So Long, Marianne: A Short Dystopian Tale
“I don’t know. I mean, sure, the government never makes mistakes, but why won’t they tell us where Andrei Vaslevski has gone?”
“Man, are you some kind of stupid conspiracy theorist?”
“No, no, no. I’m really not! It’s just that –”
“Shut up, foil head.”
This is what the art of the argument has devolved into. There used to be books written about how to argue and how to avoid fallacies, but they are no longer relevant. I remember when I was a child. I was on my way to the corner store, when the neighbourhood bully took my money from me. I confronted him and told him what he did was wrong. I was an idealist, then. I thought that would make a different. All I got out of that encounter was a wobbly tooth and a sore jaw. Things have only managed to get worse since then.
In 2024, our national government attacked the newly-formed, democratic nation of New Andalusia, claiming that they had been planning to attack our Martian colonies. I did not even know we had colonies on Mars! As is the tendency, protests began. People ran into the streets, screaming at the injustice, trying to protect the Andalusian people from our own government. Their signs ran the gamut. Many of them, however, questioned the authenticity of the official story. “Shouldn’t we protect our base on Jupiter instead?” one read. Another read “no more wars over imaginary hardships”. People spoke their minds. It seems like so long ago.
In early 2025, our government decided that this dissent was dangerous. In the summer of that year, our government passed the Involuntary Treason Act. The basic idea was that it was dangerous to spread false information to the masses. Following this logic, the act stated that the spread of such lies was a treasonous act and would carry the punishment of treason. We all know what they do to traitors. I was a patriot, then. I figured that the government knew what they were doing. It seemed like a good idea, actually. If everyone believed the truth, then there would be no misinformation among the people. If everyone believed the truth, we could live in a cohesive society. It seems like so long ago.
At first, they came for the Saturners. This was what they called the people who believed that there was an army base on Saturn, established by a group of people from under the earth’s crust. Then, they came for the Sunday People. These were the people who believed that the governmental buildings were closed on Sundays because the “robots in the government needed a day to get their oil changed”. Frankly, I saw no big loss in this act’s enactment. Sure, stupidity probably shouldn’t be illegal, but what’s one less crazy person, right? What would we lose if we had one fewer lunatic running around telling tales of electrified toilet seats?
Soon after, however, the act suddenly took a turn for the worse. After they had gathered up the crazies, the law became more…powerful. One day, I ran outside to see Mrs. Morris, my next-door neighbour being dragged away by the Involuntary Treason Unit, the ITU as it was called. Mrs. Morris had been my next door neighbour ever since I moved into my current apartment and I had never known her to be anything, but an extremely kind individual. Of course, the government doesn’t make mistakes. I would just have to live with the knowledge that she was a treasonous old hag. Of course, wanting to be the good citizen I am, I went up to the arresting officer, identified myself and asked him what misinformation Mrs. Morris had disseminated. He refused to answer. He just kind of waved me off and threatened to arrest me if I didn’t mind my own business. I found out through a bit of questioning that kindly old Mrs. Morris had told some of her friends about a government agent coming to her door, who had asked her to hand over some personal property. When she asked why, they didn’t answer. When she refused, this happened! This was my first time. I never wanted to admit it, but this was the moment when I had lost my patriotism. I never told anyone; I even lied to myself about it, but I knew this was the moment. How could anyone be a patriot in this society?
That was not the end of it, either. Over the next several months, the number of arrests by the ITU went up exponentially. The strange thing is that, while these arrests were becoming more frequent, the number of classified governmental operations was also going up. We would go to sleep. The next morning, we would wake up to people being arrested en masse. Usually, the arrested would be yelling something about war or genocide or a coup d’état. These screams would usually be followed by a baton to the head, followed by blood and more incomprehensible screams. While I was no longer a patriot, I was still a good citizen. I continued to say nothing, question nothing, commit no involuntary treason.
That was until the fateful day that Marianne was arrested. Marianne was my on-again-off-again girlfriend, but she was also my best friend. We met during my first year of college, about seven years ago now. I was sitting in the cafeteria, minding my own business, trying not to be seen, when she walked into my life. The first thing that I noticed about her was her hair. A headful of shocking red hair framed her face like Venus herself. I must have been staring, because she seemed taken aback. Luckily, she didn’t decide to run in horror. Instead, she introduced herself. It turned out that we had a lot in common, which isn’t that difficult to believe in modern society. We both came from nuclear families, we both went to college because we saw no other option, we both entered programs which would lead to high-paying jobs, which we abandoned for passion projects, so on and so forth. Her green eyes and pale face somehow made me feel at ease. We have been inseparable since.
In early February of 2026, Marianne called me and asked me to come over, saying that she needs to talk to me about something sensitive. Mistaking this for sexual talk, I immediately ran out the door and practically sprinted to her house. Showing up at her door, looking dishevelled, untidy and missing a shoe, I was disappointed to find out that this was actually about some sensitive information. For the next three hours, Marianne told me about what she had come across last night.
On her way to meet some friends at a bar, Marianne had to walk past Union station. She was taking the famous short cut known to all of us “young adult” types. This is the sort of short cut that your parents warn you about. A series of tunnels, going under bridges, the sort of short cut which carries stories of hauntings and murders. I, myself, often worried about this path. Marianne, however, was too impulsive to care. On this day, she came across an open door. A mixture of curiosity and stupidity forced her to go in, which led her to a room which contained some sort of glowing element. Being the inquisitive, some would say stupid, person that she is, she walked through the door and came across three or four men, wearing all black and huddled around the glowing object in question. While she couldn’t get a good look at the glowing object, she got more than a good enough look at the blackboard adjacent to the men. There were a lot of codes that she could not quite recognize. There were also several names on there. New Andalusia was one. There was also Iran, Palestine and Northern Sweden. All of these names had something in common. The news had been reporting, nonstop, about recent disasters in those areas. Iran was hit by a tsunami that killed millions and caused millions of dollars in damages. Palestine’s recently-acquired atomic bomb had gone off, destroying the entire Gaza strip. Northern Sweden had suddenly gone through a heat wave, killing a large chunk of the population. Some questioned the possibilities of these events. Those dissenting voices quickly disappeared and were not replaced. Marianne told me that she was beginning to put two and two together when one of the men noticed her. His yells were matched by her shrieks as she ran, as fast as was humanly possible. The adrenaline must have kicked in fiercely, because she made it back home, practically across town, in fifteen minutes flat.
“I got in and locked the door. I stayed here all of last night. I passed out at some point in the early morning. As soon as everything came flooding back, I called you” she said.
I have to admit I was kind of proud that she called me, when she had not even called the people that she inadvertently cancelled on the previous night. “So, what do you think it all meant?” I asked her.
“I have been thinking about it a lot. The countries that I saw, the codenames that surrounded them, all the Ms and Ks, it could only mean one thing” she said, right before breaking into tears. I should have comforted her, but, I have to admit, I was extremely curious about what she had deduced out of the whole thing. Finally, she gathered herself together and spoke again. “It could only mean one thing: our government, this government which makes no mistakes” she said “has been attacking its enemy nations in secret campaigns, hidden from the people”!
I didn’t know what to do, think or say. This was definitely illegal. This wasn’t a harmless, idiotic conspiracy theory either. This was dangerous to the government. I could have easily turned her in…but I didn’t. I swear I didn’t. She probably thinks I did and, even though no one will admit it, lest they themselves get arrested, I’m sure her friends and family also think it was me. I felt awful that Marianne was arrested, but it was her own fault. She went places she shouldn’t have, saw things she shouldn’t have and, worst of all, she ran. I was certain that the government would have questioned her and sent her on her way, if she had just stayed. That way, they would know that she was a good citizen. After all, the government doesn’t make mistakes. It was too late, though. She ran and that was that. As I would soon learn, however, it wasn’t that simple.
I went back to her house a couple of days after her arrest. I had to know why they arrested her. Maybe it wasn’t even her discovery that got her arrested. A part of me hoped that she was cooking meth or laundering money. When I reached her house, I could not believe my eyes. Marianne was always a ridiculously clean and tidy person, but her house looked like a disaster zone. I could barely manage to open the door, which was kept closed by a variety of books, liberally sprinkled with bits of wooden furniture. Whoever paid Marianne a visit was not trying to get in and get out quietly, that was for sure. Her couch was flipped over, every cushion and compartment turn open as if by a wolverine. Her television was broken, her lamps were broken; it would be quicker to name the things that weren’t broken: her dining room table, which miraculously survived the onslaught, and the contents of her “secret area”. While that certainly sounds like a euphemism for genitalia, it is not. Allow me to explain. For a period of a few months in 2025, Marianne and I lived together. I was looking for an apartment, which, due to the war effort in New Andalusia, proved to be quite difficult. When the government started to consider the creation of the ITU, Marianne became paranoid and decided to build a small space in her bathroom, in order to hide some “incriminating” material. You know, if it was anyone else, I would have turned them in, but Marianne knew my weakness for her. She was never worried about me, as much as I tried to talk her out of it. Her incriminating material basically consisted of a lot of assumptions. She took guesses at what would become illegal and hid them there. The space essentially amounted to a lot of drug paraphernalia, communist literature and pornographic materials. It’s funny; none of those things became any more or less illegal than they already were. When I went to her bathroom and looked at the secret area, I was suddenly hit, for the first time, with a sense of loss. It was at this point that I realized that Marianne was gone and, if anecdotal evidence is to be taken into account, she was probably not coming back.
I didn’t bother to look at the objects in her hidden compartment. Instead, I walked around her apartment, looking at the remnants of a person that I once knew and loved, filled with heartache. I hoped I could have done something for her, anything. There were her clothes lying in a rumpled heap in one corner of the room, decorated with small objects, hairpins and the like. Looking down, I could see her crushed glasses on the floor. She was blind without her glasses, we both were. This was torture as far as I was concerned. She was robbed of her sight, her security and her freedom in one moment. Where was she? Where could she have been taken? Suddenly, in my grief, I decided to do the only thing that I could do to help her. I went to the secret area to grab as many illegal things as I could. I knew that whoever took Marianne would be back for a more thorough search. I figured that the fewer bits of incriminating evidence, the better it would be for her. I went back and filled my pockets with whatever might be used to incriminate her, in any way imaginable. This was when I found the hard drive. Among the mostly-useless rubble, there was one external hard drive, which looked strangely out of place. This wasn’t there when she officially “opened” the secret area, so I had no idea what it could be. It could have been anything, so, to be on the safe side, I pocketed it and left.
On my way home, I felt like a criminal; not that it would be the last time that I would feel this way. I constantly had this strange feeling that I was being watched, as if everyone whose path I crossed was more concerned with me and what was in my pocket than with their own businesses. I finally made it home and, after drawing the blinds in every room and locking the front door and the balcony door, I took the hard drive out of my pocket and connected it to my laptop. There were a lot of files with strange, foreign-sounding names. I opened one after another, entirely at random, and the majority of them were written in a Persian or Arabic alphabet, which I could not understand. Marianne was always good with languages. For the second time in the day, I longed for her presence. Finally, after a lot of scrolling and clicking, I came across a video which, to my luck, contained English subtitles. Naively believing that this would be the video that would help me rescue Marianne, I double clicked the icon.
The video that came up looked like it was made in someone basement with an obsolete camcorder and an Ikea lamp for lighting. A man stood in front of a white sheet and spoke a language that I later learned was Swedish. His face was soaked in sweat and he occasionally stuttered. In short, he looked like the person from the advertising campaign that the government used to inform its people of the ITU. There used to be these billboards and television commercials which had this sweaty, balding, bespectacled man who would spout sputtering nonsense until a member of the government, portrayed by a tall, dark and handsome actor, stopped him. This was all I could think of when the first words appeared on the bottom of the screen.
“Northern Sweden’s heat wave was a fabrication”. This caught my attention, while the man continued to speak in a strange sort of gibberish. Over the next twenty minutes, he went on to speak, in detail, about a secret American campaign which had befallen his country after a whistleblower had threatened to release information on the carnage that had previously taken place in Iran and Palestine with our government’s cache of nuclear weapons. He posited that the heat wave was actually the dropping of hundreds upon hundreds of bombs over Sweden, which was essentially hidden with a bit of hush money. I didn’t realize it at the time, but by the end of the video, I was hunched up in my chair, with my right hand balled into a fist and practically shoved in my mouth, to keep myself from screaming. This was the first time that I truly felt helpless. Our government had destroyed a foreign nation and kept it quiet. What hope was there for the rest of us? What could I do? In a moment of desperation, I considered destroying the hard drive. What would that accomplish? I had no idea. Life made no sense.
Over the next few days, my life slowly began to fall apart. I had absolutely nothing to live for. My country had betrayed me and all of my beliefs were wrong. I hit rock bottom.
One day, I just decided that I had to sit down and figure out what I was going to do. In all honesty, I can’t even remember what day it was. I had lain in my own sorrow and self-loathing for so long that day and night no longer had any meaning for me. I simply slept whenever I felt it necessary, sometimes for two hours, sometimes for twenty. I stopped eating, replacing any food I may have consumed with some type of agent designed to tranquilize or kill me, depending on the quantity. When I decided to figure out my life, I was covered in a layer of filth, severely malnourished and weighing twenty pounds less than I did the day I discovered everything I knew was wrong.
You might say that my mind was not in the right place. I may know that now, but, back then, I felt invincible and I knew I could do anything. My task became obvious: I had to rescue Marianne, take her somewhere safe and, with her help, bring down the government. Simple as that! With very little in the way of resources, I set out towards my destiny!
But, how? What’s the first step one must take to bring down a corrupt government? I decided to ask Mark.
Mark is a guy I know, not much else. He’s a strange kind of guy. He reads a lot of things and has a lot of opinions. In short, he’s the sort of guy that I would have turned into the ITU, if he wasn’t so damn benign. He talks, but he has no action. I was certain that he could give me information, but, at the same time, I was also certain that he wouldn’t help me with the rescue process. I would be Marianne’s only hope!
I paid Mark a visit as soon as I woke up the next day. I reached his house by four, around the time he gets off work, with a hint of sleep still occupying my eyes. This unexpected visit, the first time I had visited Mark in about three months, understandably took him by surprise, but I wasn’t there to catch up or to catch people by surprise. I was there for business.
“Mark, what do you know about Northern Sweden?” I asked him.
His response consisted of a lot of stuttering, questioning and general confusion. So, I repeated myself more firmly, “What do you know about Northern Sweden” adding “tell me before I call up the ITU and turn your ass in”!
I don’t know if Mark honestly felt threatened or if the gears in his head just began to move, but he started talking.
“I don’t know much about the situation in North Sweden” he said, “but one thing I can tell you is that there is a video that you can look up if you have some good, secure access to…”
“I’ve seen the video” I interjected, “I need to know where I can find more information than just that”.
“Well”, Mark said “the guy in the video is named Alfred Sjostrom and his organization has a place in the city. You just have to go down to Welles Blvd; they have a place underneath 17 Welles”.
I was beside myself with joy. I was so ecstatic, I don’t even remember how I left Mark’s house. I just hope I left on a good note, because, the next thing I can remember is myself running in the wrong direction trying to get to Welles Blvd. Eventually, after running out of breath and realizing I was standing outside my own abode, I discovered my mistake and took the bus down to Welles.
As soon as the bus reached the station, I ran towards the door with no thought of who I might trample. There was not a moment to lose. I ran to number seventeen and plummeted down the stairs to a door, shrouded in darkness. I knocked and was answered through the mail slot near the bottom of the door.
“What do you want” said a man with a rather thick Scandinavian accent.
This was like a spy film, with one major difference. I had not thought of what I was there for! The Humphrey Bogarts of the world had something witty or clever or at least threatening to say. Failing that, the detective at least knew what his purpose was. I had no idea; I’m not sure if it was my state of mind or my ignorance of the world around me, but I had to figure something out. After a few moments of silence, I just blurted out the first thing to leave my preconscious and leap onto my tongue.
The mail slot closed and the door opened. There stood the man from the video, Alf something. He looked like he had not left that basement in years. His face was pale, there were bags under his eyes and he looked much older than he probably was. If not for the Nordic Aryan look, it would be like staring into a mirror.
“Come on in” he began “I can tell that you have many questions”.
Strike two! What questions? What fucking questions did I have for this guy? I could remember a time when my life wasn’t so complicated. I don’t want to know answers. I want to go back to that little dome of ignorance that I used to live in, where my one, solitary friend would come by every now and again and keep me sane. Of course, this guy was still talking. I had to get him to stop talking, so, between a “false flag” and an “inside job”, I finally blurted out “that’s not what I’m here for!”
I had only meant to interrupt him, but the look on his face makes me think I screamed at him. He went quiet for a moment, but then asked, sheepishly, “Well, what are you here for?”
“A friend of mine, a very good friend, has been unjustly arrested” I said, working my way through it word-by-word, as if each word was taking a year off my life and I was in the agony of a dying man, “and I want her back”. I sat there quietly for a moment, as if I was waiting for his response, but, as soon as he went to respond, I spoke over him.
“I don’t want to join the resistance or anything like that” I continued “I just want to get my friend out of prison and then, maybe, flee the country”.
This time, I allowed him to speak.
“Well” Alf said “I can tell you where the ITU prison is”.
Twice in the same day! Why didn’t I begin doing this earlier? I thought I was the luckiest person in the world. “Where?”
“Well, when the ITU went into effect, the government realized that they needed a new prison to keep the new class of criminals in. It would need to be secure, obviously, but it would also need to be concealed in a secret location. Think Guantanamo, but even more hidden. They decided that, instead of placing this prison out of the country, where it would garner a lot of attention, they would place it – underground. They went out into the uncharted areas of the desert and dug up large segments of it, making several compartments which were then filled with concrete and turned into large prison complexes. No one would question that. As for you, you can take a quick boat ride out to the desert. All you’ll need is a uniform, which I can sell you. You put that on, take the elevator down, grab the woman and come back. I will write down the directions and come right back. How much cash do you have?”
I suddenly broke out of my stupor long enough to check my pocket. “I have forty”.
“Alright, that will do for now. I’ll be right back”.
Alf left the room and came back with a piece of paper, a used uniform and a voucher for the ferry to the desert. I grabbed it all, handed him the money and ran out of that basement, continuing my pace for the day. What was I thinking? Well, my first thought was that if I hurry, I can make it to the desert before the night is over.
My second thought: ferry to the desert?
“GET THE FUCK DOWN ON THE GROUND” was the next thing I heard, right before a few large men tackled me and dragged me down. I was wriggling on the ground when everything started falling into place. I could see Alf in the doorway looking at me, that shit-eating grin on his face. There were a few people walking around me, not looking, so as not to look suspicious. I screamed for help. “They’re here to make me disappear, they’ve done it before; help me, you fools!” The last three sounds that I heard were a woman yelling “conspiracy theorist”, a man shouting “traitor” and my own head being smashed into the ground.
I woke up…somewhere. I tried to stand, but could not. It was difficult to tell in the darkness, but this was either due to a limited moving space or something holding my legs in place, possibly both. I reached my hand out to the right and reached a wall before I could straighten my elbow. The same happened towards the left, as well as above my head. It was no longer a question: I was in a coffin, waiting to suffocate. I had been the victim of a vanishing. It was all over. I lay there, hoping to die sooner than later when, suddenly, a door above me opened. Before I could contemplate the existence of a door in my coffin, half a dozen hands reached down and dragged me out. I no longer had any control over my legs, so I just went with it. I got dragged through several hallways, all of which looked the same, before I got thrown through a door into a small room, lit by a fluorescent light, in front of a table, behind which was a short man in a big suit. While the short man yelled at the behanded individuals for not blindfolding me, I had a moment to examine him. This man, whose hair was cut in a crew-cut, was wearing a green military jacket, adorned with a large variety of medals and other such paraphernalia. I looked for a name tag or something to indicate his division, but all I found was a small strip of white cloth over his heart, which had been crossed out with black marker, confidential from his prisoners. Out of his uniform and away from his desk, he may have looked like Mac before the Charles Atlas workout. However, given all of those vanities, he looked threatening. As I tried to get myself up on my hands and knees, he started walking towards me. I looked up at him, expecting him to address me. Instead, he kicked me in the face. For the second time in my life, I was knocked unconscious.
I woke up again, this time with two differences. I knew where I was, as I could recognize the room, and I was getting really sick and tired of being knocked out. It was here that I realized I was tied to a chair. In front of me sat the short man. Again, I looked for some sort of identification, something to designate my captor as something other than “the short man”, but this man was to remain anonymous.
“Why do you hate this country, maggot?” he screamed at me.
I attempted to respond with a mixture of outrage and false patriotism, telling him that I love my country and know my rights. Instead, the best I could muster was a strange sound, equating to “eurrga”.
Realizing that wouldn’t work, I tried again. This time, I muttered “lawyer”.
“This don’t work that way, son! Our laws aren’t used to protect traitors; they’re used to punish them” said the short man.
Great! Now, I was a traitor without as much as a trial. I opened my mouth, but it was not my turn to speak, as indicated by a hard slap against my face.
“You stand accused of crimes against your country under the ITU guidelines. You are accused of uttering conspiracy theories, in an attempt to bring down the government. Your criminal statements are as follows: claiming that the government has willfully attacked other nations for political gains, that the government has used nuclear weapons against other nations for political gains and that the government has incorrectly and willfully caused the disappearance of a fictional individual by the name of Marianne Cohen. How do you plead to these charges?” said the short man.
I had taken in so much information at that moment that my thoughts were a jumble of reactions. All I could reply was “fictional?”
“What don’t you understand, maggot? Are you brained-damaged?” screamed the short man.
“Fictional” I replied “Marianne was not fictional!”
“We have already figured out your ruse” replied the short man. “All you had to do was create a fictional person, claim her disappearance and use that to bring down the government”.
“But she was real. People knew her. People saw her get arrested” I screamed at him, filled with so much confusion and rage that the next punch did not knock me out. “She was a wonderful person and you assholes took her away. She’s real”. I just kept screaming, unaware of what was going on around me. Apart from my mouth, the rest of my body had gone into an almost catatonic state, so I offered no resistance when several people came in to untie me and carry me away to another room. This next room was the first one that looked different. This was…a courtroom! It wasn’t nearly as full as a courtroom would be for a high-profile case, but it was definitely a courtroom. Of the few people that were there, I recognized no one, not even the woman identifying herself as my lawyer.
I almost thought I would get a fair trial. That delusion left as soon as my lawyer spoke.
“Your honour” she said, “it is clear that my client is guilty, but please, be merciful”.
As I opened my mouth to scream something about the court being out of order, I was immediately gagged to prevent that. This was how the system worked. Thinking back on that day, I can’t fault my lawyer. If she actually tried to defend me, they would have probably arrested her right there for crimes against the country. Then, however, I did my best to scream through my gag, which would have hurt my chances, if I had any.
While the court went on and my ability to speak was hindered, I finally had some time to think. I needed this time, because there was so much to think about. This government was a truly powerful one. One thing that always confused me about Marianne’s story was how simple it was for her to stumble across government secrets. I have to admit now that I was not convinced. What government is penetrable enough to just conduct its business out in the open? If I knew then what, I know now, I would have spent the night with Marianne. I would have tried to protect her. Our government has become so solid and dominant, that its members can plot the domination of the world around them right out in the open. Through a mixture of might and fear, they somehow get away with it. Oh, Marianne, I wish I had believed you.
Marianne? Is it possible that I’m crazy? Is it possible that Marianne was a figment of my imagination? No, of course not. It can’t be. I force myself to think backwards. I can remember her face, her laugh, the feel of her body against mine, her final day with me. I can remember clearly. She is real. She was real. She had to have been.
I suddenly found myself back in the courtroom. It seemed like I had been there for a long time, but I could not be sure. I looked for a clock, but could not find one. I was not even addressed a single time. Finally, my lawyer stood again for her closing statement, wherein she restated the “fact” of my guilt and, again, asked for mercy. The judge simply took my lawyer’s admission of guilt as a fact. I was told to stand for my verdict, but, since my legs had stopped working at some point between 17 Welles and this courtroom, I had to be held up by the guard sitting next to me.
“This court finds you guilty as charged of all crimes and, under the Involuntary Treason Act, sentences you to death by a firing squad”. This statement led to a huge round of applause from the people in the courtroom, shouting and cheering at the thought of this criminal being taken out of the country, never to corrupt another soul. Never in my wildest dreams did I think my life would end this way. I felt my legs tremble, but I promised myself that I would not give them the satisfaction of seeing me show signs of fear. I tried to plead my case, but I was, once again, drowned out by the individuals in the courtroom, the judge, the jury and the executioners, every last one of them. I was dragged out of the courtroom as the judge yelled for the next defendant. As I was being taken out, something caught my eye. I saw a shock of red hair on the back of a woman’s head! She was being dragged into the courtroom. It was Marianne! I was certain of it. I tried to yell out to her, but I couldn’t…
Time has lost all meaning. I have been in this small room for an infinite amount of time now. They feed me occasionally and that is the closest that I have come to seeing the outside world in all that time. The only things keeping me sane are my thoughts, which are now starting to revolt against me. I think back to that day in the courtroom and I can no longer be sure that I saw Marianne. It could have been someone else who looked like her from behind or it could have been a total mirage. Does that really matter though? I never got to see her face. The only person in the world who mattered to me and her face remained obscured from me and will continue to be to the grave. What hurts me even more is that she was crying the last time I saw her. Marianne was not the crying type and, yet, my most recent memories of her were her tears streaming down her face, afraid for her life. If that was her at the court, she is probably dead. To the outside world, I am also probably dead.
The last time I was fed, I heard a voice say that tomorrow was my execution date. On several occasions, I was told that my execution time has arrived. I would be blindfolded and taken somewhere where I could hear bullets. However, each time, I would be returned to my small room by a pack of cackling hyenas. Sometimes, I would have blood on my face. I realized soon after that I was taken to the killing room. I was simply one of the people not killed. Perhaps Marianne was in that room, too. What if Marianne’s blood was on my face? Would I recognize her death rattle? Would her swansong entrance me?
Is it tomorrow yet? How many more hours before this day becomes the next? How many hours have I been here? I wish tomorrow would come more quickly. That is not all. I wish that tomorrow will finally be the day that I die. I tire of this world. I tire of being dragged out, getting my hopes up, only to return to this hole in the ground. I yearn for the slumber of death. There is nothing left for me here.
I hear footsteps. They are an unusual sound here. It must be tomorrow. They must be coming for me. Hands reach in and blindfold me before, once again, dragging me away from my cell into a hallway where my arms and legs can move freely. I am dragged through the hallways so quickly that the wind blows in my face, allowing me one of the worldly pleasures, to take with me before my potential demise. I’m taken somewhere where I am dropped onto the ground. The earth comforts me. I dig my hands into the ground below me, feeling the dirt between my fingers, under my fingernails. For what may be the last time, I feel alive.
I find my way onto my knees when I hear the first bullet. The sound of the bullet is immediately followed by a dropping mound of flesh. I shudder, but I try not to show any fear in case the executioner is above me. I hear another shot. Another mound of flesh falling. Another shot. Another mound. This process continues, all the while getting closer and closer. My last thoughts are of Marianne. I remember her. She is real. Marianne, you are not a conspiracy theory, you are not an urban legend, you are not a fata morgana; you are real. I love you, Marianne. As I hear the executioner’s boot next to my living corpse, I call out her name:
“I’m sorry”, I heard Marianne say, mere moments before I heard my executioner’s bullet.
The winds were gentle and the sea was calm when Runnels walked out onto the deck of the merchant vessel Chamberlain. Most of the other men slept but the captain, Larson, sat on a folding chair behind a tiny table with a bottle of rum and a pair of glasses on it. Larson greeted the first mate with a nod and gestured at the rum. Runnels pulled up another chair and sat down facing the captain, who loved to talk and needed an audience.
He poured rum into a glass, took a sip, and leaned back, briefly free from the tensions that went with moving ore from one point on the map to another under pressure from his corporate masters. In a tall beige building on a tree-lined street in San Francisco’s Nob Hill district, people they would never meet sat gazing at screens or spreadsheets and assessing the crew’s performance as haulers of ore from port to port under the tightest of schedules. The scrutiny from afar put sailors on the Chamberlain into a complex state. Though full of bravado, they were prone to imagine that after giving a career-killing review, those strangers would go out to a bar to drink and laugh. At times the crew grew depressed over such thoughts.
Runnels was in a mild mood though he sensed the ship had slowed down a bit. The engine was ancient. The ore in the cargo hull was due tomorrow afternoon at the port in Nauru, in the Central Pacific, whence it would ship to the Americas. But if they were really losing speed, the boatswain, Willard, could handle it. Runnels needed a drink.
“I’m so much nicer than running this ship effectively and getting to places on time requires, John. But our corporate overlords have expectations. You may or may not read the bullshit that corporate sends our way. They have this thing about a crew getting to know each other. And after ten months, I must admit I have no idea who you are or what you do nine months out of the year,” the captain said.
“I’m a high school chemistry teacher.”
Larson peered at the first mate for an unseemly amount of time, then tossed his shaggy head back and laughed.
“Well, now. I suppose that was one of the more obvious guesses, wasn’t it?”
“You speak well, captain. But I have this sense that you’re an autodidact. You would go get some formal schooling if you had the time and money. Or maybe something else is stopping you?”
Larson took a draught of rum and leaned back. There came a faint breeze, fluttering his uncombed dark hair.
“Look, mate, it’s not that I distrust intellectuals or academics. I am both a curious and a practical man. Not seldom have I wished we had a professor here to explain things, and I don’t just mean about the igneous character of some formation or other or the various sea creatures and what they will or won’t eat or the finer points of geography or the changing patterns of the waves or the obsolescence of maps. No, I sometimes have experiences that I guess are akin to what some character in a novel or story has gone through, but I feel like I’m not well read enough to make the connection. I could use someone who is truly learned.”
Runnels drank more rum, nodding pensively.
“So you see, my problem has to do not with intellectuals or academics per se, only with certain kinds of smart guys. The poufters. Whelps and weaklings who wouldn’t take their own side in an argument, let alone help someone in danger. And maybe it’s just as well that I haven’t learned your vocation until now. Teachers aren’t the only ones I blame for the worst thing to happen in my life, far from it, but I do fault a few of them for their failures of courage.”
Runnels did not know what to make of the man’s odd mix of street slang and pomposity. This was what you got sometimes with autodidacts. It got worse as the captain drank.
“I’m afraid I don’t follow, captain.”
“You mean you’ve never heard it from the crew? My boy Alan nearly died in a school shooting three years ago.”
Runnels gasped. The captain went on.
“A maniac rampages through the halls, firing into classrooms and shooting everyone in his path. The teacher in Alan’s classroom, a Mr. Perry, hears the shots, and what does he do? Lock the door? Draw his own gun? No, he bolts right out of there without even a word to the kids to get under their desks, as they’re supposed to do in this type of emergency. He flees and boy does he pay a price for his cowardice. The maniac shoots him in the back before pausing at the door and unloading on the kids. Alan, my only son, gets hit in the hip and shoulder. He lives, but needs many months of physical therapy to walk again. And the counseling, forget it. All the scratch I was earning by being so fucking dependable in this role, gone. And Alan’s still a mess.”
Runnels nodded somberly.
The captain went on. “Some people are just weak, John.”
The door through which Runnels had come a brief time before opened and a youth named Stevens came out onto the deck, pale and worried.
“It’s the sonar, sir. I caught an SOS coming from eight or ten leagues off. No radio contact but we think it’s a Norwegian or a Danish freighter.”
“Thank you, Stevens. That will be all.”
“That will be all!”
The boy stood there, looking expectant, then seemed to realize the captain really was done with him and vanished. As Runnels struggled to recall a passage of maritime law he had read months before, a red flare shot high into the sky and burst, its fragments drifting slowly toward the untroubled blue. Both men got up, went to the rail, and gazed into the distance.
“Did you see anything, John?”
The first mate looked at the captain, dumfounded.
“Did you see anything?” Larson repeated.
“I don’t understand the question.”
“Yes, captain, as did you.”
“Now, look. We’re already cutting it close, John. If we changed course now and went out there and tooled around in the dark for five or six hours, or more, I figure we’d reach Nauru the day after tomorrow. Very late. The importer has twice had to tell management that’s unacceptable. By a modest estimate, the company loses $250K and we lose our bonuses if not our jobs.”
“You saw what I saw.”
“Forget it, John. There are other ships around. Whoever they are, they’ll be fine.”
“Maybe we could at least do a quick sweep. Just so we can say we did it.”
“You heard what I said.”
“Look, captain, it’s not like I care. I mean, just so we can say—”
“Not another word about it, John.”
“It’s not right, captain. I urge that we follow the law, and I could still catch hell for this.”
Runnels gazed out into the distance while the captain stared at him.
“You know the losses we’ve taken lately, John. I didn’t want to mention this before, it’s not exactly good for morale, but all our jobs are hanging by a thread.”
The remainder of the rum went down well, the captain’s talk lulled him, and he spent his last conscious minutes on this calm night lying in his bunk, listening to the churn of the engine far below, and hearing, through the round window, sprays of water and the rare gust sweeping over the sedate blue.
Over breakfast in the mess hall, the men joked and laughed and talked about the Queensland bars they hoped to visit again soon. Runnels ate his cereal with mechanical motions, remembering a girl he had talked to in a dive bar back in Brisbane, one of the points on an all-night bar hop, her accent, her coy sarcasm, her smile. How like his wife, but for the accent. Runnels barely looked up from his tray and not once made eye contact with Stevens.
On the deck, he enjoyed a view of the wide and brilliant day.
“Hey, first mate! Can you come downstairs for a minute, sir?” Stevens called from the engine room below.
“Not just now.”
“John! You’d better get your ass down here now!” cried Willard, the boatswain.
Runnels went down the metal stairs and stood facing the grubby man in the space amid myriad pipes, valves, handles, tanks, and grilles.
“We’ve been slowing down for more than twelve hours. I don’t know whether someone brought this to your attention or not,” Willard said.
“Oh, I noticed, and I mentioned it to the captain,” Runnels replied, not liking the implication that he’d neglected his duties.
“I have little doubt there’s water in the fuel and it’s getting to the engine. Which leads me to believe that either the fueling station in Brisbane has a broken filter, or the supplier’s trying to save a buck with an ethanol-based fuel and figures no one’ll ever know the difference. It wouldn’t be the first time.”
“Do you figure we should turn around?” Runnels asked.
“We’ll burn right through the fuel just trying to maintain our current speed, sir. The engine will quit before we ever get in sight of Brisbane,” Willard said.
Runnels sighed as he tried to process this, ruing the boatswain’s jabs at his competence.
“Let me talk to the captain.”
Runnels found Larson in the command room. The captain, who had rarely been sober since Brisbane, took the news calmly. The engine was pretty old and Larson did not believe water in the fuel was the problem. The captain pulled a map of the Pacific off a shelf and spread it out on the table.
“Find someplace, John.”
“You’re the first mate and here’s a fucking map. Find a place we can lister to in a reasonable amount of time and rest for a spell and get a proper inspection done.”
“Don’t you know these waters, captain?”
“No. Sort of. Are you disobeying a direct order?”
With another sigh, Runnels pored over the map. He realized they were at just about the worst possible point in the Pacific for a technical issue to arise. Everywhere around their point on the map was the same dull blue. Despair spread in his mind like a Rorschach blot until his gaze fell on a spec about twenty leagues from where they were. It was about the size of Nauru. Barely there. Eight square miles, an island you could walk around in no time. Looking at the beige spec, he guessed its amenities made Nauru look like Monaco, but at least people spoke English and used the Australian dollar. The place was Uvalu.
Runnels relayed orders to Stevens. An hour later the crew of the Chamberlain made out the edges of the little island, copper sand mottled with dark rocks. As the ship neared shore, the faces of the rocks grew distinct. On the shore a party waited to greet the white visitors. Runnels looked at the smiling beige faces of the men and women who had reacted with grace to an interruption of their lives. They wore casual attire, the men in khaki shorts, short-sleeved button-down shirts, and loafers, the women in light blue or gray dresses and sandals.
As the boat docked, Larson spoke to the crew.
“Listen, roughnecks. We’re here until we get the mechanical problems sorted out and fixed. There are several thousand women on this island. I expect each and every one of you to act like gentlemen. If you don’t know what that means, you can stay on the ship.”
No one was really listening, Runnels thought as the men filed off the boat and over the gangplank leading to the rocky slope. Willard looked grim and Stevens appeared clinically depressed. Runnels worried about that kid. Soon they were ashore.
The island looked as barren and humble as Runnels had imagined, but it had a small hotel in addition to a hangar that the natives had converted into barracks. The captain, first mate, and boatswain would enjoy better digs than the twenty-two other men in the crew. A twentyish woman with a wreath of flowers in her hair led the trio up a winding path across the road that ringed the island and through clusters of squat buildings of crude design until they reached the hotel, a three-story edifice with peeling yellow walls and dull green shutters on the windows. Gulls perched atop the sign at the center of the façade.
They thanked the young woman, who smiled warmly before turning and walking back down the path toward the beach, and then split up. There was no elevator, only a narrow staircase. When Runnels reached the room set aside for him on the top floor, he closed the door, locked it, and flopped down on the plain little bed.
The phone on the night table woke him. Light still poured between the parted curtains, but it had a paler quality.
“Willard here, sir. I’m over at the hangar. The men have settled in and are planning to go out to the bars in a spell.”
“There are bars here?”
“Three of them. A German owns the one just across the road here and it’s popular with visitors, such as there are. Anyway, the native who accompanied us over here said I should clear it with my superior. Just a formality, you know.”
“Of course, of course. Where’s the captain?”
“Well, have a good time this evening.”
“We’ll unwind all right, sir. The say it’s gonna storm in a bit, though.”
Runnels looked outside. The skies really had clouded up in the last couple of hours.
“Keep an eye on Stevens. But enjoy yourselves. Don’t do anything I wouldn’t.”
Willard laughed. It was the dumbest cliché imaginable. They hung up.
He called downstairs and inquired about rum. Minutes later a knock came. He opened the door and a stranger handed him a bottle and left.
He dozed again. When he woke it was to the sound of rain hissing and pelting the window so hard he thought the glass might crack and burst. Before he had had a clear view of the beach, but now he could only dimly make out the elongated form of the Chamberlain, its black hull and clay-red cabins blurry as a watercolor.
The rum was sweeter, fruitier, than what he had enjoyed on the ship. He did not mind that it was room temperature now. He took in long draughts and thought of his home in California. He had no idea how severe the storm would get, but the thought of a hurricane put him in mind of another kind of extreme condition. One afternoon back home he heard a rumbling and then a pounding as if the earth hemmed in a titan who now in rage used his fists to punch the earth and try to drive it so far out of its uneasy order that all the things on the surface would slip and fall in as new centers of gravity broke out all over. The house shook, the walls jumped, the view through a window moved wildly like images on a screen. He said his wife’s name. He mounted the stairs to the second floor as the walls continued to jerk and dance. On the upper floor, all the doors were shut. He moved down the hall, flinging open the doors to the bedroom, the TV room, the library, and the study where he sat and prepared for his chemistry classes. Linda was in none of them. That left one possibility. Her own study.
Gazing through the hotel’s window, he thought he had no use for such a painful memory, he had a good bottle of rum, and for now the storm was no analogue to an earthquake. It was getting worse, though. He could not see the ship anymore. He sat on the edge of the bed, letting the liquor lull him.
At some point he dozed again. Now when the phone rang, it was dark out and the bottle lay on its side on the floor, its former contents all over the rug. At least the storm had let up. It was barely raining at all.
“John,” said a raspy voice.
“We come to this exotic place and you sit in your room. I’m at the best nightspot on the island. Come on down so we can talk things over, you and I.”
“The bar with the German owner?”
“God, no. I didn’t want to be with all the men. And Stevens! There’s something wrong with that kid. No, I’m at the tiki bar up the road.”
“You sound drunk. I’m much too tired. Goodnight.”
The next day was bright. At lunchtime at the tiki bar, the captain drank heavily. The place had a small crowd today. The bartender was buoyant and quick on his feet and his smile never faded even when the captain got curt with him. To Runnels, Larson seemed in a hurry to enjoy as much booze as possible before the arrival of a crew from Brisbane. Willard had told Larson that the crew should reach Uvalu the day after next. They could not be available any sooner and the company stood to take a huge hit. As soon as Larson relayed it all to Runnels, the first mate had questions, but the bartender planted himself before them.
“I guess you’ve heard about the party that came ashore last night.”
The captain and first mate exchanged looks.
“What party?” Larson said.
“A bunch of Danes. Nine of ’em, to be exact, in a little lifeboat. Their freighter went down and they damn near died. They say there were two others in their lifeboat who blew right overboard in the squall last night, and they have no idea what happened to the other lifeboats from their ship. God in heaven. I’m thirty-two and never seen a thing like this in all my days.”
“Danes,” the captain repeated, in a strange voice.
“Yes, sir. The tallest, blondest men I’ve ever seen. But from what I’ve heard they’re not like Vikings, they’re a pretty friendly bunch. All smiles and jokes.”
The captain and first mate sat down with beers at one of the tables.
“You saw nothing and I saw nothing. You followed orders. If anyone has violated the Law of the Sea, it’s the company,” Larson said.
Runnels looked nervously around and lowered his voice.
“We’re not the only parties who knew. You’re like the driver of a car full of people who thinks that if he just shuts up about the accident he’s caused—”
“To avoid saying things is not to lie, John. And no one wants trouble.”
“At some point we’ll both have to make statements under oath.”
“Remember my warning, John. My son needs me after what he’s been through. Do you want to see your wife again?”
“How dare you threaten me. I will tell everyone everything.”
“I’ll kill you!”
Just then Willard ran into the bar, looking distraught.
“It’s Stevens, sir. He’s killed himself. We were outside the hangar and some of those Danes approached us. The ones who just showed up in a lifeboat. One of them talked to Stevens and the boy started crying and talking incoherently, and said his career is over, and then he ran back to the ship and put a flare pistol in his mouth and fired. The boy’s head literally explored.”
“What else did he say?” Larson demanded.
Runnels could not believe the captain would forego any expression of regret or concern about the boy himself and all that his act entailed. Surely no one could be that heedless.
“We think he stopped briefly in his cabin. He may have recorded some statements there. The native police are all over the ship now so we won’t know for a while.”
The captain hurried outside and up the road leading to the port, and the other two followed. But the police had blocked off the approaches to the dock. Larson lingered for a while in the glare, clenching his fists, looking furious, before turning around and backtracking. Soon Runnels realized that Larson was heading right back to the tiki bar.
“Captain! Hey! We have to go talk to the police and get on the radio to corporate.”
“You can see we can’t get on the boat, John. I’ll talk to the cops soon enough.”
The captain burst into the bar, where a sextet of blond men sat at a table, talking in Danish, drinking and laughing. Runnels hurried after Larson, mortified but powerless.
“All right, which one of you talked to my boy?”
His boy? thought Runnels. The blond men looked at the angry captain with curiosity. Then one of them, twenty-nine and with lucid blue eyes and a ponytail, spoke in flawless English.
“Hello, sir, is everything okay? Want to come have a drink with us?”
“One of you talked to my boy, Stevens, the kid with the pierced ear, right before he shot himself with a flare gun. Was it you?”
“Yes, sir. I talked to Stevens. A nice boy. I think the bartender would like it if you lowered your voice.”
The bartender nodded, not smiling now. The captain looked at him in rage.
“I did mention to Stevens that I had a theory as why he got so upset. Anyway, please calm down, my good man. Come on, the three of you, join us for a drink,” the ponytailed Dane said.
Larson raced over to the table. The Dane rose just as the captain got close enough to throw a punch. He cried out but the others quickly pulled the captain off their mate as the bartender withdrew a Beretta pistol from behind the bar and aimed it at Larson. Even here, bartenders kept weapons. They held Larson there for the police.
When the uniformed natives arrived, they questioned Runnels and Willard briefly, took down some information, and told them they were not to leave the island until further notice.
As Runnels sauntered back to the hotel, a young member of the Danish crew on another path smiled and waved at him. The guy barely looked sixteen. Runnels did not wave back.
In his room, the lure of pineapple rum was too strong to deny. He sat on the bed drinking aggressively and looking out at the ship in the distance. Virtually all the island’s small police force was there, and official-looking people milled around on the deck and talked to officers and to each other. He stared, thinking of the smiles and grins of the blond men who had come ashore, their bright upbeat manner. The storm, rain hitting the window. The dark that followed. Stevens putting the tip of the flare pistol in his mouth, the mushrooming red shroud a moment later. Soon Runnels had drained the bottle and had a buzz. The phone rang.
“They allowed me one call,” said a hoarse voice.
“I should have reported you back in Brisbane. You never should have gotten back on the ship. Every single thing you’ve done since then has been a violation. You’re a disgraceful man, Larson.”
“It’s not my fault we’re under such pressure.”
“That’s your excuse.”
“Not just mine. We’re both pawns in this global game, John.”
“Why did you attack that sailor? If anyone had a reason to get violent, he did.”
“He’s the reason Stevens died.”
“No. Just the messenger. You’re too drunk to make any sense.”
“It is so deeply unfair that Stevens, or you or I or anyone, should face ruin over what they find with hindsight to be wrong in a situation we didn’t cause. That’s the evil here, John. Don’t you get it?”
“Yeah, I know, hindsight’s always 20/20.”
“Can I share something with you? I told you what happened to my son Alan. I’ve had big legal bills since the incident, John.”
“Legal bills? A lunatic shot your son!”
“Correct. After the teacher failed to do his duty. Compounding one crime with another. Here’s what I didn’t tell you, John. After the maniac showed up at the door, Alan grabbed another kid, a sniveling little nerd named Eric Faye, and used Eric as a shield. The two rounds that hit Alan were out of a total of ten that the gunman fired in his direction. My boy used Eric as a shield and all the kids saw him do it.”
“Christ. You left all that out.”
“But what did Eric’s parents leave out! It’s so fucking easy now to second-guess Alan and say this thing should ruin his whole life and mine as well. Like Alan could have done anything to stop it. If Mr. Pratt had even tried to do his duty—”
“Yes, I get it.”
“They’re signaling for me to end the call now, John. I just want to leave you with this. I think it goes to the heart of one of your problems as an intellectual. You’re maladjusted. You have to live in a world so full of people who aren’t in any way like you, and you could never possibly relate to them, or so you imagine.”
“Oh, God. If I believed that, do you think—”
Runnels heard a click at the other end. He sat there on the bed, wishing there were more rum, looking out at the figures on the ship, brooding. In his mind images came of the hall in his house in San Francisco, the empty rooms, his wife’s study after he had forced the door. His wife lying on the floor unconscious. And the realization that if he needed to do anything behind her back, as it were, here was the time. He remembered turning and rushing back down the hall and down the stairs to the ground floor as the walls jumped and shook and finding her purse on the couch. Inside was a letter, folded so many times it was the size of a post-it. Opening it up, he saw it was from a man he had never met, a Jay Silver, who explained to her that Jay knew the degree of Linda’s ardor for him and hoped that his failure to return all her messages over the past months had not hurt her. Jay knew that in her eyes he was the white knight who could save her from the relentless demands that selfish John Runnels made on her finite time in this world. After reading the letter, Runnels ran back to her prone form on the upper floor and only then noticed the empty jar. Doctors later said that if he had called EMS a minute later, the pills would surely have killed her. Though it was human to want someone to blame and hurt in retaliation for a thing like this, people told Runnels, Jay Silver was blameless. They asked him to consider how he would feel if the man had engaged in an affair with his wife.
Justice is hell to sort out sometimes.
If he could not achieve recompense for what felt like the evil of others, Runnels thought, then at least let no one ever be unfairly vindictive to him. That would be the gravest evil of all.
Runnels would see his wife again. Right now he needed liquor and cheerful company. He thought about resolving any misunderstandings and making peace.
He went downstairs and out of the hotel and wandered over to the tiki bar. Now the lights were dim and the bartender was friendly. Runnels got down to business and soon had finished three whiskey sours and started on a fourth.
The Dane with the ponytail sat down to his left.
“Are you all right?” Runnels asked, on realizing who had joined him.
The stranger smiled.
“Oh, I’m fine, never felt better, thank you. I really wanted to ask how you, and your captain, are doing after that business. Your captain must have been under tremendous stress.”
“He took a swing at you. And you seem genuinely concerned for him.”
The smile broadened.
“Is that somehow abnormal?”
“I’d be pretty damn mad. In fact, I wouldn’t be sitting here, I’d be on the phone with my lawyer.”
The Dane had a good laugh, turned to people at one of the tables whom Runnels could not see in the dimness, and had a brief exchange in Danish.
“That wasn’t polite,” Runnels said.
“Excuse me, I just told my friends that they should withhold their solicitude for your captain.”
“You think it’s a joke. I can’t believe you’re not furious at my captain.”
“Well, he was pretty upset, which I can understand, and he wanted someone to blame for the boy’s death. But a full inquest is already underway. Soon enough, the world will know why that boy killed himself with the flare pistol. The boy talked to me before he died, and I’m going to share everything with the police tomorrow.”
Runnels strained his eyes in the dim light. It took an effort to see and he felt an old feeling tightening its grip on him inexorably.
“Stevens talked to you before he died?”
“Yes. A very nice boy, as I told your captain.”
Runnels sighed as he pondered this.
“Some stuff is hard to sort out. I say, better deliberate evil than the misapplication of justice.”
“Whoa. Heavy stuff. You need another drink, my friend,” the Dane said with a laugh.
“This isn’t Larson you’re talking to.”
“Let me fix it myself.”
He stood up, leapt over the bar, and found the Beretta. The Dane barely had time to get up before Runnels fired five shots.
For the last seventeen years Craig Loomis has been teaching English at the American University of Kuwait in Kuwait City. Over the years, he has had his short fiction published in such literary journals as The Iowa Review, The Colorado Review, The Prague Revue, Sukoon Magazine, The Maryland Review, The Bombay Review, The Absurdist, The Louisville Review, Bazaar, The Rambler, The Los Angeles Review, Five on the Fifth, The Prairie Schooner, and others. His most recent book, This is a Chair: A Lyrical Tale of Life, Death of Other Curriculum Challenges was published by Sixty Degrees Publishing. October 2021.
Birthday with Dreams
The night before his doctor’s appointment he dreams of Africa, of a village in Africa. At first it is a quiet village: lazy white tails of breakfast smoke winding into the morning, a dusty grove to the right, the savannah to the left, lines of misty brown hills everywhere. But then there comes a
noise, a hum, like machinery approaching. And like a kind of magic the villagers suddenly appear, scurrying from their huts, shading their eyes to look eastward. There is chatter and the children bounce with joy. His dream-eye turns eastward too but sees nothing except a gray smoke. The humming grows louder, bigger. Looking harder now, the dream-eye sees that it is no ordinary gray smoke but something more, alive, a swarm of locusts. The humming turns to a clatter. It is then that the villagers, as one, turn their backs to the approaching swarm, extend their arms Christ-like and shut their eyes. With a swoosh, the locusts engulf them. The children giggle and squirm. A woman screams. The locusts are so thick and gray that the village flickers shut, disappearing. In the end, the swarm moves on, leaving the villagers bleeding, bruised and happy. The dream-eye moves in to investigate, and yes, they are smiling, touching their ears and noses and smiling. Although they speak Swahili, the dream tells him they are happy because they can hear and smell better. Swarming locusts are like that: helping themselves to everything in their path, even earwax and mucus.
He wakes to a square of sunlight, heavy and hot across the bed. Like always he pulls back the curtain to inspect the day, looking for clouds, a chance of rain, wind in the trees. He does twenty push-ups and thirty sit-ups, sometimes thirty push-ups and twenty sit-ups. Either way it adds up to 50. He does not like this exercise business, never has, but once finished he almost always thinks the same thing: That’ll show them.
As he steps into the bathroom, fronting the mirror cowboylike, something’s not right but he isn’t sure what until he moves closer, squinting; and sure enough there’s a sliver of old skin hanging from the corner of his mouth. It could have stayed there for hours, all day, and nobody would have said a word. Nothing like an ‘Excuse me but you’ve got something white right there. Yeah, right there--something white and dangly.’ Frowning extra hard until his eyebrows beetle. That’s what it’s come down to: people happy to sit and stare and let a man go through life with bits of dead skin hanging from his face. Not right. Got to help a fellow out. He readies his fingers to pull off the skin, to steel himself for the tiniest flicker of pain that is to follow, but it takes no pulling, and falls neatly onto his fingertip. He flicks it into the sink. His face feeling, looking, better already. He turns his head this way and that, knowing all along there’s only so much a man can do, wondering how a beard would look, Salt and pepper, more salt than pepper. Grow beards to hide something—warts, moles, funny lips. There’s a small, unimportant tapping at the door.
The eight-year-old pulls up a stool to watch him shave, watching him in the mirror. After the first ski-like stroke down his cheek, she clears her throat and points out that, “In case you haven’t noticed your teeth are yellow and mine aren’t. In case you haven’t noticed.” He laughs
at this, but once his shaving is almost done and she has jumped off the stool to get ready for school, he turns on the brightest light in the bathroom and snarls into the mirror. She is right. Later, after his doctor’s appointment, he will go to the store and buy one of those expensive teeth whiteners. If anybody asks he’ll say it’s for someone else, anyone else. After the doctor, sitting in his car, he will even practice: ‘It’s for someone else. My daughter. It’s a birthday gift for my daughter.’ Returning home he will slip it into his pocket—just in case—and walk quickly to the bathroom and hide it in the bottom drawer, a drawer full of hot water bottles and pale plastic tubing. For a week, maybe two, he will use it every morning; and just when he thinks there is something going on, a hint of that old whiteness returning, she will look up from her oatmeal, stare at him, take another bite and then making one of her ugliest faces, press a surprisingly hard finger to his lips, saying, “Still yellow. Monster yellow.”
Back at the mirror, he looks at his hair. More than ever it is important that it look right, that it lay right. And just when he thinks he’s got it, his hands hovering at the ready, staring good and long, he remembers the mirror’s way is not the real way, and so he recombs, slanting his hair the other direction. It looks all wrong, but. . . He lets the warm water run over his hands. This is the best part of the morning.
By the time he gets downstairs, they are all gone: work, school, school. He no longer worries about slippers because it’s only cold for a moment, as long as it takes to unlock the front door, taking two, three, sometimes four giant steps to scoop up the newspaper and back again. The front page is all about earthquakes in India, children shooting children, politicians, buses plunging hundreds of feet down cliffs in Mexico… The coal mines in China are killing their miners, weekly. Only after glancing at the date does he remember it’s his birthday. Double checking, he turns to get a good look at the refrigerator, the calendar that is forever
taped to its door—a door crowded with assorted photos and slivers of paper. He strains but of course it is impossible to see that far. He pours himself a cup of coffee. Before he sips he has forgotten his hair but not his teeth. Snarling, he sips.
The receptionist, a woman who seems suspiciously fat for any doctor’s office, says hello, and he says hello back and then goes on to add that he is here for Dr. Shah. “Ten o’clock, Dr.
Shah.” She answers yes, like she knows all about it, but then takes out a piece of paper, “Just to make sure.” Next to her telephone are photographs of children, boy, girl. The boy has a black smile, his front teeth gone. “Yes, here you are. Ten o’clock. Have a seat.”
Doctor Shah’s handshakes are never bold and warm and doctorly, but just something that has to be done before moving on to the real stuff of medicine. He sits here, Dr. Shah there. There is a chart to look at, lab results to review. In the end, Doctor Shah sighs, stops to examine the tip of his ink pen, clicking it in and out, in and out, until finally, clearing his throat he tells him he has reached that stage in life where he must now take a good long look in the toilet before he flushes. He goes on to ask if he has ever noticed blood in his stool. “Any at all?” When he says he doesn’t know, he’s never looked, Doctor Shah frowns and looks down at his chart, and now turns to stare out the window, a bright day, and back to his chart, flipping through pages. Finally, “It’s important to note the color, texture, if there’s any trace of blood. Nobody likes looking at their own shit, but somebody’s got to do it.”
A baby wails, followed by laughter. There is music—somebody’s car radio. Dr. Shah rises from his silver stool and says he will be right back. “I’ll be right back.” While he is gone, he listens to louder, bigger laughter, and studies a map of the digestive tract on the wall. What’s
that for? Case he forgets? A quick glance is all it takes. Can’t be easy remembering all those Latin names. Et tu Brutus?
As promised, Dr. Shah does come right back, and when he does he hands him a container of blueandwhite pills to be taken “every morning before breakfast.”
Some general nodding. “For how long?”
“I mean, about how long?”
“One month, two?”
Dr. Shah beetles his brow and sighs. “Taking a pill is nothing. Believe me, there are worst things.”
As he leaves, the receptionist waves to him like they are old friends and it was so nice to see him, and come again real soon. “Bye now.” He strains to look one last time at her black-mouthed son.
Only later, in his car in the parking lot, does he realize he doesn’t know what the pills are for. Just some blueandwhite pills to be taken daily, before breakfast, thank you and see you in three months. He wonders if coffee counts as breakfast. If he should take the first pill now, or tomorrow, or even if coffee and blueandwhite pills go together? He should have asked. Can I take the pills today or tomorrow? What do you think, Doctor? The lid to the container says he
must press down and twist. He does this three, four times, and nothing happens. After press twist number five it opens. He takes one of them out to take a good look: one half is white, the other blue. Two medicines? Why not make it one color? Is there a law? Medicine color-coded law?
If he leans, craning his neck, he can see the white squares of Dr. Shah’s office windows, one for the receptionist, one for him, remembering, ‘It’s not for me, you know.’ The pills go back into his pocket.
After stopping at the store—‘It’s for my daughter’---he doesn’t know where he’s going next until he turns right at Wellington and decides to turn on the radio but almost immediately remembers it doesn’t work, hasn’t worked since that soft dashboard popping last month. Only after he takes another two rights does he realize he’s headed for Hector’s.
". . . and so he killed himself in January--around New Year's they figured--and because he didn't have a friend in the world--not one--and because it was so damn cold, they didn't find his body til' the very last day of February, the 29th--a damn leap year. 'Magine that. They buried what was left of him that first week in March. Ground was so frozen they had to use one of those jackhammers to get down to the soft stuff. Three months. All toll, three months--count 'em.”
Hector waits for John Shawcross to finish before laughing, shaking his head. “Isn’t that something. I tell you.” Still shaking his head, he sprinkles on a little talcum, unsnaps the sheet, shakes it out and neatly, like somebody’s fancy waiter, drapes it over his arm. When John Shawcross steps down, he looks like one of those old-fashion trumpet players--his hair all shiny and slicked back.
"Feels good, Hector," says John Shawcross, as he fixes his collar, dipping to look into Hector’s wall mirror. "Yeah, real good."
John Shawcross is tall and has the better part of his right thumb missing. Some kind of boating accident that he doesn’t mind retelling when, . . . “Say, John, what happened to your thumb there? Yeah. That’s right. That one.” Almost everybody likes John and his stories.
He waits until John Shawcross is done saying his good-byes and out the door and in his pickup before getting into the chair. When he leans back he can feel the warm patch John Shawcross left behind.
“Why so early?” says Hector.
“It’s a free country.”
One of those early-morning ranchers, Jack Yates, is sitting next to the TV, reading the paper, waiting for Hector to finish up, or maybe not. He leans his newspaper toward the TV to get a better look at who’s talking free country so early in the morning.
“It is at that,” says Hector.
“Could be. Too early to tell.”
And so on.
Meanwhile, Hector’s father prowls the backroom, carrying cardboard boxes from here to there, sweeping up batches of hair, washing and then rewashing the combs and brushes and scissors, and then, like clockwork, falling asleep in the big blue chair next to the
television, only to reawake at 3:30, when his soap opera comes on, turning up the volume too loud.
Hector looks at him and says, “You were just here, . . what, two, three weeks ago?”
“I need a trim.”
“You don’t need a trim.”
“Yes, I do,” running his fingers alongside his ears. “Just a trim.”
Hector can’t help but pull the barber’s sheet just a little too tight around his neck.
“Nothing to trim I tell you.”
Meanwhile, Jack Yates’ newspaper isn’t folding the right way; he struggles to get the Sports page on top, until finally, he gives up and reads it half-folded and wrinkled all wrong. Hector snips here and there, pressing his ears down to get at some of the little, unimportant hairs. Still, it’s nothing like a real trim. Working the scissors with the one hand, while rubbing his scalp, the soft spot behind his ears with the other.
He closes his eyes as the scissors flicker and fidget. A long time ago he decided this was the best part of a haircut; the way the scissors and Hector’s hand tinker and toy with his scalp, fingertips brushing his neck, the soft thrill of goosebumps. And like always he grows drowsy—something like a drifting-- his eyes shut, his head gliding, nodding.
“Don’t you go a sleep on me.”
Hector’s always been pretty good about getting right to his customers. Over in Diamond Springs, the fat barber, Bud,--the one with the bad teeth and medicine breath, the one with the
hair in his ears--thinks nothing of sneaking off to the backroom to smoke a cigarette between customers. Hector is alright. Besides, you don't see many red-haired barbers anymore. Fact is, Hector is the only one he’s ever known, ever seen. If it weren't for that big black mole between his eyes, almost everything else about Hector is neat and handsome, in a small-town way.
As a rule, he doesn’t like talking while his hair is being cut. Same goes with dentists. What if you say something they don't like? It's always a good idea to keep quiet when you're dealing with barbers and dentists and people like that, either that are agree with everything they say.
Hector keeps a row of small plastic spray bottles on the table under the mirror, and now, thinking he’s all finished trimming, he grabs the smallest blue bottle and sprinkles his head. After that he opens that long top drawer of his and takes out one of his biggest, blackest combs, combing his hair straight-back so when he chances a glance at the mirror he looks like
somebody else. It is then, as the door squeaks open and in walks one of those new young lawyers, that Hector looks up and goes back to snipping.
"Hi ya, Red," says the young lawyer just a little too loud for there being only the four of them.
'Red?' He chances a peek but can't tell if Hector likes being called Red, or not.
"Mornin," says Hector.
The young lawyer steps over to Hector's counter, reaches down and around and brings up a magazine. Thumbing through the pages, he backs into one of Hector's wooden chairs.
Hector's way of cutting is to always start at the back and work forward. He'd take great handfuls of hair and slice, and do it so fast that you'd know he's not measuring or anything--just a handful here, a handful there, and before you know it the back of your head is all cold and prickly. If you didn't know that was Hector’s way, you'd wonder what you did to make him so mad.
The young lawyer stops flipping through the magazine long enough to say, "Kind of warm in here, don't you think?" Re-crossing his legs and looking up at Hector's ceiling. "How about turning your fan on, Red?"
In the middle of Hector's barbershop ceiling hangs a large wooden fan. The three long blades are a dirty-brown smooth, and towards the top you can see where three blue and red wires disappear into the ceiling. Secretly, he’s always thought it looked more like somebody's junked airplane propeller than ceiling fan. He’s never ever seen it working, turning; and except for Gavin Heller, he doesn’t know anyone who has. Gavin Heller once said he'd seen it working plenty of times. Said that when it's at full speed it's like being in one of those wind tunnels. Said Hector turns it on for him and only him. But because Gavin Heller's always trying too hard to be important, everybody knows he doesn't count.
"Can't," says Hector between snips.
"Why not?" says the young lawyer in a tough lawyer-way.
"Cuz it's not workin'."
He turns back to his magazine, and in a half-hearted way says, "It can't?" But then just as quickly, as if for a moment he'd forgotten he’s a young lawyer, he snaps, "Why not?" " 'Lectrical problem."
When Hector stops his snipping to see if the lawyer wants to say some more, he drops the comb.
"Electrical?" says the lawyer, like it’s a new word.
Hector goes to the big drawer and pulls out another comb. John Shawcross tells the story of how there never used to be so many lawyers. They just kind of appeared one day, almost as if somebody had more young lawyers than they knew what to do with so they decided to let some of them loose just the other side of town--right where the sign says PLACERVILLE, Population five-thousand-and-something. Of course being young lawyers and everything, they just naturally worked their way into the fancy buildings on Main Street, and that's where they've been ever since. Says John Shawcross.
On the wall above the lawyer hangs a big square Brown's Dairy calendar. This month's picture is a rainbow trout twisting high out of a blue Rocky Mountain stream. You can see the white-capped mountains behind the fish, and after that a clean, cloudless sky.
Beads of blue-mountain water and foam dancing all around the trout. A couple of months ago it had been a gray bass, and before that a lemony perch. Hector drops the comb again. He’s never seen that happen, not twice with one customer anyway, and it makes him squirm. But Hector just scoops it up, slaps it against his pants and plunges it into what looks like a jar of green pond water. Right then the door squeaks open and in walks a couple of housing contractors.
Housing contractors are easy to spot. They’re the ones with a neat little row of pens and pencils in their shirt pockets, the ones who drive chromy new pickups, the ones who spend a lot of time around telephones. When the two of them sit down and take off their caps, you can see where the sun has drawn a neat red line across their foreheads.
"Lewis. Robert," says Hector, as calmly as if he'd been expecting them.
"Hector," says the contractor with the reddest line.
They stretch out in Hector's chairs like they wouldn't mind staying right there for the rest of the afternoon, even part of the evening. Long and straight-legged, their boots dusty and scarred, they slouch.
"How's it goin', boys?”
“Good, Hector. Real good,” answers the contractor with the reddest line. “Yourself?”
A motorcycle roars by, and then after a little quiet of nothing but scissors snipping, "Still buildin' those houses, those custom homes, are you?"
"Sure," says the other one. "Got us a couple good ones up the other side of Camino. Real nice ones up in the pines. Hot tubs, kidney-shaped pools--the works. Real pretty. Interested?"
Another tip of silence, and then somebody snorts, and the three of them laugh. The young lawyer looks up from his magazine, grinning, as if the laughing was his idea and he’s glad everybody’s enjoying themselves and he'll try and do it again but only this time make it better, funnier, louder.
About the time Hector plugs in the electric clippers and starts in around his neck, one of the contractors pulls out his little notebook and begins writing. When he finishes, he nudges the other and they both lean in to look. For the longest time there is a lot of nodding and poking at
the paper. When they finish, Mr. Reddest Line turns to ream the wax out of his ear with one of his pocket pens.
Hector likes spending a little extra time on the neck because it’s his way of postponing the last part, the front. Everybody knows the front's the most important part of any haircut, and of course Hector knows it better than anybody. When it finally comes time for him to do the front, he's right there in your face, leaning, and if you
wanted to you could see the stitching around his collar buttons, the lint in his pocket, something like a smudge of egg yolk on the tip of his chin.
The lawyer has come to the end of his magazine and slips it back behind Hector's counter. After that, he does four things very quickly: he stretches, rubs his eyes, turns to look at the contractors and glances down at his watch. He has one of those large silvery watches that has two extra dials just in case he needs to know the time in India, or maybe Peru.
"Got an appointment at eleven, Red. Can't be late for one of my appointments, you know." Pushing his hands into his pockets, he shuffles closer. "The woman wants a divorce, Red. Wants it real bad. She wants the kids, the cars, the house--she wants it all." A tiny wind tumbles through the open window, giving the ceiling fan a lazy half-turn. "Can't be late, Red. Know what I mean? Bad business." He stands there smiling, his vest pulling at its buttons.
Hector finishes his front with one last snip, and whispers, "Divorce," shaking his head like he might know something about divorce.
Hector doesn't wear a wedding ring but that doesn't mean anything; maybe it's not a good idea to wear rings when you're cutting thirty or forty heads a day. Maybe there's something in all that hair that could ruin a good wedding ring real fast.
A dusty red car pulls up, and somebody big and smiling gets out, slamming the car door. Car dust jumps.
"Hi, Hector," says a large booming voice.
When Hector turns to see who the large booming voice is, he suddenly becomes somebody else, somebody who hasn't been listening to young lawyer-talk
about appointments and divorce, who hasn't been cutting hair all morning. His face goes soft and smooth, his mole grows calm.
"Hiya, Thomas. Come on in."
The young lawyer steps over to stare at August’s rainbow trout.
“Full house?" Continues the booming voice.
"No, no," says Hector a little too quickly. "It won't be long. Have a seat."
The big smiling man nods and looks over at the lawyer and then at the two housing contractors.
There used to be a time when another barber would help Hector on Saturdays. He always wore the same black cowboy boots, and had a thin sad-like mustache. He cut hair a lot faster than Hector. Once, Mr. Black Cowboy Boots had just finished with somebody and it was his turn but when he didn't move he came over and said, “Your turn.” He had to look up and tell him that he was waiting for Hector, but, “Thanks anyway.” He shrugged like everything was all right but he could tell by the way his mustache twitched that he didn't care for things like that.
The big man is dusty and has a great brown surprise of hair. He looks again at the young lawyer who is still studying the rainbow trout.
“I'll come back later. See ya, Hector." A moment later, the dusty red car roars away.
By now his haircut is close to being over, but Hector seems interested in doing something a little extra special behind his left ear, and he can feel him combing and then snipping, and then re-combing and re-snipping. The lawyer has finished with the calendar, and with arms folded moves back toward Hector. The two contractors have the notebook open again. Right then a dumptruck chugs up and stops across the street, blowing a long patch of black smoke. He sees it but it doesn’t look right, and when he tries a small half-turn to get a better look, Hector pulls him straight. Dirt? But it’s shiny and wet. Mud? A truckload of mud?
The young lawyer edges closer, and for an instant the sunlight grabs hold of his shoes just right and his feet sparkle. "About finished, Red?"
Hector humming louder.
"Red?" Moving to Hector's shoulder, "Red, I've got an appointment." He isn't looking so young and lawyer-like anymore.
Just like that, the lawyer darts to the other side of the chair, facing Hector. "You going to cut my hair or not?"
The two contractors, grinning, look up to watch.
"Sure I will," said Hector, and then he takes a deep breath, his ears and part of his neck a fire-engine red. "Sure I will. Just let me finish here. You're next."
The contractors grinning.
On the wall, over Hector's shoulder, hangs one of those big black hospital clocks. Its numbers are large and simple, with a red second-hand that twitches from second to second. The lawyer says, "Time's money, Red. You know that. Time's money."
Hector begins one last combing. When the lawyer steps back, his head blots out the clock. Right then, the door groans open and in walks Joseph Looks.
Joseph Looks is fat and goat-teed and looks like one of those white-coated scientists they're always interviewing on television specials. John Shawcross says Joseph Looks is the kind of guy you'd say good morning to even if you didn't know him. Somewhere along the line Joseph Looks must have figured out what John Shawcross meant because almost everybody says he’s the best real estate agent around.
"Joseph," say the housing contractors.
Joseph Looks doesn’t take a seat right away, but scans the room kind of proud-like, as if he’s considering a better idea. When he comes to Hector's ceiling fan, he stares."Where'd you say that's from?"
"Malaysia. Friend of mine brought it over from Malaysia, . . . oh, eight, nine years ago." Hector steps away from the chair and looks up at the ceiling fan with Joseph Looks. "It's not workin' right now. 'Lectrical problem. Small 'lectrical problem."
When the young lawyer leaves the barbershop, he tries slamming the door. You could see how he tries slamming it by the way his arm works. But Hector's barbershop door isn't like that; it squeaks and groans but it isn't the kind to slam.
In the end, Hector won’t take his money, saying, “Don’t come back until you need a real haircut” and quit wasting his time, and with one final barber finger, “There’s the door.”
As he leaves, Joseph Looks is still standing there, stroking his chin and watching that old Malaysian fan like it’s extra important. Hector is standing next to him, hands on hips, looking up, like he's never seen his own ceiling fan before.
As he approaches Thornton Street the light is red and he slows, thinking he won’t have to stop if he times it just right, slowing even more, its red blaring, and now almost stopped and still red, and so he must stop and when he does he glances left, and there in the short grass and cigarette butts and plastic bags is somebody’s dead grayandwhite kitten. A flash of collar and a tiny grayandwhite leg sticking flagpole straight. I pledge allegiance to …. No, not funny. Poor little girl. Where’s there’s a kitten there’s always a little girl. Unwritten rule of sorts. Still, what can you do when they come scampering out of nowhere, chasing butterflies, bits of string, maybe a leaf. Too young to even know what a car is. No time for braking—just dead cats and dogs. A sheet of newspaper tumbles by, followed by honking. The Thornton stoplight has always been too long. The year it rained almost all June he’d called one of their offices, the Office of Traffic Lights, and someone’s receptionist answered, asking him if he wouldn’t mind holding, and although it had sounded like a question, “Will you hold please,” before he could give a yes or no she put him on hold.
As he takes the turn at Marshall, a long line of orange-vested people suddenly appears on the shoulder. They are cleaning up garbage, spearing papers and plastic with sharp pointy sticks, and cramming everything into bright orange bags. Cool Hand Luke. Nothing like a bossman, though. No shotguns. Can’t do that anymore. Besides, what if they do run away, where would they go? Can’t hide. No use in running. County jail, cheap labor. They don’t look like criminals. An insurance salesman that one, that one somebody’s school teacher. Shoplifters, wife beaters. Can’t tell anymore. Could be your neighbor, best friend. Right, thirty days in the county jail, or clean up the road from here to Sacramento. What’ll it be? Wonder if they give them choices? Can’t give criminals choices.
Off to the right is a wave of sparrows. He slows to stare at the way they dip and glide like water. Many acting as one. That’s the way it should be. Right then, with sparrows cascading into the trees, dotting the telephone lines, something like a sorrow washes over him, and for a moment he wonders if it has to do with his birthday. No, don’t want to go there, can’t do that. Not now, not today. He pushes the unhappiness away, wincing as if it has a special weigh all its own. After all, it’s Tuesday, and he’s headed for Shaw’s.
Shaw’s oldest son brings him a muffin with jam because when he first walked in Shaw spotted him and gave him an astronaut’s thumbs up, followed by, “The usual?” To his right, two women are swapping grandchildren tales. Behind him the car salesman is telling the story of his blood pressure. “As a matter of fact it’s gone skyhigh. Of course, there are medicines to take, doctors to see, but you’ll never guess what happened? I mean, you’ll never ever guess. Go ahead guess.” That’s right, the other day, he almost fainted. Glancing over his shoulder to get a better look at what an-almost-fainted car salesman looks like. There are four of them: three sitting at the table, the blood-pressured car salesman standing. One of the sitters, a boy, 18, maybe 19, is more interested in staring out the window, drinking a coffee that is more cup than coffee.
He turns back to his muffin and jam and coffee, and between little Mary scraping her knees and 190/120, he sips, stopping to get a good look at his uncoffeecupped hand. Liverspots. One day nothing, the next, freckles, then bigger freckles, finally they graduate to liverspots. Looking down at the fleshy swirls of his knuckles, studying bits of green under his fingernails. Where’d that come from? All the while the car salesman hasn’t stopped talking about blood pressure and medicines, and finally, the boy, all done staring out the window, pushes back his chair and excusing himself, saying to the car salesman, “Please take care of yourself.” And leaves.
The car salesman smiles, nods. “Would you like to see where they inserted the needles?” With nobody saying yes or no, he starts to roll up his sleeve. “Big needles.”
That’s when Jane Wentworth comes in.
Jane is birdlike with a sharp chin and a sharper nose. Ever since anybody could remember, Jane spends most of the time talking to herself. But it’s more than that--she takes on both sides of the conversation. “Good to see you. Why thank you, and you too. Fine weather, yes? Marvelous. Have a seat? Thanks ever so much.” Jane is devoted to the symphony and opera and sometimes the University’s drama department. She’s always telling herself about some Italian opera or some French composer that she’s never heard of. When it gets cold she wears a sweeping black cape. They say when she was younger, better, she was special, something like a child prodigy. They say she knows all there is to know about chamber music and Mozart, and if you don’t watch out she’ll have you talking to the two of her. If you aren’t doubly careful, she’ll ask you to donate a little something to the University’s drama department. She sometimes talks herself into giving a few dollars as well.
A couple years back there was talk of contacting the right people to come take a close look at Jane, to help her out, to get her off the street and maybe into a place that would do her good. But then one of the Ellison brothers cleared his throat and reminded them that she’s one of those artsy crafty types, always has been, and—clearing his throat again—‘That’s just the way they are.’ Some general nodding. ‘And besides, she’s harmless. That’s the best part—harmless.’ Now a lot of nodding, and then Bill Jackerman coughed, followed by somebody shuffling his feet, and finally the other Ellison asking what they thought of the Giants’ pitching staff this year.
Shaw and his wife run the shop, and although their food is good, it’s too expensive for a small-town café. She cooks, he shakes hands and collects the money, and his father and sons do the in between. Around lunchtime you can hear Shaw and his wife screaming back in the kitchen. It usually has something to do with money or too many olives in the salad, or maybe not enough cheese on the club sandwiches. “You bitch, don’t you know by now this is too much tomato? You think I’m rich? You think I can give half a tomato to every customer? Stupid bitch.”
“Take a good look, Mr. Big Shot, we have this little nothing restaurant. You see, nothing. What, screaming over tomatoes, over 35 pennies. Silly old man.”
And so on.
But because they are Lebanese, nobody says anything.
Both hands around the coffee cup, he sips, closes his eyes, still feeling the ghost of Hector’s fingers over his scalp, around the tickle of his ears. Too much caffeine bad for my health. High blood pressure and other nasty things that they discover almost daily. I could sit with these two and trade stories, let the whole restaurant listen in. Cellphones just as bad. They let them ring three, four times on purpose, just to let you know somebody needs them. Think they’re in their own house. Ought to be a law. Cellphone abuse: threes days of picking up trash with the others. As he fishes in his pocket for nothing special, he finds the blueandwhite pills. He secretly lifts one of the pills out of his pocket and into his mouth, followed by a gulp of coffee.
There’s no use leaving anything like a tip at Shaw’s. They bring the food and disappear. To get a refill, extra mustard, another napkin, you’ve got to raise your hand, like a schoolboy.
Still, today’s his birthday.
When he goes back to the car and sits there, she decides to back into him, leaving two angry gashes in the passenger door. At the last possible moment, he sees her coming--the pale backup lights popping to life, the lurching; she never looks back, not once. It is one of those deer-in-
the-headlights sort of things; he should have honked, maybe yelled, but he will only think of this later.
As he slowly steps out of the car, she flings open her door, bounding out. He first walks around to get a good look at the door, and yes, there it is, two finger-long gashes. When he is done looking, running his fingers along the newly-gouged metal, she is standing right there, leaning, and he says, “Hello.”
She, a tinge of purple in her hair and floating in something like one of those Hawaiian muumuus, thick with parrots and bamboo, the tiniest glow of a cigarette at her fingertips, an enormous handbag dangling from a forearm, says nothing, squinting at him.
He tries again, “Hello.”
Squinting to get a good look at this man who keeps saying Hello, she steps over to get a better look at the passenger door. Seeing her work, she hisses, “Didn’t you see me?”
He blinks at this, then laughs. “No, no, I was hoping you’d see me.”
“Why didn’t you say something, honk, yell? Why didn’t you try to stop me, get my attention? Anything?” She flicks away her now-finished cigarette, glancing one last time at the damage. “Not too bad really. Could be worse.”
“Not too bad,” he repeats.
She does not like this repeating. He can tell. Frowning still, she reaches deep into her bag, pulls out a new cigarette, lights it, and seems better, happier.
“Well,” she starts, “Now what?”
“Now what, indeed.”
A station wagon edges into the parking lot but then sees the two of them standing by his car, and gingerly backs up, excusing itself.
“My insurance company will take care of this, you know.” “Yes,” he answers, “I’m sure it will.”
Gray clouds trickle across the sky, from left to right. It is not a bright sunny day, but a yellow day, not even yellow but whatever that color is just the other side of yellow; there is no sun; he cannot point at the sky and say the sun is there, or there, or. . . . A yellow fills the air. He holds out his hand, turning it this way and that.
She grows anxious to solve the problem, inhaling deep and hard. “Yes,” and with that, she fishes deep into her handbag, pulling out cards and papers, and now keys, until finally she finds a bright orange card, her insurance company, and hands it to him. In return, he gives her his insurance card. She takes it and scribbles down his name, address, . . . on what looks like a paper napkin. All done now, she stuffs everything back into her bag.
He waits for her to finish before asking if he can use her pen. “If you don’t mind.” This, too, makes her angry--a man without a pen.
They finish, and taking one last look at her gashes, which have now become his, get back into their cars and drive away, she going first. Only after he waves good-bye, does he realize that he probably shouldn’t have.
Stopping at the redlight two intersections down, he thinks about the book he is reading and how it is not a very good book, not really, but it is too late for that because he is almost done with it, one more evening, . . . and how about those Giants? . . . one more pitcher, a decent left-hand starter will do fine, thank you . . . and now that he thinks of it, the radio probably needs a new fuse, that’s all, just a fuse, . . . He passes a building shaped like a thermos and wonders why he’s never noticed it before.
Once free of intersections, and on the smooth backroad that will take him home, a grand quiet fills the car. The late morning sun slanting through the window, spreading lap-warm across the seat, along his leg. It all started that day the car radio suddenly quit. It made for a silence that he’d almost forgotten, a hush that goes all the way back to when he was younger, boyish, of summer afternoons in his bedroom, staring through the open window, into the treetops, across the pasture and beyond, certain that he was wasting his life. Meanwhile, a red car desperately wants to pass him. It has been a long time since he worried about going too fast. He lets others race by, no longer getting angry when they suddenly loom fat in his rearview mirror—one moment nothing but empty backroad, the next, a grinning grill with flashing lights. The red car hurdles by.
Only after he gets home and turns off the engine and steps out of the car, does he remember the woman who gashed him, and yes, walking to the other side, there it is. He sighs, remembering the way her long, chromy car lunged at him. As he walks toward the house he stops to realize two things: first, he should have honked; and second, looking up into the morning yellow, the word is sepia. Yes, that’s the color, sepia. Slipping the key into the lock and walking into his house feeling unusually good. Yes, sepia.
With the teeth-whitener tucked neatly away, he goes into his room that he sometimes calls the study and they usually call his room. It is more books than room. Although the house is empty, he shuts the door, sits down and thinks about reading. Reading is what he does when he knows he should be doing something else. Yet, there is so much to read and so little time. This is one of his biggest secret worries: with time running out what should he read that will make a difference?
There is a dog and a cat. Over the years it has been a dog and a cat, a dog and a dog or a cat and a cat. Some kind of animal has always lived in the backyard. Now, this dog that never barks even when it should is now barking. He strains to listen, as if listening hard and long enough is like a seeing. But no, just a barking that is weak and croaky that belongs to the white dog they call Skip. And because Skip refuses to bark, his job over the years has been to fill the backyard with holes and assorted lumps of shit. The cat on the other hand is black and fat. This remains one of those mysteries to his backyard: a fat black cat that never seems to eat or drink but spends its days tucked behind rose bushes, walking the fence. A cat that is forever watching Skip be doggy.
He waits for Skip to stop barking and when he doesn’t he steps to the window that offers only a wedge of the backyard, and of course he sees nothing. When he steps out into the backyard the barking stops. The black cat is nowhere to be seen. Skip the dog is standing in the middle of the lawn, sniffing a blueblack bird. The barking begins again, and when he shouts, “Stop”, the dog barks louder, croakier. Even before he gets there he can see that the bird is dead, touching it with the toe of his shoe. He spends far too much time looking down at the dead bird. Finally, he does three things, one right after the other: he pushes Skip the dog away extra hard, hurting his doggy feelings, looks to see who might be watching from any neighborly windows, and walks to the garage. Skip the dog isn’t used to being pushed extra hard away from anything and he doesn’t follow him to the garage. The gloom of the garage doesn’t stop him; he knows exactly where to go. When he comes out with the shovel, the dog barks once. He scoops up the dead bird, steps to the corner of the yard, behind the rose bushes, and begins digging. There is no reason to dig deep, the ground is soft and rockless. Very quickly the bird’s grave is done. He edges the tangle of blueblack feathers and brown beak and wide unblinking eye into the hole. With its eye watching him, he hesitates, Skip the dog is right behind, waiting. As he fits the dirt neatly back into its hole, from out of nowhere steps the black cat, leaning and sniffing as it comes. It is then, with both hands on the shovel handle, with the dog waiting, the cat pawing at the grave, that he cannot stop crying.
When his wife comes home, everything speeds up: she cooks and watches the news and tells the girls to pick up their clothes and dry their hair before they go to bed, and “When was the last time you cleaned your room?” At dinner he asks them what happened in school today, and they almost always say, “Nothing.” He no longer questions this nothing. “I see. Please pass the carrots.” The eight-year-old is having the hardest time with her multiplication tables, especially the eights and nines. At the other end of the table is the fifteen-year-old who has just recently started to become more complicated; some of the things she says are even beginning to sound right. She spends far too much time looking and sounding terribly sad. He wants to help, to tell her not to worry, but it never comes out right. Her answer: “You don’t understand.”
After dinner there is television with stories of cowboys, fishermen in Lisbon, murderers. He watches bits and pieces of all of them. In the end, there is the eleven o’clock news and tomorrow’s weather report.
Before bedtime, he sits on the toilet and thinks of Dr. Shah. It’s not easy staring at your own shit if you’ve never done it before. But sitting on the toilet, looking down at the smooth, pale tiles—ten this way, ten that—and thinking that his days have changed. He can’t remember when it started or even why, just that it did. Before, things had been longer, smoother, easier, like water, like birds. But then somewhere between then and now something broke, and now things come in chunks, . . . no, shards. The constant straining to see what time it is. What’s on TV? When do they get home? Dinner’s at six.
Once in bed, back to back, the house slowly settling, with sleep circling, she says, “Ohmygod.”
As she turns to face him she takes his warm part of the blanket with her. “We forgot. Ohmygod. We forgot. It’s your birthday.”
“It’s nothing,” he says, pulling to get his warm part of the blanket back.
Now up on her elbows. “I’ll wake the girls. There’s still time. I’ll wake them.”
“No, don’t do that. It’s nothing.”
“I’m so sorry. Why didn’t you tell us, remind us?”
That night he has another dream, but this one has nothing to do with Africa. He is at a play. He is standing in the wings, arms folded, waiting for the play to begin when this person--perhaps one of the actors, maybe even the director--suddenly appears and taking him by the arm asks, no, pleads with him to Please, if you don’t mind, do us all a favor and read this part. The audience is waiting so please, just this one time. It would mean a lot. And of course, this makes proper dream-sense to him, so he says yes, Why not, thinking how difficult can it be? They hand him the script and say, Here, read it—just read. We understand. Everybody will understand. Just read. He nods. The curtain opens and he walks out on stage. There is the gentle hum of people waiting, the rustling of programs, the occasional cough, and then he looks down at the script and can’t read it. It’s in some sort of foreign language, the lighting is bad, the print blurry,. . . He stutters, stumbles, tries turning pages this way and that to get more light. Such a simple request: Just read this. But it is impossible, he can’t get it right. The audience is hushed.
I’m a Particle of Dust Speaking
I’m a particle of dust- something you may count on the head of a pin. You blow me off your desk, wardrobe and showcase or wipe me off the window pane and shoelace. Still, I remain by your side- float in the air, sit in the arm of your chair, hide in the pages of your book, and live in the fringe of your skirt. In trying to get rid of me, you leave no stone unturned like covering the roads with asphalt, fields with bricks and windows with glass panes. But can you escape me?
The renowned Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore in his poem ‘The Invention of Shoes’, tells the story of a king who once woke up with a disturbing thought. He became upset why the soil he rules should soil his feet! Immediately he ordered his Chief Minister to find a solution. An expert committee was formed. Thousands of brooms were brought to sweep dust away. But it led to a massive dust storm. The dust was then watered down only to create a muddy mess. The experts were confused what to do next- whether to get the land leather-bound or cover the country with carpet! At last, a cobbler came and solved the problem by covering the king’s feet with leather. Thus, shoes were invented and the problem of the king and of mankind was thought to be resolved. But I would say the problem was not resolved. As the microscope was not invented at that time people couldn’t find some finer particles of dust inside their shoes.
I know human beings, being the supreme species, are the de facto rulers on earth. They can do and undo many things, can change the direction of rivers as they did in case of Amu and Syr. The tributaries that fed the Aral Lake for thousands of years, human beings have changed that course for their agriculture, for cotton, for better yield, for their profit. They made money but I lost my home, became a refugee. How the mere changing of the course of two rivers turned a particle of dust as a refugee, is a long story.
My story will take you back to the Holocene period. Then I was not dust but part of mud and silt- it was blissful. I was calm and complacent living with time. Still, I remember the day some glorious sons of the soil crossed the lake, they mulled over ensuring food and safe drinking water for people at large. Being good Samaritans, they were obsessed with helping the nation- were calculative, altruistic, cosmopolitan and good catchers of sturgeon. At the time of dinner, they relished fourteen types of fish caught in the lake and talked for a long time about the crisis befalling China. They severely condemned the ‘Four Pests Campaign’ and mocked the Chinese leaders, who with a view to eradicating entrenched diseases declared war against the four pests: mosquitoes responsible for malaria, rodents that spread plague, the pervasive airborne flies and sparrows that ate the hard-won fruits from fields of grain and rice. These pests were charged with public health treason and widespread irritation. Therefore, patriotic health campaigns targeted the vermin and carte blanche was issued to the people to fight enemies. Beautifully illustrated posters encouraging the wielding of fly swatters, guns and gongs were released to the masses. In consequence, 1 billion sparrows, 1.5 billion rats, 100 million kilograms of flies and 11 million kilograms of mosquitoes were outright decimated. However, the sparrow’s intrinsic role in retaining the ecological balance was unrealized and resulted in well-orchestrated, unmitigated environmental disaster. Locusts, left unencumbered from the watchful hungry sparrows, came in droves and devoured fields of grain. The loss of crops resulted in untold millions starving and 20 to 30 million died between the years 1958 and 1962. Someone also revealed the terrible news of parents eating kids and kids eating parents. At last, the eminent scholars admired the book ‘Tombstone’ and dubbed it as a daunting endeavor in unravelling the truth.
By the way, on a fine morning the President of the country came to inaugurate the mega project. Everyone cheered as river water was diverted to pastures and untilled lands. Soon agriculture became a booming sector for economic growth. But the lake began to shrink. Its salt and mineral content rose drastically enough to make water unfit for drink, even for animals. Toxic pollutants were everywhere- carrots and onions contained Chlorinated Organic Pesticides, pregnant women were diagnosed with DDE, cases of heart and kidney disease were rife. Besides, infant mortality rose significantly, Kerakalpaks were detected with throat cancer and anemia. Several species of fishes like sturgeon, carp, barbell and roach became extinct from the region. The most famous Tugay habitats with all the mammals, birds and amphibians vanished as if within the blink of an eye. Maritime complexes were replaced by continental regimes, summers were warm, winters cool. Spring frosts arrived much later than usual, fall frosts came too early. Humidity was lower, growing season shorter.
The lake is no more. Now millions of tons of dust and sand are visible in the lake. Undoubtedly, this has given me an opportunity to flex my muscle. You must have remembered the storm Black Sunday when I could kill multiple and hundreds of thousands of people were relocated. California, being flooded with Okies, had to overtax the state’s health and employment infrastructure. It’s regarded as one of the worst dust storms in the history of the U.S.A. when 300 million tons of topsoil were displaced from the prairie area and I could show off my power. As you stage a parade of missiles, elite troops and defense hardware in display of strength, so also, I like to travel thousands of kilometers and cause respiratory problems to the people of faraway countries in a show of my strength. You should know that I can remain in different forms. Being a finer particle, I can penetrate your lower respiratory tract and enter the bloodstream where I have an opportunity to damage your internal organs as well as cause cardiovascular disorder. If coated by pollution I may act as condensation nuclei for warm cloud formation and as efficient ice nuclei agent for cold cloud generation. As industrial dust, asbestos or quartz – I can put an end to your charisma. Yet, to you my identity is nothing but dust. Is it only because I have neither a Joseph Goebbels nor his Ministry for Popular Enlightenment and Propaganda?
I’m a particle of dust and I’ll remain so for years to come. You may raise the question of my ability to claim racial purity or supremacy! No, I’m not ashamed to admit that I’m inferior to many. But what I know, I know that I believe in fact, not in myth. The popular belief of ostrich hiding its head in the sand is absurd to me. It’s a myth, a manner of dramatizing talk, a smooth functioning of the propaganda machine, the subtle art of falsification- for which human beings are unparalleled. The fact is that ostriches are flightless birds and are unable to build their nests in trees. So, they lay eggs in holes dug in the ground. To make sure that the eggs are evenly heated they occasionally stick their heads into the holes to rotate the eggs. Then it looks like they are trying to hide their face in the sand. But the propaganda machine has turned it into a popular myth.
Apart from myths, there are true stories that make me happy. A partition migrant of British India (originally from Karachi of Pakistan) fled India and on his return to Pakistan decades later, took dust from the ground, kissed it and touched to his forehead. Another partition migrant took dust from his birthplace and now keeps them in his London home. Some others took jars containing dust from their ancestral home and now preserve those as heirlooms. I was overwhelmed when in 1930’s many residents in Oklahoma began keeping accounts and journals of their lives during a dust storm. Avid D. Carlson wrote how in a dust storm ‘people caught in their own yards grope for the doorsteps. Cars came to a standstill, for no light in the world can penetrate the swirling murk--. But on the occasional bright day and the usual gray day we cannot shake from it. We live with the dust, eat it, sleep it, watch it strip us of possessions and hope of possessions.’ I was on cloud nine when I found musicians and songwriters like Woody Gutherie and Kat Eggleston involved in reflecting upon the Dust Bowl and the events of the 1930s. Several others documented their experiences living during the era of the storm. But all these were not before I had to wage a dust war against the most brilliant folks on earth, bury dinosaurs so fast that they never got off their nests, suffocate all the folks in Pompeii caught in a manner with a cry on their lips and sweep away entire civilizations.
Although the Marxists strained every nerve to form an egalitarian society, they failed miserably. What they could do was only to create a lot of poppycock. But I can proudly state that I’m an equalizer. You must know that the practice of burying came down from the Adena. There important people like clan leaders, healers and shaman were buried on the mounds with a variety of artefacts like beads, jewelry, pipes, mica and copper ornaments. After so many years if you want to classify the mounds on the basis of their importance, your efforts will come a cropper and you will count nothing but particles of dust. This is a clear testimony to my impartiality in dealing with the rich and poor, important or unimportant, powerful or powerless, beautiful or ugly. However, from my experience I’ve found that the unimportant i.e. the proletariat are a bit more amenable and practical. They can adapt to changes around. They are born in dust, work with dust, wallow in dust, retain dust in their armpit, chin, beard and matted hair. Eventually they get mixed with dust and do it without objection. On the contrary, it’s always the powerful and rich who have challenged my existence. They occupy the river land, divert the river water and throw chemical waste products in the river. The waste products containing cyanide, zinc, lead, copper, cadmium and mercury enter the water in high concentration killing fish and animals. Algae use nitrate and phosphate to grow rapidly while turning water as green. When algae die they are broken by bacteria which multiply quickly. The action uses up all the oxygen in water and turns it as toxic. This is the beginning of another Aral desert.
To get down to brass tacks, for the last twenty years or so, I’m lying under a fishing ship. The grounded fishing ship which sank long ago now bears witness to time. Ports are remaining like haunted houses, Vozrozdenya is lost. Now it’s time for tulermia, bubonic plague and anthrax to recur, infect the mainland and far beyond. They have found their existence amidst dust. Was I destined to be so?
I’m a particle of dust. Like you I had a dream. I wished not to become an insect, bubonic plague, south wind or a bird. Rather living cheek-by-jowl with water I wished to become a drop of water, water that rips apart hills and dales, crags and crevice, marshy land and desert. Then falls as a drop on a pink rose in early morning. Water that you drink to quench your thirst, water that invigorates life, water that washes away toxins. No doubt, you are powerful. On the contrary, I’m good-for-nothing. You like to flout me, I remain quiet. You crush me under your feet, I never object. You sweep me away, I remove myself from your way. I was silt, wanted to become water. You have turned me as dust, how can I bear! Now it’s time to take revenge.
A particle of dust, skulking under your sofa doesn’t deserve your disregard or contempt. Rather it may contain everything from space diamond to Gobi desert to the bone of a monkey or bit of a modern tire rubber. If you fail to recognize the image of your forefathers in a particle of dust, if you don’t learn how to respect others, one day you’ll become dust but without substance. That’s why Omar Khayyam once wrote:
Ah, make the most of what we yet may spend,
Before we too into the Dust descend;
Dust into Dust, and under Dust to lie
Sans Wine, sans song, sans singer, and----- sans End!
I hope you’ll become dust, not without substance.
HEAD AND SHOULDERS SHAMPOO
Do they still make it anymore?
I am well out of the loop, living all alone in a house Mom bought me nearly 40 years ago. She is long dead, having donated her body to “science.”
Just got home from a walk around the block. I resemble an old woman but do not breathe a word of it. I have a mild limp, where I tumbled down my basement stairs like in a film noir starring Richard Widmark.
My time is consumed by watching disaster films on YouTube. How I loved “Cape Fear” where Robert Mitchum, sexy pot-smoking Mitchum, who was jailed for pot consumption, is avenging the death of someone who incarcerated him.
Drowning. Gasping for air. Keeping head above water. Floating on back.
My life once had a purpose. First I was a “shelver” at the Willow Grove Library in suburban Philadelphia. But I rose up the ranks. The pay stunk so the regular librarians left and they were stuck with me.
Little me. Emily Bartolomeo. No one could spell it properly.
Everyone, you know, has a story to tell.
Forget mine. Sara-beth had a head injury when her car crashed. She wore a helmet at work in case a tall book fell on her head.
She was a love, though. I always asked to see her rolling cart. That’s where she returned the books from.
Before work, I take a shower in my upstairs bathroom. The room is a regular Barnes and Noble of photographs. The photos are far enough away from the shower so they won’t get wet.
I step into the shower and of course I never think of the film “Psycho” where only forty-five seconds take place in the shower.
Do I perhaps have a death wish?
I think of the many people I know who have died. My dermatologist, a woman I went to library school with back in Texas, my former hoarder boyfriend, and a dear friend whose son killed himself.
From my Red Couch that I bought at Gamburg’s in nearby Hatboro, Pennsylvania – yes, it is still there – I wonder when I will be next.
First thing in the morning, I use my Water Pik, which I bought years ago from Dr. Abrams, DMD.
When I run my tongue over my teeth, they feel like newly minted diamonds.
He and I had a falling out as I forgot an appointment. He sent me a bill for $35. Forget that!
The bathroom has pink and blue floor tiles, from when I first moved in, 74 years ago.
My sister Heidi bought me Equate Shampoo, which lathers up like foam on the ocean. I step in the tub carefully. Twice I have fallen but I didn’t get hurt. (That’s what they all say, as they die of a concussion at Abington Memorial Hospital.)
When I shower, I have a special faucet, very high up, and I massage the Equate foam all over my body. Like my own private spa. Then I bend down and use pink Dove soap to put between my diabetic toes.
The tray which holds the soap is coated with what looks to be years of using various soaps. I have lain a small white towel on it to remove the disgusting layers. Will they ever come off?
Remember, I am now 75 years old, so I only have about 20 years before I croak.
Finally I was ready to take a shower downstairs. The shower has a name:
DuraStall. Apparently they still make them, but for four or five hundred dollars.
I am longing to take my first shower downstairs in perhaps 10 years.
I have written the directions on the back of my toilet: UP to turn on shower, DOWN to turn it off.
Letting the shower run a bit to get the right temperature, I stepped inside.
I had two choices: The water would be freezing cold or hot as a kitchen griddle with bacon and eggs simmering inside.
An old bottle of Head and Shoulders sat in the tray. Fancy! Colorful. Blue and white with an enormous cap that a baby might use as a pacifier.
I began to scream, even though no one would rescue me. Recently, on the Internet, I had watched the Bataan Death March where prisoners were forced to march until they dropped dead. Only a few survived.
“Help! Help!” I screamed as I rubbed the shampoo into my hair and body orifices. Out came the wax from my ears and down the drain into the sewer it gurgled.
A week before I had prepared for this shower. Over the shower door I had slung blue and white checked towels from the catalog from the Vermont Country Store. How patiently they waited.
My hair, which I cannot dye in the pandemic, is a brilliant cloud-like white. It spreads out like a fancy woman at a ball in Pride and Prejudice. Have I mentioned it smells glorious?
Would I do it again?
Are you crazy? Not the Bataan March, not the shampoo, not even the faith I had that the shower would work.
Please keep this all to yourself. The new librarian needs her privacy.
His father sits him down several hours before his 8th birthday party, a Batman-themed party he’s begged his parents for several weeks. His father has a strange look on his face, slightly pensive but not overly ominous, and it makes him uneasy. He fidgets on the leather couch, the material sticking to his clammy tiny legs.
“Listen, Johnny, we have to go someplace,” Mr. Callejon says. His father is usually a small wiry ball of energy, but not today.
His initial fear seems to be coming true. “But what about my party?” He looks at his father with wide eyes, tears hinting at streaming down his cheeks.
“Don’t worry, son—we’ll be back in plenty of time for that. It’s really important that we go to this place, so let’s go now so we can come back to get ready, Batman.” Mr. Callejon gives Johnny a toothy smile. His father’s small frame seems to have relaxed and is back to its usual eased nature. Johnny feels much better, and he runs upstairs to change.
Mr. Callejon waits at the bottom of the stairs. As he plays Tetris on his phone, he notices the time slowly pass. “Hurry up, Johnny! You don’t want to miss your party,” he screams upstairs without looking up from the game. He lets out a grunt as the board fills up and he loses.
After another minute passes, Johnny finally runs down the stairs. He’s fully regaled in a homemade Batman outfit, courtesy of his mother, that mirrors the 1960s TV series rather than any of the movie incarnations. Although it isn’t an exact facsimile, the costume is more than passable, and Johnny slips seamlessly into his imagination’s latest creation: Johnny Callejon, the eight-year old who is really Bruce Wayne, who’s secret identity is Batman, protector of Gotham.
Mr. Callejon gives a half-smile at Johnny’s presentation, standing at the bottom of the steps doing the Superman pose—biceps flexed, fists at his waist, jaw jutting slightly to the left. At this point, these fancies and whims are old hat to Mr. and Mrs. Callejon, as Johnny apes a new fictional character almost every week, but his newfound obsession with Batman is different.
“Let’s go, Clark Kent,” Mr. Callejon teases, knowing it will get a reaction from Johnny.
“Dad, I’m Bruce Wayne…Clark Kent is Superman. How many times do I have to tell you?”
“One more time. So can Bruce Wayne fly too?”
“Dad, you don’t know anything!” Johnny cries as he follows his dad out the door.
Mr. Callejon and Johnny get in the dull-yellow Honda Accord, and they drive out of the dead-end street they live on. Mr. Callejon is half-listening to Johnny explain, with little variation, for what-seems-like the hundredth time all about Batman.
Mr. Callejon utters, “Uh huh,” “Yeah,” and “Oh really?” alternating in order to continue the guise of paying attention, but he’s focusing more on what directions the GPS gives him.
“And, Dad, there’s this one villain called Two-Face. He’s really scary.”
“Yeah! Because a part of him is this normal guy who used to be a materny, and the other half makes him do all these bad things.”
“Uh huh…a what? What did you say, Johnny?”
Mr. Callejon thinks about this for a bit, causing him to almost miss the turn that he needs to make. “Do you mean attorney?” He laughs a little at his son’s mistake, and he looks in the rearview mirror to indicate to Johnny that it’s a playful laugh, not malicious.
“Yeah! Attorney. What is an attorney, Dad?”
Mr. Callejon thinks about how to answer this. After several seconds of contemplating, he says, “An attorney is someone who argues for a living.”
“Like you and mom do?”
“We don’t argue that much,” Mr. Callejon replies between laughing.
“I guess not. My friend Jermaine, his parents fight all the time.”
“That’s sad to hear, but grown-ups will do that sometimes. People don’t always see everything the same way.”
“So then how come some people get paid to do it and others do it for free?”
Mr. Callejon smiles at this as he looks down the road for any sort of sign to recognize the place. “Mommy and I only do it when it’s important.” He sees the sign for the building, both very inauspicious, which he doesn’t remember because he swore it was so much scarier when he went there thirty years ago. “Some people think it would be fun to argue all day and try to prove that you’re always right,” Mr. Callejon says as he pulls into the parking lot. He’s looking at the sign, which is three black curved arrows that form a circle and the words Life Plan written in green in the middle.
Johnny, with furrowed brow, looks straight ahead. “That doesn’t sound fun to me.”
“What does sound fun to you?” Mr. Callejon has stopped the car, and he’s staring at the building. After recollecting what it was like for him to go into the building and what happened there, he looks up in the rearview mirror and back at Johnny, who’s looking out the window.
“My birthday party. Mom says she made cupcakes. Do you promise this won’t take long?”
Johnny looks over at his dad. Mr. Callejon nods back to quell Johnny’s fears.
“But what else sounds fun, Johnny? Do you think what Daddy does for a living sounds fun?”
“Add numbers all day? No way! I hate math.”
He laughs at Johnny, who starts to pout at the mere mention of math. He pauses for a few seconds, contemplating the best course of action. “Listen, Johnny, we’re about to go inside this building. What’s about to happen is very important. There will be some people in there that are going to ask you a bunch of questions. I will tell them a little about you, but once they start talking to you, I can’t help you. Do you understand?”
“Sort of. You mean I have to talk to strangers.”
“Yes, but they aren’t strangers. They are going to ask you some questions that you may think are silly or weird, but…listen to me, Johnny…I need you to think long and hard before you say anything. Do you understand me?”
“What did I just say?”
“Think long and hard,” Johnny says and nods, his Batman mask sliding slightly down his face.
“This isn’t a game, Johnny. This isn’t pretend. You need to focus on what’s really happening now, OK? This is a really important day for you.”
Johnny listens and nods vehemently. Mr. Callejon recognizes Johnny’s expression. He knows Johnny’s still in character, pretending he’s Commissioner Gordon asking Johnny to save Gotham.
“Mr. Callejon, please tell us about your son, Jonathan.”
“Yes, Architects. Johnny is a very smart kid. He loves to read. Already he’s reading on a 5th-grade level…”
“Why is he dressed like this?”
“Because I’m Batman!”
Mr. Callejon laughs nervously. “He’s got a very active imagination. My wife and I encourage it—it makes him so happy to pretend that he’s these characters. He’ll create these stories about each one. He likes to be a new person every week.”
“But why Batman?” The Architects’ voices seem to echo and boom throughout the room to Mr. Callejon. He looks over at Johnny, who’s standing in the center of the room underneath the skylight, with rays of sun illuminating Johnny as Johnny kicks and punches imaginary villains.
“Well, Architects, he loves Batman because…”
“No. Not you. Him.”
Mr. Callejon looks up at the three Architects that sit on the bench raised several feet above them. Mr. Callejon’s body deflates, knowing now that he can’t help Johnny anymore. He takes a seat on the bench in the dimly-lit area away from the Architects.
“Why do you love Batman, Jonathan?”
Johnny looks up, without an ounce of fear, and stares straight at the Architects. “Because he fights crime and he does it by using things that he invented.”
“Does that interest you?”
Johnny looks over at Mr. Callejon, who is trying to suppress nervousness. Johnny looks back up at the Architects and waits.
“Fighting crime. Does that interest you?”
“Not really, I guess.” Johnny shifts his body weight and looks to the ground for comfort.
“Well, why not? Batman fights crime.”
“Yeah, but he gets hurt doing that. Bane breaks his back! I don’t want to get hurt. Mommy and Daddy would be too upset if I do. When I was being a Ninja Turtle, I fell off my skateboard and hurt my arm. Mommy and Daddy cried a lot that day.”
Mr. Callejon turns away.
“So you like that he invented things?”
“Yeah! I love building things! Daddy and I built my tree house together. We had so much fun, didn’t we, Daddy?”
Mr. Callejon nods. “We sure did, pal.”
“So is that what you want to be when you grow up…a builder?”
Mr. Callejon’s eyes widen. He looks up at the Architects. He’s panicked. “No, please, that’s not what he means! He wants to be an inventor. That’s what he wanted to say. Please, he’s just a boy. He doesn’t know…” Mr. Callejon feels sweat on his forehead. It’s suddenly become very hot in the room, so he unbuttons his collar.
The Architects finish conferring. The three look down at Johnny. “Jonathan Callejon, you will grow up to be a construction worker. You can pick up your life plan from the receptionist on your way out. Good day!”
Johnny sits there while his father repeatedly punches the steering wheel. He hears words that he’s not supposed to say, ones he hears often when Mommy and Daddy fight. He’s upset. He doesn’t know why, but he’s made Dad angry. I don’t even want to have my birthday party now.
He looks over at his father, who, while driving home, is leafing through the Life Plan for him. His father grows more agitated every time his father reads something else from the packet.
“He doesn’t get to go to college? Are you fucking kidding me?” Mr. Callejon is screaming, unabashedly releasing his stream-of-consciousness about the situation. “Well, at least I won’t have to pay for college. Ha!
“Those motherfuckers, they sit there…how the fuck are you supposed to know? You’re just a boy!”
His father keeps doing these half-gestures—one minute Mr. Callejon looks ready to punch something, then aborts it—and he’s more confused than ever. He’s watching the trees race by him and wishes he could stop them. He wants everything to stand still. He’s got tears in his eyes now. He watches his dad curse with a guttural yell, and he doesn’t know why, he doesn’t know what he said wrong.
He takes off his Batman mask and he hands it to his father. Mr. Callejon, mid-expletive, stops and looks at what he’s giving. “Why are you handing me this, Johnny?”
“I don’t want to be Batman no more. I don’t need to build things.”
His dad pulls the car over. He looks around but doesn’t know where they are, and his dad is just sitting there, now all quiet, until he sees the tears flow from his father’s eyes. “You can be Batman if you want. Batman’s real brave.”
“Come sit in the front for a bit, Johnny,” Mr. Callejon says and pats the seat. Johnny unbuckles and climbs into the front, next to his dad.
“I’m sorry, Johnny. I tried to warn you. I told you all I could. I wish I could have told you more, but I can’t…”
He feels his body get pulled into his dad’s, and they hug. “I don’t know why the Architects make it like this, but they do. You can’t fully know what’s in store for you until after you decide. It’s so fuc…
“But you like building, though, right? Like, you really like it?”
He nods, a smile slowly forming. His father stares at him, trying to tell from his face if it’s the truth.
“OK. OK. That’s OK then. If you really like it, that’s fine, son. Yeah, fine. It’ll all be fine. And look, you get to marry a hair stylist—they’re usually really hot. Good for you, Johnny.
“Look, maybe I overreacted. It’s just that I wanted so much more…forget it. Let’s just focus on some of the good things here.”
Mr. Callejon leafs quickly through the Life Plan. Every now and then, Mr. Callejon reads out loud something that might interest Johnny, though Johnny still doesn’t have a clue what any of it means. “You’ll get to have a cabin in the mountains…that you built! Impressive stuff, Johnny. You’ll help rebuild city hall. That’s no slouch project, son. We can deal with this. This can work.”
He is staring at the Batman mask that his father is waving around in one hand. The mask is crumpled into a ball. I guess I’ll have to be Bruce Wayne at the party.
He stares down an almost-empty glass of vodka, flavorless. He swirls the remnants around a bit, watching it shift in the glass but always being forced to return back to form. He grabs the glass and drains the rest of it, some of it spilling onto his bottom lip. He puts the glass back down on the bar caked with years of liquor stains. He wipes away the liquor on his lips with the back of his hand.
Someone has put “Piano Man” on the jukebox, a song that he and the other regulars hate to hear blaring throughout the bar, but the ones who pass through love to throw it on. He looks up at the bartender, a paunchy middle-aged man, who, with shrugged shoulders, continues to clean the glasses, though they never get clean, not really.
He hears some yelling behind him. Before fully turning around, he looks to his left and notices that only one of the six barstools is occupied. He looks over his left shoulder and sees several kids, can’t be older than 22, huddling near the jukebox. They all have drinks in their hands, but the floor gets more of the drinks than they do.
He turns back around and stares straight ahead, not at anything, just ahead.
“Want another one, John?”
He doesn’t answer.
“For your birthday.”
He looks over at the bartender and gives a slight affirmative nod. He looks down at the bar and wonders. How many people have sat here before me and thought the same things I do? Some liked their scotch, others their beer, all one thing in common.
“Hey, hey, hey…I just want to congratulate Jacob on finishing up his MBA!”
Am a man without ambition except to be champion of the world.
“We’ll miss him, but I know he’s excited to leave tomorrow to go on his tour of Europe for two months. What can we say, the guy chose a good Life Plan, and now he’s reaping the benefits of it!”
All of the kids start to laugh. He continues to stare straight ahead, somehow even more focused than before. We are all given one thing by which our lives are measured, one determination.
“Hey, everyone want another round? My treat!”
So long as we are loved by others, I should say that we are indispensable; and no man is useless while he has a friend.
“Hey, can we get another round of drinks, please?”
“Just a minute.” A glass is placed in front of him. “Happy 30th, John.”
He walks in the door and sees his kids fixated on the TV. They don’t acknowledge his presence, so he walks by them into the kitchen. He sees his wife, all blonde and buxom and little else. How little of permanent happiness could belong to a couple who were only brought together because their passions were stronger than their virtue. He chuckles a bit at that, and watches her cook.
“And who are you? Because my husband doesn’t laugh.” Her voice sounds shrill to him. “Well, it is my birthday,” he answers, a step back from being curt. His eyes are drawn to random parts of the kitchen—the two wooden beams that run parallel on the ceiling, the cabinets, the hanging pot rack—that he’s built over the years.
“Did someone buy you a sense of humor at the bar?”
“You can say that. Jermaine gave me free shots.”
His wife gives him a quick roll of her eyes, then goes back to chopping carrots. “Remind me to thank him for that next time I see him.”
She tries to move some wayward hairs from out of her face without using her arms, and he smiles devilishly at the sight of her jerking her neck. It is the eye of the beholder that moves.
“Just remember, tonight after dinner, we have to start working on Sam or Samantha,” she says, as she dumps chopped carrots into a big pot. “Pot Roast, by the way.”
He nods indifferently about dinner. He walks to the cabinets and grabs a bottle of generic vodka. He adds ice then pours himself a glass.
“Really, before dinner?” she asks, and he can detect the disapprobation in her voice easily.
“It’s my birthday.”
“Has it been your birthday for the past month too?” She walks over to the refrigerator and grabs a head of lettuce to start making a salad.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” he says, tilting his back as he swigs vodka and stares up at the ceiling.
“You’re the one who’s always acting like you’re smarter than everyone. You figure it out.”
He knows what it means, but just doesn’t care. A smirk sneaks across his face at this. “Can’t you just let me enjoy my birthday? I don’t ask for much. Can’t I just have this one day?”
“Why should I bother being nice to you? You don’t care about any of us.”
“Like this is what you wanted…” he gesticulates and spills some of the vodka onto the floor.
She smiles sarcastically at him, then grabs a dish towel and throws it at him. “Not when you spend every minute looking for reasons to be unhappy. But, things could be a lot worse.”
He rolls his eyes and washes it down with a long sip of vodka. “Suffering is relative.” The vodka warms his cheeks.
She puts her right fist on her hip and shifts her weight to that leg. Her red turtleneck sweater hugs her svelte body and her black pants offer little room to move freely in. “Yeah, you suffer—I cook for you on your birthday. I do my best to look nice for dinner. I tell you we’re going to fuck later. You’re really suffering, pal.”
“Oh, like you’re not?”
She shakes her head very slightly and then turns her back to him. She throws in the carrots to the mixed salad, and without looking up, she says, “We’ve got two great kids, a nice house, and good jobs. If I weren’t married to Mr. Fucking Gloomy, no, I wouldn’t be.”
His eyes become beady as he stares at her. “I didn’t fucking ask for this.”
She chortles. “Yes you did. We all did.” She looks up from making the salad and gives a toothy grin. “Some of us know our place in the world better than others.” She walks over to the refrigerator to grab a bottle of salad dressing, and he drains vodka as she strides by him. She lets out a slight snicker. “I’m so sorry that the dream you had wasn’t enough for you.”
After work, he gets a call from his dad.
“Listen, Johnny, sorry we couldn’t make it to your house for dinner last night to celebrate your birthday. We got back late from seeing that specialist for Mom.”
“Is she OK?”
“Why don’t we meet so we can talk in person? Let’s grab some dinner.”
“Sure,” he says, walking off the construction site. “McCloone’s?”
“You got it. I’ll see you in 15 minutes.”
There was something strange in his voice--sadness. He only remembers his dad truly being upset on that day…He quickly tries to think of something else. What will I get at McCloone’s? Though this line of thought doesn’t last, it serves its purpose.
As he’s walking to his car, his boss stops him. “Callejon, where the fuck do you think you’re going?”
He’s nonplussed, so he replies, “It’s 5PM. My shift’s over. Is there something wrong with that?”
“Didn’t you get the memo that all construction workers have to stay until 5:30? We’re a month behind schedule.”
“I’ve been here 12 years, Mr. Berkeley. Can’t the new guys handle it?”
“That’s not the fucking point! You’re a construction worker. You could’ve worked for me for 500 years. The memo clearly says all construction workers. Is that so fucking hard to understand?” Mr. Berkeley’s gangly stature belies the severity of his tone.
“No, sir, but I promised my father I’d meet…” Mr. Berkeley’s bug-eyes widen at this, and he knows that there’s no point to finish the request. “Nothing, sir. It’s fine. 5:30.”
As Mr. Berkeley’s gawky body recedes into the construction site, he pulls out his cell phone while staring straight at his car. “Hey, Dad, sorry, I have to work a bit late. Can we say 5:45?”
After he hangs up, he’s tempted to quit. Why not? I’m sure I can find some other fucking bullshit job like this. But then he another thought occurs to him, a thought that makes him smile genuinely for the first time in a while. He turns back around and walks back almost sprightly onto the site.
He walks into McCloone’s to find his dad sitting at the bar. The restaurant’s faux log cabin décor usually escapes his scrutiny, but today he surveys the restaurants for subtle ways to improve it—bamboo floors and walls, mosaic tiles around the fireplace (as well as an actual fire), granite tile bar. Nothing major, but a makeover would do this place some good.
“What are you smiling at?”
He looks at his dad, and still can’t suppress it fully. “Nothing.”
“Come on, tell me,” Mr. Callejon replies. “It’s been a while since I’ve seen you look happy.” He feels his father’s hand on his back, rubbing it in a cajoling way. It brings a slight comfort to him to know that this act from his dad can bring up those same feelings even as an adult.
“Tell me about Mom first,” he says as he signals to the bartender to get him the same drink his father is having. “You got me all worried.”
Mr. Callejon takes a quick sip, then begins, “Well last week your mother found a lump close to her right armpit. We’ve been worried all week about it—we didn’t want to tell you because we didn’t want to ruin your birthday. Like I said, we saw a specialist yesterday, Dr. Hallman. Your mother’s fine. It’s benign.”
He finally releases his breath and his heart starts to return to its normal pace. He grabs the glass the bartender has just placed in front of him. “To good news!”
Him and his father cheers, then both take a small sip from their drinks. “How about you? How’s Heather? Still looking as great as ever?”
He grabs his drink and takes another sip. “We’re trying for our third. But you know that.” Once you bring life into the world, you must protect it…
Mr. Callejon smiles sheepishly. “Of course I do! Congratulations…knock on wood—ha ha! But I bet you’re having fun trying, eh?”
He nods insincerely. He stares down at his drink trying to avoid his father’s gaze. He feels it burning him, and he becomes flushed.
“What’s wrong? You were just so happy one minute ago…”
We must protect it by changing the world. “Oh yeah, actually I just had a great idea as I was finishing up work today.”
“How is work, by the way? Is Mr. Berkeley still being a shithead?”
“Yeah, and that’s just it, that’s what I realized—he’s such a huge reason why I hate my job. He treats with me no respect. Just today, he made me stay an extra half hour for no reason! He could have just had all the younger guys stay later.”
“Well, he’s the boss,” Mr. Callejon says in a matter-of-fact tone.
“I know, and that’s the thing, and that’s what I was thinking on my way over here and a few minutes ago…what if I started my own company? I’ve been doing this for 12 years, I know what it takes to do a successful job. I could be really good at it. Oh, and you could be my company’s accountant! How great would that be, us working together?”
Mr. Callejon, very concerned, looks around the restaurant. He starts to scan the room too, as a knee-jerk reaction, but he isn’t sure what he’s looking for. The bartender is the only one that’s close to them. In a hushed voice, he says, “Did you tell anyone this plan yet?”
John’s slightly confused at his dad’s behavior. “No. Literally, I just thought of this. I thought you would be excited about this.”
Mr. Callejon takes a long sip of vodka. Once the bartender walks to the other side of the bar, Mr. Callejon whispers, “Forget you ever thought of this, OK? Just forget it now.”
“Why?” he asks, incredulous at his father’s behavior. He’s never seen his father look this nervous.
“Look…you know your life plan. So do I.”
He scratches his face. “Yeah, so?” He rests his elbow on the bar and leans his head against his right hand.
“You said construction worker. Not manager or owner.”
He lets a sarcastic laugh escape, and it briefly draws the attention of the bartender. He feels his dad grab his left forearm as a gesture to quiet down. “Wait, you’re serious.”
He turns toward the bartender, who has turned away, and then faces his dad again. “So what are you telling me? That I’m stuck in this dead-end fucking job for the rest of my life? That there’s nothing I can do about it?”
“You said builder…” Mr. Callejon adds as a tear rolls down. John feels as if the chair underneath him is about to give out. His stomach wrestles itself. “Look, people were tired of their dreams not coming true. They were sick of wasting thousands of dollars on college educations and training only to have to work in completely different fields.
“And then they thought of this, the Architects designing life plans for everyone to follow. I don’t have to tell you—‘By age 18, begin working,’ ’21 get married,’ ’24 have a child…People stopped having their dreams unfulfilled. Everyone got what they wanted.”
John’s got both hands on the bar, and it’s barely holding him up. His dad’s words are reverberating in his mind. You said builder. “But what if my dream has changed?” he asks, his right hand trembling so much that as he grabs his glass he can’t even lift his drink. “I grew up! I discovered I want something else, something more. What’s wrong with that?”
Mr. Callejon shakes his head forlornly. “The Architects thought about this—society can’t have people wasting however many years on a plan then switch to another. Do you realize how much each of these plans cost in order to create? Think about all the schooling that goes into each person’s plan! Just the schooling alone…
“Hell, before a child turns 18, it costs $300,000 to raise it! So add $200,000 on top of that for college, four years for someone to study something and not get a job in it—you can understand why there were a lot of very angry people.”
Angry people are not always wise. He tries to bury his head in the bar. His forehead feels oddly cooled off by the granite. The stench of ammonia stings his nostrils, and it makes him lift his head back up.
“Why didn’t you tell me? Couldn’t you have warned me? How was I supposed to know what I did in there was going to affect the rest of my life?”
He’s fighting back the tears, but it’s futile, and he starts to cry as his father adds, “None of us knew. I wish it were different, son, I do, but we don’t know.”
“Look, I’ll pay them anything. There’s got to be something I can do…” The last few words seem to be a whisper as he says them.
He sees his father shaking his head the whole time. “Look, Johnny, it’s not just you—what about the teachers that trained you on the plan you were on? What about their wasted hours? Even if you could pay $500,000 for the rest of your life and some of that went to compensate the people that wasted time guiding you to a career you abandon, not to mention the other people who wanted that career whose spot you took, society can’t have people not contributing. Everyone has to do their part, and we have no room for people taking time to discover themselves.
“Son, just be thankful you said something. Do you know what happens to the people who didn’t have any career in mind when they went to their meeting?”
Immediately he thinks of Jermaine, but him and Jermaine never talk about that. That would be against the unspoken rule between bartender and patron—how you got here is irrelevant. “You’re here, so what can I get ya?”
“How?” he asks, though his mind continues to race for a way out of this.
“Did you ever think about what moron would ever say they want to be a janitor or a garbage man?” His father whistles quietly, more pantomime than even emitting sound, and he thinks about how when he’s there, Jermaine never really does much of anything behind the bar. A sad, sardonic smile slithers across his face. That’s some catch, that Catch-22.
“So, that’s it?” he says, the smile not entirely faded.
He nods acknowledging the dead end. He drains his drink, then reaches for his wallet, pulls out some money, and throws it down on the bar.
“But it’s your birthday. Let me treat.”
“Don’t worry about it, Dad,” he says, and he puts his arm around his father. “You’ve treated me long enough.”
He walks out of the bar, knowing full well what he’s going to do.
He’s on the roof of the newly-renovated city hall. He’s looking down at the pavement and he sees the way out of the dead end. As the breeze hits his face, he can’t help but feel refreshed. He closes his eyes and does his best to drown out the wail of the cop cars’ sirens. He opens them and is calmed by the red and green flashing in the dark of night. He wants to feel the sidewalk’s warm embrace. Kiss me, and you will see how important I am.
He feels his one foot let go of its grip from the marble. It’s dangling in the air, so free. He smirks. He’s ready to feel the same way. Good luck exploring the infinite abyss.
Reflexively, he puts his foot back down on the ledge. He looks down into the now-gathered crowd—about a dozen cops, several onlookers. He can’t make out who’s speaking though.
“Johnny, it’s your dad,” Mr. Callejon says through a megaphone. He looks down in the crowd to try and spot his father. After several seconds, he can see someone by three cop cars holding a megaphone. He realizes for the first time just how small his father is.
“Johnny, what are you doing?”
He screams. There’s no response. He screams again. Nothing. Then he feels a vibration. He pulls his phone out of his pocket and answers it.
“What are you doing, son?”
With a gleeful tone, he replies, “You said it yourself—there’s nothing I can do. Except this.”
“Don’t you think we’ve all thought of this? Is it really worth throwing your life away for?”
The words feel like they’re going to rip through his throat to get out. “What life? I’m miserable, Dad. I wake up every morning and I can’t think of one single reason to get out of bed. I could be so much more. If I had just said a scientist, or a manager…”
“We all could have. Every single person on this planet looks at what they could have been. Do you honestly think that any of us are happy? Hell, don’t you think there were times when I was your age that I thought about doing the same thing you’re thinking of doing right now?”
“So what am I supposed to do? Just pretend that I’m not miserable? Should I act like everything’s fine?”
“We all having coping mechanisms. If that’s what it takes for you, then yeah. We all need a reason to get up every morning, and you—you were, you are…
“If anyone should be up there on that ledge, it should be me, because if you feel this is the only way out, then I failed you. It’s that simple.”
He looks down at his father. He can’t make out any expression, but he knows him and his father are staring at each other that very moment. His cheeks grow warm as the tears trickle down. He doesn’t wipe the tears away.
“All I’ve ever wanted was what you had—wake up every morning, be happy, and know that you support your family doing that. When I walk in my door, no one even acts like I matter.”
“Son, I’m sorry, but you’re lying to yourself. I’ve seen the way Heather looks at you, well used to anyway. I’ve watched your kids laugh until they cry when you play with them. If you would just open your damn eyes for once in your life and stop dreaming about what you don’t have and look at what you do, you’d see that.
“Look, life’s not fair, OK? I don’t know why some people know what to say when they’re interviewed and others don’t. That’s just the way it is. But if you keep focusing on how things could have been different if only this, if only that…
“Your wife loves you. Your kids love you. Mom loves you. I love you. So what, you’re never going to be something else? That’s what drinking’s for.” He hears his father snort.
“So that’s all the secret, huh? Just find something that doesn’t make you want to kill yourself?”
His father gives out a hearty laugh again. “Pretty much.”
And that, that is the secret of happiness and virtue—liking what you’ve got to do. All conditioning aims at that: making people like their unescapable social destiny.
He hangs up the phone. He puts his leg out again. So free.
His wife wakes him up by straddling him. I guess all parts don’t know that I’m still tired. As he starts to become more and more alert, his hands start to roam his wife’s body, something he hasn’t taken pleasure in for years. She sighs with pleasure, and he stiffens more with each one.
He guides her to her back and climbs on top of her. He thrusts. Over and over. Over and over. How come this is the only monotonous act that no one ever complains about? Over and over.
When he’s done, he slinks beside her. She looks over at him and smiles, satiated. He grins back. When she gets up to go brush her teeth, his eyes follow her and try to memorize every part. She closes the door, and he looks up at the ceiling. The smile fades pretty quickly. He reaches over to his night stand. He grabs a book, and the smile returns. He opens the book and begins to read.
A dark abandoned warehouse. They struggle to slide open the rotted wooden door enough to squeeze in. Once inside, they use their phones to light up the inside of the room. They see a few rodents on the ground, abandoned wooden crates, several broken beer bottles, and a few used condoms.
“This takes me back to high school, partying in abandoned warehouses.”
“We couldn’t have met him at a bar or something? Do we really have to be this clandestine?”
“What we’re doing here tonight, it can’t be traced back to us. What better place to meet in secret out in the open than in an abandoned warehouse.”
The two continue walking, with her heels announcing each new step. “You couldn’t have worn pumps or something? You had to wear high heels?”
“Maybe next time we have a secret meeting, I’ll know the proper dress code! Ugh, I just stepped in one of the condoms!”
His phone’s light leads them through the warehouse. Despite not knowing exactly where the meeting point is, he walks decisively in a direction. These back-alley channels are never easy to get information from, and he contemplates if he’s missing some hint from what was said. 8:30PM at the warehouse by the river. You’ll know him when you see him. He sees smashed cell phones on the ground, and wonders if that’s what they used to build here.
“Have any trouble finding the place?” a voice in the darkness asks.
The two people immediately freeze. Instinctively, she grabs his arm and clings to him as if he’s a shield. His one fist clenches, though he knows it’s a futile gesture—in a fight against who they’re meeting, considering the reputation this person has, he has no shot of defending himself or her.
“Couldn’t we have met at Okasa, with the nice rooftop and the great cocktails?”
“I love sushi,” the brusque voice responds. “My handler told me you wanted to meet here.”
“We don’t know how this works. She’s just upset because she stepped in a…”
“Got to watch out for the condoms,” the voice cuts him off. “So, why are you here?”
The three of them stand around a wooden crate, using the crate as a table and a buffer zone. On the one side is the man and the woman, and the other is the voice. Sporadic squeaks by rats are heard in the background.
“We want you to take someone out.”
The voice blows a big bubble with his gum as he thinks about her demand. The bubble bursts, and he sucks in the strands of gum and chews it. “Who’s the target?”
“Supreme Leader Ganymede.”
A slight scoff, then loud chewing sounds. “Why?”
“Does it matter?”
“Not in the least, but once I do it, there’s no turning back.”
“We understand. Let’s just get it done.”
“How do we know that you’ll do what you say?”
“Because when you want someone taken out, I’m the best in the business.” He turns around and bends over, rummaging through a satchel. Once he has a folder in his hands, he plops it on the wooden crate. He steps forward, and half of his face is illuminated by his watch’s light. He’s got a jagged scar beneath his left eye. He’s got kempt salt-and-pepper-scruff for a beard, and a shaven head.
“Take a look yourself.”
The man opens the folder, and he picks up the first dossier so that he and the woman can see it. The dossier contains a picture of the subject, a man in his late 50’s, clipped to the top-right. “Sexual harrassment.” He throws down a second picture, this time the person in the picture is a man in his 30’s. “Sexual harrassment.” A third dossier is added. “Sexual harassment.”
“When you want to assassinate a man’s character, it always comes down to fucking,” the gruff voice adds.
“What’s your plan for Supreme Leader Ganymede?” the man asks.
“I’ve got the perfect plan for him…”
“Something to do with ‘fucking’?” the man interjects.
“No, not ‘fucking.’ OK, yeah, but there’s more to it.”
“As long as you get it done, we don’t care how. The time for a revolution has come,” she exclaims.
“Do you have my payment?”
She reaches into her purse and pulls out an envelope, and she hands it to the voice. The voice opens the envelope, gives an exasperated look at them both, then reveals the envelope’s contents.
“The whole point of you wanting to meet me here was to be discrete, right? You don’t want this traced back to you? Then why would you pay me in a personal check, with the name Debra Fournier printed on the top left corner?”
Her face gets flushed, and she looks to the man for some assurance. “I’ve never done this before!”
“Clearly—you’re wearing high heels,” the voice replies.
“I told you!”
“Fuck you, Nathan, like you’re some master criminal just because you wore Converses tonight.”
“Why would you say my name?”
“Because I don’t give a fuck, Nathan Williams! Nathan Williams, Nathan Williams, Nathan Williams! You gave me no guidance on how to do any of this, and now you’re going to criticize me for not doing it the way you would have!”
“That’s bad leadership,” the voice adds.
“Thank you! I’m Debra. Now that it’s out in the open, nice to meet you!”
Debra Fournier shakes hands with the voice, and the voice smiles affectionately at her.
“Enough!” Nathan Williams screams, and the warehouse goes silent. While the three of them stand there, Debra and the voice make eye contact, and both flash each other a quick smile. “We’ll get you the money. Are you going to do the job or not?”
“I’ll do it,” the voice answers.
“And in case we need to contact you,” Debra begins, “what should we call you?”
“Just call me ‘Herd.’”
Debra and Nathan are in the back of an Uber, driving away from the warehouse. Debra is clawing at the bottom of her shoe, trying to remove any remnants from the warehouse floor. Nathan is looking at his phone, scrolling through news stories on the Internet. He fidgets in his seat.
“Are you OK?” Debra asks. She finally rips off the used condom, so she rolls down the window and throws it out of the car. She shudders thinking about it, and forcefully wipes her hand on her skirt. “Why are we doing this again?”
“You know why,” Nathan responds, not even looking up from his watch. “Ganymede is part of the establishment, and when people think of the political establishment, they think of white men. No one gives a shit what white men think anymore.”
Debra’s face squinches up in confusion. “But he’s not white. He’s from Jupiter.”
Nathan scoffs. “He’s basically white. Its planet’s atmosphere is made up of privileged, dumb Jupiterians. You know the old saying…”
“’Boys go to Jupiter to get more stupider’, yeah, you’re right,” Debra admits, with melancholy in her voice. “I’m surprised he even got elected in the first place.”
“The world has changed very, very quickly. Our party knows what people want more than the people themselves, so it’s our responsibility to tell them what they want. Look, it comes down to this one simple fact…driver, how come we’re going uptown? I thought we put in two stops.”
“One stop,” the Uber driver says.
“Fuck, I forgot to put in your address as a stop. Well, want to come up for a night cap?”
“Not tonight, Nathan. I feel gross after being in that warehouse. I just want to shower and go to bed.”
“OK. Hey, driver, do you mind then taking my friend home after you drop me off?”
“She’ll have to enter a ride request when we get there. If it comes to me, sure.”
He shakes his head incredulously, but the Uber driver doesn’t see this. “Fine. Listen, Debra, from here on out, we cannot talk about this anymore. We have to make sure it stays between us what we’re doing to Ganymede, OK?”
“I understand,” Debra acknowledges with a smile. “I won’t tell anyone.”
“We’re here,” the Uber driver chimes in, as he pulls the car over in front of a luxury apartment high-rise.
Nathan realizes that the Uber driver could have heard everything they discussed. “How much of this conversation did you hear?”
“That depends—how many stars are you willing to rate me?”
“4. You didn’t offer us any mints or anything.” The Uber driver gives a steely look to Nathan. “OK, 5. You happy?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” the Uber driver replies, with a sly grin. “No hablo English.”
“Right,” Debra winks at the driver, and she opens the car door. She gets out of the car, and she pulls out her phone to request another Uber ride to her apartment. Nathan follows her out of the car, and the driver pulls away. “I guess he’s not going to wait to see if my request comes up.”
“I don’t trust that driver. I don’t think he’ll keep quiet. I shouldn’t have let him shake me down for a 5-star rating. Now my Uber credibility is gone.”
“If you don’t trust him, what should we do?”
Nathan thinks about the best course of action. He pulls out his cell phone and makes a call. “Herd? We’ve got another project for you.”
Herd climbs the last of the five flights of stairs. His black leather gloves grip the staircase railing, and he’s gasping for air as he pulls himself up from the last stair. He readjusts his leather duffel bag, so the strap stops digging into his shoulder. “Fuck, I have to do more cardio.”
After he catches his breath, he opens the door to the top floor of the Apple depository. He walks in and looks around. He hears splatters of cheers outside and an incessant buzz from the crowd of people. He grabs his cell phone and calls Nathan. “OK, I’m in the iPodsitory. Where’s the cash? In the corner in a briefcase? I see it now.” He walks over to the window, drops his duffel bag, goes to one knee and opens the briefcase. He fans through all the stacks of money to ensure they’re real. When he’s done, he puts the money back in and closes the briefcase.
He sets up.
He reaches into his duffel bag and pulls out a small tripod. He places it against the windowsill, in perfect view of the street. He sees the people barricaded on both sides of the street. Some are holding up signs, others are clapping. He checks his sight, then reaches into his duffel bag again. He places his work cell phone on top of the tripod. Methodically, he screws the cell phone onto the tripod. He finishes, and puts the tripod back onto the windowsill.
And he waits.
Herd sits there, legs crossed, with a spiritless look on his face. His eyelids get heavy, and his head starts to tilt down to his body as his eyes close. Suddenly, the crowd becomes raucous. Loud cheers erupt, and chants of “Ganymede” reverberate. His head jolts up, and his eyes spring wide open. He looks down at the street to see Supreme Leader Ganymede’s motorcade.
He takes out his other cell phone, and calls Nathan. “OK, I’m in position. The target is about to enter my sightline. I have a shot.” Loudly, he hears, “Take the shot! Take the shot!” from the phone. He closes one eye and looks down at his work phone. He opens HoloBook, and takes a deep breath.
“Hello, I’m Blargon of MWGNews. On this historic day, Supreme Leader Ganymede is visiting Earth for the first time ever. We take you to our very own reporter-on-the-scene, Joanne Hathley, for coverage. Joanne, can you tell us what the mood is like?”
“Thank you, Blargon. Yes, it’s a very euphoric scene here. There have been lots of group hugs. You can even hear them chant ‘Ganymede’ in the background. It’s a testament to how loved Gany--OH MY GOD, SHOTS FIRED, SHOTS FIRED…on social media. Someone has just fired shots…on social media…at the Supreme Leader!”
Pandemonium ensues as the crowd begins running aimlessly. Some people run into each other, trying to escape. Others duck in cover. One little boy openly weeps.
“Blargon, it seems that someone has uploaded a video on HoloBook of Supreme Leader Ganymede fucking a HoloBook model, and in the middle of it, he openly criticizes feminists. He makes comments like, and I quote, ‘Why is it that women can get offended if a man says they should smile, but women can constantly criticize men for wearing jean shorts?’ No word yet on the status of the Supreme Leader’s character yet, or how this will affect the jorts industry. We’re told his PR team is frantically doing everything they can to save Supreme Leader Ganymede’s character, which is in critical condition. Our thoughts and prayers are with him and his family right now as we await to hear whether or not his character will survive.”
“What a ghastly scene there,” Blargon adds, as the newscast cuts back to him at the desk. “In an unrelated story, an Uber driver has just been accused of sexual harassment. More as the story develops.”
“Hello, this is Blargon at MWGNews. The galaxy mourns today the death of Supreme Leader Ganymede’s character. Sadly, the world already forgets how he worked tirelessly for humanitarian rights; fought without relenting for education reform on Mars; and funded billions for disaster relief programs. Instead, we’ll focus on the one time he banged someone who’s desperate for attention, and how he once said some critical words. We take you live to his character’s funeral, with Joanne Hathley at the scene. Joanne…”
“Thank you, Joanne. There are mixed emotions throughout the funeral here, as his family and friends show up to offer their support, but not too much support as to think they agree with what Ganymede said. What you’re seeing is a lot of people paying their respects to the being’s character by kissing a blown-up screenshot of him penetrating the HoloBook model, then immediately spitting on it in support of women and #MeToo.”
Nathan slurps down his old-fashioned, while Debra sips happily on her pomegranate martini. They stare out at the cityscape, and Debra is smiling at the gloaming skyline. Nathan’s leg starts to shake nervously, and he looks around. He sees people and sentient beings in their 20’s and early 30’s eating, drinking, and laughing. He feels queasy.
“Would you relax already? Order another old-fashioned and put in an order of Dragon Rolls while you’re at it. He’ll be here.”
“It’s not that.”
“Then what is it? Supreme Leader Ganymede’s political career is over. We can now choose whichever candidate we want! We saved the galaxy by getting rid of the democratically-elected supreme leader! Now we have to convince the Founders Party to somehow prevent the Vice President from becoming Supreme Leader…”
Nathan forlornly looks away. He catches something on the TV—the reporter Kip McKinley is doing a profile piece about the first intergalactic and interspecies child’s 6th birthday. An insane thought passes through his mind, so he laughs at himself briefly for having it. He turns away from the TV and gazes out at the city lights.
“Sorry I’m late,” Herd announces as he pulls up a chair to join Debra and Nathan.
“I wouldn’t tell you if it was,” Herd quips, and his tone is laced with licentiousness as he looks at Debra. She blushes coquettishly. “Do you have the rest of my…”
“It’s under the table,” Nathan blurts out dispassionately.
“Thanks,” Herd answers, as he reaches under the table to grab the briefcase. He leans closer to Debra. “What’s his problem?”
“He’s in a mood.”
“Right.” Herd feels the briefcase handle, and he lifts the briefcase to his lap. “Do I need to count it?”
“It’s all there.” Before Debra can say anything else, the waitress comes over with their order. The waitress places another old-fashioned in front of Nathan, a pomegranate martini in front of Debra, and an order of Dragon Rolls in the middle of the table.
“No edamame?” Herd questions. “What about extra ginger?”
“We didn’t get those.”
“Fucking amateurs.” Herd gets up with his briefcase and walks out.
Debra finishes up her drink, while Nathan has barely touched his second round. She considers ordering another one, but then sees his expression. “OK, what’s your deal? Why are you so mopey?”
“I can’t shake the feeling that…we did something wrong.”
“He was a train wreck of a politician! You said so yourself.”
“I know…but what about the will of the people? What about the fact that he did win?”
She stares at him with an unrelenting and judging gaze. “That’s bullshit. I know you too well to think you actually care about that shit. You want your person to win, no matter what the costs are. What is it really?”
He doesn’t say anything. He reaches for his drink and takes a quick sip. He continues to stare off in the distance. She tries to position herself to make eye contact with him, but he obstinately refuses to look at her.
“If you’re not going to say something, I’ll leave. Herd’s texting me, anyway. Maybe I can meet him for a drink somewhere…”
“Don’t you think how we brought down Ganymede was a bit…unscrupulous?”
“We’re in politics.”
“Even so, for us…something doesn’t feel right about it. Ultimately, I know that our party stands for good, and I’ll do whatever it takes to keep us in power, but…”
She pauses, mouth slightly agape, then realizes what he’s getting at. “You feel sorry for him? Why?”
“In one instant, his whole life’s work is gone,” Nathan confides. “Every good deed he did is shredded to pieces because he said something critical in a private moment.”
“Do you disagree with the Movement? Surely, you’re not that much of an asshole…”
“I never said I disagreed with it, but you have to admit, there’s something a little different here. He didn’t coerce the woman into having sex. All he did was voice an opinion. Even the PCC wouldn’t have done what they did. Since when is voicing an opinion tantamount to being ostracized by society?”
“When it’s the wrong opinion,” Debra rebuts, with hostility.
“But according to whom? Is your opinion the wrong one if you go against the majority’s opinion? Isn’t that bandwagoning, believing it’s right just because everyone else does? Since when is society holier-than-thou? Just because we collectively act better than we are, doesn’t mean that individually we all haven’t made mistakes.”
“What about the HoloBook model? Why does her name have to get dragged down because of his transgression?”
“Yeah, I’m sure that the payment she got for her exclusive TV interview, selling the rights of the story for a movie, and her eventual book deal are really insignificant to her.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“This is a woman whose whole career, if you want to call it that, is based on attention and validation from other people. She’s getting it in spades because of this. I wouldn’t say she’s a victim here.”
“So, he’s the victim here?” Debra says, her voice louder and tone sharper. “Is that what you think?”
“Look, let’s just take a step back from this, and not examine it from the Movement perspective. We wanted to end a person’s career. We did it. Doesn’t it seem…convenient that we’re at a stage in society where one well-executed mudsling covers someone in dirt for the rest of their life?”
“No, it’s not convenient,” Debra responds, as she wipes away a tear. “It’s not convenient for anyone, especially not for the victims who’ve dealt with these issues for far too long. If you don’t want your career to end because you did a bad thing, don’t do bad things. It’s that simple.”
Nathan takes a long sip of his drink. “You and I both know it’s not that simple. You’re telling me that you can’t make a mistake your whole life? We’re all supposed to be Mother Teresa? That’s an unfair standard.”
“Then what’s a fair standard?”
“I don’t know—there has to be some middle ground here where if you do something wrong, you do your best to make amends. We make mistakes in life to learn from them. We can’t just say, ‘You fucked up, you’re done.’ Besides, let’s not forget what’s at the center of this whole issue—the dynamic between men and women. When women are critical of men, they’re labeled feminist heroes. When men are critical of women, they’re called misogynists and bullies.”
“Why do you keep blaming this on women?” This time, she can’t prevent the one tear from streaming down her cheek.
“I’m not blaming this on women. What I’m saying is, how come we can’t be critical in society? If someone’s critical of a black person or a Martian, isn’t it a judgment of the individual? In fact, isn’t it actually racist to accuse them of being racist, because that’s turning a pointed statement into a generalization?”
“I don’t know why I’m listening to a man’s opinion about this, much less a white man’s…”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
Debra stands up, throws some money down on the table for the bill, and looks at Nathan. “You said it yourself—no one gives a shit about what white men think anymore. Time’s up.” She walks away.
Nathan considers this statement. But if white men’s opinions don’t matter, isn’t that still oppression? This idea that people who are in power can’t have racist or sexist acts done against them is nonsense! Isn’t that hypocritical? His thoughts mean nothing. He lets out a guttural scream of frustration, but he looks out onto a world where he knows he isn’t heard anymore.
Thursday night, early December. We sat huddled around a sticky table, crouching on high stools, and drinking overpriced pints at the Golden Lion Pub on Bishop Street. I’d arrived about a half hour earlier with Tristian Lafleur and Mike Greely, two guys I’d known since my undergraduate in the English and History specialization. During our masters, I’d split for history, while they went onto into English, but we still did our best to meet up once a week, shoot the shit, and find an excuse to delay our research for another day or two.
The bar was swimming that night, even more so for a Thursday. Wasn’t hard to see why. The semester was winding down, and folks were peeling off from the university like a steady stream, disappearing off to wherever they had family. Plenty of professors, the kind that were mostly divorced or considering it, sat around the bar, slamming Heinekens and gossiping about who sold out for tenure and whose recent publications were the worst. Fellow grad students stood on the back patio, huddled around heat lamps, smoking cigarettes and bitching about grading, while undergrads filled every corner, laughing, flirting, and moaning over deadlines. The one thing we all had in common is that while we were in here, the university and all its demands and expectations was out there, half a block down the street. For one grubby Thursday night, this was freedom, incarnated as five-dollar shots, offensively faux-Irish cocktails, and a messy buffet table of too many chips and not enough salsa.
“Get a load of that.” It was Mike, motioning towards a table by the fireplace. “Prof. Bourdieu’s sitting with Kelly.”
I glanced over, spotting the prof and his grad student huddled in front of a chimney replete with stockings and tinsel. Jacques Bourdieu had a reputation around the History department. In the late 70s, early 80s, he was a force to contend with in Early-Modern studies, his thesis being that the rise of German influence in the 1800s could be correlated to rising cultural Chauvinism. More recently, he’d become infamous for pursuing his graduate students, particularly women like Kelly. She was driven, talented, and most important of all, blond and 5'11”. Word around the department was that she had a history of dating older men, including her previous supervisor at MUN.
“Think he’s gonna score?”
I sized them up from our table. She sat upright, was shaking out her long golden hair. She was someone’s imagination of Venus come down to earth. He slouched, had his top two buttons undone. He waved his arms as he spoke, his voice booming and proudly half in the bag.
“Nah. He’ll blow it,” I said.
“How you figure that?” asked Mike. “Too old for her?”
“Nah. He’ll make a move. It’ll suck. Things will go poorly, and in four weeks’ time we’ll learn she has a new supervisor.”
Mike chuckled, unconvinced. Bourdieu had been one of his favourite profs during our undergrad. Tristian, on the other hand, nodded in agreement.
“Poor bastard thinks he’s still got game.”
“He’s got more game than either of you lazy bastards,” Mike said.
“Fuck off,” I replied. “When was the last time you got laid?”
“Two weeks ago.”
“That girl from Early Modern Drama?”
“No, that went to shit,” Mike frowned. “This was just some girl I met at Hurley’s around closing time.”
“Does she have a name?”
“You’re a fucking romantic.”
We all laughed and cheers, slamming back half our beers each in the process. After we caught sight of our waitress and ordered the next round, I turned the conversation to the topic that was really on all our minds.
“So, Mike, who’s this girl Evan’s bringing tonight?”
Mike chuckled. His younger brother Evan had been single for as long as any of us, but without the slew of one-night stands, sloppy hand jobs, and other nonsense that kept our libidos satisfied and our phones filled with single name contacts we wished were in our lives. Where the three of us have been the kind of worthless guys women loved to fuck and forget, and were mostly alright with it, Evan was different. He was an all-or-nothing kind of guy in everything he did. Always the first to have one-too-many, to be found singing along to Killers songs in the back seat of a cab. The kind who always told women he loved them before he liked them, who thought about moving in before they’d even screwed. His mind kept thinking of big romantic gestures. Expensive hotels near Niagara. Sightseeing at old monasteries in the townships. Which cities looked the best in fall. Hell, he was the kind of guy who started thinking about marriage the moment he found himself crushing on a classmate.
It hadn't exactly been working out for him.
“He hasn't gotten laid in what,” I asked, “four years?”
“If ever,” muttered added Tristian.
“Bullshit,” I said. “What about that girl from Korea? Or that other one from Rimouski wasn't he seeing”
“Seeing is the right word, because that's about all he got up to as far as I know.”
I shook my head, disbelieving. I turned to Mike for a second opinion. He winced.
“Story of my brother's life. Like most guys out there, half his exploits are creative elaborations.”
“And the other half?”
He flicked his fingers into the air. “You tell me.”
“Fuck man.” I fell back in my chair. It's not as if any of us at the table had been lotharios in our teens but being a virgin in your mid-20s? That had to be hell on Evan’s self-esteem. I mean hell, there we were, talking like his virginity was some kind of urban legend. Shows how much we were programmed. Fuck. At least, if he was bringing a date along tonight that could only mean good things. And maybe, just maybe, that he was learning to tone down all his over-the-top romantic nonsense.
I sat up. “Well, you know what this means? We gotta do whatever we can for him tonight. I'm talking all out wingmen here, boys.”
Tristian nodded, while Mike looked unconvinced.
“Yeah, well, there's not much of a window. He told me she's leaving tomorrow, flying back to St-John's.”
“For how long?”
He shrugged. “A month? A year? Forever? The fuck do I know?” He looked us over, raising a finger and suddenly getting very serious. “So, if either of you yahoos fuck it up, or even think about poaching, I'll fucking slam you. My brother needs this.”
Seeing Mike that way, I couldn’t help but laugh. He was a big guy, with four inches and easily fifty pounds on either Tristian or me, but with his bushy red beard and crystal blue eyes, he looked more like an angry Chris Kringle than a genuine threat. “I'd hate to miss that. Where the hell are they then?”
“Banging in the alley. I hope.”
The conversation died down as we sipped our beers and scoured the room, almost meditatively. None of us had any grand intentions or plans other than to get ourselves shit-faced and slurring and to take one for Evan if it came to that. The night might have gone that way, with the whole lot of us stumbling out to catch the last metro, or drinking the place to the ground, had Evan brought any other woman as his plus one.
It was ten minutes to eight, just as the last calls for Happy Hour were making the rounds through the crowd, when some jackass snuck a couple of Christmas songs into the playlist, causing the drunks to joyfully sink along. It was in the middle of a Paul McCartney’s Wonderful Christmas Time when I looked up and saw Evan pushing his way through the crowd. There was a light brushing of snow on his shoulders that tumbled like dandruff as he inched his way towards us with his date in tow. Underneath his open winter coat, I could see that he was wearing his usual dress to impress: pants two-sizes too large, big belt buckle, Anamanaguchi band shirt stretched over button up plaid, with an old grey blazer overtop.
He looked every bit the gamer nerd he tried his best to be.
She was something else entirely.
She moved with a confidence and ease that few lucky women in their late twenties ever found. Where Evan had to push and pat his way through the shoulders and backs of other patrons, the crowd thinned around her organically, like it was her birthright. She wasn’t slim but knew how to dress to her curves. She wore tight black jeans, white top, casual pumps, silver purse under her coat. Her hair was dark and asymmetrical, her lipstick so bright it could have stopped traffic. She looked every bit the kind of woman any heterosexual man wished was sitting next to them, the kind of woman most guys were too scared to approach nine times out of ten. She seemed every bit that woman who, where you finally found yourself turning your head to talk to her, knew she was out of your league, but maybe, just maybe, gave you a chance and blew your fucking world to pieces.
She didn't belong in a place like this, and from first impressions, with a guy like Evan. Not that any of that should have mattered. I was happy for Evan, wanted to be more than anything else in the world. But when I saw her walking up behind him, that nagging, awful feeling from deep inside my guts started to flare. It wasn’t that I was madly attracted to her. That, I could have lived with. It was what I did virtually every other time I’d seen a beautiful person in a public space, walking with someone by her side. Just take a breath and move on. But this time there was something else.
The problem was that I’d met her before.
It happened one night, about a month and a half earlier. I was at the History Department Halloween party. It was the first party I’d attended since entering the master’s program. Mike and Tristian had screwed off earlier, so I was on my own. I didn’t know anyone and didn’t feel very good about barging into the fun conversations all the undergraduates seemed to be having. The drinks started at five bucks and worked their way up somewhere past no thanks. Fortunately, I had a mickey of Smirnoff tucked into my back pocket, so I kept myself entertained and a happily sauced, until I bumped into her at the bar.
If it had been anywhere else, nothing would have happened. I would have seen her, and her me, and that would have been that. But on that night, our bartender was slow, too busy being distracted by a handful of suspiciously-young undergrads at the other end of the bar. I had been trying to get a beer to slow down my pace for the past five-ten minutes when this dark-haired woman in a Dracula cape and devil horns pulled up beside. I looked her once over, trying to figure out what her costume was.
She noticed me staring at her.
“Can I help you?” She asked, a little bit of snap in her voice.
“Just trying to figure you out. I see you got horns and a cape. Does that make you a poor man’s Christopher Lee?”
She scoffed. “Speak for yourself. What are you supposed to be?” She pointed at my getup. I was wearing torn jeans, and an old-plaid shirt, both of them drenched in fake blood.
“Hold on.” I put on the pair of plastic glasses I’d bought from the dollar store and smeared with fake blood earlier. “Now what? Who am I?”
“Close. Was going for Pearl Jam fan after a skateboarding accident.”
“That’s specific. Where’s your skateboard?”
I tossed up my hands. “Went up in flames. Shoulda seen the fucker. Real blaze.”
She rolled her eyes, took a step back and held out her cape. I saw that she was wearing black leggings, tank-top and boots underneath. “This was supposed to be a sexy devil, but what can you do when you’ve only got forty-five minutes to spare and no costume?”
“Coulda painted your face white and went as a sexy mime.”
She smirked. “Maybe next year.” She turned back to the bar and tried to get the bartender’s attention.
“It’s no use, he’s taken.” I pulled out my mickey of Vodka and set it on the bar between us. “However, I can make a mean Vodka and lime, but unfortunately I’m all out of lime.
She glanced at the bottle before reaching over the counter and plucking away a handful of lime wedges.
“Okay. Show me what you got.”
I pulled two shot glasses from the stack beyond the bar, squeezed a slice of lime into each before filling them to the brim with vodka. “I you like it cold, I'm sure I could sneak around and steal us some ice.”
She shook her head. “No point diluting a good thing.” We clicked our glasses and shot them back. When it was over, she gave me a sly look, and then the bottle.
“Got another one left in there?”
I lifted the bottle and gave it a shake. “More than enough.”
I smiled, and she smiled back.
“You're not from our department, are you?” I asked.
She batted her big eyelashes. “No. Psychology Master’s.”
“Shit. Almost done.”
“Two months and I'm out of here.”
I was in the process of pouring us another shot when the bartender spotted us and the illicit bottle.
“Hey man, you can't bring that in here!” He shouted, pointing a beefy hand in my direction.
Before I could respond, she flipped him the finger and nodded towards the teens at the end of the bar.
“Tell that to the jailbait at the end!”
We looked each other in the eye, laughed, and took our shots. I was about to ask her if she’d come with anyone when a group of older students, mostly in their late 20s, early 30s, waved at her from the entrance.
“Ah, duty calls,” she said as she stepped away from the bar, but not before giving my forearm a brush from her hand. “See you around the party.” She winked and disappeared.
That could have been it, but as the night carried on, we found a way of bumping into each other again and again. Another time at the bar, once while out for a cigarette, and another time in the stairwell leading to the washrooms out back. That last time, we didn't chitchat, didn't laugh and flirt the same as we'd done all night leading up until then. Instead, she pushed me against the brick wall.
“Hey.” It was all she said before she pressed her lips against mine. I kissed her back, reflexively, on pure instinct. There wasn't enough time for anything else, even as my hands found their way to her hips, she pulled back. “Gotta get going, but just wanted to say thanks for the shots.”
She winked again, before rushing away to catch up with her friends who were already in their jackets and making their way towards the exit.
“Anytime.” It was all I could muster as she strolled away with a smile on her face and then disappeared out that door.
It was only when she was gone that I realized I had never gotten her number. Never even asked for her name.
I felt a scream catch in my throat. I wanted to run after her, chase her down and get her details, but I found myself frozen to that spot. I couldn't move, didn't dare budge a muscle or blink an eye. I felt sure that if she wanted something more, she would have made an opening, not run away so quickly, stayed just a bit longer even after her friends had gone.
I spent the rest of the night feeling like an idiot and determined to get even more shitfaced. I finished the bottle, drank another two pints, got sick in my washroom later, and tossed and turned under my bedsheets all night, wrestling with the dream of her and the imagined curves of her body.
“Gentlemen!” Evan spoke, trying his best to sound magnanimous. “We have arrived.”
She came up beside him, and gave the table a vague, noncommitted smile. She seemed to be bobbing along to Paul McCartney, her head and hips swaying gently from side to side. Evan's hand found its way to her lower back, and he just stood there beside her, grinning like a contestant at an award show about to receive a prize.
“So, Evan,” Tristian cleared his throat and gave both him and his date an equally nonchalant look. “Who’s your friend?”
“Oh right!” He snapped to attention, sweat suddenly breaking out on his forehead. “This is Pardis.”
Tristian put out his hand and introduced himself, and then Mike did the same. When it came to me, I wasn’t sure how to act, so I decided to play it as cool as I could.
I put out my hand and she took it, turning briefly in my direction, expecting just another a name and face she'd forget by the end of the night, and when she let go of my hand and started sitting down, I thought for a split-second, that's all it was going to be. But then she did a sly double-take, smooth and almost imperceptible, her eyes flashing back towards mine, recognition flaring up behind each dark iris. For a brief moment she was caught off-guard. She suddenly seemed younger, vulnerable, her self-assurance peeled back just a layer. It was like spying something deep inside of her, something secret, something precious. Here she was, in the real and human. The dream had only been the time I'd spent wondering about her since.
I smiled, trying not to laugh. “Pleased to meet you.”
And then just like that, all her layers came back, and sitting before me was the same gorgeous, aggressively confident woman I had met back at Halloween. Only now, with a name.
She smiled back. “Enchanté.
My gaze might have lingered a little longer than expected, because the next thing I knew, Tristian was joking and nudging me with his elbow.
“Whoa now, I saw her first.”
I rolled my eyes.
Mike turned to his brother. “You two need a drink.”
“That I do.” He slapped the table. “What's everyone having? First round on me.”
“More like the fourth by this point,” I corrected, suddenly realizing that the room around me had become foggier in the past half-hour. I’d have to start taking it slowly.
He shrugged. “Guess we've got some catching up to do.” He laughed, and she smiled along. Our waitress came by and everyone put in an order for another round. Evan got himself a rum and coke, while she went for a red wine.
I looked over to her. “Hitting the house wine already? Pretty brave.”
She gave me a sly grin. “Figured I’d see where the night takes us.”
I chuckled and took a sip, realizing, but without intending, that I was already flirting with her. Evan didn’t seem to notice, or care. He sat by her side, practically beaming, proud to have returned with a catch such as her. I sipped my beer and reminded myself to play it cool.
“So how did you meet?” Tristian asked.
“Oh, that's kinda funny.” He turned to her. “Do you want to tell the story? No, I'll do it.” He cleared his throat and leaned in. “Well, turns out we have a mutual friend - Justin, you guys remember him?” We all nodded. “Well, his sister was a having a party at Olde Orchard the other week, and we happened to bump into each other there. As the night went on, I bought her a drink, she paid me back the compliment, and yeah, here we are.”
I kept my eyes on her as he spoke, watching her reaction. She smiled along and nodded but didn’t seem particularly invested in the story. Neither was I for that matter.
It was then that I noticed Mike giving me a strange look. I was about to call him out when Tristian slapped the table.
“Okay, next question,” Tristian asked, “how's the sex?”
Evan opened his mouth, held it there, looked embarrassed. I leaned in, hoping to catch her reaction.
She shrugged demurely. “Mind blowing.”
When the next round arrived, our waitress hung around the table.
“My shift's ending pretty soon,” she said. “Mind if I clear you up now?”
“Sure.” We paid what we owed to that point, knowing we'd reached the point in the night where table service was ending, and we'd have to start fighting for rounds at the bar with all the other commoners. So much for running up the tab.
Mike and Tristian were in the middle of an argument about which Roman emperor threw the wildest parties, when I leaned over to talk to Evan. Before I could open my mouth, Pardis pushed herself up from her seat.
“Gonna go hit the ladies.”
Evan looked up at her like a wishful puppy. She smiled, kissed him on the cheek and went to look for the washroom.
I locked up, watched her go from the corner of my eye.
“What were you gonna say Nick?” Evan asked after he was gone.
I shrugged. “I forgot.”
Seeing her kiss his cheek did something to me. For the first time in my life, I felt a pang of jealousy towards Evan. There he was, with the woman I never had. A woman so ravishingly attractive that I’d spent days questioning whether I had actually lived through that encounter with her, or if I had merely been looking over the shoulder of someone else’s life.
I took a long sip from my drink and tried to calm down. I knew what I was feeling but didn’t like where things were going. Maybe getting blackout drunk would make things easier.
Evan noticed me slamming back my beer. “Slow down champ! Leave some for the rest of us.”
“Sorry.” I set my glass down. I’d all but polished it off in the minutes since I ordered it. I burped, loudly, and watched as Mike continued to give me a death glare.
“What's up?” I asked. “See something you like?”
“How do you two know each other?” He pointed to her empty seat.
He frowned, apparently unconvinced. I turned to Evan and patted him on the shoulder.
“I’m happy for you bud,” I said. “So, fucking happy.”
“Thanks man,” Evan beamed. “You have no idea what this means to me.”
I nodded, smiled, and then stood up, deciding it was a good time to hit the men's room before getting on with my binge. As I weaved my way through the crowded floor and around bustling tables surrounded by undergrads at least as drunk as I was, I wondered if I was gonna be sick. It wasn’t entirely the alcohol that was getting to me. It was something more, something obvious, that I didn’t want to think about right then.
The washrooms flanked either side of a narrow hallway leading out back to the rear patio. Someone at this establish had the cute idea of labelling each door in Gaelic. The men's room on the right had a single word emblazoned on the door “fer” while the women's read “boireannach.” I wondered how many Jackasses had stepped into the wrong room by accident.
I was about to dip into the men's when I noticed Pardis standing in the hall, halfway down a line of pouting, impatient women waiting for their restroom to free up. Most of the women in the line were taller, and younger than her. Some were texting, others chatting amongst themselves. Pardis, on the other hand, simply leaned against the wall with her arms folded, a scowl across her lips. She seemed to stare absently at the tacky Christmas decorations adorning the wall.
I put my hand against the door to men’s, intending to step inside, but found my attention drawn over to her. I glanced back at the table. Mike and Tristian were laughing as Evan appeared to be telling them a very animated story.
When I glanced back to her, she was looking in my direction. A smile spread across her lips. Without further thought, I stepped away from the men’s room and walked over to her side of the hallway.
“Hey stranger,” I said, leaning against the opposite wall as a busboy rushed past us carrying a tray filled with empty pint glasses. She sighed with relief, grinning.
“Hey. Fancy seeing you here.”
She was giving me an opening. I thought of all kinds of things I would have liked to say. Something witty, something clever. But I settled on something mundane, something disappointing.
“How are things with Evan?”
It wasn’t the question she was expecting. Her face went blank a split-second, before looking detached.
I nodded. No disagreement there.
She sighed. “I mean. I was looking for something nice. And I found it.
“Listen,” she said, suddenly looking upset. “I wasn't expecting to see you again.”
“Neither was I.”
I almost laughed. “No. Are you?”
She shrugged and leaned closer so that no one else would hear us. “Only that things ended so early that night.”
I felt my chest constrict. I glanced around, making sure none of the guys were anywhere within earshot. “Unless I’m mistaken, you’re the one who kissed and ran.”
She looked guilty. “I had a boyfriend at the time, a real one.”
“Oh.” I had considered that possibility on and off in the two months since having seen her last. “You normally kiss strangers at a bar when you have a boyfriend?”
“Sometimes?” She shrugged. “You ever been in a relationship with someone that was doomed but you didn’t want to admit it.”
I nodded. I’d been on both ends of that equation several times before.
“Well this was one of those doomed relationships that went on for several months too long. When we broke up, I’d already felt like I’d been single for months.”
“Yeah, well, the sex was good, so it was hard to give him up entirely.” She chuckled. “But how about you? What’s your story?”
“Me? I guess I’m just in one of those places where I’m seeing two or three people on and off, and not hoping for much out of any of it.”
“Sounds like fun.”
“Real blast,” I said, dryly.
The line moved ahead a couple of spaces. Pardis was almost at the door. I vaguely recalled that I had to pee, but was more than willing to hold it in.
“Can I be honest?”
“Sure,” she said. “Why not?”
“Do you think we should—”
Someone from the back of the line spoke up. “Hey! You guys in line or what?”
Pardis peered around my shoulder towards the offender. “We're having a conversation here.”
“Just kiss him already!” She shouted back.
“Grow up!” I chimed in, shouting back. “I'm not her boyfriend!”
“Then get out of the line for fuck's sake!” I heard a couple of consenting grumbles from the rest of the lineup.
Not wanting to start a riot, I jerked my thumb towards the men's room.
“Good talk.” I stepped back and was about to enter the washroom when a final thought crossed my mind. “Happy for you and Evan, by the way.”
“You don’t have to be. He's not my boyfriend either.” She chuckled and then disappeared into the women's room.
When I returned from the men's room, only Mike sat at our table.
“Where's everyone else?” I asked.
“Smoking, or pissing, I guess,” he said.
“Cool.” I took a sip from my pint, and noticed he was still giving me that funny look. Something was clearly on his mind. “Okay, what is it?”
“You sure you two don't know each other?” he asked, rather suggestively.
I thought about telling him the truth but was started to feel annoyed by the question. “Course not, why?”
I heard laughing, looked up and saw Evan and Tristian returning from the patio.
“It's just that I saw you and Pardis having one heck of a conversation down there.” He pointed towards the washrooms.
“You know how it is. We started joking about the signs, and then it got carried away.”
“Ah. Sure.” He scoffed, convinced I was lying. I shook my head, realizing I didn’t give a shit what he thought. It wouldn’t change anything about the time Pardis and I shared back at Halloween, nor the fact that we both remembered it clearly.
Tristian and Evan took their seats and dove back into some conversation about Nazi Germany. Pardis came back from the women’s room a little later.
“You get them mixed up?” Tristian asked.
“You know, it's funny,” Evan said. “I had that same problem the first time I came here. Signs messed me up. Only I chose the wrong door. Ended up hiding in a stall in the lady’s room for twenty minutes, waiting for an opening to sneak back out.”
“As you should,” she said. “We're a proud species, us women. If there's one thing we don't enjoy, it's trespassers.”
We laughed, and for a time, all was good. Drinks flowed, conversations followed. We shit-talked the Renaissance, bitched about America, and complained about the sad state of Canadian politics. We debated how much Neanderthal DNA was present in humanity, whether our ancestors killed them off along with all the wooly mammoths, saber tooth tigers, and giant sloths, or whether it was God or simply the weather that had done the wet work for us. To the latter, Evan was a firm believer in our ancestors’ guilt.
“Never underestimate our fellow man's ability to annihilate everything he touches.” He pronounced it like it was some great wisdom for the ages. Lifting his pint, “To our maniacal ancestors, for making us the apex animals we are.”
I might have been inclined to argue the opposite, that our ancestors were actually little more than big, dumb, and very horny animals, and that it was nature that took its course, but I was having a hard time keeping track of what everybody was talking about. It wasn’t just that I’d passed the reasonable five pints limit I’d set for myself, it’s that my eyes kept finding a way over to Pardis, and hers towards mine.
I found the sober part of my mind pulling me back, questioning what I thought was happening. There was no way we were being as obviously flirty with one another as I felt we were. She was being the good date, listening to his stories and joking along, and I was being the good wingman, being charming and fun, and never stealing the spotlight. And yet, something very real was going on across the table between the two of us, some secret conversation spoken entirely through sights and gestures.
It was honestly freaking me out. If I wasn’t so drunk, I might have been able to think rationally about it, but at that moment all I could do was feel the power of her gaze and the burning feeling that was slowly igniting in my chest.
When our glasses were getting low, I volunteered to hit the bar for us. Evan jumped up as soon as I did and promised to help me carry our glasses back. The bar itself was almost three rows thick with people lining up, hoping to place an order. When we finally wedged our way towards the counter, I noticed how Evan's gaze kept falling towards the polished surface, like someone in its reflection had caught his interest. When I looked down, all I could see across the warped wood was a twisted reflection. I couldn’t even make out my face from all the shapes and blurs.
“Can I ask you something?” It was Evan.
“Sure. Fire away.” I tried to look attentive. I was suddenly feeling vulnerable myself, wondering why he had decided to follow me to the bar away from all the others. Maybe he had caught me glancing at Pardis. If he called me out, I realized I’d have to be honest with him. I wasn’t looking for any more subterfuge that night.
“You think she's outta my league?”
“No, your mom. Of course, Pardis.”
I hesitated, then knew there was only one answer. “Hell, yeah she is.”
Evan laughed. “Same here.” He loosened up and glanced back to the table. “I mean, my fucking God. I don't even know how this happened. Part of me - a large part - doesn't believe it. Can't believe it. Like I walked into some fucking dream. Or that I’m living some other guy’s life.”
I knew that exact feeling. I’d been struggling with it every day since that night back in October. “I've heard of worse dreams.”
“I kinda wish it wasn't real,” he said, ignoring my comment. “You know? She's so hot it's scary.”
“You’re a lucky man.”
“Not lucky enough.”
“Because she’s leaving tomorrow?”
“Yeah. That's why this night is so important.”
The thought of her disappearing from all our lives for some indiscriminate amount of time filled my guts with dread, but I kept it down.
Evan turned to me, looking more serious than I’d ever seen him. It was weird seeing him like that. There was almost a desperation about him, something animal that he was trying to keep under control.
“I’ve honestly gone all out for her. We met up after lunch, walked around the Old. I even took her to Terasse Sur l'Auberge in the Old Port, for fuck’s sake.”
“I can think of worse ways to spend a day.”
“That’s because you’ve got no imagination.”
“Sure.” The first of our pints arrived. I lifted mine from the counter and took a sip. There was something that had been troubling me all night since they arrived. I had to ask. “Listen, have the two of you, well, you know?”
He shot me the side eyes, blushing. “Sure. Kinda.”
“Okay, we haven't had the chance for everything yet.”
“Fuck man,” I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. “What the hell are you doing here?” It came out more slurred than intended.
“Her plane leaves in a couple hours. There wasn't gonna be time for her to meet you guys and then, yeah you know.”
I shook my head. If I had her by my side, I sure as hell wouldn't be spending the night at the Golden Lion with us usual jackasses. “You're fucking crazy.”
“No, I've got a time table, okay. It’s all planned out. St-John's isn't far. I'll visit her for New Years. She doesn't know it yet, but I already bought my ticket.”
I stared at him blankly. Evan was going all out again, and Pardis didn’t seem like the woman to be into that sort of thing. In fact, she didn’t even seem to be all that into Evan to begin with.
As we grabbed our drinks and returned to the table, I noticed she had her eyes on me the whole time.
When we reached the table, Tristian had changed seats, causing there to be an empty chair next to Pardis.
“Guess I'll see what life is like on the other side.” Part of me was glad to be sitting next to her, but it also meant no more illicit glances. And as the conversations resumed, she seemed to clam up. She never turned her head or shared one word. So much for whatever ideas had been going through my mind earlier. I was in the middle of deciding whether I should finish my drink or just hit the road when I felt a hand press softly against my thigh.
I didn't need to look under the table to know whose it was. I caught her grinning like a thief from the corner of my eye as she feigned paying attention to the conversation Tristian was having with Evan about Jack Kerouac and whether he was a sellout or the real deal.
At first, I didn't know how to react. I was excited, flushed from the beer and her touch, but also terrified. Evan would turn over at any moment and notice that something was up, that someone's hand wasn't where it belonged. But Evan, as much as he kept turning his head to check up on her, didn’t bother looking any further than her eyes. Feeling reckless, I slowly moved my hand over the back of hers, feeling her skin, her knuckles, and her fingers. I slid my hand further under the table and onto her thigh, just as she had done with mine.
Having our hands on each other’s thighs felt as close to bliss as I could imagine while still having our clothes on. It was unreal. I felt like either my chest would explode, or I would lose whatever humanity remained in me and pull her lips to mine right then and there. Either one of those might have happened had I not noticed Mike glaring at us from across the table. His eyes were fixed not on mine, but on the angle of our arms they crisscrossed out of sight.
I promptly pulled back and cleared my throat. She did the same, only slower and looking more casual. She raised her hand to stifle a yawn, but not before dropping it back down to give my thigh one last squeeze.
“Gonna hit the lady’s again.” She stood up and went without another word, both Evan and I watching her go. Noticing how she captured my attention, Evan gave me a friendly punch on the shoulder.
“Dude, cool it.” He laughed, and I laughed along. But then I gave it a full ten seconds before I stood up too, ostensibly to go to the men's room.
I found her hanging in the hallway between the washrooms, but she wasn't waiting in line. This time she leaned on the men’s side with her arms crossed, brow down, giving me the kind of look a teacher might give a disobedient child.
“Hey,” I said, no longer sure where things were going. “Listen, I—”
“No.” She grabbed me by the shirt and pulled me closer.
“So that thing with Evan--” I began, trying to keep my hands off her, to stay civilized, but the animal inside was waking up. I couldn't stop from running my fingers along the contours of her hip and stomach.
“Shh.” She bit her lip, closed her eyes, swayed a little to the music. She was drunk, but not nearly as drunk as I was. My throat went dry. I felt I had one last chance not to throw it all away, one last chance to remain a good guy and stick to the plan.
“He's totally crazy about you, almost in a weird way.”
She pulled me close, pressing her lips against mine.
Everything that had happened at the table leading up until then had been subtle, but the time for subtlety was now over.
She thrust me into the women's room, pushing past angry shouts from the women in the queue. Inside, there were five or young six women crowded around the mirror, some touching up their makeup, others playing with their hair and taking selfies. One of them glanced in our direction just long enough to give me the stink eye.
“Get out of here!” someone shouted. Another turned around, her phone held up and taking snaps of us.
“Fuck off,” Pardis snapped, knocking the camera out of her face and pulling me towards the stalls. I fell against her, my chest pressing against hers. We tried every door, but they were all occupied.
“Dammit,” she said, pushing me back towards the way we came. We stumbled into the hallway, our hands all over each other. Not wasting a moment, I pulled her with me into the men's room right across from us. Four men lined the wall, emptying their bladders into frothing urinals. There were two stalls, both closed. I was about to say fuck it and push her onto the counter when a door swung opened and a man stepped out towards the sink. He gave us each a single, uninterested glance as we pushed past him and locked the door behind us.
Inside the stall, she pushed me to the seat. I didn't have the chance to check if the man before had wiped it clean. I didn't care. There she was, looking down at me, her eyes magnetic and ravishing, her hair loose and wild, and her lips so red they might as well have been covered in blood.
She came down on top of me, sitting astride my legs, pressing her mouth against mine. Our hands moved frantically over each other’s body, writhing like wild animals. She had my lip between her teeth, gently pulling, her hands in my hair. I couldn't get enough of her body, her saliva. I had one hand cupped firmly around the contours of her ass, the other up the back of her shirt, toying with the idea of loosening her bra and going all the way in our little barroom gutter. I felt myself getting harder as her hands worked with the buttons on my shirt.
Suddenly, there was a loud knock on the stall door.
We froze, like two thieves caught in the middle of the night.
“Nick?” Mike’s voice. “You in there?”
Shit. Fuck. He must have seen us from back at the table. I had no idea what to say. With her sitting on my lap, her lipstick all over my neck, there wasn't any way of talking around this. I tried to assuage how much anger was in his voice but came up with a blank.
It suddenly felt like I was living through some other man’s unfortunate choices, watching over my own shoulder as the first of the consequences came rushing to meet me.
I glanced at Pardis. She was gritting her teeth and shaking her head. I would have preferred to hide there in her arms, to suddenly become small and insignificant and wait for Mike, but he wasn't going to do that.
Not having many options, I reached around her and opened the door.
Mike stood on the other side, turning slowly in my direction. At first, I thought he seemed concerned, maybe even curious, but when he spotted Pardis standing in the stall beside me his face went red.
“I fucking knew it.” He grabbed my shirt with both hands, lifted me off the seat and slammed me against the washroom wall. I heard my shirt rip and saw a button fly past the corner of my eye. “What the fuck man!?”
I tried to think of something to do or say, but I’ll I could see was Mike’s irrationally angry face glowing a few inches from mine, ready to tear me a new asshole then and there.
A big man over by the urinals quickly zipped up came our way. His black polo, crew cut, and earpiece marked him as a bouncer. He put a hand on Mike’s shoulder, and spoke softly, but firmly.
“Stop,” he said.
“Fuck off,” Mike growled. “Can’t you see I’m busy?”
Thee bouncer put one hand on Mike’s shoulder and squeezed.
“Gentleman, it sounds like we have a problem.”
For a moment, I thought Mike was going to spin around and clock the man in the face. He was clearly seeing red and though we’d been friends for years I had no idea what he was capable of after he was juiced up with six pint and a whole lot of rage.
Not wanting to start a bloodbath, I spoke up.
“it’s cool. Just a disagreement over how we're splitting the bill.”
The bouncer took one look at my shirt, then at Mike, then back to me. Mike was still raging, but I could see the tension slowly draining from his face.
“Is it settled, or do we have to take this outside?” He seemed more tired than anything else.
Mike tightened his grip on my shirt. The bouncer yawned.
Mike tossed up his arms. “Fuck it. I’m out of here.” The bouncer stepped away, letting Mike push his way out into the hall. He was in the process of following Mike out when he noticed Pardis in the stall behind me.
“Ladies room is on the other side.” He jerked his thumb over his shoulder and then disappeared after Mike. After that, we were alone, save for a man scrambling towards the urinals. I stepped out from the stall and put a hand on the counter to catch my breath. Looking into the mirror I noticed that my face and neck were covered with her lipstick.
“Yeah,” she said. “Your friend's a maniac.”
“It is what it is.” I realized I couldn’t blame him, not when I was the one at fault. I looked back at her and tried to smile. She still seemed ravishing, but I was feeling guiltier than I had in years. It wasn’t a good mix of emotions. “What did we get ourselves into?”
She leaned in and wiped at my face with a wad of toilet paper, trying uselessly to remove the smears of lipstick that covered me like warpaint.
“Nothing we didn't want to happen.”
I stood up and looked over my clothes. My shirt was torn at the shoulder, and I'd lost a button. “What do we tell Evan?”
She shot me a questioning look from the corner of her eyes, like I had just said something insane. “Nothing.”
I surveyed my face once again in the mirror, feeling fortunate that Mike hadn’t slugged me. I dabbed at my cheeks with some soap and water and tried to work away the smears.
“You head back first, then I'll follow,” she said, pointing to the door.
“Right.” I stepped back, letting a man in a hoody waddle past us towards the stalls. I was about to step back into the hallway when I felt her fingers wrap themselves around my arm. She moved up behind me and spoke in my ear.
“I lied about my flight to Evan. It's not at 3:00, it's at 8:00.”
She moved closer, her breasts pressing against my back, her lips touching my ear. She reached down and gave my ass a good squeeze. “The night’s not over yet.”
I had made up my mind earlier in the evening, only it had taken this long to realize it. From the moment I saw her again, I knew I had to have her, and her me. Everything in between was simple discussion, negotiation. I wanted her like I had never wanted anyone else. I wanted her even as it threatened to destroy me, to split me down the middle, tear me into two different men. One, who cared for Evan, his feelings, and whatever friendship we had. The other, pure id. Unhinged and animal, possessive and selfish. It was only a matter of time before I’d leave one half behind and move on with the other.
As I walked back, I realized then that the crowds were thinning out. It was half-past ten, meaning anyone with an ounce of good sense or a class in the morning had already paid up and been on their way. A couple of people around me were putting on their jackets, and a gust of cold air struck my back as someone opened the door to the patio.
When I reached the table, Mike was nowhere to be seen – his jacket having disappeared with him. Tristian looked up, gave me a suspicious glance, but said nothing. I turned in time to catch Evan making his way back from the bar carrying a tray lined with shot glasses. He reached the table at the same time I did.
He gave me a puzzled look.
“What the hell happened to you?” He saw that his brother’s jacket was missing. “And where’s Mike?”
“Men’s room got a little rowdy. He’s probably outside for a smoke.”
“Ah.” He nodded, as if that explained everything, apparently too drunk to care if it didn't. “Anyone seen Pardis?” He looked around as he set the shots in front of us.
“Probably still in the washroom,” replied Tristian with a deadpan face.
Evan laughed. “That's women for you.” He looked up. From the way his face started glowing, I didn't need to look behind me to know that she was making her way back to the table.
“There you are,” he said, and pulled her close for a quick kiss. She turned her head, and he pecked her on the cheek, looking only mildly disappointed. The two of them took their previous seat together across the table, with two shots lined up in front of each of us. We played along. It was all formality at this point. As we lifted the first shots in the air, I caught her looking back at me. Her face was blank, her lips pursed, but behind those bright eyes I could feel her burning for me the way I was now burning for her.
Tristian wiped his lips and pulled out his phone. “Well, it might be time to hit the dusty trail.”
Evan looked surprised. He pulled out his own phone at squinted at the display. “What? It's still early,” he protested, but Tristian was already standing up.
“Whoa, come on, hang around a bit longer,” Evan put up his hands, noticing that the mood had changed but not understanding why.
“Maybe he's right.” Pardis stood up too. “I had a great time, but I really should get going. Gotta get my things and then hit the airport.”
“Hold on.” Evan was on his feet by her side. “I'll drive you. It's cool.”
She shook her head, not looking him in the eye. “You don't have a car. And you're drunk.”
“Then we'll Uber.”
“There's no need.”
“Money doesn't matter babe, only you do. Only what we've got between us.”
Tristian finished his beer and pushed himself away from the table. He put a hand on Evan’s shoulder. “Come on Evan, let's get the hell out of here.”
Evan pushed him back, his eyes still on Pardis. “Don't let me hold you up.”
Tristian smirked, shot me a glance. “Catch you guys later.”
“What the hell is this?” Evan glanced around as we picked up and put on our jackets. Not having any other choice, he took his coat and tried to grab Pardis by the arm. “Come on, let's go.”
She shook him off and made her way towards the exit. I kept pace as best I could. Someone must have fucked to playlist at the Lion, because as soon as I reached the door I realized it wasn’t Christmas music but Tubeway Army’s “Are ‘Friends’ electric?” playing.
Outside, the sidewalks out front were covered in a light layer of snow, intercut with footprints and tire marks where a bicycle had recently cut past. A couple of patrons were idling about, chatting loudly and smoking. I spotted Tristian standing by the street, his coat unzipped and flapping with the breeze. Pardis wasn’t too far off, cellphone in hand. Evan hurried down the steps after her.
“Wait up!” He shouted, before losing his footing and tumbled down three steps on his ass, hand still on the handrail. Pardis made half a motion to go to him, but he was already back on his feet, wiping himself off. “I might have said or done something in there that you weren’t cool with, and I accept that. I’m a little tipsy, I made some mistakes.” I could tell by his voice that he was getting frantic. He might have had a few shots too many, but he clearly knew something was amiss, that something had changed.
I came down the steps after them. I would have liked to stand by Pardis, but Evan was taking up as much space around her as he could.
“Look, I'll get us the ride right now.” He had his phone in his hand, smiling. “We'll go to your place, get your shit, and I'll lug it all the way to the gate for you.”
“I said it’s okay.” She tried not to make eye contact with him.
“I’ll use my Uber, it’ll save you the money. See, I’m hailing one right now. We’ll make your flight, no problem.”
“There's no point. “
“Let’s go Evan, it’s okay,” said Tristian, cutting in. Evan didn’t pay him any attention.
Pardis was trying to avert her gaze, but Evan was being persistent.
“Why not?” He asked her. “Just give me a reason, that’s all.”
“Because my flight’s not until 8:00!”
Evan reeled back, trying to make sense of the new information. He suddenly lit up. “That's great news!”
She shook her head. She started shaking, looking like she’d explode any moment. “You're not coming back to my place, and you're not seeing me off at the airport.”
“Because I want to fuck Nick, alright?!” She shouted, her air of superiority and self-assuredness suddenly giving away a little. Tristian cringed. Evan’s face went blank. Even the men conversing by the edge of the stairwell went silent, realizing something was happening nearby. “You’re sweet, you’re kind, but I’m just not that into you, okay?”
Evan moved his lips but couldn’t make them form a sound. He spun backwards towards me, seeking confirmation that it wasn’t so. I tried my best to give him a neutral expression, one that showed sympathy, but also one that could let him down easy. I frowned, lifted my shoulders and nodded.
Pardis came over by my side, squeezing up against me in the cold. Tristian took Evan by the shoulder and tried to bring him away. Evan went along with it, still looking shocked and horrified, but then at the last minute he spun around.
“You son of a bitch!” Like his brother, his face turned beet red with the rage. He flailed his arms and his fist was in the air and moving towards my face before he’d even looked to see where it would land.
I didn’t dare move out of the way. I fully accepted whatever was coming my way.
His fist grazed my cheek, and for a split second I figured that would be the end of it. But it kept travelling, and he struck Pardis in the eye.
“Ah!” She cried, flinching backwards, hands going protectively to her face.
Seeing her like that, hurt and vulnerable, caused something in me to slip. I grabbed Evan by the collar and shoved him backwards as hard as I could. I watched as his shoes fought for grip on the snowy sidewalk and he fell backwards, landing on his back.
“The fuck!?” I snarled, lurching over him.
Tristian pushed me back. “Jesus Christ!” He shouted and proceeded to help Evan onto his knees.
Evan was moaning, and for a second I thought he might be really hurt, but then he twisted over and proceeded to vomit right there into the street.
I turned to check on Pardis. She was trying to slowly blink her eye.
“You okay?” I put my hands to the side of her head, trying to see if she was cut or only bruised.
“Ow,” she said, turning her head as her Uber – our ride – pulled up by the curb.
The driver rolled down the passenger side window. “Pardis?”
She nodded and moved towards the curb, around Evan and Tristian who was patting him on the back. I was about to follow her when I noticed Mike coming back down the street with a coffee in hand. He kept walking until he was about a dozen feet from us. Once there, he stopped and stared at me. His face, utterly sunken, given me a look like I was some modern-day Judas.
“Nick, come on.” Pardis was squatting by the back door, ready to get in, waiting for me. I gave her one look, and then turned back to the guys.
And then it happened, the moment I’d been anticipating all night.
I split in two.
All it took was an instant. I was no longer standing on the sidewalk between Pardis and the guys. I was no longer whatever man I had been all evening up until then, but a shadow, a possibility, hovering between the two men I had the chance of becoming from that moment forward. I found myself looking over my own blurry shoulder.
Everything was still, frozen in the cold night, my spirit watching two movies play out before me. In one, I saw, I watched myself climb into the back of the Uber with Pardis, the two of us ferrying off to her apartment where we’d spend the next several hours fucking. Through the other, I stood by the curb, watching her get in the car and go away alone, disappointed and still desiring, but ultimately no different than where I’d been after Halloween.
I tried to swallow, to breath, but found I could do neither. Time still stood still, the world waiting as I made up my mind. Stuck between fulfillment and regret, solitude and companionship, unable to discern which person I’d rather become.
I shook out of it, turned to Pardis. She seemed confused, anticipating, wanting nothing more than to get on the road.
Back to the guys. The betrayal in their eyes already haunting me.
So Nick, What’ll it be?
I followed Pardis into the car and watched as the city passed us by, the snow blurring out everything as we disappeared.
Tristian and I met periodically for a beer in the years that followed. Never more than the two of us, and rarely more than two beers. We would catch up, shoot the shit and claim that we still knew each other, but the truth is that we never did. I saw Evan once, at a conference in Toronto. He dropped out of the program at Concordia and re-entered a year later at McGill.
I never saw Mike again. Nor Pardis, for that matter.
As the two of us stood together before she passed through security, I talked about maybe flying out sometime or putting her up the next time she was in Montreal. She smiled and said okay. She kissed me on the lips, looked back once and waved. By the time she was around the corner and out of sight, I knew that was it. She was gone, disappeared the same as she’d done the first time, only now there weren’t going to be any more chance encounters lining themselves up. No unexpected meetings at the bar with friends, no passing each other in the streets. No more nights entangled in each other’s arms and legs.
I knew what I had given up and lost, what I had traded away, and what I had gotten in return. She really was the dream and I the unfortunate dreamer, the one who slept but never to fully wake.
COLIN THORNTON will attempt to control his penchant for hyperbole and stick to the facts for the next 50 words. He’s been writing short stories and audio dramas for six years,. His work has appeared in the Globe and Mail (x5), in Pulp Literature, Blank Spaces, Galleon, the Dime Store Review and The Jewish Literary Journal. Chapel Street Editions will be printing a collection of his short stories in 2022.
THE FUTURE OF THE PAST
A young boy on a bicycle rode through quiet city streets, wheels humming on the asphalt as he swerved from one curb to the other zigzagging down the avenue pulling rolled newspapers out of his carrier tossing them with uncanny accuracy at his customers’ front doors. The sky was still dark, but fading with the rising glow. Above silhouetted trees he could just make out a sliver of moon and the bone white spark of a dim star.
He turned off Silvan onto Rowan Avenue spooking a pair of raccoons who scurried into the bushes. He flung a paper at the Simons’ house.
Aaron Simon woke to the sound of a gentle thump on his front door followed by a sharp soprano yap from PeeWee, the family pooch. Nest by nest, birds began to peep, chirp and twitter. Softly in the distance, the faint hum of commuter traffic that droned night and day, even on weekends.
Beside him, Jocelyn snuggled deeply into her pillow, breathing softly. He slid out of bed, into his robe and slippers, eased the bedroom door shut and tiptoed downstairs.
Cayley was playing video games in the living room when he arrived in the kitchen. “Daddy!” she called out. PeeWee let loose a flurry of barks and skittered across the linoleum spinning in circles around Daddy’s ankles. Aaron raised a finger to his lips and pointed to the ceiling. Cayley nodded knowingly.
Aaron lowered his voice, “Who wants pancakes?”
Again, Aaron pointed to the ceiling this time raising an eyebrow to make sure Cayley understood.
“Mom’s day to sleep in,” she whispered.
While Aaron clattered around the kitchen making breakfast, his little girl reported all the essential schoolyard news: Mr. Barton hung her sunset painting on the bulletin board; Chitra lost a tooth; Kenny fell off his bike; Barney peed his pants.
“But that’s just boring stuff,” Cayley said, struggling unsuccessfully to suppress a smile. Aaron poured batter into the skillet and turned to give her his full attention.
“I got a gold star on my science project,” she declared. “It worked perfect. Gushed gooey all over the place just like a real volcano.”
“Well, we have a genius in the family.” Aaron leaned over the counter beckoning her closer, nose to nose. “Pucker up sweetnik.”
“Fish kiss. Fish kiss,” she squealed, crossing her eyes, sucking in her cheeks and pursing her lips into a small O.
“Save one for me,” said Jocelyn, coming down the stairs tying the belt on her bathrobe.
Aaron said, “I thought you were sleeping.”
“Right,” she said, in a tone which also said, “as if”.
“Mr. Barton has a girlfriend,” Cayley announced. “I saw them kissing after school.”
“No...” Cayley paused to consider what she’d seen. “Different.”
After a leisurely pancake breakfast brimming with spirited chatter, fresh fruit and streams of maple syrup, Aaron went to the front door to retrieve the weekend paper. “Now, if you girls will excuse me for a few minutes.”
“We’ll clean up,” Jocelyn said. “Then we can all go to the park.”
Aaron took his coffee into the sunroom, sat in his favourite chair and flipped through the paper. He skipped from photo to photo skimming the headlines and cutlines of the week’s parade of events: Another war; promises of peace; business; sports; the editorial cartoon; a quick look at the obits — and Aaron’s parade screeched to a full stop, his eyes fixed on a photo of a woman he hadn’t seen for thirty years.
The copy was perfunctory: Lynn Hampton ... short battle with cancer ... bereaved parents ... donations to ... But it was the photo that held him. He ran his fingertips over the dots of ink like they were Braille, delicately brushing them through her hair and across her cheek like he used to do so many years ago.
A flood of memories followed: cheap beer nights at the Grad House; walks along the railroad tracks; studying in her apartment; the cookies he made with salt instead of sugar; watching her get dressed the morning after their first night together; long talks about the future; and plans — so many plans.
He was jolted out of his reverie when Jocelyn reached over the top of the newspaper to push down the page. His focus widened from Lynn’s small, black and white photo to his wife looking down at him quizzically.
“What are you reading?” she asked. “We’ve been calling you.”
“The park, remember?”
“I have to go to this,” he said, gently folding the paper, laying it on a side table.
Seconds after stepping into the funeral parlour, Aaron already regretted his decision. He felt like an interloper, woefully underdressed for the room, a rumpled professor lost on Saville Row. All the Bentleys, Jags and Mercedes in the parking lot should have been a clue, but he wasn’t thinking about cars at the time, he was working up the nerve to step through the door. He ignored the curious side-glances and went directly to the viewing room, mercifully empty.
The wall of wreaths and bouquets surrounding the open casket was overwhelming. Just like Lynn, he thought, all these flowers cut from life the moment they began to bloom.
He edged closer, gingerly peering into the casket. Knowing how many years had passed and anticipating the ravages of her illness hadn’t prepared him for the shock of seeing Lynn. He forced himself to look beyond the sunken cheeks, grey hair and the permanent stillness to see the girl he once knew.
Her lavender blouse made him smile. Her favourite colour. A string of pearls and matching earrings — another favourite. He remembered lying in bed one morning, propped up on a pillow, watching her reflected in the vanity mirror as she dressed. Naked except for pearl earrings. Voluptuous and unabashed, like a woman in a Matisse painting.
His breath caught in his throat as he struggled to hold back tears.
Lynn’s hands were folded on her blouse, a rosary wound through her fingers. Yes, he’d forgotten, a church-goer — their only argument. It seemed important at the time. When he saw her empty ring finger he began to weep. Where did you go, Lynn? Where did you go?
Aaron searched his pockets for a handkerchief, gave up, and wiped his tears on the back of his hand. A couple entered the room. He backed away to give them privacy and himself time to regain his composure.
He scanned the main hall looking for the parents, eventually focusing on a man in a wheelchair and thin woman at the end of a long line of mourners.
While standing in the reception line, Aaron listened to snippets of conversation floating through the room: “so young ... in a better place ... hard on the Hamptons ... I’d never heard of Machado/Joseph Disorder ... so much to live for ... parents shouldn’t outlive their children ... ” All of a sudden he was facing Lynn’s mother.
“My deepest condolences, Mrs. Hampton,” he said. She smiled faintly. “I knew Lynn, years ago at university. We were close. Somehow we lost touch. I always hoped to see her again. Just... well, not like this.”
“I’m sorry, I didn’t catch your name.”
“Simon. Aaron Simon.”
A flash of shock flickered across her eyes and just as quickly disappeared. “Lynn had so many friends. I don’t recall her mentioning you.”
Pain pierced Aaron leaving him dizzy and breathless. Mrs. Hampton locked her eyes on Aaron, cold and sharp, unperturbed by any slight she may have given.
“You’re not related to the Simons in Nassau Beach,” she asked. “Commodore at the marina with that darling little yacht?”
“Must be another Simon.”
The man in the wheelchair interrupted. “Someone here to see you, Ricki.”
Like flicking a switch, Mrs. Hampton’s icy mask blossomed into a broad grin from a fashion magazine. She air-kissed the cheeks of someone more important and, Aaron noted, much better dressed than he. Looking back over her shoulder she said, “Thanks for coming, Ian.”
“Be sure to sign the guest book on your way out.”
Dismissed. Aaron couldn’t remember ever being treated so rudely. Perhaps she’d been sedated and wasn’t thinking clearly. On his way to the exit he paused by the guest book, picked up the pen and was poised to write something, but put it back on the table and slipped out the backdoor.
Riding home in the limousine after the reception, Mr. Hampton asked his wife, “Did I hear the name Aaron Simon tonight?”
Erica Hampton seethed: “What god-forsaken rock did he crawl out from under.”
“Blood pressure dear. You know what the doc––”
“As if he hasn’t done enough damage for one lifetime. I won’t let him do that to us again. Merciful Jesus give me strength.” With a quick glance at the upholstered ceiling, she crossed herself. “I won’t.”
“Calm yourself, Ricki, please. That was thirty years ago. Let it go.”
PeeWee’s ears perked up at the familiar sound of Aaron’s car — how it sputtered and rattled before wheezing to a stop, the squeaky door that closed with a hollow thud. He was waiting when Aaron opened the door, spinning around, tap dancing on the tiles, yapping.
“Shhh PeeWee. It’s me.”
PeeWee raced ahead as Aaron climbed the stairs to say goodnight to Cayley. Sound asleep, sprawled across the bed, Aaron covered his daughter with the blanket and sat down beside her.
“Daddy?” she mumbled, eyes still closed.
“Go back to sleep, Sweetnik.”
He watched her eyelids flutter and listened as her breathing dropped into a slow, steady rhythm before cupping his hand on her cheek and kissing her forehead.
“My gold star baby,” he whispered.
PeeWee leapt onto the bed and curled up in the crook of her knees. Aaron scratched him behind one ear and slipped out, closing the door behind him.
He crossed the hall into the bathroom and looked closely at the man reflected in the mirror over the sink. Hair thinning and more than a little frosty at the temples, creases on his forehead, bags under red-rimmed eyes and wattles! He’d never noticed before, but he was starting to look fifty; must be the strain of seeing Lynn in a coffin. He blinked away tears. Normally, Aaron hated maudlin sentimentality, but that night he couldn’t help himself. Scenes of Lynn keep coming back to him. Thoughts he’d put away long ago had surfaced again fresh and vivid. He splashed water on his face, brushed his teeth and turned out the light.
The bedroom light was on, Jocelyn still reading in bed. He slipped in beside her and she put her book aside.
“So, who’s Lynn Hammond?”
“It’s a long story.”
“I’m not going anywhere,” she said, sliding down into her pillow, turning to face him.
And so he told her about a chapter in his life that she’d never heard before. Lynn was his first love. It was love at first sight, back in his university days. They were inseparable. Shared everything — classes, clothing, friends, parties, dreams. They were going to get married, they talked about it often...
“Then one day she disappeared. I looked everywhere. Called our friends, called the student union, the police. The registrar’s office said she’d left the university with no forwarding address. I called every Hampton in the Toronto phone book — hundreds of them — nothing.”
Jocelyn snuggled in closer, put her hand on his sex stroking him gently.
“Bottom line: She dumped me. Get over it. Move on. New chapter. But the hurt didn’t go away. I couldn’t get used to it, so I turned it off. Buried myself in work. Drank too much in my sophomore year, but got over that nonsense. Graduated. Got a teaching position. Wrote papers, marked papers, published, lectured. The university was my cocoon, my sanctuary.” He paused to reflect on times gone by. “This was twenty years before we met, twenty-five. I never saw Lynn again until tonight.”
“I remember the first time I saw you,” Jocelyn said. “My freshman year, first day in class, young and naive.”
“You were up front in that ratty leather jacket. Aaron Simon written on the blackboard. I fell in love the moment I saw you. I felt like I already knew you, that we’d always be together.”
“I love you, Jocelyn.”
They kissed. And kissed again, longer and slower. She pushed her leg across him, sliding on top, guiding him inside her. She leaned down to nuzzle his cheek. “And I love you,” she whispered, “Professor.”
Jeff Stubbs finished his coffee, wiped his mouth on the back of his hand and tossed the empty cup down among the clutter of empty fast food bags littering his front car seat. Once tall and muscular, his physique had begun to sag. Buttons on his shirt strained to remain closed, his belt uncomfortably tight.
He pressed the security button at the gate and waited until a thin, metallic-sounding voice said, “Can I help you?”
He smiled into the camera lens. “Jeff Stubbs to see Mrs. Hampton.”
“You’re expected, sir.”
With a clunk and a soft hum, the wrought-iron gate swung open.
Stubbs drove slowly down a long leafy lane, catching glimpses of the vast lawn and gardens between mature trees. He parked in front of a pillared mansion. Twin stone staircases rose above the courtyard, curving upwards to a large portico. He pressed the doorbell and turned to gaze over the balustrade at the rolling green vista, thinking that he should have brought his golf clubs.
The door opened. If the butler was unaccustomed to greeting visitors as rumpled and disheveled as this, it didn’t show.
“Follow me, sir.”
Stubbs had only seen houses like this in movies. “I bet Queen Elizabeth would live like this,” he said, “if she had money.” His quip was ignored.
Stubbs was ushered into a large, elegantly appointed parlour. Daylight poured through the billowing curtains filling the room with the scent of lilac, casting long rectangles of light on the carpet. He lumbered towards an elderly matron perched on a pink velvet settee. “Mrs. Hampton,” he said, looking directly into her eyes, “Jeff Stubbs.”
She allowed him to shake her hand and gestured to an empty chair. “I have a problem, Mr. Stubbs. I’m told you can solve it.”
“Who’d I owe a beer to?”
“That doesn’t matter, Mr. Stubbs. What does matter is a man called Aaron Simon.” She waved a boney finger at him. “Write that down: Aaron Simon.”
Stubbs flipped open a notepad and clicked his ballpoint. “Irish or Jewish?” he asked, smirking at his own joke. The pun was either too subtle or too insignificant to be acknowledged. Since charm had failed him he decided to forsake his usual casual affability, nix the jokes and stick to business.
“Double-A R-O-N,” she said.
He wrote it down.
“He’s a school teacher somewhere in the city. I believe Mr. Simon plans to extort money from our family.”
“What makes you think so?”
She turned away from Stubbs and stared through the curtains into the garden.
Stubbs waited until her silence became uncomfortable. “Must be something. A rumour, a phone call, a note?”
She wove her fingers together and propped them under her chin.
“I’m working for you, Mrs. Hampton.”
Another minute passed.
“Intuition,” she said. “He showed up at my daughter’s funeral all weepy and gushy about his good-old-days with Lynn.” She looked like she’d just bitten into a lemon. “God I hate sensitive men, spineless wimps the lot of them. Pray you’re not one of those.” And after a quick scan, said, “No, I think not.”
Stubbs stuck to business: “Intuition?”
“We are a wealthy family, Mr. Stubbs, I’m sure you’ve noticed.” Stubbs nodded. “Now that Lynn is gone, everyone she’s ever known, dated or worked with is suddenly a long lost friend looking for a handout. Aaron Simon is the first up to the trough.”
“How can I help?”
“Start by finding out everything you can about this... person. We’ll proceed from there.”
Stubbs closed his notepad, tucked it into his jacket pocket.
“Our family has a reputation, Mr. Stubbs, a public profile. I would prefer that this matter be kept quiet. Can you do that?”
A quick double tap on the door and the butler entered the room. “Telephone for you, Mrs. Hampton. Miss McHugh’s office.”
Irritated by the interruption, she waved Stubbs out of the room and took the call.
Dawn McHugh was concerned about one particular detail in Lynn’s will. Minus ten percent to her favourite charities, Lynn left her half of the Hampton Family Trust to her child. “What child?”
“We’ve been through this, Dawn. I told you, Lynn never married.”
“A child she gave up for adoption?”
Mrs. Hampton repeated, “There is no child. Lynn was ill, not thinking clearly, the Trust remains with the family.”
“No Dawn. If you open the door on this... incident, every low-life reporter in the country will drag our name through the mud. I will not allow our family to be turned into a circus sideshow.”
“I understand how you feel—”
“—but as Lynn’s lawyer, I am required by law to implement her last wishes.”
“I forbid you to pursue this. That’s the end of it.” And hung up before Dawn could respond.
When Mrs. Hampton emerged from her sitting room Stubbs was waiting in the foyer. “You still here?”
“I didn’t know we was done.”
“Done until you come back with what I asked for.”
The butler opened the door, waited for Stubbs to leave, closing it with a gentle but firm click behind him.
On her way back to her parlour, she asked the butler to tell Mr. Hampton that she’d like to see him.
“He’s lunching at the club, ma’am. Left fifteen minutes ago.”
The Granite Club was an exclusive oasis of wealth and privilege — dark oak paneling, stained glass windows, private lounges, original Group of Seven paintings on the walls and a six-figure annual membership fee.
Sitting on the south terrace overlooking the ravine, an old man in a wheelchair was having lunch with Dawn McHugh. Mr. Hampton pushed his plate aside and said, “Lynn’s oncologist phoned.” Silence hung between them while she laid down her utensils and dabbed her lips with a crisp linen napkin. Nothing more was said until the waiter had cleared the table.
Mr. Hampton explained that Dr. Winnock found a discrepancy in Lynn’s file, putting air-quotes around the word discrepancy. “In one report, she had a child. In the other, she was childless. The cancer that killed Lynn, Machado/Joseph Disorder, is hereditary. If there is a child, that child must be found and warned.”
Dawn shook her head. “Erica was crystal clear when I phoned her: Back off!”
“I’m eighty-two years old, Dawn. I can’t walk, can’t breathe, can’t sleep at night, can’t remember what I did yesterday, and my sweet little girl — young, beautiful, intelligent, everything to live for... What is the point, Dawn? What’s the bloody point?”
Across the terrace, Dawn noticed a dapper white-haired gent pull a chair out for his wife, waiting until she was comfortably seated before easing her chair closer to the table.
“Relationships,” she said, turning back to Mr. Hampton, “friends, family. It sounds trite and cliché, I know. The point, to answer your question, is how well we care for one another. All we have is each other.”
Mr. Hampton reached across the table, gently squeezing her hand. “How long have we known each other?”
“Your parents were great friends,” he said with a wistful smile. They raised their glasses, silently toasting good times gone.
Mr. Hampton put down his glass and looked intently at Dawn, eyes glistening. “This is my family trust,” he said. “Ricki married into it. She guards it fiercely, but I control it. Letting her whisk Lynn off like she did is the biggest regret of my life. I will not fail her again.”
Three explosive sneezes in a row shook an avalanche of grit loose from the basement rafters. The fourth rattled the cobwebs and sent all the spiders scurrying for shelter.
Only two things could send Aaron down into his dungeon of a basement: Nuclear war, or a quest to find a family relic too good to throw away and not important enough to keep upstairs. He was hunting for that relic.
A bare bulb dangled from a naked wire cutting hard-edged shadows into the sprawling jumble of old toys, tools, bicycles, unused wedding gifts, cross-country skis and books — boxes and boxes of books he knew he’d never read again, but kept, just in case. How, he wondered, can three people accumulate so much crap?
An hour later, he’d found it: a faded, red velveteen box, the size of a shoe-box, with ornate hinges and a matching gold clasp.
Upstairs in the kitchen, Aaron sponged years of dust and grime off the box and took it into the dining room where Jocelyn and Cayley were waiting.
Blotched with mould, faded and dull, the box laid on the table in front of Aaron. He hesitated, fiddled with the latch, ran his finger tips around the edges feeling the nap.
Jocelyn and Cayley shot each other quick side-glances and turned their attention back to Aaron, waiting for him to open it. Jocelyn gently placed her hand on her husband’s back between his shoulders. Cayley watched. And waited. Aaron took a deep breath, flipped the latch and opened the box.
Inside, half a dozen strips of black and white photographs from a 4-for-$1 shopping mall photo booth looked back at him: Lynn and Aaron mugging for the camera, making goofy faces, faking kisses, nibbling earlobes...
He examined each shot on the first few strips, fanned through the rest and passed them to Jocelyn. She gave one to Cayley.
“You have hair,” Cayley blurted.
Aaron grinned sheepishly.
“Is that Mommy?”
While Aaron thumbed through the contents of the time capsule, Jocelyn explained to Cayley that Daddy had another life before they came along.
“You’re sure you don’t mind?” Aaron asked Jocelyn.
“Not at all.”
One at a time, Aaron removed memories from the box: two ticket stubs for a Bob Dylan concert at Maple Leaf Gardens; a pair of keys on a fob; a book of matches from a forgotten hotel & restaurant; a roll of peppermint lifesavers; and a thumb-sized dinosaur. When Aaron rolled the tiny T-Rex across the table sparks shot out of its snarling jaws. Cayley eagerly took Rex.
Aaron removed two more black and white photos. One of Lynn as a baby, standing in her crib, hands on the rungs like a prisoner in a jail cell. The second, a candid shot of her playing French horn in the university orchestra, relaxed and focused, unaware of the camera.
He was surprised to find a chapbook of poems: Awakenings by Aaron Simon. He opened it, read a few lines, laughed to himself shaking his head side to side. A photo dropped out from between the pages, a polaroid of Lynn behind the wheel of a convertible. Pale skin, high cheekbones, auburn hair piled high rimmed with sunlight, her head tilted slightly away from the camera, self-conscious about being watched. He passed the photo to Jocelyn.
“What was she like?” she asked.
“Details Aaron, details.”
“Kind of shy,” he added. “No, not shy, reserved. Cool on the outside, warm inside. And well-dressed, always. Always elegant. I never saw her wear blue jeans, not once. And religious. Oy! Mass every Sunday.”
While Aaron talked, Jocelyn picked up a postcard of a sandy beach, palm trees and turquoise water. On the back, a block of neat handwriting, small letters in precise parallel lines and four Xs beside Lynn’s signature.
“Doesn’t seem very nice to me,” she says, “dumping you like that.” She put the card back on the pile and looked into the small leather case Aaron had just handed her. It contained a matching gold pen and pencil set. The barrel of the pen was engraved: Tell us a story, Aaron. On the pencil: Love Lynn.
Nearing the bottom of the box, he removed an eight inch length of hair, Lynn’s ponytail, neatly clipped and carefully bundled. He raised it to his nose, closed his eyes and inhaled.
“Do you still think of her?” Jocelyn asked.
“Not until yesterday.”
Next morning, parked half a block down from 207A Rowan Avenue, Jeff Stubbs began his surveillance by washing down his breakfast takeout with a big slug of coffee. He knew next to nothing about Aaron Simon: Name, address, that he taught somewhere in the city. And the fact that Mrs. Hampton suspected him of sinister motives.
The sun was low, shadows long. Men and women hustled down the sidewalk heading for the streetcar stop two blocks away. A yellow school bus stuttered up the street, stopping every few houses to pick up kids. The door at 207A opened. A young girl in orange leggings skipped down the stairs followed by a balding, middle-aged man wearing a leather backpack.
Stubbs downed the last of his coffee and picked up his camera. “Well hello, Double A, R.O.N.”
He watched the young girl join three others waiting for the school bus, discretely snapping a few photos of Aaron and his daughter. A hug, a kiss, one last wave and the bus pulled away, drove past Stubbs and down the street.
Aaron checked his watch, turned to the house and called out something Stubbs couldn’t quite hear — sounded like Joss or Joff — Jock? He jotted the time down in his notebook — 8:10am.
Aaron checked his watch again. He’s late for something, Stubbs figured. A young woman emerged from between the houses pushing two bicycles. How young, he couldn’t say, somewhere around thirty, difficult to say, but much younger than Aaron, no question.
Stubbs slouched down in the driver’s seat as they pedalled by. He watched them in his mirror for a few seconds before pulling a hasty U-turn, grinding his undercarriage on the curb. This is futile he thought; a bulldog chasing a greyhound. He cursed under his breath and hit the gas.
Within minutes Stubbs had broken every traffic law on the books in a frantic pursuit of two cyclists riding through the narrow back streets of downtown Toronto. He lost them at Bloor Street. His eyes darted past the crosswalk, the stop sign, and across six lanes of traffic, speed scanning the crowds of pedestrians, hunting for the object of his chase. Behind him, a driver honked, and honked again, then wheeled around Stubbs’s car pausing long enough to give him the finger before hanging a left onto Bloor. And that’s where Stubbs caught sight of his target — turning off Bloor heading south down Philosophers Walk. He remembered that lane from his cop days; a narrow, tree-lined path that ran from the museum into the heart of the university campus. A hangout for students during the day, junkies and hookers at night.
Stubbs tore around the corner and down University Boulevard, snapping his head to his right at every gap between buildings hoping to spot one or the other on their bikes. Trapped in three lanes of traffic, he drove into the Queen’s Park roundabout all the way around the circle and back the way he came. At the last second he cut across three lanes — more horns, more fingers, more curses, and rounded the loop again until — how lucky can a guy get? He found them! Standing on a corner waiting for the light to change. Again, Stubbs saw Aaron look at his watch. Definitely late for something. They kissed, waved goodbye, she went south and he disappeared between two squat concrete office buildings.
It would cost him, but he had no other choice. He parked illegally and chased Aaron through the campus on foot.
Stubbs was wheezing heavily, nursing a cramp in his side, when he spotted Aaron locking his bike in a rack in front of a three-storey red-brick building. Albert College etched in the stone archway over the stairs. A safe distance behind, Stubbs followed Aaron through the heavy wooden doors and listened to the sound of footsteps climbing a staircase, a key in a lock, a squeaky hinge, and a door with a window that rattled when the door closed. Stubbs climbed a few stairs, close enough to read the sign on the pebbled glass window: Aaron G. Simon, Ph.D. Classics. Classic what?
Halfway down the stairs he heard a doorknob turn and that same squeaky hinge. Aaron was behind him, coming down the stairs. With nowhere else to go, Stubbs turned to the receptionist in the lobby: “Have you got one of those, um, menus?” She looked at him quizzically. “You know,” he stammered, “shows all the courses and stuff.”
“A syllabus,” Aaron said as he rounded the corner, strode past Stubbs, across the lobby and through a door marked Keith B. Quinn, ME, MBA, Ph.D, Dean
A stern, anorexic looking woman sat behind a desk staring into a computer monitor when Aaron walked through the door. “He’s running a few minutes late,” she said. “Shouldn’t be long,” and turned back to her computer screen.
Aaron closed his eyes, took a moment to lower his blood pressure. She continued typing.
Aaron was pacing the anteroom when the Dean’s office door opened. Felica Almada emerged, barely acknowledging Aaron on her way past. Something about her hasty exit piqued his curiosity, but before he could pursue the thought Quinn waved him into the office.
Quinn apologized for the delay and announced that he had another meeting in fifteen minutes. Aaron was eager to skip the superficial chitchat and get down to business. “Have you made a decision yet?” Quinn shook his head no. Aaron continued, “I’m not trying to push you out or anything, I just think—”
“Stop right there. You’re Dean material, Aaron, I know that. But we do have a protocol” — the change in Quinn’s tone aroused Aaron’s suspicion — “I can’t go to the Board with one name. That would reek of favouritism. To be a bona fide search at minimum there have to be two candidates. Transparency and all that. You know what Boards are like.”
Last week, Aaron was the leading candidate to fill the vacancy when Dean Quinn retired at the end of the semester. Foolishly, Aaron let his imagination run away with him only to hit a pothole in the road. Now it was a race. “Can I ask who?”
Casually, Quinn said, “Felicia.”
Quinn nodded and began sliding files into a leather briefcase.
“Not much of a contest,” Aaron said. “More potential, than experience—”
“Then you’ve nothing to worry about.” Quinn snapped the latches closed on his case. “Sorry Aaron, I’ve really got to go. You have a brilliant future here. I’m with you. Be patient.”
Back in his office, Aaron wondered what could possibly qualify Felicia Almada as Dean of a children’s day care let alone the leading liberal arts college in Canada? She knew she was in the running, that would explain her frosty greeting when they crossed paths outside the Dean’s office. When did Quinn tell her? Aaron was eminently qualified for the job: He’d been published in prestigious journals; students liked him; his lectures drew respectable crowds; he had administrative skills — perfect for the job. And what did she have?
One thing Aaron knew; fussing wouldn’t change anything. He took a moment to collect himself, looked out the window to calm his nerves, and there, sitting on a bench under the tree out front of the college was the same man who was looking for the syllabus, having a smoke. Strange fellow Aaron thought, and then gathered his papers for his first class.
Dawn McHugh and Sister Marie walked together down a long hallway, their figures back-lit by the glare of early morning sunlight bouncing off polished floors. The echoing footsteps reminded Dawn of when she was a student in a Catholic girls’ school. It was just like this: tall rooms, embossed tin ceiling tiles, dark wooden wainscoting, painted concrete floors with a glossy wax patina. Spartan, functional, orderly, and for reasons she couldn’t explain, comforting.
Sister Marie was in charge of St. Jerome’s Orphanage. She pushed open a large, wooden door into a cavernous room. Dawn tilted her head back astounded by the scores of boxes stacked on row after row of metal storage racks.
She turned to Dawn, “You know, I can never remember if these are filed alphabetically or chronologically.”
Dawn looked horrified.
“Relax,” said Sister Marie, pulling out a drawer of index cards, “I’m a better librarian than comedienne.”
Five dusty hours later, Dawn had Lynn Hampton’s file in her hands. She opened it cautiously, as though peeking into a private diary.
The file contained Lynn’s admittance papers printed on St. Jerome letterhead: contracts signed by Lynn, witnessed by Erica Hampton; a photo of Lynn; time of birth, weight, blood type, gender/female; a tiny ink imprint of a baby’s foot; and background research on the adoptive family — all dated 1983. There were half a dozen letters from the new parents to the nuns at St. Jerome’s writing about life with their sweet little girl. And photos — birthdays, Christmas morning, splashing in the bathtub, baking cookies with Mom. At the back of the file was a yellowed newspaper clipping, brittle with age, dated January 1991. The headline read: “Crash Kills Young Parents.”
Handing the clipping to Sister Marie, Dawn said, “She’s been orphaned twice.”
Dawn watched her read, saw her eyes sadden. A minute later, she placed the clipping gently back into the file folder. Looking at Dawn, she said, “You should know that finding this file is the only part of the process that will go quickly. Reconciliation is a delicate matter.”
Dawn was examining the tiny footprint imprinted on the birth registry — tiny and perfect.
Sister Marie spoke as she gathered the material together, “I’ll send a memo to Father Julian, he’s a stickler for paperwork. After I answer his questions, he always has questions, he’ll write the Bishop, essentially passing on your request. In due time, his staff will consider it. It’s procedure. To my knowledge they’ve never rejected a request. In turn, the Bishop will rubber stamp their recommendation and authorize releasing the personal information, by letter to Father Julian. Either he or I will contact you.”
The Sister shook her head. “Difficult to say exactly.”
The sun was sinking behind the trees when Dawn pulled out of the parking lot at St. Jerome’s. It had been a long, emotionally exhausting day and she still had a two-hour drive back to the city.
All afternoon, she’d been filled with nostalgia for the days when she and Lynn went to school together.
It started while she was walking down the hall with Sister Marie. Each echoing footfall conjured another memory. Things she hadn’t thought about in years bubbled to the surface, vividly detailed: birthday parties, swimming lessons, sleep overs, backyard barbecues, those ugly school uniforms, Sister Jacinthe’s painfully embarrassing sex-ed classes, the Christmas her family spent in Acapulco with the Hamptons.
If Dawn dropped dead tomorrow, and the highlights of her life flashed before her eyes, Christmas in Acapulco would be in that movie. Two 16-year-old Catholic girls off their leashes for the first time — drinking Margaritas, smoking marijuana with brown-skinned boys on the beach, sunbathing by the pool at the Hilton, mariachi bands, cliff divers, the night they gave all their pesos to an old woman begging on the street.
Their parents never suspected, of course. Dawn’s mom might have enjoyed a puff or two on the beach with the boys, but Lynn’s mother was prude to the core, a category-five control freak. For her, the only evidence of civilization in Mexico was a Catholic church around every corner.
Dawn and Lynn were the best of friends back then, as tight as two plied strands of wool. Then, virtually overnight, their paths split. Lynn went to U of T, Dawn to McGill in Montreal. Instead of seeing each other daily, it became once or twice a year. A crack became a chasm, weeks turned into years, and a friendship that was once strong and tight, unraveled.
There were boyfriends, summer jobs, articling, marriage, divorce, a second marriage — worse than the first. Next thing she knew, twenty years had passed and Lynn was on the phone wanting to get together for lunch. Over coffee and dessert, she asked Dawn to be the executor for her estate. Six months later Lynn was dead.
Mr. Hampton insisted that Dawn call him the minute she left the Orphanage. Any news, good or bad, he wanted to know.
On the plus side, she’d found the child’s file. What worried Dawn was managing his expectations, not getting his hopes up. Finding the girl would take time — weeks, months, possibly years. And Mr. Hampton didn’t have years. Instinctively she knew that corners would have to be cut. Not ideal, but doable.
She called Mr. Hampton on her car phone.
He answered first ring. After giving her account of the day, she said, “Don’t worry, Richard, I always have a Plan B. And Plan B has a Plan C.”
For the next two weeks Stubbs strip mined Aaron’s private life looking for anything unorthodox or inappropriate that might verify Mrs. Hampton’s suspicions. From Aaron’s morning bowl of cornflakes to his midnight walk around the block with the dog, Stubbs watched and kept notes.
He photocopied clippings from the U of T student newspaper — a photo of the Dramatic Society in 1983, another from a particularly raucous Halloween party in one of the frat houses, 1983; a student profile in ’84; and a literary review about Aaron’s first book and a successful book launch in ’92.
He found the book in the university library: Rhetorical Devices of Romantic Poets. Tried to read it, didn’t understand a word. Masquerading as a headhunter for a recruitment agency, he pursued his inquiries with dozens of students at campus pubs and coffee shops — nothing even vaguely suspicious.
By Stubbs’s account, Aaron Simon’s schedule was as tight as a dentist’s: Up at 6am; Cayley on the school bus at 7:30, bike to Albert College 8am; office work until 9:45; classes from 10 to 3; home to meet Cayley after school; an hour in the park with the kid and the family pooch; make dinner; Jocelyn home at 5:30; clean up; family time; and two hours of class work before bed. Stubbs photographed Aaron through the window, his face illuminated by the glow from the computer screen. Two exceptions: Wednesday afternoons from 4 to 5 while Aaron played squash, his wife took the girl to piano lessons. And once a week Aaron joined Jocelyn for lunch at her campus bookstore, The Attic Owl.
One morning, after the Simons had left for the day, Stubbs picked the lock on their back door and spent the morning snooping through Aaron’s home office photographing everything on his cell phone. He flipped through his rolodex, his day timer, dug into his garbage pail, checked the internet history on his computer looking for suspicious bookmarks. On a shelf beside a bust of someone named Joyce, Stubbs found a red velvet box. Inside, a bundle of someone’s hair, a clipped ponytail perhaps, a tiny plastic dinosaur, two concert tickets — no evidence of blackmail there. In two hours he’d found nothing incriminating. For a moment, he considered leaving a post-it note for Aaron suggesting he get a better watchdog, a friendly note Aaron might find a few months hence, signed, A Friend. A perfect prank, and he was tempted, but decided against it. Time to go. He slipped out the back door already planning his next move.
Several blanks in the Aaron Simon file had to be filled before Stubbs could report back to Mrs. Hampton, and that required specialized help from his nephew, Donny.
Donny was a budding computer nerd by the time he sauntered into kindergarten, a hard-core hacker before he was old enough to shave. His high school friends called him, Damage. His mom was the only person who insisted on calling him Donald.
How Damage financed his lifestyle was a mystery to Stubbs and he didn’t really want to know. That his 19-year-old nephew could pay cash for a brand new, 1500cc BMW touring bike while Uncle Jeff drove an eight-year old Chevy just proved the point: the kid was good. And right then, Stubbs needed some of that expertise.
Grunge music almost knocked Stubbs over when he opened the side door to the converted garage Damage used as an office.
“Yo! Uncle J.” Damage hollered over the din. He picked up one of a half dozen remotes cluttering his desk and dropped the music to a dull roar. With his other hand he passed Stubbs a smouldering joint, “Serious Thai-stick.”
Stubbs took the joint and dropped it into a glass of stale cola.
“I need your expertise,” Stubbs said. Damage exhaled a lungful of smoke. Stubbs held his breath and waved away the cloud. They dickered over the price, settling on one thousand dollars.
“So, who’s our victim?”
“Double-A R-O-N Simon.”
The thought that there were legions of hackers out there as good or better than Damage gave Stubbs chills. All the kid needed was a name, a few cross references, and the victim’s privacy ended. Horrifying to think about, but amazing to watch and in Stubbs’s business, a vital asset.
Within ten minutes Damage discovered that Aaron Simon’s U of T pay-cheque was on automatic deposit. A few keystrokes later his entire financial history unfolded — mortgage payments, line of credit, magazine subscriptions, dental bills, prescriptions, the size of his RSP, an education fund for the kid — everything.
Damage was unimpressed. “Neanderthals,” he said. “Like why not just lay out a fucking red carpet.”
“Gimme some history,” Stubbs told him. “As far back as you can go. Nobody can be this boring. He’s got a secret hiding somewhere.”
“Everybody has a secret, Uncle J.” Damage fired up his bong, inhaled a lungful of weed, “Except you and me of course.”
By 2am Damage had produced a 100-page full-colour profile of Aaron Simon’s life, including the photos Stubbs shot inside the house, at Albert College, and the daily romps through the park with the kid and the little mutt.
Stubbs reached into his jacket, pulled out his wallet and dropped a wad of cash on his nephew’s keyboard.
“You caved too soon, J-bird. I woulda done it for seven-fifty.”
“And I would have gone to fifteen hundred.”
Felicia Almada was in the midst of teaching a class when Aaron slipped into the lecture hall. Several students noticed the change in Felicia’s expression and turned to see who had caused the interruption. He settled down in one of the few empty seats in the back row. No way Felicia could avoid him any longer.
Aaron scanned the room — a full house. He was surprised and impressed, perhaps a tad jealous. It had been a while since his lectures drew standing-room-only crowds. Her material, however, was beyond old; no one taught Joseph Campbell anymore. But he realized that it wasn’t her material that held her students’ attention, it was her style. There was an easy flow to her delivery, as if she was having a conversation with each individual rather than reciting bullet points. Students were engaged. They asked questions and questioned her answers, tossing ideas back and forth like a game of mental ping-pong.
Soon enough the class ended, the room emptied. Felicia and Aaron were alone.
“Nice turnout,” he said, rising from his chair, slowly descending the stairs towards her. She accepted his compliment knowing there might not be another for a long time. Aaron took a seat in the front row. Felicia took another, leaving one empty seat between.
She said, “Do you want to start or should I?”
“I’m puzzled, Felicia. How can the Board possibly consider you as Quinn’s replacement? You have style, granted. Students seem to like you; kudos for that. But your publication record is microscopically thin which tells me you’re either a bad writer or irrelevant — strike one. No other universities have invited you as a guest lecturer or visiting prof — strike two. You’ve only been here two years. You haven’t even run a department and you think you’re ready to run the whole college? Being Dean requires a specific set of job skills and I just don’t see them on your CV — strike three. I don’t get it.”
“That’s because you don’t know me.”
“I’m the future of the College. You’re what, fifty, fifty-five? Consider that ageism if you must, but you’ve passed your best-before-date, Aaron.”
“So, that’s it, style supplants experience?”
“You want it straight? Fine, I’ll tell you. Middle-aged white guys like you have been running this university since the earth was still cooling. You’ve had your shot. Keith wants me because I’m fresh air.”
“Keith? Sounds a little cozy.”
Her gaze dropped to the floor, a brief aside but enough for Aaron to see colour rise to her cheeks. She raised her eyes back to his. He waited, stretching out the silence until it felt awkward. Finally, she said, “As long as we’re being so candid about it, professional courtesy and all, why you and not me?”
“In a word, experience. I know this college inside out. I’ve been here since you were learning your ABCs.”
“Loyalty is only a plus for dogs.”
He let the insult pass. “Point is, I have more experience in every area that matters: administration, public relations, fundraising. I’ve written four books, all of them still in print, published dozens of papers, guest lectures, an international reputation and an impeccable personal reputation.
“That’s not what Keith told me.”
“Really? You talk about me with the Dean? And when do you have these conversations?” He watched her closely, waiting for an answer. “You’re blushing again, Felicia.”
Abruptly, she rose from her chair, went to the lectern and began sliding papers into her case. The door banged open. A small group of chattering students came in. Felicia was relieved to have this conversation with Aaron interrupted, hopefully terminated. Expecting a different professor at the front of the class, one of the students asked if they were in the right room for Rhetoric 101. They were. She went to the white board and began erasing her Woman As Temptress notes.
“Really Felicia, if you want to be the harbinger of the future, give your students some new material.”
Cayley rolled the dice, moved her piece past Go, collected $200, passed the dice to her dad and waited. And waited. Waited far too long. “Dad!,” she pleaded, ”It’s your roll.” She solicited Jocelyn’s help, “Mom?”
“Sorry,” Aaron said. “Distracted. I saw that guy again, tonight, in the park.”
“What guy?” Cayley asked.
Jocelyn ended that conversation before it began. “Alright, bath time!”
Cayley groaned in protest. “Not fair, I was winning,” and stomped up the stairs.
Listening to the girls’ bouncy chatter and the muffled gurgle of water filling the tub calmed Aaron. He was home. Secure. His girls were safe. His family together. All was well on Rowan St. — except it wasn’t. Nothing he could see clearly, just a nagging feeling that things seemed to be going wonky lately and he didn’t know why.
He poured himself a soda, came back into the living room, sat on the couch. Always alert to the sound of the fridge door opening, PeeWee was soon on the couch beside him, staring expectantly. Aaron rubbed the dog’s ear gently. Felicia’s comment about dogs and loyalty came back to him. Something wrong in that scenario, too. And for the umpteenth time he tried to understand why Ms. Almada was in the running for a job she was manifestly unqualified for. A job that was his to lose. A job he’d been working towards for his entire tenure at Albert College.
And what about that guy hanging out at the college? A stranger built like a truck driver, an old football player, or a cop. First he saw him in the lobby asking for a syllabus, then outside on a park bench, once in university library and tonight in the park.
PeeWee and Cayley had been racing around, burning off energy. On the far side of the baseball diamond PeeWee started barking at a stranger — barking and barking. Cayley practically had to drag the dog away. Same size, same build, it was the same guy alright, this time with a camera, standing in the shadow under the oak tree pretending to be photographing birds.
Aaron turned off the living room lamp and pushed open a crack between the curtains just wide enough to peek outside. He scanned the street, every bush, every parked car, every opening between houses, the face of every stranger walking by.
“I think you’re being paranoid,” Jocelyn said, sneaking up behind him. “But no more talk about strangers in the park in front of Cayley, okay?”
“You’re right. I’m sorry.”
She snuggled in, placed her hands on his thighs and pressed against him. “Besides, maybe he’s looking for me, not you.”
He kissed her half-heartedly. “This... situation at the college is gnawing at me too.” He shook his head side to side and asked, “What’s Felicia got?”
Jocelyn didn’t hesitate. “She’s probably sleeping with him.”
“Come on Aaron, you teach this stuff: The Sirens sing and men turn to jelly.” She raised one fist over her shoulder proclaiming that “Pompom Rules!”
Oddly enough, that possibility had not occurred to Aaron. “Keith Quinn? Mister protocol? The boardroom politician? No, no, no. Emphatically not. There must be another explanation.”
First thing the following morning, Stubbs gave his report to Mrs. Hampton. Stony faced, she flipped through the pages of the document. “This is useless,” she said, throwing the file on the floor.
Stubbs dug his fingernails into his palms determined to hold his temper. ”Guy’s clean, Mrs. Hampton.”
“I don’t believe it,” she insisted, springing off her settee. She paced the room swinging her arm in a wide arc encompassing the common folk outside, “Everyone has something to hide, Mr. Stubbs — everyone!” Her voice rose in pitch and volume. “He surfs porn on the internet, does drugs, diddles boys, gambles—”
“—He doesn’t even buy lottery tickets,” Stubbs interrupted. Extracting a photo of Aaron from the jumble on the floor, he pushed it toward Mrs. Hampton with the toe of his shoe. “He’s a boring, middle-aged academic. Teaches Classics at the university, gives lectures nobody understands, writes books nobody reads, owes sixty-seven thou’ on a duplex in The Annex. One kid, Cayley, a girl. Only thing he’s done outta line is marry a student half his age.”
Abruptly, Mrs. Hampton stopped pacing, snapped to a halt like a hooked fish at the end of the line. Turning to face him she said, “I thought that was taboo these days, teachers, you know...” she stammered and flapped her hands, “boinking students.”
“I think boinking students is a fringe benefit. They don’t get paid much.”
She narrowed her gaze, studying him, sizing him up, a look that had convinced Stubbs he was about to be fired. Then her expression changed. A smirk became a half smile. Inexplicably, she became suffused with a soft glow Stubbs could only identify as joy. Puzzled, he waited for an explanation.
“You’ve given me an idea Mr. Stubbs.” She sat at an antique writing desk and pulled a check-book out of the roll-top drawer. “This has been most entertaining,” she said, “but we’re finished now. How much do I owe you?”
Across town, about as far from the Hampton’s gated estate as one could possibly be, Dawn parked on a side street in a part of Toronto known as The Punjab. Bearded men in turbans and women in brightly coloured saris filled the sidewalks. Punjabi pop blasted from speakers mounted above every store front. The night air was heavy with the aroma of spiced lamb kebabs and roasted corn cobs smeared with lime and chilli salt. A gnawing growl in her stomach reminded her that she hadn’t eaten since breakfast ten hours earlier.
A Mercedes parked in The Punjab was a rare sight. Curious pedestrians peered into the tinted windows to see who was driving, or if someone carelessly left a wallet on the dashboard, but all they could see were neon reflections.
Watching in her rearview mirror, Dawn spotted Shruti, half a block away, wearing a blue leather jacket carrying a motorcycle helmet. She opened the passenger-side door and slid in placing the helmet on the floor between her feet.
Dawn checked her watch, “On the button.” Shruti grinned, her smile radiant against brown skin.
Without preamble, Dawn handed her former McGill roommate a file. She opened it, pulling out papers one by one. As Dawn explained her predicament, Shruti studied the pages, lingering over a photo of an eight-year-old girl who’d been orphaned twice. “I need to find her,” Dawn said, “and conventional sources take too long. Everything’s in the file.”
Shruti reached into her jacket, removed a thick envelope and handed it to Dawn. “My uncle in Mumbai needs an immigrant visa — same reason.”
Dawn didn’t think that would be a problem.
“So,” Shruti said, “one for one, quid pro quo?”
“At least let me buy dinner, I’m starving.”
Tedious, unavoidable and never-ending, paperwork was the cornerstone of academia and a perennial curse on every professor. Four piles on Aaron’s desk were organized by category: one for college admin; another for student work; a third for correspondence; and the last for research. Each stack roughly arranged in chronological order with the freshest documents on top, fossils on the bottom.
He was hunched over his desk reading an outline for post-grad thesis on The Hero in Axial Mythology when someone knocked on his door. Before Aaron could answer, Keith Quinn barged in.
Habitually prim and buttoned-down, the Dean looked like a whipped dog. Sad eyes, stooped shoulders, tie loose, collar unbuttoned. He looked at Aaron surrounded by stacks of paper and said, “Who did you piss off?”
Aaron’s head snapped back. “Excuse me?”
Quinn went to the window, leaned on the frame and shook his head. “You’re not going to believe this.”
Aaron laid down his pen.
“How long have you been married to Jocelyn?” Quinn asked.
Quinn sighed, “I should have retired last year. Twenty-twenty hindsight.”
“What’s this have to do with Jocelyn?”
Quinn turned away from the window, rested his palms on the sill and looked at the ceiling. Aaron watched closely, unsure of where this conversation was going.
“I just got a call from the Chancellor,” Quinn paused for emphasis, “about you.”
Aaron leaned forward.
“One of the university’s largest donors, and when I say large, I’m talking nine figures large.”
“Whoever this person is, and there can’t be many with that kind of cash, he or she has decided that professors having sexual relations with students is out of step with the times, a disgraceful abuse of power, an affront to all women, grounds for public censure, immediate dismissal, public flogging and it wouldn’t surprise me if flaying, castration and immolation were also on the list.”
“Precisely. You. By name. Which brings me back to my original question: Who have you pissed off lately?”
Aaron stood up. “But we’ve been married for ten years,” he said. “We have a house, a kid. Why me? Why us? Why now?”
“You tell me.”
Aaron rubbed both hands across his balding pate until it occurred to him that Quinn hadn’t quite finished. “There’s more,” he said.
Quinn heaved a heavily burdened sigh, “You’re no longer being considered for Dean.”
Aaron’s head dropped, his fists clenched and in a voice barely above a whisper said, “Fuck.”
“That was the original problem, wasn’t it?” Aaron scowled at Quinn.
Tamping down his temper, Aaron said, “You’re telling me that the beautifully packaged and hopelessly unqualified Felicia Almada is going to be our new Dean?”
“Sun Tzu, The Art of War: ‘Never underestimate your opponent.’”
“I don’t think that’s possible.”
“She has a unique skill set.”
“Obviously she knows how to get what she wants.”
“The fast track to the top.”
“She is focused, I’ll give her that. Disciplined. Imaginative. Indefatigable,” he added with the slightest hint of a grin.
Neither said a word, each pursuing private thoughts until Aaron broke the silence. “Ironic isn’t it, I lose the job because I married a student and Felicia Almada gets it because she’s screwing the boss.”
Quinn made a croaking sound like he was choking on something. He turned his gaze aside, unable to look Aaron in the eyes. In that moment Aaron knew Jocelyn was right, he could see it in Quinn’s face. “It’s true, isn’t it?”
“And technically against University bylaws.”
Quinn raised his open palms casually shrugging off Aaron’s rebuke. “Well, you know how it is, anything strictly forbidden is commonly practiced.”
Aaron flopped into his chair, shaking his head in disbelief. “This is like the bloody Spanish Inquisition all over again.”
“I’m sorry Aaron. It’s out of my hands.”
“How did you find her?”
“You don’t want to know.”
“Meaning you don’t want to say.”
Dawn and Mr. Hampton faced each other across her rosewood boardroom table, papers strewn between them. “Erica’s going to fight you on this,” she said.
Dawn wasn’t telling him anything he didn’t already know. His face was drawn, dark shadows under his eyes, his wheeze more pronounced. Dawn waited. He pivoted his chair away from the table and wheeled to the window. It was a sunny, mid-September day. A northwest breeze had cleared the yellow haze that usually cloaked the city. A dozen sailboats tilted into the wind and sliced through the whitecaps rolling across the lake. Far off on the southern horizon, a smudge of mist rose from Niagara Falls. Gazing into the distance helped Mr. Hampton focus his thoughts.
“As I see it,” he said, turning to face her, “we have two challenges: Money and cancer.”
Dawn nodded and let him continue.
“Instant wealth can turn a person’s life inside out. Not can, will. A stock goes stratospheric, an unexpected inheritance, a windfall at the casino. We’ve all heard about big lottery winners blowing millions of dollars in a delirious binge and ending up broke.” He wheeled around to face her. “At the very least, we have to hire a financial planner.”
Dawn wrote a note in her day timer.
“The second challenge,” he said, in a voice suddenly weak and shaky, “is cancer.”
Wheezing softly, he wiped a finger under each shadowed eye pausing to regain his composure. Eventually he said, “Dr. Winnock told me that prescreening is the only defence against a hereditary cancer. The child has to be told. It’s the only decent thing to do.”
“We have a third challenge,” Dawn added. “The press.”
Reluctantly, he acknowledged Dawn’s point.
“There’s no avoiding it, Richard. This is a newsworthy story. Not just nationally, internationally. The Hampton name will have them swarming the gates.”
Dawn outlined her strategy to control the media onslaught. “An exclusive interview with one source. We prescreen the questions. Anyone picking up the story a day later will appear like they’re eating the crumbs. And then, seclusion, until the media moves on to the next story.”
In spite of Dawn’s confidence, Richard knew that any attempt to predict or control the media was futile.
After a three month hunt, many hours of strategic planning, and thirty years of regret, it all funnelled down to one phone call. Dawn moved from the boardroom table to the chair behind her desk. “And Erica?”
His voice was firm. “Make the call.”
She picked up the phone, pressed seven digits and waited. After three rings, an answering machine clicked on. A woman’s voice: “Hi there. You’ve reached five three three, eight zero zero three. Leave a message and we’ll get right back to you. Wait for it...” BEEP
“Hello. My name is Dawn McHugh, Abrams, Watt and McHugh. Our firm is handling the estate of Lynn Hampton...”
From his perch on the back of the living room couch, PeeWee spotted Aaron riding up the driveway. He raced around the corner into the front hall. Aaron had barely stepped through the front door when Cayley skidded to a stop at his feet.
“Daddy! Daddy! Kenny broke his arm the ambulance came they took him away there was a siren—”
“Kenny! Next-door-Kenny! He fell out of the chestnut tree — the branch broke, he cried and everything, the teachers got mad and yelled at us—”
“—Whoa whoa whoa stop, Cayley, stop. Take a breath.” Cayley gulped, fit to explode like her A+ volcano. “Are you okay?” he asked. She nodded. “Is Kenny alright?” She nodded again. “Good.” He reached under her arms and hoisted her up to eye level. A sharp twinge in his lower back told him that his little girl was growing up fast. She wrapped her arms around his neck tightly. Snuggled in his arms, their faces inches apart, he said, “And you learned what?”
“Climb thicker branches, and not so high.”
Cayley squeezed her eyes shut, puckered up and demanded a fish kiss for her cleverness.
After that emergency had passed, Aaron dropped his back pack on the floor, hung his jacket on a hook and traded his shoes for slippers. He went into the kitchen, pulled a soda from the fridge and joined Jocelyn who was sitting at the kitchen table slicing tomatoes for a salad. He apologized for being late.
One glance was all she needed. “What’s wrong?”
“You’re not going to believe this,” he said. The weight in the tone of his voice told her the tomatoes could wait.
“You picked it,” he said, “PomPom rules.” And told her about his meeting with Keith Quinn. When he got to the part about being disqualified from the race for the Dean’s job, she reached across the table to squeeze his hand.
“This is political correctness run amok,” she said. “I don’t care what they say. I love you. We love you. We’re a team.” She turned towards the living room and called out, “Right Cayley?” Cayley said something that sounded affirmative but was too muffled to hear clearly.
A tear slid down Aaron’s cheek. “What is going on out there?” he wondered aloud. “Is it just me or has the whole world gone crazy while I wasn’t looking?”
He got up, took two cookies out of the cookie jar.
“You need a break,” Jocelyn told him. “A leave of absence, a sabbatical. Wipe the slate clean. Tabula raza time. We can afford it.”
After his miserable day the thought of a year-long sabbatical was beyond tempting. Somewhere sunny and warm, with a sandy beach, palm trees and clear turquoise water. A place where they could swim with the turtles, learn to speak Spanish, eat lobster on the beach at night. There was another book rattling around in some neglected corner of his mind. Six months in the Caribbean might give him the time he needed to put it on paper. Someplace cheap and clean. “What about the book store?” he asked.
“Oh! I almost forgot. You got a message, a phone message today from... from?...” She pulled a scrap of paper out of a pocket and read her scribbled note. “From Dawn McHugh. A woman Dawn, not a man Don. Something about Lynn Hampton’s estate.”
“Why would they phone you?”
“Ask them. They want you to come to their office Thursday.” She passed the scrap of paper across the table.
“This Thursday?” he said, reading the note. “Richmond Tower, two-thirty.”
“Sounds like she remembered you after all.”
With all the turmoil at the college, Aaron found it difficult to muster any enthusiasm for the appointment. “Why don’t you come with me? Who knows, maybe I’ll get my Zappa records back.”
Thursday afternoon at twenty past two, Jocelyn paced the street-level lobby in Richmond Tower comparing the time on her watch with the clock on the wall. Aaron’s sense of time could be elastic, but surely he wouldn’t be late for this.
At two-twenty-nine, she got on the elevator, pressed forty-five and muttered something under her breath as the door closed.
She stepped out of the elevator, walked through the hushed lobby to the receptionist sitting beneath a large corporate logo on the wall.
“My husband has an appointment with Dawn McHugh — Aaron Simon. I’m Jocelyn.”
“Yes, they’re waiting for you.”
“Well... my husband is running late. He’ll be here any minute, I’m certain.”
“Everyone’s in the boardroom. I’ll take you now and bring?...”
“...Aaron when he arrives.”
They walked to a glass-walled meeting room. The receptionist knocked three times, opened the door, stepped in and introduced Jocelyn to Dawn McHugh. Jocelyn apologized for her husband’s delay, assuring her that he would be along momentarily.
Dawn introduced the couple sitting on the far side of the boardroom table: Richard and Erica Hampton.
The way Mr. Hampton tilted his head when he looked at her reminded Jocelyn of PeeWee. She smiled at the thought.
His eyes crinkled at the corners. “Lynn?” he said.
“JOSS-elyn. Nice to meet you, Mr. Hampton.”
He turned to his wife, “She looks like Lynn.”
Jocelyn suspected the man may be going a little senile and let the comment pass. In contrast to his grandfatherly demeanour, his wife was sharp and rigid, dangerous as a piece of broken glass.
“So, you’re Jocelyne OU-lit.” she said.
Instantly, Jocelyn felt defensive. She tried to lighten the mood with a standard joke she’d used in the past. “ooo-LETTE,” she said, “emphasis on the last syllable, like the car.”
“Car? Whose car? What are you talking about?”
“ooo-LETTE like, cor-VETTE.”
Mrs. Hampton scowled at her husband, and shot the same look at Dawn before turning back to Jocelyn.
The meeting had begun poorly. Dawn tried to lighten the mood by offering everyone something to drink — coffee, water, juice or something stronger. Both Hamptons declined. Jocelyn looked at her watch. How she wished Aaron would hurry, wished she’d stayed in the lobby, wished that woman would stop staring at her.
Mrs. Hampton kept on. “Jocelyn oooLETTE from Saint Boniface in Winnipeg, correct?”
Jocelyn felt a hollow chill. “How do you know that?”
Before Mrs. Hampton could answer there were three knocks on the door. Aaron strode in, apologizing for being late with a feeble explanation about student tutorials. His tempo slowed and volume faded as he recognized the man in the wheelchair. And beside him...
Mrs. Hampton slammed her hands down on the boardroom table. “You!?”
In an instant, the calm, joyful family reunion Dawn had planned so carefully had fallen apart. Tension filled the room. Mrs. Hampton glared at Aaron. Jocelyn looked to her husband hoping for an explanation. Aaron’s eyes shifted back and forth between Mr. Hampton and his wife. The receptionist, still standing in the open doorway, looked to Dawn for instruction. Dawn tried to catch Mr. Hampton’s eye, but his attention was focused on Aaron’s wife.
Ignoring the surrounding turmoil, Mr. Hampton spoke directly to Jocelyn, “I can’t believe we found you.”
Horrified, Mrs. Hampton stared at Jocelyn, barely able to comprehend the puzzle pieces she’d just put together. “You’re Lynn’s daughter?” she said, slowly swivelling her head towards Aaron. “And he’s... your husband?” All the colour drained from her face, her eyelids fluttered, veins on her temples throbbed visibly. She rubbed her forehead and collapsed.
Jocelyn and Aaron cabbed home from the lawyer’s office. They sat in silence staring out the windows at nothing in particular. Both knew their lives would never be the same again. And what about Cayley; how to tell her? Would she understand? Would she care? And when the story got out, as it inevitably would, how could they protect her from the slurs, the gossip and the schoolyard taunts?
They arrived home in time to meet Cayley as she got off the school bus. Aaron cooked dinner. Cayley practiced her piano. Jocelyn went upstairs to lie down.
Dinner was quiet and awkward — conversation limited to terse requests to pass the salt, not feed the dog at the table and finish your milk. Several times Cayley asked why everyone was being so weird. Unconvincing answers only aroused her suspicions. She watched TV until bedtime.
Jocelyn curled up in bed with Cayley, PeeWee squashed between them. Aaron tried to sleep on the living room couch, but spent most of the night watching the ceiling fan go round before finally dropping into a shallow sleep just before sunrise.
If anything, breakfast was frostier than dinner the night before. The waffles were mushy. Juice warm. Fruit still frozen. Smoke poured out of the toaster and set off the fire alarm. The whistling kettle shrieked like a tornado. Jocelyn broke a dish and used a bad word. The phone rang and rang, no one interested in picking up. Eventually the answering machine clicked on: “This is Dawn McHugh calling for Jocelyn Simon — ”
Jocelyn snatched the phone from its cradle. “What do you want?”
“I apologize for how things went yesterday,” Dawn said. “It was... it was, unexpected.”
“Ya, you could say that.”
“Nonetheless,” Dawn pressed on, “we still have to discuss Lynn Hampton’s — your mother’s — will. There are documents to be signed and other information I’d rather not discuss on the phone. Think about it Jocelyn, and call me, please.”
Jocelyn wrote a number on a pad by the phone and hung up.
It was after seven-thirty. She warned Cayley to stop dawdling or she’d miss the bus. Aaron jammed lunch into her backpack and met her in the front hall. Looking up at him, waiting expectantly, Aaron delivered a hasty and entirely unsatisfactory fish kiss. Cayley protested, but Aaron spun her around and gently pushed her out the door. Bursting with frustration and confusion she turned around and yelled: “Crabby apples!”
Alone at last, Aaron and Jocelyn could finally talk. Aaron jerked his head toward the phone. “What’d she want?”
“Something about your girlfriend’s will.”
“She called me, not you.”
“Then you deal with her.”
Standing by the kitchen window, Jocelyn stirred sugar into her tea. “What are we going to do?” she asked, as much to herself as to Aaron.
He reached out to give her a hug. She pushed his arms away.
“How did this happen?” she wondered. “Yesterday we were a normal family, now we’re living in a fucking Greek tragedy.”
“It’s not that bad.”
“How can you say that, Aaron? I can’t make love to my husband because he also happens to be my father. That’s not so bad?” She waited, expecting an answer that didn’t seem to be forthcoming. “Well say something! You’re the goddam professor. Where’s that university-sized I.Q. when we need it?”
“Don’t take it out on me.”
She flopped down on a chair and cupped her hands over her face. “I know. I know. I know. I’m sorry.”
Aaron just stood there, stunned. Numbness aggravated by a throbbing headache.
Looking up through her fingers, Jocelyn said, “I think Cayley and I should go back home—“
“This is your home.”
“—stay with Aunt Gisèle for a while. Jesus Christ, how do I explain this to her?”
Aaron’s face flushed. He jabbed his finger in the air and yelled. “You tell her it’s not our fault.”
Jocelyn yelled back, “Then whose fault is it?”
Sitting in his wheelchair, Mr. Hampton looked out the window over the sprawling lawn and gardens surrounding his home, A storm was coming. Dark clouds lined the horizon, white threads of lightning flashing beneath. The wind whipped the trees from all directions. Leaves and broken branches littered the ground. All he wanted to do was help fulfill his daughter’s dying wish and now this...
An unfamiliar car stopped at the front gate. Intuitively, he knew who had arrived and told the butler to show Mr. Simon into the study.
Several minutes later, Aaron shoved the butler aside and burst into Mr. Hampton’s study bristling with rage.
The butler kept a wary eye on the visitor while addressing his employer, “Shall I stay, sir?”
“Thank you, we’ll be fine.”
In spite of Mr. Hampton’s assurance, the butler gave Aaron a hard, scrutinizing glance before leaving.
Mr. Hampton gestured to a wingback chair for Aaron to sit, then wheeled across the room to a trolley covered with bottles and crystal glasses. “I wonder if you’d care to join me for a drink, Aaron. This isn’t going to be easy.”
Seeing the old man in a wheelchair, frail and vulnerable, yet perfectly calm, began to drain the adrenaline from his nervous system. Aaron accepted the offer with a nod.
They sipped their drinks in silence, neither knowing where to begin. An extraordinary concatenation of events had turned them into adversaries. Under different circumstances they would be in-laws having a drink in honour of a family milestone.
The door burst open. Mrs. Hampton’s voice hit Aaron like a slap in the face, “You bastard!” she screamed. The glass fell from his hands and shattered on the floor.
“You ruin everything you touch?” she said, in a voice filled with sarcastic distain.
“I could ask you the same question,” Aaron snapped.
“Ricki, this isn’t going to be very producti—”
Mrs. Hampton ignored her husband, still focused on Aaron. “None of this would have happened if you’d just kept it zipped up, but noooo.”
Aaron turned to face her. “We were in love. You had no right.”
“I wasn’t about to let our daughter ruin her life with a...” she choked on the word as if it was rancid, something foul to be spat on the floor, “...a schoolteacher.”
“You pompous, sanctimo—”
“—with a big vocabulary, and not two cents to rub together.”
Mr. Hampton interjected, “This isn’t about money.”
“It is when you haven’t got any,” Mrs. Hampton countered.
Aaron tossed it back at her: “You mean poor like you were before you married up. Did you keep it zipped up?”
“You’re not getting one cent of our daughter’s money,” she vowed. “Nothing!”
Although Mr. Hampton spoke quietly his words cut through the crackling tension in the room. “Too late,” he said, “it’s done.”
Mrs. Hampton whirled around to face her husband. “What? You’re siding with this... this...”
“I’m not siding with anyone,” he yelled, slamming his fist on the arm of his wheelchair struggling to control his temper. “I’m ill, Ricki. I’m ashamed. I’m grieving over Lynn and I’d like to get to know my granddaughter before I die. We have a great-granddaughter. They’re family. They’re part of us. We’ve ruined their lives and I will do whatever I can to set it right. We’re responsible for this mess, Ricki. Us. Aaron is the victim—”
“—Him!?” she screeched. ”This... fornicator and... good God, his own daughter, it’s unspeakable.” Aiming her fury back at Aaron, “What’s the little brat call you Aaron, dad or granddad?”
Aaron had enough. He stalked past her heading for the open door. “I don’t want your money you nasty bitch. Leave it to Jocelyn. She’ll need it for fucking therapy!” He slammed the door behind him, rushed past the butler, through the foyer and out the front entrance.
Seconds later, Mrs. Hampton burst into the foyer spewing a torrent of slurs and obscenities against Aaron, his race, his gender, his immigrant parents, his profession, his miserable existence on this planet.
Halfway up the stairs to the mezzanine she staggered. Swaying on her feet, she clung to the bannister, moaning, yet still lashing out at Aaron in an incomprehensible garble. The butler rushed to her side, catching her as she crumpled.
Mr. Hampton wheeled into the foyer, but was stymied by the staircase. “Ricki!”
In the three days since the meeting in Dawn McHugh’s office, Jocelyn had barely slept. She felt raw, vulnerable, confused and angry all at once, and resented that someone — anyone — could destroy her life so completely. The only person who could help her sort out the mess was in her kitchen, sitting across the table, struggling to make conversation, trying to find a way past the awkward chilliness between them. Jocelyn watched her warily.
Looking back from the other side of the table, Dawn was astonished at how much Jocelyn resembled her mother — the same silky complexion, same eyes, same jawline, even the casual motion of tucking her hair behind her ear with one finger was identical to a gesture of Lynn’s.
Jocelyn couldn’t wait any longer. “So how did this all happen? And skip the legal bafflegab, just tell me.”
“A meddling mother with good intentions and bad judgement.”
Dawn’s answer was fast and clever and a little too slick for Jocelyn. “You’ve rehearsed that answer.”
“I knew you’d ask,” Dawn replied.
“Pardon me, but I’m new at this. I’ll try to be more of a challenge, not quite so predictable.”
If anyone had good reason to be short tempered, it had to be Jocelyn. Dawn waited silently until Jocelyn was ready to continue.
“Who are these people?”
Dawn told her that the Hamptons were Canada’s sixth wealthiest family. Over three generations they had built an international network of businesses — real estate, retail, finance and pharmaceuticals. They were smart, hardworking and had prospered enormously. With wealth came responsibilities; hospitals and universities were the main recipients of Hampton generosity.
As for the meddling mother, Dawn called Erica Hampton a relic from another century. A strict, by-the-book, Catholic. Heaven and Hell. Fire and Brimstone. Thou shalt and thou shalt not. She controlled, she dominated, she manipulated, whatever was necessary to embellish the family name. A pregnant and unwed daughter did not fit that image. The possibility that her daughter might elope with a low-life jewish poet with no hope of ever supporting Lynn was inconceivable.
“There’s no way she could have foreseen this — me marrying Aaron.”
“No that was chaos at work. When the gods get bored, they use us as entertainment.”
Jocelyn’s scowl softened. “You sound like my husband.”
“My Classics prof at McGill, that was one of his favourite lines. Seemed appropriate. I’m sorry I didn’t mean to be flippant.”
Jocelyn accepted Dawn’s apology with a hint of a smile.
“I knew your mother very well,” Dawn said. “We grew up together.”
Curious, she leaned closer, so Dawn continued.
“For what it’s worth, I know she loved Aaron. Her letters were full of him. She would have married him. I’m sure of it.”
“Why didn’t she?”
“Erica. Lynn never could stand up to her mother. Erica gave you away, Lynn wasn’t strong enough to hold on.”
Jocelyn pushed open a window. A cool breeze filled the room with the musky scent of fallen leaves. She made another pot of tea while Dawn examined the gallery of Cayley’s paintings tacked up on the fridge door. After a few minutes Jocelyn said, “Okay, so what’s in the will?”
Dawn pulled a sheaf of paper out of her briefcase and put on reading glasses. The glasses were an unnecessary prop. She knew every line of that document by heart. “Minus donations to her favourite charities, Lynn has left you her half of the Family Trust.” She peered over the top of her glasses to watch Jocelyn’s reaction. “Four hundred and twenty million dollars.”
The words hit Jocelyn like a punch in the gut. “Four hundred million?”
“Four twenty,” Dawn corrected. “Richard, Mr. Hampton, your grandfather, will not contest the will.” She peeled back a corner of the top page to show Mr. Hampton’s signature. “Richard is a good man, Jocelyn. He’d like to get to know you. Make up for... lost time.”
“Four hundred and twenty million dollars?”
“There’s more.” Dawn said. The change in Dawn’s voice gave Jocelyn a chill. Dawn pulled a second sheaf of paper out of her case, held it for a few seconds, adjusted her seat, took a deep breath. “The cancer that took your mother is hereditary.”
Jocelyn’s face went ashen.
“There’s a chance you may not get it. The doctors know what’s in your DNA. They know what to look for. Regular checkups, early detection, better diagnostics and better treatment—“
“What about Cayley. Is she?...”
“I’m not a doctor.”
Jocelyn raised her mug with both hands feeling the warmth seep into her palms. How pretty the steam looked curling up through a sunbeam. How she wished she could float away on the swirling spirals and disappear into the clouds, put this mess behind her.
Neither spoke for a good long while until PeeWee started barking at the front door. The clock on the wall said 4:00 — they’d been talking for four hours.
Whatever was about to say when he came into the kitchen was forgotten the moment he saw Dawn McHugh sitting in his seat at their table. His eyes flipped back and forth between the two women as he tried to make sense of the scene. He sat up on the counter and stared down at Dawn. Jocelyn couldn’t tell if he was at a loss for words — unlikely — trying to be polite — even less likely — or was going to reach into the kitchen drawer for the sharpest knife. He turned his gaze to Jocelyn and jerked his head at Dawn.
Dawn pushed both documents across the table to Jocelyn, snapped her briefcase closed and stood up. “I was just leaving.”
Two months later, Richard Hampton phoned Aaron to invite him to his club for a talk. Aaron declined. They agreed instead to meet at a hole-in-the-wall tavern close to Aaron’s home. The room was dark when Mr. Hampton rolled up to the table, the air thick with the scent of alcohol and greasy fried food. Aaron had a full glass in hand and an empty one on the table in front of him.
Undeterred by the strange environment, the frigid awkwardness or the raw contempt emanating from Aaron, Mr. Hampton offered his sincere apology for the mess he’d created and the lives he’d ruined.
Aaron ran his finger around the brim of his glass until Hampton finished. “It was her, wasn’t it? Your wife.”
“We’re both to blame.”
“Jocelyn tells me she’s sick.”
Aaron raised his glass: “A toast to karma,” knocked it back and gestured to the waiter for a refill. Mr. Hampton ordered a lime and soda.
Mr. Hampton agreed, “You have every right to be angry—“
“—but you’re not the only one trying to adjust. Erica’s in a coma. She’ll probably spend the rest of her days in the hospital on a machine. You think that’s easy?”
“I bet you built that hospital. Your name on a big brass plaque in the lobby. Am I right?”
Mr. Hampton ignored the dig. When enough time had passed he asked about Jocelyn. “Is she still living with her aunt?”
Aaron looked up suspiciously, “How do you know that?”
“I know she’s worried about Cayley.”
“We both are.”
“You have your priorities set ri—”
“What do you want, Richard?”
“I’d like to invite you, Cayley and Jocelyn to Nassau for Christmas. We have a house there. A nice place. A sandy beach, a yacht. I thought I would discuss it with you first.”
“We’ll need separate bedrooms, now. Sure you have enough room?”
“I’ll sleep on the couch.”
For some reason the thought of the sixth richest man in Canada sleeping on the couch struck Aaron as funny. He laughed louder and longer than appropriate, his face blotchy and florid, flushed with booze.
“I hear you’re on sabbatical,” Mr. Hampton said.
Aaron stirred ice cubes with his finger. “Indefinite sick leave, quote unquote.”
“People... ” Hampton paused to organize his thoughts, leaving no room for misunderstanding. “People envy my wealth,” he said, “my success, my lifestyle. I’m respected, connected, consulted, a pillar of the community — that’s what they say. In spite of all that, I failed my only daughter. She needed me and I wasn’t there. I’m eighty-two now, and I know I won’t live long enough to ever get over that mistake.” A line creased his brow, eyes brimming with tears. “You know how that feels?”
While Aaron drained the last of his drink, Mr. Hampton turned to watch the kids on the street through a grimy window. A group of young boys holding skateboards were clustered around some young girls, chatting them up, posturing, hustling, doing the ritual dance. He turned back to Aaron. “You have any plans?”
“Try and get my life back.”
“Take my offer, Aaron. Stay as long as you want. Cruise the islands. Go fishing. Relax. Create some memories. Start living again.” A long pause followed. “Say yes.”
“It’s all about money with you, isn’t it?”
“No. But if you’ve got it — and soon enough you will — use it wisely. Make better choices than I did.”
—— THE END —--
THE GREAT BETRAYAL
“Never shall I forget that smoke. Never shall I forget the little faces of the children, whose bodies I saw turned into wreaths of smoke beneath a silent blue sky. Never shall I forget those flames which consumed my faith forever. Never.
Elie Wiesel, Night.
Mother and I sat facing each other in our compact San Francisco kitchen after I had returned from my day at high school.
“Rebecca,” she said, reaching across the table to hold my hands, her voice strained, “we took your grandpa to the doctor. He told us the test results show your grandpa has terminal cancer.”
“Yes. That’s why he doesn’t have an appetite and sleeps a lot.”
My chest tightened. “When did Opa get cancer?”
“We don’t know. I’m so sorry, sweetheart.”
I stared at my mother’s tense face and tearful eyes. “There must be something the doctors can do.”
“I wish there was.” Mama sighed. “He’s resting in his bedroom. I’m sure he’d like to see you.”
Opa was my favorite family member. He was always interested in what I did and how I felt. He encouraged me to do well in school, and he loved to hear me play the piano.
I entered his darkened, antiseptic-smelling room. Seeing his gaunt face as he sat in bed, eyes closed, propped by pillows, I shivered and thought about the fragility of life. I was shocked and scared that my beloved Opa would soon leave me. Not knowing when he would pass, I wanted to stay at his bedside.
“Opa,” I whispered.
He opened his eyes. “Who is it?”
“It’s me, Rebecca.”
“Thank God you are here,” he said in his German accent. “I do not like being alone.”
“I’ll stay with you.”
“You are a sweetie.”
“Do you need anything, Opa?
“No.” He coughed and grimaced. “Rebecca, you are seventeen now?”
“You are a lovely girl. I always loved your ginger hair.”
“Thank you.” His compliments made me feel good about myself.
“So … what’s new in the world?”
“Great news. Nelson Mandela was elected President of South Africa.”
“He is a good man.”
“Yes, he is. Do you remember when he and former President de Klerk were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize last year?”
“Yes,” he coughed again. “Those two deserved the prize.” He slid to a lying position. “I want to show you something. Look under my bed for a small box.”
I kneeled on the floor and pulled out a brown shoe box. “Here it is.”
“Good. Open it. What do you see?”
“A silver pocket watch.”
“Ja. I bought that after I got my first paycheck in America.”
“Oh, what’s this?” I held up a string of pearls. “It’s beautiful.”
“Oma fell in love with that necklace when we saw it in a shop window.”
“And you bought it?”
“Not on that day. I told her it was too expensive. The next day I went back to the jeweler’s store to buy it. On her birthday, I gave her the pearl necklace wrapped in tissue paper inside a nice box. When she saw the necklace, she said, ‘But we cannot afford it.’ I answered, ‘They are for my queen.’”
“Opa, how romantic.” I pressed my hand to his warm cheek.
“Ja. Now sweetheart, look for a letter to Anna Nomberg.”
“Okay.” I shuffled through a small stack of frayed envelopes. “I don’t see it. Wait, wait. Here’s one with a stamp that says, Deutsches Reich. The writing is faded. It’s addressed to Anna.”
“Take the letter out of the envelope and give it to me.”
He held the brownish paper in his trembling hands. “I wrote this letter in German when I was eighteen. My aunt kept it for me. I will translate.”
Weilheim, Germany, 26th April 1936
Dear Aunt Anna,
I am Jacob, Mandel Roth’s son. I am sorry to tell you that my father died last week after a long illness. He often talked about you, his sister. My mother died three years ago.
I am worried about what will happen now that Adolf Hitler is in power. I would like to leave Europe as soon as possible and come to America. Can you help me? If not, I will go to Palestine.
I am very much looking forward to receive your reply.
“I didn’t know both your parents had died at that time. That must have been hard for you. Did you have brothers or sisters?”
“I had three older sisters and one older brother. They all had jobs, and they thought Hitler was so extreme he would not remain in power. But I saw signs of a catastrophe for our people.”
“What happened to your brother and sisters?”
“A Christian neighbor wrote to me in 1942 from Weilheim saying the Germans forced my sisters and brother out of our family home. They probably died in a concentration camp.”
I gasped, feeling a chill. “That’s terrible.”
“Ja.” He tightened his jaw. “I think about them every day.”
“Did your aunt reply to your letter?”
“Ja. She invited me to come here. And she sent money for my passage on a ship. I entered the United States through Ellis Island when I was nineteen.”
“How long did you stay in New York?”
“One day and one night. I rode on a train for four days to get to San Francisco. Excuse me. I … I’m so tired.”
“Opa, you should rest.”
“You are right. Leave me for a while and take the box. Everything in it is yours to keep.”
“But … I can’t.”
“I have no need for possessions now. You are my treasure.”
After school the next day, I took a bus to 24th Street. I ambled home on the sidewalk, past a familiar mix of Victorian houses and modern buildings while traffic hummed on the road. The warm spring sun filtered through the canopy of ficus leaves.
I put my schoolbooks on the bed in my narrow bedroom and looked in a mirror. People said I was pretty, but I knew I had a plain face. I overheard my mother say that to her friend.
In the kitchen, I drank a glass of milk. Then I went to see my grandfather, who was sitting against his bed pillows.
“Hi Opa. How are you feeling today?”
“My legs are stiff.”
“Do you want me to get you something?”
“Just rub my calves, please. With that nice smelling oil. Maybe that will help.”
I lifted the sheet and massaged Opa’s thin calves.
“Ah … that is good.” He sighed. “Now bring a chair to the side of the bed.”
I brought a straight-backed chair and sat near him.
He pinched the bridge of his nose, as he often did when he was thinking. “I never told you much about Oma Olga, your grandmother. If you are interested, I can tell you a little story about her and me.”
“I’d love to hear it. I saw a photo of her. She had a kind face.”
“So kind,” he said in a soft tone. “She died when you were a baby. We used to go to concerts, you know.”
“I remember you told me she loved music. Where was she born?”
“Ukraine. Her father had immigrated to America and lived in New York. He sent her money in 1938 for a ticket on a boat. She was nineteen when she joined him and did not speak English. She and her father came to San Francisco by train.”
“What about her family?”
“Her mother had died, and her two sisters did not want to leave the place where they were born. The Germans murdered them. And many others.”
“That’s so sad.” Tears blurred my vision.
“A tragedy. A few months after she arrived in San Francisco, her father wanted her to marry. He chose a man to be her husband, but she did not like him. She begged her father to choose someone else. He agreed and chose me.”
“Was it love at first sight?”
“It was. We married in 1939. Her father and Aunt Anna were our only guests. I was twenty-one and Oma was twenty. We lived with her father in a small apartment.” His smile showed a dimple.
“You have such a nice smile. Were you both happy?”
He closed his eyes and soon fell asleep.
The next morning, after the fog cleared, I attended a Sabbath service at our temple. On my return, I peeked into Opa’s room and saw him sleeping. In the kitchen, I enjoyed challah and chicken soup with matzah balls, then returned to Opa’s darkened room.
“Good to see you, sweetie,” he said, his deep blue eyes bright. He gestured to the chair at the side of his bed. “Did you enjoy the Shabbos service?”
“Yes, Opa.” I had especially enjoyed talking with my friends after the service.
“And you had a good lunch, my pretty Rebecca?”
“Yes. I was so hungry. Now I can’t eat another bite.”
He laughed a staccato burst. “That reminds me of my Aunt Anna. She would say in Yiddish, ‘Ess, ess, mein kind.’ It means eat, eat, my child. She worried that I did not eat enough.”
“I had enough. Simple food, but enough.”
“What kind of food?”
“Bagel and lox, brisket, latkes.”
“I love potato pancakes.”
“Me, too. You are looking out the window. You seem distracted.”
“Did you meet someone new today?”
“Are you perhaps thinking about your friends? A boy?”
My cheeks felt hot. I had been thinking of a tall, good-looking boy I saw in the temple.
“I can tell when you are not really listening,” he said. “Now, will you go to the living room and play the piano for me? I will listen from here before I take a nap. Chopin is my favorite composer, you know.”
The chill of twilight promised a cold evening.
“Many years ago,” Opa said when I returned to his room, “I belonged to a group called The New Life Literary Club. The members were people who had lived in Europe when Hitler was in power. We told our stories about what we lived through. They were hard to tell and hard to listen to.”
“You never told me those stories.”
“I did not want to tell you about the terrible hardships we faced.”
I straightened my shoulders. “I’m not a child anymore.”
“Believe me, those stories about cruelty and suffering would give you nightmares.”
“What story can you tell me?”
He scratched his bald head. “Maybe one from during the war?”
“Let me think. Um … would you like to hear how I earned a living in America?”
“In my first job, I worked long hours in a sweatshop making men’s clothes. Competition for jobs was fierce, and wages were low.” He squeezed his lips together. “On my day off, I studied English so I could get a better job.” He winced. “Uh … after …. After the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, many men went to fight against the Japanese. Also, they fought the Germans and Italians. I was not drafted because ….” He breathed with a rattling sound in his chest. “Because I failed the fitness test.”
“Maybe because I worked hard for five years in a cramped place where the ventilation was poor. I had bad headaches and shortness of breath. Then I heard IBM was looking for workers. I passed their aptitude test, and I was hired in 1942.”
“You worked for IBM?”
“Ja. For two years. My boss sent me to IBM School in Endicott, New York. For technical training. I remember the five top steps before the front door of the school. They were engraved with the words, ‘Read, Listen, Discuss, Observe, Think.’”
“What did those words have to do with work?”
“IBM believed they were the five steps to knowledge while studying and working.”
“What was it like to work there?”
“Formal. I had to wear a dark suit, a white shirt and a tie every day. No mustaches or beards were allowed. I shaved my mustache before my job interview. I did well at IBM. And the pay was good. But something a co-worker said bothered me. So much so, I could not get a good night’s sleep.”
“What did he say?”
“My friend said IBM’s President, Mr. Watson, met Hitler in Berlin in 1937.”
“Did he? For real?”
“Ja. And he received a medal for service to the Reich.”
“A medal? From Hitler? Are you sure?”
“You do not believe me?” he asked in an annoyed tone.
“Okay,” he said, his voice lower. “It was hard for me to believe when I first heard it.”
“What did Mr. Watson do to get the medal?”
“He sold a punch card sorting system that identified people by race and religion. That made it easier for the Nazis to arrest millions of Jews. Those Jews were later murdered.”
“Ja. But three years later, Watson returned the medal.”
“People were outraged about the medal during the bombing of Paris. And the FBI began investigating IBM’s Nazi connections.”
“What did the FBI do?”
“I never found out. Anyway, I said to myself, ‘Maybe Watson admitted his mistake in doing business with Hitler.’ And I continued to work there.”
“But only for two years, you said.”
“Ja. In 1943, I heard rumors at work that IBM was continuing to do business with the Nazi government. During that time, the Germans were torpedoing our ships and shooting down our planes.” He leaned against his pillows and closed his eyes momentarily. “For a year, I made discreet investigations and inquiries. I confirmed that the reports were true.”
“Oh, my gosh.”
“I asked myself, was it to make money? Or to help the Nazis? Or both?”
I put my hand over my mouth.
“I decided I could not continue to work for IBM. When I handed in my letter of resignation, my boss told me he did not want to accept it because I was his best employee. I said, ‘I can’t work for a company that does business with the Nazis.’ And I walked out the door.”
“I’m proud of you for doing that, Opa.”
“Thank you, my dear. Promise me something.”
I leaned forward. “Promise what?”
“Do whatever you can to resist evil.”
“Never forget the murder of millions of our people.”
“I believe you, my sweet Rebecca. Why did God create a Hitler? A Stalin? I’ll never understand that.” His eyelids drooped, and he yawned.
“It’s late, Opa. I’ll come back tomorrow.”
The next morning, the sun’s rays filtered through my curtains. My mother came into my room after I had dressed and sat beside me on my bed.
“My dear,” she said, “I’m sorry to tell you grandfather passed away during the night.”
“No.” Sadness crept upon me like a chill. “No.”
Numb and jittery, I lost my appetite for breakfast. How would I get through each day if I couldn’t visit Opa and listen to his stories?
Three days later, seventy people attended his graveside funeral at the Home of Peace Cemetery. After the rabbi’s brief service and Opa’s burial, we stopped our normal routines. Relatives and friends visited us for seven days during the traditional Jewish mourning period, taking part in prayer services and trying to comfort us. They brought lentils, hard-boiled eggs, fruit, nuts, bread, and milk. We shared our grief and our loving recollections of Opa.
In sadness and loneliness, I mourned for him daily.
On the first anniversary of his death, Mother, following custom, lit a thick, white candle that burned for twenty-four hours. Orchestral music and the sweet fragrance of blooming jasmine that Opa and I loved, triggered fond memories of him. Playing Chopin’s compositions and listening to the music of Liszt and Beethoven gave me solace.
The year after Opa died, I graduated from high school. Then, at San Francisco State University, I earned a Communications degree. I rented a narrow room in the apartment of a college friend, and most Friday evenings, I ate Sabbath dinner with my parents, enjoying their company but missing Opa.
My jobs at several companies in public relations, marketing and advertising for eight years paved the way for my position as Events Manager at Save the Children Foundation. The goal of the Foundation was to give kids around the world a healthy start in life and the opportunity to learn in a safe environment. During meetings with several wealthy donors over the next six years, I learned about their personal lives and business activities.
On my thirty-seventh birthday, I welcomed people at the gala event at the Intercontinental San Francisco Hotel.
Greg Davis, a respected business executive in his mid-fifties whom I found attractive, approached me at the welcome table. He limped as a result of a car accident. He lived alone in a house in Billionaire Row in Noe Valley that his family had owned for decades. His wife of thirty years had died three years prior.
“Good evening, Mr. Davis,” I said. “It’s good to see you again.”
“Thank you, Rebecca. How are you?”
“Great. I’m excited about tonight’s event. After dinner and entertainment, we’ll announce the Foundation’s achievements during the last twelve months, thanks to you and other generous supporters.”
“Glad to help.”
“We appreciate that. The evening’s highlight will be an auction of fine art.”
“It sure will be. Let me show you to your table.”
I led him to a round, cloth-covered table at the front of the hall where he recognized his friends, most of them large donors. Each donor’s daily expenses were probably greater than my monthly salary.
The donors’ competitive bidding at the auction resulted in excellent funding for the Foundation, and I thanked everyone who attended. When Greg Davis and I shook hands at the exit, he said, “Rebecca, will you join me for dinner on Friday night?”
“I’d love to, Mr. Davis.”
“Call me, Greg. I’ll be in touch.”
On Friday evening, Greg arrived at my home in his chauffeur-driven limo. I wore a black pencil skirt with a new white silk blouse, red lipstick, and a silver broach decorated with gemstones. Greg, wearing a tailored gray wool suit, opened the door for me.
“You look beautiful,” he said.
“Thank you.” I slid onto the wide, leather seat and breathed deeply, trying to calm myself.
The driver took us to the Bohemian Club at Post and Taylor. The club’s members, rich and important men, admitted ladies as guests once a month.
In the dimly lit dining room, linen tablecloths covered the widely spaced tables. I sipped a strawberry daiquiri and ordered sturgeon caviar and asparagus hors d’oeuvres from the attentive server. Greg drank scotch and decided on smoked black cod with pickled onions.
We talked about organic food and the weather, then I changed the topic. “What did you enjoy doing as a child?” I asked.
He leaned forward, his elbows on the table. “Building sandcastles on the beach.”
“I love the beach. Do you swim in the ocean?”
“And where do you like to travel?”
“To Annecy in the French Alps.” He rubbed his hands together as if thinking about pleasant memories. “I have a few friends who live there.”
“I’ve never heard of Annecy. What’s it known for?”
“The large lake and the mountains are gorgeous. My late wife loved Annecy Castle and the beautiful old town with a canal running through it. It’s called the Venice of the Alps.”
“Sounds like a marvelous place to visit.”
“It is.” He pinched the bridge of his nose just like Opa would do. “My wife … she suffered from medical conditions in the years before she passed.”
“That must have been so difficult.”
“Yes. Also, my parents didn’t approve of her Irish blood.”
“Oh.” I crumpled the linen napkin on my lap, recalling the aversion I had experienced because of my heritage. “Are you aware I’m Jewish?”
He tightened his lips and squinted at me with his almond-shaped green eyes. “You’re Jewish?”
I nodded. “I am, although I’m not a temple member.”
“I’m not affiliated with any faith. My grandparents were Mormons, and my parents were Lutherans.”
“How would your family respond if you told them you were dining with a Jewish woman?”
“It doesn’t matter what they think. How would your family respond?”
“They would say, ‘It’s not right.’”
“Yes.” He tapped the table. “Besides my late wife’s Irish blood, my family knew she didn’t have good connections.”
“With influential people, you know. They also complained she slouched, frowned when she concentrated, and her voice was too shrill.”
“That must have been hard for you.” Wanting to change the subject again, I said, “I understand you were in Asia to start a business venture.”
“Where did you find out about the Asian business?”
“I did my research.”
His lips stretched into an amused smile. “That project is doing well. And a new product we introduced increased last quarter’s earnings.”
Our server brought our two-bite hors d’oeuvres. I relished the buttery creaminess and light nutty flavor of the sturgeon caviar.
When the server returned to hand us the main menu, I decided on grilled lamb and ginger cabbage. Greg, without looking at the menu, ordered barbeque duck with spicy peanuts.
My stomach tightening, I broke the beginning of a strained silence. “What do you think about real estate prices in San Francisco?”
“I don’t understand how young people can afford to live here.”
“Well,” he said, “some families help their children.”
“Oh, yeah.” I pushed a lock of hair behind my ear. “Did you see the game last night?”
“Yes. It was thrilling. But you don’t strike me as a baseball fan.”
I looked down, my cheeks warm. I had to be careful about what I said if I was to see him again. “Honestly, I just wanted to keep the conversation going.”
“Thank you for being upfront with me.”
My face relaxed into a smile.
“What do you enjoy doing, Rebecca?”
“Playing the piano. It’s a great way to relieve my stress. I often played for my late grandfather. He loved Chopin.”
“One of my favorites. I admire people who play a musical instrument.”
When our dessert order arrived, I breathed in the musky aroma of Périgord truffle with dark chocolate ganache and loved the garlic taste. Greg gave me a piece of his golden cake with fig, apricot and pear, soaked in rum. I relished the delicate flavor.
“Besides playing the piano, what do you do to relieve stress?” Greg asked while we drank tea.
“I work out at the gym three times a week.”
“That’s more than I do.” He raked his fingers through his gray hair.
“Would you like to join me at my gym sometime?”
He raised his eyebrows as if surprised. “Does it have a pool?”
“Two. One for laps, the other for classes. How about next week?”
“Can I ask you a question about your family?”
“Go ahead,” he said.
“Do you have children?”
“None that I know of.” He grinned. “Do you?”
“No. And I’m sure about that.”
After dinner, his chauffeur drove us to my home. We arranged to meet at my gym the next Thursday.
“Thank you for a pleasant evening,” I said.
I shook his offered hand before leaving the limo, pleased that he hadn’t kissed me on our first date.
Greg and I swam in the lap pool at my gym, where I admired his taut body. He invited me again to dinner at his club, and our evening ended with only a handshake. I thanked him and told him I enjoyed his company, wondering if I should have kissed his cheek.
On our third dinner date, I relaxed. After our meal, I accepted his invitation to join him for a late-night drink in his home. Sitting on a love seat in his spacious living room, we sipped martinis.
“I heard a joke on the radio,” Greg said.
“What is it?”
“Why do men like smart women?”
I grinned. “Tell me.”
I laughed a hearty laugh, then hiccupped. “I’m smart. But you are too.”
“I’m lucky I met you,” he said, his tone sincere. “You’re a good listener.”
“Especially when I’m with someone interesting.”
We exchanged a long, bold stare, and he slid his warm hand over mine. Leaning toward him, I touched his thigh. He hesitated, then his quivering lips brushed my cheek. Running his long fingers through my hair, he brought his lips to mine.
He stood, held my hand and led me to his bedroom. My breath quickened, and I felt a thrilling, radiating heat. He unzipped my dress and unclasped my bra. His suit, shirt and underwear dropped onto the carpet. He fondled my breasts and slid down my black lace panties, my back damp with perspiration. I made slow designs with my fingertip on his wide chest, stroked his back and firm butt, and lightly bit his shoulder.
“Yes,” I whispered, “yes.”
I awoke early and stared at the vaulted ceiling. I listened to the steady rain and occasional gusts of wind, imagining the quiet street below Greg’s home and people lying in their warm beds. When I grasped Greg’s hand, he pulled me to him. We made love again. Later, I showered, chuckling with the thought of spending more time with him.
The thick dawn mist hung low while we sat at the kitchen table drinking coffee and eating the mushroom and spinach omelet and buttered ciabatta Greg had ordered from a nearby bakery.
“You know, Rebecca, it’s good to share breakfast with you.”
“I’m enjoying it, too.”
His cheek twitched in nervousness. “I’m … I’m lonely a lot.”
“After my wife died, I felt I’d never want to be close to another woman. I’ve been thinking about asking you something … something important.”
“What?” I asked, nervous but also savoring the moment of excitement.
He crossed and uncrossed his legs. “I need the love of someone special.”
“And you’re that special person.” He stroked his ear. “Will you move in with me?”
“Greg, I really like you. And I have a wonderful time when we’re together.”
He narrowed his eyes.
“But,” I said, “I’m not ready to live with anyone.”
“Disappointing, but I understand.” His shoulders sagged. “I won’t pressure you. Would you consider going with me on vacation?”
“Where to?” I hadn’t traveled much, and the opportunity intrigued me.
“How about Fiji, the British Virgin Islands, Bora Bora?”
“Sounds wonderful. I’ve never been to any of those places.”
“I’d love to share the sights with you, my beautiful lady.”
Leaning forward, I kissed his cheek. “You flatter me.”
“It’s a well-deserved compliment, darling.”
I grew to love Greg soon after our first intimacies. He said he loved me during our frequent dates, and I believed him. I always told him I loved him dearly. When I was with him, I felt a sense of belonging, a completeness, a safety.
In Fiji, we took a seven-night cruise to Yasawa and Mamanuca islands, where we snorkeled. At the British Virgin Islands, we waded through the turquoise water in the coves. And in Bora Bora, we rode in a glass-bottomed boat, viewing wildlife in the clear water. Our shared experiences brought us closer.
In the summer of 2016, Greg gave me a three-strand, white pearl necklace that had belonged to his grandmother. The gift reminded me of the pearl necklace Opa gave me. Thrilled that Greg had given me a sentimental family item, I enjoyed wearing it when we attended the San Francisco Symphony’s opening night gala, a black-tie event.
A month later, after a candlelight dinner at Greg’s home, he said to me, “I’m going to France for a month to investigate business opportunities. Then to Charleston for a week.”
He had never told me where he traveled alone or what he did. “What are you going to Charleston for?”
“To spend time with friends and attend an IBM Annual Meeting of Stockholders.”
“Yes.” He rubbed his cheek. “I’m on the Board of Directors.”
I stiffened. “When I was seventeen, my grandfather told me he had worked for IBM. He resigned after two years.”
“He said the IBM President, Mr. Watson, met Hitler in Berlin in 1937.”
Greg arched an eyebrow.
“And Hitler gave him a medal,” I said.
He frowned. “Three years later, Watson returned the medal.”
“So, you’re familiar with this?”
“But after Pearl Harbor, IBM continued to do business with the Nazi government.”
“That was a long time ago.”
“I know. But I’d like to research and learn about those events.”
“Sure,” he said.
The look in his eyes, the turn of his head, showed me he disapproved.
Greg returned from France and Charleston and invited me to the busy Mandalay Restaurant on California Street. We met there and ordered tea leaf salad and noodle soup with mushrooms and bean curd.
“I miss you when you go on business trips,” I said, delaying telling him the results of my research.
“I’m glad to be back and especially to be having dinner with you.”
“You know I love you.”
He chuckled. “You’ve only told me a million times.”
“How was Charleston?” I asked.
“The board meeting was effective. And I enjoyed seeing old friends.”
The food arrived, but feeling as if I had a lump in my chest from nervousness, I could only eat a few spoons of soup.
“I researched the history of IBM and other companies during World War II,” I said.
“Is that right?” he asked, a hint of irritation in his voice.
“Yes. The truth stunned and horrified me. Did you know IBM equipment made it easier for the Nazis to identify and arrest millions of Jews?”
He stuck out his chin. “IBM provided a punch card sorting system.”
“That system identified people by race and religion,” I said in an unsteady voice. “That explains how the Germans killed so many Jews during the war years.”
“What?” He stopped eating, his face rigid.
“It’s the truth. In or near every large concentration camp, IBM helped maintain a customer site known as the Hollerith Department.” I took a notepad from my purse. “The Auschwitz code on IBM equipment was 001, Buchenwald 002, Dachau 003. The code used to identify Jews was 8 and 12 was for Gypsies.”
He banged the table, and his face reddened. People stopped eating and stared at him. “Rebecca, why blame IBM for something done with their products? I don’t need to hear this.”
My hands shook. “I won’t tell you anything more about my research. But I would like to ask a couple of questions.”
Greg sighed. “Go ahead.”
“While IBM was doing business with the Nazis during the Second World War, did the Germans wound and kill members of the Allied armed services?” I balled my hands into fists under the table. “Did they torpedo our ships and shoot down our planes?”
“Rebecca, what’s done is done.” His green eyes darted with impatience. “Let’s just enjoy our food.”
“People need to know and be reminded of what happened,” I said, my voice rising. “There’s something else. I discovered that other American companies transacted business with the Nazis.”
He leaned back and watched two men enter the restaurant. “Which companies?”
“Ford manufactured a third of Germany’s trucks during the war.” I pressed my elbows into the arms of my chair. “Did anyone talk or write about that?”
“Some people did.”
“International Telephone and Telegraph improved the Nazi communication systems. And other companies—”
He stopped me with a wave of his finger. “Enough, Rebecca. Those companies didn’t know about mass murders.”
“Maybe they didn’t want to know.”
“I can’t stomach any more of this subject. We’ll talk tomorrow.”
He paid the check. We left the restaurant, then walked in opposite directions.
That night, I paced in my room. Should I continue my relationship with Greg? Did he understand my anguish? My head pounded. I felt as if I was struggling in a raging storm. For hours, I rehearsed what I would tell him the next day.
In the early morning stillness, I fell asleep, dreaming I heard the agonized howls and screams of children, women and men. I awoke, perspiring, to the wail of a siren.
Greg arrived at nine that morning. We sat in the living room, drinking tea and eating biscotti. Foghorns blared in the bay.
“Greg,” I said, my head throbbing, “I’ve loved being a part of your life. I’ve enjoyed our times together.”
He stroked my fingers. “Loving you has made me a better person.”
“Thank you for telling me that.” I swallowed hard. “But … do you want me to ignore the fact that you’re on the IBM Board?” I asked in a quivering voice.
He turned sideways, crossed his legs and pressed against the back of the hardwood chair.
I drew in a long breath. “Do you think I’m okay with you assisting a business that provided equipment to identify millions of my people who were murdered? Also prolonging World War II?”
His face stiffened. “No.”
“God knows I’m haunted by what the damn Germans did.” I clenched my hands. “What are your responsibilities as a Board member?”
“Corporate management.” He cracked his knuckles. “We watch the bottom line.”
“That means,” I said, my words thick with anger, “during World War II the Board knew the company provided a service to the Nazis.”
“They probably didn’t understand the consequences.” He rubbed his chin and scowled. “Listen. IBM develops products that have enormous technology benefits. For example, they developed an air defense system for the American government.” Speaking faster, his voice grew louder. “I can’t change what Watson and the Board did decades ago. But today, with my business experience, I can contribute to IBM’s success while growing my investments. And I enjoy the company of like-minded people.” He glared at me, his cheeks flushing pink.
If he had lived during World War II, he would have supported the business dealings between IBM and the Nazis even if he knew about mass murders. That thought exploded in my head and revolted me.
“What don’t I know about your other business activities?”
He pounded his fist into his palm. “Why are you asking?” he said, his voice icy.
“I’m just curious.”
“Are you saying I work with unethical companies?” His hand shook in anger.
“I shouldn’t have asked.”
“I’ve nothing to hide. Ask all you want.” He twisted his cufflink. “Tell me what you’ve been thinking … but not saying.”
“I … I’m uncomfortable. I don’t know what to do.”
“I wish I could get over this hurdle.”
“Rebecca, if you can’t, I’ll miss you.”
“And I would be lonely without you.” I squeezed my hands.
“Most people see me as a rich man with social status. They don’t care about me,” he said, his voice firm. “You do care, and you respect my need to be alone at times. You allow me to concentrate on my work.”
“I would like to continue doing that. But my grandfather would have hated me to be in a relationship with an IBM Board member. My parents and my other family members would be dismayed. I never told you that the Germans murdered grandfather’s three sisters and brother. They also murdered my grandmother’s two sisters.”
“Yes. I can’t suppress my obsession to discover everything about companies that conducted business with the Nazi government.”
“Rebecca, will you consider that IBM is a different company today than it was during the Second World War?”
“I can’t separate them. I just can’t do that.”
“Well … for me, getting and keeping wealth takes a never-give-up attitude. I must focus on my financial objectives.”
“I don't do that.”
“I know.” He kept his voice low. “Not having children of my own, I get pleasure from my donations that give kids a healthy start in life. A chance to learn. I also enjoy taking you to excellent restaurants and exotic resorts.”
“Thank you for all that.” I rubbed my knuckles. “I’ve thought a lot about the mass killing of people. What do you think motivates genocide?”
“There could be many reasons.”
“Revenge, power struggles, economic reasons.”
“Or because they believe their victims are a threat?”
“I don’t know.” He examined me as if seeing a stranger, the blue veins in his neck pulsating. “Perhaps we should take a break from each other.”
“Yes.” My breath stuttered, and I tried to hide my disappointment with a tight face.
He stood and hurried away, limping, and closed the door behind him. I felt the sting of betrayal, alone in disappointed silence.
For the next four years, Greg attended Save the Children Foundation’s gala events. A young, black-haired woman always accompanied him, clinging to his arm. I couldn’t help feeling jealous, and sad and angry. I missed his smile, his touch. Sometimes I imagined we would date again, but I soon pushed that thought out of my mind.
I met other men through the Foundation events. They asked me to join them for a meal or a show, and I kept the dates casual.
In 2020, at age forty-three, I accepted another job offer at a non-profit foundation and didn’t see Greg again.
As a child, I often heard the term “Nazi beast” during my parents’ conversations. I asked about the beast, and the answer was, “Some things a child should not know.” I realized later my father and mother wanted to protect my innocence.
A part of me preferred to ignore the horrors caused by the Nazi authority and the companies who conducted business with them before and during World War II. But I felt duty-bound to document how they prolonged the war, which resulted in more human suffering and deaths.
My investigations into business dealings with the Nazis tapped my critical, creative and emotional capabilities and often brought tears. To learn that companies like the Aluminum Company of America (Alcoa), Ford, General Motors and Standard Oil had business transactions with the Nazi government, haunted me.
Stories I listened to and read, described the terrors and trauma of war. An old Russian war veteran, his eyes moist, told me, “Every day I wake up thinking about the enemy soldiers I killed. And I grieve for my comrades who were wounded, went missing or died. Including my best friend.”
My parents taught me to believe in a compassionate, loving God. But how could I believe in a God who allowed millions of my people to be murdered?
In my nightmares, I screamed, seeing myself as a skeletal woman, diseased and starving in a concentration camp. On awakening, my legs often trembled.
To relax on one weekend, I strolled in Golden Gate Park and the San Francisco Botanical Gardens. The sun’s warming rays caressed the Blue Gum eucalyptus and Monterey cypress trees. Clusters of moss grew in the shade and the jasmine blossoms offered their sweet fragrance. Clouds hung across the dome of deep blue. In the still air, a red-tailed hawk soared, swung and drifted. Dragonflies twisted and circled in a dance.
Three weeks later, a moaning wind tore leaves from the trees. Foghorns wailed, reminding me of the death, sadness and pain caused by Nazi tyranny.
The Picnic Basket
I raced home from work to my wilderness paradise, looking forward to a weekend of catching up on sleep, gardening, and enjoying my spacious home. My Realtor arranged an “Open House” for Saturday and Sunday, in hopes of attracting a large buyer turnout. I’ve worked my entire career in healthcare, and, nearing retirement, rose to the position of Executive Vice President of a nationwide medical provider. I hoped this would be the weekend the home sold, and I would be freed from the grind of my prominent position, daily commute, and embrace the specter of retirement.
I never married, had no children, and relished my life of travel, treating myself to a beautiful wardrobe, and owning a gorgeous, 5000 square foot, southwestern inspired home, on a 6-acre lot. The majority of my property consisted of hills, sage brush, boulders, but home to snakes, bobcats, coyotes, and rabbits. Its located in a remote, sparsely populated section of southeast Riverside County, east of Los Angeles, but not far from the interstate freeway.
I live in a gated community with neighbors situated far enough away to provide me with privacy and quiet. We enter our neighborhood through an automatic gate, opened by a four-digit code changed every month. As the iron gate opened, I spied our gardeners, a kindly, father and son, leaving with a load of vegetation, tightly concealed under a black tarp covering the back of their pick-up truck. The common areas of our neighborhood consisted of drought tolerant gardens requiring minimal maintenance, but, on occasion, the gardeners made extra money by removing sage brush, weeds, and trees on property owners’ lots. I was happy to see they picked up a side job filling their pick-up bed. We waved to each other as they left for the day.
Our neighborhood bordered expansive, county owned, wilderness land. The terrain was treacherous, and access was so difficult, I never saw county officials enter or exit this wilderness. The HOA members joked the county owned wilderness was ideal for outlaw Marijuana grows.
Although my home included a state-of-the-art security system, the alarm was seldom only triggered by animals or birds. It was a neighborhood I could leave the door open without fear. I was proud of my interior design of western inspired, leather and mahogany furniture. My landscaping required little, if no irrigation.
I couldn’t afford the upkeep of my home after retirement. I placed the home on the market for sale, but the real estate market was “soft”, and, I hadn’t seen a single visit from a prospect since listing it with the Realtor six months previously. The proceeds from the sale of my home were necessary for a comfortable retirement; I set my sights on retiring to Spain or Greece.
The next morning, I walked about my yard, assuring it was in tip-top condition for the open house, placing the flags and “Open House” sign in the front yard. Across the street, I noticed a wicker picnic basket placed atop a hill, partially camouflaged by sage brush, as if “hiding in plain sight”. I had the open house on my mind, and gave it no further thought.
There were no prospects to see the house all day, and I walked outside to remove the flags and open house sign for the evening. I noticed the basket was still there. I sent an email to the HOA notifying all homeowners of the basket, and prepared to settle in for the night.
The following morning, after placing the flags and open house sign, I noticed the basket was still on the hill. I checked my email but no response from the HOA. I became concerned about the basket. Could it contain abandoned puppies or kittens? I retrieved the basket, and, just as I was approaching my door, our gardener’s truck passed slowly by my home. The gardener and his son, caught a glimpse of me with the basket. I thought it odd the gardeners would be working on Sunday.
As I carried the basket, it appeared full, and fortunately, no cries or whimpers from abandoned animals, if still alive! I placed the basket on the kitchen counter. It was locked, so, I retrieved a screwdriver, hammer, and broke the lock open. I carefully opened the basket to find it full of neatly stacked, crisp, new, one hundred-dollar bills. It didn’t take me long to count the bundled stacks of cash amounting to $100,000.
I was faced with the decision to report it to the police, and be swept up in a lengthy investigation, I wanted no part of, but what bothered me the most, was the possibility of a criminal expecting to retrieve the basket from the hillside. Complicating my decision further, if I kept the money, I knew a $100,000 cash deposit into my bank account may trigger Treasury or DEA scrutiny, and, I’d face tax liability on the deposit. I decided to place the money in a safe deposit box until the owners reveal themselves, or I figure out the prudent course of action.
No prospects visited my home all day. After dinner and a movie, I settled into bed with a book. I heard a car park, and was afraid to peek out the window. I heard car doors open, muffled sounds of men speaking about a missing item, followed by the closing of car doors, and the vehicle driving off. I surmised the basket belonged to these men, and regretted bringing it into my home.
Minutes later, I received a call marked “Unknown Caller” on my cellphone. Assuming a “robocall”, I let it go to voice mail. My curiosity demanded that I listen to the voice mail. I heard some ruckus and incomprehensible talking in the background, heavy breathing, then a disconnect without a voice message. Shortly, thereafter, I received a text message from my Realtor informing me of a prospect wishing to tour my home the following evening. I texted a confirmation of the showing to my Realtor.
Marco was a distinguished looking man with an undiscernible accent. His salt and pepper hair was combed back, and he wore a bespoke, black suit, and white, silk shirt. I noticed his shoes were adorned with the distinctive “Gucci” horse bit. He was followed by three men, likely in their twenties, wearing stylish clothing, and beautiful, leather dress boots, who said nothing.
“This is a beautiful home and suits my entertainment and home business needs. It’s gated, country location, without nearby neighbors, and quick access to the interstate connecting me to Riverside, San Diego, San Bernardino, and Los Angeles counties, is ideal! Let’s sit, and I give you my offer.”
My Realtor’s face lit up and was quick to reply,
“Certainly, Sir. Allow me to take us into the dining room where we may sit.”
I offered my guests refreshments but everybody declined wanting to “get down to business”.
“My appraiser informs me the home is fairly offered at $500,000, but tells me it’s been on the market for 180 days with no showings or offers! I pay you $400,000, cash, and close immediately without contingencies!
You have twenty-four hours to accept my offer. The longer you wait, the greater the home may “depreciate”, if you “know what I mean”. Good day, ladies.”
Marco and his men stood, and walked to the door as I followed. Before letting themselves out, Marco turned to me,
“I want $100,000, cash, of your $400,000 sale proceeds. And by the way, my offer includes everything! You leave with only the clothes on your back and your vehicle.
My staff will keep you company here until escrow confirms the transfer of the property, and you hand my men the cash and the keys. It will be a quick and seamless ending for you.”
Marco and his “staff” let themselves out. I watched a black Bentley drive away.
I knew Marco wanted the $100,000 from the basket returned, and the $100,000 from my sale proceeds, in addition to my furniture, clothing, and everything else in my home, was my “punishment” for interfering with his “business”.
I returned to the Realtor who was anxious to discuss the offer,
“In my twenty years of selling homes, Melody, I’ve learned its common for cash buyers to drive hard bargains. I suggest you counter them at $490,000, testing their motivation. Even in this soft market, $400,000 is a “low ball” offer.”
My Realtor didn’t know the offering price was “take it or leave it”, and included everything in the house!
“Allow me the twenty-four hours to consider the offer, Rose, and I’ll phone you with my decision.”
“I understand Melody, but remember, don’t “look a gift horse in the mouth”!”
After the Realtor left, I thought about the Gucci shoes with the trademark horse bit, and thought how ironic the term “gift horse” was to my dilemma. Under different circumstances, I’d find Marco attractive; he was handsome, and I admired his opportunistic, “go for the throat”, negotiating prowess. If I accepted his offer, Marco’s gains amounted to $300,000; $100,000 off my asking price, $100,000 cash out of my pocket, and the $100,000 within the basket.
I trembled at rejecting the offer from a dispassionate, ruthless, negotiator like Marco. I couldn’t eat, and I resorted to alcohol to calm my nerves. I knew if I rejected Marco’s offer, I could be harmed or killed. I believed the $100,000 loss from the fair market value of my home may be a tax write off, but the $100,000 cash payment was an “out of pocket” expense with no tax deduction. $200,000 was a major portion of my retirement income; its loss, forcing a reconsideration of my retirement lifestyle. I regretted my decision to retrieve the basket.
After midnight, I was awoken to the sound of a car parking outside my home which was uncommon. Suddenly, the car’s audio speakers barked the lyrics,
"These boots are made for walking, and that's just what they'll do, one of these days these boots are gonna walk all over you."
The car sped off and I contemplated the Nancy Sinatra lyrics which warned me to accept Marco’s offer. I pulled the blankets up over my head, and trembled, alone, in my large, dark home, fearing the alarm system might be triggered by assassins. I could be murdered and buried within my six-acre lot with little chance of ever being found. My gated community providing security, now felt like a prison, offering me no choice but to acquiesce to Marco’s demands.
I heard the cry of a lone coyote, possibly, warning me not to reject Marco’s offer.
I tossed and turned all night, managing only a few hours of sleep. I crawled out of bed, fearful, but managed to complete my morning routine as I prepared for work. I skipped breakfast, loaded the basket full of cash into my car, and my first stop was to be at the front door of my bank when it opened for business, eager to place the cash into my safe deposit box. Upon leaving the bank, I’d text my Realtor to accept Marco’s offer and prepare the purchase contract, including all of Marco’s terms.
As was my custom, I entered my attached garage from home, started the car, and pushed the button to open the garage door. I placed the car into reverse, pulled back into my expansive driveway, closed the garage door, placed the car into drive, and proceeded to exist my driveway. Suddenly, the HOA gardeners’ truck pulled into my driveway, boxing me in.
The kindly old gardener and his son, exited their truck, removed their caps and approached my car. I exited my car, but left the engine on in case I needed to sequester myself inside the car, and attempt an escape, blowing the car horn like an “SOS” signal.
“What’s the meaning of this? I’m not aware of any scheduled appointment? I’ll be late for work!”
The father spoke, his son’s eyes were fixed on the wicker picnic basket in the passenger seat of my car while holding a razor-sharp machete which glistened in the morning sun,
‘Ma’am, we’ve come for the picnic basket.”
“Did you receive the email I sent to the HOA?”
“We’re aware of it, but we saw you, and you saw us, after you retrieved the basket from the hillside. Please give it to us. It will solve your problem.”
“How do I know it’s your basket? Can you tell me its contents?”
“Ma’am, the basket contains one hundred thousand dollars.”
“I was visited by a very frightening man, named Marco, who claimed ownership. How do you figure into all of this?”
“Ma’am, the less you know the better, but we completed a “harvest” for Marco, and the basket includes our pay. We were to retrieve it Friday evening, but our rig broke down, and weren’t able to come for it until Sunday. We told Marco about the situation after seeing you with the basket. He’s very angry with us. I’m aware of his visit, and the threats made against you, but I pleaded with Marco not to intercede if I could retrieve the basket. I told him you’re an honest woman who attempted to find the rightful owner by notifying the HOA. Marco agreed to give us one last chance to retrieve our pay, so, please give us the basket.”
“How do I know if I give you basket, Marco will leave me alone?”
“Do you have your cellphone with you, Ma’am?”
“Yes, I do.”
The father pulled his cellphone from his shirt pocket and completed a short text message. Within seconds, my cellphone rang, showing, “Unknown Caller”. I hesitated to answer, fearful of speaking with Marco.
“Please answer the call, ma’am.”
I answered the call, and recognized Marco’s voice, “Give them the money, and the deal is off! You should consider whether I would have permitted you to leave the property after its transfer to me, knowing, at any time, you might notify the authorities. You own a large lot with many holes to plant your corpse.”
Marco hung up. I reached into my car, retrieved the basket, and placed it on the driveway in front of me. The gardener’s son stepped forward, picked up the basket, removed the lid, and quickly counted the money, assuring himself the $100,000 was inside, and walked back to his father, joining him inside the truck. The truck rolled forward, and I feared they would run me over, but, the father leaned outside the window,
“Thank you, ma’am. You won’t be seeing us anymore.”
They drove off.
I stood next to my car, heart racing, and looked at the beautiful wilderness terrain surrounding my home, realizing my fear of Marco would never permit me to enjoy my home again.
I texted my Realtor,
“I’m rejecting Marco’s offer. Reduce the price and include the term, “Motivated Seller”. Schedule weekly open houses until the place sells! Place a lock box on the front door as I’ll be moving out immediately, and renting until the home is sold.”
I looked up at the hillside where I found the basket, and a coyote, perhaps the one from the night before, emerged from the sage brush, looking down upon me as if to say,
“It’s better to “leave well enough alone”!”