds like a plan to me,” he said. “You just let me know when he’s finally kicked it, and I’ll put on my grave-dancing shoes.”

The blender started and the girl in the other room shouted something out. Yawkey smiled again.

Without really thinking, I picked up a china bowl from the counter and threw it across the kitchen. It shattered against the wall and left a milky splash. The girl shouted again but still refused to move.

Yawkey yawned. “You come here to fuck with me? I gave you all you wanted.”

“The man with the wooden leg,” I said. “Is he trying to kill Coal Oil?”

“I told you, I don’t know. You should realize by now that as much as we don’t get along, I always tell it to you like it is. From one angry soul to another.” He paused and made a toasting motion towards me with the blender pitcher full of tequila slush, then took a long drink. “And if you really suspect him, why are you here wasting time talking to me?”

“I’m just trying to understand,” I said. The hippie girl groaned when I spoke. Yawkey looked over at her with a grimace. “You best get going, Mama Dear,” he said. “This ain’t a scene meant for your kind eye.”

He glanced at my scar and smiled. I threw open the door. Something was bearing down on me—the heat, the bugs, Yawkey and the hippies, something. I ran, half-sprinted, up the hill to my truck and let sweat mix with the dust on my face and in my hair. I felt surrounded, but there was nothing but the road and the woods.

When I got back Jenny and Hal were still out with the dogs and the roofer and the Mexican boy were striding around on top of the house. As I walked in the front door, the roofer tipped his fedora at me with the sun behind him. I turned my head down. Stain was still asleep, but a strange toxic smell like gasoline and dirt had filled the living room.

“Hey!” I shouted.

He opened his eyes and stared like he had never seen me before. “Where’s Jenny?” he asked.

“Never mind,” I said. “Did the roofers come in and see you?”

He shook his head and shrugged at the same time. I waited there for the rest of the day. At a little after three I heard Jenny and Hal come in the back door. I was irritated to be surrounded by so many people, even if two of them were my daughter and her son. Looking out the front window, I noticed that the Mexican boy had loaded the ladders back into the truck. The roofer stood there, smoking a cigarette and waiting for me.

“So?” I said when I came outside.

“Patched up,” he said. “All the spots you told me about.”

I wanted him gone as soon as possible. “You did good work. Let me get the money from inside.”

With a fast but uncertain flick, he reached and grabbed my arm. He smiled and let his grip loosen as he spoke. “As for payment, ma’am, you needn’t worry now. Why don’t you come and meet me for drinks tonight, and we can settle it then.”

I knew he had motives. I had sensed it all along. If I had been the me from a week before, I would have slapped him or kicked his knee. Ever since seeing Jenny and the Stain on the couch, however, I had lost all my abilities to see inside of people. I told him that a drink would be fine. He let go of my arm and smiled again. That bovine smile. “I just feel it would be easier on all of us,” he said.

  *  *  *

The roofer told me to meet him at the Blue Tavern, right at the bottom floor of The Roamer Hotel. I hadn’t been there in twenty years, and it had turned from a dance hall with light wooden floors into a soggy dive, full of dartboards and mirrors and crooked unpainted tables. I didn’t recognize anyone inside—two black men sat hunched in conversation at one end of the long bar, and the bartender was a pale boy who couldn’t have been more than twenty. He took my order, a bourbon, and darted his eyes around like he had done something wrong.

One of the black fellows stood up and walked to the jukebox. I watched him spread his arms across the glass case and puzzle over the songs for an eternity. Someone tapped me on the shoulder and I started.

I was surprised that I hadn’t heard the stomping of his wooden leg on his way in. The roofer wore a light brown suit that wouldn’t have looked out of place if the bar were still a dance hall. I couldn’t decide if his whole fashion, the fedora and this suit and the little red handkerchief poking out of his front pocket, made him look older or younger in its unsuitableness. What was clear was that the man looked comfortable.

“I hope this isn’t strange for you, ma’am,” he said.

I shook my head. “I don’t mind. Just my daughter and the boy back home. I need to leave them be every now and again.”

“If you want, you can just leave me the money and head home. But I can buy you a drink. You look very nice.”

I had forgotten how I looked. Nothing special: just an old blouse and a pair of jeans, and a few brushes of my hair.

“I’ve got my bourbon right now, thank you, but I’ll let you know if I need more.”

The boy behind the bar poured the roofer a vodka drink. He didn’t seem to want to look at either of us, and turned his back as soon as the roofer had paid him. I decided that I wanted to keep quiet but stay right where I was.

After a long silence, the roofer started talking, answering questions I hadn’t asked him. “Mobile, originally, is where I’m from. My daddy worked on a shipyard, but he was afraid of the water and so was my mother. We moved around, everyone looking for work.”

I nodded with each thing he said. I felt like a stupid dog following a ball, up and down. “Then, there was the war, the first one, and Daddy got killed,” he said. “My mother couldn’t take the grief so I worked to keep her calm and happy. It was hard, for sure.”

For some reason, this part of his story made him smile. He went on: “You wouldn’t believe it, but we moved up to Chicago. I was employed by a company that built some railroad engines, but just as soon as we got up there, I got laid off and started drinking.” He paused and tilted his head. “Then she died, and I really started drinking.”

“Where did you go?” I asked.

“I went all around, the streets and such. I was full of anger, so it was good the army found me. I would’ve done worse than drink and wander. Your grandson’s lucky he’s got two women looking after him. So there was the army for a while. The second war, I was in the Pacific. Did some killing. You don’t need to hear too much of that.”

“I don’t shy from such things,” I said. “Is that where you lost your leg?”

He smiled and chuckled. “I guess I mean I’d rather not talk about it. But as you know, as I know you know, it wasn’t the war that brought me here. It was that man you’ve got in your house.”

The barlights sharpened around the roofer’s face as I nodded again. “I thought you had motives,” I said.

“I’m sorry,” he said, “For being deceptive with silence. It’s how I’ve been for a while. And now that I’m here, and I’ve found the bastard, I don’t know what I want to do.”

“I just want to keep my daughter safe. And my grandson,” I said. The whole conversation felt light. We’d known each other for years, it seemed.

“Oh yes ma’am, yes ma’am,” he said. “I think…maybe what I really needed to do was just talk to you and leave. I’m full of ugliness, you see, and it makes me sick for you to see it.”

“What did he do? Coal Oil? What did he do to you?”

The roofer took a long and careful sip before going on. “He left me, and he didn’t need to. Left me in a place…well, I just needed years to get back to where I wanted to be.”

I told the roofer that Marvin had come to my house to die. He nodded and smiled, and I felt that he was dancing around me as I talked. “Like I told you,” he said. “I don’t know what I want to do.”

We sat in silence for a while. The man at the end of the bar stood up a few more times to play a song, and during one number the roofer bobbed his head up and down. I didn’t recognize the singer, but it was a woman, and the music was quick and jazzy. Then the music stopped, and the two black men left. No sound came from the street—Canterbury was a dead town—and the young bartender seemed to have vanished.

The roofer slapped his hands suddenly on the bar and made me jump in my seat. “How about this,” he said, as if he had reached a firm and perfect decision. “I just leave in the morning.”

“That’s what I want you to do,” I said.

The roofer stood up from his stool and tipped his hat at me again. Without a word, he turned from me and headed towards the door. As I followed him, I heard the bartender stepping out of his hiding place, wherever it had been.

The roofer walked out onto the sidewalk and turned to the door that led to the upper floors of the Roamer Hotel. I kept following him. He didn’t look back, but let his hand linger for a moment so that I could catch the door behind him. He strode up three flights of stairs, slowly lifting his crippled leg again and again, and, at one moment, he looked down at me from a landing and smiled. On the fourth floor he opened a door and walked into his room. When I caught up, I saw that he had not closed the door completely. I knocked.

He was in front of the door in less than a second. “Please come in,” he said.

The room was dark and uncomfortable. The only light that the roofer had turned on was a small lamp on the bedside bureau. He kept smiling and not speaking, and sat on the side of the bed. The fedora was off, and I saw that he had a full head of close-cropped white hair.

I walked into the center of the room and turned away from him to a mirror that hung on the wall. Even in the semi-darkness, the pink scar across my eye was the brightest thing on my face: it shone, it throbbed, it looked back at me. Jenny had always said it looked like an arrowhead to her. The point poked out just above my eyebrow, and the edges were slightly serrated above and below the lids. The eyeball underneath, cloudy and white with disuse, always seemed to want to move of its own accord when I saw it in a mirror. But it was dead.

“How did it happen?” he asked.

In my mind, I could hear the words: my husband liked drinking. He drank himself into such a frenzy one night that he shot a mule and attacked me with a knife. Now he’s locked up. It was simple story. I’d learned to live with it, that much was for sure. Still, I was up here, in this roofer’s hotel room, and I didn’t quite understand why. He’d triggered something inside me with all his stories of shipyards and wars. He probably thought he was seducing me. But I didn’t feel anything romantic—just a desire to see a part of a man’s private life: an open suitcase, a hairbrush, clothes laid out for the next day. It was something I hadn’t thought I’d ever want to feel again.

“Are you going to tell me?” The roofer was still sitting on the bed, but he wasn’t smiling anymore. I wanted to tell him, so badly. If I told him, though, the words would leave my mouth and never come back, and I felt that I would never again be able to choose when I could be silent.

“What about your leg?” I asked him. “Was it Coal Oil?”

He didn’t answer. He was behind me now, holding something in his hands. I was angry with myself for acting like such a selfish fool. I needed to get back to the house, to Jenny, to Hal.

The roofer had the cloth on my face before I could think anything more. Something smelled rich and toxic. I screamed out, “You sonofabitch!” but the cloth and his hand muffled my voice. My legs slipped away from me, and I was on the floor, and the roofer was stepping over me, and the world was going dark. Pieces of everything were tilting out of place.

  *  *  *

When I woke up, my head felt wrong. It could have dropped off in the night, or just gotten crooked and turned around. A soft blanket lay on top of me—this wasn’t right, I never slept under anything except my quilt. I opened my eyes.

The roofer was gone. It looked like he had never been in the hotel room at all. He had even folded and tucked the other side of the bed. I still had my boots on, which made it much easier to run from the room and jump three steps at a time out of the hotel, then run across the street without looking at anything but my truck, parked a block away on the square. The sun had not fully risen, but it was already hotter than the day before.

There was his roofer’s truck, all full of ladders and everything, parked in front of the farmhouse like it had never left. I hurried inside. Coal Oil was gone: all that was left was a sweat mark on the futon where his head had rested overnight. I listened at Jenny’s door and heard her breathing and Hal’s, one heavy and the other quick and soft. My shotgun stood waiting for me near the backdoor. Three of the dogs—Poncho, Quaker and a terrier mutt I had never thought to give a name—were already up. They watched me with eagerness as I gathered the gun, and I opened the door for them to follow me into the backyard.

Two wet streaks ran through the grass and up the hill past the outhouse. We followed them silently until they reached the woods and the path that led north and out of my property. It made sense—the roofer would be taking him to the quarry about a mile away, where he could dump the body. I didn’t know how long ago the roofer had taken Stain from the house, or if he’d had to drag him all the way, or if his leg had slowed him down. I told myself that I still had time.

The path twisted through the woods, where the air was even heavier and more sweltering. The dogs followed silently. Poncho and Quaker followed my steps, and the terrier darted ahead now and then, keen to the fact that we were headed somewhere with purpose, not just out for a walk on the property. After ten minutes I felt sweat dripping from my hair and down my cheeks. All fright had left me now, but I felt old and tired.

The woods vanished away when we reached the top of a ridge. I saw the roofer instantly: he was sitting on a log near the great brown gulf of the quarry that opened up in front of us. Marvin Fortenberry lay nearby, curled up like a baby but still breathing, I could tell even from a distance. The roofer saw me and jumped, then pulled a pistol from his pocket and limped over to the Stain. I lifted my shotgun into the air and fired off a shell. The roofer stopped, hesitated, then raised his gun. But I’d had enough time to get down the slope in a running stumble and reload another shell.

When I got close enough to see his face, I knew he wasn’t going to do it. He was terrified. He glanced at me, then out into the quarry. The sun had risen and now hovered at eye level, and we both squinted.

“If I don’t kill him,” the roofer said.

“Shut your mouth,” I said. “You dumb bastard.”

“You don’t know what he did,” he said, his voice reaching an almost tearful whine.

“I know enough of what he did, to a whole lot of people. What does it matter? He’ll be dead soon, and so will you.”

Nearby sat a duffel bag, and Poncho had occupied himself by sniffing and pawing at it. The roofer raised his arms and walked over. The gun still hung loosely in his hand.

“Don’t shoot my fucking dog neither. I’d rather kill you over him than the Stain.”

The roofer dropped the pistol next to the bag. Poncho looked at him without interest and strode away. The roofer crouched down and unzipped the bag, then produced his fedora from inside. He didn’t seem to want to look at me, and I was pleased by it. “You’ve got to take care of your people, I guess,” he said. “That’s an important thing.”

“If you walk that way,” I said, and pointed with the barrel of my shotgun to the west. “Around the quarry after about a mile, you’ll find a little road. Follow it to the highway.”

“Thank you,” he said, like I’d just told him directions to exactly where he wanted to go. Watching his black fedora bob on top of his head as he shuffled away, I didn’t linger on certain questions, like whether he’d intentionally made himself look polite and old-fashioned. Like Yawkey and Stain, the roofer was just a man beyond my world. The kind of idiot who left himself and the people around him in pieces—losing women and money and legs, but still coming back for more. I was glad to see him leave. When I got home, I would inspect the patches on the roof myself.

I lifted Stain from the gravel and put his arm around my neck. He had puked on the front of his shirt and couldn’t speak. He’ll be dead soon, I told myself. His feet dragged in the grass along the path and the impatient dogs bounded around us in elliptical patterns. It was a slow slog.

When we got back, the sun was fully up. I let Stain fall out of my arms and lean against the outhouse. “Mama Dear,” he gasped. “Can you believe that shit back there?”

“With you I can believe most anything,” I said. “Call me that again and I’ll break your damn morphine bottle. I don’t have to make this easy on you, Stain.”

While he hung there catching his breath against the outhouse wall, I looked down on my part of the world. Jenny was bent double in her vegetable garden near the house, weeding, I assumed, since there was no room for anything new to be planted. She wore my mother’s wide green gardening hat. She saw us and waved. She had no idea what had happened. The flooding from the thunderstorm hadn’t hit the garden too hard. I’d attributed it to Stain venturing out to the outhouse so much that he’d left trenches and craters where his fat body hit the ground, and the water had collected in little bogs. I laughed. The bastard had been good for something.

Hal came running from nowhere holding a cardboard package. “They came, Mr. Fortenberry!” he was shouting. My sweet little boy. Soon, he’d roller skate himself the hell away from me. There was nothing I could do.

 

 

BIO

Walter B ThompsonWalter B. Thompson is a native of Nashville, Tennessee. His work has previously appeared in The Bicycle ReviewCarolina Quarterly and elsewhere. He received his M.F.A. from the University of Wisconsin, where he is currently the Halls Emerging Artist Fellow at the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing.

 

Platform of Truth:

Transcript of selected interviews from a documentary video

by Anna Boorstin

 

Abigail Levy,
The Candidate

I decided to run on a whim. I was fed up with everything I heard on the news. I’d worked, I’d raised our kids, now I had time to do something useful on a bigger scale — if that doesn’t sound too naive.

 

Nancy Clarkson,
The Candidate’s Friend

You know, most people get angry at the way politics doesn’t work, and then they don’t do anything about it. They sign some petitions, put up articles on Facebook, have some heated discussions with friends. But for Abby? — classic zero to sixty. One day she walked into my office and announced she’d done her research, filled out the forms and paid the filing fees.

Of course, I was surprised. Who really does that?

Abby and I have known each other since the eighties. Since even before she knew Marten.

Yes, she asked me to manage her campaign. What can I say? She’s a big believer in rising to the occasion, so my lack of experience wasn’t as important to her as my politics and my organizational abilities.

I said no. I already had a paying gig. Who knew when another one might come around? It isn’t like the film industry is growing jobs these days.

 

Marten Lund,
The Candidate’s Husband

When we had our children I supported any decision she would make about continuing to work. If we were in my home country of Denmark, there would have been more options for her. We often talked about it. She knew I wanted to stay in the U.S. while my career was going well. She always said it was a privilege to be the one to raise our children. But especially at the beginning, when they were little babies, I had the freedom and she did not. She has been on the sidelines so-to-speak for many years and now she wanted to make a contribution.

 

Margaret Gerraty
Abigail Levy’s Campaign Manager

I was delighted when Ms. Levy hired me.   The Congressman stepping down, well, he was a twelve-term Democratic stalwart. There was opportunity there and the race was wide open.

Ms. Levy had no experience, you are correct. However, she is a well-educated, articulate, and proudly liberal woman.

Our strategy had real potential. I thought Ms. Levy countered her lack of experience with the image of a quick study, an educated person who would take all the available information and use common sense to make good decisions. She said, “Who could be better prepared to govern than someone who takes grade schoolers on field trips and chaperones teenagers on Grad Night?” It helped voters relate.

Yes, especially women.

She also asked big questions like, why don’t people trust government? Why are folks more likely to trust McDonalds and Coca Cola with their well-being than the F.D.A. or O.S.H.A.?   Government should be the good guy. And corporations? Well, their goal is to make money.

Actually, I thought Ms. Levy managed her lack of religious identity quite well. She talked about Science, and quoted Gallileo, the one about God giving us our brains so we’d use them. The use of the word God was helpful, I think.

Absolutely. You can say I agreed with her politics.

 

Kelsey Kiernan-Sokol,
The Volunteer

The hardest part of my job was calling people. So many of them acted like running for office was a weird way of getting PR or something. They couldn’t believe that Ms. Levy actually wanted things to be better and not just for herself.

For me? Her whole “truth” thing was the best. I think people should put it all out there. Everyone is covering up sh*t nowadays.   Oh, sorry. Can I say that?

 

 

Nancy Clarkson,
The Candidate’s Friend

The “Platform of Truth” was her big idea, you know, her campaign mantra. She was going to answer all questions truthfully, be truthful in all her promises and plans.   I guess it’s kind of rare that politicians do that, or even promise it. It sounded brilliant, but I did wonder how it would work in practice.

 

Tobias Levy-Lund,
The Son.

Mom’s always been big on truth. She thinks it’s a major problem for the entire species. She said that whenever there’s a lie, things go wrong.

Yeah, when we were growing up, Mom wanted to know what us kids were really doing. Really.

She’d only punish us if we lied — like if I said, “I was at a party smoking weed,” I wouldn’t get punished, but if I lied and she found out about it, she’d ground me or whatever. It was different. The worst was if she told her friends what she knew, and then their kids would get in trouble.

 

Abigail Levy,
The Candidate

I didn’t want my campaign to become all about revealing secrets. That’s all you journalists do nowadays.

I thought, I’ll just get it all out of the way, talk about the dodgier aspects of my life, and then I can campaign on my ideas.

 

Margaret Gerraty
Abigail Levy’s Campaign Manager

You’re right. The Platform of Truth was our undoing. TMI, no way around it.

 

Nancy Clarkson,
The Candidate’s Friend

Well, obviously it didn’t work. You could even say it was a train wreck. But, like real wrecks, you know people can’t help watching. Kind of like a reality TV miniseries about politics.

 

Marten Lund,
The Candidate’s Husband

The publicity has not made my bosses happy. They usually love any mentions in the news — more people will come watch their movies is how they see it — but Corporate gave them trouble here. So they gave trouble to me.

Our kids? They have their own lives and any embarrassment…

No, they don’t complain. They know their mother.

I am not saying it is often that their mother embarrasses them. Of course not.

 

Tobias Levy-Lund,
The Son.

You’re joking, right? They can’t fire me for what my mom says. Plus, have you looked around this office? It’s all about gossip and scandal. I’m supposed to be the IT guy and instead, everyone was on me for the inside scoop. People asked me all kinds of cr*p. What was it like growing up with a crazy mom, if I’d done anything I wanted, stupid sh*t. We had rules like everyone else. Just because Mom was honest about mistakes she made — maybe they thought she let us make the same mistakes. Yeah, right.

 

Margaret Gerraty
Abigail Levy’s Campaign Manager

It didn’t take long for local press to decide that different was “quirky.” By the time the Internet news picked it up, they were going with “crazy.”

I think that’s when I lost control.

 

Kelsey Kiernan-Sokol,
The Volunteer

One night when I was there late with a bunch of people and we were eating pizza and she was eating with us she told us about how she did a lot of speed in college. Just to get her work done, you know? But she also made sure we understood it was bad for her and we shouldn’t ever do that.

I felt like I could tell her anything.

 

Margaret Gerraty
Abigail Levy’s Campaign Manager

The final straw for me, personally? It was actually her remark about her husband’s Danish citizenship. She said, “Why would he want to become an American citizen?” We had our biggest disagreement then. How could she not understand that she appeared un-patriotic? Un-American?

 

Nancy Clarkson,
The Candidate’s Friend

Marten? Marten did his usual thing. He hid out. He had sets to design and build in a hurry, like always. The office handled a few calls from reporters, especially when the whole, “Why would my husband want to change his citizenship?” thing happened. I did my best to stay out of it.

 

Marten Lund,
The Candidate’s Husband

I got in trouble for having a “crazy” wife who points out my Danish citizenship when many people feel the film industry moves too much work elsewhere and gets in their way — traffic jams, you know — when we are shooting here.

 

Abigail Levy,
The Candidate

There’s another instance of the kind of patriotism that’s frankly, just idiotic. And yes, I’m aware that I’m doing it again. People who watch this story will say, “There she goes again.” But it is stupid to deliberately avoid seeing what is working. Just because it comes from outside our own great country doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be open to it. You wouldn’t tell an artist to not be inspired by Rembrandt or a writer to not check out Austen because they’re not Americans. Where would our country be without Lafayette and the French? Health care actually works in some other countries. We should check that out.

 

Barry Reid,
The Opposition

Abigail Levy handed us priceless material. When she said, “Everyone could use a little therapy,” my candidate jumped 6% in the polls!

No I actually don’t know where he stands on therapy. You’d have to ask him. I can tell you that he’s never been in therapy.

I make a list for candidates when I take them on. We sit in a room, he checks off the things on the list that pertain to him, I make notes in my head and then burn the piece of paper right in front of him. It’s a good system.

 

Kelsey Kiernan-Sokol,
The Volunteer

How can you know from the very beginning that you need to lead a perfect life so one day you can run for office? I know people hide bad things. But what if they didn’t need to?

 

Abigail Levy,
The Candidate

But let’s face it, what is really working? Our political process is a mess. Everyone’s is. Though I should say I admire the Scandinavians. That’s not only because I’m married to one.

Yes, I’m being simplistic. I do know that. But so are the people who say, “America right or wrong” and call our house and tell my husband to go back to Denmark. Believe me, I have times when I want to go live there.

I know, I can’t seem to help it. Maybe I’ll get a job on MSNBC now.

I’m joking. No, not my thing. Besides, everyone’s a commentator these days. And how did that get to be a word? Commentator?

 

Barry Reid,
The Opposition

We really weren’t ever worried. She was a novelty candidate. Like a movie star, you know.

I am in no way comparing Ms. Levy with President Reagan.

Reagan was different. He had a vision — a great vision, as his legacy shows.

For one thing, her politics are on entirely the wrong side. She is pro-government!

 

Tobias Levy-Lund,
The Son.

You’ve gotta understand my mom. She loves that show, The West Wing. She binge watched it with each of us when we were old enough, kind of a “command performance” thing. I think what she loved most was that all the characters were trying to make the world a better place. She thinks that’s something we should all aspire to. Mom loves that sh*t.

Yeah, if you wanna say that my mother forced us to watch The West Wing, go right ahead. I don’t think anyone’s gonna call child services.

Of course she knew the show wasn’t real. Just ‘cause she wants the world to be more like that… Listen, when I was a teenager I thought her ideals were pretty lame. But now… now I’m glad she wasn’t so cynical, that she really cared about making things better. So now I probably sound really lame, right?

 

Kelsey Kiernan-Sokol,
The Volunteer

No, I turned eighteen June 15, which was a week after the primary. So I couldn’t vote. But it would have been really cool if she’d won.

 

Marten Lund,
The Candidate’s Husband

Abby has great ideas but she can be also naive… Sometimes I wonder if that is part of being American. Many great ideas and too idealistic. We in Europe… well, we are more practical I think. I always have the same with Abby since we met — she makes me proud and then I am infuriated. Long marriages can be like that.

No, I’m not saying my marriage is too long. What did I say before? I love Abby. We are happy together.

The cocaine? I’d like to think the press in my country would not be so much interested in that as here, but maybe they’d do just the same. I don’t know. When I met her it was quite normal.

I mean that it was quite normal on movie sets. I was never particularly interested, but she loved it. She said it helped her stay awake after lunch. She has low blood pressure you see and meals…

No, I don’t think low blood pressure is a medical problem. I think that actually it is good for you.

 

Margaret Gerraty
Abigail Levy’s Campaign Manager

First, there was the “discovery” that she’d had a Danish au pair — legally, as it happened. But there are a lot of glass houses here in SoCal, so any “nannygate” that might have been directed at us never got off the ground. I remember feeling so grateful that my candidate did everything on the up-and-up. Then she admitted having taken Prozac, and worst of all, cocaine. It all unraveled.

Talking about the cocaine was a huge mistake. She was never arrested, and never had a long time problem, but that actually made it worse. It seemed like she was a dilettante, a casual user. If people thought it was a “problem” for her they might have been sympathetic. I will say that when we did polling, there were a surprising number who liked the honesty and said she’d been young, but for most everyone else it was the deal breaker.

 

Barry Reid,
The Opposition

Remember when she described her idea of why people hate government? Talk about a gaffe! It was totally un-f***ing believable, if you’ll excuse my French. She actually said OUT LOUD and IN FRONT OF A MICROPHONE that people must think about all government as if it were a giant DMV populated by overweight black women who care more about their manicures and their gigantic pensions than helping the good folks in line! Talk about not minding your P’s and C’s if you know what I mean. Of course it made headlines. She had to explain over and over again how it wasn’t what she thought blah blah but something she imagined other people thought. It stayed in the news for more than a week, which is forever in campaign time. We didn’t even have to publicize it!

Between you and me and the lamppost, our bureaucracy, well… it wasn’t such a bad comparison.

If you quote me on that I’ll have you in court so fast your head will spin.

Yep, by then it was pretty much over. I might have actually had a moment of pity for her.   But in my business that is not an option.

 

Abigail Levy,
The Candidate

Look, I understand that I often speak my mind without thinking about how my words will sound, well, out of context. But don’t you think it’s a problem that there’s no place for that kind of spontaneity anymore? Public figures can’t just be good at their jobs, they have to be good at talking about their jobs. Spin is simply another form of dishonesty.

Well, I do think media is a huge part of the problem.

Yeah, yeah, you’re just reporting what happens. I know. But answer me this? Who actually reports things more simplistically? Me or the mass media?

I’m rolling my eyes because… because I feel like it. What’s a little eye-rolling going to do now?

After all this, I’m going straight back to therapy. And feel free to tell that one to the world. There’s nothing wrong with being in therapy. Everyone has problems they need help with. It’s like — you want to play the piano, you get a piano teacher. You want to learn about yourself, what motivates you, how you react to things and even — and I really believe this — how to be a better person — you go to an expert — to someone who’s studied the human brain. That’s another thing. I don’t understand why so many people distrust experts.

 

Margaret Gerraty
Abigail Levy’s Campaign Manager

All-in-all it was a… an experience, I’ll say that. There was some good in there along with the catastrophes. Of course now I have no idea if I’ll ever get another job in politics.   Maybe this documentary will help.

Actually I am disappointed. I did think she had a lot to offer. She was honest. But it was no way to run a campaign. There’s only so much you can change in one go-around. It really is too bad.

 

Nancy Clarkson,
The Candidate’s Friend

Yes, I did. I voted for her.

 

Barry Reid,
The Opposition

The truth thing? Well, I just don’t think it’s a good idea. The electorate wants to think candidates are perfect. I don’t know if there’s anything we could or should do about it.

 

Marten Lund,
The Candidate’s Husband

Abby deeply cares, you see. It’s one reason that makes me love her. Politics should be about right and wrong, we think.

Sorry, I need to get back to work. All I can say is if you have anything else you should ask her.

 

Abigail Levy,
The Candidate

In retrospect?

Clearly there are many things I don’t understand. I tell myself that the 99% must be uninformed and/or snowed by the media. So many of them vote for the people who want them to remain consumers and corporate serfs. I’m more and more disappointed and furious — yes, I am still furious — about how so many politicians laud wealth and self-interest as solutions to our problems. What happened to wanting a better world for everyone?

Yeah, there goes my idealism again. I don’t know how else to be. If I can’t hope for better things, with my advantages and education, who could?

 

Tobias Levy-Lund,
The Son

Look I never thought she’d win or anything. I’m actually kind of proud of her even if the whole thing ended up embarrassing. And Mom always says, “If you don’t embarrass your kids you’re doing something wrong.”

 

 

 

BIO

Anna BoorstinAnna Boorstin grew up riding horses, playing board games and reading. After attending Yale, she worked as a sound editor on films such as Real Genius and Clue. She raised three children and is happy to have (finally) found her way back to writing. Her story, Paper Lantern, made the Top 25 of Glimmer Train’s August 2013 Award for New Writers and was recently published in december magazine. Her Lizard Story was in Fiddleblack.  She also blogs at Yalewomen.org.

Jon Fried author

A Little Bit Closer to Water

by Jon Fried

 

 

Time for a new house. Up the hill? I asked her, and she shrugged. Up the hill was further from the water. Not that it mattered how close or how far you were. When the time would come, it would come.

When she stood at the foot of the bed, deciding, I saw again how big she was. Almost six feet, and strong. Thick shoulders, thick legs. Not muscled, and not fat, just big. And a soft, young face with small, dark, sharp-focused eyes that took in everything and gave away little.

 

It was all very upsetting and horrifying beyond imagining, and as catastrophic as Catastrophe itself, but I liked it. Not liked, really, but accepted it. Readily and easily. I have to admit it. I missed those that I missed. I was often terrified, usually numb, frayed to threads by the permanent state of shock, of course all that. But people get used to just about anything, and if all you need to do to find a clean set of sheets is walk into the house next door; if all you need to do to find a meal is poke through another freezer; if all you need to do to find a good coat is open another closet door, adjusting becomes quite a bit easier.

 

I took a car, newer and fitter than mine. I drove for several days. Saw other drivers, and was always sure to wave, but there were enough of us on the roads that we didn’t need to stop, a wave would do. There were just no people manning the pumps or the mini-marts or the motel desks. All the slim jims and doughnuts you want. In one motel the water ran cold and I just walked around until I found the boiler room and flicked the switch. By the time I got East I’d been through a few towns where the lights were out. And under the “Welcome to” outside of one town a handmade sign read “Water Unsafe.” But for the most part there were just enough of us to keep things going. One guy at the water company. One guy spinning reruns on the TV station. One DJ who did eight-hour shows and then slept a couple hours and then went out for something to eat. The refrigerators were still humming.

 

It had been about three weeks since the big sweep, and we knew things would progress, but no one knew how quickly. You didn’t worry, though. That was like worrying about rain when you’re three feet underwater.

 

She wore shapeless grey and khaki clothes so I was more than a little surprised when she hung by the closets. Never tried much on—none of our absent hostesses were tall enough—but she would hold up a sleeve, or finger a hem, and I could hear a murmur. Once, she pulled out a sleeveless black velvet dress with a white sash. Last hurrah? And a red one with a slant hem. Though at laundry time, she’d just find some more sweat pants and sweatshirts in the drawers.

 

It was a bug. A germ. A virus. Retrovirus. Or some other subject of a thousand lousy books and movies and magazine features. And yet it did its own damage in its own way. Not contagious, this was a mantra, and yet the thing spread. No blame was ascribed, since we were in the terror lull, after striking some secret deals with our enemies. The terror folks—those we knew of—were so terrified themselves they came clean on their every move, hoping we would stop it if we’d started it, and cure it if we hadn’t. Nope and nope. All that was over.

 

Her calm seemed like immunity. Maybe like my thirst. I drank water all day for years. On the theory that if it’s prescribed when you’re sick it can’t be bad for you when you’re not. And may even prevent.

 

A huge rambling old Greek revival with electric candles in all the windows. We wandered around and I wondered aloud how they’d heated the thing. I was beginning to do everything aloud, I think because she was so quiet. She pulled off her sweatshirt and tossed it on a table by the door. It was nice and toasty; whatever it was that heated the place was working fine.

 

It was all very sudden, and very thorough. A few months ago, there was hope someone would find a cause, even a cure; now there wouldn’t’ve been enough people left to produce it and pass it around even if they had.

It was apparently a fairly painless way to go. A little fever, sometimes some nausea, and the beginning of the thirst. Then the revving and the sleeplessness. And finally the calm, the sweet calm, and the drenching in euphoria, the casual but unstoppable union with the thirst, with the overwhelming need to drink, and at the same time with the need to be outside, stretched out in the open air. The fever spikes again, and the victims of this microbe or this wave or this force find themselves seeking water, some local stream, the old canal, the town pool, the nearest beach, or failing that a puddle they’ve made with a garden hose, or an open hydrant. That’s where it ends, half in the water, half out, and whatever it is that makes it so makes the skin turn hard, which keeps the smell in. A good thing, as there’s nobody here to take them away anymore. That ended a while ago. A month. Two months. Before the big sweep.

 

When I hear the voices now I tend to talk. And she is so silent.

 

She’s got the big limbs and I’ve got the big theories. Some invented, some borrowed. This appeared to be my last and best chance to unload them. She didn’t seem to mind.

 

Getting into bed the first time we were like a long-married couple, neither attracted particularly to the other. But damn if we were going to let the opportunity go.

 

Open doors meant empty houses. Not contagious.

 

One open door meant a man inside, screaming at us, waving a bottle, my house my house…until he got a good look at us and stopped. Not sure what he was expecting, but not us. We waved, no worries. And just went to the next block.

 

She did speak, at least once a day, and usually about animals. The dogs and the cats. She did not speak like someone who was silent most of the day. Her voice was quiet but utterly clear, with perfect diction, and perfectly relaxed. Where have all the doggies gone, she said one day, as we stood on a back porch gazing at some enormous bright blue dog house in the corner of a huge yard. I said, you won’t tell me anything about you, but how about your parents. You the child of an English teacher? Speech coach? Lawyer? Folk singer? That got an eyebrow.

 

The drive was supposed to be a respite. When I got close to St. Louis, I thought I’d treat myself to a four-star hotel, but then I thought I’d better cross the river first. I was determined not to look as I crossed the bridge. I saw some cars parked on the bridge. The effort to keep my eyes straight and only straight made my hands prickle with heat and sweat on the steering wheel. I decided on a city without a river and headed for Bloomington.

 

At a gas station in Youngstown a man pulled up to the pump behind me. I was terrified and considered finding some means of self-defense in the store, but he seemed so glad to see me I instantly felt the same. He was also breathless and in a hurry. About 35 or so, a square, beer-and-football kind of face. He was on a cell phone, which he held away from his body as he told me with a laugh there was a group going from bank to bank with dynamite. He told me there was a club downtown with girls. He told me a month ago he’d had a wife—he admitted they were separated—and two boys. Come on, he said, waving his cell toward his big round gut. He seemed to want my company very much, and to assume I’d want his. I’m going home, I said, and I pointed east. He nodded and winced and he returned to his cell phone and I was forgotten.

 

At a rest stop in New Jersey all I could find was ice cream for dinner.

 

I met her on the bridge near the mall where, the sign intoned, revolutionary forces fought a delaying action against superior British forces trying to outflank Washington’s line.

 

What I was before was gone and that was OK with me.

 

The Theory of Likelihood. In explanations of the paranormal or extrasensory I estimate that the likelihood of someone making the thing up for whatever reason is so much greater than the likelihood of the thing being true, that discounting it all becomes an unfortunate necessity.

 

The Accident of Happiness Theory, also known as the Employability of Genius Theory, states that genius—and happiness—have everything to do with the intersection of an individual and a setting. Also called the Shakespeare Theory: an ambitious wordsmith drama star shooting for the big time today would have ended up in Hollywood; big shot for sure, but to be Shakespeare, he needed Elizabethan English and the Old Globe just as much as they needed him. The theory goes on to say that someone growing up in the 70s may be happy but that same person in the 80s will be miserable and both will hate the 90s. City people born in the year 9000 BC came 6,000 years too early. Country people born now will never feel right walking on pavement.

Me, for instance, I’m pretty well suited to an absolute calamity where you just have to let go of everything. You, too, I think. That’s why we’re a good match. No eyebrow on that.

 

I led her to my street at the bottom of the hill. It was easy to talk about the people that used to live there because I hadn’t lived there for several years and they could have been long gone as far as I knew. I told her about the Derringers, who introduced me to pornography in their basement. I pointed out the Berman house, now presumably without Rick, the boy who taught me basketball, or Jane, his gorgeous, long-limbed sister. There was the house of Jody, who never looked both ways and one day darted out in front of a car and with a squeal of brakes had both legs broken. Like Jody, I couldn’t stop. There are the Perrys, here are the Smalls, right by the fire hydrant where my brother crushed his bike, my brother who had called me several weeks before to tell me in a raging drunk that he had it, mother fucker, he had it, mother fucker he didn’t want to die, but he hoped he could find the mother fucker who did this so he could just blow him away with his bare hands. That’s one of the voices.

We arrived at my house even though there was no reason to be there. I had no clothes there.

I stood looking at the chipped and cracked flagstone walkway up to the dusty red split level. Couldn’t walk on it. Couldn’t budge.

Did you have any pets? She said in a casual voice as if she’d been chatting me up all along. No, I said. Did you? She unfroze me.

She took a few quiet steps onto the grass and peered into the Ginsberg’s bushes. She slowly squatted and began patting her knee. Raising her eyebrow. Aren’t the cats…trouble? I began. She turned her head toward me and mouthed the word, dog, over-enunciating to make sure I’d get it. There was a rustle and the dog broke the other way. She flinched and stood quickly, and then stepped toward it but it was many houses gone.

 

The first house we tried was up the hill, where the big houses are. An English tudor with a huge, cream-themed living room; cream couches, cream carpet, cream drapes. A cream piano. Creamy art on the walls. Big windows to a huge backyard. A dead dog by the birdbath.

 

In the first days of this perfect murderer (perhaps murderess, with its feminine delicacy) the sun shone on rumormongers. Walking by a garden, I blurted: “Rumormonger sunflower, sprouting quickly and in glory, turning to catch the warm rays of bogus useless information, producing many beautiful seeds and then falling over. Good one?” A shrugging little tilt of her head and I laughed aloud. That someone so still and silent could tolerate my blurtings and my jokes was something of a miracle.

The rumors were geographic: safe in the desert. Rumors were homeopathic: eat salt, drink more. Rumors were ecstatic: the messiah it must be because of its essentially merciful nature. There were runs on vitamins, there was the word histolic everywhere and I still don’t know what it means. There was some substance in some blood type that maybe just maybe was better to have. First O pos, then neg, the B then A. There were dazed newscasters listing departed colleagues. There were newscasters heading for New Mexico with maps of our blue world covered in red. On the positive side there was a general cessation of hostilities in most conflicts around the world. There was a tremendous bringing together of neighbors as no one knew what else to do. And then the sweep and moot was the word of the hour.

 

Hello, I said as I approached on the bridge. She looked up fast, flight or fight, and saw no danger. Neither did she speak. She looked back toward the stream, where we could see several former citizens sometime after their last drink. Unless you’re looking for someone, you can’t stay here, I said to her. She looked up at me. When she finally broke her silence, she said I want to find a dog. She spoke quietly, but was not whispering. She looked at me very closely before she spoke, and then let her words float out over the stream. I think that was the only thing she said the whole day.

Are you looking for a pet? I said, meaning her own, but I knew that’s not what she meant and my voice making conversation sounded utterly stupid. Back when the media were still pumping out their pages and their signals, there was talk of the pets. It was first found in cats, turning them feral. Bloodthirsty, not water thirsty. The dogs, however, were thought to be safe, and even offer protection. That’s what she meant, although there had also been talk about dogs, now, too. I’d heard it on the radio, the last AM out of Denver, a few days before I left. There’s talk about dogs, now, I said.

She looked at me closely again, trying to figure out if there was any sense in me at all.

Come on, I said, I’m going to see what food’s left in the Minimall. My treat. She turned away from the stream, did not look at me.

Please come with me, I found myself saying. To this woman a head taller than me. I thought of Youngstown. She walked off the bridge and I walked with her toward the mall.

 

It took a day to find out her name. I asked so many times it became a joke, and as soon as I found a joke, I stayed with it until she smiled.

Will you tell me your name if I promise not to use it? Will you tell me your name if I stop asking who you were looking for when you were standing on the bridge looking downstream? Will you tell me your name if I tell you it doesn’t matter if I know your name?

 

Angela. Mixed race, I think African-American and WASP. Big as she was, her little head made her seem gentle. And she had the soft sweet face of someone with a pleasant mother.

 

One morning as we drifted beyond my neighborhood, I took on the role of guide, though she may have grown up nearby, too, for all I knew. In Union, the black part of town? This was Lakawanna Township, southern section, the Jewish section.

 

It was with great Jersey pride that some local historian wrote in the 20s that our town and its vicinity was actually bought from the Lenni Lenape and not just for trinkets but for pound sterling, some four-digit amount that was no $24 embarrassment in trinkets. When the Indians returned to hunt on the land the next winter, clueless about the white man’s ideas of property, the colonists explained and ponied up the same amount of cash again for the hunting and fishing rights. The first residents agreed and went off to Michigan and I guess I don’t want to know what happened to them there.

I know you want to hear this, I said.

Tell me where you’re from and I’ll make up something about your town, too.

Her eyes smiled, even though her lips stayed soft and straight.

 

She would not tell me where she was from. She would not tell me what she used to do. She did not want to tell me anything, including why she wanted to keep silent or even that she wanted to keep silent. I was going to have to be OK with that.

 

The cat got her arm in the moonlit beauty of a center hall colonial. The thing had been coiled on the stairs and sprang in the dark we were enjoying. I’d said, check out the moonlight. As I tore the cat away, the cat clawed her skin. Then it sank its claws and its teeth into my arm. I flailed in blind terror. I hit its skull on a glass doorknob with enough force that the sound was like bone, not like fur, the limbs of the cat splayed as if I’d plugged its tail into an outlet and it was electrified. It was dead, and the two of us were standing, arms bleeding, looking at the dead cat.

Slowly, Angela sat on the floor. And gathered it carefully into her lap

 

It’s not contagious. Not contagious.

 

Angela took her first outfit after she fell chasing a dog. A mud-crusted golden, it leapt around as if it couldn’t remember whether the master was home or the hunt was on. She neared, and the dog circled around itself and began to run and then turn back. Baffled. Keeping his distance. Finally Angela took a lunging step, she must’ve known it was a mistake, and it was the first lapse of patience I saw. She slipped on the wet leaves on a lawn whose gardener hadn’t come in a while. I heard her curse, a whisper, and I loved it, I rushed over to help her up, but I really wanted to hear another curse word. Didn’t. We went inside and she found the right dresser. She did it with solemnity and honor. Blue sweats. Mid-calf.

 

After a few days, about the time we stopped pausing by the photos on the walls and the mantles and the dressers and the bedstands, we decided that the cat wounds were healing uneventfully. We celebrated. Goodbye solemnity. Now we were the bad kids sneaking around the homes of our parents’ friends when they were out of town.

 

We only drank the good stuff. Single malt we’d never heard of, never could have afforded. The wine cellar. We were the occasion it had been saved for.

 

It occurred to me that those of us alive might be alive because of some quirk of our immunities, and that we could be safe, and that any children we would have would never have to worry. They couldn’t ever catch it, whatever it was.

 

The theory of rapid and unexpected evolution. I used to wonder with my brother what would be the next step in human evolution? Losing the vestigial pinky toe? Bigger heads for bigger brains? Hooves for speed? But now I realize that that we don’t compete in a physical world anymore, we compete in a cultural world, and we are looking at social mutation, behavioral advances: it’s no longer about how many babies you can have, but how you can take care of the one or two you get, and not how you can beat out your neighbor, but how you can get along. Hail the return of the matriarchy. No comment from Angela.

 

I’ll tell you the real problem now. Guys like me with a theory about everything. That got both eyebrows going. Good one? Eh. Oh come on. All right fine, a good one. All without words.

 

For all my talking, I actually do believe I’m not a bad listener. I’ll pry open a scowl or a sigh. But here the best I could do was pretend to be chivalrous. Offering to make meals, making sure she had the coat or sweater or umbrella she needed. She nodded her thanks. She was never unfriendly. There’s no doubt she enjoyed the sex. She just never pretended I wasn’t a stranger. She also listened to everything I said.

 

Let’s walk up the hill. Better views, bigger houses.

A lovely walnut entryway. Deep white shag beyond.

 

She pulled out two or three videos and I very much liked the idea of a triple feature, but we couldn’t get the thing to work. We tried every combination of buttons on every black box and remote control, but could get nothing on the six-foot screen except the occasional screech of static and frazzle of wavy lines.

Perhaps we should retire upstairs, I said in my gentleman’s best. We strolled around several bedrooms larger than the master bedroom in my house until we found the master master, a huge beige affair with another huge screen, a recessed oval light fixture at least eight feet long and four feet wide, several skylights, and a bed big enough for eight.

 

Every new bed got the same treatment. She stood at the foot, peered at the night tables, fingered the spread, looked around the room. Then she’d pick a side, usually the left.

 

She was the first partner I’d never discussed birth control with.

 

Will you tell me anything now? Maybe you will tell me your age, simply because that’s the one thing most women won’t tell. She smiled at that. Can I ask you about things that don’t have anything to do with the past? She considered this, silently. But I couldn’t think of anything.

She carried a purse and kept a bone in a bag inside it. For the dog she was looking for. We made a couple of roasts and added to the collection. Never made a roast before. Came out OK.

 

In the morning we were hung over and thirsty but that was a thirst we weren’t afraid of.

 

We were tempted to stay put a couple of times, and this seemed like the best buy so far. An English Tudor, or fake English Tudor I should say, with old wingback chairs, little tables and floor lamps beside them, and floor-to-ceiling book shelves in just about every room. A freezer full of chickens in the basement. Nice, Angela said. Aloud.

 

On the second night the voices grew bodies and my brother and sister stood in the hallway just outside the master bedroom door in a dream that was not a dream until several minutes after I woke in a panic sweat. We gotta go, I said, as soon as she was up.

 

We walked a long way, crossing the bridge, though we didn’t look. We went to the cheap part of town with the skinny side yards and the vinyl siding. She let me pick the streets. Together we chose the homes. I liked this neighborhood. The beds were smaller. The rooms were smaller. We were in closer physical proximity. But there wasn’t as much to laugh at, so we went back up the hill.

 

Around dinner time we pick a place we think might have a view and walk around the house to look for signs of pets: pet doors, food dishes inside. Cats, bad. Dogs, good. Once inside she relaxes. A glass of wine helps. The only breaking and entering we did was into wine cellars.

 

After I’ve slept with a woman, I always fall in love with her, for as little as an hour and as long as years, and it always stays with me, at least some, even long after we’re through.

In Angela’s case it took a week before her face changed. Her body changed. Our sex changed. Her face, still small and gentle, was furiously beautiful, a perfection, her body the same. Our sex, better for me, worse for her, I think. Now, I love that her body’s bigger than mine. Wrapped in her long limbs a few heavenly minutes before she rolls over and moves away to sleep.

 

I woke one morning with Thoughts on Abrahamic Religion in the silence of a Southwestern-themed, cathedral-ceiling master bedroom with a view of a golf course. Patriarchal rage imbues the fear and the poetry of the great faiths. Rabid belief is a survival tool in the warrior culture. Each system must accommodate the need for order and the experience of awe. All of them are brutal, all of them beautiful, all of them corrupt in practice, but what do you expect? I glanced over for rebuttal, got none.

 

For a few seconds now and then she lets me investigate her hair. Half afro, half dark brown waves. To the touch, calm and rich.

 

Some days we’re walking along enjoying the sunshine, feeling invisible, like it’s the old days, like it’s still the Age of Anonymity. In the sun I catch a hint of red in her hair.

 

We made love several times before we held hands. I took her hand listening to the first jet we’d heard in days. I could feel her reasoning with herself: don’t want to but no reason not to.

 

More on Faith. Why would any omnipotent thingy create something that might not choose him? The usual reasons, I suppose: loneliness, boredom, the need to be greeted in the morning, adored at night. I could say we project on to this godhead both the needs of the parent and of the child, such is oneness. Or ask, which came first the chicken or the language? The egg or the idea? Whichever.

 

Though there were signs of pets in half the houses we chose, the first dog we got close to was a filthy Irish Setter scampering frantically after some squirrel and then luring us into a pink stucco monstrosity we would have never otherwise set foot in, now that we were in our Victorian phase. We heard running water. Smelled chlorine. We stood on the pink marble of an elevated foyer; to our left, two steps down, was a den, to our right, three steps down, a living room under six inches of water. Wavering as if the floor were some drunken white marble. Some slippers were floating by the piano bench near the door. Beyond the living room was a dining room one step up under an inch of water and beyond the dining room was an indoor pool overflowing into the house. There was a body by the spout pouring water and Angela made a shuddering cry, recoiled, and then stumbled back outside. With the dog calling from the other side of the heavy, carved wood doors, I had to pull her away.

 

Stomach flu and cold symptoms were not symptoms of the other, so there was something almost delightful in them. When I found her in a wall-to-wall mirror bathroom holding her stomach and grimacing I leapt up. I would nurse. And god bless her she let me. I put her into some rich woman’s silk pajamas and luscious cotton bathrobe. I gave her some analgesics. I made her some tea. I brought it to her in bed. I read her some Shakespeare and when she chuckled and waved me back, enough already, I went across the hall to sleep in the boy’s room.

She got better. We slept together again.

 

One night after dinner, we were combing through some jazz aficionado’s wall of CDs. Did she like jazz? No answer. OK, maybe that was not specific enough. Did she like Miles? Bird? Lady Day? Ella? Sarah? Ricky?

Ricky? She shot a glance. Just checking. There is no Ricky. I thought I heard a laugh. I know I saw a smile.

 

One night drunk, maybe the same night, I step right on the glass coffee table and swoop down on her sitting on a big boat of a couch, my heart pounding as if it’s our first kiss because it is our first kiss that’s not in the dark of someone’s marriage bed. I am aflutter. She gives me a bit of a sigh. Wait, she says with her palm, like an older person cautioning a younger person. Though I’m sure she’s younger than me.

 

Please let it be something we ate, or the liquor, or a relapse. I woke up to the sound of her barfing in the master bath and I raced in there. She was on her knees on a deep, white, shag stand-in-front-of-the-toilet rug, but she heard me coming and she held out a hand toward me. Her hand was part fist, part claw, pointing right at me and it said stay away. Don’t come near. Leave me alone she said aloud. The first angry words I’d heard her say. I walked over to her and she started shaking her head. Go she said, gulping down air between heaves. Then she threw up again, a wave that convulsed her, and I think brought some relief. She looked up a second and glared at me, OK, you happy now? You seen enough?

I couldn’t get closer to her. I couldn’t leave her in there. The breathing smoothed out a bit after a few minutes. I thought she was done.

Sorry she said.

Then she went again.

Go, she growled.

I went.

 

In the morning she said, No more pork. And laughed. We both laughed.

 

That wasn’t it. False alarm.

We went on.

I’d stopped hearing the voices. I’d not wanted them to stop. I’d not wanted to say goodbye then or now, but I admit it was a lot easier without the reminders.

 

Sober in the daylight I stare at her face. Face of intelligence, features soft, but sculpted flawlessly by whatever it is that sculpts features. I stare at what I can only describe as her personhood.

 

Out for an evening stroll we turn a corner and there are headlights in our eyes and then blue spinning lights and we hear what appears to be a man’s voice over the speaker: get down and show us your hands. Face down. On the sidewalk. I’m about to comply when I hear a girl’s voice saying cut that out, and we hear some giggling and laughter and the speaker snaps off and the car speeds away, with a two-second yelp out of the siren for see ya, suckers.

That was our only run-in with authority.

 

We could take cars but we like to walk.

 

Sometimes in the bathrooms I am tempted by the narcotics, but she wrinkles her nose.

 

Sometimes I find her with her face in her hands. Though not for long. Soon she springs up, opens her eyes, exhales, as if she’s just splashed her face with cold water and is ready to start the day.

 

I woke early and watched her sleeping, enormous in a simple cotton nightgown. For at least an hour I tried to think of what I would do or say or be to her when she woke up. Will you answer more of my questions now? Are we really lovers now? Can I run my hand along your long thigh as you wake? Can I make any of the usual lover’s assumptions? No, no, no, no.

She rose suddenly and went downstairs to make some coffee.

 

So I presume you’ve got some African history. What you don’t know is that I do too. I’ve got a nephew with black kinky hair who looked like he walked out of an Ethiopian religious portrait. So I always laugh a little when my brother says we’re Jew through and through. We have a cousin with orange hair. Can’t imagine how that might have happened, running across Europe for a couple of thousand years.

 

The Freaky Diaspora Theory is not a theory at all, just an observation that among the oddities of our world are the two diasporas that found themselves suitemates in America. I’ll say this now as fact because there’s no one left to contradict me…two of the fondest targets the world will ever know. With histories as opposite as they are similar. Can you imagine the hit parade or the story lines or the championship parades without the blacks and the Jews? Maybe, but why bother?

 

If history’s a soothing tick-tock then I guess the clock just broke, and I can’t help but miss it.

 

I would like to discuss, if there’s no objection (doesn’t even get an eyebrow, but that’s OK) the racism between blacks and Jews. Of course you’ve never imagined such a thing Angela but trust me it’s out there. Her smile, is just barely there, but I see it and she knows it. I once had a creepy awful Jewish slumlord. I was in college. The top floor was too cold for the mice. And the next year in the city I was knocked down by three black tough boys who took the boombox I was carrying. Therefore I hate everybody?

She was dozing on the love seat and I said, well that put you out. She raised an eyebrow, and my heart lifted.

Here’s more of my history you haven’t asked for. My great grandfather owned a small dry goods store in Waco, Texas in the early part of the last century. He was the only storeowner on Austin Avenue who let blacks in the front door. He had one hired hand, a black man who became a friend of the family and who named his kids after my grandmother and her siblings, Pincus, Isadore and Ida. When my great grandfather died, my mother, about seven, remembered looking up from the graveside and seeing hundreds of blacks faces lining the fence outside the Hebrew cemetery to pay their respects. There were two obituaries, a short one in the white newspaper and a full page in the black. The family displayed both of them on the store counter. Proud liberals, such proud liberals. And just think, it’s over now. Politics is over now. Race is over now. Maybe pride is over now, too. Who’ll miss any of it? Another sleepy eyebrow.

 

I want to tell her I how I feel about her but I have no idea how I can do that without making it sound like a critique of her silence, so I just keep talking about everything else.

 

She began changing sweatsuits once a day, sometimes more, even though they were always short on the ankles and wrists and she looked like a kid.

 

One day I woke up in a wallpapered room filled with antiques and old little frosty glass knick-knacks on the tables and the little shelves of the open rolltop desk and I was sure it was a Sunday. Just had that Sunday morning feeling. With no work the next day it was also something of a holiday feeling. With a lover asleep next to me it was a getaway vacation feeling. With no idea what day it really was I snapped on the radio. DJ was playing old swing tunes and seemed unaware that his mic was on, picking up his off-tune humming along.

 

A black lab met us at a back door and flooded into Angela’s arms. She produced the longest string of utterances I’d ever heard come out of her. ThazzasweetiepuppysoaloneI’mherenowbaby. I could’ve used a little of that, but it was still good to hear words like those coming from her.

 

The dog had just about finished the toilet water and was looking skinny. We made steak for three. We found a corner of the basement he’d stunk up, and we were impressed at his orderliness. Catlike.

 

Angela searched the house, a rather drab 70s place (we were on to modern) until she found a leash. What do you need that for? I asked and she just lowered her eyebrows at me. To keep him safe, stupid. She didn’t have to say it.

When she reached down to put on the leash, the dog licked Angela’s face. And for the first time I saw her smile. Really smile. I saw those great big, perfect teeth light up the grey afternoon sky. A high blissful tone sang from her throat, unlike any sound I’d ever heard from her – or maybe anyone.

 

When we found out what dog food he liked best, we went house to house til we found it and we stayed until it was gone.

 

We let the dog in first, and in one house, a sprawling glass box affair, he chased a cat right out the kitchen cat door. Angela looked over at me to say, See? I think it was the first time she’d been asking for my reaction. I say I love it. I mean him. I love him.

 

We called him Labbie, rather I called him Labbie. She didn’t have to call him anything. She whistled. Loud whistle. Hadn’t heard that before either. He’d come running from anywhere in the house.

 

We saw someone a couple of blocks away before Labbie caught a whiff and when he did he barked him (or her) out of sight. We might have wanted to talk to that someone. We decided that Labbie knew best.

 

I told her I loved her after a wonderfully drunken night of sex where we went room to room, the boy’s room with the trophies, the girl’s room with the trophies, and back to the parents’, where we’d had enough and just lay sloppy in each other’s arms. She looked into my eyes, really looked, another first. And she sighed. As if to say I wish I could.

 

Answer me now. There’s been more sense to your silence than to my chattering but maybe now you will say something. Another smile with the eyes, unbetrayed by the lips, and then she says, all right. I’m Irish. I don’t know why but I laugh like it’s the last joke in the world.

 

We are downtown, no shops open, a few others coming out of delis and restaurants, Labbie silent at Angela’s command. They wave at us, but no one’s stopping, no one believing anything but the food they have in the car they have. There’s no unfriendliness, though, and I’m thinking it’s simple: there’s no unfriendliness because no one’s got a reason to be unfriendly.

We near a corner. From around the corner a raging dog comes running, all-out stride, foaming at the eyes and blazing at the teeth, full attack, straight for us, too sudden to move, and Angela is calm as ever—no, calmer, somehow ready for this moment. She simply holds up a forearm to take the teeth of this dog, and as it leaps to accept her invitation, I lunge at it too late. But it’s not too late for Labbie who flies out of nowhere and smashes skulls with this attacker at the last possible second and as they fall to the ground in a writhing mass of dog death I pull her away, both hands, all my strength. I hold her and we watch until it’s done. The raging one limps off. She rushes to Labbie, takes his bloody body in her lap.

 

We’d had a couple of weeks, the three of us. That was the best.

 

One day I woke and she was a husky blue shadow in the dawn at the foot of a huge bed looking down on me with a large glass in her hands. Chugging it. Water? I said. She nodded. The dim light hid her emotion from me, but not the sound of her heavy swallows. Just stood there, chugging at me. I pushed back the covers, rushed to the edge of the bed, stood up, and was about to knock the glass away when I stopped myself. I sank back down on the bed. She met my stare between gulps of water. Then I stood on the bed again, and approached her slowly and reached for her and gently pressed her head to my chest. See, this is what it would have been like if we’d never met and you had a boyfriend the right size. I didn’t say it. I didn’t say anything. Finally, I shut up.

I bet she would have laughed.

No, not laughed. Just raised an eyebrow.

 

 

 

BIO

Jon FriedJon Fried has published short fiction in Third Bed, Eclectica, Bartleby Snopes, Beehive, Pierogi Press, Pindeledyboz, Map Literary, Scissors & Spackle, Lamination Colony, New Works Review, The Doctor T. J. Eckleburg Review and Prick of the Spindle (soon) and other literary journals and e-zines, as well as songs he has written for a rock band he co-founded called the Cucumbers, which has released several recordings. He is working on a collection of stories about work called Transcendent Guide to Corporate America and a series of novels based on some colorful characters in his family tree. A Little Bit Closer to Water is set several years ago, so some of the media references are a little out of date.

 

 

James Gallant

Andrew the Vihuela-Player

by James Gallant

 

Daniella the black cat sneaks into the chamber, hides beneath a chair, and waits until Andrew is absorbed in his vihuela, then ascends lightly to the windowsill. She likes being there–his playing sweetens her sleep–but he does not like having her in the room. The contented rattle in her throat disturbs pianissimo. Aware of her presence he will remove her bodily.

Today, though, she is not the disturbance: There is a rapping at the door. He opens to Lady Cobb. “Andrew, Jayne needs your help in the kitchen.”

Lady Cobb’s smile has the slightly ironic edge it has always when Jayne and he are associated in any way. She has never approved her husband’s assigning the two servants adjacent private rooms connected by a door– another demonstration of Sir John’s understanding and generosity, as far as Andrew is concerned.

He follows Lady Cobb down the stairway to the kitchen on the lower level. He wears the same fustian work clothes and heavy shoes of Sir John Cobb’s other male retainers, but his red hair is longer on the sides than theirs, the remains of a fashionable haircut he received before playing for Queen Elizabeth.

Dark-haired Jayne, well-endowed in bosom, thigh, and rump, bends over the hearth pot she stirs. When she turns his way, her cheeks are rosy, her forehead curls matted by steam. She’s all business as she equips him with a wicker basket and knife, and orders him into the kitchen garden to pick lettuce and early raspberries. Her hostility has been palpable since she learned he is to leave the Cobbs. Did she suppose they would live together forever, man and wife for all intents and purposes?

There had been a shower while he was at his practice; the flagstones leading into the garden are wet. After hours of musical abstraction, the garden is a bower of loamy-smelling bliss, and his spine tensed by concentration relaxes as he bends over the chartreuse lettuce and plucks leaves near their gritty bases. The lyrics of the medieval troubadour song he is setting to music are running through his mind:

Absent sun,
Stay beneath the dark sea.
Lest he sail, I be undone.

Drowned star,
If you should leave your watery tomb,
Then what is dear to me is far.

Fair moon,
Cease movement, save my life
Weave a spell, forfend the noon.

Eternity,
Deface the heartless calendar.
Rest in peace, my surety!

 

Footsteps in the grass beyond the raspberry trellis, and voices: Andrew’s surrogate parent and benefactor Sir John Cobb and (Andrew assumes) Richard Hakluyt, who was to have arrived today from Paris with his fiancée Duglesse Cavendish.

“Spain is selling wool from America more cheaply than we can ours. English dominance in the market will end.”

“What will become of our sheepmen?” Sir John asks.

“I fear the worst.”

“King Philip’s been very quiet since Drake embarrassed him at Cadiz. What do you suppose he’s up to?”

“I have no idea, But the Pope called him a coward for letting Elizabeth and a pirate tweak his nose, and he’s a very proud fellow.”

“Been to our stool room since you arrived, Richard?”

Hakluyt laughs. “No, why do you ask?”

“Harrington’s installed for us one of his new odorless flushing commodes.”

“Well, I look forward to being odorless!”

“So do we all!”

The two men are laughing.

Andrew’s knife slips from his hand and lands in the grass.

“Who goes there?” Sir John calls.

Andrew peers around the edge of the raspberry trellis and smiles at the two older men.

“What are you doing, Andrew?”

“Picking raspberries.”

“I’ll have you know, Richard, that lad is one of the finest instrumentalists in England….Andrew, this is Reverend Hakluyt, the author of Diverse Voyages Touching the Discovery of America.

“Might I ask why one of the finest instrumentalists in England is picking raspberries?”

“Why are you picking raspberries, Andrew?”

“Jayne told me to.”

Sir John winks at Andrew.

“What instrument does Andrew play?”

“The vihuela.”

“I’d no doubt be impressed no doubt if I knew what a vihuela was.”

“An old Spanish instrument resembling our lute. My father brought us one from Aragon years ago. I once showed it to Andrew when he was a boy and I have never seen it since except in his arms.”

“A born musician.”

“So it seemed. John Dowland arranged for him to play recently for the Queen.”

“But he’s a servant?”

“His parents were servants of ours. They died in a fire here some years ago, and Andrew became our charge. Soon he’ll be going to Denmark as a musician at King Frederick’s court.”

“Really? How did this come about?”

“Frederick and my wife are cousins, you know. He paid us a visit after doing business in Edinburgh earlier this year. When he heard Andrew play he wouldn’t leave until we agreed to part with him.”

“And you did?”

“It was either that or have him stay longer and consume all my best wine!”

“The stories we hear of Danish tippling are true?”

“So it seems.”

“Will I get to hear Andrew perform?”

“This very night.”

 

A pleasant mid-summer evening. The Cobbs, Hakluyt, and couples from neighboring estates, dine on tables arranged amid flower beds in the walled garden.

Andrew does not ordinarily wait tables, but a scullion is ill, and Lady Cobb has asked him to help out. The meals Andrew takes with other retainers do not include meats except at Christmas and Easter. Never having acquired a taste for them, he finds the stench of flesh in the oven room faintly nauseating. He delivers a plate of roasted blackbirds to the garden, and takes up a position to one side of the diners to await commands.

“You wouldn’t believe the number of fine palazzos being built in Paris,” Hakluyt remarks. “Every Tom, Dick, and Harry must have one, it seems.”

“But how does every Tom, Dick, and Harry afford one?”

“There’s an Italian usurer on every street corner offering loans at some incredible rate of interest.”

Andrew tries to imagine wanting a palazzo.

“I was recently at a house whose larder was bare. The owner had so much money tied up in house payments, he could barely afford to eat.”

“I’m much too fond of my roast beef to fall into that trap!”

“So am I!”

Desserts having been served, Lady Cobb whispers, “Andrew, put on your livery.”

To Andrew’s way of thinking, performing in the nude would be symbolism more apt than the garish livery, but since he’s going into the great world as a performer he may as well get used to looking like a juggler. He dons the red-and-gold striped doublet with pansid slops,* gartered gold Venetian silk hose that ascend to the lower hems of the doublet, and a red slouch hat with a golden feather. Vihuela in hand, hoping not to be seen in this getup by other servants, he makes his way back toward the garden.

Jayne smirks at him as he passes the open doorway to the oven room.

Twilight is deepening. Candles have been lit on the tables in the garden. Andrew seats himself in a corner some distance from the diners to pluck the strings softly as he tunes them.

“Duglesse, is your cousin Thomas still drinking tobacco?”

“He’s never without his pipe since coming from Virginia. I was with him in London last week when a Puritan preacher approached us. He informed Thomas that a person who breathes fire and smoke belongs in the bottomless pit and will soon be going there.”

“I hear that a servant saw smoke coming from Raleigh and thought he was on fire. She poured a bucket of water over his head.”

General laughter.

“This is all very interesting,” Lady Cobb says, “but I believe I heard the enchanting sounds of the vihuela.”

The guests smile at Andrew.

“Isn’t he splendid in his new livery?”

“The raspberry and blackbird man has become a Bird of Paradise!” Hakluyt exclaims.

As Andrew draws his stool nearer the guests, Lady Cobb describes his “wonderful opportunity” in Denmark. He does a bit more fine tuning, plays a series of swift runs, and then composes his thoughts a moment before playing a fantasia from Luis de Milan’s pieces for vihuela, followed by his transcription of a lute gigue by Valentin Bakfark, and then his own lengthy, demanding fantasia.

His playing has engendered awed silence in his audience and altered the ambiance of the gathering. At last a woman murmurs, “I didn’t want that to end.”

“I feel I have been to heaven and back,” says another.

The guests rise from their seats, stroll pensively in the moonlit pathways of the garden, or, wanting to be alone with their thoughts, make their way to their quarters in the castle for the night.

Andrew is on the verge of sleep when the door opens tentatively between his room and Jayne’s. He simulates the hoarse breathing of a sleeping person, and the door closes with a bang.

*   *   *

There is a forest of masts tilting back and forth gently in the harbor at Plymouth Sound. Rowboats large and small ferry passengers and baggage to ships on either side of the stream. Dock workers and carpet bag-toting sailors swarm among oxen and drays, kegs of gunpowder, tall piled coils of thick hemp rope, cannon ball pyramids, tar tubs, barrels of salt beef and salt pork and beer. The sounds of vendors ringing hand bells to advertise their wares reach the cliff above the harbor where Sir John Cobb and Lady Cobb stand with Captain Smathers of the ship Wanderer.

“What an amazing sight!” Sir John exclaims. “How long has the Royal Navy been in port?”

“All month, locals tell me,” Smathers replies.

“A confrontation with the Spanish must be imminent.”

“That’s possible,” Smathers agrees. “The sun and moon were bloody over Plymouth three times this past week.”

“You’ve no doubt heard the Pope declared Philip King of England?”

Smathers laughs. “No, I hadn’t.”

“That would make you and I Spanish subjects.”

“Best of luck to the Pope and King Philip!”

Smathers points a finger. “See those the two men examining demi-cannons? Lord Admiral Howard and Francis Drake.”

“I shall remember this sight as long as I live.”

“It’s been wonderful seeing you again Peter,” Lady Cobb remarks. “How soon will your ship depart?”

“As soon as they’ve loaded the Cornwall tin–within the hour.”

Lady Cobb touches her husband’s arm. “John, we should say our farewells to Andrew

“Indeed.”

The three make their way down stone steps connecting the cliff to the harbor.

 

The sea chest Lady Cobb has had prepared for Andrew’s voyage to Denmark consumes most of the floor space of his small cabin. Andrew assumes he will be asked to perform soon after arriving at Elsinore, so it will be important to stay in practice while en route. But he cannot seat himself properly to play with the chest consuming floor space. Once the ship is underway he will ask Captain Smathers if the chest might be relocated. Meanwhile, seated in his bunk, he studies in the dim light cast by a spirit-lamp his transcription for vihuela of John Dowland’s lute piece, “Fancy #3.” He can hear the piece in his mind’s-ear as he makes small changes in it.

The little bells dinging somewhere nearby are a distraction. He wishes they would stop.

 

With the sea chest in the middle of the floor there is room enough only for Lady Cobb. Sir John remains in the open doorway.

Lady Cobb extracts from the sea chest a bottle and says to Andrew, “This contains cider. You will find it very refreshing after the salted meat served aboard ship.”

The pervasive melancholy cast of Dowland’s music might be explained, Andrew supposes, by the fact that he has never found preferment at the English court. On the other hand, temperamental melancholy might explain his never having found preferment, since, as Andrew knows from personal experience, Elizabeth favors lively gigues and saltarellos.

“Before biting into a sea- biscuit,” Lady Cobb advises, “examine it to see if rodents have been there before you.”

“You may lose a tooth biting into one,” Sir John adds.

Lady Cobb removes from the chest a small rectangular metal container open on one end. She holds it up for Andrew to see. “If you place this little oven near a fire, it will soften your biscuits.”

“Where is he going to find a fire aboard ship?” Sir John asks.

Andrew is proud of his transcription of “Fancy No. 3,” although to play it well will require a great deal of practice. He should probably exclude it from his performance repertoire for the time being.

Lady Cobb extracts a jar from the chest. “You can also use the oven to heat this soup Jayne has prepared for you.”

Andrew wonders if it poisoned.

 

The Wanderer makes its way out of Plymouth Sound into the English Channel and sets a course for the North Sea. Captain Smathers is at the window of his cabin in the poop deck, hands clasped behind his back, when he sees something that makes him reach for his spyglass: a multitude of ships’ masts frail as toothpicks coming up over the southwestern horizon.

As a favor to his friends the Cobbs the Captain invites his young passenger to dine with him that evening. As they sit at the captain’s table awaiting the cook’s delivery of their meal, Andrew is reflecting on the inferiority of Dowland’s polyphonic works for vocal consorts to his lute solos. The trouble with words is that they come into music bearing the dross of the human ordinary; they lack the enchanting otherness of sounds generated by sheep guts and wood.

Smathers has been contemplating the absent expression on the young man’s face when he breaks the silence: “I think we may have narrowly avoided an encounter with the Spanish Armada this afternoon. We would no doubt have heard cannon fire, had there been a battle. But one can only wonder what the morrow will bring.”

Andrew has no idea what the Captain is talking about.

“Hard to say what the outcome would be. The light swift carracks of the English are superior to Spanish galleons from the standpoint of maneuverability.”

Smathers’ eyes narrow at the young man’s smile which seems a curious response to his remarks. (Andrew has heard him to say that the English have “light, swift carrots.”)

“On the other hand,” Smathers continues, “the Spanish have a great many galleons. They might lose a number of them without losing a battle to the carrots.”

Smathers has gathered from the Cobbs that their young man is exceptional in some respect, but his smile is that of an idiot. Smathers’ extensive experience of idiocy over the years while managing crews has sensitized him to its symptoms, and generated a theoretical interest in the subject. He has gathered from his reading a little nosegay of quotations on the subject. Erasmus in Praise of Folly alludes to Pythagoras who after many transmigrations–his soul had been embodied at one time or another in “a philosopher, a man, a woman, a fish, a horse, a frog, and, I believe, a sponge”— concluded no creature was happier than “that type of men we commonly call fools, idiots, lack-wits, and dolts.”

The cook enters the cabin and places before the two men plates of salt beef and suet pudding. The Captain digs in. His passenger nudges the beef to one side of the plate with his fork, downs a spoonful of the pudding, and winces.

 

Smathers honors Andrew’s request to relocate the sea chest. A music stand now occupies the middle of the cabin floor. Andrew, seated before it struggling with the devilishly difficult left hand fingering in his transcription of “Fancy No. 3.” is thinking, “I have brought this on myself”–when the North Sea generates one of its sudden howling squalls. The ship begins to heave dramatically, its timbers creak. Andrew is aware of the disturbance, but he has trained himself to ignore the distractions that abound in the world and perseveres. By the time the ship’s jostling ceases, he has mastered, for the time being, the fingering for “Fancy #3.” Savoring the pleasurable aftermath of self- and world-overcoming, he ventures from his cabin up to the deck.

The sun on the Western horizon is a luminous orange perched on the edge of a grey table. The crew are firing blunderbusses into the air, celebrating an escape from pirates who had been gaining fast on the Wanderer before the storm overturned their hoy.

Captain Smathers, aloof from the hilarity on deck, greets Andrew, and informs him that the ship lies off Schiermonnikoog.

“Ah,” Andrew says.

Schier is grey–the island of the grey monks. A storm once drove me aground onto Schiermonnikoog. I stayed for a time with the Cistercians. They wear grey habits.”

“Hmph.”

The Cistercians had struck Smathers as idiots.

*   *   *

Ordinarily, musicians and painters at Kronborg Castle, Elsinore, eat simple fare from bread trenchers with other servants. Today, though, at Queen Sophie’s Arts Appreciation Banquet they dine on pastries filled with beef marrow, roasted swan and cranes and pheasant, eels in a puree, and bream. The wine is flowing.

Andrew’s life at Elsinore has been strangely uneventful so far. He had assumed he would be asked to perform soon after arriving, but a month has passed, and nothing has been asked of him. He has enjoyed ample free time in which to maintain his skills as a player, and to work on his compositions, but he has felt at times like a ghost haunting the castle. Is the King even aware of his presence? When Andrew had mentioned his not having once seen Frederick to the English pastry cook whose arrival in Denmark had been almost simultaneous with his, the cook replied that the King had sought him out three times to request specific pies.

“You eat like a bird, Andrew,” remarks Lady Gyldenstjerne at his side. Gyldenstjerne, drama coach and arts coordinator at Kronborg, is a tall, big-boned Dane with wide-set eyes. She devours birds with gusto.

Axel Bente, the music-master, seated on Andrew’s other side, says, “The Scottish ambassador told me the North Sea winds did more damage to the Spanish Armada than the English warships. Protestant winds, he called them.”

“King Frederick’s sensitivity to music must be very great,” Andrew remarks.

Bente cocks an eyebrow. “What gave you that impression?”

“When I played Dowland’s Lachrimae for him in England, he wept.”

“Was this late at night?”

Andrew nods.

“I assume he was in his cups?”

Frederick, when his eyes filled with tears, had been gazing at Andrew over the rim of a tall flagon.

“Not to disparage your considerable talent, Andrew, but if Frederick’s had his nightly quota nearly anything will make him blubber.”

“I understood he was to be at the banquet today.”

“He’s in negotiations with the Scottish ambassador. By the way, they want you to perform with the Elsinore Town Band on Hven next weekend.” Bente’s grimace expresses personal abhorrence of this obligation.

Andrew wonders who “they” are.

“Be at my place in town this afternoon at four to rehearse.”

“The band makes such a merry sound!” Gyldenstjerne gushes.

The English pastry cook wheels into the Great Hall a cart bearing a gigantic Lombard pie* that brings a susurration of wonder from the banqueters.

Bente leans close to Andrew. “See that girl with the straw-colored hair by the Queen? That’s Princess Anne. She’s been making eyes at you. I’d not respond to that overture, if I were you. Frederick’s trying to marry her off to James the Sixth of Scotland.”

“She doesn’t look much like a queen,” Andrew observes.

“What woman does before the makeup artists and dress-designers go to work? I mean, strip your Queen Elizabeth of corset, farthingale, and ruff, you’d be looking at a plucked chicken.”

Gyldenstjerne’s eyes roll.

With Lombard pie under their belts, the guests are burping and sighing. The banquet seems to be winding down, and Andrew senses his liberation is at hand when Lady Glydenstjerne offers him her personal guided tour of Kronborg Castle. It does not seem politic to decline her offer, so he follows the rustling skirts that overlay her substantial posterior along a narrow corridor out into the deeply shadowed central courtyard of Kronborg Castle where she discourses on the significance of the Neptune Fountain, and the sculpted figures of Moses, Solomon, and David (Frederick’s predecessors in the administration of Justice) in niches by the Royal Chapel entrance.

“You’re going to love the royal tapestries,” she says as they enter the Hall of Knights. “They portray the kings of Denmark from the beginning to the present.”

The tapestries remind Andrew of Boethius’s remark that in things that do not move there is no music.

“Axel said the town band is to play at Hven. What is Hven?”

The question stops Gyldenstjerne in her tracks. Judging from her look, his question has betrayed abysmal ignorance.

“Why, Hven is Tycho Brahe’s island where he will entertain the royal family and the nobles this weekend.”

Andrew does not think it wise to inquire who Tycho Brahe might be, but Gyldenstjerne seems to have guessed his ignorance: “Mr. Brahe is the first man to have observed a new star in the heavens.”

“Ah.”

“It proved that the superlunary heavens are not immutable, as commonly supposed. And his observations have confirmed Copernicus’s belief that the planets rotate around the sun. Of course, he is not of those who believe the earth does.” Glydenstjerne shakes her head at the preposterousness of such a notion.

It escapes Andrew why people would want to know which heavenly bodies circle which. Do they imagine clarity in the matter would enable control of these movements? If not, what difference can it possibly make?

Escaped at last from Gyldenstjerne, he is in his private quarters embracing the vihuela, which warms to his touch, when someone knocks at the door. Vihuela in hand, he opens to a page who hands him a copy of Emil Fritjok’s Latin Life of Tycho Brahe, “with Lady Gyldenstjerne’s compliments.” The vihuela pops a gut that flies from the soundboard and lashes the hand of the astonished page. Andrew thanks the page, shuts the door, throws the book in a corner, ties a new string on the vihuela, and enjoys two hours of blessed communion with his music before he must go to town.

When he opens his door to leave for the rehearsal of the Elsinore Town Band, girly-gangly Princess Anne, her straw-colored hair in a bouffant, is in the corridor. “That was so lovely! What is your instrument?”

He tells her. She places a hand on his arm and looks up at him pleadingly: “Teach me to play!”

 

Axel Bente’s flat in Elsinore is above the fishmonger’s shop.

Bente leads Andrew to the back of the apartment into a staircase with a window overlooking Elsinore backyards: board fences in various states of repair, chickens picking at grain, a goose, a pig pen, a mulch pile, an overturned driftwood-grey wheelbarrow with its wheels in the air.

Members of the Elsinore Town Band sit on short logs set upright in the yard. A cornetist toots, a crumhorn whines, a sackbut blares flatulently, a tabor-player drums a taut skin. Three neighborhood mongrels side-by-side on their haunches, throats elevated, howl supportively.

Bente shoos the dogs, and introduces Andrew to the band.

“I don’t know how to tell you guys this, but Brahe’s wife wants us to dress as animals when we perform on Hven.”

Groans.

“Good ol’ Kirsten!”

“People laugh at her,” Jaeger the cornettist says, “but if you ask me that’s one fine piece of ass.”

“Yeah, and the beauty is,” Hans adds, “there’s enough of it to go around.”

Bente opens a chest which stands along the back wall of the house. “Question is, can we perform in these getups?” He extracts a furry one piece costume. “Hans–bear?”

“Why not?”

“Obviously our cornettist should be the cock–Jaeger?”

“Better cock than cuckold,” said Jaeger. He inserts the mouthpiece of his instrument through the short beak, and sounds a cockle-doodle-dooooooo.

A window nearby slams shut.

“Peder–you be the wolf….Skraeder, cod?”

“I’ve always felt a bit supernatural.”

“Cod,” Bente says, “fish.”

Andrew dons the raven’s head.

“Who but an ass would lead this group?” Bente says, pulling a papier-mâché donkey head over his. He brays hollowly from within. “First Up, ‘Rufty Tufty.’” He raises a director’s hand, and sets the band in motion.

Andrew has no idea what he’s supposed to be doing, but strums a rhythmic background. The donkey gives him thumbs up. The string Andrew had just tied on the vihuela breaks. He continues strumming with it flying about.

*   *   *

Below looming, grey, Kronborg Castle with its high walls and onion-minarets, parallel rows of spear-bearing guards form a corridor reaching from a pier to the gangplank of a barge docked in the Oresund.

The royal bloodhounds and riding horses, and their keepers, and the members of the Elsinore Town Band, await boarding for the short trip to Hven. The summer sun is intense. Andrew shares the shade of an umbrella with Axel Bente who is ruminating on the political implications of the just-signed marriage contract that will unite Princess Anne with King James of Scotland: “James is the son of Mary Queen of Scots, and grandson of Henry VIII, so he’s heir-apparent to the English throne. He marries a Protestant princess– that reassures Elizabeth he hasn’t the Catholic leanings of his mother. For Frederick, the marriage settles the longstanding issue over ownership of the Shetlands and the Orkneys– and it makes the rascally Princess someone else’s problem.”

Andrew nods as if he were following this line of reasoning, and remains silent for a time so as not to change the subject too suddenly. “You know, I haven’t once been asked to perform solo since I arrived in Denmark. I’m wondering why Frederick wanted me to come here.”

Bente looks at him blankly for a moment as he adjusts to the change of subject. “Frederick collects virtuosos—not that he gives a rat’s ass about music–or astronomy or philosophy. He wants people to regard Elsinore as the northern Florence.”

Eight heralds in purple tights, white tunics, and caps with big plumes dyed violet descend the walk to the pier, halt, level their horns, and sound a brassy tarum-tarum-tarahhhhhhhhh.

“You’ll find the Danes are very big on fanfares,” Bente says. “It’s all Frederick can do to get one of his sluts through the back door of the castle without those boys tooting.”

The King and Queen, accompanied by Princess Anne, the boy Prince Christian, and servants, descend the walk to the pier. Frederick’s long, ruddy, deeply- lined face floats atop a large white ruff. His bloodshot eyes meet Andrew’s briefly, without recognition. Following the royal family are an assortment of Danish nobles and the Scottish ambassador George Keith, a red-haired, freckled-faced, buck-toothed fellow with a permanent smile. Princess Anne breaks through the corridor of castle guards to brush against Andrew and whisper, “When do my lessons begin?”

Bente gives Andrew a look.

The King and Queen seat themselves beneath a canopy in the barge. A pair of servants begin waving long-handled fans. A third hands the king a tankard. The gangplank is drawn up, and deckhands equipped with long poles shunt the boat into the stream. Oxen tow to the edge of the pier a second barge which the royal hounds and horses, their keepers, and members of the Elsinore Town Band board.

“What’s this about lessons for the Princess?” Bente asks.

Andrew shrugs. “Her idea, not mine.”

“Be careful, Andrew.”

 

The voyage to Hven is brief. As the royal barges approach the island, peasants on shore toss their hats in the air and make loud huzza-huzza. Barrel-chested, sandy-haired Tycho Brahe, with the dwarf Jepp at his side, greets his guests in front of his red brick castle Uraniborg* with its peaked roofs, dome, and balconies.

“Hello, dear little Jepp,” Queen Sophie says.

Jepp gives her the finger.

Brahe leads his guests to the entrance of his observatory Stjärneborg and pauses to let them savor the inscription in gold letters on porphyry:

`Consecrated to the all-good great God and Posterity. Tycho Brahe, Son of Otto, who realized that Astronomy, the oldest and most distinguished of all sciences, though studied at length, still had not obtained sufficient firmness, or been purified of errors, and in order to reform it and raise it to perfection invented with incredible labor, industry, and expenditure exact instruments suitable for all kinds of observations of the celestial bodies.

 

“I can only imagine it must have been like to observe the birth of a star,” says the admiring Lord Kaas.

“Yes, I perceived its implications for affairs in Russia, Finland, Sweden, and Norway,” Brahe acknowledges. “I informed King Frederick of these and he rewarded me with the professorship of astronomy at Copenhagen.”

After dinner, the Elsinore Town Band performs “Begone, Begone my Jug,” and “Haloo, Fair Birdie,” and there is a skit in which Tycho Brahe’s sister plays Urania, muse of astronomy. Brahe shouldering lightly a large globe impersonates the Titan Atlas who declaims, “It is I who have taught astronomers from the time of Hercules and Hipparchus to trust not other men’s observations of the night skies, but attend to them patiently with their own eyes, using well-constructed instruments.”

In a second skit, Princess Anne dressed in green tights portrays Daphne. Apollo is the Negro son of a cook and a wardrobe manager at Kronborg. He wears golden tights and a spiky gold sun mask as he chases Daphne around a screen depicting a leafy rural scene.

“Save me Mother Earth!” Daphne cries.

“Tarry,” Apollo pleads. “I am no lion or a tiger, I am Phoebus Apollo. I hunger only for thy lips.”

“Which pair?” Daphne ad-libs over her shoulder, cracking up the sun god who trips over the edge of the screen and falls to the floor.

Skit director Lady Gyldenstjerne closes her eyes.

Princess Anne plants a foot on the back of the fallen god and addresses the audience. “The moral is, if you can make a god laugh, he might not fuck with you.”

The Danish nobility are in stitches.

Queen Sophie stares at the ceiling.

Scottish ambassador Keith is reconsidering the marriage agreement he just signed on King James’ behalf.

 

The dormitory on the second floor of the castle sleeps the dog-trainers, the grooms, and the Elsinore Town Band. The day’s heat lingers there. Andrew finds sleep impossible in the large assemblage of snorers, and rises from his pallet toward midnight to look out a window into the labyrinth below. At its center is a white marble bench bathed in moonlight. Sitting there and playing something simple and sweet on the vihuela would be pleasant, he thinks. He dresses again, picks up his vihuela, and leaves the castle.

High walls of shrubs border the paths of the labyrinth. Reaching the center proves more challenging than he imagined. At dead ends he must retrace his steps, and while doing so he hears footsteps nearby. Someone else is in the labyrinth. When he finally reaches the center, he starts at the sight of Princess Anne seated on the marble bench. She wears white tights beneath a white tunic, and has her knees drawn up to her chest. A pair of lean hounds at her feet growl at the sight of Andrew. Anne drops her feet to the ground and sits upright. Pleasure and apprehension blend in her face. “Did you follow me here?”

Andrew, torn between a desire to backtrack into the labyrinth and the absurdity of doing so, holds up the vihuela in explanation of his presence.

“You’re going to give me a lesson?” The Princess slides to one side of the bench to make room for him.

Andrew hesitates, wondering who might be viewing what is ostensibly a tête-à-tête from one of Uraniborg’s many windows, but he approaches the bench. He seats himself a comfortable distance from the Princess, and lays the vihuela across his lap. She reaches over and runs an exploratory finger across the strings. “Such a beautiful instrument.”

“I understand you’re to be queen of Scotland.”

“So they tell me. It keeps me awake at night.”

“You’re too excited to sleep?”

“Too depressed.

“You don’t want to be the Queen of Scotland?”

“Would you?”

“Many women would leap at the opportunity.”

“Even if they had to marry James Stuart?”

“What’s wrong with James Stuart?”

“Well, he’s skinny, and bow-legged. They say he wears padded clothing to bed at night–he’s scared of being stabbed.”

“That might be a good idea, in Scotland.”

“He also plays the bagpipes.”

That might be a reason not to want to marry him, Andrew thinks.

“They say when he concentrates, his tongue falls from his mouth.”

“I sometimes drool if I’m very intent on what I’m playing,” Andrew confesses.

“You needn’t have told me that. My father wanted James to marry my sister Elizabeth. She’s prettier than me, but she’s getting kind of old. He probably wants young tail.”

“You’ve met James?”

“No–and he isn’t coming for the wedding.”

“Really?”

“The Scottish ambassador will be the proxy husband. It’s all just politics. You know what? This afternoon I overheard one of the grooms calling me a dog.”

“Off with his head.”

“But it’s true, I’m not beautiful. What’s the good of being a princess if you aren’t beautiful?”

“I would think being a princess would be especially valuable if you weren’t.

“You agree with the groom, then?”

“I didn’t say that.”

“Would you like to fuck me?”

Andrew strums a descending chord progression on the vihuela.

“Are you a spy?”

“Why do you ask?”

“Wouldn’t put it past ‘ol James to put one on me–and you’re English.”

“It’s not the same as being Scottish.”

“Lucky you.”

“I’m no spy.”

“James sent me a girdle of Venus.”

“What’s a girdle of Venus?”

She pulls the neck of her blouse aside to reveal a blue pearl-studded wrap about her chest. “I’m to wear it until he takes it off personally. Isn’t that special?”

Andrew plays a bit of Gaucelm Faidit’s longing-saturated troubadour melody from the twelfth century.

“That’s so lovely. Teach me to play that thing. Please?”

“Here? Now?”

“Yes.”

“It’s not like teaching a dog a trick, you know.”

She punches him on the bicep.

An unfortunate choice of words.

 

Andrew is walking along a corridor of Kronborg Castle from the music studio to his private quarters one day when Princess Anne appears out of nowhere, seizes his hand and draws him through a doorway into a steep, spiraling staircase leading down into the bowels of the castle.

“Bet you haven’t seen our dungeon.”

“I didn’t know there was one.”

“Silly! Every castle has a dungeon!”

A guard or two has accompanied Anne ever time he’s seen her lately. “Won’t they miss you upstairs?”

“Who cares?”

She leads him to the foot of the stairwell, and along dirt paths cut between earthen banks.

The main feature of the he torture chamber is a freestanding stone pillar with inlaid iron rings. “They hang a prisoner from the rings, and poke him with hot irons, or shoot arrows into him,” Anne explains. “Can you imagine?”

Andrew can.

The dungeon is a cell with rocks walls whose width and height diminish at its far end.

“No bars,” Andrew observes.

“They install them when there’s a prisoner. They can locate them all the way to the back so a person can’t even sit down.” She demonstrates, wedging herself into the acute angle where the walls meet. She simulates helplessness, and a blast of sexual radiation from her midriff causes him to start back to the stairs. He has only just returned above when a squabble in the corridor causes him to look over his shoulder. Two tall castle guards, each with a meaty hand under one of the Princess’s elbows, are carrying her off. Her feet are off the ground, thrashing about.

 

Gertrud’s Tavern in Elsinore has become Andrew’s refuge from Kronborg Castle. He would never try to compose music there, but the noisy tavern has the paradoxical effect of heightening concentration as he is editing his compositions. When he enters this afternoon with his vihuela bag on his shoulder, the tavern is unusually quiet. The barmaid Agnete greets him: “Hi Cutie.”

On his way to the back room, he passes seated at a small table the balding Englishman often at the tavern lately. Andrew had been told that he is a member of the English theater company performing repertory in Elsinore.

Today, the Englishman bends over the text of his play that will receive its premier performance at the Elsinore Town Hall next week. The play set in Elsinore has a story drawn from Danish history. It should have immediate local appeal, but something about it is elusive for the playwright. Staging Hamlet in Denmark will hopefully improve his understanding of what he has written, and perhaps inspire revision, before he plays it to the more discriminating audiences of London.

 

William Bull, a stocky, red-faced bit-actor in the English company, storms into Gertrud’s looking for Tom Boltrum, another actor. Bull is enamored of Abigail, the pretty young widow of Elsinore who has just told him to leave her house and never return. Bull thinks he knows why, and he’s going to have it out with Boltrum, who is usually at the tavern when he’s not working. He is absent at the moment, so Bull seats himself near the entrance to wait for him.

Gertrud and Agnete are in the tavern’s side yard roasting meats for the dinner crowd when Boltrum enters.

“OK, why’d you do that?” Bull says.

“Why’d I do what?”

“You told Abigail what I told you in confidence.”

“What you told me in confidence was she loved no one but you. When I told her that, she couldn’t stop laughing.”

“Leave her alone, you whoreson codpiece! She’s a nice girl–and as it is you’re screwin’ every woman in Elsinore under age ninety.”

“I’ve left you a spongy old malkin or two.”

Agnete reenters the tavern as Bull punches Boltrum. Boltrum punches Bull in the nose, knocking him to the floor. Bull picks himself up slowly, bleeding from the mouth, gives Boltrum a hostile look over his shoulder, and exits the tavern.

Boltrum seats himself at the bar, and Agnete places a bowl of ale in front of him. “What was that all about?” Tom’s head is aching, he doesn’t want to talk about it, so Agnete goes into the kitchen to wash dishes.

 

Andrew, in the back room revising of his new work, “Princess Anne’s Gigue,” had been unaware of the struggle out front. So, too, the playwright, his attention riveted by the inadequacies of Hamlet’s soliloquy in act three, scene one:

Here’s a thought: Suppose I kill myself?

                         Ye gods, the problems! And who can say for sure
Whacking away at them with a bare bodkin’s
Nobler than just stabbing oneself in the gut?
Slough the mortal coil! Eternal slumber!
That might be a way to go–although
Sawing it off, we tend to dream, and what
If nightmares dog the suicide?

 

The last line of the soliloquy–“Conscience doth make cowards of us all”—isn’t bad. The rest of it needs work, but the playwright’s creative energies are at low ebb and time for the actors to learn new lines is growing short. He is considering getting drunk and forgetting about the soliloquy when there appears before his imagination a chart of the celestial houses spinning like a top from which a voice issues: “To be or not to be. That is the question”–a superb replacement for the clumsy first line of the soliloquy. The voice continues: “To die: to sleep/ No more, and by a sleep to say we end/ The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks/ That flesh is heir to, ’tis a consummation/ Devoutly to be wish’d.”

The Englishman is writing down lines as fast as they are dictated when Bull comes through the door of the tavern, withdraws a sword from his pant leg, and runs Boltrum through the gut, back to front. The tip of the sword lodges in the front of the bar. Agnete reappears, a dish towel slung over her shoulder, Boltrum is sitting upright on his stool, a carcass on a spit. “Get you another, Tom?” she asks before noticing the lack of animation in his startled face.

She rushes into the side yard. “Oh my god,” Gertrud says, “that’s all we need with the mayor trying to shut us down. Did anyone see it happen?”

“I don’t know.”

As the two women dislodge Boltrum from the bar, Gertrud eyes the Englishman writing feverishly at his table. They manage to get the corpse off the bar stool and into the kitchen. Gertrud opens the door there and glances up and down the alley. They drag Tom Boltrum into a grove of pine trees on the hillock beyond the alley.

When the fit is upon the playwright, lines just keep spilling onto his pages. The slightest event or sensation is assimilable in language Odors of roasting meat are coming into the tavern from the side yard. The playwright scribbles in the margin of his playbook, “Something rotten in the state of Denmark” He will use it somewhere.

A woman’s voice beyond the tavern shrieks, “Poor Tom’s a-cold! Poor Tom’s a-cold!”

The playwright dips his quill in ink.

 

Preparations for the wedding of King James and Princess Anne are furious at the castle. Dress-designers, carpenters, furniture-makers, and carpet weavers throng the halls. Fabric chandlers push about handcarts loaded with of silks, velvets and brocade. The tailors’ assistants stitching away in corners outnumber spiders.

The musical consort for the royal wedding is to include Andrew on the vihuela, two recorder players, the court lutenist Raphael de Angelo, and Axel Bente on the viola da gamba. The consort is rehearsing one day when an officious little German tailor appears in the music studio with a tape measure around his neck and orders Andrew to stand up.

“Why?”

“I measure you.”

“Measure me for what?”

“Your clothes for the coronation at Edinburgh.”

Axel Bente gives Andrew a look.

Andrew learns that he is the only musician from the court to be so honored.

His new clothes include two doublets with short skirts, flies tied with colorful silken bows; a high-crowned, short-brimmed muffin hat with a feather; shirts with standup collars, lace at the neckline and wrists; a long, fur-lined cape; and a collection of cotton stockings in various colors with leather garters.

He is practicing the vihuela in the music studio one morning when a cannonade thundering from the castle ramparts cause him to peer through a narrow window overlooking the Sound. Ships flying Scottish colors are approaching the pier below the castle where Danish dignitaries have gathered. A fanfare from the Danish royal hornsmen answers one from the deck of a Scottish ship. Horns glint in the sunlight, water shines, cannons boom. The Scots come ashore wearing identical cartwheel linen ruffs at their necks, tall black hats, and pointed beards.

Andrew is present with the Elsinore Town Band at an entertainment for the visiting Scots that includes the performance of the skit “Solomon and Sheba” in which King Frederick plays Solomon. Lady Kass (she of the beguiling décolleté) is Sheba. Solomon has been drinking and requires the aid of servants to ascend the riser steps to his throne chair. Sheba, too, is none to steady on her feet, and as she presents the riddles to test Solomon’s wits her speech is slurred. Solomon’s responses, slow in coming, require prompting from Lady Glydenstjerne, but suffice to convince Sheba that the king is indeed God’s elect. She wishes to present personally one of the many gifts her servants have lugged from Arabia in a mule train: a bowl of honey-laced date pudding. She ascends the steps to the throne very carefully with it and has reached the next-to-last step successfully when she trips, spilling pudding and bosom into Solomon’s lap.

“Oh my God, the goo!” exclaims the laughing Solomon as he fondles the slimy Sheba.

Servants come rushing with mops and towels.

The Elsinore Town Band strikes up “Hark, the Dog is in the Pork.”

*   *   *

At the wedding rehearsal, Anne’s lady-in-waiting slips into Andrew’s hand a poem King James has sent the Princess on which she has scribbled a marginal note: “God, he’s a maniac!”

TO MY QUEEN

Whenever I’m oppressed with heavy heart,
I need but take my pen, and recollect
The blessed hour when first my eyes beheld
The image of my Queen, this earthly Juno.
Three Goddesses of equal reputation
Spied the beauty, and nearly came to blows
O’er who should rule her. They Apollo
Asked, who said, “Bless this paragon
By sharing her; and so it came to be
If counsel’s what I need, Athena’s nie;
Chaste Diana mounts to hunt with me;
And if I’m tired, and would to bed repair
I fold in soft embrace my Venus fair.

In the Royal Chapel, the Princess exchanges vows with the freckle-faced, permanently smiling, proxy husband ambassador George Keith. Andrew is with the musical ensemble in the choir loft, and from his vantage, Anne in the white, hooded dress that flows around her and spills onto the floor seems quite overwhelmed by the weight of ceremony and authority– not at all herself.

*   *   *

The flotilla of Danish and Scottish ships leave Elsinore and steer northward in mild early fall weather. George Keith, the proxy husband, his stiletto beard flapping in the breeze, follows Anne around on the Gideon like a faithful dog. Anne shoots exasperated looks across the deck at Andrew.

Anne’s lady-in-waiting hands Andrew another of King James’s literary efforts with another of Anne’s notes: “I’m married to a lunatic!”

 

TO MY QUEEN

The wings of your enchanting fame have reached
Me across the wide and stormy sea.
Your smile will be my antidote against
The melancholy that oppresseth me,
And when a raging wrath within me reigns
Loving looks from you will bring me peace.
Whenever you will see me heavy-hearted
Practice then, sweet doctor, your magic art.

 

Andrew notices Keith gazing at him with squinty eyes.

Winds intensity as the ships enter the Skagerrak. Great waves begin to roll the Gideon from side to side and up and down. From peaks there are dizzying panoramas of churning white waters which disappear as the ship’s prow drops into dark troughs. Gray-faced and vomiting, Andrew retreats to his hammock in the forecastle where he embraces the vihuela, hoping to prevent its destruction. The Gideon springs leaks. All through the night the crew man the pumps.

The winds die abruptly at daybreak, and the cobalt sky and silver sun are innocent-looking. Ships that launched with the Gideon are nowhere to be seen. Admiral Munk orders the Gideon steered to a small harbor visible in the distance which turns out to be at Flekkeroe, an island near the Norwegian coast. The Flekkeroean farmers, learning of the ship’s fate, invite the passengers and crew into their homes, but warn that drought and poor fishing have reduced their food supply to subsistence levels.

Admiral Munk, touched by their hospitality and their plight, orders foods brought from the Gideon to be distributed among the cottagers, but discovers while overseeing this operation that the salt beef and pork in the ship’s hold are moldy. Sea biscuits swarm with brown grub worms, and maggots have infested the dried apples. The victualer in Copenhagen he had thought trustworthy, though Catholic, has obviously stocked the ship with leftovers from other voyages. The beer is sound, however, and he orders a barrel of it delivered to each of the homes entertaining the Gideon’s passengers and crew.

The largest log house on the island is Peder Pedersen’s. A note delivered to the house with the barrel of beer informs Mrs. Pedersen that Princess Anne of Denmark and other nobles will be staying with her and her husband. Mrs. Pedersen picks up her broom and sweeps vigorously the dirt floor around the fire burning on a stone slab at the center of the room. She replenishes the lamps with cod-liver oil, sprinkles fresh sprigs of juniper about, and draws the trestle table and benches from the wall.

Princess Anne requests that Andrew the vihuela-player, though a commoner, be lodged at the Pedersen’s, “because I think we will have serious need of entertainment while the ship is being repaired.” George Keith accedes to this request–having Andrew near to hand will facilitate surveillance. However, he assigns the young man to sleep in Pedersen’s barn with members of the Gideon’s crew, rather than in the house.

Mrs. Pedersen, wearing her festive red bunad with its elaborately embroidered high bodice, long pleated skirt, and white apron, places before each of her noble guests at table a quantity of hemp seeds, thick slices of bread, and a bowl of the ship’s beer.

Peder Pedersen bows his head.

“Lord,” he commences, “we thank you for your bread, and your seeds. People ask which came first, the chicken or the egg. What I would like to know is which came first the plant or the seed. I mean, where would chickens be without grains?… While I am on the subject, why do pea vines watch the sun so carefully all day long? Do they not trust what it is going to do next? Lord, these things are beyond our understanding. As the Good Book says, we look through a dirty window. But we thank you that our guests have come safely through the storm and brought us this first-rate beer. Amen.”

George Keith’s perpetual smile is a plaster replica of itself.

The bread’s consistency is chewy. It has a flavor evocative of pine needles. Peder explains that in hard times the residents of Flekkeroe and neighboring Kristiana bake this bread from fir bark ground into meal.

The beer and hemp nuts are popular.

After downing numerous bowls of beer, Peder leaves the room, and returns dragging behind him the ax six feet long with a worm-eaten handle and an oversized blade that he found buried in his hemp field. He speculates that it belonged either to the primeval giants, or the trolls who delight in baffling humans with curious objects planted about the countryside.

For his next act, Pedersen withdraws a jaw harp from his pocket and twangs a sea-chantey. Mrs. Pedersen is shaking her head back and forth gently as she rises to clear the dishes.

“Where’s the vihuela-player?” Princess Anne wants to know.

 

The vihuela-player is asleep in Pedersen’s barn loft. He sleeps the rest of that day, and all through the night, awaking in the morning to the sight of the smiling George Keith staring at him from an upper rung of the wooden ladder leading to the loft.

Keith informs him that he is to have sole possession of the loft. Members of the Gideon’s crew who were to have shared the space with him have escaped to the mainland. Andrew is instructed to take his meals at the table of the Alfhid family whose farm adjoins Pedersen’s. When Andrew goes there, the widow Alfhid and her three chunky blond daughters, hair braided atop their heads, are pleased to have a male guest at table and smile collectively as he wolfs down his fir-bread and hemp nuts.

Back in Pedersen’s barn, refreshed by long sleep and nourishment, Andrew takes up the vihuela. Resentful of his inattentiveness in recent days, she is cold to his touch, but he knows from experience exercises will correct the situation, and begins playing. Sunlight through narrow cracks in the planks generates a soft, warm light, and the barn has a pleasantly sweetish smell compounded of hay and animal dung. The raw pine siding makes for wonderful acoustics.

*   *   *

News that his bride is on Flekkeroe reaches King James and stirs his remembrance of Leander who swam the Hellespont fearlessly to reach his inamorata Hero, virgin priestess of Aphrodite, and it occurs to him that shipping to Norway personally to rescue the princess would be a wonderful adventure. He broaches the subject with Lord Chancellor Maitland.

“Entirely too risky,” Maitland says. “If something were to happen to you, all hell would break loose here.”

It occurs to James that undertaking this mission without Maitland’s approval would demonstrate his independence of the man many regard as de facto ruler of Scotland. There would no doubt be danger in the excursion, of course, but if he were he to drown history would remember him as one of the world’s great lovers, and he would be spared a reign likely to consist of trying to pacify squabbling Scottish lords and prelates while fearing constantly poisoned whiskey or a knife in the back.

 

At Flekkeroe, word reaches Admiral Munk that ships other than the Gideon which survived the storm have been blown to various points along the Norwegian coast. The flotilla reassembles near Flekkeroe and launches for Scotland, but makes small progress before being blown back to the island again by another gale. A second attempt to sail a few days later meets with similar results. Munk, inclined previously to scoff at rumors of witches casting spells on the mission to Scotland, is no longer sure they can be ignored. In any case, he has had his fill of fir bread and hemp nuts, and the beer is running low. He orders the Danish ships back to Denmark for the winter.

The Scots hope to make further attempts to reach home with Princess Anne before winter, but while waiting the unusually numerous fall storms in the North Sea to subside they elect to relocate to the more comfortable surroundings of Oslo.

Andrew, unaware of the ships’ departures, enjoys meals and sociable palaver with the Alfhids, and takes long walks along the coast with Ingrid Alfhid. To hear him play while she works, Ingrid works in the hemp field nearest the Pedersens’ barn during the harvest. Andrew attracts a various barn audience: a Maltese cat who purrs intensely, cooing pigeons roosting in a corner brace, a trio of field mice all ears atop a bale of hay. One evening a fearless white moth alights on the vibrating soundboard and contemplates Andrew with beady black eyes.

Andrew is experimenting with imitations on the vihuela of mouse chitter, cat purr, donkey bray, and owl hoot.

 

King James, having made covert arrangements for a personal quest of Princess Anne, enters the North Sea with six ships and three hundred sailors–better equipped than Leander had been. Two of the ships go down in storms, and sailors die, but the King reaches Flekkeroe where he learns that Princess Anne is in Oslo. He dispatches his chaplain David Lindsay there to arrange for an appropriate royal welcome and a repetition of the marriage vows, and expresses his desire that while on Flekkeroe he might sleep in the bed that had been Princess Anne’s.

Mrs. Pedersen sighs, puts a fresh loaf of fir-bread in the oven, and picks up her broom.

Lying in bed his first night at the Pedersens, James recalls that King Solomon, to advance his knowledge of the common people, roamed the rural countryside disguised as a peasant, and it occurs to him that while at loose ends on Flekkeroe he has a wonderful opportunity to do the same without the usual encumbrance of guards.

The next morning, in garb supplied by the amused Peder Pedersen out of his personal wardrobe, James hikes gaily from Høyfjellet, through Refsdalen and along Kjærlighetsstien to Bestemorsmed. In the afternoon, he lies beneath a sheltering rock by the sea, lulled asleep by the sound of the surf washing across pebbles.

Awakened by the mournful call of bitterns, and distant tinkling of cowbells, he is returning along a narrow path between the fields of the Alfhids and the Pedersens when he fancies hearing from a Norwegian barn what he cannot possibly be hearing: a work for lute by John Dowland with which he is familiar, and his sense that the place is enchanted is confirmed by the sight of the buxom, blond Ingrid Alfhid asleep in a furrow of the hemp field. His tongue falls from his mouth. He realizes that he is experiencing the Platonic “divine frenzy” of which Marsilio Ficino speaks that blends alienatio and abstractio of Saturnian origin with warm Venusian influences. Solomon, when he first laid eyes on the Rose of Sharon during his rural rambles, had undoubtedly experienced something similar.

*   *   *

When James steps from the carriage in front of the Bishop’s Palace at Oslo he is wearing a black velvet cloak lined with sable. His padded vest swells his torso, and when he removes his puffy high-crowned black hat to shake hands with the Bishop, he looks to Princess Anne standing nearby like a colorful beetle with small head disproportionate to its body.

The Bishop is delivering an ornate Latin blessing, when James spies the gangly, frowning young woman with frizzy yellow hair beside his friend George Keith — Princess Anne, obviously, though she bears small resemblance to the flattering pictures he has seen of her. He walks toward her dutifully in his shambling bow-legged gait, embraces her in a manly fashion, and attempts a kiss from which she turns away at the last moment, and his lips plunge into yellow frizz.

After the wedding vows are repeated, Anne goes to bed complaining of nausea and headache, and James in his private quarters at the Bishop’s Palace writes:

O cruel constellation which conspired
To seal my dismal fate before my birth!
My well-intentioned mother told her midwife,
“Spare no pains in bringing him to life.”
Her hopeful milk I drank a year and more;
And later, I imbibed inspiring waters
Drawn from Pierian spring by gracious Muses–
But lacked the ease to nurture fruits of wonder.
Born to royalty, a Scottish king.
A privileged lad, you say? The truth is rather
Job am I, whose patience Satan sorely smote.

Anne malingers, and as she and her new husband become acquainted while playing card games at bedside. She expresses her longing for music, and speaks of the admirable string player who was with the company on Flekkeroe. She wonders what has become of him. James recalls that Apollo is god both of music and medicine; that Democritus believed music could cure snakebite; and that music restored Odysseus to health after he was gored by a wild boar. He inquires with George Keith concerning the whereabouts of the musician of whom Anne had spoken.

Keith has a little talk with him about Andrew.

 

When the storms in the North Sea do not subside, and winter snows come early, the Scots abandon their plan to reach home before spring, and request permission to winter at Elsinore. King Frederick has been rejoicing in the dispatch of his madcap daughter to the hinterland, and does not relish the prospect of her rapid homecoming, but he dispatches sleds to Norway. In the dim light of a frosty morning, King James swathed in furs stands in a sled sheathed in black velvet and silver bangles and delivers a flowery valediction before a cluster of shivering, Oslo dignitaries.

The sleds depart in a blizzard and press on to Quille, and from Quille to Baahus Fortress on a cliff circled by a river at the Norwegian-Swedish border. Six hundred Swedish horsemen escort the entourage across the frozen Gotha-Elf and the Swedish Landflig, through Varbjerg, and Halmstadt. In the last leg of the trip, small boats convey the Scottish entourage down the Oresund to Elsinore.

Oh god, thinks Anne, I’m going to have to be seen with him in front of people I know.

The Danish royal family, and representatives of the court are milling around in the cold central court at Kronborg Castle as the Scots cross over the castle moat.

James meets for the first time his father-in-law and mother-in-law. “Amazing place you have here,” he says, looking around the court as he shakes the tremulous hand of King Frederick.

“The west wall was completed only last year,” Lady Gyldenstjerne puts in. “As you can imagine it has improved our security greatly. The fountain you see on your left is the work of Adriaen de Vriies symbolizing the Danish preeminence in the North Sea and the Baltic Sea.”

“Where’s Anne?” Queen Sophie inquires.

James looks around. “She was with us a moment ago.”

The Princess knows all the hiding places in the castle.

*   *   *

Fond as Andrew is of the acoustics in Pedersen’s barn, living there in bitter cold weather is impossible, and the Alfids have taken him in at their farmhouse where he is continuing to develop techniques for imitating on the vihuela the sounds of mice, cats, donkeys and owls that he is incorporating in a new solo work for vihuela, The Barn Suite.

 

 

 

 

 

* The vihuela, a precursor of the modern guitar, was played in Spain in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Tuned identically with the Renaissance lute, and close to the modern guitar, it had twelve strings (six pairs double-strung) rather than the modern six single-strung.

*A short dress-like garment with pleated panels.

* A pie made of custard and fruit.

 

 

BIO

James GallantJames Gallant, who lives in Atlanta, contracted the writing disorder at an early age, and has been basically incapable of making an income as a result.  His disorder led to a fortunate marriage to income-producing university professor and Romantics scholar Christine Gallant who as a girl had romanticized the idea of marrying a writer. At times she had said later, “Be careful what you ask for.” Gallant attended graduate school at the University of Minnesota where he concentrated in Renaissance studies, traces of which survive in “Andrew the Vihuela-Player.” This story is one of nine short works involving historical classical guitarists–some (like Andrew) pure inventions, other based loosely on the lives of actual performers. Two of the other guitarist stories have appeared in other journals. The pieces as a group would make a good collection, Gallant believes, if anyone were interested in publishing it. Grace Paley’s Glad Day Books published his The Big Bust at Tyrone’s Rooming House/a Novel of Atlanta in 2004, and his essays and fiction have appeared in a number of magazines, including The Georgia Review, Epoch, Massachusetts Review, Story Quarterly, Mississippi Review, Exquisite Corpse, North American Review, Raritan, and Witness. He has a short novel, Whatever Happened to Debbie and Phil, and a collection of thematically-related related creative non-fiction pieces, Visits in Time and Space, neither of which have publishers at the moment.

 

 

 

Carmen Firan

The Boiler Man

by Carmen Firan                                                                                  

 

 

In buildings like this, boiler men are indispensable. Especially during winter when the radiators clog, filters need to be changed, and pipes crack just when you need them most, on a frosty weekend. The residents at 89-13 62 Avenue were lucky. The super was also a boiler man, a member of a profession learned and practiced diligently in Eastern Europe where everything’s out of order or out of place.

Maybe the term “plumber” is more precise, but in his native country his specialty had been radiators. Back during the communist era, the boiler man had an ace up his sleeve since rumors had it that the secret police kept track of suspects by planting microphones in the radiators of suspicious tenants. He had to be trusted —not just skilled—to convince people that he didn’t work for the police.

Dick, who had won the green-card lottery, took his wife and daughter by the hand and didn’t stop until they reached Sunnyside, Queens. There, in only two weeks, he found this job as a “super” —the guy who does everything.

“I don’t believe in lotteries and that stuff about luck. I played on a whim to prove to myself that I couldn’t win. Everything I ever got in my life was through hard work. Nothing ever fell into my lap. This time, God knows, the devil stuck his nose into it. I didn’t really want to move to America, but once I got the visa, I figured, why not go and see how they live over there.” That’s what he confessed every chance he could, as he caressed a bushy moustache he thought boosted his sex appeal. “But I don’t like it here. I miss my little house and the vines and fruit trees in the courtyard, I miss my drinking friends and life over there, poor, sure, but happy. I worked, I didn’t work, something came up and I lived well, whatever. If it wasn’t for my wife, who kept bugging me about my daughter’s future and all that stuff, I would never have left everything behind.”

Dick looked like he could lift three buildings at once. He wore large denim overalls without a shirt, an outfit that showed off his muscular arms and hairy chest. His “super’s office” was in the building’s basement, surrounded by boilers, air conditioners, tool sheds, old furniture, torn mattresses, all kinds of useless items, and garbage bags. Basically, Dick ruled an underground empire.

At night, when the garbage was taken out in the well-to-do neighborhoods of Queens, Dick hit the streets in his vintage car, packed it with whatever could be reused, and unloaded his loot in the basement. He managed to stack up a serious collection of TV sets, microwave ovens, tape recorders, chairs, vacuum cleaners, rugs, outdated computers, and whatever else one might need to outfit a brand-new home. Some were in great shape; others he fixed and sold for nothing to newly arrived immigrants who’d ended up in Sunnyside. “I’m doing a good deed,” he’d explain defensively, “this is what I learned at home. Take from the rich, and give to the poor. What I get out of it isn’t important. It’s more of a communal gesture, since everybody here is so into the collective spirit.”

Dick had won over all the residents in the building he administered quite with competently. He carried old ladies’ grocery bags to the elevator, walked dogs, babysat for young families, tended the lawn outside the building, and, of course, replaced pipes and filters, unclogged toilets, and, since this was the country of technology, fixed computers, too. He couldn’t really be called industrious, but he was smart, skilled. He never refused a tip but didn’t rip anyone off, either.

This new world didn’t scare him anymore. He’d found out he could get what he wanted even without speaking the language because Sunnyside was populated by his countrymen. The stores, restaurants, pastry shops, medical offices, churches, and newspapers in his native tongue tempered his longing for the mother country. Occasionally the ghetto bothered him, and he’d snap with superiority:

“You immigrate to get rid of these folks and end up living with them. It’s the same ethnic borsh, only thicker.”

Despite rebuffs, he was capable of shedding tears over a native folk song heard in bodegas where people argued for the democratization of the old country, which some denigrated, some regretted, though none would ever admit that they felt like foreigners in both places. It was an unspoken dilemma they would be buried with.

“Well, they have everything here, except tomatoes like the ones back home,” Dick sighed over a glass of vodka, which was emptied more and more often and earlier and earlier in the day.

Dick was a romantic. A giant with delicate features, he was sensitive to miniatures. He loved small animals; maybe that’s why the mice and bugs that haunted his “super’s office” in the basement didn’t faze him. He didn’t protest the rabbit his daughter brought home, the rabbit which they kept in the bathroom; he loved the flashy fish swimming in an improvised bowl, the jar for pickles that they took out to the balcony in summer. He loved etchings and had even tried to find work as a house painter. With or without his clients’ consent, at the end of a job he painted thin stripes and floral motifs that set off the walls from the ceiling, a delicate water lily around the chandelier or colorful birds above the kitchen window.

“We have to embellish our life,” was his motto, which he practiced how he knew best.

His large hands, accustomed to pipes and hardware, could be gentle and soothing. He caressed animals, tended flowers, and cried during love scenes. Despite the dirt under his nails, and his T-shirts soaked with sweat at the chest and underarms, he wasn’t a repulsive boiler man. You noticed his virility and not his smell, his vigor and not the clothes worn out from crawling underneath sinks and toilets. He loved his wife and adored his daughter, whose every whim he accepted. Provided she was good in school and behaved.

“Life is a simple thing. I don’t believe in chance. Everything fits together, and as long as you act with common sense, there are no great surprises. If you can avoid abuse and excess, life is decent, the way it’s supposed to be. I’m not an intellectual but I feel certain things, I don’t know how. My grandfather was illiterate, but he knew everything. He died in peace one afternoon, after he’d washed and shaved, called grandmother to his side, held her hand, and told her that his time had come. He closed his eyes and a few minutes later he was gone. Light, beautiful, serene. Now people die with violence, death isn’t liberation any more, but a condemnation, a humiliation.”

Dick hadn’t read one book after graduating from vocational school, a two-year program where he learned all about the heating profession. He only watched movies and sometimes leafed through newspapers. Still, nature had given him poise that could pass as wisdom, perhaps inherited from his grandfather. He had some odd habits too, which could make him an interesting drinking partner.

In the evening, a few friends he’d made in the building descended to the basement, where he had improvised a warm, bar-like atmosphere that resembled his home back home. He’d brought in a plastic garden table from the street and a few odd chairs, even a sun umbrella that he stuck proudly through the hole in the center. Next to it he kept a cooler filled with beer and vodka. He and his companions played folk music and debated the state of the world. One neighbor came from his hometown. They’d been neighbors even back then and left the country just a few months’ apart. It’s a small world, but even smaller in Queens.

“Guys, I don’t know why, but since I left the old country, I’ve been plagued by memories. I remember everything, you know, everything! Early childhood, my birth, even before it.”

The boiler man amazed them with his stories, which included some disturbing details, like remembering his own birth.

“No kidding,” Dick would tell them, his eyes blurred by the power of memory. “I witnessed my own birth.”

At first they didn’t take him too seriously, but in time Dick won them over, and then they listened with baited breath. Each time, they asked him to tell them more stories about being born. They emptied one glass after another not fully believing what they heard but were moved by such an odd experience.

“Actually I remember details from before I was born, from the time I swam packed in my mother’s belly. You don’t have much space to move around in there, and your movements are restricted. The last stages of the pregnancy are the worst. Moving gets more and more difficult. You want to turn but can’t, you kick with your feet and hands but nothing happens. I remember that during the last weeks I wanted more than anything to do a somersault. A few times I rebelled out, I’d grown too much, and I think I kicked my mother too hard because I immediately felt her hands grabbing my heels to calm me down. I recognized her palms instinctively. They caressed me even when I hit her with rage.  I wasn’t nervous or restless, I had no reason to be, it’s warm in there and you don’t lack for anything.”

“Didn’t you choke?” Dick heard a puzzled voice.

“How could you choke?! I never breathed with more ease in my life. Everything’s natural and clean, you wish you breathed air like that all the time! The temperature is constant, same with the humidity, everything’s constant, know what I mean? Just the way it has to be, just as much as it should be. Nothing unpredictable or uncomfortable. You’re always satisfied. You’re never hungry or thirsty, and if you need food all you have to do is think about it and you’re immediately fed with delicacies. You want fish, you can be sure that soon your mother will crave just that, and, because a pregnant woman is always granted her wish, she’ll get fish, and you’ll extract its very essence, the reason why you want to eat fish in the first place. And even if she doesn’t eat fish when you crave it, you end up eating the essence of fish, because you extract from her whatever the fish contains. Get it? I’m trying to make everything simple, but I’d like you to understand how it works. You suck in everything you need from her and the poor mother knows it. She loses iron, even calcium. Some even lose their hair or teeth, their nails turn white, their faces have spots and they’re always worn out. Whoever says that a pregnancy invigorates a woman doesn’t know what they’re talking about. It drains her but you couldn’t live better anywhere else. In there I was happy. After I got out, I never felt as protected. It’s a divine harmony that’s hard to define because we never experience it in real life. My friends, we are born happy. Whatever happens afterwards, God knows!”

Sometimes he’d be paged for an emergency. A flood, a pipe, an anxious old woman whose vacuum cleaner wasn’t working. Dick would run there right away, fix whatever needed to be fixed, and come back to the basement where his friends waited for him, enveloped in cigar smoke. He came back with hands even dirtier, sweat dripping down his forehead. He’d curse, gulp a glass of vodka that would ruffle his moustache, knock his fist against the table, and continue his stories.

“What bothered me there, though, was that I had to keep my eyes closed. Strangely enough, I could still see. I don’t know what it feels like to be in other women’s bellies, but in my mother’s womb I saw an extraordinary world. But I never felt any smell or saw any color. Unfortunately I don’t know anybody who can confirm my impressions or exchange opinions. I haven’t met anybody who was aware of his fetal life or who witnessed his birth. I have a memory, some say, ancient, abnormally large and old. It’s possible. And since I moved to Queens it expands every day. Although I believe that memory is infinite. But people don’t try to remember that far back, or maybe they can’t imagine that it’s possible to remember the time before your birth, not to mention the birth itself, which seems so natural, since everyone was present at one’s birth, right? If you remember yourself when you were five, why not remember the five seconds after you came into this world? Isn’t that the same? The same life?”

His drinking friends would nod in agreement. For the moment, the boiler man’s point of view made perfect sense.

“I saw many things in my life, but nothing could top the world in my mother’s belly. Entire cities, archipelagoes made of jelly tubes, galleries of pipes stretching like nerves along fluid walls, a complicated architecture of channels, mazes, tunnels and grottos, abysses, a sky of stars, perfect shapes swimming through a delicate spider web, everything murky, like a half-done drawing, like a miniature map of the universe. I could hear my heart beating in the middle of the universe, and I kept floating like an astronaut caught in those transparent laces enveloping me, and rocked me gently like a mild summer breeze. Even stranger, I recognized all these as if I’d seen them before, I behaved as if I had been in my mother’s belly before, as if I had memories from another pregnancy. I wonder if I was born more than once.”

At this point his audience usually lost patience. Some mumbled in protest that they were being dragged into surreal territory, others looked at Dick with pity, a grown up man, a giant, raving and ranting, but they were all curious to hear the conclusion. Then Dick swallowed another glass of vodka, wiped his moustache with the back of a hand covered with brownish creases, and lowered his voice, while his eyes sparkled conspiratorially.

“There’s no pleasure in being born. First of all, it’s a long, painful, dangerous process. You pass from that perfect harmony to an unimaginable convulsion, you struggle, you push with your head first, you kick your legs, desperate to get out, nobody knows why, because it was so cozy in there! But at some point you’re not allowed to stay inside any longer, you have to leave! The worst is that you feel your own mother straining against you, as if she wanted to get rid of you. At first you lose your balance, you slip, and no matter how much you wrestle, the head drags you down, it suddenly becomes very heavy, as if filled with lead, your ears pop and stress increases. Your head enters a dark tunnel. This is the most difficult and frightening part of the process. The tunnel of darkness.”

“I’ve heard that story about the tunnel before,” one of the neighbors told Dick, “but it happens when you die, not when…” He didn’t dare say more. The word birth had already sent shivers down his spine.

“When you die, it’s a tunnel of light,” another interfered, “and in this one it’s dark.”

“Pitch dark,” Dick confirmed. “The first sensation is terrible. You choke, you drown, your hair gets caught in all kinds of roots, I heard something rumbling like a volcano ready to erupt. I pushed as hard as I could, my neck was stiff, and I thought I’d be trapped inside forever. One of my shoulders was stiff from all that effort. I suffered from pains in my left shoulder until I was 5 because of my passage through that thin, black, cold, damp tunnel. Then I felt the first smells, just as unpleasant as the sounds that were waiting for me once I was pulled outside. Because the truth is that you can’t make it by yourself, eventually you are pulled outside by others. I coughed and I began to sob. They grabbed me, wiped me dry of the lava, and undid the roots wrapped around me, irritating my skin. I was dying of cold and I’d turned green from all the effort and shouting. I opened my eyes but saw nothing. I heard strange, metallic, piercing screams around me. Suddenly, I felt hungry but this time no essence satiated me. I’d be administered hundreds of gallons of milk until I was fed up with it. They wrapped me, covered me, and laid me on a bed. I was alone. In my mother’s belly I’d also been alone, but here, outside, it was a different way of being alone. Dry. Cold. Deafening. I had only known happy loneliness until then. Now a desperate loneliness began, and I think that’s when I was scared for the first time. I understood what it means to be alone. To waver between happiness and despair. To be expelled from the world. To see, to hear, to feel, and not to be understood.”

The neighbors were already sad; they drank out of spite and experienced everything as if they’d just been born themselves.

“Look, I remember the first night of loneliness as if it were now. They put me in a bed face up. From there, through the dark window, I saw the moon for the first time. You will ask me how I knew it was the moon. I knew. I’d seen it before. Here, how? Hell knows! And, all of a sudden…”

Dick’s phone rang violently. Mrs. Simpson from the 9th floor had an emergency. Her toilet was clogged and she had guests in half an hour. The boiler man got up at once, duty came before everything else. He left his audience with the story unfinished, grabbed his toolbox and a few minutes later knocked on Mrs. Simpson’s door. She was waiting for him eagerly.

“Dick, you’re a miracle. What would I do without you?! God sent you to us!”

 

 

BIO

Carmen FiranCarmen Firan, born in Romania, is a poet, a fiction and play writer, and a journalist. She has published fifteen books of poetry, novels, essays and short stories. Her writings appear in translation in many literary magazines and in various anthologies in France, Israel, Sweden, Germany, Ireland, Poland, Canada, UK and the U.S. She lives in New York. Her recent books and publications in the United States of America include: Inferno, novella, (Spuyten Duyvil Press), Rock and Dew, (Sheep Meadow Press), Words and Flesh, (Talisman Publishers), The Second Life (Columbia University Press), The Farce, (Spuyten Duyvil Press), In The Most Beautiful Life, (Umbrage Editions), The First Moment After Death (Writers Club Press). She is a member of PEN American Center and the Poetry Society of America and serves on the editorial boards of the international magazines Lettre Internationale (Paris-Bucharest) and Interpoezia (New York). She is the co-editor of Naming the Nameless (An Anthology of Contemporary American Poetry), Stranger at Home, Poetry with an Accent, Numina Press, and Born in Utopia (An Anthology of Romanian Modern and Contemporary Poetry), Talisman Publishers. www.carmenfiran.com

 

 

 

Clarissa Nemeth writer

The Claiborne Refuge Workbook

by Clarissa Nemeth

 

What to Expect at Claiborne Refuge

God brought you to the refuge to save your life from alcohol and/or drugs, through a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. You are not here by chance, but by God’s plan. Jesus says, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28).

Throughout your program at the Refuge, you will be pointed to Jesus Christ as the Bible describes and presents him. He alone can give you victory over substance abuse. “If therefore the Son shall make you free, you shall be free indeed” (John 8:36).

You will learn to pray, to share your burdens with Christ, and to experience the peace and comfort of his care for you. “Cast all your anxieties on Him, for He cares about you” (1 Peter 5:7).

You will learn of your need to trust and depend on Jesus Christ, not only for victory over abusive substances, but for literally everything in your life. “Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself unless it abides in the vine, so neither can you, unless you abide in Me” (John 15:4).

 

THE PRINCIPLES OF LIVING

You admit your are powerless over your addiction, that your life has become unmanageable.

Q. Why is it so liberating to know that you are powerless over your addiction?

Your cousin went to prison a few years back for stealing the Hamblen County Sheriff’s car. He got liquored up and took it right out of the sheriff’s driveway on a joyride, then ran it into a ravine down by Ratliff Road. After his picture got in the paper your grandma said there was something wrong with the men in your family, some bad line in the blood that just kept passing down. You already knew that. Everybody in the county knew that.

Your grandfather once shot a man in the face just because he thought he was ugly. One uncle beat his wife so hard he gave her epilepsy. Last time you saw your daddy, he had warrants out in three different states. Your older brother got so high once he ran half-naked through a plate-glass window, trailing blood down the road and screaming about the end times. A cousin out in Jefferson County raped a little girl in Dandridge. He said he didn’t even know why he did it, just seemed like a good idea at the time.

You wanted to be different. You wanted to be better. Look how far that got you. You were – you are – just like the rest of them. You tried all you could, and it wasn’t enough.

Here they tell you over and over again that nothing you can do will fix your life. They tell you it’s time to surrender to God, that he wants you to come to him, that they are all praying you will let him embrace you. Why not let God try and fix you, if he wants to so much? After all – and they will remind you of this – you don’t have much left to lose, do you?

Paul explains the struggle between good and evil in Romans 7:13-24. Put that same struggle in terms of your addiction.

Paul says that he wants to do good, that he wishes for it, but that the evil within him longs for nothing but sin.

You know about that longing. Remember the first time you got drunk, the first time you got high, the first time you stole, the first time you snorted a line of Oxy. The sixth time. The fortieth time. The seventy-seventh time. No one made you do all of that. There was always a choice. How many times were you convinced that it would be better just to die? But that burning, clattering wanting coursed through you, and always you took the next swallow, the next pill, the next snort, the next drink. There was a little hollow voice inside of you mouthing no and it always got drowned out by that howling need for more, more now, again. It got to where that wanting grew into a creature all its own just carrying you along with it. Even now you feel the wanting. In your skin, your teeth, your very bones. The wanting wants everything; it will want until there is nothing left of you.

But if they split you open right now and that wanting poured out, there would still be a tiny sliver of you left in there, scrabbling for a little more purchase on this life you almost threw away.

Paul says it isn’t easy. You could tell him, no shit.

 

You make a conscious decision to turn your life over to the care of God; you open your heart and mind to the power which is Jesus Christ, your Lord and Savior.

Q. How do you have access to God’s power?

Remember what happened when you killed your first deer? Your uncle made you run your knife down the animal’s gut and look at what spilled out. He made take off your glove and reach down into that steaming pool of blood with your bare fingers. He made you wipe that hot blood in two broad streaks below your eyes. You’re a man now. You’ve been blooded. Trouble runs in your blood. Blood alcohol. Bloodshot eyes. Bloody footprints tracking on your wife’s carpet. Blood smeared on tissues, dripping out your nose in red droplets to stain the pillowcase, on your toothbrush from bleeding gums. Blood pounding in your ears. Blood on her face when you split her lip; blood on yours when she spat it back at you. Blood in your blue veins, beading when you pull out the needle. Got to get it in your bloodstream so it feels good.

Blood on the cross. Christ bled, too. Just like you.

Q. How do you know that God will not just get tired of you and throw you out of His kingdom?

You don’t have too many good memories of times when you weren’t high or drunk, but one of them is the day your daughter was born. You got drunk to the gills that night, sure, but the moment she came into the world, you were there. You and your wife maybe never should have had a kid in the first place, but the two of you made that little person, and the first time you held her, you remembered thinking it was impossible that you’d had any part to play in creating something so tiny and perfect.

Of course, later you learned that tiny perfect creature could scream about as loud as her mother, could cry until you wanted to tear down the walls. She could shit more than a horse and puke all over the place and throw her food everywhere. When she got to be a toddler she started throwing tantrums, and once she gave you a black eye – you had to lie to the guys at the bar and tell them you got into a brawl out in Jeff City. Sometimes you’d imagine shaking her until she shut up; sometimes you wished she didn’t exist. But you never forgot that you made her. You’d never say you did a real good job as her father so far, but still – you never forgot that you made her.

Supposedly, God feels the same way about you. You have trouble imagining that. But you can’t ever imagine being as small and as new as your daughter on the day she was born, either. Another impossible thought – but true. Why not the other?

 

You admit to God and to yourself the exact nature of your wrongs and ask Him to enable you to turn from them.

Q. Why is God so insistent that you confess your particular sin particularly?

The first time you got arrested, they caught you stealing money from unlocked cars in the high school parking lot. The cop who found you brought you home to your grandma and she slapped you so hard your ears started ringing. You said your friends put you up to it.

She slapped you again and said, you lie like a pig in the mud.

No, you insisted. They made me do it. I didn’t even want to. I’m sorry.

You’re the sorriest goddamn fool I ever saw, she agreed, but you ain’t sorry for stealing. You tell me now what you’re sorry for. Go on. Tell me the truth.

Back and forth you went like that, slapping and cussing until you finally said, Fine! It was me. It was all me. And I’m just sorry I got caught.

There you are, she said. Don’t you lie to yourself about what you done or why you done it. You own what you’re sorry for. Only way to go about it.

She came to court with you later, made you shave and put on nice pants, stood beside you in front of the judge, and made you tell him all that. What you did and why you did it. The judge said at least you were honest.

That time, you got community service. That time.

Q. It is not enough to confess your sins…what else must you willfully do?

Your daddy knew what a rat he was, knew it better than anyone. He’d tell you all the time, when you were real little, how sorry he was. Sorry for hitting you, sorry for spending the grocery money, for smashing the window, for letting the electricity go out again. Your daddy was just about the sorriest man you ever knew.

See how far those sorries got you. Sorry didn’t make the bruises go away. Sorry didn’t fill your belly. Sorry didn’t clean up the glass in the carpet. Sorry didn’t pay the electric bill. You can’t heat up sorry on a hot plate. Can’t give sorry to the repo man. Can’t crawl under sorry to sleep at night.

The Lord didn’t say to the cheating woman, I’m real glad you’re so sorry, honey.

He said, Go, and sin no more.

 

You make direct amends to people you might have harmed except when to do so might injure them or others.

Q. So often in your life, you have betrayed the trust of loved ones. Is it possible to make amends?

If you made a list of everyone you ever hurt, you could fill pages and pages. If you could crawl on your hands and knees to everyone you’d ever hurt, you’d scrape your shins and palms to the bone and still have people left to crawl to.

It should be getting easier now, as the days pass, as the fog lifts from your brain, to remember in excruciating detail every wrong. You remember your daughter’s face, for instance, on the day you came home high and ran over her dog in the driveway. A small note on your ledger of debts, but not one that you will ever forget. You will know every way you failed, every way you hurt, every way you disappointed. Tally them; tattoo them on your skin; carry them in your mouth like bitter candies.

You remember your wife, soft and tart the way she was in high school, her face unlined, her laugh like a tinkling bell. She could drink you under the table back when you first met her; that, of course, was some years before you started living on the table. You remember the way her nose felt when you slammed your fist into it, how easily it gave to your strength, the pop of the breaking bone. It didn’t even leave a bruise on your knuckle, but what it did to her —

Sometimes it will feel as if everything and everyone you ever touched fell apart. No one who knows you trusts you. No one who knows you believes you love them more than a ziplock baggie of Oxy or a bottle of Early Times. It’s easy to believe that God can forgive you; that’s his job, it’s what he promised to do. He wrote a whole book on the subject. But your grandma, your wife, your daughter – they never made any such promise.

You cannot make them forgive you. You cannot make them trust you. You can’t make them love you. All you can do is put on your dress pants, your nice shirt, your shined shoes, and wait for them each Sunday afternoon. Hope they will come. Hope they will see you there, just once, waiting. Trying. Putting them first, for once.

The rest – it’s up to them.

Q. The carrying of grudges and bitterness takes you away from the blessings of God. Can you be free from such mind control?

If you made a list of everyone who ever hurt you, you’d fill pages and pages. You know about grudges. You know about settling scores.

You can’t quite remember how old you were when your grandma told you your mama’s relations in Harrogate didn’t want anything to do with you after she died. It was after your daddy left, which they held up as proof that you came from trash. You told your grandma you didn’t care, that you didn’t want anything to do with them, either. But the first time you did crank in high school, you drove out to the cemetery in Harrogate with the idea of taking a baseball bat to your mama’s headstone. You swung that thing till your arms ached, bashing it against the granite again and again. When you were done the bat was all dinged up but that headstone didn’t look too different. You settled for smashing the little vases of flowers her relations put up beside it. A few weeks later you drove by again and saw those vases had been replaced. It was like you hadn’t even been there. All that anger, searing you, burning up inside, came to nothing.

If you expect God to forgive you, if you hope that others will forgive you, you have to forgive in turn. Sometimes your anger feels like the mountains you see from your window: massive, solid, insurmountable. But mountains can be climbed. Step by step. They say the view up top is something to see indeed.

 

You seek through the power of prayer and meditation a conscious contact with God, praying only for knowledge of His will for you and the power to carry that out.

Q. Does God actually hear prayer?

When you were in the Claiborne County Correctional Facility, just a skip down the street from where you are now, you were coming off the Oxy and were sure you were going to die. They put you in a cell with a guy they called Brother Keith. Brother Keith talked to God all the time. You were curled up in a ball, shivering and trying not to shit yourself, gnawing on that nasty prison blanket just to keep from moaning, and there’s Brother Keith, praying. Peering out the tiny slit of a window that looked out onto the parking lot and saying, Another beautiful day, Lord, thank you very much. Eating breakfast and saying, Lord, you know how much I love when they have them hot biscuits, thank you very much. Tidying up his bunk and saying, Lord, if it’s your will I sure could use some healing on these old knees of mine.

Finally you screamed at Brother Keith to just shut up, shut the hell up for five fucking minutes. God didn’t give two shits about his knees, God wasn’t in this place, God wasn’t anywhere, and if he was he would surely have killed you by now like you’d been asking him to.

Brother Keith let you holler at him for a while, then came over and knelt down next to you, even though you must have smelled like roadkill. Brother Keith put his cool hands on your sweaty forehead and said, Lord, I pray here for my brother who is in pain. I pray that you will comfort him. I pray that you will give him just a few moments of peace.

Maybe it was the prayer; maybe the touch of his hands; maybe it was hearing, for the first time, someone pray for you instead of at you. Angels didn’t come down from the ceiling. Your pain didn’t even go away, but while Brother Keith was praying for you, you didn’t feel like dying anymore.

You didn’t quite believe that God would ever listen to you. You were not even sure, then, that you believed in God. But you did start to believe in Brother Keith, that a trickle of his faith might flow through his hands and into you.

Eventually you found out that Brother Keith was in the Claiborne County Correctional Facility because he’d been driving down Lipcott Road in Tazewell on an expired driver’s license and hit a little boy on a bike, a little boy who would never walk again.

Brother Keith called himself an instrument of God.

Sure, you quipped. Jesus healed all the cripples, so you had to go make him a new one.

But Brother Keith showed you a letter he’d gotten from that boy’s mother. Pretty simple letter. She said that she was praying for him just as she prayed for her own son; that she forgave him.

That surprised you. If someone broke your daughter’s back, you’d never write a letter like that, not in a million years.

But Brother Keith said that was living in God’s image. That God loved you no matter what you did, that he would forgive you no matter what, and that he felt your pain as keenly as he felt that boy’s, and that mother’s, and his own.

Brother Keith is the reason you’re here. Before you left for the refuge, you made him promise to pray for you. You still aren’t sure that God hears you when you pray, but it makes you feel better to know that Brother Keith is out there praying for you.

You’re pretty sure God listens to him.

Q. What is the “power” that God gives you?

Your whole life you’ve been told you weren’t good enough. Not smart enough, not tall enough, not handsome enough, not rich enough. You’ve been a disappointing son, grandson, brother, boyfriend, father, and friend. There have always been people who’ve had more than you, did better than you, felt happier than you. It always felt impossible to catch up; it always felt like all the nice things in life were for other people.

But if you believe in God, you have to believe that God himself made you, and that he didn’t make you wrong. That’s the hardest thing for you to accept: He didn’t make you wrong. You are God-made and God-breathed as much as Adam, as much as the Pope, as much as the Queen of England. And as much as your father, your mother, and your pedophile cousin out in Dandridge.

You are no worse than anyone, no better than anyone. There are no magic words, no combination to unlock the possibility of good within you, no pill to take that can change you forever. All the power God can give to you, he already has. All you have to do for God to love you is be.

You are good enough. That knowledge frees you and it scares you. It redeems you and it humbles you. It makes you grieve and it gives you hope. You are good enough. You are good enough. You are good enough.

 

You have come to accept the priority of your life as: God, family, church, work, and self.

Q.What’s the big deal about “family”?

Think about your family. Your mama and your grandfather are resting deep in the Claiborne County earth. You wonder if the warrants caught up with your daddy before the drugs did. You may never know. Your brother is in Memphis, doing his third year of six for meth manufacturing. Your grandma, so old now she’s half-deaf and her hair is falling out, still kills her own chickens and bakes her own bread. You have a wide constellation of cousins and aunts and uncles in Jefferson, Hamblen, and Claiborne counties. Throw a rock around here and like as not you’ll hit someone you’re kin to. Sometimes you feel like all these people who know you are a web to catch you if you fall. Sometimes they feel like your destiny, binding you to a fate you never wanted. How much easier would it be to just start again, in a new place, where no one knows you? To make a new family full of people you haven’t already disappointed?

Remember the bonfires with your cousins; remember running through the woods with your brother; remember your grandma feeding you chicken broth when you were sick. Remember your uncle teaching you to shoot. Remember your daddy, tossing you up into the air when you were little. He never let you hit the ground. You were never as alone as you thought you were.

Think about your daughter. She’s seven now, with long blonde hair she won’t let her mama cut. Think about the last time you saw her happy, blowing dandelions in the front yard. Think of her laugh like the prettiest music you ever heard. Your wife will not come to see you on Sundays, but she sends you your daughter’s drawings in the mail. You hang them up on the drab particleboard walls. It looks like her favorite color is green.

Your wife will not come to see you, not yet, but she sends you those drawings and some shirts of yours that she’s mended. The packs of cigarettes that get you through the day. The butterfinger candies she knows are your favorite. Maybe she shouldn’t be, but she’s still your wife. She’s still the mother of your child.

They are yours. You are theirs. Your family made you and unmade you, as you made and unmade them. They gave you all the pain and love you’ve ever known. They are the tether to a past you’d like to forget, but also the bridge to a future you might make. You can’t take one without the other.

Q. Why should God be the number one in your life?

From your window at the refuge you can see the mountains on the Tennessee/Kentucky border. As long as you can remember, they’ve been there. You can remember taking field trips up there when you were still in school. You remember learning about how fragile they really are, how each one is made up of so many different parts; each flower and root and stem and log have a role to play. The tallest pine tree and the biggest bear are just as important as the smallest salamander and the tiniest ant.

It is hard for you to believe in God from inside a little room with an altar and some stained glass windows. Harder still to believe in God from the plywood benches of the refuge, surrounded by men who stink of sweat and tobacco and unwashed bodies. God doesn’t seem beside you in the lukewarm showers, the smell of someone else’s shit fogging the air in the tiny bathroom; he doesn’t walk with you to the sterile dining room where you recite your daily Bible verse to the Pastor’s assistant each morning at breakfast.

But looking out at those mountains, it’s easier to believe in God and his power. Each morning when you look out there, you try to meditate on God’s creation. Just one of those mountains is more complex than anything you’ve ever known, and there are endless ridges of them rolling off into the distance, farther than your eyes can see. Those mountains are so much bigger than you, and they have no wants, no needs. They are not eaten up with longing and sorrow. They do not know desertion or loneliness. They just are.

That is where you want to get. You want to trust that no matter how loud and angry and burning your need is, it is nothing compared to the wide world. You want to believe that God will provide for you, to temper your desire with the promise of peace. Surely, if God can take care of those mountains, he can take care of you. You have to let him. You have to tell him that you’re ready to let him.

 

You, having had a spiritual awakening through Jesus Christ, will try to carry this message to all those who suffer from addiction.

Q. Can dwelling in the word of God in thought and deed truly prevent you from succumbing to your addiction?

The truth is, you hate this place. The refuge isn’t much more than a reeking warehouse. You hate lining up for the meals like a child at school, hate standing in a corner while the staff look under your mattress and in the pockets of the shirts your wife sends you, hate sharing a room with an illiterate and toothless meth addict who needs you to read him his daily Bible verse over and over again until he can memorize it.

They tell you that this is what it means to dwell in the Lord, to devote every waking minute to learning his word and divining his will and praising his goodness. It’s hard work. Maybe the hardest of your life, and there’s nothing pleasurable about it.

Sometimes you think of giving into the longing. One smuggled can of beer from your rare trips to town would be enough. You’d be free. You hate the regiment of it all, the predictability. You have always preferred standing on the edge of the cliff, playing the daredevil, leaning out farther and farther over the abyss.

Across the street from the refuge, on a hillside in view from dining room’s big picture window, is a cemetery. When the craving is at its worst, when the tedium sets your teeth on edge and your head to pounding, you look up there. You know what’s waiting for you at the bottom. You know how close you came to falling.

You wouldn’t say it to the Pastor – he prefers positive thinking – but you have a feeling they built that picture window with that view in mind.

Q. How can you practice Jesus’s commands when they are so different from what you are used to?

What scares you most is the thought of life outside this place again. There are no drugs here, no open bars, few choices. The rules are very clear. The ways you can fail are spelled out for you, and all you have to do to make it each day is exactly what you are told to do.

But when you’re done here, when they hand you your certificate of graduation and they bless you and pray for your future in a circle of brotherhood, you’ll go out and you’ll have to start again. And you are afraid, not so much of how you might fail but of why.

You’re afraid of just how boring life really is. When you were using and drinking, when you were teetering on the edge of oblivion all the time, when everyone you loved was afraid for your life, it was terrible, yes; but it was also exhilarating. You were the star of your own show, the center of attention, the instigator of constant prime-time drama.

Each day you think of something else that’s waiting for you out there. Job applications, rude customers, worn-out brake pads, headaches, lost keys, colds, lines at the bank, termites, dog shit on your shoes. Before, you chose not to handle those things. You got high instead. Now you will have to learn to deal with all of it, and at the end of the day no one will congratulate you for patiently waiting to use the ATM or remembering to turn down the heat at night to save on the gas bill.

Each day you’ll have to make a thousand choices, over and over again. To serve God and not yourself. To honor your family and not your addiction. To turn the other cheek instead of striking with a raised fist.

Even Saint Thomas had his doubts.

Once you leave, they will not let you back into the refuge unless you stay clean. There are no second chances here, no allowances for relapse. But they do expect you to come back to testify to your new brothers in Christ about life after salvation and recovery. You will have to stare into the thin, wrecked faces of men struggling to make it through each minute. You will have to pray over them as if you can speak with God’s authority.

You know that they will look up at you, the survivor, and ask you if what you have is worth it.

And how will you answer?

What will you say?

Q. If you are born a sinner, and even your “good” deeds are born of sin, and it’s sin you love anyway, and God hates and condemns sin – what hope is there for you?

A.

 

AFTER COMPLETING THE WORKBOOK AND YOUR BIBLE STUDY, BUT BEFORE YOU GRADUATE FROM THE REFUGE, PLEDGE THE FOLLOWING FOR YOUR SALVATION, SOBRIETY, AND SECURITY:

I realize that I am a lost sinner who needs forgiveness and salvation. I believe Jesus wants to forgive me as the Bible promises, so here and now I give him my life. I pledge to follow him in Word, Thought, and Deed; I confess to my addiction, my sins, and my weakness, and will overcome them through the Blood of Christ.

 

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BIO

Clarissa NemethClarissa Nemeth is originally from Gatlinburg, Tennessee. She has a Bachelor of Music degree from Boston University, an M.F.A. from North Carolina State University, and is currently a doctoral candidate in creative writing at the University of Kansas. She primarily writes about individuals and communities in Appalachia and the New South and is working on a novel about the tourist towns of Sevier County, Tennessee. She lives in Lawrence, Kansas with her husband Greg and their pit bull, Boogie. This is her first publication.

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