Stephanie Mataya holds a Bachelor’s Degree in English, with an emphasis in Creative Writing, from Western Washington University in Bellingham, Washington. Stephanie has had fiction work previously published in Your Impossible Voice. She currently lives, works, teaches herself to play piano, and writes in Brooklyn, New York.
And the Days Go On
I take care to pack the notebook that will reflect the type of office person I plan to be. Navy blue, very professional. The satchel that was given to me as a congratulations looks like a mouth that needs feeding, the way it gapes open like it has a locked jaw. I trace the smooth outline of my own face with a light fingertip, testing the movement of my joints, chewing air. Two chomps—all seems to be in working order. I look into the leathery gums of the bag, trying to think of what else to fill it with. A pen, a highlighter, an eraser, like I am preparing for the first day of kindergarten. I pack my resume, because it’s the only paper I can think to bring.
I chug four cups of coffee in rapid succession and have immediate regrets. I don’t even know where the bathroom in the office is.
“Western Airlines is built on loyalty and thrives on dedication,” says Marcia, the head honcho. I’ve already heard this thrice thus far—once in my initial interview, once in my final interview, and once yesterday. These words are spelled out on the main wall of the office with six-inch tall metal letters, flanked by water coolers. I wring the phrase out in my mind, trying to capture at least some meaning. Loyalty, dedication. Marcia breezes away from my desk as soon as the words are out of her mouth, leaving a packet for me to review. Company policies, etc...
In addition to receiving a company ethos tutorial, today was also my “Email Orientation” with my direct manager Terry, and I was given the rundown on digital communication best practices. Eye roll.
-How to sort email
-How to best use the “priority” designation
-How terrible it would be to CC someone who isn’t supposed to be CC’d
-How to best utilize BCC
I hate this fourth item. It makes me itchy to think of the secret recipients of secret messages, of digital eavesdropping.
I scratch behind my ear, making my own skin crawl as the wisps of my hair breathe across the nape of my neck.
I’m the Junior Administrative Assistant of Customer Comments and Complaints for the small but economically robust company, Western Airlines. To avoid puzzling out the odd office-speak, I find myself reflecting on days past, which feels like something I shouldn’t be doing in earnest until I’m much older.
I don’t usually let myself think about my last job, and things that happened there. The things that forced me to leave in a hurry. But now that I am here, at this new place, this place that needs to be the thing that sticks, I get pulled into thoughts of the past. Some of the mistakes were mine, but not all. Anyway, my problems are my problems. This time, I will see clearer, keep my nose clean. As if it knows I’m thinking of it, I feel a twinge at the tip of my nose, and scratch it away.
The office is full of women that wear black dresses, and men who dress very casually—all plaid and denim. A group of us find ourselves in the coffee nook at the same time, and I comment on the coincidence of all of the women matching, then they all laugh together as if I’ve made a really wonderful joke. I feel something shift inside of me, or outside of me, I can’t tell which.
It turns out that the difficult parts of work have nothing to do with the work itself.
Where to have lunch? How long to take to eat? Do I need to bring my own utensils? Will I be judged for eating a ham sandwich on white bread instead of a kale grain bowl?
How bad is it to be five minutes late in the morning? What if I have a coffee in my hand when I inevitably am five minutes late in the morning?
What is everyone else listening to on their headphones? Am I allowed to listen to a podcast, or only music? Should I put in both earbuds, or just one?
When is the right time to interject myself into someone else’s conversation? If I deal with a particularly annoying client, can I complain afterwards? It is frowned upon to make fun of callers?
These questions run on a loop in my mind long after the workday ends. In the seeming comfort of my apartment, I strip and stare at myself. The weird wrinkles that I found out of place on my shoulders yesterday have, today, released themselves. By released, I mean to say that the skin itself has become unstable, dislodged from the bones and flesh and veins and muscles underneath. Whatever held the skin in place before is no longer, and I’m positively sloshing about within myself, willing my body to bring itself back together, to feel comfortable again. What is happening to my body?
Terry sits in the cubical next to mine, drafting emails out loud as usual, murmuring and murmuring—this part is maddening but easy to ignore. About twice an hour though, Terry will laugh, or make some sort of exclamation, as though he’s begging for a response.
“Oh, god! That’s good, that’s real good…” he says to the air. So finally I lean around to be chatty, jovial.
“What’s that?” I say.
“Huh?” he says.
“Oh, I was just wondering what it was.”
“What what was?”
“The thing…that was good? Did you read something funny, or something?”
“Yeah, yeah, I guess.”
“Oh cool, yeah me too,” I say for no reason.
“You too what?”
“Me too…something funny,” not recovering the elusive thread of logical conversation, feeling my cheeks heating.
“Okay then,” Terry says, leaning on the “o”.
And I roll my chair back to my desk, dragging my kneecaps into place. I look over at Terry, who is murmuring again and reading his screen while squeezing and squeezing a wrinkled stress ball, or stress lump, perhaps—some strange goo that can be ripped into a million sticky pieces and then put right back together into a flawless sphere.
I type away at my keyboard, filling out my daily status report, staring at the letters while trying not to let my eyes drift down to my arms. Under the sleeves, I know that there are wrinkles upon wrinkles of skin, acting as though it’s attempting to completely slough off of my body. I’m a reluctant snake, resisting the change that I’m going through, scared of what it means, worried about what’s wrong with me. It’s not only my arms, but my legs, belly, down to even my feet, where the thin webs between each toe no longer are taut, but rather slide about, sometimes stretching, reaching to the end of the nail. I keep the ends of my sleeves pulled far down over my wrists, leaving no visible skin.
Carmen is taking me out to lunch.
“Come on Beth, you ready? There’s this place that makes really great wraps,” she says to me.
“God, I love wraps. Avocado, I hope?” I say, choosing my words carefully, contorting my face into a grin.
“You know it! I fucking luh-huv avocado,” she says with fake gravel in her throat—that trendy vocal fry that I refuse to replicate consciously, but sometimes find myself doing against my own will.
We leave the building, simultaneously donning our jackets, and as she sidles into her leather sleeves, I can’t help but wonder what her skin underneath is like. Maybe it has a satin quality, like the sheets I imagine powerful women keep on their beds. Or maybe it has the same wrinkled quality as mine, the look of a piece of paper scrunched in anger, and the feel of a molded date—soft, but full of divots. I don’t ask.
Marcia says that tomorrow she is going to put me on phones. Officially, by myself, on phones. On phones, she says, over and over, on phones!
“You know enough now to go on phones now Beth, you’ll do great,” she says, as motivation.
“I’m super ready,” I tell her, when she first brings up the phones. I twist my lips upwards, hoping that everything else stays in place.
“Totally,” I add. After a pause, she does an abrupt “hmm!’ and that is that.
When she’s gone, I find myself taskless, so I sit at my computer taking random notes on business practices I’ve learned throughout the week, trying to look productive, trying not to think about my skin, about my failing body, the foreignness of my day to day.
-Respond to all email queries within 4 hours
-Process at least one flight-comp request per day (but not two—never two, by god!)
-Follow the phone script as closely as possible. Read the words that are written and vomit them.
I squirm in my seat, feeling awkward and useless when a rush of elasticity surges through my arm, and I feel my skin pool on the keyboard. My cheeks become hot and saggy, like butter just beginning to melt, and I shove my forearm flesh back into place, as I would a thick sweater before washing my hands. Keeping my head down, I dart my eyes over the tops of the cubicles and around the office, seeing if anyone is seeing. I run to the bathroom—the location of which I am now privy to—and have a very quick sob for reasons I don’t want to confront.
I worry about every task, every moment of every day in this new, foreign place. Every social interaction, and every professional encounter that harbors secret rules. I can only wonder about, obsess over, whether anyone else is noticing my exterior, the way that it’s become a being separate from myself. And yet, I must stay, I must stay, I must stay.
“Can you please fax this to LA?” is the extent of my instruction, and Marcia’s off as instantly as always. The paper in my hand is stamped in red: Very Important. It seems a cruel joke at most, an absurd office cliché at least. I feel my feet sloshing around inside of my shoes—what’s in LA? A second office, a personal contact? Who exactly is supposed to be receiving this very important message? I haven’t been trained on the fax machine yet, and I simply want to die. Nine days in and feeling melodramatic.
The fax machine is all buttons, some faded to blank due to insistent grubby fingertips jabbing and jabbing, and I’m overcome with spontaneous dyslexia. Which numbers, which order? My eyes skim the page and skim the keypad, combining the numbers and letters into a terrible, incomprehensible concoction. As I stand in front of the fax machine, I try not to pay attention to the way that the exterior of my shins have piled upon my ankles into one thick, undulating mass of flesh.
I can feel them watching me, scanning me and ticking boxes in their minds of things I seem capable of. An analysis of my competence. I stare back when I can muster the strength, wondering what they know. Today, my thighs are bunched together, the skin slopping into nauseating bunches—layers and layers of human material behaving in unnatural ways. I sit in my rolling desk chair, feeling the folds adjust, stacking painfully. I lift a few inches off the seat, using my hands to smooth everything from my lower back to the underside of my knees, trying to iron out the wrinkles and flatten the lumps. As I finish patting myself down, I hear the ping! of an instant message. It’s from Marcia, and judging from the series of fainter pings! throughout the office, she’s sent it around to everyone. In all caps, she’s written “PIERRE IN OFFICE NEXT M-DAY.” A moment passes, then another round of pings! “BEST BEHAVIOR ; )”.
How hard would it have been to type “Monday”?
“Do you have a manager I can speak with? You are being quite unhelpful,” the woman on the other line says, concluding our five-minute conversation, during which she detailed her complaints, and I drooled out responses. I put her on hold and the phone almost slips from my hand as the flesh suddenly glides downward, gathering in bunches around the fingernails. Terry’s hand is already waiting to intercept the call, and I pass it over, clutching my stomach muscles together, knowing he’s seen my secret. Again I feel my skin slide, gathering above my pant’s waistline, ripples upon ripples upon ripples. I gather the excess within one arm, protecting my guts, protecting my heart. Deep breaths. I play the conversation over and over, considering things I should have said.
-You have my full sympathy ma’am, what can I do to help?
-I, as a representative of the wonderful Western Airlines, sincerely apologize for any discomfort you may have experienced on a recent flight of ours, and wonder how I can remedy this horrid situation.
The alarm is shouting, but I must first address my fingertips. Another day at the new job, I remind myself. With the saggy left hand, I pinch the loose skin of the right index finger, slowly drawing it into place. Nice and snug. With this one finger prepared, I roll over to my bedside table and turn the alarm off, then thankfully, the twangy racket stops.
In the new quiet, I tend to the other fingers on the right hand, sliding the flapping skin from where it hangs off the ends of my bones like a glove that has been halfway removed. It looks alarmingly like a glove, really—but grotesque and fleshy. One two three four five fingers. I then use the completed right hand to adjust the skin on the left, which goes much more quickly, as I am working with taut skin now, and my dominant hand. Soon, both hands are back to semi normal. I try not to think about it too much, try to go about my business. I roll from the bed, pushing myself up. I can feel my face wobble, which is initially only annoying, until the forehead skin flops straight down and obscures my vision. I gather my eyebrows and pull straight up as I make my way to the bathroom; the rest of my body can be dealt with in the shower.
While waiting for the shower water to warm, I consider my nakedness in the mirror, all slouches and folds on top of wrinkles and pools of skin in places where it does not belong. With my exterior so loose, I worry about the stability of my bones, my guts, everything inside of me. How do my mysterious inner workings know how to keep functioning? Consider the heart: the most massively important organ in the body, pumping away, doing many more essential functions that I’m even aware of. If I saw my own heart, really saw it, ripped from my chest and lying on a table, perhaps, I would find it disgusting, gruesome. Yet, it modestly continues, without my conscious input or instruction. How do I know it won’t also betray me?
The shower is up to temperature, and I drag myself into the stream, initially resenting the droplets for beating me in such an insistent way. But soon, my body adjusts, and it’s pleasant, almost delightful. I bend forward and gather the long folds of flesh that hang from my legs. I pull the folds back into place, using one hand to yank and the other to smooth the swath of skin over until it rests tentatively where it belongs. I eventually proceed to my midsection, continuing the same action. Gathering my skin and dispersing it, coaxing the flesh and flattening it. It takes a certain amount of pressure and effort, and I get worn out as I tend to my back. To get the skin around my shoulder blades adjusted, I contort my arms, fearing the loyalty of my shoulder socket. But I give my skin a fierce pinch, then a quick tug, and it seems sorted. The arms are easy, but the ears are awkward with all of their grooves and ridges—getting them right takes some time and concentration. Finally I feel whole, and shampoo my hair and soap my body rapidly, as I know the water is about to run cold. Another day of trying to keep it together.
I’m nodding my farewell and mumbling “Night” to everyone within earshot, when Marcia interrupts and says to me, in the same tone one uses to tell a child their shoe is untied, “Oh Beth, just so you know, you should be at your desk and ready to work at 9, not walking through the door at 9…okay? So see you tomorrow! At 8:55…” and then she winks. As I nod and give her a small conciliatory laugh, I feel my belly loosen and fall several inches. Folds of thigh flesh rub against one another as I move towards the door and I begin to worry about chafing. And the days go on; more of the same discomfort, manifesting itself in every nook and cranny of my life.
It’s Monday, and Pierre has arrived. As per the cliché, he’s a beautiful French man. His accent has a gentle lilt, and his gaze somehow suggests he’s seeing everything in the whole room at one time. His face is round and boyish in a way, but his meticulously parted hair proves his maturity. He leans forward to shake Marcia’s hand and I could count the lines in his hair to determine the number of teeth in his comb.
The schedule of the day is a mess of meetings, team building activities, and break out sessions. I plan to fly under the radar. Pierre pops here and there around the office in the half hour prior to our first meeting (Thinking Forward: Anticipating Client Needs), chatting for a moment with each of my coworkers. As instructed, they all seems on their best behavior; Terry is all half smiles and nods of approval; Carmen has a visibly strong handshake. I flatten my ripples as I count down the number of people left between Pierre and myself. I will my body to behave, but I feel my stress level rising and know what’s coming.
Pierre makes it to my side of the office, rounds the half-wall to my cubical. I reach a hand out to shake, aware of its moisture, and greet this man as politely as I can, knowing his approval of me could mean stability, comfort. He introduces himself unnecessarily, crossing his arms and leaning casually against the edge of my desk, so close that I can smell his aftershave or maybe just deodorant—something that would be called Fresh Breeze or Cool Mist. We chat for a minute about how things are going, and my body feels okay for the most part, but I continue to pet my arm, smoothing any wrinkles that threaten to surface. Pierre finishes the conversations as quickly as with everyone else, turning to me a last time before walking away to say, “Hopefully you are getting adjusted here. Things can be a bit difficult at first, but tend to smooth out sooner or later,” then gives me a wink.
It’s my one-month review. I twist and twist my fingers together, entwining the digits, shuddering at their nauseating elasticity.
“So, Beth, let’s hear from you. How do you feel about your time with us so far?” Marcia starts.
“Well, yeah, feeling great. Slowly learning, but putting the pieces together,” I say.
“To really thrive here, I would say the most important thing is taking initiative. Watching and learning is great, but asking questions is excellent,” Marcia says.
Terry nods along, looking distracted. I try to make eye contact with him.
We banter back and forth, Marcia, as always, speaking in mottos rather than real words. The meeting ends abruptly and she shakes my hand with a cold formality, promising to check back in soon.
“You’re getting it,” says Terry, when it’s just the two of us. “Marcia’s not a real person, anyway.” He gives my shoulder a playful punch then turns away to his desk. I rub the spot of impact, noticing a tingling under the surface that feels okay.
Poppy, the new intern, started today. As she paces the rows between the cubicles, hunting for tasks, I watch her closely. Enthusiasm level—high. Competence—moderate. Social skills—decent. It seems this newcomer has all of the makings of a successful employee, but that’s not what I’m watching for. What’s the texture of her exterior, how is her body holding together? Was it always just me? Poppy is wearing an oversized sweater, hiding the contours of her arms. I break my observation, distracted by a sudden light rattling sound.
“I grabbed you a coffee. Iced Macchiato?” Carmen glides past my desk, leaving a sweating plastic cup in her wake, ice cubes knocking against each other.
“Thanks, lady!” I holler across the room. “Do you have those papers for me to file?”
“Shit, I forgot, again. Give me half an hour.”
I laugh. Typical Carmen, a beat behind. As soon as the thought passes through my brain, I marvel at it. I walk to the bathroom to consider myself.
I don’t remember ever transitioning back to normal, can’t recall a day that I noticed the flattening of the wrinkles, the tightening of my pores. But look, there I am, smooth. I run my fingers through my hair and turn to leave, nearly mowing over Poppy, who is running towards the sink. She says what, what, what, over and over. I decide not to tell her.
The phones, with their redundancy, have become a comfort. Because every conversation starts the same way, (“Hi this is Beth, you have reached Western Airlines, how can I help you?”), I can ease my way in, getting used to the timbre of each new voice, bracing myself for an odd complaint or question. Very old men have become my favorite to take calls from. They speak slowly and usually shout, giving me time to prepare my answer, decide on my tone.
The phone rings. I push my sleeve up over my elbow.
“Hi this is Beth, you have reached Western Airlines, how can I help you?”
“Beth? Well hi there Beth, this is Bruno, how can I help you?” the voice says.
“Can I help you…?” I ask again, receiving a laugh on the other end, the kind that could be called a guffaw.
“Oh sure sure sure Beth, that’s just a little joke of mine.”
“It’s a very good one. Absolutely.”
“Absolutely. Anyhow, I do happen to have a question…”
And it goes on from there. I stroke the smooth nape of my neck as I listen to Bruno, and glance around the edge of the cubical wall to give Terry an amused eye roll. He shrugs and laughs as if to say, “what can you do?” I stick a tongue out at Terry and give him a thumbs down. He crosses his eyes, pokes his tongue out, and does a thumbs up back at me. I struggle to keep my voice professional; old Bruno demands my attention.
“No problem, I can work that out for you,” I say, feeling taut and whole.
Geoffrey Heptonstall's first novel Heaven's invention, published by Black Wolf, is now available in paperback. He writes regularly for The London Magazine. Recent poetry has appeared in The Coffee House Anthology, The Journal and Poetry Super Highway.
MY LOVELY DEAR
‘There you are, my lovely dear, your coffee just as you like it: as black as night, as sweet as love and as hot as hell.’ Nora brought Mr Parfitt his coffee. Most customers had to take their orders from the counter. But Nora always brought Mr Parfitt’s coffee to his table.
Whenever possible (it wasn’t always possible in summer) Mr Parfitt would sit in the window alcove where he could look out at the Mill Race. That was the water which ran beneath the old mill. The time had been when the water drove the wheel that ground the corn in the mill. But in Mr Parfitt’s day the grinding of corn had given way to the baking of bread. He didn’t make his flour himself. It was bought from a mill upcountry. It was, he thought, too much of an enterprise to make the flour as well. He had thought of it, mind. But it was too much of an enterprise. Mr Parfitt was a baker, not a miller. He always had been a baker.
The Mill Race was a natural stream that had offered an enterprising miller the chance to set up in business. That had been many centuries past. For generations grain had been ground there, but not now, and quite likely never again.
Mr Parfitt liked the sound of the rushing water. He never tired of the Mill Race. Nora barely noticed it. She was too busy serving in her café. The place was rarely silent enough for her to listen to the sound of water. Like the sea, the Mill Race she had lived with all her life. She hardly noticed it was there.
It was Mr Parfitt she noticed. Every day he came into the café Nora took note of him. She greeted him warmly, for she always had some time for him no matter how busy things were, as they could be in the season. Nora knew exactly what her favourite customer wanted. He never had anything other than hot, sweet, black coffee. Every morning of the week Mr Parfitt came in as the clock on St Nicholas’s Church struck eleven. Nora said she timed it to the second.
There were not many other customers there. Even in the height of the season there were days that were not as crowded as others. This was such a morning. A mother and very young child were in. An elderly couple who said they were from Salisbury were about to leave as Mr Parfitt came in. Two young women sat at a table, talking in whispers. Nora thought there was something not quite right about those two.
She had given them quite a few penetrating glances, but they had seemed oblivious to her disapproval. Perhaps they were accustomed to disapproving glances if there was something not quite right about them. They were not local. They had a city air about them, the air of London. You could never tell with such types. London was another world where all sorts went on. You heard about it.
Mr Parfitt, as was customary, declared that his coffee was perfect. ‘Just how you like it, eh, my lovely dear,’ Nora replied. It was part of their routine. Every day the same routine. Nora looked forward to it. She knew what he would say. She knew what to say in return. It was the routine.
Then there would be some gossip. Nora always began the same way: ‘So, what’s the news, Mr Parfitt?’
‘No news,’ Mr Parfitt always replied.
‘Well, I’m surprised at that, with you working at the bakery. You must have a bit of news, Mr Parfitt.’
‘Well, I see the house on Prospect Hill is sold,’ Mr Parfitt replied. ‘They’re nice houses, he added. ‘Good, big family houses. Built to last. Nicely designed, too. Yes, very nice houses.’
‘Sold now, is it, Mr Parfitt?’ Nora replied.
‘They’re nice houses.’
‘Well, they’re big certainly. Just right for a family – if you’ve the money.’
‘They’re nice houses.’
‘Well, I prefer something a bit more modern. Contemporary, a contemporary look is what I like, speaking personally. I’m not that keen on old. It sort of reminds you of the past somehow, don’t you think, Mr Parfitt?’
‘Well, they are nice houses.’
‘Oh, they’re nice houses in their way, I’ll grant you, but they wouldn’t do for me somehow. I like modern, as I say. And not too big, mind. Different if you’ve got a big family, like.’
The city girls exchanged glances, trying to suppress their laughter. Nora gave them yet another of her disapproving looks. She asked Mr Parfitt if he knew who had moved into the house of Prospect Hill.
‘A family, I believe, ‘he replied. ‘Yes, a family. They’ve been in, of course. I served them myself, if I’m not mistaken. They have children. They look very nice. Girls. Nicely-spoken. Nice manners.’
‘I like nice manners in kids. I think it’s very important, myself. Of course, from my background we spoke any old how, but we was brought up to appreciate good manners. They don’t cost you, do they? So there’s no excuse. Anyway, it’s good to hear a decent family’s moved in.’
‘Well, that’s how it should be, Mr Parfitt. We’ve a nice town, and that’s how we want to keep it. I personally believe in standards. We’ve got to maintain standards. There was a man on the radio saying that very thing only yesterday. Or was it last week some time? Can’t rightly recollect. Anyway, the point is that once you let standards drop you don’t know where it will lead, do you? Well, I’ll tell you where it leads – It means the ruin of everything. We’ll not be safe in our beds at night.
‘I mean, if you remember that couple? You know, at Saltmouth? Do you remember them? Course you do. The trouble they caused. Who could forget them? You don’t forget that sort of trouble in a hurry. I thought things were never going to be the same after that. Do you remember? It was in all the papers. I had reporters coming in here. I said, “You get out. You get yourselves right of here, and don’t you come back.” That’s what I said. I said, “Get out.” This is a respectable town. But it was touch and go, Mr Parfitt. Do you remember? You don’t forget that sort of thing.’
‘I do, Nora, I do remember it very well. Nasty business. Shocking to think of it. I believe it was drugs, wasn’t it?’
‘It was drugs and all sorts, Mr Parfitt. All sorts. Best not to think about it, I say. You know what’s to blame, Mr Parfitt? I’ll you what’s to blame. It’s education to blame. Education gives people funny ideas, in my opinion. Funny ideas. They get it from the universities. They teach who-knows-what in the universities. I was reading only yesterday in the paper that some professor had been….Well, I don’t like to say what he’d been doing.’
‘Well, you can’t say it’s all like that, Nora. I mean, education can change people’s lives.’
‘It can do that all right, Mr Parfitt.’
‘I mean, doctors – they’re educated. You need education to be a doctor.’
‘Yes, but they go to medical school. Medical school’s different. They have respectable standards there. They teach them manners, which is the most important thing in being a doctor in my opinion. Same with the Church. And with teaching. They tell them how to conduct themselves. That is what all schools should be doing instead of filling young people’s heads with this and that. A good education is what children need, not funny ideas. I don’t think it ought to be allowed, all them funny ideas you hear so much about now. You never did at one time, did you? Not like now.’
Mr Parfitt said nothing at all. In fact he said nothing more for the remainder of his fifteen minutes in the café. He was content to let his mind drift away to thoughts of sailing. On Saturday he hoped for fine weather. The weather forecast was promising. Fine weather was going to mean a good day’s sailing. That, more than anything, was Mr Parfitt’s idea of recreation.
He loved his work. He was dedicated to his bakery. The thought of retirement never had any appeal to him at all. He intended to continue baking to the end of his days. Perhaps in later years he wouldn’t work every day, most days but not every day. In his leisure he would go sailing. But that was some time ahead. He had no intention of giving up yet. Although, it was true, that in good weather he did look out onto the Channel waters, and think how he might take out his lovely craft if the tide were high.
The young women of whom Nora did not approve made their way out of the café. They said nothing in words. But their manner indicated their contempt for Nora. They gave her not a glance when she said her usual goodbye. Afterwards Nora said, ‘Something not right about those girls. Can’t put my finger on it. Don’t like the look of them.’
Nora sighed. Mr Parfitt remained silent. He was a man of few words. That, for Nora, was intriguing. She thought there were ‘deep waters’ there, if only she might reach them
‘It’s the same with trying to find someone to help here,’ Nora was saying. Mr Parfitt hadn’t been listening, although Nora seems not to have noticed that. ‘I’ve had such problems. Well, you know the problems I’ve had, Mr Parfitt. The problems I’ve had with girls. In the end you give up. You can’t seem to find one who’s willing to do a decent day’s work. They’re all doing this and that. They don’t want to work, that’s for sure. So in the end you give up. They won’t be told. You can’t tell them how to do things proper, like. No, they want to do it the way they want to do it, which, as like as not, means it doesn’t get done at all. Like I say, they don’t listen. They just laugh at you behind your back. Oh, there she goes again, they say. And they just laugh. So what can you do? What can you do, Mr Parfitt? I’m blessed if I know. So, like I say, in the end you just give up. It’s not worth the bother of trying. I’m sick of trying with them girls. I do it all myself, then at least I know it gets done as it should. Of course it means I work every hour God sends. Every hour that God sends, and get no thanks from anyone for it, but at least I know it’s done up to a decent standard. Well, there’s regulations. Hygiene. Inspectors come, and they can close you down, as you know, Mr Parfitt. So it’s got to be done right, hasn’t it? And there isn’t one girl that I can find in the whole town who can do it right.’
‘Oh, I don’t know,’ Mr Parfitt ventured to say, his eyes looking out to the headland.
‘Well, I do, and I’m telling you,’ Nora replied. ‘I know only too well, I’ll tell you, Mr Parfitt.’
It was time for Mr Parfitt to leave. The church clock was striking the first quarter. ‘Regular as clockwork you are, Mr Parfitt,’ Nora said. It was something she always said every day as the bells of St Nicholas chimed the first quarter after eleven. If Mr Parfitt was vexed by this ritual reference he showed not the slightest hint of irritation.
‘Now, I have to tell you something important, Mr Parfitt, before you go. I’ve been meaning to say this.’ Nora hesitated. Her customary confidence had escaped her. She took a deep breath. ‘The fact is, Mr Parfitt, that next week the café will be closed Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday for some decoration. I think the place needs an uplift. I know it’s short notice, but it’s when my cousin’s neighbour can fit me in. He’s so busy, you know. Well, I say, it’s good that he’s got the work. There’s plenty who can’t say that, isn’t there? Anyway, for three days we won’t be open. But it’s business as usual Thursday.’
‘Well, I’ll miss your coffee, Nora.’
‘Course you will, my lovely dear.’ Nora sighed as Mr Parfitt rose out of his chair, picking up his newspaper before leaving. If he heard Nora’s sigh he gave no indication. He didn’t even look at Nora when she said goodbye.
Without saying another word Mr Parfitt closed the door of the café. He walked at his customary, unhurried pace across the road to the converted mill that was his bakery. A customer he knew greeted him cheerfully, and he responded in kind. Nora and the Crab Café were forgotten in the contingencies of the late morning.
Later perhaps Mr Parfitt would give time to thinking where he might take coffee in the days when the Crab was closed. He decided, on recommendation, to give the Captain’s Cabin a trial. It did look an inviting place. That was true. The Crab was conveniently close by, but Nora could go on a little too much. The coffee was acceptable, however. And the view of the sea never failed to please Mr Parfitt.
Mr Parfitt liked the sea, and the sight of a pretty girl. He had never married. He had hoped to find the right person, but she never came. He had been with a few girls. He had ventured discreetly into the realms of the intimate pleasure a young man hopes for as fervently as a young woman hopes to be cherished.
But those romantic days were long past. They had walked out to the lighthouse, or into Downe Wood. In secluded places they had sought out one another for the satisfaction of being more than simply alive.
But these encounters never found their way into a love that survives disappointment and failure. Mr Parfitt had wanted many things from a woman. He had much to give. He wanted to share his prosperity with someone. He wanted someone to listen to his plans for future expansion. He wanted a woman who might sail with him, and with whom he might reach distant shores by night. He wanted a pretty face, a shapely body and a warm heart. She would wear silk when he wore velvet. They would care for each other always. Even when the fires dimmed, in the embers would be something that surpassed a transient need, a momentary pleasure.
But it never happened. He never caught a mermaid by the tail.
The sea was so calm that members of the Yacht Club were unsure if there was any sailing to be done that day. They needed a breeze. Later in the morning light winds began to worry the surface of the channel waters. The tide was high, flooding the harbour, raising the yachts out of the mud. There were no more than a few wisps of cloud in the sky. This was, as every sailor knew, a perfect day. This was a day to glide across the water to the headland and beyond. This was a day when the horizon was limitless, a day when one might sail on to the moon.
‘Personally, I like things to be straightforward, then you know where you are. Blue sky thinking,’ Mr Parfitt said, taking his leave of everyone at the Yacht Club. He was in good form. He felt relaxed, content and well. He had never felt better. The sky was a perfect blue, with only a hint of cloud. The sea was turquoise. A light wind was sufficient to make for a perfect day’s sailing. There was nothing on Mr Parfitt’s mind except the thought of his craft floating on the water. The tide was high, and soon he would be out beyond the strand which shielded the harbour.
And so Mr Parfitt sailed on a light breeze beyond the headland and into the next bay, a great arc of coast revealed. It was always like the first glimpse of a new found land. To the left was the limitless horizon of the sea. It stretched like a great sheet of glass. Ahead were some notorious rocks. But Mr Parfitt was well-accustomed to those. Ships had been known to founder on those rocks. The sea was as much a danger as a pleasure.
There came a moment, out from the headland, when the waves stilled and the wind dropped. This reversal of climate was quite usual. For no reason it seemed, and without warning, the wind could rise or fall or change direction. It often happened. There was no reason to think that this moment of calm was unusual.
And yet Mr Parfitt did feel there was a difference in the air. It was not something he could know for certain. It was a vague feeling. Then it grew stronger. It was a feeling inside himself, a sense of well-being. Mr Parfitt loved to venture out to sea. He loved the spray of saltwater, and the cries of gulls, and the sight of other craft, many of which he knew. He knew the names of the boats. He knew the lives of their owners. They were familiar people, many of whom he had known for years and years.
On this day, unusually, there was no-one. On a Saturday afternoon in summer there was always another yacht in sight. But on this day Mr Parfitt was alone. He was not concerned. He felt at peace. Why beware of such a feeling of peace? What had he to fear from such a benign spirit? It was the way he felt when he woke in the Infirmary the day he was due to be discharged. It was a good way to feel, a Godly way.
This was the calm and peace of a world at harmony. There were many terrible things happening in the world, but at this moment none of that mattered because out there was only the vastness of the ocean, the waters that encircled the world. When there no more wars to fight, no more lands to conquer, no more races to subdue, there would be the sea flowing as it had from the beginnings of time. In the end there would be the same water. This never changed. This was as old as the Universe, and as mysterious.
That girl, the one he saw walking by the cafe, she was a part of that mystery. Her loveliness and her kindness both testified to the truth of that. Such beauty was a mystery. It surely contained a secret. It was one that Mr Parfitt never had understood as hoped he might. It was so near and so distant. He almost could reach that mystery, only to see that it was as far away as the stars.
The sight of the stars from the open sea was something to treasure. And when there was a crescent moon, then the vision was incomparable. Mr Parfitt was not one to sail his own craft at night, but he had gone across the water on a perfect night. Then he looked up to the sky, as now he looked at Lucy floating through the water towards the yacht.
At first he had thought her body lifeless, and the fear in him was awful. But when he saw her rise out of the water effortlessly he was relieved that she was alive and beautiful. She sat at the stern, her smile so welcoming, her eyes so clear. Hair cascaded down over her naked breasts, her modesty preserved by a pair of shimmering white tights.
Mr Parfitt whispered hello. When she gently slipped into the water Mr Parfitt followed her, for it was the most natural thing he could think to do. She had saved his life once. She would do so again. Mr Parfitt went down into the calm water. He had no doubt that this was how it ought to be. He felt no regret, no uncertainty, no fear. Then he felt nothing at all.
Suddenly the wind changed to a fierce easterly that brought rain and rough waves that crashed against the yacht drifting toward the headland to be broken on the rocks. Then, as suddenly as the storm came, it vanished. The sea was calm again, having brought Mr Parfitt’s body closer to the shore.
There came a letter from Mr Parfitt’s attorney. It was not the news Nora at the café had been expecting. She didn’t understand how it happened. She told everyone she didn’t understand. She said it so often to so many people that everyone became too familiar with Nora’s grievance. She couldn’t stop herself from declaring her shock at the news. It went round her mind endlessly in every waking hour, and often in her dreams.
Nora felt betrayed. She had been betrayed and humiliated by the man for whom she cared so much. She could not understand how he could do such a thing to her. She had cared about him. She had welcomed him into her café every day. Every day at the church clock was striking the hour he was to be seen walking across from the bakery to Nora’s café. She had loved those visits. It had been her ten minutes of heaven every day.
She had cherished him. She had prepared his coffee just the way he like it. She had brought to his table with such loving care. She had done this for him day in, day out in every season, year after year. Without her devoted attention where would he have been? Another lonely, unmarried man sitting in a café alone. But because of Nora he was a man who had known warmth and care at the hands of an adoring woman. What more could he have asked for?
What more could she have given? She asked for nothing in return, although, naturally, her expectation was that one day he would give some indication, some little indication, that he appreciated all she had done. He would give some indication that he cared. He would drop ever so subtly a hint that her devotion was to be in some large measure reciprocated. All Nora asked of him was love. Was that too much to ask for, too much to expect?
He had been thinking all the time of another who was not even a woman. What could possess a man of Mr Parfitt’s maturity to bequeath everything – his church and a few charities apart – to a mere girl? What madness had taken hold of him? What spell had been cast? If it was Mr Parfitt’s hand that had signed the document, but the dark presence of an evil spirit had guided his when he signed.
‘I know that girl, not to speak to, but I see her pass my café,’ Nora explained to Mr Parfitt’s solicitor. ‘I’ve seen her give my Mr Parfitt the eye. But he loved me. I know he did. I’m not stupid, you know. I know what love is. I’ve been married twice. He loved me, I tell you. I could see it in his eyes, in his smile. He had a lovely smile. I’ve never seen such a lovely smile – although you’ve got a nice smile yourself, young man. His smile, well, it was the smile of a man in love. And I should know. I’ve been married twice, and there’s many a man I could have taken as my third had I so wished. I know what love is, believe me. But, no, I waited for my lovely, dear Mr Parfitt. We’d have made a perfect match. Just think of it - him in the bakery and me in the café. That was how it was going to be. That’s how I planned. And I planned it with such care. I can see it now. Well, it was going to be perfect, wasn’t it, until…’
‘Well, I’m afraid, Mrs Gibbon…’
‘Don’t you Mrs Gibbon me, young man. I want what is mine. I’m an ordinary working woman, and proud to call myself such. And, by everything that’s right, I’ll bloody well get it. It was to be him in the bakery and me in the café. I know what love is. And I’m not having it. I’ve told you: I want what is mine.’
‘Well, perhaps if you..?’
‘Perhaps if I what, young man? Perhaps if I forget the whole thing? Is that what you mean?’
‘Well, I really don’t see how….’
‘No, well, you wouldn’t, would you. You’re not a woman who’s been wronged. I have been wronged and betrayed and tricked when I’ve worked my fingers to the bone to make ends meet. I’ve not been wrapped up in privileges all my life, not like some. I’ve had to work. And I’ve worked hard. I’m an ordinary working woman, and proud to call myself such.’
‘Well, quite, Mrs Gibbon, but I really don’t see how we can help you further.’
‘There’s courts, isn’t there? There’s courts and there’s judges. There’s courts with judges who can decide on these things, and give me what is mine by right. Don’t tell me that the law isn’t on my side. I’m a woman who’s been wronged. I have been wronged and betrayed and tricked.’
‘Well, there is very little room for manoeuvre. Perhaps if we could see the original will?’
‘It was always understood between us.’
‘It was a verbal agreement, Mrs Gibbon? Mr Parfitt discussed it with you?’
‘Not in so many words. It was more of an understanding. It was to be him in the bakery and me in the café. I know what love is. And I’m not having that little minx coming between us. I’ve told you: I want what is mine. I’ve worked my fingers to the bone. Nobody, I tell you, nobody understood that dear, good, generous man as I did. It’s almost as if we was made for each other. And if there’s a God above…’
The solicitor looked at his watch. He stifled a yawn. The room needed more air. Once she was gone he would open a window. A cup of tea might be in order.
‘You’re not listening to me, are you? You’re not listening to me. Well, there’s others who will listen. I’ll bloody well make sure they listen.’
The music was appropriately solemn for such an occasion. All who were gathered in the church were dressed in sombre formality, with black the dominant tone. Every face wore the serious expression that accompanies bewilderment and loss. Only the other day he had been alive and laughing. He seemed totally recovered. There was no reason for anyone to think there may be more bad news to come.
The silence lasted a long while until a noise at the back of the church disrupted all thoughts, and transformed in an instant all sorrow into anger, and all tears into fury. Everyone turned in disbelief to the back of the church. At first minds, roused from the depths of contemplation, could not hear the words uttered. All that was heard was disruptive noise. What was happening was sacrilege of a kind that nobody could imagine witnessing at such a time.
Nora Gibbon was shouting, ‘I loved him most of all. None of you loved him as I did. We were meant for one another. I know that in his heart of hearts it was me, and not that little minx as I should call her. None of you knew him as I did. None of you loved him as I did. It was me, me, me that he loved, I tell you.’
Firm hands were placed on Nora’s shoulders. Carefully, almost respectfully, she was gripped by men who had no intentions of doing her harm, but every intention of removing her from the scene of her embarrassing display of emotion.
Churchwardens and other men led Nora away out of the church. They had to drag her in her rage and sorrow that was so unseemly, so inappropriate and so unforgivably degrading that it was never going to be forgotten. Even outside the church Nora’s voice could be heard in her inconsolable vexation at the injustice of life.
‘I think,’ the Rector said, ‘we need to pray for another today - if we can find it in our hearts.’
‘Well, I can’t, Reverend,’ Jim Whiteley called out. There was a murmur of approval at this. ‘She’s gone and ruined our thoughts of Reg at the time of our saying goodbye to a lovely old boy. There’s no two ways that that’s not right.’
‘That mad cow don’t give a damn about Reg,’ another man added. ‘She’s only thinking of how she feels.’ They were approving murmurs throughout the congregation.
‘She’s only thinking of Reg’s money, I say,’ a man added to another round of approving murmurs.
Nora’s voice was found later murmuring in the churchyard: ‘There you are, my lovely dear, your coffee just as you like it.’ Over and over she said it until it was dark and everyone had gone – everyone except Nora and Mr Parfitt. ‘You’ll like it. Course you will, my lovely dear,’
Jack Coey believes the writer’s unique view of the world – point of view, is his talent. The individual writer has a point of view original from everyone else, and it’s that which makes his writing distinct.
McGee Carney sat in the back half of the bus on his way to New York City from New Hampshire to become an actor. It was June, 1973. He was about to be twenty-five with blue eyes, red hair and freckles. He thought about this for a long time before actually doing anything about it – since high school and Mr. Clements really. Mr. Clements told him over and over he had talent especially when they were alone, and he had his hands on McGee’s shoulder, and he said more than once how convincing he was. McGee read an article in the Sunday magazine about how actors could make $10,000 a year or more using their voice for radio and T.V. commercials, no memorization required; all you had to do was read the lines. Another thing about that Mr. Clements was he always liked to show up in the dressing room when McGee changed into his costume. After high school, McGee had a job in a hardware store in Bennington, New Hampshire, and when he got fired for spilling too much paint, he didn’t know what to do, and kept thinking about what Mr. Clements told him. He’d been on the bus for three hours, and he don’t know which feeling was worse, the loneliness or the doubt. Those two feelings fell in love, and had a baby called fear, and McGee wished he never met Mr. Clements.
He took one look, and knew he’d never seen anything like it. The noise, the smells, and all the people walking, no, more like charging down the streets were to him almost comical. What he didn’t know was his amazement was on his face. He stood in the middle of the terminal holding his suitcase, and people briskly walked by him going in all directions. He looked to his right, and saw a down and out looking, middle-aged man with yellow teeth and sores on his face studying him, and a ball of fear jumped to his throat. When they made eye contact, the man’s face broke into a yellow grin.
“Need a place to stay?” asked the man.
McGee pretended not to hear him. The man walked toward him, and McGee froze.
“Need a place to stay?” he was close to McGee’s ear.
The man pointed.
“Meet me in that men’s room the first stall to the left, and you can make yourself a quick twenty bucks.”
The man was gone; it was like he was a mirage. The churning in McGee’s stomach lessened, and he felt exposed, like everyone could see his nakedness. On instinct, he told himself to move, and saw the sign: “To Eighth Avenue” and started walking. He walked out onto Eighth Avenue, and didn’t walk fast enough, and was pushed, until he figured out the flow. He felt better when he saw the umbrella with “Hotdogs” written on it. He had a hundred dollars in his jean’s pocket, and as he stood there deciding what to order, a teenaged boy bumped into him.
“Hey man, sorry,” muttered the boy, and the vendor said to McGee,
“Hotdog with relish,” answered McGee. Instantaneously the vendor was holding out the hotdog to McGee.
“One twenty-five,” said the vendor, and McGee stuck his hand in his pocket only to exclaim,
“My money! It’s gone!” He looked in his other pockets. The vendor was listening to another order with his arm extended to McGee while wiggling his fingers. The vendor turned to McGee.
“Come on! I haven’t got all day here. One twenty-five.”
“My money’s gone!” cried McGee.
“Beat it!” barked the vendor, “go on, get out of here, ya punk.”
McGee was scared and angry; he felt he was a victim for anyone passing by.
“What’s the trouble, Bruno? Can’t you see he’s green?” McGee looked, and saw a woman dressed in short shorts with lipstick and a heavy application of mascara wearing cheap beads and a dirty white blouse and no bra. McGee never saw anything like her.
“He owes me for the hotdog,” complained Bruno.
“You ought to know better – you can tell from looking at him, he ain’t from the city. What? You fergot when you got off the bus?”
“Beat it, both of yuz, beat it,” swore Bruno.
“I know your racket. You make more money picking pockets than you do selling hotdogs. You oughta be ashamed of yourself.”
“Look who’s talkin’.”
“Johns come to me by choice.”
“Excuse me, Mother Teresa. Go on. Get out of here.” Bruno waved his arm.
The woman grabbed McGee by the arm, and pulled him down the street. After they had gone a block, she stopped.
“You want something to eat? Listen, I know you’re scared and confused, but trust me, I want to help you. I make my living from the suffering of others, and whenever I can help someone in a good way, I do it, because it makes me feel better. I know you have your story, and I won’t pry into that, but do you have a safe place to stay?”
“Just like I thought. You got pick pocketed so your money’s gone. Do you want to stay with me? No funny stuff, but you can sleep on my couch until you get something better. I don’t mind really.”
“I don’t know what to do,” said McGee.
“Yeah, I remember how scary it is. I got off the bus thinking I was going to be a Broadway star.”
“You’re an actress?”
“I guess you could say in a manner I am. Let’s walk to my apartment, and get you something to eat, and you can decide what you want to do. I think my couch is better than a doorway, but it’s up to you.”
McGee hesitated, and she smiled and waited, and he started to walk with her. He was confused; his life changed so fast, and he was sure of nothing. If this woman wanted to victimize him what choice did he have? They walked for twenty minutes, and he saw the street sign which read, “4th Street.”
“Where are we?” he asked.
They walked to the middle of the block, and she climbed three or four steps to the street door, and took out keys and let them in. They climbed a flight of musty stairs, and she stopped at a door with “7” on it. They walked into a small room with a grimy window looking out over an alley. There was a Formica kitchen table with two chairs, and the toilet was behind a curtain. On one side of the room, there was a mattress on the floor, and on the other, a ratty couch. He smelt incense.
“Wanna beer?” as she pointed to the table for him to sit. McGee looked at her and guessed she was in her early thirties. He pulled out the chair and sat at the table, and all of a sudden, he heard a pounding noise from the floor.
“Asshole!” she hissed, “it’s the jerk below me. He heard you pull out the chair – ignore him.”
She went to the refrigerator, and took out two bottles of beer. As she handed him his beer, he offered,
“Vanya. Baloney sandwich all right?”
She took baloney out of the refrigerator and bread from the cupboard, and set the sandwich before him on a napkin.
“Thank-you,” he said. She looked at him for a beat before sitting down with her beer.
“You might think I’m being silly, but would you mind covering yourself?”
She jumped up, and pulled a sweatshirt over her head.
“Sorry, I forgot. I do that for my johns. Hey, listen, you don’t need to be afraid of me. I know you’ve never met anybody like me before, but I’m a person like everyone else.”
“I don’t know what to do. I don’t have any money…”
She stood up, and went to a drawer, and came back with a plastic bag and a pipe.
“I’m going to introduce you to marijuana. It will relax you and you’ll feel better. Don’t worry I’ll be right here to make sure nothing bad happens – you’ll probably fall asleep is all.”
McGee’s eyes were wide open.
“Oh…I don’t know…”
“You want to feel better, don’t you?”
McGee slid his chair back from the table which brought more banging from downstairs.
“All right, I won’t force it on you. You don’t mind if I do?”
McGee shook his head, and she rolled a joint, and lit up. McGee watched. She held her breath, and finally exhaled.
“You hold it in your lungs, see?”
“That’s not bad for you?”
“Certainly don’t feel that way. Sure you don’t want to try it?”
McGee watched some more. She asked him with her eyes, and he shook his head. He took a swig of beer. She inhaled from the pipe, and started to cough, and smoke shot everywhere.
“Don’t look like much fun.”
“You don’t (cough) understand un-(cough, cough.) till you try it.”
He was amused; he drank. She drank too. She took another hit off the pipe, and it was good this time.
“Ahhh, yes, I’m good,” she purred. For the first time, McGee was distracted from his problems. She handed him the pipe.
“Take a small hit – just to try it.”
McGee took the pipe and put it to his lips.
“Just take a little, and inhale it into your lungs, and hold it there for as long as you can.”
As she spoke, she leaned across the table getting close to McGee’s face to watch his execution. McGee inhaled, felt it burn, and blew smoke into Vanya’s face.
“Oh God, it’s burning my eyes,” she exclaimed. She waved her hand in front of her eyes and started to laugh.
“Try it – one more time,” she squealed.
He did it again and held it for about ten seconds. He exhaled, and took a swig of beer. All of a sudden, he was lightheaded, and the next he knew, he woke up on the couch with the sun coming through the dirty window.
He blinked his eyes and his throat felt like sandpaper. He sat up and saw her on the mattress with her back to him. He slowly got up, and tiptoed to the sink, and ran some water into the palm of his hand, and shoveled it into his mouth. He needed a toilet, and felt funny about only having a curtain; he looked at her to make sure she was asleep. He pulled the curtain behind him, and sat on the toilet. He relieved himself, and heard,
His face got red.
“Light the incense! On the floor, there’s sticks of incense and a lighter.”
“Do I hold it in my lungs?”
He heard her laugh. He scrambled for a stick of incense, and quickly lit the lighter which lit the toilet paper. He pounded on the toilet paper roll, and the next he knew, the curtain was separated, and she was standing there, and she disappeared, and came back with a glass of water which she threw at the toilet paper roll which had caught the curtain on fire, and she screamed, and he had to get up without completely relieving himself, and he hopped to the sink with his pants around his ankles. He opened the refrigerator, and took out a carton of milk which he poured down the sink, and filled with water, and threw onto the curtain which put out the fire, and he had messed himself down his leg, and there was pounding from below. They froze until she started to laugh so hard she had to sit at the table. McGee was more than embarrassed – ashamed was more like it.
“McGee don’t feel bad, I see worse, believe me.”
She got up, and got a towel, and handed it to him.
“Here clean yourself off.”
He took the towel, and pulled what was left of the curtain behind him, and wiped himself off, and pulled up his pants. She opened the window, and fanned the smoke with a magazine. Thump, thump, thump from below. McGee flushed the toilet.
“You can walk to the “Y” on thirty-Fourth Street, and take a shower for three bucks,” she said as she mopped the water from the floor. He was at the sink taking a drink of water; the smoke made him thirsty all over again.
“I’m really sorry, Vanya. I made a mess.”
“McGee this is nothing – believe me. How about we go down to the coffee shop on the corner, and I’ll buy us breakfast?” Thump, thump, thump.
“Man, that guy’s going to give me a headache.”
They sat with coffee cups in front of them, and she was talking.
“The quickest and easiest way for you to learn the city is by walking the streets with me, and I can show you how to get around, and the different con games to watch out for. The trick on city streets is to cop the right attitude otherwise the hustlers and perverts sense weakness and they prey on you as, I’m afraid, you already discovered. You have to project ‘Don’t fuck with me,’ or they will.”
Vanya studied McGee for a moment.
“You don’t look so sure,” she said.
“I don’t know, Vanya…”
She looked out the window at the people walking by.
“You want to go back to – where are you from? Rhode Island?”
She tapped her fingers on the table top.
“Where did you grow up?”
A sadness came over her before she spoke.
“I grew up in a small southern town. My father was a shop teacher, and my mother worked, part-time, at the library. My mother thought I was beautiful. At a young age, she dressed me up in fancy dresses, and in elementary school, she entered me in beauty pageants, and I always did good. My uncle liked me too, and he would come into my room and at first, would lie next to me, then, would rub himself against me, and finally, penetrate me. It hurt bad, but I never screamed.” She laughed. “It turned out to be good training for my profession. Some of my johns are disgusting – let’s leave it there. After my uncle, I felt dirty and was never able to shake it, and it was only when I got older, I realized I was a victim, but by then, it was too late. More than once, I heard my folks arguing over my uncle so I knew they knew, but they did nothing. That’s when I made up my mind to run away. I figured how could it be any worse?”
A tear ran down her cheek.
“How do people do that to each other?” he whispered.
“There is evil.”
“I’m not ready for this.”
“Easy to say without trying. If you stay, I promise it will change you.”
“If I go back, I’ll be safe.”
“True. And you’ll never know what you could have accomplished. You’ll get drunk on the weekends, and rot your brain on hours of TV, and even your kids will grow to despise you. Why are you here anyway?”
“Every hour a bus arrives from somewhere, and on every bus, there’s young people looking to make it in the city. Only the most beautiful or talented have a shot – don’t kid yourself, and the others that do make it, never tell how they compromised themselves to get where they are. Being exploited is suffering – I know.”
McGee and Vanya looked at each other; there was a closer feeling now. After several beats, she started again.
“The more people, the greater the evil and you have to develop the armor to protect yourself.”
“You should take your own advice.”
“Wounded little girls grow up into wounded women.”
McGee understood something he didn’t before. The waitress shoved the plates in front of them, and McGee slowly ate the eggs. She slid a twenty dollar bill across the table.
“It’s a loan, not a gift, I understand pride,” she said.
“Thanks Vanya. I’ll use three to take a shower.”
She made good on her promise to show him the town. They walked from the east village to Times Square, then, to Central Park, to the east side, then, the west. She showed him the prostitutes, and hustlers, and pimps, and con men – pickpockets, drug dealers, and flim flam artists, and McGee couldn’t get over the variety. She took him on the subway from Grand Central Station to Harlem, and out to Brooklyn. They invented a game where she gave him a location, and he told her how to get there. When they got back to her apartment, he lie down on the couch, and fell asleep. He woke several hours later, and was alone. He lay in the dark, and for the first time, he was scared.
The next day, Vanya brought home a newspaper called Backstage. She told him about a busboy’s job she heard about at Angelino’s on Lafayette Street. He sat at the kitchen table and looked over Backstage, and read this ad:
Leonard Woolsey, Acting Teacher, Practitioner of the Stanislavski Method of Acting. Fee Negotiable. 2nd floor Studio, 481 Eighth Avenue between 46 & 47. Scene Study, Monday night @ 7. Exercise class, Wednesday night @ 7.
He thought he would go Monday night, and talk to the teacher to see what they could work out. Meanwhile he would go apply for the busboy’s job in the morning; it felt good to have a plan. The next morning, he found Angelino’s, and walked in the front door, and met a greasy slicked back black haired man with too white teeth, and a distasteful look on his face who said,
“May I help you?”
McGee stated why he was there, and was directed to the kitchen. He was directed by one of the waiters to a big, black man who introduced himself as Lewis who was chopping vegetables on a counter. Lewis asked McGee how long he’d been in the city, and McGee told him his story. Lewis grinned as he said,
“You’re what I calls a dreamer. You come to the city with big dreams, and if you’re lucky, you go back home before you gets yourself into too much trouble. Many of them don’t, but some do.”
Lewis went on to tell McGee how the restaurant worked: start out as a busboy, then move to salad/dessert maker or waiter, then up to assistant cook or service bartender, and finally to head cook, bartender or maitre de.
“The trick is tips. Be good to your customers which ain’t easy, believe me, and you can make some money. I took more abuse from dis advertising man, but I made me a bunch of money so I come out all right.”
Lewis told McGee to come back in the morning at ten, and they would give him a try out.
“Now this here’s between you and me, you whid me? Sergio the man in the front gets the final say on whether you stays or no, so as hard as it is, don’t talk back, you hear me?”
Lewis reached into his coat pocket, and handed McGee a twenty dollar bill.
“I can’t accept this,” protested McGee.
“Tell me den how you goin’ to have da money to buy da uniform you needs? White shirt, black tie, and khaki pants, and if dey ain’t brand new den Sergio won’t put you on de schedule. You got plenty of time to pays me back when you starts makin’ money, remember? Besides which it’s lunch time. How do you like your hamburger cooked?”
McGee knew well the kindness of the people who were helping him, and didn’t want to be a drain any longer than he had to. He promised himself to do whatever it took to make it at the restaurant so he could get his own place. That Monday night, he went looking for the acting class, and found the doorway on Eighth Avenue, and climbed the dark, smelly stairs to the second floor. Down a short hallway, he saw the sign: Leonard Woolsey Studio. He cautiously opened the door and heard voices. He saw three rows of folding chairs, and two people huddled together which he realized were actors rehearsing. There was a playing area in front of the chairs which was a rug and illuminated by a single spotlight hanging in the middle of the seating area. There was stuff on three sides of the playing area: left behind props: shirts and pants, kitchen utensils, hats and helmets, guns and knives, glasses (drinking and optical), shoes and boots, and even a rubber cigar. There was a man at a small wooden desk downstage right just off the playing area reading a book. McGee stood and was unnoticed until a voice,
“Hey, Leonard! Looks like you got yourself a recruit.”
Leonard looked up.
“Why, hello there,” he said.
“I’m here to see about taking your class.”
“Ah, I’m afraid I don’t have any openings right at the moment. You see, I keep twelve so everyone gets plenty of feedback. I learned that when I worked with Paul. Paul and I worked together on a movie called The Hustler, you may have seen it, and during breaks, Paul and I talked about acting technique, and Paul always said acting classes should be no larger than twelve. You may remember the scene in the pool hall when Fast Eddie and Minnesota Fats are shooting, and there’s a group of flunkies watching them, and I’m the third man from the left, and I take a totally organic drag on my cigarette. Paul always admired my craftsmanship, and said there are very few real artists left. He never forgot either; he sends me a Christmas card every year. But enough about me, tell me, what are your credits?”
McGee didn’t know what to say. A voice from the seating area,
“Estelle don’t leave me.”
“You’re nothing but a tramp that’s ruined my good name,” said a second voice. Some people came in from the hallway and sat in the folding chairs.
I don’t have any. I just got to New York,” answered McGee.
Leonard tilted his clean-shaven head to the ceiling.
“Ah!” he said, “you should find yourself a beginner’s acting teacher to learn the fundamentals.”
“I want to study with you.” McGee was surprised by his boldness.
“I can put your name on the waiting list. My actors get jobs so there are openings. It’s hard to know when however.”
“I don’t want to wait.”
Leonard titled his glasses up onto his forehead and smiled at McGee. He studied McGee.
“MONA! Is Mona here?”
“Yes Leonard,” answered one of the girls who came in.
“Mona can I ask you to read a scene here with – I apologize, what’s your name?”
“McGee: McGee Carney.”
Leonard reached for two playbooks.
He handed a playbook to each of them.
“From the top of page fourteen. This is a scene where a brother is trying to talk his sister into letting him have her inheritance to start a business. Mr. Carney you have two minutes to study the scene, and then I want you to play the scene as best you can. All right. Two minutes, please.”
McGee was nervous, but he heard Mr. Clements voice in his head: When you do a cold reading, give yourself a strong objective even if it’s wrong. At the end of two minutes, Leonard yelled,
“PLACES!” and the house lights went out and the spotlight was on. The scene started out shaky, and McGee took some time to focus, and there was no momentum until he started up again. He held her hand, and laughed at her jokes when they weren’t funny, and stroked her cheek, and made up lines about how beautiful she was, and the momentum got stronger and stronger, and the scene intensely ended. Leonard was beaming.
“You’re in,” he said.
McGee, all of a sudden, was the center of attention. His classmates watched every move he made as if he had something they could use. When the class broke up, Mona came to him.
“Are you going for a drink?”
She had big blue eyes.
“I don’t think so,” he answered. He felt watched.
“Oh, I get it,” she said, “I’ll buy you a beer, come on.”
They walked down the flight of stairs to Eighth Avenue, and crossed the avenue to a dark and dingy bar named Jimmy Ray’s. Classmates followed Mona and McGee who were the King and Queen of the Prom. Mona and McGee sat on bar stools, and the classmates lined up on either side of them.
“Would you do a scene with me?” asked Mona.
“Sure. Why not?”
“Do you know the play River of Regret by Lewis Collier?”
McGee shook his head.
“There’s a scene where the step-brother tries to seduce his step-sister. It’s really powerful, and I think, you and I could make it work.”
“Great. Where can I get a copy?”
“I’ll lend you mine so you can read the play, right?”
“I’m not a playwright, I’m an actor.”
“You sound like a comedian.”
She wrote on a napkin and slid it over to him.
“My boyfriend works nights. Call after seven.”
McGee used the twenty Lewis gave him to buy the uniform he needed for work. He was introduced to Raphael who was in his early twenties, and who was, or wanted to be, a dancer. He was slender and moved like a deer. The first thing McGee learned was speed was important; every turnover was another check and another tip. The waiters got pissed if the tables weren’t being bused fast enough. The second thing he learned was how the waiters covertly grabbed Raphael’s ass. The waiters were laughing and smirking, and Raphael acted like nothing was happening. McGee saw that Sergio was in on it, if not encouraging it, and it was making McGee angry. His judgment was to keep his feelings to himself; he needed this job to get on with his life. The waiters mimicked kisses to him, and if one of them put a hand on him, he didn’t know how he would react which scared him. He kept moving, and Sergio called him over to a table and reprimanded him in front of diners and other waiters for a dirty napkin left on a table which McGee suspected was planted there to get him in trouble. He apologized to Sergio, and said it wouldn’t happen again, and kept moving. He finished the lunch shift, and thought he was doing pretty well. He didn’t play into their game, and actually learned something about how to bus tables.
“Well, you seem to be catching on quite nicely,” said phony Sergio, “I’ll have you work a couple of lunches, and I’ll have a decision for you on Friday. Loosen up; you need to have more fun.”
Not your kind of fun, thought McGee.
One of the waiters gave him a cut out of the tip jar accompanied by a wink which McGee ignored. When he came out onto the sidewalk, Raphael was waiting for him.
“Listen, man, I know you’re not gay, but you’ve got to loosen up around the gay guys, otherwise, they won’t leave you alone. Flirt with them the way you would a woman, but make it clear, that’s as far as it goes.”
“They were grabbing your ass.”
“It doesn’t bother me, and they know that, so that’s where it stops. The worse thing you can do is let them see it bothers you, and they will be all over you, man, believe me, I know.”
He turned and walked down the sidewalk.
McGee would take out the napkin, every so often, and look at the number, and finally he dialed it, and a voice answered,
“Oh, yeah, Hi!”
“Is this all right?”
“Yes, yes, of course.”
“I wasn’t sure…”
“I didn’t expect it is all.”
“I thought this is what you wanted…”
“Sure, this is fine. Are you busy? Could we meet somewhere?”
“Yeah, that would be fun…”
“Can you meet me at Horn and Hardart on the corner of 36th and eighth in twenty minutes?”
McGee was roused; his heart was beating fast. He took the D train one stop and walked the rest of the way. She was at a table; he got a coffee, and they sat with cups in front of them.
“I’m half-way through the play…”
“What do you think?”
“I like it.”
“Our scene is coming up in Act Three. When we’re ready, we can sign-up for rehearsal time at Leonard’s studio.”
“That’s cool. Afternoons are good for me, you know, after lunch.”
“Angelino’s on Lafayette Street.”
“Oh My Gosh, a friend of mine had a bad experience with the maitre de there – Stefan, Steve…”
“Yeah, that’s it! He promised him shifts which he never gave him because he wouldn’t put out. Oh! He was awful!”
“I don’t like the guy much, but I need this job…”
“Be careful I guess is what I want to say.”
He looked at her across the table and saw how earnest and lovely she was. His stomach was churning, but he made himself ask the question.
“So you live with a guy…?”
She sheepishly smiled.
“Gerald? That’s a funny name.”
“As if McGee isn’t?”
She looked away and he felt tense.
“Gerald and I have been living together for about three months. He’s a costume designer, and is working on an off-Broadway production of Long Day’s Journey into Night.”
“Do you love him?”
She looked away, stood up, and said,
“I’ll book us some rehearsal time.”
A week went by, and Mona was on McGee’s mind. He did a couple of lunches, and that gave him some money. He knew his staying with Vanya was turning into something he didn’t want, and for him to get his own place, he would have to work more. Vanya was being good and generous with him, and he could see emerging signs of affection which he didn’t want. She came home with scratches and red blotches on her neck and shoulders which McGee didn’t inquire about to no purpose as one night she offered,
“When they’re drunk, they can get rough, but I change their mind quick with a swift knee to the balls.”
And I worry about a guy putting his hand on my ass, thought McGee.
Between lunch and dinner at the restaurant was a slow time, and McGee sat at an out of the way table to work on his lines. His character’s name was Brad, and Mona’s character was Jean, and he thought: I won’t have to do much acting…Brad wants to sleep with Jean just the same as I want to sleep with Mona. It’s going to be pretty obvious, but she may as well know. She doesn’t seem like she’s too crazy about Harold…I mean Gerald.
He sensed a presence, and looked up, and Sergio was standing there, a sly grin on his face.
“Sorry to interrupt, but I was making the schedule, and I can give you three lunches next week or five, but I wanted to give you a chance to persuade me.”
McGee studied Sergio for a long moment. He wanted to tell Sergio to go fuck himself, but there was too much at stake.
“You know I’m not interested in that.”
“It’s what the other busboys do.”
“Sorry. I’m not the other busboys. Go ahead and give me three, but you know, and I know, you’re being unfair to me. If your comfortable treating people that way, then, there should be no problem, right?”
McGee saw Sergio was uneasy with that description. Fortune bounced in McGee’s direction on his next shift when Phillip, the busboy who was to work dinner, showed up an hour late, and McGee covered for him. McGee and Sergio exchanged looks as McGee walked by the maitre de’s station.
Mona got rehearsal time at three o’clock on Tuesday, and they worked on blocking the scene. When they were finished, McGee said,
“All right, let’s run through it and see how it plays.”
They were still on book; they each sat at the ends of the couch.
Joan: You’re going back to school Sunday afternoon?
Brad: Yes. I’ll miss you.
Joan: (Hesitatingly) Yes…I’ll miss you too.
Brad slides closer to Jean.
Brad: I’m sure I’ll be lonely.
Joan stands and crosses stage left, and turns back to Brad.
Joan: Oh, don’t say that, Brad. You’ll make friends easily.
Brad: But no one can replace you.
Joan: (Frowning) It’s not like that, I’m your sister.
Another classmate came to the doorway and watched.
Brad: Not biological though.
Joan: What are you saying?
Mona broke character.
“Wait, wait! This is where Joan realizes he’s asking for something tawdry.”
“Yeah, he wants to fuck her,” crassly explained McGee.
“McGee, it’s not cool to sleep with your step-sister.”
Mona was agitated and McGee confused.
“Mona? You know this is what the scene is about.”
“It’s not okay…it’s not okay,” Mona was crying.
McGee held her until she calmed down.
“Nice work, guys. That was very real,” praised the spectator.
Without a word, McGee led Mona down the flight of stairs, and out onto the street. She walked away from him up Eighth Avenue.
“Mona,” he yelled, “MONA!”
She disappeared into the crowd. He stood in the flow, panting.
McGee came from Bennington, NH. a town of 825 in the winter which ballooned to 1500 in the summer with cottages and camps. His father, Malone, taught Health at the middle school, and his mother, Theresa, was the secretary at town hall. The three of them lived in a small house on the edge of the woods. His parents were quiet, simple, and hard-working. Malone was a Boy Scout leader who spent a lot of time in the woods, and by streams, talking about hygiene. Theresa spent much time reading Romance Novels, and McGee had the sense she yearned for something else. They went to St Patrick’s on Sunday mornings, and church suppers on Wednesday nights, and McGee did so to please his parents, and Malone did so to please his wife. McGee had his first experience with drama in middle school when he played the hare in a dramatization of the Tortoise and Hare story. All the adults including Mr. Clements, the high school drama coach, commented on McGee’s charisma. Mr. Clements talked to McGee about acting, and even gave McGee a part in the high school production of Our Town. Malone wanted his son to join the Boy Scouts, and when McGee told his father no, Malone suspected that Mr. Clements may have influence over him. The Carney family was well-thought of in Bennington so any man who had the opinion that actors were effeminate didn’t express that unless he was in the woods or a canoe, and never where anybody other than macho men could hear. When McGee got to high school, he was the leading man, not Captain of the football team, who let in around he thought McGee “queer”. Mr. Clements gave him leading roles in shows like Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Crucible and The Death of a Salesman. When McGee was able to touch the audience as Willy Loman even when he was too young to be believable, he was hooked; he’d never experienced that kind of power in his life. He began to understand what the “something else” was that he sensed from his mother. Mr. Clements couldn’t praise him enough nor could he keep his hands off of McGee which aggravated McGee no end. Mr. Clements talked to McGee about going to New York which, of course, was unthinkable to Malone and Theresa. When McGee suggested the idea to Malone he knew who was influencing him, and confronted Mr. Clements one afternoon in the faculty lounge only to be told he and his wife were being bourgeois and parochial neither word Malone knew and had to look up. McGee didn’t know what to do; he didn’t want to hurt his parents, they didn’t deserve that, but the possibility of living a life unlike anything he’d known had great allure. He started working at Lambert’s Hardware store while in high school, and continued working there until he was fired for spilling too much paint. Instead of misfortune, McGee saw an opportunity to go to New York to see if he could make it. He promised his father he would come home in two years if he couldn’t support himself from acting. Theresa was in favor, she wanted her son to have more than a small, New Hampshire town could offer.
McGee didn’t know what to do except to see Mona in class on Monday night; he was confused about her behavior, but didn’t believe he’d done anything to hurt her. He thought he should be cautious, and take his cues from how she treated him. He was nervous when he walked into the studio, and saw her sitting in the second row; she looked at him with a blank stare. There was a nervous twitter among the students as two actors set up their scene. When they were ready, Leonard said,
“Quiet Please!” and he turned out the lights. The scene began and tanked.
“Cut!” annoyedly yelled Leonard. On came the lights.
“Brian, what is your objective in this scene?”
The young actor sheepishly grinned.
“To borrow money.”
“I guess so.”
Leonard looked at the ceiling.
“What do you mean, you guess so?”
“Well, he asks her for money.”
“That’s what the playwright tells you, right? It’s in the lines.”
“You’re playing the scene like you don’t care if she gives you the money or not.”
Brian’s face got red and he looked at the floor.
“I don’t know,” he murmured.
“I can see that, but you have to figure out how to care about this in a dramatic way, or you’re going to put us all asleep.”
The audience tittered.
“I just thought he wanted to borrow money…”
“Okay but what are you going to do if that’s not a strong enough objective?”
Brian’s face got redder and he looked at the floor like he hoped it would swallow him up.
“That’s the playwright’s fault,” he muttered.
“I don’t disagree, but as an actor, you’re the one who has to make it work, otherwise, you’re the one who looks bad. So what can you do to give yourself a stronger objective?”
Brian shrugged his shoulders.
“I don’t know. Make something up?”
Leonard threw his hands in the air.
“Amazing! An actor who has to use his imagination! Remarkable, really!”
The audience laughed which produced sweat on Brian’s forehead.
“So what might be a stronger objective? Never mind the play.”
Brian looked around the space like the answer was on a wall, maybe.
“Oh! I know,” he exclaimed, “he wants to boink her.”
“Okay, got it.”
Now the actress was red in the face.
“Why does everything have to be about sex,” she complained.
“Honey, it’s what makes the world go round.”
“Funny, I thought money did.”
“Yes, that too. Okay, take a moment, and replay the scene. Brian you get to boink when she agrees to give you the money, okay?” The actors sat quietly thinking about their objectives. Leonard said,
“Quiet Please,” and out went the lights.
The scene was urgent and funny.
When the class broke up, McGee had to make a move; he walked up to her.
“Hey, can I buy you a cup of coffee?”
She didn’t answer. Then she said,
“Gerald is meeting me for a drink.”
McGee was embarrassed.
She looked away, then, back at him.
“How about tomorrow morning?” she offered.
“Sure,” he said, “Horn and Hardart?”
“Eight- thirty,” she answered.
On his way back to Vanya’s apartment, walking down 4th Street, he noticed two men in suit coats looking at the building. He unlocked the street door with a key, and went inside, and climbed the flight of stairs to the second floor. He was in the apartment for about fifteen minutes when there was a knock.
“Superintendent!” a voice said.
McGee opened the door and there was a short, pudgy man in a flannel shirt flanked by two men in suit coats.
“New York Police,” said the pudgy man.
“Can we ask you a few questions?” said one of the men.
McGee stepped aside to let them in.
“Thank-you Mr. Carbone.” And the pudgy man disappeared.
One of the men closed the door behind them. They produced badges.
“I’m Lieutenant Schwartz and this is Sergeant Rodriguez.”
McGee was nervous.
“I’m McGee Carney,” he said.
“You live here?” asked Rodriguez
“No. I’m staying here temporarily until I find something else.”
“New to the city?”
“Couple of weeks.”
“How do you know Vanya?”
“Ah…I met her on the street…”
“Not unusual for someone like Vanya,” said Schwartz.
“No, it wasn’t like that,” protested McGee.
“Where you from?”
“Why are you in New York?”
“I want to work in theatre.”
Schwartz smirked. He was holding a photograph.
“You and Vanya were roommates, is that right?”
“Where were you last night between twelve and three?”
“You can’t corroborate that though,” said Rodriguez.
“No, I guess I can’t.”
“When’s the last time you saw her?”
“Yesterday morning before I left.”
“Where’d you go?”
“I walk to the East River Park so she can use the toilet.”
“She was gone when you came back?”
“Did she ever have anyone here, man or woman?”
“No, at least when I was here anyway. What’s this about anyhow?”
Schwartz handed McGee the photograph, and he jerked his head away.
“Oh! My God!” he exclaimed.
“Can you identify the deceased as Vanya Romanoff?” asked Rodriguez.
“Oh My God, yes!’ said McGee with his face in his hands.
Both men were silent until McGee recovered himself somewhat.
“Listen, kid, I don’t mean to lecture you, but the city ain’t New Hampshire, and I don’t know your affairs, but unless you got a real good reason to be here, why put yourself through the squalor? Especially the theatre? As of now, you’re a suspect until we can clear you so don’t do anything stupid, got it?”
“Good. What happens now?” asked Schwartz.
“I don’t know. I work only a couple of lunches at the restaurant so I can’t afford rent at least for now.”
“Maybe we can talk to Mr. Carbone, and see if he would agree to let you stay here. You know, you would have to work out some kind of payment plan.”
McGee stared straight ahead.
“We’re going to take a quick look around, and we’ll be back later with a warrant to have a better look. Are you all right?” asked Schwartz.
“I don’t know,” murmured McGee.
“Do you want me to call somebody?”
The detectives looked around the apartment without opening any drawers or cabinets. Schwartz handed McGee a card.
“If you think of anything or have any information call me at this number, all right?”
“Good luck, kid, and if I was you, I’d think hard about why I was here. In my opinion, you’d have a much nicer life in New Hampshire.”
They left and McGee spent a long time looking out the grimy window over the alley.
The next morning as Mona was getting her coffee at Horn and Hardart, McGee was sitting in the Port Authority waiting to board the nine o’clock bus to Keene, and four hours later, when he was walking through the station in Keene, he stopped dead in his tracks, when he saw on an overhead TV, Sergio being arrested for the murder of a prostitute.
Lola enjoys writing about things close to her heart. She loves to reads especially crime and psychological thrillers. Lola also loves to garden and the sound of rain on the rooftops. She enjoys spending time with her fiance and going on long walks in the woods.
The wind blew as the multi-colored leaves flew around her feet and the streets. She wrapped her coat around her as the cold cut through her like a knife. Walking fast, she had to be on time because this was her only chance of escape. It was time to run away to a better future. Inner strength and independence were her major driving attributes. Any future had to be better than the life she was living now. A life of fear, uncertainty, and no hope.
Her ride would be at the meeting point in less than an hour, so she picked up the pace and moved quickly through the cold night air. All she could carry was a backpack and a small bag. Erica had left a lot of stuff behind but it symbolized to her the end of a horrible chapter in her life. Through her own will and determination, her future was going to be the best she could ever dream of.
The chilling breeze blew through her hair as she moved briskly down the sidewalk. Erica had to be at the meeting point on time. As she walked, thoughts ran through her mind. How did it get this bad she asked herself. How could her own family abuse her so much? Why was she not worthy of their love? Being alone on the streets was the best option compared to being at that house one more day.
Erica made it to the dimly lit parking lot where she was meeting her getaway ride. Did her family know she was gone? Paranoid thoughts ran through her head as she anxiously looked around for any signs of them. In her mind, she knew they were sleeping off their stupors. Her father had passed out drunk after a night at the bar and coming home to beat on Erica. Her mother was high and passed out on the Heroin she has ingested. They would not know she was gone until she was far away from them. Erica’s home was the un-safest place she knew of.
Finally, as the moon shown bright, her ride came. Erica jumped into the passenger’s seat and let out a sigh of relief. They sped off into the night. She was starting a new life ready to fulfill her dreams that her family said she would never achieve. Finally Erica felt free and happy. She was filled with hope, finally her life was beginning over and going to be so much better.
Darkness surrounded her
The darkness surrounds her and engulfed her as she ran. He, as he called himself (his name was never spoken), was after her. He called her name but was mostly silent. He had taken her from a poorly lit parking lot of a convenience store, using a knife to force her into his van. The knife had been cutting into her throat.
OH Jessie you have to find a place to hide somewhere in the dark she told herself. There were no moon or stars to guide her was, just sheer darkness. He heart raced and her breathing grew heavy. He had brought her to these woods in the van and he had no idea where she was. He let her out of the trunk and said run I am going to hunt you. She took off running.
As he hunted her, his the twigs and leaves never crackled under his feet like they did hers. Jessie had no idea where he was or where to hide. The night surrounded her and she was terrified. She had no idea which way to go. Suddenly she heard a gun shot in the distance. Jessie took all of her strength and started running the opposite way of the gun shot. She ran and then fell into a deep ditch.
Jessie was injured but the ditch was deep and the perfect hiding place. Jessie had stumbled upon a way to save her from death. She quickly scavenged all the leaves, twigs, and tree branches she could find. These were gifts from the forest. Nature was her savior now, hiding her and keeping her alive. Jessie laid down in the ditch and covered herself with all the debris. Her heart started racing as she heard footsteps and her breathing became erratic. They stopped at the edge of the ditch. He shot off another round from his shotgun. He waited to see if her heard her anywhere. He quickly moved past the ditch and moved further into the woods.
Jessie laid there for two days out of fear that he would come back. Her breathing and heart rate were slowly calming down. She finally made it out of the woods.
The evening was dark as she made her way down the road to town. Ashley knew what she had to do today. Being a housewife in a terrible situation, she knew she had to abandon the life she had. The feelings of being trapped were overwhelming.
Her desperation to get out was killing her soul. She had ran out of options in this town of nothing. He was all in alone.
Following her dreams she fastened her pace down the road to freedom. She had no idea where she was going but she had to get away.
Her only other option was staying and him killing her.
Rick Edelstein was born and ill-bred on the streets of the Bronx. His initial writing was stage plays off-Broadway in NYC. When he moved to the golden marshmallow (Hollywood) he cut his teeth writing and directing multi-TV episodes of “Starsky & Hutch,” “Charlie’s Angels,” “Chicago,” “Alfred Hitchcock,” et al. He also wrote screenplays, including one with Richard Pryor, “The M’Butu Affair” and a book for a London musical, “Fernando’s Folly.” His latest evolution has been prose with many published short stories and novellas, including, “Bodega,” “Manchester Arms,” “America Speaks,” “Women Go on,” “This is Only Dangerous,” “Aggressive Ignorance,” “Buy the Noise,” and “The Morning After the Night.” He writes every day as he is imbued with the Judeo-Christian ethic, “A man has to earn his day.” Writing atones.
Ignorance is bliss. The exquisite unknowing. Yet we are assaulted with information. You may ignore newspapers but like wet on rain your incessant need for distraction be it TV or Internet will impose and insist that you cannot hide from the truth, lying truths or truthful lies. Unknowing even guised in benign disinterest is no longer an available respite under the stampeding data of 33,000 killed and 78,000 wounded in the dubious freedom of NRA’s access to weapons validating the 2nd amendment: “A well regulated militia, being necessary for the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.”
Over 100,000 killed and/or wounded. Alas the cure worse than the disease. Yet I dare not hypocritically rail against what I shall reveal as my active accessing 2nd amendment rights.
I was about to say I am an honest man [Google Honest: Free of deceit and truthfulness; used to persuade someone of the truth of something] but that is just a posturing façade seeking approval. No one is honest. Particularly about themselves. We are each and every one of us a saint and a sinner; a giver and a beggar; a hero and a coward. The ‘honest man’ denies his living lies. The heroic woman endures past her insidious fears.
Enough digressing. The point which I have assiduously glissando’d in elusive verbiage demands revelation. Yes, let us get down to it. [Or perhaps up.] The point, aye ‘n verily, the point is that a man must take responsibility for what he knows. What does that mean, you naively ask? All right, I’ll simplificate. Driving a car, approaching the corner when the light turns red, your knowledge is red means stop. Your responsibility is to stop. Yes there are some who step on the gas just as red appears insisting they will beat the odds. Some do. Some crash and kill. [Others and/or themselves.]
Responsibility is a demanding edict requiring results which affirm its efficacy [albeit in a neutral posture] challenging acts of professed ignorance or conscious disregard. Death be damned.
How does this banal edification apply to the issue at hand. First, what is the issue? Or is it problem? A problem has a solution. An issue demands acceptance of what is, ignoring preference. When you’re in the bull ring your academic penchant is of no significance to the charging bull.
Tell me, is this an issue to be accepted or a problem with a solution: We are crashing through red by acclimatizing to deprivation.
We, you, me, people on planet-earth relate to this as an issue by adapting to climate change through a kind of tacit acquiescence, the way masked people in Beijing accept that simply breathing the air outside can sicken. We mask more than our faces rebuking the secreting suffocation that there is no Plan[et] B.
We are the first generation to experience the devastating effects of climate change. AND we are the LAST generation who can do something about it. [Tikkum Olam – repair a broken world.]
Knowledge fused to Responsibility.
I did appropriate research. M-40 is built from a Remington 700 bolt-action rifle, with telescopic sight and a threaded barrel allowing the use of sound suppressor.
I practiced on the range with a professional who was impressed that after five weeks I could hit a target square in the upper body of a moving torso. And equally proficient with my newly purchased Glock 42 handgun, licensed to carry concealed or holstered [silencer available as a personal choice in particular situations.]
By 2100 waters may likely flood coastal cities: Shanghai, London and New York will be forced to displace hundreds of millions of people. [Miami? Even as we speak mid-day walking in the street with water up to your knees, disremember Miami.]
Forty hump-back whales washed up on shore to die. We are killing whales, for God’s sakes. That is if God gives a fucking sake! [Tikkum Olam]
The conundrum is to choose the target. There are many who qualify. Elected politicians... elected...strike a pose. The electorate gets battered, swamped with TV ads rewarded by the powerful climate-change-deniers. And of course their savvy Advertising Agencies peopled by young mostly white males seeking the desk to sell out designed an appealing TV image of I’m-just-a-regular-guy voicing insidious falsehoods in simplistic homey sounds dressed in a checkered-shirt-open-at-the-collar, scuffed shoes adding to the deceitful reality wardrobe intimating that the climate-change crowd are just non-working stiffs [integrating minorities in this instance] turning up the heat as they appeal to the essence of “Christians” who should/would rather worship the idol of politics in obeisance, genuflecting while voting for Jesus-Lite.
To the problem at hand: Target. An individual who contributes to the death-sentence continuum by voting and/or financing support of industrial pollution. Yes, the Koch brothers immediately come to mind but I am not so naïve as to think I will gain access even though I can accurately hit a moving target more than fifty feet away. Alas, my gun reeks of sadness awaiting its purposeful mission.
Start small. I must devise a campaign to inform the media, the masses, get the attention of my intention after the initial target is effected. The demise of a perpetrator must not be relegated to a statistical gauge of just another senseless murder in our beleaguered city. No, this specific transgression must make responsibility-will-be-taken sense.
Starting small...thanks to Google...I found Mary Jean Haverford. Chairperson of the City Council. The vote was tied. Half for more stringent rules governing waste production and non-polluting elimination procedures, albeit more costly, versus half voting to ease the conditions. Ease? More accurately is their choice to abolish rules and regulations permitting...Permitting? Actively supporting the decimation of responsible guidelines for health and well-being, initiating debilitating conditions particularly in poorer neighborhoods. [To atone and receive absolution letters of recommendation from the disadvantaged required.]
Mary Jean Haveford’s vote broke the stalemate. She cast a vote in favor of...yes, her campaign contributions were substantially enriched by big and small business, ensuring growth of profits, in abject denial of the perpetuating harm to the populace of poor. Her vote sealed the deal for better biz and assuredly worsened for those with the intention to safely breathe unfettered air and drink non-inflicting tap water. Alas, the loss of shame is...a shame.
As President of the City Council Mary Jean Haveford’s domicile was located in an upper-class zone of the city. I drove by a number of times. No guards. Like I said, start small.
I drafted a simple note.
Dinner time. The evening was pleasant, the street quiet. I parked a half mile away from said target. It was pleasing to walk in the early eve’s comforting calm reassured by the pocketed bulge in my jacket. Glock in the pock[et] I amused myself.
After reading her bio I was pleased that she is divorced, no children, three cats, access was not an issue. I simply rang the bell. She opened the door with a plastic smile, “Yes?” Using the Glock [with a silencer] her face had a quizzical grimace as she fell backwards with a soft thud on the thick tufted rug. Her prostrate body, arms laying peacefully by her side, palms up as if open to a donation which I took as a welcoming sign, carefully placing the note in her right open palm: Contaminating Consequences, and quietly closed the door on her supine body licked by mewing cats.
Walking down the trouble-free street which in its way affirmed the occasion with a mild breeze caressing my cheeks. I thought how simple was the event. No undue sounds. Just an earned conclusion to a person’s troubling choices. I continued walking past children playing and screaming in their freedom to scream. I remembered Emerson’s, “A child is a curly, dimpled lunatic,” as I turned the corner seeing a SUV pull into a driveway, a mother getting out, opening the back to retrieve groceries before entering the well-kept house, recently painted showing nary a chip. As she retrieved bags of groceries I offered, “Need some help?” She smiled a no-thank you and with her two large bags went into her home of safe embrace. Ahhh, the grace of living an ordinary life, unaware that two blocks away Contaminating Consequences awaited discovery.
I awoke in a state of anxiety...no, wrong word.
Eager, yes, eager to learn about the discovery and subsequent revelation of my mission. I hurriedly, like a kid scrambling to unwrap his Christmas gifts, retrieved the newspapers with affirmation awaiting outside my door. Scanning the newspapers. Page after Page. Past the plethora of redundant automotive ads. Twice in the event that I missed it. Even the small paragraphs which they called fillers. Nothing. Turned on TV, surfing news channels. Nothing. How could that be? Mary Jean Haverford is, was a public figure and, ah, TV recognition: Breaking News: Councilwoman Mary Jean Haverford has been shot and killed. No clues or motives as yet...Shots of police cars and vans outside of her home. A political colleague, dressed and made up as if she knew she would be on TV, holding and petting a cat, checking to see which red camera light was on and turned oh so neatly. We were scheduled for a breakfast meeting and Mary Jean is never late so...oh God, I can’t believe it. She is such a good person who would do such a thing! She ended with a theatrical gesture of an exclamation point. Other pompous Tversonalities with their polished persona seeking importance but no mention of my note: Contaminating Consequences. They must have found it. Why not a word? If this is dismissed as irrelevant and not brought to the public’s attention, not blatantly reminding those in power of their immorality and mortality, then the entire purpose of fulfilling responsibility will be reduced to a futile act of impetuous violence.
Throughout the day surfing the internet, TV, radio, afternoon newspapers, the lack of mention was like an aggravating itch in that elusive, unreachable space in the back. It was disturbingly obvious I had more work to do in order to fulfill the responsibility of rendering a greater awareness of Contaminating Consequences.
I let the TV on in the event of a late “Breaking News” revelations but it returned to regular programming which in this particular channel featured a profile of the renowned multi-billionaire Maximillian Platin facing the camera, sitting in his library. His library. I put my books on a shelf of groaning pine-woods. What an effusive boast as he sat at a desk of French heritage dated 1876, with a background of bruised dark oak shelves bloated with first-edition books in a boast of proud spines demonstrating the fact that they are not there to be read but as a testament to see how culture can be purchased. My exacerbation may have been stoked by the lack of media recognition as I was frustratingly hooked by this posturing, pompous man wearing, in what the voice-over described, his velvet smoking jacket. Smoking Jacket? I Googled: a man's comfortable jacket, typically made of velvet, formerly worn while smoking after dinner. (The frame of reference was obviously not of my time.)
I was about to turn off the TV when Maximillian Platin said, “My board insisted that we challenge the EPA’s ruling of contaminating the waters when it was proven that the miniscule amounts of polluted material were of no threat to any living being except perhaps very small fish that have been declared inedible previous to our factory’s discharge.” His self-righteous smile of a pause was nauseating as he brushed off a non-visible crumb from his velvet smoking jacket. He officiously continued with a smirk, “The courts ruled in our favor.” He cleared his throat of invasive phlegm as if evicting an unwanted immigrant. The Voice-Over continued, Protesting environmental groups intend to pursue this as a harmful infliction on the health of thousands, to higher courts.
They cut to an outside shot of his home. Home? Like the unread first editions, more of an edifice pretentiously proclaiming luxury as a way of life while lacking the essence of life. It sat on an isolated man-made hill-side ensuring no neighbors for at least a half-mile, surrounded by hundreds of trees and a few choice boulders. Choice because they obviously were not native to the area but their presence afforded a private collection of manipulated nature.
Maximillian Platin exited sans smoking jacket wearing pressed Jeans with a crease down the middle verifying his inane taste as the voice-over serenaded We asked Maximillian Platin about his choice of cars and no limo or chauffer to which he responded...and they cut to Maximillian Platin putting on tight leather gloves, getting into his vintage Porsche parked on his carefully smashed pebbled driveway, I like driving myself. He roared off in a proverbial burst of a thrumming German Porsche motor declaring nothing less than gold awaiting the end of the polluting car’s journey.
It hit me like a heavy hail storm through a broken window. I didn’t remember knowing but it resonated as an important adage: The minute you stop being a Pharaoh, you have to start building a pyramid. I knew I had my assignment. Difficult, yes. But then again knowledge fused with responsibility demanded that I construct my pyramid entombing Maximillian Platin. It was obvious that besides the obligation of my mission I took a personal dislike of this man whose entire persona reeked of complacent entitlement.
Late afternoons and also just before sunrise, periods affording cover and what I hoped was sufficient shaded light for my intended kill. I reconnoitered the options. The trees provided concealment for my surveillance. Crawling through brush in between boulders I was able to position myself to observe Maximillian Platin’s driveway. Hugging the ground evoked flashes of games we played as kids in the city parks. Maximillian Platin was a contained man of habit. He would exit early morning, between 8:28 and 8:32. Return between 7:36 and 7:49. The illuminating lights clarifying the driveway were on a timer starting at 6:45 p.m. and off the next morning at 6:45 a.m..
I made trial runs with my M-40 Remington bolt action (with telescopic sight, of course), the threaded barrel allowing the use of sound suppressor, necessary for this challenging pyramid, said the Pharaoh. Three times I had him in my sight but his movement was at such a rapid pace from car to door (which opened with a remote), a clean hit was not a surety. The weather was turning brisk, actually somewhat uncomfortably cold tempting me to pass on this assignment. I was reminded that a man must take responsibility for what he knows and responsibility-will-be-taken as I tried to ignore my chilled discomfort. I could have worn something heavier and gloves but such bulk might effect the necessary agility moving between trees, boulders, setting my sights that despite the limited light I could still effect accurate aim and a true hit.
In my discomfort I replayed Maximillian Platin’s self-assured, “The court ruled in our favor,” when on the third evening his Porsche announced his due arrival with an audible roar. I leaned on the boulder, adjusting my sight, squinted to help my vision in limited light as he got out of the car but rather than quickly go to his opening door Maximillian Platin stopped, looked at a bird-dropping stain on the hood of his precious and precocious vintage Porsche. He went to the trunk for a rag, opened the car to retrieve a bottle of Evian water, returned to the hood, poured water on the bird splatter, started to wipe off the bird droppings...and fell to the ground when the bullet from the M-40 Remington hit.
I was stunned it went so well. The utter effectiveness of the plan resulting in the desired demise of Maximillian Platin was a simplistic done- deed.
I ran down the slope to the body. I was startled. He was not dead. My aim was accurate but due to the sound depressor and limited illumination I rambled as if explaining to my teacher why my report was late but brought to the reality that he wasn’t dead when he groaned and tried to sit up. Still carrying the rifle I awkwardly took out the note from my pocket. He stared at me as if I was to be his savior, one hand reaching toward me. I put the rifle down and brushed away his hand as I placed the note, Contaminating Consequences next to him. He groaned, “Help me.” The sound of his gurgling rasp and scent of his breath was more pungent than his pleading eyes. His hand again reached out and grabbed my wrist. I violently pulled away and ran.
Running down the slope hearing his help-me voice which was like a crow’s gurgle when I realized that in a reaction of sheer panic I left the rifle next to his not-as-yet-dead body. I stopped. Light of the moon was more defined. I heard my breath in short gasps realizing I must not leave the rifle which could be traced as when I bought it I had to provide identification. I, with studious effort, slowed my breathing to almost normal. Although my shot was not an immediate-kill, Maximillian Platin would perish momentarily or probably was already dead. I turned and trotted up the hill as if I was on an habitual dedicating run every evening after returning from work.
Maximillian Platin was still on the ground but leaning against the wheel of his Porsche, one hand holding a cellphone and the other my rifle. He adjusted the rifle aiming at me as he put down his cellphone. Ambulance and police are on the way. Sit.
I was frozen. This was not the way it was intended to...Sit or I will shoot you. His finger was on the trigger while his other hand was over the bleeding wound. His breathing was in short, quick, audible gasps. Although he held the rifle aimed at my upper torso, with his finger on the trigger, he had a slight tremor indicating that he was more than vulnerable. I leapt toward his arm holding the rifle when he pulled the trigger.
The pain was excruciating as I fell at his feet.
I don’t know if I was passed out or awakened when I heard the sound sirens.
This was not was not the way it was intended.
There Oughta’ Be A Law
I awoke but resisted opening my eyes. Why? Just an invisible snarling
beast within anxious to commit mayhem. Another why? No reason. There is always a reason, doctor smart-ass. Fuck it. I opened my eyes. Scuffled to pee, brush my teeth, wash here ‘n there but this was obviously a no-shave-no-shower day. Of course when I reached below the coffee urn for the filter and can of coffee...lotsa filters no fucking coffee. No wonder I didn’t wanna’ open my eyes.
Standing in line at Starbucks behind two men, one in a plaid shirt, dark Dockers and white socks. [There oughta’ be a law: Dark pants and white socks are an oxymoron. Only nurses and athletes allowed to wear white socks.] The other dude ’s main attraction was a stomach challenging the buttons of a stretched shirt barely holding on to its identity over bulging jeans well past the expirations date. [There oughta’ be a law: If you’re over-weight by at least 20 pounds, no Jeans. And while I’m at it, if you’re Caucasian stepping out of a Beemer, faded, torn Jeans with a pony tail, an earring with a cap turned backwards...should be declared a felony. Torn Jeans worn by poor black kids were not a fashion statement. They were faded hand-me-downs worn from years of wear ‘n tear and not enough money to replace ‘em but the survivor-nature of Black culture is to own the oppression who initiated back-turned caps giving it style making ‘em theirs while Beverly Hills and rich hustlers co-opt them and sell manufactured to precise tears priced beyond sanity!]
Plaid shirt’s body reek covered by an offensive perfume, no what do they call it, body spray, toilet water, whatever...brought tears to my eyes as he uttered: Say what you want but Trump is keeping his word making sure immigrants don’t swallow us up you know what I’m saying?
Stomach-man said: Yeah, they steal our jobs, do crimes and take our women.
Take our woman...this from a man with a protruding stomach ensuring that he hasn’t seen his dick in years. Take our women. You wish! This is what I get for opening my eyes, a cognition that troglodytes like these voted for Trump. Sixty-three million of them. Once again confirming my suspicion that this incarnation is a hideous God-fuck-up-mistake. Of course God makes mistakes. Who do you think invented ‘em! We praise Him [or Her] for good things but then turn around is fair play. When shit happens the Deity is still the dealer. Reminds me of pro athletes when they score a winning goal they thank God and/or make a gesture to-the-Above. But when they blow a play, come on, yea ‘n verily the Deity deserves some kinda gesticulation for His not-so-holy hole card.
In the middle of these nihilistic perceptions a kid behind me old enough to do better started screaming as the cooing mother knelt down to maturely explain in some idiotic adult rationale to the tear-stained face of this brat’s tantrum. Explain? A little smack might do all the ‘splainin’ needed, Lucy. I’ll bet she has a sticker on her van, Proud Parent not realizing that in ten years she might look for a sticker My Kid Is In De-Tox. The screams rejected Momma’s motivations even as she took tantruming monster into her arms. Two sounds assault my ear drums: Screeching sirens and Screaming Children. Mid-scream I egressed out of Starbucks recalling W.C. Fields, “I like children, if they’re properly cooked.”
On the street without my coffee but with spill-overs of Starbuck’s bedlam I tried to walk it off only to recall an article I read about society’s Armageddon heightened by the rich getting richer and poor getting poorer as the scab of capitalism peels away revealing a festering puss filled sore. Beyond the boiling point mid-matching my anarchic data I became aware of my morning survival interior j’accuse of a spine tattooed with I’m-right-they’re-fucked-up-wrong as getting too comfortable in my aggressive hair- shirt while passing a homeless man sitting next to a huge worn suitcase stuffed with what seemed to be his life’s belongings. I expected him to hit me up for a dollar ready to pose as unhearing but as I passed all he muttered was, God bless.
A few feet away I stopped, turned around and saw him with an alternative toothed maniacal grin nodding at me. Not asking for anything, just...God bless. I shook my head. You got me. Walked back, took out a single, then two and offered it to him. He shrugged his scrawny shoulders barely covered by a tattered shirt living a death sentence, opened his hands which were stained with the city’s detritus took the bills, looked at me through bloodshot eyes but with clear intention through a phlegm throated rasp: You’re a good man.
I was surprised and even stunned by his declaration. I’m a good man. For two singles, validated from a gap-toothed homeless man, I am a good man. Not a declaration my ex-wife would confirm. I am a good man. Not an acknowledgement from my last boss whom I told to go fuck himself for cheating immigrant employees on over-time pay. Am I really a good man, I cogitated? All for two dollars? I looked at him as he nodded conspiratorially, keeping our good-man-secret.
Still yearning for that cuppa’ I ambled across the street toward Peetes when I heard someone calling me. Ziggy!
I turned and saw David Berg. We played on a soft-ball team. I played first base, he was the catcher...who dropped the ball every other pitch. We lost more games than we won. I extended my hand but he chose to hug. It was awkward as I was never all that good at public hugging [in contrast to public hangings.] We entered Peetes for a shared cuppa’ and conversation.
David [never Dave] is now an attorney specializing in libel & defamation cases, for or against depending on the client and ability to pay his exorbitant fee. His smile was not in joy but more of condescension. I forgot what big shiny teeth he had.
Ziggy, let me try out my pitch for tomorrow’s summary to the jury.
But I don’t know anything about the case, David, so maybe...
Neither does the jury if you want to know the bottom line, juries are made up of incompetent losers who don’t have the imagination to get out of jury-duty. In fact you’re probably too smart but let me run it by you anyhow. The Prosecutor insists my client besmirched... that’s the word he used. Who says besmirched? My client besmirched this man’s reputation thus resulting and affecting serious business losses. I’ve been practicing this all morning. Tell me how this flows. Check this out:
I was on the edge of grabbing my joint with: check this out David, but his aggressive insensitivity cut my lack of approbation to the quick as he assumed a posture of authority orchestrated by a SNL satirical stentorian voice. But he was serious.
Ladies and gentlemen of the jury...he stopped and peered at my less-than-interested face. Are you with me, Ziggy?
Wouldn’t have it any other way, David.
Okay then...[back to the voice]...The prosecutor insists you ignore
contributing factors and stress that both his client and mine acted out of free will. Free will! Free will? A canard.
Canard. Interesting word. Sounds like bird shit. He continued.
From the moment we’re born our parents place parameters determining our so-called free will as do teachers, police, politicians, laws...we are all conditioned by reward and punishment defying the concept of free will. We, including you and me, respond to a situation from deeply ingrained judgments, nothing free about it. Bam. That’s it. How does that sound to you, Ziggy?
Grateful that I could free-will sip my coffee I was reluctantly impressed with his dissertation but I was not in an affirmative mood. Surprise! I unenthusiastically said, Sounds good, David, that no one has free will is...well, more astute than your average jurist might cognize, jurors or voters, Americans have lost the ability to see or hear a truth, an actual truth if it challenges their comfort-blanket of watching feel-good Ellen. But then again, David, I know nothing about the issues so I wouldn’t give my opinion all that much credence.
He looked around as if wanting to avoid conspiracy, leaned closer and said, The bottom line, Ziggy, is that the prosecutor’s sole witness, his client, is...and he sotto voce’d like a villain from a movie which went straight to video: A Muslim.
For some odd reason I was reluctantly interested although perhaps it was a good reason because I was sure our differences had the destructive promise to descend, with my foot on the gas, into an argumentative diss of proportions not merited in a coffee shop but justified by grudgingly opened eyes. What does being a Muslim have to with...
He smiled and cut through my unfinished sentence in a heated conspiracy: It’s my hole card.
What am I missing?
Well, you know...Muslims!
David, you’re pushing it. What you know...Muslims?
Hello, where have you been, Ziggy! It’s us against them!
Please, us/them...you can’t really buy into that bigoted...
Bigoted? Muslims. Consequences. Always consequences with Muslims. Nothing bigoted about the facts.
No, the real deal. Facts: Paris...Muslims killed 130 innocents. Facts: First world Trade Center bombers Muslims; Facts Israeli Olympic Team attackers, Muslims. Shall I go on? He rhetorically posited.
I despise when an obvious, xenophobic, ostentatious asshole uses accurate information to support his manipulative bias. David, there are over one and a half billion Muslims on the planet. Close to 25% of the world’s population. You want to go to war with a billion and half people?
Not all at once.
What does that mean?
Mexeu com uma, mexeu com todas.
I feel like I’m having a conversation with a giraffe.
Mess with one, mess with us all.
David, I lost the gist of our conversation, if there ever was one. And yes I know that giraffes have no voice box, which may be a blessing.
He was not to be deterred. Little by little. Ziggy. God is on our side. What are you laughing at?
I hope Walt Whitman didn’t hear you.
Walt Whitman...what does he have to do with...
I imitated his arrogant cliché, God is on our side. Whitman says God is a mean-spirited, pugnacious bully bent on revenge against His children for failing to live up to his impossible standards. Unquote. Is that the God that’s on your side against a billion Muslims, David, baby?
His cheeks puffed as if he was playing trumpet but he was no Miles when he blurted a meaningful non-sequitur: You weren’t all that good on first, either.
Like a good member of a combo improvising I continued in the same aggressive rhythm. You dropped every other pitch and hit what, 200 on a good day.
Oh yeah! Well, Ziggy, who could forget the play-off game against the Eagles. Man on third behind one run you couldn’t even hit it to the outfield so he could tag up and tie.
Truth but I couldn’t let him have it as I threw a high hard one close to the vest: The Eagles won because when the dude ran in from third you not only didn’t tag him, you backed off as if you didn’t want your pants to be soiled, which was a redundant desire anyhow. [I heard myself descend to my dad’s bigger than your dad and will beat up...to my unliking but was not ready to drop out yet, even in the face of my embarrassed self-disapproval.]
David slammed, Eagles won because you couldn’t bring home the dude on third, no doubt about it.
Talk about eagles, David, eagles in Greece eat turtles by dropping them onto rocks to break open their shells. Diss that! [Even I was surprised by such an inane illogical rejoinder. I was on a existentialist roll.]
What the fuck does that mean?
It means, David, just that the end of the world as we know it may be a year or two from now so...
You always were weird, Ziggy, but I thought I’d give you break and now it’s obvious you’ve gone beyond weird into certifiable.
I felt like we were competing for an across-the-street-parking-spot on Tuesdays when I heard a nearby woman say to her companion: Well what would you do if your boyfriend walked out? To which she replied, Shut the door.
I laughed in gratitude as they brought me back to adult sanity and looked at David who must have heard but not even a smile. Screaming kids, sirens and people without a sense of humor should be avoided at all costs. I shrugged, nodded, took a last sip of rancid coffee and walked as David called, You didn’t tell me what you think of my summation.
I called back, Guilty! as I ambled in between pedestrians who were obviously pedestrian and I stopped myself from such inane judgments, quietly apologizing with damning thoughts of our civilization’s descent as inevitable, not aware of the source or the target. I think I was posing as a sane, responsible man putting a coin into the parking meter reverberating David’s words as being certifiable. If he only knew that I was so on the opened-eyes edge today I could be declared a threat to society qualifying for a citizen’s arrest. I was capable of inflicting a violent act otherwise known as a bad day. If he only knew. I stopped my inner anarchic ramblings lest they manifest in reality. Trying to walk it off without knowing what the it of it is. Saved by the bell as my cell harkened. Harkened? I’m really getting weird as I swiped, Hello Mom.
Am I interrupting, Sonny?
Why does she do that false humility number. I was tempted to say yes, Mom, you are interrupting my life which at this moment is on the edge of egregious behavior. But Sonny thought better. No, Mom, just walking it off.
Walking what off?
Life. You calling to say hello or something specific?
A mother has to have something specific just to touch in with her son? Something’s off with you, Sonny. I hear it in your voice.
It’s the human condition. Let’s start over. Hello, Mom, how are you? Me, I’m just crazy and sane and fine and...
You really are in a mood today, aren’t you?
Yes. And you, oh dear mother of mine?
Was that supposed to be an insult?
No, just ...please, it’s just...just one of those days, you know. The weather is lousy.
What are you talking? The weather is glorious, low seventies, a gentle breeze.
My inner weather. Overcast threatening to storm.
Sometimes I think we’re not talking the same language. Why are you laughing?
She called the suicide hot line and got placed on hold. Just a line I read and it popped up.
Rage...five letters ending in H. What kind of word ends in H.
New York Mag crossword puzzle...ahhh, the reason my dear mother called.
You are in a mood today.
W – R – A – T – H. Fits?
Hmmm...yes, exactly. Thank you Sonny, I’m going to finish the puzzle and call me when you’re feeling better. Click. Disconnect.
Oh, God, my day was beginning to feel like a Dali conception scripted by Mamet with no third act. Fuck it!
Dr Roshini Shetty is an MDS (Master of Dental Surgery), Forensic Odontologist, Certified Laser dentist and Facial cosmetologist.
She has contributed extensively towards research work and medical innovations. She has a total of three patented medical innovations to her credit. Articles written by her, has been published in various journals. As a medical writer, she has written Undergraduate reference books for Dental students which have been published by CBS publishers.
Due to her passion for creative writing, she has also written various fiction and Non-fiction books, short stories, flash fiction and articles which have been published by different publishers. She was featured in various columns and radio shows regarding the unique concept of one of her fiction novel. She is also an editor and books reviewer.
Cousin Marriage Saga
She knew that too much of science was inimical and as it advances, the degree of collision between people and science would have a greater impact. She was the person who gave the relationship of ultimate affinity and chastity between the two armed forces, that is, the very existence of people and science.
Her name was Thea. She was a perfect example of beauty with intelligence. She was scintillating brilliant and her eyes sparkled showing her beauty and intelligence. She firmly believed in a concept, which she considered as the essential of life, that is, ‘make it or fake it’!
Thea at the age of twenty-five years had stepped into wedlock with her cousin, Tarun. Three years prior to her marriage, her father had passed away due to a massive heart attack; within a year her mother too had died of a car accident. Bad luck had struck her in a very harsh way. She felt utterly lonely, she craved for love and true relationships, but her feelings and emotions were hit hard every time in different instances when she realized that this self-centred society had an eye only for the sumptuous property that her father had left in her name.
She was a voracious reader and thinker. She planned every moment in her life and executed it extremely well with her hard work and wit. Her parents had always been her inspiration and they had given her enough impetus to become self-sufficient and a confident person. Though they were not with her now but the lessons they had taught her were well imbibed to make her a responsible and sensible person.
Her life would have been home for depression and darkness if it wasn’t Tarun who had brought in the moments of joy, laughter, encouragement and fulfilment into her being. She did things methodically and systematically. Her books and clothes were neatly arranged and her room was well kept. She was a perfectionist and a nifty person.
Thea thought of the circumstances that had led to her union with Tarun. Tarun was her first cousin. Tarun’s parents had divorced each other when Tarun was roughly four years old. Tarun resided with his mother while his father had re-married and had totally abandoned him and his mother. May be Tarun was ill-starred, for, when he was around six years old, his mother committed suicide for unknown reasons; the previous day she had walked into her brother’s [Thea’s father] house and had beseeched him to take care of Tarun and had left the house with swift gait not responding to the queries of her brother. It was only the next day everyone came to know about the suicide. Thea could still remember that day when she had seen her dad in a quiescence state sitting on a couch with his head bent down and trying to screen his face from his young innocent daughter probably to hide his tears. There was mixed emotions of both anger and grief. As Thea grew up and understood the intricacies of life, she often wondered as to whether committing suicide really needs guts or is it an act of cowardice.
Tarun was only one year older than Thea. He was made to join a residential school after his mother’s sad demise. Monetary benefits were given entirely by his uncle [Thea’s father]. They visited him twice in a month and he used to spend those two days completely with his uncle’s family.
Now, many years had passed and a lot of things had changed, and our inquisitiveness reaches its highest peak when we come down to reality considering Tarun and Thea’s marriage. Their marriage was on a simple logic, both of them needed someone for companionship, someone they could trust and share their feelings, someone who could be very close to their heart and could acclimatize with their flaws, someone to fall back on in times of hardship and both of them being orphans felt that their match would be the best. Love meant ‘trust’ for Tarun and trust grows slowly and steadily with time after knowing and understanding each other well. A vague feeling from somewhere harped on the fact that he truly trusted only Thea.
Tarun was an aeronautical engineer. He had completed his engineering from Chennai & had also done his Masters from BIT-Ranchi. His smile was the best that made other guys envy him and female-clan totally desirous of him. People considered him savvy with good brain-stuff. Tarun had a great sense of humour and was capable of wrapping anyone to admire him.
Tarun was an extrovert who enjoyed parties and socializing. Thea was more of a reserved kind with her best companions being her books. Tarun considered Thea a nerd and Thea thought of Tarun as an eccentric; initially their speculation on each other’s character made their conversation limited and they were more ignorant towards each other but when destiny played in a different way by bonding them in a relationship of marriage, they put in considerable efforts to be more considerate towards each other’s feelings and drove to respect each other’s ideologies.
Thea had succeeded in completing MBBS course, after which she had done a certified course in genetics. She experienced a wave of satisfaction as she had hit the bull’s eye in her career. She slogged for the attainment of complete knowledge in her interested field of genetics. Tarun supported her, galvanized and motivated her beyond her fondest dreams. She had totally involved herself in research work on genetics.
One day Thea returned home early from work. She could see her cooks obediently arranging things in the kitchen and she was ready to negotiate with the fact that Tarun had already arrived. Her eyeball made rapid movements to locate Tarun when she finally spotted him leisurely sitting on the sofa casually turning the pages of a magazine.
He spoke absurdly, “How… how was the work today?”
Realizing his absurd speech, she calmly enquired, ‘Work was good. Is everything fine?”
Within a bat of an eye, Tarun reciprocated, “Don’t you think we need a child? I met my childhood friend Ashok at the medical stores today. I was overwhelmed to see my friend after such a long period. Currently he stays in New York City with his wife and two children. He along with his family has come down to India for a month. I have invited him for dinner tomorrow. He is married to Priya who is his first cousin and their children are perfectly normal. I’m sure that even in our case nothing is going to happen. We will undergo genetic testing and genetic screening later in the child”.
A feeling of perpetual pain ran over Thea as she felt uneasy talking about children in their case. She grinned, “A lot of research work shows that the risk of genetic disorder in couples who are cousins is not very high when compared to non-related couples but I unnecessarily don’t want to take any chances by having children”.
Tarun retaliated, “Consanguineous marriages are not something new but have been happening since centuries and if their role was true in producing abnormal offspring’s, all the countries would have abandoned them long ago but it hasn’t happened like that, so we can be sure that the minimum scientific data we have is not enough to support their ban. The main research is based only on genetic studies and it is not sufficient enough to prove a problem with consanguineous marriages. It could be the environment in which a person resided which actually caused the problem, may be it is the chemicals sprayed on certain crops which when digested may have led to some kind of disease”.
Both Thea and Tarun were not any great adorers of kids. When a couple don’t wish to have children, it is the society, which gives names to childless parents, which makes them feel very insecure and challenging to live without a child. It is the society that gossips and considers either of the parents to be having some defects for not producing a child. Tarun had fallen prey to the thinking of this very society, considering his decision to have a child but Thea’s views were different, she neither cared for what people had to say nor to the comments and advices given by others, she only credited self-consultation and moved in the direction she felt was correct.
Thea hurried back home as there would be guests dropping in. When she returned, she saw that Ashok and Priya had already arrived. From a distance she heard Tarun and Priya immersed in a discussion again on children, genetics etc. when she came closer, Tarun introduced Ashok and Priya to her and they welcomed her to join the conversation.
Ashok spoke candidly, “Research without proper controls had previously exaggerated the defects resulting from these cousin marriages”.
Priya argued, “In our country we are more conservative with regard to dating and sex prior to marriage, hence marriage choice is limited to whom we know well due to a higher comfort zone with this person. I’m not propagating cousin marriages but I’m not against it too. Our parents were very reluctant when we had decided to get married and obviously they were scared of these health issues which could result in their grandchild but then they gave in. We got genetic testing done and our doctor told us that there would be minimal chances of having an abnormal child but we just gave it a try like any other non-related couple”.
Thea promptly replied, “Tanuja was my senior when I was doing my course in genetics. She also married one of her close relatives and no one bothered much about any genetic disorders occurring in their child for she was a doctor. As far as I know she took all the precautions and after being quite sure that their child would not be susceptible to any deformities, they had opted for a child but the child had a rare kind of genetic disease. Doctors are not still capable of replacing God. Prevention is always better than cure; we don’t have any rights to play with life. I know that every parent who is yearning for a child is taking some risk but being cousins, the risk we are taking would surely be more. I may be against cousins having children but not against cousins marrying. The main motive of marriage is not children. Marriage is a relationship of character”.
All the four of them present there felt that they should switch on to some other topic of discussion and they did change the topic at that instant but it gambled in Tarun and Thea’s life again and again when this society desperately wanted an answer from them.
Tarun was only a bystander now, he had great regards for Thea’s perspective and her words constantly resonated in his ears and he undeniably could perceive the naked truth in her saying. Both Thea and Tarun had settled with a combined acquiescence that they would never have a child; they fancied in living their lives for themselves.
Thea had advised many couples who were infertile and also some couples who were cousins to go for adoption of a child if they frenziedly wanted one.
Thea brought in a new concept of solving distress among couples who were cousins. IUI (Intra uterine insemination; in this method, the sperm, which has a major role in producing a child is collected from a donor and introduced into the uterine cavity of the female) using donor sperm is nothing new to us but she set forth this concept among fertile people who were cousins.
When Thea was doing her course in genetics, they were taught that beyond a thorough medical family history with significant findings, no additional preconception screening was recommended for consanguineous couples. She had also learnt that consanguineous couples should be offered similar genetic screening as suggested for any couple of their ethnic group. During pregnancy, consanguineous couples should be offered maternal-foetal serum marker screening and high-resolution foetal ultrasonography. New-borns should be screened for impaired hearing and detection of treatable inborn errors of metabolism but she had involved herself in so much of research work that she did not agree that these genetic testing or scanning would be sufficient for complete prevention of a disorder.
Rosy was Thea’s next-door neighbour. Rosy had completed her Bachelor of Science in biology and now her parents wanted her to get married. The boy they had in mind was again her third degree relative whom she too liked; moreover even her cousin was deeply in love with her.
You marry only the special someone that you are destined to marry. Whatever may be the barriers placed in your path to prevent you from having any kind of affair with a particular person, if fate prefers your propinquity then no one can stop it from happening.
She visited Thea to get Thea’s opinion regarding her marriage. Rosy asked, “Thea, do you really think marrying a cousin can cause serious problems in kids? In our country a lot of cousins get married and have perfectly normal children. Famous personalities like Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein married their cousins. British royal histories talk about these marriages”.
Thea acceptingly replied, “List of people who have married their first cousins and have perfectly normal children is endless. It is not that everyone gets an abnormal child but chances are more compared to non-related couples”.
Rosy argued, “But I can’t stay without a descendent. I’m very fond of kids, I love my cousin Johnsy deeply but I even love kids”.
Thea initially advised her to adopt a child but Rosy said that she wanted to experience the joy of pregnancy. She was literally pleading Thea to find a solution for her. Thea analysed the situation and hesitatingly unearthed her idea after few days. Thea advised her that she could have a child through an IUI but Rosy had a quizzical look on her face.
Thea said, “It depends on how much you and Johnsy can sacrifice for each other to have an offspring. It also depends on the strength of your love. In 1950’s, technology to test a man’s sperm and to collect and preserve donor sperm became available. The first commercial sperm bank opened in 1970’s. It is basically done as an alternative to infertility but if you permit, it can be tried in your case”.
Rosy interrupted, “What?! What do you mean? Do you think all this is accepted in our society? Johnsy will never agree for this”.
Thea calmed her down, “There is one more method in which the ovum is introduced from another person. This is an effectual method where the child is genetically related to the father and the mother has the satisfaction of carrying it in her womb for seven months. You can opt for this through IVF (In-Vitro Fertilization). I personally prefer IUI in comparison to IVF but I can give you more insights into IVF if you are interested in this procedure. I did not undergo this on myself because neither do I believe that there is joy in pregnancy nor am I any great admirer of children”.
Rosy asked whether she could do it without telling Johnsy, but Thea was against this idea. Thea unequivocally said that both their agreement was very much necessary for their future to be happy and secure. Thea also said that the physician and partners sign an informed consent that clearly states the rights and obligations of the parties involved and those of the child. A legal consent includes a paragraph indicating that the child is a legitimate offspring of the father and not the donor. Rosy said she would think about it and would inform Thea about her decision later.
Thea heard the bell ring and she unlocked the latch of her room while the servant opened the main door, she came near the stairs and gazed at Tarun. Her mind pondered with high velocity for she was excited to tell about her conversation with Rosy to Tarun. Tarun was consumed with meddlesomeness when he realized that his wife was eagerly waiting to tell him something. She briefly unshielded her conversation with Rosy to him.
Thea said, “The percentage of abnormality resulting increases in the following order, non-related couples, then babies through IUI, then blood related couples. So the percentage of abnormality can be reduced, not eliminated. What do you think about this?”
Tarun rebounded, “The sober truth is that you are just experimenting with people, it is not safe. It’s better not to be involved in such things”.
She propelled her move by answering, “There are always minimal chances of having an abnormal child whatsoever may be the precautions taken. Rosy and Johnsy love each other very much, so Johnsy may give his consent for this but I know that in future there can be problems cropping up if Johnsy starts developing a debase feeling that their baby is not biologically related to him. Though this is a kind of faking, your esteem in having a child is equal to that of non-related couples”.
The elapse of time was one year now. One fine day, Rosy & Johnsy came to meet Thea and told her that they were prepared for an IUI. Thea could gauge it without doubt that it was Rosy’s persuasion, which had made Johnsy agree. Thea explained the procedure in detail and the weak points related with it and requested them to think well before plunging into any decision. Rosy said that it should not be disclosed even to their parents for their parents were very orthodox and wouldn’t permit for this IUI. Thea promised them to keep it as a secret.
Thea clearly went through the family history of any known diseases of the sperm donor. She took extra solicitude for she knew if something went wrong, not only them, she also wouldn’t spare herself and would remain as a centre to blame till her endurance ends.
They tried twice, the first time they tried was two months ago and it had failed. The second time, it was a success; Rosy was pregnant. It was the most awaited result for Thea and she prayed for everything to be fine.
After an interval of five years from the day Rosy had undergone an IUI, their only son Karan as they had named him was both physically and mentally stable. The trio was leading a very joyous and a contended life and they respected Thea the most as if she had brought in an evolution in them.
It’s all based on individuality; there is no religion, communities or relations that play a role here. Every human being is different and thinks and reacts to a particular situation in his own way. There may be many people who like the idea of IUI and consider it as a boon to mankind while there are others who vehemently disapprove this concept. Advantages and disadvantages have an equal stand here. Though it was a huge success for Thea, her intuitive mind never let her propagate or experiment with this concept for fertile couples again.
Rosy and Johnsy had recommended that she should help other cousin couples through this method but she had taken a vow that she would not do it again, putting a complete full-stop to carry out this IUI on fertile couples.
She always believed that, may be if Rosy and Johnsy had their own biological child, there would still have been a great possibility of having a ‘normal child’ and may be the IUI technique, which they depended upon, could have also produced a child with deformity but fortunately nothing bad had happened. It was just good luck which played its part. Everyone lives in a transience state forgetting that bad luck may strike him or her in any moment of his or her life.
You may be a related or a non-related couple, we ought to remember only ‘one’ thing which governs and assures us that the child we yearn for is normal without any kind of disease or physical or mental abnormalities. This ‘one’ thing is none other than “GOOD LUCK”. The journey from life to death must have impregnated this ‘good luck’ firmly and unconquered between itself for a happy living.
Charles Hayes, a multiple Pushcart Prize Nominee, is an American who lives part time in the Philippines and part time in Seattle with his wife. A product of the Appalachian Mountains, his writing has appeared in Ky Story’s Anthology Collection, Wilderness House Literary Review, The Fable Online, Unbroken Journal, CC&D Magazine, Random Sample Review, The Zodiac Review, eFiction Magazine, Saturday Night Reader, Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, Scarlet Leaf Publishing House, Burning Word Journal, eFiction India, and others.
Gathering darkness fades the Great Smoky Mountain peaks into hazy humps that most evenings bring me a semblance of peace. But tonight their magic is gone. Sitting at a small table near the window that faces them, I study the faded photo of the young Vietnamese woman holding her baby. Silently I ask myself the same old questions. Did she wait for him and cry when she knew he wasn‘t coming back? Was she waiting for the money that I took from his wallet, along with this photo, after I shot him? These questions have played in my mind for forty years and all I can do is imagine the answers. And no answer, however imagined, makes me feel any better. Tossing the photo atop the dong currency scattered on the table, I rue the day that I took these things. War souvenirs that have branded my mind like the boogie men of children’s dreams. But unlike a child, I can not outgrow them.
“Ben are you fretting over that war stuff again,” Jean calls from the kitchen. “Please put those things back in the box until I can help you deal with it. We’ll figure something out.”
Having lost her husband to Agent Orange related cancer, Jean was a widow when I asked her to marry me twenty five years ago. I had no real hard assets to bring to the union. Just a good eye for wood and how to use it. She had a small farm with ample shop space that her husband had left her near the North Carolina mountains. Both of us came from that rural area close to Asheville and the plentiful hardwoods of the Appalachians. So we made a go of it with a few beef and a small cabinet business that I developed. Going through the after effects of the Vietnam war and its Agent Orange defoliate had given Jean a crash course in consequences. Watching her husband die had left her changed in a way that increased her understanding of people like me. She firmed me for my later years by giving me a lot of insight into my problems. Moreover, it was a good union and we both gained the partnership, strength, and love of another caring and respectful person. Now, amidst the prep smells of a turf and surf dinner, her specialty, she lets me know that she will have a hand in finding a way to let the war souvenirs go. And I welcome it.
Not feeling very hungry, although the aroma of stir fried shrimp and beef strips mixed with garlic and onions is nice, I put the souvenirs back in their shoebox and enter the kitchen.
“Hey babe, that smells nice. You sure know how to brighten a home with the smells of good cooking.”
“Thank you Ben,” Jean replies. “It helps when you’ve got someone who notices. Now, sit down. I’ll cover this stir fry and let the leather britches simmer a bit more while we talk. It‘s time to get a handle on your old ghosts. Just letting them stew is not good….for either of us.”
Taking a seat at the small breakfast table where we have some of our best conversations, I try to relax with the hope that Jean will steer this sit down. It’s hard for me to know where to begin with emotional stuff but Jean has a knack for it. She is smarter than me as well and can see avenues of resolution where I see only alleyways. After checking the stove one more time she places a cup of tea in front of me and sits down with her own. Stirring her tea, she takes a deep breath and looks out the window into the darkness.
“I wish it were daytime,” she says. “I enjoy watching the Angus graze from here in my kitchen, all high and dry. They are such beautiful black beefs. Hardy animals.”
I nod and smile as Jean takes a sip of tea before continuing.
“You know, that old bull hasn’t let down yet either. Sometimes, sitting here drinking my tea, I can mark the calendar for a new beef by watching that randy old critter. Even when the snow is flying. He may slip a bit on the mount but he still gets the job done. It’s the way things are. But our work helps keep them that way, the haying, calving, the money from your cabinets to fix the equipment and buy new when it’s needed……don’t you think, honey?”
So keen, my Jean, it’s just like her to point out the blessings before broaching darker subjects.
“Yeah babe, you got it right, no doubt,” I answer.
Feeling a little above the boogie men of war because there was a time for her when no amount of good things could take the edge off what was, Jean pushes a little.
“So Ben, don’t you think we can do something to bring that kind of balance into your past? Make it what it is, the past?”
“It’s just that I did a bad thing,” I say. “Mostly because I was stupid. But that doesn’t make it OK. What was in the pockets of the dead was none of my business………even if I didn’t intend to steal it. Because that is what I did. I stole from the dead. Souvenirs, my ass. It was loot. I was just too stupid to know it then.”
Having heard me well, Jean nods and places her hand on mine but inside she is unmoved.
“So what is the first thing you must do if you have stolen something, Ben?”
It is hard for me not to blurt out the obvious answer, but the gravity of it deserves a little time to just hang there and get thoroughly digested. After a moment, feeling like the wheels have already been set in motion, and having thought of the same answer many times, there is only one reply.
“Will you go with me?”
After looking at me like I am a child too old to wet my pants, but have done so anyway, Jean replies, “Of Course.”
When I open my eyes the first thing I see is Jean peering down at me. A shiver tells me that my wet T-shirt ought to come off, which Jean helps me do. Then leaving the lights off, as per past experiences, she gets a fresh one from the bedroom bureau and helps me struggle into it, then tucks the covers to fight the chill. A shaft of moonlight, its purity marred by little floating dust particles, filters through the sheer window curtains, providing enough light to clearly see the concerned expression on her face. Struggling to calm the adrenaline that has my senses too keen for an old man, I start taking deep breaths and rattling on about anything, the weather, how much hay we have. Anything to try and cut into what is really happening and deflate it some. Jean just nods and calmly gives an occasional, “I know.”
Five minutes of this unwinds the situation enough to allow some relief in. Along with the relief, though, comes the inevitable shame. Not to mention the big disappointment. I had hoped that I had kicked the bad dreams since it had been a while. Hoped that our planned action had put them to rest. At least for a little longer than this. With these thoughts come the realization that the planned trip back to the war zone, win or lose, can not come too soon. We are too old for this. And this knowledge is scary in it’s own right. We do not think nor discuss failure. We pretend there is no fear.
After a minute of stroking my brow, Jean asks, “Was it the man or the woman?”
Back to half normal now, but flooded with the embarrassment and shame of another episode, I would like to just poo poo it all, pat Jean’s cheek, and tell her not to fret about it. But I know better than to even try.
“Both,” I answer.
Jean nods and continues.
“Near Hoi An?”
I can see it all in my mind's eye but with Jean leading it is different than in the dream. With Jean, I only see it. I don’t relive it. Having learned to trust her instincts I deliver up whatever she wants to know.
“Yeah babe, in the mud by the river where he fell. She was a little ways off on a paddy dike………just watching.”
Feeling that it is important for her to learn more about what happened, Jean cautiously goes on and tries to avoid any pressure.
“OK, honey,” Jean says. “You didn’t see her when it really happened, did you?”
“No of course not, I didn’t………………”
Jean lets my words hang a moment longer with her familiar flat expression, nods, then slowly leaves the bed, softly humming an unknown tune. Putting on her robe, she looks over at me and smiles.
“I’ll put some coffee on and cook something light for an early breakfast. Come down when you are ready. And don‘t worry Ben, you‘re going to return everything that is heavenly possible.”
Approaching Da Nang, Vietnam after stops in Chicago and Seoul, Jean is sleeping against the bulkhead and I am bone tired after a full day of sitting in flying tubes. But all fatigue vanishes when, feeling the slight decrease in speed and lift, I lean across Jean and look down on the Vietnam coast and South China Sea. Clear blue waters running to stretches of white sand and steep verdant mountains signal our entry into Southeast Asia. Amazingly, luxury high rise hotels dot the beaches, and cars by the thousands fill the multilane highways. Off the left wing, rising up high enough to distinguish the Asian hardwoods of its slopes, is Nui Son Tra, what we called Monkey Mountain. It dominates the whole area of the coast, providing observation north to Hai Van Pass and south to Da Nang. Seeing this beacon for land and sea, I recall the last time I passed over it. How we suddenly dived and landed hard to avoid fire. And how I had to check my pants afterward. How, surreally, a colorfully dressed stewardess, like some sort of French canary amid a bunch of olive drab crows, appeared at the front of the cabin, and welcomed us to the busiest airport in the world. And the phantom jets, coming in quickly,. and going out, afterburners blasting.
Feeling Jean’s tug on my upper arm as the flaps lower and we line up for touchdown, I come back to the here and now.
“The gentleman across the aisle is speaking to you,” she says.
Looking over, I see a smiling silver haired Vietnamese man with thick horned rim glasses staring at me. In good accented English he repeats his question.
“How does it feel to be back?”
Wondering how he knows that, I reply.
“A little unreal, except for the mountain. How do you know I am coming back?”
Gently smiling, his face is kind and gracious.
“You are obviously American and I read your expressions as you looked at Nui Son Tra, your Monkey Mountain. All Americans who were here remember it well. We still use some of your radar there, you know?”
Noticing that we are about the same age, and his knack for putting me at ease, I find his friendly curiosity pleasant.
“Yes,” I say, “from up there the view is one of the best that I have ever seen. I wonder if there are still the crash sites of American jets trying to make it back to the air base up there.”
His face lights up with a broad smile at my knowledge but he courteously tones it down a bit when he says, “Oh yes, they are respectful memorials, to be sure. A bit rusty and scavenged by now but, on occasion, important teaching tools for our young.”
“You must be from the Da Nang area to have such thorough knowledge of the area,” I say.
Appearing to pause for his own reflections, the gentlemen looks to the cabin ceiling, then at me with a more subdued expression.
“ Yes, all my life……I fought at the other famous mountain here, your Marble Mountain, with parts of the 5th Viet Cong regiment.”
He seems to recognize my astonishment as he pauses and smiles boldly at me. Having given me time to digest the fact that he was once my enemy he pulls his trouser leg up and knocks on the plastic prosthesis.
“That is where I got this. But our field hospital there, that thankfully was never discovered, took good care of me. When I recovered I worked there until the war ended. A long long time ago. But it’s funny how it brings us back sometimes, isn’t it?”
Humbled by having come through only a single year of the war, a war that for him was for as long as it lasted, I can think of no reply as we come in on final approach. I look around to Jean who smiles and says, “Very nice man.”
Turning back to the gentleman across the aisle, I see his hand stretched toward me and I firmly grip it. Sincerely, as our eyes search each other’s, he says, “Welcome to Vietnam, my friend. We are glad to have you back and hope that your visit will nurture the common good everywhere you go.”
With unexpected emotion, I reply.
As the wheels screech and the reverse thrusters send us forward, we all look ahead.
The glass, steel, and concrete structure of the Da Nang International Airport, like the luxury high rise hotels on the beach, is another shock for me. Looking back at the front of the arrivals terminal before getting into the taxi behind Jean, I find it so different from the expanses of black tarmac, Quonset huts, and large aluminum hangers, that used to be here. A cool, modern work where there had been only undulating heat and noise, the airport brings me none of the recall that I had expected. Looking to the heights of the terminal, I discover another difference not so surprising. On a large pole canted out over the entrance flies no stars and stripes. Nor the yellow and stripes of South Vietnam. Only a large yellow star over a blood red background gently ripples in the breeze.
After giving the taxi driver the hotel address, Jean and I tiredly lean back and gaze out the window at the passing streets and avenues of a fully maturing Da Nang. Some of the old French structures remain but the thrown together corrugated tin shacks of the war years are gone. Not such a big deal by international standards, the city is still quite unlike what it was when I was last here. And the people have no recognition of Jean and me as anything other than another pair of foreigners going about our business in the heavily congested and growing city. Eye contacts seem fleeting and of no consequence. Not like some of the hard dark stares of the war. But everything is not so different. Exiting the taxi at our hotel, I get a good whiff of the unmistakable smell of nuoc mam or fermented fish sauce, and for the first time since getting here I am pulled back to the uncomfortable past. I once hated that smell and its reminder to observe carefully. Yet it was, and still is, one of the primary ingredients of common Vietnamese cooking. I quickly usher Jean into the air conditioned hotel and out of it’s odor.
No less than during the war, but with a higher standard, commerce rules here. And the efficient and polite way we are treated and served tells me that as long as we are respectful and have money we will receive the benefits of that commerce. Simply put, we are in the middle of a communist country that functions with a capitalistic agenda. At least here in the city. After checking in and cleaning up Jean orders sent up a large dinner of pho, or noodle soup w/ bits of fish, spring rolls, and a side dish of pork fried rice.
After eating all that we can and putting what is left in the small fridge for later, we sit on the tiny balcony overlooking the avenue below. Watching the ebb and flow of mostly young people to the brightly lit clubs and restaurants passes the evening interestingly enough until, again, the odor of nuoc mam assails my senses. But with a well fed stomach, already primed with local cooking and the benefit of relaxation, I start to make peace with the odor. It is just too trivial to bother about. Besides Jean informs me that its smell is just as interesting as it is pungent. And her eyes, looking as heavy as mine feel, tell me that this day in Vietnam, like the French at Dien Bien Phu, c’est fini.
Visiting the area around Hoi An gets complicated when the hotel learns of our intent to go along certain parts of the Thu Bon River. Instead of the train followed by a taxi they now insist that I will need a car and driver to make the thirty kilometer trip. And they just happen to have one standing by. More concerned about what will happen when we get there, I go along with the switch and don’t give it much thought until our driver arrives wearing what appears to be a government tunic. Giang, in his late forties, politely informs us that he is a representative of the party, which wants to insure that we have a pleasant visit to the rural area outside of Hoi An. Jean and I look at each other and nod, having already planned on the possibility of being assigned a minder, or one who insures we don’t wander too far afield. Hence, this should not hinder us. In fact we intend to use the added “help” to free us for a more thoughtful navigation of the past. And by every indication so far, it is the past.
Giang is pleasant and able to speak pretty good English during our hour long drive South along the coast. Passing along the outskirts of Hoi An toward the large muddy Thu Bon he points out little things of note and laughs a lot. But when we get close to highway 1 and the more rural area he become less jovial and more guarded as my directions take us to a small tributary near the village of Dien Phuong.
Sampans, with small brown men in conical hats steering from their rear perch, ply the waters of the tributary near its confluence with the broad Thu Bon. Much has changed about this place but the rice paddies and stilted huts along this part of the Thu Bon delta have not changed that much. Peasants, their lives rural and self contained, dot the many paddies and dikes along the rivers reach. Bent double, shoving the rice shoots into the water covered mud, they do work that would break the backs of most Americans. And kids still slowly switch their water buffalos along the paddy dikes.
Slowly following the tributary upstream, we come to large double spits of shore line reaching almost across the river. And the naked feeling I had while crossing them all those years ago suddenly floods my senses. Giang reluctantly stops the car when I ask and we all get out and peer across the first of the two sandy spits. Remaining near the car, as if ready to leave in a heartbeat, Giang watches Jean and me walk a little ways out the first spit.
“Do you know where you are?” Jean ask.
Remembering like it was yesterday that the lieutenant had wanted to know why a helicopter gunship was flanking up and down the far shore, I look at Jean and answer.
“Yeah, babe, I know. Over on the other side is where it happened.”
Jean scans the far shoreline for a full minute while I just stare, lost in that time. Taking my hand, Jean finally says, “Come on, we must go there.”
Already knowing this, I lead her out over the spit and toward the far shore as Giang starts yelling for us to stop. When I look back at him he is running around and waving his arms in protest. We ignore his protests and continue anyway.
More than halfway across I stop and stare again.
After a moment Jean says, “What happened here?”
Continuing to stare, I reply as if by rote.
“There were three of us. The rest stayed back where Giang is. But I had the radio so there was no choice for me. I go where the lieutenant goes. And the Vietnamese scout with us had to go. But he didn’t like it. The lieutenant made him.”
Shaking off that time to gain better control and get more in tune with Jean, I put my arm around her shoulder and pull her close before I continue.
“We took fire, three rounds, where we stand. One went through the lieutenant’s leg and the other two just kicked up sand in front of us. When the lieutenant went down the scout ran back the way we had come.”
Pointing to the nearest part of the river bank ahead, I take a moment to see it clearly in my mind.
“When the lieutenant went down a lone VC broke cover and ran from that part of the shore. I dumped the radio and caught up enough to empty a magazine as he ran for the rice paddies. When he returned fire I took cover. Then suddenly it grew quiet so I moved on to the paddy track. He was face down in the mud. I rolled him over and saw that some of my shots had got him clear through. I still wonder at his ability to get that far. The wallet was sticking out of his breast pocket. I took the photo and money, and put the wallet back. Then I came back here and called in a dust off for the lieutenant.”
As we start again for the river bank the sound of Giang’s panicky voice turns our heads. Running towards us across the spit, with one arm held high and waving, his voice is clear and loud.
“Wait for me, I must be with you. You can not go there alone. Stop and wait for me!”
Giang grudgingly joins Jean and I as we continue to the end of the spit and wade across the shallow water to the river’s edge. Following a well traveled trail through the palms and other trees growing in the brush along the tributary, we emerge on the same track that was there all those years ago except it is widened some. Looking across the many rice paddies, I see a small settlement of houses where there used to be the native huts of a small hamlet. Getting my bearings from them, the river, and the layout of the rice paddies, I lead our small group about 20 meters along the track to where I had looted the body of my enemy. Not feeling very well, I sit on a mound of stones and hang my head while Jean stands over me and rubs my shoulders. Giang, sensing that something important is happening, curiously looks on. After a moment, Jean is the first to speak.
“Is this where it happened, honey?”
“Yes, babe, this is where it all began….or ended. Depending on how you look at it, I suppose.”
Jean goes into her fanny pouch and removes a small book of poetry with the dong, photo, and a press flower in it. Handing it to me, she says “It’s the right thing to do, Ben.”
Giang, now thoroughly intrigued, walks over to join Jean and me. And for a moment the three of us silently stare down at the little book of verse by Omar Khayyam.
Removing the photo from between the pages of verse, I study the woman’s face one more time, wondering the same things I’ve wondered a thousand times before. Surprisingly, Giang squats down and looks closely at the photograph before standing and excitedly pointing toward the nearby settlement and demanding that I give him the photo. I look to Jean to see what her take on this is. She nods. So I hand over the picture.
Putting the picture in his tunic pocket while he moves quickly toward the crisscross of paddy dikes, Giang yells back over his shoulder, “Stay here, do not move. I will come back soon.”
Jean and I watch him hurry across the dikes and disappear into the settlement of houses wondering if it was wise to let the photo go this near its journey’s end. Before we can worry that much about it the frantically beeping horn of an old jeep, driven by an elderly woman rivets our attention. Bumping towards us along the old track with Giang in the passenger seat, the jeep pulls up to us and stops. A smiling Giang hops down, goes around to the driver's side and offers his hand to the old woman. She says something I can’t understand and smacks his hand away, sending him aside. Swinging both legs outside the jeep, she spryly hops down, walks over to Jean and me and just stares. First at Jean, and then at me. Finally she reaches into an apron-like pocket and pulls out the photo.
“This is me,” she says in passable English. “I saw you take it.”
Then no doubt she saw me take the money as well, I am thinking. I offer the book of verse with the dong and pressed flower. Accepting it, she opens the book, looks at the dong, and nods. Turning the pages a few times, she comes to the pressed flower and runs her finger along its stem. Looking only at Jean, she says, “Thank you.”
Jean half bows, takes my hand, and points at my heart. The woman turns her eyes to mine, searches them for several moments, and looks to Giang. Motioning for him to come close, she says something in Vietnamese.
“She knows your name,” Giang says, “because I told her. She wants you to know her name is Kim. And she wants to know why you are doing this.”
My answer needs no thought.
“Because I killed her husband and took his things, tell her.”
Giang tells her what I said, and listens to her reply, which seems quite long and detailed.
Turning to me, Giang says, “She says you did not kill him.”
Giang points to the nearby river brush, then continues.
“She was hiding just there and could have shot you easily….which she would have if you had killed him. You only chased him after he shot your officer. But you did not even wound him. Her husband was killed when he ran from the brush into the path of a helicopter and its machine gunner. He died instantly. Then you came from the same brush and took their money and the photo. The baby in the photo was their son. He was killed in Kampuchea, what you call Cambodia, in our war there. He was not yet even fully grown. This photo of her and her son during the time that they all lived means much. Too many wars, she says. Such waste.”
Giang sadly shakes his head, and pats me on the back. And this almost knocks me over. Jean looks none the steadier either but somehow, like a walking Frankenstein, reaches out to Kim who graciously reciprocates as they hug.
Me, I can still barely stand, with thoughts banging around in my head so fast and furious that it is useless to try to pursue any of them. Except one. I didn’t do it. And I have returned what I stole. Maybe a bit more.
Wiping away tears as she and Jean part, Kim smiles for the first time, looks at me, and pats her heart. Openly sobbing, Jean turns to me and we hug for a long time as my tears flow as well, my voice breaking with sobs as I say over and over, “I didn’t do it.”
Giang, not so removed, smiles and laughs with pleasure.
Having had the best with each other during our brief but truly divine encounter, we all move back down to the river where Giang, Jean and I begin our return with lifted hearts.
Reaching the near end of the sand spit, Jean calls for a pause and turns around to take a picture. Kim standing on the river bank, framed by the tall palms and low brush, waving to us, is a picture on Jean’s digital camera bound for glory. Kim stands there until we reach the far bank and load back into the car. She watches our car windows full of waves, and hears Giang’s long blast on the horn from far across the tributary of the muddy Thu Bon. Then, bits of peace both ways tendered, we are gone.
Driving back up the coast, Giang is even more jovial than before. Seeming to have forgiven us for breaking his rules he again points out things of interest and laughs a lot. But now, his eyes match his spirit.
Stopping to eat at a place that Giang knows, Jean and I let him order for us. And we are officially introduced to nuoc mam. Jean has a better first time experience with it than me and gets past the smell after her first piece of fish dipped in it. For me, it is more of a struggle, but I persist. With the encouragement of the others, after a few bites, I actually conquer it. The smell no longer drags my nose to unwelcome places. Now it simply falls in with the many other sights, sounds……and smells of another culture different from my own. The many similar things that we share allows this success. Getting rid of my feelings about nuoc mam really tops off the joy of having returned Kim’s property. To say that Jean and I are thankful would be an understatement. Giang, as well, seems fully appreciative of the good he helped do.
Arriving back at our hotel, we say goodbye to Giang while pressing a nice box of chocolates from the hotel gift shop into his hands. “For your wife,” we must tell him several times before he accepts them. Then with a toot of the horn, a friendly wave, and a big smile, he drives away and disappears into the Da Nang traffic.
Making it back to our room, thoroughly but very pleasantly tired, we plan the agenda for the rest of our stay here in Vietnam and, again, get dinner sent up.
This time, setting on the little French balcony after eating, we watch the same young crowds up and down the avenue below. But with an attitude so different from the one before. In a way, we have come home.
In the autumn morning chill of a full dawn I can tell that the sun is beginning its push across the tidewater plains east of here. The sunny snow covered tops of the Smokies to the West, where it shines first, is my signal. Straddling the rich loose dirt as the tiller pulls me over the rime covered patch for garlic, I figure I can finish this prep work for planting in time to have some tea with Jean. The ease with which the rear tines dig in and loosen the dirt is close to a singular joy. We traded in the old front tine tiller, using the money left over from the Vietnam trip. Plenty of hay in the barn, the garden all turned under for winter, and livestock healthy and fit. What more could we ask for? I’ll do the garlic under in a week or so and that’ll be it for the garden until spring. Finishing the last row, I shift the tiller out of gear, switch it off, and store it for winter in the open sided shed.
Walking up to the house, I can see Jean in the kitchen window holding up an empty cup and smiling. After I remove my boots on the back porch, I grab a couple of locust logs for quick heat and enter the house. Stopping on the way to the kitchen to throw one of the logs in the wood stove, I pick up the aroma of homemade apple butter mixing with the cozy smell of wood heat. Scooting along the hardwoods in my socks I silently enter the kitchen, hug Jean from behind, and proclaim.
“Darling, your kitchen smells have lost none of their charm. Hope I made it in time for tea.”
Turning around and kissing me before putting the tea on the table with the toast and apple butter, Jean looks as happy as I’ve ever seen her.
“Flattery will get you everything,” she says. “Sit down and try that apple butter. I just opened the jar.”
Taking my usual chair, I spoon out some apple butter on a piece of toast, and take a bite.
“Very good my dear, you outdid yourself,” I say. “Does that get me whatever I want too?”
Jean sits down with our tea and demurely smiles before answering.
“Almost Ben. Mustn’t be too easy.”
I chuckle and have a sip of tea. A pleasant silence settles about while we simply look at each other. After a moment Jean reaches out and takes my hand.
“We got really lucky, didn’t we, Ben?”
“No doubt about it, babe, we did. But it would have been impossible without you. I feel like a new person except for my love for you. That could never be new. Because it is, was, and ever shall be.”
“I’m so happy for us,” Jean says. “No more awful souvenirs. We are free.”
Pausing to soak in the glow of our new life together, I think of all the time spent regretting something that never happened. And the waste of that war. But I will not let that drag us down any more. Standing from the table, I walk into the den where the wood stove is to look for something. Finding what I want, I go back into the kitchen with my hands behind my back. Walking over and standing by the table where Jean sits with a puzzled look, I say, “You know babe, we are not completely free. There is still a souvenir, I’m afraid.”
Picking up the small framed picture of Kim from the table and holding it up, Jean says, “You mean this?”
I shake my head.
Placing the picture back on the table, Jean gives me that old look of utter frustration and says, “Well, hell! And I was feeling such success. What in the world is it now?”
As Jean’s eye grow wide and a slow smile brightens her face, I place beside Kim’s picture a tall bottle of nuoc mam.
Friends: One Down, One Arrested
Standing on a large rock and turning his face to the soft light filtering through the treetops, Ricky Teller prays, asking for forgiveness and that his body be found before it rots. After checking the tautness a final time, he pulls the noose over his head and tightens the knot behind his left ear. He does things right. Better than any note left behind to sweep his exit, this will be clear to anyone who cares to see. Lowering his eyes to the space that he intends to fill, his vision is taken up with a small sign of life in the creek below. On the bottom is a crawdad holding a small earthworm . Like a fan holds aloft a caught baseball, the crawdad seems to be showing the world that it can make it. Seeing this microcosm of life so clearly from his perch, as if somehow magically magnified especially for him, Ricky changes his mind. Sliding the knot loose with trembling hands, he lifts the rope from his neck, climbs down from the rock, and trudges out of the woods to his small home along the dirt road, his mind swirling with thoughts of his fleeing wife and stepkids.
Barbara Stephens, known simply as Babs, shacked up with Ben Hoons, the father of her two kids, until he left them for his younger cousin and their kid. Ricky, not one to miss such a rare opportunity, caught Bab’s bounce perfectly and they were quickly married. Hearing that his old family had made a new home with Ricky, like a child that has thrown away his toys, Ben Hoons wanted them back. So he drove up the hollow to try to do that. But when he got to the little footbridge across the creek to Ricky’s shack, Ricky was waiting. “Get out of my way,” Ben said, as he tried to push past. Stiff armed by Ricky, Ben swung. Dodging and countering with two quick blows that knocked Ben down, Ricky gave Ben a choice.
“Let it go. Just go on and get off my property or I’ll get the law up here.”
His eye starting to puff up, Ben struggled to his feet, got back into his pick-up and, while cursing and waving a tire iron out the window, spun up a cloud of dust going away. This problem was eventually ironed out by a judge and a poor people’s lawyer. The ruling gave Ricky, after many years of being alone, a bona fide wife with some step kids to boot. But with family came responsibilities. Having been told by Babs that if he ever started drinking again she and the kids would leave him, Ricky picked up the bottle a few months on anyway. And it was like Babs had just been waiting for the opportunity. Looking out the window one day, Ricky saw his family, with their packed trash bags, walking across the footbridge, down the road, and out of his life.
Jay Handley, Ricky’s squad leader in Vietnam, was a kind of easy going guy. But with a bit of an insensitive streak. Once, patrolling out of a firebase near Hue, they located the charred bodies of a local Viet Cong cadre that had been caught in the open and napalmed. Stinking terribly to everyone else, the blackened mounds of flesh didn’t bother Handley. Grabbing one of the dead, propping him up against a palm tree, and shoving a cigarette in his mouth, Handley started talking to the charred mass as if it were the most natural thing in the world. The lieutenant really chewed him out but Handley just stood there smiling and leaning against that same palm tree like he was hanging on the street corner. When the lieutenant walked away Handley booted the corpse back to the ground and, to Ricky’s amazement, just winked and giggled before suddenly getting very serious.
“The lieutenant’s got no guts,” he said, “he’s not going to make it.”
Two months later the lieutenant stepped on a booby trapped 155 shell. It blew him 50 feet into the air and when he came down it was in three big pieces with lots of little pieces missing. Handley gathered the pieces for the chopper to lift out, saying over and over the whole time, “I knew it.”
Sitting on the outhouse toilet with the door open, watching the sun edge closer to the far western ridges, Ricky cups his chin in his hands and wonders what day it is. Almost mesmerized by the incessant drone of the locusts, he startles when he hears an old familiar voice.
“Still sitting on the can while the world passes you by, huh Teller?”
As out of left field as it gets, the voice brings Ricky to focus on Jay Handley walking across the outer edge of the property.
“I thought as much,” Jay continues. “I hope you’re doing better than you look.”
Cutting short his session and quickly pulling up his pants, Ricky comes out of the outhouse smiling, his hand outstretched. Grabbing Ricky’s wrist and inspecting his hand before shaking it, Jay lets out that booming laugh of times in that other world.
“What the hell are you doing in these parts,” Ricky says, “thought you were back in some factory up in Sandusky.”
“Not me, can’t take some labor boss telling me what to do any better than you can Teller. While I had an old lady maybe, but now, she’s gone, what’s the point?”
Laughing and feeling good for the first time in weeks, Ricky shakes his head.
“You mean to tell me that you actually found some woman that would put up with you. I don’t believe it, you got to be lying.”
Jay looks around at the shack, outhouse, and little patch of land between the road and the woods.
“Well it don’t appear to me that you’re doing much better. I don’t see any of the fairer sex pinning up your laundry.”
Suddenly remembering Babs and his step kids, Ricky loses his grip on the bravado and falls silent. Noticing the quick pain in Ricky’s eyes, Jay well remembers that look and how it was overseas. He would slap Ricky’s shoulder and tell him, “Fuck it, it don’t mean nothin.” It was their mantra of pain and a way to try and arrest it. Make it stop. But Jay decides best he just let it die naturally this time. After a short pause, finally meeting each other’s eyes, Jay simply nods and says, “We waiting for the guide to this mansion or can we make it inside alone?”
Ricky laughs and playfully pushes Jay.
“Still the mood man, huh? Got a problem? Take it to Handley. Get in the door there and mind you wipe your feet first.”
A small wood burner, an old rocker, and a sofa, worn through to its pasteboard, make up the living room furnishings. But it is enough. Being of like ilk, they know that there is no revelations about their lives to put forward. No “catching up” to do. Just simply relaxing into some plain talk as they fire up a couple of sticks of home grown brings the two friends back home a bit. It is fine. Even if one foot remains where they were, they are not alone.
“Don’t you ever get the feeling that you’re trapped up this hollow, miles from the nearest town, no transportation?” Jay ask. “I don’t think I’d be able to take that for very long.”
“I get into town some,” Ricky says, “stir things up a little bit, then retire back here until things calm down. Besides there ain’t no liquor stores around here so I’m forced out every now and then.”
“Yeah I can see that, sure looks like some kind of solitary up here. Don’t expect people can get in your shit much out this way. I could use a couple of weeks of that about now. Might help me draw out where I’m heading, if anything can.”
“Hell man,” Ricky says, “throw your gear in that extra room there. It’s where my stepkids used to stay. Don’t expect that they’ll mind now.”
Before Jay can respond, Ricky suddenly jumps up and says, “It’s where I keep my guns. Come on, have a look.”
Following Ricky past the curtain and into the room, Jay sees a couple of Army cots with the mattresses rolled up, torn flowery wall paper that looks 50 years old, and some indoor/outdoor carpet over most of the rough slat flooring. No furniture but between a couple of windows facing the outhouse and the steep woods beyond, a large gun rack is mounted. Several rifles and shotguns occupy it. Each gun shows not a flaw nor a speck of corrosion in its metal. And the stocks glow with rubbed in linseed oil like the day they were made. Jay, smiling like a Cheshire, walks over to the rack and admires an old Stevens 12 gauge as he lifts it from the rack.
“Man, this one goes back a ways. I got my first squirrel with one of these.”
“So did I,” replies Ricky. “Check out that Model 12 Winchester. Smoothest action I ever seen.”
Returning the Stevens and lifting the Model 12 free, Jay studies it a moment, then lifts it to his shoulder for a fit. Bringing it back down, he softly whistles and returns it to the rack.
“Man, Ricky, you got guns here worth more than this house.”
“Like em, don’t you Jay?” Ricky says. “Take your pick. We’ll go after squirrel tomorrow.”
“I’ll take the Model 12 if you can spare it. What will you use though?”
“The 22 automatic,” Ricky says. “It’s always what I use. Gives the critter a sporting chance.” Slapping his thigh, Jay laughs.
“That’s right! Dead eye Teller! I bet you still don’t miss.”
Ricky, a little flattered by his old squad leader’s praise, walks over to the rack and lovingly strokes the scoped 22 before replying.
“Sometimes, Jay—on purpose.”
Hunting the hills together, not bringing in much game, but in a way reliving a part of their past, they quietly roam the hardwood forest and carry the guns that they love. Making one trip into town during that time, they use the last of Jay’s money for all the liquor they will need and some good food to cook up when they want. They even manage to complete a one-day roofing job for an old widow that lives nearby, asking only that she provide the materials. Finishing that job, sunburned and sweating alcohol, they amuse the widow with their discomfort. She tells them that it’s good for them and that it will remove a little of their barroom pallor. Laughing about it and realizing that it is her way of feeling like she is giving them something since she has no money, they tell her that she is probably right. Then packing it in, they head for the river to bathe.
Sitting and sipping their last bottle of Wild Turkey on the river rocks after their bath, not much passes between them. Out in the still water, beyond the rocks, the loud pop of a beaver tail brings their heads up to see a setting sun. Quietly, they put their clothes on, noticing the look in each other’s eyes. Knowing that the other is back at one of those streams in the Nam where they had bathed together, they silently leave the waters and go back up the hollow to their home.
Heavy rain pounding the tin roof, adding a small sense of security, brings them to in the wee hours of the morning. Finding the last two cans of beer in the fridge, Ricky gives one to Jay and, with unsteady hands, rolls up a joint and lights it.
“Well, that’s the end of the booze. Think we should scratch up some money and get some more?”
“No need to bother,” Jay replies, “time for me to hit the road again anyway. Catching and keeping rides is hard when the bottle goes along.”
Speaking in a slow quiet way that reminds Ricky of some of their conversations on night watch back in the war, Jay floats an idea.
“Say Rick, why don’t you come with me? There ain’t nothing holding you here. I figure on heading out to Seattle, try to get on some fishing trawler for a spell. You know, sock up a little money, then see what’s happening.”
“You mean hitchhike,” Ricky says, “I guess you know rides are hard to come by these days, especially for two grown men.”
“You got a better idea?”
“Maybe. Did you see that old VW setting under the tarp in the widow’s yard?”
“Well, it’s been setting like that for two years that I know of. Parts are cheap, plus there’s an authorized dealer and parts store in town. The old woman liked our work. Maybe we could work some sort of deal with her, fix up that old house for the VW, and have some wheels to get around.”
Jay studies the proposition for a moment then shakes his head.
“Where are we going to get the money for gas? Food will cost plenty and you do want to let down every now and then, don’t you? Seems like it would just be another trapping to eat up resources, stifle what little freedom we got.”
Nodding in silence for several moments, Ricky decides to let it out.
“I got some money squirreled away that my mom left me. Not a lot but enough to get the VW going and get us out West. Don’t know why I was saving it, just felt like it wasn’t really my money. Might as well put it to some use.”
Jay looks to the ceiling and rolls his eyes. “You old sandbagging asshole you! Living up here hand to mouth and you got money in the bank! Hell yes, we can put that money to use.”
Getting a deal with the widow woman, who is glad to give them a shove off, the two aging Namies paint her house, rebuild the old porch, and repair her falling down barn. Happy with their work, the old woman deeds the VW, and wishes them
luck, telling them that they are too young to be idling away their time up a West Virginia hollow. After several trips hitchhiking to town and the local junk yards, they get the old car licensed and in good running shape. Time to hit the road. Loading the old bug up with their gear and locking the shack tight with the guns in a concealed wall compartment, they get ready to make their final trip out of the hollow. But as Jay starts to get behind the wheel, Ricky stops him.
“Hold tight a bit Jay, there’s something I need to do first, down the creek a little ways, back in the woods there. Come on, there’s something you’ve never seen. And I can’t just leave it like that.”
Coming upon the little space beside a small feeder stream to the main creek, they find the noose hanging from an old Elm limb, just as Ricky had left it. Staring up at it for what seems like a long time, both are lost. Finally, Jay looks away, avoiding Ricky’s eyes, shakes his head, and says in a choked whisper, “Fuck it, it don’t mean nothing.”
“No doubt about it,” Ricky replies. “It don’t mean nothing. Now let’s get this rope to tie down some of our stuff.”
Lashing on the top of the VW all that will not fit inside and under the hood, they celebrate the death of the gallows, cracking jokes and laughing about it all. New beginnings are ahead.
Out of West Virginia, across Ohio, and almost all the way to Chicago that first day, they stop in a little roadside campground and spend the night before pushing on through the corn belt the next day. Passing through the broad expanses of the West and topping the continental divide, followed by crossing the Cascades, they finally come down into Western Washington and Seattle’s port by Puget Sound. Boats and ships are scattered about everywhere on the many huge waterways. Locating the fishing fleet base and its myriad of ships is easy. After getting their applications in for the next Bering Sea run up around Alaska, they luckily find a place to stay at a boarding home for fishermen and Alaska cannery workers waiting for the season.
Quickly called back for interviews after killing time around the waterfront and tourist spots, they are hired on one of the first trawlers to head North.
Having a record of good loads, a good galley, and adequate berthing, The Edson spends the first several weeks doing pretty standard fishing. Working the nets topside, Jay, who is the bigger of the two, ribs Ricky about his easier job below in the small processing unit. But they both know that topside is much more dangerous. And that is why it pays more and comes with life insurance.
As the season changes and the sun disappears for longer and longer periods, rough seas turn dangerous. One night, removing his safety line in order to work the nets faster, Jay is washed overboard by a rogue wave that almost capsizes the vessel. Taken down immediately by his heavy gear, Jay’s chances of being found are nil. After a cursory search for him, The Edson must make for the Alaska shore with many hands injured.
Having been thrown across the relay belt and knocked unconscious by the door hatch, Ricky’s right arm is broken. He has also sustained some serious cuts and lacerations that make it necessary to fly him to Seattle where the fleet takes care of his medical and living expenses until he can recover. Healing quickly, Ricky soon finds himself back on the streets of the City. Only this time he is alone. The beneficiary of Jay’s small life insurance policy and a small workman’s comp payment, Ricky receives enough money to get on with his life but one thing’s for sure. He is done with fishing. And while Seattle is nice with its moderate climate and generous people, it is still foreign to him. Seeing raccoons wander the streets at night, Ricky feels like a fragile Alice and almost wonders when the big rabbit will appear. It’s all just not him, whatever that is. He doesn’t have much but what he does have lies back East in the Appalachians. It’s where he should be.
Having sold the VW before going to sea, Ricky flies to Sandusky to look up Jay’s family and give them the money from the life insurance. In good conscious, he can’t keep it. Jay’s folks look like they can use it and Ricky, also hurting from the loss of his friend, finds a little peace in getting it to them. Treating him warmly, they bring out some of the pictures that Jay had taken in the Nam and show him some of the ones that he is in. Studying and restudying those photographs for a whole afternoon, Ricky remembers the time and those who didn’t make it and tries to put some kind of order to it all. The Handleys let him be during that last afternoon. And Ricky seems to gain the purchase that he has been scrabbling for ever since that tragic night on the Bering Sea. And even before.
Saying goodbye to Jay’s family the next morning and catching a bus down to the Southern Appalachians of West Virginia, Ricky returns to Fox Run and his little place there. In a way he is glad to be back. Maybe he should never have left. Maybe he never will again.
Sitting by the cold wood stove, Ricky bends over and unlatches the snaps on his suitcase. Lying atop his few clothes is that old rope that went the distance with him and Jay. And then with him alone. Hefting it, he lets it part way uncurl to the floor and begins slowly counting the loops of the noose as he makes it. Stopping before he gets to thirteen, he just sits there looking down at the rope in his hands, feeling its coarseness and remembering the burns he used to get from an old childhood rope swing. Sitting most of the night holding that rope, dropping it and picking it up, smiling sometimes, and almost crying others, Ricky looks back.
Coming cold and grey, the February morning light slants through his window and into his senses. A fresh blanket of snow has fallen. Suddenly a little Black Capped Chickadee alights on the snow covered window sill. Fluffing and flapping around in the snow, as if bathing for an important event, it burst loose with a song that breaks the morning silence. Just as suddenly the bird fluffs again and is gone. Standing and dropping the rope back into the suitcase, Ricky snaps it shut and puts it aside. Moving to the window, he looks out over the meadow to the perch halfway up the hillside beyond. Up where he and Jay sat after a still hunt and talked life. Covered by white powder, it seems cold and remote compared to his warm recall. Moments pass and its chill remains, so dissimilar to his memory. Grudgingly, he spins from the view, grabs an ax and heads to the wood pile, telling himself with every step, “Fuck it, it don’t mean nothing.”
Romantic and sympathetic in its genre, a perfect stand in for the cold and the dead that someone, somewhere, must have loved. Some smidgen of peace it may bring and peace it must keep with them that mourn, their hands clasp away from the necks of those who pipe its tune.
But the dead are more than deaf to its call, the majesty of bursting bombs in air as o’er the ramparts the romantic, gallant, heroes serve up the day's conquest for the suits at their well laid tables, a place far remote from the stretched and curled ones, never hearing the anthem that pied them to their end, as it laid those tables fair.
Memorials, as the day, are also done, folded flags to bosoms held, shuffled steps to somewhere beyond the blurry vision of it all, go those who will know the dirge anew and never tell.
Apoorva Purohit is a researcher in the field of molecular simulation of biomolecules and materials. She has a passion for creative writing and is currently working on her poetry book. She says that she is a private person and writing is a very important part of her life as it gives her an opportunity to experience different personalities and their journeys.
Mark has been conducting research on energy storage devices from the past 30 years. Recently, he was promoted to the Professor position in Massachusetts University. Before joining this university, he worked for a private company for a few years, but there he did not get the freedom to work on technologies that he was passionate about. That’s why he joined this university to be able to pursue independent research on projects that interested him. Everything worked out well for him and now he has a well-established laboratory with excellent students and technicians. His papers get published in the top journals and he has collaborations with the best people in the field.
Today is a special day for Mark as it’s the 20-year anniversary of his lab. He looks happy and proud of his journey as he wakes up in the morning and eats breakfast with his wife and kids. “It was not an easy journey,” he tells his wife. “I believe that luck and persistence, both are very important factors in research as most of the times we have to get through muck before reaching the real gold,” he says. Then, he picks up his phone and starts checking his emails while sipping his coffee. One of the emails is about the rejection of his proposal by the funding agencies. He sighs and then shows this email to his wife. She shockingly says “Oh no! You have spent around one month writing this proposal.” “Yes, and within one second all that hard work has gone to waste,” he replies with a sad smile on his face. It is so important for him to secure grants in order to attract more students in his lab. However, he is used to such emails by now as rejection is the reality of a researcher’s life no matter how accomplished he is.
After dropping his kids to school, he drives to his university where he has to deliver a lecture to the graduate students about the laws of thermodynamics. Earlier, lecturing was an interesting experience for him as it gave him an opportunity to connect with young researchers, but now after so many years it has become repetitive and he’s almost tired of it. During the lecture, a student asks him, “Is there any process in this universe with no heat loss?” He answers the question and starts teaching again. After 20 years, the questions asked by students are also predictable for him and there is no exhilaration for him in this experience anymore, but still he tries his best to make the lecture as interesting as possible for the students.
Following the tedious lecture, he comes to his office on the 9th floor and begins reviewing the draft of a paper written by one of his PhD students. This draft has been on his desk for past two months but he was extremely busy in writing proposals and working on a patent. “There is nothing special about this work and I have seen hundreds of such ordinary papers,” he thinks. According to him, he has a lot to lose with one below standard publication as his reputation might get affected in the research community. Mark is contemplating about not submitting this work to any journal, when suddenly the fire alarm in the building starts ringing.
Mark is extremely petrified because this alarm started in his lab. He still remembers that winter evening around three years ago when there was an explosion in his lab due to an ignitable gas released in an experiment. Luckily no one got hurt that time but he received a serious warning from the Chairperson. If such an explosion has happened again, it might be the end of his career. He runs towards the lab to get everyone out. His students rushing out of the lab inform him that mild smoke has released from the apparatus near the alarm and there is absolutely nothing to worry about. Thereafter, Mark anxiously waits outside the ten-floored building which has been evacuated due to an accident in his lab. He stands there with hundreds of researchers shivering with cold and pointing fingers at him. Within thirty minutes, the rescue team declares that there was nothing serious and the lab can be used again. Mark can take a sigh of relief now, but tomorrow he needs to present an explanation of this incident to a committee of Professors.
After the rescue team is gone, Mark runs to his lab and checks all the apparatus to make sure everything is safe and everyone is fine. “I want you all to be extra careful from now on as any negligence could risk both our lives as well as careers,” he warns his group members. Then he heads back to his office and calls his collaborators from Europe. He needs their experimental results in order to start one of his important experiments but the collaborators inform him that one of their machines broke down and that’s why they cannot supply him the required data on time. This is another bad news for Mark because the funding agency wants to see the progress of that experiment within one month and if the results are not satisfactory the grant might be rejected.
In any case, Mark has to snap out of it as now he has an appointment with a student who is interested in pursuing research under him. So he welcomes the student in his office and explains his projects and working techniques. Earlier he had decided to introduce this student to his group members, but after the smoke leak he feels it would be better to let go of that idea. While leaving his office, the student says, “Dr. Mark, I believe that I would be a better fit for the computational labs rather than your lab as I don’t enjoy performing experiments, I like programming more.” Mark is used to such responses and he understands that one must always do what they are passionate about, but it is his job to explain his work excitably whenever anyone shows interest in it.
It’s almost 9 pm now and Mark is exhausted so he decides to go back home. Generally, he leaves by 7 pm so that he can spend some quality time with his kids, but today was tougher than the other days. While leaving his office, he notices that all the male professors have left and only two female professors are still working in their offices. “I wonder why people think that working with women is less productive than men as their priorities are different,” he thinks while driving back home.
The kids are already sleeping by the time Mark reaches home. After dinner, he prepares notes for the lecture that he has to deliver the next morning. At midnight, he lies on his bed thinking that the reason he chose this job was because of his passion for research and exploring, but now he is doing everything except for research. Before sleeping, the last thought that comes to his head is “When did my life change from being a researcher to a person dealing with bureaucracy and grubbing for money?”
My name is Kaeli LeDoux. I am a college student enrolled at Full Sail University. I am in the process of my bachelor of fine arts in creative writing. I plan to continue for my masters. I am very outdoorsy. I love music. Writing is my passion and I am rarely found without a book in hand.
Roger sat on the secluded patio outside his motel room, waiting for the phone to ring. It wouldn’t take the cops long to narrow the suspect pool down to him. There aren’t many thieves with the skill, let alone the guts, to pull off a job like this. He had driven through the night, across state lines, to this out of the way motel where nobody would recognize or notice him. His knee bounced up and down as he waited for her to call.
“Rog, I’m here!” She said from the other side of the door.
“You were supposed to call first, Martha,” He said through grit teeth as he opened the door.
“Well I know how much you love surprise visits,” she said sarcastically, walking through the door. Martha was notorious for fencing stolen items. She looked over the colorless walls, striped bedding, and dark shag carpeting. “Well isn’t this homey.”
Roger led her toward the patio behind the wall of glass. They across from each other at a small round table, discussing business. “I need you to sell these diamonds,” Roger said, showing her a bag filled with precious stones.
“Jesus Christ, we’ll be set for life after this score!” She said happily, already deciding how to get the best price. “Where did you get them?”
“You know better than to ask that question.” Roger put the bag on the table. “How soon can you get rid of them?”
“What’s the rush, doll?” Martha asked reaching for the bag.
“My rush, is that it is only a matter of time before the police come looking for me and I intend to be long gone by then.”
“Don’t worry, I’ll have them gone before the cops figure it out, sugar,” she said taking the bag from his hand. Martha had heard about the heist before roger called her. She had no intention of selling the diamonds, the reward the jeweler offered was much higher than whatever price she could fetch. Turning roger in wasn’t her first choice, but a girls got to look out for number one.
Roger led her to the door. “I called you because I can’t trust anyone with this.”
“You can trust me,” she said flashing a fake smile. As she walked out the bag felt heavier in her hand. She slid into her 1956 Chevrolet Bel Air and started the engine. The fifteen-minute drive to the precinct seemed to take only seconds.
“What can I do you for, doll?” A rookie at the reception desk asked.
“I need to speak to your captain,” She said calmly.
The kid walked away quickly and a few minutes later a pudgy balding man was walking toward Martha. “How may I help you?” the captain asked.
“I know who stole the diamonds from the jewelry store. I got them and came to turn them in,” she said nervously holding up the bag.
The captain ushered Martha into his office and took the bag. “How did you get these?”
“The man who stole them is named, Roger Jenkins. He gave them to me hoping I would find a way to sell them, but I decided to turn them in instead.”
“Where is he?”
“He is at the Bluebird Motel, room 215,” she said walking out.
Twenty minutes later the cops pulled into the motel parking lot and surrounded the place. Roger panicked and grabbed his gun. He put the barrel to his head and pulled the trigger as the door burst open.
Derek A. Schneider is an indie author of multiple genres living with his wife and five kids in Indianapolis, Indiana. After trying for some time to break into the comic book industry with his artwork, Derek decided to instead focus fully on writing. Derek’s most recent works include the dark mystery novel The Goat, YA fantasy Franklin Stewart and the Mourning Mansion, and the upcoming steampunk/horror adventure Ghost Hunter Z.
“It’s an invasion,” Karen called. Karen ran to the side viewport and watched as five sleek Farren fighters launched from the palace to engage the invading ships. The Farren laser blasts were high tech, but they were outnumbered. The missiles destroyed the enemy’s ships and struck the palace walls.
Karen felt the blood rushing to her face. Anger flared in her brain. She turned to her crew. “Let’s speed this up, I would very much like to get a hold of the miserable piece of excrement responsible for this.”
As they broke the atmosphere, the crew of The Kavidian got their first look at the massive command ship, Raven, that had settled into orbit flanked by two smaller, but equally impressive ships. They were all left speechless. the sheer size of the ship was beyond anything they could have imagined. As they drew closer it was clear that they were meant to enter the landing bay, which appeared to be large in and of itself, but upon closer inspection, was far bigger than they thought.
The docking bay was a large opening in the hull of the ship where Karen could see crew members working to prepare for their landing. Karen wondered how they avoided being sucked into space and came to the conclusion the ship must have some sort of shield around it. Something more sophisticated than the shield around her ship. The Kavidian landed softly in the bay and as Karen and her crew exited the ship a group of soldiers came forward to meet them.
“I demand to speak to your commanding officer,” Karen said.
“That would be me,” a voice said from the middle of the group. When the man stepped forward, Karen’s breath caught in her chest.
“Richard?” she asked, once again finding it hard to keep her voice.
“Hello, Karen,” Richard replied. “I was beginning to think I’d never see you again.”
Karen stared at the man she’d loved. The man she had assumed dead after all the centuries. Yet here he stood, looking no more than ten years older than he did when she’d left. “How is all this happening?”
“We have much to discuss,” Richard said smiling broadly. His smile quickly faded when he realized there was anger mixed in with the confused expression on Karen’s face. “Perhaps we should talk in private.”
Richard had members of his team show Karen’s crew around and then led her to a conference room with for more privacy.
“Alright,” Karen said. “Start explaining. I’m assuming you’re the captain of this ship?
“Actually, I’m the admiral of this fleet. Admiral Richard Forman, at your service.”
Karen said nothing, only waited for him to continue.
“Karen, after you left, I hit rock bottom. I hadn’t realized just how deep my feelings for you went. For eight years I pined for you, wallowing at the bottom of a whisky bottle night in and night out. Then General Thorn came to me and told me about a mission he wanted me to head. Two scientist had come up with the concept of a warp drive. A system that would allow us to move through space in a matter of weeks. Only it would take decades to perfect it, so I went into suspended sleep, just as you had for your mission. My only reason for accepting the post was the small hope that I’d find you.”
Karen felt herself blush slightly. “So, what happened?”
“Well, the development of the warp drive took far longer than expected. I’ve only been awake for about eight months. And our mission had barely begun when we intercepted your message about the wormhole.”
“And it took you two weeks to cover a distance that took us nearly three hundred years.”
“Yes, isn’t it wonderful?”
Karen felt her anger return. “No, it’s not wonderful! You’ve jeopardized my mission and tore down fragile negotiations with the leader of this society.”
For the first time, anger flared in Richard’s eyes. “Your mission is over, Karen. As per my mission statement, if The Kavidian is found it is to be upgraded and assimilated into my fleet.”
“An invasion fleet.” It was a statement more than a question.
“There is no time for diplomacy, Karen. Earth and its people are in serious danger. We need this planet now.”
“We are not soldiers, Richard. I have a ship full of scientists and engineers. The few soldiers we do have are not prepared for this…occupation. We should be in peaceful talks to share this planet with its natives.”
“That’s not your decision anymore. The Kavidian is to be equipped with a warp drive, a weapons system and shields upgrade, along with any other upgrades I deem necessary. That ship is now mine and its captain and crew now answer to me. End of discussion, Captain Stills.”
Karen felt the urge to scream at him. To slap him. Instead, she controlled her anger and said all she could. “Yes, sir.”
Richard rushed past her and out of the conference room.
After Karen had calmed, she made her way to the bridge were the planet loomed, lush and cloud covered below. Richard noticed her and said; “If it makes you feel any better; the offensive was short. Very few casualties and we are in total control of the palace.”
“And what about Wrintock?” Karen asked.
“We’re allowing him to remain in the palace with the understanding that the planet is now ours.”
“There’s another race,” Karen said, deciding she couldn’t keep the knowledge from him. “On the other side of the planet. They’re called Farren and they are far more advanced and dangerous than the others.”
Richard studied her a moment. “I take it they were the pilots of the fighters we took out?”
The admiral paced the bridge a moment, thinking about his next move. Finally, he said; “I’ll have to send a scout ship, determine exactly what we’re up against.”
Karen saw an opportunity. “I’ll go.”
“Yes, I’ll take some of my crew. If I must be a part of this fleet, at least allow me the non-violent tasks.”
“Very well,” Richard agreed. “You have an hour to assemble your team.”
Karen left the bridge and used her communicator to reach Commander Benton. Within the hour she had decided to pilot the ship herself and Benton alone would accompany her. Just in case she needed some muscle. Also, though she knew it was petty, she was hoping Richard would feel a little jealousy knowing she would be alone on the scout ship with another man.
“Are you sure you don’t want to take more of your crew?” Richard asked. “The scout ship does seat four.”
“The two of us will be fine,” Karen answered without elaborating. She turned to Benton and instructed him to prepare the ship to depart. The soldier gave her a confused look that said she was crazy for thinking he knew the first thing about preparing a ship for anything, before it dawned on him that Karen wanted him to leave her alone with the Admiral for a moment.
Once Benton was gone, Richard studied Karen’s face, perhaps waiting for an apology that Karen had no intention of offering. Finally, he said; “You know, I imagined our reunion going much better than this.”
Karen shrugged. “Just a few days ago I was looking back on fond memories of the man I once loved. The man that shared so many beliefs and ideas for the future with me. And I felt saddened because I thought that man had died long ago. Turns out I was right.”
Karen turned and hurried to the scout ship before he could respond. In minutes they were leaving the bay and heading back into Shaylo’s atmosphere. For a while Karen remained silent, letting her love of flying calm her nerves a bit. Benton must have sensed her stress and stayed quiet as well.
“Bastard,” she finally said in an even tone.
“So that’s the great Richard?” Benton asked. “The guy with the all the game that sent you the roses?”
“That’s him. Except it would appear his game ran out long ago. He’s become one of the garish, self-involved, war mongers we used to butt head with in the past.”
“So what’s the story?”
Karen let out a sigh and then retold the story Richard had told her. The soldier shook his head in disbelief. “Wow!”
“You can say that again,” Karen said.
“What if he’s right though,” Benton returned. “What if we’re running out of time. You know, as a race.”
“It’s no excuse to bring war and death on peaceful people.”
Benton nodded his understanding at this, but said nothing more on the matter.
Karen marveled at the planet’s surface as they flew over. There was nothing but forests as far as the eye could see and there seemed to be plenty of room for another race to set up a colony. It was only too bad that any progress she had made with Wrintock had been shattered thanks to the arrival of Admiral Foreman and his alien invasion squad.
The trees finally ended and They found themselves flying over a vast body of water. Flocks of strange purple and gold birds took flight as they hit the water’s edge and large beasts that vaguely resembled bears ran down the shore snapping their large teeth at fish that leapt from the water.
“Fascinating,” Karen said. “So similar to Earth, yet so different.”
Two hours later they were past the body of water and came upon land that had a vastly different look than the continent they came from. The trees here were gone. Ragged stumps were all that remained of what was once there. The further they went the more desolate the land got. Soon a smoky haze was apparent and Karen recognized it for what it was.
“There’s industry here,” she told Benton. “The Farren are manufacturing something. Using the planets recourses.”
“For what?” Benton asked.
“I have a feeling we’re going to find out.”
As the scout ship sped along, Karen and Benton began to see smoke stacks protruding up from underground. Then came the strange, circular structures spread throughout the land. Karen brought the little scout ship around to study one of the buildings closer. All in all, she counted two dozen of them spread throughout the land, arranged in a zig zagging pattern.
“What are they?” Commander Benton asked.
Karen shook her head and started to tell him she had no idea, when the surface of the structures began to move. They spun in a clockwise pattern and divided in the center, opening up while platforms raised from underground.
“Oh my god!” Karen exclaimed.
“Ships,” Benton stated. “Those are fighters, like the ones from the battle.”
They were indeed. Thousands of them, powering up and preparing for a much larger battle. It appeared the Farren were building a military the likes of which no human had ever seen.
“We have to get back and warn the others,” Benton said.
“Yeah,” Karen replied. “Signal the fleet, tell them what’s coming.”
Benton relayed the message and Karen turned the scout ship and pushed the throttle as far as it would go. As they moved back the way they’d come three much larger doors opened and rising up out of the ground were three, massive war ships that dwarfed the Raven.
“All this was going on and the Grullish had no idea,” Karen said.
“Still think this is the planet for us?”
“I’m definitely starting to have my doubts.”
The little scout ship skimmed the ocean that spread between the two continents while the Farren war fleet rose into the sky behind them. As they approached the palace, Karen started the landing process and steered toward the landing pad.
“What are you doing?” Benton asked.
“I have to warn Wrintock,” Karen said. “I won’t let him and his people get caught in the middle of this.”
Karen was off the ramp of the small ship right after it touched the ground. Vaguely, she was aware of Benton’s heavy footfalls behind her, an automatic rifle in hand. She was much more aware of the growing scream of warships approaching through the orange, sunset painted sky. Karen looked up and saw lines of exhaust breaking through the atmosphere as The Raven deployed its own fighters to meet the Farren.
Karen ran into the dimly lit palace and followed the halls she’d come to know over the past two weeks. It was strange not seeing the Farren bodyguards roaming the halls or stationed outside the many doorways. As Karen and Benton rounded the corner, they caught sight of Wrintock being escorted by two Earth soldiers.
“Wrintock,” she called out. But just as the Grullish leader turned his attention toward her, an explosion rocked the palace and part of the roof came down. Karen was thrown down with too much force. Her left knee exploded with pain. Her ears were ringing and she could taste blood in her mouth.
Benton was there with his hand under her arm, helping her to her feet. Slowly, the dust cleared and Karen could see Wrintock lying limp among the rubble of the explosion. She ran to the alien, ignoring the urgency of Benton’s voice that was barely audible in her ringing ears anyway. Dropping to her good knee, she took Wrintock’s hand in hers. The alien was still alive, though just hanging on. With his other hand he reached inside his robe and produced a small, black orb. He held the object out to her.
“What?” she asked. “What is it?”
The dying creature spoke, but the language was lost on her. At that moment she desperately wished word-bot was there. Wrintock turned Karen’s hand over and pushed the orb into it. Then he closed her finger around it and his hands dropped, lifeless and still.
Whatever the orb was he wanted her to have it. She placed a hand on his long, wrinkled face, feeling the tears well up in her eyes.
“Captain,” Benton said. The ringing had dissipated and she was suddenly aware of the battle raging outside. “Captain, we have to go. We have to get back to The Raven.”
Yes, she told herself. To The Raven. To Kavidian.
Outside, the sky was alive with explosions and gun fire, missiles and laser bolts. As the two of them began to cross the walkway to the landing pad, two Farren warriors dropped from a shuttle to block their way.
“Get down,” Benton called, stepping in front of Karen. One of the Farren fired his strange, staff like weapon, but the blast went wide. Two short bursts of automatic fire barked from Benton’s gun and dropped both of them, and the soldier urged his captain on toward the landing pad.
The scout ship lifted off and Karen maneuvered through the battle as it played out. The little ship wasn’t equipped for fighting, having only a mini gun mounted to either wing, but it was highly agile and Karen, though a little rusty, had flown her fair share of aircraft.
“Two on our tail,” Benton called out.
The Farren ships fired on them, one laser blast skimming the hull of the little scout. Warning lights erupted on the control panel and Karen knew they couldn’t take another hit. Quickly, she dropped the throttle and killed the thrusters. The ship dropped suddenly toward the ground, and the Farren fighters rushed past them in a hurry.
Karen reignited the thrusters and threw the throttle forward, while at the same time pulling the triggers for each gun. The bullets ripped through the alien ships and they tore apart on their way back to the surface.
“Nice flying, Captain,” Benton said, clearly impressed. “I thought you were against fighting.”
“Just because I don’t like it, doesn’t mean I can’t do it.”
The scout ship broke through the atmosphere and entered the landing bay. Admiral Foreman was there to meet them.
“Good work, Captain,” he called as they exited the ship. “Now that The Kavidian is fully upgraded with a warp drive and weapons system, I need you and you crew to join the battle.”
Karen looked at him in disbelief. “You can’t be serious? You are vastly outnumbered. It’s time to retreat, Admiral.”
“Retreat?” The Admiral asked, incredulous. “I will not give up this planet so easily.”
“Admiral, the planet is no good! It’s used up! The Farren-”
“Captain, you will get to your ship and you will fight!” Foreman, interrupted with a shout. “That is an order.”
Karen stared him down for a moment, then said; “Yes, sir.”
Storming back to The Kavidian, Karen strode up the ramp with Benton close behind. “Kavidian,” she commanded, “prepare for lift off.”
The ship powered up and rose off the surface of the landing bay. Karen made her way to the cargo hold where Benton’s men were still standing guard. Inside she spied the two-hundred capsules, still holding their precious cargo. Then she looked down at the orb in her hand. When she depressed the button on the side a hologram sprang to life that showed a map of the galaxy similar to the one stored on The Kavidian. The difference being that the map was marked with planetary systems and planets that appeared to have an atmosphere that could sustain life. At least that’s what Karen could decipher, she’d need word-bot to translate to know for sure.
By the time she got to the bridge, The Kavidian was exiting the bay and entering space. Karen handed her navigator the orb. “Set a course for the nearest planet marked on there.”
The navigator gave her a questioning look and she nodded to reassure him. Then she spoke to the ship. “Kavidian, prepare for warp speed.”
“Yes, Captain,” came the robotic voice.
Suddenly a screen came to life that must have been part of the upgrade and Admiral Foreman’s face appeared, giant and red in front of her. “Karen what do you think you’re doing?”
“My crew and I have a mission to complete, and I mean to see it through to the end.”
“Your mission is over, Karen. If you do not fight the human race will be lost.”
“I have two-hundred passengers that say otherwise.”
Foreman’s face suddenly went slack and Karen could tell he was so wrapped up in his invasion he had forgotten about the two-hundred. “Karen, I want those passengers. If you leave now, you will be considered a deserter and guilty of treason. Furthermore, the next time we meet, we will be enemies.”
“Wake up, Richard, we were enemies the moment you attacked this world.”
Karen cut the transmission short before his retort and gave the order to jump to warp speed.
It was strange traveling through space with the warp drive. The stars streamed past the view port, creating a brilliant light show as they moved through space. It was odd to think that they’d be in another solar system in a matter of weeks. Staring down at another planet with an accommodating atmosphere.
Karen threw her remaining rose away as soon as they’d left the fleet and their hopeless battle. She couldn’t help but wonder if there were any survivors. If Richard survived. In the long run she knew it didn’t matter. She had a mission to complete and she knew her crew was behind her. No matter how long it took, she would find a world where they truly belonged.