SONA MANIAR - NUMBERS ONLY
Sona is a chemical engineer from UT Austin and a MBA from INSEAD (France). She’s currently working in strategy for a large engineering conglomerate. She enjoys writing about the machinations at work in the corporate world. Her short fiction has been published by Femina, Tuck and Quail Bell Magazine.
The evening crowd had started to flock into the Mulberry Arms pub in Waterloo and though it was just half past five, the place was fairly packed. Andrei Kowalski should be arriving any minute now, I muttered to myself, as I grabbed a quiet table by the far left corner of the room. This should be a good place to talk. I wondered what Andrei wanted to discuss with me. I had received an urgent call from him asking me to meet with him this evening. It was a complete surprise, particularly given the nebulous ending of our last encounter.
I had first met Andrei nearly four years ago at an investor conference in London when I was starting my career as a journalist at Numbers Only, a financial publishing house. He was, at that time, the Business Development Head for Harvey Enterprises, a multi-billion dollar company with a young, controversial CEO by the name of Peter Harvey at its helm. But it was at our second meeting - yet another investor conference-that I got to know Andrei a bit better. At the networking session over drinks, he recalled our previous meeting and I took the opportunity to gently probe him on the IPO plans for Harvey Projects. He spoke about the IPO in very vague terms and seemed more keen on moaning and whingeing about the general work conditions at Harvey Enterprises and how Peter was so intent on riding his brain without giving due credit. It turned out that Andrei was originally from Warsaw, who had moved to the UK after marrying an English lady. But even after having lived in the UK for several years, he still considered himself an outsider, remarking that it was never easy for Eastern Europeans. The conversation took another twist when he asked me if I’d like to join him for a private dinner after the conference. I politely responded with “I can’t”. “It is not often that I have the undivided attention of a smart beautiful lady such as yourself”, he had replied with a benign smile, “but I understand. No problem, I take rejection well.”
Since that incident, I had no further contact with him till last evening when he requested for an urgent meeting. I would have turned him down but the scoop junkie in me told me that a revelation about Harvey Enterprises was on offer. Hence I agreed to meet him. Little did I realize then that the meeting would recalibrate my career.
"Thanks, Lisa for making time to meet with me at short notice", he said as we shook hands warmly.
"Not a problem. Though I was surprised to receive your call,” I replied.
"Ah, yes. That scoundrel Peter Harvey is at it again!", Andrei said raising his voice and sounding impatient.
"You need a drink. Let me just get us a couple of beers and then we can talk", I answered calmly.
I returned with a couple of pints. Andrei took a long sip and massaged his forehead. He seemed tired, a bit balder and thinner than the last time I had seen him. He must be pushing 50 now, I thought. I also noticed that the wedding ring on his hand had disappeared. He wiped his thin lips dry before launching into the conversation.
"You see Lisa, Harvey Enterprises owns a company called Harvey Projects, which invests in assets globally. Two years ago, the parent company decided to float 25 % of Projects on the London Stock Exchange. The share price at the time of the listing was three pounds sixty pence", he said.
"Ah, yes. I remember this well. In fact I had also covered this story at that time. The listing had been received well by the market and Peter Harvey had specifically recruited this chap Mark Beeson as the managing Director for the new company", I added, sipping my beer.
"Oh Mark's a great guy. I worked with him briefly. Jovial, efficient and straight. No wonder trouble started brewing between him and Harvey shortly after his joining", Andrei said.
"Yeah, I heard that he didn't last too long there. I believe it was last year that he finally handed in his papers", I responded.
"That's correct. Then Peter brought in Thomas Higgins. A bit of a wheeler dealer, if you ask me. But he's exactly what Peter would like, a total yes-man", Andrei said, taking another sip of his beer. He was draining his glass faster than I.
"So what happened then?", I inquired.
"Well, Higgins' arrival at the firm coincided with the global economic crisis. Over the course of the last few months, the share price of the company dwindled down to the current price of 50 p."
"That's a pretty steep fall!", I exclaimed.
Andrei nodded in agreement.
"But trust that scheming, conniving bastard Peter to turn a disadvantage in his favor. Last evening he called a meeting with the business heads to discuss his plan to take Harvey Projects private again by offering the minority shareholders a share price of 60p."
I let this piece of information sink in.
"But that would be cheating the minority shareholders out of any future upside in the valuations".
"Exactly", Andrei said, leaning forward towards me. "You've hit the nail on the head. This is completely unethical and I want you to expose Peter".
I sat back for a moment and stared at my near empty beer glass. As a journalist, it was indeed my role to highlight malpractices in corporates and participate in efforts to improve governance in companies to protect the interests of the shareholders, particularly the minority ones.
"Andrei, I'll write a piece on this. But why are you doing this? Are you too a shareholder in Harvey Projects?"
"Nope, I don't hold any shares in Harvey Projects", Andrei replied. Then draining his glass completely, he returned it to the table with a loud thud. "I simply despise that racist prick Peter".
Later that evening, I had a detailed discussion with Alex Turner, the editor at Numbers Only. He agreed to run the piece on the Peter's plans for taking Harvey Projects private. I stayed up all night, writing and burnishing the article and had it published first thing in the morning. The reaction to the story was swift and sharp. My piece got picked up by other finance papers and quickly snowballed into an unpleasant controversy for Peter Harvey to explain. The minority shareholders organized themselves in a short space of time and lodged complaints with the regulatory bodies. Legally they would not be able to stop Harvey from buying their share but they wanted to create a great deal of din to make Harvey uncomfortable about his actions and possibly deter him from depriving them of their rightful share. Some of the media attacks on Peter Harvey were rather severe and personal in nature. He ended up being portrayed as a rogue entrepreneur, who had managed to scrounge himself an empire. Juliana Hill from the Financial Estate went a step further and publically labeled him as a Greedy Cat. That snappy nickname drew out a chuckle from me when I first heard it. Two weeks later, under pressure from the intense furor that the story had created, Peter Harvey issued a press statement that Harvey Projects would not be taken private. The minority shareholders erupted in joy on hearing the news. Back at the office of Numbers Only, Alex arranged a small celebration to congratulate me on my fine reporting. I also received a bottle of champagne from an anonymous sender that I placed on my desk as a badge of honor. I could only guess that it was from Andrei.
Four months later, I was at my desk working on a piece on hedge funds when Alex asked me to come to his cabin.
"Ah Lisa! Come on in. Have a seat. I have some news for you", Alex said. I thought he sounded a bit grim.
I settled down for a serious conversation.
"I'm leaving Numbers Only", Alex said in a matter-of-fact way.
I looked at him a bit surprised. I thought Alex would wait to retire from Numbers Only. At 57, I didn't exactly picture him as somebody keen to hop over to another company. But then who would be the next editor? Perhaps, me?
He continued speaking in the same matter-of-fact way, "I suggest you also start looking for a new role elsewhere".
I was stunned to hear this. I groped around my mind space fervently for words. Alex noticed the alarmed look on my face and calmly explained, "Well, there was a deal done last night. Numbers Only got acquired by Peter Harvey".
The room fell into a long, deep silence. And though there was no sound, I thought I heard the Devil ringing his knell.
JACK COEY - TOMBSTONE BLUES
Jack Coey learned what he knows from reading & writing. (and living too.)
In a chill, light drizzle from a gray sky mixed with fog, he looked down at the headstone surrounded by roses above a freshly – turned earth, and realized his father didn’t know he was dead. Head on at fifty-five by a drunk driver; his father had an instant before eternity. The irony was at any other time his father would have been the drunk, but fate, for his last moment, made him the victim. Lyle lived with the man for twenty-six years, and as he looked down at his tomb, he felt a possibility he never expected. His father was an angry drunk who fought life rather than lived it; for Lyle after failing at two marriages, and losing several jobs, he thought, maybe I can bury what he taught me with him?
Father Paul was the priest of The Sacred Mary Church on Euclid Avenue. He was twenty-six and energetic and enthusiastic. He spent much time thinking about his sermons because he really wanted to be a force for good in the lives of his parishioners. On Monday night, he would go to the Lucky Strike bowling alley, and bowl a few games for relaxation. Sometimes parishioners would talk to him, mostly being friendly, but sometimes someone might ask for a blessing or advice. There was a woman there by the name of Vivian who cooked hamburgers who, one time when he was sitting at the counter drinking a coke, told him about her ex-husband, Lyle. She told Father Paul how he used to yell at her, and would slap her (always with an open hand, she qualified) and she asked the priest why he acted that way.
“I’m afraid I can’t explain it,” he said, “we can only pray for his soul.”
Vivian wanted more than that, and if the priest couldn’t explain it, well, what then? She asked Father Paul if he would talk to her ex-husband if she could get him to go see him. He agreed to that, but made Vivian understand there was no guarantee of any result.
Lyle used to bowl in a league on Wednesday night, but since his father died, Vivian hadn’t seen him. She saw Boniface, and asked him about Lyle and all he knew was he’d been fired from the garage for yelling at a salesman. Lyle’s father’s house was up for sale. Boniface wasn’t sure, but thought Lyle might have a girlfriend over on Western Avenue.
“If you see him, tell him to come see me, all right?” she asked.
Boniface shook his head.
“I would think you’d had your fill of him,” he said.
Father Paul was in his office thinking about how he needed to hire a handyman. The grass was getting long, and there was painting that needed to be done. He got out a sheet of paper, and was composing an ad for the newspaper, and started thinking about women. Women were exotic, and oh yes, erotic to him, but he’d never been with one; never experienced the feelings of that pleasure. Oh, when he was a teenager, he made out with a girl in the movies, and one time, touched a girl’s breast, but since he was a priest, and spent time listening to couples, it was his impression men were stupid. For the most part, men were self-absorbed, and overlooked the needs of their women. But then again, he thought, how could he know never having the experience himself? He noticed the more attractive the woman the greater his contempt for the man. That’s why he didn’t like this part of his job; it created conflicting feelings in him, and that made him uncomfortable. Last Rites or Confession were straight-forward; his feelings had nothing to do with it, and he liked that better.
Lyle sat on a bench near the bandstand, and the sun was warm on his forehead. Since his father died, he felt he didn’t have to live up to anything anymore.. He surprised himself by thinking about Vivian, and that confused him, so he got up and walked around. He walked several blocks, and saw the sign “Eli’s Pub & Grill.” He went inside, and was blinded until his eyes adjusted to the darkness. There was no one in front or behind the bar. He was about to turn around when a voice said,
He followed the voice to a dark corner, and answered into the darkness.
“Mind if I take a seat?”
That’s a female, he thought as he walked over to the stools, and sat on one. She came around the end of the bar, and in the weak light, he saw she was blond about five and a half feet tall. Suddenly some lights came on, and he could see, she was pretty. After a few more minutes, she came over to him.
“What will it be?”
“12 or 16?”
She poured the glass, and placed a coaster in front of him, and the glass.
“One dollar, please.”
“Sorry, no tab.”
He took out his wallet and gave her a dollar. She rang the cash register, and walked down the bar; through the swinging doors which he guessed was the kitchen. He was alone and sipped his beer. The door opened, and in walked another man. He wore a black top coat and black pants with black shoes.
Mortician? guessed Lyle. He took a stool about four away from Lyle. The woman came through the doors.
“Hi Paul,” she said.
“Hi Monica,” Paul said. Monica, thought Lyle.
She took a rocks glass off the bar; put a handful of ice in it, and poured two inches of Jack Daniels. She placed it in front of him wordlessly.
“I thought you said no tabs?”
“Mind your business.”
“I will when I’m treated fair.”
“Is there a problem?” asked Paul.
“Jesus,” Monica said, “it’s ten o’clock on a Tuesday morning, and I got more problems than Saturday night at twelve-thirty.”
“Have I done something to offend you?” asked Paul of Lyle.
“No. Monica has.”
“Listen mister, you haven’t been here ten minutes, and already you’re causing me grief. If you don’t like it, there’s plenty of bars in this town.”
Lyle threw his glass at the cash register; beer flew and glass shattered. Monica had blood on her cheek and a phone in her hand.
“Bitch,” growled Lyle as he walked toward the door.
He was several streets away and heard the sirens. He smiled to himself, and then, felt sad. This is what he wanted to change; his father wasn’t dead yet. He stopped walking and looked at the sky. Maybe I should go back and apologize, he thought. I have to do it differently this time. He walked slowly back toward the pub, and when he saw the cruiser, he stopped. He talked himself into it all over again. He walked into the pub, and there were two officers talking to Monica who had a bandage across her cheek. One officer got on either side of him.
“I came to say I’m sorry.”
“After you pay for damages,” yelled Monica. Paul went to Monica to calm her. The officers led him out to the sidewalk. One of the officers told him what Monica reported while the other officer watched him. He didn’t argue what happened, and said he wanted to say he was sorry to Monica. The officers didn’t know if they trusted him, and Lyle didn’t want to have to explain himself.
“What do you think, Brian?” one of the officers said to the other.
“We’ll be on either side of him.”
They led Lyle back inside. Monica, Paul, and another man Lyle guessed was from the kitchen sat at a table. The three men stood in front of them.
“I’m sorry Monica for what I did. I would like to make it up to you,” said Lyle.
“I’ll have to talk to the owner,” she answered, “he’ll be in around eleven.”
“I think he’s making amends,” said Paul.
“In case you’ve overlooked it, this is a barroom, not a church.”
Paul’s face got red.
“He better not let me get him alone,” said the kitchen man.
“I’d be careful there,” warned one of the officers. The kitchen man stood up, and stalked off, the door swinging behind him.
“Good place for him,” commented one of the officers.
“Listen guys, I appreciate your help, but the cruiser in front of my door is not real good for my business.”
“Are you pressing charges?”
“He’s making amends,” repeated Paul.
“Thank-you officers. Sorry to take up your time, but I think we can work this out between us.”
“Alright, we’ll file the report as such. Enjoy the rest of your day.”
The two officers walked out, and after the cruiser pulled away, three or four men scuttled in as a bunch.
“What’d I tell ya,” said Monica.
Now all he had to figure out was how to get the money. He and Monica agreed on a hundred and fifty dollars for damages – that and he couldn’t come back to Eli’s as a patron until the money was paid. He knew, of course, all he had to do was never go back and that would be the end of it. But he’d swore to himself over his father’s grave he wanted to be different than that. He liked Monica; he thought she was a classy broad. She kept the cops out of it which she didn’t have to do. Now it was his turn to do something he didn’t have to; he wanted to be classy like Monica. Only he didn’t feel badly enough about what he’d done; wasn’t remorseful enough, and he wanted to feel worse about it to motivate him to change. He tried to think of people who were good at feeling shitty, and right away, he thought of Vivian. She was always anxious, at what she did, or didn’t do, and problems were always her fault which he enjoyed because she was easy to abuse. Things started to change when she went to that woman’s group at the Y. She went to confession and talked about the shame of telling another person about her sins. Lyle thought if he said it out loud to someone else he would feel the full impact of how badly he acted. Catholics were good for that,he thought. He remembered the sign in front of the church: Confession: Tues & Thurs at 11:00 p.m.
That’s it, he thought, that’s what I’m going to do.
In the meanwhile, he looked for a job. The idle men gathered in the morning by the bandstand in the common, styrofoam cups in hand, and passed the word about jobs or women or horses or starting pitchers. The word was usually
irrelevant, or down and out bogus, designed to keep idle men idle. One of the men told the others,
“Benson’s is hiring second shift.”
And if one made the inquiry, he was told, that yes, a week ago Benson’s was hiring. But it was close enough so idle men could tell themselves they were looking for a job without having the disagreeable consequence of actually being hired. Lyle didn’t mind it at all sitting on a bench, laughing and telling stories with a cup of coffee from the community kitchen.
“Not many jobs available,” he said.
The church was cold and dark. It took a moment for his eyes to adjust to the light. He crossed the vestibule, and entered the nave, and saw several old women with their backs to him sitting in the last pew. There was a booth in the corner of the nave. He sat in the pew. None of the women made eye contact; the woman in the middle was fingering beads and moving her lips. A man came out of the booth. The woman closest to the booth got up and went into the booth.
“How long does it take?” he whispered to the woman next to him. She gave him a disapproving look and remained silent. Finally it was his turn, and he entered the booth. There was an opening with a curtain, and he sat in the chair.
“Yes, my son?”
“I’m here to tell you what I’ve done wrong.”
“Welcome. This is your first confession?”
“Yes, yes sir, it is.”
“Well, why don’t you tell me what’s bothering you?”
Lyle knew he heard the voice before.
“I threw a beer glass.”
There was no voice for a beat.
“You confess your anger?”
“Is that what I’m supposed to do?”
“Well, yes, that’s a start. Is that all?”
“I thought a bad word.”
“You took the Lord’s Name in Vain?”
“No. The Lord had nothing to do with it. I called her a bad name, but not out loud.”
“But you thought it?”
“Man, you guys don’t miss a thing, do you?”
“Maybe you should come see me in the rectory, and we don’t have to take the time during confession. You seem unfamiliar with the sacrament and that’s not fair to the others.”
“But I want to change.”
“That is still possible and I can offer you guidance in a less formalized setting.”
“You sound familiar. You ever go to Eli’s Pub?”
“Yes. But I’ve got to finish up this sacrament. Please come see me though.”
Lyle stood up and said,
“Have a nice day,” and walked out. He decided to wait and sat in a pew.
He had to wait only for the last old woman when Father Paul came out from behind the curtain. Lyle turned around and made eye contact.
“Oh?” said Father Paul.
“I thought it was you.”
Father Paul came and sat next to Lyle.
“I’m sorry to cut you off during confession, but I thought we could save time if you came to see me in my office.”
“So you’re a priest?”
“Yes. I am a priest.”
“I want to change my life, Father.”
“That is difficult to do. Not impossible, but difficult.”
“I thought if I confessed my sins it would help me change.”
“In theory, that’s the idea.”
“You sound like you don’t believe me.”
“Saying it is one thing, doing it is something else.”
Neither man spoke.
“Monica was good to me,” said Lyle.
“Monica is a good person.”
“I have to pay her money.”
“That’s a start.”
“What do you mean?”
“You have problems with anger?”
“I want to get to a state of what-do-you-call-it? Grace?”
Father Paul smiled.
“Well, why don’t we start with a small step?”
“Where are you going to get the money you need to pay Monica?”
“I’m looking for a job.”
“What kind of work do you do?”
“Can you do plumbing?”
“Never tried it, but I could learn probably.”
“I need someone who can do plumbing, a small amount of carpentry, and mow the lawn.”
“I could do that.”
“The pay is only eight dollars an hour.”
“I’m afraid so. But eight dollars an hour is better than no dollars an hour. If things work out there’s no reason why I couldn’t offer you a room in the rectory. I would have to ask you for a minimal rent to satisfy my superiors, but you would be in a good position to pay restitution to Monica which is the first step in changing your life.”
“You would be willing to do that?”
“If I believe you’re sincere yes. If I lose faith in you, then, things won’t work out.”
“Can we give it a try?”
“Sure. How are you going to learn plumbing?”
“I gotta friend who’s done some plumbing; I’ll see if he’ll show me some stuff. Sinks and toilets, I’m thinking.”
“Pretty much. You can start Monday by mowing the lawn.”
“What about the garden?”
“Oh Lord! The ladies of the parish tend to the garden. Stay clear of that.”
“All right. Monday then?”
“That will be fine. I hope this works out for you Lyle.”
Lyle remembered Boniface bowled on Tuesday nights. He went to the Lucky Strike looking for him, and of course, ran into Vivian. He was tempted to tell her he was a different man but restrained himself.
“He switched over to the automotive league on Thursdays.”
“Tuesday night too tough on him?”
“Naw, there’s some woman he’s sweet on.”
“How you doin’?”
“I’m working at it.”
“Really? You have a job?”
“I’m working at The Sacred Mary Church as a handyman.”
“Yeah, and I’m the Virgin Mary.”
“I’m not kidding, Vivian.”
“Father Paul comes here, you know?”
“Yeah, he’s helping me out.”
“I’m sorry about your father, Lyle.”
Lyle looked away. Several moments went by.
“Hey, maybe sometime we could have a bite to eat?”
“I get hungry everyday.”
“See ya,” he said.
He pushed the lawn mower about twenty feet before the front wheel came off. He looked at it, and saw it needed screws. He went to the church office to get some money from Father Paul, and went to the hardware store. He finished mowing the front of the church, and spent time picking up trash. Then he went out back, and mowed what little bit of lawn there was that wasn’t parking. He went to Father Paul’s office to give him the receipt from the hardware store.
“Could you mop the kitchen area in the basement, and when you’re done with that, I’m afraid that’s all the work I have for today.”
“Can I check back tomorrow?”
“Surely, although, I can’t promise anything.”
Lyle didn’t like the sound of that.
The following morning was raining and cool; the fog rolled across the graveyard as he stood looking down at the headstone. He couldn’t read the headstone, and then, it would momentarily clear, and he saw “Ernest Filton,
1966 – 2015, RIP.” before the fog obscured it again. He came here because he thought he had something to say to his father. He stood for ten minutes before he walked into the fog.
He went to the church looking for work. The woman behind the desk said Father Paul was out but he could wait. He watched her type. She ignored him until she asked,
“You mowed the grass yesterday?”
“I’m the new handyman, name’s Lyle.”
“Oh, hello Lyle, I’m Glenda, the church’s secretary.”
“Nice to meet you.”
“Now maybe we can get that toilet in the ladies room fixed.”
“What’s wrong with it?”
“Leaks. Stall on the left.”
He sat in silence until Father Paul came in; saw him, and went into his office, and came back out again to get him. The first thing Father Paul said to him was there was no work.
What about the toilet? he thought. Father Paul held the door open and said,
“Check back tomorrow.”
The ladies were in the pew just like last time. One of the women was murmuring a prayer, and he smelt incense. When his turn came, he entered the booth.
“You lied to me,” he said to the screen.
“Lyle? I can’t talk to you now. Come see me.”
Lyle left the booth.
Boniface Bonhomie was near the bandstand sitting on a bench. He had straight black hair pulled to a ponytail; high cheekbones, and red complexion. He sat motionless and staring straight ahead. Lyle saw him across the way, and took the liberty of sitting next to him. They sat without speaking until Lyle asked,
“Hey, man, can I ask you something?”
Boniface flinched and turned his head abruptly.
“Oh, I didn’t know you were there.”
“Can I talk to you, man? Sometimes I don’t know if you’re in this world or not.”
“There are forces we can’t see.”
“My problem is in this world. Can I tell you about it?”
“Sure, go ahead.”
“Can you show me how to fix a leaking toilet?”
“Yes, I can do that.”
“I mean tomorrow.”
“Oh, tomorrow I have to perform surgery at ten, then, argue a case before the Superior Court at noon followed by a guest appearance on Oprah Winfrey at five…”
“Come on, Boniface, I mean it.”
“Probably a gasket.”
“That’s not hard?”
“I’ll show you.”
“Go in Peace.”
Lyle waited for Boniface sitting on a bench in the front of the church. He saw him come up the street, and for some reason, he didn’t speak. He motioned with his hands and head. They went into the office, and Lyle told Glenda what they were doing. With mime, Boniface showed Lyle how to turn off the water; take up the toilet, and they went to the hardware store to buy a gasket. Boniface watched as Lyle put in the new one, and re-sealed the toilet. When they turned the water back on, no new water appeared.
“Hey, we fixed it!” exclaimed Lyle.
“No, you fixed it,” spoke Boniface.
Father Paul said he wanted the back of the church painted. Lyle figured it would take about a month, but that was all right, because it would do a lot toward paying Monica. He had trouble at first being up on the ladder, but got himself used to it. Then there was the bee’s nest he hit. He got stung good before he scrambled down the ladder. Matter of fact, he had to take a couple of days off to let the swelling around his eyes go down. But he was back at it. He got fifty dollars together, and gave it to Monica.
“I thought I’d never see you,” she said.
“You’ll see me again,” he answered.
Lyle was cleaning the windows in front of the church when he noticed a boy of about seven alone on the sidewalk. He continued to work, and when he looked again, he saw the boy was looking in different directions. He tried to go back to his job. He stuffed the rag in his back pocket, and walked down to the boy.
“Everything all right?”
The boy stared at him.
“I’m not going to hurt you, but you look lost.”
The boy said something Lyle couldn’t hear.
“Yeah, me grandpa.”
“Where is he?”
The boy looked around and put his arms out.
“You don’t know?”
“You don’t know where your grandpa is, is that it?”
The boy nodded.
“Do you live around here?”
The boy pointed.
“Can you show me?”
The boy shook his head.
“Will you come with me into the church?”
The boy shook his head.
“All right, will you promise me to stay right here while I go for help? Promise me?”
The boy nodded. Lyle watched him until he went inside.
“Call the cops and I’ll meet them outside,” he yelled at Glenda, and came back outside, and of course, the boy was gone. He ran up the street, and saw the boy in the distance. He ran to catch him.
“The cops will take you home,” he said.
The boy stared at him his eyes wide.
“Don’t worry. The cops…the police will help us,” said Lyle, “what’s your name?”
The boy looked away.
“Show me where you live?”
The boy shook his head. After five minutes or so, a police cruiser came slowly down the street. Lyle talked to the officer through a rolled-down window.
“He says he lives around here, but won’t show me where. He was with his grandpa.”
“We picked up the grandfather in Soldier’s Park.”
The officer got out of the cruiser, and went up to the boy. He took a lollipop from his shirt pocket, and gave it to the boy. Lyle saw fear in the boy’s eyes.
“Want to go see your grandpa?” asked the officer.
The boy cried and Lyle felt pain. It was the first time he felt this since his father died.
“You can sit in the front seat with me,” the officer said as he led the boy to the cruiser. The boy looked at Lyle. Lyle wanted to say something but the pain choked him. The cruiser moved slowly up the street. The following afternoon, Glenda showed Lyle the headline in the paper: “Man arrested for Indecent Exposure in Soldier’s Park.”
He couldn’t stop thinking about the boy; he wondered if he was all right. Father Paul mentioned his sermon at Mass on Sunday, and ordinarily Lyle wouldn’t have gone. He sat in a pew near the back. He listened to Father Paul. He talked about compassion, and for the first time, Lyle knew what he meant.
He couldn’t keep himself from going. He looked down at the headstone and said,
“I’ve buried you at last. I learned what you taught me, and was a loser for what you didn’t teach me, and in spite of everything, I love you still.”
RIZWAN SALEEM - DIVINE RETRIBUTION
Rizwan Saleem is a Banker based in Dubai UAE. The thoughts and expressions detailed in his works are of his various escapades suffered through life, and of the profound surprise of having survived long enough to pen them into words. His poems have appeared in anthologies Twenty Seven Signs by Lady Chaos Press and Self Portrait Poetry Collection by Silver Birch Press.
The destruction was complete. It was so stunning that he had to give pause to his brains. It was done with such force that to look upon the detritus of what remained was a task in its own. He tried to get his bearings on where he stood now. A homestead that he had come back and forth for so many years was now unrecognizable. What was this? What had happened here? Why did not even figure into his reason as yet.
He took a few steps forward, though in initial reactions would demand that he run forward to find his loved ones amongst the ruins that now lay scattered before him, but he was numbed by the sheer destruction that he was seeing. His pace quickened now, he went in the direction of the main house or what was left of it. Not one brick lay on another; straw binds and wood beams had broken into splinters crunched under his feet. As if some giant had taken a swipe and wiped all that he ever owed off the face of the earth.
At a distance from the debris he saw his dead children lay. Like broken and discarded rag dolls now no longer needed. He ran to them, he picked up his youngest, his darling girl, who only hours ago had pleaded that he bring back sweet meats for her upon his return. He turned her over and picked her up to hold her to his chest. Her limp lifeless body, now so cold. His eyes blurred with tears and the salt stung in his pupils. Her hair still smelled of fresh flowers and he buried his face in them to find final comfort. The other children lay at further intervals, scattered across this hellish landscape that was just a mere hours ago, so hard to believe, just hours, or was it just hours? The happiest place.
He lay his daughter down with care and ran to his sons, oh my sons, my boys. Broken limb to limb, dead and bruised my pillars. My strength, now lying dead in my arms.
He looked around in sudden alarm, seeking a focal point to this madness. There must be some sign, some spoor or trail that could explain this calamity. He found none. He stood up and stepping around the corpses of his sons ran towards the open fields and yelled out his wife’s name, but in reply all he got was the sound of the wind sweeping through the expanse.
There was nothing here now. Nothing but what remained of him, his life, his possessions; all that he had and was, taken in one fell swoop. His mind was too numb to react to all this and he fell to his knees and choked on sobs that were engulfing him like tsunamis. His hands dug into the fertile soil of his farm and he pulled out a tuft of it and let it crumble down between his fingers, just like everything he had it fell away. Then came a sound from his throat, an unearthly crescendo as if some demonic monster had been unleashed from the depths of Hades.
He cried out to the Azure sky as if to bring the heavens crashing down on the ruins of his family. But the sky remained unmoved, the clouds drifting slowly in their singular purpose, birds still chattering and hopping from branch to branch. Sun still shining in its full zenith, At any other time, perhaps like a few hours ago this would have been a beautifully pleasant day, life all around him was at a norm, only he, the bereaved had been destroyed, his family killed, his farm obliterated, and there he was, desolate, derelict and without an answers.
Ms. Fraser is a native New Yorker who enjoys going places to see and experience what different people do. She observes them and loves to write out their stories. She has published essays, reviews, as well as short stories."
The One Perfect Love Story We All Wish We Had Lived
We had connected a few times before when the invitation came. In person, over awkward coffee in pseudo comfortable Berliner cafes; sharing inappropriately early drinks by American standards; after bottles of finished red wine and love songs; by exchanging letters electronically whenever we felt like it. When the invitation came to see him in his house, in the surrounding state where he lives, I accepted it. I had planned on celebrating my birthday at the Depeche Mode party because dancing to misplaced and anachronistic nostalgia is awesome. I had planned on celebrating my birthday, which here happened to fall during a weekend made longer by a Christian holiday I had never even heard of, with dancing and boozing and not sleeping and making out with strangers and finger fucking girls in dirty bathrooms and maybe even being taken home by total strangers because they were hot and tall and spoke in tongues.
There was no moment of asking myself whether to consider his invitation, it was obvious I was going to come to him. It was an open invitation to begin with, so come to think of it the choice to align it with my day of birth was actually, truly, entirely mine. You took me in and said I could come and go as I pleased, you had the time and would be home.
I woke up on Saturday after little sleep and showered. After grabbing a few irrelevant items and a bottle of vegan wine, I made myself late for the train I planned on catching. I took a taxi. There was a massive cultural carnival all over Berlin and traffic cost me quite a few moneys and the possibility of only seeing you hours later, but - I made it. I made it onto the train with less than a minute to spare, still sat by the window and listened to Young Americans because that album is so awesome. On my way to becoming another year older, I felt fresher, younger, prettier, more American than ever. I loved the inching of the train that was taking me to you as the minutes passed. My Americanness exuded through every pore in the form of heavily-accented German spoken and a general fuck off attitude I love to lavish onto Europeans, specially those of the German kind. They're so tidy and I can futz with them by not sitting up straight and having my bag next to me unapologetically, which is pretty funny and juvenile.
So completely unromantically, you weren't there when I arrived. I came up and looked around a few times and just right before total insecurity set in I reached for my phone. Not to call you but to pretend you had so total strangers around me wouldn't think I was a loser who traveled to see a person who wasn't there. It was four minutes later when I saw you on your bike.
I was immediately happy. Your face smiled at mine with eyes and teeth even, the full grimace of the being. I never asked you why you were late and you never said a word, which was exactly how I would want the world to run but it doesn't. You're tall so I looked up to see your eyes, those pretty borderline squinted greenest of green eyes. Sometimes they're framed by glasses, sometimes they're not, and if they are you look intellectually advantaged, if they're not you look smart as fuck. I have no idea what we talked about because my thoughts immediately moved on without my demanding them to to the baser parts of me. You're essentially gd's gift to every woman who's ever said her prayers right when asking for an intelligent and handsome man. I must've gotten on my knees to get this according to the Church of the Ever Horny of the Glory Days, though I don't remember. I've gotten down on my knees alright, but never to pray though I may have said god and jesus loudly and repeatedly.
We talked adultly as we walked to your place. The town is adorable and I had seen it once before when I first came to your place, so it felt familiar. What we talked about mattered little but how we adjusted our energies again in the same squared footage air mattered most. There was comfort. Nicelties and perfectly measured head movements adorned the outer image of you, me, everyone we've ever known, our mothers and saviors. Mostly though you just looked hot and tall and I hoped we would kiss again.
Getting up the steps I felt the weight of what it meant to be in your space. I respect you so much I would never want to intrude and so I hoped the time we had set aside to be alone together would be just right and not too much. We had a glass of something, was it wine I don't know. It was early but we clearly drink alcohol indiscriminately which I enjoy. We sat for a minute and I had picked the chair away from you so I could face you but also not be close to you, not yet, later. I was ready as ever, but feared wanting to touch you so much that our pleasant introductions would've been ruined. You suggested a walk, I was up. You offered me socks and even shoes like the gentleman you simply are, or like the decent person I'm not used to. I declined since I'm never cold and when I am I enjoy being that. Plus I had my own shoes. The colors outside were magical, some yellow a hint of orange and up high blue and white like clouds and over there gray. It was everything and I was glad I wasn't egotistical enough to feel this hodgepodge represented my current emotions. Plus, they didn't. I was calm. I was happy. I was wet. That was about it.
I already never care whether I'll have something to say. Whenever with people I assume I'm the most interesting party and I let the rest take care of itself. If the person engaging can stretch what I even consider considering, I'll likely have something decent to bring up and debate and we'll have a nice time. With him it's even better: I don't wait for enticement. The allure of his thoughts was blatant and so very abundant from the first moment we exchanged language of some kind, and novelty became norm as we exchanged more words through time. This dynamic creates a destination with no bridge. With guessing discarded, destinations arrive at the speed of virtual reality in a sci-fi movie and then I'm there. Except I'm there, with you, and together we'll explore the newfound place and I'll get to look at your handsome face and perfect features too. Without questioning our ability to get there, someplace, any place interesting as all fuck I get to respect you more. I get not to judge the smartness of what you say. I get to trust.
It would seem the undeniable and plain ridiculous trust I have in you got cemented in my perception once your intellect matched my understanding like a fitting first sip of morning coffee. A series of one-liners really, just one fucking perfect thing said probably made this happen. I am inclined to feel ashamedly shallow, but fuck it. I'm shallow. I like smart and handsome and having had a bit of both here and there and sprinkled everywhere, to suddenly feast on these lavishly feels like freaking heaven. So as we walked outside your home and into some place I didn't wait for what's to come but instead just knew that somehow I'd end up somewhere wonderful.
There the streets are cobble-stoned and narrow, the houses are mostly old as fuck and quite a few are empty. Young people of the common kind don't come here to live, one would have to be self-sustained in many ways and pretty darn interesting to live here. Like you are. Between details of buildings and things along the way that meet the eyes, a destination arrives and it is meditation. Which took us to background information about my personal experience, Vipassana, Buddhism, emotional makeup, self, unity, release, forgiveness, forgetfulness, historical figures placed within those parameters and standards. Of course it is all shallow and it doesn't matter, of course I wouldn't sit here and write about how this is the most interesting conversation two people have ever had, but the space in between each thought and utterance and sexiest of all - all the things we don't say - are worth mentioning. I take most pleasure in these instances of communicating with him when I process the amount that's taken literally for granted, and rightfully so, because we both understand. If it matters a tad more, we fully disclaim the following statement with a "I know you know this", which we never had to discuss or agree upon using. It just happened.
There was a bridge and cows over there and a river below and a woman on a bicycle with the really pretty smile being freely offered. Sun shone, raindrops were lightly felt, mild winds blew and I walked with you. We questioned and answered but mostly created a safe space for these thoughts we may not usually care to share in the world. The absence of filter, it turns out, created the vulnerably secure space where courtesy thrives most. We headed back slowly and enjoyably, like the short description on a cereal box of what it's like to spend time with you.
Once inside your house, I sat next to you on the couch and after a few minutes of a video that played on a screen I found my head leaning towards your person and finding your shoulder. Without seeing your eyes or hearing you say a word your whole body accepted this formation change and it wasn't long before our hands touched. It was the first touch of the romantic kind we were sharing this time around. I felt a zing go up my entire body. From toe to head, like a sought-after sensation in a Vipassana-gone-wrong course. It sounds sexual, and it was, but it was also much more. I felt like heaven. A few minutes later and you said you were going into the kitchen to prepare dinner and I should stay here and lay down and get some sleep because I was tired and haven't slept much and then you came back with a comfy comforter and a big pillow and you put on violin concertos by Bach which you typed up in German because duh and the window was then opened and the wind blew softly and the trees moved about and the abandoned house encircled this fable-like image on a Saturday afternoon the day before my birthday. Over the next ninety minutes I experienced the image, the space, the sounds of secularly sacred music, the smell of your gorgeous cooking, the light touch of the wind, the drifting in and out of sleep as my body laid on your couch comfortably and the perfect weight of the bedding you provided and my fairly constant questioning of how just how I may have gotten so lucky. You came out and I woke up and together we brought out tons of small dishes with wholesome food from the kitchen. He made everything, he made lentils and paprika, hummus and arugula salad with tomatoes, he made asparagus and potatoes, dough that turned into bread, bread we broke together as I asked if they say that in German too and you said yes they do. We ate, we talked, I had to focus on relaxing about the fact that this man had cooked this entire meal for me. Sensorial overload in the best of ways, with the light coming through the window just right and adorningly, I sat there next to you and thought of nothing else. We leaned in and looked and nearly kissed a number of times and every time we got closer to touching lips I enjoyed both the anticipation and the future event itself. Vorfreude. I love that word.
Eventually it happened. We kissed. I barely know where it actually came from but then we know where it came from. What beautiful, soft lips you have. So do I. They match. It's wonderful. You're such a gentleman and your gentlemanly qualities show every time you by design put your hands here not there and I enjoy it because I know it won't last long before rawness happens. Wine glasses kept being filled and cigarettes rolled by you and smoked by us. Music kept on playing and we talked about things and laughed at stuff and it just felt like all good things I adore into one scene repeatedly and rapidly following another of different content but same kind. Without a script, two people doing stuff with and to each other that all happen to magically align with who they are and who they think themselves to be.
He taught me about the Eurovision Song Contest I knew nothing about. It's been decades, rules were this now they're that and the judges and the calling and just the sheer ridiculousness of the two of us sitting there in the middle of nowhere watching the European American Idol except not really because this one here came first. The things I find funny happen to be humorous to you too so we appreciate together the hilarity of these situations. We both know when we're being obnoxious and we both know not to indulge, maybe sometimes. Midnight happened faster than I expected. You wished good birthday wishes with a hot kiss and a graceful smile. We migrated to your bedroom and we meant to watch a fantastic European choreographer and his recorded work, but the touch and the hands and the kisses and the lowering your body under sheets to slowly spread my legs apart and play happened. Every time I think about that moment even after days my breathing is out of control and I shake my head no because the craving is such. I'm not sure what you did or how you did it but I actually lost all sense of being separate from my body and came hard and long and hard and longer and it felt like nothing else could happen that would ever be like this.
You left the room to bring back condoms and wine and after you placed yourself next to me we kissed and I woke up next dawn. On your chest, on the sweet delicate soft and beautiful skin that covers your chest I had fallen asleep despite the prospect of getting fucked on top of all the hotness of the night shared. Then came the embrace, the tightening of your arms around my entire person when you realize we're both slightly awake is stuff we read love stories and listen to love songs to understand. That one moment of matter, that one squeeze tighter than the previous grip, that extra yes I'm here and I'm holding you moment is all exactly oh fuck it's just what a girl without a father turned woman without mother could ever possibly want from a man.
How do you do it? I never told you. You barely know me. I still won't call it love because precision.
Especially in language.
We slept a few more hours, many more hours, we slept until we felt like it and didn't care. I woke up in your arms though our bodies had switched positions and I felt like nothing had ever hurt me. This wasn't the promise of I'll never hurt again because fuck that's a lie, this was the erasing of all that which came before. For once the present mattered so much I could live it without forcing the eternal monkey mind to stay. It had simply nowhere to go because it was too good here.
I was healed right then and there. And you hadn't even shoved yourself inside like I thought so many times next time I get fucked harder and faster, that's when the pain will end. You set me free and all it took was all of this in perfect amounts in pockets of perfect timing.
I was happy to meet your eyes when mine were open. It was a cloudy day, my favorite kind of day. We exchanged a few sleepy words but the ones that mattered meant you were happy to wake up next to me. So was I, so very much, but I didn't say it. We rubbed bodies, we touched parts, we morning kissed, which was a first for me. There was slowly getting up, there was coffee on the couch looking out the window. We spoke of the romance of others and relationship parameters not as research but more as observations. I thought to myself how most go through so much to get a quick glimpse into this bourgeois free-spirited pleasure-driven hours spent. We just had it, here, we were given. I checked that it was still alright for me to be here. People do that because they know is right, I guess maybe, we were doing it because we could. Had he said I've had enough company I want to be alone, I would've left truly completely I fuckingmeantitly without a problem. We both felt like hanging longer, so I stayed with you.
He was about to go play basketball and I went with him. I had a magazine with me, an issue of the New Yorker as it were, and we waited downstairs for his friend to pick us up. At the park, I saw nice structures for leisure and no one enjoying it. Towns like this one are happening all over the U.S. so I'm familiar with how this works. You told me about it when you took a break from playing. I'm introduced to your friends as my name which is really all I ever wanted to be. I'll never be something we title preceded by a possessive pronoun that refers to you and this we said, in a two-sentence exchange, the first time we met on purpose. Was it a date? What's a date? I like inside jokes too, you see.
I found a place in the shade under a tree that I didn't really look for. Your friends, two of them, played basketball on a sunny Sunday as I read chronicles of my hometown. Raindrops fell at one point and no one moved at first, which was totally right. Eventually we took ourselves under shelter that looked nothing like pictures literature of the English countryside could describe. Then again this isn't England, or the nineteenth century, or a Jane Austen novel. This is the realest community center park thing in the middle of a dying town in the middle of Germany and your friends were a guy who grew up here and never left and the other was a refugee from Iran whose wife and children were left behind and he spoke of German lessons and the last four months here in his new home I guess that's that. There were rooms behind doors locked for the weekend which I thought odd and we sat on a table outside under a thing, if this was a house this would be the porch. It rained harder then thinner and dust moved about and never really settled anywhere. We spoke English I heard mostly German and was delighted by the sound of his German-speaking voice at every turn. German is hot and so is he so you see. We hadn't touched at all in a while so when you sat next to me on the table and the back of our hand came into contact with the back of my hand it was zing and a little bit of hm.
Your friend who had spent his whole life in one place said he woke up humming a song and wanted to hear it, Three Little Birds he said I couldn't place it I guess I never heard it connected to its name sing a little I asked and he set melody to don't worry about a thing and we proceeded together to say every little thing is gonna be alright. This same friend pulled up his phone and after I said Bob Marley he found it and played it and these four completely different people with completely different narratives about what it's like to be human sat there and sang along while it poured even harder than before when it was softer after it had been hard. The smile on these faces whose joy derived from this one song coming from these tiny crappy speakers and years of all the stuff we're made of tried not for a moment to be cool. There was nothing cool about this crew and I felt so cool and happy and ready for life that I never remembered Brooklyn. He hates reggae as it turns out.
It was sunny again. They played some more. Handsome played soccer for leagues of some size in the long ago. So he played, I watched, we were doing nothing here on this Sunday except it was the first day of my thirty-fifth year and all the value I tried to find in the years that came before never came close to giving me this feeling of how much I wanted to be here, how much I enjoy being alive. That we should praise youth at all costs is lost on me since I cried at twenty one and was now simply having the best simple time. Oh yes, commerce. Must sell things to susceptible young people so that they too can wear it and use it and market it to others free of charge. Time passed by delightfully and this makeshift Austenic garden of sorts in the wrong country in the wrong century gave me all the right feels. Sense and sensibility and zero pride and what is prejudice I had all the gusto of a Bennett minus the annoyance of a young woman. This right here was Mr. Darcy in the way of politeness and great words and well-timed lip hugging, none of the stubbornness.
This right here was no promise of there ever being any more than this. This right here was no pressure on any performance of any kind and no expectations from my person and what then - what's left to offer is the purest it can be.
I felt the truest. I felt the purest.
We talked about choreography and things that matter to me. The options, the possibilities, the near future and what it may hold. We talked about German bureaucracy because what could be easier than that. He listened and I never tried to look pretty or cool or sexy or role assigned to me by the perception of others and it felt so freeing. I felt free.
We went back home. He was hungry. So was I. We still had all afternoon and all night because I was only leaving in the morning. I showered. We sat. We ate. We laughed. We kissed. We touched and rubbed and dry humped and loved one another's skin. He kissed all places and at one point I felt myself nearly losing consciousness when coming long and hard for the third time in a row. I said fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck and he promised he would. He loved my taste and I love his. He said he loved my body and it certainly loved him. The windows were open and the breeze and the music and the touches and all senses and sometimes we'd seriously stop and laugh at how ridiculously ridiculous and perfect this was. How could this be? I felt he knew my body better than I have managed to acquaint myself with it and I've lived in it this long.
We had champagne. After a while he wanted to make an apple cake - which really was very much like an apple pie, as American as that sounds - so I cut apples while he brought me beers at perfect intervals. I played my favorite songs and sometimes sang along with little consideration to pitch control. The day turned to dusk and by then we were intertwined again in enjoying our physical selves. I sat on his lap facing him. We played Heinrich Schütz and German hip hop. He brought out the work he's done and I was happy to see how proud he was of it. He said he's translating it so that I may read it. Who does that? He read poetry in German, I read the translation in English. He asked language questions we talked about those and America and how could he say I want to sleep with you?
All parts surreal, all parts adorable. Under the covers and by now it was actually pretty late, we drank whiskey and smoked final rolled up cigarettes. It wasn't long before his body was inside mine. I appreciated his gentleness and his manly touch alike and he said he loved my ass.
We spooned but not really and my hips moved out of sheer desperation, his hands cupped my breasts his breath was on the back of my neck and his lips kissed skin on the surface of all and various places; after he had made me come more times than I could ever care to count, we fell asleep again. Two exhausted lovers in a room dimly lit by candles.
"Look around you", he had said at one point. I didn't have to. This was an unbelievable setting to what had been a surreal weekend. We woke up a few hours later, and couldn't resist the presence of the other. We fell asleep again. We woke up a few hours later and couldn't resist these bodies we live and love in.
I finally got up he made coffee I packed my things he walked me to the station.
"I don't know what to say."
And I still don't.
Michael Marrotti is an author from Pittsburgh using words instead of violence to mitigate the suffering of life in a callous world of redundancy. His primary goal is to help other people. He considers poetry to be a form of philanthropy. When he's not writing, he's volunteering at the Light Of Life homeless shelter on a weekly basis. If you appreciate the man's work, please check out his blog:www.thoughtsofapoeticmind.blogspot.com for his latest poetry and short stories.
A VODKA INDUCED NIGHT OF TERROR
My mother, and her hundred proof presence, was half in the can by the time I arrived at my sister's wedding reception. This to me was tantamount to the gospel. Who needs Netflix when you have dysfunctional family members?
My sister, the superficial hairdresser, is a typical self serving American who has no concept of loyalty. And that's one of the many reasons I detest her.
Years ago when I was less of the man I am today, I dated a raunchy piece of trash from the lowest class neighborhood in Pittsburgh. We were bad for each other, our relationship was caustic. She was a vile beast with no manners. The type of cunt to pull your card in public, then fart afterwards. I had to break my lease and move back in with my inebriated mother, just to get rid of her.
I made the pivotal mistake of introducing the beast to my intellectually bankrupt sister. It was all trashy betrayal after that. I officially lost my feeble minded sibling.
It felt like she moved in with us after that day. Those two morons were inseparable. Fights would break out over anything and everything. The beast was emulating the dysfunctional, trashy antics of her trailer trash mother. There was no winning, especially when your own sister is against you.
I experienced reformation the day I walked out on that beast. Although, my sister still claims I'm a piece of shit, plus she stayed friends with her after that to push the knife in a little deeper.
My sister's reception was a pretentious display of materialistic pleasure. There was enough fried food, booze and cake to satisfy the most gluttonous of American citizens.
It was like a trip to the past, only without the nostalgia. I gazed amongst the vacuous crowd of people I once called friends. After conversing with a handful of them I suddenly felt a headache coming on strong.
I haven't seen any of these people in over a decade, but nothing has changed besides their weight. They haven't evolved one bit, and all they wanna talk about is the past, and the beast, (like those were happy times for me).
I felt insulted. They all had their menial jobs they were so proud of. This blew my mind, man.
When it was my turn to talk I told them I've become a writer. They showed no interest, and quickly changed the subject. Irritated to no end, I congratulated them on their fancy name tags and satirical job titles. Then I walked away to get another bourbon.
That's when I ran into my mother. If I ran into her anywhere in this antiseptic congregation of Americanism, it would definitely be at the bar.
She took notice of me and said, "You're a fucking asshole. Why don't you visit your only mother?"
I took a hard hit of my drink and said, "Is it any wonder why? I can't even get a fucking hello from you without an insult."
"Look here, asshole. I will fucking embarrass you."
I reached in my pocket to diffuse the situation by handing her an adderall. I wanted her on top of her game tonight. It was after all a special occasion.
"Just shut up and swallow this, Mom. I know how much you cherish your amphetamines. Kills the hangover right?"
She popped it in her mouth, chewed it up, then chased it with a large mouthful of vodka.
"Thank you, Mario. Sometimes you're good to your mother."
"I treat you better than your own daughter. Did you hear what she originally wanted?"
She drank the rest of her vodka, made the vodka face and said, "No. What did my lovely daughter want?"
"Come on, Mom. Don't be naive. You know she didn't want you here. She calls you 'The Hundred Proof Buzz-kill'."
"Why the Fuck would she say that?"
"I'm assuming it has something to do with your belligerent behavior. It also sounds like a personal jab at your drinking habit."
She ordered another drink and downed it within seconds. Then she said, "If that little bitch wants proof, she'll get it!"
My alcoholic mother is way too naive for her age. Her moronic daughter would never think of something so clever.
She ordered another drink, then took off on a rampage.
I walked over to an unoccupied table, double fisting bourbon. The vacuous crowd carried on in their celebratory ways. The main event of this special occasion was about to begin, but not before I had to converse with the groom to be.
He said, "Yo, what up?" in his extremely banal hip-hop lingo kind of a way. Other words were thrown in to the repertoire like, "gyeah" and "aight." After a single minute I was ready to bust a bottle over his self loathing cranium. This is the clown my dumb fuck sister is marrying.
After another ten seconds I cut him off from his hip-hop monologue to say, "Dude, you're guilty."
He gave me a puzzled look and said, "Guilty of what, yo?"
I took a hit of my non-menthol cigarette, blew it directly in his face and said, "Guilty of being white."
He took a few steps back and said, "What's that suppose to mean?"
"It means, no matter how many black cocks you try to cram down your dorky white throat, it doesn't change the cosmetics. You fucking emulators make me wanna catch a felony. You're a shame to your own kind, and the black community can't stand you."
"Man, what the fuck is your problem?"
"I just fucking told you!"
My sister magically appeared during this quarrel, and felt a need to defend her emulator.
I told her to "take a walk" and reminded her of her belligerent mother as I pointed behind her.
Her emulator turned around and said, "Yo, she looks pissed! I'm out."
He disappeared in the midst of the crowd, taking his hip-hop swagger away with him. I stayed seated for the main event that was conveniently coming to my direction.
My superficial sister appeared to be apprehensive. After years of abuse, you can kinda sense a disaster.
Her sister in law came over to say, "Hi."
I told her "You're just in time for the main event." That's when it began.
My mother's first target was the sister in law. She staggered on by with a fresh glass of vodka and said to her, "How's the lesbo thing going?"
My sister's jaw dropped.
The sister in law jilted her head back and said, "What are you referring to?"
"The lesbian thing, you dumb bitch. How's the lesbian thing working out for you? I heard you have a perceptive eye when it comes to finding a contaminated yeast infection!"
I'm laughing out loud with my finger pointed at my mother's victim to emphasize how much joy I'm getting right now, at her expense.
To my belligerent mother's defense, the woman is not a homophobe. In fact, the only people she hates with a passion are the ones who are of direct relation to her.
My mother's victim screamed, "Go fuck yourself!" as she took off in the opposite direction.
My sister Robin screamed, "This is why I didn't want to invite you!"
At that precise moment the crowd stopped dancing. All the mundane small talk turned into silence.
I was sipping my bourbon, laughing like an asshole. The only thing missing was popcorn. Retribution took years to acquire, but in this special little moment, it was well worth the wait.
This is what you deserve for your disloyalty to your only brother, bitch.
My drunk mother screamed back, "You ungrateful little slut! How dare you speak to me like that in public! Take a look around, loser! Who do you think paid for all these amenities? It sure as Fuck wasn't that thing you're getting married to! He's nothing but a dead-end fiscal failure! The man makes twenty five thousand a year. Pathetic! And you little Miss pretentious, with your ass kissing job as a hair stylist. Don't make me puke up my vodka. You can barely make ends meet! Show some respect, and apologize to your mother!"
I love it.
This is the first time in awhile my name hasn't been brought up for slander. All the drunken eyes were on them.
You could've heard a heartbeat from across the room. That's how zoned in Robin's friends were. I was eagerly anticipating the climax as well.
Out of nowhere, instead of waiting for the possibility of an apology, my mother, the monster, made the wise choice of tossing her precious glass of vodka all over Robin's sparkling white dress.
This was the last straw for Robin. She's been belittled, and humiliated by her mother countless times in the past, but this was the one that pushed her over the limit. This was after all supposed to be Robin's special day.
Robin shoved my mother onto the table, almost hitting me with the body of a drunken loser, who is powerless over her own embarrassing actions.
I can almost guarantee that's when the Adderall kicked in. My mother regained her composure, but she appeared to be different. Her eyeballs were bulging out of the sockets. Perspiration was building up on her forehead. I felt an uncontrollable growth of Adderall induced speed emanating from her inebriated body. She was fucking wired.
My mother the monster, reached back with her shaky Adderall hand and threw it forward with all her extra energy and might, smashing Robin in her stupid fucking mouth. Her mouth followed the hand, and with it a stream of blood. Then she hit her again, and again, and again. It was so fast that you couldn't even keep track of the hits.
Robin was laid out on the ground, still getting bitch slapped by my mother, when screams of terror echoed throughout the building.
I heard someone scream, "The police are coming, you fucking crack whore!"
It was an awesome show that exceeded my expectations. I stood up from my seat to give a standing ovation. The crowd caught on and began to applaud with me. We were all slightly buzzed, or profoundly drunk. We could've been high on marijuana or sober. At that point it didn't matter. There are some forms of entertainment that need no assistance, or helping hand.
Robin took all the hands she could get, and we'll always remember her for it.
JENA MAHARRAMOV - DRAW HOME
Jená Maharramov has written poetry, short stories, and novellas over the past several years, with a few of her works published in local literary journals. Jená enjoys writing, as well as other forms of creative expression. In her spare time, she maintains a blog: www.gaudylanguage.com. She also models, acts, and (most recently) wrote and produced a short film entitled: If Not Now, When?
Her body had lain at the bottom of the terrace stairs for days in the bitter cold. A family friend had gone searching for her- well, all of them had been searching for her- but he had been the one to discover her cold form sheathed in a thin nightdress. Later, he’d tell our circle of friends that she’d looked peaceful- as though she’d merely tumbled into bed to slumber. He’d never tell that to me though- after a time, none of my friends wanted to exchange anything but the shortest greetings with me.
Perhaps I should tell you more about myself- it certainly isn’t very polite to start a story with the most grisly part. It’s a bit jarring. Well, maybe I wanted it to be a bit jarring. After all, I was quite rattled when they called me that chilly evening to tell me that my wife had been found at the bottom of the cold terrace steps at our vacation home that we shared with a few other friends. They told me, breathlessly, that they didn’t see any signs of foul play when they discovered her. They said the police were on their way and that I must hurry, hurry! there to be by her side.
I can’t remember what I’d said to James, Dove’s old friend, but I worry even now that whatever I had said had been too calm for someone who had just lost a spouse. Well, everyone grieves differently, right? And everyone expresses shock differently. I truly was surprised by the news. And saddened! I was saddened, but there was a dark part of me that was glad. And I fear even now that when James told me that he’d found her lifeless body at the bottom of the stairs, that he had heard a note of joy in my voice.
The woman looked at me quizzically as I spoke on the phone, the blankets tucked around her like a cocoon. I waggled my eyebrows comically- I’m not sure why I did that- and she smiled slightly, giving view to those perfect, straight, white teeth that I’d noticed when I met her. She then lowered the blanket seductively, given view to her naked, youthful body.
I realized then that I might be a bad person.
I’m not a bad person. Not really. The story I’m recounting makes me seem like a bad person- really I’m just a person. Merely human. I’ve done some tremendously good things in my years here on earth and I’ve done some tremendously bad things. I suppose we’ll all answer to our crimes on Judgment Day, as they say. My crimes are not as bad as those of most and that gives me some comfort. I don’t go about with a sense of moral superiority, as some do. Pompousness isn’t one of my crimes- well, at least not moral pomposity. I’ve been accused of being pompous in regards to my fame.
I’m a bit of a celebrity. Well, more than a bit of a celebrity. Anyone with children under the age of 13 knows me. I’ve written children’s books for the past twenty years of my life, helped turn some of those
children’s books into movies, and have had more public appearances and public speaking engagements than I can count.
It’s really quite odd, if you consider that fact that I started out wanting to be a dentist. After I realized the error of this thinking, swamped in the rigors of dental school, I dropped out and decided to give art a chance. I’d always been a fairly decent artist, even had a few works shown in local galleries in my late teens, but I’d never thought it would ever be an actual career choice. Careers were done in medical offices or courtrooms or even in halls of learning, not sitting behind an easel or sketching on a scratchpad. When I broke the news of my academic failure and subsequent career change, I think I broke my mother’s heart. My father, characteristically, unleashed his wrath upon me and then made peace with it. I think my mother resented me quietly until the money from my children’s books and movie deals made me much, much more wealthy than a dentist could hope to be.
It was while I was a misguided, young dreamer that I met Dove. The youngest child of five, she was energetic, brash, quick-witted, and determined. I had grown up the only child of two wealthy parents, coddled in the arms of White suburbia. Dove, on the other hand, had grown up around the country, dragged along by parents who were both wealthy and bohemian in nature. Her lineage was a mixture of African, Hispanic, and Native American, which was etched in her dark eyes and across her high cheekbones. I met her in a café as I was doodling on a napkin, wondering what the next decades of my life would look like.
She had walked by and stopped dramatically, eyeing my drawing with curiosity and delight. “You do this for a living?” She asked me. I told her I wanted to. “You should.” She said simply, and left the café.
I went to that same café nine days in a row trying to see if she’d come back. The owner had started to regard me with unmasked suspicion by the fifth day. “You must really like these tarts,” he’d said quietly, almost staring through me with his sharp eyes.
“I find it’s a great environment to draw,” I said, cheerfully.
“On my napkins?” He’d retorted, but he let me walk away without further inquiry.
On the ninth day, I looked up from another one of my doodles to see her walk in and sit in a corner. I wish I could tell you that I had some clever line or was remarkably charming. I wasn’t. To be honest, I found myself stammering over all my words. I’d never seen anything like her before. No brown women with large dark eyes and clouds of black, curly hair had ever entered my world before. I think she found me a curiosity and so we began to meet at the café once a week to talk. Eventually, we met outside the café. And some time later, we were in love.
I’m simplifying things, of course. Nothing is ever so easy. At least not for me. First, there was the matter of getting her to continue to talk to me. I did this by being an oracle of art facts and interesting trivia. When this well ran dry, I tried mentioning aspects of my parents’ wealth- the tennis courts, the cars. She didn’t find this at all interesting, considering the fact that her family was also wealthy and was not the tennis court type. She told me on our honeymoon that the reason she’d decided to start dating
me was because she told me she was writing a book and instead of patronizing her, as many men did, I’d given her constructive criticism. Some men have interesting brains, some men have the bodies of Greek gods…I have constructive criticism in my romantic arsenal.
Our parents accepted our relationship very differently. Her parents were always very “free love”- you know, that hippie sort. They met me and immediately complimented my aura, my vibe. (For all the people who look upon me with disgust now, I would like to tell you that her parents loved my aura!) They immediately welcomed me into their home, into their family. Now, my family, on the other hand was a bit reticent. Like me, they’d never really spent an extended period of time interacting with brown people with big curly clouds of hair. That sort of people always existed in our periphery, perhaps in our subconscious. Not in our living room with a glass in her hand and her other hand tightly entwined in the hand of their son. I’m sure, like my abbreviated collegiate career, this choice was a surprise.
I don’t want to get bogged down into too many details but now, as I’m relating my story to you, I find myself feeling the sharp pangs of nostalgia. I told you in the beginning that my wife had died- had been found at the bottom of our guest house stairs and I found out about her death while…engaged in carnal pursuits with another young woman. I told you that I’d felt a sense of joy upon learning of her death. I’m sure this paints me as a terrible person. I did love Dove. I’m sure I love her even now- that I cherish her memory somewhere in the recesses of my heart even as I cavort with that other woman. After all, she was the reason I even found myself doing my dream job- that I am publishing children’s books and serving as screenwriter for my movie adaptations instead of being a failed dental student living off his parent’s trust fund.
Dove’s family friend, James, had recently been hired to a publication company, in the children’s division. He was a tall, quiet man, large hawk-like nose and spectacles, the quintessential editor in appearance. He had an obvious crush on Dove, which he tried to hide with the almost constant adjustment of his glasses. I pretended not to notice anything and was as warm to him as though he were my own family friend. It paid off when Dove convinced him to publish my first children’s book: Spinder Spider and Her Grand Adventure.
I’ll be honest- the book was utter trash. I say that with great confidence after having many more books under my belt now and also, having an inkling of that same fact even as I handed it in. It was the most simplistic of story lines and the drawing was not my best work. I did it mainly out of desperation, fearful that perhaps the artist’s life wasn’t for me and I would spend my life as a freeloader. (I was living with Dove at that point and we were to be married in six months.) Even as I gave it to James, I had the perverse desire to have him glance through it and throw it back in my face. Perhaps part of me was worried that people might like the book and then I’d have to come up with better stories.
The book was published and the public devoured it. I did book signings for that stupid book, trying not to look sheepish as I signed short missives to little Timmy or Tommy or Ashley or whomever. Of course, Dove loved it all- she was always one for a lot of fuss and drama. She helped to organize most of the book signings and went to them with me, seated beside me like a queen. Perhaps I’m making her sound pushy or like a prima donna, but she wasn’t. She just believed in me and my work. Her belief is why I
continued writing and drawing, eventually writing less and less garbage and more and more decent work.
Ah, Dove. Those were the best times, I think. We weren’t really struggling- it wasn’t one of those stories where the young couple struggles for years until they finally make it. We both grew up wealthy and because of this, nothing was ever really a struggle. Either we or our families had connections that would help us enter almost any field we had an interest in. I don’t say any of this to sound arrogant, only to paint a better picture for you of the lives we lived. These were the best times because we were discovering each other, Dove and I. Not only physically but also mentally and emotionally. We began to understand each other’s thoughts as though we were thinking them. It was one of the single most beautiful things I’d experienced in my life. And of course, you’re thinking that if it were so beautiful, why did I find myself with some young naked woman while others searched for my missing wife- please, don’t make me terrible yet. I want you to understand the wonderful thing my wife and I had together, when we were just beginning.
Dove began to design and sell clothing, which was a very successful venture. She loved sitting up all night trying to gain inspiration from random things. Personally, I could wear the same brown pants and white shirt every day. (She saw to it I didn’t.) I say with some shame that I wasn’t nearly as supportive of her career as she was of mine. Not that I didn’t want to help her- I just didn’t understand exactly what her career entailed. Sometimes I showed up to her meetings or to model fittings and I felt instantly like a grubby, out of place tree. The clients’ eyes would look me up and down and then past me as though I were an odd and distasteful piece of artwork. The models treated me with the same disregard with which most of society treats the homeless. After a time, I stopped accompanying her.
Marriage had always scared me. I’m not sure if this is the appropriate time to insert this particular information, but this fear is integral to the story. You’ll have to forgive me- I’m a writer of children’s stories and these stories are very good but very simplistic. I’ve never had to spell out the reasons for my sins or delve into the darker aspects of my psyche. I like writing about puppies and rabbits and ladybugs who talk to flowers. Of course, my story requires less gentle protagonists.
Marriage had always scared me and to a degree, I think it scared Dove too. I had no direct experience with divorce but I had seen it among family members. Even a few of my acquaintances had experienced divorce and we hadn’t even reached thirty. It just seemed like a horrid proposition, a gamble. You try making a life with another human being and if it didn’t work, you could suffer a horrible split. Not to mention the mess it could make of your finances. Not to mention the fact that you’re tying yourself to another human being for life. For life. For life. Those words echoed in my head over and over as I tried to decide if I should propose to Dove. Could I be a husband? Could I have a lifelong relationship? What if I found someone else I liked more? I know that sounds callous but how can you ever be sure that you’ve found THE ONE for you when you’ve only met a small percentage of ones throughout your short, young adult life? I thought I loved her but what if I was wrong? There are so many beautiful women in the world. Of course, I couldn’t be sure in my twenties that I was making the best decision for the entire rest of my life.
Still, Dove was wonderful. In the moments I spent with her, I felt like I was something more than what I was. I certainly felt I was more talented that what I was. In the time that I was starting as a writer and artist, it was her confidence in me that actually made me feel like I was shining. I was simply reflecting her enthusiasm. Later, I’ll admit, the adulation from the public took her place and I found myself seeking her support less and less. Later, when I began receiving emails from fans of my work or had people stop me in the streets because they recognized me (this came after my movies) I found myself more distant from Dove.
But we weren’t talking about how it fell apart, were we? We were talking about the beautiful beginnings. We moved into a beautiful white house with a white picket fence after we were married. It was almost nauseatingly perfect in appearance. We even adopted a little white dog named Rusty- well, Dove adopted him, I merely tolerated him. (I’m happy that when Dove left, that little yapper disappeared too.) We filled our house with furniture and other gifts given to us by family members. We made love in random places- even outside in the backyard twice. We worked hard at our respective careers with the bright optimism of our youth.
I had feared falling for other women after I was married- I didn’t find this to be the case, not when we lived in that white house and looked into each other’s eyes instead of at the stars at night. I noticed beautiful women, certainly, but Dove outshone them. I had always had many female friends since my college days, but there was something about Dove that was more alluring, more amazing. Like I said, those were the happiest times of our lives together.
Now I’ll tell you how it fell apart. That’s the most interesting part, isn’t it? Not when things are particularly beautiful but how uniquely and irrevocably they are damaged?
I became famous, I told you that. I was the writer of some of the most popular children’s books in the country. I got to work with celebrities when we did adaptations of my films- they even gave me a little director’s-type chair. I was such a fool about that chair. It had my name on it and everything- I took it home when filming was done and would allow no one to sit on it. Of course Rusty, that little hell hound, would gnaw on the chair legs, but it was still a symbol of how far I’d come professionally.
Dove and I had been married about fifteen years at that point. Fifteen years. It had gone by in a flash. We’d moved from the white house with the picket fence to a larger house after the movie deals. This house was brick with a stately wrought iron fence around it. Beautiful. But cold because of the ghosts that haunted it.
Not literal ghosts- this isn’t a horror piece. Just ghosts of the past. Things that had happened that we dragged along like suitcases. I want to tell you how things got bad for us. We had a daughter, Dove and I. We conceived her under the stars in the backyard of the white house with the white picket fence. Her name was Lillian after my grandmother and she was beautiful. I had feared marriage but I had never feared parenthood. I’d always loved children- hell, I was a children’s book writer. When I held Dove in my arms, I felt like I was unstoppable. When I held my daughter in my arms, I felt vulnerable. I can’t describe the feeling of having a child- I mean, I had nothing to do with the childbirth, but actually holding a baby in your arms, a part of you…It was the most incredible feeling I’d ever had.
I remember the book I was working on- Peter Pea and the Tree it was called. I’ll never forget the book I was working on. I still have it- it’s buried in one of my trunks in the garage. One day, I’ll have the strength to look at it again. I’ll never publish it.
I was working on Peter Pea and the Tree while Lillian toddled around in my office. Dove was out shopping with friends- it was her day to get a break from the rigors of child care and I was in charge of watching our little girl. Lillian was never too much trouble- she was a sweet child, her sparkling eyes were the color of spring meadows like mine and she wore an almost perpetual smile. Everyone doted on her and she absorbed our love like a sponge. My little Lillian.
Rusty, that little nuisance, had been entertaining Lillian for several minutes but then began whining and pawing at the door. I tried ignoring him but he set up such a racket that finally, with a sigh, I pulled the door open and let him scamper out. Now Peter…next Peter meets Gertie. That’s the next part of the story, I thought as I made my way back to my desk.
I cannot describe to you the sound I heard. I don’t want to describe to you the sound I heard. It was the most horrifying sound I’ve ever experienced and it haunts my dreams still, these many years later. I heard her short cry and then that sound and everything seemed to stop for a moment, even my heart. My legs were unsteady as I stood up and turned to where Lillian should have been. She should have been there on the rug playing with her toys but she was gone. I looked and the door was open- I’d let that wretched dog out and had forgotten to close it. I stumbled through the door as though drunk. “Lillian!” I yelled. “Lillian!” And I knew she wasn’t there- I knew she wasn’t inside because the sound had come from outside and it was a horrible sound but I couldn’t stop yelling- it was like a mantra. It was like an incantation and maybe if I said it loud enough and fast enough, everything would be okay and she would be there, on my rug playing with her toys. The door to the room next to my office was open. I walked through. The window was open. I walked over to it. And looked down.
I called Dove to tell her what happened. She’d hung up on me. She called me back, accusing me of pulling the most inexcusable prank on her, but when I started crying, wailing actually, she hung up on me again. And I was alone with the police and the paramedics, who were gathering up the remains of my daughter from the asphalt of the driveway. At the time I didn’t know they were her remains- for some reason, I had the wild hope that she had survived the fall from the second story window. I insisted that they be careful. I asked them which hospital they were taking her to. I told them to do all they could. They looked at me with awkward pity. Her neck was at an unnatural angle- at the time, I didn’t want to see it. She had stopped breathing- I didn’t want to believe it. I told them to do all they could. The police began asking me questions. It was the damned dog, I told them. It was the damned dog. If not for the dog, I would have never opened the door. They took notes.
Dove parked on the street and came flying up the driveway, her hair spreading out around her head like a lion’s mane. Her face was open and vulnerable. Her eyes were shining and wild. She was primal. For some strange reason, I remember thinking that next to our wedding day, this was the most beautiful she had ever looked.
She only regarded me for half a second before she searched for our baby. When she saw her, her voice rose up in a wail. “My baby!” She cried. “My baby!” She screamed it over and over. It was her own incantation but Lillian wouldn’t be coming back. I was in awe of her grief and was too afraid and ashamed to approach her. I stood there watching the scene as though I were just a bystander- as though it were an interesting play. It was amazing, that sense of unreality. That sense that I would wake up and everything would go back to the way it was.
I don’t know why Dove stayed with me. Thinking back now, we should have divorced then. I wonder if we had, if things would have been different for her. If she might still be alive. She might have died anyway. I think we stayed together because we didn’t know what else to do. We had already suffered one loss, divorcing would create another. So we stayed together and it was terrible for us both.
She blamed me for Lillian’s death. She didn’t say it- it was in her body language. At the funeral, she smothered her face in her father’s shoulder and didn’t once look in my direction. When we were home together, she floated through the house silently, not saying a word. Occasionally, I could feel her eyes on me as though she wanted to ask me something but when I looked up, she didn’t say a word. For my part, I spent a good amount of that time in some sort of catatonic state. I don’t remember details about that time. I don’t remember how much I ate or drank. I did lose several pounds. I put my work on hold and didn’t pick up a pencil or use my laptop for several months.
Dove had to contend with grief. For me, it was grief mixed with guilt. It was almost unbearable, the way my mind whirred- the way it tried different scenarios. The way it told me that if I had just remembered to shut the door, she would still be alive. The way it told me that if I had just paid attention- if I hadn’t been so engrossed in my work, that I’d still have my daughter. I had been punished by the Heavens for my negligence, that’s what it was. And my wife blamed me for my daughter’s death and I suspected that our friends and families felt the same. This was probably the lowest period of my life.
I’m not sure what broke me out of my grief. I didn’t attend the grief classes with Dove, partly because I didn’t like reliving that day, especially with strangers. Also, Dove hadn’t asked me to go with her. I don’t know why the clouds parted for me. Perhaps one day a television show came on and I was actually able to laugh for once. Maybe the sun shone one day and it was a welcome sight instead of an annoyance. It didn’t mean that I missed Lillian any less, but I felt as though I wanted to keep living instead of being an organic mannequin.
When I began to live again, Dove seemed to resent me even more. I think in her mind, I should have been suffering twice as hard as she was because it was my fault that our child was dead. She almost said as much once, but bit back the words and ran from the room. She began sleeping in another room. I began sleeping in my office chair. I didn’t want to be in our bed alone.
When Lillian died, the newspapers picked up the story. They were wretched about the whole thing, calling the house throughout the day and trying to get a statement. Absolute vultures. They reported that the “daughter of children’s book author and fashion designer” was killed after a fall from the
second-story window. One online publication went so far as to insinuate that I had thrown my own child from the window, but after a heated threat to sue them, they removed the article. It was like the world was taking my grief and making it their own entertainment. It drove Dove and I even further apart.
I was doing a book signing when the woman approached with her son. She had dark eyes with long brown hair. Her face was plain but she smiled and it lit up everything around her. Her son looked at me as though I were some sort of mythical creature.
“Hello, I know we are one of the last people here and you must be tired of hearing this, but I wanted to tell you that my son just loves your books. He won’t sleep unless I read one to him.”
“Thank you, that’s very kind of you to say.” I responded, politely. She was right- I had heard that same line over and over for the past few hours. Still, her eyes were wide and genuine. I signed her book and returned her smile with my own.
Suddenly, she waved her little boy over to one of the bookracks and leaned in. I unconsciously leaned forward too. “I heard about your little girl and I am so sorry.” I recoiled slightly and her expression became one of contrition. “I’m sorry, I know that’s a terrible thing to bring up here at your book signing but I heard about it on the news and I just wanted to let you know that I feel for you. You seem like a good man and…I just…I feel for you.”
I stammered a thank you. I don’t know what possessed me to say what I said to her but I muttered: “Most people are just upset with me. Hell, I’m upset with myself about what happened. I just wish I could change it.” She nodded and then scribbled something on a slip of paper.
“Excuse me, my daughter and I have been waiting here a long time.” A man complained in the line behind her.
“I’m sorry, sir!” The woman gave me a brief smile then dashed off to collect her son, who had grown bored with looking at the bookrack and had started kicking things.
The woman- “Sarah” her scribbled note stated- had given me her phone number on that little corner of paper. I had put it in my pocket and spend the rest of the hour signing books, absentmindedly. I wondered why she had given me her phone number. Did she want to talk more about the loss of my daughter? Was she looking for more of a romantic exploit? I went home that day, touching the piece of paper in my pocket as though it were some sort of talisman. I wasn’t very happily married at that point, but I did have a lot of respect for Dove. If Sarah wanted something untoward, I simply wasn’t going to be a part of it. But if she wanted to be a listening ear, then that would be nice. After all, I had grown weary of Dove’s silence, her parents’ accusing stares, and my own parents’ drawn mouths and haunted eyes. I had lost my daughter too, but everyone looked at me as though I had engineered the whole thing. As though I were the villain of the whole story.
Sarah’s phone number went into my little drawer, hidden among all my socks. I tried creating some sort of conversation with Dove, but as usual she was hidden from me. Since our daughter had died, she had
built some sort of invisible wall against me. Even on decent days, when I could coax a smile from her, I still felt as though there were part of her that I couldn’t see and could never again reach. But in order to avoid arguments, I acted as though these were old times. As though the guarded Dove was the Dove I had loved for years.
We argued over something small, I remember. I think it was something related to the dishes. If not the dishes, it was something in the kitchen, because that’s where we began screaming at each other. I can’t remember what I said to her but suddenly, for a split second, that invisible wall came down. But instead of revealing that beautiful vulnerability that I remembered, there was only sheer hatred. The anger smoldered in her eyes and for a brief moment, I wondered if she would take one of the carving knives from behind her and jab it into my chest. Would she be capable of that? If she destroyed me, I wondered, would it bring back her happiness? She would never again have to look into the eyes of the man who had allowed her daughter to toddle out of a window to her death. She would never again have to make small talk with this grotesque person or attend family functions with him by her side. All of it could be a memory if I were gone. She didn’t grab for the knife, though. She just stood there, focusing her hatred at me as though it were a spotlight and I cowered.
I called Sarah that night, after Dove had taken off to spend time with her girl friends. She was having more and more of these women’s outings and I suspected that they spent them talking about me and my failures as a husband. I used to be welcome among all her friends- I think one or two of them even harbored a slight crush on me, especially Ally who was always trying to find ways to talk to me and always gave me a lingering look when she said goodbye. Now, they all looked at me with forced smiles while their eyes regarded me darkly. I stopped talking to them altogether, after a while.
The phone was sweaty in my palm as I waited for Sarah to pick up the phone. I felt as though I were in high school again, about to ask a girl to see a movie with me. The phone rang three times and then I heard her voice. “Hello?” She said and for a moment, I couldn’t speak.
“Hello, Sarah? It’s that author you met at the book signing. I’m not sure if you remember-“ I felt like a fool. How many book signings did she go to? Of course she remembered me.
“Yes! I was worried I’d creeped you out by giving you my phone number. It’s been a few weeks.”
The conversation was awkward, to say the least. She was bubbly and I was a bit reticent even though I was the one who had made the call. I wasn’t sure exactly what I wanted exactly. For her to tell me that in her opinion, my daughter’s death wasn’t my fault? What did she want? To have the privilege of consoling a children’s book author?
At the end of the phone call, I had agreed to meet with her at a small café in town. I threw my phone on the bed, then scrambled to pick it up and saved Sarah’s number under the name “Sam.” As I saved the name to my phone, I felt a slight pang of guilt. Perhaps I was doing something wrong? Honestly, I just wanted reassurance- for a female gaze that wasn’t suspicious or cold. I wanted some warmth. I just didn’t need my wife finding calls to and from Sarah.
Dove wasn’t around the night I went to meet Sarah. She was probably out on another’s girls’ meeting. I found myself creeping into the café and peering around surreptitiously before spotting Sarah and slipping into the seat across from her. She was dressed casually, but wearing a top that showed a bit of cleavage. Was this a date? She smiled brightly. She had the sort of smile that transformed her face into something radiant.
“Thanks for meeting with me.” I felt like I called a business meeting. Should I describe for you how awkward our initial conversation was, me trying to figure out what she wanted and her smiling at me both warmly and enigmatically? We started with pleasantries, even dipping into tepid conversation about the weather and the forecast for the week. We moved on to more personal issues, looking from our food into each other’s eyes, becoming lost in our conversation. At some point, I stopped worrying that my wife or someone who knew my wife would see me and ask me why I was out at dinner with this woman.
I think it was when she started talking about how disconnected she felt from her husband that I began to see what she might want from me. They had been high school sweethearts, had the sort of romance that everyone knew would culminate in marriage. So they got married. They had a child and for some reason had trouble conceiving any other children. This resulted in bitterness and the sort of quiet resentment that I found familiar in my own marriage. They were at the point where they were putting on a public performance for family and friends but spending much of their time apart. She said that part of him still loved her but she felt too far away from him to close the emotional gap.
We made our way out to her car, filled with wine and personal regrets. She opened the door to her car and turned to me. And then...she kissed me. Or I kissed her. However it happened, our lips met in the little parking lot behind the café and I was thankful, so thankful that she had parked in the shadows.
The kiss was the only thing that happened that night. I wouldn’t lie to you- after all, I’ve been honest about everything else. I went home and for once, found Dove in our bed. Seeing her lying there, tangled in the blankets made me feel worse than I had felt in my silent car on the way home. I still loved Dove but thinking of her had become so painful for me. That night I lay beside her, watching her sleep, until the gray light of morning poured through the window.
I wish I could say that the kiss was the end of it- that I never contacted Sarah again. I contacted her the next day. There was something that Sarah fulfilled in me- she was nurturing, she cared about me, or did a great job of pretending to care about me at least.
We met at night in out of the way places. Maybe that was something that attracted me to her. Sarah wasn’t as beautiful as Dove nor as cultured, but she was down to earth, charming, and sweet. I can say now she was what I needed then. Perhaps the danger of being found out was another thing that attracted me to being with her- I was famous in that way that authors are often famous, not as famous as reality TV celebrities but certainly noticeable. I waited for the day that a parent on date night would glance at me and then the word would spread that the author of such works as Hank Hamster in the Laundry Basket, father of the little girl who had fallen out of the window of their home, was out constructing an affair with a woman who was sad and broken in her own marriage.
That day didn’t come.
It was strange, almost disappointing. I thought that something would change if I ever engaged in infidelity- that it would be life altering. I expected some sort of lightning bolt, I suppose, but it never came. I made love to a stranger, someone who wasn’t my wife, and then I went home to my wife and she never suspected anything or said anything. She sometimes did sweet things for me despite the bitterness of our marriage. We still had the same terrible fights sometimes, the same painful silences. It was as though nothing had really changed in my life.
When I made love to Sarah, it was foreign. The lines and curves of her body were different from Dove’s. Her mouth felt different on mine. At first, I couldn’t decide if the foreign feeling was unsettling or alluring. I didn’t look into her eyes and she didn’t seek mine. We were what we needed at the moment. That was all. We were using each other in a way.
And so it went, for about a year.
When Dove didn’t come home after work, I naturally assumed that she was out with friends as usual. I left to spend time with Sarah- our time together had been more and more sporadic since her husband had begun questioning her constant absences from the home. I didn’t feel very guilty about that- he was some faceless entity out there in the world. I didn’t care much about his fears. I suppose that’s selfish.
When my wife didn’t come home that night, I didn’t worry. Perhaps she had spent the night with her friends or went to her parents- she had been spending more time there lately. Part of me was happy she was away from home- she had been making me miserable with her attitude and her dark eyes following me around the room, accusingly. There were times when I thought of divorcing her. Not in order to marry Sarah- just to get away from it all. Even in a new house, the guilt haunted me- she haunted me, the living embodiment of all my failures. If I was divorced, perhaps I could start over again, maybe end my affair with Sarah and live a solitary life. Sarah had been more and more needy as of late and I had fleeting worries that she was going to get it into her head to try to destroy my marriage so that she could try at a relationship that wasn’t as stale as the one she was trapped in.
The next morning, I decided to work. It had been a while since I had worked on my new book- it was about an insect. Wasn’t my best work, really- it needed some heavy revising. I sat down at my desk and noticed a piece of paper that hadn’t been there when I had worked on my book a few days before. It was written in Dove’s characteristic scrawl.
I want to keep this short. I love you. I love you more than I can describe. As I’m writing, I can’t help but think of all the wonderful days that we had and the sweet moments we shared. I love you, despite everything that happened- the death of our daughter. I know you think I hate you but I love you even though you were closed off from me, even though you moved on with your life, moved on with your fame even as I was crushed by grief. I love you. I know about the woman you’ve been seeing. I’ve known for a
few months now. You only kept it poorly hidden from me- didn’t you? You didn’t care if I found out, did you? You’ve broken my heart again. And so I’m going to say goodbye this way- not living with you as silent roommates for the next 50 years…not with a painful divorce and the ensuing bitterness. I don’t want to live like this anymore but I don’t want to live without you. You would haunt me the same way Lillian haunts me now. I don’t want to do this anymore and so I’ve decided to take my own life. Please burn this letter after you read it- I hope that my death will look accidental and that it doesn’t create a scandal for our family.
I didn’t look for her. I’ve already identified that I had become a terrible husband at that point- I had allowed our daughter to die, I was having an affair with a needy woman who was trying to escape her loveless marriage. Not looking for her was probably the most terrible thing I’d done. I told myself that she was just being dramatic. She was often dramatic. Well, she used to be dramatic before Lillian died-she was known for youthful pouts and tantrums when we first got married. After Lillian died, she became a muted version of herself. To be honest, I knew that something was wrong and that my wife might actually be dead right at that moment. Part of me was horrified. Part of me was happy that our marriage had reached some sort of resolution. For months, I had wondered when everything would fall apart irreparably. I had figured that the end would come when Dove discovered that I was having an affair. I figured there would be screaming and tears, a grand scene… Perhaps Dove was simply being dramatic and would show up again, ready to tear my throat out for cheating. Still…she was my wife.
I called around and alerted everyone to the fact that she was missing. I followed Dove’s directions and burned her letter. There was no sense in creating unnecessary problems. They asked me question after question after question. The police were called…I started to get a headache behind my eyes.
I didn’t handle any of this in the best way. I was antsy. I didn’t know what to do. On impulse, I called Sarah and asked her to spend some time with me. In hindsight, spending time with a woman that is not your wife isn’t the best course of action when your wife is missing, but I needed someone to be there for me. We had sex in the guest room bed and I tried to get lost in the melding of our bodies but my mind was on Dove. Afterwards, I sat lost in thought as Sarah snuggled down into the blankets.
The phone call shook me from my thoughts. It was James, calling to tell me that he had found Dove’s body outside at our vacation home. I, of course, should have been the one that found her. I didn’t think of searching there. I was sad but part of me was glad that it was over. I was ashamed that I was glad it was over. Dove was every wonderful memory and every bitter memory in human form. But she was right- I never would have been able to leave her and she never would have been able to leave me. Over the years, we had become so wrapped up in each other…Now it was over.
The woman lay beside me, looking up at me trying to discern who I was talking to. I looked at her and waggled my eyebrows comically. I’m not sure why I did that. She smiled at me, her eyes wide and somehow innocent, despite the things we’d done. I wondered suddenly how I would leave her- how I
would take leave of her misery and try to reconstruct a life for myself. I wondered how it would feel to say goodbye to Dove and the last 15 years of our life together.
“Are you still there?” James’ voice was tense, upset. I tried to match his tone even as I was lost in my own thoughts and worries.
“Yes. I’m just shocked.” I said, quietly.
“Well, you should get here as soon as you can.” Was his terse reply. I think James always thought he’d be better for Dove, a better match for her than I was. Perhaps he was right.
I thought of that dark eyed girl with the quick wit and quick smile, the one who had pushed me so unrelentingly, who had made me feel that I could take on the world. I thought of the woman I married, shy and demure under a white veil. I thought of Lillian in my arms, her first moments in the world. I thought of Lillian in my arms, her body lifeless and her eyes blank. I thought of Dove in tense silences. I thought of the few drunk moments in that brick house with the wrought iron fence in which we’d actually been able to make love to each other. I thought of the times when I lay sleeping in my office chair unable to bring myself to find her, wherever she was sleeping in our cold, lonely house. I thought of her lying outside at the bottom of the terrace stairs, finally at peace and finally leaving me at peace.
“Hello?” The voice was irritated now.
“I’ll be right there.” I said. When I ended the call, Sarah opened her mouth as if to ask a question, but I simply pulled on my clothing and left. As I made my way to the vacation home, I thought for a moment that perhaps the police would think I had killed her. Perhaps they would arrest me, try me for her death. Perhaps they would say that in a rage, I had pushed her down the stairs. After all, our marriage had grown cold, hadn’t it? Our daughter had died and that was a strain on our union, wasn’t it? But no, Dove was thorough. If she wanted people to believe a certain thing, she likely set everything up for everyone to believe it. Perhaps the scenario was that she had simply decided to take a break from it all, spend some time up at the old vacation home. Take a little look around at the top of the stairs. A slip, a stumble, and then her demise. An accident, not a murder. No trial to be had for the beloved middle-aged cartoonist.
My hands were tight on the steering wheel as my car sped silently through the night. Perhaps at that point, I wanted to be tried.
Brian Burmeister earned his MFA in Creative Writing and Environment from Iowa State University. His writing has appeared in such publications as The Feminist Wire, Thin Air Magazine, and The Furious Gazelle. He can be followed@bdburmeister.
SMASHING LIKE THAT
“This is wrong,” Erin says. “What you’re doing, it’s wrong. Terrible. No good.”
And the boy pulls back, frozen.
“All you’re doing is pressing,” she says, clapping her hands together so that only the balls meet. Her fingers stretched rigidly back so as to avoid the contact. Half an inch between the tips with each strike. “Can’t you see that?”
T.J. turns his head. He palms the blanket into each of his hands, smooth and soft, rolling and rolling the worn, old cotton. Rolling and rolling and--
“Pressing,” she says, again, smacking her hands together one final time.
The boy’s eyes blink rapidly. His hands continue moving over the blanket, petting, swimming, though they no longer feel it. He says, “I read it in a magazine.”
“And it’s wrong,” she says. “Like you’re smashing us together. All sloppy and weird. Awful. I don’t know how you can possibly think that that’s right. Not possibly. Who the hell would write such a thing? Tell me. Smashing like that.”
T.J.’s head rolls back to face hers; his eyes dance about neck and ears and hair. The long, pulled-back hair. The blanket remains in his hands. He grinds his front teeth slowly, loudly, then slicing them side-to-side till they hurt. The girl misses this. She runs a couple fingers over the tip of her right pinkie, up and down, as if holding a ring that won’t fit. “Mashing us up like potatoes,” she says.
T.J. looks to the foot of the bed. “It’s what I read.”
“God!” She clasps the fingers tight about her pinkie and slams both hands into her bronzed, exposed thigh before shaking them at him. “Listen to me. Please. Are you listening to me? I don’t care what you read, I don’t. Or saw or heard or anything.” She stabs an index finger into his chest, causing his head to cock back. Releasing a hand from the blanket, he adjusts the crotch of his pants. “Look at me, look. You’ll make out with girls,” she adds, “not magazines.”
He says, “Okay.”
She nods. “So we’ll try something different, better, yes? I need you to stay absolutely, positively still, got it? No joking at all, not around, not nothing.” She straightens her back and places her hands on her knees. “What I’m going to do, I’m going to move slowly and place my lips over yours, I am. That’s all I’m going to do. And I’m going to squeeze a little bit, like I’m biting with my lips. And then I’ll slowly slide off. Then repeat. And you’re not to do anything. I don’t want you to do anything; you’re learning. You need to pay attention. What I’m going to be doing is pretty much slow-mo of what you’ll have to learn to do. Okay? Okay. You do this right, Kayla Henderson won’t know what hit her.”
“Fuck,” says T.J.
“I’m being cereal,” she says. “So pay attention, please. You don’t know anything yet, not anything—and that’s the first thing you need to know. You got it?” she says. “That,” she continues, “and that girls are completely stupid when it comes to guys.” She nods in short, rapid, confirming bursts, her mouth hanging open about half-an-inch. “Now I only want to do this the once.”
T.J. closes his eyes.
The doorknob fails to turn.
Outside the room, Mrs. Kelly releases her hand and takes a breath. Slow. Deep. Then she holds off breathing altogether. A moment later, she knocks.
The woman twists her foot in repeating arcs across the floor, curling the toes in her shoes.
T.J. says, “Hello? Mom, are you out there?”
The arcs continue and after a time Mrs. Kelly says, “Dinners ready, you two.” Adding softly: “If you care.”
T.J. answers quickly, “We’ll be down in a minute.” And Mrs. Kelly remains standing. She remains silent.
So does everything else.
She wets her lips and snorts, begins walking down the hall. Behind her, Erin yells, “Thanks, Mom.” Mrs. Kelly pictures herself nodding, simply nodding, a continuous rhythm of empty thought, though the only real movement of her head is a flexing of the jaw muscles through her cheeks. She continues to the end of the hall, down the shadowed steps to the livingroom.
Mr. Kelly is, as he had been when she last passed him, lolled across the couch watching T.V. He is a large man with a bright mustache and dark eyes. He glances to his wife, the woman whose face he scratches each time his touches hers, and then back to the overpriced set. “How’s studying?” he asks.
Mrs. Kelly continues on her way to the kitchen.
“What,” says the teacher, “is the problem with conformity? Is there a problem with conformity? T.J.?”
The boy shifts his head to the side for a moment. Beyond the window, on the track, a class is running laps. Kayla is there. In tank top and shorts. Still the boy’s vision drifts about the entire group of girls of which she is a part. “I don’t know,” he says, and brings his attention back into the room. “I think it depends.”
“I guess it depends on if it’s a good thing or a bad thing. Like, if we’re talking about everyone reading a book or”— he frenetically flails a hand through the air— “running five miles a night, then it’s good--peer pressure wouldn’t hurt anything, right? It’d make everyone better, I think, really. But if we’re talking about something like stealing or . . . or doing drugs, or something, then it’s bad, straight up, no question.”
The teacher’s eyes widen. “So, conformity can be both good or bad, not based upon the act of conforming itself, but based upon the behavior one is being conformed to: bad behaviors mean conformity is bad, good behaviors mean it’s good.”
“Okay, all right. Thank you, T.J. But—” she turns and begins stalking the room. “What if we have something less clear? What if what we have is a gray behavior? Do you know what I mean? A gray behavior. What then? Something that’s not good or bad. Something that’s just something--something you do. Like flying a kite.”
“But flying kites is B.A.”
“Yes!” The teacher snaps her fingers into a gun, pointing at the pony-tailed girl. T.J. turns and stares and smiles. “Okay, good, thank you,” the teacher says, moving her thumb quickly forward then back, recoiling, firing the imaginary shot. “Let’s stop there. I’m actually glad you said that, Erin. Who here thinks flying a kite is awesome? Really? I mean it, go ahead and raise them up. All right, and who doesn’t?” Her lips curl. “So we’ve got about half and half,” she says, and pauses a moment. “This is good, seriously. Really good.” Her hands flip open, palms up, fingers spread. “Now, who’s right?”
Mrs. Kelly nods. She passes the casserole to her left, to T.J. He eagerly takes it and scoops several steaming heaps onto his plate before setting the dish down on the empty end of the table. Mrs. Kelly watches this, then turns and holds her eyes on the girl.
“So, how much better are you doing in class?”
Erin looks up, hurriedly, repeatedly splitting her attention between her mother, brother, and food. “Better, anyway,” she says, then stops, swallows, clears her mouth. “I’m not totally for sure how much though. I haven’t seen my actual grade yet. Not since midterm. But the teacher stopped me one day to say she was pleased with my—I don’t know—God! what was it?--Newfound focus. And the one test we had, I passed.” She smiles, stirring her food into a collage. “So that’s something.”
The phone rings.
“Let me just get that.” Mrs. Kelly wipes her mouth before crossing the room and picking up the cordless. “Hello,” she says into the phone.
The girl and boy look at each other for some seconds, faces empty, before Erin scoots back her chair. As she stands up, T.J.’s head tilts to the right in question. “Girl business,” she says.
The bathroom is freezing. So much so that Erin doesn’t want to wash her hands at all, and ends up doing so without soap. When finished, she exits the room and yells, “Fuck!”
Mrs. Kelly stands before her, leaning, waiting against the opposite wall, the phone still in her hands, though no longer in use. Erin falls over herself back into the door. “Sorry, sorry,” she says. “I am. You scared me. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to swear like that. I really didn’t. I didn’t think anyone—you just scared me.”
Mrs. Kelly waves off her daughter’s apology. “I have something,” she says, darting her eyes across the girl’s midsection. “There’s something I want to ask you?”
“Okay?” says Erin, stepping forward, back towards the kitchen.
“No, here, stop, please.” And, sighing, the girl agrees. “This is probably going to sound weird, but,” Mrs. Kelly stops and sucks her lips into her mouth momentarily, the girl watching on with hidden amusement, “I think that you’re better than T.J. and the things that he does. So. And I think that—I know that—it would be in your best interest if you didn’t hang around with him so much.” She says this quite slow, as if it’s a question. “I know this is probably weird.”
“I thought you’d be glad we’re finally friends.”
“I know. I am. I should be. But, there’s just--I didn’t want to mention it, but--we found some things. A bottle—pills—in his room. In a shoe box. And some other things. Worse things. He’s far too young. And maybe you knew, maybe you must have known. But, I don’t want him pulling you down.”
“I’m not exactly a weak person.”
“That’s not it—what I meant, that’s not what I’m saying—I know you’re not. I’m sorry if that’s—”
Erin steps forward, her mother cutting her path off.
“Why are you doing this, Mom?”
“Despite what you think or . . . whatever it is you think, I really like you a lot, I do.”
The girl cranes her neck forward, shaking just enough to draw notice.
Back in the kitchen, Mrs. Kelly attends to a boiling pot on the stove. T.J. tells her it was boiling over terribly, and that he turned the burner way down. “Sorry I didn’t have these done sooner,” she says, and drains the water off. “Could you grab me the milk and butter?”
Obliging, T.J. gets up from his chair. He doesn’t ask what the scream was about.
A short time later, when all is prepared, Mrs. Kelly carries the new dish to the table. “Potatoes?” she asks of Erin.
“No. Thank you.” And so the dish is handed to T.J..
“Anyway,” he says, scooping half-a-plate full, “getting back to the school thing, I just wanted to put in my two cents—or my cent-and-a-half—or whatever it’s really worth.” Erin looks up, eyes exploding. “I think it’s going really well,” he says. “I think this whole tutoring thing is phenomenal. Stupendous. Preternatural. Other big words.” His eyes swell as he smiles. “Her grades are going up like she said, and she’s talking more in class, for two. I mean, she’s really adding to discussion. Really. You should see her in action.”
Mrs. Kelly smiles to her son. “I’m glad to hear it.”
There is no one else. The parking lot is empty, and as the kids wander from the theater, only their car exists. Kayla Henderson and T.J., laughing, step into the front. The others: Erin, Tim Montana, and Dennis Canton, squeeze into the back. Tim’s arms drape all over Erin. T.J. asks what they should do next. No one says a thing.
So they go to Dennis’s.
Dennis Canton and T.J. have been friends since Cub Scouts. Once, when they were thirteen, Dennis told T.J. he was half in-love with Erin, which was okay; T.J. knew he meant it as a compliment. T.J. thinks Dennis Canton is the best person he has ever known.
But young Canton is pushing 300 pounds.
At Dennis’s, they hang in the basement. Kayla’s head rests on T.J.’s lap as he curls her hair behind her ears. Across the room, Erin lays soundless and still on another couch. Tim Montana rests on the floor before her, asleep or something like it, his head uncomfortably pressed against the worn armrest near her feet. T.J. looks at them, staring, dying with thoughts.
He wishes to be a ghost.
He pretends that he is across the room, that the hair his fingers curl is Erin’s, not Kayla’s. Not Kayla’s, not Kayla’s, no. He loses and loses himself in this. Closes his eyes. Wills himself to be a ghost until what he feels in his fingers is ponytail perfect.
T.J.’s eyes reopen. He watches and watches and strokes. Running through her hair with his fingers. Touching her hair with his fingers. Having a piece of her in his fingers.
But things are heating up in the room, and T.J. tunes in just as Dennis Canton speaks the only negative words he has ever heard from his mouth. Dennis Canton says, “I don’t have anything going for me.”
T.J. wishes he had caught the beginning of this.
“Good Lord, of course you do,” says Kayla. “You’re really nice, everybody thinks so. If Stephanie__”
“Just stop. Please. She knows me, she knows I’m nice. That’s all I’ve got. Being nice. And she knows I am. The rest of you guys, if you didn’t have each other, you could go anywhere and just meet people—do you know what I mean? Tim or Erin, or you two. I know you know what I mean. At school or somewhere. I can’t do that. All I’ve got is nice, so it takes time. I took time. She knows me,” he says. “Nice is crap.”
Kayla responds, “You can’t really believe that.”
“But I can. And I know you don’t see it, but this world’s a joke. You can say that it’s not, and you can keep saying what you’re saying, but you’re full of it. I’m sorry, and don’t hate me for what I’m about to say, but you don’t know anything about this. All right? I’m sorry. But you’re not me, none of you know what it’s like to be me.”
Kayla starts to sit up, her head relocating onto T.J.’s arm near his shoulder. “Dennis,” she says, “you’re just upset. There’ll be—”
“I’m not just upset. Everything’s ridiculous!”
“You are upset, and you need time.”
“You’re so full of it.”
Kayla savagely waves her arms about, shaking her head; it is if she has suddenly found herself in a downpour of bees. “I’m full of nothing!” she says. “You’re not even thinking! You don’t know what you’re talking about!”
Dennis rakes back his lower lip. It quivers fiercely under the pressure and, for a moment, T.J. thinks he might bite so hard as to draw blood. The darkness would stream down his face—and he’d keep biting—and more would pour, and would keep pouring, until the lip itself would tumble off. T.J. imagines the others sitting and gasping and discussing how this was even possible. Instead of figuring out how to help.
But Dennis doesn’t bite hard enough.
He simply lets the lip slingshot forward as a queer, awkward smile overtakes him. “What you have is all I’ve thought about every minute of every day. Can you grasp that? What you have—what all of you have means to me?” Dennis drops his eyes and his voice. He is always lowering his voice. “Until you dream of my life, don’t tell me what I know and don’t. None of you have ever had any trouble—and never will—when it comes to this. To getting someone to like you. So when I say it doesn’t matter—the things I do, like being a good person and—” He laughs, but he isn’t really laughing.
No one says or does anything. Kayla sits pale and still and silent; the bee storm has passed.
Dennis tugs hard against the front of his hair, raising a field of tiny, ivory bubbles of flesh towards his wrists. “It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t—I’m sorry, but there’s something going on. Beyond my control. I’m cursed or something,” he says.
Kayla drops forward, hunching over horribly. “Oh, puh-lease, all right. Just stop it! Just stop it. You are a great guy,” she says, crisply, “a great guy. Someday some girl will see that. She will. I’m not making anything up. I don’t want to be all cliché or whatever, but real beauty really does—it really is from within.”
Across the room, Erin bursts out laughing, her tongue dangling from her mouth. T.J. had been sure she was sleeping. Still smiling, she sits up into the others’ stares, leaving the ghost fingers empty. “No, it’s not,” she says.
Dennis says nothing. He holds his eyes just in front of his feet. But there will be nothing, no hope there.
Erin looks hard at her brother. “I need a ride home.”
“What?” he replies.
“Now! I need a ride home now!” she yells, kicking her date in the shoulder. “Tim!”
- - -
Erin steps out of the car. She and Tim walk, groping, playing, not saying good-bye. T.J. watches on. He rubs his index finger furiously at the underside of his nose. Erin and Tim kiss at some length, then embrace, then kiss again. T.J. no longer watches. He squeezes tight his eyes, his nose and upper cheeks hurting from the aberrant pressure. He imagines a place, dark and shallow and dank, where he and Erin sit, staring at what reflections exist in the raven waters before them. Here, words would be wrong. She nudges him softly and points to the faint outlines of shapes. Leafless trees hang low above them, casting the impression of snakes just below the waving surface. These serpents dance an adagio and, watching them intently, T.J. rolls his head back and sways to their rhythm. Erin laughs. They laugh. She sits up sharply, points to something else: an elegantly-moving diamond. And then comes a light from above, a star. Then another. And another. The darkness dissipates in dream-fashion along with the trees. T.J. turns to face her. She holds a string in her hands and nods to the sky. Behind the floating diamond, all is bright, gloriously speckled white. She hands over the string. He breathes in a huge but delicate breath.
Erin knocks her hand on the glass of the window.
“Move the fuck over,” she says before taking the wheel of the car.
“You’re a piece of work,” she says, minutes later, still driving. “You know that? I’m telling you so you know. So you can think about it. I thought you were his friend—you’re supposed to be. But you sat there like a piece of garbage. A piece of shit. A real piece of work.”
“I’m his best friend.”
“You’re no friend. Not when you should have stopped it. And you could have. You could have, you know that--you know you should have said something back there.”
The boy tugs hard on the ball of his ear.
“And don’t think I don’t know what the deal is. I do, I do—so don’t think that. Frickin’ Kayla has you screwed up, is what. Frickin’ made up hope. Garbage. You could have said something—why didn’t you? You could have stopped her lies, hope, everything. And all you had to do was speak up. That’s it! Nothing else! Not nothing.” Her head bobs back and forth, the muscles in her neck stretching until rope-taut. “You could have said something back there, but no. No! Can’t say a thing. Not in front of Kayla. Not you.”
The boy cranks up the radio.
“You ass hole!” she says, and turns the music off. T.J. reaches for it again, though she instantly, furiously slaps his hand away. “What’s your problem?”
“This is my car,” he says.
Erin shakes the wheel in her hands, unleashes a grunt through clenched teeth.
The boy says, “What was I supposed to do or say? That his life is garbage?”
And Erin screams, “Yes!”
They keep driving and driving, not even in their town now:
“So,” Erin pauses, nodding, half-staring at T.J., “are you going to see her again?”
T.J. sits with his head pressed firmly against the seat behind him, eyes closed.
“Are you?” she says. “Because first loves are stupid. Very. And I hope you saw that tonight. I don’t want you planning on seeing her, or thinking about seeing her, or anything. So you better damn well write down every word I say. I don’t want you thinking you like her when you don’t.”
T.J. quietly laughs, trembling. He says some things, weaker than whispers, but building to one, single, audible word. He says, “Slim.”
His eyes pop, but don’t move towards her. He repeats the word.
She shakes her head, licks her upper lip.
“You don’t even know,” he says. “You don’t have a clue.”
Erin’s mouth stretches Pacific-wide momentarily. “I’m asking. Nicely. If you plan to see her again.”
T.J. slams a fist against his door. “Where the hell were you when Tim called him Slim?”
“Jesus Christ,” she says, and focuses on his face. “Are you going to see her again, or what?”
And then it happens.
T.J. sees what she does not; he reaches over her, across her, and spins the wheel hard to the right. The car smashes into and over the curb, both wheels on the boy’s side planted on grass as the car slides to a stop.
There is a deleterious moment of silence.
“Are you all right?” he finally asks.
“Did you see what happened?” she gasps.
But T.J. is already out of the car.
He steps quickly around and behind the vehicle, building to a sprint. He slips in the wet grass and falls, pounding both knees square into the earth and spraining a wrist. But he doesn’t stop until he sees it.
His face doesn’t change, but he sighs. He forces a hard breath to exhaust what feels like cement filling in his lungs. He breathes again. Deep. Then again and again. It does nothing to lift the biting in his chest. Around him, all remains quiet except for the now perceptible hiss of electricity, flying through the lines and illuminating this mess. Up and down the street there is otherwise nothing but the darkness and quiet of night. T.J. waits for something to happen. There must be dozens of persons within an earshot of this scene. Must be, must be. But nothing does happen. No porch lights come on. No doors open. Not a soul shouting, “Jesus!”
On the ground before him is a woman, maybe forty. She lies on her stomach and does not move. Her eyes find T.J.’s feet as her mouth opens and closes, then opens again, but no words escape. T.J. shuts his eyes and returns to the car. Erin hides her face with her hand.
“How is she?” she asks.
T.J. takes his seat and stares forward, examining the lettering on the dash. His eyes focus then cloud, over and over, but he cannot change what is spelled. He wipes his hand over his mouth. He swings his door shut. It is very, very late.
“How the fuck is she?” she asks.
T.J. drifts his sights out the window. His fingers tense into painful claws inches away from his face; he bangs his head on the glass; he snorts a series of high, cutting breaths.
“What the hell can we do?” The girl sharply raises her hand to her own face, accidentally slapping herself, hard, before pulping the hell out of her lips. “I’m asking,” she says.
The car lurches forward.
T.J., alone, goes back.
He sees that the woman has managed to pull or push herself nearly out of the street and onto the curb. What streetlight there was earlier has disappeared, the product of malfunction, and what light now exists shines down solely from the moon. And yet blood reflects brilliantly. T.J. approaches slowly, slowly, and closer than he had before.
Despite the broken frame and loss of blood, life still remains in the woman. This T.J. knows. But he knows it is temporary. He knows it is painful. This, T.J. also knows.
And so there must be . . . Something, something . . .
He swings about himself. Everything blurs and blurs. And he keeps spinning. Something. A promise. And he knows he is right. He knows that it’s somewhere. He slows and steps backwards. His mouth reaches for words, but what he finds are jagged, incomplete thoughts. Soft drops of rain tickle his face and hands. He shakes them off and turns and breathes and walks further down the street, looking for houselights.
If he stays focused, yes, he will stay focused; if he looks confident, then he will look natural; yes, no one questions natural.
A block later and he finds a house with no lights and no car in the driveway. There is an engraved rock by the porch. It reads: THE VANDENBERGHE’S WELCOME. T.J. studies these words. He thinks and thinks and plays with them, tracing them over the roof of his mouth. Van-den-berghe’s. There is a delicious comfort in them. T.J. does not know these people. He sucks in breath after breath until he has pulled in enough air that he cannot tell his being is made up of anything else. He takes up the rock and runs with it as well as he can.
The girl throws newspaper at the boy. The pages spread in midair and settle to the ground like confetti. “There wasn’t a goddam thing in there!” she screams.
T.J. crouches, grabbing, attempting to place the paper back together. He says to her, “Quiet.”
She is all energy, shaking with it, pacing. “No! I went through different ones. Today—yesterday. Today. Nothing. Not nothing. Don’t you hear what I’m saying? Not one damn thing on it! Not in there. Not one!”
The boy extends a hand towards her. “Try to be quiet,” he says. “Please.” he says. “Sit.”
“No!” She continues marching back, back, forth, back, erratically. “What the hell can I think—can I think?—I don’t know what to think. Why isn’t there something? There should be something—there should have been something by now, right? Right? Talk to me. Right?”
T.J. stands up. “You think you know everything,” he says.
Erin winces, finally stops, smashes both her hands into fists. “We’re dead,” she says quickly, her breathing shortened to that of laughter or dogs.
T.J. tells her, “Don’t.”
He crosses the room to her. She turns and keeps moving. But this does not stop him. He places his arms around her from the back and spins her sharply so that her front is pressed into his; she nearly topples over, it happens so fast.
“Why did this happen?” she says.
“I don’t know.”
“People aren’t just out that time of night. People aren’t—” she says. “They aren’t. This stuff doesn’t just happen.”
“No, it doesn’t.” T.J. places a hand to the back of her head. His lips find their way to her forehead. Then a second time. Afterwards, she places her head just under his chin. He raises the angle of his neck to ensure his jaw doesn’t dig into her skull. They each take giant, shaking breaths.
Still holding her, he sways his torso back. She looks up. He moves decisively towards her mouth.
She shoves him in the chest.
“What are you doing?”
The boy’s eyes instantly glaze over. “Please.” And he moves towards her again.
“No! What the hell is wrong with you?”
“Nothing.” He wipes his mouth before throwing that hand into the air. “There’s nothing wrong, see? See? Nothing! So, please,” he says and stops. “You don’t know what I feel.”
“We’re dead!” she says. “That’s it. Everything.”
He challenges her gaze. He says, “I’m sorry, but you don’t have anything to worry about,” and steps towards her with certainty. “They’re never going to find her.”
Mrs. Kelly wakes from her nap. The voices, boy and girl, are strange and muffled and loud. Sounds, not words. And growing louder. Mrs. Kelly swings her feet onto the floor. She speaks to herself in short, mercurial bursts and proceeds to the hall.
“You’re so goddam stupid!” she hears.
The boy’s door bursts open. She hears the boy yell, “I did this for you!” But the girl, crying, storms past the woman.
Mrs. Kelly steps to the side as if her daughter has not already passed her, is not already going down the stairs. Mrs. Kelly’s jaw rolls forward as she stands and watches and hears Erin disappear. Mrs. Kelly takes a single step after her, raises an arm. T.J. shuts his door. A moment passes and Mrs. Kelly hears the front door open and slam and the quiet which follows. It is in the silence that her mind sets to work. She pictures Erin before her, beautiful and calm and patient, and says to her, sweetly, “What on earth is wrong with your brother now?”
Tory Mae graduated with a B.A. in Creative Writing and Literature at Wheaton College in 2015, where her full-length play entitled Can-Swiss was performed in the annual New Plays Festival. She is currently working a collection of short stories, as well as a novel that is set to be completed later this year.
The Whiskey Won’t Keep You Warm
“Ma! Where’s the damn mustard?” I shouted while rummaging through the kitchen.
“Dear, check the cabinet to the left of the fridge.”
My hands found a familiar, aged-looking bottle shoved in the back. How old was the thing? I shrugged and slathered it on my ham sandwich.
“As I was saying, I was trying to work with this band the other day, and...”
I took a bite out of my sandwich, felt a gag coming on, and spit the bile-tasting bite into the sink.
“Oh for fuck’s sake! How old is this damn mustard?”
“Jack, I’d prefer it if you didn’t swear,” my mother said, picking up her glass of wine from the table.
I grabbed the bile-mustard and checked for a date. 10-3-81.
“MA! The damn mustard is TEN years old!”
“Oh, dear, oh you know how busy I am,” she said, walking over to pat my shoulder.
“Busy with your drinking and cooking…” I muttered.
“What was that, dear?”
She finished her wine and put the glass on the counter.
If you’re gonna do it right, at least drink some whiskey. That’s how all the best did it. The beverage of alcoholics, I thought.
Taking one look at the repulsive thing I had attempted to eat, I grunted and tossed it in the garbage. The mustard followed suit. I’d bring her some more next time I was up.
“I’ve gotta go anyway. Big show in Boston in two hours.”
“But won’t you make some food for the road? I don’t want you to go hungry.”
Tempting offer. Truly.
“Nah, I think I’m set.” I kissed her leathery cheek. “Always good to see you, Ma.”
“Come back soon! I know your father has been busy with the bank, but it would be nice if you spent time with the both of us. Maybe take a day off work. I’ll cook you up a nice dinner,” she said, placing her empty wine glass in the sink.
“Okay Ma, I’ll see what I can do,” I said, pushing open the screen door and walking out.
“Bye bye now.”
Out of the corner of my eye I saw her sneak the glass back out of the sink and grab the wine bottle from the cabinet. I shook my head as I walked down the path to my Chevy. Crazy old woman.
The familiar ringing ran through my head during the brief silence. Everything moved in slow motion. A crowd: paused in anticipation. A band: pausing for anticipation. Not one person let out a hint of breath during those four seconds. And then they hit it. Nailed it. They hit that note and everyone let out the oxygen they’d held in for those four seconds, bobbing their heads along with the orgasm-inducing music. Eargasm, as I’ve heard. Those were the moments I lived for. This was why I still did this, and why I would never give it up. The moments the energy filling the room culminated to an all-time high, melding together as one, giving the people a reason to keep coming back for more. The music and people as one being.
Once the band finished their last song, everyone stood in place, waiting, chanting. I flipped on the lights - there would be no encore tonight. The crowd groaned and chattered to one another about what they had witnessed. From behind the soundboard I watched the teenagers begin to file out. I longed to be back with them, in my rebel-punk days. Each show provided refuge from the bitter real world. Nothing else beyond those four walls mattered. Those teenagers had better soak up everything while they can. The real world waited for no one.
I watched as one kid hung back by a pole before walking over to the merch table. The band had posted themselves behind the table with their multitude of T-shirts and CDs to make some more gas money for the rest of their tour, and maybe a small profit if they could manage. By the looks of it, that kid wanted more than a shirt. Parts of his hair were matted down onto his reddened face and he was clutching his ticket and a pen to his chest. A huge smile appeared on his face when the band’s drummer motioned him forward, and he bowed his head a little as he walked up. He handed the band the ticket and pen and rubbed his neck while each member signed. How long had it been since I met a band I loved for the first time? All the musicians I listen to are either dead or stopped playing music a decade ago. Christ.
Once the last attendee left the venue, the band and their crew filed onto the stage to break down the kit and speakers, and began to load up the van outside.
I flipped my mic on. “Killer show tonight guys,” I said, voice raspy over the somewhat blown speakers.
Some nods and ‘thank you’s’ were thrown in my direction from on stage as I flipped the mic back off.
I collected the money from Jeff at the door and Luis the bartender, gave them their share, pocketed mine, and paid off the bands. The night’s turnout made for a good sum for each band. We shook hands as I wished them safe travels on their tour. Good guys. All in a night’s work. I slung my backpack over my shoulder and headed outside.
“Ah Christ,” I mumbled to myself and I looked at my watch and walked into the bitter Boston night. “I’ve gotta wake up in six fuckin’ hours. No rest for the weary.”
Damn family obligations. Didn’t they know that I didn’t work one of those cookie-cutter nine to five jobs? Why would anyone in their right minds want to be holed up in an office for eight hours every Monday through Friday for the rest of their lives? I unlocked my car and let out one long sigh before starting it up.
It took me less than ten minutes to drive to my apartment in Brighton; nighttime was the only convenient time to drive in the city. I hung my keys on the nail I’d hammered to the wall and checked the time: 11:15. Goddammit. I grabbed a bottle of whiskey and sat at the kitchen table. I poured myself a glass on the rocks and looked at the bottle, wondering if this was where my name came from. I swirled it around, watching the ice cubes dance through the golden nectar. Ma would name me after a fuckin’ bottle of whiskey. She’d keep the name’s origin a secret from Pop and he’d agree with her thinking it was a delightful name and then I’d be named after a fuckin’ bottle of whiskey. I was surprised she didn’t name me Cork or Merlot or Zin. If I’d have been a girl I’d bet she would’ve named me Sherry. Or Rosé. Not Rose, but Rosé. Right as I lifted the glass to my lips my pants began to vibrate. Goddammit. I put the glass down and pulled out my phone.
“What do you want, Cheryl? It’s almost midnight! Don’t worry, I haven’t forgotten that I need to leave in six damn hours.”
I sighed, leaned back, and threw my feet up onto the chair next to me.
“Something’s happened, Jack. You need to come up to Concord, now.”
I looked at my untouched glass. “Now?”
“Ma’s in the hospital.”
My feet fell back onto the floor.
“Shit. I’ll be there in an hour.”
I hung up the phone and looked back at the glass.
With some effort, I poured the glass back into the bottle, trying to salvage as much as possible. One golden bead slipped down the side of the bottle. So much for taking my liquid sleeping pill and passing out, I thought. I grabbed my keys which I could have sworn were still swinging on the hook. There was no need to put my coat back on, I wasn’t in long enough to take it off.
It had been three months since Pop had returned from the war. The lines around his eyes grew with each year he spent on the front. He cheeks were hollowed, and his temper was shorter than the time it took to drop the bomb on Nagasaki. Pictures of the Japanese city were strewn about the desk. Pop took the pictures after his helicopter landed – his was the first to do so after the bomb. He stood at his desk, staring at them as Ma cooked him up the nice dinner she promised. One picture was shifted a tad; the desk was a shade darker where the picture used to be. He narrowed his eyes. There wasn’t a living being in a single picture. The trees were stripped of their leaves. Buildings were crumbled to the ground. Windowpanes were shattered and cars were left abandoned. Were they real? Or were they something from a horror film? Pop figured there wasn’t much difference.
Ma was finishing up in the kitchen. She had decided she would make him a nice Spam dinner – Pop ate it often in the war, so she thought he would enjoy having it again after a few months. She pulled out two China plates from the glass cabinet, sliced out the Spam, and plopped two slices onto each plate alongside some almost-smooth mashed potatoes and creamed corn.
“Dear, dinner is all set!” Ma called out.
She picked up the plates with a smile and Pop made his way to the table. She saw him walk from the desk and shook her head. Pop had been back for three months. She didn’t understand the ongoing obsession with the pictures. Perhaps she ought to put them back in the drawer, she thought.
“Your favorite, dear,” she said, placing his plate in front of him.
The moment it touched the table, he scowled.
“Goddammit!” he yelled, and flung the plate at the wall. “All I eat for two fuckin’ years is Spam, I don’t want any more goddamn Spam,” he muttered.
“Oh dear. Oh dear oh dear oh dear…” she muttered to herself as she picked up the porcelain pieces.
She rushed into the kitchen carrying the remains of the dinner, leaving Pop at the table, fuming. Who would have thought after three months he wouldn’t want Spam? Why did he eat it for two years if it wasn’t his favorite? She paced the room, waiting for the pie to finish. One minute left. Cherry pie was truly his favorite. It would cheer him up. She hoped it would cheer him up. How could it not? All she wanted was to make Pop a nice dinner and make him happy. It was her duty to keep him happy.
Ma removed the pie from the oven, waving it with a towel. The aroma filled the room, and filled Ma with happiness. Pop would love it. She cut out two large chunks and put them on separate plates. Another thought popped into her head, and so she grabbed a carton of vanilla ice cream from the freezer. She plopped two large scoops on each plate and smiled. He’d love it. She hummed while carrying the two plates out to the table. Catering to Pop’s sweet tooth would fix everything.
“This will make you happy, dear,” she said, placing Pop’s plate in front of him. “I made cherry pie, your favorite.”
Pop took one bite and scrunched up his face. The look of anger flushed his face again and his cheeks grew red.
“GODDAMMIT!” he shouted, and flung the plate, leaving a matching stain on the wall next to the Spam.
The color drained from Ma’s face. She took a careful bite of the pie, testing it, but stopped as her teeth wrapped around something hard. The cherries. They had pits.
“Goddammit,” Pop said, slower. Ma looked at Pop’s front tooth. It was chipped.
I passed by the now vacant farm stand next to the ice rink, a sign that I would be at Concord Hospital in a two or three minutes. Maybe sooner, no one would ever know if I ran a red light at this hour. My phone lit up in the cup holder: Cheryl.
“Christ,” I muttered.
I looked at the clock. It read 1:04. God forbid I make a wrong turn at one in the morning and am not there at the exact second I say I will be. She could wait five minutes, it couldn’t be that urgent. I passed under the bridge and my phone lit up again. Christ, it’s not like I was dead.
The familiar brick building loomed before me. I pulled into the empty parking lot, parked next to my sister’s Subaru, and went inside. There was no one else in the lobby except Cheryl.
“There you are!” she said, jumping out of her seat. “What took you so long?!”
“I don’t live next door, Cher. And I took a wrong turn on the way. It’s one in the goddamn morning, give me a break,” I said, rubbing my face.
“Aren’t you not supposed to swear in a hospital?”
“That’s a church, Cher. Where are your kids?”
She put her hands on her hips.
“It’s one in the morning on a school night. Jimmy’s got a football game tomorrow and Allie has a test in her AP class in the morning. They’re both fast asleep,” she said.
I rolled my eyes.
“Might wanna double-check on that one,” I muttered.
“What was that?”
“You left them home alone? At one in the morning?”
The corner of my mouth turned up a little. My words flew right over her head. It was too late to discuss the reality of my sister’s kids’ behavior. Well, Jimmy’s behavior. Knowing Allie, she was fast asleep by ten. The corner of my mouth turned back down; she still shouldn’t have left them home alone. It wasn’t like she had a husband to watch them. She revoked that privilege when she divorced the poor guy.
“Allie’s going to be in college before we know it, I think she’s responsible enough to handle being home alone with her brother.”
“What if we’re here all night?”
“Who are you to judge what I do with my kids?”
Who would want kids and that responsibility, anyway? That option never appealed to me. I sighed. There was a slight chance that maybe she had a point.
“Have you seen Ma yet?”
“No.” Cheryl looked at her watch. “I was waiting for you. She’s in room 208.”
The walk to the elevator was familiar; the last time I’d been here was for Pop. Those weren’t the best memories. Then again, when did anyone ever make good memories in a hospital? I paused. Other than giving birth, I supposed. It was ironic how the greatest joy in a person’s life happened in the same place that could cause people the most pain. Why weren’t there separate birthing hospitals? They didn’t have to be called hospitals. Birthing stations. Life buildings. Life-spitals.
We walked down the hallway and I couldn’t help but cringe. I rubbed my hand on the back of my neck as I looked around. The hospital’s smell was too sterile and the walls were too white. The hallway stretched out. I felt dizzy. Well, at least there were more than enough hospital beds if I passed out. Our footsteps echoed on the linoleum.
I furrowed my eyebrows and looked at Cheryl.
“What even happened to her?”
“She took a nasty fall in her bathroom today. There’s a gnarly cut on her leg and she hit her head. They think she was hopped up on Vicodin and a bit drunk, but no official reports have come in yet.”
I stopped mid-step and faced Cheryl.
“They don’t even know yet? Oh for Christ’s sake you made me drive up here, after midnight, when it could’ve waited until morning when I was going to be up anyway?!” I said in a tone that I thought might not be appropriate for a hospital.
“Take up some responsibility for once in your life, Jack. She’s your mother!”
“It’s one in the morning!”
“It’s her birthday!”
My head fell and I threw my hands up in defeat. No rest for the fuckin’ weary.
“Where is the damn waiter with our food? It’s been a half a friggin’ hour!”
“It’s Friendly’s, Pop. What else would you expect?”
“Pop, the swearing...the kids…” Cheryl said.
“Oh they’ll have to hear it someday. What’s the difference in a couple years?”
Allie was eleven. Jimmy was nine. Maybe Jimmy hadn’t, but odds were Allie had heard the word ‘damn’ before.
I pulled out my new Cingular mobile phone and checked the time. Pop was right, it had been almost a half an hour since we ordered. If Allie hadn’t wanted to come here for her birthday I never would have suggested Friendly’s. Besides, with the divorce finalized two short weeks ago, no one could stand to disappoint her. Despite Cheryl’s ex being on the road six days out of the week for work, he was still the kids’ father. It didn’t make the divorce any easier.
Ma leaned across the table to Allie and whispered, “So, dear, I heard about this new dance move all the kids are doing these days. Grinding? Have you tried it? I hear it’s fun,” she said, chuckling.
“Aw, Gram!” Allie exclaimed, her face growing red.
“What’s grinding?” Jimmy asked.
Christ, Ma. Hearing ‘damn’ was one thing, but grinding? Did kids even grind in middle school?
“You’d especially love it, dear.” she chucked again. “The guys get very…”
“Ma!” I exclaimed.
“Don’t worry about it kids, you’ll learn about it when you’re older,” Cheryl said. “Although I wish not,” she added.
I drummed my fingers on the table and looked around for our waiter. Fuckin’ Friendly’s. I checked my mobile phone again. Maybe if I pretended I had a call I could get out of this until our food arrived. I began to stand up.
“That reminds me, dear. I got this mobile cellular device that all you children have been going on about. Put your number in so I can keep in touch and sext and call you.”
“You mean text, Ma.”
Room 208. Ma was a crazy old woman but I loved her anyway. I had to. How could you not love the woman who brought you into this crazy world? I braced myself for the worst as Cheryl opened the door.
The room was dark and Ma was fast asleep. I could just make out a deep purple and red bruise over her left eye, and there were a couple stitches above her eyebrow, tarnishing her extra pale skin. Her leg was under the sheets, but I could only imagine what the gash looked like. I yawned.
“She’s not even awake, Cheryl,” I whispered. “Christ.”
“She’s our mother, Jack! You never see her. Do you realize how much she wishes you would visit her? To just take some time out of your weekend every so often to have dinner? Especially these past few years with Pop gone. I think you owe it to her to be here right now.”
For Christ’s sake. Of course she’d berate me on that. It’s not like she was always the favored one. Why should I be the one to put in the extra effort?
I groaned. “I’ll be back in an hour or two.”
“Fine. But if she wakes up and I call you, you better get your ass back here.”
I left as Cheryl tucked our mother in.
The thought of my untouched post-work drink entered my mind as I made my way to the lobby. My tongue ached for the sweet nectar from the gods. I approached the receptionist in the lobby where we had entered. She was slender, my guess was mid-thirties.
“You guys got a bar here?”
The receptionist rolled her eyes.
“This is a hospital, sir. What do you think?” The receptionist paused before standing up and walking around her desk. “Get out onto the main road and take a left,” she said, pointing to the left. “Penuche’s will be all the way down at the corner of Pleasant and South Main. Don’t come back here stumbling or I’m kicking you out.”
“Thanks miss. You’re a doll.” I winked at her.
She shook her head and went back to her computer.
I walked out onto the main road and took a left. My breath fogged in the night and I shoved my hands in my pockets. After ten minutes I was wondering if the damn place even existed. I’d bet that receptionist sent me off on a chase just to get me out of there. Did she have no sympathy? If a man’s visiting a hospital he’s gonna want a drink. Another ten minutes went by and I spotted Penuche’s. It looked like a small place. I’d have missed the place if I wasn’t so desperate. I looked around: not a car or person in sight. Man, Concord did not know how to have a good time.
As I opened the door I was greeted with a familiar smell. The place was empty save for an older man at the far end of the bar, his cane leaning against his leg, and the bartender staring into her phone. There was an empty stage in the back; maybe I’d come back on a weekend. I looked back to the bartender. She looked young, way too young to be serving a man like myself. I looked her up and down, smiled, and sat down.
“I’ll have a whiskey on the rocks, please.” I paused. "Make that two."
The bartender looked up from her phone. “Two? That’s ambitious.”
“I’m feeling ambitious tonight.”
She set two glasses with ice on the bar top.
“What’s the occasion?” she asked, pouring a bottle of my namesake into the glasses.
“Family incident. Just came from the hospital. You know how it goes,” I said.
I emptied the first glass.
“Oh, I know how it goes.”
She grabbed the first glass to set it under the counter and as she bent down I stared at her chest. A smile began to break out on my face for the first time since I’d driven up here.
“So why would such a young doll like you be working here, serving men like me?” I asked, eyes still fixated on her chest.
“I just graduated five months ago from Keene. It pays the bills for now.”
I emptied the second drink.
She placed a glass with more of my namesake on the bar top.
“You’re a doll.”
I took a sip and leaned forward.
“A word of advice,” I began, “a girl as pretty as you had better watch out at a place like this, or old men like me are gonna try to get to bed with you.”
She laughed a pure laugh. She seemed so damn innocent. I almost felt bad.
“I’ve had a few of those, I know how it goes.”
“Have you slept with any men like me?”
“Now why would I divulge that info to you?”
I took a sip.
“If you’ll excuse me for a moment,” she said.
I lifted my glass to her.
“Do what you need to do.”
The bartender smiled at me and went into the back. The whiskey was hitting me harder than it should have. Perhaps it had something to do with my lack of sleep and lack of substantial food for ten hours. I’d damn the alcohol if we weren’t in love.
I took a sip.
My mind wandered to the bartender and I felt my pulse accelerate. My pants tightened a bit and I thought about the last time I had a lay with a catch like her. It was a few years back, when my hair was a little longer, with a bartender at a venue I used to book at. Maybe I had a thing for bartenders.
I finished my drink.
The bartender returned, cheeks looking a little redder. She looked at my glass and smiled.
“You know what I like,” I said, and pushed my glass her way.
She put another glass on the counter and filled it up.
Looking me in the eyes, she said, “You know, you’ve got about the nicest blue eyes I’ve ever seen in a man.” She paused. “You remind me of someone.”
“Oh I do, do I? Well why don’t you tell me your name and we can get to know each other a bit more,” I said, leaning forward again.
She chuckled. “You’re drunk.”
“Hey, whatever works.”
I opened my mouth to say something else and felt my already tight pants vibrate. I pulled my phone out: Cheryl. My pants loosened a tad.
“Ah Christ…” I muttered. “I’ve gotta get back or else my sister will have a fit,” I said. “Maybe I'll catch you around here again. I’m sure I’ll be back.”
The bartender straightened up. “Maybe you will. Hope everything goes well,” she said with a smile.
I winked at her, emptied my drink, threw a little extra money her way, and stumbled out into the night.
I looked down at my plate. My love for Italian food had decreased since these frequent visits began; Ma and Olive Garden would be forever connected in my brain. I picked up the breaded chicken breast with my fork and plopped in back onto the plate, sending marinara sauce onto my glass. Christ.
"So, Jimmy, why don't you tell Gram what happened yesterday?" Cheryl asked.
Jimmy gave his mother a blank stare.
"What happened?" he asked.
Cheryl raised an eyebrow. "The game? Your first homecoming game?"
"Oh yeah!" Jimmy exclaimed. He turned to Ma. "So yesterday was my first homecoming game, right? And we were real nervous, you know. It was against our rivals in Manchester, and they'd kicked our asses last time we played them. So we were in the third quarter, fourth down, and guess who scored his first high school touchdown?!"
"Well now Jimmy that's great to hear," Ma said, patting his hand. "I'm very proud of you."
"Thanks!" he said, puffing out his chest.
"No need to inflate his ego," Allie said under her breath.
We sat in in a rare moment's silence as everyone ate their dinners. I surveyed the room, noting all the elderly with their children and grandchildren and wondered why I still agreed to these gatherings. A family didn't need to gather this often.
"Now Cheryl, dear, where did you say John was again?"
Cheryl furrowed her eyebrows. She opened her mouth, but then closed it.
"Mom, John and I got divorced. Five years ago."
"Oh right, right, I know.” Ma paused for a moment. “I was just testing you, of course," Ma said, laughing a little.
More silence. Only a little more awkward this time.
"Oh, the sausages are great!" Ma said, miscellaneous meat bits falling from her mouth. "I just love sausages."
I leaned over and whispered to Cheryl, "She loves the sausages, huh?"
"Oh hush," she whispered back.
Ma made grunts of pleasure with each bite. My laughter caught in my throat and I almost choked trying to hold it back. I wondered if she was served enough sausage in that home she was in, or perhaps this was a rare indulgence?
"Mmm, I just have to take these sausages back. I could share them with my friends."
My eyes began to water and I choked again. Cheryl elbowed me in the side.
"Check, please?" she asked the waiter as he walked by.
"So soon?" I asked. I was beginning to enjoy myself.
Cheryl glared at me, giving me that stern ‘I know you’re younger than me but you don’t have to act like it’ look.
We finished our dinner in silence, save for the occasional grunt from Ma. For Christ's sake, she had to have been doing it on purpose by now. She had to.
The waiter came over with the bill. "Did everyone enjoy their meal?"
Heads nodded across the table.
"I must say, I loved the sausages." Ma cleared her throat. "They were delicious! I enjoyed it all but the sausages were great."
"Would you like a box for your food?"
"Yes, please. But just the sausages. I only want the sausages in my box."
I choked and tears began to form in the corners of my eyes.
"You're such a child."
The brightness of the hospital stung as I tip toed past the front desk. My eyes watered a little as I squinted them. I wandered up and down the hallways trying to find Ma's room. Where the fuck was it? Why had the hospital designers made the place so confusing? Everything looked the same. White walls, white floors, bright lights making all the walls and floors whiter. I leaned against the wall to catch my breath. The pale walls spread out before me, seeming endless. Why were hospital walls so white? For fuck's sake, they had to change that. It was like they wanted people to feel sick. I closed my eyes.
After my head paused its spinning, I pushed myself off the wall, fell into the other wall across from me, pushed off that one, and started to walk again. I rounded the corner and stumbled upon the elevators.
"Second floor, right. Right," I said to myself.
I pressed the button to go up. It didn't light. Christ. I pressed it again. And again. Third time's the charm. The doors opened and I got in and the doors closed and we were going up and Christ, what was that smell? A wretched smell filled up the confined space, sucking up all the remaining oxygen. It smelled of alcohol and sweat.
The smell made its way into my stomach and threatened to empty it. The tiny lights on the ceiling danced and danced and danced with each other, dancing this upbeat waltz, but in a minor key. They loomed above me. They danced faster and faster until they all became a blur and I lost focus on the waltz.
The doors opened and I burst out and retched into the garbage can next to the elevator. Not once, but twice did a putrid, amber liquid project itself from my mouth, an unpleasant waterfall that no one wished to observe.
I stood up and wiped my mouth with the back of my hand. Maybe that would put an end to the dancing lights. It was the type of dance you didn't want captivating your attention, but it did anyway. One that you couldn’t help but stare at. Like a car wreck.
Room 208. My hand slipped from the door knob, but I got it the second try. Easy enough. I wiped my forehead with my forearm.
The lights were off. The lights were off and Ma was fast asleep. I groaned.
My sister began to stir. As she opened her eyes her nose wrinkled.
"God, what's that smell?"
"What gives?" I asked.
"Did you not get my text?"
I seemed to recall a faint buzzing as I stumbled down the street, thinking back on it.
"Must've not gotten it," I slurred.
"Jack, you're drunk..."
"Whether I may or may not be intoxicated does not concern you," I said, straightening up. "Now, why is Ma not awake?"
"She woke up for about five minutes, seemed responsive. She asked what time it was and where she was, but fell back asleep. The drugs must still be in her system."
"You could've texted me."
"I was having a wonderful conversation with a bartender, you know."
"Of course you were. How old was this one?”
“Irrelevant to the matter at hand.”
“You can’t help yourself, can you?"
I yawned. "Well she better wake up soon."
"She'll wake up when she wakes up."
I lowered myself onto the chair in the corner. It was more comfortable than it looked. Cheryl said something to me, something along the lines of me needing something that included the words “what her” maybe, but my brain couldn't process it in time before sleep took over.
RICK EDELSTEIN - NOT IF...WHEN!
Rick Edelstein was born and ill-bred on the streets of the Bronx. His initial writing was stage plays off-Broadway in NYC. When he moved to the golden marshmallow (Hollywood) he cut his teeth writing and directing multi-TV episodes of “Starsky & Hutch,” “Charlie’s Angels,” “Chicago,” “Alfred Hitchcock,” et al. He also wrote screenplays, including one with Richard Pryor, “The M’Butu Affair” and a book for a London musical, “Fernando’s Folly.” His latest evolution has been prose with many published short stories and novellas, including, “Bodega,” “Manchester Arms,” “America Speaks,” “Women Go on,” “This is Only Dangerous,” “Aggressive Ignorance,” “Buy the Noise,” and “The Morning After the Night.” He writes every day as he is imbued with the Judeo-Christian ethic, “A man has to earn his day.” Writing atones.
An earth body is amazingly inconsistent. Amazingly due to the fact that it still functions relatively well. Relatively because the mortality rate is ludicrous, where the human species believe that when you are over 65 you are what they call a senior citizen, a golden ager, close to end times. One can barely translate what 65 means other than the knowledge that such may be considered the gestation of being, not absurdly a suggestion of termination. With all of the body’s contradictory elements it took over 2,700 megaclicks to infiltrate the system in order to expedite the assignment.
Moving to the music Paulina interrupted her food prep by grabbing a dish rag and using it as a veil during a dash of belly dancing while plunking a dash of paprika and other ingredients into the mix.
Harrison entered the kitchen enjoying Paulina’s moves as he attached an apron to join her in creating a meal which of course, as they both were food junkies, includes appetizers, salads, main course and of course delicious desert. They moved like a seasoned couple who could win a dance contest gliding around each other on trips to the refrigerator, cabinets, intentionally bumping butts in perfect two/four rhythm when interrupted by the phone.
Harrison looked and followed the repetitious distinct tone until he found the phone on the kitchen table under a napkin. He signaled for Paulina to turn off the music as she was closer to the stereo. She did and Harrison answered.
“Hello....” he listened and made a masturbatory gesture. Paulina grimaced as Harrison replied. “No, Mr. Davidoff moved out taking his computer only leaving this phone. My name? Kanye West. Yes, E S T like in West.” He disconnected and returned to join Paulina in the food prep.
“What are they selling this time, Kanye?” Paulina asked.
Harrison adapted an East European accent, “We have been informed that your computer has a virus...ad infinitum...”
“Ad nauseam,” she completed, as they weaved in and around each other using utensils and spices enriching their anticipated meal when the doorbell sounded. “You expecting?” Paulina asked.
“No. You order anything?” Harrison asked.
“A round trip to Barcelona.” Paulina responded as she walked to the door.
“Gaudi called and said next year.” Harrison cracked.
Paulina opened the door to Luciana who was dressed in a soft blue jacket, ecru silk blouse, smart beige skirt and clean, unblemished running shoes, all on a perfect posture of a body.
“Yes?” Paulina asked.
Luciana bobbed her head, “Yes. Good. Yes. I pushed the button at your front door where there is a note.”
“Yes, there is.” Paulina said.
“The note said,” Luciana continued, “If no answer try kitchen door. If no answer there leave a note but leave. Accurate?”
Paulina looked at Luciana and then to Harrison, “We hooked an off-one. I don’t know what she’s selling yet. Throw her back in?”
Harrison continued his food prep, “Check her out first.”
“Okay,” Paulina said and turned to Luciana. “Can I help you?”
“No, thank you,” Luciana said, “I do not require help.”
Paulina growing impatient, turned to Harrison, “She does not require help,” and turned back to Luciana, “And you are here because?”
Luciana’s body seemed to coalesce in affirmation, “Ah, yes, because. Because you have been chosen, if you are Paulina Echaverria de Gutierrez and...”
Paulina wavered between impatience and curiosity, “Well that’s refreshing. Most people have difficulty pronouncing Spanish names but you even rolled the r’s perrrfectly.”
“Yes, I did,” Luciana simply said.
Harrison called over, “What is she selling?”
Luciana, leaned to be able to see him clearly, “And you, Harrison Aaron Davidoff have also been chosen.”
Harrison put the pot on the range, turned up the heating to just-so very carefully, called back, “We already have subscriptions to the New Yorker, the Weekly...”
Paulina completed, “The Rolling Stones, the Times delivered to our door every morning so if you are here to...”
“How does she know our names?” Harrison asked gently stirring the elements in the warming pot.
Paulina called to Harrison ,“Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, Tumblr, Linked-in, out, no one is anonymous anymore.” Then back to Luciana, “Isn’t that so, whatever your name is?”
“Luciana. From Lucianis. Latin. Light.”
“Your parents set a high bar,” Harrison said from a distance.
Paulina started to close the door, “Well, it’s been nice talking to you, Luciana...”
Harrison, wiping his hands on the apron, came over, “Wait a sec, hold up. I haven’t been surprised by anyone since a politician decided to be honest.” He faced Luciana. “Why are you here, Luciana?”
Luciana said in elemental tones, “You, each, individually, have been chosen.”
“Yes,” Harrison said, “I’m from the chosen people tribe, which is not always the good news.” He and Paulina exchanged looks which, as a result of living together for three years, could communicate without always verbalizing. Harrison nodded, to Luciana, “Okay, come in.”
Luciana entered and as Paulina was about to...Luciana closed the door behind her.
Paulina was cautiously polite, indicated chairs. “Make yourself comfortable.”
“I am always comfortable.” Luciana said as she sat erect on the seat of the chair, legs together, hands resting on each thigh.
Harrison left the stove, facing Luciana. “Okay, we have been chosen, you say. For what? Life insurance, some kind of annuity, an investment scam, get to it, Luciana, what, specifically are you selling?”
Luciana looked straight into Harrison’s eyes. She did not blink. Just observed past Harrison’s veneer of cynicism. Then said, “Phase one begins. First query.”
Harrison continued what he considered a staring contest with Luciana, but talked to nearby Paulina, “She’s good. Really good. Whatever the pitch is, we may have to go for it.”
Luciana said. “Shall we proceed?”
Harrison broke the staring contest (and lost) as he walked around a few paces trying to get what her game is, he turned sharply to Luciana, “Are you for real?”
Luciana, was, for the first time, intrigued, anticipating that perhaps the chosen one might be more prepared to cognize another reality, namely her Source. “What reality are you talking about, Harrison Aaron Davidoff?” she asked.
Paulina said to Harrison, “She’s giving me the jitters, honey, maybe it’s time for Luciana to egress from our premises.”
Harrison turned to Paulina, “We’re in too deep...can’t let it go until I find out her game.” He sat down and assumed a casual posture which was not reflective of his inner edginess. “Your move, Luciana.”
Luciana was aware of three distinct aromas. The food preparation was pleasing; perfume Paulina was wearing she found imposing; and Harrison’s human emanation violated her olfactory senses. She started to question this human species until she was interrupted by an incandescent
evanescent miniscule flash before her left eye which reminded her to focus on the assignment. She acquiesced and focused. Looked at Harrison, then turned to Paulina. “My first query is for each. What, and please choose only one, what is most important in this, your life?”
Paulina looked around, at the ceiling, corners of the room, the door. “There has to be a camera. This is some magic show like the Carbanaro effect. Come on, Harrison, let’s just...”
Harrison was determined. “No, baby, not until her hole card is revealed.” He turned to Luciana, “Okay what is most important? My next breath. How’s that work out for you, Luciana?”
“I am not here to question or evaluate your response, just to record it for further evaluation.”
“Ah,” Harrison thought he was gaining entrance to her secret. “You are recording us. For what? Some TV show, an article about...”
Paulina pushed. “Where’s your recorder? Hidden mike in your jacket?”
“I record,” Luciana pointed to her head.
“In your head, huh?” Paulina commented distrustfully, “And when you forget what was spoken or...”
“I do not forget,” Luciana effortlessly said.
“Everyone forgets,” Paulina insisted.
“I do not.” Luciana stated.
“Oh really, okay,” Paulina needed to defuse Luciana’s assertion. “Tell me, miss-I-do-not-forget, let’s see now, okay, when you first knocked on the door and I opened it, Harrison and I talked about subscriptions to...to what, Miss-I-do-not-forget?”
Luciana rolled out the information without a pause. “We already have subscriptions to the New Yorker, the Weekly, The Rolling Stones, the Times delivered to our door every morning.”
Paulina looked at Harrison, “I am spooked, baby, so you better, we better find out what, who...talk to me, Harrison, because I am not a happy camper!”
“Okay, easy baby, Luciana is no threat, she means us no harm, isn’t that right, Luciana?”
“I am not capable of harm or threat. I am here because each of you have been chosen and my assignment is to determine...” She stopped. Again that incandescent evanescent miniscule flash before her left eye. She nodded in accord. Faced each of them. “My present query is, are you religious?”
Harrison erupted in laughter. “Nailed it. A born-again evangelical hustler, wanting us in her fold. Relax baby, I got her game.” He turned to Luciana, “Okay, Sister, you want us to buy some literature, sign up, make a donation, lay it out clean and simple.”
“I am not what you say nor do I want anything from you except a response to my query. Are you religious? Each of you.”
Paulina said to Harrison, “Do we really have to indulge this Jesus freak?”
“I got to play the hand out, baby.” He turned to Luciana. “Okay, am I religious you asked. Hmmm...got it. I would never want to be a member of a group whose symbol is a man nailed to two pieces of wood.”
Paulina laughed, “George Carlin couldn’t have said it better.
“Because he did!” Harrison smiled. To Lucia, “No, I am not religious and if there is a God who is omnipotent then look at all suffering which makes big-G God a mean-spirited sadist. And if that’s not enough just look at the freaks who use God as a reason to season their greed.” Harrison grunted. “If I was God I’d prefer the ones who don’t believe in me. Can I get an Amen!”
Luciana was not affected by Harrison’s emotional energy and easily turned to Paulina. “Are you religious, Paulina Echaverria de Gutierrez?
Paulina shrugged, deciding to play it straight, “Religious? Hmmm, I was raised Catholic but all the rules and horny priests turned me off.”
“Do you believe in God?” Luciana asked.
“No,” Paulina cracked, “But he does piss me off and I agree with Harrison because I get angry at that son of a bitch God who lets innocent children suffer so horribly. You want more? Genesis, except for Noah’s ark, he killed them all. God is love? I don’t think so!”
Luciana heard some inner direction, conformed, asked Paulina, “How can you not believe and yet be angry at?”
Paulina shrugged, “I am a living conundrum, baddabumbum.” She exchanged fives with Harrison.
Luciana listened, consented, asked, “Last query of Phase One. Do you have a guiding principle, a methodology of dealing with the puzzling existence of this existence called human life?”
Harrison said, “Good it’s the last, Lucy baby, because I’m running thin on indulgence.”
“Your answer?” she asked.
Harrison snapped, “There are no answers. Only decisions.”
Luciana turned to Paulina. “A principle or guide to your...”
Paulina retorted, “I don’t need any principle or guide. You just do your best and enjoy the puppy.”
“Puppy?” Luciana asked.
“Just a word...used for anything, including life.”
Luciana experienced the incandescent evanescent miniscule flash before her left eye. Submitted, stood. “That completes Phase-One. There will be a Phase-Two, with your permission.”
Harrison smiled and emitted a fan-fare, “Ta dahhhh. Okay, here it comes baby.”
Luciana walked to the door. “It may be me or some other.”
Paulina looked at Harrison, both puzzled, “You don’t want anything down, something to guarantee we...”
Harrison completed her search for clarity and closure. “To guarantee that we qualify for your infamous Phase-Two?”
At the door Luciana is stoic. Listens. Then, “You each have qualified for Phase Two. Good bye.” She leaves closing the door behind her.
They are both in a confused silence.
“What just happened?” Paulina asked.
Harrison breaks out into a wide smile, laughs and claps his hand in brief applause, “Brilliant! A great set-up. We, you and me are hooked, biting the bait for Phase-Two which will be the pay off, the big closer, selling us something grand, some major investment in commodities or a teen-ager’s garage dot-com venture, it’s a teaser to get us salivating. I love this!”
“I don’t know,” Paulina cautioned. “Luciana is ... is weird. And her I-don’t-forget, you have to admit, Harrison, is a bit uncanny, I mean she did remember exactly...”
Harrison’s phone rang. He made a gesture – to be continued – picked up the phone, looked at it. “My son. Give me courage.”
“You love him so don’t get uptight...he’s just evolved from acne, so be patient, honey.”
“I’ll try,” he said as he pushed the button to answer. “Hey, Billie, how’re you doing, kid?” Listening and seeing Paulina’s gesture with her hands on her heart. He nodded. “I sent you the check three days ago....why would I lie...it was Friday...they don’t deliver on Sunday...come on, Billie, relax, your old man got your back...you really want to go this route? ... No, I’d rather not...” Harrison looked at Paulina, shakes head, his face indicating displeasure despite the attempt to... “What are you saying? What’s this about? ... I don’t give a shit what your therapist said, I...okay, yeah, okay, yea ‘n verily this sinner admits I have not been as great a father as I could have been at trying times but hey, Billie, you haven’t always been that great a son so can we declare peace and... Christ this call is turning...well, yes, I guess I’m glad you made break-through with the shrink but I wasn’t there, Billie, so there are other p.o.v’s to consider...p o v points of view...I did not abandon you, god damn it, our marriage fell apart, your mother and I would have killed each other if we didn’t split...no I am not dissing your mother...it would be cool if you could cut your father some slack... not in this lifetime huh...whew, you are one tough kid...yeah and you come from one tough father....God damnit, Billie, you are twenty-one...all right good even better, twenty-two, a-k-a also known as...in bold underline an adult. You know what an adult is?...don’t get smart ass now...yes I’m going to tell you even if you don’t want to listen because it’s important for me to say. An adult, Billie, takes full responsibility for his life, not blaming mommy not blaming daddy...uhmm hmmm...but I’ll bet you still want me to send a monthly check, don’t you?...Yeah, that sure is an adult way of saying goodbye.” Harrison disconnected. “I love him but I don’t like him.”
Paulina was empathic, “I’m sorry, baby, Billie is just...he’ll grow out of it, it takes time for kids nowadays to mature.”
Harrison wasn’t buying as he paced the room barely reigning in his fury as he raged to the gods. “Where do you get the balls, the temerity to make me the bad guy while you fuck up all on your own. Who put a roof over your head? Who pays for your education and even covers your car insurance? Who guaranteed an unlimited supply of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches? Who went to the schoolyard and straightened out that punk bully who was messing with you? You should be grateful for the fact that you are alive, that you my first born son breathes in and out, be grateful because if your mother and I did not fuck on that hot summer’s night you would not exist so fall down on your knees you ungrateful kid for the life that we gave you.” He ran out of breath, in dark sadness he just leaned against the wall knowing there is soothing that painful chasm.
Paulina softly said, “I’m sorry your son hurt you.”
“And I hurt my son,” Harrison grumbled.
“Hurt people...” Paulina paused, “hurt people.”
Harrison gestured to wave off the heavy emotions, “Let’s get to work.”
Paulina nodded and they both expertly moved into their original intention, prepare their foodie-feast, taking out items from the refrigerator, grating, slicing, mixing, spicing...they were like a fine tuned couple in their distinct movement within an effective rhythm.
The door bell rang. They stopped the prep, looked at each other both knowing they were thinking the same thing. Harrison said, “Phase Two? I’m not sure I’m ready for Looney Lucy.”
Paulina said, “Answer the door, honey, if it’s her, what the hell, we need a break from your Billie blues.”
Harrison walked to and opened the door to:
Luciano, dressed as a man in a conservative suit, hair close to the scalp, parted precisely, shining in a gelled substance,.
Harrison stared at her/him trying to comprehend the slickened hair, slightly more masculine energy but there was no doubt that this is Luciana. He turned to Paulina, “This isn’t Halloween is it?” And then to Luciana, “Luciana?”
“Oh...Luciano, you said, right?”
“Yes. Right. Luciano.”
Harrison chuckled, shrugged, turned to Paulina, “Talk about a break!” “I am here for Phase-Two. You are Harrison Aaron Davidoff, correct?”
Turning to Paulina, “Can you believe this baby!”
Paulina leaned over to see Luciano dressed in a male suit with hair glistening straight on his/her scalp. “I don’t know if I’m ready for this.”
“Neither am I but let’s jump off the cliff and build our wings on the way down.”
“Or crash.” Paulina said.
Harrison turned to Luciano, “Let the games begin. Yes I am Harrison Aaron Davidoff.”
“May I enter?”
“Yes, sure.” He held open the door.
Luciano entered, closing the door behind her, walked to the chair, sat erect. “I am comfortable.”
In clear vision, Paulina looked at Luciano, “I don’t know whether to laugh or...” she turned to Harrison who was no help, back to Luciano, “You are not Luciana?”
“Luciano with an O,” he replied in a neutral tone. “You are Paulina Echaverria de Gutierrez?”
“Yes, I haven’t changed any vowels.”
“I am not cognizant of the meaning of such.”
“I don’t know about this charade so, Harrison, I’m just going to...”
“No, stick, hang in, please, baby, we have to nail her end game,” Harrison said.
“How can we play if we don’t know the rules of this...” Paulina, in frustration, turned to Luciano, “I’m sorry but I’m going to have to pass on this performance and go to another room to get grounded, maybe watch Ellen on TV.” She started to move but was stopped by...
“I urge you to reconsider Paulina Echaverria Gutierrez.” Luciano was surprisingly direct.
Paulina glowered at Luciano, “You’re good, really good, but whatever the pay-off, whatever you offer, I don’t know about my partner but this girl ain’t buying.”
“You can not buy, it is beyond mortal cost to accept, to embrace, to admit the splendid offer of an opportunity of such rarity...”
Harrison urged her, “Get to it...and I mean now!”
“...which shall be presented momentarily.”
Paulina cracked, “Are you serious, Harrison, to indulge her, him, whatever, I mean please!”
Harrison gently urged, “There is something about our friend sitting on the edge of her/his chair in perfect posture that does not fit any paradigms we know of. Doesn’t that intrigue you? Even a little bit?”
Paulina was ambivalent. “God, I feel like I’m in a haunted house reaching for the gold ring of redemption in an amusement park but I am not amused.”
Harrison gestured for her to trust him. He turned and glared at Luciano, “All right Lucy, Luciano, here’s the deal. Paulina of my heart already has one foot out the door and I’m not far behind so get to your pitch.”
“Phase Two procedure commences”.
“Commence and then call it a wrap.”
“End to this farce,” Paulina snapped.
“May I proceed?” Luciano asked.
“Roll it!” Harrison insisted.
“I have queries,” Luciano said. “Your individual response will determine if you qualify.”
“My man said one foot out the door,” Paulina impatiently said, “and my other foot is following even as we speak.”
Paulina started to go but Harrison stopped her. “We’re at the finish line, baby, trust me.” Paulina sighed, nodded reluctantly and just stood glaring at Luciano.
Harrison almost barked at Luciano, “Qualify for what? Lay it out or we shall show you the door.”
“I need not be shown the door. I see it clearly.”
Harrison walked to the door, opened it and held it open. “What is your splendid offer and how do we qualify? Now or consider yourself history.”
“History is not written by your kind.” Luciano was about to continue but that incandescent evanescent miniscule flash before her left eye stopped her. She listened. Slightly nodded. Closed her eyes. Opened them. Looked at Paulina. Nodded to herself, at Harrison. “You may close the door.”
Harrison held it open. “Not until you give me something and I’m talking specific and substantial. No more games.”
Luciano nodded, closed her eyes, opened them. “I have been instructed to share information with you. Please close the door and perhaps you may, what is that expression, oh yes, make yourselves comfortable.”
Harrison hesitantly closed the door, pulled out two chairs indicating to Paulina who sat with obvious resistance, Harrison sat and gestured to Luciano.
Luciano listened to the information from within, then not so much talked but opened her mouth slightly as the tumbling words sounded like a stock clerk taking inventory.
“Deforestation of the Amazon - check; global warming not dangerous but a catastrophe - check; sink holes swallowing houses - check; breathing causes death in cities in China, India and Bangladesh - check; polar ice caps melting - check; coastal cities to be flooded - check; intensity of heat waves, hurricanes, tornados - check; increased fracking increased earthquakes - check; nuclear facilities leaking - check; nuclear waste lasting ten thousand years - check; disposal of chemical weaponry into the ocean killing live mammals – check...and done.” She stopped, looking at Paulina and then at Harrison.
The silence was uncomfortable as Paulina and Harrison exchanged confused looks. Harrison retorted trying to lighten the load, to Luciano, “You didn’t mention methane, more potent at trapping heat than carbon dioxide. Most of it coming from cows farting, check that!”
Paulina wasn’t cooperating. “Do we have to continue this nihilistic death march. Come on, Harrison, this feels like a PBS special.” She stared at Luciano, “But looking at you, Luciana, Luciano, I feel like it’s a bad sci-fi TV episode with an unhappy ending. I don’t know what the hell is going on, either you’re from another planet or a transvestite with a program not to my liking!”
Luciano simply said, “The former.”
Paulina continued her irritable rant, “So the fact is - this lady is no longer interested in whatever number you are playing on our naïve butts and...”
Harrison interrupted. “Wait a minute?” He turned to Luciano. “What did you say?”
Paulina slammed, “The former what?”
“You delineated two choices of sourcing my nature. The former.” Luciano said.
Paulina mumbled, “The former, the former...” turned to Harrison, “I am over-stressing Harrison. What did I say that has anything to do with the former...the former of what?”
Harrison tried to be calm, cool but was uncollected. “You said to her, him, are you from another planet or a transvestite. She/he said the former.” He turned to Luciano. “Correct?”
Harrison just stared at him. Without looking at Paulina he said, “Are you getting this, baby?”
Long silence. Paulina and Harrison’s short breaths were audible. Finally Paulina bolted, “This is beyond my ken...fuck this!” and stormed out of the room, changed her mind and raged back in confronting Luciano. “Prove it!”
“Unnecessary to prove what is,” Luciano said.
“Bogus. I am not playing.” She started to go but was stopped by Harrison.
“Hold up, baby.” Then turned to Luciano. “You are not from...from here, here being planet earth?”
“And this...your planet earth body?”
“Eases communication with your species.”
Paulina, trying to understand but not willing to bypass her own conditioned reality, “Uhmm hmmm, you are telling us that this is not your body?”
“I am freaking out, no doubt about it, but...okay, okay, if that’s not your body...uhmmm...can you feel anything? I mean if Harrison punches you out will you feel the pain?”
“My body will respond as a mortal body does but I, no, I shall not feel or respond emotionally as your species does.”
Harrison asserted, “You don’t feel physical pain?”
“The body does but not I, no.”
“And pleasure,” Paulina asked?
Luciano attempted to understand the word. “Pleasure, pleasure...the absence of pain, of conflict, absence of comparisons, yes?”
Harrison responded, “Okay, a good enough definition.”
“Then I am in a constant perpetual state of pleasure, yes.”
Paulina was determined to expose what she considered a travesty. “Let’s test this puppy out!” She walked to cabinets, drawers, looking wildly for...and finally found and extracted a long stainless steel seasoning injector needle which has an exceedingly acute, honed sharp point. She walked to Harrison and lightly tapped the point on his wrist.
“Hey, what are you doing, that hurts.”
Paulina smiled dourly, “Good.” She walked to Luciano. “Your arm, please.”
“Your choice,” Paulina said. “but push up your jacket and shirt. I need bare skin.”
Luciano did so. “As you wish.”
Paulina’s voice was grim, “Try not to be emotional with this!” And she pushed the needle deep into the inner part of the arm, the tender naked skin between the wrist and the elbow.
Luciano just observed.
Harrison cautioned, “You’re drawing blood.”
Paulina twisted the needle hoping for a scream, a groan, some response from Luciano. Nothing. Only blood.
Harrison came over and helped Paulina withdraw the needle, placing the entire injector on the table. He spoke quietly to Paulina. “I know this is ultra bizarre but in it’s own way kind of enthralling, wouldn’t you say? Come on, Paulina, I got your back. We have to go for it.”
Paulina harshly retorted, “What it?” and turned to Luciano with a lethal demand, “Whatever you are, from wherever you are, it’s well past time to get to...yes, the elusive it of its. Why, Luciano, are you here with me and Harrison? No more tap dancing. A direct, clear, intelligible reply for...for our species, damn it!”
Luciano was about to reply when that incandescent evanescent miniscule flash before her left eye stopped her. She listened. Slightly nodded. Closed her eyes. Opened them. Looked at Paulina. Nodded to herself.
“Your species has two to four decades at the most. Those who qualify, as a result of participating in Phase Two, shall have the opportunity to transcend this built-in obsolescence.”
Paulina muttered, “I don’t know what to do with this.”
Harrison gently touched her and turned to Luciano. “Opportunity to transcend?”
“This built-in obsolescence, yes.”
“Meaning planet earth,” Harrison said.
Paulina felt stretched beyond comprehension. “You want me to deal with this as a sentient human being, do you, Harrison?”
“No other choice.”
Paulina turned to Luciano, in a voice more assertive than her lack of confidence, “Transcend, you say, transcend to where, exactly?”
“Your astronomers affirm that there are 11 billion inhabitable planets in our galaxy where surface temperatures are neither too hot or too cold to support liquid water. About one in five sun-like stars harbors an Earth-size planet and is only twelve Light years away. You are not alone.”
“Why doesn’t that make me feel better?” Paulina asked.
“Phase Two. Participate and if you qualify you will be offered the opportunity to transcend.”
Harrison insisted, “There have been crisis throughout history and somehow our human species found ways to survive and even thrive.”
“Two to four decades. Unfit for human habitation. Non-negotiable,” Luciano clarified.
Paulina turned to Harrison, “Are you sure you didn’t slip some drug into our omelets?”
“I wish,” he said, “because this scene is an anathema to any familiar frame of reference.” He turned to Luciano. “I’m in the game without knowing the boundaries. What the hell, Phase-Two it is!”
Paulina said, “And if we do qualify and choose not, n – o – t to transcend, then what?”
“Each being lives with whatever comes with the choices each being makes.”
“Sounds like a New Age bumper sticker?” Harrison cracked.
“It is what it is.”
“Okay, rock ‘n roll. Let’s do it!” Harrison said as he turned to Paulina.
“Take a breath Paulina,” she said trying to calm herself, not successfully. Then to Luciano, “Phase Two, all right, yes, do whatever Phase Two does and end this circus.”
Luciano nodded and said, “Eight-second process. I shall pose three one-word issues and you will respond within eight seconds. Your response shall last no longer than eight seconds.”
“Oh God, I feel like we’re on a TV game-show,” Paulina said.
Harrison, “Where’s your stop clock?”
“Stop a clock?” Luciano asked.
“To keep time, eight seconds.”
“I always know the time.”
“If you think she’s scaring me, you’re right,” Paulina said.
“I shall start. Listen well. Life.”
Harrison, “Life what?”
“Your response within eight seconds. Life.”
“Okay...okay...life...solving problems.” He turned to Paulina. “You’re up.”
Paulina, “Life...enjoying solutions.”
Paulina responded, “I make it a habit not to think of whatever I cannot control.”
Luciano turned to Harrison, “Death.”
“The end,” Harrison said succinctly.
Paulina shrugged, “What was important before you showed up, Luciano, is not so important now.”
Luciano turned to Harrison, “Importance.”
Harrison searched, “Importance...importance...even lies have important truths hidden. Under eight?”
Luciano sat quietly as an incandescent evanescent miniscule flashed before her left eye, understanding, to each of them she asked, “Do you have any questions before considering your qualifications to transcend?”
Paulina hesitantly asked,” Transcend to where exactly?”
“We do not give it a name and if I specified the location your scientists would not understand the parameters which exceed your planetary measurement devices.”
Harrison aggressively pushed, “If I choose to transcend to your no-name place...”
“If you qualify.”
“Yeah, yeah,” he said dismissively, what will it look like?”
“Not this. No words in your vocabulary would be a suitable description.”
“Will I have the same body?”
“Now we’re getting somewhere,” Harrison said.
“Where exactly are we getting?” Paulina asked trying to ignore her shortened breathing patterns.
Harrison asked Luciano, “Will we, will I have an explicit identity?”
“Yes, and you will also be part of.”
Paulina asked, “Part of what?”
“As you are now part of the human race.”
Paulina was urgently reaching for some kind of comprehension, an understanding that wasn’t coming. “But on your planet, if that’s what you call it, no human race?”
Luciano said, “There is another term in a form of communication you would not at present cognize but once transcended you will comprehend all immediately.”
Harrison intruded. “Sex?”
“Not in the form with which you are familiar,” Luciano said.
“And what form is that?” Harrison’s asked in antagonism.
“I cannot offer the explanation in a language which you would fathom.”
“I’m about to regurgitate from these verbal gymnastics that tell me nothing.” Harrison said.
Paulina quietly asked, “Once I transcend will I have a personality, humor, smarts, culture, what?”
“Those who transcend,” Luciano replied, “have everything they need with nothing to want.”
Harrison cracked, “Sounds boring.”
He and Paulina looked at each other, both unsure of the next question, their next move when Luciano reminded them:
“Two to four decades at the most when human species will find life on your planet uninhabitable.”
Harrison, “Sounds like a bad weather report.”
“Shall I determine qualifications?” Luciano asked.
Harrison snapped, “By all means, let us know if we qualify...blues!”
“Not we,” Luciano said. “Each of you, individually, will be determined.”
Paulina softly said, “Please. Determine and conclude this...this experience.”
Luciano closed her eyes, an incandescent evanescent miniscule flash before her left eye, Luciano barely nodded, opened her eyes, looked at each and then stopped at Paulina. “Paulina Echaverria de Gutierrez. You qualify.”
Paulina didn’t know if she felt relief or concern.
Luciano looked at Harrison. “Harrison Aaron Davidoff does not qualify.”
Harrison dismissively said, “Well what do you know, Bubba’s bucha did not qualify. Whoda’ thunk.” He turned to Paulina, “Your game, baby.”
Paulina looked at Harrison, flaws and all... with him she always felt better...better than what? Better than before. She turned to Luciano, “Transcending’s not for me. You wasted your time, Luciano.”
“I have time. No waste involved. Goodbye.” Luciano stood, walked to the door, opened it, closed it on her disappearing form.
They were silent for a seconds when a loud buzzing zzzzttttzzzappp sounded on the outside of the door. Paulina and Harrison looked at each other with a “what was that!”
Paulina ran to the door, slammed it open, not seeing Luciano. She was emotionally strung tight as she stepped out, looking frantically for Luciano. She exceeded logic and started to jog through the streets, calling, “Luciano”...then running at full speed, calling, “Luciano...Luciano...” She finally stopped, exhausted, as Harrison jogged and caught up. It was apparent to him that Paulina was close to breaking as he held her. Paulina’s audible short breaths slowed...until she could breathe at a normal pace, then deeply. Tears were flowing down her cheeks. She was on the edge of sobbing. “Was she...he...Luciano for real?”
Comforting her with soothing sounds even he did not feel. “Yes, no, maybe...there is nothing I can... maybe there was some hallucigenic in our water, maybe... let’s just chalk it up to an I-don’t-know-what-the-fuck-that-was experience.”
“Can’t do any better, baby, sorry.”
“You better walk me home, Harrison, because I am short on sanity.”
He walked her home slowly, totally identifying although keeping his emotions in check.
They entered their home.
Paulina stood for thirty seconds, not recognizing anything...looked around wildly. Then got what she needed! She quickly moved to the kitchen and fiercely engrossed herself into food prep, dicing, slicing, mixing.
“What are you doing, baby?”
Paula working frantically, “I have to get on familiar territory. Need to find my own reality!”
Harrsion came over, took her busy hands in his, held them to his face, “Slow down, Paulina, everything’s okay.”
“Really?” she said, feeling nothing will ever be okay again.
“Hey,” Harrison touched her cheeks gently, “You could have gone and left me to my own devices, you know.”
Paulina stopped...looked around...relished the familiarity of her pots, pans and bowls and...she inhaled deeply, grateful as if it was her first hit of air, looked at Harrison in gratitude and smiled, “Okay, darling man, I’m back. I am all right.”
“You sure?” Harrison asked.
“It’s a done deal. We human species are...back, so get your butt over to your side and let’s make a great dinner.”
Harrison hugged and kissed Paulina, she playfully shoved him to the counter, “Make one of your great salads, mister, and on your way turn on the radio. I can stand some easy listenin’ music as this girl craves for some distracting mind candy.”
Harrison turned on the radio and pop music enhanced their graceful moves in and around each other, promising a great feast.
At one point Harrison was close to Paulina, each had a kitchen utensil in hand, and he led them in a dance during which Paulina clacked her utensil against his in perfect time to the music until the radio announcer cut in:
“And now the news. A vicious hurricane hit the East Coast, rising waters destroying Coastal homes and threatening some further inland in which a severe devastation of office buildings in New York, New Jersey, all the way down to Florida where people on the street are wading in water up to their hips but if you think you got it bad check out our Polar bears because sea ice has virtually disappeared and the poor bears are drowning. In the beautiful western part of the good ‘ole u.s. of a. there is a promise of rain which is sorely needed to dampen the 22 million acres that have been burned since the fire season is in full bloom. But folks, listen up and cheer up because I got some great news to wash away your blues. There is a beyond belief great and wild sale at Target, offering discounts on toilet sundries, soap, bath tissues, and brushes to reach you know where for only...”
Paulina rushed to the radio, shutting it off.
They both silently were dealing with what Luciano predicted.
Paulina decided to ignore and cover. “I’m hungry. You?”
“Starving,” Harrison said.
They worked on their food prep silently aware of Luciano’s words.
Quietly Paulina asked, “Ten to twenty decades?”
Harrison not wanting to go there. “Uhmmm...this salad’s going to taste the best ever.”
“And you, Mister Harrison Aaron Davidoff, better be the most loving, caring, nurturing best ever. Promise?”
He shrugged, admitted Luciano, and made his choice. “For ten to twenty decades at least.”
“Even with a deal to stop the current rate of greenhouse gas emissions, scientists warn, the world will become increasingly unpleasant. Without a deal, they say, the world could eventually become uninhabitable for humans.” [New York Times]
P. RAJA - THE TROUBLEMAKER
P.RAJA (October 07, 1952) a son of this divine soil, Pondicherry, India famed for its spiritual
heritage, writes in his chosen language, English, and also in his mother tongue, Tamil. More than 5000 of his works – poems, short stories, interviews, articles, book reviews, plays, skits, features and novellas – have seen the light through newspapers and magazines that number to 350 in both India and elsewhere. He has 30 books for adults and 8 books for children in English and 14 books in Tamil. Apart from contributing special articles to Encyclopaedia of Post-Colonial Literature in English (London), Encyclopaedia of Tamil Literature in English, and to several other edited volumes, he has also written scripts for Television (Delhi). He broadcasts his short stories and poems from All India Radio, Pondicherry. He was GENERAL COUNCIL MEMBER of CENTRAL SAHITYA AKADEMI, New Delhi (ENGLISH ADVISORY BOARD -- 2008-2012) representing Pondicherry University. He is EDITOR of TRANSFIRE, a literary quarterly devoted to translations from various languages into English. His website: www.professorraja.com
Children are the most loved creatures on Earth till they start loving mischief. A mischievous child is a real menace to its parents and the trouble is all the more if one of the parents is not a home maker.
There comes a stage in every child’s life when its intuition tells it that unless it cries its lungs out it can’t get a drop of milk to drink. There comes another stage when its intuition informs it that it has to play adamant to get things done. It is this adamant attitude that easily passes for mischief.
On such children, parents use a weapon, a four pronged one at that. They use the prongs one after the other. At first, the parents cajole the child by pouring sweet nothings into its wee ears. The result of such an action would be nothing more than futile.
The second prong is used for the purpose of luring the child with chocolates and biscuits. Very rarely are children attracted for they are in every way aware that such bribes are meant to distract them from their one aim—one desire— one goal.
The third prong is a teaser. Here enters the bogeyman. Sometimes the bald headed neighbour or a dark coloured relative would pass for a bogeyman. Such a thought about that unwanted man either silences the child or gives full throttle to its cry.
For those children who howl non-stop and allows their parents’ B.P. to shoot up, the last prong comes in handy. This prong is a thrasher. Parents use this weapon on their tiny tots mercilessly for they are left with no more prongs. It is like a battle. Only one of the two can win.
My story is about a tiny tot who belongs to the category of winners. Once a winner, the child is always the winner. It is only the parents who are destined to fight the losing battle.
Well! To get into the story…
Ramana was pushed into a crèche. His parents, being office goers, couldn’t think of any other option.
In the absence of his parents, Ramana’s only solace was his grandmother. But she was quite old and so found it difficult to attend to too many chores. When his mischief went beyond compare, she complained to her son of her inability to care for the child all through the day.
The grandmother was aware that Ramana was by nature very curious and it was this curiosity that drove him to all sorts of mischief. She found it hard to answer his fusillade of questions and his questions went non-stop unless she took measures to stop them. She had to do it, though she knew pretty well that the child needed company and was all the time trooping like a colt at her heels.
Once when she was frying fish on the gas stove, Ramana, who was all long pedalling his tricycle in the reception hall of the house, attracted by the sound and fury entered the kitchen.
“Ayah! What are you doing?” he asked in a singsong.
“I am frying fish for you, child,” answered the grandma in an affectionate voice.
“What fish, ayah?”
“What pomfret, ayah?”
“What black pomfret, ayah?”
Granny was dumbfounded. She searched for an answer and with great difficult found one. “Black Pomfret from the sea, child.”
“Sea! What sea, ayah?”
“Bay of Bengal, child,” granny said. She knew what would be his next question; she also knew that she had no answer for it. And so she grunted, “You are asking too many questions, Ramana. Go and play.”
Ramana didn’t budge. He waited for his grandma to cool down. He patiently waited. He knew that his patience would be rewarded.
A couple of minutes passed. Granny looked at the child from the corners of her eyes. Ramana noticed her. As she smiled, he burst into a fit of irrepressible mirth, shaking himself violently.
“Ayah! “Ramana cooed.
“Yes, dear!” Granny lifted up the child and sat him on her hip. The moment he was comfortable, he kissed her on the cheek.
“Good boy… goody-goody boy,” granny said in all jubilation.
Ramana, as if he were waiting for such an opportunity, pounced at it. “What is this, ayah?” he asked pointing at the burning gas stove.
“That is a stove, dear,” she said.
“What stove, ayah?”
“What gas, ayah?”
“Cooking gas, dear.”
“What cooking, ayah?”
Granny cocked her head. Her brows were furrowed. “Oh! This fellow is going to start all over again.” She mumbled to herself and let the boy slide down her hip to the floor. “I have a lot of things to do. Go and play,” she said.
“Okay! I’ll leave you to your work. But only if you tell me what this is,” said Ramana as he pointed out the knob of the double gas stove.
“That is a knob,”
“What knob, ayah?”
Irritated beyond limit, granny grunted, “I do not know what knob that is… I know only its purpose. If you turn it to its left the oven will burn. Turn it to its right. It will stop… no more questions. Now go and play…I have to wash clothes now…go…go…go.”
Ramana disappeared from the kitchen. His grandmother too left the kitchen to wash clothes, while the fillets of fish were simmering on the gas stove.
Washing over, granny hurried back to the kitchen to turn off the burning oven. But it was already turned off. She tried to recollect but her poor memory failed her. “Who would have done this? Definitely not Ramana. He is too tiny to reach for the knob. Only I would have done that,” she consoled herself, though an iota of suspicion lingered in her mind.
Granny didn’t in the least know that the tiny tot had made use of an easy to lift plastic stool to turn off the knob. Her suspicion grew all the more when at the dining table everybody complained of the semi cooked fish.
“Oh, intolerable, unbearable,” yelled granny and said how Ramana made his escape into the backyard of the house and splashed water on dried clothes and on himself. “Oh, I can’t even rest my head in the afternoons. I have to keep vigil over the boy.”
Ramana’s parents, in order to give the old lady the rest she wanted to enjoy in her old age, decided to send the child to a crèche.
Niranjana, Ramana’s mother, went around the city to find a suitable crèche for the boy. A three day search yielded fruit. She found one -- a good one at that -- very near to the office wherein she worked from morning nine to evening six.
The boy will be away from mischief during that period of time and his grandmother could continue with her household chores undisturbed. Surely she would feel lonely, yet…The boy will be back in the evening and who knows what ideas would assail his head and prepare him for new mischief.
The crèche was only a playschool. A huge hall, that could easily pass for a sophisticated godown, made the crèche. Its walls attractively coloured, the crèche lured Ramana, and as he went inside he found to his joy a couple of rocking horses, a tricycle, a pedaling car, dolls, building sets beside a hundred other playthings. But what really made him jump for joy was the bevy of little girls.
Girls, as usual, outnumbered the boys in the crèche and Ramana found the crèche a heaven on earth. His mother too was pleased to see him as happy as the bunny rabbit on an acre of green grass.
As soon as the boy reached home, he rushed to meet his grandma who too rushed towards him and picked him up in her arms. “Ah! My little brat! Where did you disappear all these hours?”
Ramana gave her the smile of a man whose mind was not smiling. “Ah! My little ayah! Where did you disappear all these hours? You should go to the crèche to see what a lovely playschool it is. Accompany me tomorrow and you will have fine time there with me.”
Granny agreed to go. She said so just to please the child. And no one at that moment would have ever thought that the child would take her words to heart.
The morning of the next day proved very crucial to both the child and his mother.
It all started when Niranjana called the child and said, “Now get ready, Ramana.”
Ramana as if not sure of where he was destined, asked his mother, “Where?”
“Where! You don’t know? You have to go the Crèche, darling.”
“Oh, Crèche! I will go,” Ramana said with a sense of jubilance. After a pause, he said, “Ayah is also going with me, you know.”
Ramana’s words sent a shiver down the bones of both his mother and granny. They were sure that the child was going to create a scene.
“Yes! Yes! I am going with you...Now get ready,” said granny winking at her daughter-in-law.
“Oh! Your grandma too to the crèche? That is fine…We will take her along. Now you should get ready,” said Niranjana and carried him in the crook of her arm to bath him.
At the dining table Ramana’s granny fed him with iddlis and sambar. “You too finish eating, ayah and get ready for the crèche,” he cautioned his granny, as he continued to munch.
“It won’t take more than two minutes for me to get ready, Ramana. Now you finish eating and put on your shoes,” advised granny.
Niranjana kick-started her scooter and got on to the vehicle. She signaled to her son and like a goody-goody boy he occupied the leg space of the scooter and awaited his granny to occupy the pillion seat.
It turned out to be a huge disappointment to Ramana, when his granny waved her hand and his mother accelerated the vehicle.
“Ayah…ayah,” Ramana said as he tilted up his head and looked at the helmeted face of his mother.
“Keep quiet, child. You will have playmates and playthings in the crèche,” she said.
“Ayah…ayah…” Ramana cried as he looked askance at his mother.
Niranjana kept quiet and concentrated on the road.
“Ayah…ayah…ayah”, Ramana began to scream.
Drivers of speeding two wheelers looked at the yelling child. A few slowed down their vehicles and inquired into the matter. When they were given to understand that it was the unwilling school kid, they smiled at the child and went on their way.
Ramana continued to scream, all the time uttering ayah…ayah…His non-stop screaming attracted the attention of so many who clicked their tongues and went away pitying the child.
“Oh, god! I have to cover yet another two kilometres to reach the crèche. I am afraid the child would swoon because of his incessant screaming.” Niranjana said to herself. But she was non-plussed when a police constable on his rounds stopped her.
The constable ignored the mother and looked at the child. “What is the problem, child?” he asked.
“Ayah!” Ramana wept, frightened of the khaki-clad policeman, who looked like a bogeyman to him.
“Don’t cry child…don’t cry. I am here to help you,” the constable combed the child’s hair with his fingers, patted his cheeks softly and asked,” What is your name, child?”
“Ramana,” the child said and without a moment’s hesitation added, “She is taking me away from my ayah.”
The constable stared at the child’s mother for a while and asked the child,” Is she your mother?”
“She is taking me away from my ayah,” Ramana repeated with a whimper.
“What is the boy to you?” asked the constable. He had an indescribable air of one who knew the world.
“I am his mother, Sir…I am taking him…”
Before Niranjana could complete the sentence, the constable interrupted her, “Unless you prove that you are his mother, I’ll not let you go.”
“You ask the child…It’s getting late to the crèche and my office as well,” she pleaded.
“Ramana! Who is she to you?” the constable asked in a soft voice.
“She is taking me away from my ayah,” wailed Ramana and began to sob.
“Stop weeping child,” consoled the constable, “You make me weep. I too had a bitter experience like this when I was a child like you. In my case, I was kidnapped by two goondas…”
“No, sir! Why should I kidnap my own child?” asked Niranjana.
“And so, my dear young lady! Do something to prove that you are the mother of this child…Or else I will have to take you to my police station and inquire into the matter in our own way.”
Niranjana became panicky. Tears began to fill her eyes and blur her vision. For a moment she felt that she was turned into a stone. She came back to her senses when Ramana began to pummel her and howl, “Take me back to my ayah.”
“Don’t waste my time, young lady! Do something before I book you for child kidnapping,” The constable’s voice was quite stern and intimidating.
Niranjana pulled out her cell phone and dialled her husband and told him of the scene Ramana has created and of her predicament.
“He is coming from his office…It is quite nearby…my take about five minutes,” Niranjana said.
“Who?” asked the constable, with a stare of amazement at the disturbed young lady.
“Who else? My husband!” she replied, wiping her tears with the hem of her sari.
“Husband! How do I know that so and so in your husband. He may even to you accomplice in child kidnapping. I know that a gang is operating and many children disappear. And only youngsters like you are at the hub of the gang’s operations. I can’t let you go unless I am convinced,” cautioned the constable.
“There he is” Niranjana said and smiled amidst her tears.
Ramana turned his head and saw his father getting down from his car. “Appa! Appa!” he started shouting in all jubilance.
“Constable! This lady is my wife and this troublemaker is our son,” said the young man.
“I am ready to believe that you are the kid’s father…But how can I believe that she is your wife?” The constable was stupid enough to ask such a question.
Ramana’s father pulled out his purse from his pants-pocket and flipped it open.
“No…No….No….I am an honest man. I don’t accept bribe,” said the constable.
“I won’t bribe you…I can’t. Just take a look at this little photograph,” said the young man.
The constable took a closer look at the photograph and found all the three in it. He clicked his tongue and said, “We are living in an age of computers. How do I know that the photograph that you showed me is not a faked one?”
“Constable! You are trained to doubt all people at all times. But your aged brain fails to co-operate with you,” the young man said, as he pulled out his identity card and showed it to the unduly duty-conscious cop.
The constable peered into the card. The next moment he brought his body to attention and saluted him. “Sir!” He said, “Had your wife told me that you are in the vigilance Department, I would not have stayed her for such a long time.”
“You did you duty constable! But use your brain,” Ramana’s father said, as the constable moved away from the scene he had created.
“Appa! Ice cream…vennila ice cream,” shouted Ramana as he jumped into the welcome hands of his father.
“Rare to come across such constables. Let their tribe increase,” said Niranjana as she stared into the distance.