Justin Zipprich is a freelance writer living in Los Angeles. He has been writing since he was a child. From short stories and news articles to screenplays and comedy sketches, he loves to write it all. He has a love for the English language and the adventures it creates.
He is proud to have had his previous work published by Necrology Shorts, Foliate Oak Literary Magazine, Fiction and Verse and Whisperings Magazine as well as getting an honorable mention in Allegory. He has also had a story published in the short story collection “Luscious” as well as a Best Screenplay nomination at the Action on Film Festival for his script “One Moment”. See his website at www.jzipprichblogging.com.
The World is Falling Apart by Justin Zipprich
A light snow began to fall as Charlie Reardon departed the diner and made his way down Madison Street. Departed was a nice way of saying that he was actually violently thrown out of the establishment. It had all gone downhill so quickly. At one moment he was simply enjoying his beer, at the next he was involved in the first fistfight of his life.
When he was sober, Charlie was well educated. After a few beers he became a genius on all topics, a real know-it-all. To be honest, it was the other man’s fault. Didn’t he know that there were two topics you never talk about, religion and politics? If that man had never started spouting his mouth off about the latter, Charlie would have never have been forced to prove the man wrong.
The diner was a bizarre combination of eatery and brewery. On one side, families enjoyed hamburgers and French fries. Ten feet away from them, the town drunks sat at the bar grumbling about their hard lives while they got their nightly booze fix. Charlie sat at the end of the bar on a rickety, uneven stool. He wasn’t usually a drinker but after an especially hard day at work he decided that he would stop in and join the regulars for a few drinks. He was finishing off his third beer when a man sitting further down the bar was given his check. He was a small man with a beanpole frame. An angry grin seemed to be his default expression. When the angry man read his bill, he became instantly enraged. He claimed that he didn’t have enough money and that it was the government’s fault! His paycheck had been reduced to pennies after the greedy government had taken their share.
When the man’s voice escalated to angry screeching, Charlie felt he had no choice but to convince the chap to relax. He didn’t intend to further anger the smaller man. He merely explained that it wasn’t the government’s fault that he had no money. The gentleman simply had a paltry, low paying job and the income equal to a street beggar. If he wanted to make more money, all he had to do was apply himself and he would find a worthwhile occupation.
The plan, as anyone could have imagined, backfired miserably. The dirty little bastard became less of a civilized adult and more like a violent and frightened ape, growling and poking Charlie in the chest with a bony index finger. It didn’t take long to figure out that no amount of verbal persuasion would calm the man down. Charlie was about to give up and walk away when the excitable imp laid down the straw that broke the camel’s back. He raised one skeletal finger and held it no more than an inch away from Charlie’s face as he made his final, ignorant point.
Without hesitation, Charlie pushed the finger away, wound up and punched the man square in the nose. The drunkard didn’t stand a chance. The blow threw him off his feet and launched him backward. He crashed through a flimsy wooden table, landing on the hard floor with a loud thud where he remained, unmoving. Without hesitation, Charlie turned his back to the fallen man and started for the exit. He had to get out of there and fast, before he got himself into more trouble. His wish was granted as the largest bouncer he had ever seen suddenly lifted him off his feet. It was funny how there was no happy medium in this place. Everyone was either as skinny as a twig or as large as a buffalo. The hulking man took no liberties. He carried Charlie to the door and threw him like a ragdoll into the street, already cold and wet from the falling precipitation.
Now here he was, feeling buzzed and sore as he walked down the middle of Madison Street. It was a quiet night with not a vehicle in sight. Dark clouds filled the sky while a chill in the air forced him to tighten the belt on his coat. His head had begun to throb. The result he assumed, was a combination of the booze mixed with his violent exit from the diner. He hadn’t walked too far when he discovered the woman. She was a beggar dressed in filthy rags. She ducked inside her ratty jacket as she cowered against the brick wall of the Madison Street Bank. He despised people like her. What was so hard about finding a job anyway? It was easy to find work when one truly applied themselves. He always tried to avoid these people like the plague. However, on this brisk night, the elements worked against him. The wind seemed to push him towards the filthy woman even as he fought to stay away.
When she looked up at him, he was completely taken aback. Any resemblance of a female face seemed to have been washed away by disfigurement. The face that peered out at him was covered with bumps and boils of various shapes and sizes. Her other features consisted of a thin and lipless mouth and two small holes in the middle of her face that constituted a crude nose. Worse of all were those eyes. Underneath a flap of skin (a sad excuse for a forehead) sat the eyes of death. Sunk deep into their sockets, the eyes contained pupils as black as the darkest night. They seemed to gaze through him and into the deepest reaches of his soul. The sight of her stopped him dead in his tracks.
Charlie was frozen in place as the ghostly presence in front him made its plea. “Spare some change for a poor lady?” Charlie tried to respond, utter a sound, even grunt but he was too frightened to speak. “Please, just the change in your pocket will do,” she begged.
He was finally able to clear the cobwebs from his head and cough up the blockage in his throat as he spoke in the coldest tone he could muster. “I’m sorry, I have nothing.” With his stiff legs, he turned, trying his best to walk in the other direction.
“I know what you did.”
The words brought him to a stop. He turned back to face her. “Excuse me?”
The vagrant’s narrow slit of a mouth turned upward into a grotesque smile. “You like to hurt people do you? Does it give you some sort of thrill to knock poor drunks to the ground? I bet you feel like a real tough man.”
Charlie’s inner monologue spun into overdrive. Was she talking about his fight in the diner? How could she know? Who was this sick woman and worse of all, what was happening to him? He felt his head throb harder as the moments passed. He didn’t want to deal with any of this, he just wanted to get home into a warm bed.
“I’m sorry, I don’t know what you’re referring to,” he lied.
Her deformed smile widened. “How’s your head? I bet it hurts like hell. I bet it feels like a million tiny hammers are banging away in there, splitting your skull.”
This was too much; he had to get away from her and fast. Using every ounce of strength he had, he forced his body down the street. Behind him, the haunting sound of the old witch’s cackling kept his feet moving. As he walked, a more intense pain suddenly hit him. In addition to the dull throbbing in the back of his skull, he now found it harder to breathe. He felt as if his lungs were working against him. Every shallow breath took all the energy he could muster as it tried to make its way out of a throat that seemed to be caving in.
He was so distracted by the pain that he had little time to react when a young child burst out of a nearby alley, coming straight at him like a tiny pit-bull. Vicious with intent, arms outstretched, the boy ran up and wrapped his arms around Charlie’s legs, stopping him in place. He tried to keep his balance and stay on his feet but it was to no avail as he fell to the street like a falling tree. A sharp pain hit his chest as his entire body slammed to the pavement. He managed to turn from his stomach to his back as the pint-sized deviant stared down at him.
The child-like creature could not have been any older than six or seven years old. He was short and skinny as most youngsters were. What truly separated him from those other children was the face. The young boy had the same disturbing and disfigured face of the beggar. He could swear that it was the identical look: the slit of a mouth, the non-existent nose, those same fear inducing eyes. How could it be? Had he drank much more that he thought or was this some kind of waking nightmare?
Charlie realized that this experience was far too real as the hideous child bent down towards him, the disfigured face mere inches away. The child’s breath was hot and sour as he spoke. “I bet your feeling pretty bad right now,” it hissed. “The thick liquid running down your throat, the way your lungs feel like the hottest fire burning in your chest. It is exactly how he felt in his last moments.”
While Charlie’s entire body was aching, the worst sting came from his utter confusion. How could this child know how he felt inside and to who’s last moments was he referring? What was most disturbing was the gruesome face that both the homeless woman and this child shared. How could an old haggard woman and a youthful adolescent share the same grotesque appearance, the same harsh features?
He could not take much more of this. He needed to get away. He had to get home to his comfy bed and the open embrace of a good night’s rest. The demon child slapped Charlie hard on the chest and chortled. “How funny and ironic it is that you will soon meet the same fate as he!”
The demented crowing elevated as Charlie rolled back over onto his chest. Now on his hands and knees, he tried desperately to crawl to some sort of safety. The terrible child did not attempt to follow, nor did he attempt to hold Charlie back. He just hopped up and down in the middle of the street, taunting and laughing the most terrible laugh.
Charlie felt like an infant, crawling the way that he was, but the unfortunate fact was that he couldn’t stand if he tried. His body felt weaker by the second. Even the crude army crawl he was attempting took amazing effort. Add to this the fact that every ragged exhalation felt as if it might make his chest implode at any moment and he knew that stopping for even the briefest rest was mandatory.
Slowly he dragged himself through the cold, mounting snow. His clothes were now drenched, adding a completely new layer of misery. Finally out of the street, he found a small alley, a place to rest. His bed would be the rough, grainy asphalt. His pillow, the cold metal of a large, filthy dumpster. He positioned himself next to it, wanting nothing but to sleep.
He closed his eyes and thought back on his life. What differences had he made in this world and how would he even be remembered, if at all? His life, his work, they were all mundane experiences and as he had grown older, he realized that he had made very little impact on the people around him. The thought of leaving this life with few memorable accomplishments both disgusted and empowered him. He knew that there must still be time, he still had a chance to make the differences that he sought. It was time to get up and show the world what Charlie Reardon was capable of.
When he opened his eyes he instantly believed that his luck had changed for the better. Standing over him in full uniform stood a tall, statuesque police officer. His hat hung low over his eyes in an attempt to shield them from the descending snowflakes. Backlit, the official was swathed in shadow. While Charlie had at first considered himself lucky, the sight of the officer now seemed to disturb him in a way that he couldn’t quite understand. He wanted the officers’ help but all he could muster was a desperate wheeze.
“No reason to waste your breath,” the officer barked. “I’ll be doing most of the talking. After all, it’s time I’ve explained the little adventure you’ve had tonight.”
Even if Charlie had really wanted to ask the million questions that came to his mind, a thick liquid seemed to fill his throat, which rendered him unable to speak, only to listen. At least one of those questions was answered when the officer stepped forward, raising his hat. For the third and final time, Charlie gazed upon that same hideous appearance that he was far too familiar with. The same grotesque look shared by the sick woman and the excitable child also rested on this man’s face. Still the most disturbing features were those eyes. Only this time they seemed brighter, more intense. They glowed and pulsed, forcing Charlie to realize that these eyes were the pure essence of evil. The hope that he had once had now completely washed away, never to be seen again.
Charlie tried again to speak. His words coming out in hopeless fragments. “Your face. That face.”
“Ah yes, my face. You’ve seen this face before, am I right? The explanation to this is simple. The others you’ve seen tonight are just a few of my various incarnations. You see, I thought I’d play with you a little before you found out the truth. After all it is what you deserve, don’t you agree?”
“Please, it hurts, everything hurts.” Charlie pleaded.
A nasty smirk came to the grotesque officer’s face. “Oh I know your pain. I am willing to bet that every inch of your body hurts very badly. But you see it’s all in the name of science. Let’s call it a special experiment in your faith. You see, I want you to feel exactly how others you have mistreated have felt. For instance, take that man that you had the altercation with back at the diner a short while ago. Tell me, do you make it a habit to simply walk away from a man that you recently murdered?”
Charlie gazed up at the oppressive figure in utter surprise. He could not be speaking about the man he had struck in the tavern less than an hour ago.
“Murdered?” He asked, the words gurgling in his throat.
“Ah, the things you miss when you turn your back,” the vile man responded. “Had you stayed, you would have seen that the man you struck had fallen backward and hit his head on the ground precisely on that rare soft spot, knocking him unconscious. Into a sleep from which he will never wake. I’ve given you the privilege of feeling what he felt as his life slipped away. That thickness in your throat matches the blood that pooled in his as he lied motionless on the filthy bar floor. Your labored breathing mirrors the poor drunkard as he struggled to gasp his final breaths. The weakness in your heart is exactly how that poor soul felt in his last dying moments.”
Charlie was horrified by these revelations, wanting nothing more than to explain. But he was much too weak to say much of anything. All he could muster was a desperate: “I didn’t know, I didn’t know.”
The officer raised his voice to a threatening level. “Of course you didn’t know, not a single one of you mortals has the slightest idea! You were all put on this earth by a God who trusted you would do what is right, to follow his teachings and treat others how you would want to be treated. But do you do any of these things? Of course not! You treat each other like dirt. You inflict pain, you steal, you lie, you do everything possible to hurt one another and at the end of the day you get down on your knees and pray. You pray to your God to forgive you for all you have done. You assume you have been absolved and then you go out and do it all again. It’s a vicious circle and yet you never learn. These are the reasons why I have returned. I have come back to this world to remind you all about the other half of the equation that you all so easily forget.
“I am here to show you all that the devil still exists, has always existed. I used to watch from the distance but now I realize that I am sorely needed here. You people are no longer afraid of a Hell because you have created your own Hell here on Earth. You, Charlie Reardon, have not been the first nor the last to have the privilege of feeling the pain of your victims. Rest assured that this is not a punishment but a reinforcement of who you truly are inside. In the end, I will reveal to the world that their belief in a higher power to deliver them from their sins has instead transformed the vast majority into simple reincarnations of myself, thus proving that the devil is alive and well. May you die fully understanding what you have become.”
Those were to be the final words that Charlie was ever to hear. Satan left him, disappearing into the night, leaving him to die in the gutter, with not a soul in the world to save him. The light snow still continued to fall, blanketing him with a fine dust. He would die there, his last memory a sin that he had not realized he had committed. The last words he muttered were, “I didn’t know, I didn’t know.”
There was no one there to hear him and no one there to care as he felt his heart beat one last time.
Brian lives in Ireland with his wife and two sleepy Pit Bulls who were rescued from a dog pound. All four moved to Ireland from New York about six months ago. Brian was an advertising executive but found the purposeful deceit and long hours disheartening. He walked out of what had become a trap and hasn’t looked back.
He and his wife bought a stone schoolhouse in the farm country of County Leitrim. The house was built in 1891 and was where the Irish patriot and martyr Sean McDermott received his early education.
Brian writes about things that interest him and that he can form into coherent stories. He has also published in Three Penny Review and Jelly Bucket.
The Santeria by Brian Wright
Rafa O’Bannon was sitting in a dark corner watching a video on the tiny cramped screen of his cell phone. The show was called “Just Kill Someone,” the adventures of an assassin named Chelsea. Chelsea was smart, blonde and sexy. When Chelsea reached under her jacket for heat, she meant business. It was a good show, especially if you were—like Rafa— toasted. In the conflict, gunman swooned liked jilted lovers as fields of fiery red flowers bloomed across their chests until the body count assumed epic proportions
Rafa rewound and watched again. Attackers moved at awkward tempos, drawing Chelsea’s attention and causing her respond with deadly accuracy. He toggled back and forth between different views—he could have done this all night as Chelsea’s butt was sumptuous—but a waitress wearing a gold-flecked leotard top interrupted. “You drinking or leaving?”
He took inventory of the bar. Prospects were dismal. A depressive male bartender in a filthy T-shirt, a few other hard-core male hangers on, two large females at a table by the window were probably gay and a woozy transvestite solo dancing to the sounds of ear buds stuck beneath a frowsy afro wig—a definite no go.
“You’re the hottest thing around here,” Rafa said to the waitress.
“Forget it,” she said. “Drinking or leaving?”
Rafa laid a small bill on the table and pushed his chair back.
Outside, chill night air hit him like a blast from the fridge. As Rafa walked, he warmed up. The city stank of its unique aroma of garbage and ozone. He flicked on his smart phone locator. “Friends” that were interested could find him. His status was “feeling sexy,” so if anyone responded, knew what to expect.
The illegitimate son of an Irish priest and a Mexican prostitute, young Rafa was a drug addict. When his mother did tricks in the next room to pay the rent, Rafa lay on the couch watching the shadows his mother’s candles made on the wall. His mother believed in Santeria and each candle was a different Saint. The flickering light from the candle represented the soul of the Saint freed from imprisonment. Eventually his mother would finish with her business in the next room and the John would leave. She and Rafa would sit on the couch praying together watching the light dance on the bare walls until Rafa fell asleep.
When Rafa got older the play of light from the candles became the light behind the video games he enjoyed playing. After his mother died, the video games became his reality and the wild and aggressive villains and heroes of the online world replaced the bloodthirsty Santeria saints of his childhood.
Rafa was mildly intoxicated. He’d had a few beers at the bar and together with some OxyContin tablets he’d taken earlier, was unsteady on his feet. As he walked home the New York night seemed to vibrate around him with energy he was all too familiar with. He settled in to the feeling like a role player in his own RPG. In every shadow he saw a mugger. He located snipers up on top of the brownstone rooftops and mentally calculated his own line of return fire. The night had a soundtrack all its own and the screech of tires, women shouting and the cackling laughter of maniacs played through his mind.
Near the river, the water was a cold oily black smear that made the chill air feel colder. On the other shore lights pricked the velvet darkness. He entered a park by a broken down playground. In the daytime, ex-cons worked their muscular bodies on the disused swings. Tonight there was nothing but the creaking of chains in the breeze.
The sidewalk was a cracked concrete coil that wound its way around back into itself. The lighting overhead buzzed and flickered. The broken smokestacks of an abandoned power station loomed before him. Cars raced by on highway over his head supported by huge T-shaped pylons.
Within his real and imagined cacophony, he heard something else. A cat was crying to itself. Behind a graffiti ravaged pillar, he saw a bundle of rags moving.
Rafa walked over to where the figure lay. “Are you all right?”
She was a black woman with blonde streaks in her hair. When she turned toward him, her face was bloody and bruised. Her dress was made of white gauze and was torn in several places. There was a scattering of feathers around her body like torn wings. Over the dress she wore a leather motorcycle jacket. Rafa looked but there was no motorcycle. Just graffiti scarred pillars holding up the highway.
“Can you help me?” She said.
“Can you walk? Should I call a cop?”
“A cab. Get me a cab.”
Rafa bent down and helped her sit upright, leaning her back against the pillar. Her body smelled like fresh meat. She straightened for a moment then her head sunk to her chest. He couldn’t leave her here and he couldn’t move her. When he tried to call 911, the call wouldn’t go through. More than likely, his service was turned off.
He went out to the main street. The bars were closing and cabs were cruising expecting stragglers in the night. The third one stopped for him but the driver would not go into the park to pick up the woman. Rafa went back to get her and bring her out.
There was nothing under the pillar except for bloody feathers. The river seemed to be moving backward, in a different direction. He went to the edge of the water and looked down. Snakes of light from the city writhed back at him. The sound of cars moving overhead made him feel dizzy. He looked and the ground was moving underneath his feet. When he fell, the wet surface broke across his face pulling him down and then up again and finally down.
He woke up in his own bed and tried to piece together how he had gotten here. He remembered the bar and the woman. But that was it. His hair was damp and he was naked. The blanket felt warm and good against his skin. His mind was still buzzing and he went back to sleep.
He woke again and the black woman from the night before was standing over him. The blood was washed from her face, which was broad and unattractive. There was a large gap between her front teeth, which were strong and white in contrast to her skin. Her hair was wet and she was freshly showered. She wore one of his white T-shirts and her large breasts swung freely.
She was holding a cup of coffee and, a look of concern flashed across her face, which was otherwise open and friendly. From outside he could hear the sounds of morning and a grey light of day flashed through the windows.
“It’s my turn now to ask,” she smiled. “Are you alright?”
On his third try he was able to sit up, although awkwardly. He wasn’t sure what she was doing in his apartment or how he had gotten there. He arranged his filthy pillow behind his head and reached for the cup. The coffee was hot and his senses started coming back
“I saw you fall,” she said.
“Yes but then what?” The world had inverted on him. It was his apartment but she seemed in charge.
“A cab driver helped get you out. I got your address out of your wallet. We brought you home.”
Rafael reached for a pack of cigarettes he kept handy on the dresser and lit up. He offered the crumpled pack to her but she shook her head.
“Those things will kill you.”
Rafa inhaled deeply. The smoke filled his lungs but when he breathed out nothing came out but air. He did it again. Smoke spiraled from the end of the cigarette, the cherry glowed but when he exhaled--nothing. The woman looked at him expectantly. “That’s a neat trick.”
“Trick? But I’m not doing anything?”
She ignored him and walked over to the tiny galley that served as his kitchen. He heard the clatter of dishes being washed.
Her name was Maria Vicennes and she was in no hurry to leave. After she washed the dishes, he could hear his wheezing and broken down vacuum cleaner rattling between the floor and the living room rug. When she went out he though she would be gone for good, maybe having stolen something, which was the way things should have gone. But later, she was back, and heard paper bags rustling and the smell of hot spices came to him.
He realized he was hungry.
The fish she brought to him on a plate still had its head on. He could see a kind of delicate rainbow skin beneath the layer of brown and red breadcrumbs. It was delicious.
That night, after turning out the lights she crawled into his bed and pushed her body against him until his responded. They went about their business, she with a workmanlike attention to detail while he acted in the same dream state that he had felt since he fell in the river.
In the morning he had his appointment at the methadone clinic. He had been in bed for too long. When he got it up he almost fell down.
She was sitting in his newly clean living room, with her feet up, reading one of his graphic novels, when he came out of the shower.
“That was really nice of you,” gesturing toward the tidy room. “Thank you.”
“What do you want to do now?”
“It’s not what I want to do. It’s what I have to do.”
He worried that if he told her, she would go away. But at the same time, part of him questioned what she was doing here and wanted her out of his apartment.
“I need to go clinic today for my methadone.”
“Methadone?” she said and she tossed her head like a horse. “Aha. That’s why you fall in the river. You’re a drug addict!” At this she slapped her hands together as if she just realized something that had been puzzling her. The sound was startlingly loud in the tiny apartment.
“You don’t understand.”
“Okay, so I don’t understand,” Marie said.
“I go to the clinic because I am not a drug addict.”
“Good” she said and stood up. She had a large straw bag by her feet and removed a bright orange and green scarf she wrapped around her hair and tied it with a precise knot. “You are not a drug addict and now we will not go to the methadone clinic to get you drugs.“ She opened the door and waited. “Okay?”
Rafa liked to think of himself as cipher that moved through life unnoticed. But it was difficult not to feel people staring as he walked with this flamboyant black woman in her bright scarf. Every time he lagged behind or walked ahead of her, Marie grabbed his arm as if she owned him.
On the subway, and even though the car was almost empty, she sat right against him. He worried that the few people who were on the train, were questioning what the relationship was between this light skinned boy with reddish hair and this large black woman. The more anxious he became the more she seemed to swell into the space, until the large black woman with the bright scarf on her head, took up the entire car. These thoughts bothered him as sat on the hard plastic bench. Her soft warm hip pressed up against him and station after station flickered by through the cloudy windows. The already thin crowd thinned out even more until his vision—her swollen presence—matched the reality of an otherwise empty car.
On the street, people were doing normal things like going to work, shopping and buying coffee. The sun was shining although it might rain later as the sky was clouding up.
The clinic was an unassuming one story brick building jammed into a unassuming block. Up and down the street there was nothing but parked cars and cracked pavement. Not even the graffiti was promising. Just a few halfhearted attempts at writing that petered out and then were overlaid with someone else’s failures. A larger than life Manhattan shone through gaps between buildings that had fallen into various stages of decrepitude.
“It is a beautiful day,” Marie said, as if her saying it made it so. “Why you want to go to this crappy place?”
He felt her watching him as he bent down to the window and handed in his forms to the shapeless, featureless man behind the counter. He could still feel her eyes on him when he drank his dose from a small plastic cup. The liquid was sweet his mouth. He looked over to her quickly but she was studying a poster on the wall the outlined ten steps to good mental health.
The drug calmed him and focused his thoughts. Maybe she was a little crazy, but she could stay with him a little while. After all, what did it hurt and who cared?
Their sexual encounters left Rafa breathless and even more confused. What started out as a workmanlike grouping soon became something else. As if the darkness could assume a corporeal form. Maria threw herself at him furiously. One moment they rolled this way and then the other. He soon had no control as she took the lead. Hands came out of nowhere and pushed him back on the bed. Voices told him to be quiet, animal eyes glimmered out of the dark and then disappeared and reappeared. When he thought it was all over it all started up again. He had, it turned out, needs that had always been buried somewhere deep inside of his psyche, unsparing, unrealized and unspeakable.
He lay next to her after she had finally fallen asleep. Her body was black and chunky--anthracite gleaming in the light from the street lamp outside.
He placed his arm over next to her and compared the colors against his rumpled sheets. His arm was dark and hers was darker. Her palms were pink like coral and her fingernails were a legacy of a different age, before people, when all living things wore shells and claws.
His own arm was covered with crude tattoos from several months he spent at Riker’s. A misshapen cross and a naked woman, her breasts and vagina emphasized to the point of obscenity.
The depth of their passion revolted him. Part of him hated walking with her in the street or even being seen at the bodega when they went out to buy something as mundane and wholesome as milk or bread.
Sex with a black woman was a rite-of-passage and gave a young man street cred. But this was different. He was giving too much of himself up in return for what he was getting. She moaned in her sleep and rolled over, she took her hand back but threw a leg over his, pinning him to the bed so he couldn’t move without her waking.
She was good for him and he knew it. Living alone, doing his drugs and playing video games was no life at all, but he had never asked for much. His fantasies were all of blonde haired seductresses like Chelsea the assassin. Maria was something else altogether and he didn’t know how to process that. Her body, her face and her fierce attention had no context that he could comfortably understand but it began to change something.
“I need a sacrifice,” she announced one morning.
“How much?” He had twenty dollars and he hoped that would be enough. Any more would severely compromise his weekly budget, which was based on an artful combination of welfare and unemployment.
“Ha. You think money is sacrifice, You crazy like this whole fucking country. The man on the TV from the bank, he can sacrifice money. You got to come up with something else.”
“Why do I have to sacrifice anything?”
“You so happy with your life the way it is? You got it all figured out? You don’t want to change nothing? Fine stay the way you are. I’m going to make some coffee. You want coffee?”
“No, I want to know why you think I have to sacrifice.”
“The evil spirit baby. Don’t you feel it. Evil spirit got a hold on you so deep, you and he the same thing. You want to get rid of him you got to sacrifice something. How you take it?”
“Milk and sugar. Not too much of either.”
Her weird logic was starting to work on him. He started to make sacrifices. First it was his marijuana. The few joints he had stashed around the house, got flushed down the toilet. He watched them go down, like little turds that at first resisted the pull of the whirling water and then succumbed and flowed out of his life. A few days later he made another sacrifice and threw the OxyContin pills off the rooftop. The video controller was gathering dust by the PlayStation. He hadn’t been online in weeks.
The worst part was, after all that, nothing changed. He had felt miserable before and he felt miserable now. He was just eating better and having regular sex.
He began skipping appointments at the clinic, even though this put his income in question. They kept track and if they thought he was back on hard drugs they could cut him off. But her weird logic was right. As long as he took methadone, he was admitting to himself that he was an addict. When he stopped, he became something else. What that was he wasn’t sure.
A woman was cooking bacon in the apartment next door. He didn’t just smell it, he heard the bacon crackling through the thick walls. Someone else was using the toilet. A child was playing with plastic blocks, clicking them together and babbling softly to himself. Outside someone had just lighted up a cigarette. He didn’t think these were hallucinations but how could they not be?
“So ‘Mr. I-am-not-a-drug-addict,’ what you want to do today?”
Her question snapped him out of his trance.
“I got nothing. “
“Then why don’t you come with me. C’mon, put your sneakers on sweetie.”
She took him to a small store. It had a glass front that was set right up against the sideway. The window was a hodgepodge of candles, statues and bottles of ointment and herbs. It was like a kind of apothecary. The owner, a wrinkled, yet refined black woman in a bright yellow dress, greeted Maria like a sister. They babbled at each other in a patois. It was English—sort of—and Rafa could understand every third or fourth word.
The store smelled strongly. In addition to body odor, there was peppery smell that was overlaid with a rich flowery scent that made his eyes water. There was also fainter smell of blood and decaying flesh. Almost like when a mouse dies and is trapped inside a wall.
Obatala, Chango, and Eleggua—he read names from the glass candles and it made him feel as if he were crossing some sort of line. Behind him, Maria and the old woman chattered away, grabbling powders and leaves and sticks, placing them in bag along with glass vials containing liquids. Their conversation dragged on and Rafa looked out into the street. A tall thin woman walked her dog by the window. Two boys, with scraggly beards wearing almost identical T-shirts and tight jeans strode by purposefully. A mother watched her child in the playground on the other side of the street. He felt the two worlds. The one inside the shop—dark and unknowable. The one outside—bright and impenetrable. Rafa belonged in neither.
Her bag was a big flouncy straw satchel with garish woven straw flowers on it. Inside it she placed everything the old woman had given her—everything she needed. No place was so permanent that it could not be left in a hurry. The spaces of the earth moved out from under her but she was ready.
He knew she was up to something. She had carved a small altar for herself in the corner of the room. Here she kept her statues and candles. There were cowrie shells and herbs. A cabinet she kept closed. The skulls of small creatures with tiny precise sharp teeth. She performed rituals before dinner and before she went to bed at night. In the morning he often found her there, muttering to herself. Everything became something else.
He watched Maria prepare their dinner. Shaking her head from side to side. She worked fast, as if she were on a mission. Not working so much as dancing. There was a rhythm to the world he could not feel but could only see through her. As if she were a transmitting signals from far away that he could barely pick-up.
She handed ingredients to hold. Asked him to chop onions. Measure out cups of flour. Salt, pepper, cayenne and turmeric. Simple things. Water, fire and blood.
Out of the dance came transubstantiation. Their supper— chicken salad and rice.
He wondered if he was going mad, And with no one else to talk to, he asked her.
She stopped abruptly and threw her head back and laughed in way that made him think he really was insane. “You one sorry ass son of ‘I-am-not-a-drug-addict.’”
“What do you mean?”
“You got to see what you see. Feel what you feel. Don’t question what is. You think you crazy now but that’s because you see what is.”
She reached across and punched him so hard in the chest he was two feet further away from her than he was before.
The bracelets on her arm rattled. “What are you feeling now?”
“I don’t know,” Rafa said.
“You’re going to die someday. That what you want on your gravestone? I don’t know and I never asked?“
“What should I want?”
“Look at this,” she said. She rolled her eyes skyward. Even though they were in his mall cramped living room the ceiling seemed to shift as if it was no longer there confining them in the small dark box of the apartment. She began to moan to herself, but rather than a cry of pain it was a kind of music, a keening wail that picked up speed and rhythm. As the rhythm became a song her shoulder started to sway in time to it the music. A dance sprang out of nowhere and he saw behind her other figures, moving in time to the music, and behind them more and behind them more and with them he saw himself, moving and dancing, one of the many, the dead and the undead.
The fire once started could not be put out. What did he care what anyone thought? At the end of the day, the only thing that mattered was Maria. Let them take Maria into the office with them. Let them talk about her at lunch. She was after all, just another black woman on the subway or in the street. She was the one you hired to take care of your children or clean your homes.
She lived in your mind in a way you couldn’t talk about. Not to your wife, lover, boss or friend. What could you say, when you finally got home. “I saw a black woman on the subway today?”
Rafa shook his shoulders and danced to the rhythm of the earth’s rumbling core. People could see him or not. It didn’t matter anymore. The world was large.
Robert Knox is a creative writer, a freelance journalist for the Boston Globe, a blogger on nature, books and other subjects, and a rabid gardener, who makes his home in Quincy, Massachusetts. A graduate of Yale (B.A.) and Boston University (M.A. in English literature), he is a former college teacher and newspaper editor, whose stories, poems, and creative nonfiction have appeared in numerous publications. He was named a Finalist in the Massachusetts Artist Grant Program in fiction. His short stories have recently appeared in the anthology "An Earthless Melting Pot," The Tishman Review, and the 3288 Review. His nonfiction story "Preparing A Place" was published last month in Lunch Ticket. He is a contributing writer for the poetry journal Verse-Virtual, and his novel on the origins of the Sacco-Vanzetti case, "Suosso's Lane," was published last fall by Web-e-Books.com.
HOUSE MATES by Robert Knox
"Where is everybody?"
It is dark in the house when we arrive at our new home. It is never this dark on Long Island, where Penny and I have spent the last three months cohabiting in her childhood bedroom. We have been married for a year and a half. Even before I agreed to spend a summer lodging with Penny's family -- 'to save money' -- things were not going terribly well for us. Predictably, they get worse. I do not ask my wife why we no longer seem to have anything to say to one another, because the reason appears to be obvious. What do you say when Eros fails? Was this a problem that philosophers have investigated over the centuries? Is there a phenomenological approach? An existential analysis? A logical-positivist solution? Not that I have heard. Instead of confronting the problem -- or my problem; it was mine, wasn't it? -- I swallow my shame and go numb inside. At night, we draw apart, turning our backs on one another.
“Nobody’s here yet,” I reply. I didn’t expect to arrive so late in the day. "That's why there are no lights on."
“Obviously, Jon,” Penny observes shortly. “I thought you said they’d be here.”
“Harrison. And that girl.”
“You mean his wife. He said he’d be here this weekend.”
Harrison and his wife, Lisa, newlyweds, are the other couple we are sharing this old Connecticut farmhouse with. We also have two single housemates, both friends of mine from Yale. Although we were not particularly close, Harrison and I hung with the same crowd of guys for a couple of years. Ours is a commune of convenience. I have never met Lisa. I am closer to Ricky and Alex, but apparently they haven't shown up yet either.
Penny grimaces and gestures impatiently toward the house. Apparently, her body language says, somebody got the story wrong. Once again somebody has screwed up, let us down. A gesture suffices to convey this familiar state of mind. We have been let down a lot lately, disappointed in our expectations. I wonder if she’s disappointed in me; the answer seems pretty clear.
“What do you want to do?” I say.
“Go in, obviously.” She opens the driver’s seat of the car and gets out to explore. “There are some lights in there, I hope.”
Penny has never been to the house. I went to see it last spring and found some bored hippies sitting in the kitchen, wishing they had cigarettes. The house had plenty of bedrooms, and plenty of empty space around it outdoors, meeting my idea of all we would need to share a house with a few of my friends -- besides, of course, love. Harrison was looking for a place to live after a summer long “honeymoon” trip with Lisa. Ricky Fielder had won a university fellowship and was planning to hang around Yale for a year; Alex had another year as an undergraduate.
So we had it. Our group house; our commune.
“It’s big,” Penny says, stepping out of the car and taking in the six-bedroom two-story farmhouse. I get out and follow her and we walk up the driveway to the kitchen door on the side of the house. I remember that’s the way in; you'd have to climb through the shrubbery to get to the front door. On our way we picked up house keys from the landlord, a nice old man who used to be principal of the local high school and showed us the courtesy of exhibiting no interest in our lifestyle. Nevertheless, Penny tried to josh him – “So do we pass? What grade would you give us?” – which she laughed at, but he didn’t. It embarrasses me when her jokes don't connect, but Penny gave me a look that says no harm in trying. It's her strength, relating to people -- or at least trying -- while I stand back, careful not to offend, but also not risking anything, not sharing. I’m too sensitive, she tells me, when I cringe over bumpy social interactions. I hate feeling awkward around people.
“Go ahead,” she urges now as we gaze at the darkened house. "Open the door."
I've forgotten that I have the keys in my pocket.
It takes me a while to figure out which is the right key for this door and then we take turns jiggling it, swearing under our breath, and I am ready to give up when the door decides to open. We enter a farmhouse kitchen, a spacious room with basic appliances and a truly amateurish crayon drawing on the wall over the sink depicting caricatures of the previous tenants, facial hair everywhere, their faces inserted into the portholes of a submarine. To put yourself and your housemates in a yellow submarine (refrain: “a yellow submarine”) seems to me both corny and passe. But maybe I’m asking for too much from life.
We can barely see this ludicrous fresco now because the room remains dark even when Penny finds a switch and flips it.
“Maybe the bulb’s out.”
“Maybe the electricity’s been turned off,” Penny retorts. Another flub. Somebody's always screwing up. At least, I think, we're out of Long Island.
We move through the house in the dark, tentatively, like explorers or burglars, careful not to bang our heads or shins, but we can’t find a switch that turns anything on, or a lamp that works. It’s a warm night, but the house has a dank feel, as if shut up on itself and licking its wounds after the previous tenants found their cigarettes and moved away.
“We need some light,” Penny says. “Do you know if the fuse box is in the basement?”
“No.” I don't know that we have a basement.
“We need the flashlight.”
I don’t reply.
“We have one in the car, Jon,” she reminds me.
She tells me where it is. Since I'm going to the car, she adds, I might as well bring her suitcase in.
“I’ll keep looking around,” she says.
I come back with the flashlight (and the suitcase) and by its light we tread carefully up the stairs, locate a bathroom, explore the bedrooms, and choose the biggest one for ourselves. First come, she says, first served. I don’t quite agree, but don't choose to debate the point.
“You hungry?” she asks, sitting on a mattress on the bedroom floor. “I am.”
I don’t think much about food, though I'm in the habit of eating it whenever it appears. Penny tells me we passed a store a half mile back where we can probably get sandwiches, and more cigarettes.
“You go,” I say.
“You don’t want to come?”
“I’m tired of the car. Bring me something back.”
“Here,” she says, standing up and passing me the flashlight. She starts to leave, then stops and takes something out of her pocket. “Take these,” she said, handing me the cigarettes. “I’ll get more. You might as well have something to do in the dark.”
She laughs, inviting me to join in, but I don’t. I sink into silence. It's not her fault, I tell myself, but I'd rather have a few minutes alone.
After we have eaten our sandwiches and found some sheets in one of the suitcases, we make a bed up on the mattress left in the room we have chosen for ours. Actually, she makes the bed and I hold the flashlight so she can see what she’s doing. We still have no power. No electricity means no music either.
I help her open the bedroom windows (they stick a little) so we have air, and the songs of the late August night flood in. You don’t hear them at once; at first you notice only the irregular passage of cars. And then after a while you begin to hear the insect songs that fill the late summer nights in all the green and treed places of the world (as opposed to the paved-over places where we've been living); and after a longer while you can’t hear anything else. You can’t do anything but listen to them. We might of course make our own noises; we can talk. But we lie on our mattress, smoking, watching the orange cones of light at the end of our cigarettes curl through the darkness, and saying nothing.
We’re in our own house, Penny says, after a while. We could try again.
I loved the house.
It was never hers, never Penny's, but it was mine.
I loved it because you walked upstairs to the bedrooms and could still hear the sounds of creaking around downstairs. It was a compact, small-scale dormitory and I had lived in dormitories for three years before Penny and I got married and found our own off-campus apartment.
But Penny never lived in a dormitory because her parents refused to let her go away for college. Our year in a rundown apartment in a sketchy neighborhood not too far from campus was her 'going away' experience. She worked a fulltime evening shift in a local hospital to pay the rent while I finished my last year at Yale and got my diploma with the understanding that it would be her turn to go back to college the next year and my turn to use that shiny new diploma to pay the bills.
Now 'next year' had come. Getting a group together to rent a big house in what passed for 'the country' outside of New Haven was originally someone else's idea. Everything for me was someone else's idea. That someone, a classmate, pulled out, but by then I was in and Harrison and the other two of my Yale friends were interested, so we went ahead and signed a two-year lease. Sharing costs made perfect practical sense to me, but it was more than that. The idea of living together with your friends in a big old house, sharing your lives, or (more simply; childishly), having a cool place to hang out together had the imprint of zeitgeist fashion for those who could read the signs. I was better at reading the zeitgeist than I was at automobile maintenance or doing the laundry. There were plenty of precedents. The Band had just come out with their Big Pink album.
And since I was used to dorm living, a group house was not that big a stretch for me. Dorm life at Yale had felt like a free ride. It wasn't -- my father kicked in money every month for my 'residential' expenses -- but by my third year none of my courses took attendance and I lived a kind of carefree, 'lost boys' contentedly adolescent existence, the way rich young men idled away their university years in English novels. Then Penny came back into my life, confronting me with the fact of a commitment that seemed to have a precedence before all other desires and plans, and I gave in and agreed to place her truth over mine -- and took the leap. I walked into the dark, the way mystics said you had to, though maybe they had some other kind of 'marriage' in mind. But I missed the freedom of that lost boys life I had left behind.
I don't know why Penny agreed to the group house idea. Probably because she knew there was something wrong with me and hoped that a new scene, one I seemed to want, would help me find my way.
Harrison and Lisa Sears, the newlyweds, were the next to arrive. Harrison, a few years older than the rest of us, was a classic "non-student" of the sort who hung around university campuses, holding on to their youth and putting off 'the real world' as long as they could. After graduating from Cornell he spent a couple of years in the Army, then moved to New Haven, a college town where he had friends. Some of his friends were my friends too, but it says something that I had never met Lisa before we started sharing a house.
Penny and I met her together when she popped out of Harrison's blue VW Beatle
with her hair in a ponytail and a broad smile for all of existence. She was easy to meet and easy to get along with, characteristics I would not necessarily apply to her husband. She had married Harrison right after graduating from a small school in Pennsylvania, the two of them immediately launching a summer-long expedition to crisscross the Great American West. Now they had no apparent plans besides living together in our big old farmhouse and finding a chorus for Lisa to sing in. She would let Harrison manage his stock portfolio for the both of them.
The two young wives regarded one another at the top of the driveway on that balmy September day. I felt Penny hold her breath; I was doing the same.
Lisa introduced herself and said something about liking "big old houses."
Penny delivered one of her smart-alecky retorts. "Wait till you get inside this one."
Lisa laughed, easy to please.
Penny joined in, both finding something funny in the moment, though maybe different things. I breathed a little easier.
"I looked at what she was wearing," Lisa remarked to me later, "and thought, I guess I can live with her."
"Wearing?" I asked.
"We were both wearing sweatshirts and cut-offs."
Harrison terminated the welcome scene by reminding me that I "still" owed him money on the house's security deposit, his face turning from vague satisfaction to anger in an instant. "And I want it paid," he said.
Harrison had found the right kind of person to marry, I thought, someone who smiled a lot and would help smooth over his sometimes heavy-handed ways with people. Besides, after spending three months stuck in a car together in places like Nebraska or Montana -- a trial for any relationship -- they were getting along. A married couple, I brooded, who were, astonishingly, happy.
The wives' connection, however, didn't flourish. Once we settled in -- the "boys," as Lisa called them, university fellow Ricky Fielder and music major Alex Goodman arriving in their own time -- Penny cooked a few common meals, but backed off with a scowl when nobody else stepped forward to organize the next one. My college dorm fantasy of hippies sharing a house failed to include a dining service.
"I've never seen that girl set foot in the kitchen," Penny said of Lisa.
Not so hidden meaning: I am not the house cook. I am not your friends' servant.
"That girl?" I responded, avoiding the issue.
"Lisa," I said. "You could call her by her name."
I didn't know what to make of Penny's chilliness to our housemates; I didn't realize how much of it had to do with me.
Penny had met the 'boys,' college friends of mine, who lived with us. Alex was the only one of my friends she bonded with. Though younger than me, he had a soothing, wiser-head influence on both us. Charming, relaxed, a talented musician, he weathered his ups and downs with apparent ease and helped others weather theirs. When I learned one of my former roommates attacked a cop and ended up in a mental hospital, I stuck my fingers in my ears. When one of Alex's friends jumped off a roof, he comforted the widow.
It was Alex, as well, who opened to me the way Harrison's mind worked.
"We went to see The Doors last year in the Coliseum," he told me. "The place is packed tight, right. Freaks, greasers, guys in long hair and leather jackets. Smell of smoke, people on pills. Cops standing in the back of the hall too freaked out to do anything. You know how Harrison is, man."
I nodded, but I didn't.
"Harrison grabs me and whispers in my ear -- the whole place is screaming, teeny-bopper chicks jumping up and down when Morrison comes on stage -- 'Alex, Alex, look! look! All of Western history has led up to this moment!'"
Alex had talked Penny down from a few bad moments when we were tripping together as well. Ricky Fielder, however, never had time for her. Slender and graceful, artistic, intellectual, alternately garrulous and severe, Ricky was picky about people, and Penny's blunt, jokey expressiveness was too common for his taste. She felt slighted, and reciprocated.
One evening as we lay in bed upstairs we heard the footsteps of new arrivals and listened as Harrison and Lisa welcome guests to their eleven p.m. social hour.
"It's Peter, Lisa," Harrison called to his wife.
"Peter Werner?" Ricky asked, hastening downstairs to greet the new arrival.
"How's that gamma ray project of yours coming?"
I couldn't make out Peter's replies, but Harrison's cultivating cocktail party voice and Lisa's welcoming exclamations, were all too clear. Once you tune in the voices of people you're sharing living space with, you can't not hear them.
I lay in bed, listening; knowing Penny was listening as well and (the hard part) knowing what she was feeling.
"I don't belong here," Penny murmured.
Penny's pronouncement sounded like the conclusion of a discussion, or maybe quarrel we didn't have because we didn't need to. We were the only people in the house who needed to get up early. I knew Penny was feeling that the life Harrison and Lisa were seeking -- pursuing interests, cultivating "interesting people," not worrying about money because they didn't have to -- had no place for her.
I knew what she was feeling because I was feeling it too. But I also believed that if you simply hung around places, or people, with an open mind, you would learn how to belong. You learned who these other people were and how to be with them. You learned by listening; by placing a sort of neutral dust cover over your personality, your ego, your tastes and prejudices and expectations, and sitting quietly in a corner.
"Negative capability," I murmured back.
"Something Keats said."
"Keats." She groaned a little. "Is he coming over too?"
After a while Penny rose from the bed and pushed a desk chair against the bedroom's old door to make it close a little tighter. It still didn't block the conversation below or keep out the music. The voices flowed with the palpable lilt of people expecting to enjoy themselves.
I knew what it was like to feel out of place, but somehow I missed the deeper message in Penny's confession. She didn't say, "We don't belong here."
I'm the only person in the house with a fulltime job and the unrelenting day-after-day early morning schedule of the school teacher. When it came time for me to put my new diploma to use and hold up my end of the deal with Penny -- she had made the money the year before; now it was my turn -- teaching high school English was the only job I could think of. Freed of that responsibility, what would I have done with myself? Hung around the house, gone for walks in the woods, read books, scratched out my thoughts in a notebook?
I wanted to live like Harrison. I did belong in the hippie house, I just hadn't figured out how to do it.
I'd been hired by nearby Western High School, the school where my master teacher in Yale's cursory teacher-training program worked. In retrospect, he might have been savvier about the shortcomings of that program. I tried getting to bed early, but some nights at the house the party was as much mine as anyone's. I stayed up to smoke a joint with Alex and Ricky, to get into some kind of zone, dig the music. Then smoked the next one after that and grew steadily more morose over the prospect of facing the next morning; the next day. Some days the kids in my homeroom, those who bothered to show up, would place bets on when I would arrive.
Once I managed to drag myself inside the portals of big dark-stoned Western High, my goal was to get through the day one way or another without too many public disasters and make it back to the house before the flame of life within had turned to a smudge of ash in a schoolroom waste basket. Little disasters -- the kids who wheedled a pass out of me and spent the whole period wandering the halls until some 'real' disciplinarian teacher caught them and dragged them back to my classroom while offering public belittlement of my abilities -- were acceptable. I didn't much care what bullet-headed gym teacher Mr. Grumpy and the other prison guards, overweight middle-aged men and embittered women, thought of me. They were the walking dead, I told myself. Their disdain only made my adolescent charges realize that I was more like them than the people who made them go to school and told them what to do once they were there.
Making the time pass humanely among groups of twitchy, insecure, inhibited or exhibitionist adolescents was the bigger problem. My only 'lesson plans' were what I termed 'discussions' based on reading assignments most of the kids probably hadn't done.
I stood before them, with my long lank hair, my sloppy moustache, my paisley ties, as the 'young' rebel and sought to stimulate discussion, at times descending to such questionable topics as whether Paul McCartney was 'dead,' given the so-called hints and mysteries and nonsense on the latest recordings. I permitted myself, and sometimes the kids permitted it also, because I was not really part of 'the system.' I was only pretending because, as the brighter ones among them probably figured out, I needed a job. Maybe they also figured out that I needed a draft deferment too.
"There's this freak on the second floor who says he teaches English," a girl named Marybeth reported to her friends. One of the friends passed the comment on to me. It struck me as apt summation of my situation.
My days at Western High were about getting the so-called teaching over so I could go back to living the life that once I led (in the lost paradise of the undergraduate bubble), spending time with other like-minded people and lending my support to whatever was going forward. I wasn't a leader, but good followers were always in demand. Autumn blazed in the Connecticut woods on the other side of road. The little freight train ambled once day on the narrow spur line behind the house, as if looking for a previous century. After dark we found the stars you couldn't see in the city. The life of the house settled in to a few structural routines: climbing a summit in Sleeping Giant Park to watch the sunset, coming back indoors to scrounge up something to eat, then feeding our head with pot and music.
Penny's life moved in a rhythm opposite to mine. She found her comfort zone at her new college, New Haven University, judging from what she said, in the days when she was still talking to me, of her triumphant re-entry into the college scene: Look out world, here I come. The girl who knows the words to all the Dylan songs. Who drives a stick shift like her amateur race-car driver dad. Who takes positions, repeats quotations, roots hard for her side, makes allusions you might be able to follow if you're quick enough. Makes friends easily, and equally, from both sexes.
"It's all guys," she told me. "They're all taking engineering."
"You must stand out then."
"With all these guys around? It's not hard to, believe me."
She extends her left hand; in case I'm worried. "I show them this."
"So they know you're married."
"Yeah, but some of them -- you know how guys can be? They ask me, 'Are you really married?' I tell them 'I'm seriously married.'"
So we were still serious then. I wondered at times whether she was as ambivalent about out the course as I was. Whether she has walked into the same Valley of Despond I have, and yet we have failed to run into each other there. She treated college as a job, leaving the house in the early morning. I pictured her buying a Coke for breakfast in the student union, smoking the day's first cigarettes, looking over her homework in her new surroundings. She never asked me to come with her to campus to check out the place, say hi to her friends, meet a professor.
One day, however, she dropped in to Western High to 'sit in' on one of my classes, walking unchallenged into the building through the front door on Dixwell Avenue. My young (not yet twenty-one) wife, fair-skinned, blue-eyed, who could still pass for a high school student. She wore her black cowboy hat and green-tinted wire-rims, cool and speechless behind the lenses. She looked like the kid who couldn't wait to sneak a cigarette somewhere.
The kids in my sixth period junior English class had no idea who she was.
She didn't say who she was.
I couldn't manage to say something dumb to defuse the tension. 'This is my chick, kiddies. She's checking me out. So on your best behavior, everyone, and act like you're interested.'
Penny sat in the front row of our double-horseshoe seating arrangement, speechless and unsmiling, and her presence freaked out all the rest of my poor sixteen-year-old juniors, ordinarily my most responsive group, so that they didn't want to say anything either. That left it all up to me. She sat there watching while I spent an entire class period ruining Twain's "Mysterious Stranger" by talking about it too much.
Hint: "There's an antiwar message here, isn't there?"
No one wanted to take my hint.
"The Stranger hears the preacher in one church ask God for victory over their enemies. When he goes into a church on the other side he hears the same thing." I reached for a joke. "What's a God to do?"
"You're interesting," Penny said to me, her manner businesslike rather than enthusiastic, after the class ended.
I'm not sure I was. The observer distorted the observed. Didn't Heisenberg say that?
But her fascination for one of her own courses, and its teacher, was obvious.
"This guy," Penny said, who talked about the Transcendentalists, about art, what cubism and 'modern art' were all about, music even, "...it's, like, philosophy."
"Uh-huh." I remembered being a freshman. I remembered discovering 'philosophy.' I'd studied the Transcendentalists. Penny had been to college on Long Island, but it wasn't the same when you got in your car in the morning and drove five minutes to a large parking lot.
I didn't mean to be patronizing, but this was old hat. Philosophy wasn't doing me any good at Western High; no Transcendentalism in English 11. As Penny talked about her favorite course, I couldn't helping hearing Dylan lyrics in my mind: "But you and I have been through this, and that is not our fate. So let us not speak falsely now, the hour is growing late."
"He played this music the other day," she said, referring to the professor she called Sam. "This symphony where the last chord went on for ten minutes... or twelve minutes, or whatever. A single note -- for seven minutes! It's like it never ends."
I nodded. I knew vaguely what she was talking about.
"So he told everybody to sit and wait for it to end. But people were getting antsy, they wanted to go to their next class, or lunch, or somewhere. Finally he said, 'All right get out of here.'" She waved a hand, imitating Professor Sam's dismissal of the Philistines. "So then everybody got up and left and I was the only one still in the room. Still listening to the one chord go on for seventeen minutes."
"Uh-huh." I waited.
"So then I start walking up to his desk. 'Wow,' I say. 'Seventeen minutes!' And he doesn't say anything and just starts shaking his head. Then he just put his head down -- on the desk! -- and said, 'No, no!'"
I nodded. Still listening.
"Then he just stands up and starts to leave, waving his arms. Then he stops still and says, 'What do you want from my life?' "
The reason she was telling me this, I thought, was that she has to tell somebody. Even if that somebody is her husband. Could she not know what the man is talking about?
"Then what happened?"
"Then he just went out the door and kind of ran away."
Penny laughed, her face full of life. Like a kid with her excitement -- something weird or at least unusual, has happened, and it's about her! Possibly nobody has said, 'What do you want from my life?' to her before.
I pressed to know a little more about "this guy." Sam Ponti; professor in the Humanities department. He's been teaching at New Haven "for years."
Was he married? Did he realize Penny was? She didn't say; I didn't press further. She was a college kid, I thought, a young college kid excited by being the center of attention. I was something else.
Marybeth, the girl who tagged me "the freak who says he teaches English" began haunting my classroom. Showing up in my homeroom some mornings in the company of a similarly self-assured young woman she introduced as "Ellen." No surnames needed. They were the goddesses of Western High School. Seniors way too sophisticated for high school, the silly rules, the boring routines. They did not walk in the corridors so much as parade, progress, whatever royalty do. Marybeth carried herself like someone who knew who she was, though present circumstances failed to reflect her status. When she went home, she would be going someplace better than the other could. Her friend Ellen, who wore her fashionably straight dark hair almost down to her waist, gave rein to her quick, profane tongue, relying on her special status at Western High School because her father taught there.
The pair sashayed into my homeroom in skintight jeans and silk blouses to say hello. After Marybeth learned I was married, she would say things like "How's the wife and kids?"
"Don't say that, Marybeth!" Ellen chided. "That's not respectful!"
"It's OK," I put in, dismissively.
They ignored me. The dispute was between the two of them.
"What if he did have a wife and kids?" Ellen demanded.
"No he doesn't!" To me: "Do you, Mr. Russell?"
"No kids," I shrugged. "Except at this school."
They were not listening.
"He has a wife," Marybeth insisted.
I neither confirmed, nor denied.
My roomful of cowed juniors stared in silence as if watching TV as the two senior class goddesses ran this dispute into the ground, disappeared into the hallway, and burst into laughter.
The things we did in the house -- sunsets, music, getting high -- Penny liked them too (who didn't?), but, increasingly, not with us. When an afternoon class was canceled one day, she came home early, retreated to the little bedroom where we stored stuff we didn't use, and put her 'Big Brother and the Holding Company' album on at high volume to sing along with Janis. She was halfway through "Take another little piece of my heart" when a sharp knock at the door broke through the sound barrier and she found herself confronted by a rumpled, sour-faced Ricky Fielder.
"Can you turn it down?" he said. "I'm trying to sleep."
"Sleep?" Penny replied said. "It's two o'clock in the afternoon!"
"I think I have the right," Ricky pontificated in his best servant-of-a-higher-calling manner, "to choose my own schedule in my own home."
"What about my rights?" Penny demanded, describing the encounter to me.
I shrugged it off, as I did all interpersonal friction. Just make sure he's out of the house before you sing along at full volume, I told her. That was not what she wanted to hear.
Unhappily, the assault on Penny's deep reverence for Janis Joplin continued from an unexpected direction. Happy-go-lucky Alex, a composition major studying with a major international figure -- he shared with us his appropriation of the man's Eastern European accent -- was our music commissar. The gospel of jazz, as embodied in the recorded works of the great Miles Davis, gained a believer in Lisa, who worshipped at his feet and asked him to hold "a class in Miles Davis" so she could learn to appreciate the music as he did.
"You don't need a class," Alex responded, discomfited by the suggestion. "Just listen."
"I'm not just talking about jazz here," Alex said, warming to his theme when questions persisted. "Rock n' roll even. Rhythm and blues. Soul. The twelve-bar blues. Top forty. Everything!" He names a few favorites: James Brown, Sam Cooke.
"Take Booker T. and the MG's," he said. "He's better than anyone out there today."
This was too much for Penny.
"Better than Janis Joplin?"
Alex made a face. "I'm talking about the real thing here. Soul. Music."
Penny, outraged, turned to me.
"What do you think, Jon? Do you think Booker T. is better than Janis Joplin?" The insult of this opinion registered in her face.
An impossible position. I was not going to argue music with Alex, my own mentor in the field.
"Well, I don't know," I said, pathetically vague, "I mean, if we're just talking about the music..."
Penny looked at me with ill-concealed outrage.
"You always agree with them," she said. "Never with me."
Them?... My friends. The house divided up this way for Penny. The house was not her home. Her vanishing act was gradual, but steady. She disappeared from my life like the picture on a favorite coffee mug slowly vanishing from daily washings.
Sometimes I came home from school, scooting out after the last bell before anyone could stop, to find the house apparently empty. But then muffled sounds alerted me to the presence of the married couple upstairs and I would stand in the living room, paralyzed, as Lisa sang her arias of the flesh. If the house was more peopled when the love cries began, someone would make a humorous allusion to the behavior of newlyweds. But alone I fought the urge to listen, finally slipping out of doors to stroll around, buy cigarettes, or simply stand somewhere behind the house where a short grassy lawn backed up by the place we called the 'field.' Sometimes I walked back to the railroad tracks, hoping to see the approach of the slow-moving freight train that sometimes emerged, as if from another century.
Penny stopped talking about Sam's class. One evening as the days grew shorter and darkness fell early, alone in the bedroom -- Penny had taken the car and gone somewhere -- I noticed a folded piece of lined paper extending a little beyond the cover of a college book left on top of her dresser. Something told me that this folded sheet of paper was a 'note.' And that if you received a note at school, sticking it inside a book was something you were likely to do; and, further, it might contain some combination of words that you did not wish or were not able to impart orally. I had received many such notes in high school, almost all of them from Penny; and delivered plenty (not quite so many) to her.
Yet almost without reflection I pulled the paper out of the book and opened it.
The hand was not hers. I saw some spatial arrangement of words that looked like a poem and thought at once 'Who would be writing a poem to Penny?' while another part of me said, 'Put it back.'
Before I decided to follow that advice, my eyes fell on a line, took in a phrase, and then the unfamiliar writing transformed itself into a rapier thrust of meaning as I came to the words "our love."
I stopped reading and folded the note back into the book just the way I found it.
I put it back because I was spying. Because I was reading something not meant for my eyes. And, the real reason, because if I didn't read any more, I could pretend the note didn't exist, or at least in the form that I feared (and highly suspected) it did. I could put the whole subject away. Banish the universe of reflections such a note, a love poem perhaps, would necessarily give rise to. I could tell myself it could actually be addressed to someone else; Penny was acting as a go-between. Or it was poem copied for a course; from another book, maybe, or off a blackboard for study.
And while I told myself this, that other part of me was thinking, "Oh my. Things have already gone this far."
I said nothing about it. I asked myself if the note had been left purposely for me to find. Was it a warning? Something to give me the opportunity to ask Penny the questions I have been avoiding. "Why are you gone all the time? Is there something you're not telling me?"
I could ask her, in a sincere, non-judgmental way, Do you wish to try to stop this invisible but palpable slipping away? We are like two people standing on opposite sides of an icy summit, each of us losing traction, slipping downward. The speed of our decline will only increase.
And if I chose not to ask her these questions, then myself turned me into a co-conspirator in Penny's double life. An enabler.
I rejected the terms of the choice, that seemed to be forcing me into the conventional role of the jealously suspicious husband. I didn't want to be a part of that old pathetic comedy. Here we are in this house now, I told myself -- learning to live together as caring friends -- building something new.
The season declined, sunsets came sooner, blazing in the western sky over Sleeping Giant Park. We collected in the dining room, Ricky back from teaching his studio class to undergraduate art majors; Alex having dragged himself away from his fan club at Morse residential college where he regularly dropped by for friends and free meals, some days hanging out for evening jam sessions that turn into sleepovers. Standing, on our feet for some reason, sharing observations, making comments on something, the house's little collection of art books, or National Geographic, or some drawing that Ricky pulled from his portfolio to explain a funny, but probably complicated story of something that happened at Yale when he went in to teach or to show his stuff to some big wheel, and we are all into it. Somebody has walked into the kitchen to do something. Alex, maybe, growing through the pockets of his parka to pull out some treat laid on him at Morse for us to taste, or drink; or maybe smoke; perhaps somebody's hash brownies. One of those moments when call and response are flowing back and forth from all sides, like waves in a stirred-up bathtub
-- and then somebody notices the time.
"Hey, it's four o'clock." Slightly surprised.
"Four o'clock!" Harrison exclaims, eyebrows lifted, feet already in motion, a man coming out of a dream. Harrison was the first person I knew who timed sunsets.
"Lisa! We have to go to the mountain now."
It's on his schedule. The autumn day's defining event; maybe its peak moment.
"If we don't leave now we'll miss the sunset. Hurry!"
People do hurry, astonishingly. Breaking up the party in anticipation of better things still to come. Harrison races upstairs to get his 'equipment,' including the backpack with weights inside to maximize the climb's exercise potential. Lisa scurries away to find her hiking boots and lace them on.
"The mountain?" Ricky says. "I'm coming!"
He points at his feet, shod in black 'engineer boots.' "I'm ready, Harr!"
"You guys coming?" he says to Alex and me. "If you want to, you better get ready. I've watched Harrison fly out of this house. You do that, don't you, Harr!" Ricky calls, sending these words up the stairs to the rumble heard above us.
The rumble continues, weights dropping into a knapsack, but no reply.
"I'm as ready as I'm gonna be," Alex says, miming a yawn, unaffected by haste, preparation, hiking boots . Alex doesn't believe in changing clothes, in haste, in stuff.
I decide I'm going too, but I'm the only one in the house who wears a uniform, the kind of clothes you absolutely have to change out of in order to have fun. Upstairs in the room with the mattress on the floor, Penny's erstwhile high-volume retreat, I find my worn hiking shoes in the closet just as I hear the heavy slap of the storm door on the kitchen.
"To the mountain!" Ricky cries, playing a part, enjoying it.
Harrison echoes the cry, his voice pinched and high, but in the spirit of the thing.
I feel myself becoming the little kid trailing behind the gang, shouting "Wait for me!"
The others have crossed the state road, dashing between the commuter traffic, and started down the narrow path through the woods by the time I catch up. When we reach the quarried cliff face, we climb up a steep rock-hewn path that curves around one side of the face like ants traveling up the Giant's ear, to reach the 'sunset spot' at the summit. From there we can sit on the flatter rocks and look directly at the place where the October sun, already a red-crowned god in a cool, blue universe, a big fish in a small cosmos, is lipping the distant horizon, somebody else's green ridge.
After it slips all the way behind the event-horizon, the last direct glitter from its distant fire melding into all that is beautiful and remains to be seen, the gift of twilight, Ricky and Lisa begin to applaud.
"Hooray! Great sunset!"
"Why shouldn't we applaud a sunset?" Alex says, joining in. "Way to go, man. Let's hear it for ol' Sol. We applaud people, but who can compete with nature?"
"Hey," Lisa interrupts. "This is the first time that everybody's here together for the sunset!"
But everybody isn't here. Penny isn't. Nobody corrects her. I don't say a word.
I have to talk to somebody, I decide, about the note. Or about Penny and me. I choose Sandra, who as Ricky's girl friend comes to the house every weekend. A horn player in the Yale school of music, Sandra has black, curly hair and a round face that smiles a lot. Her presence has helped turn our weekend meal times into festive occasions -- especially because she cooks. But I choose her to talk to precisely because she doesn't live in the house and we don't have a long history together. I want to eliminate the house dynamic and concentrate simply on Penny and me.
"She's almost never here," I tell her. "We don't do things together anymore. I don't know what she's thinking."
Sitting on the floor of our bedroom, Sandra nods and murmurs in the right places while I talk. When I finish she suggests, reasonably enough, that I ask Penny to set a time when we can have an uninterrupted talk. What she's heard, I realize, is that our lives have grown apart. It's true, I think, but it's beyond that too.
"Is there something more?" Sandra asks, giving me another chance. Her face attentive, nonjudgmental -- a pretty good shrink for a horn player, I think.
Yes, of course there is. There's the note. But I hesitate -- deciding the note is suspect evidence, since I didn't fully read it, and therefore inadmissible. I thank Sandra for listening, tell her it's been a help to talk, and set her free to go back to her less conflicted life. She hops up to her feet and leaves the room after some cheerful words about the prospect of baking bread in our old oven.
My next attempt, acting on the same theory of appropriate distance, is to discuss my unhappiness with Alex's girl friend, Celeste. Likely Sandra has told Ricky everything I said; it's probably all over the house; but I'm trying to keep up appearances.
Also a musician but so sensitive about her art that she could never bear to play her violin if anybody was listening, Celeste was one of the most spiritual looking people I had ever met. Her white-blonde hair shining like polished silver, she looked like a thinly disguised angel or someone who could be her own grandmother. And her eyes could look through you, as they do when I sit down on the floor next to her one quiet Sunday morning.
Before I can launch my cri de coeur, she begins telling me a story of her own. Her violin teacher, she says, whom she regards as her guru, has a little boy who's ill.
"His son is the center of his life," she says. "He talks about him all the time. But he's ill. The doctors are treating him, but it's something he was born with, and they're not sure anything they can do will help."
I listen, my problems growing smaller.
"My teacher said to me," Celeste resumes, "that even if his son dies..."
She looks at me with an expression that says she's not afraid to think about death. I nod, unable to say what I'm agreeing with.
"...he will come home from the cemetery," Celeste's pale eyes drill into me, "and say, 'Hooray for life!'"
Not a matter of life and death, then; but important to me.
When Alex proposes, "Let's smoke this thing outdoors," holding up the joint he's rolled, "under the stars," I wonder if he wants to talk to me about Celeste. They're an oddly patched pair, Alex so happy-go-lucky. It's cold outdoors; it's November.
We stand at the top of the driveway, a dozen feet taking us beyond the circle of pale illumination thrown by the kitchen light. Even then the earth looks pale beneath our feet, a white scrim laid over the earth, stars gleaming above. Frost already, I think, licking at the low places. We stand in our sweaters over jeans, Alex's feet in the heavy work boots he wears everywhere. He tells people they help him keep his balance.
But I'm wrong about what he wants.
"So where's Penny?" he asks, softly, after we've shared the joint back and forth a few times between us.
I shrug. "I don't know."
I could make excuses, say "at the library, probably," but maybe out here, under the stars, I am beyond appearances. Besides, I know Alex has seen through them.
"I mean where is she, man?"
He's not questioning her whereabouts, but her head, her life. I understand the question, I can't really answer.
"I really don't know. That's it in a nutshell."
He takes a step closer me, as if to see me better.
"I see things," he says. "I can't help seeing things. Everybody does.... And I know what it looks like. But then I think, but Penny? I mean Penny?"
After a silence I say, "It looks the same way to me."
"I mean Penny and you," he says, with emphasis, "were like the tight couple, man."
His body shows me what he saw, still and steady, the inward crimp of his limbs. That's how we have looked to others. We don't quarrel, raise our voices in public, like many couples; like lovers do. We don't disagree in public.
I can't show him what goes on, or doesn't, behind closed doors. I'm afraid to try.
"I'm dealing with it," I say, at last. "Or trying to. But she's just not telling me anything."
We nod at one another in the shadows, the frost.
Alex looks up at the night sky, and then back at me.
"That's why I like living here, man," Alex says, lifting a booted foot and planting it solidly on the ground. "I mean here. On a planet." He glances starward. "Among other planets."
When the phone rings, a female voice asks to speak to 'Jon.'
"Someone from school," I explain to the others.
But I'm not fooling anyone. When it rings another evening, and the evening after that, Ricky picks up the receiver and calls out to me. "Russell, it's that girl again."
Yet when the crisis comes that fall, or appears to, it isn't mine. Someone is missing from our convivial, communal midst, without explanation. Not Penny, whom people no longer expect to see much of. But -- Harrison?
Harrison is always there. Reading his paper at the table, the only one of us who regularly does, though I suspect it's largely to check the stock market. Or with his check ledger out, paying the house utility bills, then figuring out each one of our shares (and helpfully pointing these figures out to us). Or alone in his study, the small first floor room reserved for his use, the door always shut --I've never seen the inside of it. The room where, I'm told, he keeps his own books, conducts his studies, his projects, or whatever we should call them. He does art; he does science. He reads history and politics. He exercises in the afternoon, then rests up before the sunset climb to the mountain, some days slipping upstairs for those musical rendezvouses with Lisa.
"Though, now that you mention it," Ricky says on the second day of Harrison's absence, "we haven't heard any of the conjugal music they used to make in some time. At least I haven't -- have you guys?"
Alex and I shake our heads.
"Do you think there's something wrong?" Ricky asks.
"Something wrong with Harrison you mean?" Alex says.
I grow quiet.
When Lisa returns to the house that evening from a rare night out with the French Table, the university club that's always looking for Francophiles to share meals and civilized conversation en francais, and stalks head down through the house, Alex stops her with our question.
"So where's Harrison been, Lis?"
"Oh, " she says, avoiding our glances, "he had to see somebody. Just some business."
We figure 'business' means something to do with money, and ask no more questions.
She goes upstairs. When I go up to change out of my hiking shoes -- we boys struggling along that day without our Peter Pan and Wendy -- I hear the sound of someone crying softly.
Harrison is back the next day, a Saturday, camped blithely in the living room's armchair, his wife's usual reading chair. I've been up for a few hours, but Harrison and I ignore each other. If he's not telling, I'm not asking. Alex, however, emerging from his first floor bedroom, sleep ruffled, his hair in his face, is made of sterner stuff. Rummaging in his stocking feet, he finds a smoke-able Kool in an ashtray and collapses into the couch.
"Hey, Har," Alex says, "so you're back."
Harrison grunts. He's hiding behind his newspaper.
I'm parked in a corner of the dining room with a stack of kids' papers, miserable attempts at responding to one of my rare written assignments. After a silence I hear Alex walk through into the kitchen, and hunt around for the cereal. When he's done eating and walks back, he finds Harrison still in the same chair.
"Oh... She went to visit her mother."
"Is she OK? She seemed a little down the other day." Alex calls for corroboration. "Didn't she, Russell?"
"Hmm," I say. Acknowledging that I'm hearing.
"Anything the matter?" Alex says.
"No," Harrison says. I picture his phony stonewalling grin. "She just wanted to get away."
Away from what? I think. The house? Us?
Or, possibly, her husband? They've gone on separate vacations, I conclude, taking a tip from Cosmo for jaded spouses.
"So this 'business' of yours, man," Alex persists. "Lisa was telling us --"
"She did?" Harrison looks up from his paper in alarm.
"She said you had some business. Where'd you go?"
"Where did I go?" Harrison repeats the question, calm now, playing cat-and-mouse tone. "To the city."
The city? Not New Haven, surely. No reason to be gone overnight there. Boston? New York? Harrison retreats determinedly behind his newspaper. We don't find out.
Lisa comes back from her 'visit,' and things return to normal. As the fall semester comes to an end the house fills with visitors. Celeste comes down from New York City with one of Alex's friends from home, a drummer who steps up the beat in the house's informal jam sessions. Ricky has a new girl friend, having pink-slipped Sandra, for no apparent cause. (Sandra is mourned by the rest of us, but then put behind us: group shrug.) The new girl, Deedee, a West Coast blonde, is both relentlessly cheerful and provocatively academic in her conversation. She keeps asking everybody about their college majors.
I leave the ongoing house party one evening for a "musical evening" -- meaning classical, chamber -- hosted by Marybeth's parents, who enjoy inviting teachers from their daughter's school to their events. The Watsons live in a beachfront house they insist on calling a "cottage," though it's probably the largest house I've ever seen the inside of. Marybeth's parents and their friends are happy to meet an Ivy League graduate who's teaching in the local high school. If I'm so smart, I am tempted to reply (but am too polite), what am I doing teaching your kids?
When I get back to the hippie house, the living room is filled with people listening to something new to me, it's jazzy but with a post-Hendricks electric guitar sound, apparently introduced to the house with great success by the Sears' friend Frederick. A med school resident, Frederick has a conventional look and a mild demeanor. I'm surprised when he rolls joints incessantly with a smiling obsessiveness that suggests his off-duty time is too precious to waste by leaving things half-done. People are reacting to the music, telling stories, carrying on their own conversations, throwing out comments on the weirder bits of overheard stories, and sharing punch lines that draw laughter from some and leave others confused. Laughter breaks out here and there, and I slip in among those sitting on the floor to make it easier to keep the joints moving. I don't think about who's in the room and who isn't.
Harrison uncoils his long legs, rising wordlessly with a provocatively self-pleased smile to go upstairs. Moments later lighter footsteps skip down them and Lisa descends neatly into a narrow piece of carpet between Alex and me, like a gymnast landing a fall.
"I've got some news, everybody," she says. The music is playing, so not 'everybody' hears.
"Good news?" Alex says since Lisa is obviously floating, happier than we've seen her for weeks. "Then lay it on us, babe."
"I'm going to London next week."
"London! Far out --" Deedee butts into our circle, chirping happily. "London, wow. England. You two should go all over the country. You'll love it --."
"Just me. Not Harrison. I'm going to England to have an abortion. My sister's over there, so I'll stay with her."
She waits a beat. "So there! Have I blown your minds?"
She has. Alex makes an impressed face. I nod blankly.
Emotion pouring out of her, Lisa blinks back tears, her features a mixture of all weathers, sun and storm and star-spackled dawn. They're tears of relief now that a marital crisis has been resolved with a trip abroad.
Frederick, the couple's medical connection, nods from a circle of bodies six feet away. His bland smile coasts benignly on as he rolls, puffs and slowly exhales. He hasn't needed to hear her news because he already knew it.
Alex throws in a question. "Why England?"
"Because my husband is so good to me," Lisa says. She wants us to know this, to feel it as she does.
Harrison is a planner, I realize, living on a budget. A trip to Europe was not been part of the year's spending plan, but now he has made some arrangement -- talked to someone, convinced himself he can afford it. So that was the 'business trip.'
I share a glance with Alex and his expression tells me what I'm feeling. Gratitude that life in the house will go on as before.
"I don't see why she just doesn't have the baby," Penny says.
A baby in the hippie house?
"Really, man," she insists, seeing my shock and disapproval, "why shouldn't she? It's not like they're doing anything else."
We're talking about other people, at least a little. Not about ourselves, but being in the car so much, first driving to Long Island and back for Christmas with family, now heading to a New Year's Eve party in Boston, has forced us to spend time together. The party is at a college friend's place. He married his hometown girl friend, got accepted to architectural school, and grew 'serious.' I'm not sure how well I know him any more.
The weather turns nasty just as we leave the house, snow and frozen rain alternating as we plow along the two-lane highway through eastern Connecticut. I'm driving. Penny, the person who taught me to drive stick, who endured my teenage misadventures behind the wheel when I got my license, is feeling too something -- uptight? edgy? -- to drive in bad weather on a poorly lit road. After a while I begin to have second thoughts myself, my confidence waning from feeling Penny's nervous vibrations inside the confines of the Bug.
"I can't see anything out there," she explodes, finally. "Can you?"
"Sort of," I reply. I'm staying on the road, but not sure how.
The journey begins to make less and less sense. We're feeding off one another's angst. I recognize this state as the closed-circuit emotional hotbox in which we have locked each other up over the years.
"Do you want to turn around?" I ask.
"Do you?" She sounds relieved.
She doesn't want responsibility for the decision laid to her side of the ledger -- her 'paranoia.' I agree to take it on mine.
"I don't care that much if we go to this party or not." Fact is, I hate New Year's Eve parties.
"Then let's turn around."
By the time we make it back to New Haven, the snow retreating now into rain, we decide to go to a restaurant as a substitute for a party. It's the sort of thing we would do in the 'old days.' Tell our parents we were going to a party or school event, but veer off to some isolated spot where we could be alone and then end up at a hamburger joint. Running away from the world with Penny, it's a familiar feeling. I feel it slipping over my psyche like an old coat, musty and in need of an airing.
"We'll go to Blessings," I say.
Inside the Chinese restaurant we're lucky to find a quiet back room. Here we are: alone again on New Year's Eve. But things are different. I force myself to talk about 'us.' When am I going to get a better chance?
"Here's to us," I say, lifting a glass of wine. "Another year."
I can't be serious, can I? Of course I can't, but my tone is bland, neutral, forcing Penny to make her own interpretation. That's what I'm hoping she'll do.
She looks at me carefully, running her own calculations.
"Another year," she repeats, but doesn't lift her own glass. After a moment she adds, "We made it this far."
Have we, though? Is she bullshitting me? She grows uncomfortable under my gaze, the color draining from her features.
"So," I say, taking the initiative for once, since Penny is floundering; it shows in her face.
"Do you want to tell me what's going on?"
Her face passes through a hundred changes. Some part of her desires to be frank with me, open. I'm the one person, she's told me in the past, who can 'understand' her.
"What's going on," she says, eventually with a shrug meant to be nonchalant, "is what's going on."
Bullshit, I think. Candor rejected.
"What does that mean?"
"What do you mean?" The old feistiness flying back in this reply, the backhand smash.
"C'mon, Penny. Something is going on with you. You're my wife, but you're never around... There must be a reason."
I watch her think, trying once again to find something to tell me that is not a lie. Did she think I haven't noticed? Or that I can be relied on to accept whatever comes my way without question? Maybe. Because it appears she's unprepared for any confrontation. She's not looking for the words to tell me the truth, I think. She's looking for a way to stop me from asking uncomfortable questions.
"Can you just tell me the truth?" I say.
"I don't know what you think is the truth," she says at last. Not an answer to my questions. Maybe not a lie, but clearly an evasion.
And yet I reply.
"What I think..." I pause as another possibility occurs to me. Is she giving me some hint that my suspicions about the writer of the 'our love' note are mistaken? Misplaced even?
"What I think," I repeat, "is that if things go on the way they are now, we won't be drinking a toast to 'us' next year."
I wait. Her face softens, but she doesn't appear able to reply.
"Because there won't be an 'us,'" I add. Thinking, Let me make one thing perfectly clear.
"What do you think," she asks -- yet again passing the ball, the onus to keep the confrontation going, back to me -- "is going on?"
"What I think," I reply, "is you don't want me asking you uncomfortable questions."
She shrugs, her face half hardened, half apologetic. "Maybe."
"What I think is that you'd probably be willing to leave the house -- I mean, leave me -- if you had some place to go."
Long, heavy pause. "You're saying this, Jon. Not me."
"Isn't it true?"
I watch her face grow hard all the way, her lively, light-filled eyes flatten. Her stare tells me 'no reply.' No self-incrimination.
Why don't I just come out and say it? I tell myself.
"Are you leaving me?" I ask.
Possible replies flash between us as I watch those eyes come back to life. I even have momentary flashes of hope that she will tell me the truth. Trust me with the truth. But that hope gutters when I hear her retreat once again to the fortification she has built to keep me, or the truth, at bay.
"Is that what you think?"
"What I think...," I begin again, determined somehow to get over the wall. But as I wait to hear the truth form in my thoughts, some tempest from the shared past blows through me again, knocking me off course.
"...is that you're doing your best."
I don't know why I choose these words. Because of the years we relied on each other, clung to each other, needed each other, for one reason or another? Because I am honoring what we were?
She throws her head back a little, shakes her hair away from her eyes. Her eyes soften once more. She smiles, gently.
"You're a nice guy, Jon," she says.
I want to lean across the table, and kiss her.
I know what this is. It's the kiss-off. It's goodbye.
MIKE JOHNSON - I started writing late in life. Age sixty four to be exact so I suppose that comes under the category: it’s never too late to learn! I’m English from the county of Yorkshire but moved to Spain in the year 2000. My writing career began after meeting other published author’s here on the Costa del Sol. My first novel; Dragon - written in long hand at first would you believe – was edited by my wife who I found was more than capable – and far less expensive – than the Publishers. The next two novels in the series; The Korean Connection and The Buddha in Ice followed soon after. It may be of interest to learn the wrap around front covers were designed by me, and illustrated by a local design company. You have no idea how cost effective that is for a first time writer self-publishing? In between these novels I began writing short stories: The Little Home on Wheels was one of them, but my readers wanted to know; what happened next? The story begins here in Spain in places I have visited and know well.
THE WRITER by Mike Johnson
My name is Joanne Miller and I’m a writer. Actually I suppose I should call myself a novelist or even a celebrity nowadays. I’m after all on the television and in the gossip magazines quite a bit. But I suppose I should start at the very beginning as Maria would say in the song!
DECEMBER – NEW YORK
I met Daniel at the Christmas office party. Talk about a cliché?
I worked for a local newspaper at the time and still did up until a few months ago. I loved my work and even if I say so myself; my gossip column was pretty good. My editor had just got me a raise in salary so I was even more ready to party; and I was single!
Daniel was also a journalist but with a rival newspaper with a circulation quite a lot bigger than ours. He wasn’t bad looking and got more handsome as I stacked up the martini glasses.
I think women give off some kind of scent when they get horny? Or maybe it was the way I was now beginning to leer at him across the room that made him introduce himself.
I think you can guess how the night turned out?
Two days later at work my desk phone rang. I get calls all day long so it took me a few seconds to realise who it was ‘Oh hello I wasn’t expecting you to call so quickly’ I stammered already blushing and trying to talk as quietly as possible. Big mistake that as everyone in the office now knew it was a personal call.
‘Oh dear Joanna you’ve got the after the office party regrets already?’ he sighed chuckling.
‘Oh no sorry I’m just a little busy maybe we can discuss this later?’
Discuss this later! What the hell was I talking about silly bitch!
‘Ok how about this evening?’
Well I had to agree just to get off the phone. The rest of the office were now straining to hear my conversation. I wrote gossip not made it!
I did meet Daniel that evening and realised it wasn’t just the martini’s that had attracted me. He was nice looking but that wasn’t it. I just felt like I had met a friend. Three weeks later we moved in together.
Our relationship lasted over two years which was definitely a first for me but in the end it was our work that made us drift apart. The job offers to work as a roving reporter all over the world was too good for him to pass up. When I moved apartments he didn’t come with me.
I was single again but dating was very far from my mind. The newspaper now had a new editor who I liked enormously and got on with like a house on fire. I did have a slight crush on him but that didn’t excuse the one-night stand. He was married and I knew it.
The next day I felt as guilty as hell. I also was not taking any precautions so I told myself to visit the local pharmacy just to make sure there were no problems! That day a big story broke and I was inundated with phone calls and typing. Six weeks later I got the morning sickness. I took the test but I already knew the result would be positive.
My god how could I have been so stupid? Two years with Daniel and not a problem. A one night-stand and I’m pregnant.
I considered not telling the father but that wouldn’t have been fair. When I did his reaction surprised me to say the least.
‘Joanna I must confess all this to my wife’ he told me ‘but I will of course help in any way you want me to’
What a nice guy he was. A week later he asked me to meet him at a restaurant to discuss something very important. I did; but I wasn’t expecting his wife to be with him.
‘Hello Joanna its very nice to meet you, please call me Emma!’ she said giving me a friendly hug.
Now come on; you must be thinking; what was going on? Her husband had just told his wife he had got another woman pregnant and she was treating the said woman like an old family friend?
The husband by the way wasn’t looking guilty either. He was actually looking quite pleased with himself albeit a little sheepish.
‘Hello Emma’ I replied. I was then just about to say how sorry I was but she stopped me dead.
‘I know exactly what you are going to say Joanna but please don’t. What I would like you to do is listen to me carefully. When I have finished I would then like you to go away and consider my proposal carefully. Would you do that?’
When she had finished her story everything became clear. Emma was barren!
They had been trying for years to conceive a child until the doctors finally admitted it was never going to happen. They wanted a child; mine!
At first I considered the proposal was ridiculous but the more I mulled it over the more I realised it was the perfect solution. Don’t get me wrong I would have brought my child up in a loving home but Emma was so sincere in her wanting his child that in the end I agreed.
Now how do you go about having a baby without the rest of the world knowing about it?
Well I don’t know how but we did; but what does a pregnant mother do if she is resting at home all day out of site from everyone; especially if she has worked as a gossip columnist for such a long time? She gets out her lap-top and starts writing that’s what she does.
Eight weeks and the novel was finished. How this happened so quickly I still couldn’t tell you but the words just seemed to flow onto the page. Two weeks after the baby was born I was back at work trying to fend off questions about my sabbatical!
The trouble now was what to do with the novel?
I needed someone to edit it. I was not arrogant enough to believe it didn’t need to but who could I trust?
In the end I collared the one person in the office I could trust to keep quiet. Her name was Lucy and she was our very own proof editor.
‘You’ve written a novel how wonderful’ she gushed. Lucy was a wonderful woman who still believed in Father Christmas. We had known each other for years and she was the nicest person you could meet.
‘You must promise me not to tell anyone. The reason will become obvious when you read the novel’
‘You did say it was fiction didn’t you?’
‘Well yes but just let’s say the characters are a little too close for comfort shall we?’
Lucy did the editing but when she asked to meet me discreetly I thought something was wrong. Was the story that bad I thought starting to panic.
When we met she flung her arms around me and started crying ‘I’m sorry if the book upset you Lucy’ I said feeling really bad.
‘Upset me!’ she said moving away ‘Yes it upset me. I haven’t stopped crying since the second chapter. Your novel is incredible’ she told me sniffing and wiping her eyes ‘and now I know why you don’t want anyone to know you are the author and why you’ve been away for so long’
‘Oh dear is it that obvious?’
‘To me it is. Oh Jo why didn’t you confide in me. You know I wouldn’t have said anything’
It was now my turn to cry. I had come to terms with giving up my baby but suddenly I was gripped with a terrible feeling of guilt. I needed someone to talk to and Lucy was the perfect therapist.
‘What do you want to do now, about getting it published I mean?’
‘God!’ I said genuinely stumped ‘I actually never considered having it published’
‘But you must Jo. I’m not exaggerating when I tell you it’s the most gripping and heart-warming story I have every read’
A bit over the top but I did manage a very satisfied smile ‘ok let’s do it, but under a pseudonym’
Now working for a newspaper does have its advantages especially for a first time writer. An old school friend who was now a publisher agreed to do me a favour and proof read the novel. A week later I was signing a contract. Like I said it’s not what you know it’s who you know as the saying goes.
This was all happening very fast. Any first time writer will tell you the frustration in getting someone to read your novel let alone publish it. But like I said working for a newspaper has its advantages.
What really shook me was six months later it was on the Best Seller list.
It was at this point my publisher started quoting contractual agreements and all the other stuff I had not bothered to read carefully.
My anonymity was about to come to an end.
A media specialist was appointed to work with me. By now the press and T.V. where already speculating who the mysterious author was. My publisher also had just informed me a movie contract was in the pipeline.
‘Jesus what have I done?’ I suddenly thought to myself. The whole world will know that I have been a surrogate mother; what will they think of me? The panic was already setting in and it didn’t help when my media specialist told me I was booked to appear on a late night chat show.
Bloody hell I’m going to be a scarlet woman on national T.V!
The chat show host had been one of my favourites for a long time. Thankfully he was as nice in the flesh as he was on T.V. It was a big scoop for him introducing the author everyone on the country had been speculating about. How we managed to keep me a secret I’ll never know but we did. What I wasn’t expecting was the reaction of the audience when I made my appearance.
I actually had to look around thinking some pop star had come in after me. The applause was deafening and made me just stand there speechless for a while. Thankfully I found my voice and did the interview.
Within a week the book sales had soared. It would be a long time before I caught up with some of our more successful authors but it was in the right direction.
The next day I went to work as usual. Looking back, I still can’t believe I was so naive in thinking nothing had changed. The first thing I noticed was the Paparazzi milling about at the entrance. I actually knew most of them personally because I had done the same thing on many occasions. The proverbial shoe however was now definitely on the other foot so I did what other celebrities did; I used the back entrance.
The second I entered the office I was mobbed. Lucy was in tears again but the relief on her face was obvious. She had let her role in publishing the novel become known and had not stopped answering questions all morning.
‘I think our new editor wants to see you?’ she whispered.
I’d telephoned the father of my child a few days ago to put him in the picture ‘thanks for letting me know Jo it makes my decision to accept a new job offer that much easier. My wife loves the book by the way!’
The new editor was an old friend and well known in the business. He offered his congratulations then politely advised me it would be a problem having me as the papers gossip columnist ‘sorry Joanne but you may well turn out to be more famous than the person you’re interviewing’ he said pointing to the T.V monitors in the office.
I couldn’t argue; my face was appearing on the screen every half an hour.
In many ways I was sad to leave but it did make one thing easier; writing the next novel!
Since finishing the first one my head had been swimming with ideas. I’d been a gossip writer for many years and wasn’t short of events and people to draw from. Time to get the lap-top warmed up again I decided.
The one big difference between working in a busy office and working at home was the lack of people to converse with. Within a month I was lonely and starting to have conversations with the cat. Oh don’t get me wrong there were more interviews and a constant stream of phone calls but that was classed as business now. I missed my friends; one in particular. I was also a little peeved he hadn’t called me to offer his congratulations.
When the call did come I was ready to bite his head off. I didn’t.
We met the next day. I knew instantly that I was still in love with him but did he feel the same, and was it really possible to carry on from where we left off?
Well that’s my story so far. A fairy tale one some may say; but who says it can’t happen to anyone. All you have to do is get started and hope for the best. Oh by the way. Daniel and I are getting married next month; I really missed my friend.
Rony Nair slogs as an oil and gas Risk Management “expert/ director/ Vice resident/consultant”-up on the greasy pole! He’s been 20 years in the industry since starting off as an Industrial engineer a long time ago. Extensively traveled. Dangers fronted often. But that’s his day job. The one that pays for bread and bills. He’s been a worshipper at the altar of prose and poetry for almost as long as he could think. They have been the shadows of his life. (They’ve been) the bedsit at the end of a long day; the repository that does the sound of silence inimitably well. Not unlike a pet; but with one core difference- the books do suggest, educate and weave a texture that marginally provides streams of thought that are new. And one of the biggest pleasures of his life, is certainly holding a treasured edition in one’s hands. Physically. Rony’s been writing poetry since 1985 and was a published columnist with the Indian Express in the early 1990’s. He is also a published photographer about to hold his first major exhibition and currently writes a regular column for two online journals; one of them widely read over South India. Rony has been profiled by the Economic Times of Delhi and has also written for them. He cites V.S Naipaul, A.J Cronin, Patrick Hamilton, Alan Sillitoe, John Braine and Nevil Shute in addition to FS Fitzgerald as influences on his life; and Philip Larkin, Dom Moraes and Ted Hughes as his personal poetry idols. Larkin’s’ collected poems would be the one book he would like to die with. When the poems perish, as do the thoughts!
Nocturne. Imaginary Pictographs. by Rony Nair
I think about life behind an e-mail address... I do not even know if it is still valid. I don't even know if this will be read by you. The only way i can write is if i picture you reading this in my head.
Writing used to be a release. And i could write whenever i pictured you reading it. Now i visualize the night. I see the darkness. I see a curved terrace that looks out over green spaces. Over ponds being rapidly filled up, like spandex in flight. Of water bodies that flow, and narrow walls that take flight as pedestrians struggle to remain unsandwiched. Between the latest fast car; and the oldest crumbling wall.
The old high street. Night. Middle of somewhere. Copyright: Rony Nair
Every bit I used to write, I used to think of a person with a small balcony and lots of color on the inner walls reading it. A small plant perhaps growing in a corner. Occasionally tended. Someone who quizzically read with their eyebrows bending in. sometimes with the hint of a smile on the corners of their eyes. Sometimes with the glaze of irritation in them. But at least there was a thought that perhaps it was worth all the writing it if she smiled when spoke about it. Later.
And now. And I can't not think of you all the time. How you are, how absent minded you become sometimes when asking favors of your foes. How your most unloving pith, provides the most affectionate sanctuary they need. To be ephemeral. To be themselves.
How you juggle so many things with élan, your passion for the greater good, your essential sincerity.
Before the most abject brutality. Before the most unloving gesture. Before the lights fade and the darkness reins in.
We used to talk about the bike and the trip. You and me. India. The works. Driving through the night. Watching out, we always said, for trucks without lights. For those monsters stationed on the road, waiting to gorge their fill. On impact.
And now I am struggling to write. I can't write. Without knowing you look at it.
I don't know the exact nature of my crime but i miss you all the time, and then i get to speak to you, i say things in anger. When essentially all i am is being angry with myself.
And this night, through the rains. It seems so apt. That the minders wander. And the TV squeaks. And there is the night. The silence. And two curved terraces some distance apart. With a person in each perhaps looking at the sky and thinking of each other.
You and me. And the slow fade. Copyright: Rony Nair
Let me write of a day. Some years ago.
I first saw you I think come September. It was a Friday filled with old friends from a public school childhood. We were grabbing a bite on an upper floor quasi-place run by a distant friend of mine. An early lunch. Reminiscing about old school times.
We've had one leap year since that day. With 29 days in February 2012. So today, it’s probably 4 years or so. To the day. To the night.
The eyes were kind. Half mooned. They were your eyes.
I overheard snatches of conversation. The smile. The sense of humor. The cut to the chase perspective you had on things. The no-nonsense demeanor.
Yet the kindness in the eyes.
I doubted then, if you even noticed me when you said a polite, curt, hello.
You are always courteous, no-nonsense, humorous, firm; and incredibly kind. You were the same that day too.
It felt secure. The clouds rolled in a few hours ago. Night. Not a night that discharges cliché and obligation. But a night with an edge. A resonance. A somnambulist’s grace.
The next day I heard of where you lived. The first time. I walked that way. Saw this:
I went away and dealt with those feelings the only way i knew. By pretending that i had control over my feelings. Pretending to myself that it was fun, that it was a lark. Not daring to think too hard. Or too deep about you. Putting it away in a corner. But always thinking of you.
Not a day has passed since that first day in September all those years ago when I don't think of you, I don't feel your eyes on me, that crackle when you're about to say something funny, that way you have when you look.. Not a darn day.
I knew then; and I know now, how much everybody likes you. You have tons of friends. You are much admired. You are busy with doing things that matter. You've taught me that life should be about giving, about putting others first, about having time to reflect, about not sacrificing the essence of one's being, about being brave, about being true to oneself.
You've taught me so much. Just by being yourself. your innate loyalty to your friends, the time you give to the less privileged, the ability to understand what really counts in life, I could go on...thoughts of you have kept me going in some far corners of the world. Through a lot of late nights, through the "what will she say question" that i asked myself daily...
I still do.
And that night when I drove myself round the bend. As the dusk gradually played with the palavers that slithered through a humidity that was almost painful. It felt strange. To feel. All that was familiar.
And this night, through the rains. It seems so apt. That the minders wander. And the TV squeaks. And there is the night. The silence. And two curved terraces some distance apart. With a person in each perhaps looking at the sky and thinking of each other.
We drove past the haze and the early hours could have been night for all I cared. I held your hand and it almost could have been night for all I cared.
And I saw the flush. The rising sun on your tropical skin. And then you smiled. And the hands stayed firm until we could have seen this on the culvert near the bund.
Late nights? Early mornings?
A saree. A first.
Copyright Rony Nair
When people like me get to the age we’re at, they start thinking of obituaries and the small print in the newspaper. The 2 inches of column space along with the 100 other people on page 4 in a local newspaper. I will get two inches not because i was any good. It is too late for that, but because everybody gets it in the papers.
You will have dumped me by then. Another messianic cause to replace all the emotion that one saw in your eyes that day. You will have cast away the strings, the imagery, and the flush you felt when the splinters of glass rained through the half open car window. You will have discovered that a “cause” however tenuous, can compensate for being true to oneself.
And another September will come and go. And this time, we wouldn’t be speaking.
And this night, through the rains. It seems so apt. That the minders wander. And the TV squeaks. And there is the night.
There is only the night.
David Larsen - I was born in New York State and our family moved to Washington State when I was 14 years old. After a couple years of college, I served two years in the Marine Corps, and then earned BA degrees in English Literature and Business Administration both from the University of Washington. I worked in the Finance Department of The Boeing Company for 28 years before leaving that job in 2004. Since then I continued to operate the winery we founded in 1989 named Soos Creek Wine Cellars. My wife, Cecile, and I have 3 sons. I also enjoy running, golf and outdoor activities. “Yellow Footprints" is a memoir and is the first story I have written.
YELLOW FOOTPRINTS by David Larsen
The building in Los Angeles where we were sworn in was so nondescript that it appeared to be deliberately chosen for its non-threatening appearance; so there would be no reason for volunteers like myself to back out at the last minute. Taking the oath was as easy as saying the Pledge of Allegiance. But the excitement of my future adventure was replaced by a somber mood when the Sgt ordered us out of the room, down the stairs and out of the building. After we emptied onto the sidewalk, another recruit pointed out the Superman building, home of the Daily Planet newspaper in the old TV show. It was a welcome distraction because it lightened the mood as we got on the bus.
Passing through the gates of the Marine Corps Recruit Depot was an easy transition onto the base because the Spanish style of the buildings had the look of just another San Diego neighborhood. With such beautiful grounds and so few people, the place looked almost serene. Then the bus stopped, the door opened, and a drill instructor ran up the steps yelling
“I want every swinging dick standing outside on those yellow footprints in 30 seconds!”
“Move! Move! Move!” shouted the DI. He had gained control like the police do in a raid when they storm into a room without warning. We swarmed out of the bus and arranged ourselves on the eighty sets of yellow footprints painted on the asphalt – four columns of 20 recruits each, all pointed in the same direction and standing more or less at attention.
My girlfriend’s brother had been in the Marine Corps, so I had quizzed him about it before making my decision to enlist. Nothing he said about the experience had me worried. And I felt lucky to sit next to a Marine on the plane ride to San Diego just days earlier. His only comment was “I’d be lying if I said it was easy.” I thought not being easy was part of the appeal because I would become part of an elite group. Knowing what to expect had calmed my fears. And being a year or two older than most of the others, I felt above the intimidation tactics of the DI’s while standing on the yellow footprints.
The DIs then herded us into a nearby building for the sheep shearing – electric clippers mowed our hair down to the skin in waves of four recruits at a time. The loss of hair made us now look more alike than different. It was a silent ceremony, highlighted only by a pronounced smell of oil from the electric clippers and the growing pile of hair on the floor. After exchanging our civilian clothes for green Marine Corps utilities, I looked around the room of eighty recruits but could no longer identify anyone I knew from the bus ride. Everyone was now wearing the same dark green utilities, blank but obedient expression, and bald head.
We finished packing a few essentials into our duffle bags and started marching off to our living quarters. It was almost dark near the end of our first day and we were the only people on an ocean of asphalt. We marched into a desolate expanse so vast that it blended into the darkness at the horizon. Staying in step but drifting off-line, I felt a couple slaps against the side of my head. “Keep your alignment!” the DI shouted. I was really surprised by getting slapped but shook it off.
When we arrived at our Quonset huts, I glanced around at the other recruits who were standing at attention and thought they were overly intimidated. I considered myself mentally stronger though and was determined not to let the DIs get to me. To demonstrate my courage, I dropped the duffle bag off my shoulder to the ground. But my resolve was ambushed when I got walloped twice to the back of my head. The DI had come up from my blind side and hit me much harder this time as he yelled in my ear, “Who told you to drop your duffle bag, maggot?” I remembered that the first word out of my mouth was always “Sir”. So I bellowed, “Sir, nobody, sir”. This second encounter with the DI really jolted me.
In our isolated quarters, the DI’s had turned up the heat. I was so stunned by the force of the blows that before I could think about it, I was overcome by the same fear I saw in the other faces and had joined the fold. As one DI showed us how to make up our racks, the other strolled around correcting various offenses, always with a slap or two to the head.
The Spartans probably had better living quarters. Our Quonset huts were like elongated igloos skinned in sheet metal with only a concrete floor, footlockers and metal racks for beds. The ground outside was bare dirt with a strip of asphalt path running between the rows of Quonset huts. We were isolated in the northwest corner of the base and insulated from the world by the many other rows of Quonset huts surrounding us. I spent most of that first night trying to remember how to make up my rack in the morning so I wouldn’t get slapped again.
The next morning we got up when the reveille bugle sounded, dressed, made up our racks and fell into formation on the asphalt; suspiciously without anybody getting roughed up. Two DIs brought us into a Quonset hut and introduced themselves. Our platoon commander was Gunnery Sgt. Bush. He was the older of the two, lean with a dark tan and a fatherly air. He looked experienced in this role; years of the Marine Corps were visible in the extra lines on his face. He talked to us in a conversational manner for the first time, as though he was trying to connect and establish a rapport. Maybe the rough stuff was behind us now? I liked Gunnery Sgt. Bush ok.
Sgt. Minnifield was more robust and looked very serious about his mission of transforming us into Marines. His face was uncomplicated, from a simple black and white world and had the solemn, threatening gaze of an executioner. They both wore Smokey the Bear style covers and in contrast to our rumpled appearance, their utilities were without a single wrinkle, perfectly creased and their black boots had the deep shine of obsidian.
Gunnery Sgt. Bush explained the program to us. The primary purpose of boot camp was to teach us discipline, defined as instant obedience to orders. The Marine Corps had rules against the DIs striking recruits and limits on the amount of PT we could do. But they could not give us the training we needed to fight in Viet Nam by following the rules. He looked like he had been to Viet Nam and I got the feeling he had our best interests at heart.
“If you screw up, there are no excuses; we will kick your ass,” said Gunnery Sgt. Bush. “Is there anybody who disagrees with what I just said?”
Of course, nobody raised their hand. He asked us not to talk about the tough parts of boot camp in our letters home because it would just make our families worry, as though he was saying, “I hope you’re man enough to get through this without crying to your mother.” Stretching the rules to increase our chances for survival in Viet Nam seemed like a fair trade. So I bought-in to Gunnery Sgt Bush’s program.
By noon chow of our second day we were very hungry from doing so many pushups, sit-ups and squat thrusts. But before we were half way finished eating Sgt. Minnifield started yelling, “Get up! Get out!” He sent a message from across the mess hall in the form of a milk carton missile that hit the guy next to me in the forehead – Splat! “Get up! Get Out!” We shoveled in more food as we rushed to put our trays away but not nearly enough to finish eating and satisfy our hunger. At our next meal we were extra-hungry but stuffing ourselves as fast as we could was still not fast enough, so we learned to eat faster and faster before we ever completely finished a meal.
We marched everywhere, which was easy for me and most of the recruits. Our marching formation was the same as when we stood on the yellow footprints - four squads each in a column of 20 recruits. The first recruit in each squad was the squad leader. They had to be good marchers because any mistake by them would ripple through the others in their squad. The slow learners were called “shitbirds” and positioned at the end of the squads. The problem with learning to march was the promised ass-kicking whenever a mistake was made.
A couple days later, we met our third drill instructor, Sgt. Parrish. He was only about 5’ 6” with a wiry build. His face narrowed to a pointed chin that thrust forward baring his lower teeth like a bulldog. The way his ears stood out added to his comic appearance and he wore his cover tilted forward, apparently an attempt to make himself look more menacing.
We were in the process of learning a new marching maneuver when he became disgusted with our performance and shouted, “Platoon halt! Face half-right!” This confused us for a moment because we had never heard of that maneuver. But we all shuffled 45 degrees to the right. This would give us more room for doing PT. “Give me 30 squat thrusts! Ready begin!” he commanded.
In unison, we called out: “One” as we did a full squat and put our hands on the ground between our feet;
“Two,” we kicked our feet out behind us into the push up position;
“Three,” we brought our feet back next to our hands,
“One sir,” for the number of completed squat thrusts as we stood up again.
Sgt. Parrish stopped us before we reached 30 because someone had fallen behind, and then told us to thank the straggler before starting over again. Squat thrusts are not as hard as doing pushups, but that is the diabolical thing about them – no matter how tired you are, you can always do one more.
After one hundred, I felt totally exhausted and thought we must be near the end. Two hundred is more than anybody would ever do without a DI standing over them. At three hundred, I felt like I weighed five hundred pounds and was beyond agony. The unrelenting pain radiating throughout my body would subside with the hope of stopping after 30 repetitions and then kick-in at a higher level every time we had to start over. I had never been in a situation like this before, so the uncertainty of how long it would continue was ratcheting up the mental pain: from knowing there was no excuse for stopping and from not knowing when we would stop; all while listening to Sgt. Parrish’s tirade. After we finally finished, my legs were so heavy each step was like pulling my feet out of deep mud. We called these sessions “squat thrusts forever” and they were always preceded with the dreaded words “Face half-right.”
Mail call was after evening chow but before we hit the rack. The DIs would inspect every letter before calling out our names. Sgt. Minnifield examined one letter closely before telling Pvt. Borders to open it in front of him. Inside the envelope was a stick of gum, so Sgt. Minnifield went into his Quonset hut and returned with a bottle of hot sauce. He told Pvt. Borders to pour hot sauce on the stick of gum and chew it up without taking off the wrapper. After the effects of the hot sauce began to wear off, he then ordered him to swallow it, paper and all. Other Privates would occasionally receive a stick of gum and the consequences were always the same.
I wondered who would send the gum and why? It must be someone who knew about the consequences. Otherwise, why wouldn’t they send something better to eat? But if they knew the consequences, why would a friend send it or even an enemy, who would surely receive some payback? It must be from someone who had also received gum in boot camp and felt entitled to carry on the tradition, like a rite of passage.
At the end of another long day, Sgt Parrish showed up while we were all in the shower and climbed on top of the sinks to look down on us. While stalking back and forth, he ordered us to turn on only the cold water.
“On your gut!” he shouted and eighty naked recruits fell to the floor, slipping and sliding against each other like worms slithering in the bottom of a bucket.
“On your feet!” and up we jumped.
“On your gut!” before everyone was standing again.
“On your feet!” as we heaved and sloshed around in the cold water.
There wasn’t any way to arrange ourselves that wasn’t disgusting and degrading. But it was just a tune up for the next drill. After we returned to our area, he ordered all of us into a Quonset hut just big enough for sleeping 20 recruits and began shouting, “Move back! Move back! Move back!” to pack eighty of us tighter and tighter against the back wall. It was like mass hysteria when someone yells “Fire!” and the only exit is blocked. I didn’t have time to plan ahead and was in a bad spot – too close to the back wall. The force of the recruits pushing against me was like being compressed inside a garbage truck. I couldn’t expand my lungs, so breathing or even moving was almost impossible inside the huge mass of meat.
I sometimes tried to step outside the action as a way to feel like I still had some control. I suspected the last two incidents were part of the process to tear us down as civilians so they could later build us up as Marines.
We were beginning to lose recruits to the Physical Conditioning Platoon or Fat Farm and to Correctional Custody Platoon. The Fat Farm was where you went if you were too weak or overweight to do enough push-ups or pull-ups. Whenever we saw that platoon around the base, they were always doing PT. At the mess hall, I never saw them eating anything but lettuce and drinking only water. I didn’t immediately recognize one of our recruits only two weeks after being sent to the Fat Farm. His face was much thinner and his utilities had become several sizes too big from the weight loss.
Correctional Custody Platoon was for the recruits who needed an attitude adjustment, the defiant ones who didn’t want to “get with the program.” We would sometimes see them marching off in the morning with buckets and shovels over their shoulders. Pvt. Wirth joined our platoon from CCP and told us it was basically punishment all day long. One of the drills was to divide up the platoon into two teams. Each team would use buckets and shovels in a race to move their huge pile of dirt from point A to point B. When they were finished and collapsing from exhaustion, the winners got to make the losers do PT. I couldn’t think of anything worse. Then you won the booby prize – an extension of your total time in boot camp because time spent in CCP or in the Fat Farm was “bad time”.
Sgt. Minnifield told us that Pvt. Davis had complained to our Commanding Officer about the beatings he received from Gunnery Sgt. Bush. The bumps, cuts and bruises on Pvt. Davis’s head and face were apparently all the proof needed for Gunnery Sgt. Bush to be relieved of his duty as our Platoon Commander. Even though he was tough on us, Gunnery Sgt. Bush was fair and not someone we feared like the other two DIs. So we felt bad about losing him. Pvt. Davis was considered a traitor by Sgt. Minnifield and I thought what he did was cowardly and selfish. The DI’s rough treatment was not something anybody else complained about because it was necessary to teach us discipline. Pvt. Davis was transferred to a different platoon but I wondered how he would be treated down the road.
Pvt. Bray was a big, goofy, good-natured guy, slow to learn and he struggled physically also. Consequently, he was always catching hell from the DIs. Despite his extra hardships, he generally had a cheerful attitude and was amazingly resilient. One day Sgt Parrish took Pvt. Bray with his bucket and shovel off for some “one on one time.” They returned about an hour later with Bray looking dirty, tired and very scared. Parrish positioned Bray in the middle of the asphalt path with a row of us on each side.
Parrish blared “Tell the platoon what Pvt. Bray did to Sgt. Parrish.” “Sir, Pvt. Bray tried to hit Sgt. Parrish with a shovel, sir.” That really surprised me because Bray was such a gentle soul. And whatever his shortcomings, they were not for a lack of effort. So I questioned the need for whatever Parrish did that caused Bray to snap and wondered again about sadistic tendencies in Parrish. He then began his assault on Bray. Issuing reprimands as he punched and kicked him. Parrish seemed to be practicing his hand to hand combat and Bray was the punching bag. Wham! Parrish struck Bray in the groin and then Wham! struck him in the face as he was doubling over from the first blow. Then Parrish faked a blow to the groin and when Bray covered up, hit him in the face and then in the groin. Parrish then began circling his target so that Bray couldn’t see half the blows coming. We had all received some of the same and usually never even winced when another recruit was catching hell. We were more concerned with our own welfare and had turned callous. “Better him than me.” was the attitude. But this violent attack on Bray was hard to watch. By the end, he was completely broken; physically, mentally and emotionally. Whether it was intended or not, this spectacle was an example of what could be endured because Bray bounced back and graduated on time with our platoon. He had an innocence about him that may have worked in his favor. Maybe, in his mind, he had done wrong and deserved the punishment.
TO BE CONTINUED
Ben Nardolilli currently lives in New York City. By day he works with asbestos litigation by night he hacks up words. His work has appeared in Perigee Magazine, Red Fez, Danse Macabre, The 22 Magazine, Quail Bell Magazine, Elimae, fwriction, THEMA, Pear Noir, The Minetta Review, and Yes Poetry. He blogs at mirrorsponge.blogspot.com and is looking to publish a novel.
The Chicken’s Foot by Ben Nardolilli
The store owner was not pleased to hear Ned’s question. He answered it nonetheless.
“Oh, where in China is that?”
“Oh. I’ve got an Aunt in Racine.”
“Can I interest you in anything?”
Ned took another brief look around the store. Its shelves and displays cases were brimming with esoterica from the East and West. He saw incense, roots, decks of Tarot cards, little jade Buddhas, and dusty Ouija boards. While flipping through a pile of used lucky rabbits’ feet, he found one not covered in fur. which This foot was yellow with three talons and not covered in fur. It caught the owner’s attention.
“Oh that’s where I put that thing. Here you must give it back.”
“What is it?”
“It’s a chicken foot. Please. There’s nothing special about it.”
“A chicken’s foot?
“Yes. That’s all it is. Now please hand the foot over to me.”
Ned continued to hold onto it. He was certain there was a special reason it was in the store, and why the proprietor wanted it back.
“How much for it?”
“Sir, please. It is priceless.”
“Oh, it’s that good?”
“No, it is that terrible.”
“I think I’ll buy it. I’ll take it away.”
“Sir, for both of our sakes, you must return it to me. Now.”
“I just want to know what’s so bad about this thing.”
“It will make you unlucky.”
“Just like the chicken it was attached to? Killed for food?”
“Not at all. The chicken was old.”
Ned shook his free fingers with mock trembling. “Oh, was it cursed? Or just spoiled?” He stopped. “You’re just making it all up. You just want to sell me this dumb chicken’s foot.”
“Yes. That is correct. I can take it from you.”
“Tell me the truth. What’s it do? If anything?”
“It grants you what you want.”
“I used up my wishes.”
“I was lucky to get out with my life and start this store.”
“How could a plain old chicken be so magical?”
“It was not a plain chicken. It was a true oddity, possessed by dark forces.”
“Don’t they have something better to haunt?”
“The bird was born headless yet it still lived. It even knew how to walk backwards.”
“Come on. Where was this in China?”
“No, near Ypsilanti.”
“Sorry, I’m new to the area.”
“Please, I beg you one last time.”
“Wrap it up for me. It sounds too good to be true. Even if it doesn’t work, I think I could use it during office hours. A way to scare my students.”
The owner rung him up at the register. “Cash or credit, or debit?”
“Credit.” The owner gave Ned a slip of paper to sign. On it he noticed the store’s return policy. “So I can trade it back in if I don’t like it?”
“You can trade it. Yes.”
“In case it tricks me with my wishes. Right? I’ve seen that cartoon. You wish for one thing and the foot gives you something else because you didn’t think of the words right. Mixing up tenses, that sort of thing?”
“No sir, this appendage is honest.”
The owner wrapped the foot in a brown paper bag and bid Ned good day. Ned went back to his house, a semi-detached duplex he shared with his neighbor Tavares. He was out front, mowing the lawn, weaving along the border between the two properties. Ned had told him to try and be careful before. It caused the grass in the middle to grow at an uneven pace compared to the rest on the lot. He also noticed several large canisters on Tavares’ driveway adorned with neon warning labels and skulls.
He waved his hand to get Tavares’ attention. Tavares stopped mowing and walked up to Ned. When they were less than a foot apart, he spoke.
“Yeah? What’s wrong now?”
“Are those pesticides?”
“No man. Herbicides.”
“I told you I don’t want any of that stuff used.”
“You said pesticides.”
“It’s all chemicals.”
“It’s not good. It’s not healthy. I don’t even know if it’s legal to use that much.”
“Hey, I’m the one keeping the weeds at away. If we went with you Mr. Tree-Hugger this whole lot would be covered in who knows what. Then how much would it be worth, huh? Huh? I got to think of property values.”
“Do you really need that much?”
“Don’t worry, it kills the rats too. Two birds, one stone.”
“It’s gonna kill more than that eventually.”
“Well keep your cat on your damn side of the lot then. “
“It doesn’t matter where Moroni goes, that stuff will seep into anything. What if he eats a poisoned rat?”
Tavares went back to the lawnmower and turned it on. He pushed it right up to the tips of Ned’s sneakers, causing him to jump in surprise. Back in his study, Ned took the chicken foot and put it on his desk. He had trouble getting it to balance upright like a tree, so laid it down with the talons facing out like a root. Immediately, Ned felt the temptation to use up the wishes. He assumed the foot offered him three because it made sense for one wish to be linked to one talon. Yet, there was no reason the foot could offer more or less, or even an infinite number of wishes. Ned realized he was assuming the foot worked in the first place.
Should he try a first wish? Ned held the foot and put it back down. What if he only got one? He needed to be careful and avoid being greedy. If he made a simple request, the results would be easier to manage. He would not ask to be a billionaire when becoming a millionaire would do. Ned thought about wishing to be rich and why he would want to do it in the first place. At the moment, did he truly need the money? Did he truly need anything more? He looked around his house. It was small, but sufficient. There was enough for him and Moroni. His greatest fear was what his calico cat might do to the chicken’s foot if he found it. Ned took the curio and put it on a shelf in his closet where he figured it was safer. If the device worked, he did not want Moroni to get to it first, turning the whole world into one big ball of catnip.
That night, Ned made his first wish. He felt bad about turning to the chicken foot for aid so quickly, but Tavares tested his nerve. If the foot had any magical powers, Ned was going to find out. The trouble began around midnight. Ned was trying to sleep in bed with Moroni curled up in ball next to him. A scream woke the cat up and he darted across Ned’s body. He caught the end of the shriek and jumped up onto the floor, worried someone was being hurt in the neighborhood. Laughter followed along with the sound of glass breaking. Ned threw on a robe and grabbed Moroni. The two of them stepped out the door and stood in the front yard, looking for any signs of trouble.
They only needed to look at the other half of the house, where Tavares was throwing a party. Loud music, flashing lights, and dancing shadows tipped him off. A trinity of balloons tied to the front banister of the porch did as well. Ned made it halfway up the path to the front door when Tavares emerged.
“What do you want?”
“Can you turn it down?”
“What? I can’t have fun?”
“So late? On a Sunday night?”
“Some of us have Monday off.”
“Some of us don’t.”
“Not my problem. Sorry. If you want you can try to come in, but the cat stays outside.”
“I told you, I have to work tomorrow.”
“Sucks for you then.”
“I’ll call the cops for a noise complaint.”
“You do that. I’ve got two of them here already, doing some investigating.”
“What? Someone already called them?”
“Let’s just say they’re making sure the pressure for the keg is working. They check it about once every twenty minutes.”
Ned stumbled back into his side of the house and let Moroni down. He crawled up on an ottoman and fell asleep. Ned climbed the up the stairs, enjoying every pop and crack the wood made under his steps. He imagined each one sent shockwaves across the walls to counter the sound Tavares’ party made. For the past two years he tried to respectful, calm, collected, and was conscious of every note he released in case it reached Tavares. Now it did not matter. He knew that being loud would not solve the problem. A better solution was needed. Ned found the chicken’s foot and held it up so the trio of talons faced up to the ceiling.
“Please, if you can grant wishes, grant me this one. Separate our houses. Detach us fully. I don’t want to be semi-anything with Tavares anymore.” One of the talons curled up. Shocked, Ned dropped the foot on the floor. After waiting a minute, he reached down, lifted it, and put the foot back in its spot in the closet. He put his hand on the wall he shared with Tavares. Vibrations from his party still pulsated through the wood and plaster. There was no change. The foot was not magical. His wish had not been granted.
Ned woke up this next morning to knocking on his door. He threw his robe on and ran down to answer it. He looked through the peephole and saw Tavares. Expecting an apology, he opened the door and smiled.
“What? The robe? I just woke up.”
“No man, this!” Tavares led Ned to the front lawn and pointed at the fence between their now separated halves of the house. “What the hell?”
“I don’t know what happened. Sorry.”
“Come on. Stop bullshitting me. You did this.”
Ned examined the division more closely. The split was a clean one. Their formerly common wall was now covered in the same siding which matched the rest of the house. There was grass growing down the middle, along with the fence.
“It’s illegal. You violated the agreement.”
“I swear I don’t know how this happened.” Ned did not feel it was a lie. The statement was a half-truth. He knew the foot was responsible while at the same time he was ignorant of how it worked its magic.
“I’ve had it man. I’ve had it.”
“What do you think I did? You think I got a contractor to do all this in what, the span of three hours? You know any contractors who can do that?”
“Watch yourself. Just wait.”
Tavares went back to his half of the lot and Ned went into his study, scrambling to find his deed to the property. It contained all manner of stipulations, including how much they could each decorate their part of the building for various holidays. During the night, this language had changed. Tavares’ signature was gone, along with the sections and subsections of rules they agreed to. Ned put the document back. He headed upstairs to the bedroom closet and held the chicken foot in his palm, admiring it for several minutes. Once he realized he was running late, he kissed the spent talon and put it back.
During the following month, Ned noticed Tavares watching him from his severed half of the house. Sometimes it was from a window with the curtain drawn except for a space for his binoculars. Other times, he pretended to be planting a bush in the front yard, while using the branches for cover. More often than not, he sat on his porch, staring at Ned as he came and went. He no longer had any noise or chemical complaints with his neighbor, so all was well as far as he could care. He slept better than before, which helped boost his ranking among student evaluations. The university told him the undergrads who attended his lectures thought he was more energetic and focused.
The scores inspired rumors that Ned might be up for tenure. They reached Ned and he began eavesdropping in his department and across campus in hopes of learning more. He made himself extra quiet in his office, the men’s room, the cafeteria, and the campus bus in case people who knew about his academic future started to speak. He wanted them to think they were alone, or at least far away from him. He thought of the chicken foot and the other two wishes that remained. Could he use one to propel himself into full professorhood? It raised the issue of fairness. There were others with more seniority than him in the Indian Ocean Studies Department. Many of them had real tangible ties to the region. They spoke more of its languages. Why did he deserve the position? If he got it through the machinations of the chicken’s foot, he would be left open to their resentment.
Ned changed his mind after a bit of conversation strayed his way while he tried to fix a jam in the printer. The machine hid him as he got on his knees to fight with the smell of hot ink and turn greasy knobs inside its bowels. In theory, he was supposed to be able to manually move the offending piece of paper through the system. On the other side, the two tenured members of the department fretted about finances. The endowment was in danger, an unexpected bumper crop of rapeseed threw the futures market in chaos and millions promised were now lost. After the conversation ended, Ned continued to crouch down until he was sure they were gone. He debated asking them what was going on, or sharing his concerns with the rest of the department. Did he have a right to hold onto information he had no right to know in the first place?
Back in his bedroom, he cradled the chicken foot in his hand. If he could not save any of his coworkers and their classes, Ned might be able to save himself. Was it selfish for him to do it? He reasoned that anyone else would do the same to save their own position. Now seemed the right time to wish for tenure. As soon as he spoke the words of his request, the foot vibrated. It stopped and another talon came down. He looked around the room but nothing had changed. No new diplomas, pictures, pennants, or plaques adorned the walls. Ned lay back on the bed with it, worrying about his wish. The request was for tenure without any qualifiers, such as what subject or department he wanted it from. The name of his university was also missing.
He had trouble sleeping that night, tossing and turning with his eyes closed and laying still with them open. An overwhelming question kept him stirring. What had he condemned himself to? He pictured several different scenarios which could unfold due to the trickery of the talon. Ned would be lucky if he woke up and was able to at least teach the same subject in a different school or join another department at the same university. His greatest fear was having to move to a campus in the wilds of Sinkiang or Byelorussia to teach computer programming or ancient Mayan codices. If he had tenure he would not have to worry as much about dismissal, yet Ned still wanted to be a good teacher. Trying to teach a subject he knew nothing about would make the job unrewarding.
In the morning, Ned went through his usual routine and drove to work. He noticed Tavares standing on his side of the fence, looking back at Ned from the driveway. On an impulse, Ned stopped the car and rolled down his window.
“Don’t be surprised when I come back.”
“What are you talking about?”
“I’m going to be in a new car. A much nicer car.”
“I got tenure!”
Tavares gave Ned the finger and Ned drove back to campus. The Indian Ocean Studies Department was deserted. The offices were empty and the lights were off. Ned called out the names of the administrative staff, teaching assistants, fellows, and other professors. No one answered back. Ned sat in his office, his light the only one on in his section of the building. He did not have classes scheduled until noon. He took the time to make sure his accounts with the university still worked. All of them did. He had the same students, the same upcoming publications, and the same access to archives, journals, and newsletters. The emails and messages in his inbox contained the familiar round of messages. One email did stand out. It was from the dean of the college. She congratulated Ned on his new tenured positioned, before announcing with regret that the rest of the department was shuttered until further details could be provided.
Right after his last class ended, Ned went out and bought the car he told Tavares to look for. He did not need it, but he felt better as soon as the vehicle was his and he was able to drive it home. It was smelled new and was painted a glowing red. When the smooth leather steering wheel was in his hands, Ned could relax. His position truly was secure. He would not have the car otherwise. As Ned turned down his street, he thought about the rest of the department. He pictured them crying, drinking, and packing up their things to try and find another school for work. Here he was with a luxury automobile, the make and model he did not even know.
Ned parked in front of his house and walked inside. He tried to cheer himself up by playing with Moroni. The cat obliged and except for a few moments devoted to sleep and their private businesses, the two remained close together during the rest of the week. For the first time in his life, the cat even got to roam the halls of the Department of Indian Ocean Studies since Ned only needed one office to work in. The office he chose to use was the largest. It also had the best view, overlooking a nearby garden and the city skyline. The only other large office with a window faced the cinderblock army of freshman dorms. For Moroni’s sake, he turned his old office into a space for the cat to rest and play in. Blankets, baskets, toys, and scratching poles went in as the books and papers went out.
Despite the feline company, Ned grew increasingly lonely in the office. One morning he held a meeting with totems and avatars representing the other lost members of the department. He printed out pictures and attached them to stacks of empty coffee cans. Moroni interrupted the meeting with his meowing and Ned chastised him. Only when Moroni knocked a teaching assistant over did Ned realize he needed the rest of the department back. The main issue was trying to secure another source of funding. The foot came to mind and Ned banished the thought. He would write letters. He would contact his congresswoman. Perhaps an ambassador or two might be interested. There was money out there for the taking if he simply asked for it. Pedalian magic would not be consulted.
None of the pleas worked. While they always seemed to be money enough for him and the bare upkeep of his office, he continued to feel ostracized and alone without a department to back him up. Things became particularly bad when the Celtic Studies Department started to unofficially use the space around him. It began with unauthorized use of the copier, followed by the coffeepot, and then proceeded to the desks and bookshelves. They took all the maps of the Indian Ocean down and replaced them with renderings of Dublin and the Aran Islands. When he complained, the scholars of Joyce, Yeats, and Ossian started to yell at him. They called Ned greedy and forced him to retreat to the safety of his office. He turned an empty coffee can into a bathroom and only left the room to teach, afraid the other department would seize this safe space.
Only the chicken foot would save him and the presence of Indian Ocean Studies at the university. Ned decided to wish for his department to be re-endowed. It took the car ride home to figure out the particulars. He did not want money with special conditions attached to it. He also wanted the source to be stable. No stocks, bonds, or commodities would be involved. Real estate was out of the question too. He would request only a direct infusion of cash. On the other hand, he had to make sure the money was legitimate, not dirty, and that it did not come from a morbid source. Ned worried his wish would result in the death of someone and the payout from an insurance policy being directed to the department.
He would play the lottery and wish to win the jackpot. With the winnings, he could make sure there would be enough money for years to come. Ned took the chicken foot out from its hiding spot and held it close to his breast as he walked back out to the car. Tavares saw him and noticed the talons he was clutching. From the distance it looked like a bird had flown into his neighbor. He did not ask what was wrong. Instead, he followed Ned’s car, hiding behind bushes and trashcans until he ended up outside a nearby convenience store.
From the other side of the glass doors and frayed posters announcing prices for ice and milk, he watched Ned hold the chicken foot in his hand. He could not hear what Ned was saying but he could see his lips move. At the end of his small monologue, a talon closed inward. Ned then turned around and approached the counter, asking for a lottery ticket. Tavares could not tell what kind it was. It had a burgundy and gold trim around the edges. Ned removed a nickel from a nearby tip jar and scratched away, blowing away balls of gray matter while he worked. The owner of the store looked on in amazement and Tavares knew Ned had won a substantial sum of money. He did not learn that it numbered in the millions until the story was on the news the next day.
Ned deposited his winnings in a bank account separate from his regular savings. He decided he could afford to treat himself to a nice meal and went to a steakhouse near campus. On his trip there and back, word got out about the major prize Ned won. As soon as they verified it, a host of television crews and people from other local media started to descend on his house. Moroni did his best to scare them away from the porch until Ned came home and answered questions. He was forthright about what he would do with the prize, though not how he managed to beat the odds.
When the last of the reporters left his front yard, Ned returned indoors. He told them it did not matter if they loitered, but then they would have to deal with his neighbor Tavares. Tavares had been on his porch watching the whole media circus while polishing a pair of hedge clippers the whole time. From the kitchen, Ned heard their van doors shut and the vehicles drive off. He was pouring a cup of coffee when he heard the shriek. It was followed by tires screeching. Ned let his mug fall to the floor and ran from the house. When he reached the curb, he saw one of the news vans parked at an angle perpendicular to the street. Several cameramen and a reporter with a pompadour initially blocked his way until they saw who it was. They relented and let Ned through.
He did not see the full extent of the damage until he crouched next to Moroni. From a distance, he was his same, lazy, fur ball self. Down on the asphalt, Ned saw the blood and recoiled. For a few minutes he sat with his hands over his eyes, rubbing them to make tears come or the images of his broken cat go away. A voice pointed out that Moroni was still breathing and Ned calmed down. He looked at the circle of people around him and told them to block traffic while he went back into the house. Before he left the front yard, he looked at Tavares. It was his hope his neighbor might have some sympathy for what he was going to, able to at least relate to the loss of a beloved companion animal. Tavares grinned instead.
Ned did not have time to be angry. He rushed to his bedroom closet and took the chicken’s foot from its usual spot. He did his best to hide it from view as he returned, though everyone saw it when he tripped over a loose stone. The talons flew into the grass. The yellow skin made the limb look like a gardening rake. In an instant he was back up. His composure regained, Ned stood over Moroni and held the magical foot as tightly as he could. “Please…please…I wish…I wish for Moroni to be all right. If there’s another wish in you…please…just come out and help him…or give me a wish on loan.”
Moroni survived the ride to the animal hospital. Ned came along in his car, which a member of one of the film crews drove for him. It was a generous gesture, though not completely altruistic. He had always wanted to get behind such a make and model. The veterinarian on staff did her best to save the cat. According to her, the internal organs were too damaged. Ned asked if Moroni was in pain and she told him he would be, except for the painkillers. After the man who drove him left, Ned decided to put Moroni to sleep. He cried thinking about the decision and hated himself for it. The doctor tried to assuage him. She said it was the right choice and Moroni would have wanted it this way. Ned remained distraught. How could he have been so greedy with his wishes?
After the ordeal with Moroni, Ned was too depressed to think about his winnings. The plan for the department was put on hold. The days went by and he went through the performance of his routine. The students noticed he was distracted during lectures but said nothing. No one came to office hours. Ned blamed himself for attracting the news. If only he could have kept the money a secret, if he had to have it at all. There was no ill feeling towards the chicken foot. It did what it was told. Ned wondered where it was, then remembered he had thrown it away in a rage after it would not help him. At the time, he could not stand the sight of the talons curled up. He thought they were mocking him. Ned had no idea where it could have landed.
Once the bank started to email him his monthly statements, he remembered the money from the lottery and his plans with it. Ned did not know how to proceed and spent his free time looking at the numbers which represented what was in his account. It was soothing to see them there. Despite his recent loss, he could count on the dollars remaining in their place, ready to come to the aid of the Department of Indian Ocean Studies. One day, another feeling replaced this soothing emotion. Ned felt anxious. The money in the account was not enough anymore. He needed to help save all the departments across the whole school. How selfish he was, completely forgetting the problems of the English and Swedish departments, among all the others.
He would get more money. The university would be saved. Ned would take his winnings and buy more lottery tickets. He did not know why lottery tickets now appealed to him. He never bought them before and only used the last one because it was a sure thing. Now he felt lucky, convinced statistics and probabilities were on his side. Nothing could hold him back. The local convenience store did not have enough tickets for him, so he drove to another, then another. By the time midnight came, Ned completed a circuit around the city and was out of money. What small sums he occasionally won increased his feelings of invulnerability until they were spent.
When he woke up, Ned found himself in his office, covered in used lottery tickets. Their hidden messages were all rubbed off. Dirty coinage filled his pockets. Ned signed into his bank account and saw it was completely empty. Before he had time to process the loss, a team of deans and other higher-ups from the university walked into the department headquarters. One of them asked Ned where he was. They needed to see him. It was an emergency. Ned shouted back at them to reveal which office he was using. They shuffled in, not sure what to make of the mess spread around the room.
“Ned we need to talk.”
“Now, we pride ourselves here at the university on diversity and inclusiveness.”
“And we do our best to make sure all opinions are respected. We never want to be accused of censorship of any kind.”
Ned was unsure of what to say. “Censorship…is a bad thing.”
“Exactly. However, there are limits to our tolerance. One cannot be tolerant of intolerance.”
“We’re only bringing this up with you because of complaints we received from the Sri Lankan student association.”
“What? Nobody’s complained to me.”
“That’s part of the issue. They felt that based on your writings, you weren’t going to listen to reason.”
“I’m sure there’s been some misunderstanding.”
The associate dean of the college stepped forward and handed Ned the incriminating paperwork.
“It seems you’ve been sending these essays from your computer. From your account. Yes, we were skeptical too at first. Then we ran a check of your word usage and composition with the mathematics department. They were confident it was your work.”
Ned looked at the essays. They espoused views he had no idea he had. According to the accusations, he was advocating for the existence of Kumari Kandam, often conflated with Lemuria, the mythical lost continent believed to be submerged under the Indian Ocean and often used to denigrate the claims of Sri Lankan sovereignty From the look of the writing and the style he employed, complete with citations, it appeared he meant for these to be peer reviewed articles. However, they could only be published as letters to the editor in various substandard nationalist outlets. On the top, he accused various groups of covering up the history of Lemuria just as water now covered the landmass. These included Sinhalese radicals, Marxists, and the World Bank. Zionists might also be involved through the latter two as well.
“This is all a big misunderstanding. Still I don’t see what this has to do with me as a professor.”
“Look at the bottom of those papers.”
He looked. At the end of each well-researched, yet vitriolic piece he saw his name floating above that of the university.
“We can’t be associated with anything like this Ned. I’m sorry but you’ll have to go.”
“But don’t I get a hearing?”
“Did you ever read your contract?”
“According to your contract if the board unanimously votes against you because of a violation of racism or sexism, there’s nothing you can do but pack up and leave.”
Ned promised to pick up his things later. At the moment, he just needed to process the dismissal. He secretly hoped word would get out to the student body. After enough outrage from them, he would be reinstated. Until then, he could only sit in his home and think but he had to get their first. While he drove, Ned thought about who might have written the articles in his name and somehow managed to pass them off. Tavares’ name came up and he thought about how he could have harmed him. If the papers came from his computer, how did Tavares get them on there? It had to be someone else. Maybe one of the former department members was disgruntled with him. He was the only professor retained after the cutbacks. Envy would be a natural response. Another teacher would have the means to access his account, write the articles, and notify the right people to register their offense.
He was unable to park in his driveway. A large orange truck took up every available spot on the paved surface. Ned left his car by the curb and walked up to a construction crew pouring concrete in between Tavares’ house and his. They wore bright neon orange jackets that matched the color of the truck. Ned noticed there was another vehicle mixing the gray concoction in the backyard. One of the crew members did not have an orange jacket. He wore yellow instead. Ned assumed he was the leader and asked him what was going on.
“What? Did the company tell you?”
“We’re with the gas company. Turns out the pipeline we were running down between your houses isn’t needed anymore. We’re patching the area up the best we can.”
“We’re going to be attached again? But I liked being separate.”
“Hey, don’t ask me what it’s about. Eminent domain isn’t my specialty.”
Tavares emerged from his house and tied three balloons to the rail around the porch.
“Hope you don’t mind. Having a little party tonight.”
Ned looked away and faced the damage of his front yard. Grass and dirt swirled under him. He walked back to his car and drove off .
The man was unsure if anyone else was in the store. He noticed a small gong over by the counter and stuck it with a proportionally tiny mallet that hung nearby. The owner appeared from behind a counter filled herbs meant for supplements and spells.
“Please do not play the gong, sir.”
“Hey, I bought this at a garage sale and I was wondering if you might be interested in it. It’s this chickens foot-”
The owner snatched it out of the man’s hand.
“Maybe we could trade? The guy who sold it to me said it was magical but dark. He said he ruined another man’s life with it. Made him jump off the Washington Bridge. I don’t know what he meant by that.”
“One man got what he always wanted and another man took it away, which is what he wanted too. It always happens with this foot.”
“So it makes everything come out even?”
“The universe never comes back to where it started.”
“Huh. I guess you want it then?”
“It’s that good?”
“It’s terrible. It’s a terrible thing that gives and takes.”
“Maybe I should’ve destroyed it?”
“No, it cannot be destroyed, only ignored.”
Russ Bickerstaff is a professional theatre critic and aspiring author living in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, with his wife and two daughters. Last year his short fictions have appeared in over 30 different publications including Hypertext Magazine, Pulp Metal Magazine, Sein und Werden, andBeyond Imagination. His Internarrational Where Port can be found at: http://ru3935.wix.com/russ-bickerstaff.
ONE-PERSON DEMOGRAPHIC by Russ Bickerstaff
She was lugging a very heavy suitcase. She wasn’t making much progress down that sidewalk. There was the suitcase she was trying to pull. There was the heavy backpack over her shoulder. Dozens of people were passing her by on the busy sidewalk without even giving her so much as a glance. No one seemed to want to help her out. Could it have been the fact that she was covered in tattoos? Possibly. I don’t think that’s what attracted me to her, though. I don’t know why I thought she was beautiful. It’s difficult to define that sort of thing. There was something about her, though. Anyone would have seen it had they bothered to spend more than a couple of moments passing her by.
Muscles tensed beneath the tattoos covering her arms. There was the hazy wobble of fatigue in those arms. She seemed just as likely to fall over from the weight in her backpack as she was from the weight that she had been trying to pull along on reluctant wheels beneath the base of the suitcase. I kept looking for others to try to help her out and I kept finding myself disappointed by everyone’s obliviousness to her struggle.
Determined eyes looked ahead at the path that lay before her from beneath low-lying bangs as black as night. She clearly needed help with her things and clearly she wasn’t going to ask for it. She would do this on her own even if it took her all night. That much was clear. I wanted to do something for her. I wanted to at least offer her some words of encouragement, but it was difficult to tell exactly how she would take the only thing that I could really say to her under the circumstances.
Casual onlookers between myself and the woman in question might have a tendency to be very cynical about the whole situation what with me being what I am and she being who she is. She’s young. She’s clearly moving into the area, which means that she’s probably in the market for new things. She’s got disposable income. She fights perfectly into my target demographic. It’s hard to deny that interacting with her would be well within my line of work. I can’t deny that I would be perceived as approaching her no different than I would approach anyone else within my target demographic. I guess that’s probably why I find it so difficult to approach her at all.
Scanning the faces of those who are passing by, I spot a young man who doesn’t appear to be in any kind of a serious hurry right at the moment. I consider briefly whether or not it might be a good idea to do what I’m thinking of doing. Then I go ahead and do it anyway. I approach him and begin my thing. Naturally he’s put off by it. I want to think that I’m doing my thing in a way that maximizes irritation, but I know better. I know that I’m just being myself and it’s repulsing him, causing him to veer over into her direction.
He stumbles into her. She stumbles into him. They’re both on the floor. His bag. Her bag. her suitcase. People veer out of the way of each other and her and things collide as they roll over to right themselves. There are a few things that are said that aren’t entirely warranted. Before long he’s yelling at her and she’s yelling at him. I’m looking on trying not to look like a billboard as things progress. To keep myself occupied, I approached a couple of other 18-34s with my work. It has the added bonus of getting people to move away from the two of them.
When the commotion dies down between the two of them, I glance behind me surreptitiously to find that they are uttering their final curses to each other as the move away from each other. He rushes away and she finishes collecting her things. I feel the need to sigh but find myself incapable of being able to do so. I’m just not made to do that sort of thing. I am simply not that kind of ad. I want to be that kind of ad, but I’m really not. I draw-in another sharp inhale and try to allow myself to move on. Clearly there really isn’t anything that I can do here.
I begin a long, slow trudge away from the immediate surroundings. I will be off to increase brand awareness in man and woman ages 18 - 34 elsewhere. I feel a longing to stay with her and do something, but I must move on. I cannot afford to get distracted. My primary function must continue even as I feel the need to be able to do other things.
That’s when I feel the twinge of a pair of eyes on me from behind. I would be a poor ad indeed if I didn’t turn and offer myself to a fresh pair of eyes. Female. Roughly 18 -20. She’s sitting on the sidewalk with elaborately tattoo-bedecked arms folded. There’s a sense of exhaustion in deep, blue eyes peering out into me from beneath a curtain of bangs as black as night. I’m trembling inside as I walk forward and present myself to her. I’m telling her about a product. I’m delivering my presentation. I’m delivering mood and image and brand awareness that’s been painstakingly designed to maximize product affinity but I really just want to tell her that I care. I really just want to tell her that I wish I had the arms to help her out right now. She smiles and gazes into me. I feel the need to say something, but I have no idea what I’d say. I want to tell her that I love her. Instead we share a moment together. I am an ad. She is my one-person demographic. This moment is all that exists.
I have always asked myself "What if?" Through my writing, I get the opportunity to share that question with everyone.
I have always been a fan of Science Fiction and stories of the human condition. My favorite authors (currently) are Robert Heinlien,Ray Bradbury, Philip K. Dick, and Cormac Mc Carthy.
Currently reading: The Martian (Andy Weir) and Seveneves ( Neal Stephenson)
I live on a quiet street in Naugatuck, CT with my wife Jamie, and our freakishly large cats.
HARD RAINS by George Bouton
Leonard stared out the window and wished that it would rain. Not a gentle rain, but a real rain. A violent driving rain that bent the treetops. A storm with thunder that shook your bones and threatened to tear the world and everyone in it apart.
He sipped his tea and kept still. He listened for the sound of raindrops tapping outside, he heard nothing. The branches outside his window gently swayed back and forth.
Standing from his kitchen table, he ticked off a checklist in his head: what he had, what he needed, and what he needed to do that day. He stepped out the door. He was met with a weak breeze that pushed against him like a tired child. He moved faster to the end of his street, he had four minutes to catch the transport going to AIM station #1013.
The transport shuddered a bit, its vibrations smoothed out with the increase of its speed as he sat. He chose not to listen to the chatter on the information channel, but rather watch houses and buildings and landscapes pass by, the lawns vibrant and green. Many years had passed since he had seen red appear on the leaves of maples or sumac, telling of the onset of fall, and approaching winter.
In fact, there were no seasons anymore. One benign month passed into the next without incident. Dr. Molina had seen to that, although he probably had no way of knowing it when he discovered the depletion of the ozone layer. At that time he was viewed skeptically but some years later he would be lauded for his discovery, and released a chain of events that changed things forever.
Twenty years ago in Helsinki, a group of scientists had gathered to address the situation of global warming.Destructive weather had been exponentially increasing, and became the elephant in the room. Mudslides swallowed cars and homes in California, typhoons tore apart villages in the Philippines. Deep snows fell in Africa and droughts were being recorded in the Amazon. A forum of the top minds of the nations planned, plotted and argued over models and projections and collected data from key sources around the world. After a massive amount of time and work they arrived at their conclusion, a new intermediary had to be created to marginalize the loss of the earth's ozone layer.
A few years earlier in the United States, The HAARP project had been created. Designed as an experiment in working with the earth's ionosphere, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency had built the high power radio frequency transmitter in Alaska, with the goal of finding the results of firing radio waves into the ionosphere and exciting areas of it with the waves. After a time suspicions and even conspiracy theories grew from the clandestine nature of the facility's work. Then, just as mysteriously as HAARP had been brought into existence, it was mothballed. However, where the Department of Defense saw a wall, the scientists of Helsinki saw a window.
It was Roly Gerlitz who saw the potential in the dubious Alaska program, and flew there immediately with a small team of engineers to meet with the former heads of the HAARP program, and discuss its nature. Within several days Roly had a working knowledge of HAARP. Within several weeks he had infected his team with the program's potential. Within several months Roly and his team were communicated to the world at the U.N. council on climate change, and in several years copies of the facility were operating in many major continents.
What Roly had discovered was where the Department of defense had been kicking holes in the sky, all you really needed was a love tap.
There was trepidation at the onset. Naturally no one wants to get something this large wrong, but fortune had smiled upon Roly and the team. Within six months there were no longer any destructive weather patterns detected. In fact, after the newly named Guerlitz project went online, there were no destructive storms, period.
But Roly's vision did not stop there. If bad weather could be halted, why couldn't good weather be generated? Why couldn't there be a fertile green Death valley, or a Sahara grasslands? The possibilities were endless, and the Guerlitz project was able to fulfill those curiosities and distill what was only the optimum conditions for every region.
This is what landed Leonard in his current position. In the pre-Guerlitz days His was a family of farmers. Their productivity in yields stretched back generations from the one expanse of land they worked season after season without fail. Theirs was a life of skill and intuition, sweat and blood married with the soil to grow as the crops did every season. There was a unique memory and tradition in it.
Post-Guerlitz was the hand that slammed that almanac closed for good. If people all over the world could grow crops, there was no longer a need for skills which Leonard had expertise. Apples could be grown in India just as easily as they could in Connecticut. Corn could be raised in Iowa and Scotland alike. Agrarians protested Guerlitz, but when the clamor died down they knew the change was inevitable.
Still Leonard couldn't dismiss the finger of memory that poked him. The birds no longer migrated. There was no longer the sight of new shoots pushing through dense warming earth early in the year. Did bears even hibernate anymore? He couldn't think of everything that had changed. Maybe he shouldn't, he thought.
A low hum rose from the transport, Leonard intuitively knew that it was slowing down to stop at AIM1013. Doors slid open, and his fellow workers joined him in filing out towards the large building. Walking along the chain link fence, he looked out to the transmitter array. A long, wide swath of hundreds of transmitter poles, their transformers humming nearby. He wondered how much rice could grow in that space, or how many cattle it could sustain. It was that finger of memory poking him again.
"Yo, Len!" Someone shouted behind him, it was Matt, from Aggregation.
"Did you watch Houseboat Pirates last night? Man it was crazy!"
Matt asked him this every Thursday morning without fail, and it always made him feel twitchy. "Houseboat Pirates? Really? Who thinks this shit up?" He wanted to say, but Matt was a kind person and really just wanted to share what he liked.
"Damn, I had meant to, I had to configure the house battery's output, took me all night, almost." Leonard said. It was a lie, and maybe Matt knew it too, but he didn't want to be rude.
" You gotta see it man, it was crazy when the boat went - well, I don't wanna ruin it for you." Matt said, stepping up to the security checkpoint. Matt, just like Leonard and everyone else at AIM1013 showed their I.d. badge, stepped on a platform, and was scanned. This was to avoid anyone sneaking in or out with weapons, programs, or anything else that AIM1013 thought should not be entering or exiting their facility. Leonard passed through security's scrutiny, and walked on.
"I'll try to check it out tonight." Leonard said to Matt as he turned from the main hall down towards environmentals.
Environmentals was what Leonard had been selected for in lieu of his lifestyle as a farmer. After all, there were plenty of windows, floors and walls that needed cleaning, and Leonard wasn't exactly qualified for tuning frequencies on arrays. Not that he couldn't have learned, or at least been given the opportunity to try. When the announcement had come that a Guerlitz facility had been completed nearby, and new ways to earn a living had been allocated to people like him, he applied, and was shuttled down the long hall to Environmentals and handed a mop. This after having refitted the operating system on the family tractor, realigning the dish on the barn to better the yield speed, and even splicing a few seedlings to make an entirely better crop. When asked what he did previously he had said "farmer", and they stamped stupid on his head and walked him off.
In a way it really pissed him off, but in other ways he enjoyed the fact that he had access to anywhere in the facility via his position. Hell, if Leonard can wipe down a monitor screen, why should anyone else do it? This was the thinking that led him into many a strange thing, like the co-workers in Atmosphere Mapping fucking on the break room table, or the "closed room" discussions in administration. He had even seen one of the techs shooting up in the server room. Of course his eyes never saw these things, at least that was the covenant he held with the majority of guilty souls in the facility.
His favorite room was central control. He likened it to the old mission control rooms at NASA with their rows of stations, and several gigantic screens showing the progress of other facilities nearby and abroad. Most times the techs there wouldn't give him a second glance as he glided through. He would note about each one as he traveled, likening it to his own zoo:
Station 1: Richard was drinking again last night, he reeks of it.
Station 2: Lisa is still flirting with the guy across the room.
Station 3: Paul needs to stop that nasty nosepicking habit of his.
And so on as he traveled, leaving the room cleaner in his wake.
In time Leonard gleaned how many of the stations worked as well. How Geographers mapped and scheduled areas of land. How Meteorologists assessed conditions of atmosphere in the sky. Aggregation determined the frequency of waves applied to the ionosphere, and Energy Metrics calculated averages of previous applications, dictating future ones. Every day these components and their techs communicated and operated in cohesion to the given end. It was amazing the amount of information that could be learned from simply observing on a regular basis. There were advantages to being an invisible element of the facility.
Leonard particularly liked to visit the control center after sunset, when the techs had left and the room was vacant, with each station placed on automatic. Leonard would put his feet up at a random station and watch the flat screen monitors feeding real time information on the progression of the sun across the earth. Various stations would light up as they crossed from the twilight band into full sun, relaying the temperature, and any variances that needed to be adjusted from the previous evening. Leonard became annoyed when he struggled to remember what the earth looked like before, how storms, clouds, and the jet stream danced around the face of the globe. Now there was a meticulous and manicured landscape, the fingers of technology sunk deep into the earth and sky. Now every day was perfect and bucolic, the fangs of the beast removed.
Leonard unknotted himself awake on his day off. The earned hangover slapped a dull heavy sack against his forehead. Drinking sometimes helped him sleep, pulling him into a syrupy pool of apathy from his life. Many other evenings he would stay awake, rarely getting more than a few hours of rest before being compelled to rise from bed to try and distract himself from that finger poking his memories. Memories of apple festivals in the fall. Recollections of the spring and the fading layer of snow.
Back then Leonard would wake before sunrise with his grandfather and begin the tasks of the day. Sending the horses out to pasture, feeding and caring for the barnyard, maintaining machinery and crops. He remembered how all of this work would leave the pair dirty and exhausted, but satisfied with the accomplishments of the day.
Always tied to these thoughts was the intuitive haunting of when the visitor came to their farm. The stranger had a smoothness to him. He wore a suit, his mannerisms and hands cleaner than a fresh sheet of office paper. Grandpa had been called from the field to speak with this man. Leonard remained at the tractor and watched his grandfather's conversation with the man in the suit, gathering meaning by his gestures from afar. When his grandfather returned to the tractor his look was the same, but Leonard felt the rage boiling through his skin as hot as the sun on their backs.
From that moment an invisible hand began to peel away a gossamer layer of their lives one slow day at a time. Farm equipment was sold, animals were trucked off, belongings were packed and moved.All the time Leonard watched his grandfather wither inside behind a stoic mask. The crops withered as well, and two weeks before The family was to leave the farm for good, Leonard discovered his grandfather hanging from a beam in the barn. Leonard's grandmother, already worn sinewy and thin from a life on the farm finally found her breaking point that morning, and had resigned herself to the caring hands of her sister. Leonard was left with a cashier's check and a shadow on his soul.
Drinking, distraction, work, repeat. This is the repetition that Leonard endured since eminent domain had taken their farm, and Guerlitz had taken the skies. He swallowed more tablets of ibuprofen and washed it down with coffee. He had no intention of continuing in this vein, it was pulling his mind and body in impossibly exhausting directions, a twisting coil of rope that crackled and popped in his head.
He left his home and took the next transport headed downtown. The pills he had taken finally helping to release the fist squeezing in his forehead ,he watched through the window as suburb gave way to city, and finally to downtown. Leonard stepped off of the transport and it roared away, leaving him feeling compromised in the grit and garbage of downtown. In the noonday sun people traveled here and there, leaned against storefronts and shouted down sidewalks. Leonard took to his task and studied the storefronts as he walked. The one he sought was near, as best his estimations could manufacture. After two blocks he found the store, and stepped inside.
To be continued
Elias Andreopoulos is an odd job man, and he does his odd jobs throughout the US. He has worked as an avocado picker, a traveling salesman, a supermarket cashier and a janitor. Last year, at age 34, he went to the beach for the first time.
Chambliss by Elias Andreopoulos
Part I: Birthday
Robert Chambliss worked at the same trucking company as my Pa. He came over our house for dinner on my 12th birthday, September 14th, 1963. My Ma made all my favorites: fried chicken, mashed potatoes, coleslaw, biscuits, cornbread and sweet potato pie. I ate three plates of food and drank six cans of Dr. Pepper. My stomach expanded so much that I broke my belt, which annoyed my Pa because he would have to buy a new one.
After dinner, my Pa and Chambliss went for a walk to discuss business. I had hoped to play baseball with my Pa like he promised. As I waited, I tossed a baseball to myself with the soda and food sloshing around my stomach. I grew bored of my solo catch, so I took my baseball bat. I aimed for the street, which was approximately two hundred feet away. I doubted I had the strength to hit the baseball there, but hoped I could. It would boost my confidence when trying out for the baseball team. I threw five pitches to myself before making contact, a mere dribbler that bounced twenty feet.
I wanted my Pa to pitch to me. It was unfair he was spending so much time with Chambliss on my birthday. With my frustration boiling over, I threw up the ball and swung as hard as I could. I hit the ball high and deep into the sky. The trajectory showed it was on path to land on Chambliss’ car windshield. I prayed to God for a miracle during that second the ball was in the air. Too bad God never listened to me. There was a loud shattering of glass. My instinct was to run away, but it would do no good. I would be beaten harder than if I confessed immediately.
My body began shaking when I saw them approaching. Tears uncontrollably dripped from my eyes. I had not planned on that, but was thankful, because it would make me look more innocent.
“What the fuck happened to my car!” Chambliss screamed.
I was hoping he had compassion, but saw none. He looked like a child throwing a tantrum examining his car, like there was nothing worse than a broken windshield. I considered blaming a black person. I didn’t because Chambliss was a Klan leader and would hurt, maybe even kill, whoever he thought ruined his car. My Ma told me not to believe the rumor, but I heard that Chambliss killed a black kid that broke his mailbox. They never found the body and the kid was listed as a runaway. I could not let that happen. Contrary to what everyone around me believed, I didn’t think blacks were bad.
“Who did this Little Martin?” Chambliss angrily questioned.
“I’m sorry,” I muttered.
“It was you?”
“I didn’t mean to Mr. Chambliss!”
“I don’t believe this!” He threw up his hands in disgust.
“I’ll pay for it. I’ll work every day, even quit school!”
“I need this car tomorrow! Can you get me five hundred dollars tomorrow?”
I looked down because there was nothing I could do. My Pa would have to somehow muster money he did not have to pay for it, maybe rob a bank, because we did not have a dollar to our name. I wished the day would end, a sad feeling to have on my birthday.
“You’re always screwing up you dumb kid!” My Pa yelled and struck me across the face. My nose began to bleed and I held my sleeve against it. My Pa had never hit me before. He didn’t want to and his face showed it. It was all to impress Chambliss.
“I’m so sorry,” I muttered.
Chambliss laughed to himself. “You don’t have to do that Doug. Little Martin will learn his lesson.” His demeanor changed into joy, which terrified me. “I have a job for Little Martin. If he does it right, I’ll forget what he did to my car.”
“What?” I asked.
“Your Pa said you don’t mind colored folks. Is that true?”
I didn’t know what to say. If I admitted that I didn’t feel hatred towards them, Chambliss would have gotten angrier, but I didn’t want to lie either. “I don’t know,” I said.
Chambliss looked at me with a disappointed face. I stood there, unsure of what to say. “Say how you feel son,” my Pa said. “And be honest, because Mr. Chambliss will know.”
“They never gave me any problems,” I said, not wanting to be strong about the issue.
“Were you always so short and thin?” he asked.
“That’s good because of the job I mentioned. It’s an important job, one that your Pa needs you to do because of all the card games he loses. You know your Pa is the biggest gambling loser in the county?”
It all made sense. All of my parents fights, how we always had to cut back when there was nothing to cut back on, how our car barely ran and why we could never fix it. I looked at my Pa and saw shame in his eyes. He never wanted me to find out, especially from somebody else’s mouth.
“So what am I supposed to do?” I asked.
“It’s a surprise for a friend. You’re going to have to plant it tonight.”
Part 2: Paternal Conversation
I sat in my room doing nothing for hours, waiting for Chambliss to come for me. I chewed my lip and picked at my cuticles to pass the time. My nerves were getting the better of me. There was a knock on my door and my Pa came in. He sat next to me and rubbed my knee, unable to make eye contact.
“Mr. Chambliss telephoned,” my Pa started. He opened his mouth to continue, but couldn’t. Whatever he was going to say was going to be bad. “I can’t go with you. Mr. Chambliss said the car is full and if I followed, I would draw too much attention.”
I remember the horror I felt. My Pa’s presence would have helped me complete my mission. I expected my Pa to stand up for me. I was his only child after all. But judging from his tone, he was staying home like the slave he was to Chambliss.
“Can’t you ask him again?” I pleaded. “I don’t want to be alone!”
“I don’t think so Martin.” He shook his head and patted my back.
“Please Pa, please!”
He got up and weakly said, “Sorry.” He left my room as I cried my eyes out.
Fantasies of running away and never returning shot through my head. I felt sorry for myself, something I had never done before. I grabbed onto my pillow and held it, trying to get all the comfort I could from cotton and feathers. I waited for Chambliss to come, feeling desperately alone.
Part 3: The Plant
I sat in the passenger seat of a car with Chambliss driving and three men in the back. Nobody spoke. I had no idea where I was being taken. Everyone smoked a cigarette with smoke filling the car. I thought about how much I missed my Ma. She tried not to show it, but she cried since Pa told her I was going alone. She must have felt great fear entrusting her only child to an alleged murderer.
The car stopped and Chambliss turned to me. “There’s a bag in the trunk. You’re going to put it under the steps of the 16th Street Baptist Church.”
I don’t know why I agreed. I guess it was my fear of finding out the price of my disobedience, but I should have known better. “What do you mean under the stairs?” I asked.
“The stairs are made of wood. There’s a hole small enough for you to sneak under.”
“Okay,” I said.
“We don’t got all night!” a man yelled from the back.
I exited the car, rattled from the hollering. I went to the trunk and unlocked it. The only thing inside was the bag I was to plant.
Chambliss stuck his head out the window and motioned for me to come to him. “Whatever you do, don’t look inside of the bag. Am I understood?”
I carried the bag to the church, which was a quarter mile away. They wanted to be far away in case something went wrong. If only I had stayed inside and not played ball, I would have been sleeping in my bed. But the more I thought about it, I realized I was pre-chosen. My Pa owed big money and I was the one to pay off his debt.
I reached the stairs and looked about. If I was caught, they would ditch me and turn me in as the mastermind of what they planned. I crawled under the stairs through the hole. I was not given a flashlight, so I had to reach out with my hand to make sure I wasn’t bumping into anything. I rested the bag against the building. I was tempted to look inside, but didn’t, adhering to the wishes of the coward I feared.
I crawled out, with all sorts of garbage clinging onto me. An old black man walked up to me. He smiled a mouth of yellow teeth and rested his hand on my shoulder. “What are you doing down there?” he asked.
“I thought I saw money down there,” I lied.
I was terrified because a potential witness was talking to me. The Klan was up to something bad. I had the power to stop it, yet I was too afraid to take a stand because of the dangers my family would encounter.
“I have a granddaughter about your age who sings in the choir at this church. I can’t wait until I see her in a couple of hours!”
I smelled the alcohol on him. I felt better because he wouldn’t remember our meeting. “That’s nice,” I said and walked away, feeling spooked.
“Take care!” he screamed out and laughed to himself.
I went to where the car was, but it was gone. I looked across the street and around the bend, and saw nothing. The bastards ditched me. I wished my Pa was there. He would have stood up for me. Then again, he allowed me to go in a car of strangers to do Klan dirty work.
I had two courses of action. The first was to find my way home and never mention what happened. The second was to find out what I planted and if it was bad, get it removed. And that was what I was going to do. I was no longer afraid of Chambliss. He was a coward who needed a kid to do his dirty work. My life didn’t have to be ruined because my Pa owed money. We could change our names and move far away where the Klan wouldn’t find us.
I saw a police cruiser waiting at a stoplight. I ran to it with my hands out, looking like a lunatic. The officer rolled down his window and asked, “What’s the problem son?” The cop was middle aged, clean shaven and had a trusting demeanor.
“I was forced to put something under the steps of the 16th Street Baptist Church. I don’t know what it is. Maybe it’s a bomb, I don’t know!”
“Hold on now. Speak slowly. Who told you to do this?”
The cop got out of the car and put his hand on my shoulder. “Calm down son.”
“And he just left me alone. I’m so scared!”
“Sit in the car son, let me take you home.”
“And you’ll find out what’s under the church?”
“Absolutely, I’ll radio it in.”
As a child you are taught that the members of law enforcement upheld the ideals of society. They stopped the bad guys, simple as that, putting their lives on the line to do so. I was wrong. I got home safely that night, but that cop did nothing about the bomb. It killed four innocent girls. I killed four innocent girls.
Part 4: The Confrontation
Five years passed. I never spoke a word about that night, not even to my parents. Each of us carried guilt about that night. Chambliss never went to the house again with my Pa’s debt paid with the blood of four little girls. I never saw that cop again. He probably told Chambliss about my attempt to backstab him. If he did, the Klan never retaliated. We moved to Wyoming a couple of months after, where my Pa got work through one of his Army buddies. We were poorer, but at least we weren’t in Alabama.
The move did nothing to alleviate the devastation I felt. I had a chance to stop what happened, and if I really wanted to, I could have. Being twelve years old is no excuse for allowing a mass murder to happen. It didn’t matter if my Pa was scared and weak. I could have been the bigger man and taken a stand. I did my best to block it out, but burying it only made my pain worse as time progressed. I enlisted in the Marines in hopes of getting sent to Vietnam and my wishes were granted. All I wanted was to die for my sin like I deserved.
I saved up for a ratty old car and drove to Chambliss’ house. For years, I played our confrontation in my head. It would start with me verbally overpowering him and end with me stabbing him right through his heart. I would watch him fall to the ground and writhe as his pathetic life exited his wretched body. The car, whose windshield I broke, stood in his driveway. I took the knife from my pocket and slashed the tires. I wished I had my baseball bat to do worse.
I went to the front door and knocked. Birds chirped in the background. The door opened. It was Chambliss. He looked pathetic, dressed in dirty rags with a long cigarette flopping in his mouth. Someone who I thought had power and prestige was a backward hillbilly.
“Is that you, Little Martin?” he asked with a laugh.
“Yes Chambliss.” The bastard still called me Little Martin, even though I was taller and stronger than he ever was.
“It’s Mr. Chambliss to you.”
“You don’t deserve anything before your pathetic name!”
“If you’re bitter about the church, don’t bother. It happened. Get over it. I know you ratted on me, too bad the cop was on our side. You’re lucky I didn’t go after your family. With the Klan, when you snitch on one of us, you snitch on all of us. And don’t think you fooled us by moving to Wyoming.”
“You’re a real humanitarian.”
“Why are you here anyway? If you came to kill me you would have done it already.”
I pulled out my knife. He smirked. He reached into his back pocket and pulled out a pistol. He pointed it at my head. “I can end your life and nobody would know, and even if they did, I got the Klan to protect me. How much jail time did I get for the church? Remind me.” He laughed, gloating his repugnance to me. I couldn’t imagine how anyone could brag about killing four little girls.
“Fuck you!” I yelled, unafraid to die. My insides were already dead because of him.
“When are you going to Vietnam?” he asked, not drawing his gun away from me.
I stood without saying a word.
“Just don’t get yourself killed kid. What you did wasn’t your fault.” He turned around, leaving his back turned to me. He knew I didn’t have the guts to stab him in the back. He closed the door and I stood there, feeling unaccomplished. I threw my knife in disgust at a nearby bush. I hoped one day he would be punished for the atrocity he committed, and unfortunately, I did not have the guts to punish him.
I walked to my car prepared for the long trip to Wyoming where I would only have my thoughts as company. I volunteered for Vietnam because there was a chance I would never come back, a desperation attempt to forget what I did. But in Vietnam I can save lives and be an asset to my comrades and country. But whatever I do, I will never bring those four girls back. I have to bear that burden for the rest of my days.