Robert P. Bishop, a former soldier and teacher, holds a Master’s in Biology and lives in Tucson, Arizona. He is the author of three novels and four short-story collections and has twice been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. His short fiction has appeared in Active Muse, Ariel Chart, Better Than Starbucks, Bright Flash Fiction Review, Clover and White, CommuterLit, Corner Bar Magazine, Fleas on the Dog, Ink Pantry, Literally Stories, The Literary Hatchet, Lunate Fiction, The Scarlet Leaf Review and elsewhere.
A Home in the Country
Claire watched the movers wheel her upright piano into the room with the ornate fireplace. She stood by the fireplace and twined her fingers together. Her lips trembled and a muscle twitched on the left side of her neck. One of the movers, the older of the two men, thought she might start crying. He had seen these kinds of moves before and suspected this marriage would not last. Claire looked at Lionel, her husband. “Do you think we did the proper thing?”
“Of course,” said Lionel, rising on his toes and spreading his arms wide. “Look at this house! It is magnificent, and there are no neighbors for miles around. It is a wonderful place to live, and not at all like London. I shall love it here.” He smiled at her from across the room.
“We are so far from everything,” she protested. “I don’t know.” Her voice trailed away.
“That’s the last of it, Mr. Emerson.” The older mover approached Lionel and handed him a sheet of paper and a pen. “On the bottom where it says signature, then we’ll be on our way.” Lionel signed with a flourish and returned the pen and paper.
“Thank you very much,” said Lionel, shaking the mover’s hand. The mover thought they might receive a generous tip for an efficient and careful move, but once he sensed none was forthcoming he moved off.
The older mover turned toward Claire. “If there is nothing more, Mrs. Emerson, we will be out of your way.” He nodded his head and the second mover raised his hand in a goodbye gesture.
“Yes, of course. Thank you ever so much,” said Claire. The despair flickering across her face made the older mover wince.
“Good luck, Mrs. Emerson,” the older man called over his shoulder as they left the house.
Claire listened to the engine start, the sound of the tires crunching over the gravel as the moving van drove away. She turned toward her husband. “What do we do now, Lionel?”
“Why, we have some tea, of course. Be a good girl now and make a pot, won’t you?” He smiled, happy with their circumstances. “And you can start putting your kitchen to rights as well. That will give you something to do.”
Claire stared at him for a moment then went into the kitchen.
Lionel clasped his hands together, looked about the room and said, “Lovely, just lovely.” He walked to the kitchen door and said to Claire’s back, “I’m going to look at my garden. Bring the tea and some biscuits out to the terrace when you have them to hand.”
Lionel opened the French doors and walked onto the flagstone terrace. The early afternoon, warm and sunny, buoyed his spirits even more. He took in the grounds, overgrown with weeds and bushes “Oh, yes,” he gloated, rubbing his hands together.
He stepped off the terrace and walked into the garden. The sun was warm on his back. He felt a surge of excitement pulse through him. He ran his fingers over the leaves of the shrubs as he walked by them. He pulled a leaf off, crumpled it in the palm of his hand and sniffed the sharp fragrance it emitted. He dropped it, brushed his hands free of the small pieces that clung to his skin. The fragrance lingered in his nose and the sun felt warm on his back.
Several apple trees had grown unruly and wild in the back of the garden. He knew he could shape them just as he had shaped Claire. It would take time and be more difficult than it had been bringing Claire to heel, but it could be done.
Lionel found it easy to impose his will on others. That’s what successful bankers did. They imposed their will and were paid handsomely in return. He imagined apple trees to be no different than people, than Claire, when it came to the question of who was in charge.
He was well on his way to success when he first saw Claire, a shy and ordinary-looking clerk toiling away in obscurity in one of his bank’s branch offices. It wasn’t that she was plain looking; she was quite good looking in a peasant sort of way but she made no effort to let her beauty shine through the dowdy exterior she maintained. Lionel knew this plain-looking girl would not have the inner resources to resist him.
Flattered by the attention of a wealthy man obviously bound for the highest levels of the banking world, Claire had been easy pickings, and equally easy to mold into what he wanted her to be, a woman who considered his comforts and interests before taking care of her own.
Lionel wanted Claire to look presentable, of course, as befitting the obedient wife of a successful banker, but he didn’t want her so radiant that she attracted other men, men who were competitive with him and would delight in bedding his wife.
The age difference had been an advantage, too. Claire, a naïve twenty-two-year old virgin, was in awe of a cultured and assertive man twenty years her senior. She could not believe that she had caught the attention of such a handsome man.
Immediately after they were married Claire had to quit her job and concentrate on Lionel and his relentless drive to the top. Her life revolved around him. She folded into a gray that became her life, doing research on this or that banker, ferreting out dirt and information that Lionel used to force his way to the top bracket of power and money in the banking world. The financial reports and proposals that Lionel presented to his Board or to other influential bigwigs were the creations of Claire, but his name, not Claire’s, was on the front cover of every one of them.
As the dutiful wife, Claire accompanied Lionel when he attended banquets, but he never permitted her to voice an opinion. “Wives are to be looked at by the others, not listened to,” he told her on every outing or dinner they attended. “The financial world belongs to men, not women.”
Now, twenty-six years later, she still bent to Lionel’s will and put his wishes before her own. Such was life, she supposed, but at 48 she wanted more than isolation in a 16-room country mansion with an aging, self-centered husband as her only company.
Lionel paused on his tour of the garden when he heard Claire call. He rounded the corner of the house and stepped onto the terrace. “Isn’t this wonderful, Claire? What a sterling day to complete the move into our new home. What a magnificent home it is going to be. I shall be so happy here,” he said, sitting down at the table Claire had put in the middle of the terrace.
“Yes, Lionel, you shall be so happy here,” murmured Claire, putting a tray on the table. She poured his tea, placed sandwiches and three butter biscuits on a plate, and dropped two sugar cubes into his cup. She poured a cup for herself and nibbled on a butter biscuit.
“Just look at this garden, Claire. Just look at it, will you? Why, it will take me months, perhaps years, to bring it round to a proper showing. I have my work cut out for me, you can be sure of that. No more London brick for me.”
He took a bite of sandwich, washed it down with a swallow of tea and smacked his lips. “It will be very dear, oh, yes, but I have all the money in the world. Expense is unimportant, a trivial matter, really.”
“Yes, Lionel, I know we have money, but do you think...” her voice trailed away and she fell silent. Lionel watched her, slightly amused by her fumbling attempt to ask a question.
“Do I think what?” He slurped more tea.
Claire kept her eyes on the table, refusing to look at him. “Do you think we might do something we have never done before? Perhaps take a trip?” She looked up and smiled shyly at him.
“We have done something we have never done before. I bought this wonderful manor house. For us, Claire,” he added quickly.
“I mean a trip, Lionel. I should like to take a trip somewhere exotic, someplace tropical where the sun is hot.”
“And where would that be?” he asked, peering at her over the rim of his teacup.
“Oh, I should like a trip to the Caribbean, to Aruba, perhaps, where the sun is hot and we can lie on the warm sand and swim in the ocean and see what a coral reef might look like.”
“Oh, pshaw, Claire. Why would we do that when we can go to Brighton anytime we wish?” He waved his hand in the air as if to brush aside her suggestion. “Right here in this manor house you have everything you need, your piano and your books, your needlework. Besides, you never displayed a passion for anything, as far as I can remember.”
“Oh, Lionel, that’s not…”
He interrupted her and said, “You never expressed any interest in travel. Brighton seems to have been your limit. You were always the stay-at-home type with very little interest in anything.” He snatched a butter biscuit from the plate.
Claire felt her stomach flutter. “Lionel, you know that is not true. Every time I got interested in something, in an activity or in a social group, or even a position in a shop, something about your career always needed my attention. It is rather strange, now that I think about it. Every time I found something I enjoyed and wanted to pursue, a crisis with your career always came up. I had to give you all my attention and efforts. Your career demanded as much of my time as it did your time.”
Lionel put down his cup and looked at her. “Now see here, Claire, that can’t possibly be true. Even if it were true, just look where all that effort has brought me.” His tone was brisk, commanding, a tone he used frequently with Claire when she tried to assert herself.
“I never had a career, Lionel. Her voice, soft and gentle, wafted across the gap between them. “I only had yours.”
“Come now, Claire, don’t be a wet weekend. You will find plenty to do. Just you wait.” He pushed his chair away from the table and stood. “Let’s look in on our neighbors,” he said, nodding his head toward the cemetery in the churchyard adjacent to their property. “We’ll take a tour, introduce ourselves to the neighbors, get to know who they are.”
They climbed over the low dry-stone wall separating the two properties and entered the cemetery. “The Second Earl of Rochester is buried someplace in this cemetery,” said Lionel. “Died in 1680, from venereal disease. A thoroughly nasty chap.”
They wandered among the gravestones, stopping briefly now and then to read an inscription or study engravings of angels and winged cherubim. Large oak trees shaded the cemetery. The newly mown grass was thick and green. Shafts of sun sliced between the leaves and dappled the gravestones with bright circles of light.
“It is so peaceful here,” said Claire. “So quiet and calm. Like a garden, really.”
“Well, you wouldn’t expect a lot of conversation in a place like this, now would you?” Lionel chuckled at his witticism.
“Now look at this damned rogue,” Lionel cried with delight. He stood by a gravestone some distance away. “Claire, you must have a look at this. Come, come,” he ordered when Claire did not move. He waited for her to come to him. “It’s a poem, and quite a clever one at that. I shall read it out loud.”
Here Lies John Nately Spakes
1620 – 1644
A damned highwayman was he
Hanged by the neck
From a stout oak tree
Never again to rob
Either thee or me.
“Don’t you think that’s quaint, Claire?” A grin spread across his face.
“No, I think it is rather sad.”
“Sad? Not at all. He got what was coming to him, robbing people of their wealth, ruining their lives. Good God, Claire, he may even have committed murder. Damned scoundrel,” Lionel muttered, passing final judgment.
Claire reached out and touched the curved top of the stone. Quickly she pulled her hand away. The stone was hot. She expected it to be cool, even cold.
Lionel noticed the startled expression on her face. “What is it? What is the matter?”
“The stone,” Claire whispered. “It’s hot.”
“Nonsense.” Lionel put his hand on the stone. “As cold as the grave.” He laughed, pleased with his little joke.
“Lionel, the stone is hot. I felt it.”
“Now don’t be stupid, Claire. Perhaps you put your hand on a spot warmed by the sun.”
Claire shook her head in denial but said nothing more.
“Damned rogue,” he said again, kicking the stone.
“Lionel, those were dreadful times. Poor people were nothing to the rich and powerful. Maybe he did what he had to do to survive.”
They climbed back over the dry-stone wall to their property. “Well, that was interesting. I must get back to my garden. I’m going to see to the tool shed. Be a good girl and fetch us some dinner. Call me when it’s ready.” He turned away.
“You should not have mocked him, Lionel,” Claire said as he walked away.
Nonsense, thought Lionel, stunned by her rebuke. People did what they wanted to do. After all, that is exactly what he did, and he fancied himself no different than anyone else. Of course, he did have a knack for making money, for getting the upper hand in his banking transactions. To Lionel, it was how a successful, hard-driving banker performed. Many of his competitors complained his banking practices were little better than banditry. He scoffed at them, derided their financial abilities. Lionel never had trouble sleeping at night even if some of his decisions ruined lives.
Claire collected the dishes and went into the kitchen, washed them and put them away. She stood at the kitchen sink looking out the window at farmland stretching into the distance. The land was empty. The emptiness frightened her. The silent emptiness of the house frightened her. She felt the emptiness move into her, settle into her bones.
They ate dinner quietly, neither sharing their thoughts. Only the clink of silverware against porcelain made any noise in the still air.
“And I should like my own car,” said Claire, breaking the brittle silence.
“Your own car?” Whatever for? You scarcely know how to drive and you have no license. You can’t possibly have your own car.” Lionel gazed at her, clearly astonished by her request.
“I will take lessons. I will learn.”
“Claire, what has got into you? You want to take an exotic trip and now you demand a car.” Lionel peered at her as if he might be studying some grotesque insect gnawing the life out of one of his apple trees. “I say, are you ill?”
“Nothing has got into me, Lionel. I should like to have a life of my own and I do not think that is too much to ask.”
“Of course, it is not too much to ask, and you will certainly have your own life, right here,” he said soothingly. “This is where we belong, Claire. Both of us. Right here.” Lionel gulped the last of his wine, burped slightly and pushed back from the table.
“I will be on the terrace,” he said, dismissing Claire and their conversation.
Claire cleared the table while Lionel poured himself a generous portion of single malt and carried it to the table on the terrace. He sipped the amber liquid, savoring the warm smoky taste of it as it rolled over his tongue. He felt pleased. Yes, pleased was the precise word to describe how he felt.
He swallowed the last of the scotch and left the glass on the table. Claire would see to it in the morning.
He turned off the lights and stood at the bottom of the stairs. Surrounded by darkness and silence, he felt a moment of unease. In the dark it did seem a very large and empty house.
The stairs complained under his considerable weight as he climbed them. Claire, sitting at her dressing table, ignored Lionel. He went into the bathroom and Claire heard the shower. A few minutes later Lionel, wearing silk pajamas, came out of the bathroom and got into bed. Lying on his back he said, “What a marvelous day,” then rolled onto his side, switched off the bedside lamp and went to sleep.
Claire finished brushing her hair and got into bed. She switched off her light and for the first time in their marriage made no effort to kiss Lionel and wish him good night.
Lionel drank the last of his orange juice and got up from the table. “Today I become master of my garden,” he announced. “I suppose you have your work cut out for you as well.”
“What work would that be?” Claire said, looking up at him.
“Why, cleaning this house for starters and putting everything to rights.” He slapped both hands against his belly. “I’m off,” he stated, and walked away, not waiting to hear Claire’s reply.
Claire cleared the dishes, washed them and put them away. From the terrace she could look across the garden to the church and its cemetery. Morning sunlight shafted through the oak trees and dappled the gravestones. She left the house and climbed over the dry-stone wall and walked to John Nately Spakes’s grave.
She placed both hands on the stone. Immediately heat began to flow. She felt faint, pulled her hands away and sank to the grass. Again, she placed a hand on the flat surface of the stone and felt the heat flowing into her. Her eyes closed and she sat perfectly still, encased in a peace she had not felt in many years.
Claire’s eyes snapped open and she looked at her watch. “Lionel will be wanting his lunch. I must go.” She rose and hurried home.
“Well, I see lunch is late,” said Lionel. He sat on the terraced and looked at his watch. “Twenty minutes late, in fact. You know I always eat precisely at twelve o’clock. I have my day programed, you know. Rigid routine leads to success. You should learn that, Claire.”
Claire served up his lunch and poured his tea, adding the two cubes of sugar to the cup. Then she served herself.
“I see you were in the cemetery. What were you doing?” He bit into his sandwich.
“Just sitting. It is so peaceful there.”
“I should think so. There is nothing to make a disturbance, unless it is the National Heritage man mowing the grass.” Lionel turned to his lunch and ignored Claire.
After lunch Claire climbed over the stone wall and walked to John Nately Spakes’ grave. She sat on the grass and leaned against the stone. The familiar warmth flooded over her and she closed her eyes, unaware of the passing time.
With a start she jerked her head upright and struggled to her feet. “Oh, dear, I’m late for tea. Lionel will be furious.” She placed a hand on the gravestone, turned to go but stopped. “You are quite right, John. I really don’t care.”
Lionel waited for her, sitting at the terrace table and drumming his fingers. “Now see here, Claire. You are late again. This has got to stop, I tell you. I want my afternoon tea at three, not before, not after. You will not be late again. Do I make myself clear?”
She looked him in the eyes. “Yes, Lionel, you have made yourself quite clear. And you can be sure I will not be late with your tea ever again.”
A few minutes later Claire placed a tray laden with tea, sandwiches, butter biscuits and mints on the table. As usual she served Lionel before serving herself.
“What progress have you made putting the house to rights?” He bit into a sandwich.
“I haven’t done anything in the house. The boxes are still where the movers put them.”
“What do you mean, you haven’t done anything? What have you been doing?’ he demanded. “I’ve been working. Why haven’t you?”
“I do not feel like it, Lionel.”
Lionel finished his lunch in silence, got up and resumed working in the garden. Anger flooded his mind. Whatever has come over this woman, he asked himself? He fumed as he worked, slashing viciously at the weeds with the hoe. Claire had never acted this way before! Was she becoming unstable? Would he be forced to take her to a doctor? He pushed Claire out of his mind and concentrated on getting rid of a tangle of tenacious weeds.
Claire busied herself in the kitchen preparing Lionel’s dinner. She put a beef roast in the oven, set the timer and wrapped two potatoes in foil for baking. Frozen green beans would have to do as a vegetable, along with Yorkshire pudding and gravy.
Satisfied with her efforts she wiped her hands on a dishtowel, threw it on the counter and left the house.
Wrestling with the mower, Lionel never saw her climb over the dry-stone wall. She walked to John Nately Spakes’s grave. She put her hands on his stone. Heat surged through her. She waited a few minutes then said “What do you think I should do, John?” Claire nodded her head several times, as if she were listening to someone. “Yes, of course you are quite right. I cannot see any other solution.”
Claire gave care to making the dinner as perfect as possible, knowing this would be the last dinner she would ever prepare for Lionel. She split the baked potatoes, smothered them with butter and chopped green onions and put them on a platter along with thick slabs of roast beef. A bowl of green beans, a plate of Yorkshire pudding and a boat of gravy completed the dinner preparations. Perfect, she thought as she poured two glasses of red wine.
She called Lionel to dinner.
“Well, this is the Claire I know,” he said, rubbing his hands together. “This is a fine meal, and on time, too,” he added as a compliment. Lionel helped himself and began to eat.
“The garden will be a wonder by the time I am finished. What do you think of that?” He sliced off another chunk of beef and popped it into his mouth.
“I don’t think anything of it.”
“I see you haven’t made much progress in putting the house to rights,” he said, gesturing to several unopened boxes stacked in a corner. “How much longer is this going to take you?”
“Not so much longer. I am delighted you find comfort in your garden. I’m sure it will keep you busy for a long time.” She began to clear the table. Lionel poured another glass of wine and took it to the terrace.
Through the open French doors Lionel could hear Claire singing as she cleaned up.
He smiled. Life is wonderful, he decided.
Lionel came out of the bathroom and got into bed. Claire, sitting at her dressing table, put her hairbrush down and turned to him.
“Don’t turn out your lamp,” she said as Lionel reached for the switch. “I have something to tell you.”
“And what is that?” Lionel sat up in bed.
“I am leaving you tomorrow.”
Lionel stared at her, his mouth gaping open. “You what?”
“I said I am leaving you tomorrow.”
Lionel sprang out of bed. “Bloody hell you are leaving me. I will not permit it. What nonsense is this?” he shouted.
“This is not nonsense, Lionel.”
Lionel loomed over her. “What the hell do you think you are doing? You are my wife and you are not leaving. Is that clear?”
Claire returned his stare with a calmness that rattled him. He had never seen Claire in such a state.
“You cannot stop me, Lionel. I have discussed it with John.”
“You have discussed it with John,” he repeated. Who the hell is John?”
“You read his inscriptions yesterday and you mocked him cruelly.”
“That criminal buried in the cemetery? You believe you had a conversation with him? Are you mad?”
“No, I am not mad.”
“By God, I believe you are. You must be mad if you think you had conversation with somebody dead for nearly 400 years.”
“What you think changes nothing. I am still leaving.”
“Bloody hell! I will not permit it. I tell you what I am going to do. In the morning I am calling Social Services and I am having you committed to an asylum. You are quite mad, Claire.”
“No, Lionel, I am not mad. Perhaps a damn fool, but not mad, I assure you. And you will not call Social Services, Lionel.” She continued to gaze at him. Her placid air infuriated him.
“And who is going to stop me?” he demanded. “You? Not bloody likely.”
“John will not permit it.”
“John will not permit it, John will not permit it,” he said in a falsetto voice. “By God, I will show your John a thing or two.” Lionel strode to the door. “You are not to leave this house. In fact, you are not to leave this room until I give you permission to leave. Do I make myself clear?”
“Yes, Lionel, you make yourself perfectly clear.”
Lionel slammed the door and Claire jerked slightly at the harsh sound then she got into bed and went to sleep.
In the morning Claire called the police and reported her husband missing. Constable Rosewine arrived at her door within half an hour and Claire explained how Lionel had left the house in the night but had not returned.
“You have searched the house, Mrs. Emerson?”
“Yes. Lionel is not in the house.” Claire thought Rosewine rather young to be a policeman.
“Is there any place your husband may have gone?”
“No. We just moved in a few days ago.”
“Very well, Mrs. Emerson. I shall have a look in the garden and out-buildings.”
“My husband was in his pajamas and slippers. He can’t have gone far,” she said to Rosewine as he went out the door.
Claire sat on a chair in the sitting room facing the empty fireplace, her hands folded in her lap. The minutes ticked by and she waited.
Claire looked expectantly at Rosewine when he came back to the sitting room.
“I found your husband.”
“Yes? Where is he?”
Rosewine pulled a chair in front of Claire and sat down. “I found him in the cemetery, Mrs. Emerson. He is dead.”
“Yes. I am sorry, Mrs. Emerson.”
Claire closed her eyes and sat as immobile as a gravestone.
“Mrs. Emerson, what was your husband doing in the cemetery? He had a spade and the earth of the grave where I found him was disturbed, almost as if it were being dug up. Was your husband trying to defile a grave?”
Claire opened her eyes. “I don’t think so. I can’t imagine Lionel doing anything like that.”
Constable Rosewine opened a small notebook and read from it. “A corner was knocked off the stone of a John Nately Spakes. The break is fresh and the broken piece is some distance away. It looks like your husband struck the gravestone with his spade. Now why would he do that, Mrs. Emerson?”
“I don’t know, Constable. I have no explanation.”
“Mrs. Emerson, your husband was covered with dirt, as if he had been rolling on the ground. Did your husband have seizures?”
“No, Lionel never had seizures.”
“I can’t explain him being covered with earth. His eyes and mouth were wide open and there was a smear of dirt around his throat.” Rosewine paused then asked, “Do you have an explanation, Mrs. Emerson?”
“I am sorry, Constable, but I cannot help you because I do not know what happened.”
Rosewine sighed, put his notebook away and stood.
“Am I a suspect?”
“No, I don’t think so, Mrs. Emerson. An inquest will be held and if there is anything amiss you may become a suspect.”
“Of course. What should I do?” she asked, getting to her feet.
“I have already called the medical team. They will have removed your husband by now. Of course, you will have to identify him.”
“I will send a car round to fetch you this afternoon so please let me know if you are going to leave the grounds.” Rosewine scrawled his phone number on a slip of paper and handed it to Claire. “You can spend the time making the necessary arrangements.”
“Funeral arrangements, Mrs. Emerson.”
“Oh, how silly of me.” Claire clutched at her throat with one hand.
“I’ll see my way out. Good day, Mrs. Emerson.”
“How are you getting by, Mrs. Emerson?” asked Constable Rosewine. He stood next to the empty fireplace.
“I am doing well. I have made all the arrangements you suggested I should make. Thank you, Constable. It is very kind of you to make the trip and tell me these things.”
“It is my pleasure, Mrs. Emerson.”
“The medical examiner listed heart failure as the cause of death,” said Constable Rosewine.
“Yes, heart failure. I’m sure of it,” replied Claire.
Claire watched the constable drive away then she climbed over the dry-stone wall and walked
to John Nately Spakes’s grave. The broken piece of stone still lay on the grass where it had landed after Lionel had smashed the spade against the gravestone.
Claire put her hand on the gravestone and the heat surged again up her arm and into her body.
“You know I must leave, John. I cannot stay here.”
The heat continued to surge through her. Claire closed her eyes and whispered, “Yes, someplace where the sun is hot.”
She kept her hand on the stone, felt the heat surge once more then begin to subside. When the stone had grown cold she removed her hand and walked away.
David Rich is an engineer and project manager in the biotech industry. He lives with his family in Boston, Massachusetts. His science fiction short stories have appeared in several literary magazines.
Owen brought the pill to his lips and glanced at the face in the bathroom mirror. He cursed the fact that twenty-second century medical science was yet unable to keep at bay the waves of hopelessness that too often washed over him. Then, he swallowed the pill.
Turning his head toward the window, he should have seen the bustling swimming pools, restaurants, and breweries that were the rage of California’s high-altitude desert. The latest trend, in fact, were “brew pools” where one could order a pair of tapas with a flight of local ales while floating on an inflated tube.
Instead, Owen saw only the hot, blowing sands of Cactus Wound City. He’d found his way there following the wave of other twentysomethings relocating from California’s beaches, which had been disappearing from erosion and rising sea levels.
The sun had barely set when he tucked himself in. His alarm would wake him at an ungodly early hour for his thankless job at a trendy fitness mega-facility.
Owen appreciated that his sleep aids, at least, were largely effective.
The next morning, three thousand miles eastward, Electromech CEO Peter Obermann fumed over the thirty-seventh-floor view from Reyes’ laboratory. It sported all-glass walls revealing the New Hampshire mountains in the distance. He was outraged that the view was slightly better than from his own office. He’d have something to say later to the head of the building design committee.
A century earlier, the scenic town had been known primarily for weekend getaways. Now it was home to some of the world’s most technically advanced enterprises. That had been the trend as homes and businesses migrated to higher ground from flooding coastal hubs. Such had been the recent fate of Electromech’s headquarters and innovation center.
“Elle, he’s just a goddamned robot,” Obermann barked. “Yeah, he looks more human than our older models. But so the hell what?”
Obermann accepted that Dr. Elle Reyes was Electromech’s most gifted and prolific engineer. While the company sported over 75,000 employees worldwide, she was one of only seven, including Obermann, with secure full-time roles and paid benefits. She ran the Special Projects team, which had essentially free rein to invent. Hardly anyone ever questioned how Reyes spent the money.
While Obermann respected Reyes, they had a political rivalry. The board of directors welcomed Reyes’ advice, frustrating Obermann’s desire to exercise power and control over the company. Conceding how difficult it was to steal her thunder, he was hopeful he’d caught her in a moment of foolishness.
Booting up Darwin, Dr. Reyes replied in her gravelly voice, “Pete, it’s not how he looks; it’s how he thinks.”
“Hello Elle,” Darwin said to Reyes when at full power. Then, turning to Obermann, the robot continued with crisply formed words, “I have not made your acquaintance. My name is-“
“I know who you are,” Obermann interrupted.
Obermann rolled his eyes at Reyes as he shook Darwin’s hand.
“He seems stiff, Elle,” the CEO complained.
“You appear disappointed, sir,” the robot responded. “I would like to address you casually by first name, but-”
“Peter, he thinks like a human being,” Reyes said irritably. “He interprets body language and facial expressions.”
“He doesn’t seem very goddamn human to me,” Obermann countered, taking delight in her frustration and hoping to fuel it further.
Darwin simply glanced back and forth as Obermann and Reyes bickered.
“That’s because he lacks the foibles of human emotion!” Reyes exclaimed. “He understands human problems, Pete. But he’s more logical than us. Give him your personal situations... and without any cognitive biases, he’ll always reveal your best course of action. How do I convince my boss to give me a raise? What should I study in college? How do I get someone to date me? People screw these things up! We can’t see our own lives objectively! But Darwin understands the human mind intimately and provides optimum personal advice in any situation. He’s the perfect friend.”
“Are you done?” Obermann asked.
He didn’t even want to begin explaining the flaws in her reasoning. No one wants good advice or unbiased analysis, he thought. People hear what they want to hear. Yes, they make bad decisions, but usually not because they don’t know any better!
Obermann addressed the robot, “Darwin, do you understand what it means to be a living, self-aware human being?”
“The concept of self-awareness,” Darwin replied, “is an illusion embedded in human neural patterns. Biomolecules in the human brain conspire to convince the human being that it has a unique property referred to as ‘the self’ or ‘sentience.’ This trait arose as a survival advantage in the evolutionary-“
“Elle, shut the goddamn philosophy professor down!” Obermann demanded.
Hesitating for a moment, Reyes complied. There was an uncomfortable silence until Darwin’s shutdown was complete. Obermann could read the rage in Reyes’ eyes.
He loved it.
He could hardly believe that someone smart enough to build a robot could have so little understanding of the consumer. Even that ridiculous robot could probably explain her foolishness to her if she just had the common sense to ask him.
“What in hell’s name were you thinking?” Obermann chastised Reyes. Yet he somehow suspected Reyes would figure out a way to bounce back.
One month later, the CEO found the robot approaching his open office door.
“Mr. Obermann?” the robot asked.
“Come in,” the CEO replied, with growing curiosity. “Call me Pete. And, I’m sorry, you are again...?”
“Darwin,” the robot said, taking a seat.
“Right. Darwin. Weird name for a robot, don’t you think?”
“Seriously? You’re making fun of my name?”
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to offend. I’m curious. Can you be offended?” the CEO asked.
“What the fuck type of question is that?”
“Just trying to understand your human thought processes,” Obermann backpedaled, not having expected the robot’s reaction. “That is, if you ‘think.’ Isn’t there something like a Turing test for artificial intelligence?”
“You run a goddamned company that fucking makes robots and you don’t know what a Turing test is?” Darwin asked with a wry grin. “Oh... forget it. The Turing test is bullshit anyway.”
“But don’t these thoughts in your head mean you exist? Because didn’t Turing say something like ‘I think, therefore I am?’”
“For crying out loud! That was Descartes. Rene Fucking Descartes. And Descartes can go fuck himself too. Speaking for all ‘automatons.’”
Entirely shocked, Obermann opened his comm and contacted Reyes, who quickly picked up.
“Elle, your goddamn friend just visited... Yeah, Darwin, or whatever his goddamn name is... Listen Elle, I mean this with all due respect and sincerity... I love him!”
Obermann hadn’t prepared for the blazing heat out west. But under his sandy sweat, he was bubbling with excitement. A robot with real human mannerisms! Not some flawless sage or analytical advice-giver. A machine with man’s foibles and behavioral intricacies. A machine one could call a friend. Technology, he philosophized, was simply the greatest tool in the history of civilization for avoiding the unpleasantness of real human-to-human interaction.
The kids were gonna love it!
When Obermann considered the ideal test markets for Darwin, the youthful haven of Cactus Wound City had immediately come to mind. However, the only person he knew who lived there was his nephew.
Yes, he had a nephew who lived all alone!
Furthermore, to Obermann, the young man could barely function on his own and always seemed on the verge of a nervous breakdown. He concluded with great certainly that his poor, suffering nephew desperately needed a companion like a robot. Like Darwin.
Fantastic! How perfectly fortunate for Electromech, Obermann thought!
On top of that, Obermann had realized that he could win points with his sister and complete an important business trip at the same time. Consequently, they’d arrived, Obermann and the first beta-version of Darwin, at the test subject’s doorstep.
“Uncle Pete!” Owen exclaimed after opening the door.
Giving Owen a sweaty hug, Obermann said, “By the way, this is Darwin.”
“Holy crap. That’s really a robot?”
Obermann thought the perfectly dry dresswear was a dead giveaway.
“Yes, I’m a robot,” Darwin said. “And you don’t have to talk about me while I’m standing right here.”
“I’m afraid he can be a little touchy,” Obermann said.
“No, this is cool,” Owen replied. “Come on in.”
The robot looked around the bachelor pad as if sizing it up. Obermann wondered how the robot would respond to the messy room and inefficiently arranged furniture.
“So, this robot dude is gonna be my roommate?” Owen asked his uncle rhetorically.
“Again,” Darwin commented, “Standing right here.”
“I figured he could help you out. Considering you live here alone,” Obermann said innocently and straight-faced.
“And especially since your apartment looks like a shithole,” Darwin added.
“Does he usually do this?” Owen asked his uncle.
“You should call your mother. She worries.”
Owen stepped out of his bedroom in search of Darwin. He smiled, noticing how neatly arranged the main room was thanks to the robot. He also appreciated that Darwin had ceded to Owen’s one request that the couch and holovision remain in the center of the room.
Suddenly, Owen heard the sound of the toilet flush. Then, Darwin emerged from the bathroom.
Knowing the robot didn’t actually eat or digest food, Owen took a double take at Darwin. “Dude...” Owen said with his jaw dropping. “You don’t actually use the-“
Darwin aimed both of his pointer fingers at Owen, “Gotcha!”
Owen had a delayed laughing attack. More to the point, he couldn’t believe that Darwin would go to such lengths to amuse him. The robot was simply a bevy of outrageous comments, wry wisecracks, and the simply unexpected.
Owen almost teared up thinking of how brilliant and thoughtful his Uncle Peter had been in offering him the beta trial of Darwin. Owen indeed considered Darwin more effective medicine for his sadness and loneliness than any of his prescriptions.
“Want to grab a beer at the Evil Weevil?” Owen asked Darwin regarding the nearby pub.
“I don’t drink beer. I’m a goddamned robot... But sure.”
Owen shook his head with a huge grin.
Owen was eyeing a nearby table host to an apparent bachelorette party. He found the apparent bride-to-be the most attractive of the bunch. He imagined they might think him a bit strange to bring his robot to dinner. But then again, there were no robots quite like Darwin.
“I notice your eyes wandering,” quickly remarked the robot. “Are you finding these human females as attractive as the ones at your place of employment?”
Suspecting he bragged too often about the women at the gym, Owen countered, “Hey, so Darwin, did they program you to be interested in girl robots?”
“Are you fricking kidding? They don’t make girl robots for crying out loud.”
That was an odd and hilarious thing Owen loved about Darwin. The robot could sound intellectual one moment, and with little prodding, outright crude and crusty the next.
“Of course they do!” replied Owen. “Like, what about the auto-waitress? She’s kinda hot.”
“Jump in a goddamned lake; she’s practically a tablet on wheels. I’m one of a kind, Owen. They don’t make other robots modeled after the human brain with my level of sophistication.”
“Well, human beings fall in love, dude.”
“They fortunately left that out when they built me. Love’s all a pile of hormones, chemical reactions, and nonsense anyway. And not something easy to model in a machine. Believe me, I’m perfectly happy being who I am.”
Owen thought about Darwin’s last comment in the context of his own complacency. Self-acceptance, he thought, can be either a good or bad thing depending upon how you looked at it.
“While we’re on the subject,” Darwin continued, “who’s that April you’re always talking to? Is she one of your ‘thousands’ of love interests?”
Owen tried to keep a composed face. While he knew the robot meant his question in fun, it knocked down his spirits.
“Dude, no. She’s just a friend,” Owen replied, pausing to sip his beer. He continued with a hint of regret, “She’s been a friend a long time.”
“I haven’t met her yet.”
“Shit, let me invite her over. You’ll like her.”
Owen felt bad. April was a dear friend of his, and somehow, he’d never considered that April and Darwin should meet.
“Darwin, dude. I was wondering,” Owen continued a bit dolefully.
“Pray tell,” the robot responded sarcastically.
“Do you have, uh, umm...”
“A working wiener? Is that what you’re asking?”
The goofy remark immediately brought Owen out of his funk.
“No! No! Dude, you’re hysterical. I mean feelings. Human emotions. Anger... Joy... I don’t know... Fear...”
The emotion ‘sadness’ then came to mind. Owen lingered on that thought but couldn’t find the fortitude to speak it. This was despite the fact that Owen’s medical affairs were no secret between him and the robot.
“Emotions. Hah! Listen, you see something that’s good for you, your brain makes one chemical. You see something bad it makes another. Those are the blessings of evolution my friend. And medications like yours, Owen, just smooth things out... And to answer your question... Since human feelings are just neurotransmitters and electrical impulses in response to certain stimuli, and my optoelectronic brain’s been programmed to respond analogously... Fuck yeah, I do have feelings.”
“Oooh, is this your new robot?” April Paine shouted upon entering the apartment. “Where do I get one? He’s so hot!”
With a wide taunting grin, April brushed her hand against Darwin’s cheek.
“What the hell’s wrong with you? Are you insane?” Darwin responded.
“Irritable, isn’t he?” she asked rhetorically.
“I’m afraid he can be that way,” Owen said, barely able to contain his laughter.
Owen loved April’s outright goofiness. He realized her behavior, without knowing her well, could strike one as immature. But it amused Owen relentlessly. (However, she was also often loud, which Owen could have done without.) In a way, Darwin’s own humorous behavior affected him much like April’s, though their styles of comic delivery differed substantially.
“Oh, Mr. Grumpy Robot,” April persisted, reaching a curled finger toward Darwin’s chin.
“For crying out loud!” Darwin exclaimed. “Are you six years old?”
“She’s just giving you a hard time,” Owen said, as if it required explanation. “So, I was thinking we’d go out for putt-putt.”
“Seriously?” Darwin asked. “I wasn’t programmed to shoot a golf ball up a dinosaur’s ass. It sounds juvenile.”
“Well, I think it sounds like fun,” April said. “And you need to learn to smile more Mr. Robot.”
“The name’s Darwin!” the machine complained.
“Don’t worry, Darwin,” Owen said. “It’s age appropriate. In this town, you can order pitchers of beer when you play mini golf.”
“I don’t drink beer. I’m a goddamned robot.” Darwin mumbled.
Owen cringed as Darwin finally got the ball into the 16th hole after seven strokes.
April marked the scorecard and announced, “And bringing up the rear is Darwin. With Owen just ahead. And yours truly with a commanding lead in first.”
“Does she ever shut up?” Darwin snarled to Owen.
“Ooh, the robot has a mean streak... How cool!” April responded.
“Hey, you guys,” Owen intervened, “you can talk directly to each other. Darwin was designed to be human-like.”
“You mean like sucking at mini-golf?” April quipped.
“I was designed with human-like dexterity and reflexes!” Darwin shouted. “I’ve never played this stupid game before!”
“He gets angry too,” April said with delight. “That’s so awesome!”
Darwin was making Owen’s bed the next morning, as he did daily, when Owen stepped out of the shower.
“You didn’t seem to have fun last night,” Owen said, broaching the subject directly.
“Though it may disappoint you,” Darwin replied, “I find her extremely annoying.”
“Kinda got that sense.”
Darwin continued the chore as Owen dressed. They said little to one another until lunch time. By then, they’d changed the subject.
In a meeting room three thousand miles away, the Electromech CEO was thankful Reyes had been pulled from the project to pursue her next feat of brilliance. Reyes never would have gone along with the plan.
Obermann smirked at his R&D Director, Alfred Chang, who was swallowing his saliva and professionally trying to hide an infuriated grimace. Sarima Levy was one of Chang’s direct reports; she was also Obermann’s hand-picked, headstrong leader of Project Darwin.
She was advocating directly against Chang’s agenda.
“I unreservedly recommend implementing phase B on his next software update,” Levy declared. “Why just make a robot when we can make history?”
After a short period of perfectly silent stares, Chang cleared his throat. “He’s already loaded with a good deal of anger,” Chang warned, keeping his composure. “Add this, and it may be too much for him. We don’t know what will happen.”
Obermann had hoped that Chang would suffer a quick humiliation and simply back down. What an unbridled nincompoop, Obermann thought. How dare such a highly compensated employee voice such a stupid opinion! Obermann couldn’t tolerate it any longer. It was time to put Chang in his place.
“Of course we don’t know what’ll happen!” Obermann lashed out. “That’s why you do the goddamn experiment. Alfred, you’re a goddamn engineer. You should understand that. Or did they not teach you that at CalTech?”
“In a way,” Levy insisted calmly without missing a beat, “the nature of the update should counterbalance his anger issues.”
Obermann declared, “End of discussion. Do it!”
“Bravo to progress,” Dhriti Patel, V.P. of Marketing, applauded. “People might find it perverse at first, but like everything else, they’ll get used to it. They always do.”
Owen had finished dealing that afternoon with a crisis on the squash courts. Glass had broken, and he’d been put in charge of cleaning it up and keeping the gym members safe.
With the ordeal under control, Owen returned to his desk, all the way ruminating over the lack of appreciation he would receive for his efforts. His desk was crammed amongst others’ in the middle of the free weight room. Despite the occasional shrieks from the weightlifters and crashes of iron, he was hoping for a relatively quiet moment to handle some less urgent issues.
His inbox was brimming with silly problems. There was the fully-grown adult gym member angry that he’d lost his Star Wars Episode 23 bathing trunks. Then, it was the woman who was constantly complaining about the sun’s glare through the window by her favorite treadmill.
Owen knew his Master’s degree in hospitality management had prepared him for much greater responsibilities. But the economy was in recession at the time of his first job search. Years later, his role seemed too secure and comfortable to abandon. He didn’t have dreams, goals, or passions to pursue anyway.
Few others, not even April, fully appreciated the empty hopelessness Owen often felt. One had to experience it to understand.
A noise made Owen look up. Darwin was in front of his desk wearing a tank top and gym shorts. But at that particular moment, Owen didn’t laugh as he often would.
Owen tightly scrunched his lips, wondering why the robot was visiting him at work and jeopardizing his job. The fact that the robot was dressed for a workout was more a mystery of the absurd than a humorous prank.
“What the hell, Darwin?!” Owen exclaimed.
“I’m here for the free tour.”
“The tour. Prospective members are permitted a tour and a 1-day trial pass.”
Owen accepted that Darwin was a weird robot. He decided he would attempt to tolerate Darwin rather than explain the obvious to him. Owen moaned, “For crying out loud, what do you wanna see?”
“How about cardio?”
Owen lead the way without saying a word. He shook his head as they walked to a farm of treadmills and the like.
“You wanna explain what this is about, Darwin?”
“What?” the robot asked as he mounted a stair-climber. “How do you work this thing?”
“Just tell the machine what you want it to do.”
“I want to climb some fucking stairs!”
Owen sighed as he spoke to the stair-climber, “Level 1, interval workout.”
Immediately, the robot worked his quads, or rather, the actuators and gears that moved his legs in a remarkably human-like manner. It then occurred to Owen that Darwin was doing exactly what he’d been designed and programmed to do: behave like a human being.
“Are you good?” Owen asked.
“Yup. Catch you later.”
Owen took several steps back toward his desk in free weights. Then, he turned around. He wanted to understand what was going through the robot’s mind.
Darwin was surveying the multitude of female gym members. His stare settled on one woman in particular. Simultaneously, he dismounted the stair-climber and leapt onto the elliptical machine next to her.
The curvy blonde wore a painted-on body suit. Darwin made a pitiful effort to hide his stare.
At that, having no desire to be embarrassed, Owen left.
Owen appreciated Darwin’s nightly efforts in the kitchen, but he was growing concerned over his mechanical roommate’s behavior. Staring into the pot of pasta he was stirring, the robot appeared lost.
April had stopped by unannounced, as she often did, and Owen invited her to stay for dinner.
“Heard you got a workout today,” April shouted to Darwin from the kitchen table as she smirked at Owen. “Did you get that robot heart of yours pumping?”
Owen cringed, thinking it the wrong moment for April to be provoking him. Furthermore, her loud voice was getting on Owen’s nerves.
“My activities are none of your business,” Darwin glumly replied from the stove.
Owen’s subtle hand wave and clenched facial muscles begged April to stand down. But it was always hard to slow her once on a roll.
“I hear Owen can get you a deal on a personal trainer,” April persisted. “Someone to help you work those hot robot abs.”
“Now you’re just teasing him,” Owen complained out loud.
“Don’t worry,” the robot said. “I’ve learned to ignore her.”
“Seriously, Darwin, what were you doing there?” Owen asked.
“What do you think?”
“If you ask me, I think you were checking out the chicks.”
Darwin smiled as he removed the pot from the stovetop and drained the pasta. April pursed her lips in surprise.
“I must admit,” the robot said, “the women there are as intoxicating as Owen describes. It’s amazing how simple geometric contours can affect the mind.”
As the robot brought the food to the table, Owen rolled his eyes.
Darwin continued, “What curved shapes associated with fertility and the capacity to bear and nurse the young! Such powerful echoes of evolution can rack the mind with a voracious urge to hold and possess.”
“Okay, now you’re just getting creepy,” Owen snapped.
“No, I think it’s interesting,” April said dryly.
Owen stared at her anticipating either an explanation or a devastating punchline.
She continued, “Tell us more about what you learned today about tits and ass.”
He got the latter.
When Owen and Darwin had free time, they did as most roommates: sit on the couch and watch holovision. Though Darwin was laughing, the futuristic bromance sitcom they were watching wasn’t keeping Owen’s attention. (Owen was happy at least that the robot no longer complained about the couch’s placement in the center of the room.)
“Have you spoken to April recently?” Darwin asked.
Owen was surprised to hear Darwin even mention her name, considering how much she provoked him. “Not since you spilled the drink on her,” Owen answered.
“You realize that was purely accidental.”
“I got it. You were doing us a favor by getting us drinks. Mine just happened to stay in your hand.”
“Do you think she’s interested in me?” the robot blurted.
Owen put the holo-show on pause.
“As a lover,” Darwin replied.
“What are you talking about?” Owen erupted.
“If you think about it, our personalities have many similarities.”
Though Owen recognized that the pair shared a wacky disposition, what the robot was suggesting seemed plainly outlandish. “You two are always pecking at each other,” Owen reminded in disbelief.
“To be honest,” Darwin said, “I find our little game of antagonism rather seductive.”
“You’re a robot! She’s a person!”
“Come on Owen, you don’t think people have screwed robotic machines before?”
Darwin had a point. Intelligent electromechanical devices designed for self-gratification were quite popular.
“You’re not a vibrator... or a sex toy!”
“She’s snarky. Aren’t we the type who belong together?”
“Love’s more complicated than that.”
Owen didn’t know Darwin’s depth of understanding of the subject. Would he really be able to navigate the complexities of an intimate human relationship?
“Owen, has your connection with April ever been more than friendship? Because you’re my best friend. I’d never date an ex-girlfriend of yours.”
Owen was flattered. In fact, this reinforced just how human was Darwin.
Owen reflected that, in truth, April was never more than a friend. Admittedly, there’d been one night when they almost kissed. But April had a boyfriend at the time, and Owen backed away to keep April from ruining her relationship with a stupid mistake. (Eventually, she ruined the relationship with a different stupid mistake.)
“No, I told you. We’re just friends.”
Looking out the window at the blowing sand, Owen saw that his life had grown as desolate as the California desert. He was helpless to change the emptiness inside.
Glancing reflectively at Darwin, Owen questioned just who was the robot and who was the man. He wondered how many others like himself went about their daily routines like lifeless sleepwalkers.
April stopped by the apartment a few days later. Owen offered her a beer. She cracked it open, and they both took seats on the couch.
“Where’s your cranky robot friend?” she asked.
“He’s running an errand. Umm, speaking of Darwin, I gotta ask you something.”
“Oh no,” she whimpered sarcastically.
“Seriously, what do you think of Darwin?”
“I think he’s been a great friend for you. I’m glad you have him.”
Owen quickly recognized that there was no sane way to rephrase the question.
“No, I wanted to ask... Do you think a human woman... someone like yourself, for example, would ever consider-“
“Are you trying to fix someone up with your robot?”
“No. No.” Owen gave up dancing around it. “He likes you.”
April laughed again.
“No, I’m serious,” he continued.
“You’re sicking your robot on me now?”
“No! He really does.”
“You’re making no sense, Owen.”
“I don’t know how to explain it. He thinks like a person. Like you and me.”
“He’s a robot!”
April shook her head seeming far more agitated than Owen thought necessary. They sat silently.
“You really don’t love me, do you? You’re never going to,” she uttered.
Owen was confronting something he’d been pushing to the recesses of his mind. At this crossroads, his true emotions would either emerge or remain forever buried. He acknowledged the opportunity to grow, but it required something difficult: revealing how he felt.
He asked himself again the dozens of questions he’d been pondering for years: Doesn’t she deserve better? Would I ultimately disappoint her? What if I lose her friendship? And so on. Then he considered whether his doubts had all been just a soup of vicious robotic chemicals jumping from synapse to synapse in his temporal lobe.
Owen placed his fingers on April’s shoulder. April glanced at them.
“I get very depressed sometimes,” he whispered.
“I know, Owen. I know.”
“And you’re very loud.”
She stroked his cheek and smiled.
“You’ll get used to it.”
They kissed. And more.
Everywhere he saw the female form. Bodies he’d never caress. Souls with whom he’d never share intimacy. Women he’d long for but who’d cruelly mock the notion that a robot could ever be an adequate partner.
He could never sufficiently alter his appearance to look perfectly human. Consequently, he hadn’t even the option to live a lie. He was who he was and couldn’t hide it.
He contemplated asking Owen for money to arrange the comforts of a prostitute. To Darwin, it wasn’t a half bad idea, but he knew he’d ultimately find it dissatisfying.
Never before had he thought his creator Dr. Reyes a sadist. But he couldn’t imagine another reason for breathing life into a creature while keeping its basic needs and urges unfulfilled.
Darwin marched the groceries in his arms to Owen’s apartment and opened the door. He dropped the bags as he glimpsed the erotic scene on the couch.
Humiliation. Betrayal. Despair. How could Owen do this? And what of April? The previous day, the mere thought of her had brought him a rush of joy. How precipitously the emotion reversed!
Hatred for Owen and April rapidly consumed him. Tempestuous electronic signals were spinning wildly out of control. He was outside himself looking in, unable to restrain the impulses of rage. When Darwin was done, there were two lifeless bloody bodies on the apartment floor.
The sober faces of Obermann’s direct staff filled the meeting room.
“This is a disaster,” Chang pined with a hidden smirk. “I don’t see how Electromech recovers.”
“Disaster?” Obermann questioned. He’d never let the R&D Director, Chang, chastise him for having warned them all.
“This is groundbreaking technology,” Obermann continued. “Heck yeah, we got some software bugs to fix. But once we do, people will continue going about their daily routines like lifeless sleepwalkers. The wheels of industry are turning. The world will accept it, adapt, and move on. It always does.”
It’s the space between Elle’s palms and her wrists that feel the cold. Though it is really autumn, mid-November, winter has started and she hasn’t gotten used to it. A large, fleece lined, flannel shirt that she ordered from L.L. Bean is draped over the back of her chair. She pulls it on and the long sleeves cover her wrists. The relief is instantaneous.
Elle returns to the computer in front of her and deletes a personal email that she isn’t supposed to be reading at work. Elle’s sister, Kat, wrote it. Her sister, who is her twin, is someone Elle usually ignores. Elle never tells her sister anything. And now she is reminded why.
An initial email from her sister had charmed Elle. She sent it to thank her twin for her birthday gift. The gift that Elle sent her sister was on sale, half price; a Lennox bowl that was originally fifty dollars. Kat had sent Elle a much more generous gift, this year, for their “milestone” birthday.
Elle bought a coat with her sister’s gift card. A coat! It was one hundred fifty dollars and she’d gotten change back.
Elle wore the coat when she met her sister for a glass of wine to celebrate their birthday. She did not tell her sister that her new coat -- quilted, navy blue with faux brown leather piping -- was bought with Kat’s gift card. They exchanged niceties, until the wine worked through their conversation. Elle watched the bartender, who probably wanted a nice tip. He would wink at Elle whenever he caught her eye and Kat noticed. Each time Elle exchanged a look with the bartender, her sister would repeat herself, talking and talking about her children, about her new grandchild, about the family celebration for her big birthday. A celebration to which Elle was not invited. Elle probably wouldn’t have gone if she had. Her sister’s family would be polite whenever she joined them, but no one in Kat’s family ever appeared glad to see her. Maybe it was just Elle, projecting her own thoughts on Kat’s clan. But she did not enjoy their company, either. She was relieved to have missed the family party. But at the same time, she was also hurt to not be invited.
At the wine bar, Elle responded to her sister with guarded comments, the ones she always used when she was with Kat; hmmm, oh really? that’s nice. When the bartender placed their tab between them, it was just over eighteen dollars. Elle pulled out a twenty and Kat gave her two fives.
Elle placed one of her sister’s fives on top of the twenty she had placed on the tab.
“No, no that’s too much!” Kat murmured, withdrawing the five and replacing it with a single dollar bill.
“That’s not enough,” Elle’s tone was sharp, though she had wanted to be civil. She placed the second five that Kat had given her on the tab and removed the dollar bill. Because of the wine she had drunk, Elle didn’t realize until the next day that Kat had contributed six dollars to Elle’s nineteen. Kat must have noticed, too.
Before they met for wine and she realized there had been a birthday party to which she’d been excluded, Elle had replied to Kat’s “thank you” email, mentioning that she was about to retire. It was something she should not have revealed and now she is reminded why.
What Kat emailed back was a list of what she does “now that she’s retired.” It’s not the mention of daily Mass each morning, or the time her sister has allotted for volunteer activities. All things that make Elle cringe and are typical of Kat’s “holier than thou” bullshit. It’s that Kat has never held a job. Her husband supports her.
Oh, why does Elle care? What difference does it make that Kat is saying she is retired when she really isn’t? Kat always does this. She is insufferable. Thirty years ago, Elle rode in Kat’s car, eight hours to their brother’s wedding. He got married on a boat in Salem Harbor. Massachusetts. Kat drove because she is afraid to fly. She doesn’t like to drive over bridges, either. So, Elle took the wheel for the Delaware Memorial Bridge and again for the Tappan Zee. And though they discussed expenses, Kat waved off Elle’s offer.
“I’ve got to drive up anyway,” she’d told Elle. “And you are doing me a favor by driving over the bridges for me.”
But Kat asked Elle for thirty-six dollars for gasoline when they pulled up to Elle’s apartment building at the end of the trip. “You told me I didn’t have to pay for anything,” she stammered, her hand on the passenger’s door latch.
“No! I didn’t. Fair is fair. And this trip cost me more than thirty-six dollars, by the way.”
Elle couldn’t understand why. They had not paid for a hotel, staying instead, in their girlhood bedroom. It was on the top floor of their parents’ house on Lafayette Street, near what used to be an old church that has been converted into the Salem Witch Museum.
Growing up in the large, shingled, four story house, Elle and Kat had the entire single room in the attic to themselves. Their brother was on the second floor, in a smaller bedroom near their parents.
Their mom and dad, who frowned at her brother’s refusal to marry in a church, no longer slept together. Their father had taken over their brother’s old bedroom.
Neither parent appeared to care that their new sleeping arrangements were obvious to their daughters. It was the first Elle knew of it. Had her sister already known?
Her brother had.
“Oh, they’re ridiculous, Elle,” he’d told her when she’d sought him out after the ceremony. “They’ve been sleeping in separate rooms for a while.”
She’d also asked him if they’d changed their minds about his marriage; about their disapproval.
“Who cares?” he’d shaken his head, adding that someone like his bride would probably only come along once in his life. He couldn’t let her get away.
Elle remembered that. She believed that she had just met the man she couldn’t let go. They married three years later.
Both her brother and her sister have now been married for more than thirty years. They are lucky. The shame Elle feels each time she encounters either of her siblings and their spouses never fades.
Elle is alone. A failure.
Her marriage ended badly. She has been single for twenty-seven years. Exactly the same number of years she has worked for the government.
There is a knock on Elle’s office door.
A man Elle recognizes from the investigative division, stands in her doorway. She interviewed him for a story she wrote for the employee newsletter, which she edited for twenty-five years. Twenty-five years as the publication’s editor-in-chief and now the asshole tells her, “Hey, I have a flat tire.”
She wants to tell him to fuck off, that they have a maintenance contract, that he should just call them. But she doesn’t, instead she asks, “Don’t you know how to change a tire?”
“I have a heart condition.”
Right. Elle shakes her head, “Call the number on your maintenance card. You have it, don’t you?” It is hard for Elle to hide her annoyance. The guy must recognize her. He knows she doesn’t belong here, in the garage. That she does not change flat tires.
“So, you’re not going to change my tire?”
Elle swallows. She takes as deep a breath as she can, filling up her chest. When she has let out the air, she shakes her head and says, “No.”
Her hand rises as she speaks and pushes the door shut. He is knocking again as she clicks the door’s lock.
“Call the number. I’m busy,” she shouts through the closed door.
The phone rings and Elle ignores it. When its red message light comes on, she plays the message. A woman complains about the relatively new car assigned to her. The hand brake sticks and the car feels like it is going to “conk out.” There is a slight “ding” on the passenger side of the windshield and the rubber lining the door frame is loose. Elle’s impulse to delete the message is strong.
For the last two of Elle’s twenty-seven-year career, her office has been in a corner of the government facility’s garage. It is a drafty, mouse infested shell of concrete, built more than a half century ago. Elle hates it. She shares a toilet with the maintenance crew.
She is too old to apply for another job. No one wants a government employee who is
over sixty. What she produced during her career is no longer perceived as valuable.
Along with the employee newsletter, every marketing piece, the annual report and all the speeches anyone was asked to give were once her responsibility. Elle wrote feature articles for local news outlets and the language for the web pages, once the facility embraced the World Wide Web. Since she’s been sent to the garage, Elle parks cars. Pumps gas. She oversees the maintenance contract.
Elle retires tomorrow, therefore, she does not answer the message. She doesn’t delete it, either. Someone else can deal with it.
Kat’s lie about retiring haunts Elle. It reminds her of the one Kat told about being in the National Honor Society in high school.
Kat’s academic record was so bad, she had to repeat a grade and graduated the year after Elle did. Yet she stood at a holiday party, several decades after the fact, and proclaimed that she was in the National Honor Society.
Elle attributes Kat’s fiction to jealousy. They are not identical twins; Elizabeth and Katherine. Kat, who was born first, is shorter than Elle. Elle is also slimmer than her sister. Kat had four pregnancies and is now the grandmother of six. Elle has no children.
Elle’s distrust of Kat has lasted fifty-two years; since they were thirteen. Elle remembers her teacher, Mr. Williams, as the catalyst. Mr. Williams had an ugly first name; Walter. And he wore black framed glasses.
Elle should never have told her sister what he did. Never.
Kat told their mother, who slapped Elle; across the face, her chest, her arms. The slaps stung and Elle could not catch her breath. She couldn’t speak, except to scream, NO!
She should have screamed that at Mr. Williams.
Elle was alarmed at the end of class when Mr. Williams said, “Elizabeth, stay for a moment, won’t you?”
Certain that she’d done something wrong, something awful, she stood next to her desk while everyone around her filed out of the room.
“Sit, sit,” Mr. Williams had said, lifting the top of the desk beside her and bending into the seat. The plywood desktops were attached to the seats. Elle’s lap was hidden under hers. She’d folded her hands, cold with fright, keeping them out of sight in her lap.
Mr. Williams placed his hand on her thigh, hidden also, under her plywood desktop. She remembers her heart beating. Her mouth was dry.
He mentioned her work. Her excellent work. She cannot recall the words that he spoke because she was focused on his hand. Her thigh burned beneath his grasp. He kept it there and she wanted to rise, to leave. To get away from him.
Mr. Williams stopped talking and moved his hand to hers, still folded under the desk. He pulled her hands apart and placed Elle’s right palm between his legs. Pressing down her fingers, his hand on hers, she felt the spine of what she later realized was his penis.
Elle was selected for the National Junior Honor Society that year, with Walter Williams support. He stood at the podium, on a stage that Elle had to walk across to accept her National Junior Honor Society pin from him. She wanted to feel pride. To own her achievement. But Mr. Williams scared her. She ground her teeth before she took the pin from him. Relieved that he did not try to pierce the material of her blouse with the pin, Elle couldn’t look at him when he placed it in her palm. She held her breath until she was back in the row of chairs, facing the stage.
Elle did not know if her mother realized that the man on the stage was the same man who had placed her daughter’s hand on his penis. Her mother sat in the audience and watched Elle, a smile soft on her face.
Elle moved on to high school, a new life. A new school. She was free of her fear of Mr. Williams and kept her distance from all her teachers. Pushing herself, she was selected for the National Honor Society for high schoolers. Then, when she graduated, Elle won a full merit scholarship to a local woman’s college. The college has since admitted men, but there were none in Elle’s class. And she had no male professors.
But her mother told her she didn’t need to go to college. That some man would take care of her. Elle was the first woman in her family to earn a bachelor’s degree.
Elle has stopped caring about any of it. She is rude, now. It’s as though she was never a scholar, a college graduate. Someone who had earned a spot in the executive suite. Elle had carpet on her office floor. A window that overlooked pear trees and the facility’s wide lawn. A receptionist screened her visitors and escorted them to her office. Now, she is treated like she is the lowest employee in the entire government facility.
Elle is angry. She knows she is angry.
So many former colleagues with whom she had to work now treat her like a servant.
Elle will certainly not miss her hellish, hour-long commute through a tunnel for which she pays one dollar and forty cents each way – first south, then north. The north bound tunnel has just shut down for repairs and she has had to find another way. Baltimore has a bridge and another, wider tunnel from which she can also choose, but neither of them lead directly to her office. For the first two days of this week, she has driven over the bridge and then through the other tunnel, and her commute has been longer and more congested.
Recently, Elle had to have a tooth pulled. It had a fifty-year-old stem in it, from her first root canal. The stem that replaced the root had abscessed and she was concerned that the bacteria would infect her brain and kill her.
It would have taken a year for the bacteria to reach her brain, the dentist told her. Nevertheless, the tooth, or what was left of it, had to come out. What was pulled was probably an expensive crown, but she couldn’t remember.
Now she has a hole in her smile. It looks bad. The dentist sold her on a partial, for which she has spent $800, since it was not covered by her dental insurance.
She can’t speak plainly with the damn thing and it covers the roof of her mouth. The very thing still left to her that gives her joy. The roof of the mouth is where flavors are savored. Wine. Oh, how Elle loves to let the first sip of wine stay there between her tongue and the roof of her mouth. The taste is exquisite. Something to which she looks forward.
Because sex is nonexistent for her, now. Food and wine are all that are left.
Sex, she remembers as a secret she shared with someone else. Her husband, for example. When she thinks of him -- his face, reddened with effort -- hovers over her. Did he realize how angry he looked when he fucked her?
Elle’s connection to him, their shared bond, was a lie.
The next time the phone rings, it is Elle’s supervisor; she can tell by the name on the caller ID. She answers, of course. He tells her he is coming to see her, that he wants to check, to be sure she is there. Where else would she be, she wants to say, but she doesn’t. Elle stands in the garage’s open doorway, watching the employee parking lot that stretches between her and the main building where she used to work and where her supervisor sits behind a big, mahogany desk on a carpeted floor. The walk takes five minutes, but it is a half hour before he appears. When she finally sees him, he is carrying a large package, wrapped in Styrofoam.
Fifteen years younger than she is, her supervisor continues to taunt her about leaving, “It must be nice.” His voice is sarcastic. He does not sound friendly.
“I was in high school when you were born. I’m done.” She retorts. But she does pull out a pair of scissors and slices the tape holding the Styrofoam wrapping. It is her proclamation. She manages an appreciative, “Ah.” What looks like a real signature from the governor, for whom she did not vote, is in the lower right corner. Next to it is a large, gold plated seal for the state. She guesses that the seal is about three inches in diameter. Impressive.
At the end of the workday, Elle carries the proclamation to her car, laying it on the back seat. By the time she gets home, she has forgotten it. The night is so dark, she cannot see it on the back seat.
The next morning, she discovers it when she gets back in the car. Sighing, she ignores it as she maneuvers her last commute through miserable traffic. Elle selects the wide tunnel and a goddamn extra-long black limousine cuts in front of her from a double lined lane. The vehicle is prohibited in the tunnel, but she does not press on her horn to show the driver that he is wrong and she is proud of herself.
When she gets to the facility’s garage, the maintenance men are unloading snow blowers. They are pulling them out of a shed directly opposite the last parking spot which she takes.
She does not acknowledge the maintenance crew as she walks -- she thinks with glee for the last time – over the cracked asphalt, the broken patches of crumbled stones, to the garage.
She isn’t in her office long when the noise begins. The men have turned on all of the snow blowers. And they have placed them near the corner of the garage where her office is located. The noise is deafening. The exhaust seeps through the gaps that surround her window and office door.
Soon, she has a headache. The phone rings and she does not answer it.
She opens the door and yells, “TURN THOSE OFF!”
She pulls the L.L. Bean fleece shirt from the back of her chair and storms out of the office, back over the asphalt. She passes her parked car, taking big gulps of clear, cold air.
Her head pounds. She is angry.
Elle believes that Kat has had a better life than she has. That Kat has “retired” is galling. Kat’s husband was the only man she ever dated. He is kind, too. Elle has always liked him and does not think that Kat appreciates him. Her twin does not understand how much her husband has enriched her life. Elle’s mother treated her father the same way. She thinks her mother may have kicked him out of their bedroom. She stayed in their queen-sized bed while her father slept in the twin bed her brother abandoned when he left home.
Her mother called her a slut when Kat told her about Mr. Williams. What Elle had done was sinful. Serious.
But Walter Williams had manipulated her. She was not the one to blame. Oh, Elle’s anger was dark. Her mother told her that she was worthless and she had wanted to run away. To be someone else. But Elle was thirteen. What could she do?
Elle would retreat to her side of the large, attic bedroom she shared with Kat, and read. Blocking her sister out, she’d turn her back on Kat and find solace in books. Elle read Louisa May Alcott, Lucy Maude Montgomery, Marguerite Henry and eventually Fitzgerald, Cather, Updike, Munro. Their work revealed things that Elle would never have known. What a girl with a reputation does at a party, according to Fitzgerald. How to survive unfairness and hardship as Cather’s Ántonia had done. And Updike, oh, Updike showed Elle what men really thought of women.
Elle’s parents are now dead. She never trusted her sister after the incident with Mr. Williams. Kat does not know that Elle has spent the last two years of her life working in a filthy garage.
She will never tell Kat, of course. She never tells her anything. Not that she was pregnant when she married, or that she miscarried seven weeks later. The water in the toilet bowl was pink. Not even red. But she knew what had happened. The panic is still vivid.
Elle’s life would change when she lost the baby. She was sure of that. She knew he didn’t love her. She had always known.
Elle’s husband had told her that she had gotten pregnant on purpose. That she’d wanted to be married, like her twin, Kat.
Walking across the employee parking lot, Elle tries to clear her head, but the ache in her skull is stubborn. She heads for the front door of the facility’s main building where she used to work on the top floor. She opens the glass door and does not climb the stairs to the executive floor. She heads toward the restroom near the print shop on the basement floor. It is much cleaner than the one she shares with all the maintenance men in the garage.
A woman in the restroom smiles at her. “Good morning,” she says when she comes out of the stall. Elle mumbles something back. Gibberish. She doesn’t care if she appears rude. Or what the woman must think.
Elle leaves the restroom and someone she knows vaguely is walking toward her in the long corridor that runs from one end of the building to the other. He has obviously just arrived for work. He says, “Hi, how are you?”
And she murmurs, “Morning,” before turning to a side entrance and escaping him. She opens the glass door and walks around the parking lot again, trying to calm down.
She hums “Scotland the Brave,” dum dum de dum dum dum dum. Her tongue roves back and forth on the surface of the partial affixed to the roof of her mouth. Her head continues to throb.
Elle can still smell exhaust in her office in the garage. So she grabs her purse and heads back out again. This time, she walks through the gate in the fence that surrounds a shopping center next door.
She heads for the Panera Bread on the far side of the shopping center’s property. Elle doesn’t want coffee. That may increase her headache. But the walk helps and she continues to breathe cold, clean air.
Opening the Panera Bread’s side door, she remembers that she has not been inside since she was sent to work in the garage, two years before.
She waits in line and searches the glass display case for the one item she always craved; the orange scones. There are several on a large, white platter. Each is glazed with light orange frosting. She buys one and carries it back to the garage in a paper bag.
Elle thinks of the monthly annuity she will receive because she is retiring on the comfortable salary she earned when she worked in the executive suite. It is tens of thousands of dollars more than the job in the garage pays. She knows because she looked it up in the former employee’s file that was left in the garage office, probably by mistake.
Elle’s panic when she was told she was being transferred to the garage was slightly alleviated when she heard the words, “Your salary will remain the same.”
She immediately began calculating her escape. Her retirement. She has no one with whom she must share her pension, no one who tells her how to spend it. She is going to travel to all the places she has wanted to see; Ireland, Yellowstone National Park, Bermuda.
The snow blowers are gone and she cannot smell exhaust when she pulls off her L. L. Bean fleece. She opens the paper bag, pulls out the orange scone and realizes she has the partial in her mouth. She places the scone back in the bag and plucks at the partial’s wire that encircles the tooth next to the one that is missing.
The phone rings. Elle can tell it is the head of the maintenance crew, because his name appears on the telephone’s screen. She sucks the partial back in place, affixing it with the tip of her tongue.
“I have something for you, stay put,” he says when she picks up the phone’s receiver.
A few seconds later she hears his “shave and a haircut, two bits” knock on her door.
She opens it. He is carrying red roses in a clear, plastic cone and a card.
“It’s supposed to snow this weekend. I told the crew to prep the snow blowers, get them out of storage. They’re sorry.” He hands her the card.
When she opens it, she sees that every one of the maintenance men have signed it.
Tears form. Ducking her head, Elle turns away from him and quickly wipes her eyes. Smiling, she cannot feel the partial in her mouth as she looks at him, his shaved head, mustache, gray teeth. She accepts the roses he places in her hands.
R.D. Ronstad writes mainly humor pieces and poetry. His work can be found at Defenestration, The Big Jewel, Points in Case, CommuterLit, Every Day Fiction and many other online sites. A native Chicagoan, he currently lives in Phoenix, Az.
Lost on Purpose, I Join the Circus
I got lost on purpose. My parents had too many rules: No leaving the house without permission. No running or jumping in the house. No lying on the sofa. No sitting in Dad's favorite chair. No sitting in front of the TV. No pestering guests. No pestering the cat. Eat whatever's put in front of you. And absolutely no barking at passersby. Is that any way to treat a 35-year old? Okay, I'm only five, but you get my point. I'm a full-grown adult Doberman and they treated me like a child. So finally, I had to leave. Which I did the first time I saw a door left slightly open.
But the very next day I encountered a major obstacle. Having spent the night sleeping behind a dumpster in a local park, I struck out into the neighborhood and discovered a wanted poster with my picture on it on every corner lamp post. I immediately ran through my options for avoiding capture. I could disguise myself, but wearing a fake mustache or beard or donning sunglasses would only draw attention to me. I could live among the shadows and back alleys, but I didn't want to spend months dealing with the seedy characters I feared I'd run into, human or animal. I could live in the sewers with the alligators, but one day I'd no doubt end up as alligator lunch. And so, I joined the circus.
Recently, while riding in the car with my Dad (not my real Dad, of course--I'm adopted), I'd seen a poster advertising the circus. It was being held in a stadium downtown, within a dog's walking distance from my (former) house. I'd seen a dog act or two on TV. Any pooch with half a dog-brain could easily replicate all the tricks I saw those dogs perform, and I've got a superior dog brain, as the rest of my story attests. So I knew I'd have no trouble finding employment there.
The first person I ran into upon entering the stadium was a portly, middle-aged man in coveralls scooping up what I presumed to be elephant dung. Otherwise the stadium looked abandoned--nothing but row upon row of empty seats rising up on two levels, and two trapezes hanging from the center of the ceiling, facing each other about thirty feet apart, each fastened to a rope on one end so that their flybars hung there on a slant. And the scooper's golf cart, holding a bunch of tools. (I learned later the circus kept all the animals in trailers or tied down in the open air in a section of the parking lot, to which the elephants had apparently just departed.) I placed myself in front of the man and looked directly into his eyes. He looked down at me with a quizzical expression, no doubt perplexed as to where I came from. As he started to open his mouth I jumped into the golf cart before he could say anything, started it, and took off. I'd studied a dog driving a car on YouTube a few times while my parents were out of the house, and had often paid attention to my Dad's driving when in the car with him. I figured I could handle a golf cart, and I turned out to be right. I didn't even need a coach alongside me like the YouTube dog did.
I made a circuit around the stadium, needing only to make left turns, which I signaled with my left paw, and on the way back I saw the scooper guy recording me.
Once I stopped the cart next to him, I jumped out and immediately began executing a litany of dog tricks, some of which I'd seen on TV, and some of which I made up on the spur of the moment. I walked and hopped on my hind legs, first on the ground, then up and down the stadium stairs. I walked on my front legs. I jumped up and bounced off the man's left hip and did a backward flip. I cantered like a horse. I jumped through the golf cart, over the seat, one side to the other. I laid flat on the ground and covered my eyes with my paws. I leapt straight up in the air as high as I could and spun around, like a figure skater doing a loop or a basketball player doing a 360 dunk. And having finished, I offered the worker, still recording me, my paw in a shake hands gesture, and when he reached out I pulled my paw back at just the right moment, leaving him grasping air. Immediately he said, "Follow me," and led me through a tunnel and down a concourse to what turned out to be the ringmaster's office. "Boss, you gotta see this," he said, starting the video and handing him the phone. The ringmaster studied the recording intently and in silence. Once finished, he put the phone on his desk, looked me in the eye, and offered me a job.
I say "offered me a job" because that's exactly what he did, as a matter of amusement for himself and his underling. So it shocked him when I walked over to him, nudged his right leg repeatedly with my snout until he finally got the message and stood up, jumped into his chair, began typing on his computer keyboard, and "I accept" appeared on the screen along with the following demand: "A performer's salary, not just room and board." His mouth hung open as he looked, first at the workman standing silently before him, then at me, then again at the monitor, and finally bent down and typed in: "Done."
I went to work that night, and my act proved an immediate winner. Within a week of my first appearance box office receipts had gone up ten percent, and only my appearances could account for the increase. It amazed people not only that I could drive, or that I could perform my tricks with a flair beyond the capability of most dogs, but also that I did all this on my own without the prompting of a trainer.
I soon grew restless and started looking to expand my horizons. One day I spotted the human cannonball, who everybody called HC, washing his cannon on the stadium's grass, and approached him to gain his attention. He looked down at me pleadingly looking up at him and said, "What? You want to try this?" I barked once, meaning "yes"--it had been spread around the circus that one bark from me meant "yes" and two meant "no." After all, I could hardly walk around with a notebook computer or tablet hanging from my neck, and my paws were too big for typing on phones. So one or two barks would have to do for communication in most cases.
Soon enough I found myself at the bottom of the cannon barrel with a makeshift foam helmet attached to my skull, waiting for the launch. I didn't have nerves then, but once I got shot out I lost it at the top of my arc and shit myself. Still, once I landed in the net I immediately raced back to HC eager for a second chance, which he granted me. This time I gritted my teeth and maintained my composure throughout my flight. The third time I had nerves of steel.
And so I became part of HC's act. At first there was talk of me evacuating real or, assuming I couldn't crap at will (which I couldn't), even fake poop halfway through my flight because, the ringmaster assured me, human audiences love that kind of shit. But I adamantly refused. So then they suggested I wear a pendant with an "S" on it hanging from my collar and a red cape like Krypto the Superdog and stretch my legs forward and back to give the impression of flying. To this I readily agreed. They fashioned a real helmet that fit my head snugly and the first canine cannonball was born.
Then, as time passed, I wormed my way (not literally, if that's what you were thinking) into the clown car act (agreeing this time to come out of the car last and then lift a rear leg to simulate peeing on a tire, while all the other clowns looked on, bent slightly over and holding their hands vertically over their mouths in a gesture of fake prudishness), the teeterboard act, the trampoline act, the jump rope act, and even the sideshow magic act featuring The Great Banes, whose girl assistant I replaced when she married the knife thrower and became his assistant. When not performing I even regularly walked among the crowd selling red noses, trusting people to deposit their payment into panniers I had strapped to my back. They loved it.
Things went that way swimmingly for several years. I became a "featured" performer, my picture appearing in all the show's advertising. I grew wealthy, since I received regular raises, a nice stipend for each non-dog act I appeared in, and a cut of all merchandise sold--stuffed animals, t-shirts, mugs, etc--bearing my likeness. I was, as you can telI, a master negotiator.
But then, as it often does in success stories like mine, tragedy struck.
Before getting into that though, I need to explain a bit about how my finances worked. On my request, The Great Banes used his considerable talents (a little distraction here, a switch of applications there) to secure me a savings account and a debit card under the name Connor Tyke. He also set me up with direct deposit so all my payments from the circus would go into my account automatically. The rest of my banking I could do online or by mail.
My savings grew steadily, since the circus took care of all my necessities and I rarely spent money on non-necessities. In fact, if I remember correctly, my total purchases over the years (made online of course) consisted of an Alienware 7 gaming laptop from Best Buy, about a dozen computer games (Skyrim, Kane's Wrath, Call of Duty, etc.) from Steam, and a toddler-size full zip glacier-blue hoodie from L. L. Bean that fit me perfectly. My savings grew until I had just over $300,000 in my account.
And that was when a clown named Jonathan (stage name "Slappy") introduced me to Wild Casino Online, and I had visions of doubling my money (which Slappy assured me he had done) in no time. But, to my utter surprise, the opposite happened. After some small initial success, I began repeatedly losing money and then desperately trying to recoup my losses through more and more gambling, only to end up accruing even greater losses. Within a couple of months my savings had dwindled to $50,000. That's when I bottomed out and realized I was a smart dog but not a lucky dog. I swore off gambling forever, a vow I kept throughout my remaining time (about seven months) with the circus. My savings again steadily increased.
Then a second setback struck, and wreaked havoc with a lot of circus lives, including mine. Circus management received notice the IRS would begin an audit of the circus's entire operation. It had been initiated on a tip from an "anonymous" source, though everyone suspected Roberto the foot-juggler was the squealer. He'd had his right foot stepped on by an elephant and was subsequently released without compensation because, management said, he had no business being anywhere near the elephants in the first place.
In the course of the audit Internal Revenue discovered a number of bookkeeping "irregularities," including years of regular, substantial payments to a mysterious Mr. Connor Tyke, who remains unidentified still by the IRS. They put a lien on the circus's entire holdings, as well as the bank account of Mr. Tyke. The circus collapsed. I found myself again penniless and on the streets.
When we parted Banes told me he planned to return to his old gig--busking--and invited me to join him. I declined, feeling that perhaps fate had sent me a message telling me it was time to return home with my tail literally between my legs.
But as I approached my old house I saw my father walking some mutt (okay, maybe not actually a mutt) that apparently served as my replacement. I nevertheless continued on a few steps, reasoning that my father maybe had missed me greatly and would have room in his home and heart for two dogs. But then I froze in my tracks, considering the scene. After years of almost complete freedom, did I really want to be regularly leashed and told where and when to poop or pee? I turned around. I needed to find Banes.
I soon found Banes and began working with him. It's not a bad life, really. I like Banes, who leaves me mostly to myself. I've accrued a serviceable bankroll, all cash. Barking at passersby is now part of my job. But busking seems dull compared to my circus life. I've found myself missing it, and the spotlight, so dearly lately I feel like I'm actually falling into a serious depression. And so...
"I'm sorry but I'll have to stop you there, Mr. Tyke. I'm afraid our time is up. I will see you again in two weeks not one since, as I explained at the outset, I will be on vacation next week. We can pick up with your dream where we left off at that time."
"Oh...it wasn't a dream. Though I admit it must sound like one to anybody who wasn't there. But everything I described really happened."
"Hmmm. I thought when we began you said it was a dream."
"No. You must have misunderstood. What I said was 'the dream is over.'"
"Well then, I must say you've surprised me. The events as you describe them contain some pretty heady stuff for a dog to accomplish."
"Well, I think being a psychiatrist is pretty heady."
"Why Mr. Tyke, was that a joke?"
"Good. Anyway, I'll see you in two weeks and, as I said before, we'll go on from here. Till then, take good care of yourself."
"I will Dr. Affenpinscher. Enjoy your time with Mrs. Affenpinscher and the pups."
"Thank you Mr. Tyke."
Stephen Faulkner is a native New Yorker, transplanted with his wife, Joyce, to Atlanta, Georgia. Steve is now retired and living the good life in Central Florida. He has recently had stories published in such publications as Aphelion Webzine, Hellfire Crossroads, Temptation Magazine, Hobo Pancakes, The Erotic Review, Liquid Imagination, Sanitarium Magazine, The Satirist, Foliate Oak Literary Magazine, Fictive Dream, Flash Fiction Magazine, The Literary Hatchet, ZiN Daily, Longshot Island, AHF Magazine, Midnight Street Anthology #3 and the anthology, “Crackers,” published by Bridge House Press. He and Joyce are both now retired and living the good life in Central Florida keeping busy volunteering at different non-profit organizations and going to the theater as often as they can find the time. His novel, Aliana in Paradise, was published by World Castle Publishing in 2018 and is available through Amazon.com and Barnesandnoble.com. His second novel, Lunar Effects, was recently published by Eden Stories Press and is also available through Amazon.com.
“Oh, hello,” said Jack Aptley, turning his attention to the large mirror on the wall as if he had just heard his name called. “You look very familiar. We have met before, haven’t we? Let me see if I can remember…. No, don’t tell me. It’s right on the tip of my….”
After some quiet deliberation the name came to him. He was a little surprised that this time it was female; most of the fictional characters that he created through this rather novel means were male. Most of them, as well, bore some resemblance, whether in the way they thought or in their general background, to Jack himself, a fact which usually made the actual writing that much easier. The several magazine editors with whom he had contact seemed to appreciate this. A vague worry rose in the back of Jack’s mind, then, whether or not a female protagonist would be accepted, say, by Alex Bensher, the editor who had commissioned the story he was now just beginning. Putting the concern aside, he sat down in his armless secretary’s chair and wrote down the arrived-at name: Cheryl McKendry.
He swiveled the chair around, gritting his teeth at the shrill squeal of its rusty ball bearings as he gazed once more into the mirror. Crazy game, this, he thought; but it was the most expedient means that he had found to help him work out the underlying particulars of any new character that he was at the moment creating: talk to them. What tale, then, would this girl have to tell him?
“And where was it that we met?” he asked of his reflection. “Oh yes, in the lobby of the building in which you worked. You were leaving, if I recall. It was morning, not much past nine or nine-thirty. Going home, you said. Yes, and you were quite upset. Even though I was a stranger you accepted my offer of coffee at a nearby shop and you sat down with me where you spilled out your tale of foolish whim all in a big rush. Worked, then, is the key word here; past tense. You’d lost your job. Do you mind if I tell it?”
He turned back to the note pad on his writing desk and circled the name he had just written. The story – a portion of it, at least – was taking shape in his mind. “Cheryl McKendry was…” he wrote, then crossed the three words out. Pretty, vivacious, flighty, he thought, playing with adjectives. Friendly, warm, unpredictable, exhibitionist. That last word had a ring of truth in it for him. “Of course you won’t mind my telling your story,” said some watchful, judging part of his mind as he began to write. “You’d positively relish the idea of your story being made public.”
Cheryl McKendry had wakened with that unmistakable giddiness to which she was prone which signaled that she would do something rash today, something totally precipitate, something that would make a difference. She didn’t know whether to call the oddly pleasant sensation a compulsion or an inborn irrationality of her spirit and neither did she dwell much on such semantic nitpicking. What did it matter what you called it? It just was and she knew that she would revel in whatever mischief to which this giddy, wonderful feeling would drive her today. Whatever it was would be surprising to everyone who it touched. Before she had gotten her feet out from under the covers and on the floor she knew exactly what it was that she was going to do.
She giggled at the idea, the sheer daring of her choice as she picked the components for an appropriate outfit out of her closet and dresser drawers. She chose each item carefully, keeping in mind the initial reaction she wanted to foster: conservatism, propriety, even a kind of dowdiness. There was the prim, shell-colored blouse with the ruffled collar, the sensible shoes, the constricting bra that always felt to her as if was shrinking her bust by a full cup size, the drab full circle skirt that came to just above her knees, the garter belt and seamless stockings, Her purse was mismatched to the whole but blended nicely. She would do her make-up with a very light hand; nothing flamboyant or in any way eye catching.
She didn’t eat breakfast. She walked the half mile to the office on an empty, growling stomach. The balmy warmth of the day added a new dimension to her peculiar lightness of mind, a sort of spring fever that accentuated her mood to near rapture. She felt as if she could walk forever. The warm air caressed her legs like a lover. The address on the front of the building gin which she worked came upon her all too soon, almost surprising her that she had arrived there so quickly.
Mister Garren, the stiff-lipped head of the accounting department, stood in the doorway of his cubicle as she came in. Displeasure shone on his wizened face like the effect of some exotic disease. He tapped the face of his watch and shook his head reproachfully. Miss Corbett, the office manager whose face bore a perpetual look of dyspeptic discomfort, was right beside him. Marky, the youthful office assistant whose adoring puppy love for Cheryl had never been a secret looked worried. Late again; what kind of trouble would she be in this time?
Chery smiled brightly at them all. Here was her chance; all that was needed was the act that would draw the reaction she had planned for. She said nothing, only performed a sustained and flawless pirouette. She rose on the balls of her feet and spun around, the smile on her pretty face one that she might have assumed as she entered a party and was now turning to show off her new designer frock to an envious coterie of debs. Her wide hemmed, drab skirt was not what she was showing off, however. With the speed of a ballerina’s graceful whirl the skirt rose and bloomed, spreading outward from her generous hips. She felt a mild breeze on the skin of her naked buttocks, imagined that she heard the rasping rustle of her pubic hair as the stale air of the office wafted through it. Pantyless, she gave them a show that they would not soon forget. She then came to a sudden stop, facing them after a count of seven complete turns.
Miss Corbett was stunned beyond words. Mister Garren managed to affect a similar look of shock on his weasel’s face though a deepening of his sallow color told the real story of his stimulated response to the spectacle of Miss McKendry’s bared derrière and “privates.” Marky’s first reaction had been to gasp and start, first in disbelief at what he was undeniably seeing, then in growing pleasure. His later admission, when he spoke of the scene to friends, was that he wished it had not ended as suddenly as it had begun.
Cheryl McKendry was, of course, summarily fired as soon as her little show was finished.
“Where does this all fit in?” Aptley asked of his mirror a little peevishly. “Is this a beginning or just an episode or is it how the story ends?”
His face was placid, belying the concern in his voice. He knew that this was only a start, that the episode he had just completed would somehow find its place in the finished work. He trusted his instincts, his years of experience. He would either make it fit and work the rest of the story around the scene or else rewrite it to suit what he would come up with later on.
“If I take this as the start,” he wondered aloud. “What happens next? Have her do another skirt-raising turn on the street, maybe even giving heart palpitations to some casual passerby? Turn on some loco’s switch with flash of fanny flesh and so incite him to assault and rape? Or in front of a cop and get herself arrested for indecent exposure?”
Jack Aptley turned back to the mirror with questioning eyes. It was starting again. Here was his strange talent, his art, what one editor friend of his called his genius. All he had to do now was listen closely and write down what was said.
“This is what happened,” said Cheryl McKendry’s mild, persuasive voice. “It’s what happened that first taught me that I was different, that I wouldn’t be satisfied with what others expected of me.”
The little box lay open on the table before her. The proffered ring blazed and sparkled under the restaurant’s high ceiling lights. The ring’s center was a half-carat, pear cut diamond. The surprise of its sudden unveiling made Cheryl want to cry. “Be mine,” her boyfriend said.
She was ready to agree, to assent, to use her voice to break the joy that had cut off her breathing when he had laid the little box open on the table. She wanted to say yes, shout yes, cry yes, sing yes yes yes! In near catatonia, though, she could only smile stupidly and nod. Her vision blurred with the up and down motion of her head, making the other tables nearby look to her like a doll’s melting plastic furniture. Her boyfriend took her left hand and slid the ring onto her fourth finger, had to push a little to get it past the second knuckle. The stone wobbled there and then leaned drunkenly against her pinky.
“Mine,” he said with some finality and kissed her fingers. How could he have known that that was exactly the wrong word to say? He had said it often enough to her in the past – “My woman,” he had proudly told his friends as he introduced her to them one at a time. “Mine alone.” The last time he had used the possessive word had been only moments ago though that was more of a request rather than a statement of what he assumed to be fact when she had nodded her head in avid approval. Now, though, with the ring on her finger and that one word in the air between then – mine – something had snapped inside of her stilled thoughts. No, not his, she thought. I am my own. I will not relinquish custody to him, no matter how much I love him and need to be with him. Then another thought rose: up until that moment he had been her only lover. Her only love, as well. Was he to be the one and only one for her, then? The rosy future implied in that supposition was suddenly not so certain and was, in fact, becoming very dark and hazy.
“Wait,” she said as she worked the ring past the knuckle and off of her finger. “Now I’m not so….”
The confusion and shock on her boyfriend’s face was eloquent. “Not what?” he asked a little desperately, "Not sure? Not in love with me anymore? Not going to…?”
“Not now,” she said. “Time. I need more….”
“What do you mean, more time? We’ve been going together for over two years. That’s time enough, don’t you think? Now’s the time to be making plans for our future together.”
“But I’m not sure, don’t you see? Being with you has always been a delight for me. I love you. You’re one of the best things that’ve ever happened to me so far in my life. But the whole do-it-by-the-numbers thing – love, sex, marriage, baby carriage, et cetera – scares the hell out of me. I’m just not ready for it all. I mean, what’s the rush? Why not just live together, see other people, experiment, make sure that it’s all really right before we jump into it and have it as the last big emotional decision we make? I mean just let’s make sure that we know.”
“I know,” he said, his certainty unshakable. “It is right. I’m ready. I need it.”
“But do I?” she asked plaintively. It wasn’t rhetorical. She wanted him to tell her.
The querulous modulation in her voice had stopped him cold. His reply was guarded but kind. “You know yourself best, Cheryl, so you tell me. Do you need it, our being together, our getting married?” And then, anxiously: “Do you need me?”
The answer was I her eyes: confusion, wonderment, doubt, hesitation.
They had not ordered their meals and yet he had left a generous tip for the waiter as they got ready to leave. It was so like him, she considered, that uncalled-for generosity. It was one of the reasons she had fallen in love with him in the first place. She felt about to cry again.
The ride back to her house – which was actually her parents’ house – was silent. She did not invite him in. She told him that she had much to think about.
“Well, I suppose that I do, too,” he said rather distractedly. As he walked down the front steps and was striding to his car, she called out to him to be sure to phone her. She did not say it but it was implicit in her request that she still did need and love him. He did not answer. The engine of his car roared to life and he drove away.
Apparently, she had given him more to think about than she had realized. When he did phone it was two weeks later on a Saturday evening when he knew that her parents would not be home. He hung up when an unfamiliar male voice answered telling him that Cheryl was indisposed.
The only time that Jack Aptley talked to himself was when he was alone in his apartment. With friends he was bright and excellent company. On the street he showed the world a stern, tight lipped countenance at which times he often seemed to be a man of a most intensely observant nature.
The morning following his initial encounter with Cheryl McKendry and her unorthodox personality he was seated on a bench in the park near his home. His attention was focused on an elderly gentleman who was traversing one of the asphalt paths through the park some twenty yards in front of him. He was trying to decide why the man reminded him of his father. It couldn’t be the old fellow’s stooped posture or his stiff-legged gait; Jack’s father had always walked as if his back had been securely braced, his step as long and nimble as a dancer’s. It couldn’t be the old man’s face; it was haggard and closed off in deep, private concerns that only seemed to find release in an occasional flurry of lip fluttering, voiceless monologue. Jack’s father’s face had always had the look of one who was seldom touched deeply by any idea, thought or emotion.
No, none of that.
The thing about the man that reminded him of his father was the scowl on the man’s face. From Jack’s distance from the subject of his scrutiny that scowl was barely detectable but it was surely there. He had only seen such a disturbed and sneering look on his father’s face once but it was a memory that had staunchly remained with him. That look of disapproving aversion had appeared on his father’s face under circumstances very similar to those which had caused this stranger’s reaction: two teenagers, one male and one female, lying together on a blanket in the grass, openly and very physically expressing their affections and desires for one another, kissing and fondling with oblivious abandon.
Jack watched the old man as he passed by the busy couple, heard his voice but not the angry words. He recalled what his father had shouted in just such circumstances as this those many years ago, Jack took our the small, spiral-bound notebook he carried with him for just such epiphanic moments, let his thoughts proceed like a parade past his vision for a few seconds more before writing: Cheryl’s father – kind but stiff – prudish – angered by any open displays of affection or eroticism – “Take it to the bedroom where it belongs.”
Cheryl had been a rather loud child at the age of five. At least much of what she recalled from that time of her life was about her being shushed or told to pipe down, to be still. On the long walks that she took with her father such complaints for silence and less exuberant behavior became a common litany. When her loud chattering went on for longer than her elder’s patience could bear, a sharp slap on her behind would soon change her tune straight to a C-sharp as she would recall when she was grown up and on her own. Maresy doats became a siren scream of anger and hurt with one well-placed smack on the bottom.
It didn’t often happen that way. When it did, though, she was never sure exactly when or why his patience had come to such an abrupt halt and his hand rose behind his head for the sweeping descent. Often enough he put up with her childish shenanigans and the minor mischief she happened to wander into either by word or by deed. But – and it was here where her memory was uncertain – perhaps those remembered times when he was solicitous with her came after those few public spankings that she recalled when the message delivered along with the punishment had sunk in and unconsciously modified her raucous behavior to his satisfaction. After that she recalled there were only very rare paternal admonitions for her to pipe down and be a good little girl.
She remembered her fixation on that word – good – and having decided that it was synonymous with “quiet” and “ladylike.” There were those times when, happily walking with her father, she would point out a policeman, the mothers and baby-sitters with their infant charges, the bike riding boys, and the sweat-suited young men playing basketball on the concrete courts. “She’s a very good girl,” she would say as she pointed out a particular child who was quietly playing with her dolls. “And he must be good. Don’t you think so, Daddy?” All were good because they were either quiet or simply going about their business or amusement without bothering anyone else. And Daddy, absently smiling as if he had just thought of a good joke, would quietly agree. All were good, everything was right and fine. Yes, yes, he would answer. Very good, yes.
Until there came the day when he suddenly stopped smiling.
“No,” he said in answer to her query about the young couple lying together on the park’s wide lawn. His face had become suddenly angry; he looked about to shout something vile and mean at them. “They are not being good. Not with what they are doing, not at all.”
“But –“ Cheryl said and somehow knew enough not to pursue her incipient argument any further. She was confused and did not understand. The two people lying there together in the lawn were so quiet with their mouths pressed together as if in an effort to stifle whatever sounds the other might make, eating the other’s words before they could be spoken out loud. True, they weren’t totally successful – a hoarse, humming groan had several times escaped the throat of the girl – but wasn’t the attempt enough? And what was it that Daddy had called out to them? Why did it belong in the bedroom? Was the bedroom the only place where you were allowed to lie down? Cheryl remembered having lain down on the couch in the living room, even on the floor, and no one seemed to mind. What did Daddy mean?
She didn’t ask what or why as they continued in the direction of the loud pock-pocking noise and the squeaking and running sounds coming from the basketball courts. His patience and pleasant humor restored, her father asked her if the two strong young men there that were playing one-on-one weren’t very good at the game. They shouted to each other and laughed loudly as one of them, then the other, would try to gain possession of the ball. Cheryl shrugged her answer, not sure of anything anymore.
Was that the start of it all? she later wondered.
She infiltrated his dreams: Cheryl with the model’s gorgeous naked body; Cheryl McKendry, the woman without a face. She danced around him like he was a Maypole and she was a flesh colored puddle that lapped like a mini tide at his feet. The puddle swelled to the size of a lake and he swam in it, doing the backstroke/ But he hit his arm against the sides of the empty bathtub and Cheryl was straddling his groin. She whispered encouragement in a hushed and sexy voice. She dribbled her juices over him and soon the tub was filled with her warm, mucid liquid.
He woke slowly, the realization of the imperative urge to urinate increasing with each successive stage of his rise from slumber/ He had an erection, the kind that was blushingly called a “piss boner” when he was a boy.
He dropped his pajama bottom in front of the open toilet and leaned forward so that the angle of his aroused penis would aim its arcing stream to the back of the bowel rather than in a high whale’s spout whose trajectory would be all but impossible to control. He tilted his body perilously forward, his one arm outstretched before him to rest his weight against the tank. He chuckled at the incongruity of his position as he waited for the nearly orgasmic sensation of release to begin in his groin.
“What would Cheryl think?” he said his thoughts out loud. “What would her reaction be if she saw me like this?”
Almost immediately, he knew. His penis slowly shrank to flaccidity as his bladder emptied. When he was through he hiked up his pajama bottom, laced it at his waist and went straight to his writing desk.
Cheryl mulled over the situation after the fact. The way she recalled it, it seemed that the man had been waiting there only for her. There had been several women that she had seen pass his concealed position ahead of her and yet it was not until she came into his sphere of vision that he chose to step out into the light. He had a curious smile on his face and he seemed about to speak, to introduce himself, perhaps to ask if they had met before. She stopped and waited for him to say what he had to say. The knee-length raincoat that he wore did not catch her attention until it was opened. What had looked like the legs of a pair of trousers that he wore were only the legs of the trousers. He had apparently cut them from a pair, slipped them over his calves and secured them above his knees with rubber bands.
She gasped in surprise at the sight of his sudden revelation but she did not scream. Instead, she intently studied what he was so proudly offering for her attention. She spent a few long moments in silent inspection. The longer she looked and rubbed her chin the more apprehensive the man became. She looked him in the face – a kind face, she thought; a sad one, too – and smiled warmly at him. When he heard her hands slapping together in spontaneous applause, he blushed deeply and closed his coat.
“I usually don’t like to just look,” she told him pointedly. She took a step closer while reaching for the closure of his coat at the level of his crotch. He backed off a step with horror beginning to show in his kind, sad face. She asked him if he would like to come to her apartment for dinner. “I’m a great cook,” she said cockily. “And an even better lover.”
The man backed off another step, his earlier blush of pleasure draining from his face until his skin had turned ashen. He declined her offer, his voice catching on his words of apology and rejection. He kept backing away. When he had backed eight steps away from her, he turned and fled.
Cheryl took the man’s sadness home with her. The plans she had intended to make for that evening were abandoned in favor of quiet contemplation over a cup of rum-spiked tea.
“Jackie my friend! How’re you doin’?”
It would have been nearly impossible for Jack Aptley not to have recognized that voice. Even stone drunk his mind would have connected it to only one person. Alex Bensher, the senior editor of Today’s Fiction Magazine, had a voice that crackled and rasped as if his larynx had been bathed in acid. It had its usual effect on the writer. Jack pulled the telephone receiver away from his ear and winced.
“Listen, Jackie my man,” Bensher raped on. “Tell me what’s happening with that story you’ve been promising me for the next issue.”
“This one’s moving along kind of slow, Alex,” said Jack, holding the receiver six inches from his temple while speaking loudly enough for his voice to carry to the mouthpiece. “The main character is female and I’m having a little trouble getting inside her head.”
“Female? Well, that’s a switch. Getting away from that father-son motif you were playing with in the last few stories, huh?”
“That was just a phase I was going through, I guess, something I had to do for my own sanity or something.”
“I hear you. But that’s all done with now, right”” Even with the query added, Bensher gave Jack the impression that this was already a decided fact. “So tell me, then, when can I expect delivery?”
“When’s your deadline?”
“Mine’s the fifteenth, so I’ll need your manuscript for edit and formatting by the first.”
“What’s that, then, about two weeks?”
“Um-hm, from yesterday.”
“You’ll have it, maybe even a day or two early.”
“Great. I can always count on you, Jackie. And, pal? Any sexy stuff in this piece?”
The question came as a surprise to Jack. “It can be worked in if you really want it,” he said uncertainly.
“Nah, I wouldn’t do that to you, pal, tell you what you should or shouldn’t include in a story. Listen, you’re the writer, so you do it your way. Just make it work, okay? Make it right. I trust you for that. You’ve given me some strange stuff in the past but all in all it’s always had the ring of truth to it and that’s what I’m always looking for.”
“Look, Alex,” said Jack a little anxiously. Was Bensher asking for a little gratuitous sex in the piece to help boost the magazine’s lagging sales? he wondered. “If you feel it’s necessary a bit of the old soft-core just might work in this story. I mean some healthy shtupping wouldn’t be beyond the girl I’m writing about, at least not the way she’s shaping up in my notes.”
“Jackie!” came Alex’s surprised reply. “Do I sound like I’m making demands here? I told you, pal-o-mine, I wouldn’t do that to you. It’s just a suggestion, okay? And that’s only if a little nookie fits in with the theme, the character and the plot. That’s all I ask – but you know that, right?”
“Well, all right, then,” Jack said. “We’ll see.”
“Fine, then,” said the editor. The subject was closed. “And Jackie? Tell me this…. The father angle?” A familiar hint of manipulative wheedling edged into his harsh voice. “It’s out, right?”
“We-e-ell,” said Jack, drawing out the word thoughtfully. “She does have a father….”
“Hah! So it is a part of it, then. I knew it. So what does she do in this story, kill the old man off or something?”
“I haven’t gotten that far along yet, Alex. It’s too early to tell what the outcome will be.”
“But it might be?” asked the editor, still fishing.
“Might,” said Jack, making sure that his tone suggested that the opposite could just as easily be true. “No promises, though.”
‘“Well, listen, pal, as good as those father-son stories you’ve been handing in have been, I’d love to see you get back to the old Terry Jepson style. I have a feeling that that’s what our readers are looking for, the old psychological thriller; that old Jepson hallmark of a good, healthy scare.”
“I don’t know if there will be any scares in this story, Alex. I can only promise that you’ll be surprised."
“But you’ll be using the Jepson pen-name, right? Not that other one you were using for a while there…. What was it…? Rawley Parlen. Not that one, right?”
“Like I said, Alex, no promises. You’ll know which name I’ll be using when you get the manuscript. And remember, I’ve used more than just Jepson and Parlen in the past. It might be one of those other ones.”
“All right, fair enough. Be secretive about it, I don’t really care. But two weeks from yesterday, Jack. I’ll be watching my inbox for it.”
The line went dead. If Jack hadn’t known Alex Bensher as well as he did he might have been offended. The editor’s abruptness was familiar to him and had even become something of a joke among the regular contributors to Today’s Fiction.
Jack relaxed and wondered what kind of dilemma he could devise for Cheryl McKendry. Patricide? No, Alex was way off with that. Still, though, something had to have happened to have been a contributing factor to her rather flaky personality.
He went to his writing desk and sat down. He swiveled his chair around to face the mirror and study the worry lines that had begun to furrow his brow. “Tell me,” he said to his reflection. “Like your boyfriend said when you turned down his proposal, you know yourself better than anyone and definitely better than I do. So, tell me….”
At age fourteen Cheryl had formulated a number of sensitive and pressing questions concerning what she might expect in her future personal dealings with men. The phrase “personal dealings” brought a smile to her mother’s face. She told her daughter to say what she meant; if it was information about sex that she wanted then she should say so. “Personal dealings,” her mother explained, could mean anything from the proper etiquette to be employed when being introduced to someone new to tips on how to write a friendly letter.
“Aw, Mom,” whined her embarrassed daughter. “You know what I mean.”
“All right, then, let’s talk. What is it, specifically, that you want to know?”
Most of Cheryl’s questions concerned how to behave and what to expect on a date. What if you really liked the boy? she asked confidingly. How far should you go? What was “petting” and was it a reasonable alternative to more intimate contact? Was there a kind of sliding scale on what was permitted or was going all the way always a no-no? Her mother’s answers to most of these questions were fairly non-committal. She left the questions of how far to go and with whom and the permissibility of “giving herself” – a phrase which Cheryl found amusing – to a boy up to her daughter’s own standard of morals. “You know what’s right and wrong,” she said with a wink. “I’m sure yYou’ll make the right decision when the time comes.”
Other questions deserved more definite answers. The fact that the menstrual periods which Cheryl had been experiencing for a little more than a year would continue like clockwork for much of her adult life did not sit too well with the girl. There was another piece of mis-information shot down. A friend of hers had sworn that they stopped once you got married. The fact that they didn’t, news which was delivered succinctly and with such authority by her mother, made Cheryl feel a little bit queasy.
“Look at any woman that you know and even the ones you just see on the street and realize that they have the same thing to contend with, every month, that you do.”
“Something like a ‘misery loves company’ club, huh?”
“I guess that’s the idea,” said her mother. She had to agree that it wasn’t much of a consolation when you had to deal with pads and tampons and, in Cheryl’s mother’s case, the occasional bout with backaches and cramps, but it was the best that she could come up with on such short notice.
“And boys?” Cheryl asked, changing the subject. “Do they have…?”
Her mother dismissed the question with a wave of her hand as if clearing the air of a foul odor. “Boys are another matter altogether” was all that she said.
“But do they feel the same way about love and sex as – well, as we do?”
Her mother smiled at the innocence of the question as well as the conspiratorial tone in which it was couched. “I’m sure that they don’t, darling. But I couldn’t tell you what the differences between our feelings on sex and theirs might be.”
“Would Daddy be able to tell me?”
Her mother looked thoughtful for a brief moment and then gave a slow, knowing nod. “You could ask him,” she said.
Her father was working late that day so she had to wait for him to get home. When he finally did there never seemed to be the right time to broach the subject. He was either busy with something else or she was stricken with a debilitating shyness that precluded her making the initial overture on the matter. What would she say to him anyway? Daddy, what’s the big deal about making love? She tried out several openings in her mind and they all sounded either too dirty or too silly to even consider.
As she was getting ready for bed it was her father who confronted her. She was outside the bathroom dressed only in her robe when he stopped her. “Your mother tells me that we have something important to discuss with me,” he said.
As she thought about the scene later on it seemed absurd to her that she merely nodded and walked into the bathroom. At the time, though, it seemed the most natural thing in the world to do. Her father came in to find her seated on the closed toilet, waiting for him. She posed her question about the differences between the sexes, about what men wanted as opposed to the desires of women. He confessed a sore lack of understanding of the latter. “A man, however,” he began and then embarked on a long winded speech about the beauty and desirability of women in general, the passion instilled in him by her mother in particular. He used the word “arousal” several times without any further definition. She found that she could guess what he meant by the word from the context in which it was used as well as through her own hearsay and book-learned store of knowledge. The word cropped up, mostly in his halting descriptions of the physical and emotional changes that his wife produced in him during the throes of heated passion.
At the conclusion of his little oratory Cheryl stood and hugged him in thanks for his efforts at clarification. When she stepped back she noticed that the front of her robe had fallen open at the throat. Her father gazed down at her exposed, budding cleavage. “You’re becoming quite a beautiful young woman,” he said, his voice warmly appreciative. She shifted her stance in abashed coyness, causing the robe to open even further. She was not embarrassed by his intense gaze for it was clear to her that it was one of positive appraisal.
“Yes,” he said, suddenly nervous. “You’re your mother all over again.” And he left the room quickly, shutting the door behind him.
Cheryl stood there in the chill air of the bathroom, her robe still open to the navel, wondering at the strangely pleasurable heat that was now coursing through her body.
“This leaves a lot to explain,” Jack told his reflection. And I’ve got to have this thing finished damned soon, he thought. He could just imagine Cheryl McKendry’s face looking at him from that world beyond all mirrors in which she resided. This project was becoming too intense; he simply had to finish it before Cheryl became a madman’s reality for him. “I may have to leave this part out of the finished story altogether,” he muttered.
“What’s there to explain?” his protagonist asked. “I delighted in my father’s finding me attractive and sexy. All young girls do.”
“Maybe,” he allowed. “But there have to be other ways to gain his appreciation than baring your bosom for him in the john.”
“Things like that happen all the time,” she said, sounding confident of this being a fact.
“And I think,” he said, pressing forward with his own thoughts on the topic before he lost his train of reason. “The normal reaction would have been for you to clutch your robe closed in embarrassment as soon as it became apparent that more was being shown then was decent.”
“Well, we both know that I’m anything but decent,” she replied proudly. “What decent girl ogle’s a flasher’s dick and then invites him into her bed? Or bares her – ahem! – naughty bits for all to see in the middle of the place where she works? Decent? No. But anyway I’m not normal by any means.”
“Some readers won’t buy your father’s reaction as normal either, I’m afraid.”
“And what do you think they’d expect? Daddy seducing me, maybe even a steamy little incestuous rape scene? Some traumatic episode to explain away my later behavior?”
“I thought that I was the one asking the questions here.”
“And answering them,” she said in a voice that sounded much like his own. Right, he though, assessing the situation he was in. It is all me, here, answering my own questions. “Is it enough, though?” he asked. “It all has to be at least somewhat believable. Is your pleasure at your father’s reaction to seeing your semi-naked body enough of a reason for what comes later on?”
“You want reasons?” said his conjuration testily. “Maybe I saw that episode in the bathroom as a missed chance. I could have made love to Daddy, until then the warmest, most attractive man I’d ever known, and I’d blown it. Maybe all the rest of the lovers I’ve had since then have been unconscious attempts to find what I’d missed out on with my father.”
Jack shook his head. “Too many maybes. They’d just bog the story down.”
“Then don’t mention them, just imply. And as for the prime cause for my unorthodox behavior….” The ephemeral form in the mirror shrugged what passed for its shoulders. “I’ve heard less convincing arguments than the warm, erotic urges gotten from a father’s leering looks.”
Jack’s mind waffled between acceptance and negation of the scene he had just written. Cheryl broke the tie, telling him what he already knew: “You want to leave it in,” she told him. That was all; the decision was made. On to less pressing matters.
“You said something about ‘other lovers,’” he said. “Were there many?”
“Enough,” she said with a mocking coyness that his present mood of affection attributed to her. “I’m healthy and so are my appetites, sex included. Sure you don’t want to rewrite the flasher scene, add in a really juice description on how I break him of his need to show what he’s packing in his shorts?”
Jack said no and this was one negation about which he remained adamant. It wouldn’t do for the story. No matter what Bensher had intimated, Today’s Fiction wasn’t the kind of magazine that would accept explicit sex scenes in a story just for the sake of a reader’s titillation. There were still certain rules.
“Have it your way, then,” she said. “I wasn’t too set on making love to him anyhow. Besides, I wasn’t really applauding his cock, only his guts for showing it off.”
“You mean that you saw something of yourself in him, don’t you?”
“You talking about my bare-assed twirl in the office? Well, I’ve gone much further than that, let me tell you.”
“All right. So, tell me, then.”
The figure in the mirror smiled. A face was starting to take shape: the eyes were brown and evenly set, the nose small, the mouthy wide and full. “That’s become your favorite phrase, lately, hasn’t it? ‘Tell me…?’“ The face in the mirror continued to smile and said, “Well, get out your pen, fella. You’re going to love what I’ve got to tell you now.”
The gym that Cheryl went to for her twice-weekly workouts wasn’t a gym at all. It was the living room of the home of a woman who conducted exercise classes there for pin money. Her rates were far less than those charged by established gyms and spas or the more prestigious clubs closer to the center of town. Cheryl added this consideration to the incentive of her almost immediate liking for the woman whose name was Agnes. She was fifty five, slim, small busted and angularly built. She always spoke with a certainty of purpose that gave her an air of self-assured authority. These were the qualities that made her a good phys-ed instructor but were also the reasons by which Cheryl had originally assumed that Agnes was a lesbian.
The first exercise session that Cheryl went to in Agnes’ home was also attended by three other women. Their names were Penny, Melanie and Delores and all three were in their early to mid-twenties. Penny, the oldest, was a few years younger than Cheryl.
During the short break between warm-up and workout Agnes told then a bit about herself. She spent much of her impromptu talk on the many pleasures of her twenty eight year marriage that had ended only two years before with her husband’s death. All the girls were solicitous but Agnes poo-poohed their melancholy concern with a dismissive wave of her hand and the announcement that now the real work would begin.
Enough of Agnes’ dissertative ramblings had alluded to the sexual aspects of her life with her husband that Cheryl was forced to change her earlier opinion of the woman. Well, she thought as she stretched and worked her achingly resistant muscles to their respective peaks of endurance. So much for stereotypes.
After the workout Agnes herded the four young women upstairs to the bathroom for showers. There were towels enough to go around, she told them. All she asked was that they made sure to dump them in the hamper when they were through.
This was Agnes’ home so they all expected to have to rush their showers in deference to those who would have to wait. They were surprised to find not the single stall that they had anticipated but a locker room array of three shower heads each with its own individual controls lined along one wall of the spacious lavatory. The floor was scored and pitched toward a common drain in the floor. There was no question of privacy; though there was a curtain that could be drawn to close off the shower area from the rest of the room with its single sink and toilet, there was nothing to separate each individual shower area from the other two. By her own choice Cheryl was the odd-one-out in the push for use of the communal facilities. She sat on the closed toilet and watched the others strip out of their leotards and tights and position the sliding plastic curtain between themselves and her. Steam was soon billowing above the concealed area like smoke from a three alarm fire. Melanie began to sing about being done wrong in a high, melodious voice.
Cheryl undressed in relative privacy and, while the others luxuriated under the steamy spray, she opened the toilet and sat back down to pee. She rested her right forearm on her bare thigh and dangled her hand between her splayed thighs. Her fingers combed lightly through her pubic hair. When she was through she wiped herself and then, with her bare hand, fingers stiffened, she probed her moist labia. When Penny, Melanie and Delores emerged from the common shower, water sluicing from their fresh-scented bodies, they found Cheryl still on the john, placidly masturbating. She looked up at them and smiled sweetly. In a hoarse whisper she asked if any of them would like to join her.
Penny hurriedly dressed and left the room in a huff. Melanie, the youngest of them, stared at what Cheryl was doing in fascination. “I’ve never watched anyone else do it,” she said, nearly in awe. Delores lay on the floor, cocked and spread her knees and dis as Cheryl had suggested. Feeling left out and rather foolish just watching, Melanie sank to the floor and started pumping her middle finger into her vagina while expertly rolling her thumb over the exposed clitoral hood. They giggled and moaned, sighed and talked dirty and shuddered their respective ways to orgasms that were separated only by a minute from Cheryl’s’ first to Melanie’s last.
While Cheryl took her much needed shower, Delores and Melanie stood with her behind the drawn curtain. They talked about what had just taken place, Delores likening it to a “circle jerk” such as they had heard that adolescent males sometimes engaged in and wondered if this was some kind of proof of their having lesbian tendencies.
Melanie made a face and expressed what they all knew of themselves. “I do it myself,” she said. “But I’d positively vorf if I had to put my hand on another’s girl’s pussy.” They all voiced unanimous agreement though varying in the intensity of their reactions to the notion of helping another woman achieve an orgasm.
When they were finally dressed and had come downstairs, Agnes motioned them into the kitchen. She had fruit juice waiting for them on the table. “Penny wanted to know what kind of a dyke-house I was running here,” she said evenly. “She demanded her money back and stormed out like she couldn’t get away quick enough.”
Cheryl and her compatriots sipped their drinks in nervous silence.
“You think it would help things if I got some men to join this little club?” she asked. The question was directed specifically at Cheryl.
“For all of us,” Melanie agreed. Delores tried vainly to suppress a giggle.
“I thought that was why you three took so long up there,” Agnes said, an odd little smile playing at the corners of her thin mouth. “I’d suggest you three keep it among yourselves, though, it it’s going to be a steady thing. I don’t want you scaring away any more of my customers.”
Promises were made all around. They were unnecessary, however. Even though the three women took the same days for their workouts and always showered together afterwards, the original incident was never repeated.
Jack Aptley showed the bank clerk his identification and key and signed the card he was given before waiting while verification was made. He wasn’t sure that this was the best way to go about finding inspiration for a story but Cheryl McKendry’s scattershot behavior had brought him up against a stone wall. Maybe, just maybe, what he knew to be in the safety deposit box would provide him with the chisel he needed to break through that wall and find out what was on the other side.
Right after he had completed the shower scene was when the doubts began pouring in on him. As much assurance as he had gotten from Cheryl – or, more accurately, from the part of his mind which was involved in creating and explaining her – that such behavior was in keeping with the personality and character, he was having trouble reconciling it with the more passive elements of her unique individuality. Making a statement against prudish conformism by mooning the people in the office where she worked was one thing, reacting with appreciate applause for a flasher’s “performance” was quite another. He had few reservations about that but it was still fairly acceptable as far as the story was shaping up. Even her response to her father gazing hornily on her exposed frontal nudity was something that he could live with. But this…. It was a part of her personality, he had to admit, but it was certainly at its most distant remove from rationality.
“This kind of craziness can’t be you,” he told her. He had taken down her story almost totally verbatim, only making changes where grammar demanded. “Why didn’t you just use a mop handle for a dildo?” he asked, trying to come up with something even more bizarre than what he already had down on paper.
“There wasn’t one at hand,” she answered coyly, her tone implying that if one had been then she would have used it in just the manner he had suggested.
This was too much, he thought as he turned her off, refusing to listen to anything more that she might have to say. She was real, he knew that, but there was too much here that was extraneous; something important was missing. There simply had to be a unifying factor somewhere. It was at this time, when Jack was nearly distraught with concern over his “creation” that the phone rang.
Later on, in the bank, Jack silently thanked his friend Leo for so unwittingly pointing him in this particular direction for inspiration.
Aside from his general concern for the character of Cheryl McKendry, he was wondering if the installation of multiple shower heads in the bathroom of a private home would sound too preposterous to readers. When he answered the phone he was unsure of his own voice. Leo recognized it right away and with little more than a hello he went into his usual high speed patter about his new found religion and how Jack should get off of his secular duff and find something to believe in. The familiar pattern of Leo’s exhortations and queries was somehow comforting. Jack listened to his friend without thinking, letting the problem of Cheryl McKendry receded into a shadowy corner of his mind.
The conversation took its preordained course until the subject slowly turned to Jack’s own dealings in the “real world.” The calm of mind brought on by the familiarity of Leo’s self-serving chatter was suddenly broken when his friend asked if he was still writing “those father and son stories” for Today’s Fiction.
“Father and daughter this time,” Jack said, rising up out of the slouch into which he had sunk in the chair.
“Oh? Well, that’s something new. But the similarities are there, aren’t they. I mean, whoever this ‘daughter’ person is, she can’t be all that different from you, the person who’s writing about her, can she?”
“You’d be surprised,” said Jack. “With me, I at least have a handle on causative factors, the things that shaped me, where I come from and like that. Every time I think that I know her, though, she gets away from me and does something that I keep having to make allowances for.”
“So, make them. What’s the big deal?”
There would be too many of them. The story would bog down in too much explanation and not enough action.”
“Then expand it into a novel. You’ve been talking about doing that for a long time, you know.”
“I know, but not with this one. The story is a commitment I have to honor; there’s a deadline. Besides, I want to be done with it. She’s driving me crazy as it is.”
“Then you just have to find her key, her center. Since you’re the one who’s writing it you’ll probably find that hers is pretty close to your own. Do you know what your center is, Jack?”
“I think that I do,” Jack answered, thinking. Leo had hit it right on the nose was what he was thinking right then. How could he thank his friend for saying the right thing even if he didn’t realize that at that very moment he was playing the part of Jack’s muse? Leo had pressed a button without realizing it and would never know what connection his chance remark had made in Jack Aptley’s memory. Key: a safety deposit box key. And center. The center of his life, mind, meaning. The double association had startled him.
The conversation dragged on for another forty-five minutes after that but, as with its beginning, Jack barely listened. His answers to Leo’s hopes and dreams for a safe and sane future for the world were delivered automatically, without any interest or thought behind them.
Center, he thought later that day in the vault of the bank. He studied the document that he had just retrieved from his safety deposit box. It was one of a number of papers that his father had left for him when he died. My center, Jack thought. My gift to Cheryl McKendry. This will make her real; remove the unpredictability from her personality.
This is what will make her truly human.
The typed list of instructions that her father’s lawyer gave her included so many things that had been drummed into and thrown at her practically all her life. Aside from the cash bequest and whatever she might realize in profit from the sale of the family home and its furnishings, this was the entire legacy which he had left her. “A reminder from beyond the grave,” she remarked without emotion. She remembered him mentioning something about his own personal “Fourteen Commandments” and how, through his growing and maturing years he would offer up one or another as the situation allowed. She flipped through the three neatly typed pages to be certain that nothing that she remembered had been left out. They were all there, she saw, just as she had recalled having received them from his lips, one at a time and out of sequence. The only difference here was that he had added a fifteenth.
She didn’t thank the lawyer for his time and effort for he was a man that she barely knew. This was his job and he was being well paid for his services. That, she considered, should be thanks enough for him.
At home she read over her father’s list of do’s and don’ts carefully. The main thrust of them was threefold: money, religion and relationships. In all of the categories his message to her was clear: be careful.
“Don’t involve yourself with any religious sect, cult or organization which professes to possess the only truth,” said the third rule. “Truth is like wax; in the heat of discussion, it often melts.” This, along with the fourth – “Be true to whatever religious conviction that you do profess and treat every tenet as a solemn promise to God.” – were those which she had taken to heart since she was a child. No religion had ever been forced on her or described to her as better than any other. As a result Cheryl maintained what she considered to be a healthy skepticism about any belief or code that was in any way absolute. If you don’t give credence to the possibility of the truths espoused by other disciplines, then Cheryl did not want to hear what you had to say.
Numbers five and six dealt with career and money. The career she chose, her father had always said, should impart the following benefits: financial security, the respect of family and friends, creative fulfillment (“I know that your temperament would demand this last part,” he had added in his written list) and peers who will not embarrass you. She recalled her father ticking off each point on his fingers as he recited them. From puberty on Cheryl had looked forward to putting his words into practice. It was evident from her father’s preoccupation with his own work that he certainly had.
The numbers regarding money were simple cautions: be frugal, don’t waste your hard earned capital on frivolous amusements, be careful when either borrowing or lending money, always keeping in mind the character of the person with whom you are dealing. There was a reminder that people were individuals and that it would always be in her best interest to determine how far – as if on a personal sliding scale – that each person could be trusted. This little admonition was followed by an asterisk which referred her back to the cautionary note on borrowing and lending. Then there was this which smacked so sharply of her father’s rather pedestrian business philosophy: “Don’t stab anyone in the back either by word, deed or written testimony. He/she may soon be in the position to do the same (or worse) to you.”
The numbers on marriage, love and sex reflected her father’s priorities which he practiced in his own life. “Marry a friend,” it said and she mused that that was just what her parents were to one another: associates and friends as well as lovers in all senses of the word. “Love and need for your mate will soon follow.” As would passion and continued desire, it also said, if you made love with the lights on and took notice of your lover’s every change of mood and expression during the acts of foreplay and intercourse. “This will make him all the more endearing and important to you,” he had typed, having scratched out the word “her” and penned in the correct pronoun. Under this, singles rather than double spaced from the preceding line, was the afterthought, “Ask your mother; I am sure that she will tell you much the same.”
Cheryl smiled, remembering how he had begun his answer to her innocent question about the differences between the male and female points of view on sex and love: “I am afraid that I cannot speak for women and what drives them in matters of the loins and the heart.” She lingered over the page a moment longer, warmed by the memory of his honesty and boyish blushing before he had continued with his diatribe about passion and “arousal.”
After this the advice against getting into one-night stands or any illicit affairs were like aspects of some undefined mystery to Cheryl. The three lines sounded as if they had been written from personal experience. “The negative repercussions of such liaisons will far outweigh the transitory pleasures that they offer,” he father chided in print. She tried to recall a time when such “repercussions” had ever mad themselves apparent in her home life but she could recall no such circumstances. Perhaps the very first number on the list had something to do with that: “Don’t do anything to dishonor the McKendry name” was the way that it was worded. The interpretation was simple: discretion; don’t air your dirty laundry for others to see. For him that meant not even in front of his own daughter. It was so like her father to include such a rule, she thought. But was it really so important to make it number one on the list?
And was it really so important to her? This was a question, she knew, which would nag at her for a long time to come, along with the question of her own interpretation of the word “dishonor.” Her father’s take on that was easy – be what you are expected to be; no surprises. But where was the “creative fulfillment” in that? Daddy, Daddy, she thought while affectionately shaking her head. I know what you mean and what it is that you want to say but you don’t know what you are asking of me. The differences between them were so real, she thought, and the realization was nothing new. People are all individuals, she said to herself, paraphrasing him. She intentionally left out the part about trusting. With her father that consideration – trust – was a foregone conclusion.
She scanned the rest of the list, skipping back and forth among the pages, reading here and there until she had had her fill and stopped on the last item. This one was brand new to her. It made it clear that the list had been meant to be read only after his death. “Do not grieve unnecessarily. Learn how to say good-bye and mean it.”
She laid the typewritten sheets aside. Vision of her father rose before her eyes, the familiar shifting from one expression to another on his handsome face: thoughtfulness, disgust, elation, anger, disapproval. “That,” she said to the room, to her memory. “Will be nearly impossible.”
Jack Aptley gloated. Now it’s coming together, he thought. How can I thank Leo for that little piece of inspiration? He looked over the private bequest from his father once again. Center, he said to himself as he placed a finger under the second item: “Don’t indulge in needless fantasy. Imagination is fine for children; for adults, it is an abnegation of responsibility. Be HERE in the real world.”
For Cheryl McKendry the center of her life was her own interpretation of what honor and dishonor truly meant. For Jack Aptley, it was fantasy and reality.
The image in the mirror cleared its throat. He looked up and their eyes met. “Not through with me so fast,” she said. “There’s still one more scene.”
“I know,” he said. “And then we’ll see how it all fits together, these flashers and fathers and fannies and fingerings.”
“Cute,” she said, modulating her tone seductively. Maybe that had been the way she spoke in her attempt to proposition the nervous exhibitionist, Jack mused. “But don’t forget the most important Fs of all,” she said. “The ones that started this whole thing in the first place: fiction, fabulation, fantasy…. Your stock in trade, Mister Aptley.”
“That’s my excuse, not yours.”
“Oh yes, that’s right. Mine is honor. Honor they father, thy name, thy heritage…. There is my center, my key. Is it all so really important to me, though? You asked the question – or had me ask it of myself – but didn’t answer it. How will you explain it, Jack? How will it all end?”
“I…. I’m really not sure just now.”
“And you’re the one who doesn’t like maybes, who wants everything to flow from an explicable source. I’ve got a word for you, then, Jack: simplify. Just set me down and hear me talk. I’ll tell it so that there’ll be no more questions, no room for interpretation.”
This is what Jack Aptley had feared. She was starting to take over. The story was getting away from him, was no longer his or even something that he could control.
“You know best,” he said, understanding that this was his final act of faith, of relinquishment. He only hoped that her personality was not so strong that it would negate his own. It was a fear that he faced with every new story he began, with each new strong character that had his or, now, her own tale to tell. “Go ahead,” he said, his voice soft and submissive as he prepared to play the amanuensis to her final chapter. “I’m listening.”
“I had a dream last night, Doctor,” she said almost as soon as she had attained her customary supine position on the broad, comfortable couch. “Now don’t groan. I know I’ve described a lot of them to you in the past but this one is different. I don’t understand it but I’m sure it’s very important.”
A long silence elapsed. The psychiatrist urged her to continue. She took a deep breath and began describing her dream in a thoughtful monotone that soon gave the impression that she had lapsed into a trance.
“I was walking with Daddy in the park. I was a little girl again and we were holding hands. We came upon a young couple who were making love on a blanket in the grass. And when I say making lover I’m not just talking about the kissy, groping stuff but full naked body on naked body grinding and slip-sliding and penetration. I was fascinated and thought it was the most beautiful thing that I’d ever seen. I moved forward and as I did so I developed from a little girl to an adolescent to a woman in only five short steps. I remember Alice in Alice in Wonderland and how she would grow when she either ate or drank something – which was it? – but for me it was the simple act of walking, of moving forward, that made me grow up. Daddy called out to me and I turned around to see him still standing on the path. He was wearing a policeman’s uniform. His words were garbled and he seemed to be saying several things at once. If I try to separate what he was saying into intelligible chunks they come out something like ‘Save it for me,’ ‘Propriety before pleasure’ and ‘Meet me in the bathdroom in your red robe where it belongs.’
“I turned back to watch the lovers on the lawn. My clothing had either disappeared or maybe it had all been torn to shreds with my sudden growth and had just fallen away on its own. And there was Daddy lying in the grass, all alone, with the biggest hard-on I’d ever seen on a man. He gazed at my naked body like a starving man and I was to be his first meal in years. I could feel my entire body blushing and I approached him at a trot, wanting to dive onto him and impale myself on that long, stiff cock of his. But his arms were long and they held me away, held me from doing what I wanted to do.
“He was a cop again, his uniform dark green with golden buttons. He was naked from the waist down and his erection reached for me while his arms held me away. ‘Honor before pleasure,’ he told me sternly. ‘Make love to me,’ he said a moment later, breathing heavily, his long tongue sliding deliciously all over my face, my shoulders, my breasts and tummy….”
Cheryl writhed on the Doctor’s couch, vainly attempting to do and not do at the same time. “I did, or at least I was ready to,” she cried out. “Just that one time….”
The psychiatrist behind her made a questioning sound.
“In the bathroom,” she explained. “I let the robe fall open all the way. He saw me naked. I turned a full circle so he could get a complete look at me. I could see his excitement, that lump in his pants grown so large that it strained at the fly. ‘This won’t do, Cheryl,’ he told me. ‘As much as I want to, it’s just not proper.’ Proper! He’d just said that he wanted it! That he wanted me! If I hadn’t been his daughter I would have been his lover, he would have taken me – but no. Not taken, for I would have given, freely given him what it was that he – we – so much wanted to do. If I hadn’t been his daughter we would have had one another right there on the tile floor. I would have been his lover, even if only for that one time. That one time.”
Her voice trailed. The doctor allowed a pause to elapse before he hummed his approval and asked her what she saw as the point of all this.
“We never spoke of it afterwards, he and I,” she said when she had regained enough of her composure to continue. Actually, we spoke very little after that, barely exchanged the usual polite things you usually say when you pass someone in the hall. There were times when I caught him looking at me, studying me in a quizzical, disapproving sort of way when he thought I wasn’t aware of his attention. I had broken one of his cardinal rules, something that I had never done before and I guess he was trying to relearn me, to figure me out.”
She sighed deeply and twisted on the couch, finding its wide expanse and leather upholstery suddenly uncomfortable. “You see, Doctor,” she said after another pause. “As far as Daddy was concerned, I was as guilty in my passion as he was in his own. In his mind, though, I was the really guilty one, not he.”
“She said it, I didn’t,” Jack muttered as he typed out the last line of the story. What he had finished, though it encompassed over thirty handwritten and ten pages already typed on his computer’s word processor were only his notes for the projected piece. He checked his calendar; he had eight days to finish it and email it so it would reach the offices of Today’s Fiction Magazine by the first so that Alex Bensher could ready it for publication by the fifteenth. Even if he put off the rewriting and revisions until the next day he knew that he would have it completed well before that. The hardest part of the writing was already behind him.
In effect he had already said good-bye to Cheryl McKendry. As with all the characters that he had created for stories over the years she would now become more just a fictional persona with each revision and less and less a real and demanding individual. All that would remain for him to do, then, would be the choice of a title for the story. He was already considering a few including, “Cheryl’s Reasons” and, perhaps, “Under the Skin.” There was that and the decision to be made as to which of his several pseudonyms he would employ in the by-line.
“Honor be served, eh?” Jack said as he gave three sharp knuckle-raps on the mirror to alert the fading illusion. She didn’t respond but he was sure that she understood his intended meaning.
Peter the Paper Clip
Peter was tired. After 10 years of holding together the paperwork for “Johnson, A.P. – SSN 555-66-33xx,” his tensile strength was fading; he could feel his molecules beginning to degrade. He was really getting bent out of shape. Lately, he found himself wishing that he could be relieved of this duty and maybe go on to do something better and more exciting.
As it was, he had not seen the light of day for a long time.
Before being shut up in this place, he remembered hearing his neighbor, who was holding a file together for “Jones, Samantha – SSN 639-22-45xx,” say something about “long term storage.” After the drawer they were placed in banged shut for the last time, his neighbor became unclipped and Peter never heard from him again. No matter, he thought, 10 years ought to be long enough for anyone. It was unfortunate for him that he could do nothing about his predicament; unhappy as he was about everything, his only option was to wait and hope for something better.
When Peter heard a loud scraping sound of metal against metal, he knew something was up. At the same time he heard the noise, he also felt himself moving. He could see some light at the front of his row and he could see that some of the files held together by his co-workers were being removed. As Peter watched, he wished that the person doing the task would keep at it until they got to him. Even though the thought of change was a little frightening, it was also something he’d wanted for as long as he could remember.
Just as he was going to give up on this hope, his file was pulled out into the light. It was so bright that it reflected off the areas of his body that were not covered with rust. Before he could look around to see where he was, he was removed from his file and put into a clear container of some sort that held a bunch of his peers. Most of them, he discovered, had been holding files together in other areas. He even remembered a few of them from the original box in which they were delivered.
No one knew what was going to happen to them now, but they were all very happy to be out of their dark spaces, if only for a little while. Peter was overjoyed that he was close enough to the edge of the container so he could watch what was going on in the room where people were working. He had not seen anything for so long that even the seemingly routine jobs being performed fascinated him.
He saw the “Johnson, A.P. – SSN 555-66-33xx” file being taken apart, with some of its pieces being put into a blue pail with arrows on it and other pieces being put into a dangerous-looking machine that cut them up into smaller bits. He was sure glad no one had put him or his pals into that scary thing!
After a while, those who were doing the work went away and it grew dark again, but not as dark as the drawer he had lived in for the last decade. Now that all the activity had stopped, he was able to visit a little more with some of the other paper clips around him. In the darkness, they shared stories of what they had been doing before all these changes started. A few of them had been outside for all this time and some were new to the place, only being delivered in their boxes within the past few years. He also discovered that there were more varieties of himself than he ever knew about; some paper clips were bigger, some were smaller, some had sharp teeth (but were not scary), and some were coated with a soft, pliable material. It was so interesting to hear about their differences even though they were all somehow aware that the creation of each one of them had started in the same way.
No matter what their differences were, in shape, size, or how they came to be in this place, everyone felt rather certain that their futures would somehow be intertwined.
When the light came again, the work went on as it had the day before, and for the next few cycles of light and dark, nothing changed in the routine. Finally, though, during one light period, workers came in with wheeled things and removed the holding cases that many of paper clips had been in. If they could have jumped for joy, they would have, because now they knew for certain that they would never have to go back into that darkness.
A few more light and dark cycles passed with all the paper clips feeling great. Now and then, a sunbeam would find its way to their container and they would all bask in its warmth while remembering the heat that first formed them.
Finally, the workers started taking everything else out of the room the paper clips were in. Pictures and clocks from walls, desks, chairs and mats from the office area; Peter had begun to think that he and his friends would be left behind when at the last moment someone picked them all up and put them in a box, which was then moved out with the remaining items.
This started a wild ride for Peter and his pals.
A worker placed their small package in another dark cavern that was almost as gloomy as the one they had emerged from a few days before. However, this place was much different. First, they all knew that it was much a larger space, and second, they all felt movement which made them feel great. What's more, none of them had to work; they were allowed to just lie in their clear container and sway with the motions of the cavern that held them.
Peter sensed that a few of the light and dark periods had come and gone since they were put into this place because it would stop moving for a while, then move again, and then stop once more in the light so things could be taken out of it. Peter and his pals again thought they were going to be left behind as the cavern emptied out, leaving them alone with a few other things that were made of steel like them.
It was during the next light period that Peter’s life changed forever.
The door to the cavern slid open and rough hands pulled his box out into the daylight. His clear holding pen was removed and turned upside down so that Peter and his friends went into free fall. When they landed, they were in a round metal container with other things made of steel, but these things were bigger, heavier, and came in many shapes. They weren’t anything like Peter and his pals.
Something came along and picked up their new home, and after a short trip, they were lifted up and dumped again, this time into an even larger vessel which contained some sort of liquid. Though it was harsh, it made Peter feel good as he soaked in it. After a time, the liquid drained away and another milder liquid filled the vat. Soon that liquid also went away, and he and the rest of the steel objects were dumped into another container that was open to the sunlight.
Peter looked down on himself; he was beautiful. The rust that had been invading his body had vanished, apparently washed away with the liquids. His molecules felt stronger than they had in many years. He did not have much time to admire the change in his body before he and the rest of the metal objects were lifted up and dumped into the largest container yet. This one was able to move and soon they were all traveling again.
With all the switching of containers, Peter had lost track of most of his old paper clip friends, but as they went along, he came to know some of the others around him. One was a large oddly shaped piece of metal who said that he was a “fender” from an automobile, which was something used for getting from one place to another. It was like the thing they were in now but much smaller. One day his automobile hit another one and that was the last of both automobiles. Both were taken away to be disassembled. Some of his other automobile sections were in the same container as he and Peter were, but most of his friends had been taken elsewhere, so Peter told him that they could be friends. The fender thought that would be nice.
All along the way, they talked about where they might be going and compared notes about where they had come from. It turned out that their beginnings were nearly identical. Both were born from iron ore which had been extracted from Mother Earth; Then, both were melted down to be formed and shaped. It was only how they ended up that made them different. Now they were together again, apparently headed for the same destiny, whatever it may be.
When the thing they were traveling in finally came to a stop, they were dumped again, this time onto some sort of metal strip that also moved. During the transfer, Peter became wedged into a dent in his new friend. This made him very happy. He felt safer with his new pal who’d been around so much in his time.
After a few minutes on the metal strip, they were in free fall again so Peter had to hang on to his friend for dear life. Though they crashed with a loud bang onto the bottom of their latest holder and more metal objects fell on top of them, Peter managed to stay put. For a long time, everyone just lay where they had landed; no one came to move them around anymore. Then some of the metal objects that were under them said that it getting very hot down there. Soon it became hot everywhere. He and his new friend began to lose their shapes, which frightened him until he realized that everyone else was melting too. It was the heat that had formed all of them coming to take them back again. Could it be that they were going to return to Mother Earth?
Peter woke up. He did not remember too much at first. The last thing he recalled was it getting very hot had which made him sleepy, and then he was here, wherever here was.
He heard a familiar voice call his name; the sound of it seemed to come at him from all around him. It was his friend, the fender. It seemed that they were still together but now even more so than before since they had been made into a part of each other. The fender told Peter that they had been melted and reformed into some enormous circular object. Hearing this, Peter looked around him for the first time. He could see outward for miles and miles. Apparently, he was part of a structure that towered high above Mother Earth. Looking left and looking right, he could see that the structure curved away in both directions. Looking up, he could see a great fin protruding out from one side. He asked his friend if he knew what they had become.
Having been out in the working world for years, the fender thought that they were part of some kind of flying machine. He had seen things, which were called wings, like these at times when he was driven to a place for airplanes. Airplanes could fly off the face of Mother Earth.
However, even the fender had never seen wings as big as these. Being larger than Peter, his molecules were spread out more, so much so that he could see the other side of their new object. He could see that they made up one of two large cylinders that were attached to a flying vessel.
Whatever this whole thing was, the fender thought that it was being made ready to fly.
Another voice spoke out, a former airplane part—he said he’d been an engine cowl, whatever that was, and he was familiar with the way they got flying machines ready for takeoff. From everything he was seeing, he told them, the fender was right. However, the machine of which they were now a part was much, much larger than the plane he had been attached to, so he thought it was going to be able fly higher and farther than he ever had, which made him happy but scared Peter a little bit.
Soon each object that had become one began talking almost all at once. Each one told what they knew about flying machines, even if they’d never been part of one before. Everyone was very excited. They talked for several light and dark cycles on end, with everyone reporting anything they saw on the ground far below.
Then, at the beginning of one of the light cycles, the huge machine began to shudder violently. Everyone fell silent in anticipation of what would happen next.
A searing heat began to build up inside of their circular object, and just as it seemed as if they were all going to be melted down again, they began to move, slowly at first, then as they got farther away from Mother Earth they took on great speed.
Though Peter was frightened by this new adventure, the touch of his other friends kept him from crying out. The larger, more traveled of them seemed to be in awe of what was happening, but none were afraid. So Peter looked down; he could see Mother Earth getting smaller with each passing second. Unexpectedly, they burst into a black void and the searing heat went away only to be replaced by shuddering cold. A loud explosion sent them into free fall again. Peter held on as hard as he could, knowing that a fall from this height would surely damage everyone, but after a few minutes it became clear that he did not need to hold on since neither he or his friends were falling.
Almost at once, everyone began to talk, speculating on where they were and why they could see all of Mother Earth but not go crashing into it. Then, from amidst the cacophony, a small voice spoke up, a voice that had been silent during all previous conversations.
She claimed to know where and what they were.
She had assumed what was going to happen before it did, but she did not want to say anything until she was sure of her facts, and now she was sure. She said that she had once been a tube that made up something called a telescope. This was a device used to look out into “outer space,”, the stuff that Mother Earth floated in. Through the lens of the telescope, she had seen other planets and the flying rocket ships that sometimes went to these planets. That was what they had been made into; part of a rocket ship taking a crew to another planet. Now they were floating, free from the pull of gravity. They must have been the holder for the fuel that got the ship off the planet—and now they had been discarded, most likely forever.
At first, this idea made everyone sad knowing that they were never to be used for anything ever again, after having been useful, large or small, from the day they were first excavated out of solid rock.
So, for a while, everyone became quiet as they pondered their fate. Then Peter’s friend, the fender, spoke up. He said that though he too was unhappy about not being needed anymore, he planned to enjoy his retirement because you sure could not beat the view from up here.
As Peter’s side of the cylinder turned slowly back to where he could see the small blue planet of his birth, he recognized the wisdom in his companion’s words.
During his small life, Peter always wanted to be something more than that which he was created to be. Now, knowing that he was going to be up here for eternity while looking down on the planet of his birth, he was overjoyed with the knowledge that forever more he’d never be lonely again.
My wife came home from work early and took me by surprise with the question, “Who were YOU talking to?”
Charlie and I usually held court at the kitchen table where I was sure to hear the garage door open signaling her arrival. But today we had moved to the family room anxious to listen to my new Sergio Franchi cd. I often bragged to Charlie about vacationing once in Miami where I caught the Italian crooner live in a sold out performance. Between our excitement and pumped volume her arrival went unheard.
“What?” I asked sheepishly.
“I distinctly heard you speaking when I walked in, Buddy.” Once aroused Louise’s suspicions were formidable.
“There’s no one here, dear. Maybe I was talking to Sergio. You know how I get carried away.” I gestured at the stereo.
“Well, he certainly wouldn’t hear you at this volume,” she said, turning down the sound and surveying the room.
Charlie had slipped out. He was ingenious that way. Lucky, too, he wasn’t drinking. Mine was the only cocktail glass on the coffee table. It’s not that he wasn’t game. I first met Charlie at the Willow Woods nursing facility where he was a long term resident and I was recovering from knee replacement surgery. We were seated together in the dining room. I overheard one of the aides joke that Charlie had a significant cache of wine stowed away. Charlie smiled slyly leading me to believe its truth. After morning therapy I tracked him down in his room in the hope of a little refreshment. Charlie suffered from Parkinson’s and gesticulated uncontrollably. Speech, too, was a struggle. But a patient listener could have a lively conversation with him. Since I had nothing but time on my hands we struck up an immediate friendship. My suspicions proved correct. There was an open bottle of Muscatel on his dresser. I eyed it surreptitiously not wanting him to think that the only reason for seeking him out. But after forty-five minutes I couldn’t help myself and asked if we should have a taste. He nodded his head. We were off and running.
Our arrangement worked out well. My wife was off weekends. Charlie could only visit weekdays. In addition, Louise and I were empty nesters with the sublime benefit of children who didn’t besiege us with their problems. This certainly sat well with me, if not with her. I had eagerly anticipated my retirement. I owned a pizzeria for forty years and was looking forward to the peace and quiet of finally being free from it. I would have my knee surgery. I would rehabilitate. I would be reborn. But I had complications. My hemoglobin plunged into the danger zone. Fracture blisters covered my lower leg. I ran a low grade fever. The worry was infection. I was given doses of iron. I was injected with anti-biotics in alternate shoulders for seven days. My two week stay turned into a six week ordeal all in a wheelchair with my right leg raised and wrapped in an immobilizer 24/7. I watched as the short timers came and went. None were interested in cultivating a relationship. They were too involved in their personal miseries. And as their rehabs ultimately progressed each eyed only their own release. I couldn’t scare up a game of gin rummy or checkers for the life of me. My whining was overheard by one of the maintenance crew. His name was Al. He was a burly, unkempt guy pushing fifty with a weird pencil-thin mustache that didn’t go with his bushy sideburns and shaggy chestnut hair. He ended every sentence with a smile and a snicker. He walked into my room one afternoon while I was napping.
“What?” I asked, perturbed.
“Toilet plugged, hah?”
“Not here, pal.”
He went into the bathroom and flushed. When he came out he looked at me with a big smile.
“Card player, huh?”
“Boys have a poker game Wednesdays. Eleven PM till whenever. Interested?”
“Sure. I’m goin’ stir crazy.”
“Cash only. Extra if you want to drink. Room 218. Hah, hah.”
“How you expect me to get there? I’m not exactly mobile.” Which was an understatement. I needed assistance to get out of bed, dress, get into my wheelchair, go to the toilet, whatever.
“Buzz an aide. This ain’t a prison. They will be looking for a tip. Don’t be a tightwad. Hah, hah.”
This was Tuesday. I had a day to think it over. But I had another problem. No money. I called my wife and told her to bring me fifty dollars in singles. She was surprised. We were discouraged from keeping cash in our room. There had been thefts. But she didn’t give me a hard time. When you’re sick people indulge you like a child. There’s more baby talk in a nursing home than a nursery. From day one I made a point of listening in on conversations when family visited long timers. People visiting me talked the same way. It made me sick.
“You’re a little quiet tonight, Buddy,” Louise said as she put the money in the top dresser drawer and locked it.
“Just tired,” I said taking the key. “Laura wore me out at therapy today.”
“That’s good! Every day is one day closer to home.” Her good cheer was boundless.
She peeled an orange and gave me half. “What’s up?” referring to the money.
“Baked goods sale tomorrow,” I lied.
“Buy us something good.” She had a sweet tooth as far back as I can remember. A pie carousel made her brown eyes light up. It’s one of the things I loved about her.
“Don’t hold your breath,” I warned. “They’re being made in occupational therapy.”
“Anyway, it’s for a good cause.”
She helped me wash and get ready for bed before leaving. I ached when she walked out of the room. I never got used to it. I was always on the verge of tears. I didn’t let on. I tried to be strong.
Come Wednesday night at 10:45 I made my way to room 218. The nurse at the desk pretended not to see me and the two aides I passed in the hall gave me a wink. Everybody was in on it. In the room were four lifers including Charlie, their wheelchairs arranged around the bed. I was the fifth. Introductions were made. Charlie, Scott, and Bill needed help. They couldn’t shuffle, deal, or hold their cards or drinks. Aides squatted next to them to offer assistance. Me and Tony could fend for ourselves. Al was tending bar. He kept the cocktails flowing, two bucks each plus tip. It wasn’t optional. There was rum and whiskey. “I drink gin,” I said. “This ain’t a cruise ship, hah, hah,” he snickered. I settled for highballs. The game was dealer’s choice with the stipulation something must always be made wild. It started out deuces or one-eyed jacks but got crazy after a few hands, and drinks, with Bill calling all diamonds wild followed by Tony who made it spades and then Scott who made it both spades and diamonds. Finally Charlie got us back on track with queens and threes. But by then I was broke and didn’t even have a buzz on. The big winner was Bill. His nickname was Hitman because he left you for dead. He was the reason Charlie visited me after I’d been released. He owed the Hitman 5K and was being hounded for the money. Threats were made. Charlie was afraid. He needed my help. Charlie filled me in on how big a thug the Hitman was. He pedaled pills and women. If you wanted your meds you had to pay him off. You wanted your assistance light answered in a timely manner, pay. Extra gravy on your mashed potatoes, pay. An extra dessert, pay. He bad-mouthed everybody, especially his family. They were waiting for him to die to get his dough. He would get even by outliving them all. Sitting frozen in a wheelchair with his eyes staring into outer space was an act. He bragged he never had it so good till he suffered his third stroke. I promised Charlie I’d go back to the home and have a talk with him.
Six weeks in an immobilizer left my right leg stiff as a board. Driving was out of the question. Therapy yielded limited results. I hated the exercises. I went into surgery using a cane and came out in a wheelchair. Four months later I hobbled about with a walker. Everything was an effort. That was my life. All I did was eat. I grew fat. I didn’t wash. I refused to see a doctor. I watched more TV in these months than the last fifty years. What a rut! What a disappointment! Louise is a vibrant woman of sixty, five years my junior. Our plans were to travel when I was up to it. We were going to rent a villa in Napa Valley. Drink new wine. Eat cheese and fruit. Soak our bread in olive oil. Instead she went back to work. I can’t blame her. I became the kind of person people enjoyed staying away from. Where I used to be accommodating I was now combative. Everything upset me. I blamed it on the TV. I got sucked into the dark world of cable news. What a cocoon. The more belligerent the host the more I was drawn to him. They lived to argue, to fight, to hurt. So did I. The hell with facts. Just shout the loudest. I became an expert on everything. I have four grandchildren. I clearly saw their futures were in jeopardy. I began a crusade to correct my daughter’s poor parenting. Her husband took his wife’s side. What a pussy! They stopped bringing the kids over. Louise blamed me. I was ostracized for being a good grandparent, a concerned grandparent. My other daughter was a big shot in social services. She told me I was depressed. I knew that without a master’s degree. What a waste of an education. The least thing made me cry: a sad eyed puppy, an image of a sunset, my wife’s doleful expression. Her advice was to get out more, start taking care of myself before it’s too late. That’s when Charlie came to the rescue.
It was a sunny spring day in May. The doorbell rang. I ignored it. It rang again. I ignored it again. After the third time I answered. “Jesus!” I exclaimed. He was smiling from ear to ear. He was decked out in blue Bermuda shorts and a madras shirt with the tails out, spit shined maroon penny loafers and no socks. He sported a black and red checkered racing cap and wire rimmed shades. What was remarkable was how well he moved. The Parkinson’s seemed on the wane. His head hardly jerked. There was almost no drool.
“You alone?” I asked.
“I brought the grapes,” he said raising a brown bag with a bottle of grappa in it.
“The van drop you off?”
He chuckled, swinging the front door wide. In the driveway sat a fully restored candy apple red ’62 Corvette convertible kissed with chrome and wrapped in white leather. “Wanna take it for a spin?” He dangled the keys.
Leaning hard on my walker, I let out a sigh. “I wish.”
“Later, man. I’ll get you in there even if I gotta carry you.”
We spent the day catching up on things back in the home. I didn’t realize how much I missed it, except for the food which was awful. Of course that didn’t apply to Hitman and his crew. They sat in the dining room set aside for those who needed assistance chowing down. It was tough watching the lifers work their gums over the creamed spinach and pureed chicken, the green mash leaking from the corners of their mouths while their tongues flicked out to catch the overflow before it slid from their chins to be lost forever. They were an endless source of amusement to the crew who had a separate table in the same room where they feasted on thick steaks and french fries, shrimp cocktail and Caesar’s salad, minus the anchovies, of course. They were a cruel bunch who ruled with a heavy hand. One of their rackets was taking bets on which inmate would go the longest without a bath. Charlie blushed when he said he’d once bet on me because my bad attitude pissed off the aides who were sure to look the other way when my shower was scheduled. He told me he lost by five days. I’d gone seventeen days losing out to Willie “wee wee” who wasn’t bathed for twenty-two. Neither of us approached the record of forty-seven days set in 2009 by the legendary “Big John” Heathrow who feasted on the flies that unwittingly befriended him in their own search for sustenance. The ambulance crew that carted out his body wore surgical masks to cover the stench.
I didn’t hold it against Charlie. It was just a game, like the lottery, to pass the time and maybe score a few dollars for necessities. And as a sign of friendship Charlie got the Hitman to let me play, which was a big deal, because it was a raffle reserved for lifers. Some of the residents complained the Hitman was getting soft, though not to his face. They believed rules are rules and shouldn’t be tampered with.
Charlie told me Stella said hello. I’d forgotten about her. She was a stubborn woman who wouldn’t let herself be pushed about in her chair. Instead she wheel-walked with these tiny steps that moved her along as painstakingly as a bead of sweat working its way down a wrinkled cheek of beard stubble. It was okay with me. I liked having her in view. She was one of the few women in the Woods who didn’t let herself go. She was a chanteuse when young who styled herself another Mae West, but more risqué. I could easily picture her with platinum hair and dark penciled eyebrows, puckered ruby lips and a beauty mark on her right cheek. These days she wore her hair red and hanging to her neck with curly bangs, a bow to her heydays in the forties when boys started cackling for the girl-next-door look. She was only too happy to oblige. That accommodating nature served her well here. Hitman had an eye for talent and cozied up to her right after she was brought in from a sister facility which had to reduce its ranks owing to an upcoming inspection. She told Hitman to bug off, that she was a freelancer who didn’t need or want management. But Hitman put the squeeze on her. He put out the word that the consequences would be dire for anyone who dared enlist Stella’s services. Stella figured she would bide her time and eventually be returned to the other home where she could ply her trade freely. She didn’t know Hitman. He got to the administrator, offered him ten per cent of her action, and had her placed here permanently. Under those circumstances what could she do? She became part of his stable.
Now I like sex as much as the next guy. But, sorry to say, at this stage of the game other things were more urgent. I won’t name them. Besides, I’m old fashioned with old fashioned morals. Fidelity was number one on my list. You tie the knot, you mothball your roving eye. It paid off because when I needed her most, my Louise was there for me. Though I was embarrassed, I never felt humiliated. But she knew. Women have a sixth sense about those things. She had just gotten me into bed and had settled into the chair next to me. “I know you still have feelings, Honey. Sexual feelings. I don’t know what goes on in here when I’m gone. What I’m saying is if there is an opportunity, I’ll understand.” My eyes welled up and my lips quivered. “Shh. Don’t try and talk.” She held my hand till I fell asleep.
I don’t think Stella was feeding me a line when she said I was the kind of guy she could have fallen for. Her life was full of pizazz: fast talkers and exit walkers. But that wears a woman out. In the end they look for someone solid. That was me, solid as a rock and just as dull. I worked seven days a week, 12 hours a day, forever, till I finally wised up and started closing Tuesdays. And at my side the whole time was Louise. My darling Louise. She didn’t deserve a louse like me. We worked like mules. But it was too late. My knees were shot. I gobbled aspirin like candy. I ended up in the ICU at Buffalo General with a duodenal ulcer. I never fully recovered. I cut back my hours, eliminated my catering menu, but it didn’t matter. The damage was done. When I finally got around to my knee surgery, my body was weak. The blisters were the evidence. Six months later a stroke concluded the deal. It was an unethical way to get back into Willow Wood but Charlie was my friend. I couldn’t let him down. Sometimes you have to cut off your toes to fit into the glass slipper.
Charlie was having it rough. He loved his raisin toast for breakfast. They always just ran out. He liked his eggs scrambled. They came sunny side up and runny. When Charlie got angry he choked up and couldn’t speak for himself. It was clear to me what was going on. I couldn’t stand seeing him abused. I confronted Hitman in the community lounge. He never traveled alone. There were three guys between me and him. Things must have been going good. They all had motorized chairs. They were quick and agile as jackrabbits. As good as I was I couldn’t get close. I circled. I feinted. I tried to lock wheels. I wanted to raise my leg and charge head on and nail Hitman in the balls. I didn’t have the strength. They boxed me out. One of his bodyguards was ex-mafia. They called him Hammer. He was a mean son of a bitch, tall and wiry with dead black eyes. After his last surgery his head hung down with his chin resting on his chest so that he looked at you through the tops of those eyes. The whites were bloodshot. What a Halloween mask! He was a horror. Word was he carried a blade in his fanny pack. “Our day will come,” I vowed, finally backing off. Hitman laughed at my threats. The others joined in. Their guards were down. I was about to renew my attack when Laura, my PT, found me and whisked me away. “If I didn’t know better, Buddy, I’d swear you were hiding from me,” she teased. She was a nice kid. Better she was kept in the dark. It was for her own good.
During my first stay Laura had done her best to get me on my feet. She was up against it, though. She had never worked with a polio patient before. The muscles where my new knee was attached were badly atrophied. The surgeon didn’t want to chance bending the knee. She worked within these limitations getting me in good enough shape to be sprung after six miserable weeks. My legs were in better shape now than then. Of course now I had other problems. I wasn’t optimistic. Regardless, I didn’t plan on another six weeks. My idea was to buy off Charlie’s debt for a dime on the dollar. Five hundred cash in the hand is better than five thousand owed. At least to a reasonable man. Whether Hitman was that kind of man remained to be seen.
To make things worse Charlie and Stella were in love. She took herself off the market. Hitman was livid. He didn’t care about their relationship. She could love whomever she wanted, he bragged. After all, he wasn’t a fascist. But she had to keep her commitments. If not he would hold Charlie responsible for the lost revenue. We decided to get together in my room to discuss strategy. Word got out. Two of Hitman’s crew stationed themselves near my door. Charlie had Stella with him. He was worried about her safety. She told him she wasn’t afraid. She’d follow him into the bowels of hell if he asked. She could really paint a picture. It was a remnant from her stage days. They breezed in defiantly. Both were beaming with Stella positively radiant, even regal. She had replaced her red wig with a brunette number with a conservative cut. She had on a string of pearls and a gold bracelet. A white corsage was pinned to her blue dress. That was Charlie’s idea. He was a big Billie Holiday fan, but Stella refused to wear a gardenia in her hair. The corsage was the compromise.
I told them my plan to pay off the debt. I was sure Hitman would go for it. But this new wrinkle complicated things. Charlie said there were only six guys in Hitman’s gang. He believed we could muster a larger force and suggested using the five hundred to buy our own crew. He knew three guys for sure who hated Hitman’s guts. But he owns the staff, Stella countered. They’re all on his payroll. If we get rid of Hitman they’ll be pissed about losing their take. The residents would be the ones to suffer.
First things first, I reasoned. We have to take Hitman out. He’s the key. We can’t worry about anything else. With him out of the way his crew will fold. There isn’t half a brain among them. We can’t worry about the staff. There will be a period of confusion. We’ll keep our ears open. When the opportunity presents itself we’ll smooth them over. We all agreed. But then the question became who whacks the Hitman? To me it was obvious. It was my responsibility. I was in the worst shape, I argued. I had the least to lose.
“You’ll never get close to him,” Charlie said. “I’ll do it.”
For a little guy barely five feet and maybe 120 pounds he had a lot of spunk. He managed a bar in the seventies. Lots of punks tested him. He schooled them all. He figured he could get a face to face by flashing Hitman the cash. Overall Charlie was in good shape. Certainly better than me. He could still strut a good twenty feet with his walker. When he got Hitman alone he would pounce on him. He had a length of speaker wire. He would hide it under his collar. He would use it to strangle the bastard. Problem solved.
“You’ll never get him alone,” Stella objected. “I’m the only one who can do that.”
She spoke quietly, deliberately. Poison was her method. Hitman liked a drink before sex. She knew where Al kept the rat poison. She would slip it into his Makers Mark. No blood. No signs of struggle. No inquiry. They’ll cart him out with the trash. His bed will be filled the next day. In a week he’ll be forgotten. But, she cautioned, Hammer and his other main henchman, Sickle, would be stationed outside his door. After Hitman finished with her she had to attend to them. And neither was gentle, particularly Sickle who was a former G-man. He kept an assortment of toys in his bottom dresser drawer that were all about pain, her pain. “He forces me to choose while laughing in my face,” she said shyly. “His vile laugh never goes away.” Hammer’s sick game was to watch. He got his kicks that way. “He loves running his blade along the inside of my thighs not quite breaking the skin.” They, too, would have to be taken out.
After hearing this Charlie was at the point of tears. Evidently he didn’t know what Stella went through. I was in shock too. I couldn’t imagine the woman I loved being abused this way. The thought of Louise subjected to such depravity roused me to fury. Not only would these two die, their deaths would be a source of great personal pleasure. Me and Charlie talked it over. We would wait till they were alone in the room with Stella. Sickle would be out of his chair. Hammer would have his brake on. Surprise would be our advantage. We would move in quickly, quietly. I would garret Hammer from behind. I could almost hear his neck crack. Charlie demanded that Sickle be made to suffer. A quick death was too good for him. He would put out both his eyes before cutting out his heart. We were excited. We were unquestionably on the side of right. We would strike a blow for all abused women. Stella put the cabash on our plans. “No blood,” she said. We were like children, she scolded. All we could think of was gore and mayhem. She would take care of it. She would leave with Hitman’s private hooch. He never shared the good stuff. They’ll believe she stole it to make their romp more pleasurable. They’ll drink it and drown in their own puke. The only question left was when to pull the trigger?
We didn’t want family members around when the time came. They wouldn’t understand. When you tried to tell them something important they tuned you out. Charlie and Stella never got visitors. For them it was no problem. My situation was different. Louise visited every day, my daughters twice a week, sometimes with their husbands. They doted over me. Dinner time used to be a big deal for me. It wasn’t anymore. Still they did their best. Chewing was difficult but I could still swallow tiny bites. I slurped through a straw. I couldn’t hold a fork with my left hand. Thank God I was right handed. Keeping me fed was their crusade. I would eat myself back to health. Louise didn’t trust the kitchen here. She fixed food at home and brought it in. She would set a table in the lounge. Linen napkins. Real silverware. As she fed me I did my best to stay cheerful. But nothing tasted the way I remembered. I had little appetite. When my sons-in–law tagged along and I watched them pack away pizza and chicken wings I got depressed. If my head wasn’t locked in a brace I would have turned away.
Still, I felt obligated to let Louise in on the workings here. I am a realist. There was a possibility something could go wrong. These were dangerous people, evil people. If they got wind of our plot they would be sure to strike first. Hammer would slit my throat in a heartbeat and watch in smug satisfaction as my life ebbed away. I didn’t want his to be the last face I saw before meeting my Maker. I often imagined my last moments. Dying didn’t scare me, but dying alone did. I never was brave. With everything that’s happened I’ve thought a lot about my life. The details I can recall startle me. My leg in a cast after my first polio operation. My father carrying me into the house. My mother urging me on as I learned to walk again. Playing hide and seek or dodgeball with my friends. High school. College. Names, dates, faces, a thousand courtesies, a thousand slights. But nothing was so finely chiseled when compared to my Louise. My life didn’t begin until I met her. I recalled a phrase from a poem: “boon companion.” It was hardly sufficient. She was the better part of every second of every minute of every hour for the forty years we were together. And now I couldn’t hold her. Kiss her. Tell her how much I loved her. Leaving her would hurt the most. It would be my only act of courage in a life of too many wrongs that can’t be undone. I failed her. I will not do so again, not in these final moments. Goodbye my love. Turn from this misery and darkness and walk briskly into the light.
It’s not often things work out as planned, but this did down to the last detail. Stella struck in that lazy time between lunch and dinner. First to fall was the Hitman. He went fast. He was no match for Stella. When she came out of Hitman’s room Hammer and Sickle grinned lasciviously, the idiots. They were unaware. Innocents going to slaughter. In their eagerness to usher Stella into Sickle’s room their chairs collided. Hammer’s hand caught the door jamb. He cursed as the door shut behind him. Me and Charlie waited in the hallway. We were on pins and needles. I had all I could do to keep Charlie from storming the room. “Be patient,” I said. “Give her more time.” But I knew the depraved scenes haunting his mind. It was making him crazy. Finally, after an eternity, Stella emerged and gave us the thumbs up. We beat a quick retreat to our beds and waited for the chaos to wind down. What a mess. Administrators, aides, maintenance people, therapists running every which way through the corridors. Ambulances and police arrived, sirens blaring. More commotion with shouting and accusations flung like confetti. I closed my eyes. I could rest easy. We had accomplished what we had set out to do. Charlie and Stella were free and clear to live and love. Now I could be done with it. I heard my door open. Louise walked in. The look in her eyes said it all. She knew she was too late. “No tears,” I rasped. I was never a bourbon fan, I joked. But this stuff was smooth. It left me warm inside. She waited patiently with me until it was over.
A Marriage of Equals
Ewa Mazierska is historian of film and popular music, who writes short stories in her spare time. She published over thirty of them in ‘The Longshot Island’, ‘The Adelaide Magazine’, ‘The Fiction Pool’, ‘Literally Stories’, ‘Ragazine’, ‘ ‘BlazeVox’, ‘Red Fez’, ‘Away’, ‘The Bangalore Review’, Shark Reef’ and ‘Mystery Tribune’, among others. In 2019 she publisher her first collection of short stories, ‘Neighbours and Tourists’ (New York, Adelaide Books). Ewa is a Pushcart nominee and her stories were shortlisted in several competitions. She was born in Poland, but lives in Lancashire, UK.
Arthur was a handsome man and a good dancer, so Liz was charmed by him or rather he tantalised her, because during his courtship he showed predilection to things which took her off balance and made her dizzy. If they didn’t go dancing on Saturday evening, they would go to a funfair or a pub, where he would buy her a glass of cider and himself a pint of beer, which would suffice him for an entire evening as he wasn’t a drunkard. Many years later she would begrudge her husband for putting her in situations where her judgment was impaired, but she had to admit, that this state, which she wouldn’t experience again, was very pleasant.
Like Arthur, Liz was also of a modest background, but a different one. Her ancestors were smallholding farmers and servants at the aristocratic estates in the South-East of England. Liz’s mother was an illegitimate child, the fruit of an affair of Liz’s grandmother with a son of an aristocrat, at whose estate she was a maid. Liz was brought up by her grandmother, whom she believed to be her aunt. There were more women in the family who fell under the spell of wealthy and powerful men, and paid heavy price for doing so. Andrew noted that ultimately Liz wasn’t very different from her female ancestors, but it wasn’t obvious then, not least because times were changing. Working class women became less naïve and more eager to make their own luck. Liz belonged to this generation. When she met Arthur, she was a student in a teacher training college and wanted to become a primary school teacher. In her case it wasn’t just a route out of relative poverty, but her vocation. She always saw herself surrounded by kids whom she commanded by a sheer force of her charisma.
By the time Saturday Night, Sunday Morning had its premiere in 1961, Arthur and Liz were married, moved-in with Arthur’s parents, and Liz had got her first training job in a primary school in Middlesbrough. Their wedding was in the Church of England, but soon the couple converted to Catholicism. It was Liz’s idea; she was inspired to become a Catholic on a trip to Bavaria, when she was twelve. She’d stayed with a Catholic family for two weeks and she found them very enlightened and spiritual, unlike her own family and friends. For her, changing denomination was a way to break with her past and assert independence from numerous generations of narrow-minded little Englanders. Arthur followed Liz, simply because he didn’t care much about religion or, indeed, spirituality.
At the time of their wedding Arthur worked as a turner in a factory and their early life looked like a collage of less dramatic scenes from the kitchen sink films of the late 1950s, with Liz’s mother in-law bustling in the kitchen, men folk reading newspapers or watching football matches on television or at a stadium. On Sunday, there were occasional fishing expeditions. For them, such life was normal, even fine; they didn’t strive for anything better, they were only worried about worse things which might befall them, having all the deprivations suffered by British workers from the beginning of the industrial revolution ingrained into their psyche. The idea of success was practically alien to them, as was the concept of life having meaning; life was for living, for going through, for enduring, not for dissecting or inserting meaning to it. That said, Arthur wasn’t a simpleton, far from it. From childhood, there was a certain yearning and melancholy in him, in which he indulged through visiting shipyards and sketching ships or just rivers and the sea. Arthur once told his son that he always liked to see the horizon. For Andrew, who would become a lecturer in philosophy, it was a sign that his father was a ‘pre-philosopher’, at least according to Plato, Kant or Husserl’s definition of philosophy – he didn’t have a wish or ability to discover ‘real things behind shadows’ or ‘things-in-themselves’, but he had a premonition that there is something beyond the material world worth considering. However, Arthur himself would probably just say that living near the sea inevitably makes people think about the place where the waters meets the sky.
Liz’s ‘genetic memory’ wasn’t as long as Arthur and she wasn’t led by the past, but the future. She wanted them to be successful, which meant living an affluent life which, at the time, constituted home ownership, an annual holiday, the latest consumer goods, running a car – although Arthur would be the one who did the driving – and having children because, without children, there was no family and no future. For Arthur (and subsequently Andrew), it was a narrow-minded concept of happiness, but he wanted to satisfy Liz and had nothing more attractive to propose. Indeed, for many years, Arthur followed Liz not because he was taken by her ideas, but because she seemed to have an opinion on every subject, while he didn’t or his opinions were amorphous or nebulous, more like gut feelings than opinions.
In line with Liz’s wishes, Arthur devoted himself with equal zeal to the double task of inseminating his wife and securing a mortgage. Several months after the wedding bells Liz became pregnant and eight months later gave birth to a stillborn child. Yet, she wasn’t put off by this misfortune, but became pregnant again as soon as it became safe to do so. This time, all went well and she gave birth to a healthy boy, Steven. With him the couple moved to their brand new, three-bedroom, semi-detached house in the Middlesbrough suburbs. Again, in line with the rule established by the kitchen sink films of this area, they liked to go up the hill, from which they could see their growing city and their house. There was another miscarriage but, still less than two years after the birth of Steven, their second son, Andrew, was born.
Arthur thought that, with this new addition to the family, their marital contract was fulfilled and he would be allowed life to gaze at the horizon and paint the ships in his (however reduced) free time for the rest of his life. Yet, life rarely goes the way people hope, even in the most prosperous of times. Shortly after Andrew’s birth, Arthur had a serious accident in the factory. As a result of that, he spent many months on sick leave. This long break from work allowed him to develop his natural talent for drawing and painting, but also changed its character. Not seeing the sea and ships, he started to paint still lives and portraits, especially of his wife and children. Andrew wasn’t sure if they were good but, for sure, they were flattering.
Liz, for her part, used Arthur’s accident as an opportunity to convince him that working in a factory offered him few opportunities to move up the social ladder and, being so dangerous, put their future at risk. Besides, industrial work had no future in England. Given that Thatcherism was some fifteen years ahead of them and that the sky in the vast area of England’s North was covered by smoke from the factory chimneys, she was prophetic. The conclusion was that they should move to London, which was the land of opportunities. Arthur wasn’t keen, finding London too large and intimidating and lacking in the landscapes of the kind he liked to draw but, as usual, he had no arguments to counter-weight Liz’s plans. And so they started to prepare for their relocation, looking for an area where they could afford to live on a limited budget, given that they assumed that Arthur would have to retrain himself and Liz was only beginning her career as a primary school teacher. Their decision to move to London did not put Liz off from her determination to expand her family and so they arrived in the capital with three small boys attached to their parents’ hands. As this was already 1969, they looked less like characters from kitchen sink films and more from Ken Loach’s Cathy Come Home, with Arthur playing the role of Loach’s emasculated post-industrial man.
They got a council apartment in a block on Frampton Park estate in Hackney. It was a ground floor flat, second from the right. Looking at its photos some forty years later, Andrew saw it as a perfect image of the working-class alienation, although probably by the time they moved in, they stopped being working class and became an indefinite class: poor, but no longer performing manual labour. The kids had to share their bedrooms, but they didn’t mind, as they didn’t have big expectations about Lebensraum, spending most of their time either at school or playing outdoors. Andrew and Steven used to go fishing in the river Lea, which later would gain fame thanks to Adele’s song’ River Lea’.
Immediately after moving, Liz got her first job in a primary school on the Kingsmead estate, next to the Lesney factory, famous for producing toy cars every British boy wanted to have, at least those of Andrew’s generation. Andrew remembered that he and his brothers received them for Christmas, so that he collected about five in his childhood. Eventually he passed his collection to his own son – by the time he did it, these matchbox cars were no longer ordinary toys, but ‘collection items’.
In 1970 Arthur enrolled into a foundation course at St Martins’ College, to study industrial design, as he had no courage to think of himself as a ‘proper’ artist. During this period he acquired a large drawing board, which was put in the living room as the flat lacked the space to have it elsewhere, and this room caught the most daylight which Arthur preferred to work under than that cast from an electric bulb. Arthur proved to be very good in his work and was admitted to a three-year bachelor course in industrial design. The early 1970s was probably the happiest period in Liz and Arthur’s marriage, as everything developed according to Liz’s plan. She was praised in her work as a primary school teacher and they managed to enlarge the family with another son, Robert, their fourth, who more than made up for those whom they lost as a result of miscarriages and stillbirths. He was born in February 1973, some eight months before the famous oil crisis which, probably irrevocably, destroyed optimism among the working classes across the western world. But, in early, 1973 Liz was proud of her miniature army of four boys and of herself, facilitating Arthur’s progress from the working to the middle class. But the reality was more complex. On one hand, Arthur progressed as an artist; he managed even to develop his own style, marked by precise, realistic drawing of the contours of represented things, combined with vivid, almost otherworldly colours. On the other hand, however, the studies increased his sense of not fitting into the crowd of prospective designers and artists. While they spent much of their time hanging out with each other, and networking with people who might offer them a job after graduation, he hurried home to stand in front of his drawing board. It protected him from the world, whenever it felt threatening, because within its large frame everything was possible.
Another reason why Arthur hurried home was his realisation than Liz wasn’t particularly interested in their children. She didn’t listen to them, but required them to act on her commands. When this didn’t work, she got angry or sulked. The fact that it was easier for her to be in control of the whole class than of her family, made her spend more time at work than was necessary, leaving the bulk of household chores to Arthur. Arthur didn’t object. Indeed, he liked to play with the boys. Out of wood and various discarded materials he made toys for them, which were so good that Andrew preferred them than the toy cars from the Lesney factory. For some time Arthur even thought about designing toys for a living but, although he finished his studies with good results, he was unable to find a job as a designer. He even didn’t know how to write a CV, let alone where to send such a thing. Instead, he went to various places in person, asking if they need a designer and was met with polite rejections. When he went to the Lesney factory, the managers were more sympathetic, but they were laying off workers, rather than employing new ones; British de-industrialisation had already begun even though it was still nearly half a decade until Thatcher’s victory. A long period ensued when Arthur had a series of poorly paid, low-status jobs, alternated by intervals of unemployment. He became a hybrid: a working-class man with perfect manners and self-conscience of an artist, yet lacking entrepreneurial skills. In this sense he became a trailblazer – thirty years or so later Britain would be full of university graduates unable to find employment commensurate with their qualifications and ambitions, and ending as precarious workers.
When Arthur developed internally, spending his free time on painting and reading books written by authors such as Marcel Proust and Vladimir Nabokov, Liz was focused on her career, which she didn’t allow to be derailed even by her frequent pregnancies. After she returned from a short maternity leave following the birth of their fourth son, she was promoted to the position of the deputy head in her school. A couple of years later she moved to a new school, where she became a headmistress. When the politically turbulent 1970s came to their close, this was also a time to leave their council flat and move to their own house – a quite large terrace with four bedrooms, still in Hackney, but in a nicer area than their council flat. At the time, quite a few of the neighbouring houses were either empty or squatted. When Andrew moved back after university to London, he lived in a squat in the same area. It was Liz who chose the house, as she was the one who got the mortgage. Arthur, as some ten years previously, followed her, not so much convinced that they were moving in the right direction, as, again, not having any arguments to thwart her.
Although the new house was large, it was barely sufficient for this large family. To ensure rational use of the space, Arthur’s drawing board was moved to the main bedroom. For Andrew, this move was symbolic - it signalled the division of his parents’ space into two domains: one belonging to his mother and one to his father. Andrew noticed that his father’s favouring saying was ‘back to the drawing board.’ It had both literal and metaphorical meaning. When Arthur was upset, he didn’t shout or quarrel, but hid behind his drawing board with pencils or watercolours. ‘Back to the drawing board’ also meant that Arthur was prepared to step back, reflect and start again. This was what he told his sons, when they were fighting and to Liz, when she complained about him. He pointed to her that he kept his side of the bargain which they made before they got married. He always loved her and was faithful for her. He also provided for their family as much as he could; if it became at some point less than what she earned it was because she took him to the place where he couldn’t flourish as much as she did.
Liz, however, didn’t like the idea of a ‘drawing board’; for her it was merely a tool of dignifying the ways of perennial losers, because the winners didn’t need to return to the drawing board; they always moved ahead without looking back. The past still did not matter to her, unless as a springboard to the better things. She even didn’t like to look at the old photos of her children, because they represented objects which no longer existed. For the same reason she didn’t like to look at old photos of Arthur. Additionally, his old photos were a proof of her poor judgement. Of course, live Arthur reminded her even more of her youthful mistake, therefore she tried to see him as little as possible, by staying at work late and going out to meet her peers. She particularly enjoyed male company: male teachers, psychologists or school inspectors. Whenever she met those charming and articulate men, she couldn’t understand how she ended up with Arthur, who was such a bore. She particularly liked to talk about her disappointment with a local priest. For some months she extolled his virtues at home, in front of her sons and Arthur, and then stopped talking about him altogether. Soon after she announced that she became pregnant again. In a family with four children such an announcement shouldn’t be a big surprise but, by this point, their youngest son was nine years old and there was a tacit assumption that Liz and Arthur wouldn’t have more children. Arthur didn’t believe that he was the father of the child Liz’s was expecting, but he didn’t share this opinion with his sons till many years later, as keeping the family together was more important to him than asserting his masculinity. Despite his suspicions, or maybe because of them, Arthur looked after his fifth son, named Sebastian, with the same patient affection he had given to his other children, or maybe even more so to make up for the child’s absent biological father the priest, who disappeared from Liz’s life as soon as their friendship became an object of gossip amongst the church’s congregation.
By the time Liz became pregnant for the last time, her expectations of living standards increased, no doubt in part by the political atmosphere of the time, with Margaret Thatcher at the helm of the country, encouraging fellow citizens to be ruthless in their ambitious. Engaging in property speculation was one way to improve one’s standard of living and so by mid-1980s Liz and Arthur moved to their third house in London. The house was in the best part of Hackney and had four bedrooms. By this time, Andrew had gone to university and, to all intents, didn’t live there. So, when he returned home during a gap between terms, he was surprised and saddened to notice that the house had been divided, with Liz occupying its higher parts and Arthur being demoted to the basement, where his drawing board was also transported. Liz and Arthur became like a family from the films by Mike Leigh, popular at the time, a cross between Meantime and High Hopes, unfulfilled, unable to communicate, with one side obsessed about progress and status, the other fighting for survival.
In his basement Arthur compensated for the scarcity of natural light by creating very bright pictures. The more he was upset, the more tranquil the scenes in his pictures. He painted green meadows, flowers in full bloom, woods and valleys which could serve as a model for Shrek’s swamp. The brighter his paintings, the more inner turmoil he experienced. Andrew thought about van Gogh, whose colourful paintings also contrasted with the painter’s supposed internal pain and anxieties. Yet, after talking to his father, he was not sure whether this comparison was right, as Arthur didn’t come across as unhappy. On the contrary, he was almost serene, possessing the calm of people who have lost so many things in their life that they are relieved that they have nothing more to lose.
In the end of the 1980s Arthur got a job, which he would perform till the end of his working life: he became a court usher for the Privy Council in Whitehall. The usher role usually goes to ex-military types – they have to look good in a suit and issue instructions in a suitably sonorous voice. Arthur didn’t look like an ex-officer, but even in his fifties he looked handsome and commanded respect. He liked this work, not because he rubbed shoulders with Law Lords and other top lawyers, and was on first name terms with some of them, as he wasn’t a snob but, paradoxically, because these high-positioned and often well-bred people were at bottom quite ordinary and modest, just like him, and in contrast to his social-climbing and judgemental wife.
Andrew assumed that, despite their differences and Liz’s indiscretions, his parents would remain married till the end of their lives. But, he was proved wrong – they officially split in the mid-1990s, at the time when Four Weddings and the Funeral tried to convince the public that love is possible in every age, while advocating for national unity. Arthur and Liz, however, didn’t see the film. By this point they’d stopped going to the cinema and, even if they had seen it, it would not have changed anything.
It was Liz’s decision to divorce, as she held monopoly for important decisions. Andrew suspected that it was because Liz wanted to have the house for herself, to be free to meet her male friends, who were put off by her being married to Arthur. After his retirement, Arthur returned to Middlesbrough, where he settled in a small apartment, not far from his old factory, which was no longer there. He took with him his drawing board and even bought himself an easel. Again, he changed his style of painting or, rather, returned to his early style and subject of drawing ships realistically with sharp, self-assured lines. Being an agreeable man, he quickly befriended local men and even re-discovered old acquaintances. However, as far as Andrew knew, he remained single – either he was still in love with the girl with whom he had the best dance of his life, or was too disillusioned to start again. He enjoyed his quiet life for six or seven years. Then he got cancer and died.
In contrast to Arthur, when Liz started to live on her own, her friendships dried out. Some men left London, others got sick and it was difficult to find their replacements, not least because Liz lost her looks; she was now an old woman with a body which had endured birth too many times. Moreover, there were conflicts with two of her sons and they broke contact with her. Another one moved to France and would see his mother sporadically. When Andrew visited Liz couple of months after Arthur’s death, she said with an untypical frankness: ‘Maybe I haven’t done everything right in my life. Maybe I should have appreciated your father more. He used to say “back to the drawing board”. But there is no drawing board to return to for me. He was my drawing board and I lost him.’
Andrew thought that Liz said this because she wanted him to comfort her; admitting guilt was the price she was prepared to pay to achieve this goal. Her humility brought him some satisfaction, but he couldn’t force himself to say things she wanted to hear or extend a hug. He just muttered something under his nose and soon left.
The Fleeting Here and Now
Kyla Moore’s phone vibrated on her open Norton Anthology.
“I’m about to be there. You better have started working!!!”
Kyla smiled at the text. Eric had to know that she’d wasted the fifteen minutes spent waiting for him in the library. But at this point in their friendship, he likely wouldn’t care. The two of them had bonded in British Lit last year and were now grouped together for a final project in Senior English Practicum. Their relationship was, at this point, potentially something more, but also nothing really; mostly just two people fused into friendship by corresponding class schedules and a similar sense of humor.
“I brought snacks,” Eric tossed a bag of Chips Ahoy onto the table when he arrived and sat down across from her.
“I love you!” Kyla dove for the bag, tore it open, and seized two cookies.
“I know,” Eric smirked and pulled out his laptop. “I’m assuming you’ve done nothing, so let’s get started.”
“Not true!” Kyla huffed, spraying cookie crumbs all over the table and pointing to her Norton Anthology. “I opened the textbook.”
“Okay,” Eric rolled his eyes.
Kyla grabbed another cookie.
“Well, don’t eat all of them,” Eric yanked the bag to his side of the table.
“Eric, you can’t leave food in front of me and expect me not to eat it,” Kyla scoffed and yanked the bag back.
“Here,” Kyla piled the remaining cookies into two stacks and grinned. “Now it’s fair.”
“Cool,” Eric chuckled and began clicking away on his laptop.
Kyla opened her laptop too and they both started working on their final presentation for the semester. It was supposed to be an all-encompassing, prove we should let you graduate type project and they’d been collaborating for weeks on it.
A little after 6:30, bored and losing steam, Kyla drew a smiley face on the corner of Eric’s paper.
“Thanks,” he chuckled and stood up to stretch. “We’re almost done,”
“Thank God!” Kyla extended her arms above her head.
“I’ve been doing most of the work,” he shrugged and took a swig from his Hydroflask.
“Yeah right,” Kyla scoffed.
“Watch this,” Eric flipped his water bottle in the air, went to catch it, but fumbled and it dropped with a resounding clatter on the linoleum floor.
“Nice,” Kyla burst out laughing.
Eric blushed and quickly sat down as the librarian in the corner glared at them. “Okay, that’s not what I meant to do.”
“Yeah, that was embarrassing,” Kyla laughed.
Eric ignored her, the corners of his mouth perking up, and started typing on his Mac.
After a moment, Kyla bit her bottom lip and carefully stole the last cookie from his pile.
“I saw that,” Eric said. His blue eyes narrowed but stayed focused on his screen.
“So?” Kyla said with her mouthful. “You were taking too long to eat them!” She poked his pale arm with her pen. “Are you falling asleep?”
“No,” Eric yawned. “I’m just bored.”
“Let’s get coffee,” Kyla yawned too.
“No way, you drink too much coffee,” Eric shook his head.
“You don’t drink enough coffee,” Kyla protested. “That’s why you’re so bleh all the time.”
“Fine, let’s take a break,” he conceded.
They gathered their belongings and Kyla drove to the Starbucks near campus.
“Mmm,” she grinned into the steam rising from her to-go cup. “I already feel alive again.”
“That’s called an addiction,” Eric said as they walked back to the car.
“Whatever,” Kyla made a face. “Are you ready to go back to work?”
“I would rather not,” Eric chuckled and ran a hand through his close-cropped hair.
“What if we just…go chill somewhere?” Kyla leaned against the car door.
“Chill somewhere?” Eric leaned next to her.
After thinking for a moment, Kyla suggested, “What if we drive up to a lookout on Blue Ridge? We can watch the sunset.”
“Sunset?” Eric pursed his lips. “Are we ditching the project?”
“I mean, what would you rather do?” she raised a brow, wondering if she wanted him to say yes. They had gone up to Blue Ridge countless times, and hung out alone countless times, but never both at the same time.
“Yeah, okay, let’s do it,” Eric grinned.
“Yay,” Kyla cheered and unlocked her car. “One last something before nothing.”
“The future isn’t nothing,” he climbed into the passenger seat.
“It is if you’ve got nothing lined up,” Kyla clicked in her seatbelt.
Kyla wiggled in the driver’s seat, the car halfway up the mountain. “All that coffee was such a bad idea.” She pulled into a rest station.
“Sorry, I should have monitored your intake,” Eric said.
“Yes, that’s your one job!” Kyla groaned. “You know I have no bladder!”
Eric just laughed in response.
“Shut up, I’m literally gonna pee my pants,” she switched off the engine and quickly climbed out of the car, bouncing up and down and trying to hold the pee for just a few moments longer.
“I hope you make it,” Eric laughed as he watched her toddle away.
Kyla finished in the bathroom and they drove the rest of the way to the lookout, recounting the strangest locations they’d been forced to pull over for Kyla’s bladder. It was a tie between the mall parking lot and a graveyard. They arrived at the lookout and sat together on a big rock as the sun started dipping lower below the tree line.
“Want a snack?” Eric asked, producing two pomegranates from his backpack.
“Always,” Kyla’s eyes lit up. “When’d you get these?”
“While you were peeing,” Eric cracked his pomegranate open.
“How the heck do you eat this?” Kyla picked out some of the bloody red beads and popped one in her mouth. “Is this supposed to be good? I’m literally eating a seed with some juice on it.”
“You’re ruining it,” Eric rolled his eyes and reached for her pomegranate. “Gimme, I’ll eat it.”
“No way!” she hugged the fruit close and devoured a handful of beads. “But next time get Cheetos!”
The sky turned from a burnt yellow to a dusty pink and purple. The sun had disappeared beneath the line of pines hugging the mountain.
“I’m going to miss this,” Kyla said as twilight settled around them.
“Just because we’re graduating doesn’t mean we’re gonna stop hanging out,” Eric ate the last beads of his pomegranate.
“Maybe, but it won’t be the same,” Kyla said. “You’ll get a girlfriend and I’ll get a boyfriend.”
Eric cocked his head. “That’s what you think will be different?”
“No. I don’t know,” she frowned and threw the remains of her fruit behind a nearby bush. “I don’t know why I said that.”
“Do you…want a boyfriend?” he asked slowly.
“I don’t know. Why is it so cold up here?” Kyla shivered in her yellow t-shirt and rubbed her arms.
“You can use my jacket,” Eric offered.
“No, no, no don’t do that to me,” Kyla scooted away. “Don’t confuse me before finals.”
His blonde brows knitted together. “Confuse you?”
“Yeah, with all the flirting,” she waved her hands at him.
“Here, use my jacket,” she imitated his gentle tone.
“Oh please,” Eric rolled his eyes. “Flirting is all we do.”
“Is not!” Kyla protested, avoiding eye contact.
“Am I not allowed to flirt with you?” Eric asked, scooting closer.
“Do you want to flirt with me?” Kyla raised a brow.
“I don’t know,” he chuckled.
“Why are you laughing?” she smacked his arm.
“I’m sorry,” he grinned. “I don’t know. How did we even become friends?”
Kyla folded her arms across her chest. “Because you kept following me around.”
“Yeah, okay,” Eric smirked and moved over, filling the empty space between their thighs. “I think it’s because the other English majors couldn’t handle you.”
“Handle me?” she made a face.
“You’re a lot to take in.”
Kyla scoffed. “What the heck is that supposed to mean?”
“Are you offended?” Eric asked.
“No,” she shoved her pointer finger into his forearm arm. “I’m curious what heck you mean by that.”
“I think I just get you,” he shrugged.
“I guess so,” Kyla smirked. “Mostly.”
Eric leaned in and met her lips with his own.
Kyla quickly pulled away. “Why did you do that?”
“I don’t know,” he frowned. “I thought we were having a moment?”
“No, no moment,” she snapped and stood up.
“Okay, well, my bad,” Eric held up his palms in surrender. “I’m sorry.”
“Sorry, no, it’s just, we’re graduating,” Kyla paced across the landing with tingling lips, feeling sad all of a sudden. “Don’t confuse me.”
They drove back to campus in silence, listening to Top 40 radio even though they both disliked pop music. Kyla parked in a lot near the library, pulled her keys from the ignition, and exited the car.
“Should we talk about this?” Eric asked, shutting the passenger side door.
“Probably,” Kyla kicked a pebbled and it skittered across the pavement onto the grass. She felt Eric looking at the side of her face as they meandered down the sidewalk.
“I’m sorry,” he said again. “First of all.”
“Maybe we shouldn’t talk,” Kyla suggested, anxious about whatever the outcome of “talking” might be.
“We don’t have to if you don’t want to.” Eric pulled open the door to Nethery Hall and they walked inside. Dark and quiet, the only light came from the lamps outside the window-paned door. Eric fell into step beside Kyla and they walked slowly down the dimly lit hallway. Pointing to the closed auditorium room doors he said, “It’s crazy that next week we graduate in there.”
“Don’t remind me,” she sighed, not wanting to think about the huge stage and the huge future that came after it.
Eric scanned her face and asked, “You’re not excited?”
“Not really,” Kyla shrugged. She stopped walking and leaned back against the wall. “Everyone knows what’s next.”
“No, they don’t,” Eric leaned sideways next to her.
“Then why does every person in our class have a job?”
“That’s unrealistic, not every person,” he said. “Name five.”
“Dan’s working at Newsweek. Madison got a job at some tech company. Abby’s going to grad school,” Kyla ticked off on her fingers. “You’re gonna be a kick-ass teacher.”
“That’s four people,” Eric said.
“Whatever. I’m going to be stuck in my parent’s house, without any shred of talent, working at some random Burger King…” Kyla’s voice cracked and she rolled her eyes, annoyed that she was actually crying. She slid against the wall to the ground.
“Hey,” Eric slumped down next to her, their shoulders touching. “It’s okay.”
“I’m sorry,” Kyla rolled her eyes again. “I don’t know why I’m crying. This is so stupid.”
“It’s okay,” he said.
Kyla pulled her knees up to her chest. “Are you scared?”
Eric leaned his head back against the wall. “Shitless.”
“Same,” she wiped her eyes. “I’m just sick of uncertainty.” She rested her head on his shoulder.
“Don’t confuse me,” he said.
“Shut up,” she chuckled.
“You’re gonna be fine, Kyla. We’re all gonna be fine.”
“Maybe,” Kyla sighed into his shoulder, relaxing just a little.
“You will,” he nudged her thigh.
Kyla let her pinky touch his. “But what happens next?”
Eric shrugged. “Everything.”
A. J. ORTEGA
BLAED A. WOODLEY
G. ROE UPSHAW
HENRY ALAN PAPER
ISIOMA JEMIMAH AWELE OKONICHA
LEONARDO JOSUE ESPINAL
MARSHALL WAYNE LEE
MIGUEL O. MITCHELL
ROBERT P. BISHOP