Sharon Frame Gay grew up a child of the highway, playing by the side of the road. Her work can be found in several anthologies, as well as BioStories, Gravel Magazine, Fiction on the Web, Literally Stories, Halcyon Days, Frontier Tales, Mid American Fiction and Photography, Write City, Literally Orphans and others. She is a Pushcart Prize nominee.
By Sharon Frame Gay
Sam lay folded in the duck blind, a scarf across his mouth, hiding the puffs of breath in the crisp October air so the birds wouldn't know he was there. On his lap was the shotgun, loaded and ready, safety on, as he watched the sky with his father for incoming mallards.
Here in the Ozarks, it was a rite of passage that a young man hunt for deer and birds in the fall, then fish for trout in the spring and summer. Before he was 5, he held his first shotgun in his hands, his first fishing pole, and learned to walk quietly in the woods alongside Big Sam, his father.
Sam hated every minute of it.
He much preferred the honeyed warmth of the kitchen, watching his mother fold and worry the bread batter before sliding it into a bowl, letting it rise on the counter. He liked to read at the table, the smell of the bread baking, the sweet sounds of the Grand Ole Opry on the radio. He always wanted to be a baker when he grew up, kneading and punching the dough, adding handfuls of raisins or slivered almonds, shaping the bread into crescents or rounds, watching them rise up under the kitchen towel placed over the bowl, and inhaling the yeasty aroma as it baked in the oven, coming out brown and crusty, with soft insides, butter running down the bread and into his mouth.
But Sam seldom talked to his mother, and especially Big Sam, about what he wanted to do. It was an unspoken assumption that he was going to work at the saw mill, threading tree planks through the mighty teeth, and watching them come out the other end, forever slivered into lumber. The sawmill was the biggest enterprise around here, and unless a young man went to college, left home and pursued another career, he was destined to don the thick brown gloves of the working man and head off to the mill with a tin bucket filled with last night's leftovers to eat, when the lunch whistle sounded. The entire town lived and ate by the whistle that the mill had. Its sound covered the town at 7 am, noon, and 5 pm, quitting time, like a fog. When the day was over, it seemed like the people of Poplar Run heaved a sigh of relief, began to breathe again, as the men hurried home to their supper and the machinery was shut down, the silence so eerie after listening to it all day long. The sharp smell of wood permeated the air, and it mingled with the coming darkness of autumn, a perfume dabbed behind the ear of Poplar Run.
At 18, and nearly 6 ft 2, Sam should be enjoying his senior year in high school. The small old fashioned brick building at the edge of town housed only about 200 students , from 8th through 12th grade, all of them raised in Poplar Run like puppies from the same litter, evolving, growing, socializing, and ultimately seeking out mates, under the noisy umbrella of the saw mill.
The girls loved Sam because he was handsome, kind, and respectful. "You aint like the rest, Sam," sighed Joni Walsh, one day as they sat on the bleachers and watched the marching band. "You don't try to get all us girls on our backs like the other boys. You just sit with us and laugh and listen to us when we have somethin' to say". Sam smiled back. He admitted that he was more comfortable with the girls in his school than some of the boys. Although he played on the football team, he didn't spend a lot of his free time carousing in cars with the other jocks, or meeting down at the one theater in town on a Saturday night, his hand placed on the waist of a girl friend who wore his letter jacket. His leather jacket, in fact, had never been worn by a girlfriend, and hung about his frame in a manner that suggested that it was as uncomfortable as he was.
No boy worth his salt in Poplar Run didn't dream of playing football on Friday nights, under the stadium lights that lit up the field so brightly, Sam was sure it could be seen from space. He dutifully tried out for the team freshman year and was surprised and pleased, but also a little bit scared, to discover that he had a knack for the game. His long legs carried him through all four years, racing down the field, scoring for the team, and bringing him some measure of success among his peers. But afterwards, he straggled behind the other players, not showering until they were done and getting dressed. He jumped in and out of the shower, his feet sliding on the wet concrete, and, turning towards the locker, threw his clothes back on his wet body, thrusting his toes into his shoes and squishing out the door, his duffle flung over his shoulder, weaving through the blackened streets of town until he saw the light from his kitchen window, beckoning him home.
Sam had a secret. Lots of secrets, really. And one of them was that he just wasn't comfortable with his fellow students, or even his teachers for that matter. He didn't fit in. He hated killing the ducks and deer and fish every year that his father insisted he do. He didn't want to run out on the playing field with the team, prancing down the 50 yard line like young stallions. He hardly knew what to say to the other boys, and he fended off the girls right and left, as though he were heading for the goal posts and they were bound and determined to tackle him.
He had a bad relationship with Big Sam. Big Sam worked at the saw mill, arriving home at 5:15 exactly every night, his hair filled with wood chips and his lunch pail clanging by his side like a warning bell. He was a man's man. And he was bound and determined to make sure Sam would be just like him, and quit that ridiculous idea of baking bread for a living. That was for faggots and Frenchmen, or women who wore nets across their foreheads. "Shut the hell up about becoming a baker, Sam", he would say, when talk came around to what Sam wanted to do after high school. "We ain't got the money for cooking school anyway, and besides, there's a perfectly good living waiting for you right here in town. I already talked to Hank down at the mill and there will be job for you just as soon as you graduate."
The other senior boys had plans. Some were off to college. Their parents scrimped and saved to get their sons into the state university, boasting about it in the cafes and wrinkling their noses at the saw mill, even though they, themselves, have been married to it all their lives. Others were following a trade, either working for the mill or learning how to be a plumber or cabinet maker. Sam could hear them talking when he sat at the tables during lunch, their voices raised as they made their plans. The thought of working at the saw mill saddened Sam, and he felt isolated and forlorn, unable to voice his dream of becoming a baker to his few friends at school. They would most likely laugh at him.
He just needed to keep his head down and get through high school, he thought, with no more mistakes, like the one in August, during football practice. It was getting late. Practice was over, and as usual Sam hung back outside until most of the team had showered and headed towards home. When he walked into the locker room and stripped down, he was surprised to see Chad Purdy, the captain of the team, still around, showering. Tentatively, Sam stepped into the large shower area and turned on the nozzle, glancing at Chad as he began to soap himself. There was a frigid silence. "What the hell are you looking at, Campbell"? Chad asked and Sam mumbled, "nothing, man". "Bullshit", Chad said and took a menacing step forward. "I asked you what the hell you were looking at!" Sam felt his face turn red, and backed away, his shoulders touching the tile behind him. "Nothing, Chad, for God's sake. We've been friends since kindergarten!" Chad grabbed him by the shoulders and shoved him against the wall. Sam felt Chad's penis, wet and soapy, as it touched his bare thigh. "Don't you ever, ever look at me again, Sam, do you hear"? Sam nodded, feeling the prickling of tears behind his eyes. Chad shoved him once more for good measure, then stormed out of the shower, his wet footprints trailing behind him. Sam let out a breath and turned into the nozzle, letting the water wash away his tears and shame.
After that, Sam kept to himself even more. The other boys were cordial but distant. And the girls were giggly and pushy, passing him notes and trying to hook this or that girl up with him for a date.
By May, the other kids knew what they were going to do that summer and on in to the fall. Prom was coming up and then graduation, and there was energy in the halls as they chattered on with their plans, and counted the days until they were finished at Poplar Run High.
Sam asked Polly Randal to prom. Big Sam was so happy, that he lent him the truck for the night, and even gave him the money to rent a tux and buy Polly a corsage. There was going to be a party afterwards up at the lake, and Big Sam lifted a blanket in the back of the truck and showed Sam several six packs of beer. "For later," he winked, and cuffed him on the shoulder.
"Have fun and let loose a bit, son". Sam flushed. How he had wanted to feel his father's approval. All his life he yearned for it, and now it was there for the taking, if he conformed.
The prom was filled with all Sam's classmates, all dressed up and dancing until the sweat ran down their temples, booze already on the breath of some of the boys and the girls fretting and fussing with their too tight dresses and pinching high heels. Polly clung to him like a life jacket. She held on to his elbow possessively, raking her nails lightly up and down his arm and folding herself into him when they slow danced. It was no surprise that on the way to the lake for the party, she asked him to pull over on a dusty road for a moment. When he did, she reached over and shut off the engine, then turned to him with a sweet smile. "Why don't you kiss me, Sam"? she asked, her breath soft on his face and the smell of her perfume rising from her neck. Sam placed his lips tepidly on hers, then drew slightly away, and kissed her on the cheek. Polly scooted closer, and nuzzled his neck. Sam put his arm around her and lightly stroked her shoulder. Then, boldly, Polly placed Sam's hand on her breast. Sam drew back and smiled at her. "Don't you think we should head on to the party now"? he asked. Polly flounced over to her side of the truck and turned away. "Whatever, Sam. I guess you just plain don't like me". "Why, I like you just fine, Polly", Sam exclaimed, wounded by her comment. "Well if you like me and you won't kiss me, maybe kids at school are right. Maybe you're just weird or something" Polly said, her eyes filled with tears. "Let's get going," she grumbled, then turned her face towards the window and stared up into the sky the rest of the way to the lake. Once Sam pulled into the parking lot, she flounced out of the car and went to join the others. Miserable, Sam sat on a rock at the edge of the clearing, watching his fellow classmates revel in graduation, drinking, laughing, sharing beer and food. Nobody came up to him. Nobody noticed him. Around midnight, Polly staggered up. It was obvious that she had been drinking. "Go on home, Sam", she said. "I'm getting a ride with Bobby Richardson and I ain't leaving til later." Before he could open his mouth, she was walking back down to the pavilion, leaving him alone in the night air. He slowly got up and brushed off his pants, then ambled back to the pickup truck and headed home, the carnation Polly gave him wilting in his tuxedo lapel.
Two weeks later, Sam was standing in line at the sawmill, tin bucket in hand, and fresh work gloves tucked into the back pocket of his oldest jeans. Gazing around at the rest of the men, he noticed one or two classmates and a few guys from previous years at Poplar High. Looking behind him, he was stunned to see Chad in line, shifting from one foot to another. Chad the football star! Apparently he had already had his moment of glory on the field and was going to bloom out right where he was, in the mill, here in this town. He looked away, uncomfortable, remembering their last encounter.
The 7 am whistle blew, and the gates opened, everybody shuffling in. He saw his father far up ahead, turning into one building but he knew that his instructions were to go all the way to the end building, where he would be loading lumber on to the semi trucks crouched in the parking lot, waiting to be fed tons of wood. As he passed a group of men, he heard one say "that kid's Big Sam's son. He's kind of strange, but don't let Big Sam hear ya say that". Sam felt tears prick behind his eyes, but he held his head and walked towards the back of the lot. There he met two gruff older men who had few words to say to him. They told him to start unloading the wood from the back of the truck and put it in piles near the saws.
By lunch time, Sam's hands were blistered and bleeding, even with the heavy gloves on. His back ached and his feet hurt from hours of hard labor. When the whistle blew for lunch, it sounded like a lullaby to him. He sank gratefully on to the ground and opened his lunch pail and ate alone. The sawmill was vast. Sam saw hundreds of men walking around, smoking, talking, ambling. Some men were clustered together in a group while others sat by themselves. Far across the lumber yard, Sam could see his father, sitting with another man.
At 5:00 when the whistle blew again, men dropped what they were doing and headed, trancelike, towards the gate. Sam shuffled along with them. At one point, he saw Chad, and they nodded at each other. He knew that Chad would never approach him at work or become a friend. That possibility ended in the showers last year.
When he walked in the door at home, Sam smelled dinner baking, and the yeasty tang of bread, freshly baked and out on the counter. He nearly swooned with joy to be back in the warm kitchen, his smiling mother, Patsy Cline spilling out from the radio. "How was it ?" his mother asked, a hopeful smile on her face. "Exactly how I thought it would be", Sam mumbled, then headed to his room, shucking his clothes along the way in the mud room, throwing on something clean to wear for supper. A moment later, he heard the back door reverberate with Big Sam's entrance and he ambled out to the kitchen table.
His father nodded at him and said "how was it today"? "Fine," said Sam and the two men sat down at the old formica table like strangers. Big Sam said nothing more, buttering his bread and eating his chicken in swift, forceful bites, then pushed off from the table and walked into the living room, where he sat down and picked up the newspaper.
When the final whistle blew at the mill on Friday night, Sam stood in line with the others for his paycheck. This was the second month of work, and the days blended into one another much like the ingredients in the bread bowl, swirling and melding, and just like the batter, he felt like all the lumps and edges had been beaten out of him. Every day at lunch he sat alone. Every night at the dinner table, he sat in stony silence with Big Sam, while the muted tones of the radio accompanied the chewing and swallowing.
He kept his money in an old sock in his top drawer, along with a brochure for a cooking school in St. Louis. The cost to go was still too dear, but every nickel that he saved, was one step closer to his dream.
He didn't tell his parents, or anybody else, about what he planned to do. He just kept it to himself, and thought of breads and cakes and rolls while he wrangled the lumber and grew large callouses on his hands.
One night, Sam was asked to stay a bit later so that the last of the big trucks could be loaded and sent on its way. There were about ten men, working hard, lifting and grunting, the many hands making short work of the pile of lumber . Chad was one of them. He was working side by side with a man that Sam didn't know. A rugged man, with yellowed teeth and tobacco stains on his clothes and chin. His eyes were small and mean, like a feral pig, and they rested on Sam. "Hey Chad", the man said "is this the guy that you told me about? The guy who was staring at you in the shower last year"? Chad nodded sharply, then started to walk off. "So, kid," the man said, leering at Sam "what is it you want from Chaddie boy here"? "Nothing" Sam said . "It was a misunderstanding. Just leave me alone". "Leave you alone"? Leave you alone? I betcha that's not what you wanted Chad to do, is it? You were wanting to do something not natural and evil and you're a sick twisted bastard if I ever saw one".
Sam backed up a few paces and turned towards the front gate. He took two steps and suddenly felt himself pushed from behind and landed face down in the mill yard. "Look at me when I talk to you", the older man growled, and tapped Sam with his foot. "Come on, Burt, leave him alone", Chad urged, "it's no big deal". "Well," Burt said, "it may be no big deal to you, but I aint working with no faggot every day, wondering what's going through his twisted little pecker of a mind. He needs to leave the mill and leave it NOW". Sam started to get up and Burt kicked him hard in the back, pushing him further into the dirt. "Stand up", Burt yelled. "Stand up and take it like the man you'll never be". "I said leave him be, Burt" Chad said, his eye darting back and forth, agitated. "Leave him alone, Chad, really? What, is he your girlfriend now"? "Hell no, Burt" Chad said through gritted teeth. "Well then, come get your licks in, and teach this faggot not to walk in your shadow anymore with his hang dog eyes and his fairy ways" spit Burt.
Chad walked towards Sam, his hands shaking. "Get up, God damnit," he swore, "get up and get out of here before you get hurt". His boot connected with a kidney and Sam hunched over with dry heaves. Suddenly, he felt a blind rage come over him, and he climbed back up, grabbed Chad by the knees and tackled him. The two boys rolled in the dirt together, taking hits, scratching at each other, fists flying. Burt grabbed Sam by the arms and hauled him to his feet. "Get him, Chad", and Chad drove his fist deep into Sam's belly.
"What the hell is going on here," cried the foreman, Gus. "Nothing, man", Burt said. "This here kid started calling Chad names and badgering him until Chad couldn't take it anymore".
"Is that true, Chad"? Chad nodded nervously, sweat trickling down his cheek.
"Look here, Sam", Gus said. "I hired you because of Big Sam, but it's been clear since day one that you don't belong here. And I won't have anybody starting trouble in the saw mill. As far as I'm concerned, you're fired and good riddance. Get your sorry ass out of my yard and find somewhere else to be a pain in the butt".
Sam stayed in the woods until he saw the light go out in his parent's bedroom. Still clutching his belly, he stole quietly into the house and into bed. Only when his head hit the pillow, did he allow the tears to flow freely in great choking sobs. The moonlight streaming through the window lit up the room and he saw his football jersey tossed over a chair, photos of himself with the team on the wall, a semi deflated football lying in the corner, the detritus of the only thing that ever seemed normal to Sam, the only thing he could do where he wasn't ridiculed or ignored or made to feel less than he was. And yet, the sport meant nothing to him. The boys on the team were strangers. He only joined the team to feel acceptance. He felt like he was living a life that really didn't exist for him. The life Big Sam wanted him to lead. The life that proved that he wasn't different. And the life that trapped him.
It was nearly dawn when Sam stole from the house. He packed an old duffle bag with his few items of clothes, and his sock full of money. It wouldn't be near enough to get him to St. Louis and into that cooking school. Sam knew he had to work somewhere and earn his keep in the city until the day when he could live his dream. He knew when his father went to work the next day, he'd hear the news that his son caused a ruckus and was fired. He knew that Big Sam would come home and beat him silly. There was no time to ponder.
The bus depot was on the far side of town. It was fitting that when the Greyhound pulled up to the station, heading north, that the morning whistle blew at the saw mill, a final goodbye. To Sam it sounded like grief. The bus door opened, and he stepped inside. He was the only citizen leaving Poplar Run that day. The bus was nearly full with people, staring straight ahead or sleeping, the interior smelling like wet coats and broken dreams. Sam found a place right up front, and hoisted his duffel above his head. Looking out the window, he saw his town slip away until the buildings were nothing more than toy size on the horizon. Weary, he closed his eyes and settled in with the other travelers.
The bus stopped outside another smoky Ozark town, the buildings crouching low in the afternoon sun, closed up like a spinster's mouth. He wandered in to the depot with a few other passengers, paid out precious money for a limp ham sandwich on rye, the cheese dry and turning up on the edges, washing it down with a Mountain Dew. Too soon, he heard the bus engine start up and he fell in behind the others, marching up and into the dank aisle. The Greyhound gave a hydraulic burp , then rambled towards the highway, each bump in the road jostling the passengers, until it hit the tarmac, then smoothed out into its own pace, loping like a horse down the road as it wound through the mountains.
Sam lay his head against the window ledge and fell asleep, his breath rising and falling with the others, all taking in the same air, though they were strangers. He did not bother getting off at the next two stops but continued to doze as they hurtled towards his destiny.
It was in the earliest light of dawn, before even the mountains woke, when the tired bus turned off the highway and picked its way through the city streets of St. Louis. It was steamy outside, and inside the air conditioning on the bus left a sheen of sweat on the window. Sam peered out, watching the city go by as though through a filter, the beginning of day shedding a kind light on the streets. A few stragglers were on the sidewalks, lurching home from work, or worse, and only a few looked up to watch them go by. One young man gave them all the finger, and an old black woman stood in a doorway, shaking her head at them, as though they were making a grave error.
The bus slid into its bay at the downtown Greyhound station, the smell of diesel fuel and lost hope riding on the air. "St Louis, Missouri", the drive announced over the PA system in a bored voice, and the riders stirred. A few children began to talk, their mothers shushing them, as others stood and stretched, reaching overhead for their baggage. Sam rose with the rest of the people, grabbing his duffle and standing in line, waiting for the door to open. When it did, he felt a slight, muggy breeze wafting up the stairs, a breeze full of promise, the smell of yeast in the air, a siren's song beckoning him into the future.
He took a step forward, then stopped and turned, looked behind him. Nearly all the passengers were standing in the aisles now, disheveled, dirty, tired. Their eyes were cast downward, their mouths in solemn lines as they waited their turn to shuffle forward.
Suddenly, Sam drew himself up to full height and said, quite loudly, "hey folks, I have something to tell you". Startled, the weary eyes all looked to him expectantly. He saw the faces of society; men, women, children, all on this journey of life. He saw sorrow and joy in
their faces, peace and unrest, as their faces all swam before him. He let out a great breath, then, one he had been holding in for most of his life.
"I'm gay". Sam announced.
There was silence, drawn out like the tail of a comet. Some folks shook their heads in confusion, others glared at him in disdain. Still others ignored him altogether.
Then a voice in the back of the bus shouted, "who gives a shit, kid"?
Sam smiled, flung his bag over his shoulder and winked. "I do", he said, then quietly stepped off the bus.
I took to writing stories about a little over a year ago for something to do while recovering from a broken foot. I've had about thirty published here and there. They have appeared in Romance Magazine, Heater, The Flash Fiction Press, The Fable Online, Frontier Tales, Clever Magazine, The Zodiac Review, Fear of Monkeys, Abbreviate Journal, and The Texas Writer's Journal Quarterly. (I think that's all of them.)
By B. Craig Grafton
My brother Brian was sixteen and me, Ruthie, I was ten at the time when all this happened. We were farm kids. Our cousins, Jimmy age twelve and Mindy also age ten, were city kids. It all began with and ended with a phone call from my mother’s sister.
“Kids Aunt Barbara is on the line. They’re coming down from Chicago to visit Grandma and us this weekend,” shouted our mother. “She says that they’ll be staying in town, visit Grandma at the nursing home on Saturday and be out to see us on Sunday.” Aunt Barbara and her family came to visit once a year. This was always a big deal to our mother but not to me or my brother. “Well aren’t you kids excited about seeing your cousins again?” asked our mother as she hung up the phone expecting a likewise excited bubbly perky response from us. Instead all she got was eye rolling. “Well?” she insisted.
“Oh we're excited alright,” lied my brother while trying to hold back an emerging smile. I could see the wheels turning in his head as he started thinking up new ways to play tricks on Jimmy again.
“Now Brian you are going to behave yourself this time!” ordered Mother. “I don’t want any more trouble from you like last time. Promise me that you’ll be good this time Brian.”
“Yes Mother. I’ll be good. I promise,” replied my brother with solemn face and with fingers crossed behind his back. I knew that he would play some more tricks on poor little gullible Jimmy because Jimmy always so easily fell for them.
“But I never did anything,”
“So see that you don’t do anything again.”
“Yes Mother I promise.”
Well Sunday rolled around and Aunt Barbara and family came out for their annual visit. While the adults sat in the wicker chairs on the big wrap around screened in front porch of the old farm house, drinking lemonade, jawing, and catching up on all the family and neighborhood gossip, Brian led us kids out into the barnyard, chomping at the bit to humiliate Jimmy again.
“Jimmy let me show you our new baby calf,” politely volunteered my brother as we walked over to the cattle pen. I had a pretty good idea what he was up to and so did Jimmy because he immediately shouted out, “Oh no you’re not getting me to touch that wire again. I’m not falling for that this time.”
Last time he was here Brian tricked Jimmy into touching the electric wire that went around the inside of cattle lot fence to keep the cattle from rubbing against and eventually destroying the fence. Jimmy was naive enough to touch it after Brian told him it was only a telephone line to the barn and if you put your ear against it you could hear the conversation.
“The current is off Jimmy. Look I’m touching it,” coaxed Brian, his right hand grasping the wire firmly, his fingers circling completely around it. Unbeknownst to poor JImmy, Brian was holding a stick in his left hand behind his back with which he used to push the electric wire against the wooden fence post thus effectively grounding the current. “It’s safe go ahead and try it,” he taunted. “We’ve shut off the electricity. Look I’m touching it. You chicken or something.”
Now no kid wants to be called chicken, especially a twelve year old boy. So Jimmy cautiously, tentatively stuck forth and withdrew his hand a couple of times over the wire before he finally got up the nerve to inevitably grasp it like Brian had done. And just as he did so Brian lifted the stick from the wire causing the circuit to become complete and shocking the bejeesus out of his cousin. “City kids,” my brother spit out while trying to catch his breath between laughs.
Jimmy began running around screaming at my brother, shaking his hand violently like somehow this would shake the electricity from it. He dared not hit my brother in retaliation as he was much smaller than him and the payback for hitting him would be far worse than any electric shock. Eventually he calmed down and bore his pain and shame in dignified silence. Best he could that is.
I wanted to tell at my brother shame on him and to leave poor Jimmy alone but I didn’t have the courage to do so. Instead hoping that if I ignored all this and changed the subject it would go away, I turned to Mindy and said, “See that baby calf over there. Isn’t he just adorable?”
Mindy spotted the calf and her eyes lit up, her jaw dropped open and she grinned from ear to ear. “Ah,” she cooed, “He’s so cute can we go in and pet him?”
“I don’t think so,” I responded knowing that it would be dangerous going in there and upsetting the mother.
“Why not?” asked Mindy, clueless as to the workings of the farm animal world, as she continued to ooh and aah over the baby calf. “Why can’t I pet him?” she whined. “He’s so cute. Don’t you just want to go in there and hug him the heck out of him? I want him for a pet. Ask your mom if I can take him home with me will you? Please, please, please,” she begged.
“No I will not.” I snarled back and gave her a mean look. I was starting now to get a little ticked off at my cousin’s insistent nagging, oohing and aahing and her ignorance. I guess that it never occurred to her that this animal would grow up.
Well by this time Jimmy had calmed down enough that my brother lamely apologized to him, but under false pretenses of course. Trying to divert his attention, he made the following peace offering: “Say Jimmy why don’t I go to the house and get us some chocolate cookies my mom baked today to make it up to you. Okay? How about it, No hard feelings huh?”
Okay nodded Jimmy somewhat reluctantly, still massaging his hand.
“Meet me at the picnic table in the back yard. I’ll be right back with some.”
Of course my brother was about to play another trick. I knew that because I watched him reach under the fence when Jimmy’s back was turned and pick up two small dried cow patties that were of course the color of chocolate and just the size of cookies and stuff them in his overalls. Not wanting to be there when he played this dirty trick, I again turned to Mindy to make my escape and said, “You want to go see the newborn baby kittens in the barn? They’re cute too.” Mindy’s eyes again lit up as she bobbed her head up and down yes a number of times. So off we ran.
There in the corner, in the matted down straw, curled momma cat nursing her two day old kittens of many colors. Upon spying them the first words out of Mind’s mouth were of course, “They’re so cute. Can I have one? Please. Please. Feel how soft and fluffy they are,” she said picking one up and cuddling it next to her cheek. “Don’t ya just love them.” She gave it a little kiss and began drooling likewise over the rest of them. “I’m going to ask my mom, not yours, if I can have one.” Then with clenched jaw stuck out she proclaimed, “She’ll say I can. I know she will.”
This poor ignorant city kid once again had no idea that these baby kittens were too young to leave their mother. But I kept my mouth shut. I couldn’t tell her anything while she was so enraptured. By now her constant fawning over and petting of them was really driving me crazy. It went on and on and on and only stopped when we heard the puking and gagging sounds of her brother, the cause of which I knew. We found him with his head stuck under the pump, pumping the handle as fast as he could and taking in and spitting out water, trying to rinse out the taste of his ‘chocolate cookie’ from his mouth. Brian was bent over next to him laughing, as they say, his guts out.
I knew what my brother hand done but Mindy stood there nonplussed so I explained to her that Brian had taken two dried out cow pies, told Jimmy that they were cookies, broke off a piece off one and pretended to be eating it and tricked her brother into taking a bite of the other one. Mindy wasn’t paying attention and didn’t hear a word I said. She could have cared less about the fate of her brother. She was fixated on the baby kittens.
“I’m going back to the kittens now,” she announced. “You coming?”
I didn’t want to. I knew that she would keep bugging me for one. So I said, “Don’t you want to see the baby chicks first?” Maybe this would distract her. Perhaps she wouldn’t want a chicken. Little did I know that would not be the case.
“Are they cute too?”
“Okay let’s go,” she shouted as she lit out for the chicken coop before I could say another word. There was momma hen fussing and clucking over her brood of a dozen or so baby chicks, all white fluffy little cotton balls scurrying across the chicken coop floor pecking here and there, running around literally like chickens with their heads cut off. Immediately Mindy got down on her knees and picked one up, nuzzling it to her cheek, and was about to speak when I cut her off. “No you can’t have one.” She gave me a dirty look and screamed, “Quit being so mean to me.”
I wasn’t going to let her take any of our animals. She wouldn’t know how to take care of them. First a calf, that was just plain ridiculous, next a kitten who was too little to leave its mother, now a baby chick. That was just plain silly. I knew that she would neglect any animal she would get and it would eventually die and I just couldn’t bear the thought of that.
She scowled at me and through gritted teeth defiantly again proclaimed, “I’m going to ask my mom. She’ll let me have one. I know she will. You can’t stop me. Just you just wait and see.”
That was the straw that broke the camel’s back. At that point I was thoroughly disgusted with her and all her nonsense and my facial expressions and the tone of my voice made that quite clear. I was about to tell her off, when my brother, who had been watching us all this time, absent Jimmy, picked up on my frustration and came to my rescue.
“Don’t you want to go pet our new turkey Mindy? He likes being petted,” asked Brian setting the trap. I knew what he was up to and this time I wholeheartedly approved, the promise to my mother notwithstanding.
“Sure,” she said as she set free the baby chick that she had been manhandling and followed Brian across the barnyard to our tom turkey, named Tom obviously. We called him Terrible Tom but Mindy didn’t need to know that.
“Go up and pet him Mindy. He likes to be petted,” assured my brother.
There was Terrible Tom all puffed up, his tail feathers all fan tailed out, strutting and drumming in front of and for the benefit of his harem of three hens. Mindy was a little taller than Tom but Tom in his puffed up mode appeared overall bigger than her. She reached out her hand to pet him and Tom pecked it before she knew what happened, just like I knew he would. Mindy froze. She looked over to us for help but to no avail as we pretended not to notice her. Tom fiercely held his ground and MIndy was too scared to move. She didn’t know what to do. She didn’t expect an animal to treat her like that. Then after what seemed like forever, slowly, cautiously, she began to back up and inch away from him. For each step Mindy took backwards, Tom took one step forward towards her. Finally she panicked and turned her back to the big bird and took off running in circles as fast as her stubby little legs could carry her not knowing where to go as Terrible Tom kept after her in hot pursuit.
“Run up on top of the picnic table Mindy. He can’t get you up there,” hollered my brother.
So she ran to the picnic table thinking that she would be safe on top of it. But a turkey is a bird and birds can fly and Tom flew right up on the table and went right after her. My brother and myself bent over in laughter as she ran down the other side and barely managed to make it to the safety of our front porch and her mother.
There was her mother who had witnessed the whole incident. Aunt Barbara took the shaken Mindy to her bosom trying to calm her down all the while glaring at us two non repentant culprits still enjoying our conniption fits.
Mindy looked up at her mother soulfully, tears in her eyes, figuring that now was the right time was right to ask for a pet. “Momma can I have a,”
But before Mindy could get it out Aunt Barbara, knowing what was coming, firmly said, “No!” That was the end of that conversation. “Go get your brother. It’s time to go.” she growled in disgust. Jimmy was nowhere in sight having decided that it was in his best interests to lay low and hide out from Brian.
“Yes Mother I’ll go get him,” came the weak reply as Mindy went back outside, but not before first checking to see that the coast was clear. It was. Tom had left to find his women.
Well after what seemed like an eternity Mindy returned with her brother. Our city relatives said their miffed goodbyes and left. Thus ended our day with the city kids. Or so I thought.
That evening Mother got a call from Aunt Barbara. “Oh. I see. Yes I understand. Forget about it Sis these things happen with kids. Don’t worry about it. Yes I’m sure she’s sorry.” These were snippets of answers that my mother gave to her sister over the phone.
“What was that all about?” I asked after she hung up.
“Well it seems that Mindy took some of the baby chicks with her when when she left today.”
“Is she bringing them back?” I immediately blurted out.
“No sweetie she’s not.”
“Well Mindy didn’t know what she was doing and stuffed the babies in her jean pockets. They all suffocated and died.”
Upon hearing that I burst into tears sobbing uncontrollably. Mother came over, put her arm around me and gave me a hug, and tried to comfort me best she could with reassuring words, but all to no avail.
The words of my brother helped somewhat though, as he muttered under his breath, “Damn city kids.”
Cathy Adams’ first novel, This Is What It Smells Like, was published by New Libri Press, Washington. Her short stories have been published in Utne, AE: The Canadian Science Fiction Review, Tincture, A River and Sound Review, Upstreet, and Portland Review, among others. She now lives and writes in Shenyang, China, with her husband, photographer, JJ Jackson.
OH, WE’RE CANADIANS
By Cathy Adams
“If Donald Trump is elected president, we’re telling any new people we meet that we’re from Canada, okay? Actually, we should start doing it now.”
This is what my husband said to me about a month ago. At first I thought he was joking. Why would we do such a thing? We live in China, and we don’t meet new people that often, why bother?
“Because of him, people won’t like us if they think we’re Americans. He’s an embarrassment. Because of all that stuff he says, you know?”
I tried to argue that it was crazy but I realized he was serious. I’ve never even been to Canada. I know nothing about it.
“And neither do most of the people we meet.”
That was a point I couldn’t argue with. Not much anyway. And this seemed important to him, a man who asked for so little. His eyes had that pleading look that I see only when he really wants something, to play one more video game, stay five more minutes to hear the next song, or order the large dessert, please. He’s a photographer who travels all around Southeast Asia, and he seemed unusually concerned with making sure no one we met in our travels knew we were from a country that would nominate someone like Donald Trump to be the leader of the free world. I couldn’t argue with that either.
“We’ll get denied service in some places. People we meet on subways and in restaurants won’t want to talk to us. The only people who will be friendly to us are Russians, and you know how I feel about Russia.”
I had known someone who’d done this, pretended to be from another country so that people wouldn’t hate her. She was a sultry, dark-haired, young woman with heavy brows who worked with me at Macy’s when I was an undergrad in the early 80’s. She told us she had moved to Atlanta from Equador three years before. A group of us were eating at a Mexican restaurant one day, and when we couldn’t read some items on the menu, we asked her what it said. She just shook her head and said she didn’t remember any Spanish. We laughed. It was a joke, right? You don’t forget your own language in two years. Big tears began rolling down her cheeks and her black brows were shaking like caterpillars trying to walk into one another. She finally admitted in a whisper that she was Iranian. “Everyone in America hates Iranians, I know it.” She was wiping tears away as we all assured her we were her friends no matter what. We didn’t care where she was from. We’re not like that, we insisted. Americans are not like that. We hugged her. We patted her arms. We oozed pity and compassion. We pulled tissues from our purses. We offered her mascara and a mirror. I could almost hear ‘America the Beautiful’ in my mind. It was inspiring. My patriotic pride soared. My heart swelled with amazement at our selfless tolerance. It was like a Hallmark movie of the week.
“Our Chinese friends are already asking us about Trump,” my husband continued. They’re asking if we like him? What do we think of the crap he says? We’re losing people’s respect already. America’s losing the world’s respect.”
I was hearing ‘America the Beautiful’ again. So, I agreed.
To maintain such a lie, first we’d have to pick a city and learn everything there was to know about it. We looked at Victoria, then Vancouver, but both are among the most well-known cities in Canada, and there was too much of a chance that a fellow traveler might be familiar with them, maybe even traveled there. Then we considered Quebec. “Don’t they speak French in Quebec?” my husband asked. He speaks Estonian, German, and English, and my French is limited to ordering fish and asking which direction is the metro, so Quebec was out.
“That’s not a city, it’s a province” he said. “And it’s huge.”
“Toronto?” I suggested.
“That’s one of the biggest cities in the biggest province, Ontario. Anyone who’s been to Canada has been to Ontario.” He was looking annoyed. We finally pulled up a map online and chose the city that looked the least likely to attract international travelers. We eliminated all northern cities. We could never pass for Inuits. And we eliminated all cities which had hosted Olympic games. We finally settled on Morden, Manitoba. It was in the middle of the country, it had an unassuming name, and it was home to five allegedly famous people we’d never heard of.
Rule number one was we’d say it only if asked where we were from, and only to people we were unlikely to have any continued relationship with, like fellow tourists traveling on boats, planes, subways, and the like. We would have to be honest to anyone who would be seeing our American passports like airline administrators, customs agents, or hotel operators. But to the slap happy Australians we meet in a bar in Hoi An or the sweet family of Malaysians in a doughnut shop in Korea, we would tell we’re from Morden, Canada when asked the inevitable, “So, where are you from?”
The name usually had to be repeated. For two months of our travels in Japan that summer, no one had heard of Morden. We’d smile and give them the “oh, nobody’s ever heard of it. It’s such a small town. The population’s only 7,812 people.” That was from the 2012 census, the most recent numbers available on Wikipedia, but no one knew the difference. Sometimes we got questions about our country’s leader, which I stumbled on the first time I was asked. We were in a bakery in Kagoshima when some college students began chatting with us and after a few questions one of them asked what I thought of our Prime Minister. “I think Gary Trudeau’s doing a tremendous job. He once acted in a mini series, you know.” The young man looked uncertain but was too polite to question me. I would not get that wrong again.
The next time we heard the where-are-you-from question was in Hiroshima, the last place in Asia where I wanted anyone to know I was an American, and that had nothing to do with Donald Trump. We sat on a park bench in Peace Memorial Park and talked to an old man who had come there each morning for twelve years to feed the birds. They knew him so well they would alight on his arms and shoulders, hop down to his hands and take the seeds from his palms. He was like a bird whisperer on that cool Tuesday morning with the sun burning through a light fog. When the question came, we were ready. “We’re from a small town in Canada. You’ve probably never heard of it. Morden, in Manitoba,” my husband said in his well rehearsed reply.
“No, I have not,” said the man, looking thoughtfully out at the birds on the river.
Still stinging from my failure in Kagoshima two days earlier, I chimed in. “Our Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau is the son of Pierre Trudeau, the previous Prime Minister.”
“Yes, I know. My son studied with Justin at McGill University many years ago,” said the man, smiling at us.
I shut up fast and started chattering about how cool it was that he could summon the birds to him so easily. The man became more animated and told us about how it had taken him four years to get them to trust him completely, and now they were so comfortable on his arms they sometimes didn’t want to leave and they’d sit on him long after the food was gone, unless there were other people around. I smiled sheepishly. We bid our good-byes and went for lunch at a sashimi restaurant where a little boy of about ten asked where we were from. What an easy mark. “We’re Canadians. Do you know where Canada is?” I asked.
“It’s in America?”
“Oh, no.” My husband and I both laughed. “Canada’s an entirely different country.”
“You sound like Americans,” the boy said.
“Well, we’re not. At all,” I replied. Bored with us, the boy returned to his table and ignored us the rest of his meal.
My confidence was up. Since arriving in Hiroshima, we’d told eight different groups or individuals, from Japan, Australia, and Germany that we were from Canada and all were warm and curious. We told them about our location (“About 34 kilometres northwest of the United States border crossing at Walhalla, North Dakota”), our great transportation service (“Greyhound Canada operates a daily bus service to and from Winnipeg”), our impressive science museum (“the largest collection of marine reptile fossils in Canada”), and our nationally know Corn and Apple Festival (“We grow lots of corn and apples, you know.”) No, no one knew that, and I’d venture to guess no one was impressed, but they’d always smile and tell us Morden sounded like a great place to live. “It’s home,” we’d chime, cocking our heads in nostalgic memories of drinking coffee in our small Pembina Valley home at our maple wood kitchen table while reading The Winkler-Morden Voice as the Manitoba sun warmed our windows. We told it so well I was getting homesick for Morden.
We were sitting in a coffee shop looking out the window and sipping caramel mochas. “We should visit there next time we’re in North America,” I said, when the last curious visitor had left our table.
“We’re from North Carolina,” my husband said. “It’s not like we can skip on up to Morden.”
“But the more we talk about it, the more it sounds like the place where I want to retire.”
“You said Peru,” my husband reminded me.
“In Peru there’s no free corn and apple cider at the Corn and Apple Festival on the last weekend in August,” I reminded him. I’d memorized huge chunks about Morden from Wikipedia. I was ready to be a tour guide.
“This is also the city that would rather have had a swimming pool than a performing arts centre and turned down a $5 million donation to build it,” my husband argued. He’d been reading about it while I napped that afternoon. I already knew about that and was about to argue that not everyone had wanted the pool, just a vocal minority, when a trio of chatty Brits entered the shop. Western faces generally acknowledge other western faces when in eastern lands, so we gave one another the nod-and-smile as the group of middle-aged ladies sashayed over to a table near ours to wait for their teas, “honey and lemon, no sugar, God no.”
“I don’t like sugar in my tea, either,” my husband piped up.
“Who does?” I lied through my southern teeth.
“So where are you from?” The question came fast.
“Oh, we’re Canadians.” My husband answered as quickly.
“We were sure you were Americans,” said a woman with pink lipstick applied so far outside her lip line it was distracting. The others laughed, and so did we.
“No, no. Heaven forbid. We’re from a small town called Morden. It’s in Manitoba. Every heard of it?” I said, beginning the spiel.
“No, never have,” said the pink lipsticked woman.
“Oh, Canada,” said another woman with white hair. “I’m just glad we don’t have to sit next to any Yanks. Have you seen on the telly that obnoxious brute they’ve voted for their Republican President?”
“Ja hear what he said about banning Muslims from America. What cheek!” said the third woman with an over-sized tote that she kept trying to balance upright on the floor next to her chair. “And women should be punished for abortion.” She wagged a finger at her final words.
“Why on earth would anyone vote for a man like that?” said the woman with white hair. “We let them go their merry way, start their own country, and then they piss on their own global reputation by nominating a boorish prig who knows precious nothing about how to be a statesman. Why you’ve never heard David Cameron go blustering about building a wall, and God knows we could use one in a place or two. Those Americans.” She concluded with an enormous eye-rolling that brought on a round of terms of agreement from the other two.
Part of me wanted to defend my country by pointing out that he wasn’t President. Not yet. Maybe he’d never be. I raised my eyebrows at my husband, whose eyes were buried deep in his empty caramel mocha.
“Justin Trudeau’s our leader,” I said to the next table.
The women looked over, seemingly noticing me for the first time, and broke into polite smiles. “Yes, dear, we know. Canada’s a lovely country,” said the white haired woman.
The British ladies remained disinterested in us for the rest of their visit. I sat back in my chair and watched the people pass by the window as the sun began to sink. After about twenty minutes, the British ladies with strong opinions of America finished their tea and noisily departed.
I waited until the last one was out the door before speaking. “They didn’t give us our freedom. We kicked their asses and took it.” I was about to raise my fist in a low chant of “U-S-A.” when the bell above the door chimed and in walked a well-dressed man in a dark, long coat. He ordered something at the counter so quietly I couldn’t make it out, and then he primly walked toward us, stopping to sit at the same table the three women had occupied. His eyes were bright blue and his gray hair was combed neatly around his head. His trimmed beard made me think of a photo I’d once seen of a nineteenth century Austrian chemistry professor. He was neat in every way. Dapper was the word that came to mind. All that was missing was a pocket watch and a cane.
“Good evening,” he said. His eyes crinkled and I could smell a scent like pine or some kind of berries. It made me think of Christmas.
“Hello,” my husband and I echoed one another.
“Are you enjoying your stay in Japan?” he asked.
“Can you tell we’re tourists?” my husband asked.
The man laughed politely. “There is a certain look,” he said, not offering any elaboration.
“What about you?”
“I’ve lived around the world. Japan for twelve years now.”
He had a distinct accent from the British Isles. I was guessing Scotland. I asked, and I was right.
“And you, you are Americans,” he confidently announced.
My husband beat me to a response. “Oh, we’re Canadians.”
“Canada! One of my favorite countries,” said the man. He introduced himself as Dr. Vincent McGregor, retired dentist.
I turned in my seat toward him, wondering if I was supposed to shake hands or something. Bowing came to mind, but I was sitting so I ended up ducking my head a few times awkwardly and muttering my name.
“So what part of Canada are you from?”
My husband and I exchanged glances, dueling for dominance to decide who would answer. I sat back and gave him a nod.
“We’re from Morden,” my husband.
The man’s face brightened. “A delightful town. Of course it was quite small when I was there.”
“You’ve been there?” my husband cut his eyes at me.
“Oh, yes. But it was so long ago. Nineteen and sixty-eight until early seventy-one, I think.”
I almost cut him off. “Well, we haven’t been back there for years.”
“Did you know the little diner on, what street was that? The place with the coffee that was so delicious.” He wrinkled his brow, thinking.
“No, there was no place like that when we were there,” I said.
“Nope,” my husband chimed in. “It was all strip malls when we lived there.”
“Strip malls?” Dr. McInerny’s eyes looked hurt. “It was always such an unassuming place. So. . . common. That’s why I liked it so. My first wife passed away in Morden.”
I felt a sinking feeling in my stomach. The server arrived with his coffee, and Dr. McGregor took his time adding milk and stirring it. “Ah, the snows we had. We used to go in a little copse when it snowed. My feet would be so cold. Almeda always wanted to go further. I would protest and suggest we return home for something hot to drink, but she always wanted to keep going. So I would trudge on, holding her hand until she finally relented at the sound of my chattering teeth and we’d return home. We didn’t have anything fancy, just a split level house on an ordinary street. Almeda planted camellias around the house and they bloomed a profusion of pink in the spring. Or were they azaleas?” He grinned at the memory. “I’m afraid I’m not very good with flowers. Tell me, what was it like when you lived there?”
“Actually,” my husband began, “we moved away when we were rather young.” He glanced at me. “I was um, twelve, and my wife was. . .how old were you, honey?”
“I was sixteen,” I blurted.
“Then you both must have lovely memories of Morden.”
“It was. . .”
“Yes,” I interrupted my husband’s uncertain response. “We loved playing in the snow, too.”
“You played in the snow together?”
“Oh no, we didn’t meet until later.”
“In North Carolina,” my husband added. “That was years later.”
“How very odd,” said the man. “You were both born in Morden but didn’t meet until later in. . .where is North Carolina? That’s in America isn’t it?”
“Yes, east coast.”
“How dreadful that you had to leave such a pleasant place as Morden.” His face fell once more.
I was anxious to return to his happy place. I fumbled in my mind for a picture of something. “I remember going to the pharmacy downtown. The one with the um, the ice cream counter.” My husband cut me a sharp look.
“I. . .I don’t seem to remember that,” Dr. McGregor said.
“Oh, well it was probably not there until after you left.” I propped my chin in my hand, declining to offer details. Suddenly the memory of a photograph I’d seen on Bing came to me. “Did you ever go to the Traveler’s Inn?”
“I remember,” he began, not seeming to hear what I’d said, “taking Almeda to church. It was the Mennonite Brethren Church. You must have known this place well, even if you didn’t attend. I confess we were not even Mennonite, but Almeda loved the place so. I think if she had lived she might have become Mennonite. Isn’t that funny? She wasn’t even German, you know. It was so plain, that church, so utilitarian but beautiful with its arched windows. I would sit next to her, rather bored actually, but I’d never admit it to Almeda. She would pray for me. Her face was so sublime when she prayed. She liked to sit near the window and I would glance at her. Her lips moved in a whisper so slight I could not quite hear what she said, but I could hear my name. She was praying for me, even after we found out she was dying, she would still pray for me. I don’t know, maybe she was praying that I would be alright after she was gone.” He fell silent. His coffee was now cold, and no one said anything. I wanted to tell him that I’d been in that church. I wanted it so badly, I imagined I had. That I’d sat there before, and I remembered how nice it was in that church, the stained glass windows, the lectern, the aisle down the center, the hard wooden pews, the simple wooden cross above the choir loft - this church I imagined so well. I thought those words might be of some comfort. I wanted to comfort this man sitting so sadly, this man who had lost so much in that town. I wanted to tell lies that would comfort. Some good lies. I really hated Donald Trump at that moment. We stopped talking: me, my husband, and the man who had lived in Morden.
Jamie’s writing takes ordinary people and places them in unusual, unwelcome, and often unsettling situations. Blogging and flash fiction happens at www.semperite.wordpress.com and tweets @OhDearJamie, while he embarks upon his first novel.
By Jamie L.Dyson
Nobody other than the owner and waitresses knew that I drank coffee in the Weir Street café every day. I hadn’t spoken to any of my family members for some years, and friends seemed like a waste of my energy, as well as theirs. Aside from those who poured me hot drinks and had long since given up attempts of conversation, there was nobody to wonder why I chose that place, why I stared out of the window for hours, or why a woman of my age would leave and walk the streets of such an undesirable neighbourhood, come rain or shine.
I had no need to work for a living. My husband, Gerry, was a wealthy man and when he was killed I profited handsomely from his life insurance. I’d worked very little before that anyway truth be told, with he being a proud traditionalist wanting to us to be one of the few couples clinging onto the man and wife clichés of generations gone. The one missing part of our happy fifties myth, was children. It’s not that we didn’t want them, we both did, I think. We just never got around to it. Although we married later in life than I would have liked, I always thought that we had all the time in the world, what was the rush? I’m sure he felt the same. Then he was killed, and there were no children. I’m not sure if it was a blessing to not be a single mother. Perhaps if I had had the responsibility of bringing them up, I wouldn’t have taken such an unhealthy interest in the boy that killed my husband.
It always shocked and confused people when I used that term, killed. ‘Your husband was a hero!’ they would say, and I agreed with them, but not for the reason that they believed him to be. He was my hero, and the day that our paths crossed with that of the boy, my hero was taken away from me forever.
Walking along the sea front was a nice escape for Gerry, so we tried to do it as often as we could. I hated when the wind would lash the rain upon us from all angles, cutting into our faces like tiny diamonds and causing streams of snot to flood from my nose; most unattractive. He seemed to prefer it when it was like that. ‘Bracing’, he would say with a mischievous glint in his eye as he pulled at my arm to beckon me along. I would take rain and snot every day if it meant we could be there together again. The only times I visited that place following his death were to follow the boy.
It was somewhat of a finer day when it happened. Still too early in the year for the beach to be bustling, but there were families with dogs and people flying kites, the ice cream van had been brought out of hibernation and the clouds dispersed at acceptable intervals. The boy was eight years old at the time and had been separated from his mother as he chased an inflatable football along the water’s edge. I remember how he caught my eye as he scurried along, the ball blowing slightly out of his reach just as he was about to scoop it up, over and over. It was cute.
I pulled my sweater up around my neck as a chilly gust whipped around us, and I saw that at the same time the boy’s ball was lofted high into the air and out a few feet into the waves. With what seemed to me to be no thought or hesitation, the boy followed it, trotting playfully into the breakers. I could see that the child’s actions were also being carefully observed by Gerry, and the contented look he had been sporting all day was replaced with a concerned grimace.
‘Just wait here a second darling,’ he said, as he broke his hand away from mine and paced down towards the sea. I waited, as instructed, and watched as the small boy began to bob up and down, in and out of my view, becoming smaller with each dip. Gerry’s canter became a jog, then a sprint, then a dive and a swim. The boy was nowhere to be seen, just the splashing arms of my husband heading towards the horizon.
Another man, much younger than Gerry, galloped past me and flopped into the waves, joining the frantic pursuit of the vanished boy. My husband sank beneath the surface for what seemed like eternity, then rose, child aloft in his arms, both gasping for air. The other man had caught up with them and wrapped an arm around the boy, then swam on his back towards the beach. My husband however did not swim back to the beach. He returned to the spot from which he had claimed the boy moments before, and sank down to the sand beneath.
The coroner said heart attack. I was too empty to listen.
When you lose someone, the way that people talk to you becomes tiresome very quickly. Particularly when you lose someone the way that I lost Gerry. A hero, saving that boy’s life, selfless, a worthy death saving someone with a whole life ahead of them. They made him sound God-like, as if that would be some kind of consolation to me. For a while, I hated him. He had left me alone, ended our life together without so much as a goodbye. Why couldn’t he have let the boy drown?
That was not my husband. He did the only thing that he could ever have done in that situation and to have done anything less would not be in his nature. After a year or so, I made my peace with him and his actions, visited his grave every day, but intently considered taking the easy way out - staring hopelessly at the service revolver that Gerry had inherited and so proudly maintained. Wondering if it would work as well after all these years as he always claimed it would.
I’m not sure exactly what I had hoped for the boy, whether the success or failure of his life would bring any satisfaction to my own. At first, my secretive observations of him were, I believe, out of pure interest. Who was this child that the universe had decided was more important than my husband? What was his purpose?
Unsurprisingly, it turned out, the child was much like any other of that age. Unremarkable in many ways, average intelligence, played video games too often, picked his nose when he thought nobody was looking, slept with the light on, walked alone to school, sometimes returning home with friends. When he reached the age of thirteen, there was little that he would do that surprised or even interested me, and I began to wonder whether my time could have been better spent. Yet I found it impossible to remove myself from the analysis of the unexceptional teenager’s existence.
I happened upon the Weir Street Café one day as the boy walked into its neighbourhood in a particularly furtive manner. He stopped outside a shop that appeared to have been closed for some time, graffiti adorning its rolled down shutters and wooden boards across its upstairs window. He had a nervous look about him, glancing up and down the street as though waiting for someone. Noticing the café looked directly upon his position, I hurried inside and sat in the front window - the first time I took the seat that would become a regular viewing position.
After a few more uneasy looks around him, the boy was approached by a group of four older looking teens, posturing and throwing their weight around as if to intimidate. One of them shook the boy’s hand, and the four of them left him standing in the street alone staring into his own uncurling fist. He had begun on a new path, whatever bagged substance was in his hand was his new direction, and I watched it unfold before me.
Over the next few years the boy used the empty shop to consume and sell his stuff, becoming more confident with each sale. He became part of the posturing elders and soon began to push around and intimidate those younger than him. It wasn’t too long before I found him indistinguishable from the rest of them, roaming in hoards and making a misery of the unfortunate lives they encountered. As he spent less and less time at home, I was forced to make trips to his house in order to get updates on his mother. I had always assumed that she was doing her best raising him alone on such a small income, but as his social behaviour descended rapidly with his teenage years, so her personal behaviour descended with middle age. I pitied her in some ways and to some extent could empathise, we were both single women struggling through life, but for very different reasons.
It was on one of my observations of his mother that things came to a head between all three of us. He had returned late from what I can only surmise was a party, or whatever they called gatherings in that putrid smelling shop he occupied. The mother had passed out drunk on the sofa and whilst I watched her from my car, I unfortunately ran out of coffee and was asleep in the driver’s seat before long. It was the first time in all of my years of following him that they boy was aware of my presence - I had finally been spotted. He rapped his fingers against my window and startled me awake from my slumber, pressing his grinning face against the glass and exposing his decrepit teeth. He simply smiled his repugnant smile, wide eyed and menacing, then banged a fist against the roof and swaggered off towards his house. Thankfully he had no idea who I was or what I was doing there, I suppose he assumed I was just another drunk, lonely old lady. He wasn’t far wrong.
When he let himself into the house, leaving the front door swinging, his mother didn’t stir from the sofa, even when he kicked at some of the empty cider cans that surrounded her. Shouting something that was no doubt horrendous made her wake, wearily. I scrutinised the scene as she cowered beneath him, reaching for her handbag and scrabbling around inside, withdrawing a note and shakily offering it in his direction.
I leaned over and opened up the glove box. A small bottle of gin rolled towards me. There was a swig remaining but little more. Looking at my tired eyes in the rear view mirror, I drank it. I felt old. I was exhausted. I’d been doing this far too long and what had I achieved?
Inside the house the boy continued to shout at his mother as she sat with her head in her hands and wept. Inside my glove box lay the implement that would end the situation for me, and perhaps all of us.
My memories of walking towards the house are vague. I could feel the alcohol and painkillers tingling around my head, and could feel the cold metal of the revolver in my palm. The firearm that hadn’t been shot in forty years being carried by the woman who hadn’t felt emotions in eight. I think I chuckled to myself – Both gun and woman, or neither, may live up to the task before them, whatever that transpired to be.
There was a slight breeze blowing the door back and forth as I pushed it open and stepped inside. The mother’s sobs rang in my ears. The boy’s thudding footsteps pounded my brain. As I entered the living room they both stopped and looked at me, equally perplexed. I raised the weapon and placed it to my temple, considering how strange it was that my hands didn’t shake in doing so. Mother and boy watched silently as this unknown woman in their house cocked the hammer. I had no idea if the gun would fire, but as I turned it away from me and towards the boy, pulling the trigger, the resulting explosion confirmed it. The bullet pierced his face and he dropped to the floor, as the antique revolver exploded in my hand, blowing pieces of flesh and shrapnel around the room. The screams that reverberated on the walls came only from the boy’s mother, throwing herself onto his body, but there were none from me. I waited, wanted, to die, and tried to calculate how much blood I would lose before the paramedics arrived.
Mileva Anastasiadou is a neurologist, living and working in Athens, Greece. She has published two books. Her work can be found in Ofi press magazine, Infective Ink, the Molotov Cocktail, Foliate Oak, HFC journal, Down in the Dirt magazine, Minus paper journal, Massacre, Pendora magazine, Maudlin House and soon in Menacing Hedge, the Wolfian, and the Fear of Monkeys.
By Mileva Anastasiadou
I once was a ghost, living among other ghosts, on the land of the living. I think I am alive now, a normal person, with goals, ambitions, and all, but I cannot be sure. What truly defines a living person has always been beyond my comprehension. If it was only a body, carrying a beating heart, then I have always been a living person, ever since I have any recollection of myself, I mean. But I suspect it takes more than this.
Now, though, I feel alive for the very first time. Under the full moon, on this beach, with the music as loud as it can get, the rhythm in complete synchronicity with my pounding heart, among people dancing and jumping and laughing, I have finally become alive, or so I think. It all started with a kiss. Or perhaps it was the smile, directed my way, that triggered my transformation into a living creature. There is a slight possibility though, which I have to take into consideration, that it all started even before the smile, when I swallowed the red pill that the beautiful girl inserted in my mouth, with a kiss, breathing life into me. Or even at the moment she noticed me.
I have been living in this house by the beach for my whole non-living life. I was most probably born a ghost. I did not have to die to become one. I was a dutiful son, raised to be a dutiful adult. Every task assigned to me has always been completed on time and in excellency. My parents used to be so proud of me, that they decided they did not want another child after me. Despite my efforts, I did not make it into college though. That was the first time I failed. My parents got disappointed, mostly because they knew I tried my best. I really did my best, not because I wanted to succeed, but only to avoid letting them down. After a while, I managed to find a job, in the cleaning services of the beach, which was way below my potential, but enough to satisfy me; my favourite pass-time as a kid was beachcombing. I have spent endless hours walking by the sea, searching for beautiful seashells. My collection rests hidden in the attic. Only Alex and Jim, my two ghost friends, have seen them.
So, that means that my life as a ghost has not been completely lonely. I surely do not have any living friends, as Ι do not want to exert my deadness on normal people, if you know what I mean, but Alex and Jim have always been there for me. They, too, are invisible, as I am. Nobody can see them, just like nobody can see me.
“Only ghosts are satisfied with this miserable life,” my parents once told me and Alex agreed. Jim has always had a different opinion on the subject.
“Normality is overrated. You decide the meaning that you give to your life,” he insists, every time we talk about it. I am happy collecting little treasures, while cleaning the beach. But this is not enough. I am unambitious, therefore I am. A ghost, not a human being.
Alex was hesitant about the pill. He is always the hesitant one. He asked me about its colour. I think it was red but I cannot be sure. It could be her tongue, that was red, not the pill.
“You must remember,” he insisted. I told him it was red for sure, so he would leave me alone.
“It could be a love potion,” he said, looking troubled. I realized this was not the correct answer. It was too late though.
Jim was a bit more encouraging though.
“So what?” he asked. “It could be worse anyway. It could be one of those pills that make you larger.”
“Or smaller,” I reminded him. For a few moments, we stood still, waiting for the change. We felt relieved when we realized that no change of my size was about to happen.
“It could be.... you know.... a pill that makes you alive,” Alex said trembling. I think he would rather prefer the “love potion” version.
“Let's enjoy it then, for once,” Jim said, jumping around like a little boy with a new toy.
Rarely do I listen to his advice, but the girl on the beach was so beautiful, that I could not resist her invitation to the party. We have been watching those parties, that take place during the summer, every year, from the window of my room. We have never been invited before, but even if we were, we would never dare joining those living creatures, who dance around fires, like animals, producing garbage, that we are supposed to clean the next day.
This time, thanks to the pill, I was more daring. I definitely thought that it was a “courage” potion after all. Just before I headed for the party, I looked at the mirror and my reflection was not there. That made me officially a ghost. In the past I only felt invisible, but it seemed like it did happen for real. I could not be any ghostlier than this. Or perhaps the room could not get any darker.
I keep on looking for her. She could never invite me to a party she would not plan to attend. Alex is telling me we should leave. Jim, on the other hand, insists we stay.
“She must be around here somewhere,” he says, in an excited tone. Alex is yawning.
“The party will be over soon, let's go home.”
“The party is just about to begin,” Jim says dancing to the uplifting rhythm of the music.
I am sick of their fights. I am stepping ahead in silence, leaving them behind. It is pretty crowded here, but I can move around easily, as ghosts normally can. Nobody notices me, as nobody normally notices ghosts.
Finally, our eyes meet. She does not seem to recognize me though.
“I've been looking all over for you,” I tell her when I approach. She does not stop dancing but at least she is looking my way.
“Do I know you?” Rarely does any one remember me. That is what happens with ghosts after all. You may cross paths with a ghost, but on the next minute, you feel as if it all happened in a dream. Ghosts do not have proper faces to be remembered upon. They are shadows.
“We have met, but we haven't been properly introduced,” I tell her as Alex and Jim are approaching me.
“You are scaring her,” says Alex, pulling me back. Jim is pulling Alex back. They are about to fight again.
“I am Anna,” says the girl, interrupting her dance for a quick handshake.
She invites me to dance with her. I feel her breath close to me, getting dizzier and dizzier as we spin around each other.
“Will you kiss me again, Anna?”
“Have I kissed you before?”
“I now recognize you, you are the beachcomber.”
I am about to say that I used to be a ghost before I met her, but Alex advises me not to. Jim agrees with him, which does not happen very often, so I unwillingly follow their advice.
“Won't you introduce me to your friends?”
This has never happened before. It is already improbable for alive humans to notice one ghost, let alone three of them.
“So, you see them?”
“Why wouldn't I?”
“They are supposed to be my imaginary friends.”
“I might be your new imaginary friend then,” says Anna laughing, but I have to take her words seriously. What if Anna too exists only in my imagination? What if she does not belong to the world of the living either? What if she is another ghost, like the three of us?
“Are you considering the possibility?” she asks, laughing even louder.
“She is making a fool of you,” says Alex, grabbing my arm, insisting to go home.
“Or maybe those pills gave me access to you mind.”
“That might seem logical,” whispers Jim. “I have read somewhere, that once you share such powerful pills directly from someone else's mouth, you become one with them.”
Having lived all my life as a ghost, with nobody talking to me, touching me, or knowing my inner thoughts, except for my ghost friends, the idea that somebody crossed the barriers of my mind came as a shock. My body may have been transparent, so that I would go unnoticed most of the time, but my mind has always been an impregnable castle.
So now, I feel more alive than ever. Living people have choices to make, goals to reach, roads to follow, and here, for the first time, I have to make an important decision. Do I give away the keys of my mind or do I demand them back?
Anna is looking at me, not through me, as it usually happens with people. She seems like she is expecting my answer. Instead of offering a direct answer, I take her in my arms and kiss her.
“I have never been kissed by a ghost before,” she says, when she catches back her breath. I stand still, looking into her eyes, already fantasizing about showing her my collection of seashells. She is the only living person on earth, with whom I would share it. She is the only one who would understand how important those seashells are to me. Empty houses, forgotten, maybe even haunted by their long gone inhabitants. Dead inside, yet incredibly beautiful, even when broken and deserted.
“It happened again this afternoon,” Jim says mocking her. Alex stands still, trying to regain composure. Alex never expects much of me. I never expect much of me either, truth be told.
“It doesn't count. I didn't know you were a ghost back then.”
“I didn't know I could be alive either.”
I was more than certain that I would follow her to the end of the world at that moment. All of a sudden, though, her friends came and took her away. I stood and watched her from afar, as she spent the rest of the night dancing.
“Perhaps the pill she took is an amnesia potion of some kind,” said Jim, who spent the rest of the night throwing pebbles in the waters ahead of him.
“There is a medical condition, which does not allow humans to record new memories for a period of time. She will definitely forget you”. Alex lay on the sand, trying hard to stay awake, despite the music that sounded as loud noise in his ears. Finally, he felt asleep.
It does not have to be anything medical. Ghosts can easily be forgotten after all. And it is not that difficult going back to being a ghost. All you have to do is remain silent for a while. They all then forget about you.
The first thing I noticed next morning was that Alex and Jim had vanished. That could be a side effect of the pill. I do miss them, but I try to keep them alive inside my mind. That is where they have always been after all. I still hear their voices from time to time.
“That stupid pill is to blame,” says Alex, the grumpy one.
“He felt love. It was worth it. We can always go and haunt other people,” answers Jim, the optimist one.
Then, I saw a note on the beach.
“I met a ghost yesterday. He must have escaped the haunted house, that lies forgotten on the edge of this beach. I could not resist kissing him. His lips were sweet like strawberry, his eyes kind, his heart loving. His kind is so rare in the realm of the living, that I almost believed they were mythical creatures. Like unicorns or something. Rare entities that make their own dreams and chase after them passionately, only to be considered passive and useless by the rest of us, the lazy thinkers who just conform to the dreams offered to us. One cannot live among ghosts, though. I have a polished life I cannot leave behind right now. One day, I will come back though. I already miss you, ghost.”
The thought of somebody missing me has given me all the joy in the world. The proper self-confidence a ghost should have. My existence has a meaning now. Perhaps not the most proper or acceptable meaning, but at least it makes sense to me, as I wait for her to come back and enjoy my collection of the most beautiful seashells in the world. I am no longer a simple ghost. I am now a shifter, shifting between forms whenever I wish. I can be a ghost, or a living human - at least the conventional form of a living human - but I can also be whatever else I want to, depending on my mood. This sounds like love, and love is supposed to make you powerful and invincible.
Most of the time though, I spend my time beachcombing, as I used to when I was a kid. My collection is getting bigger and bigger. If you have to call me something, I would definitely prefer to be called a beachcomber.
Tory Mae graduated with a B.A. in Creative Writing and Literature at Wheaton College in 2015, where her full-length play entitled Can-Swiss was performed in the annual New Plays Festival. She is currently working a collection of short stories, as well as a novel that is set to be completed later this year.
THE WHISKEY WON’T KEEP YOU WARM
By Tory Mae
"You should go out and get some groceries."
"Oh, dear. Now? I've been cooking all afternoon, and I just put the pie in the oven."
"Perfect timing," Pop said. “We’re out of eggs and bread. I would have gone on my way back from the bank, but my stomach knew dinner was about done.”
“Can’t it wait until after dinner?”
“It’s only a short drive into town. You will be back before you know it.”
"Well all right..."
“Would you drop off the check at the church while you are out? It’s only across the street from the store.”
“Of course, dear.”
Ma took the oven mitts off her hands and placed them on the countertop. She started to grab the wooden spoon from the drawer to stir her stew, but Pop took it and stirred the pot himself.
"I will keep an eye on dinner. Take little Cheryl with you, she could use the ride."
Ma sighed. "Well all right.”
She poked her head into the living room where Cheryl was playing with her Raggedy Ann doll in front of the brand new color television.
“Cheryl!” she called out. “Come on, we're going for a little ride."
Six-year-old Cheryl put her doll down and raced to the door.
"Oh boy oh boy oh boy! I love car rides! Where are we going? Are you getting me something? Can we get me a new toy? Please?!"
"We'll see my little Cherry pie."
Ma grabbed the keys off the hook, took Cheryl's hand, and walked to the Buick. The smell of a fresh cut lawn lifted her spirits. And as she drove past each white picket fenced lawn, Pop sat at the kitchen table and planned.
He reached into the back of the freezer and pulled out a Baskin Robbins cake. There was a small box of candles he had hid in his shirt pocket that he pulled out and stuck into the cake. He checked the stew every few minutes, using the wooden spoon for taste tests, and made sure shut the oven off when the pie was done so Ma wouldn't have to worry. He thought about taste testing the pie too, but decided it wasn’t the proper day to annoy his wife. She did so much for the family, she deserved a nice evening.
As he heard the car pull back into the driveway he pulled out a Bing Crosby record and set it on the turntable. The familiar songs flowed through the scratchy speakers, and small pops showed the record’s age. With each pop and crackle, Pop thought back to their wedding night, and their first dance as man and wife. Pop danced around as he flipped off the lights and lit the candles on the cake.
Cheryl entered the house first, pulling Ma along, who was carrying a carton of eggs, bread, a Charleston Chew for Pop, and a new box of tinkertoys.
"Happy birthday to you..."
* * * *
"Yes?" he asked, not looking up from the Sunday Comics.
They were sitting at the kitchen table, Pop with his paper and coffee and Ma staring at her hands. She switched from drumming her fingers together to wringing her hands every five seconds.
"I have some news for you."
Ma stared at him and crossed her arms.
Pop flipped the page and chuckled at the comic.
"Will you stop reading the paper for two damn seconds so I can tell you that I'm pregnant?!"
Pop put down his paper.
"I'm pregnant, Fran. It must have been my birthday."
"I'm so sorry, dear, I know we didn't plan this. I can try and find a job somewhere so we can have a little extra money. There’s an office in town looking for a new secretary. If you want, I can go down there and apply. They’re desperate, so they’re willing to pay an extra quarter an hour, you know, if we need it. I'm so, so, sorry dear," Ma's voice began to shake.
Pop folded up his newspaper, stood up, and left the room. Ma began to weep.
A squeaky voice piped up behind her. "Am I gonna have a little sister? Oh boy!"
I awoke at 7:01.
Why is it that I always wake up earliest after a late night full of drinking, I wondered. Such a damn paradox.
I stood up and stretched my back. Two hours of sleep, maybe three, and twice as many drinks and I felt like I could run a marathon. Or maybe a mile. Maybe I was still drunk. Christ, when was the last time I'd run? I looked down at my gut peeking out over my belt. Whiskey weight. At least I wasn't fat.
Ma wasn't awake yet. Maybe there was Vicodin still in her system, that shit could knock even the worst alcoholic on his ass. I figured I might as well follow up on my initial plan for the morning despite the minor change in scenery. She may be passed out in a damn hospital bed, but she was still my mother. The last time I was with her in a hospital I had put her through hell and back. I mean, it wasn’t my fault my head was so big as a baby. It was the least I could do to make this time around more bearable. I ran my hand along the side of the bed pressing each button until the nurse came.
"You rang?" she asked.
She looked agitated. I wondered why.
"Do you serve breakfast in this place?"
"Not for you. You can make your way to the cafeteria if you want a bite," she said.
"Christ, not for me, although I could use a glass of water," I said, rubbing my head. "No, breakfast for the one in bed." I jerked my thumb towards Ma.
"We do provide a basic breakfast for our patients, sir. When she wakes up she can call for our basic breakfast tray."
I took a step closer. I looked her in the eyes and smiled. "Now tell me, miss, what could I do to have a full breakfast right in front of her for when she wakes up?"
"That'll be ten dollars."
Ten dollars? I snorted. Weren’t hospitals supposed to provide the utmost care for their patients? They may be injured or dying but they at least deserved a proper breakfast.
Goddammit. No sleep, a hangover forming, and now I was out ten bucks. I pulled a crumpled bill from my back pocket and placed it in the nurse's waiting hand. She attempted a smile and walked out.
A few minutes after the nurse left, Cheryl began to stir.
"Go back to bed, she's not awake yet," I said.
"No, but you are. What kind of a daughter would I be if I let you escape?"
My hands flew up and slammed back down against my thighs and I sighed. It was too damn early for this.
"For fuck’s sake Cheryl! I-”
“As your older, more responsible sister, I have to keep an eye on you. Our mother is eighty-eight years old with no husband. She needs us, Jack. She took care of us when we were kids. Now it’s our turn to take care of her. I recognize that you may not know what responsibility is, or what it means, but it’s time to learn.”
“Look. I drove all the way up here. I’m not about to turn around and go back now."
"You never know with you," she said, crossing her arms.
I lowered myself back into my chair and we sat in silence. Cheryl drummed her fingers on the arm of her chair. I sat there twiddling my thumbs. Literally twiddling them, not just the damn expression. Cheryl picked at her nail polish. I counted ceiling tiles. There was a reason everyone loved family gatherings, huh? Props to the minority of the population who actually enjoyed them.
The room remained sterile and silent until the nurse returned. The "full" breakfast consisted of soggy eggs, extra toast and jam, breakfast sausage, and a large glass of orange juice.
"I could've made something better than that," I said to Cheryl.
"When was the last time you cooked a full meal?" she asked.
"About a month ago."
Cheryl thought for a moment.
"You know, I bet your breakfast would’ve be better. Not like she'll know the difference. At least you didn't have to go to her homemade Sunday brunch for five years. You should see the way she hacks over the stove."
I chuckled. "Why do you think I live in Boston? No one ever made you stick around."
"Well someone's got to take care of her."
I nodded my head and sat back. My lips began to chap and I realized how desperate my body was for water, or another drink. As soon as I stood up, Ma began to stir. She moved just a bit under her sheets and her eyes squinted open. She poked at the tray.
"What, now what is this in front of me? Now, ah, where are my, someone give me my glasses. I can't see a damn thing!"
Cheryl rushed to Ma's side and put her glasses in her outstretched hand.
"Thank you dear," she said, patting Cheryl's hand.
She put on her glasses and stared at the tray, blinking a few times. She rubbed her thumbs along her pointer fingers and I stared, wondering why the elderly always did that.
"Oh, oh! Oh, thank you. Breakfast in bed, how wonderful."
"Happy birthday, Ma," I said.
“Jack! Oh thank you so much, dear, it’s so nice to see you.”
Cheryl leaned over and kissed her head on her good side. "Happy birthday. How are you feeling?"
"What do you think? My leg is killing me. And my head is pounding."
"We've got that one in common," I muttered.
"Breakfast ought to make you feel better," Cheryl said.
Ma took a bite of her toast.
"Thank you very much, I appreciate it."
"Do you remember what happened?"
Ma took another bite.
"No," she said, bread crumbles bouncing off her tongue. "Not quite. It was an accident. I don't know if you've noticed, but I've gotten old," she laughed. Crumbs dropped from her mouth.
Cheryl put her hand on her hip.
"Maybe you should cut back on the drinking."
"Hey, don't blame the booze," I said.
"Why? It's never gotten me in trouble before. Well, not that much trouble," she said, and winked at me.
Ma took a third bite.
She pushed the tray away.
One hour of driving, seven hours of waiting, four drinks, and ten bucks later and she was full. Christ.
It was Thanksgiving. It was Thanksgiving and I was sitting in a goddamned nursing home eating one palm size turkey slice that tasted like cardboard and a small ice cream scoop’s worth of stuffing that was stuffed full of all the salt in the world. No wonder America was so fucking obese. The government put too much damn salt in everything. Or the FDA. Whatever, it’s all government bullshit anyway, I thought. I took a bite. We couldn't have had dinner at Cheryl's like she had suggested, oh I don't know, at least thirty times. Oh no. No.
"I would just love it if everyone came to my place for Thanksgiving this year. They cook some fabulous meals!" Ma had said.
"You know, I was hoping we could get everyone together at my place. It will be nice and quiet, a real family gathering. Jack even agreed to do half the cooking this year!" Cheryl had suggested.
I hadn't agreed to that, but Cheryl tried, she really did. Props to her.
"Now Cheryl, I'm not going to live forever you know!"
Cardboard turkey and salt stuffing. Goddammit.
"Wasn't this just wonderful? The food here is so good, I’m so spoiled here," Ma said between bites.
I looked over at Cheryl who elbowed Jimmy in the side as he rolled his eyes and began to open his mouth. He winced, rubbed his side, and winked at me. The kid took after his best uncle, no doubt.
"It was great Mom, thank you for inviting us over," Cheryl said.
"This really was fantastic, Gram. They sure went all out here, it’s such a great setup. You've got it good here for sure," Allie said.
I looked around at the dining room: the tables were mostly empty with plain white tablecloths, with three tables full of grandparents and great-grandparents with their families looking like they’d rather be anywhere else. Oh yeah. Great setup. Allie definitely took after her mother.
If I’d had kids, they’d all be Jimmies. Little Jimmy-Jacks. No one wanted that. One of me was enough. I’d be lucky if I’d ever had a kid like Allie; Cheryl did a fantastic job, with both kids, to be honest. For someone who thought she’d never have kids, her getting pregnant so late in the game was the most surprising, but best thing that could’ve happened to her. I looked up to her for that. Not to mention the fact that her ex had only been around half the time. But there was no way I’d do that good of a job, even if I was tied down with a wife. I did my unborn children a favor by not letting them exist. It was best to let my failure genes end with me.
Ma laughed. "Well I would say you're right about that one, Allison."
My stomach growled. I looked at my plate, poked at the last crumb and decided it wasn't worth it. But these drives up north were always worth it. Everytime. Truly. I stood up.
"Well, I think I'm going to take off."
"Already?" Ma asked.
"Yeah, I want to take off before the turkey hits me and I get too tired to drive."
I had eaten enough turkey for the tryptophan to hit me, right? Not like Ma would know the difference anyway.
"Well all right. You take care now. Thank you for coming up here to see little old me."
"No problem, Ma." I walked over and kissed her on the forehead. "Love you."
"Love you too, dear."
Cheryl stood up.
"I'll walk you out."
Christ. Did quick getaways even exist anymore? I nodded my head, waved, and walked toward the front with Cheryl in tow. No family gathering ever ended without her reprimanding me for something.
I turned around. "Look Cher, I-"
"Thank you for agreeing to this and not putting up much of a fight. It meant a lot to Mom. This past year and a half without Pop has been tough on her."
My shoulders slumped and I sighed. "I know. It's been tough for us all. I hate to say it, trust me, but I think all of us coming here was the best thing we could've done for her. You know, Pop would've hated that fuckin' turkey," I laughed.
Cheryl smiled. "For a second there you almost sounded like an adult."
"I have my moments," I said with a smile. "I'll see you in a couple weeks."
We hugged and I took off. Where to first? Burger King. On fuckin' Thanksgiving. Damn turkey.
The path to Ma’s room had become too familiar. For someone who lived an hour and a half away, I had spent too much damn time in this damn hospital over the past three and a half weeks. Christ. Thank God she was being discharged today. I turned the corner into the second floor lobby and was greeted by black and orange decorations. Fake cobwebs and spiders littered the room. I shook my head and rounded the next corner to 208.
Cheryl was helping Ma put on her coat over her worn matching teal sweater and sweatpants. Did people stop caring about what they wore when they reached a certain age? I rubbed my forehead.
“Do you need anything else, Ma? I’ve got the car pulled up around front. One nurse looked peeved when I left it there.”
“Fetch me my hat. It fell behind the chair.”
I groaned. Requests were so much nicer when there was a ‘please’ attached to them. I pushed the chair away from the wall and handed Ma her purple and grey felt-like hat. A purple ribbon circled the hat just above the brim, with a flower on the side. How old was this thing? It smelled like moth balls.
Ma snatched it from my hand.
I rolled my eyes. A three-week alcohol detox did not suit her well. Ma would never admit how much she drank. Even when the doctors concluded they found large amounts of alcohol and Vicodin in her system, she still wouldn’t admit to it. The night was “too fuzzy” she claimed. Oh, it was fuzzy all right.
“Get me my walker too.”
I folded my arms and stared at her.
“What’s the magic word?” I asked.
“Get me my damn walker! Please,” she huffed.
Cheryl chuckled and I glared at her.
I pulled my sleeves over my hands and grabbed it from beside the bed. No way was I touching that thing with my bare skin. Cheryl laughed as I almost dropped the contraption. Goddammit. The walked slipped from my covered hands right as Ma’s nurse walked in. Cheryl picked it up and handed it to Ma.
“All right Betsie, are you excited to be going home?”
“What kind of a question is that? Of course I am.”
“Well, I’m very glad to hear that. I have your discharge papers right here,” she said, shoving the papers in my chest.
What was I, Ma’s secretary?
Now remember, Betsie,” the nurse continued, “you have to hold off on the drinking for a bit, okay?
The nurse paused. “Okay. Well, I’m glad you’re feeling better. Take care.”
I turned around to make some comment about the nurse, but Ma was already on the move. Someone was channeling her inner Speedy Gonzales.
“The first thing I’m going to do when I get home is have a nice glass of Chardonnay,” she whispered as she walked past me.
I rolled my eyes and followed her out the door.
I stared in confusion at the worksheet Ms. Brown gave us that day. It wasn’t like the other math worksheets she had given us throughout the year.
“You have three marbles. Susie gives you two more marbles. How many marbles do you have now?”
There were no numbers. Only words. Was this really math? It couldn’t be. Ms. Brown must have given us the wrong sheet. I picked at the worn yellow paint on my desk, thinking. Nothing came to mind. I grabbed the paper and my extra sharp Ticonderoga, leapt off my chair, and went off in search for Ma or Pop.
“Ma? Pop? Where are you?” I yelled out.
I heard a deep voice coming from behind the closed office door. With hesitation, I knocked on the door, and poked my head in. Pop was on the phone, rubbing his forehead with his hand.
“Pop, can you help me?”
He waved his hand and turned away.
“I need help with a problem on my homework,” I asked again.
“Hold on, Bill.” Pop covered the mouthpiece. “Not now Jack. I’m busy,” he said. “Maybe later.”
I jutted out my lower lip and closed the door. Why couldn’t he talk on the phone later? It wasn’t fair, he was always doing work things.
“Ma?” I called out.
I wandered around upstairs, kicking at the floor molding. Voices came from downstairs in the dining room, along with a strange smell. I followed my ears and saw Ma and Cheryl making this strange looking thing on the table.
“Ma? Can you help me?”
“I’m helping Cheryl right now, Jack,” Ma said, not looking up.
“Yeah, Jack!” Cheryl taunted. “She’s helping me make my papier-mâché volcano!”
“But I have a question with my homework, I don’t know how to do it. It’s different from the other homework Ms. Brown gave us!”
“I said not now Jack.”
I walked up to Ma and tugged her arm.
“Jack!” Ma pulled her arm away and sighed. “Go back to your room. I’ll be there in five minutes.”
Success. Cheryl could do her paper thing on her own, it didn’t look hard. It looked fun and maybe a little messy. Maybe after Ma helped me, I could help Cheryl. I skipped back to my room and sat back down at my desk. While waiting, I doodled on the worksheet. Five minutes passed by. I drew two stick figures, one had curls for hair and the other had no hair. Ten minutes passed by. I drew the boy with three marbles.
“One…two…three…” I counted while drawing.
Five more minutes. I drew the girl with two marbles.
Five more minutes passed by and I wondered where Ma was.
“Wait a second…”
I counted the boy’s marbles and wrote a ‘3’ next to it. Then I counted the girl’s marbles and wrote a ‘2’ next to it. Next to that, I wrote a ‘3’, a ‘2’ below it, and a plus sign next to them. It looked like what was on the worksheets Ms. Brown used to give us!
“What’s three plus two…I know this, I know that I know it…” I wondered.
Five! I had five marbles! I wrote the number five below the question. I did it! Maybe I didn’t need Ma’s help after all. I ran out of my room and down the stairs. Ma was still with Cheryl. They were painting the paper thing brown.
“I did it Ma! I did it all by myself!”
Ma continued painting.
Cheryl and I pulled into Havenwood, and we found a spot right near the front door. Our favorite place in the world. I grunted.
“I can’t stay for long,” I said to Cheryl. “I have a date tonight with this woman I met over the weekend.”
“Oh, is this one a bartender, too?”
I rolled my eyes.
“No. She’s a teacher, for your information. Not like it matters.”
“Wow, you’re branching out. I’m so proud.”
I shook my head.
“Thanks for the support, Cher.”
We walked into Ma’s home. Oh how I loved being here.
“You go ahead,” she said, “I have to grab the pie from the front desk.”
Paper bag in hand, I walked down the hall to Ma’s room. I knocked at her door twice and walked in.
“I’m here, Ma,” I said.
She was sitting on her chair peeling a mostly brown banana. She looked up at me and squinted her eyes.
“Jack! You made it. Oh, it’s so good to see you.”
“Cheryl’s here, too. She’ll be here in a minute.
She shoved the banana into her mouth and small amount of bile came up into my mouth. Lovely.
I placed the paper bag on the side table, the glasses inside clinking. Ma had made it a month free from the hospital without a drink. Well, almost. The night we got back from the hospital, I caught her pouring herself some Chardonnay. I let her have a couple sips before I took it away. How in the hell she managed to sneak wine bottles into her room at the home, I’d never know. The woman had a passion for the grape, I supposed. When I pulled the bottle of red out of the paper bag, her eyes gleamed.
“Oh, Jack! You’re such a dear, thank you.”
A piece of chewed banana fell onto her lap. More bile filled my mouth and I swallowed it back down. My eye twitched.
“Well, we have to celebrate your one month free from the hospital the right way. You’re only allowed one glass though. We both know you’re not supposed to drink while you’re taking your meds.”
“Don’t be silly, I’ll be fine!”
I rolled my eyes. Maybe I’d pour her three extra small glasses. She’d never know the difference.
Cheryl walked in with the pie.
“Guess what I have!”
“You know I can’t see that well! Don’t make me guess. I hate guessing.”
“It’s cherry pie, Mom,” Cheryl said.
The biggest smile I’d seen in months broke out on Ma’s face.
“You kids spoil me.”
I uncorked the bottle, pulled out three plastic glasses from the bag, and poured out the sweet red nectar, one glass having quite a bit less than the others.
Ma looked over from her chair at what I was doing.
“Why are there only three glasses? Don’t forget about Pop. Make sure you cut a large piece of pie for him, too. Cherry pie is his favorite!”
My heart skipped a beat. I looked at Cheryl and she looked back at me, frowning.
“Mom, did you just ask us to save some for Pop?” Cheryl asked.
The three of us were silent for a moment before Ma shook her head and spoke.
“No!” she said. “You must be hearing things. I said no such thing,” she said, still shaking her head.
I poured a little bit of wine from Ma’s glass into mine. Maybe she’d get two extra small glasses rather than three.
“Now Jack, Pop and I won’t be back from Cheryl’s college tennis match until tomorrow morning, okay? It’s all the way in Portland and Pop doesn’t think we should drive at night with a headlight out on the Buick. There’s one of those TV dinners you like in the freezer for later, and cereal for breakfast. You’ll be quite all right by yourself, right?”
I nodded. “Yes, Ma.”
“Good. You take care now.”
Ma kissed my cheek and walked out.
The house was silent. I clicked on the tube and turned the knob, flipping through our few channels until I came across a Happy Days rerun. It was as good as any. I stretched out on the couch. What else was a thirteen-year-old to do when he was home alone?
After two hours of watching Fonzie, Richie, and the rest of the Happy Days crew, I yawned and turned off the tube. Whoever said being home alone was the greatest time for a kid was a liar. I sighed, slipped on my new Keds, and went for a walk into town.
As the cold mist began to hit my face, I flipped up my hood and shoved my hands into my jeans. Just because it had been a warmer winter didn’t mean it wasn’t still cold and depressing. I began to regret not bringing a warmer jacket, but decided I didn’t care enough. I could stand to have thicker skin. That, and the familiar brick buildings from Elm Street had already begun to appear. I decided to jog the last stretch into town. My left foot came down into a puddle of frigid water that was deeper than it looked. I pulled my soaked food up, cursed, and covered my mouth, looking around to make sure no one had heard me.
The first shop I came across was the Vans store. I pressed my nose into the glass; skateboards and the new Era shoe filled the window display. I longed for the day Pop would let me get my own board. He said it was “too dangerous” or something. I scoffed and kicked a wall. Tom had let me use his five times, and I’d only fallen once. Maybe I could buy one with my chore money, it wasn’t like they would ever notice. I dragged myself away from the window and walked down the street, jumping off the sidewalk and doing tricks with my new imaginary board.
A door opened on my left and the sound of fast guitars and a growling voice drifted out into the empty streets. I paused for a moment, then walked into the record store. I stood just inside the door for a few moments while my eyes adjusted to the dim lighting, and listened to the angry music. It was harsh, unappealing at first. But it was so unappealing that it was fantastic. It was so angry that it made me feel angry. My pulse starting beating faster and I felt the blood rush through my body in a way I hadn’t felt before. I liked it. It was the first time music made me feel something. I walked over to the shelves and starting flipping through the vinyl, pretending I was looking for something. I nodded my head along to the rapid beat as I flipped through rack after rack of records by bands I had never heard of.
After what seemed like an hour, the album that was playing must have ended, because the Beach Boys started singing and I lost interest. I didn’t want to go back to my empty house, but my rumbling stomach said otherwise.
As I walked out, a gust of wind picked up and a piece of paper flew into my chest. I peeled the damp paper from my body, looked at what was printed on it, and cocked my head. “The Ramones” was printed in large block letters across the top with a picture of four guys in leather jackets below. They looked tough. Underneath, it read “Live in concert: February 25th : 6pm Nashua, February 26th: 7pm Boston, February 27th: 7pm Brockton”. My heart sank. I had no idea who they were but they were probably good and I’d missed them by a day in Nashua. I shoved the piece of paper into my pocket and began to walk home, hood up and my head down.
As I crossed Elm Street, I looked up and saw the sign pointing towards the bus station. I gasped, grinned, and ran home as fast as I could. If I left now I could make it to Boston by six.
Once home, I yanked open my desk drawer and took out all my chore money I’d save. I had enough for the bus fare with a little left over to grab dinner. I grabbed a book, shoved both it and my money into my backpack, and was out the door within five minutes.
I ran back into town, popping into the Red Arrow on my way to the bus station for a sandwich for the ride. I made it to the station and bought my ticket as the bus was pulling up. Perfect timing.
While searching for an open seat on the bus, I noticed all the married couples, parents with their kids, and friends boarding and sitting down. I began to grow nauseous and light-headed. What the hell was I doing? I sat down at the nearest open seat, nearly collapsing on the old man the next seat over. Why did I think this was a good idea? Was I crazy? I had to be crazy. The fuzz was going to put me in loony bin because I was so crazy. They’ll be talking about me for years.
“Hey Chuck, remember that kid who went to the big city all by himself? No parents, no idea where he was going, nothin’. He’s still locked up here. Good thing, too. Don’t need that crazy on the streets,” they’d say.
“Yeah Donnie, hasn’t it been ten years now?”
“Oh yeah, kid’s gonna be in here for a long time.”
I was for sure crazy. I’d never been to Boston before and I didn’t even know where the band was playing. What if I got lost? What if I missed the last bus back, and Ma and Pop came home to an empty house? They’d kill me. Aw man, they would really kill me. They’d go back to having the one kid they always wanted. I stood up in a panic; I had to get off the bus. As I stood, the bus lurched forward and began to pull away from the curb and I nearly fell over the seat in front of me. The blood rushed from my head and I sat down. I was really doing this.
Once I devoured my sandwich, I began to feel myself drifting off. Man, the nerves must’ve taken a toll on me. I slipped off into a slumber, listening to a wet snore coming from the old man next to me.
“Next stop: South Station.”
The driver’s voice came on over the intercom and I snapped awake. Sleep made long bus rides so much easier. I cracked my neck and yawned. Night had fallen while I was asleep, making the ride seem longer than it was. I drummed my fingers on my legs, anxious to figure out what my next step would be.
The bus pulled to a stop. This was it. I had no choice but to get off and see if I could find my way to the concert. Unless I stayed on and went right back to Manchester, but what was the fun in that? I wasn’t going to let this be a waste of time.
I got out onto the street pulled out the flyer I’d shoved in my pocket earlier. I walked up to some man and showed him the crumpled flyer.
“Hey guy, do you know where this is?” I asked.
The man ignored me and kept walking on. I walked up to the next guy and asked the same question.
“Go home, kid.”
Three more people and all the same response. A panic grew in my chest. I pulled my jacket closer to me and sat on a cold, metal bench. It started to snow. I was going to die here.
An unknown amount of time passed by before I looked up. I saw a guy with a mohawk and a jean jacket with patches sewn on. One said Black Flag, whatever that was. Another had a white skull on a black background. I jumped off the bench and caught up to him.
“Excuse me, do you know where this is? I asked, showing him the flyer.
The guy stopped walking and looked me up and down.
“What’s a kid like you doing going to a punk show?” he paused. “I’m headed there now, you can come with me.
My eyes lit up and the nauseous feeling I’d had for hours passed.
“Really?! Thanks so much!”
The walk wasn’t far, maybe fifteen minutes. The guy was quiet and ignored me, but he let me keep pace with him and that was enough for me. We made our way to a narrow street, lit by just one streetlight. He led me to a door that opened up underground, and held the door for me.
I ducked my head and stepped through the doorway. My tour guide pushed past me and disappeared into the claustrophobic crowd. I walked into a fog of secondhand smoke, stumbling down the stairs as my eyes were still adjusting to the dim, red-tinted light. Some grungy sounding music played over the speakers and the crowd chattered to each other while they waited, excited and anxious.
This was it. I made it. I couldn’t believe it. How I had got to some unnamed underground club in Boston from my house was beyond me. I was sure I was crazy, but maybe it wasn’t a bad thing. Crazy had gotten me to my first concert. I bet it was gonna be good, too. If they were anything like what was playing at the store before, anyway.
I pushed my way into the crowd, but a tall guy wearing a leather jacket with spikes blocked my view. In fact, a lot of guys blocked my view. Man, I was short. Was I out of place here? Everyone else looked so much older. Before my brain could think too much, the lights began to lower and the crowd cheered, drowning out my thoughts.
Out walked four silhouettes carrying guitars and drum sticks. I could barely make out their faces in the lighting. Two guys plugged in their guitars, one got behind the mic, and the fourth sat behind a drum kit that had already been set up. He hit his sticks together and once he hit the kit and the other guys strummed their first chord, the lights flashed on and everyone cheered, throwing up fists and punching the air.
The music was fast, but they weren’t as angry as that band that was playing at the record store. Pop would hate it. Despise it. The guys’ long hair danced around as they played on, sweat flying into the crowd. I could feel the drums vibrate from the dirty floor through my legs and into my heart. It was perfect. The outside world didn’t matter. It didn’t exist. The small, overcrowded room was all that existed. My heart soared and I felt like I was floating.
I was home.
“Won’t you stay, Jack? Pop should be back soon. I know your father has been busy with the bank, but it would be nice if you spent time with the both of us,” Ma said, glass of wine in hand.
READ PART I IN THE JUNE ISSUE
READ PART III IN THE AUGUST ISSUE
William Quincy Belle is just a guy. Nobody famous; nobody rich; just some guy who likes to periodically add his two cents worth with the hope, accounting for inflation, that $0.02 is not over-evaluating his contribution. He claims that at the heart of the writing process is some sort of (psychotic) urge to put it down on paper and likes to recite the following which so far he hasn't been able to attribute to anyone: "A writer is an egomaniac with low self-esteem."
You will find Mr. Belle's unbridled stream of consciousness here (http://wqebelle.blogspot.ca) or @here (https://twitter.com/wqbelle).
A Light Lunch with Helium
by William Quincy Belle
Carl sat in the same booth. Sometimes it was taken, and he was obliged to take another, but generally, he stayed toward the front so he could look out the window. Was it habit from his years on the force? It was customary every Monday that the doctor would join him for usually whatever was the daily special at Ruby's Diner. Carl had a story to tell, and it felt best to tell it to his long-time friend.
As Bill pushed open the door, the top edge of it flicked a piece of metal connected to a small bell. He took one step inside and removed his sunglasses. Seeing his friend, he headed over to the booth and slipped into the opposite bench.
“How's it going?” Bill said.
Carl nodded. “Not bad. You?”
“Couldn't be better. How's Patty?”
“Fine. The two of us were out yesterday watching Tony play ball over at Hanover Park. He hit a homer.”
“All right.” Bill picked up the menu. “So, what have we got today?”
“Oh God, Carl, you know that I'll be farting my brains out for the rest of the day with that stuff. Ruby packs quite a wallop and on top of it, I’m just so damn—How should I say this?—allergic to onions.”
“Okay, okay. Too much information. You don't have to fill me in on all the details, you know.” He continued to study the menu. “I think I'll get the western.”
Bill stared at the menu with pursed lips. “Why not? Let's make it two westerns.”
A waitress walked up to the table, put down two glasses of water, and arranged two paper place mats in front of the men. “What can I get you gentlemen today?” she said setting out two sets of silverware wrapped in a paper napkin.
Bill looked up. “Two westerns if you would be so kind.”
The woman wrote on a pad. “Fries?”
Carl said, “Instead of the fries, can I substitute a side salad?”
“Sure,” she said. “Anything to drink?”
Bill said, “Water will be fine for now.”
Carl nodded, and the waitress disappeared behind the counter.
Bill glanced at his friend. “I heard you had to deal with an accident on Route 6 over the weekend.”
“Yeah.” He rubbed his forehead. “It was the oddest thing. The day was sunny. There was no traffic on the road, but then this guy swerves over to the other side and slams into a car coming the opposite way.”
“I found a cell phone in the car. I'm guessing the guy was trying to text a message and took his eyes off the road.”
“Why do you say that?”
“The phone was on and I could see on the screen a half finished text message. I think a few more letters and he would hit Send.”
“What was the message?”
“The message read, 'Stopping at store to' and that's it, nothing more.” He shook his head. “Oh god, I ended up having to tell his wife. She did not take it well.”
The two men looked at each other.
“I'm sorry,” Bill said. “It's tough on everybody involved.”
“It was a little spooky. The guy didn't have his safety belt on. On impact, he slammed against the windshield and was ejected from the vehicle when the driver's door popped open. He was lying on the shoulder and I was right there at his side when he expired. The funny thing was that it was a beautiful day. There was no traffic; nothing which would have caused such an accident.”
“You never know when your number will be up.”
The waitress arrived with two plates. She set the first plate in front of Bill and said, “Western with fries.” She set the second plate in front of Carl. “Western with side salad.” She glanced at each of them. “Anything else?”
Bill smiled. “No, thank you. That's perfect.”
“Enjoy.” She walked away.
Bill unwrapped his utensils and put the napkin on his lap. “Death is an odd thing. I've always found it a strange phenomenon how people die but continue to live on in other people.” He reached out for the bottle of ketchup.
“What do you mean?” Carl had started on his salad.
Taking the top off the bottle, Bill turned it over his plate and shook it. “Even though somebody dies, he leaves behind things which remind other people of him.” He held onto the bottle with one hand then picked up his knife and stuck into the bottle. “As long as other people remember the person, he lives on in a manner.” He took out the knife and looked in the bottle with one eye closed. He turned the bottle over and gave it a shake. A huge glob of ketchup spurted out onto his plate. He rolled his eyes.
“At the hospital,” Bill said, “I've had to deal with deaths in families and my observation is that the memories of the deceased are strong. Even though the person isn't coming home again, it feels like he is still there.” He put the top on the bottle and returned it to the end of the table.
Carl picked up one half of his western. He said, “Oh,” and bit into it. As he ate, he watched his friend dip a fry in the ketchup.
“Speaking of deaths, how's Mrs. Gilbert doing?” Bill said as he chewed.
“I spoke with her last week and I think she's sad, but she’s also glad Fred is no longer suffering. ALS is a cruel disease.” Carl took a sip of water. “Even though the funeral was two weeks ago, there are still condolences coming in. With Fred’s position as scout master for forty years and Mildred with the Girl Guides, I think the two of them have seen just about everybody in the community in one way or another.” He took another sip. “I miss my annual box of cookies.”
“I should drop around sometime and pay my respects. I'm certain Mildred will have a lot of things to sort through and I imagine she’ll consider giving up the house. It’s a bit much for a single person. She should probably move into an apartment. I know she's still healthy and mobile, but I wonder if she should not consider one of the assisted living places. You can still be independent, but you can get help.”
“Yeah, that seems like a good idea. Sooner or later we'll all need something like that.” Carl half smiled. “When I was there, Mildred asked me if I’d like to take their canoe.”
Bill grunted as he continued with a full mouth.
“She took me out to the garage to look at it. Seems to be in good shape so I'm going to talk with Patty. I think I can store it in our own garage and what the heck it's free. Why not, eh?”
“You're going to have to talk to the boss about that one. I'd take it myself, but I should follow Patty’s lead. She likes to avoid—quite wisely mind you—picking up things here and there that in the long run you don't really use.”
Carl said, “Mildred may have other things she’ll unload now that Fred is gone. Who knows what else they may have lying around the house? Heck, I was surprised to discover Fred had a canister of helium in the garage.”
Bill stabbed his fork into another fry and swirled it in his pool of ketchup. “A canister of what?”
“A canister of helium. Mildred told me that from time to time, Fred organised various events for charity and he used the helium for balloons. The kids loved them.” Carl noticed Bill had stopped eating and was staring off into space. “What?”
“Fred was cremated, right?”
“Nothing. Just an odd thought.” Bill stabbed another french fry.
“What are you thinking of?”
“I wonder if Mildred offed Fred.”
“Offed him? How the heck could she have done that?” Carl furrowed his brow. “The coroner said it was natural causes; respiratory failure. After all, Fred did have Lou Gehrig's disease.”
“There are organisations which support the right to die.”
“I won't, we won't argue whether it's right or not, but these people believe in a person's right to choose to die; especially in the cases where the person may suffer from a debilitating disease like Lou Gehrig's. Some practitioners who subscribe to this idea have invented euthanasia devices to be used in an assisted suicide. Such devices work on the idea that the patient has the final say and press the final button.”
Bill wiped his mouth with his napkin. “Kevorkian, Dr. Jack Kevorkian, is probably the name most people know of in this regard. He had a device which delivered a fatal dose of barbiturates, but the patient had to throw the switch.” Picking up a french fry in his fingers, he dipped it in some ketchup and put it in his mouth. “I recently ran across some information about an organisation in Australia called Exit International. The founder, a doctor, came up with a device or should I say method of euthanasia which is fast, painless, and easy to put together based on easily obtainable materials.”
Carl reached over and took to a fry. “Go on.”
“The human body has a strong reaction to the build-up of carbon dioxide. If you hold your breath, CO2 builds up in your system and the body's natural mechanisms force you breathe again. However, inert gas asphyxiation can happen without you even knowing it.”
“When you hold your breath, you feel a burning sensation as if your lungs are crying out for more oxygen, but that's not the case. Your body is actually protesting the buildup of carbon dioxide. Based on this idea, the method Exit International came up with what involves giving an inert gas to the patient. Put a plastic bag over the head; use a tube to pump in the gas, and as the patient breathes, the oxygen in the body is replaced with the inert gas. The level of CO2 in the body remains unaffected, so the patient does not panic. The patient is unconscious in about 10 seconds and dead within 3 minutes.”
Carl pursed his lips as he looked at his friend. “Really?”
“Yes. Any inert gas will do, but Exit says it’s easy to get helium. After all, any party store dealing with balloons sells it. And the whole thing is virtually undetectable. I say virtually undetectable as while tests may overlook the helium, tests can determine signs of anoxia or oxygen starvation. Anybody looking at the body would think the person is asleep and any professional looking at the body would assume natural causes like the heart just quit. Consequently, who would even think about doing any tests?” Bill waved to the waitress and made a motion with his hand as if signing something. She nodded.
“Are you suggesting Mildred did this to her husband?”
“We'll never know now since the body is cremated, but it was just an idea that came to mind considering Fred's condition. As long as the equipment is removed, the bag, tubing, and the canister of helium, I'm sure nobody would think there was any foul play. It's a shame that people can’t die with dignity. Once you get to the advanced stages of some diseases, the quality of life drops dramatically. Perhaps, it's not living at all. Some say we should allow people to decide if they want to continue.”
“I know Mildred,” Carl said. “I find it hard to believe she would do such a thing.”
“Do any of us know what we would do under those circumstances? If Mildred loved her husband, which I know she did, she would want what's best for him. To stand by and watch Fred live a life that was getting more and more untenable, she would be torn between life and death, or should I say, escape.”
The waitress arrived with the bill and put it on the table. As she turned to go, Bill said, “Hold on.” He glanced at the amount and put cash on the bill. “Keep the change. Thanks.” He looked back at Carl and said, “My turn this week. Next week, I'm ordering steak.”
The two men slide off the benches of the booth and got up. “Thanks, Bill,” Carl said.
“Hey, no problem.” Bill glanced at his watch. “Oh boy, I've got to get back to the hospital. I have an appointment right at one o'clock. Listen, take care and say hello to Patty for me.”
Both men walked out the door of the diner. Bill turned right and walked toward the hospital. Carl stood watching him. The detective in him made him think about the truth. What had Mildred done or not done? Nevertheless, the humanitarian in him agreed with Bill. Without quality of life, what did one have? After all, the old saying was true: health is everything.
Carl turned and walked away.
A.T. Sayre has been writing in some form or other for over three quarters of his life, ever since he was ten years old. From plays to poems, teleplays to prose, he has tried his hand at pretty much every form imaginable. For the last couple of decades his focus has been in filmmaking/ scriptwriting, but recently he has returned to writing prose, specifically short stories. So far in this new stretch he has had two stories published, in Liphar's Short Story Collection #2, and more recently in Abstract Jam issue #3 which came out in June 2016. Raised in New Hampshire, he lives in Brooklyn and likes to read in coffeehouses.
By A.T. Sayre
You first notice her when your mind wanders from the lecturer to the people in the room, as you sit on one side of the semicircle of desks and her on the other. It's nothing ground shaking noticing her; its not like you hear harps in your head. It's just boredom really, your eyes wandering around the room, trying to find something to keep your attention as the lecture drones on. At first it doesn't even occur to you that you are staring at someone specific. To you it's the contours, the shapes, the shadows falling across her nose, under her brow. It is a person, a fully living, laughing, crying, yelling human being, of course you know that, but that's not much more than just a casual realization for you at first.
The thing that catches your eye and makes you focus on her, is her glasses, resting on her face in no remarkable way as she takes notes. In no remarkable way, that is, except in how the angle of the lights above you reflect in those lenses, directly to the angle of your eyes. The lights don't blind you, the way the sun might if reflected into your face.
It's really strange, you think, the reflection in those glasses. It's so complete that the lenses seem to look like they were painted white, her eyes underneath invisible. They're circle rims, and they rest on her face in an otherworldly way, two perfectly white orbs on both sides of her nose. It reminds you of Little Orphan Annie comic strips you had seen once, how her eyes were like that. You try to remember what you had heard those eyes described as once by an artist friend of yours. And after a moment, you remember- they were called saucer cup eyes. Yes, that was it.
She has your gaze now, even if she doesn't know it or care, and you stare at her without thinking about it much. Your attention wanders about her in a casual, curious way, using her eyes as a stopping point in between one area and the next. You look at her hair, straight and brown, falling thinly about the sides of her head and cascading down her back, with a few strands falling down her brow lazily. And then back to the Annie eyes. Onto her cheeks, protruding only the slightest bit from her face, and the line of her jaw, strong and definite, as it runs back to her ears. No makeup, or at least none that is overtly noticeable. And back to the hidden eyes again. She has a firm neck, strong as it is skinny, arcing back to her body in a way that you find most attractive. The eyes. From what you can see of her torso behind her desk she is thin, a bit small breasted, perhaps just a bit smaller than you would imagine the normal would be. That might not be accurate though, because of the loose black T-shirt that stops short of her waist as she leans forward, revealing a tight and straight stomach. And back to the eyes that you still have not been able to see. And then down to her legs. She is wearing denim jeans that look to hug her long legs comfortably, as she crosses them, and taps her black booted foot in the air. You almost think you can hear the song that she's thinking of by watching her tap the time.
All in all, as you watch her foot dance to its own rhythm in the air, you think to yourself, that while not a total knockout, the kind of girl one agent away from a modeling career, she is attractive, in a more intelligent, down to earth way. In a way more based in reality.
And then you look back up to her eyes. Which now, because her head is no longer downwards, and the trajectory of the lights has been drastically changed, you can see through those glasses at the eyes underneath, her real eyes, that are now staring directly back at you. Her expression isn't one of animosity, or attempted intimidation, or even curiosity. She is just staring at you. You stare back at her, trying to determine the color of those eyes newly discovered. Curiosity, that's all. You are just about to make a decision over the distance as to whether they are blue or hazel when she immediately stares away from you, at someone else. Only then do you break out of the stare, and also look elsewhere, at the blond a few seats away, the one that is one agent away from a modeling career.
Still, all through class you keep her in your peripherals, studying her movements, her postures, her reaction to the clichéd jokes the teacher utters. All the time trying to get an idea of her character is what you think you are doing, or at least that is what you are telling yourself you are doing. But more because, and this is not as much a deep, dark, and dirty motive, but just too simple to be a reason. Which is, you're staring at her so much because you like to look at her.
Then the class is over and you watch as she sits up and starts for the door, which is on your side of the room. You estimate quickly that you need to stall for at least twenty seconds to manage to leave just before or after her, hopefully before, so you can turn around and say something, instead of trying to engage with her back. As you stand up very slowly, burning off two seconds, she is halfway along the back wall. You ask the woman who sat to your left, the housewife with the free time, about some aspect of the lecture that you are surprised to realize you really were listening to after all.
But except for the short answer you were hoping for, which would have been perfect for you, the woman, with short graying hair and a pleasant face and far too much enthusiasm, answers your question and then asks another of you, one that takes time to answer properly. Not wanting to be impolite you answer, make good and polite eye contact with her as you do, but mentally ignoring her and watching the door with your peripherals.
And by the time you finish answering, and manage to get out of the conversation that you bring to a quick end, the object of your attention is already at the door. You know you'll never catch up to her in that crowded hallway. Even if you run, and push and shove your way through, by the time you'd get there, you think, she'd be long gone.
So you walk dejectedly towards the door, looking ahead at her while she's still in view. Just as she turns left in the hallway beyond the door, you see that she has taken off her glasses, as she turns quickly and looks back in the room at you.
Her eyes are blue, you decide.
* * *
You do not see her around the campus at all for the next two days. And you do look. Not openly, no, but you scan other crowds constantly for a glimpse of her casually while talking with people, hanging out around the campus square, or walking alone. What you really would do if you did see her you have no idea at all. Would you actually have the courage to go up and say hello? You wish you did. But no, you wouldn't. Ten seconds of eye contact doesn't make her an acquaintance. This is all just reconnaissance. Information gathering. Find out who she knows. Maybe even some friend in common, that you could go say hello to while she's around. But probably not. No, that would be too much. You know to be patient with these things. Still, you look. All the time, it seems.
You don't see her, though. Not once in the two days before you have that class again. Which doesn't bother you, seeing as you at least know that one place, your shared class, is the place where she just has to be. So you know you will see her there.
And the day of your class comes soon enough, with only the slightest anticipation within you. You had decided when you had gotten up that day that you would show up a few minutes late, hoping the only open seat would be near her, or even if you were real lucky, right next to her. Why you think that silly pipe dream is going to happen you have no idea. But if it did, you think, you'd have the easy in to conversation, you could ask her something about the class, what you missed, and use that to start a conversation with her. That is what you hoped.
So when you walked into class five minutes late, the lecturer already starting in on his program for the day, you quickly scan the room, to find that she is not there. You hide your disappointment very well, as you take a seat in the back, between the guy with the obvious hangover and the shy little girl who looks thirteen. You listen to the lecture with only one ear, as the other is muffled by the arm you lean your tired and heavy head on. Within minutes, you are quietly asleep in the back, dreaming of things you do not remember when you wake up later.
That night, after a short nap in your room, you go out to a party and get solidly tight. A grand time, that party, as they all are. You go home with a redhead named Helen. It takes little effort to pick up Helen, as she came out specifically to get taken home, and you find yourself in her bed almost before you realize what is going on. And a grand, grand time was had by all.
You realize, as you leave her bed and her room to walk back to your own comfortable bed, that you have already forgotten her name. Which is, you realize, completely all right. You never did give her your name at all.
And all the time you think of the bespectacled Little Orphan Annie in your class.
* * *
You have the class that the captivating woman is in three or two times a week, Monday and Tuesday weekly, and every other week on a Friday. And you show up for every one of them. Your attendance for a class has never been so good. You show up every day, hoping for that strategic seat that will give you the best chance to hear the only thing that you are missing, Little Orphan Annie's voice. You realize that you are doing this, one day, when you have arrived early and she comes in to the room, in that confident walk that you admire in her, and sits right down next to you.
For the briefest moment your heart skips, and you turn and smile at her. And suddenly realize that you can't think of single damn thing to say to her. Incredible. You've always been good a talker, you can strike up a conversation with anybody, but just at this moment, nothing comes out. And she is as silent as you are. And before you can come up with that great opening line, the class officially starts and talking is impossible.
For the next two hours the only thing you can do is exchange the glances at every stupid comment that is uttered in the class with her, which you do with great enjoyment. The feeling of some shared joke that only the two of you get is a wonderful feeling. Just to have an excuse to look at her, and to watch her fluid body in the withtaking glance is enough for you right now. You have patience. And besides, you haven't come up with an adequate strategy yet to win her anyway.
You stick with what is there already for starters. In class the two of you have an understanding. You are both, you think, apart from the others, because only the two of you understand what is going on. You think this, both of you do. You have no proof of this. You could never prove it to anyone if you tried. But you believe it anyway. That's the way it is with these kind of things. Things like being in it, or of it, or with it, are always like that. Always just a sense that's able to defy evidence either pro or contrary. You can never even prove that anyone else you are with thinks it either. You just have to go on faith, in a way, and whatever miniature body language you can find. You pray to God almighty that when you finally do sit down to talk with this woman that you are not proven wrong.
And, just as you are wondering when this chance will arise, the class is over. Everyone, including yourself, arises from the stupor of a lecture to leave. Your eyes reflexively go to look at her as you stand. And, to your own happiness, she is looking back at you. Your now already malfunctioning heart stops as she gazes at you. Her look is quite odd, you numbly think. What is to be read into that? Everything, maybe everything, maybe she wants you as much as you want her, you can see that in those blue pupils, but whether that is just your imagination or not is questionable. After all, her eyes could hold nothing for you, she could be just another mindless drone that are so common in the world. Or even worse, your better. But you stare back at her, trying to mimic her passivity.
She talks to you, as she stands. She asks you some question that you only machine- like understand and answer. You are too thankful to hear her voice, deep and intelligent, to understand exactly what she is saying at first. Before you come around, and actually know what you are saying you have already agreed to come to the coffeehouse with her, for a cup or two or Java. Which is fine, you do have another class after this one, but priorities rule.
You learn her name, and her basic common background. Her real name, which you store in the very important part of your mind, thinking that this woman is one to never call by the wrong name. But really, her name, to your mind, does not matter. A name is only an identification badge. To you, she will always be your Little Orphan Annie with the saucer dish eyes from that first day. Even though she hasn't worn those glasses once since, it doesn't matter. When addressing her, yes, you will use her real name, of course you will, but when thinking about her, it will always be as Annie.
You sit in the coffeehouse with her, sipping your cup, as the two of you talk so wonderfully. You find many common interests and opinions. Concepts on art, philosophy, politics, all the true and meaningful things. You think, as you talk about Sartre's true intent in No Exit, that you may have put her on a physical pedestal before. She has her own mind, makes her own decisions, and is completely devoted to self- reliance. You like that. You can't stand the kind of woman that is so reflexively subservient as to be afraid to show their own mind, or disagree with anything anyone says. And she is definitely not like that. You feel, as you talk politics, that the two of you are kindred souls, from almost the same mold. She is the type of people that you need. Need to know, need to talk to, need to keep.
But then the coffee runs out, and you find you must take you get going. Approximately twenty seconds after she has already said she must go. In the back of your mind you wish you had decided first. It would be so much better for you. Still, you try to stand up in unison with her, and walk towards the door, still talking about Joe Orton as you leave. You think you salvaged a good amount of leverage with her. Everything must be kept in balance, you think to yourself, or if not that, then tipped in your favor. As you both walk towards the door, hiding your need as much as you can, you make plans to visit her at her off campus apartment the next Sunday. To go out for drinks.
You are so happy at your breakthrough, that you are incredibly festive at the party that night. You pick up a fake blonde, take her back to her place, and have sex with her an unprecedented five times before you take your leave and go home. All the time, thinking of Annie.
* * *
The Saturday before the important Sunday comes along, and you have inwardly thought of nothing other than your date with Annie. Even throughout the sex with the blond the same day as the coffee house, or even the tiny brunette on Friday, you have anticipated the calm afternoon in Annie's bedroom, or living room, meeting her roommates, talking great with everyone, and the hopefully great impression that you will make. You have even gone to the extent of thinking of all the witty remarks that you will deftly and brilliantly weave into the conversations that you will have that Sunday.
But today is just Saturday, and you have a whole twenty four hours before then. And you must go out, down to Beaver Street, to the good little indie party they have each month for rent. After all, there isn't anything else to really do in this sad, small college town.
So you go to Beaver Street, and you drink, and talk to friends that you see there, and do not pay any attention to the amount that you are drinking. At one point early on you offhandedly think that you've had about seven, which is close to the truth. You know that you are very drunk, which is confirmed as a fact to you when you find yourself discussing in detail your masturbation habits with someone you have never met before.
And as fate would have it, that is when you first notice that Annie is at the party. You see her through the fog that is your world of the moment, talking with a friend. You stop the stranger in mid-sentence and stumble over to her, nearly falling down three times in the short fifteen feet, to come to rest on her shoulder, much to the obvious surprise of Annie, who nearly jumps out of her skin.
The effect of your last beer, coincidentally or not, starts to affect you seriously at this very moment. God knows what the one in your hand is going to do. So you have no idea what you are doing, or saying, or even thinking. For some reason you seem to have the mindset to treat her as just another pickup, so you think that you are using the standard pick- up lines. But you can't be certain that you are even pronouncing the words right, let alone using them at the right times.
But deep down, in the last sober brain cell that you have, the last microscopic bit of intellect that you have left, you first realize how much of an idiot you are being. Pick- up lines will never work on Annie. Not at this point of knowing her at least. The rest of your mind deals with this fact, as it continues with its disingenuine talking, not as should be hoped by stopping the cheesy lines, but instead by trying to figure out exactly why you're using them, even as you continue to do so. Then your last brain cell is finally grasped by the beer, and there is nothing left to save your dignity.
You continue on, making more and more of a fool of yourself to her. You have no clue what you are saying, nor do you realize how much you are pawing at her. At first it is supposed to be meant as a sign of your understood bond, but naturally it gets to stupid levels.
Soon enough the party is over, and they are telling people to leave. Sheepishly you do with all the others, Machiavellianly making certain that you are following Annie, who is with an older man who is looking at you antagonistically. And you follow the two of them all the way back to Annie's place, with you talking incessantly, and them trying to ignore your existence.
And then, at the door, when the older man enters before Annie, you (to your drunken logic) go to enter the house as well. And it is at that point that Annie, the annoyance showing in her completely, tells you to go home, right now, you are being a drunken fool. Which, like a foolish and finally sensible sheep, you do, telling Annie that you'll see her tomorrow between hiccups, as you fall down on the sidewalk in front of her house. To which she promptly and heavily slams her door.
And somewhere along the walk home, you start to feel the tears well. You don't know why. All you can tell through the booze is that your heart and mind are in real dark places. You get real sad, and soon start to sob and then heavily cry as you stumble along the empty morning streets, all over something which you don't remember anymore.
* * *
You awake the next day with a terrible headache, groaning heavily as you sit up in bed. You do your cursory check of first, your bed, looking for anyone in it, and then your own memory, to piece together as much of the night as you can. After a few moments and one cigarette, you think that you have an accurate memory. Although you have forgotten seeing Annie at all the night before, either consciously or subconsciously.
You go about your traditional Sunday routine, eat, shit, shower, shave, do the laundry, and when that is all done at three, you decide that you are finally ready, in your best shirt and pants, clean and shaven face, to go visit Annie So off you go to her house, along the path that its oddly familiar to you.
You still have no idea of the night before as you ring the bell, whistling a light tune, thankful that your hangover is gone. Even as you are let in, by the older man that is vaguely familiar, you still do not remember. The memory only starts to fade into your mind as you sit in Annie's bedroom, on the floor, as she sits at her desk, in a position of judgment over you, telling you all about your actions of the last night.
At first you cannot believe your own memories of the past night or her recounting of it. Then they are so clear, or at least as clear as a drunken memory can be, and denial is simply foolish. Then your are ashamed to have acted in such a stupid way. Then guilty, as you apologize for the whole thing. You sit there, on the floor, shrinking and shrinking with each passing moment, as she sentences you to a life of endless guilt.
You apologize more in that short amount of time than you think you have ever in your life. You are definitely in the wrong here, there is no way to excuse your actions, you were very rude, very crass, and very intimidating, to the point where Annie actually feared her own safety, and was thankful she walked home with Stuart, her roommate.
That was what hurt you the most, the fact that anyone could actually fear you like that. You apologized for that more than anything else.
But it was never going to clean up your actions in her mind, you could tell that. Your excuses were not even taken with the traditional nodded head of barely accepted rationale. She actually used them against you. She wasn't happy to destroy your drunken mindset of the night before, she also had to bring your entire personality into question, as she sat on her backless chair above you.
You're selfish, she informs you, all you ever think about is yourself. You only ask things about others when you have an end to meet. For example, just now as you entered her room, you asked nothing of her, asked nothing of how she was doing, merely started straight in on how your life was going, as if her life and personal happiness was not important to you, because there would be no benefit in it for you. She accused you of being a predator, hunting constantly for conquest, and caring nothing for what things you may do to others. And she had never actually considered anything personal or intimate between the two of you, that if she had given off the wrong airs she was sorry, but in no way did that excuse your behavior. And on top of that she tells you that you may be an alcoholic.
And you take it all in because it confirmed the deep fears you have always had about yourself. You have always feared being a superficial womanizer, and here Annie was, giving voice to all of it, fulfilling the masochistic needs of a lifetime. You cradle your knees close to your body, and fight back the tears and depression, all the time that you are there. Crying now would only make you more pathetic.
You leave soon enough, weakly leaning against the door as you go. Thankfully you have been allowed to still be Annie's friend, which is more than you deserve, and all that you will have. You take it because you need at least some tie to her, painfully aware at every moment how insufficient that tie is.
That night, still heavily depressed, you pick up a woman of neither good body or intellect, take her back to her place and have pitiable sexual intercourse with her just once. All through the bad sex you are only thinking of Annie.
* * *
You see her from time to time. Naturally in class and afterwards, when you can find a substantial reason to do so. Most of the time in the coffee house, as you sip at cups with her and talk about things, taking great care not to talk about any aspect of yourself that is not asked about. Indeed, the mere uttering of the word 'I' makes you wince in her presence no matter how it's used. You never talk about yourself with her, making certain not to appear selfish. All you ever talk about now is her life and times. A subject that she enjoys very much.
When you see her in bars or at parties, you take great pains to only give her the friendliest of hellos, and only slight small talk. Your drinking slows. You know at all times where she is on the premises and make certain to be at the other end as much as you can. You do not want a repeat of that night ever again in your life. You wonder to yourself which you dread more- the actual chance of making a fool of yourself like that again, or the recriminations from her that would follow.
Time passes, and the slight hint at that bad night totally disappears from her language. Although you doubt from her mind. Soon enough you almost feel comfortable in her presence. You can almost reflexively revert to the passive mentality when you see her without even thinking about it. You take the constant recriminations of your character that never have subsided totally without even a whimper, agreeing with them all with a cynical nod of your head. It is the way of your friendship.
But still, every time that she has just left your presence, you get that all-encompassing hollow feeling, that makes you so melancholy for a while. You think you know why that is, but you have no idea as to how to put it into words. No matter. It goes away soon enough.
Then she is having a party at her house one weekend, and she actually invites you. There is no question of you attending. You actually call in sick for work as soon as you get up even though you feel more bright and chipper than you have in ages. You are determined to try to win her back, subtly, through strengthening your bond of friendship with her, and totally convincing her of the goodness of your nature.
But of course it doesn't work like that. You go to the party with a case of good beer, and get seriously drunk. At some point in the night, you realize that she has started seeing Stuart, her roommate. You don't let that bother you openly, although you can't help but wince when they embrace.
Through the course of the night, you proposition two of her close friends, make sexual hints at another, and end up in a corner in the upstairs hallway, crying and shaking in the warm air. And that is where she finds you, in her rounds as the begrudging and supremely drunk good host.
She crouches down to you, nearly falling over herself, and tries to comfort you. She tells you that you should cheer up, and have fun, this is a party, after all. She almost sounds annoyed at you for being so depressed. Just be happy, she tells you. Smile, and everything will be all right. It's a certain kind of logic that makes perfect sense to you after having too much to drink. But you still cannot do it.
You look up at her, and start to try to tell her everything. Everything to those bleary unfocused eyes, with the red haze around the foggy and dilated blue pupils. Everything that is within all comes out at once, all the thoughts and dreams that you can remember belch out in delirium all at the same time, and make no sense. You could tell right away they didn't register, were too garbled into each other. You want to try again, to let her know all these feelings that you've let germinate inside your psyche. But you never do actually say it. You can't. You just can't. You try a little. At one point you think you might be saying it, but you aren't and you do realize it deep down. You can't formulate the words, although you think it must be just as simple as a few syllables. All you say to her, as you look up with your red eyes, is that she should be back down at the party, and not to worry about you. You'll be fine. Honest.
But you never were. That moment started a drilling in your spine, from the stupid way she looked at you in the hallway, the way she stumbled off after the most unconvincing assurance in the world. You started to question your own assessment of her character then. The Annie that you thought she was would have understood the angst you had at that time, but you got none of that from her. Not that you expected her to sit and hold you like a baby, that would have been nice, but its not that she didn't that gets you. It’s just the apathetic way she acted that night, the casual lip service concern she gave you. There you were, feeling it all the way down heavy, drunk or not, you still were still hurting bad, and all you got from her were some phony optimistic words that a host of a party is supposed to give, even to a stranger.
And then you start to put together how phony most things she does are. Well, not phony. But they weren't the same as you once thought they were. You notice that she only half- heartedly thinks similarly on your deepest passions, as if in passing fancy. You notice how casually she can disregard your friendship. You notice many other flaws in her character that you were blind to, the more you think about it.
For one, you notice that she cannot tolerate anyone in the world that she thinks is below her. She won't talk much with anyone like that, or not at all if she can help it. She shakes off some of your friends without even the politest of nods. Most of your friends don't like her at all, think that she's an arty- snob. Indeed, you do notice her friends that you meet are all in the extremes of everything from style to intellect, with no real idea of what they are ever saying. Being different from society in every way they can, while being exactly the same as each other. The jet set pseudo- bohemians, you think, doing all the bohemian things without understanding why.
You also notice how annoying and tedious talking to her has become. Every time you see her now you notice that you are the one who has to leave first. Because you run out of things to say to her without doing the taboo and volunteering things about your life apart from her. Because you can't seem to be able to pin her down to a serious discussion on anything. Every time you try, she shrugs it off without the slightest thought to make viscous comments about the fat old man with the bad weave and plaid pants who's ordering a coffee. And after that there's simply no going back to semiotics for her.
You decide to be patient. Perhaps it's just a passing thing. Perhaps she'll be the interesting person that you enjoy being around again in a little while. It's unfair to expect warmth and depth from her all the time. Nobody can sustain that. So for now, you'd just go with it, and wait around for improvement in your relationship. No matter how hard it is getting.
The last day of your class comes, and you and Annie go to the coffeehouse for that traditional drink after class together. She hasn't worn her glasses since that first time you saw her, either in class or out of it; she always has her contacts. You think about this as you talk numbly with her.
You sit at your traditional booth, and desperately try to find the one subject that hasn't been worn to death. Luckily she finds it. She starts to talk about a movie she saw the other day, and starts to rattle off her impressions of it, in a clichéd way that bores you. Yet you listen intently, or at least pretend to.
You've seen the movie, and tell her so, and then start on a story about a time when you watched it, which has enough of a link to the conversation, you think, to excuse the personal nature of it. You tell her about the time back home when you were watching the movie last, you were at a friend's house. You tell her briefly about the friend. And about the two girls there who flirted with you the whole night, and how you could not decide who to flirt back with. Then about how during the movie, they sat on either side of you on the couch, and both at the very same time, put their hands in your lap. You laughed as you told her how you had absolutely no idea what on earth to do. How you were trying desperately as you sat there, to figure out just what you were supposed to do about the little dilemma without either embarrassing them both or alienating either one of them. And how soon enough, the two girls' hands connected there, in your lap, and they both realized quite suddenly the similarity in their ideas. Instead of quickly pulling back and not talking about it all, you told her, as you expected they would, they started fondling you together, in unison, as well as each other's hands. You end the story with a smirk and raised eyebrow, telling her with a naughty and hiding smile, that it was a very good night.
You probably shouldn't have told her that story, because her expression turned from casual listening to disapproval as it progressed. But you couldn't stop in the middle of it, you were too much into the recounting of it. Even if she wasn't. Which was quite obvious by her reaction. She told you as you ended how horrible a story it was, that it showed just the sort of piggish thing about you that she simply could not stand. Just another example of your immature sexist attitude.
That is where it started. Calmly and quietly, even if darkly. The conversation simply started with you defending yourself and your gender in an incident that you did not initiate (and you hadn't started it. Did she actually think you'd stop them?). She responded to that by quoting feminist pamphlets to you, saying ugly things about men, and most specifically, you, and you alone. From there it slowly degraded into you getting venomously angry with her, her quietly sinking in her chair, as you told her off soundly. Now, when you finally had the words and the capability and the mindset to tell her what you thought of her, it wasn't the sweet, romantic things that they might have been, but were now laced in poison, and were acid on the tongue. You told her off quite completely, not missing a single flaw that you had ever noticed, and even adding one or two that she didn't actually have, just to round it off. You ended it with telling her that you would be around to collect the book you lent her, because there was no point in wasting such good literature on her. With that, with all your frustration and anger spent, with it all out of your system, you left, trying not to think of her still at the table, sitting quietly, and not saying a word.
You wondered many things on that walk home. You wonder why you ever bothered with her. You wonder why you ever put up with her. She was the only person that you had ever let talk to you that way. And not just once, but constantly, and not just her words, but her whole attitude. You let her talk down to you, patronize you, you let her think her and her superficial little mind riddled with quotes she didn't understand and had stolen from TV have all the leverage. You let yourself be just a part of her entourage, her collection, some kind of prize in her trophy case of acquaintances. It made you feel so damn stupid to think about it.
Why did you let her? You don't know. Yes you do. But it is so complex a thing that you cannot put it into words. Or you don't want to. You wonder why that is. You wondered what she would say to her friends about it, about your acidic attack and the ending of the friendship. You wonder if what you had said had even registered, had hurt her as much as it hurt you to say it. You wonder why you feel so bad now, why you are starting to feel like yet another cry over her.
You do just that too, as you sit underneath your desk as if playing hide and seek. With the shades drawn. Your favorite depression place. You let the water roll down your face unattended.
But it passes. Almost. That night you go out and pick up a nice looking blond and screw the memories of Little Orphan Annie out your mind, deciding as you get the blonde's panties off, to start fresh, never see her again, let her keep the fucking book, you can buy another, and wonder passively who'll be in next term's classes.
It doesn't occur to you that even now, in the dark room and on the soft bed, as you kiss up and down her inner thighs, you are still thinking about her while having sex with someone else.
Rick Edelstein was born and ill-bred on the streets of the Bronx. His initial writing was stage plays off-Broadway in NYC. When he moved to the golden marshmallow (Hollywood) he cut his teeth writing and directing multi-TV episodes of “Starsky & Hutch,” “Charlie’s Angels,” “Chicago,” “Alfred Hitchcock,” et al. He also wrote screenplays, including one with Richard Pryor, “The M’Butu Affair” and a book for a London musical, “Fernando’s Folly.” His latest evolution has been prose with many published short stories and novellas, including, “Bodega,” “Manchester Arms,” “America Speaks,” “Women Go on,” “This is Only Dangerous,” “Aggressive Ignorance,” “Buy the Noise,” and “The Morning After the Night.” He writes every day as he is imbued with the Judeo-Christian ethic, “A man has to earn his day.” Writing atones.
By Rick Edelstein
Harper wasn’t exactly a friend...more a of a friendly acquaintance so when he called at 2 a.m. it was an unlikely wakeup. In a fervent whisper he said, “You’re the only guy I could call, Carl, so please accept my apologies but you have to come to my place now.” [in bold because that was his emphasis] “You visited a few months ago so you remember the location, right?”
I tried to shake off my sleep and annoyance at being awakened. “Who is this?”
“Harper. Harper Morgenthauler.” He continued to murmur urgently. “You’ll understand when you come. Please, you’re the only one I could call. You have to come to my place now.”
Ah, Harper, I remembered him as a very smart too polite guy in these times of rude. “Are you in danger, Harper? Just say yes if someone is threatening you I’ll call the police and...”
“No, no, please, it’s, I’m fine, as a matter of fact,” he whispered, “I am beyond fine and so will you be once you get here. The door will be open so enter quietly. You will understand. I promise.”
“Harper, it’s two o-fucking-clock in the morning!”
“Please,” he implored, “you are the only person who would resonate with this experience. I can’t say anymore. The door will be open.” He hung up.
A bizarre call and the fact that I got up, dressed and drove to his small cottage in Santa Monica canyon is also bizarre.
The streets were quiet as expected at 2:30 a.m. I parked the car, walked to the front door and it was, as promised, open. I entered quietly to hear Harper saying, “Hellooooo.” I was about to respond when I heard a strange retort, a throaty deep rasping, “Helloooo.” Walking very quietly towards the room where the hello’s beckoned I saw the evidence of ultra-bizarre.
Harper was sitting in a chair. He was leaning forward talking to...take a breath dear reader because the usually restrained, sane and responsible Harper Franklin Morgenthauler was...wait for it...talking to a huge dog. I believe the breed is Mastiff. This dog weighed at least 150 pounds, close to three feet tall, skin the color of a faded apricot. The giant hound sat directly facing Harper and...here it comes...specifically replying to Harper. Yes, the dog responded to Harper, the dog said--do dogs say?—forget the semantics, this Mastiff animal, in the deep back of his throat emanated a resounding guttural howl that was distinctly and specifically, “Helloooooo.” I stood there for many minutes observing this delightfully, insanely, deliciously, wacky scene of a grown young man and a grown dog saying “Hello” to each other. I concluded that Harper was totally justified in calling me at two a.m.
That was almost a decade ago. Since then we sustained a casual connect, doing a Starbucks occasionally. Harper matured into a man still very polite with a touch of sub-textual angst and perhaps a suppressed sexual hunger as a single man. He had a substantial position as editor at a book publishing house which, reader alert, published my books. The fact that he was and is very appreciative of my writing enriched our relationship, sez this ego-pleased writer. It was a pleasure talking or rather listening to him dissect and admire some specifics of my latest works. In truth I was a guest at his home to speak to a gathering of hoi polloi, the subject being my recent publications, two novellas, “Jaytee, ” and an important one because it deals with a dire issue of global warming, “Not if...When.”
Last week at one of our casual connects over coffee, actually coffee for me, green tea for Harper, he shared some surprising personal not-so-casual information. His mother may have died from cancer or caused her own death after chemo-therapy’s dubious results, among which caused baldness for a woman totally attached to her physical vanity. Harper also told me about his multi-billionaire father, a powerful man who boasted, and Harper quoted him in imitative ponderous affluence, “I do not respond to every dog that barks but the ones who come too close, Arthur Delano Morgenthauler reins in the cur.” [I have an anathema to people who refer to themselves as 3rd person entities.]
As an aside observation from this non-qualified writer about psychological effects of parenthood influence, I find it interesting that polite, quietly un-cliché Harper comes from such less-than-wholesome parents. I remember reading about Harper’s father selling off ownership in mid-West newspapers and TV stations for one billion six. The writer in me was curious and I asked, “Well, Harper, now that your father sold off his media empire for a figure beyond my comprehension, I think it was reported as one billion six...”
Harper corrected, “It was closer to two billion.”
“Two billion,” I muttered and gestured in awe, “I say the word billion as if it has meaning to me, me who still checks his bank account each month to determine if I can go for a new car. Two billion dollars! I mean your father was a high end public figure who always had an avaricious appetite for challenge and gain, with his kind of brilliant amoral...” I stopped myself realizing I was dissing his father. “I’m sorry, Harper, if judgment of your father is insensitive but he is one of the Robber Barons of our time, so if I’m out of line...”
Harper assured me, “No problem, Carl. You should hear my judgments of dear ‘ole dad from the corner of my closet.”
“Okay. Good. Not good I mean...what do I mean? I’m curious, with that kind of money, is he going to buy Saturday? What are his plans?”
“My plans,” Harper corrected. “As the only child, I, Harper Franklin Morgenthauler will be moving into the Holmby Hills house to...” he paused as if taking time to handle the undefined...then continued, “To be the director of Humanity-Funds, guiding the dispersal of the largesse. Largesse,” he repeated, “What a wonderful term for billions of dollars.” He was taking cynical pleasure in his reveal. “My plans, Carl, are to help people and institutions around the world which merit or have potential to improve the human condition.” He paused, looked at me as if he was offering a surprise gift. “And if you have any pet projects I’m listening.”
“I’ll give it some thought,” I said, “But will your father be involved? He has a public history of demeaning foundation grants...close to Ayn Rand’s assertive do-it-yourself in your face individualistic power to...”
He cut me off with a wave of his hand, a sly look of amusement in his eyes. “Here’s the evidence of God’s dark sense of humor: I will also supervise care for my father who has been afflicted with Alzheimer’s. Eight months now.”
“Jesus,” I exclaimed. “Alzheimer’s. That’s a blow.”
After sharing such depressing data, a wan smile appeared on a face needing more time in the sun, “My father was not a kindly man. He was amoral in his treatment of adversaries and would most likely not approve of my intentions with Humanity-funds.” He paused for a conjecturing moment. “I wonder if there is such a thing as karma. What do you think, Carl? Alzheimer’s karmic comeuppance on my father?”
“I don’t know about your father but the Bible believes in karma just different words, you know as ye sow so shall ye reap.”
“First my mother and now this to not-so-dear ‘ole dad. I feel like getting a restraining order on God for what he’s done to the Morgenthauler family.”
“My empathy, Harper.”
“Well, in a way it’s all interesting.”
“Interesting? Hmmm...truly or just not wanting to...”
“I’m involved in the details but somehow...” he paused looking for the words, “Not emotionally. My shrink would probably label it as avoidance. Me, I think it’s...well, frankly I never was very close to my father. He made sure of that. But as a dutiful son I’m doing the best possible...flew him to Switzerland where their labs are years ahead in research for Alzheimer’s, yes even seeking cure possibilities and until then, drug easements. We remain actively in touch with leading doctors, research scientists...some drugs, which we are currently ingesting...listen to me,” he rambled, “Using the editorial we.” He paused again...seeking clarity or perhaps he was not as emotionally detached as he would like me to think he was.
He continued as if summarizing a justification to the jury of his peers, “But then again I am making the choice to use these new drugs hoping for my father’s improvement. What the hell,” he shrugged off the heaviness and perked up when he observed a woman passing our table. “Look at her walk,” he said. “Her butt bounces to a rhythm that only she hears. Some men like breasts others legs, me I love a bouncing butt.”
I laughed. “A bouncing butt to a rhythm that only she hears...I may steal that imagery, Harper.”
We connected occasionally over a cuppa’ during the next three or four months with nothing more exchanged other than small talk. But, and once again a big BUT, five months later at 7:28 a.m. my phone rang. I looked at it as if it’s the enemy. Although I was awake I do not talk until I am what I consider human...after coffee and morning ablutions. At 7:28 I was still in my shlumpies (a favorite term of my Aunt Sonia for proletariat in-home casual wear). The incessant ringing nagged me to check the face of the cell and I saw it was, you got it, Harper calling. “What’s up, Harper? It’s a little early isn’t it?”
This time his voice was not in a whisper but just as urgent as the way-back call summoning me to his hello-dog event. “You have to come over.”
“Don’t tell me you found another talking dog.”
“No, a talking human. Please, Carl, bring your recorder.”
“My recorder?” I asked.
“All writer’s have recorders, don’t they, for when they have a thought or an observation that must be recorded lest they forget?”
“As an editor you know us well. Yes, I have a recorder but I also travel with a pad and pen.”
“Bring your recorder. Does it take double or triple A batteries?”
“Now you’re getting weird on me. What do batteries...”
“You’ll want to record for perhaps longer than expected.”
“Fill me in, Harper, what’s up?”
“You’ll thank me, I promise.” He said.
“Okay, thanks out front. Now tell me what’s going on.”
“How about your next book?” He said.
“I don’t share my writing process, Harper, so if you have an idea to collaborate, it’s just not my thing.”
“No collaboration,” he replied. “It’s all yours. Is eleven too early,” he asked?
“Can you make it eleven thirteen?” I played.
“Eleven twelve,” he retorted. “A compromise to which I assume you’ll agree,” he said with his wry humor, and hung up.
I had the address and Waze app told me where and when to turn until I finally ended up at Harper’s Holmby Hills house. House? More of a manor. A substantial edifice reflecting the indulgent use of--Harper’s word--largesse. I drove to a designated area that would welcome a dozen cars a few of which, a new Beemer and a vintage Rolls were already there. I was almost embarrassed when I parked my two-year old Honda Civic next to them and walked to the door...stopped, returned and got my recorder, back to the door and faced with a choice. A huge beautiful oaken weathered door with an old fashioned brass knocker or on the side a subtle button with an almost hidden speaker above it. I pushed the button expecting a voice from the speaker but instead the door opened to Harper extending his hand, “You’re two minutes late,” he smiled and ushered me in, “Let’s go to the study.”
The study was a warm room with first edition books in the walled construction; a table made out of a tree trunk with comfortable chairs surrounding it; a fireplace that was burning wood even though it was a relatively warm day; a few old stuffed chairs with ottomans nearby. Although I preferred the comfortable looking armchairs, Harper led me to the table indicating I should sit as he closed the door. Closing the door was a clear indication that something arcane was about to go down.
Sitting facing me, Harper pointed to my recorder, “Start it.”
I placed it on the table and did as he suggested.
Harper assumed a formal almost ceremonial tone leaning towards and talking into the recorder, “I Harper Morgenthauler...”
“You don’t have to lean into the recorder, Harper. It’ll pick up your voice ten feet away.”
He nodded appreciatively, sat back, “Okay, I Harper Morgenthauler agree to share information with Carl Goldman that is to be used in his book without alteration, editing or rewrite, in other words what is shared will be reproduced in his book verbatim.” He looked at me for auditory agreement for the recorder.
I shook my head, “No way, Harper. If material is published under my name I retain the right to rewrite, editorialize, change whatever strikes me according to my own values, craft and choices as a writer, period.” I said.
He smiled, “I think it should be an exclamation point. Okay, all right Carl, here’s the deal. You can do as you wish as a writer up to and including this, what would you call it, a chapter, a session with you and me but...and it’s a big BUT...what my father says must be recorded and transcribed verbatim. No editing of his words.”
I was confused. “Your father’s words? Wait a minute. Months ago you told me he’s afflicted with Alzheimer’s. I have heard of early stages where limited communication is possible although substantially limited. Is he talking? Lucid?”
“My father’s Alzheimer’s is well past the early stages. Diagnosis by the most experienced doctors on the planet as Severe, Advanced to we neophytes.”
“Well, not being all that conversant with...I mean...severe...advanced, isn’t that beyond communication?”
“Yes,” he said too simply.
“So then...this writer asks the obvious...if he is diagnosed as advanced...”
“Severe, is the medical term.” Harper corrected in a neutral tone.
“Okay, severe, meaning he cannot communicate...then what is this verbatim agreement all about?”
“Carl, my father and I and Mrs. Lazarova have...”
“Mrs. who,” I asked?
“We have four care-givers alternating six-hour shifts, Mrs. ...Ruth Lazarova, she’s our primary Care-Giver who supervises the others. And more importantly she has a kind of, well positive effect on my father.” He took a breath not so much for his lungs but to calm himself. “We have traveled to Europe, me, my father of course and Mrs. Lazarova, seeking the best available practitioners on the planet. They recently had a big breakthrough, developed a brain scan that can spot the debilitating Alzheimer’s disease years, maybe fifteen before the symptoms actually appears. Of course too late for my father. So...” he hesitated and then continued but his tone was more of an explanation but with a tinge of asking for personal understanding, “Carl, after many meetings and tests we intimately settled on a series of drugs such as Gantenerumab, Aducanumab and others for which I had to sign an agreement because some drugs are only in the experimental phase but have been used on sixteen men in Europe with various results; positive to a degree stopping deterioration and without going into graphic, gory details, to too many let’s just say not-so-positive...or to be honest, negative discouraging results. We also used a BACE inhibitor, aimed at dramatically reducing levels of...I won’t inundate you with medical jargon or is it too late,” he cracked with a sly smile? He continued with an assertive type of defense, “But I promise that when you have your book ready for editing, or before, up to you, you will have access to the specific records of medication, when applied, dates and dosage, I have been meticulous in record-keeping. When you experience my father, I am sure you will understand,” he said in a contradictory ominous and yet humorous tone.
“I am listening hard, Harper, but I feel like I’m trying to break through a dense pea soup of a fog imploding in my brain. To this layman Advanced, Severe Alzheimer’s denotes an inability to communicate, to give or receive cognitively, right?” I asked rhetorically and Harper nodded affirmation. I continued, “Okay, he cannot communicate as determined by the medical establishment’s prognosis of the specific disease and you insist on verbatim...verbatim what! Talk to me, man, and tell me what the fuck is going on!”
Harper took a few moments, his face changed expression a few times; his silence was active as if his cerebral cortex ached to reveal itself through his creased forehead. He inhaled, exhaled slowly, then talked quietly but with lasered intent as if sharing state secrets. “As I said before,” he was defensive, “I had to sign agreements not to indemnify the Swiss doctors as usage of these drugs have not been tested sufficiently to determine their value and possible side effects.” He shook his head but I could not determine anything from his facial expression other than an almost defensive albeit naïve façade. “My father’s Advanced Severe state demanded that we...I take risks. Are you getting this, Carl?” He almost pleaded.
“I’m with you, Harper, but obviously I need more...”
He interrupted with a sense of dramatic urgency. “The side effects on a Severe afflicted Alzheimer’s man are...” he stopped, looked at me as his eyes were in an amused panic... “Carl, my father has not been able to communicate, to talk, to respond to anything for over six months now.”
“But?” I asked. “Something has apparently changed, right?”
He grunted and shrugged. “Apparently,” he concurred, “Even though the medical profession ascertained, no, confirmed that my father is afflicted with incurable now-Severe Alzheimer’s...something...okay...no one has experienced my father’s...well only me and Mrs. Lazarova so forgive me, Carl.” He started over again distinctly talking towards the recorder, “Do you, Carl Goldman,” he went into stentorian tone, “...agree to record and reproduce anything my father, Arhtur Delano Morgenthauler says, verbatim?”
I was obviously conflicted as to what to expect but... “I agree to anything your father says will be reproduced verbatim without editing. Okay? The side effects have apparently...I’ll shut up now and you better enlighten me, man!”
He led me out of the study, “Take the recorder.” Walking up beautiful curled stairs to the second floor he shared, “The side-effects, if that’s what they are called, are inexplicable, to say the least and to say the most they are incredible, strange, phantasmagoric.”
I love the word phantasmagoric. It has heft, like an entrée of a great dinner at a prime rib steak house and if that reference turns you veggies off, forgive.
I had no idea what his father would present but I was admittedly provoked, eager like a hungry porpoise biting on the phantasmagorical bait as we walked up the plush carpeted curved staircase and then down a lengthy hall with walls adorned with original European masters. I thought what a waste for these great paintings adorning shadowed walls like gluttony rather than...my judgmental meanderings were cut short by Harper.
He said, “After you spend sufficient time with my father, perhaps once you finish the first draft of your book, I shall send a visual recording to the specialists in Switzerland and Germany who will no doubt want to do their testing, which I may or may not agree. You can choose to include the professionals’ editorial response as a closing coda, an addendum, an epilogue if you wish. There’s the editor talking. Excuse me, Carl, you’ll understand I’m sure as it’s all too inexplicable, even weird and I confess that I am a little crazy and ...” he said as he opened the door to a huge room. “a little, what are the words...it’s almost an enjoyable, terrible, extraordinary, frightening experience.”
“An event that defies paradigms, that breaks the rules, an occurrence without explanation as to cause, a result which has no logical explanation, frankly it scares the shit out of me, Carl.”
A sizable room with the most proficient, professional hospital bed. Near the bed are a few chairs, one of which is upholstered to designed specifics with Arthur Delano Morgenthauler seated. His body seemed frail, nearly disappearing into the lush cushions with a large soft faded leather belt around the chair and just above his waist, which I assumed were to ensure that he does not fall over. He is sitting in a robe and silk pajamas staring at a TV set with a 24-hour news service channel playing. From the distance I could hear a murmur of the TV reporter’s descriptions of events. Arthur Delano Morgenthauler, I shall call him Arthur for brevity, is staring at the images and listening (Can Severe Alzheimer’s listen, hear, make sense of?) to the narration of events. (I later found out that all his waking hours are spent watching news broadcasts on different channels adjusted by Care-Givers.)
Sitting near him was Mrs. Lazarova, who Harper called, ‘Our primary care giver,’ looked at us as if she is the protective mother-bear ensuring no harm will come to her cub. Her eyes were a powerful mixture of strength and cover of some unrevealed trauma. She was about 43-years-old but with a...what’s the word...a carriage, no too old fashioned of a word...a bearing, a kind of I-will-survive comportment with a character-etched face that Modigliani would like to have painted. She was seated but her long legs indicated height.
Harper introduced us, “Carl meet Mrs. Lazarova.”
She stood and yes, at least 6 feet tall, in a formal gesture she extended her hand to shake. She had a strong grip. She said in an East-European accent, “How do you do and why are you here?”
I shook her hand meeting her strength with mine as if we were contestants, and looked at Harper who had a humorous smirk. He wasn’t helping me out.
“I am here,” I said to Mrs. Lazarova, “because Harper invited me to observe and possibly write about his father, Arthur Delano Morgenthauler.”
She looked at Harper who nodded and then back at me. “You are a writer? A Professional?”
“Yes,” I said trying to hide my surprise and slight annoyance at being interviewed by a Care-giver. “I have been published including two novels by Harper’s firm and,” I decided to get back at her, “From your accent you are obviously from a European country. What training do you have to be a Care-giver? Are you an R-N?”
She grimaced. “R-N,” she said dismissively. “In Bulgaria I was eight months short of completion before interning as Doctor Lazarova, not a nurse. But your American Medical Associations questioned my credentials and training...” She stopped when Arthur started moaning in a low uncomfortable hum. As if she was summoned by an emergency call she abruptly turned from me, walked to Arthur, kneeled at his side, gently rubbed his neck and whispered as if caressing a young boy who scraped his knee assuring him it will be all right, “Ne se trevoji, vsichko ste bude nared.” I knew not the language but apparently it had a calming effect on Arthur.
Harper whispered to me, “Mrs. Lazarus has a kind of mojo that only she can...what can I tell you, on some inexplicable level my father gets her.” He indicated Arthur’s easing, ceased moaning as Mrs. Lazarus stood, looked at us as if she was evaluating our presence, her head tilted, “Arthur will be all right for now.” She nodded to Harper, “You can call me I’ll have this...” she indicated a kind of intercom beeper, “I am going to the kitchen.”
“Thank you, Mrs. Lazarova.”
“Your father prefers my first name. Ruth.”
A grunt was heard from immobile Arthur, and I swear I heard a low hoarse mumbled, “Truth Ruth” emanating from Arthur who was a not-coherent Alzheimer’s victim.
I was startled and looked at Harper and Mrs. Laza...Ruth...but either they did not hear or...or what? I could not process this in any rational frame of reference.
Harper simply said to her, “Yes, Ruth, thank you.”
She nodded, touched Arthur’s shoulder maternally and whispered, “Ruth will return soon,” to which Arthur did not respond as he continued to stare at the news channel. To us she said, “He has been not very easy.” And then searched for the English word. “Ah...yes... restless.” She looked at her watch, “Clarence will be here soon,” turned and in her erect straight backed-stride, ignored me as she went to the nearby kitchen
I felt like I was in the middle of a three-dimensional hologram which I think is redundant since hologram means three-dimensional...I better stop now because I was losing it with my mind scrambling to find a logic to a man with advanced Alzheimer’s responding to a striking European woman who was taking no prisoners.
Harper reminded me, like a splash of cold water on my face, “My father,” and specified the chairs near Arthur with a table between us, indicating placement for my recorder. I put the recorder down, I checked that the light was on, recording, sat and watched Harper move slowly between his father and the TV. He shut off the TV. No response from his father who continued to stare blankly at a blank monitor. His face was, the word eludes me...perhaps quiet. No turmoil, no struggle for anything. If it wasn’t Alzheimer’s you might consider him as a man described by Buddhists as a state of Satori, no contradictions, no challenges, just an is-ness. But then again he was an Alzheimer’s stricken man reminding this writer to avoid romanticizing his affliction.
Harper said to me, “He responds to one word. Just one. More apparently is confusing and gets no response.” He turned his chair to face his father. He said, “Dad.”
Arthur Delano Mergenthaler’s face remained passive but his voice, like a distant sound echoing from a spelunker’s cave:
“Dad was bad now sad life I had makes me mad a tad of glad on dad’s lad .”
I was startled. Nothing and everything made sense which obviously was the...the what...the experience...the phantasmagoric event to which Harper insisted I attend.
I was in a mild panic because I could not get past this astounding so-called side effect from a Severe Advanced Alzheimer’s...insane side-effect to...I was beyond logic as I flashed on what was politically-incorrectly called Idiot-Savants, what a terrible word, Idiot, but Savants were often used to label people who revealed a miraculous gift, a talent, a genius not earned but fully present...some with autism can play Mozart flawlessly without ever having a lesson...some Savants were retarded or, okay yes, to be politically correct, of massive limited intelligence who could calculate complex algorithms...I was freaking...the words affliction and savant kept reverberating inside my mind and yet...I was at odds with how much does he, Arthur, understand? I looked away from my chaotic inner rambling to see Harper indicating, signifying I should say something, as he held up one finger designating only one word.
One word, I thought, as if whatever word I came up with would change everything...or nothing. I looked at Arthur. His face remained expressionless, passive. Word, one word...what word? Can I use a word without inflicting some disturbance, some undiagnosed pain. I felt Harper’s impatience as he cleared his throat and made a gesture with one finger, no, not the middle finger, just pointing at me to say the word, any word, and I blurted out: “Politician.” I looked at Harper apologetically for my stupid word but I just finished reading the newspapers before...politician, what a lame choice...but Harper showed no judgment as he was affixed on what his father would do with the word.
Arthur’s face changed-not while the words tumbled from his being as if he had no ownership:
“Politicians are morticians entomb the gloom with moneyed broom enhancing the dancing of sour power they decide suicide in vain pain seducing producing empty fates of believers ‘n grievers much too late politicians avaricious cartoons politicians pernicious buffoons.”
I was two clicks away from crazy. This afflicted man who seemed to have no conscious ability just rolled with...I was breathing heavy trying, with limited success, to process this beyond-logic, beyond-reason...what...to call it a side-effect is diminishing the...oh god, I was dealing...literally with an unconscious savant. I thought Arthur was complete with his politician-response and then surprisingly he erupted:
“They perspire and aspire inflictive vindictive expensive apprehensive inscrutable immutable their lust in disgust scheming and dreaming amassing their jewels sassing their cruels as we roast into toast.”
He stopped as suddenly as he started. Facial expression unchanged. It was as if he was Zoltar, that figure in a booth which played out the recording for money put into the slot but is now dormant.
Harper gestured an expression of justified proof in demanding my resistant presence. He smiled gently, leaned towards his father and whispered one word: Awake.
Arthur did not respond immediately. Both Harper and I thought the damage was done and the Savant may be no more. Until like expletives overflowing from his mouth, with no facial expression other than placid, came:
“Awake is mistake on a break.” Arthur paused and then continued as if an inner recording was released. “Baked faked brakes stop awake.” He stopped. A bit of spittle escaped from the left side of his mouth. Harper gently dabbed it dry with a nearby tissue. Then Arthur surged with a cascade:
“Ax don’t care the tree will dare to be awake with life at stake ...there is no reason to be in season when the breath of death in search of a lurch of veracity loss of capacity in a dumber slumber hiding what is the biz for heaven’s sake do not make me awake.”
He stopped as if completing a prayer, closed his eyes, breathed evenly, seemingly asleep.
I was beyond cognition, thoughts, reasoning. What I just saw, heard, experienced fit no paradigm, no archetype, no prototype, just a human conundrum defying parameters, exceeded bounds of diagnosed Alzheimer’s behavior...Alzheimer’s! My god, it was as if he was channeling a free-style rapper.
At this moment I was, what, freaking, yes! I looked at Arthur whose head was now lowered, chin resting on his upper torso, breathing quietly, yes, sleeping in his forced upright position due to the belt, otherwise he may have fallen on the floor, unawake. Ugh...there’s that word...awake. I replayed his last words, “Do not make me awake.”
Harper quietly said, “That’s it for today.”
I was trying not to reveal my close to totally losing my grip on reality, “What it? Did you hear your father? Alzheimer’s be damned I mean...”
“Yes, Carl, that’s why I wanted you here. But when he talks, or rants or rhymes whatever you want to call it and then...well, then he goes into a sleep as if nothing happened...that’s it until...until tomorrow I would guess.”
We were interrupted by the sound of a door opening and closing, admitting Clarence, another Care-Giver, coming into the room.
Clarence, with his stuffed back-pack in his hospital light blues, Kobe’s Nike yellow X sneakers, horn rimmed glasses on a square face and a body that looked like he pumped iron. His attitude was confidently casual as he walked close to Arthur. “What’s up, Harper?”
“Hello, Clarence. This is my good friend, Carl, Clarence.”
“Hey,” he briefly acknowledged me, took off his back-pack and turned to Arthur whose eyes were closed, shallow breathing, chin resting on his chest. Clarence said, “...hmmm....the old man’s asleep. Time for beddy-bye Mr. M.”
Clarence efficiently untied the belt restraining sleeping Arthur upright, lifted his body with strength and tender care as if he was cradling an infant and carried him to the bed, laid Arthur down gently, covered him...actually tucked him in. He turned to us and quietly said, “He’ll sleep through my shift I figure.” Then grabbed a chair roughly, sat, and pulled a paper-back book from his pocket, adjusting his glasses and read...yes, I strained to see the title, “Love in the Time of Cholera.”
I couldn’t resist, actually I chose not to when I commented, “Gabriel Garcia Marquez...a great writer.”
Clarence looked up at me as if surprised that I was still there. “Yeah,” he nodded and returned to reading.
I wasn’t ready to be dismissed. “Most people think ‘A Hundred Years of Solitude’ is his best.”
Harper helped out. “Carl is a writer.”
Clarence nodded, looked at me, trying to read my intentions. Satisfied with whatever he found he said, “Nope, not to me. This one is it. I mean he features a child-molester, someone I would have no problem castrating, and yet...hmmm....and yet...I like the deranged motherfucker. Now that’s good writing.” He ended his sentence as if a teacher sending me to the principal’s office and turned to his book.
I was dismissed...and got his point. Valid, says this writer. I picked up the recorder, stood and started walking out accompanied by Harper. “Tomorrow?”
Harper nodded, “Yes.”
“God, I’m making an appointment...tomorrow...as if for a coffee and or something...I mean, Harper...” I glanced over at Clarence who was absorbed in his book and back at Harper. “Does Arthur...your father talk to him, Clarence and...?”
“No, only Ruth, you and me have heard my father.”
“Okay okay...I am trying to be calm, cool and collected and I hide in this cliché adornment but after listening to your father...Jesus, Harper, this book will start a bon fire in the medical community.”
“You haven’t typed page one yet, Carl, and yes I know how you writers think but...”
“Right, right...another cliché of cart before the horse...eating dessert before the entrée...I’ll stop now...tomorrow same time?”
“Good,” Harper said.
“Uhmmm...” I stopped as I wanted more...more what? I wasn’t sure but I asked Harper, “Think I could speak with Mrs. Lazarova...Ruth?”
Harper hesitated and then, “I guess...yes, she’s probably still in the kitchen...but Carl, Ruth is running the show with the other three Care-givers so I do not want you to upset her in any way. She’s too valuable...my father is...he responds to her...in ways that...well...listen to me, Ruth Lazarova is a strong woman...switch channels...she may upset you. Of course. Go.”
I walked into a huge kitchen with hanging copper and steel pots and pans, two large ranges, two giant butcher blocks...but no Ruth Lazarova. Then I heard a cup clinking on a dish or something. I wandered to the source and through an open door was a small homey-kitchen.
Ruth was pouring coffee into a mug. When she felt me standing there, turned, nodded, “Can I help you?” She turned, putting down the mug and very carefully remove a hot cheese sandwich from the grill.
“Yes, Mrs. Lazarova, I would like to talk to you.”
“About Arthur, Mister Morgenthauler?”
“Yes, and as Arthur has a specific favorable response to you, I would like to know more about how that happened and even more about you, your background...”
She stared as me as if measuring whether I was friend or foe.
I looked at her trying to be a safe place although I was distracted by her original beauty...original in that her face, her eyes reflected strength, intelligence and...what...a secret...something carefully hidden, protected, which also intrigued me. As a single man, perhaps a few years younger than her early forties I figured, I was attracted...there was something about her that felt like...I stopped my personal response which had no place in this situation so I shelved such pedantic romantic fantasies to the corner of my whatevers and mused, “pedantic romantic”...Arthur’s rhyming came to mind.
“Harper and I have an agreement.” I said, “I was invited to observe his father and eventually write...” I held up the recorder which was obviously still in my sweaty hand...why was I perspiring...it was cool even in this small kitchen. I felt like a kid auditioning. “I am a writer and will write a book about the...well, I’m sure you understand that Arthur Morgenthauler talking and responding in certain ways despite professional diagnosis as Severe Alzheimer’s denying such a possibility and yet his explicit response to you is unique so bizarre actually that...”
She grabbed another mug, poured coffee. “How do you take your coffee?”
She poured another cup, set it front of a chair indicating I should sit at the small table. Then she took the grilled cheese sandwich, sliced it in two, put one on a plate for me and one for herself.
“I’m not hungry,” I said pushing the plate towards her.
She pushed it back in front of me muttering in her European accent, “In my country it is impolite to eat alone with company.”
I sat in the other chair, held up the mug as if to toast. She did not respond. We both sipped hot coffee and then she asked, “Are you a good writer?”
I took a small bite of the grilled cheese sandwich and surprisingly liked it. A lot. “This is as good as it looks.”
“Of course,” she said dismissively. “So?” waiting for an answer.
“Yes, I am a good writer. You can read some of my work. Harper has copies in the library. You may check out either ‘Manchester Arms’ or ‘Women Go..”
She interrupted me triumphantly, “Women Go On!” You wrote that? I remember the writer, yes your first name Carl...is your last name Goldman?”
I was pleased and smiled, “Guilty.”
“My God...that novella is so...” she was searching for the English words... “So full of the way we women handle pain...and the humor that is our saving...what...what is the word?”
I softly offered, “Grace?”
“Yes, saving Grace.” She looked at me with new eyes. “Carl Goldman. Good yes. How do you know so much about woman?”
“Well,” I was about to shrug it off with false humility but looking into her powerful eyes, whip-cream wouldn’t do. “Well, I was brought up by a mother and four aunts. We all lived in a small apartment in the Bronx...hard times in looking back but they made sure I always had a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for lunch.”
Ruth half-smiled not in joy but in cynical observation, “Americans answer to problems: Peanut butter and jelly sandwich.”
“Yes, we Americans. You said you’re from Bulgaria, right?”
“ I was in Sofia once when I back-packed Europe. Are you from Sofia?”
She made a derisive sound. “You Americans do a tour like High School students, Sofia, Paris, Berlin, London...and think you know the country. No, I am not from Sofia and this may surprise you, most Bulgarians are not from Sofia. I am from a town you would have difficulty pronouncing.”
“Try me,” I said in the face of her surprising negative judgments of ‘you Americans.’
“Dobrich,” she said in an easy Bulgarian accent.
“Dobrich,” I repeated.
She nodded. “Well, you have a good ear.”
I sipped the coffee, nibbled on the sandwich struggling to avoid my personal attraction with the purpose of my visit...more about Arthur and yes, her. I asked, “When Arthur was moaning...you knelt by his side and said something...in a foreign language...”
“Not foreign to me,” she snapped.
“Give me a break, Ruth, I mean no harm. Just trying to get to know you better and your relationship with Arthur is...”
“Apologies, all right,” she said in her sweet accent. “I sometime have difficulty, an inside what is the word, resistance, not liking, annoyed, yes bothered very much of...of American authority figures.”
“Is that what you think I am? I am an author. Not an authority.”
She shrugged and sipped some coffee, nibbled on her sandwich and
pointed to my half of the grilled-cheese sandwich, “I know it is not American peanut-butter and jelly but...”
“You keep saying American as if it is a...what is the word...bad weather or...definite negative connotation. What’s with that?”
“I do not know conno whatever word but when I come to America..” She stopped herself as if shaking off a bad dream, “Forget it, no problem.”
“Please...I would like you to...well, this ignorant American has no idea what an immigrant goes through so...as I writer, okay, please, tell me.”
She stared at me in evaluation and then decided. “I come to America not speaking the language but trained educated more better than most Americans...” She was trying not to be emotional with limited effect... “You Americans condescend...I learn that word painfully...because I do not speak your language people talk loud to me as if that would help me understand. Fools!” She lost her rein and ranted, “Americans are like everything is printed in extra large bold with underlines but narrow vision.” She stopped and realized she went off. Sipped more coffee and grimaced. “No good no more.” Put the cup down quietly and looked at me. Shook her head as if to deny what she just shared. Then as if recalling my question. “Yes, Arthur was restless...I was murmuring Bulgarski, “Ne se trevoji, vsichko ste bude nared.”
“Do not be worried, everything okay.”
“Well he got it...’cause he did settle down.”
She stood and took the cups, yes, mine included, walked to the urn and poured fresh coffee into each. Returned, shoved my cup to me and sat. Her eyes softened, “So, Carl Goldman, good writer, do you have something I should read next?”
“Try ‘Jaytee’ it may surprise you.”
She stood and opened a near drawer, pulled out a napkin, a pen, and wrote, “How do you spell it?”
“J – A – Y – T – E – E.”
She wrote it carefully saying the letter out loud. I was now so into her rather than my original intention of determining how her relationship with Arthur Morgenthauler evolved. She had a vulnerability contradicted by an assertive strength that said I handle what has to be.
I asked, “I would guess that your name, the name your mother gave you is not Ruth.”
“You guess correct,” she said quietly, “Yordanka.”
“Yes good. But Americans could not pronounce it correctly...so I say Ruth.”
“Where did that name come from?”
“I learn American watching TV. One day a little old lady was on...” she laughed...first time I heard her laugh...it was a strong infectious sound, “This tiny lady with a German accent talked dangerous wonderful truths about sex, in the old days they would burn her at the stake.”
I laughed, “Ah, Dr. Ruth. Yes, I remember her. Ruth Westheimer, four and half feet tall if that much.”
“I like her very much.”
“So, Yordanka Lazarova...” I proudly pronounced, “Are you married, children, how’d you end up in America?”
Her face and her demeanor changed. The warm inviting eyes were now covered with a survivor’s glare. She looked at me, away, stood and started walking out but stopped and spun around facing me with a dare and voice to match. “I will tell you,” she said almost angrily, “Because...you know why? Because your writing...your care...you do not...how can I put it...your people...your characters you show good bad smart stupid but not in a what is the word, of course, not in a condescending way...you care about their...ugh sometimes English...one word for Achilles’ heel?”
“Frailties,” I offered.
“Yes, you accept, recognize everyone has an Achilles’ heel so, all right Mister Writer...you can ask again.”
I did. “How did you end up in America. Married? Children?”
She looked down as if her release were in the crumbs of the sandwich and very quietly said, “I could not remain in Dobrich where too many people know me and tsk tsk feel sorry. If one more neighbor said I am praying for you Yordanka, I would have hurt her very bad.”
It was obvious some traumatic even occurred. “What happened,” I asked in a hushed voice?
She stood, all of her six feet straight backed energy was feral as her heated words fired the little kitchen. “Pray for you! Pray? To who? God? Omnipotent God. If God can do all things then he is the son of a bitch who lets a drunk Serb drive wrong way on a one way street into the car.” She turned and glared at me as if I was the Serb and then spit onto the floor hurling frenzied words, “Da puknesh dano i tsialoto ti semesistvo da gori v ada.” She stopped and became loudly silent.
“What happened?” I asked in a quiet empathic way that I hoped she would trust.
She would not look at me as she stared into an abyss that only she knew. She rubbed her temples as if she had a bad migraine. “I was married. Boris. A ten year-old son Asen...Asen...” She said his name as only a mother could endow grace on her son... “Asen would beat me in chess. Yes...” she said, but the ‘yes’ was a haunted sound. “I hope the Serb dies and his entire whole everybody family burns in hell!” She rubbed her shoe over the spittle on the floor. She sat down and stared into dark space.
“How horrific,” I muttered weakly not finding the appropriate words as I wanted to just hold her and ease the pain but obviously that’s not our connection but... “How long ago?”
“Too long ago and not long enough,” she mumbled.
“There is no way I can come close to understanding such a loss but I feel your hurting as something so profoundly painful that...” I just fell into empathic silence.
She looked at me, looked away and talked quietly to the ghosts, perhaps. “I left Dobrich but I could not leave, flee the...what, pain. No, pain subsides but not this...this...what this...a word that does not exist. As if God is a mean-spirited violent sculptor who took a knife to my soul and cut away.” She was quiet and then whispered, “Losing a husband whom I loved yes a permanent scar on my heart.” She paused and then a tear flowed from her right eye, “But Asen...he had big ears...taking a son is cutting away the important part of this mother’s heart.”
She stood and walked out of the kitchen leaving me with a human ache I could not express.
The next day I drove to the manor with the professional intention of spending more time and one-wording Arthur Delano Morgenthauler in this what, strange curious unusual bizarre breakthrough of a condition for which there is no break-through. But in truth, Ruth, I heard myself repeat Arthur’s mumblings...I was equally interested in connecting with Yordanka Lazarova.
Harper greeted me at the door, more solemn than I expected. “Doctors are with my father now. Ruth noticed his breathing was too rapid too short and wisely summoned me and...well, not good. Would you like to come back another time, Carl, or if you wish, join me upstairs with the Doctors and my father as we...”
“I’m with you, Harper. Let’s go.”
The room was filled with oxygen tanks, a mask on Arthur’s face to breathe in the rarified oxygen, an I-V in his arm, a portable heart monitor that showed an undulating line and repetitive beeping, and other medical paraphernalia in my ignorance I had no knowledge of its intended use. Yordanka was standing to the side, her arms folded across her chest. I looked at her. She felt it and glanced at me, imperceptibly nodded as if to a negotiated ally, her eyes reflected the polarity of empathic vulnerability and a survivor’s armor.
Suddenly the beeping sound from the monitor became one screaming steady sound of fatality. The doctors did what doctors do. I won’t inundate you with the painful details but...Arhtur Morgenthauler died at 11:42 a.m.
After the funeral Harper and I sat in his study. He was not in deep mourning. More of a detached sadness. We were each nursing a brandy. He looked up, “Well, I guess that ends the possibility of your book, Carl.”
“No,” I disagreed. “It was still, as you said, a phantasmagorical experience. I have your father’s ... I’m tempted to say rapping...recorded. And I also spoke with Yord...Ruth...about her connection and your father’s response to her. It all would make for an interesting, no much more than that, a fascinating reportage of a Severe Alzheimer’s victim’s response never before...”
Harper interrupted me. “Carl, come on, the medical establishment will insist you, I, even Ruth were lying...because what happened could not occur. I should have video-taped my father’s extraordinary responses rather than just limit it to your recorder.”
“But I do have your father’s voice recorded!” I insisted.
“They will contend it is a bogus recording of an actor or as you say, a rapper. They will discount it and you and I will look like imposters or at the very least, fools.”
“I’ve been called worse.”
“Well,” Harper said, “It’s up to you. Just be aware once it is published you will be vilified by the medical establishment and...”
“And worse yet, book critics.” I intoned, “I have to do it, Harper. This experience with your father, believed or not, deserves an homage.”
Harper smiled weakly, “Okay, go for it.”
“I uh...” I was hesitant but I plowed on, “What about Ruth?”
“Who...oh Ruth, yes. I asked her to stay on and...well, she is a better educated person than just a Care-Giver, I discovered, so I asked her to stay on and perhaps be an assistant as I have a staff of more people than I know, so many things to handle with the my father’s departure and yes, I made the suggestion to her.”
“What was her response?” I said in an effected neutral tone which was a lie because my interest in Ruth...Yordanka was...
“She said she’d think about it.”
“I’d like to ask her additional questions. For the book.”
“For the book,” Harper said his eyes glistened as if he was in on a secret.
“Okay, got me. For the book, yeah, and there is something about Yordanka...”
“Her Bulgarian name. Something about her that...well, okay, I am interested in her. Personally.”
Harper nodded almost in appreciation. “Ruth...Yordaina...”
“Yordanka,” I corrected recalling her issue with Americans unable to pronounce her name.
“She’s in the kitchen...Ruth is...easier for me to say.” He saw my hesitation. “Go, go, Carl, for the book of course!”
I smiled, “Of course.” And went to the kitchen.
Yordanka was sitting at the table drinking coffee from the mug when I entered. She looked up, nodded, eyes saying she was pleased. She pointed to a chair. I sat as she stood and poured another cup of coffee. Put it in front of me, touched my shoulder, and sat. There was something about her touch. Or something about me as a too-long single man that...her touch felt like...like home.
She broke the silence, “So Mr. Writer, are you still going to write the book?”
“Yes,” I said.
“Harper told me that he asked you to stay on, be his assistant.”
“Yes, he is very...very considerate, yes.”
“Will you...I hope you do.”
“You hope I do what?”
“Stay on. Here Not relocate to another city or even country.”
“Talk about cut to the chase,” I muttered.
“What did you say about chase,” she asked?
“Okay,” I admitted, “I would like you to stay on because I would like to...to spend time with you.”
“For the book?”
She looked at me longer than I felt comfortable but I wasn’t retreating.
“You are talking to me as a man...to a woman, yes?”
“Yes,” I said.
Her eyes softened, “I don’t know if I can find whatever is lost, Carl.”
“I would like you stay,” I said.
She almost smiled, “You make me uncomfortable...in a good way, I think.”
“Then you’ll stay?”
“I do not know. I have a temporary visa.” For the first time her armor dissolved into a gentle smile. She was unprotected as a woman to this man. “I am almost not entirely legal...” Her eyes were laughing, “Unless you Mister American wants to marry me.”
I laughed, “I need a grilled cheese sandwich before I can make that decision.”
Rizwan Saleem is a Banker based in Dubai UAE. The thoughts and expressions detailed in his works are of his various escapades suffered through life, and of the profound surprise of having survived long enough to pen them into words. His poems have appeared in anthologies Twenty Seven Signs by Lady Chaos Press and Self Portrait Poetry Collection by Silver Birch Press.
By Rizwan Saleem
The sea was tranquil, there was no moon tonight. The waves spilled calmly on to the shore. The salty air was fresh and cleansing. The darkness was complete except for the blinking yellow lights that marked the circular reefs further down the sea. He sat down on the soft sand and it cushioned him immediately as a sort of welcoming to a friend long out of touch. At first he just hung his head down and listened to the sound of the waves, coming and going in perpetually, untiring. He envied its ubiquitousness. It was so natural. A process that was never ending. No matter the time, the age or circumstances. The sea dictated its will. Calm and eerie one moment. Violent and unforgiving the next. And men could do nothing but relent to its capricious behavior. It could be trialed under no laws. It could not be summoned by a higher power on this earth. It could not be reasoned with. It would surrender its bounties just as willingly and be the harbinger of wanton destruction the likes that have been cataloged since the dawn of time itself. It was a beautiful, terrible instrument of nature. To remind mankind of who was truly in charge of all its affairs. He finally looked up, mustered up enough courage to look the sea right in its eyes.
Nothing greeting him but darkness, with intervals of white foam which highlighted the arrival of another wave. The effect was hypnotic, he felt himself inexorably drawn to this sight, the sea had captured his soul, like a cobra that sways in front of its prey, knowing that it can strike so easily at the time of its choosing. The air was still now, the balmy night lost its volume so suddenly as if to put the whole world in mute. He strained himself to hear the sounds of the waves but somehow they were in accord with the all engulfing stillness of this preternatural moment. It was then he heard the whispers, spoken in sepulchral tones. It carried on the inbound draft from the sea, the voices beckoned him, they were feminine but unlike anything he had ever heard before. Soothing and comforting. They called to him with the intimacies of a secret lover that knows too much.
This world was not for him they said, it was a cruel place. It has nothing left to offer. It had abandoned him and the countless others before him that lived and died without a trace. That forever race that man was stuck in, to earn more, do more, buy more had taken its toll. But the sea asked for none of this, it only wanted to give. Peace and seclusion, tranquility and solitude. It made no demands of the real world. This man made hell that expanded far beyond its realms. The sea was the paradise that he so badly wanted. And it was not a promise restricted to Holy Scriptures. It was present and near. An allure too hard to resist. Slowly, as if in a trance like state he began to rise. It was clear to him. Nothing is more lucid in life than the end; it’s the beginnings that are always fraught with confusion. He took his shirt off and felt the slight cool breeze caress his skin. His eyes were focused completely towards the middle of the sea, a point far far away from shore. He felt no fear, only a sense of elation that takes over a man who has been bound in shackles too long and is finally only one gate away from freedom. He peeled of the rest of his clothing not even bothering to secure the worldly possessions in his pockets; he would not need them anymore.
His steps were measured but determined; the water engulfed his feet and it felt cool and invigorating, he smiled at the thought and his only regret was why he had allowed himself to suffer so long and needlessly when succor was always so close. He hurried now, going in deeper and deeper, knee high, few more steps and then chest high; still he felt no panic, the water folded around him like black ink. Neck high the waves lapped over him now, the salt water turned into an elixir. With one final breath he submerged himself into the darkness. The sounds were so much clearer now, voices spoke to him, laughing and rejoicing in his coming. He could see the mermaids glow in an ethereal light swimming around him in rapture.
One of them reached out her sleek nimble hands and pulled him farther towards the depths and he obliged willingly; this was home. His breath was running short now, and his lungs started to ache, a slight dizziness came over him but he knew he mustn’t stop. He resolved himself to go further into the abyss. He now looked around the pitch blackness that surrounded him; the mermaids were gone; there was neither guiding light nor sound to lead him. His lungs screamed in protest and sent emergency signals to his brain in order to force the mouth open to let in much needed air but to do that would be a folly, some part of him still held on to rationale. He started twisting and turning violently now, the air supply had finished and he was entering the final throes of drowning. He looked up towards the surface and saw the pale light of the moon shimmer upon the surface of the dark chasm. Perhaps if he tried now with the last vestiges of his strength he might make it, but then he knew what awaited him back in the real world. One last look and he lowered his head and opened his mouth to let in the sea. The flood was enormous and with such force as if he had been hit by a raging bull. He choked but the water kept coming in. His lungs felt as if they would burst open. His heart was beating fast and he could hear it thump in his ears until the high pitched wail overtook all other sound. Tunnel vision now impaired his sight but he was sure that his eyes were wide open. His fingers became crooked with the exertion of trying to float.
Then came the calm, the sudden stillness that he had been longing for. There were no remnants of life flashing by, No memories or regrets of unfulfilled wishes, no desire to avenge his tormentors; there was only solace and darkness, and the darkness was now complete. His eyes closed now and he floated like debris in outer space, till gravity did its part. Slowly sucking him down to the sea bed where it would afford him a final resting place till the accumulated gases in his stomach would force him to resurface, but for now he was an honored guest. His body landed softly on the untouched sand, the arms fell neatly to his sides and his head tilted as in a motion of deep sleep. The aquatic creatures darted back and forth around him and then swam on; they had seen enough of strange intrusions to pay any further attention. He lay there still, like a fallen warrior, serene in death; laid to rest now from his battles, some lost, some won.
The sea was a living breathing thing, it gave and took life, and it felt and heard the doings of man for eons. For since time had begun, man has dedicated himself to the study of this wonder and claim knowledge of its nature. But so many mysteries still remain, the sea could also cry, it could also mourn the loss of goodness that had so often been laid as a sacrifice in its altar, and as a sacred covenant with its creator it had asked for man to be reminded time and again of their sorrows and pains, of joys and triumphs. Every eye holds an ocean, which is perhaps the answer to why tears are salty.