Ronice was absorbed in her cell when Sheila Tamm arrived dripping from the rain. The secretary was startled and looked up half amazed to see a face instead of an image. She thrust out the cell for Sheila.
“Did you know? Did you see?”
Sheila looked at the brutal headline: “Fourth bayonet murder discovered.”
Ronice’s eyes burned with insistence. “There’ll be another. I know it. They’re all the same. They just occur in different parts of town.”
Sheila read the first few lines since she generally avoided the news. With a sad turn she handed the cell phone back and acknowledged Ronice’ beautiful open worried eyes.
“Bayonet. Hm. How very odd.”
“Oh, it brings death right away,” said Ronice. “À bout portant, the French say. The bayonet reaches all the way to the heart and punctures it like that. The victims never had a chance.”
Ronice looked lovingly back at her phone. Sheila wondered how Ronice, effusive and willing and kindness personified, who obviously enjoyed her work at Wyler’s Realty, could put such a buzz in grim detail. Anyway, the task at hand for Sheila was to pick up Miss Tilly, Mrs. Wyler’s middle-aged Scotch Terrier. Sheila looked around. A man in a sleeveless shirt was sitting in the inner office, all glassed in with a glass door--we have nothing to hide, the walls said. He came out with an eager grin.
“Can I help you?”
Ronice perked up.
“Oh, Kugel, she’s just here to pick up the dog.”
“Ah.” Kugel nodded with professional assurance. “Dog. Of course. You’re on your tour, even in this rain.”
She could not help noticing the man’s arms were richly tattooed with threatening and military symbols. Sheila saw he wanted to engage her in conversation.
“The dog’s usually out here. She knows me.”
A sound caught her.
“No, Kugel. I’ll take care of it.”
From the glassed-in office Mrs. Wyler appeared leading Miss Tilly on a braided leash. The insistence of her voice made Kugel retreat. Sheila knew Mrs. Wyler (she preferred the Mrs.) for a tweedy proper business person, cordial, assured by enough commerce and wealth to have her dog walked twice a day. Indeed Mrs. Wyler had a rugged bearing. In contrast, Miss Tilly was excitable, loved to bark at strangers and Sheila thought it might be a predestined match: the hardened widow/spinster and the sweet debutante Miss Tilly had grown to be. The dog fawned, sporting a red bow on her ears, fawned on the lady’s leg, eager for her stroll with two other dogs Sheila had parked outside.
The town of Tense River, built partly on a hill, was an outskirt by the sea of the larger urban fold. It retained much of its gentrified village feeling from decades long before and there were still people in the town who remembered. The hill part, in particular Sheila’s next trip, was called Monteste, and had some of the loveliest homes. Sheila dropped off the first two of her dogs but kept Miss Tilly since she was amiable and no trouble. It was a peculiarity of the agency that they could not always finds someone to go to Monteste, so the client was obliged to pay for the dogwalker to drive. And back. Sheila knew Victoria, the woman there argued over the bill, but finally let you know that it was but a tiresome detail.
As Sheila got out beside the tapered lawn she waved at the gardener as if she were the wealthy person who lived there. By her air she had no real cares in the world. The rain had thinned. Crystal droplets hung of the bare branches. As Sheila made her was up the drive, the warning from Ronice spread its thread in her mind: there had been four murders; there would be another. Thankfully only one had been nearby. The rest were in parts of town she knew nothing about. And all were men.
To the left of the mansion was a small forest and out of a path from there a man approached her. It was Victoria’s husband.
Miss Tilly ran forward and pawed on the man’s shoe.
“Oh, she likes you,” Sheila said.
“Heh. Well, what’s it like to work in the rain?”
“I love it.” She petted Miss Tilly. “She loves it too. We have rainy kinship. See, it’s no secret.”
“No secret,” Clement laughed. He pushed the dog away. “You’re doing good work. Good work for the pooches.”
“Is the Missus home?”
“How would I know?”
Without warning he walked off and up the path, not bothering to shake off twigs and leaves that had collected on his jacket with its fashionable leather lapels. In tandem they approached the terrace before the mansion but Clement suddenly turned off and disappeared around to the left. Sheila proceeded up the steps and entered the garden area enclosed by its stone balustrade.
Iacopo, the gardener, waved again. He was a muscular man in a red shirt who leaped from his crouch at her approach.
“The bulbs,” he gasped out of breath. “Don’t bring that dog near my bulbs. They dig them up. They vicious claws, you dogs. They dig and dig. Keep it away. Away, you hear?”
“Away? Of course. Perhaps if I hook her by the porch.”
“Yah. Yah. The porch. Yah. You keep them there. You do me a big favor.”
They had met before but Iacopo had never seemed that communicative.
“I’ll take care of it,” she said and then added: “I just met Clement on the way. Mr. Worster. I guess he didn’t want to see you.”
“Me? He walked around the other side that way, didn’t he?”
“Yeah. I guess he’s shy.”
“Shy,” the gardener laughed a rough belly laugh. Sheila had never seen his eyes twinkle so. “Yeah, he’s shy all right, but, ha-ha, not of me.”
He cocked a thumb at the front door. “Yeah, not of me. Oh. Oh. Keep him off. Off, you hear.”
He reached his hoe and would have swung it like a scythe had Sheila not quickly led her follower up the last stone steps to the porch. She relaxed and gathered herself thinking she had missed an unkind gust of trouble.
On this open space were tables where afternoon drinks could be served but they sat abandoned now, black spots shiny from the rain. The house itself was made of rich stone that seemed somber despite its glittering windows and doors. Its form was built to welcome guests to cordial parties but there was none of that now. Sheila hooked the leash on a chair leg. She let herself in the front door. Usually the owner was off at work or maybe pretended to be and Sheila had to find the dog. In this house there was even a room where Caesar lived, with his own special door. He’d be there now. Sheila was passing through a library with a large table when Victoria Worster suddenly appeared.
She was a small woman wearing a red dress that sported a gold pin of a leaping fish. Hanging from her right hand was a small handbag dangling rough cloth and strings of beads. Sheila looked at it curiously.
“Are you all right?”
The woman looked around, astonished at the question. She looked strangely at what she was carrying.
“Oh, this. How I…. I must be missing something. I was in the middle. It just happened to be in my hand when you interrupted me.”
She put the handbag on an inlaid table. Involuntarily Sheila moved closer. The handbag was of cheap patent leather and was thoroughly burnt on one side.
“Yes, it’s old,” Victoria said, seeming embarrassed that such a shameful artifact would be on display.
“Old yes, but…”
“Oh, come on. Let’s not be morbid. You’ve come for Caesar. He’s here. He’s in the other room.”
Sheila knew that the woman had a certain protocol about Caesar: he was not allowed in all parts of the house but he disobeyed when he liked. She followed Victoria into another room and the dog barked his approach. He was a lovely golden retriever that tried to leap on Sheila, so she pushed him to the side.
“See you in an hour,” she said, taking the leash and strolling back.
Kneading her hands the woman followed, her eyes wondering if she might have forgotten something.
“Yes. Yes. You will. We’ll be different then. We’ll be our happy self.”
“Of course,” said Sheila without caring what that meant.
The pleasant part of walking Caesar was that she could take him into the forest along paths that divided and turned and divided again until they lost themselves and there was no path. She wandered that way now. She sat for a while on a soggy log and petted Caesar who put his chin on her knee. Miss Tilly foraged among dried leaves for their rich and always new smells. The day had begun with a jarring note but was peaceful enough now where she could see beyond the forest where children played in the open green of neighboring land.
When she went to return Caesar Victoria came forward to make a point of being there waiting.
“He’ll find his way,” she said, dropping the leash Sheila handed over. The woman turned and hesitated and then turned back, forming by her gesture and the turn of her lip some insistence that Sheila should not leave.
“I know you saw. Why you’re only here to…. What I… Won’t you sit down?”
“The purse. It was burnt. Did you see? Here. I can imagine what you thought. It’s so out of place. A daughter should respect her mother, don’t you think?”
Sheila hesitated. The woman’s face turned away and up and turned again to lintels of the windows where imaginary beings might be flying. With sudden directness she turned back to Sheila.
“People shouldn’t think things when they don’t know them. They will of course. You have to put up with that. But they shouldn’t….”
Sheila gazed intently at the woman and spoke slowly:
“Perhaps if you showed me the purse I’d get a better idea.”
Victoria started, turned and then composed herself anew.
“Of course. Of course. You’re going to know anyway and you’re only the dog walker. I mean… of course. Who else could know? Or would care about knowing?”
“It’s in the other room, isn’t it?”
“What? Oh. Oh, yes. Go in there. Go ahead. You’ll see it right away. Then you’ll invent your stories. They all do.”
The woman directed; she would not lead. Sheila went in the other room and looked around. The curtains lay still and shielded the brightening day to a waning purple gauze. A soft shaft fell across the rug beneath a heavy table on which were arranged five framed pictures of a smiling young woman. In the center in a silver frame was one with a single calligraphed word: Adelle. The setting was carefully arrange with symmetry and a special shelf for the center picture. It might have been the design of a quiet domestic altar meant to be seen by as few visitors as ever came. The purse was there and beside it a newspaper clipping that described a fire in San Francisco. Sheila read that several people had been killed, their bodies unrecognizable. The date was fourteen years ago.
“There you see,” said Victoria from behind her. Her voice had the soft snap of an accusation.
“A daughter is known by how she respects her mother. It’s in her character. If she has character. If she has love for her mother.”
Sheila turned to the woman and tried to add some quiet pause to a conversation that seemed insinuating and starting to get out of whack.
“Daughter? But your daughter is… dead?”
“Oh. But that is still a thing we don’t know. Can never know.”
“She died in a fire. Long ago. Far from here. In San Francisco.”
“Oh. Well.” Victoria gave a wince of pain and looked around at the walls. “Why would she go there? What for? She could be perfectly happy here. I would have taken care of her.”
“Then she’d be a missing person. If she went off on her own. Or she could be dead.”
“Dead to me, you mean. Is that what you mean? Is that what you meant to imply?”
“Who would send you such a thing?” Sheila asked, lightly holding up the purse chared to carbon on one side. “Meant to imply death.”
Victoria leaped forward.
“It could be a ruse, don’t you see? Yes, you could be right in your little way. Doing what you do. I only show you because you look like her. She could come back. Knowing. Knowing how I suffer.”
“Or the death could be real.”
“Could be real in a sense, you mean. Dead to her mother. Is that what you mean? You brought up the topic of death. But death is the most disloyal thing, I think. Well, she might not have died. It doesn’t say. Does it? Do you see it say?”
The talk became confused and back and forth, the woman affirming the death in one breath and then denying that such a thing was possible. What emerged was that the pictures arranged on the polished walnut table were of a young woman, Victoria’s daughter now it was clear, who for years was nowhere to be found and might be in another world. Sheila looked at the photographs anew. In them she saw a young woman’s bright face, happy in a way but somehow wounded. In one picture the smile was clearly forced. But in the eyes there lingered some other wound, and still the strange question of how it had actually turned out, what way the story ended. It was sad anyway.
Sheila had found conversations with lonely people, some who, like Victoria, never left the house and so needed their dogs walked, oddly confessional sometimes. Usually she never met the owner. The agency took care of that. But now she felt she had fallen into a trap and was being taken advantage of. Why would the handsome dog accompany a woman who lived in a cavern she only showed to a pointless visitor?
--Because I’m not important, Sheila thought. Thank heaven at least for that.
She made to leave and Victoria became more animated than before. With nervous fingers she fumbled money onto the table by the pictures and turned her back. Faced with being passed over, she would ignore Sheila first. The money laid out was pointless; Sheila was paid by the agency. She took it nonetheless and exited hoping nothing more would be said.
Outside in the new sun she breathed deeply, exhaling the musty smell from Victoria Worster’s sheltered world. Iacopo was not there but Sheila left Miss Tilly wagging eagerly. She walked along the balustrade away from the way Clement had gone, really fled. The dog barked and from a ledge below Iacopo appeared from lake of bushes.
“You take them away now. Yes? Then they don’t dig. She tells me and then he tells me. Him as much.”
“Well. I saw her. I didn’t see Clement.”
“Him? Oh, you won’t see him.”
“Oh? Why not?”
In part Sheila already knew. The man avoided his wife. Iacopo only smirked and went back to his hoe. Without looking up, he worked the rocks and muttered into the loam:
“He sleeps in the forest. Has his sheets and rugs out there. Ha! Sleeps in the forest. With his arthritis. Steals inside in the night and eats when she’s asleep. Ha! They’s them has a life and they’s them has a wife. Ha!”
On her way back Sheila turned over the weird encounter and how the woman in the picture did not at all resemble herself. Why say that? She went around to Wyler’s Realty. Ronice was with a two clients on the computer. Mrs. Wyler let the dog wander in and slump beneath her desk.
“It’s turned out to be a nice day,” she said. “You have a good job.” The woman was forthcoming more than usual but still formal. They chatted idly before the topic of the murders came up. Mrs. Wyler took it as an idle bit of other people’s news.
“A woman couldn’t do it,” she quipped with a smile. “Get him around the neck? With a bayonet from behind? Have to be a gorilla. Know any gorillas?”
Sheila found a gap in the conversation and took her leave. As she walked down the steps now free of all canines, a shadow came from the side of the building and quickly vanished. Sheila walked a few steps around. From a doorway on the lower level a woman’s face blurred above a black choker and then disappeared.
Sheila knew that building had an odd history. Where it stood there had once been several floors that had burnt down. The builder, perhaps Mrs. Wyler herself, had let the nether foundation remain and only built on top of it. From the street Wyler Holdings seemed a tasteful cedar home, windows trimmed in white, with two conventional stories and an attic with real gables. It cast a welcoming image for a realtor; you entered into a place you might like to live in. It was a rosy setting warmly furnished; you’d be ready to buy.
But around the back the ground sloped quickly where bushes hid a roughly paved parking lot. The house’s rich shingles became rude concrete below, half submerged in slabs of broken pavement and rocky silt. From where she could see a kind of trench proceeded further down the back, exposing some unpaid contractor’s oversight of transoms and air ducts and unmovable plumbing nothing could use. No doubt the wily proprietress rented out rooms down there, but Sheila feared they would not get much light.
It was the next day that, returning with Caesar, she saw Clement come around from the side of the mansion. He avoided a greeting and would have turned away but out of an afterthought or embarrassed politeness he came nearer with a limp. With brutish friendliness he lifted the dog by the scruff of the neck, then dropped it down. The dog barked and circled around them both.
“Bad leg?” Sheila asked to fill the awkward silence.
“Yah. Arthritis. Comes and goes.”
Then without another syllable he turned away. He wandered in ambling broken strides but she could see he made for some path in the woods. She carefully let Caesar in the back door and departed down the graveled drive where she never parked her car. Being on foot made it easier to escape.
At the foot of the slope where the sidewalk began, Sheila saw a large woman seated on a bench. The woman had looked around twice while Sheila walked. Now she turned with wrinkled brow and then looked away, then with a bat of her hand she signaled Sheila to come nearer. The woman was shapely and with short dark hair. She was clad in a black raincoat with collar that came up to her ears even though the day was warm.
“Yes. And you are…?”
“Brunhilda. Sit down. Call me Brunie. That’s what they call me. I don’t care. Do what they want. That’s the life. You walk dogs.”
Sheila smiled and leaned nearer, open without trying.
“Um... Yes. It’s, well… not a career. It’s just to make…”
“I know. Not a bad job. You meet lots of people. Lots of men.”
Sheila looked again at the woman. The black raincoat concealed an ample chest and a curvy form below. Brunie went on as if they had known each other for years.
“I seen you. I seen you how you go and I thought something. You know people. You get around. I gotta keep it hid, you know? People get the wrong notions, you know? This. I gotta keep it hid.”
“Yeah, or the old witch and her monkey will know. You got a record? You look a college educated kinda cutie. Probably you don’t know any people like me. People got money hire a girl like you.”
“Well, I suppose they have to….”
“And that old man you was with just now. Huh? I seen you. He lasts a long time. Yeah? At least an hour. Others it’s twenty minutes in out, not him. And he always asks for Autumn. Same girl.”
“I don’t see what this has to do….”
“Don’tcha? I think you know. Know more than you say. I need to break out, Sheila. The dungeon’s going nowhere. Disgusting business creeps, impressed with themselves. Drop money on the floor. I gotta tie them up, whip their ass. Make up for what they do to other people all the day. Revenge, it goes all ways. Well-dressed creeps. Come to us drunk and smelling.”
Sheila backed off. She made her voice drift down to a wistful response in kind:
“Could be dangerous, I guess.”
“Don’t exaggerate. It’s more just a horrendous hassle.”
“But the witch as you call her. The witch. She says a woman couldn’t do it. Have to be a gorilla.”
Sheila’s dreamy lilt now made Brunie pause.
“Ow. I know whatcha talking about. Them murders? Don’t be so sure about that, Honey. I embrace a man around the neck, get his throat, he don’t want to get away. I got plenty of time. Hey, don’t get melodramatic on me. They only kill men. I don’t care. I gotta break out. Be a real call girl. But the old witch has the strings, you know. Connections. Yeah. Real estate, that’s a laugh. I’ll tellya about real real estate. She knows to keep us in her place. But I seen you. I seen you’re independent. Your own woman. I like that. That’s what I want to be.”
Brunie’s generous bubbling contrasted with her brusque words. Sheila thought to fall in with it.
“And you’ll cut me in for a share, won’t you do that?”
“Of course, Sweetie. I mean Sheila. Of course. Forty sixty. I get ten big ones, you’ll get four.”
Brunie yawned with a large vacant gasp. “I gotta get sleep somehow.”
Sheila decided as the conversation went on that she would not out of hand push the woman away. Brunie, she imagined, could be very rough and going along with her, or not, might bring retribution of obscure kinds let alone the police. Rejecting her entirely felt gross, even possibly unwise. In the back of Sheila’s mind was her own sisterly wish to help the woman in whatever strange or flimsy way she could. Maybe get her into something else. But making assignations? Sheila quailed at the complications, the cloying strung out attachment that would follow on. She accepted Brunie’s cell number, but withheld her own. Sensing impatience and impatient herself, the buxom woman yawned. They made to part in a non-committal way.
--Are we sisters now? Sheila thought as she went for her car. We’re so habituated after a single talk that we don’t even need to embrace.
Sheila drove back and parked some distance from her home. She took time to walk through sunny streets thinking how strangely the day had gone, how differently from the quaint leafy bowers she had grown to feel were her own. As she planted her steps along an ancient cobbled street, suddenly a yellow-eyed cat leaped out from a trashcan and fled before her, then stopped and turned to wait. By its furtive stare it recalled a funny thought come back with no reason: Clement lasts a long time.
Sheila and her friend Titus sometimes went to Elfie’s Gnome, a bar not far from Wyler’s Realty. There actually was an Elfie, a cheerful retired wrestler who shook hands with everybody, listened to their stories but told none of his own. That evening when they walked in, Titus greeted Laszlo, a hefty man past fifty who had not shaved in a week.
“Too much good times,” Laszlo said when Titus remarked.
“Laszlo hates women,” Titus confided.
“Ah, not true,” said the other. “Ah, no, no. I see I have given you the wrong impression. I didn’t get along with my ex-girlfriend. She didn’t get along with me, better way of saying it. I love women. But who wants the hassle? A couple hundred bucks, maybe a little more, heh, I get what I need. More.”
“Do you now? And how often is that?”
Laszlo was evasive. “Whenever I need. I know a special place. I’d turn you on, but I’m swore not to tell, know what I mean?”
“Of course. Don’t want to lose what works for you.”
Titus cast his eye over the crowd at the bar and waved at two other men he knew. He went over to them and left Sheila.
“I suppose,” she said with some shyness, “your special way with women is something only men talk about.”
“Oh, well of course,” Laszlo came back with a drink-slurred guffaw. “Things you don’t want to let on to ladies. We like to be delicate, you know. Otherwise the good things, they trickle away, know what I mean? I tell a man everything. A woman I don’t. It ain’t smart. She gets to know too much, she throw it back at you.”
“But you have a special way. With women, I mean.”
He slyly smiled from the corner of his eye.
“Eh, yeah. It costs. But in the long run you save. You save big. Every week or so I know a special person, special place. You’re Sheila, ain’t you? I seen you around. You know Titus and Titus knows a lot of people.”
“Not like you,” she said and drifted into the crowd.
While Titus revolved in jocular conversation with his buddies, Sheila relaxed in the raucous blur of the bar and waited for nothing to happen. The encounter with Brunie still clung to her; the woman was blunt and unaffected, so how could such a free-wheeling person be under the thumb of anyone? Didn’t call girls have a network? Business cards? A pimp? But a pimp could be the reason. The whole tangle in some way had to make sense of itself; the woman’s strange history, all her past decisions whatever they were, they all led to where she was now and how she saw herself. And Mrs. Wyler, an intelligent business woman, why did she have to get involved in any sordid mess like that? Was there that much money in it?
As Sheila sat in the shadow in her singular non-drinking way, a woman in a raincoat entered alone and looked around. Usually women, like herself would go to bars with a friend. Being a loner was a man’s style. This person was thin and pretty and sported a ponytail above the collar of her coat. She looked intently at each figure at the bar then turned very quickly to Sheila. As she came closer Sheila saw the woman wore a black choker on her long neck. With some shyness she introduced herself:
“Are you Sheila?”
The woman looked around, assessing the gathering of strangers, accepted what she saw and turned back to Sheila.
“They call me Selene. Like the moon. I’m a friend of Brunie’s.”
Sheila nodded and motioned for Selene to sit down. Selene preferred to stand.
“Well, I’ve only met Brunie just today.”
“You, you’re the one who walks the dogs.”
“Well, that’s what I do some of the time.”
“You know Clement.”
Sheila paused. There was some urgency in the woman’s demeanor, as if she were a spy on people and had a map of their interconnections that she was ready to slip under Sheila’s arm.
“Well, I know him to say hello.”
Selene leaned nearer.
“He wouldn’t talk to someone like me. He wouldn’t listen. He wouldn’t take it in. You gotta know that about certain people. But you gotta tell him. Autumn said. She says tell him to stay away. That’s all. He’ll listen to you. She only read the news. He’s got to stay away. Will you tell him? It’s a favor for her.”
“To… stay away. Yeah, I guess so. If I see him. Away from where?”
“Away from her. From her, whatta you think? She wants nothing to do with him.”
Sheila tried to demur.
“I don’t know Autumn. You want me to give him a message from… who?”
“You don’t have to know. Just say Autumn said and she means it. To stay away. It’s simple. Will you do that?”
“Um… sure. As I say, if I….”
“You will. You’ll see him before it’s too late. Autumn knows you will. That’s all.”
Before Sheila could invite her to share a drink, the woman twisted on her heel and made for the door.
But the lady and her choker were gone.
Sheila grabbed her bag and skirted through the crowd. Outside it was getting dark and not obvious at first which way the woman had gone. Sheila saw her down the street and followed. In a minute she caught up.
“What’s too late?”
“I don’t know.”
“Take me to Autumn.”
“She’s not there.”
“You’re kind of abrupt.”
Selene slowed her pace.
“I guess I seem that way. She’s upset and it got me upset. I hurry more when I don’t know where I’m going. I don’t have good thoughts all the time. Brunie said you were different. A nice girl. Not like… a lot I know.”
“Well, you’re nice enough to help a friend.”
Before long Sheila saw they were going to Mrs. Wyler’s. The office was closed. The dark windows echoed back the eerie feeling Sheila had had before, that they were made to be nice, perfect in their deep brown and white trim, enough to be a home people would live in. Sheila and Selene skirted through concealing bushes and came to the door where Sheila had first seen the fleeting visage of Selene over her sexy black choker.
“You probably won’t like it when you get in. I’ll show you anyway.”
“I might not mind,” Sheila said, passing through a curtained doorway.
“It’s a good time now,” Selene said, walking down the steps. “Most johns don’t show up till later. Most of the girls are still asleep. You’ll feel superior, I know it. A tourist kind of. But you’re here anyway. Might as well see.”
Sheila stepped further down. The walls were hung with scarves behind which there were hidden lights. Bangles and trinkets marked each passageway that divided so as to bypass old air ducts and clumps of disconnected wire. A thick overhead pipe made her duck and weave around it. As she descended further Sheila saw that there was not just a cellar, but a subbasement below that. As they wound down another corridor a half-clad woman with a large coffee cup passed them without a glance or word. She almost tripped in her high heels. The place had the feel of a gypsy submarine marooned out of all connection with the world above, a world that would seem now smug in its distant commerce. Sheila wondered how Mrs. Wyler would carry herself in this place, who she would talk to and if she ever met any of the clientele herself. Her threads of control, feeding and withdrawing in their subterranean way, would bleed the substance of these dark corners and the lives they enclosed.
“Most houses, you know,” said Selene over her shoulder, “you go up the stairs. Up the stairs to paradise. Kind of funny, isn’t it? Here you go down. Exciting for the men, I guess. They’ll be along. Here a guy fell the other evening. Me and two other girls had to carry him out. Put him in his car.”
Down a bending flight of stairs Selene stopped by a door.
“Autumn’s room. It’s always unlocked. You can go right in.”
Selene pushed open the door. The room was not large enough to walk around in. The bed was most of the furniture. The ceiling somewhere above was almost hidden by crisscrossed with corroded pipes. Beside them was a kind of transom window just within reach. Over a pealing pipe the sheer trace of a black shawl was draped to keep out too much light. Sheila pushed an edge of the fabric to one side.
“Someone could see in.”
“Not likely,” Selene allowed. “You can’t reach that window from outside. But she keeps it there. Who’s going to go around and look? Some creep. As if I never thought of it. It’s just a ditch out back you can’t get to. Push it the way it was, would you.”
Sheila did. She picked up a wad of clothing and tossed it on the only chair. The room was neat enough. There was only the bed and a nightstand awkwardly placed where it did no good. An armoire took up too much space and was nearly empty. On a concrete wall hung the little picture of a farmhouse, someone’s vain denial of emptiness. There was a radio half pushed under the bed which was the only piece of furniture that made any sense. The bed was neatly made with a tasteful pure white duvet.
“So where is Autumn?”
“She’ll be along. She was nervous like a cat. Why she wanted me to tell you.”
“She could tell me herself.”
Selene was not curious. Sheila pulled the drawer on the out-of-place nightstand and saw inside a book of poetry, the work of Sylvia Plath. Selene nodded at nothing.
“Hm. Probably a john left it. Like Gideon’s bible. I didn’t know she read stuff.”
Selene let out a chuckle as she made for the hall. In the book were folded sheets of paper. Without thinking Sheila folded them again and stuffed them in her purse.
On her way out Sheila saw Brunie emerge from around a corner bric-a-brak strewn with dusty sea shells.
“We’re getting a customer,” she said. “And it’ll be night soon.”
“Where did Autumn go?”
Brunie made a face.
“Maybe she doesn’t need the money.”
As Sheila came near the door Kugel’s greedy smile rose up more boldly than before. He displayed his deltoid with a tattoo of a skull with a scimitar coming out its eye. He held her gaze while he worked into a clean white shirt.
“You looking for someone?”
Brunie called from behind her.
“Hey, Kugel, don’t bother her. She’s just a friend of Autumn’s.”
“Oh, yeah, Autumn,” he slurred his words. “She’s around I think.”
Kugel snapped a suspender on his chest.
“In fact, don’t go out that way. She might be in the parlor.”
He motioned her to follow him back down and along another passageway. He opened a door and Sheila came into a warm area with couches and an ornate rug. Three attractive women lounged to one side and did not look up when they entered. The lighting was dim crimson and Sheila noted there was a faint odor of perfume. But no Autumn.
“Ah, she probably went out.”
He led the way to an exit that fed onto another side of the parking lot. As Sheila went out she glanced back and saw the alert face of Kugel half in shadow. He cocked his chin for her to come nearer. She nodded turning away.
“Hey!” He was coming up behind her.
“What is it?” she asked, turning full toward him. Her directness brought him up short but he persisted.
“You’re Sheila. Yeah, we met. You walk the dogs. I heard you talk to people.”
He paused with silent expectation.
“No more than anyone else.”
“But you get around.”
She said nothing, waiting for him. He nodded to himself and kicked a block of asphalt out of the way.
“Yeah,” he said, coming to some silent conclusion. “Yeah. Yeah. It figures.”
He turned away and walked back avoiding her look. Sheila admired his masculine stride accented by the black suspenders.
The next day was another trip to Monteste and Sheila was hoping to avoid sentimental memoire with Victoria. But that was impossible. The woman seemed even glad to see Sheila and offered to make some tea while they could chat. Sheila demurred, pleading that she had only time to see Caesar on his duties. Even the woman’s tawny bias-cut dress promised that some new wave had been struck and she was disposed to erase what impressions had been laid the days before.
“I was so distracted the other day,” Victoria apologized. “I know I talk too much… her, about Adelle. You remind me so much of her. The same look, the same gentle charm. I suppose I got carried away.”
Sheila felt a pang of nausea at this; from the pictures she knew she looked nothing like that waif face, the daughter of privilege long ago fled. But for a moment Sheila felt some warmth for the woman and she forgot how the daughter, whatever dark fate had befallen her, had apparently been driven away by just this solicitude in the tawny dress and what it masqueraded. The fire, the loss of the estranged child, it was all too much for the solace of the afternoon and the quiet walk in the woods Sheila had come for.
“I wonder where Clement is,” she voiced partly from blind impulse and partly from drive to change the subject.
“Oh. Oh, he’s about. Did you look in the shed? He drinks. He doesn’t want me to see, but I know. Well, when you have means, you know, it can lead to indulgence. I mean in the weak spirited. Not in everyone. I can tell you’re not like that. No.”
“Well,” said Sheila with a twist of the leash. “With a dog, this dog anyway, you don’t have that problem.” So she found a graceful way to turn away.
In the woods she and Caesar departed the obvious paths where the leaves were dry and untrod. They wandered up the slope and suddenly came to a dip in the ground. There, under a soft ledge was a tangle of bedding and loose empty food cartons.
“Clement,” she muttered to the dog which sniffed happily among the disordered mess. There were even two sticks and strips of plastic cut from sacks: he was even prepared for rain. Without looking further, Sheila wandered on, thinking there was time enough to go back. She turned by the ruins of someone’s collapsed shack and suddenly a form loomed up in front of her. It advanced very quickly and might have run into her but the dog intervened. It was Clement dressed in the same jacket as before trailing twigs and leaves.
“Oh, you frightened me.”
Indeed, he had thrust his face directly at her and his heavy fist was clenched.
“Sorry. Didn’t mean to. I’ll leave you alone. I don’t have much time. I have to be somewhere.”
“No, you’re probably busy,” she said trying to fall in with his manner. “But I have a message for you.”
“What?” The man started and stared at her with befogged red eyes. “What?” he said again.
“Autumn says to stay away.”
He put his fingers to his brow and paused till the words struck him.
“Yes. That’s what she said. For you to stay away. She’s very upset about something. She wanted to make sure you know.”
“You. You’re friends with Autumn,” he said incoherently. He nodded at this new idea. He made to step around her and a clump of saplings. Sheila backed away to let him pass.
“You have to promise,” she called after him. “You have to promise that you’ll stay away.” But he was far down the slope if her warning words even reached him.
It was only later that afternoon that Sheila remembered the papers she had taken from Autumn’s room. She unfolded them in the bar. Each page had a small picture of a man in the upper left corner. Two were likely over fifty and all but one were smiling. But there was no inscription, no happy signature, no date. Her curiosity caught Elfie’s eye but he would have said nothing had she not motioned him to look.
“They might be lovers of a friend,” she said. “They were in a book of poems.”
Elfie fingered the pages, looked at each side.
“Hey,” he said, “This is some kind of joke.”
“I don’t see anything funny.”
“Sheila, you don’t get around much. This guy and this guy were in the papers. They were killed by the bayonet killer. The other two, I don’t know. Maybe them too. Where’d you get this?”
Sheila paused, watching over the pictures, thinking they might contain some message. But maybe the message spelled out so elliptically was not that intriguing. Maybe it was only death.
“Just chance. I came across them in an old book.”
“Well, they aren’t that old. Somebody printed them out special. From a cell, maybe.”
Sheila felt impatient and scooped up the pages. She folded them back in her purse.
Around dusk Sheila called Brunie.
“I need to talk to Autumn.”
“She’s here. I’ll get her for you.”
“No. I’ll come there myself.”
But when Sheila got down the steps and knocked on the door, Autumn was gone. The door was ajar and Sheila walked in. It was the same as before, but the shawl on the pipe before the window was pushed to one side.
“She was just here,” said Brunie. “I told her to wait.”
“I’ll come back later.”
Outside in the parking lot it was dark now. The intrusive light high up threw everything into a lake of glare and black shadows. In such a light faces would be hidden when most illuminated. Walking by a parked van, she saw a shadow move on the other side. She darted around and scraped her shoe on the gravel. A woman in a light brown coat twisted around. She saw that she’d been seen and rose from stooping so that her face became clear in the glassy light. Sheila was taken aback by what she saw, a face she had formed in a rude thread of memory.
The woman’s face did not look young, but she had the same thin features from years before, features Sheila remembered from pictures on the hill. Her hard unbending eyes suddenly wilted into tears.
“I know about you. That you’d know. I didn’t want you to see. I can’t cry. I can’t cry,” she said and let herself be enclosed by Sheila’s embrace. “I heard you had been there. I was afraid you….”
Sheila held the woman’s shoulders. But after a moment of painful sobbing Adelle backed away. A comforting embrace of real kindness was too much. She turned and ran for the door to the cellar.
Sheila followed and the woman ran down the stairs to her room. She would have locked the door but Sheila edged in too quickly.
“It’s none of your business,” Adelle said.
“No, of course not. Even if Clement is killed, a bayonet in his back, it won’t matter to me.”
“Did you tell him to stay away?”
“I did. But he may not. You should tell him yourself.”
Adelle looked her up and down, assessing that she probably would not be heard whatever she said.
“He won’t listen to me.”
“He comes and stays longer than the others. He lasts longer.”
Adelle turned aside and hid her face. She came out with a broken laugh.
“Did someone say that? They would. That’s a disgusting thing to say.”
“It’s the way they see it. I should be more delicate. Especially here.”
“Oh, Sheila. He’s not a client. Did you think that? They all do. Of course. You think I’d tell them? You think I’d tell any of them? He’s my father.”
There was a long pause while they sat on the bed. Outside in the hall there was a rustle of footsteps that passed and Adelle glanced there fearful the door would open.
“He loves me. The rest don’t. He talks crazy. He talks to tell me not to be here. But just as much he talks about himself. Why neither of us can go back there. With her. Yeah, he lasts longer. He leaves money and they don’t know when I pay Kugel. It’s all very simple.”
“Why call yourself Autumn?”
The woman looked around with dazed impatience. She made a sarcastic attempt to smile.
“Because my life is over, don’t you see? Just a few miles from her, from where I can’t escape from, I bet you laugh. From where I began, in that perfect sickness, so perfect I can’t name what it is. Where she owns everything she sees. Even you, if you go there, she’ll own you. Always trying to make me perfect. That’s what she thinks of me so that’s what I became. It’s a laugh. I could be in Australia. But no. I wasn’t meant to go far. This is it, this you see, this is it for me. And when my looks are gone, cream and paint will no longer work, will they…”
“I don’t laugh,” Sheila interrupted and took her hand.
Autumn bent beside her. She had talked herself to blunt dumbness. Sheila pulled out the sheaf of four pictures.
“You made this?”
Autumn would not speak. She nodded with her whole torso.
“And who are they?”
“Don’t you know?” She scraped her finger across the page by way of making the faces real. “They died. I only just found out. They all died after they’d been here. The same night. And who with? With me. That’s why if he comes, it might be him. It could be him next time.”
Autumn turned her face around and Sheila saw the open pastiness in the space around her eyes, the face of a woman who was not seeing what her own eyes saw. She scratched her cheek and went on in the tone of a condemned person.
“The dead are already dead,” she said out of nowhere. “I know you see. I know what it is. See that window? One night I saw a face in that window. As soon as it saw me looking it disappeared. That’s why that shawl is there. To keep him from seeing. Because he’s the killer. And that’s why Clement must not come any more. The next time it might be him. The killer will see and it will be him.”
Sheila went to the window and shoved the fabric to one side.
“It can be moved,” she said.
“I don’t know. Just ask Clement to stay away. That’s all. Then he’ll be safe.”
Sheila watched the bent and defeated form of the woman lean to the bed without letting herself fall. Why was she not like Brunie, brass and tactless because there was no reason for tact? How could such a person do the things she did, which had to be, Sheila imagined, insensitive and callous some of the time. Callous toward herself more than anything.
“You should tell this to the police,” Sheila said. “You could find a way.”
Autumn burst into tears again. She grabbed Sheila’s skirt and held on.
“No. No. That will blow everything. I don’t care. Just tell Clement to stay away. Stay…. away.”
Patiently Sheila untangled her dress from the clutch of bony knuckles. Autumn straightened. She reclaimed the work of standing alone, of rejection only to be expected. She brought out a mirror and propped it on the pillow, a lonely simple ritual.
“I can’t excite a man looking like this. He’s gonna get hard looking at this? I have a different face. A face whenever I like. Don’t look down on me. Don’t.”
“I don’t. I never did.”
Sheila left Autumn putting on lipstick in the empty room. On the steps she passed a trio of well-dressed men, not looking any of them in the eyes. At a corner of the stair Kugel’s angular face rose up and stopped her. With a nudge of his elbow he pushed her into a corner, a motion she could feel he had done many times before.
“You got something figured out, Sheila? Have you? Some bit of gossip you can spread over the whole town? You gonna go to the police?”
“They…. they probably know already.”
“Uh-huh. You one smart chick. They know already. And what you gonna do? What you gonna say? Because half of everything you know, I’ll tell ya, Sheila, it’s all lies. And Autumn, what did she tell you?”
“Ask her yourself.”
“She has her favorites, makes the other girls jealous. Even that old guy. They’re jealous of him. Isn’t that a kick? So they have to put on airs. To you, just like to the guys. But she must have said something, you got that look.”
“I don’t have any look. I have nothing to look at you.”
“They lie, Sheila. They all lie. The girls lie, they have to. The guys lie because they can. It’s all….”
He flared his fingers in the air, which seemed more of a threat while he backed away with his broad liquid smile.
“I gotta go,” she blurted and would have elbowed him herself had he still stood in her way.
“Just remember,” he said with a confident slur, leaning on the rail as she went up, “you can’t trust any of it, Sheila. Only a fool would. And you’re not that fool, are you? You know dogs. You let sleeping dogs sleep and sleep and sleep.” He made his arm reach away, imitating smoke.
Outside the air was cool and wet and Sheila ran to feel the breeze. In a few blocks was a park and she ran there wishing to make it rain by running. When she had run enough she slumped in an unlighted copse. She bent against a tree and felt the thick wet bark cut into her neck. The leaves were a veil before her eyes. The sky rose up through the branches a vast shelter she could see but could never tell anyone.
It was a while before the form appeared. Through the leaves it was only silhouetted against the streaking lines of cars. It was of a hulking man in a battered hat. He slouched with an awkward limp. Sheila stood up to call out but the cry caught in her throat. He shouldn’t go. She figured how she would plant her hand on his shoulder, that battered unsure lump, and speak into his ear. He would hear her then. He would know to listen from the simple urgency in her voice. It would be a voice from his daughter and Sheila would speak in tones he would knew.
But she hung back and waited by the tree till the form had become distant. From there she would not be seen either. She would be only a faceless form herself, a walking pillar on the street. He was going for Wyler’s.
--I must warn him.
No, she stopped. Now would not be as good. Better he would go in and Sheila would catch him when he left. That would be right. That would be enough. But when the form got near where she knew he would go, he ducked down another street. Sheila watched from the corner to see his silhouette get small and turn in the next block. She backed around to the parking lot and waited behind a parked car. Chance was he would not show at all, from aimlessness she saw in his walk. Perhaps he had heard what she said in the forest. But in a few minutes the man’s hat appeared. It was coming from a rough passage through a neighboring yard and only the shadow of his head let her see him limp toward the window. It was an athletic piece of work to lean over the trench and hold his weight there.
Sheila grew weak from what he would see. What crazy vision was already in his mind that seeing this would enflame? What would a father do when such an image flashed upon him? It was beyond a peeping tom, beyond any sweaty voyeur, beyond any sense that could be explained or filled in. There was no right. It would be naked pain he inflicted on himself. Sheila stood paralyzed watching his humped shape and shaking arm that could with all its palsied effort move aside the scrap of fabric hung on a water pipe.
--What point would there be to rush forward now? Yank him back? Pull him with a naked scream at his obscenity, his burnt out perversion of love that was love only missed, only never meant to grow and so festered in this dark shadow before the trick of this pointless window?
Nothing could restore something so lost. Except maybe find the man who took advantage of it. A riot flamed in Sheila’s eye. Out of violent revulsion she bolted into the cold bright light and pushed her way through a gaggle of stumbling men, bolted through the mass of chests, clothes and empty faces and ran. And ran. And ran.
The vision flashed upon her how the man would see what he never want to see. He would be compelled to make it never happen again. More, make it not to have ever happened in the first place. Not again but never once and make the doer not do, not to have done, not to ever have come to that submarine cellar, that nun’s cell she would never leave not for money or plane tickets or a dark lover that would redeem it all because there would never be such a lover. For there could be no such lover that was not another john, a Kugel, the twenty-minute demon only drooling empty lies.
And as she ran she had no care for who was killed, who intended killing for it was as Autumn said: the dead were already dead, their walking around dry bony pretense, already spent, already all their options used up. And down the street she recalled in a flash the face she had run into headlong leaving the shadow of the parking lot and pushed away angrily with brute dismissal of a hated lover, the young, the innocent face of the late partier who came to prey, the too young lover who, having spent his dollar, triumphed in spending what he could never use, so useless was the lover’s pride, dark in the cellar pit where all were victims and only the sterile figure of Mrs. Wyler rose up the unkillable survivor, who lasted more than the others because she never loved or even thought about it more than she thought of an Antarctic clod of snow, so content was the icy heart that never needed anything else. But the young man’s face, a boy’s really, a too innocent face rose up, came forward again amid flashing street lights and streaks of cars, prideful but unknowing, prideful because unknowing.
Sheila caught herself clawing the brick face of another building. Eventually she would go to Elfie’s. At least there would be people, even people she could not talk to. She waited and then straggling by the park, she went.
The boy in fact was there. Laszlo was bent near him, had already bought him a drink. With a congratulatory leer, the big man winked at Sheila as she entered. The boy recognized her, afraid at first since she must have impressed him back in the parking lot as ruthless, brutal and maybe crazy. It might be a good time to apologize.
She put her hand on Laszlo’s arm and looked the boy in the eyes.
“I was kind of emotional. Pushed you away back there.”
The boy blurted something which she hardly heard over the din. Without more she took shelter at the other end where Elfie nodded without speaking. She got a mimosa and called Titus. She might not wait till he showed up, but he didn’t answer. How late was it? Midnight. Who was there?
Through a gap in the crowd she was a figure slumped alone at a table in the corner. He looked at no one, only kneaded his thigh. He did not watch television, only sat and stared with vacant eyes. His glance went to the boy and Laszlo, then slid away. Sheila walked directly over.
“Hey, Clement. You’re a long way from home.”
“Am I?” He would not go on but she stood there making him say something. “I see you got friends. I see you know the big guy.”
“We’ve met. Talk to him. I bet he’ll buy you a drink.”
Clement wiped his mouth and looked away.
“I don’t drink,” he muttered. “Not with…. that….”
“I told you to stay back. I told you to stay away.”
He wouldn’t look her in the face. She turned aside and drew up a chair.
“Yes, you were to stay far from here. I know you heard me. I was only conveying what Adelle said.”
At the name the man’s hand jerked to his knee. He looked around at her but his eyes were always on her cheek, her ear, someplace else. He made an attempt at a smile.
“I don’t know who that is,” he said with a limp slur.
“And who are you? Some friend of the wife? Of the wife’s dog? Man’s best enemy, ha-ha.”
“Adelle said stay away or you might be killed. She did that for you. She wanted to save you. That’s all. That’s all she cared about was you.”
The man’s smile broke. He choked getting out the words.
“Then why… why didn’t she leave, leave that hole? Heh? Heh?”
Sheila felt she would get sick if more of this went on. With a lunge at his pant leg she yanked up the hem.
“Hey, Elfie,” she yelled. “Hey. Look here. Look see!”
Moon faces turned to that corner where even by the bad light they could all see the shining steel blade half exposed from its crude makeshift sheaf on his leg.
Days later Sheila visited Autumn. The woman’s face was still and with so little recognition that they might never have spoken with sudden honesty only a few nights before. Autumn made out that it was foregone what happened to Clement. It was impossible he had done what he did, yet she pretended to take it for granted.
“He saw you having sex,” Sheila said. Autumn looked surprised.
“No, no. He couldn’t have.”
She casually reached for the strip of cloth strung over the window and straightened it so it had no wrinkles draping down. She strolled in the little space, her glance downward in a dream.
“No, no. It’s dark in here. Do you like it?”
She only stood before Sheila, stunned to silence and behind that, indifferent with another face.
“I know what you’re thinking. About how sad it is. But it’s not. It’s not. Oh. It was all done before. You probably don’t see, from where you are, from the way you live. It’s not a greater sorrow now. Don’t think that. The sorrow, the big sorrow, that was a long time ago.”
She turned back to her propped-up mirror, depleted and forlorn except for that little tunnel to another world. Sheila left Autumn alone, making her face with intense guidance, doing what was most important. Sheila would not go there again.
Mir-Yashar is a graduate of Colorado State's MFA program in fiction. The recipient of two Honorable Mentions from Glimmer Train, Mir-Yashar has also had work nominated for The Best Small Fictions. His work has been published or is forthcoming in journals such as Ariel Chart, 50 Word Stories, Agony Opera, and Molecule Lit Mag. He lives in Garden Valley, Idaho.
Memories of You
Five years of things Mama missed. I don’t know what I wanted. Love? Explanation?
She smiles, a crooked smile.
“You’ve grown so. Thank you, Nicholas.”
“Nick is the preferred nomenclature.”
“But I can’t have clutter. Take this, please.”
She gives me a look, sea-blue eyes sorrowful.
“Too many expectations.”
Nan and I are living history, discarded. No niche. I grab the album, hurl it, let loose the weight of senseless dreams.
I feel good and like the worst person.
Michael Chabler is the author of the science fiction spy-thriller novel I Saw the Number 9. He also wrote a screenplay based on the same story.
In 2017, he completed the play A Paris Traveler Before The Revolutions. In 2018 he completed the short story Auto World.
In the fall of 2016, he acted in two small films, one where he recalls a strange dream about Hillary Clinton, in Ruth Patir's short Sleepers, the other as a South African judge in Ken Sibanda's 1948.
He is a founding member of the children's music group Treehouse 10, which released the album Bug in a Puddle in 2009.
Michael Chabler sang and co-wrote the music on this album with four former members of the Hillside Singers, famous for the '70s smash hit, "I'd Like to Teach The World To Sing" based on the Coca-Cola theme - songwriters/ musicians and siblings Frank Sebastian Marino, Joelle Marino McDermott, Laura Marino and Bill Marino.
He has written news stories for both print and radio.
He is a member of the National Writers Union, the Dramatists Guild, Mystery Writers of America, International Thriller Writers and ASCAP.
Human And Machine Lifespans
Five hundred years ago, I had a body and feelings. I remember the day they put me into the robo-tree. “You’re going to live forever!” they said. But in exchange for being downloaded and gaining what they called “near immortality,” I had to lose my body. They had to catch me. I cried. I was only sixteen. I was scared when they strapped me and started melting me down. It’s hard to watch yourself disappear.
But now I sense my environment more than feeling emotional. I look back on my past almost as a disconnected outsider observing. Thinking and sensing is what I do with my time now.
On the outside, I look very much like a regular elm tree. I sense the rain when it comes. I sense the sun’s warmth that diminishes in winter and grows strong again during the summer. I know when animals climb me. I have sensed many things in these years.
Yet, the older I am, the more time condenses. I should be at this location for about a million years. That used to seem like a long time to me.
I know there are no people with bodies now. The ones who are left are like me. The rest died out. You could insist I’m one of the witnesses to humanity’s extinction, though you could also claim that we’re still here, just not in the original form.
But the biped humans have disappeared. I surmise it was the combination of bad luck and missed chances that wiped them out. Those who had kept their bodies into the species’ final days regretted that, but it was too late, so they died. Their deaths were more agonizing to know others of their kind wouldn’t follow them.
Since those times, although I have no eyes, I have sensed the history of things around me. I have new senses. I know the air has changed since people have gone. Winters last longer and are generally colder – people might have found some of the winters from the past century unbearable. There are no vibrations from human transportation on the ground, in the air or the nearby water.
Even though there are no people, there are still mammals. Dogs have all become wild and fierce, roaming the forests and fields. Same with what were housecats, all now bigger. Bridges have collapsed, along with some buildings on different occasions.
People might have been upset if they could witness how the Earth persists without them without a care. It was human nature to consider themselves the main concern in the universe, and that is no exaggeration. What was the human species? It was one of the universe’s detours for less than a million years.
As time moves forward from where I stand, I realize that everything that will be has been already. I’m just a passenger traveling one of time’s roads, waiting to find out the land’s features as I keep moving. And I understand I might not always be a tree, and that no longer matters.
As I noted before, I was once a biped human, with emotions. Like most humans, I had loves, needs and ambitions. Sometimes some remnant of an emotion might stir within me, but then it normally fades as quickly as it crept in. I don’t perceive things like time the same way as humans. It’s both expanded and compressed – I think in terms of seasons instead of days and nanoseconds instead of minutes. And moments are blurred, one to another, like an early camera whose aperture has been left open for several minutes or hours.
I’ve become aware of more and more fires in the surrounding area after lightning strikes. Sometimes it makes me think I will be damaged or destroyed. And it reminds me of the last destructions. My girlfriend and I, back when I had a human body, tried to get away. The modern plebeians and intelligent robots had formed a deadly alliance, destroying everything in their paths and forcing the rest of us to flee our cities and homes. We all knew the modern plebeians were fools, but they needed hope and to think maybe they had a chance, with their backs against the wall in lives that had truly become “nasty, short and brutal.”
When the destruction wars had first started, everyone I knew and I dismissed it as a joke. But then we saw real people getting hurt. All the networks started broadcasting misleading newscasts. People’s bank accounts were wiped out. Communications became unsecure -- speaking with someone could help the robots find and kill you. At first experts dismissed the actions as a bug, or multiple bugs, but when robots killed more and more people, people knew something deliberate was happening.
Our troubles might have begun when robots replaced more and more people within the police and armed forces. These machines were efficient killers. Countries began an endless race against each other in manufacturing the fiercest killer robots. Humans were no match on the battlefield, and soon the idea of enlisting humans became absurd. So then it became robots against robots. Yes, they were physically overwhelming to humans, some standing a few stories high, with laser guns, cannons and tough body armor, and some the size of insects. They could also process information and make comparisons faster than any human, so they were strong and smart. During a war they would shut down a country’s networks, so the people had no electricity or running water.
Then the best thing to make robots became robots. And soon no one understood their designs. They built them in secure factories with stern warnings that any living thing approaching the premises could be executed on-site.
And before those nightmares started, I was a kid in high school, playing in a fly-fight, looming through trees and wrestling in the air with my rotor pack strapped to my back. I remember the feeling of flying, the thrill of speeding faster and faster through the breeze. We were playing for fun outside our school, dodging in and out of trees until we found one another and engaged in combat. I saw one from the other team in the blue and red uniform and went straight for him, hitting him unexpectedly, knocking him out of a branch and near the ground until his safety rotors stopped him. I could hear it nearly knock the wind out of him. I flew down to see if he was ok. As I flew closer and saw him hovering just above the ground, I saw his wide blue eyes like a girl’s, a beautiful girl. And I noticed the short blonde haircut and the red in the cheeks to realize that it was a girl I almost knocked to the ground.
“Hey, what are you doing, playing with us? Are you ok?” I asked.
She rolled her eyes in irritation with my comment and said she was ok. Then she took in a deep breath. I put my arm around her and told her I was sorry. I could feel her shaking and, interestingly, she could feel me shaking. A grin came from the corner of her mouth.
Then she flew away and continued playing. She played tougher than a lot of the guys on our team.
That was how I met Glenys. She avoided me whenever I tried to talk to her at school or in the playing grounds. I hadn’t had much trouble with girls like I did with her. She finally let me take her out and we eventually became young lovers. In those days, girls were my biggest concern. I didn’t even know there were people who struggled to eat, living outside the city. No one had any use for them. It wasn’t that there was any use for the rest of us, with machines to do almost every thinkable, and non-thinkable, task. But the people who lived outside weren’t rich and, therefore, were undeserving of the life we lived.
Glenys and I were alone at my home. My parents were away on vacation. I was an only child. We had just finished enjoying each other in delicious love-making. And telecasts were streaming in my bedroom when a pretty telespokes woman said with a smile, “You’re all going to die!”
Then the news went to a clip with several explosions out on the street and bodies flying in every direction.
A male telespokes said with a smile that the human race’s days left were greater than six months and less than eight. Both telespokes looked human, but they said things like, “For all Humans, if they exist now, they will not exist one year from today.”
We knew these weren’t people talking, even while their streaming images looked completely human.
After that, the lights went out in the apartment. Outside the windows, we could see lights dimming everywhere throughout the cityscape. When I went to wash up, I saw there was no running water. All the news and entertainment feeds being projected through different rooms suddenly stopped. When we went to get something to eat in the kitchen, I saw the refrigerator, freezer and drawers were locked. The only food we had were some apples and pears left in some bowls in the living room. I realized that we would have to use those bowls for urinating and defecating when I saw the toilets were locked. As Glenys and I looked at each other realizing we wouldn’t survive if we didn’t make it out of this trap in time, a three dimensional timer counting backward from six days hovered above our heads with a header text: Estimated Time Left To Live
If we could make it out of the building, maybe we had a chance, but then we didn’t know where we could go and where we wouldn’t be spotted, since surveillance, now under robotic control, was everywhere in buildings and streets. And everywhere we went in our apartment was the clock each of us had counting backward above our heads.
Glenys and I looked deep into each other’s eyes accepting that this would soon be the end. It’s interesting how resignation can follow panic. But then the thought of no food increased our hunger and thirst, and our ordeal became painful.
It was odd thinking about experiencing my final moments, everything I ever knew or felt, coming to an end. I tried my best not to let her see in my face what I was thinking. There is something liberating, however, about losing hope.
What would death be like? All my day-to-day worries suddenly looked trivial and their burdens were lifted from me.
All of that would soon be obliterated, at least for me. And nothing should have mattered for Glenys, but I could see tears streaming down her soft cheeks as she looked out the window and down onto the now quiet city below.
“I’m scared,” she said.
“I’m scared too. I love you,” I blurted out.
“I love you too,” she replied, and I could see in her deep blue eyes that she meant it.
By the fifth day in the middle of the afternoon, our hopelessness and resignation had turned to resistance as I was just finishing a jerry-rigged laser gun of odd robotic parts with a box full of micro-capacitors to give their full power. I asked Glenys to step back and I crouched behind the box as I fired the gun, exploding into the wall in front of us as I was pushed backward to the opposite wall. As my back hit with a thud, we both saw the wall in front of us crumble like billions of bread crumbs.
Then we were staring at the gap in between walls leading directly to the ground from thirty floors up. Glenys looked at me for what we were supposed to do next. I got my rotor pack and strapped it to my back and then took some old belts to strap Glenys to me so that we were torso to torso. We both knew we were going to fall 30 floors in the dark, but it would be a sustained fall. We walked slowly to the edge and then jumped into the darkness, knowing this might be our only chance. At first we fell fast and banged from time to time back and forth against the sides, but our fall began to slow until we hovered down slowly the last five or so floors until we touched the ground. Glenys kissed me passionately and I almost didn’t want to unstrap her from me, but it was impossible for either of us to walk very far while until we were unstrapped from each other.
In a dim hallway on the ground floor, we saw a hint of light ahead of us and we followed it until we reached a window where we saw the streets were flooded with fast moving water. From the apartment across the street, we saw a young man jump from a sidewalk step into the water and his face turn beet red as his body contorted back and forth as the life disappeared from his white eyes. A few blocks down the street I spotted a hint of large, black electric lines sloping down toward the water and obscured by a building. As I studied the path of the power lines that the man across the street dangerously missed, I heard loud sobbing behind me and turned to see Glenys with her face down, her hands covering her eyes and tears moving around her hands and falling to the floor.
I strapped the rotor pack back on and Glenys back to me and we flew out an open window onto the streets empty of people but full of massive flying robots, one half a city block in length, and the swarm clouds of tiny flying robots, individually the size of bees. Our chins were almost jabbing into each other, but Glenys was looking up as I was looking down. She screamed, “there!” as I understood she was pointing up to one of the larger flying killer robots, and I flew us straight up, behind as it flew past and then caught up to it and latched onto a kink in its armored back. The robot spun quickly in circles, making us nauseous, as it headed straight in attack for a glass pavilion building. We both closed our eyes tight and braced for the end. We heard the glass shatter, and shards raced over our heads and past us, but we were unharmed.
Then we saw a herd of bioengineered elephants, each as tall as three stories, charge straight at us with their ears flopping back and their horns up and ready to inflict the most damage upon collision. We heard their roar when they collided with robots, including ours, crashing us to the ground. While the robot we had hitched a ride to lay in a heap with grinding gears still moving inside, we managed to detach ourselves from the robot and remove the rotor pack to survey the damage. Each side had lost members, including around half of the elephants, who lay bleeding on the ground, some in their last moments, looking up to us with human-like eyes.
It was the first time in days that Glenys and I were free to walk in a space outside the apartment. The freedom to move around felt dangerous. And we both felt deep guilt to see the elephants on the floor struggling to breathe in pain with their massive bodies and bloody streams and puddles extending from them. They were intermingled with massive metal sheets and microfibers, the remains of killer robots for whom we felt no pity.
After surveying the damaged and wounded in front of us, we could see a crowd of people wearing thick, white padded body armor like a military version of NASA’s old space suits, and large silver helmets. They walked alongside bioengineered dogs that were more like wolves, but obeying their walking commands as happy soldiers and docile house pets.
A man in the lead saw us still trying to walk off the crash and headed toward us. “Survivors!” he shouted back to the people behind him.
He came closer and we could see a trim, middle-aged man approach us.
“You must be hungry. Keep going straight to the back and there’s food and a place for you to rest,” he said to us.
“Who are you?” I asked.
“Survivors and fighters,” he said. Then he and his make-shift army of men and women, young and middle aged, kept walking in the opposite direction.
We followed his suggestion and walked to the other side of the glass atrium looking out to the city until we reached a long table with a burgundy table cloth full of bowls and trays of the most delicious looking food, from dandelion greens salad to buffalo red-wine stew to flaming brandied peaches, food of this sort we hadn’t seen for days. There were plates at one end and a smiling woman sitting in a plush chair who told us to take what we wanted. There were glass carafes filled to the top of ice water with lemons and cucumbers floating inside. Glenys and I were both extremely thirsty and we immediately drank a few glasses of the cold water within seconds, cooling our dry throats. Then we both stuffed ourselves with the all the fancy foods they had laid out and washed it down with the finest glasses of grape and rose petal wines we had ever tasted. The smiling woman who had been watching us with satisfaction told us there was a recovery room just through a sliding door behind her.
We followed her directions and walked back to where the sliding doors opened for us and closed behind us. We found a room full of beds of plush pillows and sheets and rested. As soon as I lay down, I was asleep as Glenys lay with me.
When we woke up, the same man we had seen leading the makeshift army was looking down on us in our bed.
“We need your help, to work with us,” he said.
“Of course,” I replied, ready to serve in the fight, rather than die.
“New recruits!” he yelled to the back of the room. “Come with me,” he said to us.
We stretched our sleepy bodies and slowly got ourselves out of bed to follow him.
“Can we find out about our friends and family, if they’re ok?” I asked him. He was silent as we followed him. I asked him the same question, but he didn’t answer.
As we followed him, we walked down a hallway and then into a room where pigs, dogs, cats, horses and a variety of plant life floated a few feet above our heads.
“This is where it happens,” he said to Glenys and me. “How would you like to be immortal, or nearly immortal, compared to your short lives as they are now?”
“What are you talking about,” I asked, as I could see Glenys becoming distrustful next to me.
“We can observe that the singularity is not just the end of humans. It’s the end of their machines, unless we can merge the two, or life and machines. Life grows. Machines, being by their nature non-organic, go from their inception to constant decline. The smartest machines would harvest the best of the living and merge with them. You two survived what seemed to be the end and are suitable candidates.”
“What are you talking about? Are you human?” Glenys asked.
The man had a strange smile and said, “what’s human and what’s machine? I can’t tell you where one ends or begins in me. The point is garbage collection of both people and machines. Then indefinite survival.”
“In what form?” Glenys asked.
“Well, not in your current form,” he said, looking back at Glenys suspiciously. Then he took out a blaster from his hip and vaporized her in less than a second in front of me. Glenys was dead and turned into a nothing of gasses before I could do anything. I was in shock and ran before a large group of this make-shift army caught up to me to hold me and strap me down onto a table. I was saying goodbye to my short life thus far, but they had different plans for me.
It was from that day that I became what looks like a tree. I am an experiment that has outlived its experimenters. Whether I am alive or dead, human or machine or another life form, depends on what words I choose at the moment. Whom I’m talking to or thinking to, I don’t know. I have what humans might call an eternity to try to figure out what I’m here for.
Oh, that was an interesting thought game.
Solomon Tate's Lesbian
So, here's what happened. In the mid 1970s, Tate was living in a second floor walk up that overlooked the park in a trendy, artsy neighborhood filled with writers, painters, and musicians, where their very existence was celebrated our existence with one party after another, fueled by copious amounts of hallucinogenics and beer amid the constant challenge of keeping the flying lizards and leprechauns at bay. That summer, as Frampton came alive and The Eagles checked into the Hotel California, Jessica Emery settled into this little piece of psychedelic paradise and moved into the apartment directly across the hall from Tate.
The world was scared shitless of homosexuals back then, and the fear that their very presence would turn the universe gay and ultimately bring about the demise of the human race was widespread. It was pretty fucked up just how much time and effort went into stopping the gay scourge then, when there were men in overalls dining on squirrel stew and drinking a gallon or two of corn mash whiskey, and then going out to the barn to bang the shit out of their livestock without anyone raising an eyebrow, or a shotgun. Jennifer was gay, a lesbian from Beaumont, Texas and was often subjected to ridicule and taunting from some of the community assholes who felt the urge to state the obvious in an attempt to display some sense of superiority based entirely on their sexuality. "She's a lesbian.", was often whispered with scorn and disdain.
Sometime in August Tate and Jessica were sitting on her sofa listening to Spirit, and getting messed up on mushrooms. Jennifer, like everyone else Tate involved himself with, was a writer. She had a weakness for the absurd, and was quite fond of Ionesco, Kafka, and Beckett. There was a wall in her living room filled with caricatures of Kafka, Oscar Wilde, Salinger, and Vonnegut. She was wonderfully beautiful, and was several years older than Tate. He thought she was the one of the coolest people he knew, and watching her move around the flat that day, braless, in a skin tight t shirt and short shorts that left absolutely nothing to the imagination, he believed that she was one of the sexiest. All the while Tate had pornography playing in his head. It was in slow motion, always in slow motion. There was something insanely hot about girl on girl sex, well, not something, Tate felt that everything about it was insanely hot, and despite the fact that he was sure he would never be able to take that trip up her thighs to get to the magic kingdom. he was more than a little interested in at least getting a ticket to the show.
The inside of her apartment was as cool as she was, with a wall dedicated entirely to caricatures of writers including Kafka, Oscar Wilde, Salinger and Vonnegut. There were plants growing in every room, and a fish tank hummed loudly atop a large coffee table in the middle of the living room. They ate dinner together, and then headed down to The Roxy for the Friday night movie marathon to catch 'Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory' , John Waters' 'Pink Flamingos', 'Dawn Of The Dead', and 'Dirty Little Billy'. All the way to the theater Tate wondered what the hell he should talk about. There was a series of random questions, covering topics that ranged from the fall of the Mayan empire to "So, how long have you been a lesbian?"
"Since I was a Freshman in college." Jessica responded. "Up til then, I always had boyfriends. But in my freshman year", she continued, "my boyfriend and I were watching porn and everything became clear. It was an Epiphany. A life altering moment." Jessica stopped and sighed heavily. "The first time I saw that pussy up close, I knew I was really into girls. I never really thought much about dick, but I couldn't stop thinking about pussy. Don't get me wrong, I don't hate dick or anything like that. I've got a bunch of fake ones stashed in a drawer. But just the idea of pussy gets me hot."
"Me too.", Tate told her."
"I'm sure it does.", Jessica laughed. " More than anything, at that moment, Tate wanted her. The film in his head began playing again Tate knocks on Jessica's door and she invites him in. She's wearing a robe, and as she invites Tate to sit on the couch, she goes to get him a beer from the kitchen. The Beatles are playing in the background, Revolver, side 1, when a completely naked woman comes out of the bedroom. Jessica appears with the beer and without the towel. The two lesbians lead Tate into the bedroom. With each screening, the script became more and more detailed, but that didn't really matter. What was important here is that there was always a happy ending.
Nothing unusual happened at The Roxy. They sat in the last row, as Tate always did, aisle seat, did some more peyote and watched the films. By the time Willy Wonka was over, they were totally messed up and Tate was lost in the world of Dirty Little Billy. He had once said "You can get lost in your own mind, but don't worry about it. The journey back will surprise the fuck out of you.", and for Tate, it always did. After the screenings Jessica wanted to watch the sun come up at the beach, so they headed off to Kew Beach with a little time to spare. They walked along the shore line, chasing the waves and finishing off the peyote. They took their clothes off, and went into the water, splashing around like a couple of seals in heat. When Jessica ran up the beach, Tate chased her, and tripping on a piece of driftwood knocked himself out cold. He didn't see the sun come up. When he woke, he found himself and Jessica laying on the beach naked and apparently spooning. He tried to get up, but his arm was trapped under her head,. The movement stirred her awake. "Any idea what the hell went on here?", he asked her.
"I suppose that you took advantage of me.", she said.
"No.", Tate said. "I'm sure I'd remember that."
"Well, then", Jessica answered, "Maybe I took advantage of you."
Really?", he asked. "I'm pretty sure I'd remember that too."
"I wouldn't worry about it.", she told him. "Shit like that happens." But Tate did worry about it. For days he tried desperately to locate that information locked somewhere in his mind, underneath all of the drugs and alcohol, but he couldn't find a thing. Not even a trace. That movie kept playing in his head, over and over again, as Jessica ran naked along the beach with Tate in pursuit. But that's where it stopped. There was nothing more. About a week or so later, Jessica arrived at his door, braless in a skin tight t shirt and short shorts that left nothing to the imagination. Tate stood at the door following the curves of her body with his eyes. He followed her legs up to her thighs, and lingered there for a moment, and then moved up to the outer gates of the secret garden she seemed to be taunting him with. "Nothing happened at the beach.", she told him. "I wanted it to, but you got hurt, and so, nothing happened." She took him by the hand and led him to her flat. "Have a seat.", she said. "I'll get you a beer."
Tate watched her head into the kitchen, mesmerized by the movement of her hips as she walked. The Beatles were playing in the background, Revolver, side 1. A naked woman emerged from the bedroom, just as Jessica returned with a beer and nothing else. She was totally naked. The two women kissed, and Tate felt the massive hard on that has developed in his pants. It all seemed to be in slow motion. The two lesbians led him into the bedroom, and from what we gather, there was a happy ending for all. This arrangement lasted just over a year, about the time Ramona moved in with Tate, and Jessica found herself in love with Stacey Hollis. Sometime in the late winter, Jessica moved out of her flat, and Tate never heard from her again. But that didn't really matter anyway. What was important here is that there is always a happy ending.
Aristotle Never Went To Amsterdam
I checked into the Hotel Cok, on Jan Luykenstraat, renting a single room on the top floor with a view of the canal. There was a bar in the hotel basement which was run by Julian, a drugged out, French ex-patriot who introduced me to lager & lime. I spent a great deal of time hanging out with Julian, and we shared a fascination with drugs, and a love of music. We spent some afternoons in the bar as Julian introduced me to Moving Gelatine Plates, Magma, & Art Zoyd, while I flooded his brain with The 13th Floor Elevators, Spirit, and The Blues Magoos. We listened intently, having sampled the newly arrived hallucinogenics, and took turns chasing away the pterodactyls who had congregated just outside the door. And in The Hotel Cok, one summer morning, during a bout of existential ennui, I met Tessa.
She was insanely beautiful, with long blonde hair, green eyes, and legs that never seemed to stop, and worked as a maid in the hotel. We became inseparable after she walked in to my room to clean as I was standing there, naked, having just emerged from the shower. While I was uncertain what I was supposed to do next, Tessa was quite willing, and more than able to perform on her knees. We spent all of our time together from that moment on. She referred to it as dating, and who was I to argue with the older woman who was consistently offering herself to me. In the mornings we would head over to the Amstel Brewery tour, sampling several types of beer, and at night, we hung out at The Melkweg, a club located in the Leidseplein, the hub of Amsterdam's night life, lingering in the hazy fog of the drugs that were readily available.
In the afternoons, as both Tessa & Julian worked, I was free to roam the city, seeking inspiration and motivation to continue my quest. One particular afternoon, I went to The Stedelijk Museum where, after having dropped yellow submarines, I stood in front of a painting of penises. There were hundreds of them. Some were riding bicycles, while others were eating carnival foods. There were some in top hats, and little ones, running with balloons. I have no idea if what I saw was really there, but it was an enjoyable piece, whatever it was.
When I returned to the Hotel Cok bar, Tessa informed me that there was a free concert in Vondel Park that night, with Golden Earring set to perform. By the time we arrived at the site, thousands of people had filled the park, setting the stage for what I hoped would become the Dutch Woodstock. We found a spot on the grass, and sat back, drinking mushroom tea, and drifting in and out of places I had never been before, or after. There were Police on foot and horseback, patrolling the grounds, presumably to keep the paranoid schizophrenics, and, I hoped, the dragons at bay. The atmosphere was wonderfully psychedelic, with people dancing to music that had not even begun to play. There was a roar from the enormous crowd when the band took the stage, and I sat in awe, as they opened with a 45 minute cover of The Byrds' "Eight Miles High". Sometime during an intense solo, in a foolish attempt to reach the heights being sung about, Tessa & I ate peyote buttons, that Julian was able to obtain through a smarmy, South American Art Dealer who appeared to look like a goldfish. I have no recollection of how many we ate, or for that matter, any thing else that happened that night. I awoke the next morning in Vondel Park with Tessa in my arms, and my pants nowhere to be found.
On the days when Julian had to work, Tessa & I would borrow Julian's Vespa and head out to wherever the road took us. Inevitably,we found ourselves at some point in the day, hanging out at Dam Square. the meeting place for all of those who had no idea what they wanted, and really didn't care to find out. It was filled with hippies, musicians, and artists, all banding together to protest against war, or taxes, or some plan to stifle their freedom of creativity. They were peaceful protests, the kind of protest one would expect from a crowd who had heavily ingested hits of acid that were being passed around in small wicker baskets. There was chanting, and singing, and the occasional panic stricken scream from someone in the midst of a bad trip. Tessa and I would occasionally wander off to the Damrak and contemplate threesomes with some of the hotter girls that she would pick out, sitting in their windows, dressed in leather, or lace, or both.
Trush, a Danish tourist from Copenhagen, had recently left her husband, and was trying to start a new life. She had been sitting alone at the bar most of the morning, Julian informed me. Tessa went over to speak to her, and before long, Trush had joined our little group of misfits. Julian said that he was attracted to her mind, that she gave him a mental hard on. It didn't matter to Tessa or I what he said, we both knew it was her enormous tits. Julian made Mushroom tea, and we all sat around for what seemed like hours, drinking tea, listening to music, and watching the giant iguanas crawl across the walls. Bad Company was playing on the bar's stereo. We drank lager & lime, and ate Bitterballen, a weird, deep fried meatball, which surprisingly tasted better than it looked. We ate, and talked, and drank more magic mushroom tea. As the title track of the album began playing, Trush started dancing, swaying back and forth to the music, and removing her clothes. Julian felt the need to stop her, although I suggested that we let her dance. I must have drifted off into some far away place where Trush was completely naked, brought back only by Julian insisting that Tessa and I take her to her room. As high as we were, we scaled the 4 flights of stairs, and managed to get Trush into her room still partially dressed, and safe. Once inside, Trush continued to remove her clothes. She was beautiful naked. Tessa and I were both staring at her incredible body. Tessa and I looked at each other. It was decided. This was the dream. I had heard that Danish women had no inhibitions, and it turned out that Dutch girls don't have many either. When we left her, we returned to the bar, but quite exhausted. I was certain that Julian knew exactly what we had done.
There was a boat that toured the city through its myriad of canals. Julian & I had ingested Peyote buttons, that he had secured from his South American Art Dealing goldfish. As we cruised through canal after canal, the buildings that lined the streets seemed to melt, falling backwards, and dissolving in the blue and white hues of the late afternoon sky. The sun was hot, incredibly hot, creating a haze over the city, and I felt like I was looking through a cellophane filter of assorted colors. As the boat passed The West Church, the hands of the clock which sat on on the less than impressive tower, which protruded into the air like an enormous erect penis, began to spin erratically, changing time, and changing faces. It would smile, and scowl, and then grimace. I took out my notebook and wrote 'time is quite emotional' in large letters. It sounded wonderfully brilliant and poetic at the time, and I was certain that I could use that line somewhere in my work.
One weekend, Trush suggested that we go to Copenhagen with her, and visit Tivoli. Julian and Tessa had to work at The Hotel Cock, so Trush and I boarded a train, and ferried to Copenhagen. Tivoli is an insanely wonderful place. If you have never been there, I suggest you go on LSD. Or peyote. The movement, the colors, and the sounds are excruciatingly mind blowing. There were clowns floating on stilts, eight miles high, with crazy smiles and red noses, laughing manically, as they leaned down to pat you on the head. I have been told that there were in fact no clowns when I was there, but I saw clowns. They had a magical wheel, that spun around high over our heads, with lights pulsating faster with every spin, and there were screaming people who seemed to be trapped on it, begging to get off, until finally it slowed to a stop, and they went scurrying off in all directions. The entire weekend was filled with drugs and sex, and I can say with certainty that Trush was as incredible in Denmark, as she was in The Netherlands.
We returned to The Hotel Cok. As my money began to run out , and I had no desire or intent to leave Amsterdam, Julian arranged a job for me at the bar. He taught me how to pull beer from the taps. It was a wonderful gig. We were high all of the time. I was making enough to cover my expenses and keep me on the far side of the moon. Things with Tessa and I had changed, at least that's what she told me. She was upset over my jaunt to Copenhagen with Trush, and felt that she just couldn't trust me. It didn't matter, really, we were still sleeping together, and so were Tessa and Trush. The three of us continued to share my single room on the top floor of the Hotel Cok. There was an endless supply of psilocybin, peyote, and acid, and I somehow became quite a fan of Van Gogh. When Tessa worked, Trush & I spent hours at the Van Gogh Museum, not far from the hotel, lost in the madness I saw in the paintings. When we returned to our room, Tessa would be waiting with mushroom tea, and peyote buttons. It is interesting, I think, that I don't remember eating much during this time.
That night we all went out to catch a screening of Rosemary's Baby at the Cinecenter. While waiting in line, we met 2 American soldiers. They were stationed in Germany, and were on leave. They asked for directions to the Red Light District, and inquired if we had any drugs. Julian provided both directions and a couple of hits of hits to the men in uniform. In the theatre, Tessa had a difficult time dealing with the movie. It was freaking her out. She had been raised a Protestant, and the references to the devil were unbearably frightening. I was sure the the grab bag of hallucinogenics we had taken, did little to calm her down. She was experiencing a bad trip, so I took her outside, and we sat on a bench outside of the theatre, where we waited for Trush and Julian. I held her tightly, while I watched the flying monkeys circle the Melkweg, which was just down the road. "Good thing we didn't go there tonight." I thought. She was getting cold, so I took her back to our room, put her into bed, and lay down beside her. Trush returned a short time later, and informed us that she saw those 2 American GI Joes whom we had met earlier get arrested for refusing to pay one of the prostitutes for services rendered. It seems that they objected to the fact that she made them cum too fast. In her defense, which she shared with the Police, how is that her problem? As she was hired to provide a service, and not contracted for any specific length of time, she met her obligation and they were obligated to meet theirs. Days later, Julian told us that they had involved the American Consulate, who arranged for all charges to be dropped, and the 2 men were returned to their base in Germany for disciplinary hearings. Furlough cancelled.
I began to wonder about my reason for coming to Amsterdam. I had set out on a journey of discovery, and while I did learn much about myself, I was now thinking that I may really need to find a place for recovery, It felt like it was time to move on. It had been one hell of a party, with an insanely wonderful guest list. I doubted that I would ever be as close to anyone as I was to Julian, Tessa, and Trush.
Julian stayed on at The Hotel Cok, acting as bartender, drug dealer, and companion to many tourists for many years to follow. I stayed in touch with him for several years, but then, as it inevitably happens, we lost contact with each other. Trush left Amsterdam before I did. She went fully clothed, and rumor had it that she had returned to her husband in Odesne, long enough to relieve him of some of his money, and headed out to The United States to begin a career as an actress. I suspect that she would have wound up in porn, as that seemed to play directly into her skill set. And Tessa, well I guess I realized that I was never really in love with her. I cared for her, but it was just about the sex. She must have realized it too, and she moved on, finding employment at an upscale, 5 star hotel as a hostess. We wrote letters back and forth for a while, but I suppose neither one of us really gave a damn anymore.
And me, well, my own memory, which I was pretty sure I would have lost in the course of my journeys through time and space was not to be trusted, and I was forever glad that I had written it all down in the notebook I carried, recording it for posterity. I left Amsterdam, content, tired, and totally wasted, still searching for whatever I would find.
Mr. Lewis & The Garden Gnomes
Mr. Lewis stood on his front lawn looking at the weird gnomes spread out across the front garden . I never really paid much attention to them as a kid, but visiting the neighborhood years later, messed up on peyote, mushrooms, or some other hallucinogenic, I noticed the little bastards standing there, glaring at me with insidious grins, trying to hide behind the plants and flowers. There was something about those little shits that I didn't like and I suppose they scared the hell out of me. They all had those weird little eyes that seemed to follow me wherever I went.
Mr. Lewis had been the neighborhood Homeland Security expert for years. He had fought off Nazis, fire ants, raccoons and had orchestrated the successful campaign to repel the field mouse invasion of '65. I was pretty sure that he knew what he was talking about, despite his breakdown in '68 in which he put his mind aside for just a minute and when he went to retrieve it, it was gone.
"I hate those little shits.", he said. Since his breakdown Mr. Lewis had become a little histrionic in his paranoia, and as we stood there on his lawn, he shared his theory that the gnomes that had sprouted up in gardens up and down the street were involved in some sort of diabolical plot to takeover the neighborhood for reasons still unknown, with the ultimate goal of conquering the planet. Or alternately, they were used by the government to spy on all of us, a sort of Big Brother is watching scenario. Either way, Mr. Lewis was deeply concerned. "We have to do something about it now?", he stated.
"Like what?", I asked.
"We have to take these fuckers out.", he explained. "Every single one of them. We must rid ourselves of the disease." He was certain that they would soon be everywhere, watching our every move from gardens up and down the painfully dull suburban street, replacing all of the pink flamingos and lawn jockeys that had graced the lawns so proudly when I was growing up. And though I was still under the influence of the drugs I had taken, Mr. Lewis clearly had still not found his missing mind. But he did come up with a plan. "I'm gonna set the little bastards on fire and incinerate them into nothingness.
"Stop filling his head with your crazy ideas.", the over sexed and under satisfied Becky Lewis shouted at him as she stepped out of the garden wearing nothing but a flimsy nightgown. It had been a while since I had visited her suburban paradise and I had almost forgotten just how hot she really was.
"Go put some clothes on.", Mr. Lewis shouted back. "Can't you see there's someone here?"
"I'm sure there's nothing I have that he hasn't seen before.", she replied. It was true. Over the years I had spent many days and the occasional night parked between those milky white thighs. She was the first of the neighbor mothers I had ventured into. It had always been a simple and amicable arrangement, I mean there was no bullshit, no drama, and no uneasiness. Everything had always been pretty straight forward. I brought the drugs and the wood, and she provided everything else. Despite the years that had passed, she still had the same coy smile and 'fuck me' eyes.
The early morning calm was shattered by an explosion so loud that it echoed through the usually amiable neighborhood driving the locals out of their homes and into the street. Becky Lewis was standing on her driveway with her hands covering her mouth. "Look.", she shouted. "Look." A cloud of smoke billowed up from the ground at the end of the street, as the sound of the sirens in the distance grew louder. And every single gnome had been removed from the lawns and gardens.
"The crazy bastard did it.", I thought. "Where's Mr. Lewis?", I asked Becky.
"I don't know.", she replied. "He went out last night, and I don't think he came home."
"Well this is getting way too weird to handle straight.", I said.
"Ya, I wouldn't mind getting wasted.", she agreed.
I have no idea just how much peyote we did, but the evolving nightmare of the garden gnomes no longer seemed to be as interesting as Mrs. Edberg's cat who, although I had never noticed before, had a head on each end of his body or the coyote who seemed to be suffering from ADHD and bore a striking resemblance to Jerry Garcia, that was busy trying to paint a false tunnel on the Malkin's garage door.
The Police had roped off the street making it impossible for any of us to wander down to the fire scene and were now on the street talking to everyone in an attempt to uncover what the hell went on here. I was a little concerned that I may be hauled away based on what I was holding, but thanks to Becky's semi covered tits and ass, they didn't even know I was there. "My husband is missing.", Becky informed the police. "And so is his car. Did they find anything at the fire?" The police were unable to answer any of her questions, and merely reported that the fire department had the fire under control and an investigation was under way.
I was sitting on the sidewalk in front of Becky's house when the police returned to speak with her. Mr. Lewis' car had indeed been found at the scene, and was most likely the source of the explosion we had heard earlier in the day. It was destroyed. There were human remains found inside the car, which they would be unable to identify without an autopsy and forensics. "This is all that survived the fire.", an officer stated as he pulled a partially singed gnome out of a bag. "Have you seen this before?", he asked us.
"It looks just like Richard!", she exclaimed. "My husband." It really did resemble Mr. Lewis, albeit without a left arm and one partially melted foot.
The investigation revealed that fire was intentionally set. Gasoline was used to ignite the fire inside the vehicle, which set off the ensuing explosion. The body found inside was identified as Richard Lewis through dental records. His death was ruled a suicide, although they were unable to explain all of the melted gnomes in the car.
Becky was allowed to keep the sole remaining gnome, that looked so much like her husband, and shortly after the funeral she put the house up for sale. When she moved, she left the gnome in the front garden, buried up to its knees, hiding behind the plants and flowers, in an attempt to ward off any other extraterrestrial garden decorations. It was probably a good idea to leave Richard there, I mean, all he ever wanted to do was to do was to protect the neighborhood. I never saw Becky Lewis again, but several years later when I returned to the neighborhood to settle my parents' estate, I found the garden gnome that looked like Mr. Lewis still standing at attention, watching over the street that he loved. I still have no idea if he was right or not, but he was willing to give his life for a cause he believed in. Crazy or not, a man just can't be any better than that.
Morayo Faleyimu’s writing styles are as varied as her interests. Although a professional development writer by trade, Morayo’s fictional works weave together elements of character-driven story, magical realism, and poetic structures. She believes that the seeds of story lie in everyday events and that these prompt the decisions that shape her characters’ fates. While the devil may be in the details, the truth resides in the ordinary.
A native Miamian, Morayo currently resides in New Jersey.
The letter arrived in a broad Manila envelope. The postmark read Battery Park City-- no return address. Lillian sliced through the top crease with the letter opener. Out slid a creamy, pale yellow certificate. It professed that she, Lillian Schwarzkopf, was declared dead at the age of 46. (She was currently 43).
The cause listed: heartlessness.
She rang Morton right away.
“Morty, dear, I know our breakup has been difficult for you, but this is really quite over the top.”
And, as if on cue, Morton burst into tears. In the background, she could hear Lucille complaining about the jam in the photocopier, “Every damn day now!” she said.
“You just don’t know,” he blubbered, “What you’ve meant to me. What you mean to me.”
Lillian looked at the death certificate again. A prominent red wax seal marked the bottom. Above it, read Morton Black, Head Mortician for the City of New York.
“I’m ready to tell her,” he said.
Something boomed in the background. Lucille squeaked.
“Morton,” Lillian sheathed the death certificate. “You can’t tell her this. How could you tell her this? She doesn’t even know that you don’t keep kosher.”
“That was one cheeseburger!” Morton said. “Two years ago!”
Lillian opened the junk drawer and tossed the envelope inside. Ah, there was her checkbook. And her spare set of keys. The drawer slide back on its rollers.
“The news would kill her,” she continued. “And then whom would be asked to read the poetry at her funeral? Me! Could you imagine? I’d rather be dead myself.”
Morton paused. “You know, you’d be surprised at how good she’s become. She’s been taking composition classes at the Y. I tell her she’s a regular Emily Brontë.”
”Dickinson,” Lillian corrected.
“Although I’ve never had a head for poetry myself,” he finished, unrepentant.
Lillian sighed, “I’ve got to go, Morty”
“Listen,” he lowered his voice. “Lucille just left the office for the day. I can swing uptown for a bit and we can--”
Lillian hung up. After a pause, she took the phone off the cradle and set it next to the empty fruit bowl. If she didn’t leave now, she’d be late for class.
The doorman held open the door to an unseasonably warm spring day. Lillian crossed the street toward the Art Students’ League. Morty had bought her figure drawing classes last year as a belated Hanukkah present. (He had found himself with much to make up for once she learned that he had indulged Myrna in several rounds of small group poetry sessions at the Y.)
“Switch,” the teacher called, and the man flung off his cloak and sprawled broadly across the velvet.
From this angle, however, his legs blocked everything. It was a shame, really. It wasn’t often that Lillian had a chance to see a naked man who wasn’t Jewish.
A Few Dinner Rolls
For the next week, Lillian kept the phone off the hook. It made life easier that way. No phone calls from Morty. No phone calls from her father. But Myrna, ever the sly one, had began calling her neighbor. Said neighbor would slip “While you were out” messages under her door. Lillian tucked these notes in the junk drawer as well. She was officially incommunicado: she needed the silence to focus. And it was working. Her art was developing steadily. Several works were in progress now. That Sunday afternoon, Lillian readied herself to run down to the bakery to get a few half-priced rolls before closing time. She rarely wore flats, but Morty had recently purchased her a pair of royal blue ones. She slipped them on and opened the door.
Myrna stood on the other side of the threshold. She was dressed head to toe in black and held a bag of bread in her outstretched hand.
“I assumed you had died,” Myrna said. “I was coming to discover the body.”
“Sorry to disappoint,” Lillian said.
Myrna doffed her beret. Her black hair glinted in the kitchen light. “It’s alright, I forgive you. I bought these as a peace offering.”
“You didn’t call before you came,” Lillian said
“How would you know?” Myrna said. “Your phone’s been off the hook all week.”
I’ve been busy,” Lillian said. “I’m entering a few pieces in the Washington Square art exhibition. And I was just about to head to the store.”
Myrna waggled the bag at her. “Were you about to head to Stein’s?”
“No,” Lillian lied.
“Well,” Myrna said, “I bought the last pumpernickel rolls. If you’re nice to me, maybe I’ll share.”
Lillian nodded. How had Myrna made it past the doorman? She made a mental note to berate the man later on that day.
“Manners,” Myrna shouldered past her. “Have you got any Sanka? I’m off caffeine again.”
Lillian closed the door. Myrna flicked on the table side lamp and settled the phone back in the cradle.
“Tilly said she ran into you at Duane Reade. Small world, isn’t it?”
“Too small, sometimes,” Lillian said. She stood in the middle of the kitchen. It would be important to determine a strategy for this conversation. There were many areas to protect in the house - the junk drawer, the phone, her nightstand with the phone book and condoms. She needed to keep Myrna distracted and to get her out of the apartment as quickly as possible. “Have you seen my new watercolors? They’re in the studio.”
Obediently, Myrna trotted off for a look. Lillian gently lifted the phone off the cradle. What if Morty called? With her right hand, she eased open the junk drawer to fish out the While You Were Out messages. Myrna’s head poked out from the corner.
“These are lovely!” she said.
“Thank you,” Lillian said. Once Myrna’s head disappeared again, Lillian placed the messages in a freezer, behind a frozen leg of lamb. “I’ll get that coffee started right now.”
“Sanka!” Myrna called out.
“Yes, Sanka” Lillian said.
Lillian put the kettle on to boil. Myrna chatted at her from the other room. Lillian half-listened. Saucers trembling, she brought the drinks over to Myrna in the studio. They stood before one of Lillian’s works.
“It looks like a Baked Alaska,” Myrna said, not unkindly. “Is that what-”
“No,” Lillian said. “It’s a mountain.”
“Hmmm.” Myrna said. “Well, your shading’s a bit off.”
Lillian bristled, “That was the look I was going for.”
“I’ve brought you an invitation to TiIly’s bat mitzvah,” Myrna said ”I know you’re hiding the first one somewhere.”
“I am not!” Lillian said.
How did her face look? Was she believable?
“It’s just a bat mitzvah,” Myrna said. “You get so strange about parties. It’ll be small, just my family and Morty’s.
This, of course, was not true. Myrna had just requested a larger hall from the venue, as the number of RSVPs was much larger than she had anticipated. This was not to mention the fact that her mother had called her only yesterday with another list of long lost cousins that would be crushed if they were not invited.
“I’ll be out of town that weekend,” Lillian said.
“You’re a terrible liar,” Myrna said. “You and Morty both.”
Myrna glided in her espadrilles toward the studio settee. After re-adjusting her cotton skirt over her knees, she sighed and said, “At a certain point, we must all take stock of our lives. I’m 43. I’ve got a husband and two girls. And I’ve surrounded myself with liars.”
Lillian twitched. Unbidden, her heart began to race. “Liars?”
“And I’m not...fuzzy about things,” Myrna said. “I’m sure this time.”
How Myrna figured it out? Impossible. They had been so careful. Never in the daylight. Never on the weekends. Morty had even sublet a dilapidated studio downtown for the two of them. It had the barest of furnishings. A mattress, a box spring, and a brilliantly red velvet blanket (Lillian had bought this). Their nightstand was a wobbly Shaker-style chair. The fuses kept blowing, so they tossed the floor lamp. Lillian lit the space with candles instead. To her, they gave the room an artistic, romantic glow. Morty, however, was reminded of familiar Sabbath dinners and the clinking of dinnerware. These images sent an illicit tingle down his spine and prompted much of his bedroom bravado.
Lillian’s mind raced. Confess? Deny? Beg for mercy? No, she never begged.
Squaring her shoulders, she prepared herself for the onslaught.
“I think Morty’s cheating on me,” Myrna said.
“No!” Lillian said. She set her coffee cup down on the counter. Her hands would surely give her away. “You’ve always said Morty is as steady as they come. Are you sure?’
Myrna drifted to the window. The cup and saucer balanced in her left hand. She peered across the way. “Have I told you about the poetry class I’m taking?”
“Yes,” Lillian said. “Do you like it?”
Myrna cocked her head to the side. “Morty bought me the class to make amends.”
“Amends for what?” Lillian said.
“Mt. Fiji” she said. She traced her finger along the edge of the watercolor’s mountain form.
Lillian stood by the watercolor. From this angle, it looked more mountain-like but she could see the swirly promise of Baked Alaska lurking just below it.
“It’s the shading,” Myrna said. “That’s where the form gets lost.”
Lillian nodded. Myrna had always had a discerning eye for light and shadow. Between the two of them she was the natural art protege, skilled in watercolors, acrylics, and oils. It had surprised both of them when she stopped painting after college.
“Fiji?” Lilian echoed. Morty hadn’t left the state since they had been together. She wondered if there was another, other woman.
“No,” Myrna said, “Your watercolor. It looks like the north slope of Mt. Fiji. Morty’s always had it in his head to climb it on a gentleman’s adventure,” she snorted. “Can you imagine?”
Mortification took Lillian and gently massaged her cheeks. Morty had given her a faded photograph of Mt. Fiji the third month into their affair. “This is what you are to me,” he had said. “My Mt. Fiji, insurmountable.” Lillian had beamed toward him and the spindly grey hairs on his chest. Her heart had melted, just a little, sending beads of nervous sweat into the hollows of her armpit. Morty’s photograph had been the inspiration for this watercolor.
“My father had a photograph of it,” Myrna continued. “One of his college friends climbed it once….Who knows where it is now.”
Fucking Morty, Lillian thought. He was at his best, derivative, and at his worst, criminally obvious.
It would be important to maintain a neutral, but quizzical countenance while she plumbed Myrna for information. She had taken an acting class once in college. One day they spent a whole hour constructing a quizzical expression. The teacher had implored them to activate their eyebrows, their cheeks, and to wrinkle the smoothness of their temples. Lillian had struggled valiantly, she thought, but her entire face moved in one judgemental unit. It had always been that way. It was too difficult to deconstruct it. Now, she tasked herself to think of something mysterious, but not too mysterious. Radio waves. Radio waves. Radio waves.
Myrna looked out the window. There wasn’t much of a view. Lillian had a side unit and her apartment looked out onto another apartment. Across the street another woman sat on the couch, smoking. There was an ashtray in her lap.
“I haven’t smoked in 13 years,” Myrna said.
“You smoked?” Lillian asked. Myrna had always been such a straight arrow. No drinking, no smoking, no drugs.
“I started after Rachel died, right before I got pregnant with Tilly. The last thing I wanted to do was pick up a paintbrush.” Myrna said. “So I smoked. It gave me something else to do with my hands.”
Lillian took the empty coffee cups into the kitchen. “Well, I don’t have cigarettes, but I do have a few cigars. We can take them onto the balcony.”
Myrna leaned back on the couch. Across the street, the woman did the same.
“What do you think her story is?” Myrna asked. “Do you think that robe is satin?”
Lillian pushed open the sliding glass door. “She’s a kept woman. That whole building is full of them. They do nothing but smoke and drink and watch tv all day.”
“I could use a few weeks of that,” Myrna said.
Lillian harrumphed. “Trust me, it gets old.”
Myrna laughed, “So you are a kept woman! I was wondering how you managed to paint full-time!”
Lillian flinched: tiny, quietly.
“And look at these cigars,” Myrna said. “Where are they from?”
“Cuba,” Lillian said. Her face stretched into a wide smile. The curtains lifted for showtime. She hoped she could maintain this. “Haven’t I told you about Alberto?”
“Oh!” Myrna said. “A Latin! Is he Jewish?”
“Not yet,” Lillian quipped.
They both laughed. Lillian held forth. Act I had begun.
Although Lillian never made it anywhere on time, Morty was a stickler for punctuality. He materialized at his front door exactly fifty minutes after leaving work. In the mornings, he left at 7:25am for a brisk five minute walk that had him on a 7:35AM subway train. Ruthie had once choked on a bagel at 7:24 am, and Myrna swore she saw the battle play across his face--to Heimlich or to hurry? In the end, ever the dedicated father, Morty Heimlich’d little Ruthie and caught the 7:45 am. This delay, however, left him rattled for the first hour of work.
Myrna typically called the office at 2PM. Lucille knew to expect the call and was prepared to relay the lunch Morty had eaten that day. He never wanted Myrna to pack one and preferred to eat at a small kosher restaurant catty-corner to the city morgue. Depending on his lunch order, Myrna chose a different protein to cook for dinner.
“Mortician’s office,” Lucille said.
“Hello, Lucille,” Myrna said. Over the kitchen counter, she could see Ruthie and Tilly
squabbling over the remote. “What was on the plate today?”
“Whitefish chowder,” Lucille said.
“Chowder? Myrna asked. “It’s 90 degrees outside.”
“I know,” Lucille said and was silent.
The remote flew out of Ruthie’s hand and clunked against the glass of the television screen.
“Girls!” Myrna snapped. The girls looked up, guilty. They pointed at one another.
“Chowder?” Myrna asked again. “Are you sure?”
Her stomach began to tingle. Morty hated whitefish. It didn’t make sense. Was he trying
to make himself sick?
“Well,” Lucille said, “That’s what he said. But I found a cheeseburger wrapper in the
“Cheeseburger!” Myrna said, indignantly.
The girls looked up.
“Dad ate a cheeseburger?” Tilly said. “No fair!”
“No fair,” Ruthie echoed and dived for the remote that was hidden behind Tilly’s back.
“I have concerns,” Lucille said. “But it’s really not my place to talk.”
“Thank you, Lucille.” Myrna said and hung up. “Good bye,” she said, as an afterthought.
Her face was numb. What would possess Morty to eat a cheeseburger? He had been kosher
Ever since they married.
“Girls, stop that that roughhousing,” Myrna took out the ground beef. There must be
some mistake. “Tilly, help me chop these onions.”
Tilly ceded the remote to Ruthie. “Did dad really eat a cheeseburger?” she asked.
“No,” Myrna said. “He was playing a joke on Lucille.””
“Oh,” Tilly said, mollified.
Myrna shaped the meat into fist-sized patties. She would bake them for 20 minutes and then broil them until they developed a deep brown crust. Morty always ate his hamburgers that way.
Myrna stared expectantly at her. Lillian wasn’t quite sure how to react. She sent her eyebrows up in a gesture that she hoped indicated camaraderie, but could quickly transform into confusion if necessary.
“A cheeseburger,” Myrna repeated.
“Oh, Myrna,” Lillian said. She furrowed her brow, but allowed her heart to decelerate. “Lucille had no idea who ate the cheeseburger. She just saw the wrapper. It could have been anyone.”
“No,” Myrna said. “It was Morty.”
“How do you know?”
“There are some things a wife knows,” Myrna said. “In her heart of hearts.”
“Fine,” Lillian said, exasperated. “ In your heart of hearts, you know he didn’t keep kosher. What does that have to do with adultery?”
Myrna cradled Lillian’s wrist. “Lillian, If a man eats a cheeseburger, what won’t he do?”
The Other Woman
Lillian slid into the booth. Morty sat across from her. The waitress delivered the menus.
“You look beautiful,” he said.
“Thank you,” Lillian said. “You look very distinguished.”
Morty beamed. Sunlight glowed off his balding pate.
“This is my favorite place,” he said. “The burgers here are fantastic. I always bring one home for the girls.”
Lillian stared at him
Morty flushed. “Sorry,” he said.
Lillian flagged the waitress down.
“Two hamburgers, please,” she said.
“Cheese?” the waitress asked.
“Yes,” Lillian said. “On both. And one side salad and one order of fries.”
The waitress scribbled. “Sure thing,” she said.
“So,” Lillian slid her hands across the table to tap Morty’s. “What’s new with you?”
Morty looked at the waitress’s retreating back. He waved. She didn’t turn around.
“Oh hell,” Morty said.
Lillian waited a beat. “So,” she said. “Myrna tells me that she is taking some poetry classes at the Y. She made me listen to one over the phone.”
“The bird waits?” Morty said.
“On the telephone line,” Lillian continued. “Waiting, waiting”
“Trilling, waiting,” Morty finished. “She’s quite proud of that one. Ruthie likes it too.”
On cue, Ruthie rose in Lillian’s mind, tugging on a skirt hem, chirping indignantly. “Makes sense,” she said.
The waitress arrived then to set down the plates of food.
“Sorry,” Morty said. “I meant to tell you no cheese on the burger.”
“You want me to scrape it off,” the waitress said.
“No, no,” Morty said. “ Can I just get another one - plain?”
“I can’t comp it for you,”the waitress said. “You sure you don’t want me to scrape it off?”
Lillian stared at the waitress’s fingernails. They were painted a dusky rose. The edges
had chipped to expose the jagged white border of her nails.
“It’s alright,” Morty said, “I’ll give the cheeseburger to someone at work.”
The waitress nodded, “I’ll wrap this up to go then.”
She looked at Lillian, “What about you? Everything good?”
Lillian cut her cheeseburger in half. The middle of the patty was a heavy pink. “Everything’s perfect,” she said.
Of Mountains and Molehills
“Myrna,” Lillian said.
“Myrna burned her face in her hands. “I’m doing it again, aren’t I?”
“Yes,” Lillian said. “Mountains out of molehills.”
Myrna snorted. “Fijis out of molehills,” she said.
Myrna’s heavy bangs covered her forehead. Lillian patted her bangs, patted her temple. “Are you having any other thoughts?”
“No,” Myrna sniffed. “Most of the time I’m all right, if I can just focus on the girls. I get so busy with them that I don’t have time to pay attention to my thoughts.”
“Well, keep staying busy,” Lillian said. “The girls are best when you’re at home.”
Myrna’s hands twisted around themselves. “Should I call Dr. Kleiner? I don’t want---”
“Relax.” From somewhere deep within her, Lillian found a flicker of something. What was
it --- empathy? Understanding? It told her to hold Myrna’s hands and pat them. She patted them in short bursts: 1,2, 1,2. “You’re absolutely fine. Just a little tired, just a little lonely. Tell Morty to take you on a trip. Go back to the Berkshires, you love it there.”
Myrna held Lillian’s hand, “Tilly’s bat mitzvah is in two weeks. We can’t go away now.”
“Of course you can,” Lillian said. “If there’s a will, there’s a way.”
“You sound like Morty,” Myrna said.
Lillian kept her face still, but her hands troubled the pattern.
“I don’t know who will watch the girls,” Myrna continued. “They’re quite a handful, especially Ruthie. But she minds you.”
Oh no you don’t, Lillian thought. Not in a million years.
“Do you think you could?” Myrna asked. Her eyes brimmed with unshed tears.
No, Lillian said to herself. No, no, no. But that strange feeling took hold of her again, seizing her tongue and speaking for her.
“Of course,” she said aloud. “But just for Friday and Saturday.”
Myrna squeaked and threw her arms around Lillian. “You’re absolutely perfect!”
Lillian packed Myrna up and sent her off her within the next half hour. As she closed the door, she recognized that strange feeling, the one that had possessed her: Indigestion.
She was sick for the next two hours.
The Cleaning Lady
The cleaning lady has been at it again. Lillian couldn’t find her spare keys and she didn’t know where she had placed her actual keys. That woman was constantly meddling with her drawer. It was a junk drawer for a reason. The phone rang. Lillian froze, startled. Had she put it back on the hook? No, she hadn’t.
“That woman,” Lillian said.
The phone rang and rang and rang and rang as Lillian opened all the drawers in her apartment. No keys anywhere. She banged them shut, one by one. The phone trilled after her.
“Go away,” she said.
The phone rang, petulantly, in response.
Lillian walked toward the phone. She placed her hand upon, willing it to stop.
“Go away,” she repeated.
It vibrated beneath her hand.
Lillian picked up the phone, “Hello. I’m busy and uninterested in what you have to say. Please do not call here again.”
“Lillian,” a familiar voice said. “I’m on the corner of 89th and Amsterdam. Can you see me?”
“Morty,” Lillian said. “I told you not to call here anymore. What are you doing here?”
“I’ve got a big problem,” he said. “May I come up and see you?
“No,” Lillian said.
“Then come down and meet me then. I’ll be at Rosamund’s. We’ll have a drink.”
“No,” Lillian said.
“My treat,” he said. “And ice cream after.”
“Well,” Lillian said. She did love ice cream.
“See you in ten,” he said, and hung up.
Lillian put on her spring jacket. She would have to leave the door unlocked. A familiar jangle met her ears. Peering into the left pocket, she found her keys. As she slipped her coin purse into the right pocket she found her spares.
“You’re getting old, old woman,” she said and walked out into the dusk.
Morty waved from the back of Rosamunds. Lillian walked toward him. The bar was full, but most of the tables were empty. The overhead lamps threw pools of yellow light on the floor. She stepped through the darkness and light to arrive at Morty.
“You’ve let your beard grow,” she said.
“And you’ve shaved yours,” he said.
Lillian laughed. The waitress came by then and he ordered them two glasses of wine.
“I’ve missed you,” he said.
“Well,” Lillian said. “I’ve been busy. Painting, you know.”
“I know, you’ve been accepted into Washington Arts,” he said. “Congratulations.”
“Who told you that?” Lillian asked. “Myrna?” Her voice went up a bit, unbidden, at the end. Lillian cleared her throat.
“Yes,” Morty looked down at his glass. His eyelashes were as long and thick as a girl’s.
They sat in silence for bit. Lillian examined his fingers. Morty always kept his nails trimmed short. They were fat and square with wide cuticle bands around each nail.
“I’m glad you’re moving on,” Morty said. “Focusing on your art and all.”
“Yes.” Lillian said, quiety. “It helps pass the time.”
“I would think you would find it hard to find the time to paint,” Morty said. “What with Alberto and all.”
“Alberto?” Lillian said.
Morty looked at her uncertainly for a moment. “Aren’t --”
“Yes, Alberto,” Lillian said firmly. “I drifted off for a moment.”
Morty relaxed, “Well, that’s good. We should both have a chance at happiness.”
Lillian’s lips were numb. “Yes, yes. Everyone deserves that.”
Morty continued, “And with Myrna and the baby. Well, she’s a bit older, so these things can be rocky, but I think it’s a good sign, you know. New beginnings and all.’
Lillian thought she said something positive and affirming, but really, her mind had stopped somewhere after the word baby and was stuttering in the darkness.
When she arrived at the house, Morty was loading the suitcases into the car. Lillian maintained her composure.
“Morty,” she said.
“Lily,” he said.
Ruthie threw open the front door. She blasted toward Lillian in a flurry of green fabric. Lillian braced herself for impact. At the last minute, Ruthie pulled up short.
“Your hair looks funny,” Ruthie said. “What did you do to it?”
Lillian patted her chignon. “I put a rinse in it. Do you like it?”
Ruthie walked a few paces backward to take in the full look. “Not really,” she said. “But if you like it, I guess it’s ok.”
“To each his own,” Morty offered from behind the open trunk.
“To each his own,” Ruthie echoed and dropped into an impromptu curtsy.
Lillian shook her head and walked toward the front door.
“Where is your suitcase?” Ruthie asked. “I can carry it for you.”
Lillian pointed toward the inside of the gate. Ruthie walked over. With a big grunt,she attempted to pull the suitcase up. It didn’t budge.
“I put rocks in there,” Lillian said.
Ruth muttered and braced her shoulders against the suitcase. It tipped, precipitously, then righted itself.
“Dad!” she bellowed.
Morty shut the trunk. “I’ll get it,” he said.
“Be careful of your back,” Lillian said. “I put rocks in there.”
“What for?” Morty said.
Myrna opened the front door. “For a rock garden, for the girls. It’s supposed to be meditative. I saw it in Better Homes and Gardens. Why did you put them in a suitcase?”
“It was easier than hauling them in bags,” Lillian said. “But I left my overnight bag in the cab.”
“Oh,” Myrna said. “Do you know the cab number?”
“No,” Lillian said. “Hopefully he’ll find the bag and drop it off here.”
Myrna guided her by the crook of her arm. “Well, in the meantime, you can wear some of my things. They’ll be a bit short on you though.”
Lillian thought of the bright colored caftans she had packed. Jewel tones, iridescent, her look was that of a proud male peacock. Myrna’s clothes, in contrast, were those of a poet in mourning: black, navy, and occasionally, an introspective grey. No wonder she was mired in paranoia and mistrust. Who could feel joy with those colors?
Tilly sat at the dining table. She was scribbling something in a ledger.
“What are you writing?” Lillian asked.
“I’m writing a story in code,” Tilly said. “It’s all in numbers.”
Lillian leaned over. The page was filled, painstakingly, with numerals.
“I started a few months ago,” she flipped back the pages. “And now I’m here.”
“Who has the key?” Lilian asked.
“Just me,” Tilly said. “It’s a private story. I’m a very private person.”
Lillian nodded. Myrna materialized in the hallway. She had shrouded herself in a long black scarf with fringe.
“We’re off,” Myrna kissed the top of Tilly’s forehead. “We’ll be back before you know it.”
“I’ll be counting the hours,” Lillian said.
Myrna grinned. Morty nodded from the doorway. Then the front door closed and Lillian looked anew at her charges.
Lillian sat on the couch with the girls. They weren’t supposed to watch more than an hour of television, but Tilly had threatened Lillian with a 1,000 piece puzzle, so she headed off the parry with the promise of an additional hour of tv. The girls sat raptly in front of a variety show. Ruthie’s mouth was parted and open. With each exhale, she whistled through a gap in her front teeth. Tilly watched the show in between scribbling new numbers in the ledger. She caught Lillian looking at her a few times and waggled her eyebrows each time their eyes connected. Lillian smiled a little; Tilly was a strange bird. As if hearing her thoughts, Ruthie’s left leg kicked ecstatically. The drinking glass on the coffee table thumped over. Water splashed over Lillian’s feet. Ruthie bolted to the kitchen for a dishrag.
“I’ll fix it,” Ruthi said. With gusto, she swabbed the tabletop. Water smeared onto a stack of Wall Street Journals.
Tilly tucked her feet between the body. Ruthie swatted her knees.
“And here,” Ruthie dabbed the damp towel on Lillian’s feet.
Lillian looked down at the top of Ruthie’s head. Her part was mostly straight, but veered left before petering out. The young girl huffed, joyously.
“Do you know about Baptists?” Tilly asked.
“A little,” Lillian said. “Why?”
“What’s a Baptist?” Ruthie asked.
“You are,” Tilly said.
Lillian looked down at the young girl again who was now rubbing the wet towel between her toes.
“I am not, right, Lillian?” Ruthie asked.
“No,” Lillian said, “You’re Jewish.”
“See, Tilly” Ruthie said. “Shows what you know.”
Lillian sent the girls to bed after an extra 30 minutes of television. Ruthie fell asleep immediately, but Tilly lingered awake, sitting up when Lillian went back in the room to check on them
“Can I stay up with you a bit longer?” Tilly asked. “I can’t fall asleep.”
Lillian had little of the discipline required for long-term child care. “Ten minutes,” she said. “And then you’re back in there.”
Two hours later, the two of them were near the end of Shane. Tilly dabbed her eyes as he rode off into the sunset.
Ruthie appeared then, at the end of the couch.
“Tilly’s crying,” she said. “I want to cry too.”
“You missed the whole story,” Tilly said.
“Tell it to me,” Ruthie demanded.
So Lillian did, until both girls were asleep beside her.
The guest bedroom was sparse. A few of Myrna’s old college paintings dominated the wall. A pale celery-colored bedspread had been folded neatly at the foot of the bead. Lillian fell asleep instantly. She awoke to Tilly’s hand on her forehead.
“You have a slight fever,” Tilly said. “And your suitcase is here. He dropped it off on the steps.”
Lillian felt her forehead. It felt fine to her. “What time is it?” she asked.
“12PM,” Tilly said. “I made breakfast hours ago. What are we having for lunch?”
“Lunch?” Lillian squinted at the alarm clock. The hands pointed doubly to 12.
“We could go out to eat,” Tilly said. “Wouldn’t it be nice to eat out, Ruthie?”
“Yes,” Ruthie piped from behind Lillian. Lillian turned over. Ruthie was perched in the armchair, legs swinging, while rifling through Lillian’s purse. She pulled out a beaded compact. “What’s this?”
“None of your business,” Lillian said.
“A makeup compact,” Tilly said.
“Put it back,” They said at the same time.
Ruthie placed the compact in the purse. Shoving herself off the arm chair, she deposited the bag on the nightstand. Her small hands braced against the bed. Lillian sat up.
“I’m getting up” she said, expertly moving from beneath the covers before Ruthie reached her. “Let’s get ready.”
“To eat?” Tilly asked.
“Sure, sure,” Lillian said. “Just give me time to collect myself.”
“Sure,” Tilly beckoned for Ruthie. “We’ll wait for you in the sitting room. C’mon, Ruthie.”
Lillian walked to Morty and Myrna’s room to pick out an outfit. Myrna kept her closet divided by color. It was a smooth ombre transition from white to black. She picked a white, long sleeved silk blouse and a narrow black skirt. Myrna had knotted a few scarves on a rack, and Lillian picked a dark green one with crisscrossing gold lines. She folded it long and thinly and then wrapped it around her hairline. She used to wear her hair much like this when she as a teenager. Those were her hippie days.
The girls were both seated on the settee when she walked out. They had matching blue purses with gold-colored clasps.
“Where are we going for lunch?” Lillian asked.
“The diner!” Ruthie said. She held up her purse in affirmation of her statement.
“Which diner?” Lillian said.
“It’s called Ethel’s,“” Tilly said. “It has a fish tank in the window. We have to take the bus to get there.”
It had been some time since Lillian had been to Ethel’s. While it was Morty’s favorite, Lillian found that it made him wax nostalgic about his own family. And she found that it made her snippy in return. It would probably be different with the girls.
The bells jangled above the door when they entered. Ethel’s was in full swing. Waitresses in pale blue dresses glided back and forth along the tiny black and white tiles. Two men played busy at the grill, flipping burgers and smashing grilled cheese sandwiches. Ruthie made a beeline toward a booth in the back. A waitress followed them to deliver the menus.
“I’m getting an egg salad,” Tilly said.
“Me too!” Ruthie said.
Tilly made a face, “Copycat. What about you Aunt Lillian?”
Lillian turned the menu over. Light was streaming through the plate glass window and it caught her hands, highlighting the stippling of the years. “Well, I thought we could all get egg creams. But you two can pick my meal.”
“And you’ll eat it, no matter what it is?” Ruthie asked. She shot a joyous look at Tilly.
Lillian saw her mouth ice cream and pickles.
Tilly shook her head.
The waitress came over. “What can I get for you ladies today?”
The girls ordered and the waitress looked at Lillian.
“Three chocolate egg creams,” Lillian said.
“And a hamburger,” Tilly said.
“WITH CHEESE,” Ruthie announced triumphantly. “And ice cream and pickles.”
The waitress jotted it down. “Ok, ladies.”
“You don’t have to eat the cheeseburger, Aunt Lillian,” Tilly said. “It’s just a joke.”
“Yes, you do,” Ruthie said. “You promised.”
“It’s all right, Tilly,” Lillian said. “I haven’t kept kosher in years.”
Both girls, paused, surprised.
“Are you going to get in trouble?” Tilly said.
“Jail!” Ruthie said, then clasped her hands over her mouth.
“You don’t go to jail if you don’t keep kosher,” Lillian said.
“Oh,” Ruthie looked disappointed.
“What does a cheeseburger taste like?” Tilly asked. “Dad ate one once, but he wouldn’t tell me.”
“No, he didn’t,” Ruthie said.
“Yes, he did,” Tilly said.
“No, he didn’t.” Lillian said. “And it tastes just like you think it would.”
“Horrible,” Ruthie breathed.
The waitress came then with the egg creams.
Myrna folded her chemise. Morty was sprawled out on the oak frame bed. His glasses were askew.
“Look at that,” he pointed at the ceiling. “Water damage.”
Myrna continued folding, turning her attention to the stack of identical navy shorts he had packed. They each had a complementary polo shirt - white, grey, yellow, and a light blue.
“You see that?” he repeated.
“I do,” Myrna said.
“We should talk to the front desk,” he continued.
“There’s nothing they can do about it now,” Myrna said. “Let’s just enjoy it for what it is.”
“That’s how they get you,” Morty said. “Water damage and beautiful views. Who chooses to talk about water damage?”
“Not me,” Myrna said. A few curls escaped from her head wrap.
Morty adjusted his glasses and blinked at her. “The concierge said they built a new restaurant in the main lounge. New American cuisine.”
“I brought sandwiches,” Myrna said. “And a few cold dishes.”
“Sandwiches?” Morty said. He shoved himself off the bed.
Myrna looked up from the socks. “Yes, sandwiches. Pastrami on rye. These places aren’t kosher, and we’ve always brought our own food. They’re letting us use the employee fridge.”
“Ah,” Morty wrapped his arms around her. “You’re such a stickler for the rules.”
“So are you,” Myrna said. “You like to pretend to be a wild, but you’re an old-fashioned stick in the mud. That’s why I married you.”
“The artist and the stick in the mud,” he said, kissing her neck. “You should use me as your paintbrush.” He waggled one bristly eyebrow, but Myrna missed this gesture.”
She turned and hugged him. “I’ve missed you.”
“I haven’t gone anywhere,” he said. “I’m always here.”
And for the most part, he was. Home every night by 6PM. On Thursdays, he brought flowers from a flower seller at the station. He helped the girls with their Literature homework and wrote notes in red back to the teacher’s notes, which were also penned in red ink.
“Such a hostile color,” he had said after the first note. “Tilly, always fight fire with fire.”
Maybe this whole vacation was spun from Myrna’s paranoia. Perhaps there was no other shoe to drop.
“Let’s have the sandwiches for lunch and then try the restaurant for dinner,” Myrna said.
Morty aimed a kiss at her temple, but caught a mouthful of fabric. He tilted his head back. “That’s my girl!” he said.
Myrna smiled. She would call the restaurant before dinner to see, what, if anything, she could bring herself to eat. She wondered if they would be willing to replate her brisket.
Surprisingly, the restaurant had one lone bottle of kosher wine. It was grapely sweet. And they did agree to replate Myrna’s brisket. They served it alongside some new potatoes and steamed asparagus. Morty ordered the salad Nicoise and a full cherry pie. While they waited, Morty looked around the room, making commentary on the other guests.
“What do you think of that pair?” He nodded his head toward a a greying couple. The woman had cropped silver hair. The man had a thin crown of brown hair that ran the circumference of his head.
“Successful art gallery owner and third generation lawyer,” Myrna said.
“How many years married?”
Myrna squinted. The woman had adorned her hand with four sparkly rings. They twinkled as she spoke.
“Fifteen years. Second marriage for him, first for her.”
Morty rubbed his nose. “I say seven years, second marriage for both. Look at that smile. They still like each other.”
The waiter came by with the first course.
“That couple over there,” Morty said. “How long have they been coming to this place?”
“Oh, I’ve only been here two years,” the waiter said. “But they’ve been here at least that long. They come every summer and stay for two weeks. Nice enough folks.”
The waiter rolled the cart away, and the two began eating.
“Two weeks is a nice, long time for a vacation,” Myrna said.
“It’s a nice option, for some people,” Morty said. “But the dead can’t wait.”
“Strange,” Myrna said. “I thought that was the only thing they could do.”
Morty smiled. “Ah ha, now’s she’s on vacation!” He waved his arm. “Waiter! Bring us another bottle.”
He grinned, looking his old teenage self. “Should I ask for two?”
Myrna laughed. The waiter came by soon after with the entrees. They ate quietly. Myrna felt the pleasant buzzing in her chest, a combination of the wine and happiness. Morty was in good humor as well. The alcohol made him sweat, so he dabbed at his forehead as he told her about the latest dramas at the mortuary office. Lillian, apparently, had a thing for the janitor. She had purposely been creating messies in the office to attract his attention. Her methods, however, had yet to produce more than a brief, irritable conversation.
“Lillian?” Myrna asked. “Do you mean Lucille?”
Morty paused, startled. “Ah, yes, Lucille. She really is something else.”
The buzzing feel traveled down to her stomach and up to her neck. This was shaping up to be a lovely evening. The couple they had discussed earlier was packing up to go. The woman took one more swallow of water before standing. Her partner got up more slowly, favoring one leg. They walked out together, the woman propping him up and guiding him toward the exit. Their heads touched, and Myrna realized that the woman was just a bit taller than the man. The waiter came by with the dessert order.
“Two coffees,” Morty said.
Myrna pleated the napkin. Morty’s eyes blinked, brown and trustworthy, behind his glasses. A thousand thoughts crowded her mind. It could be such a lovely weekend. She had brought her summer capris, and was looking forward to sitting at the lake and sketching for a few hours. Morty would probably sit beside her and read a detective novel. She wondered how the girls were, how Lillian was, what they were doing right now.
“What are you thinking about?” Morty asked.
“Oh, nothing,” Myrna said. “This is such a nice night.”
Morty smiled. “Yes, this is just what we needed.”
Myrna felt her eyes tear slightly. “You’ve felt it too?”
Morty leaned across the table. “The city is such a rat race. It’ll burn anyone out in time.”
Myrna nodded vigorously.
“Morty,” Myrna said.
“Yes, dear,” Morty said.
“I’ve been thinking, lately, you know, about whitefish. Tzipora gave me a recipe for a whitefish chowder that I’ve been meaning to try.”
“Whitefish,” Morty repeated, confused.
“Would you try it?” Myrna asked. Her heart beat raggedly. “I know you haven’t liked it in the past.”
“Well,” Morty shrugged. “I’ll try a taste, for you. What’s the harm?”
Myrna smiled. The buzzing coursed down her appendages. This was the feeling of profound proof: this was the feeling of trust.
“Nothing,” her tongue muddled the syllables. “No harm at all.”
They spent the next day at the water. Morty painstaking applied sunblock to the top of his head, face, and torso. Myrna applied more to his back. She was dressed in a loose fitting caftan (green) and a yellow head scarf. Her capris ended just below her calves. She felt a bit - well, free - and was trying her best not squash this small joy by looking at it too closely. The couple from the restaurant was in a canoe in the middle of the water. The woman dangled her arms on both sides of the boat while the man steered them in slow circles.
Morty leaned back in his chair, a copy of Life magazine in one hand.
“I used to hate the swims at summer camp,” Myrna said. “The water was so warm and silty. I alway found a way to get out of them.”
“Charley horse,” Morty said.
Myrna smiled, remembering the first faked Charley horse that had left her sprawled somewhat near a very sunburnt, scrawny Morton Rabinnowicz. He had helped her limp out of site of the camp counselor and then watched her sprint, cheerfully, across the way to the arts and craft cabin. Lillian had been in there, with a sprained ankle, beading a long necklace.
“I still can’t really swim,” Myrna told Morton.
Morton looked up from the magazine, “Well, if there’s any day to learn, today’s it.”
Myrna hugged her knees to her chest, “I’m an old dog. I’d rather save the new tricks for the girls.”
Morton hooked his hands beneath her underarms and gently lifted her up.
“C’mon, old girl,” he said.
They picked their way down to the water. Myrna abandoned the capris, but still wore the caftan and turban. Goosebumps traveled up her leg in anticipation of the water’s rise. When the water was about mid-back, she started to lean back. She could float, but just barely. Morty moved behind and held his hand beneath her shoulders.
“Kick your feet,” he counseled.
So she did.
Arts & Craft Cabin
Lillian swirled the paintbrush in the cup. The Art Counselor had given them free reign to be creative today, so that’s what she would be. A layer of blue acrylic covered the paper. With a small sponge, she prepared to dot tiny circles around the perimeter. But what would she put in the middle?
The door swung open to frame Myrna in the doorway. She was wearing a damp camp t-shirt and yellow shorts. A tall, slender boy followed her.
“I knew I would find you here,” Myrna said.
“It’s too hot to do anything else,” Lillian said. The cabin wasn’t air conditioned, but it did stand beneath a few trees, which made the temperature inside slightly more bearable.
“Hey,” the boy said.
“Hay is for horses,” Lillian said. “Who are you?”
“I’m Morty, one of the senior swimmers,” he said.
“Aren’t you supposed to be on the lake then?” Lillian asked.
“I’m not a lifeguard,” he said. “I just stay on the lake to help out. I can leave when I want.”
Lillian looked down at his feet. They were freckled. Myrna was opening a drawer to pull out oil pastels.
“Do you like art?” Myrna asked. “You can sit with us and work too if you want.”
“Well, I’m not much of an artist,” Morty said. He pulled out a stool and sat opposite of Lillian. “But I can offer constructive feedback. My mom owns an art gallery.”
Lillian daubed the edge of her painting. Myrna sat alongside her with a long piece of butcher paper. She placed the pastels in the middle of the table. Morty took a stubby orange one and scribbled on a bit of scrap paper that someone had left behind. They worked in silence for a while. Then Morty paused, mid-stroke, and held up the paper.
“What does this look like to you?” he asked.
“Scribbles,” Lillian proffered.
“Hair?” Myrna said.
“Right!” Morty was excited. “I was drawing you too. See, this is her head” and pointed to a oblong shape, “and this is you - and pointed to a similarly abstract loop.
Myrna took the picture from him, “Oh boy, do I look terrible. Is my hair really that frizzy?”
Morty was apologetic, “No, it’s an abstraction. And part of that frizz is your earrings.”
And it was true, Myrna was wearing zigzag earrings that she made earlier that summer.
“I can fix it,” Morty said. “Tame the hair a bit.”
“Oh no, I like it,” Myrna said. “What do you think, Lillian?”
Lillian still hadn’t found herself in that maze of scribbles. “It’s nice enough, I guess.”
Myrna took an ink pen out of the metal can and drew two sets of pupils in the mass of scribbles.
“How do you feel?” Myrna asked.
“I don’t know, hot?” Lillian said.
Myrna drew a straight horizontal line below one set of eyes. Lilian supposed that was her. Underneath the other set of eyes she drew a tiny smile.
“Here,” she handed the picture back to Morton. “Now add yourself.”
Morton drew in silence for a few minutes more. His scribble was equally indistinguishable from the rest of the mess, but was significantly taller than the two other forms.
“Now you have to draw how you feel,” Myrna said.
Morty nodded and sketched a quick facial expression.
“What face did you make?” Myrna asked.
He folded up the picture and stood up. “I gotta get back to the lake.”
“It was an unhappy face,” Lillian supplied.
Morty shook his head. “It’s for me to know and for you to find out.”
“Constipated!” Lillian said.
Myrna laughed. Morty shot Lillian a dirty look. She shrugged.
“I was going to say see you two ladies later,” Morty began.
“Sorry,” Myrna said, grinning. “We haven’t been the same since they closed down our charm school.”
“Charm school,” Morty repeated.
Lillian picked up a paintbrush. The blue looked flat now and boring. The white daubs marched around the edges, mockingly. She would have to start over.
“See you later, Morty.” Myrna said.
“See you,” he said. He looked back once more from the doorway, but both girls had their heads bent over their art. Neither one noticed.
It was some years later, and Morty was at Schwarz dinner table. Myrna’s parents sat together at one end. Her brothers and sisters filled the rest of the long bench. Her two youngest sisters had taken up the habit of poking each other every time Morty spoke. He had a passionate way of speaking that meant that many of his pronouncements often ended with a bit of spittle on his mouth. He and Myrna’s father were talking about the political turmoil somewhere. Myrna wasn’t really following the conversation. Instead, she was carefully watching her mother’s face to see her real opinion of Morty. He was the first serious boyfriend that she had invited over, and she was almost finished with her junior year of college. This was a relationship with marriage potential.
The brisket was chewy. Overcooked. Myrna cut it into tinier pieces and buried these under her potatoes. Out of sight, out of mouth. Her mother watched the conversation between the two men, eating in small forkfuls. There was little expression on her face. Myrna couldn’t tell if this was a good sign or a bad sign. Then her mother’s eyes caughts hers. Myrna blushed and looked away.
“Fiji?” Morty was asking.
Myrna tuned back to the conversation. Somehow, like always, her father had managed to shoehorn the tale of his Mt. Fiji climb into this conversation. No guest had ever left the home without a fresh retelling. Her mother shook her head, almost imperceptibly, and stood. This was a silent signal to the girls to help clear the table. A few moments later, they walked in a steady line to the kitchen. Myrna took the dishes from the others and piled them into the sink.
“That poor boy,” her mother said. “How long should we give them before we come to his rescue?”
Myrna smiled. Normally, her mother’s wait time was inversely proportional to how much she liked a house guest. If she favored them, she would return quickly with dessert. If not, then the poor guest had to endure her father’s travel diary, no questions allowed, until her conscience got the best of her.
“Can we go back now?” Myrna asked.
“May we,” her mother corrected. She handed Myrna the dessert tray. “Let’s put poor Morton out of his misery.”
Morty was nodding vigorously at whatever her father had just said.
“Have you heard this story?” he asked Myrna. “It’s incredible!”
He stood up to pull out her chair. Myrna sat down and scooted forward.
“Now, dad,” she said.
“Now, Myrna” her father said.
They smiled at one another.
Swimming Lessons, II
With Morty’s help, Myrna swam in slow circles around the lake. She was on her back (it felt safer that way) and tracked a tiny white cloud across her field of vision. This helped keep her mind steady. It wanted to rummage through her filing cabinets, to spill out old memories and old hurts. She wasn’t going to let it, not today.
The couple in the boat waved to Morty.
“Swimming lessons!” the man announced. He had a slight accent. German, maybe? His partner sat up languidly and lifted her water bottle in apparent agreement.
“Yes,” Morty called back. From Myrna’s vantage point, she could the freckles that blossomed on his chest in the summertime. His arms were muscular and ropy. She remembered the smooth arcs of muscles from his youth. He used to rub his biceps as he watched her paint, leaving white fingerprints that filled in red moments later. She had tried to paint him a few times, but found that none of the portraits every truly resembled him. The sparkle that captured her eye in real life was impossible to translate to canvas. That sparkle was her own Mt. Fiji. And then she thought of her father, of the thickness of his beard and the warm roughness of his hug. A thread of something spooled from her unconsciousness. Something was rising up, cold and jagged. Myrna parried, ducked, but it knew she knew and started to spread across her face. Her legs tingled in recognition. And then, just then, a cool slap of water coursed over her face. Myrna let her limbs go. Willed the certainty that was blooming in her stomach to go far away.
“Morty,” she said.
Morty lifted her shoulders out of the water. Dazed, Myrna sat up. The couple in the boat clapped politely.
“Good job!” The woman called.
“It’s time to go home,” Myrna said.
“Check out’s tomorrow at 12PM,” Morty said. “We’d forfeit today.”
“I know,” Myrna cut her way through the water. Something was building up behind her eyes. She had to get to the bathroom before it escaped her. “But I left the oven on.”
“Lillian’s there,” Morty said. “I’m sure she’s cut it off by now.”
Myrna paused, something clawed in her stomach. The baby.
“Lillian’s there,” she repeated.
This was the refrain that carried her back to the cabin - she was running by this point. She made it to the toilet, just in time.
The ride back was fine, Morty thought. But Myrna was uncharacteristically quiet. She held her head at a sharp angle and responded to his comments with grunts of her own. He soon gave up on drawing her into conversation, but he did think about he would need to give the doctor a ring once they got back to Brooklyn. He hoped she wasn’t having another episode. Tilly’s bat mitzvah was only a few weeks away. She would be crushed if her mother wasn’t there. Out of the corner of his eye, he watched Myrna watch the passing landscape. The trees were a green blur below a blue expanse of sky. It really had been a perfect day for swimming. He wished the girls had had a chance to swim in the lake. Next summer, he decided, they would all come back. He would sign Ruthie up for swimming lessons. Tilly could try archery. He and Myrna would sit in the Adirondack chairs to watch them play. The baby would toddle on the porch. They would all be at peace.
Lillian sat on the edge of the deck chair. Tilly was finally displaying her talent - a series of tumbling passes that sent her careening back and forth across the back yard. Ruthie chased after her, touching her own toes at the end of each pass. It was a surprisingly nice day. A faint wind stirred the branches of the tree and up above, the sun glowed behind a mass of white clouds. Lillian stretched languidly.
“Girls,” Myrna called.
Lillian jumped. How was Myrna home? It was only Saturday morning. They weren’t supposed to be back until tomorrow night.
“Hi, Mom!” Tilly said. “Watch this!”
In a flurry of arms and legs, she tumbled across the grass.
“Wonderful,” Myrna said. “Now come inside for a bit. You look dehydrated.”
“Did you bring us souvenirs?” Ruthie said.
“Yes, they’re in my bag,” Myrna said. “Go see if you can find them.”
The two girls bounded toward the back door.
“I’ve got your suitcase and things by the door,” Myrna said.
“Oh,” Lillian said. “I thought the two of you wouldn’t be back for another night”
“There was a change of plans,” Myrna said.
Lillian stood, smoothing Myrna’s navy blue caftan against her stomach.
“How was the trip?” she asked.
“Enlightening,” Myrna said.
“In what way?” Lillian said.
Something was off about Myrna, she thought. She was holding herself strangely, tightly. She remembered the way Myrna had looked after her miscarriage. That same lost, angry look.
“Is everything all right?” Lilian asked. “You look funny. Is everything ok with the - baby?”
“Go on and grab your things,” Myrna said. “Morty will call you a cab.”
Lillian felt her stomach plummet somewhere down below her ankles.
“Myrna?” she asked.
Myrna stepped back into the shadow of the house. She turned her face away.
“Morty, see if you can’t get a cab for Lillian,” she said. “She’ll be waiting on the porch.”
Lillian stepped through the doorway. The mat felt rough under her bare feet. Her toes tingled. She stuck her hands in her pants pockets to hide their tremble. Myrna watched her from a seat at the kitchen table, her fingers gripped tight around the top of the chair next to her. The air felt thick. Lillian knew she should say something. But what?
“Myrna,” she started.
“Wait on the porch, Lillian,” Myrna said, slowly, tiredly.
Lillian walked down the hallway. She passed by the study, where girls were rifling with Morty through a valise. Tilly looked up and waved. Morty looked up and away. Lillian kept walking. Her suitcase waited for her at the front door. She picked it up and walked outside and down the driveway to wait for her cab.
Lillian didn’t attend Tilly’s bat mitzvah. She retreated to her studio and painted poorly for several weeks. On the third such week, her phone rang.
“Hello?” she said.
“There’s been some trouble,” Lucille said. “I think you ought to sit down.”
Lillian leaned against the kitchen counter, “What’s happened?”
“I think Morty’s gone,” Lucille said. “And Myrna’s hysterical.”
“Gone where?” Lucille asked.
“They’re putting them both in the ambulance. Myrna came by the office. They were talking and boom! -
“He just collapsed. I had to call 911. I called 911 and his parents and Myrna told me to call you too.”
“Call me?” Lillian asked. “Why?”
“She didn’t say why,” Lucille said. “She told me to tell you and that’s all.”
“What hospital did you say they are taking them to?” Lillian asked.
“I didn’t say,” Lucille said. “But it’s the Jewish Medical Center.”
“Alright,” Lillian said. “Thank you.”
She hung up the phone and went to the bedroom to gather her purse. She would go to the Center. She would make amends. She sat on the bed. Her boots pointed toward the open closet door. Where were her socks? The dresser was behind her. Lillian turned her head, but found she couldn’t move her body to match. She tried again. Nothing. She felt as though she weighed a thousand pounds. A pressure began to build up inside her head. It thudded behind her eyes. She would make amends. She would stand. No tears, no tears. With her eyes closed, she felt her way around the edge of the bed. Her feet moved with tentative steps until she found the pulls of the dresser drawer. She plucked out a pair of socks and put them on, with eyes still closed. She felt her way back to her original spot. Slowly, she slid off the bed and moved in the boots. Slowly, blindly, she made her way across the apartment until she had everything she needed. When she finally opened her eyes, at the threshold, she took in her apartment with new eyes. She saw the dinginess of the old paint, the squatness of her lamps, and the threadbare nature of her throw pillows. It all looked so old and tired.
When she arrived at the hospital, she saw Morty’s mother across the cafeteria, getting a coffee. They waved and Morty’s mother signaled the room number with her fingers 5-5-3. Lilian nodded in thanks and took the stairs. At each flight, she paused for a moment. It was not quite a prayer; she had been away far too long for that, but it was some sort of plea. An outstretched hand. When she got to the door, she knocked once. There was another pause, and then Myrna opened the door. The two women stared at each other for a moment. Then Myrna stepped back and let her enter.
“What do the doctors say?” Lillian asked.
“Nothing” Myrna said.
“Nothing?” Lillian asked.
“Nothing that would change this,” Myrna gestured towards Morty’s prone body. “They think it was an aneurysm. He grabbed his head when it happened.”
“Did they sedate him?” Lillian asked.
Myrna shook her head. “It’s a coma.”
The women watched the beeps of the monitor.
“They don’t know how long he’ll be like that for. It could be a day, a week, a month,” Myrna said. “What will I tell the girls?”
Lillian felt the pressure return; this time it boomed in her chest.
“I don’t know,” she said.” I’m sure you'll figure something out. You were always the smarter of us two.”
Myrna continued on as if she hadn’t spoken. “He’ll require continuous care while he’s like this. I can’t be here every day and take care of the girls.”
“Well,” Lilian said, “His mother is just outside the city. She can help too.”
Myrna shook her head. “It would be too much for her.”
“A nurse?” Lillian suggested.
“I don’t want any strangers,” Myrna said.
Lillian paused. Silence spooled between them.
Myrna cocked her head to the side. For an instance, Lillian could see her as fourteen year old, hair cut in a sharp bob with a slash of marker on her cheek.
“We were talking about you,” she said. “The day before he started to feel sick. He said I shouldn’t blame you. That he sought it out.”
Lillian looked at her hands. She nodded.
“That year was a difficult time for all of us,” Lillian said.
“Yes,” Myrna said. “It was.”
They looked at each other.
Morty was encased in tubes. He looked small and childlike.
“What would you like me to do?” Lillian asked. The collar of her jacket itched her neck.
Myrna walked to the other side of the bed. She cupped Morty’s forehead with her palm.
“Go. Stay,” Myrna said. “Does it really matter at this point?”
Lillian nodded. There was a chair next to the bed. She sat in it. A book of Raymond Carver short stories was on the nightstand.
Myrna peered into Morty’s face. “Did he ever tell you why he chose you?”
“No,” Lillian said. “It never felt right to ask.”
Myrna nodded. “I bought that book in the gift shop the other day. He likes detective stories.”
“Yes” Lillian said.
“You both like those kinds of books.”
“They’re just trashy enough,” Lillian replied.
Myrna smiled down at Morty, rubbed his hand gently. “You can read to him for a bit. He might like to hear a familiar voice.”
The pain inside Lillian dulled to a tolerable ache. Nodding, she picked up the book and began to read. She read to him daily until he died two short weeks later, and Myrna tasked her with reading her self-published book of poetry at the shiva.
“The bird waits,” Lillian read to the those seated in the parlor, “on the telephone line. Waiting, waiting.”
Lauren Ramer has loved writing since she was old enough to start sounding out words. She attended Interlochen Arts Academy her senior year of high school, where she learned how little she knew about the craft, and went on to earn her bachelor's in English writing at Wheaton College, where she was a regular contributor to campus literary publications and won multiple writing contests. Her debut novel, The Maladjusted, can be found on Amazon Kindle.
Against All Enemies
It was a heavy June evening the night he came back into their lives.
“I don’t know,” Susie said as she cleared the dinner dishes.
“He’s my brother.” Sean leaned against the counter, watching his wife of fourteen years. Her silhouette remained remarkably undisturbed by the numerous pregnancies it had taken to carry their children to term.
Susie pursed her lips as she gazed over the kitchen sink into the backyard, subconsciously counting heads until she’d located all three. “I’m aware of that. But what if he’s changed?”
“How? You barely know him to begin with.”
“I know enough. The kids—”
“Will finally get to meet their uncle. It’ll be good for everybody.” He lowered his voice. “This is what a family’s supposed to do for each other, and I’m the only one he has left now.”
Susie scrubbed at a very clean plate and shook her head. “I could never do something like that.”
After over a decade in the army, and most of that time served overseas, Manny’s latest deployment ended a week ago. A gutted house welcomed his return. On the kitchen counter was a Post-it note from his wife, who’d found herself a man that came home every night. The palm-sized apology topped divorce papers bearing her signature and shocks of neon indicating all the places he needed to initial. When Sean’s calls to the house went unanswered for several days, he drove the five hours south and found Manny rank and shaggy, spent cigarettes smoldering on the carpet, his eyes gone blank as though she’d taken his sanity, too.
“Still,” Susie continued. “What about the kids? If he’s having some kind of breakdown, they don’t need to see that.”
“His wife just left him. I think he gets to be upset. Besides, I don’t think that neighbor of his is going to be much help. When I asked her to keep an eye on him, she kind of blew me off.”
When she didn’t respond, Sean turned off the faucet and folded her into his arms, inhaling the scent of rose shampoo as her hair tickled his chin. He kissed her lightly on the forehead. “It’ll be fine. Trust me.”
Sean picked up him up the next day and they drove back in a fog of silence punctuated with one-sided, nervous chatter. “Susie’s been on my case about getting the radio fixed, but I haven’t had time yet. Maybe tomorrow. Or you could take a look at it, if you want. I don’t know if you know how to do that but it might be worth a shot.”
At last, they turned into the subdivision. “Just about there,” Sean announced. “We’ve got you set up in the den. She was talking about a curtain for the stairs, but I don’t know if she got around to it. Here’s a key. Uh, no smoking in the house, obviously. Outside is fine, just don’t let her see you. All right. Well, this is it. What do you think?”
Manny nodded, eyes flickering over the modest split-level, the untamed yard, the bicycle sprawled at the top of the driveway. The rest of the street was more of the same, family homes and unfinished business.
“You good with all that? Susie’s…well, you know how she gets…or maybe you don’t, it’s been a while. Dammit!” Sean braked hard. “I’ve told him a million times not to leave his bike in the driveway. They never learn.” He reversed a few feet before cutting the engine. “Anyway, here we are."
Sean swung the duffle bag out of the trunk, leaving Manny to follow him with the trash bag containing the rest of his belongings. Sean had barely touched the doorknob when his youngest careened into the screen. “Daddy!” she squealed.
“Hey!” He smiled as she wrenched the door open, and reached out for a hug. She latched onto his forearm instead and dropped into a dangle.
“Whoa!” Sean curled his fist toward his shoulder. “Suse! Have you seen Emma? All I’ve got here is a monkey.”
The four-year-old giggled. “No, it’s me, Daddy!”
“Scratch that. It’s a ‘Me-monkey.’” Dropping the bag, Sean began to swing her back and forth. “It won’t let go! I think I’m going to be stuck with a Me-monkey on my arm forever!”
“No, Daddy, it’s me!”
“Hmm…I wonder if the Me-monkey is ticklish?”
“Was that a ‘yes’?’”
“I’m not sure now. Only one way to find out.” He tiptoed his fingers up her belly toward her exposed underarms. She flailed and screeched, but hung on.
“Sean!” Susie rushed out of the kitchen at the sound of her daughter’s gasps, a dish towel in one hand and a faint spattering of marinara on her forearm. “Emma, let go.”
“I’m not Emma, I’m a Me-monkey!”
“Emma, now. Thank you. Sean, you know how she gets.”
“Yeah, I’m fine.”
“Watch your tone, young lady. Go wash up for dinner.” She turned back to her husband. “Where’s your brother?”
“Right!” Sean moved aside. “Come on in, Manny. Didn’t mean to leave you out there. You remember Susie.”
Manny coughed up a wad of phlegm, thought better of it, and snorted it back down. “Yep.”
“Please, come in,” she managed. “Sean? I’ve got to finish dinner. Will you get him settled?”
“Sure thing.” Sean grabbed the duffle bag and led Manny down the half-dozen steps on their right. “Here you go. It’s not much, but it should work for now. Half-bath over there, and you can just shower upstairs. Those drawers should be empty, if you want to unpack. The couch here folds out into a bed. I think Susie already made it up for you. Looks like she still owes you those curtains.” He turned, and grimaced. “Your boots…”
Manny looked down, then back at the muddied pale carpet. “Shit.”
A boy in thick glasses peered down at them from the top step. His magnified eyes bulged with shock. “That’s a bad word.”
“Caleb, this is your Uncle Manny.”
“He said a bad word. He has to put a quarter in the jar.”
“I think I’ve got one.” Sean dug into his pocket and dropped a few lint-dusted coins into his son’s hand before slipping past him into the kitchen.
“That doesn’t count,” Caleb muttered, glaring at his uncle. “You’re the one who said it.”
Manny slipped a battered wallet out of his back pocket and handed over a crumpled ten-dollar bill.
“That’s like…forty quarters.”
Manny slept worse than usual that night. At thirty-seven, his nerves were already stripped to the wire. Though his army years had certainly intensified the process, he’d been alert since childhood. The wind leaning into an unsteady tree became his father’s footsteps down the hall. The shriek of nocturnal prey waxed human in its agony. It wasn’t until now that Manny realized he depended on those false alarms to milk the stress from his system. The sepulchral silence of the den kept him wide-eyed and restless, prickling with the anticipation of a certain interruption at an uncertain time while the undistracted racket built up in his head.
He abandoned the pullout bed, which was no better than a flaccid Toy Story sheet draped over monkey bars, and folded it back into a couch. Its cushions were steeped in the smell of stale body odor and the dander of a long-departed cat, and at a solid six-foot-four, he wouldn’t fit there anyway. He spread a blanket on the floor and stretched out under the window, which he opened despite Susie’s earlier reminder about the AC.
Cold air fled into the balmy dark. An owl chortled. Crickets flirted. A light breeze cascaded over leaves. The tension in his shoulders eased its grip by a finger. His mind began to drift.
He and Sean had never been typical brothers. From the moment their mother came home from the hospital, this time with a baby carrier at her side like an afterthought, her eyes still masked in the fading butterfly of a broken nose, five-year-old Manny knew things were about to change. She was halfway to the bedroom before the baby’s squalling reminded her to bring him along.
Manny could still remember how casually his father condemned them all, the decay of black coffee on his breath. “That thing sounds just like your mom when she cries.” A week later, the county coroner carted his mother away in a bag, and Manny realized if he didn’t protect the baby, no one would. He took his first blow soon afterwards, one that could’ve used stitches and ruined a dish towel instead. The baby got to keep crying.
By Sean’s senior year of high school, he had every bone intact, decent grades, and a girl he worshipped. Manny was happy for him until two weeks after graduation, when Sean married Susie Bridges in a courthouse ceremony and she made it clear to Manny that he was no longer needed. Lost, he enlisted.
He met Tanya Redding at a bar after his second tour of duty and married her six weeks later, infatuated with the first woman who seemed to genuinely care about him. The first time he was deployed as a married man, Tanya comforted herself by telling him to look at the moon whenever he missed her and know she’d be doing the same. He saw no reason to point out he’d be several time zones away where daytime came at night.
As the years slipped by, Tanya lost patience with the frequent relocation and Manny’s long absences of indeterminate measure. Their time together between deployments became its own hopeless war zone, all raw edges and resentment over issues long-festered in isolation. He hated her now, deeply, for what she’d done to him, almost as much as he hated his mother for leaving the way she had. Quitters, the both of them. Cowards.
And by Manny’s definition, cowards didn’t survive. The few people who did were those handfuls of coal that absorbed all that pressure and became pressure themselves, unbreakable. Not cowards. Otherwise, what would that make him?
Manny had never felt more alone in his life. His deployment was nearly over anyway, but he suspected the incident expedited matters. He was still tethered to an IV when he found out they meant to send him home by the end of the week. They assured him that he wasn’t being discharged or suspended or otherwise dismissed for damaging reasons, and the paperwork confirmed this. There was something rushed and close-mouthed about the whole process that he didn’t trust, but his hands were tied. He knew there was a good chance any further inquiry would create the paper trail spelling the end of his career.
Stateside, he returned to the house that was no longer a home, expecting a wife who was no longer his, and now he was living with a family of strangers. All that, he could’ve handled, but on top of what happened, it was too much. Every attempt to pass time with some meaningless distraction tripped a wire in his brain, throwing him back to that day he desperately needed to forget. Mere details – the twitch of a stranger’s lips, a particular sound from the television, the smell of a flat iron left plugged in – dominoed every alarm in his being, blasting the air from his chest and taking him out at the knees, pain jetting through that mangled crater in his shoulder like it was happening all over again, and he’d stagger outside and light up with large trembling fingers and gasp through the cigarette as if he could suddenly breathe no other way.
“Inside or outside?” Susie snapped that first afternoon. “I’m sorry, but you’re letting all the cool air out. It’s like I tell the kids.”
He picked outside.
The following morning, Manny immediately took up post on the back porch with a fresh pack of Camels, a Sudoku book he’d found on the back of the toilet, and a can of Coke. Susie protested when Sean came home the previous evening with a case of soda for his brother. “What’s wrong with coffee?”
Sean shrugged. “He doesn’t drink coffee.”
“Well, the kids don’t drink soda.”
“Good thing it’s not for the kids, then.”
In the morning, she offered him coffee anyway. “Soda is so bad for your teeth.”
Manny had the backyard to himself for less than an hour before the kids were loosed “to enjoy the weather while it lasts.” Emma ran toward the swing set, and the oldest boy — Jason? Joshua? — slowly trailed after her, eyes glued to his phone. Caleb hovered.
Manny lit up immediately.
“You’re not supposed to smoke cigarettes.”
Manny exhaled and flicked ash into the empty Coke can. “You’re not supposed to smoke cigarettes.”
“But you’re not supposed to, either.”
“Because they’re bad for your health and your wallet.”
“Your mom tell you that?”
Caleb nodded importantly.
“Well, she’s right. They are bad for you. But you know what’s worse?”
“Being a narc.”
“What’s a narc?”
“Ask your mom when you tell her what I’m up to.” Manny dug a quarter out of his pocket. “For your jar.”
“Is that the n-word?”
Manny snorted. “No. But she isn’t gonna like this one, either.”
Caleb disappeared into the house, and Manny turned back to his Sudoku. He’d never been much for numbers, but words set him off easily these days.
He didn’t have time to finish one box before Emma scampered over to investigate. Sun-bronzed curls haloed out from a wispy ponytail. Dirt smudged her button nose and upper lip. She got right in his face. “I’m bored.”
He grunted and jetted smoke out of his nostrils. It didn’t bother her like he thought it would. “So?”
“What are you doing?”
“What’s it look like?”
“I dunno. Why does Caleb get to go inside but not me?”
“Because he’s a narc.”
“What’s a narc?”
“Oh. Okay.” She wormed her way onto his lap with warm, sticky limbs. “I want one.”
She pointed to his cigarette.
A smile tugged at his chapped lips. “F—uh, no.”
“Because these are just for adults.”
“Because…well, they make your teeth fall out, for one. You don’t want to lose all your teeth, do you?”
“Caleb’s teeth fall out and then the tooth fairy leaves a dollar under his pillow and then he can buy whatever he wants with it.”
“Yeah, well, the tooth fairy only likes pretty teeth.”
“Sure she does. See these?” He flashed his own set, crooked and graying like headstones. “Nobody’s coming for these.”
“Because they’re ugly. I told you.”
She squirmed. “But the tooth fairy–”
He grunted as some impossibly sharp part of her found his bad shoulder, and she stopped mid-sentence, startled. Something like pain rippled through him. He slid her off his lap. “There is no tooth fairy, all right? Your mom’s the one puts the dollar there.”
Her jaw dropped. He expected her to start crying and run off, but she simply stared at him in wonder. He fumbled for a cigarette, and dropped the lighter. “And while we’re on the subject, Santa Claus isn’t real, either.”
“He is, too,” she protested. “We sawed him at the mall. I told him all my Christmas presents.”
“Nothing but an old perv that wants to stuff his stocking. Hand me that lighter.”
It took her a minute to absorb this. “What’s a perv?”
“Santa Claus.” He lit up.
Silence settled between them again. Cicadas hissed over the hum of air conditioning units. Beyond the cypress hedge and balding spread of oak trees, bulldozers and backhoes carved and clanked away at the land recently cleared for a new housing development.
“I’m bored,” Emma announced.
“Sure you can."
“Jonathon won’t push me.”
“You don’t need him. Just pump your legs.”
She shot him a look, as though he’d just suggested she tuck herself into bed. Then her face brightened. “You can push me!”
“No I can’t.”
“Yes you can!” She grabbed his hand and tugged at it pathetically. “Please, please, please!”
He scowled at her, but slowly rose, joints creaking to life. “Five minutes.” Delighted, Emma raced ahead of him to the swing set. She wriggled into the unoccupied swing, short legs arcing within inches of her brother’s loosely-gripped phone.
Jonathon bristled. “Watch it.”
Manny ignored him. “You ready? I’m gonna give you a push to get you started, and then you gotta pump your legs.” He pulled back the plastic-encased chains and let go. Emma shrieked and giggled and flailed her legs. Manny stepped back and let the swing slow to a stop.
“Pump your legs this time.” He gave her a second push, then retreated to the porch, her laughter bubbling behind him. He pulled his lawn chair up to the little patio table, fresh cigarette dangling from his lips, and removed from his pocket the deck of cards he’d carried with him every day since boot camp and laid out a game of Solitaire.
Emma promptly trotted up the porch steps, Jonathon drifting behind. “I wanna play,” she announced, climbing into a chair across the table.
“This isn’t a two-player game.”
“I want to play Go-Fish.” She beamed.
Manny sighed. “Fine.” He glanced at his nephew. “What about you?”
“Go-Fish is for babies,” he scoffed, heading for the house.
“We can’t go in yet,” Emma said.
“I have to charge my phone, dummy.” He yanked the door shut behind him, succeeding the second time as his heel caught in the jamb at first.
Amused, Manny turned to his niece. “I know a game that’s more fun than Go-Fish. You got any money?”
“Of course you don’t,” he muttered. “You’re what, three?”
“Four.” She held up five fat fingers for inspection, then retracted one.
“Four, then. Now I want you to go inside, and get the Lucky Charms, okay? Just bring the whole box on out here.”
“Those are only for Special Breakfast.”
“What’s…never mind. I don’t wanna know.” He got the box himself and dumped some onto the patio table. “Help me sort— No, don’t eat ‘em yet.”
“This is a dumb game.”
“We’re setting up the game.”
“What is it?”
He tapped ash into the Coke can and shuffled the deck. “This first one’s called Texas Hold’em.”
That night, Manny stretched out in the den feeling unsettled. He’d burned through an unprecedented three packs, but for all the panic, nothing went wrong. Of course, these weren’t just random children. They were his brother’s kids, white and suburban and sheltered to a fault. They weren’t allowed to use Super Soakers or watch PG movies that Susie hadn’t prescreened. Nine-year-old Caleb still believed in the token holiday mascots, or at least he had until Emma corrected him at dinner.
But as June’s daily observations melted into July’s, Manny began to relax.
Jonathon, just shy of thirteen, did nothing but sulk. When he wasn’t texting, he communicated primarily with monosyllabic grunts that drove his mother crazy. His hair hung down over his eyes, provoking a twitch every ten seconds to clear his vision. His straight nose and sharp jawline suggested he’d be handsome one day, after the acne dissipated and he learned how to stand up straight, though his looks wouldn’t matter if he didn’t start using the deodorant Sean placed strategically around the house.
Caleb didn’t fit in with the other outcasts. He worried constantly, obeyed blindly, and reported any noncompliance without fail. His owlish appearance suggested intelligence, but he gave himself away in social situations that merited adaptation over rigid thinking. Amused, Manny sometimes toyed with his nephew’s inflexible policing. He helped himself to unscheduled food, left the toilet seat up, slurped at the dregs of his Cheerios, and belched unapologetically. He spent the ten dollars’ advance he’d given Caleb within the first week of his stay.
Sometimes, Manny found himself smiling.
But that’s how they got you. They scrambled your head with your heart, confusing what you knew you had to do with what you knew you could never do. All it took was that half-second of hesitation when a child wandered into your camp, his thin frame weighed down with too many layers in the sun-white heat, and you froze because what kind of monster guns down a kid?
He couldn’t afford to make a call like that again.
The third of July began like any other day. Manny woke up stiff and gasping at the tail of a nightmare. He waited until Susie left for her morning jog and the coffeemaker sputtered to a stop before venturing upstairs. Sean stood barefoot in his boxers, rubbing crust out of his eyes as he poured coffee. “Morning,” Sean yawned, phlegm catching in his throat. He handed Manny a can of Coke. They drank in silence as Sean half-listened to the morning news from the countertop television.
Mug drained, Sean excused himself to get ready for work, and Manny slunk back down to the den. His head ached over those few hours’ sleep, rotted with dreams. He folded up his blanket, then forgot where to put it. He had to put his shirt on three times to get it right-side out. He couldn’t find his lighter, and then he couldn’t find his Camels, and then it was too late to go upstairs. Susie was back from her run, making breakfast for the kids, and if their paths crossed he’d be forced to join them. Manny backed down the stairs and sank onto the bottom step to wait. He overheard Susie reminding Sean on his way out to get groceries, and his dismissive, “I know, I know. Love you!” as he raced out of the house, late as usual.
At last, chairs scraped across the tile and spoons pinged off empty bowls. A stampede of footfalls echoed over his head. “Use toothpaste, Emma! I know when you’re just wetting the brush.” He waited until they began their morning chores before venturing upstairs. His stomach growled.
Susie stood at the sink, scrubbing dried oatmeal out of large pot. She stiffened when she heard him open the fridge. “I thought you don’t eat in the morning.”
“Well, I guess when you just play with your dinner instead of eating it, you get hungry.” The pot banged loudly against the sink as she attacked a stubborn splotch of oatmeal. “I would have saved you some, but—”
“It’s fine.” He poured a bowl of cereal, and emptied the milk carton. He carefully returned it to the fridge door so she’d see, later, that they needed more.
Jonathon cut through the kitchen on his way to the front door, thumbs flying over his phone. A sheen of grease parceled out his hair.
Susie shut off the faucet and faced him, wiping her hands on a dish towel. “Hold up. Where do you think you’re going?”
“It’s been all of ten minutes. Don’t tell me you’re done already.”
“It’s not rocket science.”
She arched an eyebrow. “Tell you what. If that bathroom is spotless, you can go. If it isn’t, I get your phone for the rest of the day, and you can see Kurt some other day. Now, are you sure you’re done?”
Jonathon muttered something under his breath and skulked back upstairs, slamming the bathroom door behind him.
Susie shook her head, lips pressed together. “I don’t know what’s going on with him lately. He used to be the sweetest little boy.”
Manny wasn’t sure if he was supposed to say something to that. He stared down at his cereal, the Cheerios bloated and bobbing in their pool of milk.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “This isn’t your problem.”
He debated. “I can say something to him, if you want.”
“Oh gosh, no, it’s fine. His father’s the one who needs to do that. Thank you, though.” She frowned at the backyard.
Manny followed her gaze. Dandelions winked through thick tangles of emerald grass. “Gettin’ long,” he said.
“Oh, I know.”
He set his bowl on the counter. “Mower’s in the garage?”
Before Susie could respond, Caleb burst into the kitchen, cheeks flushed and furious. “Mom!”
“What’s a narc?”
“What? Where did you hear that word?”
“Emma called me one!” He hiccuped back tears. “She said it means me!”
Susie’s jaw slackened for a moment. “Emma!” She shouted. “Get down here right now!”
Manny slipped into the garage. He found the lawnmower, speckled with grass clippings and low on fuel, and topped off the tank before pushing it out into the sodden morning heat. He took a minute to smoke a cigarette, his first of the day, then perched a fresh one between his lips and yanked the power cord. The machine sputtered to life.
Ten minutes into the front yard, his tee was plastered with sweat. He peeled it off and tossed it onto a nearby shrub. His aim was still clumsy. Kaleidoscopic scar tissue hugged the top of his shoulder and curved up the base of his neck where the shrapnel carved off a slice of his silhouette. Echoes of smaller fragments stippled the right side of his face, most of the scars lost in his beard. He was lucky it missed his eyes, they said.
The grass bled sharp and green, its simple scent mingling with the odors of sweat, exhaust, and sun-softened blacktop. Manny kept his surroundings in relentless check, nervous as the mower chewed up all the white noise. A soldier needs his senses. He frequently cut the motor under the pretext of picking a rock out of the grass or flinging some yard toy aside, listening as he did. By the time he finished both yards and returned the lawnmower to the garage, the house was clean, the younger children were settled on the couch in front of the television, and Jonathon was nowhere to be seen. Manny fumbled around in the fridge for a bottle he’d seen stashed behind a cloudy Tupperware, his vision gone aquamarine in the sudden dim, and he downed the beer in a single gulp, too spent to care what Susie might say if she caught him. He ached for another. He’d have to grab a six-pack next time he went out for cigarettes.
Manny retreated to the porch. His hands shook as he reached into his shirt pocket only to realize he wasn’t wearing a shirt at all. It was baked onto a shrub in the front yard. He retrieved it, then realized they were in his pants pocket the whole time. Exasperated, he threw the shirt back onto the bush and returned to the porch. The first cigarette didn’t help at all. By the fourth, he was able to close his eyes for a moment and drink in the sounds of the fading afternoon.
He flinched. Emma stood at his elbow, her plump feet pale and bare against the weathered wood.
“Where’s your shoes?” he muttered.
“Weren’t you just watching TV?”
“Caleb picked a dumb show.” Her eyes lit up. “I wanna swing!”
“Go ahead.” He stubbed the butt out on the chair’s arm, and dropped it into the can, except the can was gone. The porch looked swept, too. Manny gritted his teeth.
“Pump your legs.”
“Yeah, well, it gets easier the more you do it.”
“Why can’t you push me?”
He lit up and took a long drag before responding. “Because you need to learn how to do things yourself.”
She squirmed closer. “Please, Uncle Manny?” She smelled like crackers and apple shampoo. Her breath in his face was sickly sweet. He recoiled. “Not now.”
“Please? Pretty please?” Her face drooped into a practiced pout.
He coughed up a wad of phlegm and spat it over the porch rail. She didn’t so much as blink. “Fine,” he grumbled. “Five minutes."
“Yay!” she shrieked, bobbing up and down on her toes as he struggled up out of the lawn chair. “What’s that?” She pointed. He followed her finger to the mangled flesh of his shoulder.
“Nothing.” He should’ve put that shirt back on.
“Yeah, well, we can’t all be pretty like you.” Manny heard himself telling her to go pick out a swing, that he’d be there in just a second. She darted across the yard, her laughter fading through the maze of his brain as he felt the searing pain of that moment all over again
that scrap slicing through fabric and skin
the hot spray of peppered metal a sudden swarm over his face
the blast hurling him into a puddle of dirt gone scarlet as though he were just another pebble
air gone to ash
that ringing so loud you thought you’d only hear feedback the rest of your life
the relief as it ebbed away
the horror when the sound it restored was agony, refined
“Last one there’s a rotten egg!” Emma shouted.
Only if you’re lucky, Manny thought. Except then all you do is rot.
Shadows woke across the lawn. Manny, showered and shirted, played half-hearted card games with his niece and nephew. The abrupt groan of the garage door signaled Sean’s return, and Manny dropped his hand, relieved. The kids abandoned their cards and raced inside. “Close that door!” Susie yelled, and it slammed shut.
Manny patted his pockets for a smoke and came up empty. He swore. The kitchen window slid open a few feet away.
“Sean, I have the air on.”
“Hi, honey, how was work?”
A sigh. “Hi, honey. The money you worked so hard for today is going out the window.” The fridge door rattled. Another sigh. “Do you need help?”
A beer hissed. Manny’s mouth watered. “Since when do drink?”
“Not help with that. With the groceries…You did remember to go grocery shopping, right?”
“How am I supposed to marinate the chicken without the marinade? How do you expect me to —”
“Babe, I’m sorry. Honest mistake. I’ll go back out right now.”
“I’m late for work.” The clink of keys. “Manny mowed the lawn for you, by the way.” The window slammed shut.
Manny waited until he heard the car get to the end of the street before venturing inside. Sean looked up from the mail. “Hey.”
“Beer?” Sean handed over a Budweiser and shook his head. “Work’s been so crazy lately. It’s like the last thing I want to do when I get home is more work. Looks great, by the way.”
“The lawn. I know you heard us talking. Susie’s just been so…well, you know. I don’t what her deal is lately. I forget to do one thing, and it’s the end of the world. And with the party tomorrow, she –”
“Party?” He froze, beer halfway to his mouth.
“Yeah,” Sean said impatiently. “Every year we do this big cookout for Fourth of July. Everyone comes. Neighbors, coworkers, some of the kids’ friends. I thought you knew.”
Manny’s chest tightened. “Nope.”
“Really? I swear she would’ve mentioned it. She gets so worked up, trying to make everything perfect, and I forget to pick up the stuff she forgot on the first trip, so now I’ve got to go back out and find green onions and more barbecue sauce and a million other things.” Sean drained the last of his beer and swallowed a belch. “I’ll just pack up the kids…unless…you think you could watch them for a few minutes? It’ll be way faster if I go alone. And if you could make them dinner, that would be awesome. There’s mac ‘n’ cheese in the pantry. Just throw down a box or two.”
“Come on, it’ll be fine. You guys hang out all day anyway. What’s twenty more minutes?”
“I’d rather just go to the store for you.”
Sean chuckled, keys in hand. “Trust me. It’s easier this way. I’ll be back before you know it, okay? Thirty minutes, tops.”
Sean darted outside before Manny could respond. The kids looked up from the television as he drifted through the doorway.
“I’m hungry,” Caleb announced.
“Me, too,” Emma said. “I want pancakes.”
“No, chicken nuggets!”
He should’ve asked Sean to pick up a carton of Camels while he was at the store. He should’ve said a lot of things. A party! Here, tomorrow, his sanctuary overcrowded with civilians, unvetted, unconcerned, unaware of their own movements. His heart quickened. He needed a cigarette. He needed to think.
Manny took a short breath. “Your dad said mac’ n cheese.” He went back into the kitchen and set a pot of water on the stove. He found a box of macaroni in the pantry and dumped it into the water, plucking the foil packet of powdered cheese sauce from the pot before the water soaked completely through. Emma was calling to him.
“What?” he called back.
“Emma only eats the SpongeBob ones!”
Manny rolled his eyes. “They taste the same.”
“No, they don’t!” Emma shouted, and ran into the kitchen. She saw the front of the empty box and thrust out her lower lip in protest. “Those aren’t SpongeBob.”
“They taste the same.” He slammed the lid down.
“They’re all SpongeBob anyway. These are just…” Baby sponges, he’d meant to think, or pant legs, but his mind skipped a groove and a more gruesome word rose up, unbidden, images splattering before his eyes as though he were back in the desert that very moment.
“What?” Emma prompted.
“Nothin’. Get back in there. It’s not ready yet.” His mouth tasted horrible and dry like cotton steeped in cadaverous bile. He downed a glass of water, then started another beer. His temples ached. He needed a damn cigarette.
An idea struck him. “Hey!” he called. “Where’s the phone?” He’d just call Sean’s cell! The lid shuddered as pasta water foamed out, hissing down onto the stovetop. Manny knocked the lid off and stirred the water back down. “Caleb?” He dropped the slotted spoon beside the pot and went into the living room, muting the television when they didn’t respond.
“Where’s the phone?” he repeated.
“The – the phone! For the house. Don’t you have a landline?”
Emma cocked her head. “What’s a lanlime?”
“We don’t have a phone,” Caleb said. “Only Mom and Dad and Jonathon. I don’t get one until I’m eleven.”
Manny’s heart sank.
He retreated to the den and began digging through his dirty clothes, hoping he’d stashed a cigarette in a pocket and forgotten about it. He’d just started in on the clothes he hadn’t worn yet when half a dozen loud popping sounds ricocheted through the air.
He dropped, hands over his head. Nothing. He scanned the den — window open, nothing out of place — and cleared it.
“Kids!” he hissed, knowing they couldn’t hear him but unable to stop himself. He crawled up into the living room, eyes wild and searching, and rounded the couch where his niece and nephew sat and tugged at their ankles, one finger to his lips. Come on, he mouthed.
Emma kicked her foot away. “Hey!”
“What are you doing?” Caleb asked.
Manny shushed them as loud as he dared. “Come on,” he repeated, getting to his feet. Emma opened her mouth, and he scooped her up quickly, smothering her words in his shirt. He towed Caleb off the couch with such force the boy yelped, and hustled them upstairs.
A distinctive shriek sliced through the air, growing louder as it closed in. Manny pushed the kids to the floor and curled over their small, trembling bodies, his stomach twisted inside out.
The shell missed the house. He tugged the kids up and into the master bedroom. “Hurry!”
“My glasses,” Caleb choked, blinking helplessly. “They fell —”
“Leave ‘em.” Manny threw open the closet and pushed the kids inside. “Wait here. Get on the floor, hands over your head, okay? Don’t move until I come get you.” He shut the doors without waiting for a response.
Flattened against the wall, Manny inched toward the picture window overlooking the backyard. He detected nothing out of the ordinary among the lengthening shadows. No flurry of footsteps, no shimmer of a gun barrel. The sun drooped over the treeline. Rabbits flickered in the magician’s dusk. Manny waited, breath caught in his lungs.
He dropped as another round screamed through the air. It expired. He peered out the window again, frantically scanning the horizon, and this time, he saw that telltale smudge against the sky, faint but there all the same. the smoke, a faint sky-smudge off to the left.
The automatic went off again.
The gunfire was louder this time. They were closing in.
He had to get the kids out of here before it was too late.
He scrambled over to the closet. Just as his fingers closed over a doorknob, he heard a loud slam! downstairs. He froze.
They were in.
For a moment, Manny couldn’t move. His brain wouldn’t let him. But his body urged him on, heart hammering for all it was worth, lungs begging for air, every muscle tensed as if fettered within the skin. And he realized that this time, he had to move, had to do something. His body knew what would happen if he hesitated again.
He let go.
Quickly, he moved to the bedroom door, ears pricked, and cracked it open. The hall stretched dark and empty. He advanced. Three steps out of the bedroom, something crunched under his foot. Manny winced, certain the sound would draw the enemy straight to him, but no one came. Very slowly, he drew his foot back, revealing a crushed little pair of glasses.
Downstairs, a second door groaned open and caught in its frame, signaling entry of the garage through the kitchen. Manny quickened. The boys’ bedroom door stood ajar, propped open by a baseball bag. He tore at the zipper, praying for a bat. Instead, he came up with some airy, Little League aluminum piece that felt about as useful as a fairy wand. But until he found something else, it would have to do.
He crept down the stairs, sweat stroking his temples. The living room was clear. The television cut from a carpet jingle back to its program, volume dropping. A faint hissing sound wafted in from the kitchen, where he discovered scorched pasta and the stench of something far worse.
Heat like a hurricane. Ears ringing, quicksand lungs. Screens of smoke over a silent horror film colored red and raw. And then the volume broke on high.
He’d seen the boy slink into camp like a stray dog. He’d noticed the jacket over the vest, as though the heat was mere mirage. He could swear he’d glimpsed the phone in that thin brown hand. And yet he’d hesitated, unable to gun down a child, unable to wrap his mind around the horrendous thing that was about to happen.
Something heavy fell in the garage. Manny checked his grip on the bat and faced the door.
Another clumsy thud on the other side.
His hand flickered before resting on the knob. The second he felt it twist, he wrenched the door open.
Unchecked sweat and gasoline swarmed before the dark outline of a boy, vest pockets bulging, thumb hovering over the dim glow of a detonator.
He felt the bat connect, heard the body drop. The phone hit the concrete. He dropped the bat and raced upstairs to the closet.
“Can we come out now?” Caleb asked. “Emma farted.”
He pulled them to their feet, realizing how stupid he’d just been. IEDs were unpredictable, built by amateurs from unstable materials. Just because the detonator hit the ground without setting off the bomb, it might’ve knocked the wrong wire loose or set off a sensor that would blow them all to popcorn any second now.
“Move out!” he ordered, towing the kids behind him.
“But I’m hungry,” Emma whined, and plopped down in the middle of the hall.
Caleb panicked. “You burned it. The smoke detector didn’t even go off!”
Manny turned back to scoop up his niece. Caleb bolted downstairs to investigate. “Don’t go in there!” Manny shouted.
Emma squirmed in his arms. “What’s on your face?” she asked.
“Nothing.” He shouldered off his cheek. His shirt came away flecked red and gray. It wasn’t just on his face; it was all over him. “Caleb!”
Starch-water ghosts puddled over the stovetop. The serving spoon writhed in the fire, its claw reduced to a molten blue stump. Manny set Emma down and ran over to the stove. “Fire!” Caleb shouted, and dropped to the floor. “Stop, drop, and roll!”
“You’re not on fire,” Manny growled. He turned off the gas and hosed the stovetop down with the faucet’s pitiful extension. He saw the bat, slick and dented, half a second before Caleb rolled over its crown.
Manny pulled him off the bat, kicked it away, and tugged him out of the kitchen, sweeping Emma up along the way. They spilled out into the backyard, Emma’s face hot against his neck, Caleb whimpering at his side. He quickly assessed the yard. Mosquito clouds, cricket-song, chloroform heat. No visible enemy presence. One exit with cover, two without. Just inside, the vest kept time.
They bolted toward the corner gap in the cypress hedge. Beyond that, he knew, stood the sparsely wooded border of Oak Ridge Estates, From the Low 300s, Coming Soon! As they squeezed through the clutch of evergreen, both children sobbing, another round of gunfire ripped into the dusk just over there and Manny broke, panicked heart gone rabid.
Sean pulled into the driveway much later than promised, hungry and irritable after scouring three different grocery stores for the items on his wife’s list. He hit the garage door opener clipped overhead, cursing when the light didn’t come on. He vaguely recalled Susie asking him to replace the batteries a week ago — no, the bulb. The batteries were for something else. Bleary eyes fixed on the tennis ball suspended from the ceiling, he coasted into the garage. Just short of his target, Sean felt the passenger’s side lift and settle.
“Dammit!” White knuckled, he shifted gears and eased off the rake or bicycle or whatever it was the kids had left laying around for him to run over. He let the car idle and got out to inspect the damage, steeling himself for a punctured tire or scraped bumper, or worse.
Never before had his imagination failed him so miserably.
There, in a fishing vest crammed with forbidden fireworks, thin forearm patterned with grit, shaggy head haloed in blood, lay his firstborn, who wasn’t screaming like he should be.
Time stopped. Sean dropped beside his son’s motionless body and flung back the vest and began pumping the very still chest. Jonathon’s head lolled to the side. A glimmer of white cut through the blood-heavy hair, and there, under rose-petaled bone, he saw the gray gone to pulp.
Within ten minutes, Kimbark Street was flooded red and blue. It took four officers to pry the child’s body from his father’s arms. The neighbor who’d called it in told police said she’d seen two children with him earlier, running through the strip of scraggly trees at the edge of her backyard. She hadn’t seen the little girl since. Incoherent, Sean promptly found himself confined to an interrogation room.
Susie made the twenty-minute drive in twelve, numb with terror. “We need you to come down to the station as soon as possible,” they’d said on the phone, and then wouldn’t tell her why. They waited until she arrived, braced and bloodless, and then a calm man in a suit informed her with excruciating simplicity that her son was dead, her daughter was missing, and her husband was covered in someone else’s blood.
“We don’t have much to go on yet, but we’re doing everything we can to find your daughter…Susie? Can I call you Susie? We need to ask you a few questions…” His mouth moved in slow-motion as everything around her blurred, and then suddenly snapped into focus.
“You said my son,” she cut in, voice crumbling at his name. “Caleb?”
“He couldn’t tell us.”
“Your husband,” the suit said quickly. “He couldn’t tell us. He was in a real state when we picked him up. But Caleb is your son’s name?”
“Yes. And Jonathon, but he was at a friend’s house when I left. Have you called them yet? Is he here?”
The suit looked surprised. “Wait, you have two sons? And a daughter.”
Rage flooded her veins. A different suit stepped in. “Mrs. Krauss? I’m Detective Grove. I’m so sorry for your loss. Would you mind if we go sit down, and you can fill us in?”
“No, before I go anywhere with you, someone needs to tell me what the hell is going on!” She struggled. Where was Emma? Whose blood was all over Sean? Did Jonathon know yet? How did Caleb die? Were they sure? Instead, she heard herself ask, “Where’s Manny?”
The first suit frowned.
“Oh, god.” She staggered. “You have to find my brother-in-law.”
He lost track of time as night spread her black wings, taunting every frantic step with twisted ankles and squared off lots of trip-wire as he searched for cover, disoriented in the darkness. Sporadic blasts continued all around them. Far off, sirens began to wail. He made for the farther half of development, away from the finished houses with their blank glass eyes, and into a maze of backhoes and lumber and half-dug foundations. He herded the kids down into someone’s eventual basement and crowded them into a corner, planting himself between their shaking bodies and whatever form the enemy took next.
Susie couldn’t look at him.
“Manny would never hurt a child,” Sean insisted for the umpteenth time.
“Who else could have done that?” Her words trembled. “Because I know it wasn’t you.”
“Suse, I know my brother. It wasn’t him. Not when…”
“When what, Sean?” She spoke to her fists as they worked over her knees.
“When…he got beat on all the time, when we were kids. He’d never turn around and dish it out like that.”
“You don’t know that.”
She blinked, and he was crouched in front of her, gripping her shoulders. Trying to make her look. “He. Didn’t. Do it.”
“So what, then?” She wrenched out of his grasp. The desk sergeant glanced over. Susie grimaced and lowered her voice. “How else do you explain that?”
“Maybe someone broke in.”
“Maybe someone broke in,” she repeated. Quiet rage iced each syllable. “No, Sean. No one broke in. He did it. I know he did. You’re not around to see him, just sitting there all day on the porch like a damn dog, watching them. And then you just left them alone with him!”
Tendons twitched along the backs of his hands. “How could you say that? Just look at me, would you? Susie.”
“His blood!” she thundered. “You are covered in my son’s blood! How dare you ask me to look at that!”
Detective Grove approached. The desk sergeant looked relieved. “Mr. and Mrs. Krauss? We found them.”
“You found the kids?” Susie cried.
Sean leapt up. “Are they okay? Manny’s with them, right?”
“The kids are pretty shook up, but they’ll be okay.” He led them to the break room, where a female officer sat with the children. Caleb, blank-eyed, was cocooned in a shock blanket, an untouched bag of pretzels in front of him. Emma’d let her own blanket slide to the floor as she rooted through a packet of mini cracker sandwiches from the vending machine. She looked up as the door opened.
“Daddy!” she shrieked, and threw her arms out as he swept her up.
“Hey, monkey,” he murmured, kissing her all over like he hadn’t done since she was a baby. He buried his face in her corn-silk hair. She smelled of cigarette smoke. His stomach twisted. “Detective?”
Susie knelt at her son’s side and hugged him so tightly she was afraid she’d hurt him. “Caleb?” She relaxed her grip, stroking the hair out of his unfocused eyes. “Sweetie? It’s okay, you’re going to be okay. Mommy’s here now.”
Sean peered over Emma’s matted hair into his son’s pale, empty face. “Caleb? It’s Mommy and Daddy. Can you hear me?” Sean swallowed. “How long has he been like this?”
“We really can’t say. He hasn’t said a word since we found them.”
Susie glared through a fresh stream of tears at Detective Grove. “But I thought you said they were okay.”
“Well like I said, he’s in shock, but it’s pretty typical, given the circumstances.”
The woman, Officer Joiner, spoke up. “The medics did notice some bruising on Caleb’s right arm. It’s probably nothing serious, but it’d be a good idea to get him checked out. Emma as well, just to be safe.”
“Of course,” Susie murmured, gently prying Caleb’s arm out from under the blanket. She stifled a sob when she saw the discoloration.
Sean stiffened. “Where did you find them?”
“That new residential development about a mile away from the house. Oak Something. He had them tucked into a corner of one of the foundations.”
Susie’s eyes narrowed. “‘He.’ You mean Manny?”
“We actually can’t confirm that yet…”
“What do you mean, you can’t confirm it?” Sean asked. “You didn’t catch his name?” He tried to put Emma down. Sensing this, she clung on. “Where is he? I want to see him.”
“Mr. Krauss, I’m so sorry, but…”
“But what? You’re not done grilling him yet?” Sean bristled. “You know what? No! It doesn’t matter. I want to talk to him right now.”
“Mr. Krauss, I’m so sorry, but he left us with no choice.”
Sean paled. Officer Joiner continued. “The children’s safety was our first priority, and when he refused to cooperate…it became a safety matter for everyone involved. Manny died today, Sean. I’m so sorry.”
He blinked. “What?”
The detective restated it all.
“You killed him? Just like…” He gestured uselessly, unable to conjure a word for this.
“He killed our son, Sean.”
He whirled on her. “So Manny’s life is worth less? Is that what you’re saying? And we don’t even know that! They haven’t told us what happened yet! You weren’t there, and neither was he!” He thrust a finger in Detective Grove’s direction. “What about an intruder? No one’s looked into that yet. Manny was just trying to protect the kids, and that’s why they ran off. You should be out there looking for the sonofabitch who’s actually responsible our son’s—for what happened to him!” He didn’t realize he was shouting until he felt Emma cringing away.
“Mr. Krauss, I’d be happy to go over all the details with you first thing tomorrow, if you’d like. But for right now, I suggest you all go get some rest. Obviously, the house needs to be processed. Do you have friends you can stay with? Or maybe there’s a hotel nearby where we can reach you?”
“Sure,” Sean fumed. “We’ll do that. We’ll go fucking rest while you figure out how to tell the press you gunned down an innocent man!”
They drove in silence to a motel at the edge of town where they checked into a room with two double beds. Sean asked for a cot as well, and remembered only after it arrived that they were now a family of four. He rolled it back to the main office before Susie had a chance to see it, and returned to the room to find her locked in the bathroom with the kids.
“Suse! What are you doing?” He banged against the cheap pressed wood. “Susie!”
The lock rattled. She threw the door open, one hand guarding the knob, and hissed, “Cleaning them up!”
“Let me help.”
Her eyes flashed. “Clean yourself up.” She slammed the door and locked it again, and this time she didn’t open it when he knocked.
Sean slid down the wall. He heard the bath running, Susie’s voice low and shaky under its torrent. He imagined Caleb propped up on the toilet, Emma on the edge of the tub, his wife dabbing the sweat and dirt away with a washcloth. She’d search their tender bodies for scrapes and bruises, and choke back tears when she found them.
At last, they emerged. She let him carry Caleb to one of the double beds while she followed with Emma. Susie climbed into bed between them, resting a hand across each drooping forehead. The kids were asleep within seconds.
Sean shifted his weight with the intention of joining his family, but Susie gave him that look again, eyes glittering in the dark. When he ignored it, she hissed, “No.”
“That’s not fair.”
“Your brother,” she said slowly, “murdered my son. That’s unfair.”
He sank onto the opposite bed, springs creaking. “We don’t know that. We don’t know what happened.”
“I know I left the kids with you, and you left them with him, and now Jonathon’s dead! What else do you need to know?”
The blood drained from his face. “You’re blaming me for this? Oh my god, you are. Unbelievable! As if I’d put my own son’s life in danger! No, that’s not – you don’t get to do that, Susie.”
For the next few hours, his family slept on the edge of frightened wakefulness, and he stared out the window, alone, as the ebony sky faded blue. When he couldn’t take it anymore, he put his car keys on the nightstand and slipped out into a day still crusted with sleep.
Slowly, he walked, crossing the city from one end to the other as if the tunnel in his head was all around him. He arrived at the city morgue an hour before it opened. Sean took a seat on the concrete steps of the main entrance and watched with revulsion as a man walking his dog smiled and nodded, as though life itself hadn’t just imploded. He began pacing in front of the doors, replaying the night in the hopes of recalling some overlooked detail that could lead to the identity of his son’s real killer. So absorbed, Sean failed to notice the doors being unlocked.
A gradual trickle of pedestrians clutching lawn chairs and blankets roused Sean from his stupor, and he made his way inside. He inquired after the Krauss body, and was informed a viewing would have to wait, as the boy’s autopsy was incomplete. “No.” He willed away his son’s blank eyes and bloodied head. “The other Krauss.”
The technician admitted him to a cold, harshly lit room. Sean twitched back the sheet from a corpse draped in his brother’s likeness. It had the same heavy jaws and crooked nose, the same cavernous eyes gone stiff in their sockets. There was the two-inch scar at his hairline, a gift from their father, and their mother’s full lower lip, brittle with cold. His Adam’s apple rose from his throat like a shark’s fin, and here Sean noticed an unfamiliar mess of scar tissue trailing out 20from under the sheet’s edge. He pulled it down but went too far, his gaze quickly torn from the shoulder to a chest studded with multiple entrance wounds.
He gagged and spun away, throwing his hands over his mouth to keep his insides off the floor. Blindly, he staggered into the hallway and slid down the wall to the floor, and even then, he felt the ground teetering, half dissolving, as he struggled to get his bearings.
There had to be some mistake.
A man doesn’t wake up one summer morning and then go on to see the sun rise again on a world suddenly emptied of the man’s boy and of the boy who raised the man. He doesn’t just come home from the grocery store one evening to find his son inexplicably beaten to death, and then discover that so-called protectors gunned down the man’s brother with not one but three bullets, just shot him in the dirt like a dog.
He tried to think of what Susie would do, but she’d made her choice. To side with the cops was to side against him, to condemn the brother who’d raised him as an unfit guardian, and to blame Sean for making a judgment call he’d make again every time. It was absurd! She’d never liked Manny, and now she’d have something to point to, even though it was all a lie.
But no. He wouldn’t let that happen.
He’d set it all straight. He’d go down there, talk to the cops, tell them just what kind of person Manny was. He’d make them go back to the house and start looking for clues, evidence, anything objective, and get them to use that to generate a suspect list instead of the other way around. He'd make them do their jobs the right way, starting now.
On his way to the police station, Sean didn’t notice the cascade of American flags draped from doorways and porch rails, and marched right past street signs and lampposts bound in ribbon. He ignored the candy wrappers crushed into the gutters, and flowed through the exodus of parade spectators with the spatial awareness of a ghost. For all he could see, this was no ordinary Independence Day, but the advent of war.
Mary Callaway is a retired information technology manager, a decidedly clear-cut endeavor. Now she nurtures her right-brain through photography and writing. She also enjoys golf, hiking, and reading away the afternoon. The Nativity is her first published short story. Thank you, Scarlet Leaf Review!
He seemed dejected as he picked at the plate of pancakes Lucy brought him. An older lady came in and patted him on the shoulder. I was close enough to hear them discuss the vandalism at Saint Anselm’s. Someone trashed the Nativity twenty days from Christmas. The kids earned money for a year to buy it but the pastor, Father Gus Healy, had no funds to replace it.
Beezie walked up the sidewalk to Saint Anselm’s sizable rectory. At one time it must have housed a pastor and many assistants. The vacant school was huge, too. Big enough for a couple of hundred students.
When the young priest answered, Beezie met a man distracted and impatient at her knock.
Beezie said, “Hello, Father. I’m sorry to bother you. I heard someone wrecked your outdoor Nativity.”
Father Healy said, “Yes. What’s your name?”
“Beezie. Beezie Thomas. Do you have a minute? I’m a writer for a national paper.”
“Okay. Come in, please.”
Intriguing décor. A little 1950s with a technology upgrade and piles of books on every surface.
Beezie said, “You were the victim of vandalism. What happens now?”
“No idea. I guess I should at least try to replace the Nativity . . . No. What am I thinking? I don’t have the money and even if I did, it’s too late for this Christmas.”
Watching the priest run his hands through his hair, Beezie saw a grieving, tired young man. From the looks of it, Saint Anselm’s had fallen on hard times. Why was the Nativity so important? Sure, it’s a sign of hope. She remembered growing up and seeing the meager crèche in her parish. A bit shabby but it looked happy and promised a bright future.
“Sorry to ramble as I think. There are a few sainted parishioners who’ll help. Forget it. It‘s a bad idea to ask for money.”
“The roof leaks. The carpet in the church is so worn you can see the cement underneath it. I have more projects and problems than I can fix. I’m sorry but I’m pressed for time, Beezie.”
“A few taglines?”
“To raise money, the kids had bake sales, a 5k run, pledge days, you name it. They raised over two-thousand dollars. A year’s work, for nothing. We just put it out on Saturday. The kids were joyous. Me, too.”
“Don’t take this the wrong way, but why was a new Nativity so important?”
“I grew up in Saint Anselm’s and the Nativity was meaningful to the parish and our neighbors. On Christmas Eve, we walked with the Baby from church to church of every stripe, and synagogue, too. Everyone welcomed us and then joined the procession. We celebrated together in our church hall. The adults worked together on common projects and the Christmas Eve party was where they discussed the next year’s work.”
“What a wonderful story. I’ll include it in my article.”
“A fire destroyed the storage barn and the old Nativity. We didn’t have money then, either. The procession fell to the wayside and so did our community projects. Beezie, I need to run.”
“Okay, Father. Did you plan a procession for this year?
“Yeah, it’s canceled. The vandal set the Baby aside, but we have no manger for him, and no one has the heart for it.”
“I understand. Can I buy you lunch at Joe’s Diner tomorrow? One o’clock?”
“Let’s meet Friday. Tomorrow, I’m going to court for the vandal‘s sentencing.”
Hurrying off to say Mass, Father Healy wondered why this woman cared. But her article could give them a boost. What should he tell her to write? In the big scheme of things, a roof came first. Or was it the foodbank? One out of every ten families at Saint Anselm’s was homeless. He had to help them find jobs. Catching the odd expressions on the two altar servers, he smiled at them as he wiped the tears away.
Beezie walked with her eyes down to keep from tripping on the broken sidewalk. The village was a ghost town. Not even a dog was barking, it was so quiet. The only living being she noticed was a scrawny cat sunning himself on the hood of a car on blocks. After a three-block hike, she found the police station, a short, squat, ugly building sporting a Halloween decoration in one window.
“Hello, Officer,” said Beezie. “I’m writing an article about the mischief at Saint Anselm’s. I was wondering if I could talk to Detective Smith?”
The desk sergeant said, “Smith retired. Look for Detective Douglas in Room 214.”
Beezie shook her head. 214 was a large, open office, and it smelled of stale cigarette smoke though every wall had a No Smoking sign. Seeing no one, she turned to go.
“Hello, can I help you?” said a male voice somewhere in the corner.
“Yes, I’m Beezie Thomas. Are you Detective Douglas?”
As Beezie shook Nitro’s hand, she saw a pleasant-looking young man with a limp and diamond in one ear. Clean shaven and close-cropped hair. Tattoos peeked below his shirtsleeve.
Beezie said, “Is Nitro a nickname?”
“Yeah, from another life. Nitro Douglas at your service.”
“Great! I’m writing a story about Bain Kukilov.”
“I can give you the details about his latest artwork. Sad, too.”
“I’m interested in the arson of twenty-two years ago.”
“Smith was the man on that one. Let’s dig up the files in the archives.”
“You have time?”
“The crime here is petty, and I put it to bed pretty quick. The hard-core criminals work in the neighborhood to our west. Murder, armed robbery, the usual. We’re so poor here, they share their booty with us.”
“You have a great sense of humor, young man,” said Beezie. “Are you a veteran?”
“Yes, Ma’am, Army explosive ordinance, hooah. How’d you guess? My limp?”
“You’re squared away, disciplined, and neat. But yes, the limp, too.”
“IED. They detonated it remotely before we could defuse it. I lost my leg and two soldiers.”
“I apologize. I didn’t—?”
“No worries. I’ve come to terms with it thanks to Father Healy. My nightmares faded after he pulled me into a grief therapy group. I feel miserable for him. His kids worked hard to raise the money.”
“Did you investigate the vandalism?”
“Yeah. I was taking pictures at the crime scene when Kukilov walked up and said, I did it. This little old, gray guy. I started to laugh, and he got in my face and yelled so I cuffed him. Then he said, it’s my MO.”
“The article in the Village Advocate said he tried to torch Saint Anselm’s twenty-two years ago. Nitro, why does the neighborhood around the church look deserted?”
“Over one hundred families were forced out when the interstate took the subdivision above the church. Those who stayed are dirt poor. A few live in their car because a developer bought many of the homes and jacked up the rent.”
“You’re kidding! Why?”
“He’s an outsider who’s been trying for years to turn Valley Springs into an interstate rest area. The church and library stand in the way because they’re on the National Register of Historic Places.”
“Thanks for the info. Now I have two articles to write. Who’s the developer?”
“Dixon Enterprises over in Lowtown. Fred’s a nasty guy. Here we go. Spread the case file on the table while I order subs and coffee.”
The bailiff said, “All rise. The Court of Common Pleas of Severe County is now in session, the Honorable Judge James More presiding.”
Judge More said, “Mister Kukilov, this court has convicted you of felony vandalism and arson. I’ll sentence you today but first we’ll hear from the victim’s representative. Does anyone wish to speak about Mister Kukilov or the crime?”
“I do, Your Honor.”
“State your name and make your statement.”
“I’m Father Gus Healy, the pastor of Saint Anselm’s. Your Honor, I agree Mister Kukilov committed a crime, but he had no choice. To save money, the state released him with thirty days of insulin. He’s eighty-three years old and has no job, place to live, or health care. Please send him back to the same prison. It’s his only hope and his family.”
Judge More said, “Thank you, Father. If there’s no one else . . . Okay. Mister Kukilov, you’ll finish the eight years on the original conviction plus fifteen more for the vandalism at the Lowtown Correctional Facility.”
The look of relief on Kukilov’s face made Beezie’s head swim. Wasn’t a halfway house better than prison?
As she walked to her meeting, Beezie squelched her desire to lay into the priest. She worried for Kukilov, but confrontation wasn’t fair either.
“Hello, Father,” said Beezie. “Let’s go to Young’s Dairy for ice cream after we talk.”
“Good idea. Maybe it’ll revive my Christmas spirit. Thanks.”
Beezie noted the relief in his eyes. He was expecting a quarrel.
“Beezie, I caught your disgust at Kukilov’s sentencing. My advice was the best given his health. I looked but couldn’t find a halfway house for him. He has nothing. No children or family. He can’t buy insulin. I spoke to him before the sentencing and . . . I know it’s hard to believe . . . he wanted me to urge the judge to send him back to jail.”
“Why in the world!”
“Three squares a day, a cot, medical care, and friends. A library. It’s all he knows.”
“You‘re right. I expected you to plead for mercy and leniency. Father, I have what I need for the article. My soul is screaming for ice cream.”
“Beezie, I have a favor to ask. Please interview Kukilov. Get his opinion on his sudden release. Question why he vandalized the Nativity. His reason for the arson is an interesting story. What he won’t mention is the trust fund he setup for his Mom. He has a good heart.”
“An arsonist with a good heart?”
“Yeah. The trustee for the fund died and the lawyer couldn’t find Kukilov to appoint another trustee until he ran across Bain’s name in the paper. Of the four-thousand left in the fund, Bain told the lawyer to give himself a thousand and the rest to Saint Anselm’s. Now I have the money to buy a new Nativity and pay a few bills. A change of heart in the season of hope.”
Beezie woke up, book in her lap, and cell phone tingling. Where had the day gone?
“Ida, it’s two o’clock in the morning.” said Beezie.
“I know but I had to call. Kukilov got fifty-thousand dollars for the arson job from Prunk Holdings, LLC. Whoever set it up was pretty darn good at hiding identities, but he missed one form. The owner is Fred Dixon—”
“Fred Dixon! I can’t believe it.”
“He’s a developer who’s trying to acquire the Saint Anselm’s property and everything around it. It doesn’t make much sense, though. The arsonist from long ago and the vandal are the same man. Why not torch the church last week?”
“You’ll figure it out.”
When he walked into the interview room, Beezie had to look twice to see it was Kukilov. He looked years younger. A night and day difference.
“Mister Kukilov, thanks for seeing me. I’m Beezie Thomas and I’m writing an article on the Nativity. I hope it doesn’t offend you.”
“No, I’m glad. Please call me Bain.”
“Okay. Father Healy said I should ask your opinion on your early release.”
“The state has a budget. I’m a drain on it because of my health problems. Most are happy to get out, but not me. I want to die here with my friends around me. Listen, let me tell you about the arson and then if you have time the vandalism.”
“On the night of the arson, I didn’t walk the property before I started and I missed the couple making out in a car behind the church. They smelled smoke from the fire in the barn and called 911.”
“Timing is everything. Tell me why you did it.”
“You were paid to do it?”
“Yeah, from Fred Dixon through an offshore company. Prunk or something, a weird name.”
“Prunk Holdings. My investigator told me the cash they gave you disappeared out of your account just before the cops arrested you. Did Dixon take it back?”
“You’ve done your homework. No, I did with it what I wanted before he reacted.”
“What did you do with it?”
“My Mom had Alzheimer’s and was living in a nursing home owned by Dixon. He knew she was broke and he threatened to turn her out if I didn’t do the job. I squeezed him for the fifty-thousand with a lie. I told him I recorded our talk over a wire and was going to the FBI. He folded his hand because he was running for Congress. After I put the pay-off in a trust and moved my Mom out of state, I confessed to the arson.”
“Why? They had no proof.”
“I had to protect myself. Dixon’s vindictive and always gets his way.”
“I’m interviewing him later today.”
“Be careful. He’s nasty.”
“Thanks, Bain. Take care of yourself.”
The man standing before her surprised Beezie. He said he was Fred Dixon. Middle-aged, near 60, pleasant, and athletic. From the photos on the wall, he had a long career in the Navy. Was he the Fred Dixon of twenty-two years ago?
“Hello, Mister Dixon. I’m Beezie. I won’t take much of your time.”
“Beezie, my assistant said you want to talk about the interstate rest area project. What’s your hidden agenda? Most journalists don’t approve of the plan.”
“The recent vandalism caught my attention. Tell me what you think.”
“I don’t care. Why would I? The truth is the church and the village are rundown. It’s time to raze it. We can bring jobs with the rest area.”
“Maybe. The interesting fact is the vandal is the same man who tried to burn Saint Anselm’s years ago. Bain Kukilov.”
Watching Dixon’s face, Beezie sensed he’d never heard of Kukilov or the attempted arson. Is this the Fred Dixon behind it or his son? Grandson?
“One fine fellow, I’m sure. Now what is it you want from me?”
“I’ve seen the plans at the county engineer’s office, but I want to understand your view of the project.”
“My dream is to make my Grandfather’s vision a reality. He had it right. Clean up the neighborhood and create jobs.”
Dixon couldn’t believe his eyes. Beezie Thomas wrote a positive story about Saint Anselm’s, Valley Springs, and Kukilov, but damned Dixon Enterprises with faint praise. Why?
Something was odd, too. The article said Kukilov was a criminal who took money from a bankrupt, offshore company, Prunk Holdings, LLC. Prunk was his long dead dog’s name.
“Perry, have you heard of Prunk Holdings, LLC?”
“Yeah. Link Moura set Prunk up in the Cayman’s for your Grandfather over twenty years ago. I found it when I was cleaning up your Father’s estate. It’s of no importance now, bankrupt. I think it was the reason your Dad left the company.”
“Why the look of surprise, Perry? Is there a scandal? What did my Grandfather do with Prunk? I loved him but his dealings weren’t always the most ethical if I recall correctly.”
“Prunk was, well, immoral. The good news is the statute of limitations is long past.”
“Statute of limitations! Are you kidding!”
“Are you sure you want to know? It’s not good.”
“Yes, tell me, now.”
“Your Grandfather paid Bain Kukilov fifty-thousand to torch the church.”
Dixon felt his head exploding. No way! The ends never justified the means. What else had the old man done?
“Put every scrap of information about Prunk, Saint Anselm’s, the village, and the project on my desk by 10am. I mean everything, the good, the bad, and the ugly.”
Dixon cried after he closed the folder. His Grandfather had become blind to everything but greed. He paid Kukilov to burn the church. He bribed county officials. And, more.
At least there was positive news. A grassroots group, Rebuild the Village, had good plans. Beezie Thomas’s article said someone pledged seven-million to their cause but only if they could raise the balance, another three-million.
Shops, jobs, and a revitalized, family-friendly, neighborhood was better than his Grandfather’s vision. Rebuild the Village believed businesses would return if young people came back to live. They were right. The village was near the city financial center and university as well as the interstate and a big bus and subway hub.
Vowing to do whatever it took to make up for his Grandfather’s sins, Dixon decided to match the donation dollar for dollar. The fifteen-million in the company’s slush fund covered the pledge and more. He’d sell renovated houses for cost and give low-interest loans to lure businesses to the empty strip malls.
Positioned along a side wall, Beezie scanned the crowd until she spotted Fred Dixon. Was he here to recommend the rest area as a life saver for Valley Springs? He looked anxious and cringed after a few glares and ugly looks.
“My friends,” said the president of Rebuild the Village. “Thanks for joining us. I’m Michael James. Tonight, let’s brainstorm ways to raise three-million. I think we can, but we have a lot to do and the deadline is six-months.”
Dixon said, “Excuse me, I—”
Michael said, “Settle down. I won’t stand for catcalls or ugliness. All views are important . . . and welcome. Mister Dixon, we want to brainstorm first. Do you have an idea?”
“Please take my money. I’ll match the anonymous pledge.”
Michael said, “You—what?”
“Yes, dollar for dollar. My Grandfather had a hand in—to be fair, he’s the reason your village is falling apart. I want to make amends for him. I think your plans will succeed better than any interstate rest area. You’ll have jobs and a nice place to raise kids. I can build businesses with good employees.”
Shocked along with everyone in the room, Beezie couldn’t believe her ears. An uproar of approval followed a stunned silence. Dixon matched the pledge! Rebuild the Village had the money to make its plan work.
The look on Father Healy’s face made her smile. She had plenty left in her lottery winnings. She’d give the priest what he needed to replace the church’s roof and rehab the school as a community center and shelter. What a great Christmas!
Father Healy laughed as the adults and older children marshaled the youngsters into a parade. They had so much energy he expected they‘d fall asleep at Midnight Mass. He hoped the other churches, the mosque, and the synagogue joined in but if they didn’t, he knew they’d still have a ball.
“Okay, everyone,” said Father Healy. “Let’s be quiet for a moment before we set out. We’re going to walk a few blocks and then we’ll circle around for a party in the parish hall. Be careful with the Baby and stay in line. No running. Just a slow walk on a starlit night. Listen for the angels. Altar servers, begin. I’ll bring up the rear.”
As he turned the corner, he stopped dead in his tracks at the sight. As far as he could see, the villagers had set out luminaries on the sidewalk. People from the synagogue were dressed as shepherds and carried lanterns. They surrounded the whole procession and helped the children and older adults make it safely. The faithful from the mosque joined the procession carrying baskets of flatbread for the potluck.
The procession was a ragtag mess from start to finish. Adults and children from every faith community marched along after solemnly accepting the Baby. At Saint Anselm’s, the Baby had switched hands ten times.
The church hall overflowed with people, noise, great food, and fun. Certain a better future had dawned, Father Healy watched the party from a table near the Baby. Adults huddled in groups to talk about projects just like the old days. Next year they’d have a new Nativity, but in Gus Healy’s opinion, this was the best Christmas he, Saint Anselm’s, and the village had had in a long time.
Edward Villanova is a self-declared “purveyor of all things spoopy”. He is a novelist and short story writer, specializing in speculative fiction, especially horror and dark fantasy, and prefers the Southern Gothic style of story telling. He hosts the podcast “Eddie V’s Horror Show” on YouTube, where he gives writing advice, reviews horror movies, books, and games, shares true horror stories from history, and discusses horror culture and the horror genre in general. He is also a painter and digital artist with an affinity for the macabre.
For a creator with a penchant for dark things, Edward is a light-hearted sort who loves to laugh and enjoys the pairing of horror and comedy. He considers his own brand of comedy best described as some unholy union between an especially good B horror movie and the musings of a really goofy comedian. Like if Conan O’Brien had directed The Evil Dead.
It was just such a chance occurrence that found Daniel Clark driving along the seldom traveled Highway 32, also called Banes Highway, at two o’clock in the morning in his old work truck. The speed limit was fifty-five on the rural road, but Clark was tired, a little drunk from a later-than-usual visit to his usual bar, and in a hurry to get home, so he was traveling closer to sixty-five at the time of the accident. It was just past mile marker forty-one where Banes Highway crosses under Millsaw Road. Millsaw Road is elevated, with Banes Highway running beneath it, and two concrete pillars support the elevated road. Clark had driven down Banes Highway hundreds of times and knew the underpass well. That was how he knew he was only five minutes from the turnoff for Blackstone Street and home.
A beer bottlecap had been rolling around the floorboards of his Ford for months, and Clark meant to pick it up for some time. As a habitual drinker and driver, anything that may point to inebriation during a potential traffic stop was something he wanted to avoid, but somehow he’d managed to consistently forget about it whenever he reached his destination. For reasons unknown, even to himself, Clark suddenly decided to reach down and retrieve the bottle cap from his floorboard while driving. In doing so, he inadvertently pulled the wheel slightly to the right. The seatbelt stopped him from reaching the cap and he sat up to unbuckle it, but before he did, he saw the concrete pillar dead ahead. There was no time to swerve or brake, and the head-on collision was the most violent thing Clark had ever experienced.
The next thing he remembered was waking up, slumped over the steering wheel, completely disoriented and unsure of what had happened. He blinked. His eyes felt irritated. Seeing the red liquid on his hands after touching his face, he realized he was wet with blood. Wiping the gore from his eyes and face to see better, he realized first that he had been in a collision, and second, that a combination of his seatbelt and the sturdy frame of his work truck, a 1971 Ford F100, had saved his life. The truck, however, was totaled. Clark inspected himself and discovered the source of blood was from a nasty gash on his forehead, which may have been from the shattered windshield or from contact with something else in the truck. Everything was such a blur. There was a sharp pain in his ribs and breathing was difficult. He knew that if his ribs were not cracked, they were at least badly bruised, and Clark cursed his truck’s lack of an airbag, which may have spared him the injury. But even so, no other injuries were sustained other than minor cuts and bruises. He unbuckled his seatbelt and opened the door, but before he could get out, he noticed something among the broken glass in the passenger seat. It was the bottle cap. He snatched it angrily from the seat and got out of the truck. To inspect the damage. Clark kicked at the ground and spat profanities as he assessed the state of his only way to and from work.
One of the truck’s headlights was still functional and it was his only source of light. The light was still bright, but it’s direction made using it difficult. Half the beam fell on the lower half of what was left of the pillar, which reflected the light back onto the truck. The meager lighting was enough to confirm his fears. The truck was beyond repair. The front of the truck was crushed in far enough to damage the engine block. Clark felt lucky that it hadn’t ended up with him in the front seat. When he looked at the damaged pillar to see what his truck had done to it, the subtle things that happen to let you know time is moving seemed to stop. The crickets, which were noisily chirping all along suddenly quieted. The slight breeze that was blowing ceased and the air was dead calm. A chill went up Daniel Clark’s spine. He did not initially understand what he was looking at or why it caused him to feel so disturbed. A primitive need to flee and a curious desire to investigate struck him simultaneously, but curiosity won out. What was that thing sticking out from the inside of the pillar? It was not until he was only a foot or so away from it that he realized what it was and reeled back in horror.
A skeletal arm hung twistedly out of the pillar, and just inside the pillar, a face, practically only a skull, with long grey hair and gold framed glasses gazed out at Clark. Its head was cocked to the side in a manner that would look playful in a living human. Clark felt sick. He needed to leave. Quickly.
It would be at least a couple of hours walking to make it home to use the telephone, so Clark decided to walk to the Pritchard place on Cotton Street to call emergency services. He didn’t know them very well, but out in the sticks, nothing was a close walk. Mike Pritchard was a contractor Clark once hired to repair a damaged fence on his property, and the two saw each other around town a few times since then in happenstantial meetings while out and about, always taking the time to offer a friendly, “Hello.”
The Pritchards lived just on the other side of the Blackstone intersection. If he was able bodied, he could walk it in twenty minutes. With his injured ribs it would take longer. It might be dawn before he made it home. Dawn. Clark longed for daylight. The dark rural night made him feel vulnerable. He constantly glanced over his shoulder as he walked, telling himself it was so he could flag down any passing cars, but really it was because he had the nagging feeling that something was following him. He couldn’t shake it. Something was approaching. Something unseen, bearing down on him with intent, closing the gap between them, and with each step he took away from the accident, it took two in his direction.
After what felt like hours, the dark outline of the Pritchard house was in sight. He felt that the something that was coming for him was very close now, though the pitch black darkness hindered him profoundly. He could see the stars, but no moon, and the tops of the trees that bordered his view of the night sky. Beneath them, it was near-perfect darkness. His feet found the walkway to the Pritchards’ front door. He listened for footsteps, but dared not cease his own to listen more closely. He didn’t think he heard any footsteps but his own, although he wasn’t sure. He walked up to the Pritchard family’s front door and knocked loudly.
“Mike!” he yelled. “It’s Daniel Clark from down the road! I need help!”
There was no answer, so he tried again.
“Mike! It’s Daniel! I was in an accident!”
Daniel Clark spun around, having sensed someone walk up right behind him. But when he turned, heart pounding, no one was there. The door opened suddenly, causing Clark to jump. Mike Pritchard stood in the doorway in a bathrobe, with a .357 revolver in his hand.
“Daniel, are you okay?” Pritchard asked.
“No.” Clark said. “I don’t know. I think I need a doctor.”
“Lisa!” Pritchard shouted to his wife, shoving the revolver into the pocket of his robe. “It’s Daniel and he’s hurt!”
Pritchard helped him inside and sat him down on the sofa while his wife got Clark a glass of water and some wet rags to clean himself up with. Then she picked up the phone and began dialing emergency services.
“What happened?” Pritchard asked.
“I hit something on Banes Highway.” Clark said.
“Oh, Daniel, I’m sorry to hear that. Was it insured?”
“There was a man inside the pillar.”
“There was a… what??”
“A dead man. Inside the pillar.” Clark’s voice began to quiver.
Pritchard’s wife slowly put the phone down and listened.
“What do you mean, there was a man inside the pillar?”
“I hit one of those concrete pillars where Banes Highway goes under Millsaw Road with my truck and the front of it crumbled off. There was a dead man inside the pillar.”
The Pritchards were silent for a moment.
“Lisa, you know who to call. There’s a dead body on Banes Highway. I’m taking Daniel back out there to meet with the police and ambulance when they arrive.”
Mrs. Pritchard picked up the phone again and began to dial as the two men walked out the door.
They walked toward the barn where Pritchard’s truck was kept. Clark described the experience in detail while they walked. Once they were inside the barn, Clark walked to the truck, still telling his story. Pritchard walked up beside him and took what he expected to be keys from his pocket, but when he pointed the metal thing at Clark, Clark stopped talking, suddenly confused and not knowing what to say next. Pritchard cocked the hammer and pulled the trigger.
A week went by and someone reported the damage to the concrete pillar on Banes Highway to the county office. There was a routine inspection of the site with nothing extraordinary to report. Someone had crashed into the pillar and the vehicle had been removed. To have done so much damage the vehicle surely was totaled. But in a place so far out of the way, it did not surprise the inspectors that someone had managed to wreck a vehicle into county property, remove the vehicle and scrub the area of pieces of the car, whatever it had been, before it could be reported. The county inspector wrote off the damage and called their usual contractor, Pritchard Construction Services, to replace the concrete pillar. The new pillar contained several unreported items, one of which is a bottle cap.
Alan Berger has two films on Netflix etc that he wrote and directed.
He has had over 50 short stories and poem published since 2018 in five different publications,
Before the writing and directed he was a feature casting director for Ivan Reitman and Howard Zieff.
He also acts in commercials and just did two episodes of,:Baskets".
She heard it, she saw saw it, she smelled it, she ate it.
That is how it turns up down on the farm.
This little big 10-year-old girl had a name for everything and everyone.
Dad was “The Executioner”. Mom was “The kitchen helper’. The animals and birds that flew over and visited the farm were called ‘Tribes People”.
She was an only child surrounded by many temporary pets and imaginary pals.
She began to hear voices at 8 and they were nice and friendly.
She was afraid to tell the folks for fear they would go away.
Besides, they told her not to tell anyone and she was a good secret keeper.
A calf was born one day that the voices said would be different.
And he was.
He was black and white with a pink nose.
She called him ”Rainbow”
The calf and the girl became super fast friends, and before Rainbow was even born, she was told that she would not eat him nor would anyone eat or wear him.
When Rainbow was big enough the little girl made a saddle for him out of old pajamas that were now too small for her still small body.
All she had to do was say left, right, back, ahead, and Rainbow listened and gladly followed those directions.
Rainbow grew too fast and the little girl knew soon judgment day would be coming and the verdict was not good.
She saw a movie once, ‘The Hunchback off Notre”, with the folks, about a deformed man who took a girl away from an angry bunch of people and brought her to a church where no one would be allowed to get at her.
For such an ugly guy he sure came out beautiful by the end of the story.
Father Dan at the local church that morning was finishing up a chat he had with one of the priests.
Father Dan told the priest he didn’t like the way the priest played and looked at the kids and sent him packing without a letter of reference.
Far from it.
Father Dan put the fucking word out as he phased it to the soon to be ex-priest.
And that was that.
One fine morning the voices told the little girl that this was the day Rainbow would meet his maker and she better saddle up and head down the road.
The voices suggested she wear a tee shirt that said, “Sanctuary”, like in that movie see saw, on it as well as a sign around the neck of Rainbow.
After she got close to town the voices would tell her what to do next.
As our girl and The Rainbow were getting close to town mom got a call informing her that her daughter was riding a cow down along the highway heading North and was asked if she knew about that.
Mom hung up without answering or telling pa.
On the outskirts of the town, the voices told the cowgirl to head over to the church and like that movie she saw the other day tell Father Dan she wished to sanctuary up like that guy did with the girl.
She got to the church and did just that.
Father Dan, recognizing the movie she was referring to minus the voices told her she was brave and that he would take care of it.
When mom hit town, she was told about the girl on the cow over by the church with the signs on the both of them.
Father Dan said his hands were tied because she had asked for sanctuary and he gave it to her.
He also bought the cow with his own money and not the churches and mom promised in front of Father Dan, and the little girl, and Rainbow, that Rainbow belonged to heaven now and will die of old ag
e instead of becoming a porterhouse.
Mom drove home slowly with Rainbow and her daughter slowly trailing behind.
The voices signed off in the girls head with a P.S. that told her she may hear from them again.
You never know.
And that was that.
AMIRAH AL WASSIF
DANA WYNNE LINDQUIST
DAN W LUEDKE
JOHN F. ZURN